The Education of Robin Sylvester
By Blair Jackson
RatDog’s genial bassist has come a long way since his days with the London Boy Singers
Just from seeing him onstage with RatDog the past few years, and with Missing Man Formation earlier, I could tell that Robin Sylvester would be a nice guy. He just exudes a certain warmth. He always looks like he’s happy to be onstage, and indeed that is the case. Robin also happens to be a really outstanding bassist, who helps hold down the bottom with drummer Jay Lane, but isn’t afraid to get creative, either—he can “space” with the best of them! Alan Hess / www.shotlivephoto.com He’s also a fine harmony singer. Indeed, I think it’s fair to say that since he took over from Rob Wasserman five years ago (my, how time flies!), RatDog has been on an upward swing that continues to this day. This band gets better with each tour.
Alan Hess / www.shotlivephoto.com
He’s also a fine harmony singer. Indeed, I think it’s fair to say that since he took over from Rob Wasserman five years ago (my, how time flies!), RatDog has been on an upward swing that continues to this day. This band gets better with each tour.
Before I met Robin for an interview up at his Sebastopol (Sonoma County) home in mid-January, I knew virtually nothing about him, and I’m guessing many of you are in the same boat. So…sit back, relax, and get to know this fine Englishman.
You were part of the post-War British baby boom, I guess.
I was born in London in 1950. There was still rationing and things like that going on, bomb sites that they still hadn’t gotten around to rebuilding. I was lower middle class. Both my parents had jobs and we lived in the suburbs of North London—in Finchley.
I don’t know Finchley. If they didn’t make fun of it on Monty Python I probably haven’t heard of it.
Well, some of those suburban street scenes on Monty Python might have been filmed in Finchley. Like Hitler standing on a corner plotting to take over Europe from Finchley, or something like that. [Laughs]
Were your parents musical?
My father could play anything on the piano by ear in the key of C; he was an expert at that.
Well, it’s a good key to know.
Indeed! And there was music around. He would play show tunes—My Fair Lady and things like that.
Robin, with Rickenbacker bass, holds down the bottom with RatDog drummer Jay Lane, 9/17/06.
Photo: David W. Clark © 2008
What did he do for a living?
Both of my parents were actors when I was born, but he had a lot of different jobs—he worked with the Actor’s Union, the Writer’s Guild, he did some writing. He had some acting jobs at the BBC.
So, I picked up piano, too, by ear. I had a couple of lessons but the teacher said, “I can’t teach him. He doesn’t do anything I say. He just plays what I play.” Which I thought would be a good thing, but he didn’t see it that way. I had a couple of classical guitar lessons and it was much the same thing: I started copying the teachers and they all wanted me to get the rudiments down instead. But I came out of that with some finger technique which I still use. Sometimes people ask me about where my weird right hand technique comes from—classical guitar. I read that Sting spent a year changing over to that style, so maybe I was a bit ahead of the curve.
I was bought a guitar when I was 6 or 7—this was still pre-Beatles, of course, and I played classical guitar. I also sang with a choir, and that was my serious musical background. It was a professional boys’ choir and it was very serious; Sir Benjamin Britten wrote things specially for us and was a patron of the choir.
I had quite a choirboy career. We sang at Covent Garden; some very prestigious places and at some major premieres.
Was it the classic high-voiced boys’ choir, like the Vienna Boys’ Choir?
Yes, the London Boy Singers was the name of the choir, and we were the equivalent of them.
And the repertoire was what—classical? Motets?
All that. It was all a capella. We even made an LP at Abbey Road [EMI Studios] of Christmas music.
Actually my first recording—and only British people would find this funny—was called Sacred Songs By Harry Secombe—who was one of the Goons [comedy troupe], along with Peter Sellers. He played a lot of the sort of straight characters and sang a nice Welsh tenor. So it was hymns by Harry Secombe. That was maybe 1958 or 1959.
