In the early 2000s, Tea Leaf Green were at the forefront of the West Coast jamband revival, honing in on an infectious sound that mixed thoughtful, lyrically driven songs with fierce improvisation. They shared the stage with luminaries like Trey Anastasio, Dave Matthews Band and the members of the Grateful Dead and, along with peers like ALO, New Monsoon and Hot Buttered Rum, morphed into one of the Bay Area’s unofficial house bands. But despite releasing a series of successful albums and headlining large clubs and theaters around the country, the group faced several hurdles—in 2007, founding bassist Ben Chambers left the band, and the quartet found themselves at the center of the jamband scene at a time when many bands started moving away from free improvisation. Tea Leaf Green soldiered on however, recruiting Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey bassist Reed Mathis and percussionist Cochrane McMillan and focusing in on a more rock-and-roll-oriented sound.
As the members of Tea Leaf Green grew older, started families and moved out of their band house, the group started touring less, but they continued to nurture their passionate fanbase. Earlier this year, Mathis made the decision to step away from the band in order to focus on his new “classical dance music” project, Electric Beethoven, as well as his work with the Golden Gate Wingmen and Bill Kreutzmann. McMillan, guitarist Josh Clark, keyboardist Trevor Garrod and drummer Scott Rager reorganized once again and brought in new bassist Eric DiBerardino, a veteran of the Bay Area scene who had already subbed for Mathis for a few gigs. The band is committed to touring too and recently completed a lap throughout the East Coast. In advance of Tea Leaf Green’s New Year’s Eve run at Doc’s Lab in San Francisco on December 30 and 31, DiBerardino looked back on his first few months holding down the band’s low end.
Let’s start with a little background. You recently completed your first proper tour as an official member of Tea Leaf Green. Where did you grow up and how did you first connect with the members of Tea Leaf Green?
I grew up in Orange, Connecticut, and I started playing music at 15-16 years old—I came from a blues background. I traveled to Colorado for college and moved back to Connecticut for about six years, then moved out to San Francisco in 2010. As soon as I moved out here, I started playing with some people and joined a band at the time called Acacia Collective. I basically just went at it, trying to pick up any gig I possibly could. Being a bass player, there’s usually room to hop in and get some gigs where you sub out for people. Cochrane might have been the first [member of TLG] that I met. We started doing some gigs together; we did a gig with Trevor and Jay Cobb Anderson from Fruition. Then, we did a four-piece gig out in Tahoe where I got to know Trevor a little better. Being in the music scene out here it is a bit incestuous—everybody plays with everybody, in side gigs and things like that. I eventually ended up joining a project with Josh Clark called Little Brothers, where we did Little Feat and Allman Brothers covers. It was pretty short-lived, because he ended up having kids and moving up to Oregon. So I’d say it was mostly pick-up gigs and the occasional get together, things like that. We became friends more than we became co-workers.
Were you familiar with Tea Leaf Green’s music before you moved to the West Coast and started hanging out with them?
What’s funny is that I never really dug deep into their catalog. I had seen them—we opened up for them at the Independent twice, for the Harvest Ball, which they had every November. Besides those shows, I hadn’t dug into their repertoire at all. Being in the position that I’m in right now, it’s actually really fun, because every day is brand new—every day is like Christmas morning. I wake up and there’s 30 new songs that I’ve never heard before that are really inspiring. But, yes, my familiarity with their material was very minimal.
You subbed for Reed Mathis for a few shows before officially signing on with Tea Leaf Green. How did you move from being friends to more official, as you said, “co-workers.”
About a year ago, March of 2015, they had a gig in Phoenix that was a part of the McDowell Mountain Music Festival. They needed someone to fly down and sub for Reed, and that was my first real call to play with them. There were a couple really short rehearsals, I flew down, and we had a great time and we had a great gig. Obviously there was a lot of pressure that I put on myself to fill in for someone as talented as Reed. Reed and I are friends; we get to hang quite a bit, living in the same area, and we’ve collaborated on other stuff as well. Anyway, I put a lot of pressure on myself, but I think that pressure actually helped me prepare and do the material as well as I could. That led to another two gigs—one was a Bread & Roses benefit at Terrapin Crossroads. I believe Reed was out with Billy & The Kids at the time. The last gig was a private party for some longtime friends and fans of the band.
I think [with my joining,] it became a combination of things where I expressed how much I enjoyed the music and really the whole intention and vibe of the band and that, if they ever needed me in the future, I’d be on board. As Electric Beethoven came to fruition, combined with the Billy & The Kids shows Reed was doing at the time and some of the John Kadlecik shows he was doing, it started to seem that his availability was going to have to be something they would work around for shows. So I just threw my hat in the ring and said, without pressuring them, “Hey guys, if you want to consider this, I would be on board 100%.”
Tea Leaf Green has had two long-time bassists, Reed and founding bassist Ben Chambers. There’s some overlap in their styles, but they’re also very different players. While you were learning this catalog and digging into it, what were some of the shows and albums you listened to? Also, were there are certain elements you thought you could take from Ben or Reed and combine them with your own take?
Yeah, I definitely started off listening to a lot of the loud stuff; I attacked Reed’s style first. I wanted to see what they were up to for the last nine years and how they progressed with Reed at the helm on bass. So I listened to most of the stuff that was online with Spotify or Google Play, music from the 2010-era, roughly, when they were still touring really hard and Reed had established himself as a unique personality since joining the band.
Reed and I have different styles, and Reed did a lot of amazing things with piano playing as well as his bass playing, so it adds a different element than I could ever accomplish. I tried to concentrate more on the vibe than the actual playing, and I tried not to replicate it, because it just doesn’t go anywhere when you try to copy somebody. So I tried to see what aspects of my bass playing were similar, and I focused on those things. When I got the big call to do the East Coast tour, I went to the early material. I started with the first three albums, which they have compiled as a [box set] called Seeds. So I went all the way back and I tried to listen to Ben and see what he was bringing to the table. After listening for a while, I just found that I’m probably a happy balance between the two of them, stylistically. Instead of concentrating on just one, I tried to figure out where my personality fits in between them both. I really dug into the old material, and we ended up playing a lot of old material on the tour as a result of that.
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