Agents of Good Roots have been slow to draw attention from the jam band crowd despite having the right vibe and technical musicianship well beyond many bands we see over and over again. This interview with Andrew Winn (guitar, keyboards & vocals) and J.C. Kuhl (saxophone) tackles some tough questions about Agents of Good Roots as a jam band as we get to know two of the most powerful forces of this infinitely talented group.
You have a really unusual guitar Andrew. A Godin flat-bodied classical?
AW: It’s a classical that I run through some effects to give a little edge to it. Because classicals are so soft in their tone, I put a little distortion on it — but not too much. On our album, One By One [RCA Records] I used a lot more. You get a little carried away in the studio because you have so many tools at your disposal. But live, I stick to a more genuine sound.
And J.C. your sax sound is really rich. You’ve been playing since you were 8 years old?
JK: Nine. In fourth grade I started in an instrumental band. I actually wanted to be a drummer or play the trumpet, but all those parts were taken. So the guy handed me a sax and said, “Why don’t you try playing this thing?” I was actually afraid of it because it had so many damn keys on it. I eventually did learn it, much to my parents chagrin, because it was the most expensive instrument I could take up.
What was the first piece you got good at as a kid? I mean, was it “Row Row Row Your Boat” or something?
JK: I had to first get the B flat concert scale down; that was the rough part. I think the first thing I could really play was that Men At Work song “Who Can It Be Now,” you know that sax riff? I was real happy about it. It was my shining moment.
Wow, that dates you a bit! If you were a kid then, you must be pretty young. How old are you guys?
JK: We’re all 25. We have plenty of time to work things out.
Have you run into much trouble with the rock-n-roll life?
JK: Well, it’s pretty humbling. We don’t get too far ahead of ourselves. There is always something down the road; something to keep us in check.
What was it like opening up for Dave Matthews Band this summer, with all those big venues?
AW: They were the biggest gigs we played. They didn’t want us being all crazy; we might have held back a little.
JK: It was quite an adrenaline rush.
At the DMB show I saw, people really seemed to enjoy your cover of Paul Simon’s “Fifty Way to Leave Your Lover.” What made you want to play that song?
AW: Well, It’s got a neat drum part, it fits the bass player’s [Stewart Myers] voice, and the guitar part is sort of classical in its chords.
JK: It’s weird how we actually started playing it; our drummer [Brian Jones] would often fool around with the beats of the song at practice, then we just decided to try it.
Other covers you do include Dire Straits tunes like “Romeo and Juliet” and “Sultans of Swing.” What others?
AW: We do “Tangled up in Blue.”
JK: And sometimes, “Riders on the Storm” or Allman Brothers “Blue Sky.”
Andrew, you are probably the primary songwriter. Who are some of your influences?
AW: You mean on guitar, keyboards or lyrics?
All of it.
AW: I like some of Stevie Wonder’s stuff. Zeppelin. All of the classical rock bands, actually.
Any interest in the Grateful Dead?
AW: Not as much as you may think. I was never really a deadhead. I like some of their songs — “Uncle John’s Band,” “Friend of the Devil,” and “Ripple;” that’s a great song. I like all different types of stuff. I like a lot of James Taylor.
So, you like a lot of softer stuff?
AW: Oh man, totally. But stuff like Pink Floyd too! I just like good songs. When I was younger, I even liked Dionne Warwick [sings “I Know I’ll Never Love This Way Again”]. For instance, some people are metal heads, they like metal. I was never into any one thing. And it shows in our music, I think. Our music, to me, doesn’t sound like anything in particular. It’s derived from our instrumentation and voices. Dave Matthews commented that we sound kinda like Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. I said, “That’s interesting, because we never listened them.”
I think people have trouble accepting music that is truly unique. We always have to be putting labels and categories on things.
AW: The closest thing out there, I guess, is Dave Matthews, but our groove is a lot different and my voice is a lot darker
JK: I tell people it’s kinda like a harder-edged Dave Matthews meets Led Zeppelin.
AW: What about “Smiling Up the Frown” [Agents song from One By One]? Who does that sound like?
It sounds like you! That’s cut I would pick out as being representative of Agents’ sound. But genre-wise, where does that put you? This interview is for jambands.com, and it seems you haven’t fully hooked that audience yet.
AW: Let’s create a new genre: unique. I think we’re the type of band that intentionally alienated ourselves from classification. Phishheads may not like us because of the ballads and straightforward sentimental lyrics.
But that’s only one piece of the pie. Some of it is just plain dark. You have some serious rocking tunes and major jam potential.