So what happened when your voice changed?
I was trained so it would change as late as possible, so I was relieved! [Laughs]
What do you mean?!
I don’t know exactly what the training was, but the diaphragm and larynx exercises they did were supposed to make your voice change slowly rather than suddenly. And I guess it worked. But by the time I was 15, I was involved in exams and not interested in being in Midsummer Night’s Dream at Covent Garden as a fairy. I didn’t even tell my friends about that one. You don’t have to put that in the article.
Oh, I will!
[Laughs] It’s funny when I read about Phil and his background in classical music. What is it with these bass players?
Well, in both your cases you probably learned a lot of theory, so that helps with understanding roots and keys and all that…
Right. I did indeed take a lot of theory. I went through several summer schools, including the Royal College of Music summer school for arranging and orchestration, which I loved. I also went back there for composition but I just hated the rules. By the time I’d read Schoenberg’s rules I was ready to quit.
Were you listening to popular music during this time?
Not really until The Beatles, if you want to know the truth. I’m trying to think…I remember going to a local fair and there was a band there with electric instruments and I remember liking the sound of the electric guitar, but I wasn’t that thrilled with the music.
By the time The Beatles came along, I was already playing in a jazz trio, and suddenly there I was teaching people Beatles tunes, which I found remarkably easy.
Did you like The Beatles?
Loved them, yes! I saw them three times: Once in “Pantomime,” which is an English Christmas show tradition. They were in costume, playing silly characters, making very bad jokes and then playing four or five tunes at the end of the show. And I saw them twice at the Finsbury Park Astoria, which was later the Rainbow [where the Dead played in 1981] in package shows…
Where a bunch of bands would play a few songs each?
Exactly. Everyone was on and off pretty quickly—including The Beatles!
Were they already successful?
Oh, yes. I’m afraid I didn’t see them when they weren’t famous. I did see a lot of bands in the late ’60s before they became popular, but not The Beatles. They were fantastic, though you couldn’t hear them that well, except for the bass and the cymbals.
Did you find that pop music was at variance with the tradition you were already established in, and did you feel conflicted about it?
That’s a good question. Thinking back, I was actually in two different worlds. My school didn’t have much interest in music, but I found one teacher who guided me through the A-level advanced university entrance exam—University College School. I knew most of the theory already. But he’d take me to concerts at the Albert Hall—Bartok and modern things I’d skipped when I was with the choir. I saw Jacqueline Du Pré playing Elgar’s cello concerto. Then I was going home and listening to The Kinks, my local band.
Did you know them?
No, and little did I know that when I was walking around on Hampstead Heath after school, Ray Davies was wandering around after school, too. I learned this when I read his book. But I saw The Kinks a number of times. They were the band I used to stand outside the pub and listen to when I was too young to go in.
Between 13 and 17, I used to go to the Marquee club a lot because they didn’t have a bar and I could see all the bands—The Yardbirds, with Spencer Davis Group opening…Steve Winwood was probably all of 16, and he was already amazing.
Was it obvious who the good bands were, and are they the ones who made it? Or is there the great forgotten band you used to go see…
There was a band that used to open for Spencer Davis called the Mark Leeman Five, and Mark got killed in a car crash. I always thought he was really good. The Action was a good band, but they were mostly covering soul tunes. The Creation were kind of like Led Zep, with a featured guitar player. They were great because they used to do oil paintings onstage! The guitar player was quite well-known for playing with a bow—before Jimmy Page—and he’d get this incredible feedback.
The “name” bands played on Tuesday nights. I remember late in ’68, Yes had a Thursday night residency, right before they signed—and I remember a total of 11 people there one rainy night! Still, it was obvious they would make it. I also saw Fleetwood Mac grow from a 3- to 4- to 5-piece; I followed them all over town.
By ’67, too, there were clubs like Middle Earth and UFO that I’d go to.
Did you like the psychedelic wing—Pink Floyd and such?
