There came a point, between conducting this interview and listening to the new Bruce Katz Band record to craft an honest review, that I came to wonder what the value of all of this really is. Because intellectually, emotionally, joyfully – I grasp and touch value. I frequently learn of others who do as well. This album and subsequent tours are as strong as any Bruce has mounted under his own name in the twenty-five-plus years since his first solo record. No writer can say what any artist is due, but the temptation is strong to say that this is the kind of band many would enjoy, if exposure could just be meaningful . . . and valuable.
Valuable art should, and will, make a person think meaningfully, and I had just spent around six hours over two nights enjoying this trio, right as they were playing this new song set for the first few times. I had the thought that Bruce is a lot like the late, lamented Danny Gatton – he has ample capability to go wherever and do whatever anyone could possibly ask, but he is his own man by many miles, and fiercely married to his own artistic impulsion and vision. And yet – for as personal as this record is, and as well as it expands his extant library, it’s listenable and accessible in ways most ears need for absorption. That the group, an organ/guitar/drums trio most often live, augments with friends on the recording also adds to the wider appeal, especially with Allman Brothers survivor Jai “Jaimoe” Johanson on board for some double drumming.
The interview that follows was entirely off-the-cuff at the end of a very long night, and features some of the most honest conversations I have had with Bruce and his band in the ten-plus-years I have been covering them. Guitarist/vocalist Chris Vitarello and drummer Ray Hangen followed their leader’s model and offer a candid look at the reality of life as artists on the open road – lives spent Getting Their Grooves.
Let’s start with the new record: Get Your Groove! features a beautiful tune written in the memory of the late Butch Trucks, called “Freight Train,” which manages to hit three Allmans-inspired themes. Parts 1 and 3 are that straight-ahead double-drumming groove; part 2 turns into this 6/8 esoteric exploration of different homages and motifs; and part 4 is this jubilee kind of feel, like a gospel homegoing ceremony.
What was it like to write that, and then have Jaimoe play on it?
BK: I thought it was very fitting to have Jaimoe come in and play on that tune in particular – that’s why we brought him in. He ended up overdubbing on [a second] tune and playing on another. [In writing the song] I was letting it lead me. I wanted to write something . . . Butch loved stuff where the groove changed, like time changed, so I knew I wanted to do something like that. And that’s why the middle thing morphs into what it does. It changes the feel – he was really into that. And the opening groove, that kind of complex shuffle, I just had Butch in mind.
The last part of it, the very last part of it, I felt was like the redemption, and Butch’s soul at peace, basically. It ends on these four chords, the final chord being this beautiful, gospel, simple chord that, to me, is – what it means to me is Butch at peace after his tumultuous life.
Ray, I don’t like saying songs written in tribute to drummers are rare – but they are. You’re sitting across from a legend, and you’re not replacing his friend, but kind of tagging in. What was it like to record this song that Bruce wrote very meaningfully, while you’re double-drumming with Jaimoe on your first record with the band?
RH: It was intimidating at first. Bruce just said, hey, I’m writing this song dedicated to Butch Trucks, so make sure you learn some Butch Trucks’ stuff! [all laugh]
BK: I said “Listen to some Butch Trucks, so you can play the groove the way Butch would have.” Because the whole point of this tune was . . . it wasn’t to write something that was dedicated to Butch; this is something he could’ve and would’ve wanted to play.
Ray, when you were studying Butch, what did you learn?
RH: When [Bruce] sent me the song, I did some research on Butch and found the exact thing I was looking for, which was his signature, triplet kind of “shuffley” thing that he does, which is pretty original, man. He basically plays a flam accent, which is drummer talk, but it’s a sticking pattern over a shuffle pattern that he’s playing on the bass drum. And it’s in triplet form so it kind of moves along the shuffle pattern, but it also accents here and there. It’s just really unique – it took me a while to figure out how to fit it into the song.
BK: You should tell him what Jaimoe said to you.
RH: So when Jaimoe and I sat down, got all our drums set up and we’re sitting down, getting sounds – he goes “Hey, let me ask you something” – cause Bruce had sent him the song to learn, and he said “you’re not playing a shuffle in there, what the hell you playin’?” And I kinda laughed and I’m like “I stole this sticking pattern from Butch.” And he starts laughing and he goes “What, really? Show it to me.” So I start breaking it down and showing it to him and he’s like “Damn, I’ve been listening to that groove for forty years and I never knew what the hell he was doing . . . thank you!” and he just started laughing.
Bruce, Jaimoe told you “Freight Train” was like a trilogy, but this whole record feels like the final part of a trilogy, as the third record you’ve made for American Showplace Records. It feels like you’re codifying the BKB sound, of jazz, of jam, of blues. Have these been purposeful statements in that regard?
