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Archive for Thursday, November 2, 2000

A Conversation with Bob Weir

No grass growing under former Grateful Dead member’s feet

November 2, 2000

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It's well documented that the storied, thirty-year run of The Grateful Dead as a rock band came to an abrupt end with the death of Jerry Garcia in 1995. As a far reaching artistic and business enterprise the history of the Grateful Dead continues to be written. Founding member Bob Weir certainly hasn't let any grass grow under his feet. He's been involved in multiple projects in the years since the Dead played their last show and last respects to Garcia. These include the surviving member's plans to build Terrapin Station, a Bay Area archive and performance space, and the Dead's plans to digitize and make available the over 2000 concerts they've archived on tape in their vault. As a musician Weir is a member of the band The Other Ones, which includes several other former members of the Dead. He also continues on with his own band Ratdog, which has just released it's first album "Evening Moods" which features collaborations with longtime Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow, and other songwriters. We caught up with Weir in Los Angeles on the first day of his current tour.

Q: The new album is the first that's had your name on the front in what, about nineteen years?

Bob Weir, founder of the band Ratdog, which will be appearing
Friday Night at Liberty Hall.

Bob Weir, founder of the band Ratdog, which will be appearing Friday Night at Liberty Hall.

A: (laughs) I dunno, I haven't been counting, but probably

Q: What's it like to do an album now? Is it a different context to do an album of your own now than it was in the past?

A: You know it's very much the same. I had a bunch of tunestime to go in and record 'em.

Q: Is this pretty much a band album or is this a bunch of songs you had already to go when you got into the studio?

A: Well this is very much a band album. We had a band approach to writing the material and a band approach to recording it as well.

Q: Is the environment in terms of working with the technology different these days than it was the last time you were in the studio?

A: Oh, I'll tell youit's completely different now. We used Pro Tools on this record and I imagine we'll continue to do so for a while. It's an unbelievable facility.

Q: Where did you record the album?

A: We started recording it at my home and then moved into Coast recorders in San Francisco for a while and then entered the Grateful Dead's studio in Novato.dragging the Pro Tools with us each step of the way.

Q: Did you write much in the studio with the band?

A: In my studio yeah, that's where we wrote almost all of it.

Q: So the guys that were working on lyrics with you were there with the band? You were all working together on those songs?

A: Pretty much

Q: A lot of people that might hear this record might be familiar with some of these songwriters you're working and not as familiar with the others. When you're working with them is there a standard method that it's "here's a lyric to work with" or is it all coming together at the same time, or are they writing for music you're writing?

A: You know it happens in about any, and every conceivable way. Sometimes somebody will start kicking around a riff or something like that and the guys in the band will pounce on it and make something of it. That might suggest a lyric from some of my notes or from some other lyricists notes and we'll start to work the two together. That's the way that most of them happen. Sometimes it'll start with a lyric. Somebody will hand me a page of lyrics, or I'll work up a page of lyrics with somebody and we'll take it from there, and sometimes we'll write a piece of music and try to adapt lyrics to it, you know if the music is almost completeand sometimes it'll all happen together. And so (laughs) that's I think every possible way right there.

Q: Ultimately it's you up on a stage giving voice to these wordsis there a processor ever a challenge to get the lyrics into the shape where you feel like that's you speakingthat you're living with those words?

A: Well you know it's not me speaking. It's almost always character driven. It's some character I can identify with though. But yeah, it's always a challenge to create that character. I guess that character is probably someone who lives in me or some aspect of me, or somebody I don't wanna be or somebody I'd love to be or something like that.

Q: When I listen to something that comes across as a very personal lyric like "Welcome to the World" it seems like an intimate and personal expression to a child or to whomever you're speaking to in that song.

A: In that particular case what I just said doesn't apply (laughs). That was personal, that's not character driven. But even so, we had to chisel those lyrics out from aI didn't know where that song was going. That was one that started with the music. What we came up with was a balladso we started developing a melody, and seeing where the melody took the lyricsand what's worth saying todayor any day really?