Yes, I saw Pink Floyd in their first year with Syd [Barrett] maybe three or four times; I loved that. And then, inevitably, we get to Hendrix.
In the end of ’66, when “Hey Joe” came out, it created such excitement amongst us all, and he was playing a warm-up gig—before he played the Marquee—in Golders Green, North London, which was very local for us, at a place called The Refectory. So we all went down, and we were too young to go in, but we stood outside, and we saw him coming out later. Then he played the Marquee a few weeks later, which I could go to, and uh…WHOA!… I’ve seen musicians mention in their resumés that they were at that gig: “After seeing Hendrix at the Marquee…” [Laughs] It really was that mind-blowing. To this day! It’s hard to explain—just the sight of him running his hand over the knobs of his Marshall amps and making these incredible loud noises by doing who-knows-what…Nobody had ever heard anything like it. At that point, too, he was doing a lot of soul cover tunes, very few originals, if any. So in a sense the best was still to come. But it was still so completely amazing what he did with the guitar.
Was hearing all these rock bands what made you take up the bass?
No, the bass had been there all along. When I was at school I was able to use the double-bass if I played in the orchestra, which I did but I was not good with the bow—I was very scratchy. Also, before I was in the rock thing I played double-bass in a jazz trio that played sort of Oscar Peterson-type jazz. We’d play “Satin Doll”—standards, maybe an original or two. It was called the Dave Lund Trio.
I can’t remember when I played my first electric bass—I might’ve been 16 or 17…
I see you were in a band called Ora in the late ’60s…
Right. That was my high school band. And a guy in Ora had a bass, a Hofner [like Paul McCartney’s violin-shaped bass]. I bought it from him, and it got stolen. I also had a lot of bad imitation Fenders and Vox basses.
Did you start listening intently to what other bassists were doing?
It was so much Paul McCartney.
He’s a tough one to learn off because he was so different than everyone else.
Well, that may be true, but there he was, and everyone was hearing him and he’s a great electric bass player. I hated the guy in The Kinks—I thought I should have had his job! [Laughs] Even when I was 13.
And John Enwistle [of The Who] was very different as well.
Yes, more like a lead bass player. I did see The Who and I always liked them a lot.
Ora did some recording, too.
We recorded some songs in December 1968, which I remember very well because that’s when the famous anti-war demonstration that Bill Clinton was at happened. [Clinton was then a student at Oxford, and not inhaling.] I remember coming out of the studio and wondering what was going on. It was wild.
Does the fact that there’s a reissue CD of Ora mean that your group was a cult favorite?
Not really. It’s one of those things where somebody in Germany or Spain who wants to hear everything from that period got a hold of us and then put it out. Most of these are demos. Ora was never that popular and didn’t perform very much. There was my friend Jamie who had a lot of songs, but not much ever happened with that band. I found [the reissue CD] in Cambridge so I bought it. Nice to have it.
You also worked as an engineer in a place called Tangerine Studios beginning in the late ’60s. How did that come about?
[A person I knew] decided to build his own studio. He was a man of independent means and he owned a bingo hall in the East End of London and he basically had his two workmen build a studio. He didn’t know anything about acoustics or anything, but he had part of the corner of the bingo hall walled off. I was very keen to find out what was going on at the studio and one of the first sessions at the studio, one of the main guys didn’t turn up and I said, “I can do that!” A few sessions later they made me chief engineer. It was 8-track. The first studio I worked at that was 16-track was Trident [also in London].
How did you learn engineering? You weren’t a “boffin” [tech nerd], as they say in England, were you?
Not really, no. But I had a small tape-recorder from about the age of 11, and my stepfather had one of the very first cassette players and I used to do sound-on-sound backwards and forwards. My stepfather also had a Bang & Olufsen [reel-to-reel] that you could do sound-on-sound with, so I figured out a few basic things. I also used to build electronics projects from scratch, so I had a pretty broad understanding of that side, too. You know, a studio in 1969, the challenge was just getting it on tape. It wasn’t, “Did it sound great?” It was, “Did you get it?” And I was good at getting it. [Laughs] The technology was still quite primitive by today’s standards, of course.
