Collective Tissue: Woodland Ave. isn’t just a band, they’re a collective of lifelong friends

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Woodland Ave. // Photo by Chris Ortiz

Woodland Ave. is not simply made of members bringing sounds to the table. This lifelong group of friends works to achieve a shared vision, whether the contributors play an instrument or not. The concept of working together to give life and weight to something bigger than oneself can certainly require more skillsets than a single artist can hope to achieve. As a united set of diverse talents, Woodland Ave. promises KC a project grander in scope and scale than your average five-piece plugging into amps and putting on a show.

Having all played music together in various configurations since childhood, these friends have united again in their 30s to form an outlet perhaps best described as a “supergroup.”

The best-known name to readers of The Pitch is probably Flare Tha Rebel, who exists offstage as Jeff Shafer. The frontman rapper is married to Lauren Williams, the bassist providing low-end to the project’s inventive tracks. Williams is also the only member involved to have not met through a childhood spent at local middle school, Lincoln College Prep. If you know the area, you know that Lincoln sits on Woodland Ave. and is what ties this extended family together.

Production coordinator Daniel Edwards owns Eastside Lumber, which serves as the group’s rehearsal space. As the only non-musical member of the band, Edwards brings more than just a convenient and personal venue for honing the group’s sound by developing media to extend the creative breadth of W.A. and helping to establish just how a collective with embedded artists in other mediums can contribute to a grander concept.

Matt Phoenix serves as guitarist. His father, Steven Peters, famously played double bass in the Kansas City Symphony from 1986 until he was fatally shot in his home during a botched burglary in 2005. Drummer Bob Pulliam III licenses music at The American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers. And then there is keyboardist virtuoso Ryan Marquez.

Their recent submission to NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts series is called “Child’s Play”—a track addressing gun violence, which is a deeply personal topic for the group who knows about the direct human toll, especially in a city plagued by years of such losses.

The Pitch’s own Emily Cox was also a student at Lincoln College Prep, alongside the band members, and sat down for a more personal approach to the band’s inner-workings, during a recent rehearsal session.


Let me tell you about a music collective whose roots run deep: Ryan took piano lessons from Bob’s dad. Bob and Matt played flag football together. Matt worked for Selena Gomez, so did Lauren. Lauren met Jeff while they worked for City Year. Matt and Ryan met in kindergarten. Daniel and Bob went to school all the way from K through 12 together. Ryan’s dad coached Bob and Jeff’s baseball team. And the real clincher: they all went to Lincoln College Prep. (Or, in the case of Lauren, are married to someone who did–just call her the Tiger-in-Law).

Those are the main characters in a revolving cast that somehow cannot escape each other’s orbit. We center on them today because, for a seemingly random handful of strangers in their 30s, their musical talents combine to make for a songwriting collective that has produced some of the most innovative work in KC. 

Folks, this is Woodland Ave.

***

A few years ago, Pulliam sent Marquez a song idea he was working on called “Royalty,” which ultimately became a Flare tha Rebel single.

“That started just as a session,” Pulliam says. “Ryan was just playing keys, I made a beat out of it. But Ryan had other parts that I wanted to use, so we ended up making this two-part song.”

I met up with the collective in a lumberyard on the eastern edge of the 18th & Vine district, owned by fellow Lincoln alum Daniel Edwards. Edwards is a non-musical member of the collective, acting as a production coordinator, providing rehearsal space, shooting videos, being their overall hype man. Lauren Williams, bassist, says, “Daniel bought heaters for us. He installed locks for us to leave our equipment here. I love that we have members of the band, although they don’t contribute musically, they are no less part of the energy that we are building.”

In a gorgeously rough rehearsal space that adjoins the lumberyard, we gather to talk and laugh and catch up. (As a Lincolnite myself, I’ve known these guys since 6th grade.) 

