“There’re so many people on their laptops making really cool music that’s intentionally lo-fi and there’s a place for that and it’s incredible,” John Medeski says about his thoughts on the current DIY studio trend. “But for me, recording acoustic instruments and live music, I like it to sound good.” As he freely admits, these days Medeski is somewhat in between worlds, a household name in jazz, jam and music critic circles, but still hustling to release quality music that floats outside the mainstream. This fall he’s bouncing between myriad projecting, ranging from Medeski Martin & Wood’s first album in four years, the Alarm Will Sound collaboration Omnisphere to his first extended run with his New Orleans-inspired act Mad Skillet and his continued interests in the New York Downtown experimental music community. Mad Skillet—which also features guitarist Will Bernard, Dirty Dozen Brass Band sousaphone player Kirk Joseph and Dirty Dozen and all around New Orleans drummer Terence Higgins—will spend much of the fall on the road in advance of their first studio collaboration. The keyboardist has also been busy behind the scenes with MMW, quietly working on a new studio collection that will likely include a film component. He’s also remained active in the jamband scene, playing gigs with scene titans like Phil Lesh and Warren Haynes, who led an all-star band featuring Medeski at Port Chester, N.Y.’s Capitol Theatre in early October. Before heading on the road, Medeski offered a state of the union on MMW’s future plans, Mad Skillet’s goals and his continued mission to find “instant music.”
The lead track on the forthcoming Mad Skillet album just premiered over on Relix.com.
You have been bouncing between a number of projects this fall, but your main focus is your new Mad Skillet band. Can you start by giving us a little background on how that group of musicians came together?
John: Mad Skillet is one of these bands where what I like is what we all naturally add to making music. It wasn’t this concept or the feeling that we needed to do anything in specific. About 10 years ago, Will Bernard and I did a record called Blue Plate Special and, ever since then, we’ve made sure to do some sort of gig together at Jazz Fest and that evolved into Mad Skillet. I produced a Dirty Dozen Brass record in 1999 called Buck Jump and Kirk Joseph and Terence [Higgins] were both on that, and ever since then I just had this little dream in the back of my mind to have a group with them. So we decided to just make a record—the band is so natural and fun, it’s just easy musically, it really comes together all by itself. And, we decided to put together a little tour as well.
We’ve already gone into the studio. We are doing a Kickstarter—it’s really hard for me to get records out. I don’t really sell enough records to warrant a really major, great record deal, but I have of enough of a reputation. These days, record companies aren’t offering anything and they don’t really know how to get records out. Especially the major labels, they screwed themselves into this hole over the past 30 years, and they didn’t keep up, and now the technology’s ahead of them, and they’re scrambling.
So we went down to New Orleans and recorded in a studio down there called the Living Room and did the whole record in a few days. The sound quality is really high, and to me that’s really important. Right now, people are listening to music on their phones in all these crappy formats—really low-resolution streaming formats, but that’s gonna change, and there’s gonna be a whole bunch of music that was recorded that nobody’s gonna want to listen to because it just doesn’t sound good as technology advances and we get better and better sound from our little devices.
All four of you have deep catalogs to draw from in your live shows. When it came to composting for Mad Skillet, did you each bring in some material, write together or a little of both?
We wrote some songs collectively while we were in the studio, I brought in some songs, Will brought in some songs and Kirk brought in some tunes. Terence came up with the beat, and you can hear him—in the beginning he sort of sings the bass line—then Kirk jumps on it and we created a piece like that. So everybody contributed. And that’s the thing about this band. Everybody in the band is, in their own right, a producer, composer and bandleader. We all get together, whether we’re playing songs we’ve already done before or—and this music, it’s funky, with Kirk and Terence it has this real New Orleans roots as far as the basic rhythm section. But then everybody is ready to go anywhere, anytime. A lot of stuff happens spontaneously. Even when we play songs we do over and over, they’re different every night, wherever they might go.
You obviously have a long history with Dirty Dozen Brass Band and helped bring them into the modern jazz and jam world.
Sometime around 1999 they just called me up to produce this record, and I went down to New Orleans, and spent some time working on the record with them. It was the first record they really had a drummer on, when they switched from the traditional brass band rhythm section and they went to a drum kit. Terence adapted that style to a kit in a really amazing way. It was sort of a transition time for them and my job was to help put it together—keep it rooted, but also move it forward. For me, it was a blast. It was a really great experience to work with them and work on that record and be part of that.
MMW released its first album since 2014, Omnisphere, in September. This is a different project for you guys, revisiting a mix of older songs and some new material with Alarm Will Sound. Can you walk us through the genesis of that record?