Did being an engineer affect your music at all?
Hmm. Yes. If we’re talking about when I got the job at the studio in ’69, well, I didn’t really see daylight again until about 1974, so my music kind of disappeared. But what I was doing was hearing professionals 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I was extremely underpaid, but I still appreciated that I had a job in music. I loved it.
One thing I learned from working with so many groups at that time was how there was a sad lack of good arrangers and good bass players. There were a million great guitar players—Les Harvey, Peter Frampton; lots of great people playing sessions. But not that many bassists.
So I was just a working my butt off as an engineer for five or six years; hardly got any sleep, hardly made any money. I did lots of prog rock, lots of blues, lots of jazz. There weren’t many independent studios in those days, and we were one of the cheapest.
Robin in 1976, when he was part of the band The Movies.
Photo courtesy of Robin Sylvester
Any acts that stand out?
Sure, a few. I worked with The Move, who were a really good band. Byzantium was another one; I produced them—they made two albums for A&M. I also worked quite a bit with Rory Gallagher, who was great.
And you’re playing occasionally, too?
Not very much. I did play bass for a singer named Dana Gillespie, who was sort of connected to David Bowie at the time [Bowie helped out on her Weren’t Born a Man album in 1973 and they shared management].
In 1974 you moved to the States. How did that come about?
Dana Gillespie put a band together to come over here. We were going to open for Bowie, but that’s right when he split his management, so that didn’t happen. Instead we played a few clubs in New York and Philadelphia, and that was all it took for me—I was hooked, basically. I’d never been to the U.S. until that Thanksgiving of ’74. The first tour was fairly short. Then there was a second tour, about four months later, and she brought me back but not the rest of the band. Instead we auditioned musicians in New York, and we also used Earl Slick from Bowie’s band, because they were on a break.
So you went back and grabbed your stuff and then moved to New York?
Right. I went back and got a few things—basically just my bass and some underwear. [Laughs] A while later in New York I joined a band called The Movies, which was an Arista band—we were actually Clive Davis’ second signings after Melissa Manchester.
What kind of band were they?
The wrong band! Wrong place, wrong time! [Laughs] It was 1976 in New York City, and we were this nice three-part harmony group, with a kind of Lovin’ Spoonful vibe. We had some good-humored material. We lived in a loft on West 22nd Street, which was not fashionable then.
That was an interesting time in New York because on one side you’ve got the whole punk/new wave thing exploding with Talking Heads, Blondie, The Ramones, Richard Hell and all those others. Then on the other side there’s the whole disco phenomenon, with Studio 54 and all that. Did you align yourself any particular way?
Not really. Stylistically, we didn’t really fit in. But everyone played at CBGB’s. The Movies played many times with The Ramones. We played with Blondie. We were playing every club we could because we weren’t getting much from the record company.
At some point, though, we left New York because our management decided we had to move to L.A. because were supposedly perfect for television. We did all the major TV shows back then—Midnight Special, The Tonight Show, Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas. But there wasn’t much club work in L.A. We played the Whisky, the Starwood, the Bla-Bla Café, the Golden Bear in Huntington Beach, the Roxy.
I know you saw the Dead at Alexandra Palace in ’74, did you continue to follow that stream at all.
On and off. I’m one of those people who thinks side one of Anthem of the Sun is one of the greatest things ever made. But I’d listen to every Dead album, yes. I liked Ace very much.
Would you have gone to see the Dead when they came through New York?
I probably couldn’t afford to. We didn’t have any money. It seems like the only bands I saw were the ones we played with. In L.A., I had a connection at the Roxy so I would see people there.