The lumberyard is less than a mile from Lincoln. This deep grounding in both place and in relationships creates fertile soil for their music. It’s powerful stuff: you can’t spontaneously create the kind of connections that have been forged here over more than two decades, stacked on top of generations of Kansas City musical legacy that these musicians are heirs to.

Matt Peters–aka Matt Phoenix—guitarist, songwriter, and producer, first met Ryan Marquez in kindergarten at the performing arts-oriented Gladstone Elementary. They took piano from the same teacher and spent several years in choir together. Then they connected with the rest of the group at Lincoln Middle, growing their musical interests along with their peers, including Jeff Shafer and Bob Pulliam. 

As Flare tha Rebel, Jeff Shafer is a lyricist, rapper, songwriter, frontman. Bob Pulliam III, drummer, beatmaker, producer, is the son of Kansas City jazz legend Joe Miquelon. “My dad–rest in peace, Joe Miquelon–was an incredible jazz keyboardist, piano player, saxophone player, and also a teacher. Taught hundreds of music students over the course of four decades. My mom was a singer in a reggae band.” Pulliam grew up in a house filled with music and musicians. He took drum lessons with a bandmate of his father’s, starting in third grade.

Pulliam says “I ended up going to Lincoln and meeting these three crazy cats, meeting Ryan, who’s like ‘oh I’m a badass piano player, but I wanna learn how to play jazz and improvisation,’ so Ryan started studying under my dad.” Even when Marquez moved up to Liberty for high school, he kept studying with Miquelon and remained friends with the Lincoln guys. Pulliam called Marquez his father’s star pupil.

Marquez says, “We all played music together from a young age, in various configurations, with various aliases. Bobby and Dan and I had a group called the EMPs: Edwards, Marquez, and Pulliam. We would rehearse at Bob’s house under the direction of his dad.”

***

When Pulliam met Flare and Phoenix, they immediately connected over music. “Met Jeff, he was into hip hop–boom, friends. I had kind of already been messing around with computer programs like making beats, and Matt was like ‘Dude I got these awesome keyboards where you can like program beats into it.’ I’m like boom–music dude, friends for life. So we formed some groups together.”

While Pulliam was in an early group called Disciples of Hip Hop, he drifted away from his musically-inclined friends, towards his party-inclined friends. “I went off to college, to KU, where more drinking and partying consumed me, but I always still made beats,” says Pulliam.

Flare and Phoenix’s most long-running and successful group, launched in high school, was Anti-Crew. They performed at the Hurricane in Westport (which later became Riot Room, both RIP) when they were still underage, for which they made the news. Anti-Crew rallied friends at school to be their street crew; they performed a song at senior prom.

They decided they wanted to capitalize on the skills and momentum they had. “We both realized the amount of work it was going to be, to promote [the album] and to finish it — so I moved in,” says Phoenix. “We moved in together our senior year, because we were like, this is the only way this is going to work. [Flare] quit baseball, and we moved into the same place, so we could work on music every single day and get it done.”

Phoenix’s uncle, a carpenter, built a recording booth in the attic of Flare’s dad’s house, and they got to work.

“I guess that was pretty unique. Not many high schoolers have a recording booth in their house,” says Flare. 

“It’s also unique that you two moved in together, at that age, to create,” says Edwards.

The collaboration with friends is what led Shafer to create in the first place. “Whereas I think other members of Woodland Ave started with an instrument in their hand or were actually creating music at a younger age, for me, it was rocking with all of them that really pulled it out of me.”

He continues, “I was always compelled by the lyrics, by the message, by what people were saying, almost to an obsessive degree. I felt compelled to channel it myself.”

Edwards says, “As kids, I never heard you guys rap about shooting, bitches, hoes, guns, fancy cars, any of that kind of shit. It was stuff that was actually relevant to us, to our environment.”

Flare says, “I think music in all forms has its place and can be enjoyable. But I think for us, that style of music was not challenging enough to be exciting.” 

