Although some Jambands.com readers likely first heard Jeff Pehrson’s name when he joined Furthur as a vocalist back in 2010, others have been following his career for a few decades now. Pehrson first gained notoriety in the mid-90s as the co-founder of Box Set (the group was featured in my 1998 book Jam Bands). Pehrson and Jim Brunberg were the vocalists and songwriters for the group, which signed with Capricorn Records and released a well-received album before the sale of the label’s parent company threw them off course. From there the two continued to record and perform, often as a duo, touring nationally until, as Perhson explains, “around 2008 or so, Jim and I both turned 40 and we had both been doing this since we were 22. So we decided to see what life’s like without being on the road constantly. I guess it was kind of a midlife crisis.” Brunberg now lives in Oregon where he is one of the founders of Mississippi Studios (“It’s a great venue and he’s got a little restaurant next door.”). As for Pehrson, he took some time away from music before resurfacing with a new group, The Fall Risk, and not so long afterwards, received a phone call that altered his path.
Beyond his role in Furthur, Pehrson is a longtime Deadhead with more than 100 shows to his name. As a result, it’s quite fitting that today The Fall Risk release their debut CD, Volume No. 1. The group is also touring through the East Coast from August 2-6, including stops at Bear’s Picnic on Friday and Brooklyn Bowl on Monday. In the conversation that follows, Pehrson talks about all of these subjects and offers his thoughts on Jerry Garcia as well.
So let’s start with your transition from Box Set to the Fall Risk. How did that come about?
I ended up taking a year off to get my head together and think about what I wanted to do. I realized that I went to college at one time (laughs), so I sent out a bunch of résumés downtown just looking for a new experience and see what it was like to have a straight job. I ended up getting a marketing job at a mergers and acquisitions firm, of all things. I was good it because it’s basically being a bullshit artist but after a year of it I was getting pretty burnt out and wanted to do music again. So I called Mark Abbott who was the drummer in Box Set and said, “Hey, let’s get something together. I’m tired of not playing music.” So we started a little band called The Fall Risk, which at first was just Mark and I and a bass player I knew from college, who’s no longer in the band. These were just guys I went to college with that I used to jam with way back and we started playing little gigs. It was never meant to be anything other than an outlet for fun.
And then around that time I got a call from a guy named J.C. Flyer. Years ago he wrote for Relix and he used to do this column called Bay Area Bits. He loved Box Set and he had since gone on to work with Furthur. So he called me one day out of the blue and said, “Hey man, what are the best lead vocals you think you ever did on a Box Set CD?” I thought it was an odd question but I gave him my answers and I said, “Do I even want to know why you’re asking me this?” (laughs). And he said, “No, you don’t want to know.” So I said, “Fine” and about another three weeks go by, then he calls me up and basically offered me the gig in Furthur. I guess he took these tracks and played them for Phil.
Bob was aware of who we were because Box Set opened for RatDog a couple times and he used to pop in and see us at the old Sweetwater in Mill Valley. In fact, the day after Jerry died when he flew home, he came to Sweetwater where we were playing, not to see us but to see Jeannie [Patterson] the owner of the original Sweetwater who was a very dear friend of his.
So I think between J.C. and Bob knowing who I was and J.C. turning on Phil to what we did, that’s kind of how I got the gig.
The other strange thing is Sunshine [Becker] is the sister of Box Set’s longtime roadie (Laughs). I had known Sunshine since she was 17 or 18 years old. She sings some harmony vocals on the very first Box Set CD.
Were you uncomfortable at first singing without a guitar in front of you? Did that take some time getting used to?
Absolutely. It was actually quite harrowing for me. I didn’t know what to do with my hands. I still don’t know what to do with my hands, which is why a lot of time on stage I’ll just put them in my back pocket. You knew especially being a big dude I feel goofy dancing up there and I don’t want to draw attention to myself because it’s not about me, Furthur is Bob and Phil’s band. So when I first joined the band I used to wear a hat and hide my face and try to be invisible and then I saw some video of myself where I was dancing around pumping my fists and I said, “You look like an idiot and you’re drawing attention to yourself, so put on some black clothes, stand back there and just sing.” People aren’t there to see me they’re there to see Bob and Phil because those guys are incredible.
Were you a Grateful Dead fan back in the day?
I saw well over 100 Grateful Dead shows. In the late 80s, early 90s over a six year period I saw about 100 shows.
Is there one that stands out for you?
I think my very first show is the one that sticks out to this day. I grew up a big progressive rock fan. Rush is still one of my favorite bands so I was used to the whole rock show thing: the opening band plays 45 minutes and then the next band come on and plays an hour and a half straight and then they leave and that’s the night.
My very first Grateful Dead show was at Henry J. Kaiser and it was 1987 Mardi Gras [3/3/87]. I was in college and a friend of mine brought me over. It was a lot of fun. There was a park across the street where the whole shakedown happened and in those days they just let you sleep in the park because In The Dark hadn’t come out yet and it wasn’t this mob scene like it became. So, we dosed, saw the show and I remember they opened with “Quinn the Eskimo.” At the time the only thing I knew about the Grateful Dead was “Casey Jones” and “Truckin’.” So they opened with Quinn and I thought, “Oh cool, Dylan.” Then the acid kind of kicked in and all of a sudden there’s this this parade going down the venue with all the Mardi Gras floats and beads. So we got in line, went up to the front of the stage, they did “Terrapin” and I was hooked. It completely melted my face. As Deadheads like to say either you get it or don’t. I got it immediately and I was never the same (laughs). It opened up an entire window into how different music can be and where you can take it and what you can do with it and how you can put on a show. It was just so uplifting and so wonderful to be moved like that. And when I ended being in a band later with Phil and Bob it just blew my mind.
What was it like then, your first rehearsal or performance with Furthur?
It was terrifying. We did rehearsal shows at the Seafood Peddler which later became Terrapin Crossroads. Basically it was trial by fire and that’s exactly how it was described to me. “We roughly do about 300 songs. Here they are, good luck.”
How do the vocal arrangements shake out?
It shakes out like this: you find a part. Sunshine bless her heart, I went to her house because she had been with Furthur for one tour before I joined. And she said, “Here are the parts I sing.” It’s a matter of finding the parts that aren’t overly taken and it also depends on when Phil wants to sing and when Bob wants to sing. So when Phil sings I usually change parts to double Bob and when Phil is not singing I usually do the part that he would sing. So you’re constantly on your toes trying to find parts that are not completely overdone. It was an incredible challenge. I’ve never been challenged so much musically and it was incredible. I feel like I’ve grown so much and I have them to thank for it.