It’s been two years since outlandish jam band Breastfist first brought their funk-infused grooves and outlandish homemade costumes to Miami’s GroundUp Music Festival, leaving attendees slack-jawed as they spun their web of weird across the stage. The band donned wigs, feathers, and silly hats as they performed hits from their 2017 album Amuse Deuce, itself a release on the GroundUp record label.
The group is promising its forthcoming performance at the fourth edition of GroundUp’s festival, which is taking place February 14 through 16 at the North Beach Bandshell, will uphold Breastfist’s reputation for improvisational instrumentation, goofy wordplay, and playful verve.
“We don’t take ourselves very seriously, and we try to have fun with it,” bandleader, singer and drummer Bill Campbell tells New Times. “We started this band as a way to do the things that other people wouldn’t let us do as sidemen.”
It was 2007 when Campbell, along with the group’s cofounder Alan Hampton, got fed up with being told not to play certain grooves or backbeats while performing as members of other projects. The New York City residents were mulling over their options in Prospect Park when the tongue-in-cheek band name was born through a slip of the tongue: Campbell’s girlfriend mispronounced ‘breakfast’ and the handle stuck. Upon the addition of a nipple-emulating logo — a thumb sticking through a pumped fist — Breastfist began to take more of a complete shape.
Breastfist started off as a late-night party band, soundtracking intimate gigs across NYC for friends and peers who basked in the group’s unconventional soundscapes and freewheeling spirit.
“The idea is that it’s a weird dance party; we never wanted it to be a concert or a show, but something more participatory for the audience,” Campbell says.
Fast-forward to 2012, and the Breasfist duo had expanded to include a smattering of musicians who rotate into the project based on their availability. Campbell began putting more focus on his songwriting in addition to drumming, and in May of that year, he self-released Breastfist’s debut album Tickly Shimmers.
“I always dabbled in songwriting but I was frustrated, I felt like there was a block,” he explains. “When we started the project, I felt that I finally found the place where I could be myself and bring the weird aspect of my sense of humor into a project. I found it was easier to write music now that there was somewhere for that music to find a happy home.”
The album’s opening number “A Lickin” is a slow-burning, percussion-driven singalong that paints a family of birds as a metaphor for the band’s tight-knit flock feel. The track was complemented by an aviary acid trip of a music video that stars the Breastfist band members as they flap across the screen while wearing technicolor beaks.
“We take the music itself seriously, but we try to write music that’s both serious and lyrically ridiculous at the same time,” he laughs. “We’re still serious about trying to play well, and getting the best musicians I can to participate.”
That sweet spot balance between kooky and deliberate caught the ear of Snarky Puppy bandleader and GroundUp Music founder Michael League. Campbell and League were both graduates of the University of North Texas and ran in the same circles in New York, so in 2014 the Snarky Puppy figurehead reached out to ask if Breastfist would be interested in joining the label. But Breastfist didn’t have any material prepared, so Campbell started the three-year songwriting process that yielded Amuse Deuce.
Since joining the GroundUp family in 2017, Breastfist has supported Snarky Puppy on a handful of North American runs. Due to budget restrictions, Campbell would only travel with one other band member, leaving Snarky Puppy musicians to learn Breastfist’s catalogue and perform their tunes. This may be a familiar tale to Snarky Puppy fans, who have seen the Grammy-winning jazz and funk collective step in to support bands at GroundUp Music Festival in order to save room on the gathering’s booking budget. However, while out on tour, League didn’t want the presence of members from his own band to distract from Breasfist’s performance, so he would introduce the band to the audience in plain clothes, then run backstage to conceal his identity with a head-to-toe costume.
“The audience wouldn’t know it was him!” Campbell laughs. “He even went as far as changing the way he moved and danced while playing. He was wearing these dinosaur feet light-up slippers, and he would do this weird dance that was super stiff and square, [which is] unlike how he moves with Snarky Puppy, to further the disguise.”
Although he appreciated playing with his Snarky Puppy friends as opening support, Campbell looks forward to playing alongside a full Breastfist outfit during GroundUp comprised of Hampton on bass and vocals, Grey McMurray on guitar and vocals, Al Street on guitar, and Frank ‘Stank’ LoCrasto on keys. They’ll be performing at the festival proper, then a second time on Sunday, February 16 for an after-party in downtown Miami. Campbell looks forward to showcasing two distinctly different setlists, with the after-party performance set to carry an even naughtier zest.
“There’s a lot of room in the music for people to do what they want,” he explains. “There’s a lot of improvising, so ideally each show is unique. I like to make it an environment where everyone who’s playing with the band can really be themselves.”
With their avant-garde flair and rebellious attitude, it’s little wonder why League calls Breastfist “my favorite live band in the universe.”
Breastfist at GroundUp Music Festival. Friday, February 14, through Sunday, February 16, at North Beach Bandshell, 7275 Collins Ave., Miami Beach; 305-672-5202; northbeachbandshell.com. Tickets cost $85 to $825 via groundupmusicfestival.com.