Peters says, “It was kind of like our punk rock, you know what I mean? Not all glitzy and glamour.” The hip hop they’ve made has always been in the vein of conscious hip hop, or alternative hip hop, while also expanding with influences of soul, jazz, rock, and pop. 

***

After high school graduation, Flare and Phoenix moved to Chicago together, continuing and expanding their work as Anti-Crew, eventually adding a full band. They parted ways, though, when Phoenix moved back to Kansas City after the death of his father.

Flare says, “What I love is the story of Matt and me being close, being separated for a while, and then Matt joining the band with Bob called Sage and Sour, and then me getting closer to Bob, and that bringing me back to Matt. Like there was almost this magnetic force, like no matter how far we got, we were going to come back together eventually.”

Flare moved back to Kansas City in 2015 to help launch the local chapter of City Year, of which he is now executive director. As he reconnected with the hometown crew, he realized: “Myself as a solo artist, Flare tha Rebel, has more to say. But I didn’t want to do it without my friends.”

When Pulliam and Phoenix both move back to Kansas City, they reconnect and form an alternative rock band named Sage and Sour. At the same time, they collaborate on making beats, including crafting one for local rap mainstays Ces Cru: “Almost ten years later,” says Pulliam, “that’s Ces Cru’s biggest song, with almost 30 million streams across platforms. ‘Seven Chakras,’ is an incredible song. Matt and I collaborated on that for about a month in the studio.”

Eventually, the web of their collaborations started to form something bigger: Pulliam says, “Jeff moved back [to Kansas City] and was like, ‘Yo, I need beats.’ And I’m like, ‘I got beats.’ So Jeff and I started working on stuff. And Ryan’s coming in town, and so Ryan and I start jamming. Matt and I are still working on stuff. And I think we all had the lightbulb pop off in our head, like we need to fucking coalesce all this and put it under an umbrella and do it together.”

And so Woodland Ave was born. “The best way I can describe Woodland Ave,” says Pulliam, “is that we are all each really really dope and successful musicians and music professionals in our own right, and we will all continue out our own solo endeavors, but when we come together, there’s a certain magic and certain synergy about it.” 

Like Pulliam, Phoenix grew up with a revered musician as his father. Steven Peters played double bass in the Kansas City Symphony from 1986 until his death in 2005. He taught at William Jewell, played jazz gigs, and more. Matt started playing piano as soon as he was old enough to touch the keys.

“Then come middle school,” says Phoenix, “I meet Jeff and Bob, we start making music together, at 12, 13 years old. So that was the start of me producing and writing. Then we started recording, and most of the time I was the person that handled the recording aspect of what we were doing. And that has continued on throughout my life and turned into a professional career.” Peters is now a full time recording engineer and music producer at Strange Music, Tech N9ne’s label. 

“I grew up listening to Tech N9ne,” says Phoenix. “And now to be there, everyday, and to have access to all the guys and to make friends with everyone on the label, and to write and perform with them, is pretty cool. It’s something that I’m definitely really grateful for, because that job doesn’t exist. You can’t just go to a random city and be like, ‘I want a 9-5 at a recording studio.’ They’ll be like…no. It’s not a real thing.” 

***

Pulliam also works in the music industry, doing music licensing for large concert venues, night clubs, and arenas at ASCAP (The American Society of Composers Authors and Publishers). It offers him a way to be connected to the industry, but also have a certain security that performing musicians rarely have.

“It’s funny because, I told my dad once–he’d come home from a tour, he was gone for like 4 days, he came home and he was telling me about his tour and…I don’t remember this, but he used to tell everybody this. ‘You looked me in the eye and said I want to be in the music industry, but I want to work 9 to 5.’ I think I was like 10 or 11. Apparently I did it!”

Now, though, he says, “Well, the grass is always greener on the other side, because I’m out here recording music and playing music and that’s still my passion.” 

