Much has been made about how, even more than usual, this year’s Gathering of the Vibes in Bridgeport, Connecticut is a Grateful Dead family event, as it features appearances by Phil Lesh & Friends, the duo of Bob Weir and Bruce Hornsby with special guest Branford Marsalis, the Mickey Hart Band and Bill Kreutzmann’s 7 Walkers. Wish I could be there!
Well, a key member of the Dead’s extended family is appearing with one of the headlining acts at GOTV: Jay Lane, who drummed for RatDog for 17 years and is also part of the occasional trio Scaring the Children with Weir and bassist Rob Wasserman, is the current skinsman for Primus, Les Claypool’s quirky, adventurous and very popular band. This is actually Jay’s second go-’round with Primus—his brief first tenure came in 1988 and included the recording of the group’s famous “Sausage” demo.
What brought Jay into my sights was a succession of appearances I saw this past winter—first as part of the wonderful RatDog reunion at TRI Studios (1/25/12); next with Primus on the song “Lee Van Cleef” on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon (2/9/12); then drumming with the jazz/hip-hop/funk group he’s been part of for many years, Alphabet Soup, also at TRI (2/12/12). The guy gets around. And so does Primus—the eccentric and idiosyncratic rockers evidently have a following all over the world. In the past two years alone they’ve toured Europe twice and Australia once, in addition to dates all over the U.S.
Jay was RatDog’s original drummer in the mid-’90s, and weathered all the group’s personnel changes and musical evolutions. He’s the first to admit he was disappointed that RatDog was put on ice after the formation of Furthur in the summer of 2009 (even though he was part of that group for its first few months, before he left to take the Primus gig), and is open about his hopes that RatDog bark another day. Like many fans, he feels the band was peaking right when they stopped.
But Jay’s a happy-go-lucky guy, and one busy cat, so he’s not exactly brooding over it. Primus works more than RatDog ever did, and he still has his hand in the aforementioned Alphabet Soup, plays periodically with Band of Brotherz and other musician friends, and he remains close to Bob—in 2011, Scaring the Children played a half-dozen shows, and Jay was also part of Bob’s ground-breaking Marin Symphony “First Fusion” group.
What follows are highlights from an interview I did with the always-affable Jay this past spring. It covers his childhood in San Francisco (which he still calls home), his work with such beloved ’80s Bay Area groups as The Uptones and the Freaky Executives, the birth and growth of RatDog, and a few other topics. Good guy. Good drummer. It’s easy to like him.
Who were you listening to as a kid in 1973 and ’74, when you were, say, 9 or 10? I think of those as being formative years.
Believe it or not, I listened to a whole bunch of the Osmonds. They were real popular on TV. There was the Jackson 5 and the Osmonds and all that pop stuff. But I liked Elton John real early—I was huge into that.
A couple of years after that, maybe when I was 11 or 12, my mom took me to a sale at the Community Center and I was totally bored, but I started looking through these albums, and there was one that had all these comic book drawings all over it and I thought it was really cool. I didn’t know what kind of music it was or anything. I wanted it because it had comic art on it. So I took it home and it turned out to be Funkadelic—the Standing on the Verge of Getting It On album. So I was listening to that a lot.
Where were you living?
In the city [SF], which was very ethnically diverse; more than it is today even. I went to Everett Junior High and Mission High School. I listened to a lot of Tower of Power, Earth, Wind & Fire. When I got into junior high school, I had a jazz teacher who turned me on to Weather Report, so at a pretty young age I was immersed in that band. I was a huge Jaco Pastorius fan; I was all about Weather Report.
You were already playing drums at that point?
Yeah, I had my first lesson when I was about 9.
So, if you were into the Jaco-era Weather Report, Peter Erskine was the drummer, right?
Right, he was one of my biggest heroes. I was also into Billy Cobham. That was an exciting time for music—electronic instruments were being introduced to some of those bands for the first time. Even the Grateful Dead.
