Ten years ago today, Ricky Keller died from a heart attack. The Southern Living At Its Finest studio owner worked with Bruce Hampton, Bruce Springsteen, Outkast and Papa Roach. He also founded Projext Z with Jimmy Herring and Jeff Sipe. In his memory we run this piece which originally appeared in September of 2001.
Aquarium Rescue Unit alumni Jimmy Herring and Jeff Sipe have been tremendously busy over the past few years performing and recording with other artists [the list includes the Allman Brothers Band, Phil and Friends, Jazz Is Dead, Leftover Salmon, the Susan Tedeschi Band]. However the pair has remained quite friendly and on those rare dates when they have found themselves together in their native Georgia they have often taken the opportunity to perform. On one such occasion they tapped local studio honcho/whiz and long-time Bruce Hampton-associate Ricky Keller to join them on bass. Numerous gigs followed and Project Z emerged, as the trio released its debut, eponymous album late last year on Terminus Records.
Given the band members’ many responsibilities it is difficult for Project Z to mount a full-scale tour. However in September the band is out for its first extended run of dates, beginning in Nashville on September 20 and traveling north before concluding in Falls Church Virginia on September 29. The group has expanded to a quartet on these dates with Jason Crosby [Susan Tedeschi, Lo Faber Band] out of the road as well (Rev. Oliver Wells performs on Project Z but he is unable to tour because he is a full-time pastor).
The following conversation took place with Ricky Keller and Jimmy Herring as the two worked on a session in Keller’s studio, Southern Living At Its Finest. The complete Project Z tour itinerary and additional fun facts can be found at the Terminus Records web site.
DB- Let’s start off with the history behind Project Z. When did you first meet Jimmy Herring and Jeff Sipe?
RK- It was back during the mid-80’s. I was playing with Bruce in a band called the Late Bronze Age. We became acquainted through Bruce. We probably didn’t play together until a few years after that. Jeff got some gigs at a place called the Little Five Points Pub. I had my studio going and they called me one night to come down and play. It was one of these jam things that was one day a week for a few months. The first time we played it was killing and we knew we had to do something with this eventually. Fortunately, Jeff Bransforth [President of Terminus Records] came along.
DB- Let’s jump back then, how did you meet Bruce?
RK- Back in the 70’s I lived in an apartment and Bruce was playing in a band called the New Ice Age. The band members all had an apartment at the same place for free in exchange for playing one night a month in the clubhouse. So I was living up there, I had just moved, and I heard this smoking band in the clubhouse. It was Bruce and these guys playing. So I introduced myself to those musicians and they let me sit in. Eventually Bruce ended up sleeping on my floor for a few months and then out of the blue in the early 80’s, Bruce called me up and said, “We want you to come play a gig.” We had one rehearsal, maybe, and then I played with him for 8, 9 years.
DB- Is that the same time that you started your studio [Southern Living At Its Finest]?
RK- I started the studio in my house in the late 70’s for the sole purpose of recording Bruce. There was so much music coming out and nobody had any money. I had a little carriage house behind this big mansion and Billy McPherson, a Bruce cohort, dubbed it “Southern living at its finest” because you could sit on the back porch in rocking chairs and look out over this nice expensive neighborhood. It was so funny that I said, “That’s the name of the studio,” and it stuck. The record after that, Arkansas, we started there and then moved to a commercial space. After that we moved to our current location. But the whole reason for us having a studio and getting serious about it was to record Bruce. We wanted a place where we could go and have a laboratory, so to speak. So we have miles of tape that nobody’s ever heard with Bruce playing with all sorts of people.
DB- Terminus just issued Arkansas and One Ruined Life of a Bronze Tourist. Do you expect that any more of those sessions will see the light of day?
RK- They’ll put out two other releases we did too.
DB- How did you balance keeping the studio going while still playing out?