Marquez, who has lived in St. Louis since 2005, is the only one in the collective who is a full-time professional musician. “For me mostly that looks like producing, recording, playing music. I started off in education, had students and things like that, but right before the pandemic I moved to a place of full time performing. When the pandemic happened that made me reconsider, you can’t put all your eggs in one basket. I got more into sync licensing, I’m working with music publishers, making music for commercial placement, TV, film, things like that. That’s kind of my day job, I have a whole bunch of production teams that I work with around St Louis and I’m working on pop stuff, I’m working on classic soul stuff, I’m working on dance stuff, I’m working on inspirational stuff, jazz stuff.” 

“Ryan has always been about the KC-St Louis, the full Missouri takeover scene. He’s always been very passionate about that,” says Flare.

Marquez confirms, “That’s the goal. That’s why I do what I do, wake up everyday, team Missouri all day. Just really concentrating on letting the rest of the world know that we’re like a force to be reckoned with. We’re finna take it over.” 

“Kansas City has such a rich tradition and history of putting out world class artists,” continues Marquez. “Kansas City is a legendary music city and it hasn’t necessarily gotten its due on the national stage.” Marquez has a passion “to make people more aware of the culturally relevant art that we all make.”

***

Lauren Williams–the lone member of the group who did not have the pleasure of attending Lincoln– found her way to this group through Flare. 

Williams moved to Kansas City with Shafer, who would become her husband here. Though she knew little about KC, she was all in. They bought Chiefs season tickets before they even found a place to live. And Shafer’s friends and family embraced her as one of their own. 

She grew up playing drums and viola, before committing to the bass. “I’m obsessed with music as a way to connect and communicate. I think music’s a language, and I also think music is kind of a reflection of your own personal insecurities. I never really had the confidence until a few years ago, when I just made a decision that, I’m not gonna care, I’m just gonna make music and be who I am. Not be the virtuosos you see on youtube, not be a Ryan, or a Bob, or anyone else, but just find my voice.”

“I connected very deeply with Bob’s dad, Joe. I considered him a friend,” says Williams. Joe Miquelon’s vinyl collection now has a home in their living room, along with the bass that belonged to Steven Peters, Matt’s father.

“I wish I would’ve had the chance to meet and learn from [Steven Peters], but his bass is in our living room, and Joe’s vinyl records are in our living room. I’m so grateful that this culture’s opened up—I’m from DC, they’re not nice people like that. But in Kansas City, you’re family.”

Williams wasn’t invited to join Woodland Ave: she told them she was joining. “When I decided to take bass seriously, I was talking to Jeff. He was remaking the Gil Scott Heron classic ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,’ and I said, ‘What are you doing for the bass?’” Flare told her that he’d asked Ryan to do something for the bass line, but she pushed back.

“I said, ‘I am going to play on that song. If you don’t like it, you won’t hurt my feelings, but I am showing up. It’s non-negotiable.’ We actually had a fight about it!” (Marquez chimes in, “That’s what’s up!”)

“I invited myself. I laid it down on the second take,” Williams says. “I worked my ass off to nail it. I thought of it as an audition. I want to show these guys what bass can bring to the table, what my energy can bring to the table.” (Marquez: “Yea you smashed it!”) 

“I’ve been grateful to be part of this project, where the talent is undeniable,” she continues. “These people, the energy they put into it is very profound. Where I can offer my support is — this is going to sound crazy, but vitally important, my role: I’m the people at the bottom of the titanic, shoveling the coal in the furnace.” 

Marquez says, “That’s just the nature of the bass player! That’s what the bass player does.” The group starts talking over one another and laughing about this great bass metaphor.

Williams continues, “You don’t know those men are down there, but if they don’t do their job right, you will notice, something is awfully wrong!” 

Peters adds, “That may be the best metaphor for a bass player I’ve ever heard. Shoveling coal!” 

Williams says, “You never know I’m there…unless I hit a wrong note.” 

