photo credit: Kevin Kenly

It is an understatement to say that Reed Mathis made good use of his time off the road. The well-regarded bassist spent the early part of the pandemic working on his guitar skills and offering a series of spirited streams; he even covered Trey Anastasio’s new material right after the Phish guitarist himself was debuting those songs on social media.

Then, Mathis started digging through his archives, eventually compiling four live albums documenting his former experimental group Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey and putting the final touches on their lost 2008 LP, Winterland. Each of the live collections spotlighted a different part of the Oklahoma ensemble’s repertoire, According to a statement from the group’s label, Royal Potato Family, “The Spark That Bled, recorded in 2005, focuses on songs and songwriting, with expansive instrumental versions of songs by The Flaming Lips, Bjork and John Coltrane among others, as well as, three originals. Nine Improvisations contains nine show-opening improvisations from 2005. During this period, JFJO opened every show with a totally improvised sonic exploration from the deep end of their subconscious minds. Speak No Evil contains graceful acoustic live recordings primarily drawn from the trio’s 2006 European tours, including a mix of jazz standards and original compositions. Lil’ Tae Rides Again’ finds Smart exiting the band and guitarist Pete Tomshany and drummer Josh Raymer joining the fold on the tour in support of JFJO’s 2008 electronic concept album about middle school, sculpted by eccentric electronic music futurist Tae Meyulks.”

Deciding not to stop there, Mathis also looked back on his tenure with Tea Leaf Green by remastering and remixing their 2009 LP, Looking West, wrote and narrated a short video tracking his JFJO archival deep-dive, continued to tweak his Electronic Beethoven recordings and even worked on a long-awaited solo project. In total, he’ll have dropped 10 new released before the fall, as well as performed a few marquee gigs with Bill Kreutzmann as part of their Bill & The Kids project.

In this conversation—which took place before Bill & The Kids’ recent Red Rocks shows and the current surge of the Delta variant—Mathis discusses his time with JFJO, his hopes for a solo tour, performing with Kreutzmann and Billy Strings in Hawaii much more. Look for another conversation with Mathis on his other ventures in an upcoming issue of Relix.

long-awaited ‘Winterwood’ and the first of the four live compilations,

Early on in the pandemic, you buffed up on your guitar skills and kept busy by streaming some acoustic solo shows from home that featured an amazing mix of covers and originals. Now, that you are returning to the road, can we expect a similar live experience?

I’ve played [guitar] around the Bay Area, but I haven’t taken it on the road. I’m not 100% sure about this, but what I think I’m going to do this fall is a full national tour, Jacob Fred style—just me and a guitar and a looping pedal. I want to play little rooms and charge 50 cents or something and make it super basic, super user-friendly. I want to do Dylan tunes and Dead tunes and Gamehendge [material].

I’ve never toured by myself, and we’re getting to that age where most of my bandmates have kids and wives. Every time I try to book a tour, people go, “Oh, I can only do 10 days” or “I can only do a long weekend” or “If it’s gonna be more than two weeks, then I need to make X.” I get all of that, of course, but I’m not married, and I don’t have kids—I can do what Jacob Frey used to do, which is three months through the whole country. I’d like to leave San Francisco in September and give myself a month to get to New Orleans for Jazz Fest and then a month and a half to get up to New York and New England and then back to San Francisco.

The thing with a guitar versus a bass is that you can accompany yourself. I’ve used the bass to do a lot of different shit over the years, but it’s not that fun to play bass by yourself. It’s OK, but not great if you are singing and trying to represent full songs. With a guitar, you can actually kind of approximate a full band. If it doesn’t happen in the fall, then I’d like to do it at some point.

During the pandemic, you also compiled four archival Jacob Fred releases—each with its own theme—as well as finished JFJO’s long-lost masterpiece Winterwood. It has been more than decade since you left JFJO. What inspired you to revisit all this material?

Basically, I had the time and went into my storage unit, and I opened up all the shit. I wrote down and catalogued everything show. If it looked like a good one then I would put it on and write down the setlist. I even and even graded the songs. For a couple of years—from 2005-2006is—we had a really good sound guy so every show was usable. I was like, “I forgot how good we were.” I remember us being good, but everybody thinks they’re band is good.

