Photo by Dino Perrucci

Since teaming up with John Medeski and the North Mississippi Allstars as The Word and beginning to release albums with his Family Band, both around the turn of the century, Robert Randolph has established himself as one of the preeminent guitarists in the realms of soul, funk, rock, blues and more. Employing the pedal steel guitar in the Sacred Steel tradition that started with Willie Eason and came to Randolph through his active participation in the House of God Church, the guitarist brings a high-energy fervor to his bands that has put him on the map as a must-see live act.

While in New York recently to play his annual Family Band residency at the Brooklyn Bowl, Randolph takes time to talk a little about the past but mostly about what’s still to come, including an almost-finished new album, a new online music school that he says is “going to change the world” and what it’s like when your family and your band are one in the same.

Your Brooklyn Bowl Thanksgiving run has become kind of a tradition. How did you approach it this year?

This year’s thing, we just actually got all of my cousins and my sister there this year, so it’s a little different. Yesterday we had seven people, seven of us from everywhere—Virginia, Charleston—everybody is in town this year. You know, we’ve got a big music family, lots of guys. So we just figured we’d come in and just do a throw down, man. We had some good grooves going last night, making up stuff as we’re getting ready for our record to come out in April. It’s always funny—like, we’re supposed to play some new songs off the record, but it was like, “Oh! I forgot!” Everybody forgot, because we haven’t even rehearsed yet. But I’m sure we’ll come back and do another run or something in maybe April or May or somewhere. We don’t want to wait until next Thanksgiving.

So that new album is all recorded?

Yeah, it’s recorded. We’re just doing our last mixing touches and stuff like that. And we’re actually going back into the studio in January to record a couple more tunes. It’s coming out on Sony Masterworks. It’s funny because I actually made two records—once again—so I’m trying to see which one we’re actually going to put out, the more bluesy-rock one or the more funky-rock one. We actually might do like five of each, and do kind of a two-disc. Does anybody buy discs anymore? Or some kind of funky layout—it’s got to be one or the other. Feeling funky today? Feeling bluesy today? One of those things.

Any ideas for a title yet?

I’m leaning on the title Got Soul. But it’s not set in stone.

So a lot of people who were in bands, they say their band is like their family. But with you, your band is your family. What is it like to be able to play with your actual family? Does it generally help or hinder the process of writing and performing?

Man, I think it helps out. You get it all, which makes you get through the good and bad times much easier, you know? Like I’ve known bands that wind up breaking up just for the simple fact they’re not really family. When you got real family, you know, you still gotta talk to each other. You’ve got parents, and you’ve got aunts and you’ve got uncles and brothers, so at the end of the day, one of them will curse the other one out at some point. And somebody will go, “What are ya’ll fighting for?” But musically, too, it’s like you get the great things about [family], like you’ll say, “Hey, let’s do this Hendrix tune, but like, let’s sort of do it our way,” and everybody would automatically know whatever that means, you know? “Let’s put a little gospel flavor to it, whatever, or add this and add that,” and everybody would spontaneously just start doing stuff,. Which happens a lot during our shows. And probably more so for the Brooklyn Bowl shows than anywhere else, because it’s kind of like fun jamming. More than 70 percent of the stuff we play at Brooklyn Bowl—every time we play there—is totally made up on the spot.

You guys obviously have a lot of energy when you’re playing live shows onstage. How do you try to capture that when you’re in the studio?

Most of this was all recorded live, you know? What winds up happening is we’d get to the studio and we’d play and we’d just go through different ideas and sort of have these jams. And it’s so weird, because, you know, you hear all these guys say, “Oh, you shouldn’t do that. You can’t do that.” But when you’re a guitar player—all real guitar playing and all the soulful stuff which is connected to life, it’s really this spontaneous thing that happens, you know? Unless you’re trying to do some jazz thing that’s all chorded and charted out, which is not what I do—not what we do. And talking to guys like Eddie Kramer, and when you talk about one of the greatest guitar [players like] Jimi Hendrix—all of those songs were taken from him just playing, and then they’d have to go and edit it and then he would sort of [write] while he’s playing…Which is something that I actually do. Like while I’m playing, there’s a chorus that runs through my head. So you may have a general idea, but then once the music is done, you can go back and listen and then these choruses come into play. And sometimes once you actually have the finished song, you can try to go and do it, but what winds up happening most times is that you never can replace those spontaneous moments. Whether it’s soloing or playing along with everybody—when something feels right, that just winds up being the one.
So in this case we just got back to it. We really just got back in the room and just played, you know? And so I think that’s the magical part. And that’s what happens live all the time. You look at all the great live bands—and I can tell you, most real musicians, once that song is recorded, they just can’t wait to get on stage and see what happens. Because there’s the stage, there’s these fans, you see people dancing along—it just brings about all this new energy. That’s why some of the great live recordings are just irreplaceable, because some guys are just like, “Man, we must have really been feeling good that night!” You know? And look, some guys like to go in and overtly rehearse and do these things: “I’ma do exactly this, and you do exactly that.” But to me, that’s a little boring, you know? [Laughs]

Do you have any guests on this one? I know you had Trombone Shorty and Santana on your last album.

You know what, we did, but I’m not allowed to say right now. But yeah, we really got some really cool guests that really fit with what we do. It’s really gonna be a cool record.

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