Pulliam says, “And if you’re not there, you’re like, why the hell is this ship not moving!?”

Williams says, “So I take a lot of pride in being a strong support role. I take it seriously and I like that their level of friendship and artistry motivates me to reach higher.”

***

While having the independence and resources that adulthood allows, in some ways making music in high school was easier. Phoenix says of those earlier days, “We knew what we wanted to do, so we did it. That’s one thing I’ll say that we were really good at. I struggle with it now. Because life is hard.”

Flare agrees. “​​There’s so many things outside of what this music demands, that puts up constant roadblocks, know what I’m saying? Whether it’s mental shit, whether it’s work shit, whether it’s family shit.”

But he, and the collective, are committed to making it happen. “This is just what it takes right now,” says Flare. “I’m still grateful that we’re still making amazing music with all of that. There are barriers there, but it’s a part of our grit that somehow, someway we’re back together doing this.”

Edwards sees this reconnection and collaboration as inevitable. “This is expected. It’s expected that we are this age, we are this capable, we have the resources, the networks, the relationships, to actually do some shit.” He’s been working on building up and advocating for Kansas City’s East Side, and is tapped into the shifts in the community. While everyone else at the table has lived elsewhere, and slowly flocked home, Edwards has seen this blossoming of Kansas City’s homegrown talent coming. 

(With a community-building entrepreneur, professional musician, nonprofit executive director, music licensing professional, and recording engineer at the table – there are a lot of resources and skills at this table.)

“It feels surreal,” says Flare. “It makes me feel like we are on a good path, a good direction, despite our fuck-ups, despite hurdles and vulnerabilities, that there’s still a path that we were supposed to be on, and we’re here. The fact that we’re still making music, in a lumberyard owned by Daniel, a stone’s throw away from Lincoln, being interviewed by Emily who now writes for the Pitch, it’s like well shit, I guess it worked out!”

“The dream, man!” says Marquez.

Peters adds, “We just grew up and took everything over.” 

As the group devolves into laughter, Williams says, “This is where I’d like to add, this would never happen in DC.”

Marquez says, “We all went on our own hero’s journey, we went on this quest, we all had experiences, tried things, failed at things, got ultimately back to the realization that well, the thing we always needed was the thing we always had.” 

***

It sounds cheesy to say, but when it’s real, it’s real: What they needed was each other.

Flare says, “I think about Steven Peters and Poppa Joe, and they are types of names we mention to other people and they know. When Lauren was getting [bass] lessons, and we had said that this bass belonged to Steve Peters, he was shook.”

Woodland Ave is in a direct lineage of Kansas City’s brilliance through their parents, teachers, and influences. Circling home to the place it all started–not just to KC but to the East Side–allows them to tap deeper into that power of community. Both in the place itself, and its people.

“I think for me, there’s no coincidence that I’m back with this group,” says Flare. “Making music by myself has never been fulfilling. It’s honestly felt very lonely and it’s very difficult for me to do it, and I really need the energy of people that I connect with at a deep level.”

***

Rather than flocking to the coasts, to epicenters of the industry, they find power in being grounded in home. And thanks to the internet and hyperconnectivity, they can make their mark from here, while representing what it means to be from KC.

Pulliam says, “Something we can all benefit from is the fact that we’re here in Kansas City and we’re not going anywhere, and we’re talking about real shit, and we’re doing it in a real location. And this is now what we want to define as our imprint on the music industry.”

What does Woodland Ave hope to accomplish in the future? Flare says, “Ryan puts no limitations on it. I might not be thinking about that right now, because I’m just thinking about us backing each other up live, but Ryan has taught me not to put any limitations on anything.”

Edwards tells the group: “You guys are way more powerful than I think you let on. I know you guys.”

He’s right. There’s power and potential in this room. Keep an eye on Woodland Ave: they might surprise you. But this is expected from those who have known them for twenty years.

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Categories: Music