“While on stage have you found that your leadership responsibilities ever impact significantly on your playing?” Kat Nicholas, Jeff Brigen
That was a main topic of conversation last week at the barn. We had a great week of rehearsal, I think eight days with all ten people up there and playing every day. A lot of it was spent talking and listening to music and that was one of things that I had said. Last tour I felt like because the horn section was new that I was cueing them in and out so much that I was forgetting to play. I was having a little bit of a hard time combining those roles. We talked about ways to have that not happen and we just have to play together a lot because in my dream everyone is playing freely as themselves to make one big joyous noise to use the Sun Ra term or the biblical term.
But you have to get there and we’re trying to do it in a framework that doesn’t have rules. If you’re playing Dixieland everybody plays at the same time but you know what you’re supposed to play. If you’re playing jazz there’s basic rules that you’re following. Well we’re kind of making up our own rules. But that being said I do also find in the barn that I can play the band. So even when I’m not playing guitar you can ask people to come in and come out and it starts to be like one giant instrument.
I came home from the barn the other night I had some friends over and I said that band practice felt like when I first had a four-track machine except it was all human beings. [Laughs.] Everybody stands around in a circle. These people are all so good that I can sing stuff and they can play it as fast as I can sing it. All of a sudden I’m hearing the sound. I think everyone should have one, a ten-piece band. [Laughs.]
That goes back to Phish too. It is so second nature with those guys that I’m able to completely disconnect myself from thinking about when a song’s going to end. That’s the goal and I hope this tour I’ll be able to stay one hundred percent there.
“I’ve heard you compare this band to King Sunny Ade but to me, I also hear some early 70s Miles Davis as well. Do you see a continuum between these two groups and your current music?”- Mike Beatty
I see them very much in conversation. There are certain bands that essentially were after the same thing although stylistically different. Certainly Mahavishnu, Miles- all that Jack Johnson era stuff, James Brown in his heyday, Bob Marley, Santana, the Dead, certainly Fela, King Sunny Ade. To some people that might be a stretch but not to my mind, it’s not a stretch because all those bands are about the group search for a higher consciousness.
Lately there are two albums that I’ve been listening to all the time. One of them is a 1978 Santana at the Bottom Line bootleg- oh it’s wicked. And then the Sauter-Finnegan Orchestra which is Eddie Sauter, one of the great swing band arrangers but to me that’s the same basic concept. I think that the highest level of music, the thing that it has in common is communication among musicians. So obviously with orchestral music to be able to get 110 people to meld together in one unit that’s the highest level that art ever gets but I feel the same way about Bob Marley or that Miles stuff but certainly with King Sunny Ade there’s twenty-two people in that band, that’s what’s so amazing about it. You just trance out and the whole thing is these tiny little bits and pieces where everybody is speaking together and the same thing happens when I hear Bitches Brew. What’s interesting about it is the interplay, the conversation. So I see all those things going hand in hand.
“What is the significant link between Tube,’ First Tube’ and Last Tube,’ other than the word tube?”- Melissa Epperson, Joe Hamilton, Steve T., Chris Myerson
Surfing. Except that “Tube” is about watching TV, I think but for me the link between “First Tube” and “Last Tube” is surfing. They were named after the band the 8 Foot Fluorescent Tubes but aside from all of the other obvious meanings I always imagine surfing. I tried surfing before and I was horrible at it but I did it enough to be able to stand up for a second and I definitely think that other than playing music it’s the coolest thing you can do on planet earth. That was my experience.
Sound is waves and here a physical wave of energy that starts two thousand miles off in the middle of the ocean and you get to stand on a board and ride it in to shore. It’s unbelievable and addictive. With “First Tube” I always think if you were a good enough surfer to ride the Banzai pipeline that’s what it would feel like. That would be the first one of the day and “Last Tube” would be as the sun is setting over the horizon- you’re catching your last tube. Either that or you catch such a huge tube like a twenty-five footer, crash and come tumbling down to your death, last tube. Of course it also could just be about smoking bong hits all day. [Laughs.] Although “Last Tube” would be a slower song if that was the case.
“The lyrics to some of the songs on the album differ from those when you first performed them on tour. Can you talk about the process of those transformations?” Grace Winters, Bill Sutton
You’re definitely seeing the process. The last song “Ether Sunday,” I didn’t know what that was about except that it gave me a feeling that was very peaceful and we just played it even though it wasn’t done and I’d sing lyrics about Jennifer playing a trumpet solo. [Laughs.] But I never thought that was it, and then at a certain point I’d wake up in the morning and realize what I was looking for. That’s the way it works for me at least. I have so much stuff going at the same time.
I guess the only thing I try to do these days is not think about any of it, which goes back to my stating it’s like a journal kind of vibe, just get up and write. Probably the danger of that is that I never know when something’s done. [Laughs.] So I’ll just go out and play whatever I was working on that morning and then you end up with these halfway-done songs and maybe there’s something interesting to that but I think about songs on this album that we played last summer that changed when we got into the studio and they didn’t even have the same titles. It comes from this having a vague feeling of what the song’s about and then I go out and start playing it and then it all kind of becomes clear at some point but I try not to force that too much.
Some songs just come right out whether they’re straight up poems from Tom or lyrics that I wrote myself. “Ether Sunday” I wrote and this new tune “Pebbles and Marbles” is a poem Tom sent me in the mail. I just did it on the radio, I just love those lyrics, it’s one of my favorite things Tom has ever written and I wouldn’t dare change a syllable. It was just something he wrote where I got exactly what he was trying to say the first time I read it. Then there’ll be other songs, two examples would be “Mountains In The Mist” and “Strange Design,” both of which were pretty heavily edited on my part from a long poem down to just a few lines but that would be again a situation where I had very strong feelings about what those songs were about and he was expressing it within his poem and so I would edit. With “Ether Sunday” it wasn’t done yet but we were on tour and everybody liked playing that groove so we played it unapologetically but I think it’s done now.
“Does Tom ever come back to you after you’ve finished a song and said, That’s not how I heard it?’- Phil Stitch, Stu H.
Rarely ever from a lyrical standpoint. There were a couple of times where he said that from a melodic standpoint where he heard something. I think maybe on “Flock of Words” he might have said there was a melodic twist. We have a very fluid relationship. I think it’s much more likely where I call him up and say, I can’t sing this line, what do you mean?’ or Can you write another verse?’ But it rarely goes the other way.
He writes so much in the lyrical world and I write so much music that we don’t get particular about any one thing. I think the best of them if there are any bests of them- you know they are what they are- come together differently. There’s no formula, when I think about all the ones that stick with me regardless of what era they came out of, for instance “Guelah Papyrus,” I love those lyrics. I don’t even know if Tom would say that but I think they’re incredible, That was a poem, I loved it and put it to music. The same thing with “Chalkdust Torture,” he sent me a poem, I put it to music. “Wolfman’s Brother” was something that I pieced together I had an idea for the song, I grabbed a bunch of classic Tom lines, a bunch of Tom-isms but they weren’t from one poem and he didn’t have any problem with that at all.