Are there people that you keep in your head each day, like guideposts, as you develop as an artist?
My dad’s words, his teachings, ring true in my ears. Every time I get together with my brother to play music I think of him. It really feels good to keep his vision alive. He’s still producing us to this day. I’ve talked to Devon, and he’ll say, ‘Man, I miss my dad.’ The truth is it’s really painful, and with loved ones, that kind of never goes away. In fact, sometimes it gets worse. Music brings us together. It’s such a cathartic experience. It’s also a way, I believe, to bridge the gap between the existential world and the transcendental.
I think about Phil Lesh a lot. Playing drums with Phil has been incredible, and getting to play in Phil and Friends is such a learning experience. As a drummer, he teaches me so much. So every time I get to play with Phil I’m just all eyes and ears, paying attention and learning. The soundchecks are epic. That’s when we run through the set. He keeps a rotating wheel of musicians, and I think a big part of (doing) that is because he wants to pass the music on.
Do you remember being receptive to your dad’s influence or did you rebel against it when you were growing up?
That’s a great question. It was both. I was very receptive, definitely soaking things up through osmosis. As the youngest, sometimes I felt a little in the dark. I didn’t know what was going on a lot of times. Sometimes I was exposed to things before I knew what they were- incredible artists or music that later on I would become fans of- like Ry Cooder or Jim Keltner. As a kid it’s hard to process that. I was also rebellious. I had that teenage thing of wanting to forge my own path. I certainly found ways to offend my dad, too, both personally and musically. It was a really exciting, volatile combination of both.
I’m guessing that’s one of the great benefits that you as a player and the Allstars as a band took away from being exposed to so much at a young age: that you fit in with all different types of players, or at any number of festivals, whether it’s blues, folk, Americana, roots, jamband. Is there an audience you have found to be most receptive to what you do?
I feel like I’m pandering to your audience here, but I love jamband festivals. The jam world- you have bluegrass, blues, rock-and-roll- it’s all different genres fitting under one umbrella. And the one common denominator has been that (those artists in the jamband scene) are all players. And, the audience is sophisticated. I’ve been getting ready for this tour with Todd Nance and I have been learning some Widespread Panic songs. That’s complicated music, bro. There’s a lot going on. The audience reacts to improvisation. They want to see you bring the heat. I like that.
Can you prepare for improvisation or is the whole point that you can’t prepare?
It’s the 10,000 hours rule of mastery; the Malcolm Gladwell thing. You can’t fake the funk. You have to put in the hours. The way you prepare for the big stage at a festival is by playing night after night in the clubs all year. All the rehearsing in the world can’t prepare you for the moment. Playing interesting improvisational music is all about creating moments.
I would imagine, especially at festivals, there are people seeing you for the first time. Do you like the idea of every show being a chance to surprise someone?
Absolutely. I love that. Every chance to play music is a blessing and a gift. All the time I talk with people who are seeing us for the first time, and that’s very exciting and very encouraging. Play every note like it’s your last.
Sadly, that reminds me of Col. Bruce Hampton, who passed away doing just that.
Col. Bruce was another person I would name as someone that sticks with me. Picking up the magic and the mojo of Col. Bruce- it sticks to you. We all learned so much from the Colonel. He’s still producing us.
You’ve always had, in my opinion, an open mind when it comes to playing music, both your own and with others. Do you have a ‘big picture’ plan about all of this or do you leave it open to possibility?
I love playing music. My bread-and-butter is playing gigs. As long as I can continue making a living doing what I love, then every day is a blessing and I’m thankful. With gratitude comes responsibility. I do my best to walk the path; to live a meaningful life that will hopefully inform and influence my music and my writing. The short answer is that being an artist is so gratifying but also so terrifying. Finding new ways to express myself is a constant challenge. For me it’s always about growing, in my craft and as a person.