I had one friend who I used to smoke pot with, and we’d go in his room and listen to his Dead album. He liked the Dead a lot, so I listened to it a bit, but it never really caught on with me at that age. I was walking along Valencia Street one day—probably early high school—and talking with a buddy of mine and a guy walks by with a boom box and it was the coolest music I’d ever heard. I was like, "Whoa! What is that?" I thought it was some kind of fusion band I hadn’t heard. So I asked the guy who it was and he says, “The Grateful Dead!" with this big ol’ smile on his face, and he continued walkin’. He was so happy he was able to tell somebody: "Grateful Dead!" To this day I don’t know what he was playing, but it made a big impression on me. Maybe it was “Blues for Allah” or some stretchy jazz-chordy thing… [Laughs]
Maybe it was one of those early ’70s post “Eyes of the World” jams…
Exactly. There was a jazz sensibility in there I picked up on that was not normal tonality.
Were you in bands in high school?
Yeah, the first band I was in was with my friend Dave Shul, called Ice Age. His dad wrote the lyrics and another friend of ours played bass and a guy named Dan Cassidy was the singer. He had had a solo album on Warner Bros. way back when.
I went to college for one semester—I went to the Berklee College of Music basically until Christmas break and then I came home and said, “I am not going back there.” It wasn’t for me. I learned stuff there, I made friends there, but I saw pretty quick that there were guys who were going to stay there for five years, and I didn’t want to be that guy. You want to get snatched up and get out of there! It was like a little pool where people come through scouting and that kind of weirded me out, too.
So, I came home Christmas break and my friend Dave Ellis says, “Hey we’ve got this band called The Uptones, and the drummer went to college and I’m playing drums, but I want to move to sax.” The sax player was Kenny Brooks; he went off to college. So Dave switched to sax and I came in on the drums. They were like a little high school band and all their friends come to their gigs. They were pretty popular. The guys in that band knew each other from Berkeley High School and the music program.
They were happening, too. I think the first gig we did was at the Kabuki [Theater in Japantown SF; long defunct], opening up for Madness. They opened up for The Specials before I was in the band. We opened up for Billy Idol at the Oakland Coliseum one time.
Well, that’s gotta be good for your time—being a drummer in a ska band. The drummer has to be right on it.
Totally, man. I didn’t know anything about ska music, except The Police. When I first came into the band they were all yelling at me: “Don’t play like Stewart Copeland!” [Laughs] But it was cool. That band was a lot of fun.
From there I met the guys in the Freaky Executives, who were part of the same scene.
I remember hearing that name a lot. What were they like?
It was eight-piece funk-ska band. Ska with a little more urban funk kind of thing. That was a lot of fun for a while, too. We played around a lot. Then I went from that right into Primus.
What was Les Claypool like back then?
The exact same as he is now. He’s your carnival ring leader, and he’s always been that. Always doing stuff, getting things done. When we were all in our twenties, I didn’t care about anything in life, except getting high and messing around; playing music. While I was laying around on the couch he’d be over there silkscreening shirts and booking gigs and writing songs. He’s always been totally driven.
How would you describe that earliest stage of Primus? What were you guys going for?
It’s hard to tell. I was playing funk and Les wanted me in there because of the funk style I was doing with the Freaky Executives. Since he played plucking bass style, it was a good fit. The guitar player, Todd Huth, was really good and wrote a lot of the parts on the hits, but I couldn’t relate to him musically without Les being there. I could play just me and him. I wasn’t that well-rounded in other styles of music. Les is a real easy guy to play with. He’s a very percussive bass player.
He’s really highly regarded.
He is, but it’s not just because he’s a great bass player. He’s also a great storyteller and songwriter—that’s what really does it. There are bass players who will play circles around Les, but they’re just bass players. Who cares? He’s so much more.
I know some people have compared him and his approach to Zappa.
I don’t hear that musically much, but in terms of being the ringleader and quirky and hard-to-categorize, I can see that.
What happened with the Freaky Executives? You put out a record, right?
No, it never came out. We had a big Warner Bros. record deal. [Producer] David Rubinson was touting us as the greatest new band or whatever, and he had us signed before we ever recorded anything. So there was a sort of strange relationship between him and Warner Bros. that led to the project sort of stagnating for about three years— maybe ’85-’88—before it all fell apart.