Eventually The Movies was forced to do the bankruptcy thing and I was left with an amp, my fretless bass and my double-bass.
You asked about disco, well, I played some disco in Top 40 bands in L.A. That’s how bad it got. I was playing disco covers on a fretless bass; very strange.
I didn’t know you were a fretless bass guy.
Oh, that’s what I mostly played for about 15 years. I played some on the last RatDog tour with Kimock because he was playing a fretless guitar. It was a little gimmicky, but it was fun. But I don’t like playing it at loud volume because it distorts pitch so much.
So what brought you to the Bay Area? Was that your next stop?
Yes, San Francisco. I lived in the city for nearly 20 years—Bernal Heights; a lovely area. Rory Gallagher was the connection. Elliot Mazer was trying to produce an album with him at His Master’s Wheels [which had earlier been Alembic Studios]. I’d been up here a few times. We played the Boarding House [club] with The Movies.
There was a lot going on up here in ’77-’78. Besides all the punk/new wave, Santana was doing well, the Starship, Van Morrison was still here, and then there was the whole Commander Cody country-rock thing.
Those were more or less the people I ran into. But my first real connection here outside of Elliot Mazer was probably Scott Matthews. I did a bunch of work at his studio, The Pen. Actually I was surprised how hard it was to make money in the San Francisco scene…
Well, it was always been more about self-contained bands than actual sessions with outside players.
That’s what I learned. Elliot helped me out a bit. But it was a strange period for me. I was doing a bit of freelance engineering at the Automatt [Studios], and also doing some playing here and there.
What were the ’80s like for you?
Slow. [Laughs] Actually, there were a few interesting things that happened. I played with Marty Balin in a couple of bands.
Around the time of “Hearts”?
Right after “Hearts.” It was fun. Marty is one of the sweetest guys I’ve worked with. He’s one of those guys who I trust instinctively. It wasn’t that lucrative a period because Marty didn’t tour that much and he didn’t really play much around on the West Coast either.
I was working a lot back then, but not making a whole lot of money. I got on the oldies circuit and toured with Mary Wells, The Shirelles, The Coasters, Billy Preston…
And in the ’90s I started playing guitar sometimes, too.
Some of those oldies groups were a little dodgy, weren’t they? Didn’t The Coasters have no original members?
Actually, their bass singer was still there. But The Drifters I played with, although they weren’t the real Drifters, were better than some of the real Drifters that came along later that I played with—but that’s another story. [Laughs] I played with Peter Noone [of Herman’s Hermits fame], and that was actually quite a lot of fun. His attitude was great. He knows exactly where he’s at. He’s not at all pretentious and he’s a really nice guy.
Wasn’t it a little depressing—maybe that’s too strong a word—to be just playing these simple cover tunes all the time? It’s not very challenging musically.
No, that’s true, but there would be great moments, too. When Mary Wells would step up to the same mike that a bunch of other people had already used, it would suddenly be magic! Sam Moore [of Sam & Dave] was the same way. He could be magical. Billy Preston was a great performer, too. I worked with Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry…no comment on Chuck! [Laughs]
You should have a T-shirt that says, “I survived playing in Chuck Berry’s band!”
More than once! [Laughs] I was playing with him once in Reno at a big show there and at one point he went over to the keyboard player and he says, ‘Yeah, play more! Play more!” Then he goes to the mike and says, “I want you to turn the keyboard player off in the P.A.!” OK, Chuck! [Laughs]
Well, it sounds like at least there was a bit of variety to playing that circuit.
Definitely. I played a lot of rock ’n’ roll and R&B and I’d already played the disco covers earlier. I played a little with Freddy Fender. All that rounded me out a bit. But the money never got any better.
Fortunately, by the time the ’90s came along, I had a work-partner who was really good to me: Steve Douglas, the sax player. He used to tag me onto just about everything he was doing for a few years, including sessions with the Beach Boys and Phil Spector. He’d take me to L.A. with him.
