Of the core members that stayed with the band, who was the first person to join?
JH: Jeff. I was a member of a band with Jeff before I met Bruce. Oteil, his brother Kofi and a guitarist named Charlie Williams were all part of it. We used to call Charlie Deacon Williams—Bruce gave him that name. We never did a gig with that band because we were trying to assemble all original material and, in those days in Atlanta, you had to have two sets’ worth of material to get a gig. We didn’t quite make it to that amount of material before Jeff started playing with Bruce, and it became clear that Jeff had lost interest in the project that we had because it was more fusion-music oriented. Then, Charlie Williams and Oteil started playing with Bruce shortly after Jeff did.
Jeff brought them into it, and then, they called me. They said, “Hey, man, you gotta come…You can’t believe how liberating this thing with Bruce Hampton is. I mean, it’s like…” We’d played together so much in the rehearsal room that we had this chemistry, but we had never done a show together. The music we played wasn’t simple music. It was all composed and none of us knew that the other liked playing blues or enjoyed playing punk and these other types of music that we ended up playing with Bruce. So, when I went to play with them, I sat through two sets of watching before Bruce asked me to come up for the first set. I was sitting there, going crazy, I wanted to play so bad. Finally, they invited me to play. I had my amps and my guitar in the car, but I didn’t bring it in because I didn’t want to be that guy so I didn’t ask about sitting in even though they invited me. I just came to the show, and I watched the first set. I was just bulled over by how great it was. And then, after the second set, which I also watched—Bruce finally said, “Hey, did you bring your guitar?” I said, “Yeah, it’s out in the car,” and he said, “Go get it. Play the third set.” I said, “Okay,” so I went out to the car and got it, came in, and we played the third set. Everybody in the band I had played with before, except Bruce.
Before that night, those guys didn’t know that I played blues, and they didn’t know that I liked folk-type music, and they didn’t know that I liked country music. Bruce’s music goes through all of those different things and they were like, “Man, we didn’t know you liked blues! We didn’t know you liked funk!” And I said: “Oh, man, I didn’t know Jeff Sipe liked playing 12-bar blues.” The guy can play, like, Steve Gadd and Billy Cobham rolled into one. Oteil could play like the greatest bass player in the world. I didn’t know he’d be interested in playing rhythm-and-blues, but, man, was it fun. And that’s how it happened. Pretty much the next day Bruce called me and asked me to join. And I said, “Hell, yes, I’ll join the band—show me where and when, tell me where to be. It wasn’t about the money because it didn’t pay anything. It was just a liberating musical outlet for a bunch of frustrated musicians. This was everybody’s fun night to play music without boundaries all around you. Everybody was hustling to do different things. Jeff, Oteil and Kofi were playing Top 40 music. I was teaching. Charlie Williams was teaching and playing gigs. I was playing for hire gigs with different songwriters and stuff like that so this was the one night of the week that we can go play without any boundaries around us and, man, it was so liberating.
Bruce, you are often credited as the Godfather of the H.O.R.D.E.-era jamband scene and you inspired everyone from Widespread Panic and Phish to Dave Matthews and Tedeschi Trucks Band. You also played with The Allman Brothers Band and the Grateful Dead in the ‘60s and were close friends with Pigpen. Who were the first jambands that taught you that you can improvise in a rock stings?
BH: The first jamband that I ever heard was Fats Waller. He would not just stay on one chord and noodle, but actually create 10 tunes within a 10-minute period. It’d be 10 whole different colors. And then I got to hear Trane and McCoy [Tyner] in the ‘60s, and they were certainly improvising to the hilt. They would do two-, three-hour sets, so maybe 50 songs would come out of it. I was so lucky to be in New York when I was a teenager. I mean, every night I would hear Albert Ayler, Roland Kirk—all the masters. You can’t see anybody like them today hardly, and if you do, it’s two million dollars to get in the door. [Laughs.] Very few masters left, isn’t that a shame?
