April 1 2015 03:29 PM

Nine-piece group provides a soulful soundtrack

From left: Tim Felten, Matthew LaBarber, Jesse Audelo, Sheryll Felten, Bill Caballero, Kiko Cornejo Jr. and Nick Costa
Photo by Frank Shunkan

Ask a random person on the street to describe the soundtrack to San Diego, and you’ll get one of a few stock answers. Perhaps it’s the feel-good singer/songwriter sound of Jason Mraz. Or maybe it’s the adolescent pop-punk—performed by grown men well beyond their adolescence—of blink-182. Then again, it might be a mixtape of laid-back reggae jams booming out of car windows along the coastline in Ocean Beach or Pacific Beach.

Nine-piece instrumental funk outfit The Sure Fire Soul Ensemble doesn’t share much in common with blink, Mraz or Bob Marley, but since forming in 2012, they’ve been offering their own unique soundtrack to their home city. Playing a style of music they call “cinematic soul,” Sure Fire has released a series of singles with titles like “City Heights” or “I.B. Struttin’,” which call out specific neighborhoods or localities that inspire their compositions.

Over a round of afternoon beers at Modern Times in North Park with guitarist Nick Costa and saxophonist Jesse Audelo, keyboardist and bandleader Tim Felten explains how San Diego has inspired his songwriting.

“I’ve lived in San Diego for about 17 years now,” Felten says. “I love it here and I’m all about it. There’s different places I like to hang out, and the music represents the vibe of those different places. I thought it’d be cool to give a sound to a place.”

“You can really imagine yourself in some of these places,” Audelo says. “Like with ‘IB Struttin’,’ you’re struttin’ down the boardwalk in Imperial Beach.”

The Sure Fire Soul Ensemble’s self-titled debut album—self-released in February, and given Extraspecialgood status in CityBeat’s Local Music Issue this year—finds the group taking the listener on a funky, 12-stop tour that’s accessible, yet never gives up the groove. At times, like on the standout first track “Layin’ Low,” the group showcases a heavy Afrobeat influence, like a more concise version of Fela Kuti and Africa 70. Yet an upbeat jam like “Funky River” combines the soulful immediacy of The Meters with the Latin-flavored boogaloo of Willie Bobo.

The album—which also features the talents of saxophonist Chris Lea, bassist Matthew LaBarber, drummer Pete Williams, trumpeter Bill Caballero and percussionists Kiko Cornejo Jr. and Sheryll Pasis—is so deep in the pocket it’s tangled in lint and car keys. But simply riding that groove is the bare minimum of what the band seeks to convey with their music.

Sure Fire Soul Ensemble plays April 4 at Seven Grand

“With this type of music, it’s really important to tell a story, instrumentally,” Costa says. “A lot of people relate to a singer, right? So without a singer, you kind of have to add some different elements that keep the ball rolling. You have to be creative.”

One thing that separates The Sure Fire Soul Ensemble from some of their influences is brevity. Where Nigerian Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti would extend his jams for 20 minutes at a time, or James Brown’s band The J.B.’s would vamp in alive setting for much longer than a 45 RPM single could contain, Sure Fire keeps their compositions short and sweet. The longest of the tracks on their debut, “Sander’s Lament,” is just barely over four minutes.

Part of that comes from a desire to keep their audience engaged, but another, now-dormant San Diego band played a crucial influence in how they approach their songs.

“I learned a lot from The Styletones,” Felten says. “They keep their songs to two minutes and 30 seconds, and they’ll play 30 songs a night. I think that’s the way to go, especially when you’re competing with DJs. That’s why we keep our solo sections short, and we keep the set moving. There’s only so much that needs to be said on a record.”

That the band’s songs fit snugly on either side of a 7-inch single works nicely in their favor, as they make a point of releasing most of their material on vinyl. Since 2013, they’ve released “Layin’ Low,” “City Heights” and “Rise of the East” as vinyl singles, and their new album is going to be available as a proper LP as well. Felten, a vinyl collector, says that it’s “all about the way things sound on vinyl,” but there’s more to the band’s private press than the audiophile aspect.

“It adds a different aesthetic to it,” Costa says. “Not that many bands are doing it, or at least not in San Diego. It’s a piece of artwork. Visually, aesthetically… it stands for something more in the digital age that we’re in.”

The Sure Fire Soul Ensemble have been playing together for a few years, and the longer they do it, the more positive the response from audiences. So perhaps their fusion of funk and Afrobeat grooves isn’t the first thing people might think of when they think San Diego—but people are starting to pick up on the possibility.

“I hope that people realize there’s kind of an alternative to everything they’re being bombarded with on the radio,” Audelo says. “I think it’s really cool that our scene is big enough that we can have a band like this and still get support.”

Write to jefft@sdcitybeat.com.