When people would complement us after a show, Brian would laugh and say, “We got lucky.” That was how he always described it. And I always dug that because improvising is a risk. It’s the literal definition of it. You don’t know what’s gonna happen if you’re truly improvising. You don’t know if it is going to work. With Jacob Fred, I would say that 25% of what we did decent, 25% were straight up bad and I just felt sorry that anybody paid to see us and 25% was like, “Wow, these guys are pretty good.” And then 25% was like, “Holy shit, that’s the greatest thing I’ve ever heard in my life.”

If we had improvised less and done more script writing, which is what most bands do—even jambands mostly stick to the script, and what they call improvising is like a guitar solo—the shows would have been more reliable. But we were improvising一capital “I”一improvising. We would rather fall on our face occasionally, in order to have those peaks where it just fucking clicked. The thing that you made up on the spot sounds cooler and more coherent than the thing you spent months working on—where it’s just fucking magic. You can’t explain it—it is a psychic phenomena or channeling a higher level of organization than your conscious mind is capable of. It is the shit where I can have my eyes closed and be deep in the cut and then open my eyes, look at Brian and we will both be like, “What just happened?”

So after I went through all this stuff I said, “At the very least, I should pull these together and send them to the guys in the band. This shouldn’t just live in my hard drive, this should be real.” My buddy Fredrickson built this amazing studio, Gray Room, in Oakland, Calif. and I said, “Fuck it.” I took all these tracks in there, and we just started producing them for real—running them through tons of analog gear and sculpting them.

At what point did you decide to section them off into different thematic projects instead of releasing full shows or tour highlights?

They sort of grouped themselves and, having been an artist for a while, you can kind of tell when you are on the right track. I ended up with this huge pile of music that clearly fit into these different categories. It was like, “Well, there’s all these improvs”—we used to open the show with a straight up improv. I was like, “Well, I can group all those together and that will kind of come together as a record.” Then, there was all this acoustic shit where we were covering the masters of jazz—Ellington, Wayne Shorter, Miles Davis, Coltrane, Monk. So that seemed obvious. And then I was like, “There’s this whole thing where we were trying to learn how to play rock,10 years into our career—Flaming Lips, Neil Young, Bjork—so this makes sense as its own thing.” We had also made a studio album, Lil’ Tae Rides, that none of us liked and my thought was that we could actually right and wrong an compile all these rowdy live versions of the songs.

You also decided to finally finish Winterwood.

I tell the story in the video I made [promoting the albums], but Winterwood was our masterpiece. We spent a year making Winterwood and put everything that we had learned over 15 years into it. At that point, Haas and I had stuck together through 10 different people leaving the band. Every time tsomeone would leave we would we like, “Well, we’re still good, right?” And every time someone would leave or join we would have to re-learn or re-build our thing and each time it made a little more sense and was a little more coherent. So, after 15 years of that, we had turned this weird, raw freakshow into something that is actually pretty coherent and listenable. Then, we made a studio record out of it, and I tried to apply all my Beatles nerd-studio-know-how to make it sound really lush. And then push came to shove and I had to leave the group [to focus on Tea Leaf Green], even though the record was very close to done. It was a weird, confusing time. There was a lot of miscommunicating, and it was kind of like a bad divorce honestly. Eventually, I got a message from Jacob’s old manager—who I don’t blame—saying, “Dude, if we don’t get a finished Winterwood from you by next Friday, we’re going to release your rough mixes.” And I was like, “Don’t do that after all this work, at least let me finish it—I’m on the road till March. I can’t.” And he was lime, “Well, tough shit dude. We’re putting out your rough mixes.” And they put up this half-baked version of the album for free on their website with no promo and then they pulled it down a couple weeks later.

A year on, we never worked as hard on anything. I guess they were just so frustrated with me for leaving that they were like, “That’s kind of Reed’s record, so fuck it.” And then, of course, time passed and now it is water under the bridge. Haas and I are good friends and will always be good friends. And now we’re also friendly again. I just I couldn’t bear for that to be not online.

For a time, especially during the period when JFJO released Winterwood, people were releasing all sorts of music digitally and a lot of that seems to have been lost in the ether since the advent of streaming.

Totally. It’s been over 12 years since I left Jacob Fred, and, if you Google “Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey,” you mostly get the shit that they did since I left, which I am sure if all great. But when I tell people about this band that was kind of the love of my life, there isn’t much for them to find. And there is almost no evidence of the last four years I was in the band, when I think we actually became a good band. We were always cool and interesting. And if you’re into experimental shit, I’m sure we would have gotten you off or whatever. But, in those last four years, I feel like it stopped being so avant-garde, and it started becoming good funky, pretty music. I said to myself, “I just have to do something about that. I can’t let that period of the band be just gone to the wind. Our best work should be available.”  