The Alarm Will Sound project came about because a friend of mine, who I went to the Conservatory with in the ‘80s when I was in music school, was a composer and also a piano player. We used to hang out and listen to music and talk about music and argue about music. He was in the classical composition department and I was in the third-string jazz department. But I was also in classical my first year, and we crossed over a bit. And years later he called me up and he was working with Alarm Will Sound, and he told me, “I really feel these guys are doing something in their own way in their world, in their universe akin, to what Medeski Martin & Wood has done.” And he said he thought it’d be a really cool collaboration. So I listened to their music and I loved the stuff they were doing and I saw how it did make sense. When I met with Alan Pierson their conductor, I realized they’re very much like us—even though they’re nineteen pieces, they’re very democratic and collaborative, and it really did make sense. It was always a dream of ours to get the opportunity to work with that sort of ensemble and explore that side of our music. The whole thing was a dream come true. They jumped on it and wrote a couple of songs for the collaboration. They also did some really great arrangements of tunes of ours, and we brought some music in, too. It was really a blast. We got it together for these two concerts we did in Colorado, and we recorded it, videoed some of it, and finally we’re getting the record out. We recorded it in February 2015 and we’ve been sitting on it, trying to figure out how do we get it out. So finally, we took it upon ourselves.
They did two arrangements from our catalog, “Anonymous Skulls” and “End of the World Party” and fleshed those songs out for the orchestra. A lot of the keyboard parts were originally played on this instrument called the Mellotron, which has string sounds and voices. It is the original sampling keyboard—it has tapes and it was maybe the first pre-sampler. So I use a lot of that on those tunes, and what they did was transcribe and arrange what we had done, which enabled us to play those songs in a way we had never been able to do live before. Because it’s just the three of us, it’s hard to duplicate all the overdubs and added parts, so they came in and arranged it, and it was really a blast. Then, also having all the people doing it and playing it, it transforms it again. It Transforms it into another, even though it’s related to the original, it takes it to another world when you have people playing those parts.
Then, I wrote a piece just for the collaboration. Billy Martin came up with a piece, and they came with a couple pieces, too, that were all original things for the conference.
Are there plans to play with them again to promote the album?
Hopefully. It’s just a difficult project to get out there live, particularly, because it’s a lot of people. We would love to do it, and I think they would, too, if we could make it work and get out there and do a few more concerts wherever it makes sense would be fantastic. Plus, because I know the way they are and the way we are, coming in having done it once, we’d probably come up with some more material. If we had the opportunity, it’d be great. It’s just a matter of whether someone is willing to take a chance on it and promote it in a way that makes sense.
MMW are playing Suwannee Hulaween Festival, but besides that, they seem pretty quiet on the live front. Does the band have any other fall plans?
Well, this fall we don’t have any real touring on the schedule, but we have another studio record that we recorded and we need to finish working on. We actually filmed the whole recording process, so there’ll be a film coming out of that process. With that, we’re gonna finish up this record and put out another studio record that’ll probably come out sometime next year. So later in the fall we’ll get together and finish that up. We need to get this one out first, then we’re gonna start working on that.
Most of MMW’s recent releases have been collaborations with other artists, whether it is Alarm Will Sound or guitarists like Nels Cline and John Scofield. Did the group make a conscious decision to work outside the trio format?
It’s a creative band, but because we can do so many things, so much different music, we haven’t even remotely exhausted the possibilities yet, even after 27 years. We have just done what makes sense for the time. There’s a certain chemistry the trio has when it’s just the trio that’s really special that we have a lot of recordings of. When we add another element—because the way we make music is very dependent on a lot of factors, where we’re playing, who we’re playing with, who we’re playing for, the size of the room—so many factors that change the music. We improvise, so we feed off whatever the environment is, or whatever the situation is. When we add another person in, especially a great musician like Nels or Scofield or a group like Alarm Will Sound, then it focuses us in a certain direction because we want to make music where we can find common ground that we share with these different artists. Then that moves us in a different direction than we would maybe go if it were just the three of us. I don’t want to call it a limit because it’s not really a limit, but it’s definitely a focal point. When we play with Scofield, we go in a certain direction, a certain sort of groove, things that we have in common, that we all relate to. So we explore that in a certain way of improvising that comes a little more from the jazz world. With Nels, we get into more sonic textures, sound-shaping. Working with different people, for us, is like having a different canvas, or like having a conversation, depending on who you’re talking to, you’re gonna talk about some things you have in common and explore things that you share. So that’s how it is musically, for us, too, when we get together with people, we find the common ground and see where we meet, and then we explore those areas. It’s great.
I’ve particularly enjoyed your work with Nels, who has always existed in something of a parallel world to MMW.
The first time we played with him was at the Blue Note [in 2013]. We were doing a run of nights and invited him to play with us at one of the shows and it was one of those situations where the chemistry was just instantaneous. He’s such an incredible musician; he has such an incredible ear. He fit right in, instantly. There was almost no rehearsal—we just soundchecked—but we were able to just spontaneously create all this music. He’s so quick and brilliant, he just hopped right in and added other dimensions to all our songs. After that, he invited us to play at Wilco’s festival [where Cline and Jeff Tweedy sat in with MMW.] We felt like we should do this again, so we did the Woodstock Sessions record and we had him play with us at Jazz Fest last year.