On Tuesday, October 13, Vince Welnick and The Missing Man Formation played Deadcenter at The Wetlands Preserve in New York City. I’ve got to admit that I went to the show not knowing what to expect. How would this new Missing Man Formation sound without Bobby Vega, Steve Kimock, and Prairie Prince, who, along with Vince Welnick, were the original members. Well, I can now tell you that the band is amazingly tight, full of energy, and fun. I spoke to Mike Falzarano, guitarist from Hot Tuna, during the show and he said of MMF, You know, I thought that Steve Kimock was still in the band, I know Steve, and I was coming to see him, but this guitar player (John Wedemeyer) is really phenomenal. He’s really great. And of course, it’s also a special treat to see Vince Welnick playing in a small club.’ I sat down with Vince before the show to talk about MMF, Jerry Garcia, and his untimely passing, Vince’s first band, The Tubes, and much more.
Matt: So Vince, welcome to the Wetlands Preserve. Were all real excited to finally have you and MMF here in New York. I want to first ask you about how Missing Man Formation came together.
Vince: Well, it came together because Jerry died. Around, Um, the first Missing Man gig happened in the 4th of July in 1996, I believe at Studio E in Sebastopol, California and it consisted of Prairie Prince, and Bobby Vega, and Steve Kimock and myself. And then as time went on, as Missing Man got more gigs, the other members of the band were also playing in various bands and it got increasingly difficult to get a gig in edgewise, so, I started over again at the top and that’s when Bobby Strickland, who had been playing kind of semi missing man, he had played sometimes, and sometimes not. He went in and scrounged up all the new players: Trey Sabatelli on drums, Robin Sylvester on bass, and we practiced for about four or five months and tried out a lot of guitar players until we wound up with John Wedemeyer from Charlie Musselwhite.
Matt: How did you decide on the name Missing Man Formation?
Vince: My sister gave me the name of the band. She called me from Imperial Beach and said, I overheard some Deadhead surfers talking about what the band would be like after Jerry died, and they described it as a Missing Man Formation. And she said, How about The Missing Man Formation, and I said Yeah, that sounds real cool. Then later on I heard about the military application. That’s when a pilot goes down in his plane and they do a tribute where they fly over his tomb in the formation, you know, the V formation, and the head plane goes up into the heavens leaving a Missing Man Formation, and I thought, that’s really eerie! I think now I really want to use that name!
Matt: So the name has two significant meanings behind it.
Vince: Yeah. So, we just started playing really, we haven’t been around that long. The new band started up in April of ’97, around the time the a Missing Man’ CD came out.
Matt: That’s the disc that has Samba In The Rain on it, right?
Vince: That’s it. That the one. Samba In The Rain’s on it, there’s a tribute to Jerry Garcia called Golden Days, that’s the first song. There’s another one called True Blue which is the first song I wrote after Jerry’s death.
Matt: Vince I know after Jerry passed away, you fell into a depression, and had a long down time during which you stopped playing and writing. What was it that pulled you out of this depression, and inspired you to start making music again?
Vince: Well, the support of my friends and family, people like Bobby Strickland, and my wife Lori, not letting me, ah, hurt myself, supporting me to keep on playing music and stuff, and discovering that I was still able to write songs. Part of the thing I was depressed about was I was so downed that I could no longer play or write or play the piano and I thought that was a permanent condition. I thought that it was over. But then I went back in the piano room sometime later and just sat around and mostly did nothing but eventually something started coming out, and the one song that convinced me that I still had something left to give was after I had written True Blue which is on the CD, and I performed that with Second Sight, and so that was the turning point. And then after that I wrote Golden Days for Jerry, and then it just became like a gush of songs. Then after I got on a roll again, I wound up writing more songs since Jerry died then I written in the rest of my life put together.
Matt: Where can everyone pick up the CD?
Vince: You can order it through Grateful Dead Merchandising, and you can get it in record stores through BMG, Arista.
Matt: How would you describe Missing Man’s sound?
Vince: (smiles) Rock, but you could call it rockadillic also because there’s a definite tendency to go towards the sixties with the sound and with the music we do. Not too different from the Dead, we do about fifty percent original music and about fifty percent cover tunes, and a lot of the cover tunes are sixties related. Some of them are actually Jerry Garcia, Robert Hunter songs. And others are mostly back there in the sixties zone, you know, The Beatles, The Stones, Led Zeppelin. Any song that we really like, it really doesn’t matter who wrote it, well play it, but it seems to gravitate to the sixties.
Matt: So, what makes you decide to cover a particular song? What criteria do you judge a song on in order for it to be worthy of playing?
Vince: If it’s considered by most of the band members as one of the finest songs there is (Vince smiles big!) Yeah, It doesn’t really matter who wrote it, but it just coincidentally includes a lot of Garcia/Hunter tunes because they are some of the finest songs in the world. But then there’s my favorite song of all time by Led Zeppelin, Kashmir. And so, we do that and ah, Rolling Stones, and there’s so many Beatles songs.
Matt: So, is Kashmir a regular part of your setlists? Might we hear it tonight?
Vince: We might do that tonight. Were not sure what were going to do, and we only get to play two hours. In the West coast often times we we’ll play for three or more hours, we’ll do the whole night.
Matt: Do you use set lists?
Vince: Sometimes. Ah, the guy to talk to about set lists lately is our drummer, Trey Sabatelli, and he’s been writing up set lists when there is set lists, which sometimes, we just go out there and wing it. It depends (Vince smiles) on the mood and stuff, but yes, there are set-lists for the most part.
Matt: Has your writing style changed throughout your career?