You worked on this project during the pandemic, when everyone was pretty hunkered down. At what point did you bring it to the rest of the band?

I didn’t tell any of the other guys that I was doing this. Haas and I don’t talk that much; [drummer Jason] Smart and I will keep in touch, but we don’t usually talk about the band. [drummer Joshua] Raymer is in Electric Beethoven with me so we keep in touch but, again, we don’t really talk about Jacob Fred. It’s sort of like, “Well, that was then, and this is now.” It’s not that fun to just rehash the past. But the recordings, to me, aren’t like that. They’re not about reminiscing, they’re not nostalgic recordings. They are hardcore shit—real shit that doesn’t sound dated. It’s not even about those people that we were at that time. It’s music that was kind of coming through us. We were too young to know what we were doing—it was just one of those things where nature selected us and put us together and that music had to get made.  If we didn’t make it, somebody would’ve made it. Bob Dylan always said, “if I didn’t exist, somebody would have had to invent it.”

Just because of the nature of improvising, we always felt like we don’t have a lot of say in what we’re doing. We felt like we had taken a truth serum. We had managers that would be like, “Maybe we should try sounding like this or try sounding like that or try leaning into this aspect of that aspect.” And we would be like, “That’s a great idea, but, honestly, our hands are not on the wheel. We can’t just do a funk album. We’re not doing what we played last week.” Honestly, we just picked up the instruments and let what happened happen. I’m just thankful it happened. After all these years going back and listening to these things, it’s just like, “Was it real? Did we really do that?” We drove like insane people. We had a week where we did the Knitting Factory in New York on Sunday, Telluride Jazz Festival on Thursday and Berkfest in Massachusetts the next Saturday. Someone would give us an offer and we’d be like, “Sure, we can do that. Yeah, no problem.”

With Jacob Fred, I didn’t have any illusions that this is gonna blow up or something or that suddenly tons of people are going to get stoked on this music. It’s one of those things where, if you were there, then you know how special and bizarrely cool it was.  We didn’t expect a ton of people to stumble across this due to an algorithm and be like, “This band I just discovered is amazing!

Once you played it for Brian and band did they have a similar reaction to you?

I finished the album first. And then I texted Brian, and was like, “Yo, so I did a thing. Is this even remotely accessible to you?” He owns the band name. And he was like, “Oh, my God, are you kidding me? Of course, by all means.” And I was like, “OK, I’m not gonna send you anything until everything’s set. But I just wanted to make sure.” So I was about halfway through the process when I told him I was doing it. But I still wasn’t like, “Check out this audio! Check out that!” And then once all the [four records] were done, I was like, “Well, now I got to do something with all these photos and flyers.” Basically, I scanned everything, and I spent a few weeks putting all the imagery in chronological order without trying to make it—without any narrative to it or anything. I was just lime, “Well, let me just put all the photos in order.” And then once I had that, I was like, “This is cool. It kind of packs a punch.” And then I basically wrote a script for it that just describes what was happening in the photos and made a video.  I spent a lot of time trying to make it shorter and tighter, and I tried to remove every reference to myself and my feelings. I didn’t want it to be like, “Reed’s version,” even though it can’t not be that.” But I didn’t want Brian or Jason or any of the other guys to watch it and be like, “This is Reed-centric.”

I also wanted it to tell the story of the ‘90s/2000s jambands—getting into the van and touring. And doing our freaky funk, improv thing. We were not the only ones doing that—there were thousands and thousands and thousands of bands in that exact span of years. We started touring in ‘95 and I out story is a bit of a universal story. A lot of people could see themselves in it. And young people that weren’t there can be like, “Woah, you know, that was cool that we missed something.” There was a lot of magic going on.

I realized that I was the only one that can tell that story because I’m the only one that has the archive. I’m the only one in the band that has the computer skills and studio experience. And, me and Brian are the only ones that were there the whole time. I know Brian well enough to know that he probably wouldn’t sit down and spend five months building that huge thing. He would be stoked on it, but he wouldn’t actually sit down on the computer and make the video and do all the shit. I felt that if I didn’t tell the story then it would disappear.