RK- At that time I was fortunate that we had a house gig at a place called Walter Mitty’s. It was a jazz club. Yonrico Scott was the drummer and Oliver Wells was the piano player. We had really good musicians and world-class players, like George Benson and Freddie Hubbard, would come to this club whenever they were in town, so we got to play with some of the best jazz musicians on the planet. That gig lasted for five years, seven nights a week. I looked at it as chop-builder. My house was really near the club, so we’d record all day then go over and play all night for a long time.
After doing that and playing with Bruce I kind of stopped playing live, aside from occasionally playing with Jimmy and Jeff. That was back when they had Aquarium Rescue Unit. When they did the first album with Capricorn they came to my place to do some demos. I also later produced the band’s third album.
DB- What inspired you to start gigging more regularly and focus on performing with Project Z?
RK- Ever since we started playing together we taped stuff for our own edification and Jimmy had some cassettes from way back then. One day he came in and played one and we said, “Man this stuff is great, we should do something with this.” Along came Jeff Bransford. It just happened like that- he said, “We’re starting this label up and we want you to put something together.” Jimmy recalled these gigs we had done, some of the music was just great. So we took some of the ideas from these tapes and turned them into tunes on the album.
DB- I’ve heard that when the band plays you have no set lists and you don’t even talk about what you’re going to do on-stage, is this true?
RK- We don’t have a set list and we don’t have tunes. Even if we did have a tune it would evolve into something unique and different every night. I think of all the gigs we played, we never played the same thing twice. That’s part of the allure of doing this, It keeps you on your toes and it forces you to create. You’re forced to make decisions on the fly. It’s gotten to the point where it’s almost like one person. If somebody plays something everybody is right there with him, it’s really amazing, the communication. Someone will go somewhere and the other two guys are right there. It’s unique where you find a combination in any band where you can play anything and not know where you’re going and always make it sound like you know where you’re going. People come up to us and say, “You must rehearse forever,” and we’re like, “No, we’re making this up as we go.” It doesn’t sound like total nonsense, it’s cohesive. I think in part that’s because we all write music and I’ll be composing while I’m playing bass. Or as Bruce would say, I don’t play bass, I play music. We all have the same mindset in that respect.
DB- So for the Project Z disc, the same held true? You went into the studio and improvised?
RK- We did a lot of improvising and we rolled a lot of tape. Also Jimmy has these old cassettes and we pulled stuff off there. The tune Jeff wrote called “Rainbow,” he came in with a bare-boned idea and we fleshed it out. Also Jimmy had that pretty ballad, Utensil Oceans.” So two or three were written and the rest was on the fly. We’d play and say “Check it out, let’s do something with that.” So we’d turn it into a song with form.
DB- The song “Yachtz” which clocks in at seven minutes plus on the disc was originally forty minutes. How hard was it to cut it down?
RK- That one was pretty long. A lot of those in-between snippets were real long too. I threw them into Pro Tools and we edited them down in a musical fashion to try to maintain the flow. We had to tighten it up. When we were done we had 10-12 hours of stuff on tape. We’d hone it down. It’s kind of like cutting a movie. The first cut was three hours long then two hours and then an hour.
DB- What are some of your favorite moments on Project Z?
RK- It came out way better than expected, considering we went in with no songs, spent the first two or three days improvising and from that we culled the ideas for the tunes. From the start we had the idea that the listening experience should be top to bottom- that’s why there are those little snippets of music in between. I was influenced by the Earth Wind and Fire records because they used to do that. They wouldn’t just have ten songs but ten songs and eight pieces of eighteen second music between the songs, so there was a flow, which I think is more of a classical approach.
DB- They add an interesting dynamic to the disc.
RK- That was the whole point, to have a song then a little musical surprise and then a song. A lot of people enjoy the musical snippets especially when they hear it for the first time because there is anticipation, they don’t know what’s going to happen next. The intention is try to create that vibe of anticipation- I can’t wait to hear what they’re going to do after they’ve just finished something this crazy. I sent it to my mom and she doesn’t normally listen to this kind of music and she said, “When I finished listening to it I was out of breath.”