BK: Basically, on these three records, I decided each time that I would write whatever I felt like, and not try to do this, or try to do that. So that’s what’s been coming out. For a while, like ten years ago or something, I [felt like] “I should be writing this kind of tune,” and I would just write stuff I’d throw out because it didn’t feel authentic. So I’ve just been writing really what I felt like at any moment.
Do you feel like some of the jamband “freedom” ideal has empowered that process for you? That you can just say “I feel like writing this, so screw it!”
BK: Yeah – that’s basically what I’ve been doing. I think that’s the best way to go. I think what comes out will grab people because it’s authentic.
Bruce, your entrance into the Allman Brothers Band was quite a unique experience – didn’t you get dropped off at a hotel room with a keyboard and a stack of material?
BK: Yeah – a stack of CD’s. “Learn everything!” [laughs]. At that moment, I did not know all the Allman Brothers tunes to really play them, and the covers that they do, and the more contemporary Allman Brothers tunes.
Kirk West came back with a stack of twenty CDs and said “Learn Everything” – and I tried, ‘cause the next night I’m playing with the Allman Brothers! I was already in Gregg’s band, but I hadn’t played with the Allman Brothers except to sit-in here and there.
That experience opened a lot of doors for you, in the literal sense, but how did that experience change you as a musician?
BK: In some ways, it brought me back to my roots. As a listener, going to Grateful Dead shows when I was 17 years old, [this experience] kinda brought me back to that whole concept of “expanded time” and group improvisation, and just having all the time in the world to create statements and say what you want to say. And not be like put into a box as much, you know?
Everybody has their own preconceptions of artists like the Dead, or the Allman Brothers, but what was it like to “be human” with somebody like Butch Trucks, whom many considered a living legend?
BK: Hmm . . . Butch was just a guy, you know? A very talkative, opinionated guy – very opinionated, very talkative, very funny.
CV: He could hang too. We would just hang in the van and talk about stuff and laugh.
I think people saw he would often have this intense visage, but he wasn’t that guy all the time, right?
BK: He could be cranky, though – but like, the first few times I played with the Allman Brothers, like the first tour that I did, I was like terrified of Butch Trucks, like his reputation – cranky, lashing out at people, and I was like, okay, I’m not even going to talk to this guy. And then around the third or fourth gig I did with the Allman Brothers, after the gig I was walking around, and Butch Trucks comes up to me and says “Man, you were terrific!” And I’m like, Butch Trucks is saying this to me, like the crankiest human being in the world? [laughs] That was a revelation.
But he wasn’t really, you know, he was just . . . he took a lot of things seriously. He took music extremely seriously, in his way. It was very meaningful to him. He didn’t take shit about music – he didn’t take shit about anything, really. His drum said “Wake the fuck up.” On the bass drum – wake the fuck up! We’re playing in the Bible Belt – wake the fuck up! [all laughing]. He didn’t care, man. He was gonna say what he was gonna say.
Chris, being a guitar player in the band of Butch Trucks, and the lineage that comes with that, what was like for you?
CV: First of all, the first gig I ever did with Butch, we hung out in the green room and he didn’t even know I was in the band that night. He thought I was the club owner. But, after the gig we played, and I did fine the first night, and he pulled me aside and said “I need you to play longer solos.” [Laughing, then imitating Butch] “Chris, you sound great, but you gotta play longer!” And I’m not used to that. The jamming thing in our band is sort of [different].
BK: They like to jam. With the Allman Brothers, too – I’d get a look, like, this is your solo, and I’d take my solo and I’d be done and look up, like okay, and they wouldn’t even be looking at me, like they’d be expecting me to play like three times longer, like, “What are you doing? You’re stopping now?” And I’d be like “I’m done . . .”
CV: We get it now, now that we’ve been doing it. We did it with Butch, I get it now. I didn’t get it back then, but now I get what he was saying.
BK: It’s a very different concept, because you just have all the time in the world to build your thing. Instead of a short amount of time to say what you’re gonna say, you can make a statement and just let it hang in the air for ten seconds and remake it and let it hang in the air. It’s a conceptual [thing], slowly build up a thing, to where, under normal conditions, I’ve got two choruses and I’ve gotta say what I’m gonna say.
How long as this line-up been together?
BK: I would say a little more than a year and a half. Of course, Chris [has been in the band] almost 13 years now.
GYG! is Ray’s first album with the group. Ray, you’ve recorded a lot in your career so far.
RH: Yeah, I’ve been pretty fortunate.