Vince: Yeah, and I think Jerry had the part in changing it. With The Tubes, I used to write some pretty far out and what you might call complicated and difficult music, and Jerry just kind of said, (Vince now does a great impression of Jerry) Just make it simple, you know. And, he taught me about simplicity because watching him, he could do the least amount of stuff and get the most out of it. So, I started simplifying my writing. Not all my songs are like three chords, but in general, the whole process became more a ‘out of your soul’ thing rather then trying to write like somebody who just stepped out of the conservatory and had all this big head about I’m going to use every chord I know in one song. I got out of that mode, and started getting into the simpler things in life. An when I saw a lyric that Robert Hunter wrote, instead of me just trying to find some real flowery piece of music and matching it, I would just look at the lyric and just take it for what it meant to me and let it dictate the music to me.
Matt: So, Vince most people know about your years in The Tubes. For those who don’t know The Tubes tell us what it was like being in such a crazy band.
Vince: The Tubes. That was great! I did that for about seventeen years and we played all over New York, all over the world. It was a cool band until Fee (Fee Waybill, lead singer) left the group and the show stopped happening, and that was somewhere around late 80’s. Then, Me and Bobby Strickland started working with Todd Rundgren and sort of broke away from The Tubes as Fee Waybill had done and as Bill Spooner had done and Mike Cotton, so there were very few original band guys left in The Tubes, so we just kind of got smaller and smaller and smaller. But it was the ultimate visual band way before MTV. And if MTV was around back then they wouldn’t have had us there anyway because we were all so, pretty much, X-rated. But, it was real cool.
Matt: I understand that The Tubes spent an enormous amount of money on their concert sets and effects
Vince: We spent every dime we made on the record on the show. So basically, the band never really made money. We were famous but not rich and famous. But you know, I had a top ten hit here and there. I was on Solid Gold (Vince laughs) and ah, worked out with the kind of the pop scene and then we were considered a punk rock band for a long time and ah, we were more popular in Europe then we were in America.
Matt: Did you and The Tubes tour Europe often?
Vince: Yeah. The Tubes toured a lot period! All of our gold albums came from Canada. Germany thought we were a punk rock group. Amsterdam though we were a stoner band. England, we recorded albums there. They thought we were kind of a pop group there.
Matt: How many shows did The Tubes play each year?
Vince: We played about 265 nights a year.
Matt: So, How did you use your time off?
Vince: Sometimes writing. I wrote a lot of songs going into the Tubes and then a lot of the instrumental stuff and a lot of the ballads. But we would go in and record one album a year and then tour. There was pretty much no down time with The Tubes.
Matt: What was the transition like going from being in The Tubes, and Todd Rundgren’s band, to being in The Grateful Dead?
Vince: When I got in The Dead, I was amazed at how easy it was. Because, you stay in one town, only play ninety shows a year, it was the easiest thing I’d ever done In my life. It was great. The audience was the best part of the transition, well that and the music. The Grateful Dead have a lot of diverse music, like The Tubes had. But there’s even more songs with The Grateful Dead that really appeal to me. And the audience that comes to see The Grateful Dead is an unconditionally loving audience. There going to love you if you fall down and don’t get back up, there going to love you. With The Tubes, if you were the opening act for The Tubes, it was terrible. They (the audience) would through potatoes, knives, broken bottles, beer cans with nails driven through them, all kinds of stuff. You know, it was a drag being the opening band for The Tubes, cause they were a band with a crowd that would turn on a dime (Vince Laughs).
Matt: So why would anyone even want to open for The Tubes?
Vince: Not too many people did for long! Squeeze did it for a while, they left in the middle of the tour. A lot of bands left in the middle of the tour, Golden Earring, but ah, it was hard to get bands to open for us.
Matt: I read somewhere when a fan got too out of control, you and the other members of The Tubes would often have to resort to using gaffers tape to subdue them
Vince: We taped a few guys up when I was in The Tubes, but the last guy I remember we taped up jumped from the balcony onto the stage (while Vince was in The Dead). He flew, because he must have cleared thirty feet. Don’t know how he did it because he was a big guy. He came crashing right through Jerry’s tent and he thought Jerry was in the tent, but Jerry was up on the stage playing Drums and Space! But he went, excuse the expression, Jerry, fuck me in the ass!! and flew way across the hallway, came crashing down on the tent. So the crew was in there with some stripper and they weren’t too happy to see this guy breaking up the party. He came crashing right over where Jerry would have been sitting. So now he’s flapping around on the ground and there trying to pick him up and help him out, and he starts swinging!! And unfortunately, one of the crew guys is Billy Guerilla who’s a Hell’s Angel and Billy Kreutzmann’s road guy. And he’s (the guy who jumped) in there with Steve Parrish and Billy Guerilla, the two toughest guys in the crew. And he decides he’s going to fight his way out of it. And that’s when he got a few love taps and taped to a gurney and escorted out, but, taping people was a good way to kind of mellow them out, give them a little bit of quiet time. Have you ever been gaffer taped to a chair?
Matt: Can’t say I’ve had the pleasure. Why is it fun?
Vince: There’s no way out! There’s no getting out of there (Vince laughs).
I immediately turned off my video camera, unplugged Vince’s microphone, and left the backstage area for fear of getting gaffer taped! But seriously, Vince was a great interview- he was honest, interesting, and a kind person. Thanks to Vince, Bobby Strickland, The Missing Man Formation, and Stephanie Kesey and Kesey Productions for a great night.
Matt Iarrobino is 24 and a 1997 graduate of Syracuse University where he partied his ass off and still managed to graduate in four and a half years. He currently lives in New York City where he is a Photographer, Concert Lighting Designer and DJ (at The Wetlands Preserve), and big time Phishhead. Matt would like to throw a big shoutout to Ernie Finnizio in L.A. and to all the Vegas crew.