What was working with Phil Spector like?
Brief. [Laughs] And kind of bizarre. It might have been one of Phil’s last sessions. He had decided to try to get the Wrecking Crew [his giant band of L.A. session players that created his famous Wall of Sound] back together to make a record. It was what you’d expect—two of every instrument except guitar players—there were eight guitar players! [laughs], including Barney Kessell’s son and Todd Rundgren, but all they were doing was E-strum, E-strum… It was a lot of fun, but he ended up canceling the session after about two hours and 50 minutes, so there wouldn’t be any overtime [if it went over three hours]. We never even got a complete take, and it never came out. But I did get to hear him telling stories for hours afterwards. Phil Spector talking about Ike Turner—how surreal can you get?! [Laughs]
When did you move to Marin?
I left San Francisco in 1998 and moved up here to Sebastopol.
Let’s move up to the Tale of RatDog. Your first gig is March 2003. How does that come about?
At the end of 2002 Mark Karan called me at a non-existent phone number. I guess they’d been looking at new bass players but hadn’t found one.
You knew him just from being around?
Yes, we’d played in bands on the same bill, and I think I even called him for a few oldies gigs in there, too. He remembers doing Little Anthony with me.
Anyway, I heard through the grapevine that Mark had been trying to get hold of me and was wondering why I hadn’t called him back, but he had the wrong number. Eventually he found me and by then they were on the second round of people they’d been trying out, and they weren’t quite decided.
So I went down [and auditioned]—Bob was in Mexico, so it was the other guys—and it felt pretty good immediately.
Had you ever seen them when Rob Wasserman was their bassist?
Yes, I saw RatDog at the Fillmore a couple of times in the late ’90s. I also remember Rob and [David] Grisman as a duo playing the restaurant circuit the same time I was.
Wasserman was such a distinctive player, really into his own thing, for better and worse, so when you come in you’re not so much replacing him as you are bringing in something new…
Exactly, and that’s what they wanted. In fact, I brought my fretless bass and wanted to show them what I could do on that, but that didn’t interest them at all: They wanted a more meat-and-potatoes bass player, which I can do, as well.
I went back to play with them two or three times and Bob still wasn’t there, and in the end he kind of left it up to them. Of course he could’ve vetoed their choice, but he didn’t. So here I am.
Did you know Bob at all?
I must’ve shaken hands with him 20 times over the years, but he didn’t remember. [Laughs]
In fact I met him at the Lyceum in London 1972. I’ve never had this conversation with him, to see if he remembers—I doubt he would. There was a duo of songwriters, these two Scotsmen, that Jerry was interested in recording: Roddy and Jeff; I don’t know what they called themselves. I’d been playing bass on a few gigs with them, so their manager took us all down to the Lyceum and we met Jerry. He was kind of busy that day, but Bobby was interested and he and his girlfriend at that time, Frankie, sat there and listened to us perform three or four songs, but that was the end of it—we never heard anything else.
Before you joined RatDog you played some Dead music with Missing Man Formation. I was a huge fan of that band.
Yes, I was in Missing Man, Mark II.
Still a very good band, even without Kimock and Prairie Prince…
It was. My connection to that group was through the sax player, Bobby Strickland. He was trying very hard to get Vince inspired after the original Missing Man had fallen apart. He’d bring Trey [Sabatelli], the drummer, and me up to play with him, and then very slowly, it turned into a real band. Every guitar player in the world was auditioned—including some quite well known names who couldn’t quite cut it—but John Wedemeyer ended up being perfect, and we had a really a good band there for a while. Eventually, though, it just sort of petered out and it became too hard for him to keep the band together financially. It’s a shame.
Playing Dead tunes with RatDog is obviously a different thing; a little closer to the source, as it were…
Oh yes, absolutely. That’s true.
What’s been your experience of getting into these tunes as a musician?
