Photo Credit: Dean Budnick
Oteil Burbridge has been an established member of the jamband scene for over three decades. In that time, the bassist has shared the stage with some of the biggest names in the industry and created a fanatic following of fans who crave his approach to arrangements swiped from his long list of collaborators and their cohorts.
During a pair of conversations, Burbridge and I dug into his latest project. The forthcoming album, which should arrive later this year, draws entirely from Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter’s collaborative stack of ballads. While the music alone conjures epic tales of love, loss, and what might otherwise be deemed inexplicable experiences, the musician’s journey to reinterpret the impending batch is also fixed to an unlikely tale.
Just as Garcia and Hunter would have wanted, our dialogue was anything but conventional, as the conversation veered from typical tales of ramifications associated with the studio to fantastical and unexplainable happenstances with the Huldufólk—Icelandic elves and their mischievous behavior—which intruded on the musician’s recording endeavors while abroad.
From disappearances to broken door knobs, our conversation cascaded into the backstory behind Burbridge’s choice of covers while gliding through tales of Dead & Company, which segue back to the artist’s influence for the impending record. Along the way, we depart from Western reason which craves conclusive answers in favor of the unexplainable, fateful, and downright mystic.
In September, you dropped the news of your forthcoming album, which covers material originally written by Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter. I understand you followed up in December with a trip to Deplar Farm in Iceland, where you recorded the collection of ballads. How did you choose that location, and what can you tell me about the experience?
My manager, Ben Baruch, is the one that told me about it. I also heard about it from many friends—George Porter, Nikki Glaspie, and Eddie Roberts. I think Joe Russo went up right after we were done. Everybody was saying how great it was. I was talking to [Eric] Krasno about it this morning. I said, “I don’t know when you’ll get a chance to get out there, but you should record something up there.” And then the whole elf culture stuff was really deep. The elves were definitely messing with us. They’re very mischievous. The guy that owns the property even said it’s real and that the elves messed with his foreman.
Looking out my window [in Iceland], you’d see this elf mound, or mountain. And when the owner of the property bought it, the locals said, “Don’t touch that mountain.” The country even built a highway to go the long way around it. That’s kind of ubiquitous in Iceland. They will build roads to go around these elf mounds. He [the owner of the property] didn’t mess with it. But things started happening pretty much immediately after we arrived. We had crazy stuff going wrong.
Once you got to the property, what did you experience at the hands of the elves?
Besides the computer, I got locked in the bathroom, and the handle came off. Then another door handle came off later. We looked it up, and it turns out elves like healthy Icelandic food. They also like moonshine and sweets. We also had this really nice dark chocolate and made them a little charcuterie board. Every day in the morning, we would check it.
Did that help keep the activity at bay?
The first morning after setting out the offering, I went and checked it, and it was there, then stuff started going wrong again. I said, “Well, maybe we should refresh the food.” So we went back, and it was gone– the whole thing, the whole board–it had been placed in the old slaughterhouse where nobody was going.
The next day, the same thing happened. We go and look for the food, and it’s gone again. Second charcuterie board and more shots. Now we’re down two more shot glasses, and I was like, “Well, we can’t afford to lose four at a time; there are only 12 up here.” It ended up being three total [boards] that disappeared. Then we changed the location of the offering and put a camera out. The food never disappeared after that.
If it occurred daily, that must have impacted the trajectory of your studio time.
So we had two different projects we wanted to record. When it came down to the wire, I said, “Let’s do the ballad one first.” There were 17-hour days for me before I got to go to bed. Spread over nine days, and we tracked the whole album—all of it. I don’t know if I want to do it that way again because I had to sing everything in the last two days and make sure I had rhythm tracks cut for all the tunes before I even started singing. It put a little extra wear on my voice, doing it all at the end. But it sounds great!
Would you say the collection of songs represents your favorites from the Garcia and Hunter archive?
Every one that I sang was my favorite at one time. If you look back at my timeline of when I first started singing [these songs], each new one that came to me was the one. I think the first was “China Doll.” Then maybe “Come A Times” and “If I Had The World To Give,” but I’m not certain of the order.
Whenever anyone–a fan, band member, someone on the crew, a friend–would say, “You know, I think you’d sound great singing this song,” I’d put it on a playlist I had on YouTube. And I would just listen to it while I was doing other stuff. Just put it on. And the ones that grabbed me, I would work on next. “High Time” actually wasn’t one of them. It was Chimenti–when he said it, he was like, “Dude, just trust me.” [Laughs.] So, I learned it. And then, the day I learned it, it was stuck in my head for a month straight.
Did you ever have a chance to meet Garcia or Hunter?