Primus was rehearsing around the corner and Les said, “Hey, do you want to jam with us?” “Sure!” So I played with Les for about eight months and he wanted me to quit the Freaky Executives, but at that point I was writing songs—I worked my way up to be one of the songwriters—and I wasn’t ready to give up on it. But it never came out. It ended up being a big tax write off for [Warner Bros.], I guess.
It was a fun band to come see. The guys who started the band—Piero and Scotty Roberts—are doing other things now. Scotty became a big hip-hop producer in the ’90s, working with people like Mac Dre, making beats. Piero has had other bands and projects and is still in the Bay Area.
Your entrée in to the Grateful Dead world was through Weir and Rob Wassereman?
Actually it was through Les. Les introduced me to Wasserman. Wasserman had a gig with Levi’s to do a radio ad for 501 jeans or something, so he called Les up and said he wanted to do a double-bass thing and asked if he knew a drummer. So Les recommended me, so that’s where I met Rob, that day. Within the next month or so, Rob had invited me up to Bob’s house to do a session for Bob’s Satchel Page musical.
Ah, yes, the famous and still-to-be-produced Satchel Page project [about the colorful Negro League and Major League pitching sensation of the ’40s and ’50s].
Yeah, that’s right. So we went up to Bob’s house and did some recording and Bob said, “Hey, I like this kid. Let’s invite him to be in our duo.” Then, the first tour we were supposed to do, in the spring of ’94, got cancelled.
What did you think of their material? Quite a difference from the Freaky Executives and Primus, to say the least.
I’ve gotta be honest with you: It was really foreign to me. It took me a while to really get where they were coming from. The worst part about it was that Bob didn’t want to rehearse. That was the old Bob that didn’t want to rehearse at all. It was really hard to get my first taste of that. But I listened to the stuff. I listened to a lot of Bob’s solo stuff and it all had that good studio production. I loved all Steely Dan’s studio sound and his solo records reminded me a little of that so I dug it.
And Rob’s a really interesting player.
Rob’s a monster player. The tone he gets out of that instrument—he’s amazing. Even now, with all the stuff Bob has done in recent years, he still likes to come back and do stuff with Rob. And I think one reason is that when he’s playing with Rob you can really hear what Bob’s doing.
In all those different bands Bob’s been in, it’s so easy to step on Bob musically, to play right over him. He plays a lot of staccato notes, and if you’re playing anything longer than that staccato, you’re already stepping on him if you’re anywhere in his frequency. He always comes back to wanting to do the scaled-down thing, because he’s actually featured.
In the early ’90s you also started working with [jazz guitarist] Charlie Hunter.
That was Dave Ellis who introduced me to Charlie Hunter; they were friends. We rehearsed in Dave’s parents’ living room in Berkeley. We rehearsed a few times, got a few tunes worked up and started booking some gigs. We played regularly at the Elbo Room in San Francisco.
I remember that scene was really big in that era, the sort of jazz and hip-hop fusion groups.
Right. At the same time, Kenny Brooks had a roommate named Gary Jones who knew all these club owners—guys who were hip to have a little jazz group in the corner. So we started getting all these gigs out of nowhere. That New York hip-hop scene had really blown up in the early ’90s and was really exciting, so we had a few rappers come by and it turned into this cool hip-hop jazz. The Broun Felinis were part of that; a lot of good bands were into that.
Charlie Hunter is another guy who’s a very distinctive talent. Sort of jazz hipster. Seems like you’ve always worked with people who are idiosyncratic.
He’s another character; a funny dude. What a lot of people don’t know about Charlie Hunter—and I’ll be the first to let this cat out of the bag—when I first met him I was hanging out at Dave Ellis’s house. I was 16, Dave was 13 or 14, and he said “Let’s go over to my friend Charlie’s house.” So we go over there and he’s sitting in his room on the floor with a bunch of pedals and he says, “Check this out!” And he made the sound that Adrian Belew made on [King Crimson's] “Elephant Talk.” He had that whammy bar thing going on; total Adrian Belew. That’s all he did. Then, in the Uptones era, Charlie had a band called Grease Monkeys, and that was totally Stray Cats—he was a rockabilly dude, even had the cigarettes rolled up in the T-shirts and the pompadour. Then I didn’t see him for a while and then the next time I saw him he was a total jazz snob, not even acknowledging any of that other music he had played. [Laughs] He went to New York, played in cafés and became the jazz guy. When he came back is when we started the Charlie Hunter Trio.
