The saying goes you never forget your first love. For Micah Motenko—musically speaking—that would be Motown, a sound he swooned for at age 7. That music set an artistic ideal for Micah of well-crafted heartfelt songs, brimming with infectious hooks and smoldering grooves.
Today, that love legacy burns with his groove machine, Motenko. This four-piece band of ace musicians specialize in incendiary in-the-moment performances, telepathic musical interplay, and recordings that invoke the mojo of 70’s-era R&B, soul, funk, and New Orleans second line with the satiny touch of modern soul production.
Top tracks on the band’s self-titled debut EP have collectively amassed over 200,000 streams, and the five-song release has garnered prime regional press acclaim. The quartet back up these smoldering recorded performances nightly, bringing the vibe alive onstage with soul-revue style pageantry. Motenko uplifts audiences with dynamic, sweat-soaked performances, and the band’s fiery devotion to the art of live groove music.
The quartet mines the interlocking ensemble mindset blueprinted by the great rhythm bands of the late 1960s and early 1970s such as The Meters, Booker T. and The MGs, and the great Motown pit musicians. The band’s vibrant musicality is also informed by modern masters of soul such as producer J. Dilla, and the Soulquarians, the brilliant neo-soul collective featured with artists such as D’ Angelo, The Roots, Slum Village, and Erykah Badu.
Micah’s honeyed vocals are imbued with a sweetly sincere quality of longing. His keyboard style has a vintage soul sensibility though it’s also informed by the playful and bold textures of hip-hop, and modern R&B. Though Micah is the group’s lead vocalist, primary songwriter, and keyboardist, he’s first to admit it’s all a band affair. He is joined onstage, and in the studio, by guitarist Cat Clemons III whose play-for-the-song restraint and stanky grooves provide just the right amount of flair. Rounding out the soul machine is the in-the-pocket telepathic interplay of bassist Josh Flowers and drummer James Gwyn.
The Austin, Texas-based quartet formed in early 2018. It’s a band of brothers whose day gigs are first-call hired gun musicians, but came together because they yearned to play the music they loved listening to when not on paid gigs. “We wanted to play the music we all first fell in love with and that made us want to play in the first place,” Micah says.
Motenko’s debut is chock full of jams that are as booty shaking as they are heartwarming. The 5-tracks can be interpreted sequentially, as a narrative about the lifespan of a hypothetical relationship, from its inception to its death and the aftermath. “The songs in this EP are about love and loss. They were written as a way for me to process the death of close family and friends, all while riding the pleasures and pitfalls of romantic pursuit as a young man,” Micah shares.
The EP’s opening track “On Your Level” boasts hooky piano motifs and stately 1960s R&B-style horns. Here, Micah lays out an infectious and glowering “Ain’t Misbehavin’” type narrative arc aimed at an ex. “When I wrote this song, I felt like I had just been trying to please everyone else all the time without paying attention to what I needed. I felt no sense of direction in my life,” he shares. “This song is defiant in the face of that. It’s about putting aside everything that’s keeping you down for a night and showing someone else a good time.”
The velvety “Waiting All Day” is a slice of elegant, Bill Withers-esque balladry with a one-that-got-away narrative. “Waiting All Day” is a meditation on love that is unfulfilled. Each verse is a vignette about a different relationship that is somehow unrequited, and the chorus is about carrying forward in spite these muddled feelings. The buttery “Follow Through” drips from the speakers with sinewy electric piano grooves and elegantly expressive vocals. Micah’s vocals here have a longing that captures the song’s lyrical theme of giving away too much of yourself without reciprocity. Micah explains: “In the song, I wonder what it would be like to set firmer boundaries for myself, while I implore the person to stop tempting me with their desire.”
The jam “Silhouette” oozes sweat-soaked early 2000s R&B, conjuring D’Angelo at his steamiest. This track is a fantasy about past love, conjuring raw imagery of an ex coated in a hazy veneer of a dream-state. The subject desperately wants to stay in the dream to have one last night with the ex. Upon waking, the subject is faced with the fact that they will never experience the pure intimacy that was found in the dream.
The EP closes on a semi-conciliatory note with “The Thief,” a slow-burn amicable breakup song rife with potent self-realization. “It’s a statement of failed intent,” reveals Micah. “The song attempts the kind of closure that I was never able to achieve by communicating with the person. The last lyric of the chorus is, ‘If the way I feel for you was stolen, then I’m The Thief.’”
The EP’s hybrid production approach mirrors Motenko’s modern vintage aesthetic. The basics were tracked as live performances onto a tape machine, but the vocals were recorded on Micah’s laptop in his living room. The overall feel of this is a seamless union of classic and contemporary soul eras.
During lockdown, Motenko has stayed limber in the studio and the rehearsal room, exploring a broader groove-centered aesthetic. Future releases will explore infectious funk, New Orleans-inspired party songs, and piano-driven soul-rock. As live music options become available, the groove machine is ready to be the soundtrack to the post-pandemic party.