Q: Is that a song that when it came to the lyrics, you and Barlow worked close together on that?

A: Yeah. Yeah, it got to be a tug of war at times but we hammered on that one until we finally we had something we both felt that number one I could sing, that I could feel comfortable with, that I could wear, and still that said what needed to be said. You know, if that needs to be said at all. Nothing ventured nothing gained I guess.

Q: Is the tour starting tonight?

A: Uh, yeah.

Q: So when you go out on the road with the band.I don't know how long it's been since Ratdog's been out on stagebut is it a different situation for you, out with this band than being out with The Other Ones? Is this more of a situation where you're defining something that's separate from all the history and the associations that people would tend to in the door with them?

A: Well, the difference is I'm pretty much the boss with this band, and so the buck stops here. With The Other Ones for instance it's much more a democratic kind of outfitthough I run this band too, I just get two votes basically.

Q: Is democracy ever a yoke, something that's harder to manage than just getting to be the boss?

A: Democracy has never been the most efficient system of governance but it is the most fulfilling.

Q: On this tour are you working off a set list or is this thing pretty much happening on stage as we witness it? How is that working compared to other things that you've done?

A: We'll start the tour working off a set list. We've just recently expanded that, I think we've gotgod, I dunno probably about a hundred songs that we've got worked up in one form or another. I'm hoping at some point during this tour or the next tour that the set list can start to disappear or becomewell the set list as it is now, as it stands now, the nightly set list that arises is more often than not, a pack of lies. It gets more and more like that the better we get in touch with the material. Like for instance, in this particularin the beginning of the tour we're gonna wanna roll over the tunes that we wanna do that night in sound check so that we make sure that we remember them. As we get into the tour and after we've been through the material enough that we feel confidentwe won't need to do that and I'm hoping the set list will sort of recede into the past.

Q: Is that what happened over time working with The Other Ones?

A: No, The Other Ones were working pretty much off a set list, and probably will be for the next time out or two just because we have new personnel in the band. That's the controlling factor thereif you've got new personnel, you'll wanna make sure you're doing stuff that they can remember, that they know.

Q: Is the personnel in The Other Ones something that's likely to stay kinda fluid from trip to trip out?

A: I'm hoping not. I'm hoping it's reached a stability and will remain there.

Q: It's interesting to be talking about the next Other Ones tour because a lot of us that don't know what the plans areit happened once, and then it happened againwe don't know if it's sort of this one off decision to do it each time you do it, or if there are really future plans to maintain The Other Ones as an entity.

A: Well, I think we're gonna play New Years and when we get together at New Years we'll start talking about the next time which will probably be late spring or something like that. It might be mid-spring.

Q: Do you thin The Other Ones as a group is ever gonna see the inside of a studio or is this going to be a live thing primarily?

A: The Other Ones is a ways from the studio. We need to write a bunch of material. We need to get together and form up a bunch of new tunes that are ours before we go into the studio. I suppose we go into the studio and recut a bunch of Grateful Dead covers or something like that but that wouldn't be particularly fulfilling I don't think.

Q: I've had this kind impression that you as a singer have had a kind of evolution that may have had it's beginnings in the time when you and Rob Wasserman were just working as a duowhere there's just you and a guitar with a bass accompaniment and without all of the sound of a band with you. I'm wondering if you feel like the doing a lot of work without a band behind you the last decade or so has had an impact on the way you approach things as a vocalist.

A: It's affected me technically a fair bit. Starting with that whole run with just me and Rob. I learned to back off from the microphone and work the microphone differently. That gave me more range. Then I took that back to the larger ensembles. And yeah, I do sing differently. I think I have a lot more punch in me now. I can work a microphone I think a lot better and it gives me a lot more dynamic range and tonal range.

Q: I've gotten a sense too that the change in the dynamics extended into maybe the emotional dynamics.