No, I never got an opportunity to meet Jerry or Rob Hunter.
I would think there’s still somewhat of an unspoken connection you share with them, having played their songs for so many years.
I feel tons of connections! My mentor, Col. Bruce, was really good friends with Pigpen and Steve Parrish. So he knew those guys and actually played a concert with them and The Allman Brothers in Atlanta–I believe in 1969. It was the Grateful Dead, Allman Brothers Band and the Hampton Grease Band. And I was like, “Wow, I played with all three of those guys.” [Laughs.] There’s always been this connection, but I didn’t know the music as I do now. You have to learn it differently when you’re in the big chair as opposed to learning a few songs at a time.
In some ways, it sounds like fate. I would imagine that was somewhat of your experience with Dead & Company. What was your time like learning these ballads alongside those bandmates specifically?
These songs chose me, because I wouldn’t have been singing them if it hadn’t been for John [Mayer]’s surgery on his vocal cords. He lost a little range–he can sing it in falsetto–but he can’t sing it in full voice anymore. And a lot of those ballads live right there, almost all of them.
We were going to do “China Doll,” and Bob [Weir] was waiting on John to sing it, and John was waiting on Bob to sing it, and neither wanted to sing it. I was like, “Man, I can sing it. You know?” It’s right where my range is. And when I said it, it was like crickets. No one said anything. It was kind of humiliating, and this was fairly early on, but Matt Busch said, “Don’t ask. When nothing is going on, just go up and start singing, and everyone will just come in and start playing with you.”
The Grateful Dead just doesn’t operate like a normal band. They have their own way of doing things that come to be organically, and that’s just the way it is. So I took his advice, but I needed someone to play the chords, so I asked Chimenti, “Hey man, will you play ‘China Doll’ with me for a second.”
This was break time, so he played the intro. It was just bass and piano, reminiscent of what it’s like on the record–it’s very stripped down. So, I started singing it, Bob came in and hopped on guitar, Bill [Kreutzmann] and Mickey [Hart] came on the drums, John joined in, and we were just doing it. So we get to the end, and Bob’s like, “So I guess you’re doing that one.”
That’s why I say it chose me, and that’s why I chose the Garcia/Hunter ballads. I’d never done an album where I sang lead on the entire thing. So for my first record, I decided to do all ballads, which is crazy for an inexperienced singer. But that’s been my thing in Dead & Company to sing those ballads.
How’d you parse the tracking list down to the chosen few?
I just wrote down all I knew, and it was way over what I could fit on a vinyl record. I put down all the ballads I sing. And all the ballads that I like but really don’t sing. Because Bob sings “Morning Dew,” “Stella Blue” and “Days Between.” But, if I was going to do all ballads, I wanted to cover the ones that I really love, even if I hadn’t sung them yet. I’m going to have to do another record because I just couldn’t do all the ones that I wanted to do. I still have like eight or nine left over. And I did eight in Iceland. I just picked the eight that I picked. And that was it and what we went with.
Then it changed because I found out that Jerry [Garcia] really had a hard time playing “Mission in the Rain,” if he wasn’t feeling emotionally strong enough, it would just rip him open, so I was like, “Man, I gotta do ‘Mission in the Rain,’” which wasn’t on the list.
The songs you just mentioned are all great examples of Garcia and Hunter’s musical partnership, and I can’t wait to hear your interpretation of the material. On the topic of collaboration, who did you have in the studio with you in Iceland?
Jason Crosby plays the keys on everything. And I have two different rhythm sections. I have Pete Lavezzoli on drums and Tom Guarna on guitar for four of the songs. Then the other four, I have Johnny Kimock on drums and Steve Kimock on guitar. And then our secret weapon is Adam Tenenbaum, who used to make all the sounds and the drum loops for Mickey Hart’s “Drums” > “Space.” And he does all this atmospheric guitar, outer space/DMT-trip-sounding stuff. And he is the secret weapon for the album. Well, everybody is. That and Jason’s violin from 1899. It adds these two elements that are just the X factors. You got to have some X factor in your music. Some unpredictability. Some mysticism. And that’s what people will hear on the record.
So maybe your experience with the elves transcended the makeup of the album?
For sure, all that mysticism of Iceland and that group of people, just the whole time, was magical. You can hear it on the record.
You really brought that full circle.
You gotta remember there is no disconnect. Only in Western society can there be a disconnect.
I’m telling you, when you hear the record, you’ll call me and be like, “Dude, I can totally hear it. There is no disconnection.” I mean, that’s what the Grateful Dead is all about. And jazz, gospel, funk, The Allman Brothers, all this blues and stuff is about connecting with the mystical with love and your emotions.