AW: We’ve got music jam band people would like. The album, you’ll notice, is very moody. We don’t jam a whole lot. In recent history, though, we’ve been primarily concerned with writing good songs. I like jamming, but I just want for it to be GOOD. The problem is that I have to play what I think is good. Personally, I don’t want to listen to a 35 minute version of Dark Star by the Dead. You lose some people with that. To me, “jam band” means instrumental. Like Phish, when they play instrumentally it sounds great. And the Dead, they had great SONGS. That’s the key.
JK: True. And they were such experts at jamming that they rarely digressed into meaningless conversation.
AW: Right! But Agents, well, we wanted to get all our songs to a certain threshold. We want the songs to be very strong before we focus on the jamming, the instrumental aspect. With this next record, we intend to really work on that instrumental aspect. We are confident now that we have good songs, so we can let loose a little more.
You guys are going to be absolutely dangerous if you do that!
AW: People may say: “There’s that band who doesn’t like jam bands.” But we are not like that. We just never wanted to get pigeonholed into anything. You always do anyway though. I just saw that we were listed in the book Jam Bands. So, I guess people recognize us as fitting in there somewhere.
Oh definitely. And I think J.C. is the critical element to getting interest from this group of listeners. That sax is just relentless!
JK: Well, its not just me. I do get a lot of room to play and stretch out. I do a lot of the soloing, but I would never be able to do what I do if not for the tight rhythm section laying the groundwork. When I first saw Agents [J.C. is Agents’ third saxophonist], what hit me right away was that the sax was not used in conventional ways. A lot of the songs are sax-led and that has been part of the problem with us breaking into certain markets. People aren’t used to hearing that.
Maybe it sounds unusual to people because Andrew lays back a lot with the guitar. Especially since he can play the shit out of that thing when he does step out. It’s a surprise. And the interplay between sax and guitar are the highest moments; when the two of you really get locked into a groove.
JK: The sax-guitar thing that we do is the trademark of the band. There are not many others that use that to the extent that we do.
AW: Another factor is that there’s sort of a look and vibe to jam bands, and I am not sure we have it. What are some of the main jam bands in now?
Phish, moe., Leftover Salmon, String Cheese Incident-
AW: See, lots of those guys have full beards. I can’t even grow a full beard. I have like three hairs on my chin.
You’re taking a real superficial out, Andrew.
AW: Also, our groove is a lot different. Don’t you think our beats are a lot different, than, say, Leftover Salmon? The big thing about our band is the moodiness.
JK: We think of that as being our drawback.
AW: It’s so much easier to listen to a band when they get into a certain groove and just go with it. We jump around a lot, moodwise. We have so many different types of songs.
Do you work from a setlist?
AW: Not really, no. I don’t really like making a setlist. I like winging it sometimes.
That’s a bit of a paradox. You like going seat-of-the-pants with the setlist, and yet you are rigid about the delivery of the tunes?
AW: As I said, we’re growing. I think the jams are going to start getting more expanded.
JK: Since the beginning, we’ve been changing constantly. We’re just now starting to figure out who we are and what we want to be. I think this next album is going to be important. We’ll be recording in January and February. It should help define us a little bit better.
Are you writing a lot of new songs?
JK: Yes, and we are looking at songs that have been on the back burner for years. We’re not ruling anything out at this point.
Your first album got a lot of airplay from college stations, more than the bands with much bigger audiences.
JK: We feel like we definitely did our job and put great songs on the record. We were really proud of it. But we’re really young. We’ve only been doing this officially since the summer of ’95.
AW: Another thing is, we never really cultivated any “scene.” Some of these bands, like moe., have a “scene.”
Well, what are you after? Does commercial success appeal to you? Do you want to be a rich guy with a kidney-shaped pool?
AW: Yes, because it is important to me that I am doing something people like. But, no, I don’t care about being a rich guy. It’s not about money, it’s about having songs people like.
JC: Like Billy Joel. He’s not a jam band, but he writes songs that people remember forever. We want that aspect, but we are also serious about musicianship. We want to play! We need to have the improvisation and soloing aspects in there too. That’s the problem, we want the best of both worlds. That’s what we have in our heads: to be jack-of-all-trades and master of them all, too.
That’s a tall order! I can’t think of too many bands that were successful at both. The only one that comes to mind now is Dave Matthews Band.
JC: They’ve got that mentality going. We get compared to them a lot, but really, that mentality and where we’re from (Virginia) is the only common element.
You have a lot of integrity. It think it’s great that you aren’t getting pushed around by any particular thing. Anything you’d to say to the readers of jambands.com to conclude?
JC: For whomever hasn’t heard us firsthand, I’d like say that if we come to your town, come out and see us. Don’t base your opinions on anything we’ve said or stuff you’ve heard about us. Music is a really personal thing. Make your own decisions based on the music.
Michelle Waughtel, a permanent Deadhead and moe.ron, works as a public relations/communications specialist in Philadelphia, PA and is the editor of Dupree’s Diamond News.