A: That comes I think just with practice. You know they say practice makes perfect. The more you do it the better you get at it. Having more dynamic range gives me more emotional range as well.

Q: Shifting gears, I understand that the Satchel Page project is going to be staged.

A: I dunno how soon, but we have a theatre company that we're working with to mount that I'm hoping maybe next spring.

Q: Talk a little bit about that for people that aren't familiar with what we're talking about.

A: Well the Satchel Page piece is the life and times of Satchel Page. It's a pretty glorious story really because he an amazing life and that was framed in some fairly exceptional times. He had his heyday during an American renaissance. The places that he used to hang, where his career happened was the chitlin circuitwhere the Negro leagues played, and also where the blues and jazz traditions were born and raised. And in those times, between the Negro leagues and the blues and jazz bands that were coming through the townsthey created an economy that was sort of impervious to the rest of what was happening. Throughout the depression for instance, on the chitlin circuit, the depression never really hit. And if they had something of a recession, they came out of it way sooner than the rest of the country. You know, they were driving Cadillacs and wearing Italian suits and that kind of stuff at a time when the rest of the county was experiencing the dustbowl. As I say, that economy was generated bythe two poles of the battery were the athletes and the musicians. The musicians would go to the ball park during the day and then athletes would come to the dance halls and clubs and hang out and enjoy the music at night. And people would come from miles around to participate in all of this. Like I say, it generated an economy that was independent and vital through some of the hardest times the rest of the country had ever seen.

Q: The story pretty much tracks his life against this backdrop?

A: Yeah, well that was a part of it, that was a part of his life and times. But also in that time, the music, in the '30s particularly, the music just stepped way to the fore and became golly, the crown jewel in America's cultural heritage.

Q: Is the music in the piece drawn from that period or new music based on the musical styles of that period?

A: About half of it. We tried to write in period for about half of the play, and then stuff what we would consider today to be modern, contemporary pieces.

Q: Who did you work with? I know Taj Mahal...anyone else?

A: Taj Mahal and David Murray. Both of whom are particularly scholarly in there chosen fields, blues and jazz.

Q: Were you guys just working on the music, or the script as well?

A: We all had our hands a little bit in the scripting but Taj and myself and David did primarily the music and then Michael Nash and Carey Winthrop and myself as well did the book.

Q: We're near Kansas City, the home of the Negro League Hall of Fame

A: Once we get this mounted, probably that would be in San Diego, and runningif we're headed for New York, we might stop on the way in Kansas City just to tip our hats and also 'cause it kinda seems rightboth the Negro league's hall of fame and I think the jazz hall of fame is there, isn't it?

Q: This is true, yes. What's the state of affairs with Terrapin Station and the Vault?

A: Terrapin Station is kind of back-burnered right now. I think we'll get back to work on that much more actively as soon as get together our effort to digitize the vault and make it available.

Q: If Terrapin Station becomes an active project again, does it take the form of a shrine, a museum, a performance space? What's the vision for Terrapin Station?

A: I think mostly what we're looking for there isthey'll be a museum aspect to it I expect. They'll be a lot of gee whiz stuff happening. My focus is on a live performance venuea multi-media live performance venue that will allow musicians and other artists to come in and do unique things.

Q: Recording facilities incorporated in that?

A: Yeah, all of it.

Q: We're in an election cycle. Is there anything that you feel is worth paying attention to in what's going on as we approach the last few weeks toward exercising our franchise?

A: Well you know, I gotta sayyou gotta take the earth into consideration. Trees can't vote and rivers can't vote. We have to vote for them. I'll leave that right there. If we don't vote wisely and well, there are interests that will be more than happy to move in and rape and plunder the environmentor continue to rape and plunder the environment. I think it's been pretty well seen that that dog don't hunt. We don't have much more time, or much more latitude with regard to the environment. We have to start taking care of it or life as we know it won't be possible.

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