When it formed in 1998, Robert Walter’s 20th Congress was probably best known as one of the “sidecar projects” to emerge from San Diego’s Greyboy Allstars just as the revered funk outfit began to show signs of imploding. While tenor man Karl Denson pursued his own brand of old-school, horn-driven soul with his Tiny Universe, and while guitarist Elgin Park delved into film scoring and indie rock endeavors, keyboard virtuoso Robert Walter set out to do something entirely different. Today, two years and countless gigs later, Robert Walter’s 20th Congress stands tall on its own musical merits.
With the permanent addition late last year of ex-GBA bassist Chris Stillwell and Memphis drummer George Sluppick, RWTC cemented a lineup that is at once nimble and muscular. Sluppick’s buoyant attack, Stillwell’s slippery basslines and Chuck Prada’s intuitive percussion moves come together to cut a deep pocket, giving Walter and Cochemea “Cheme” Gastelum (alto sax and bass clarinet) the freedom to explore, prod and provoke. The result is an infectious blend of primitive rhythm and ambitious, forward melody — Afro-beat by way of DeBussy — that sets the ass into motion while engaging the brain.
Walter, a San Diego native, attended that city’s School of Creative and Performing Arts, and has toured and recorded with such luminaries as Fred Wesley, Melvin Sparks, Marc Ribot, and Miles Davis sideman Gary Bartz. He sat down with Jambands to talk about RWTC’s new album Money Shot (available at www.20thcongress.com), and the recent theft of the band’s equipment from a hotel parking lot in New Mexico.
Jambands: So I don’t suppose you’ll be hurrying back to Albuquerque anytime soon.
RW: That whole thing was pretty shocking, honestly, and it didn’t really hit any of us until a couple of days later…and then all at different times. We had a 20-hour ride home, and every few hours someone would yell, “FUCK!”
Was the gear insured?
None of it. Everyone either had stuff to borrow, or old stuff that works well enough, or enough credit that they could buy something for now. But financially it’s been devastating, because we weren’t sitting on a lot of money before this happened, and there were things we lost that we absolutely loved, like Cheme’s Condor [an electric sax]. Some of the stuff they won’t even be able to resell.
Were you able to find a silver lining in any of that crap?
Well, we’d had sort of a peak music experience the weekend right before that, and I think it’s helping to keep us up there on our toes. You can come to rely on your gimmickry if you’re not careful, and something like this makes you think about the bare minimum you need to play [Editor’s note: since this interview, Robert, the band, and many musicians from the groove community assembled at the Wetlands for a concert benefiting the band and the replacement of their equipment, and several additional benefits are in the works. Robert Walter’s 20th Congress wishes to thank the fans and peers for their generosity and support].
Let’s talk about Money Shot. How do you compare it to Health & Fitness and Spirit of ’70?
The Health & Fitness EP was a demo that wasn’t originally designed for release. It was for clubs, and to attract people like Dan [Prothero, San Francisco producer and founder of Fog City Records], but we liked it enough to put it out there in the end. It does capture the band at our earliest stages, so it’s much less mature playing than you hear on Money Shot. As for Spirit of ’70, that was really the Allstars at the top of our game. And it’s got Gary Bartz on sax, who I’m really fond of.
But I’m proud of Money Shot, obviously. It was really fun to play with [Galactic drummer] Stanton Moore on this record, and surprisingly smooth. The first time we jammed together, we ran through the heads of the tunes at soundcheck, and that was it. But the gig went great, so he seemed like a natural fit, especially since I didn’t have a steady drummer at the time. As it turns out, he came into the studio and really challenged everybody to play…differently.
Looser or tighter?
Looser, I think, which is great. Besides, I like listening to our stuff for the things other people contribute to it. I’m done with my own stuff as soon as I hear it for the first time…I just can’t stand the way I sound on them.
A lot of these songs stretch out nicely for studio tracks.
You know, everytime we go in to make a record, I say, “this time we’re going to be concise,” and inevitably the songs come out around nine or ten minutes. They just wind up that long.
A lot of fans have noticed that you’re taking a lot more risks on stage, and letting stuff breath more live. Can you point to a fork in the road?
We did a long tour in Spring that ended up at Jazzfest, and about a week before, things started getting to that level. We did a gig in Athens with Vinyl and The Dirty Dozen Brass Band that we thought cooked, but I listen to the tape and it sounds tame compared to what we’re doing now.
The shows at the Mercury in Austin were the beginning of something for us, and the gig at Tipitina’s was great, too. But at the Crocodile in Seattle, Skerik sat in and just blew everyone’s mind — that was big. I knew about him, and I’d seen Garage a Trois at the Maple Leaf, but when he started playing our tunes, I was like, “what the fuck is that?” When we have a guest on the stage, we usually try to play something open and straight-ahead, but Skerik was having none of it. He went immediately into outer space. It was inspiring.
The other thing is that we used to have rules about how to play certain kinds of tunes, but we’ve been rediscovering a lot of Miles Davis’s electric stuff — Live Evil, Pangaea, Bitches Brew — and that stuff is just so spontaneous. We want to play music that expresses who we are, as opposed to the Allstars, where we felt like there had to be a precedent for everything we played.
“James Brown never did it like that.”
Exactly…“which song is this one like?” And I don’t want to cross-reference it to anything anymore. It’s in me, obviously, but I don’t want to consciously copy that stuff.
You’re sharing a bill with Karl in a few weeks.
Yeah, I’m excited. I definitely miss certain aspects of that band, and I miss seeing Karl all the time. I’m sure we’ll jam together.
Any chance of a one-off GBA reunion?
I wouldn’t rule it out, but I wouldn’t count on it. It’d be cool to cut a forty-five or something.
Do you still write setlists?
No. Recently, we stopped doing that, and that’s been another factor in this leap we’ve taken. Thing is, it’s great on a good night when you don’t have a list, because you’re more free, but on a bad night it sucks. Sometimes I walk onto stage and I can’t remember a single song we play.
How can you forget a tune called “Poison Pussy?”
[laughs] “Poison Pussy” comes from a bunch of these old dime store paperback adult novels from the 1960’s that all have funny pulp-art covers with scantily clad women. So I had this idea I’d name a whole series of songs after these novels in my collection, but so far, the only one in the repertoire is “Poison Pussy.”
Do you come from a musical family?
My stepfather was a drummer in a bunch of rock and country bands, and he really got me into music. My parents were way into the Dead and Hendrix and Dylan.
Really? Did you listen to the Dead?
Only as a kid. I knew all those tunes, but I was never into them in my twenties. In fact, in the Allstars we had this big anti-Dead thing. Everyone agreed that there were moments that were just brilliant, but I could never sit through the getting-there part. Then a few years ago, it really started making sense to me. It’s a lot like listening to that Miles stuff, actually. The payoff comes from letting go and appreciating the bigger expanse, and that’s why I think certain substances allow people to appreciate music like that more. So, now I’ve really grown to like them, and I’ve grown to like Jerry’s songs, which are beautiful and honest and unpretentious.
You must see a lot of Deadheads at your shows.
Or younger people who would’ve been Deadheads if they were around then, I guess. I don’t think too much about that one way or the other; I’m just thankful that people like to see live music. Something exciting is happening right now, and I’m already excited about making the next record.
Do you have firm plans?
I’d like it to be concise this time…but you know how that goes.