Well, it’s the great American songbook really. The Hunter and Barlow tunes have so much depth and there are so many ways to play them… and we’ve tried most of them! [Laughs] It’s fascinating, it’s surreal. It’s very exciting because there are so many places you can go with them all. And of course there are all the wonderful other [cover] tunes as well.
Do you feel part of some great continuity?
Oh, I don’t know. Maybe…or maybe some of it’s the childish thrill of “Oh, look, I’m playing ‘Help on the Way’!” [Laughs] I still feel that way—it’s one of my favorite tunes.
Seriously, though. I’m very happy to be part of this, obviously, and I do respect the history behind it. But look, I don’t have any illusions that I’m some big-time bass player like Phil or Jack Casady. I’m more of a music lover who likes to play bass. I’m not trying to be self-deprecating when I say that. I’m not that modest. [Laughs] But I feel very privileged to have so much fun playing bass in such circumstances.
Was it fairly easy fitting in? You were coming into a pretty established group in midstream…
Well, they made it so easy. They’re so friendly and have treated me so well. And they really know how to tour…
Bobby’s been at it so long that there are no rough patches. Every little detail is taken care: food and hotels and supplies, leaving the town after the show going onto the next town. I don’t have to do much besides turn up on stage at the right time. And they’ll give me my bass in tune!
Steve Kimock told me that during his tenure with the group last year he really looked to Jeff [Chimenti, keyboardist] for musical guidance in terms of learning arrangements and how way the band works…
Well, Jeff is the encyclopedia of what the correct chords are and things like that, yes. He’s not the type of guy who will say, “OK, now we’re going to try this and then that…” Bobby is still the guy who’s making most of those decisions. But yeah, he was definitely the guy who worked most with Steve. And he obviously did a great job.
What did you think of Kimock as a guitarist on those tours?
He was wonderful. Understand, I’m not making any comparisons here when I say he’s one of the greatest guitarists I’ve played with—his tone, and being in the present moment, and even technically, which you don’t always notice immediately, until he really gets going.
It must’ve been quite a blow, though, when Mark Karan went down.
Oh, it was! That’s the horrible flip-side of this whole thing: “This is sounding good, but boy, I really miss Mark!” I’m really looking forward to playing with Mark again. He’s looking and sounding great.
It must be nice to have so much latitude in the arrangements. It seems like you can go in just about any direction.
That’s true. In fact, there’s so much freedom that I have to really watch myself. I’ll listen back to shows sometimes and think that I should be more like a [traditional] bass player: I’ve got to lay back a little more or get in the groove a little more.
I was going to ask you about that, because it seems like in this group, sometimes there’s a pocket and sometimes everything is the pocket—it defines itself by whether anyone chooses to go there.
Even in the blues tunes, which you’d think would be pretty straight-forward, we sometimes all go a little crazy. But I enjoy that aspect of it—that it’s always unpredictable. Sometimes I get a little self-critical and think, “Somebody should be holding [the bottom] down there.” Then I’ll listen an old Dead show and think, “Well, I really have nothing to worry about!” [Laughs]
Jay’s not a conventional rock drummer certainly.
No, but he’s very steady and you never have to worry about him pushing the tempo or whatever. It’s a very easy pocket.
What’s been the process of integrating new tunes, like “Money for Gasoline” or “Just Like Mama Said”?
It’s a pretty typical process: A good jam will get remembered by somebody…
Quite possibly, but really any of us, or maybe even Mike McGinn, our sound person. He has a good memory for that sort of thing. “Money for Gasoline” was a little Latin-y jam in the middle of something, and then we extended it, Bobby took it away and came back with some words he and Gerit Graham did.
What’s your experience of playing “Stuff”? Is anything pre-discussed there?
