If there is a record for how many times two friends have driven across America, these guys might be close to breaking it. Guinness World Records, here they come, but for now, playing funk shows in bars and clubs across America with their experimental funk/jazz fusion band STIG is enough for Ryan Stigmon and Thomson Knoles. The two musicians met in high school in Flagstaff, where they both grew up.
Both Stigmon and Knoles had their own musical upbringing shaped by the communal forces and size of Flagstaff. Stigmon was involved with the Young Jammers Program, a non-profit traditional music education movement organized by Lloyd Holdeman and Christina Boyd.
“This was the first time I learned how to improvise and jam with other people, how to communicate musically at a basic level,” Stigmon recalls. “They taught everyone how to listen when it was time to listen, and play when it was time to play; they shaped my musical mind.”
Stigmon grew up largely influenced by bluegrass and classical jazz. It wasn’t until high school, around the time he met Knoles, that funk started to enter his musical periphery.
Knoles’ first introduction to the Flagstaff music scene was by way of countless hours spent at Arizona Music Pro, where his mom worked at the time.
“One of the employees, Ceta [Singley], had a massive collection of vintage keyboards, clavs, synths and organs at his house [and] I would go over there and mess around with his stuff,” Knoles recalls.
Singley showed him Medeski Martin & Wood, which laid the bricks for a future interest in funk. Knoles was also largely influenced by his older brother Charlie, who played in a funk band in Australia, where Knoles was born.
“I would learn songs on the piano so I could jam with him when he visited the states for the holidays. One year, when I was 10, he brought his whole funk band from Australia and they all had Christmas at my house.”
The keyboard player had gone to Berklee College of Music in Boston and played a lot of Christmas jazz on their piano. He taught Knoles some jazz scales, who then practiced what he heard and easily picked it up. It was his brother Charlie who encouraged Knoles to go to school for music and not attend community college in Phoenix. Charlie helped Knoles submit his application to Berklee from his apartment in New York City during senior year of high school.
Back in Flagstaff, the manager at Arizona Music Pro, Rich Neville, supported Knoles’ budding interest in music and hooked him up with drummer Ron James. James encouraged Knoles to come to the weekly jazz jam he hosted along with Brad Bays at Mia’s Lounge. That’s where he met Stigmon.
Stigmon remembers, “Ron and Brad took me under their wing and gave me gigs around town. They were patient with me as I picked up the horn for the first time and learned how to improvise.”
Stigmon played nearly every week at the jazz jam from the time he was 14 until he moved away to Boston to attend Berklee when he was 20. He and Knoles started playing together at the jazz jam and gigging along with James. They also started the funk group Short Fuze with a few other young musicians from the area. Playing together in Short Fuze, in high school band and at the jazz jam, the two started to grow together.
Early in Knoles’ tenure at Berklee, he crossed paths with bass player Artie Sadtler from Maryland, who had grown up engulfed in the DC music scene, mostly influenced by metal, rock and jazz. The two started a band while at Berklee called Side One.
Stigmon, too, was hungry for a new musical project. On one of his visits to Boston to audition at Berklee, he set up a recording studio for the day with Knoles and some of his Berklee friends.
“I kind of got the impression that Ryan organized the recording session because he wanted to have a reason to be in Boston, not just to be in school,” recalls Knoles.
Even though it was a nearly identical line-up to the R&B pop of Side One, the crew produced music that was completely different from what they had been creating. They laid down four tracks which later became STIG’s first EP, Raw.
Of course, STIG was entirely different than their high school funk band. Armed with the knowledge and experience of years of collaborating with other talented musicians at Berklee and studying music there, STIG was engineered with a higher level of musicianship. The biggest difference, and what defines STIG, is the combination of five members’ differing musical backgrounds. Joining Stigmon, Knoles and Sadtler is drummer and multi-instrumentalist Jack McChesney, an avid Phish fan, and guitarist Riley Hoover, who played in a psychedelic rock band growing up in San Diego.
The best way to describe STIG’s songwriting process is organic and highly democratic.
“Instead of Ryan or I writing the songs then showing up and handing someone sheet music, someone will come with one idea, bring it to the group and we’ll hash it out together,” says Knoles.
This collective writing process began once the band’s members started living together in Boston. Cultivating a space to do this became and continues to be a priority of the band. But since leaving Boston, STIG was strewn across the country in their off-time, and strapped for time to write music while on the road. This past September, they once again created a space to call home together, to write together and to grow musically together: Asheville, North Carolina. Surrounded by the Appalachian Mountains and photosynthesized leaves, STIG has already cranked out four new tunes since their debut studio album, Agreed Upon, came out at the end of September.
When I asked them to tell me about growing up in the Flagstaff music scene, they had so many people in the community to thank for showing them new music, critiquing their playing, giving them a chance to gig from an early age or coming to see them play. The community of Flagstaff elevates you as you’re developing your skill, it is small enough to give you a chance to be heard as you’re learning and large enough to house talented teachers and musicians.
Catch STIG on Thursday, Nov. 8, at the Orpheum Theater, 15 W. Aspen Ave., with The Moves Collective and Pass the Butter. Tickets are $10, plus fees. Doors at 7 p.m., show at 8 p.m. Nina Gordon works and travels with STIG doing PR, marketing, social media and other STIGbizniz. To read more STIG tales, visit www.stigtales.blogspot.com