Let’s talk about how your involvement with RatDog came about.
Like I said, through Les Claypool I met Rob Wasserman, and then Rob brought me up to Bob’s house to work on the Satchel Page project and Bob said, “Let’s add this kid to our group,” and it was me, Bob and Rob. The ’94 tour got cancelled but we played a few times—we played at Sweetwater a few times and Matt Kelly came by. At that point, it hadn’t been dubbed RatDog, but the name probably came around that time. It was the four of us and we were on that tour in ’95 when Jerry died. That was already RatDog.
What was that like, being part of that whole thing?
That was a trip, because everything was still new to me. I didn’t know that much about Garcia or the Grateful Dead at that point, but man, I saw the impact it had on people. We were at Hampton Beach in New Hampshire and we played the Casino that night after he died. A whole lot of people came and there were a lot of people outside, and then the next day, Bob and [sound man] Howard Danchik and Rob and a couple of other people flew back and went to Jerry’s funeral, and left me and the guitar roadies out there! [Laughs] They left us in Hampton Beach for a week; then we resumed the tour and that was interesting.
Later, though, I went through a period in RatDog where I became a total born-again Dead Head and it was all about Garcia. I was discovering it and getting super-excited about it.
That band has had an interesting evolution, with all sorts of different lineups—with Vince Welnick, Johnnie Johnson from Chick Berry’s band…
How incredible was that that we got to play with that guy—meet him, let alone play with him? He was an incredible blues player, obviously, and he could play the rock ’n’ roll stuff real good, of course.
It was sort of weird, though, because I think Bob really just wanted to have a little blues band, but after Garcia died, there was this pressure for it to be more, and people like Cameron [Sears, manager] were telling Bob he needed to get a lead guitarist. Vince Welnick—god bless his soul—was another one who was saying “We’ve gotta get a lead guitar player.” There was all this pressure on Bob to not just be this happy little blues band, but to play more Dead tunes and have another guitarist.
How did you feel about that?
I didn’t care one way or the other. I just liked playing.
But with Johnnie Johnson, getting him to learn Dead tunes, I was like, “C’mon, man! Why are you going to have this guy learn Dead tunes?” It seemed a little disrespectful in a way. If you’re gonna sit on the stage with this guy, you should be playing his music—it’s fuckin’ Johnny B. Goode sitting right there.
The most incredible thing about it, though, was how selfless Johnnie was. He’s the most humble guy you’ve ever met in your life. I used to pick him up when he’d fly out to rehearse at Bob’s house and he’d stay at the Marin Suites. It was my job to pick him up and we’d always have lunch and talk about stuff. It was like hanging out with your grandfather or something. He was the kindest guy you could imagine.
What did bringing Jeff Chimenti into the band do?
That was actually after Dave Ellis came in. After Johnnie was in the band, we were looking for somebody who could play keyboards [other than piano] on some of the stuff. I remember on the first Furthur Festival tour, Los Lobos was on that and they had Steve Berlin, who played sax and keyboards, and we thought, “Let’s get a utility guy like that!” I said, “I’ve got the guy—my buddy Dave Ellis. He can do that. He’s a multi-instrumentalist.” So Dave came into RatDog by learning the Heaven Help the Fool album on keyboards. Because that had “This Time Forever,” “Shade of Grey,” all those tunes, and Johnnie couldn’t really learn all that stuff. Dave was going to be our utility guy, but what ended up happening is he went right to the sax and didn’t end up playing much keyboards. Pretty much right after Dave came in, he said, “Hey, I’ve got this buddy, Jeff.” Jeff had subbed for Dred Scott at an Alphabet Soup gig one time and I’d met him in the scene a couple of times. So we brought in Jeff at Dave’s suggestion. He was a great fit right away. He could play anything, of course, and was a really good guy.
