There’s a real laid-backness to Rick Irby’s homemade psychedelic funk. He comes by it honestly—that and the name of his project, Jau Ocean. Talking from the porch of his home in D.C. a few weeks after the release of his latest album, LIFTED, he tells me the story of his solo moniker, which goes all the way back to his time with the band Paperhaus circa 2015: “I would eat so much pizza that I would become so lazy, and it happened for, like, an entire year, to the point where my friends were asking if I was Jauin’ out, so I decided to go with the word and own it.”
After we chat, I come up empty trying to Google “Jau,” so I ultimately just text him for clarification. “Haha, it’s a made up word… like when your roommate is keeping to themselves and being lazy,” he explains. “That means they’re ‘jauin.’ Over the years, it implies that you’re in a lazy phase, but soon you’ll be busy as hell and make up for it.” Irby doesn’t just talk a big game about owning it either; he got the word tattooed on his foot as a reminder, so he’d see it any time he put his feet up for too long.
You could hardly accuse Irby of putting his feet up too long during the pandemic, a stretch that’s seen the release of three Jau Ocean records now (not counting unofficial material). It’s productivity, but it’s also keeping the balance between work and play. “It’s always for fun,” he says.
Irby got his first guitar at the age of seven, growing up in Alexandria, Virginia. He taught himself to play by ear, jamming and recording with his childhood friend Peter Larkin, and over the years, the two played in local bands of increasing stature—Haywire, Jack’s House, Lightfoot—before moving to the District in 2012. Notwithstanding the jau-out periods, Irby’s been prolific ever since. He found his way to Paperhaus (the band and the house venue/local scene hub of the same name) and from there he connected with artists like Wanted Man and Den-Mate, for whom he still plays drums with to this day.
Somewhere along the way, he morphed into a producer and multi-instrumentalist, inspired by the Shuggie Otis record INSPIRATION INFORMATION. “It absolutely changed my life, and it made me want to play all the instruments back when I was, like, 21,” he remembers. “I was like, ‘you know, just playing guitar and singing–maybe I want to learn what everyone else is thinking when they play drums, or when they play bass, and like, make a groove.” He’s always drawn from a wide range of genres, but something still pulls him back to that world of grooves. “Funk is my favorite because it makes me happy,” he says. “It’s not because I think I’m supposed to be playing funk. It’s just kind of what I’m doing right now.”
“(Jau Ocean) is usually just an excuse to practice recording techniques, and for me, I think of recording techniques as 90% performance-based,” he explains. “So I’m always trying to get tighter on the drums, tighter on my guitar and bass playing, and ultimately, tighter on arranging songs in my head before I even do it, if possible. But then there’s other routes where I’m not thinking about it at all. I just hit record and it happens to be this BPM.”
That was more or less the methodology for LIFTED, which he conceived of as a direct homage to INSPIRATION INFORMATION. Unlike his last release, 2020’s highly collaborative POST SADBOI FUNK, he fashioned all of its deep grooves and lanky atmospherics himself. In August of 2020, he was fresh off a move into a new house, and by extension, a new home studio. “I’d just set up and I was trying to see if everything would work. Everything functioned correctly after I set it up, so I was so pumped, and I happened to just literally plug in a bunch of BPMs into ProTools, set up the drum mics, and just play the fattest beat I could imagine to this tempo. I did that for, like, two days straight and slowly added instruments.”
The instrumentals sat on hard drives for a year or so before Irby finally revisited them. So, whence the words? That’s where the unintended pun of the title LIFTED comes in, as Irby basically cut and pasted them from an entirely different album. “I came back to these instrumentals, like, ‘oh, that’s kinda funky. It’s already mixed—like, I can’t even remix it, but I could put vocals on top of it, maybe,’” he says. “Then I realized there was a country record that I did make during the pandemic. I enjoyed the content of what I was trying to do, but I didn’t want to make it an official release, so I put it up on YouTube, but those lyrics became the lyrics for LIFTED.”
Sometimes you make a record to explore a sound or a concept, but in this assembly process, Irby was motivated by something much simpler. The goal, he claims, was just to make each track its own self-contained “snippet of goodness.” That gave an overall playfulness to the music and even the titling of the songs and interludes (sorry—“interRUdes.”)
“I noticed that when I was smiling in the room by myself, those were moments when I made song titles, or those were moments when I pressed bounce and finalized the mix,” says Irby. “I could work on a record like this for a long time, and I almost did add horns and more vocals and percussion, but it just felt like something I wanted to express now and not wait for the colder weather. I wanted people to feel some sunshine with some fun songs.”
Irby says all through the pandemic, he’s been grateful for recording as an outlet, especially while his live work was on hold, not only as a performer, but as the production manager for Pie Shop, a baked-goods vendor and music venue in D.C. For a six-month period he was sound-teching for Long Live GoGo streaming events, where he learned how to work with the unique live challenges COVID-19 presents. Now that shows are tentatively starting to return, he’s back in the room at Pie Shop, where he maintains the stage and coordinates with bands to make sure their performances run smoothly. “The goal for it is to be fun, essentially, and that’s the Pie Shop vibe: get the work done and the responsibility up front, and then have fun with it.”
Following the release of LIFTED, he got the chance to have some fun of his own. Around the same time he left town for a month-long vacation, Pie Shop offered to host his release show. “I said yes to the show, but I didn’t plan it,” he recalls, laughing. “I realized I had to call all my most favoritest and talented friends, the people I could really trust that could pull off a show on a whim on each instrument, and I put together an eight-piece band, if you include myself.” With only one rehearsal and an opening appearance from Bottled Up, they played to a sold-out room, and the performance is now immortalized in the form of a trippy live concert video. “It was basically a band practice in front of a live audience on a Friday night. It was very fun.”
You’ll hear more from some of Irby’s many musical friends on the forthcoming LIFTED remix album. Looking back on his time in D.C., through the Paperhaus days to the present, he says what he loves most is the atmosphere of camaraderie. “It really is this feeling of, everyone is a friend. It’s generally inevitable that we can all become better friends at any moment, and that we will share shows, and we will spend time helping each other out over the years,” says Irby. “Generally, people stay for three to five years and then move somewhere else, but everyone’s pretty much there and being supportive–even in terms of mental support. People are just there for ya as friends, but also in terms of music.”