No. Once in a while you’ll get the look from Jay that he really wants to do a drum solo, so we stay out of the way for a bit, but beyond that, nothing is spoken. I love that part of the show because it’s always so open-ended; it can go anywhere. It’s also fun when you get other people involved—like Warren Haynes comes to mind. He was playing with us one night and it came around to “Stuff” and he starts to leave the stage, so I said, “Hey Warren, this is where you get to do whatever you want!” And I swear in two seconds he was back and making the weirdest sounds you’ve ever heard! [Laughs] Some people just get it.
It’s nice to have a malleable band that can assimilate people.
We like people sitting in.
What are some of you other favorite tunes to play?
I can’t think of any I don’t like, really. But I love to play things like “Crazy Fingers” that don’t have obvious bass lines and that you can always find new things in.
What can you say about Bob as a bandleader?
He is most generous of both spirit and material. He likes to look after us. He’s very concerned about our personal well-being. He has some specific things about tempos, quite famously.
What do you mean? I think of him as liking more deliberate tempos…
That’s right. Even if we’re feeling the tune a little faster, we’ll defer to Bobby. He knows what he wants. Having said that, once we start a tune, he’ll let us take it anywhere and be encouraging along the way. He’s very open-minded and fair and considerate…I sound like I’m on his support committee or something. [Laughs] But I have worked in bands where those were not traits of the leader.
Do you wish the band toured more?
I could go for a little more. It would be nice to tour in a few different places. We’ve been going back to more or less the same places back East since I’ve been in the band. I could do three weeks on three weeks off year ’round and be happy. That probably won’t happen.
Were you part of any of RatDog’s European tours?
Yes, I was there for the ’03 tour, which was a lot of fun.
Did you mom and dad come out for your London gig?
Yes, and the sisters and the old school friends. It was great! That band I produced years ago called Byzantium was very Dead-influenced, so it was funny to see some of those guys again.
Would you like to be able to go into the studio for three months and make a proper album with RatDog?
Yeah, I’d be happy to go into the studio for a week with RatDog; I don’t think it would take three months to make an album. It’s just a question of knuckling down and doing it. We have most of the material.
But look, I’m not complaining at all. I know I’m very, very lucky to be in this band and I’m very appreciative. So whatever we get to do I’m happy about.
and, WAH! the poster's not there any more, though there are some other pretty ones!
I feel like I've known Robin without ever meeting him, which is what a great writer can do with words. Oh and Gans, I loved the poster. Wish I Were There... (Bobby you better get your butt over there and jam!)
"Since you've all been such good boys and girls, I would like to take everybody in this entire audience out for milk and cookies. There are buses outside. Everybody follow me."
Just goes to show what can happen when Photoshop turns BAD! ;-)
The 9/17/06 photo above is from a Rock the Earth benefit at the Jerry Garcia Amphitheater in San Francisco. In addition to his performance with Mark Karan's Buds that day, Robin played bass for Rubber Souldiers, a Beatle jamband put together by Chris and Lorin Rowan and myself. We learned in rehearsal how thoroughly and deeply Robin knows that material: when Lorin and I would get into an argument about a chord or a lyric, we'd turn to Robin. We began to refer to it as Beatle Court. Robin was a kind and merciful judge!
As it happens, Rubber Souldiers are performing tomorrow night (March 12), at the Iron Springs Pub in Fairfax, California. Robin is expected to drop in, as is his bandmate Mark Karan. (Bobby has also been invited, but hasn't committed.) Showtime is 8pm, and there's no cover charge.
I am inordinately proud of the silly poster I put together for this show.
on the picture at the top was: Aha ... a John Paul Jones lookalike ...
and then you present him as an Englishman ... ;-)
Another amazing interview with a chap with an incredible history. Robin is a workingman's bass player. And the shows he has been to and all the folks he has worked with, whew. Glad that he is a part of our scene.
If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.
I met Robin at a Starbucks in Boise the morning of their Spring 04 show. He was a nice chap then and seems like a nice chap in this interview. Good job, Blair.