And there was some overlap with Johnnie, right?
And before that, there was a time we had Mookie Siegel and Johnnie in there together. There’s a picture of us playing that [Clinton] inauguration with Mookie, Ellis and Johnnie.
Obviously things change a lot when Mark Karan comes in.
Right. We auditioned a few guitar players…
Oh, and there was the very brief Dave McNabb period before Mark. He did one tour with us. We were looking for someone who could really deliver on the lead guitar, and Mark turned out to be that guy. He was also really good right from the start.
In a sense, it represented a re-thinking of the group’s approach.
Well, the big thing it did is it instantly turned us into an electric band. And that was, I hate to say it, the beginning of the end for Rob Wasserman, because he didn’t go electric. So it became, “OK, which way are we going here?” But that happened a few years later, really, and after he left we wanted an electric bassist.
And it wasn’t like he was booted out of the band or anything. It was mutually agreed on. I felt a little bad, though, because he was the one who got me the gig originally. I’ve stayed close with Rob.
I always liked the RatDog album, Evening Moods, a lot. You guys have all these co-writing credits on that, and Bob said it was developed organically with the whole group participating. What was it like being part of that process?
To be honest with you, it was my idea. I said, “We need to write some tunes.” I don’t usually take credit for stuff, but I’m going to step up and take credit for this. [Laughs] What happened is, we did the ’96 Furthur tour, which was hugely successful, but for the ’97 tour, about half as many people came because, number one, RatDog was not necessarily what people wanted to hear, and number two, there was a lot of competition that summer—there were all these other tours. So in ’98 they weren’t willing to let RatDog do that again, so that’s when they said, “We’re going to put our super-group together, we’ll call it The Other Ones, and that’s that.” So all of a sudden I wasn’t on the summer tour, and I was a little bummed. So I thought, “What does RatDog need to do? We need to write new songs, so let’s do it.”
So basically I started writing songs with whoever was in the studio, and the first guy who was there was Mike McGinn. He was a tech and he ran the board, and he never picked up an instrument in Bob’s studio until the day I asked him to play guitar. I got on the keyboards and Mike was on the guitar and we started “Lucky Enough” and a couple of others. Bob was around, but he didn’t really come into it and take charge until a little later, when the whole band got involved. “Two Djinn” is one that started at my house, with Jeff coming up with the sort of jazz chordy part, and I said, “We need some Garcia-sounding shit” like “do-bee-do-be-be-beedle-doooo…” I wasn’t really hitting any notes and Jeff would come up with a cool lick.
Part of that has a “Slipknot!” vibe.
Totally. That’s how that tune started to come out.
I think everyone pretty much agrees that the last couple or few years before the break, you guys were really hitting some great peaks. You were playing more Garcia tunes, and you did crazy things like bringing in “Terrapin Flyer,” which had never been done live before.
That was also my idea. Of course—it’s a great drumming song, and Kenny and Jeff are jazz guys who could learn this in a minute, so they did and then everyone else learned it.
How is that Kenny came back? I know Dave went off to do some solo stuff.
Yeah, and he was having a hard time being on the road so much away from his wife.
Well, Kenny came in and he seemed like it was a good fit right away. Where was he right before that?
He was playing with Charlie Hunter. Charlie had two saxophone players and he was one of them.
How would you compare his playing with Dave’s?
They’ve got a lot of similarities because they’re both from Berkeley and came up with the Coltrane thing a little bit. But they’re also really different. Dave can be a little more lyrical with his sax playing. He’s a multi-instrumentalist. You know, Andy Narell [the noted Bay Area steel drum player and bandleader] recorded Dave when he was 9 or 10 and was trying to get him a deal—he was this little dynamo who played sax and keyboards and could sing real good. He has a real well-rounded sense of music. He plays the sax almost like he would be singing. Whereas Kenny is more like a full-on sax player.
I thought they blended real well at the TRI RatDog Reunion show.