In terms of modern masters, I have heard you and many others describe Derek Trucks as a torch barrier of the sound you mentioned. He is also one you have known and played with almost his entire life.
BH: You’re right, he’s a master. Derek can go in any direction he wants. I’ve known Derek since he was a baby. His father and I were hall mates in college. Is that not insane? We were in military school, and then I saw his uncle pitch for the New York Yankees, Virgil Trucks, two no-hitters in 1955. So I’ve known the family sixty years now. And I knew Derek since he was a little kid. Derek used to come play with us all the time, when he was 10-12. He used a $25 Peavey amp with a cracked four-inch speaker and sounded just as good as he does today or anybody ever has. So, tone is in the hands.
How did you initially hear about him?
BH: He was just playing Atlanta a lot, and his manager at the time was my manager, and he said, “You gotta see a tape of this guy.” And I guess he was 9, and he was on a little TV show, and he played and I went, “Oh my god, that’s insane. That’s not possible.” And we invited him to come play with us. He came out on the road and just devastated. We were like, “Good lord.” We couldn’t take it. At least the spirit of music was coming back—I had had it with the ‘80s—just modern prose and modern people and horrible music. Those were horrible times. And it was so good to hear him. He just rejuvenated spirit, you might say. That was about ’87, I think.
You’ve always continued to play with younger and emerging musicians. Is there anyone you’ve been playing with now that’s inspired you?
BH: Yes, probably the greatest musician I’ve ever played with, and probably [one of the] the top piano players who ever lived, and his name is Johnny Knapp. There’s video on YouTube of him playing with us—he’s 90 years old. He started out with Billie Holiday, then went to Louis Armstrong, taught Bill Evans. His resume is jaw-dropping, like ten pages of just stuff you can’t believe. And we played last night in Athens, Ga., and the young people—you know, they’re 18-25 there—and they gave him a two-minute standing ovation, and I couldn’t believe it. He’s the greatest musician I’ve ever played with—by far. He’s in another class. I mean, he used to hang around with [Vladimir] Horowitz and Art Tatum. Those were his friends.
As you mentioned, ARU has this musical telepathy and an anything-goes attitude, and you grew up playing music together. You have continued to play with Oteil, Jeff and Bruce in various configurations over the years and stayed in touch as friends. But, coming back in the “rehearsal room” recently, did you notice anything different about any of your bandmates’ playing that you feel like will lead the band in any new, cosmic directions?
JH: I just think everybody has grown and changed so much in that they’ve just got more years of experience now. There’s a certain kind of athleticism that happened musically when we played together back in the day. Now, I’m a lot older—I’m a little worried that I can’t keep up. Part of the sound of that band was youth, and, back in the day when it was a special thing nobody really knew who we were. Even when there were people who knew who we were, it was still a small thing. Now, more people know us than before, even though we haven’t toured in years which is funny. We were a club band. That was our thing. We played these small clubs and now we are playing bigger venues then we ever played.
The clubs were where we seemed to play our best. We were setting up our own gear and all of that. We didn’t care about that back then, of course. And now people have gotten older and they played other gigs and they have many more experiences to draw from, and I’m interested in seeing how that is going to factor into what we do. I’m scared a little bit but I think that’s good. Bruce says, “If you’re not scared, then you don’t care. If you’re not nervous, then you don’t care.”
It goes back to mentality that you play better if your heart is in the music.
JH: Right, right. So that’s a good thing. I’ve always said… I’m nervous every freaking time I walk on stage, especially in the early part of the set when you’re not really loose yet and you’re kind of not quite comfortable. Yet there’s a certain energy that comes from that and, sometimes, you play your best when you’re not comfortable and when you’re not relaxed yet and when you’re scared or nervous, or whatever. But I’m just interested in seeing how people’s maturity changes the music. Everyone has amassed all of this experience over the last twenty years and I know that, since those days, each one of us have done a whole bunch of different things. Each one of those things is bound to affect you. How much of that is going to come into what we’re doing with Bruce, I’m really looking forward to finding out.