You’ve mentioned in the past that JFJO used to actually look at MMW’s show schedule and try to book gigs in those markets. Were they your entry point into the larger jamband scene?

MMW is really who lit the torch for us. Even though I had already been listening Phish before that, they didn’t come to Oklahoma—ever. So it wasn’t [attainable]. Phish, to me, was like Led Zeppelin or something. They were one of the mythical rock bands that exists in Valhalla. They weren’t a tangible reality. But when I saw MMW it was like, “These are real people with a real RV, driving on the real interstate.” I’m sure that’s how the Grateful Dead felt when they saw Ken Kesey. It was just this magical thing thatfelt important to me.

You also recently remixed and remastered Tea Leaf Green’s 2009 record, Looking West Redux. Did that project come out of the same storage-unit discovery?

That was sort of an accident. It ended up being similar situation, but it started from a different impulse. I had a friend who, thanks to Instagram, I found out was in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, which is a place I love. And Tea Leaf Green had a song called “Jackson Hole.” And I was like, “Oh, to be funny, I’m gonna text them a link to the song.” The song is actually about murder. It’s kind of funny that this gorgeous, Eden-like place has a song about a jealous lover.

But, when I went to text him, I realized that the song is actually not online anywhere. And I was like, “That whole Tea Leaf album I produced is not online anywhere. I guess now’s the time to fix that.” So I texted the guys and was like, “Are you cool with me putting this up?” And they were like, “It would be cool if we could remix it” and I was like, “Say no more—done.”

Before the pandemic, one of your primary focuses was Electric Beethoven. Are you currently working on new music for that group?

Electric Beethoven made this whole LP before the pandemic, but we delayed the release because we weren’t able to promote it. So what I did during the pandemic was I had different producer friends remix each of the tracks. And now we have an entire new album and an entire remix album—a double album that I sent to my label, Color Red, which is Eddie Roberts’ label.

I didn’t give the remix producers any instructions. I deliberately didn’t even tell them what Beethoven piece we were dealing with. I just wanted them to do their thing. I didn’t want them to think about Beethoven. I didn’t want them to think about anything other than just their instinct, as a producer and composer. You wouldn’t even know some of these tracks are the same songs.

But, I have to say, the live band is also just stupid good. We have Josh Raymer, Clay Welch—this guitar player from Tulsa who’s ridiculously good—and Todd Stoops, who everybody knows. And Color Red is an amazing place to work. It’s an amazing place to record. Eddie Roberts engineered our record personally, so all the drums sound amazing. You are hearing these amazing tones because of Eddie. We used their organ, their bass amp. We also recorded another Beethoven EP that they didn’t even mix yet a week before the pandemic. It’s a 20-minute EP that might be the best thing we ever did.

Billy Strings joined Billy & The Kids for their recent shows. Had you crossed paths with him before?

I was not familiar with this kid, but Billy Strings is amazing. [Before our shows in Hawaii], I knew enough to be like, “This kid is blowing up.” I gleaned that his music bluegrass-ish, but I deliberately didn’t do any research after they told me we were gonna play. I just wanted to get firsthand data. He had just won a Grammy and I was like, “This kid could roll in here with a lot of swagger and be totally justified.” But he was just the coolest homie. You would never know what was happening to him, professionally, right now. He could not have been more chill. We bonded over an astonishing amount of backstory. This kid is serious about his craft—our rehearsals were a master class in music history. He’s just a fucking player. We had the best hang you know.

I’ve known Tommy [Hamilton] and [Aron] Magner for 20 years; they’re back pocket. And Bill [Kreutzmann] I consider to be one of my best friends. But I’m a little starstruck by James Casey. He’s a talent that’s little larger than I’m used to dealing with in some ways; he’s just brilliant. And the fact that he joined us voluntarily just warms my heart like nothing else. And this is all before Santana showed up. It was already a life changing experience.

And it’s all happening! Phish is touring, Dead & Co’s touring, Jazz Fest is happening. I’m thankful that I’ve lived to see it, and I’m so thankful that I have music in my life. Music has brought me all the people in my life. It brought me to Bill, and Billy & The Kids; even if he wasn’t a musician, he’s just an amazing cat. If he was like a sailor, he’d be an amazing sailor—he’s just one of those guys. And it brought me to Brian Haas. When in the world do you meet someone like that? Music is just a miracle. I’m so thankful.