I thought so too. That thing was really fun. But then I heard later that Bob maybe thought it was too much. Now I know what Bob means when he says it’s so easy to step on him [musically]. I didn’t notice it—I didn’t see anybody step on Bob—but it’s something Bob is sensitive to. You get a couple of sax players and two other guitarists in there and everybody was super pumped and excited to be there, and they’re trying to get their licks in… Coming off of Furthur, maybe Bob was looking for it to be more scaled down or something. But I had a blast; I had a really fun time. I didn’t hear one negative comment about it.
RatDog was together for a long time, man. Most bands aren’t together that long. It’s hard not to take it for granted. But at the same time I knew it wasn’t going to last forever.
Does it feel like it’s over? The reunion was so cool.
It doesn’t feel like it’s over over, but this is the first time the band has called it off for a long period. Here’s hoping there are more gigs down the road.
What was it like going back to Primus after your short tenure with Furthur?
Les and I would talk every now and then and I kept up with what he was doing. I’d played on a couple of projects. Coming back was real challenging, and I was, honestly, a little nervous about filling the shows of the guy who was there before—"Herb" Alexander— who’s fantastic and one of the famous rock drummers today because of that gig and what he did on those tunes. I’d never played with a double bass drum before and I didn’t even know if I could do it. Some of those tunes required that. I’m still working at it.
How do the Primus crowds compare to what you’d get in RatDog?
Not too many chicks! If they’re there, they’re in the back [Laughs]. But it’s a lot of fun. It kind of brings me back to the old ska days, with everyone slam dancing and mosh pittin’ and crowd surfin’. He gets a diverse audience age-wise, with people our age and kids who have obviously found out about it more recently. There’s a lot of energy.
And you’re doing Alphabet Soup, too.
Right, we’ve been working on some new tracks, and I wanted to do that [TRI] webcast partly as a good way to sort of kickstart it again. That was cool. I also have played with Band of Brotherz, which was sort of falling apart a little bit.
I’ve always been confused about what the relationship is between those two projects.
One of the vocalists used to be in Alphabet Soup way, way, way back when. I’m trying to keep all these different things alive.
I would think it’d be hard to juggle it all.
It is, but it’s been working out so far. If we can get CDs or recordings done with all these projects maybe we can keep all these things going and keep ’em fresh. Alphabet Soup has a pretty good name out there.
How do you think your drumming has evolved through the years, now that you’ve played almost every style imaginable at one point or another? Is it hard to go back and forth between bands?
I definitely find that I need to be more on top of it, stepping into different situations all the time. That was one of the things about RatDog—it was so comfy, and when it was the only kind of music I was playing, when it was time to go back and do what I did before, I almost didn’t remember who I was before. So it’s real challenging. I might have a phase where I’m listening to jazz a lot, and then I have to turn around and play a Primus gig.
Are you still being influenced by other people?
Of course! Like, a little while ago I went and saw that reggae band called Midnite at the Independent [in S.F.], which was really heavy dub stuff, but the drummer in that band was really good; I don’t know who it was. Real rootsy kind of stuff.
Do you know Bill Kreutzmann at all?
Oh, yeah, I love Kreutzmann. He’s a great guy and an unbelievable drummer.
What do you think when you hear his drumming on earlier Grateful Dead stuff?
It’s interesting that you ask that, because there was time when I had to learn that stuff for RatDog and there were all these grooves and I sort of wasn’t getting it. I thought, “What is it about this guy? I need to study him and check him out.” It’s the same thing when I listen to music: I get absorbed in the whole thing, and then I forget, “Oh, yeah, I was going to check out the drummer!” [Laughs]
Billy Kreutzmann is a hypnotist. Because the minute he starts playing the drums, you forget about whatever you’re doing and you start dancing. Every time. Every time I’ve been determined to really check him out—“OK, I’m gonna watch his foot and I’m gonna see what he does with his left hand…” The minute he starts playing I start partying and dancing, and then it’s five in the morning and I’m like, “Shit I was gonna watch him!” [Laughs] It happens every time. He’s got it. He’s got that thing. I don’t even know what it is, but it’s a feeling he has on the drums that’s totally unique. To me, he’s as important to the Grateful Dead as Garcia or any of them.