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Published: 2000/09/15
by Barry Smolin

Creatures From the Mutant Lagoon: The Re-Emergence of the Ominous Seapods

BS: Can you provide an example or two of “weird things”?

TOM: One time I had been up all night driving home from a gig. It was about 7:00 AM, and I was driving this RV we used to have that was constantly breaking down. This particular morning it was backfiring and sputtering progressively worse and worse. I didn’t think it was going to make it up this last hill, so I started to pull into this Stewarts parking lot, but about that time Marty (our soundman/road manager/general savior) woke up and started yelling at me that we would never be able to get out of there if I pulled in all the way. So I started to back out, but backing a 34-foot RV with a 6-foot trailer is no easy feat, and cars started getting blocked and honking. Eventually, Marty, who’s much better suited to handle those things, took over and managed to get us home. By the time I got into my bed the caffeine from the night’s drive and the adrenaline from the morning’s events had my head reeling. I was nowhere near sleep, so I picked up my journal, and words just rushed out of me. Those words ended up being all of the verses to the song “It’s Good To Be Alive (For A Change).” Another example is one day when we all lived together in the house we called “The Grunge.” I heard Dana working on a new song in his bedroom, which was adjacent to mine. At the same time I was cleaning up my room and found this piece of scrap paper with some lyrics I had written. The only half-decent line on there was “I’ll reach my final destination on foot.” I couldn’t even remember exactly when I wrote it, but I started singing it over the chords Dana was playing in his room. It fit really well, so I sang it for him, and it ended up being the chorus to the song he was working on: “Final Destination.” A more recent example is ‘Too Much Fire on the Brain,” which Dana had written when he was like 17 or something. We always liked the song, but felt like it was missing something. When Todd joined the band, he had some ideas for a musical bridge that we put together, but then it needed another verse. Dana didn’t seem to be inspired, so I decided to give it a try. I started at the verse and chorus he had for a while, and a second verse using the same phrasing and even some similar sounding words came right to me.

TODD: When Dana started working on “Tornado Rain,” I woke up in the RV laughing. I don’t remember what the hell was so funny, but we ended up using that freakout in the song. It just worked. But that’s pretty surface. A song like “Thought About It” is pretty fucking personal to me because I felt so down about something I always felt so good about: Music. You know, how the hell can one thing in my life make me so fucking ecstatic and put me through complete and utter hell at the same time?

BS: What about the song “Imaginary Money?” That comes from your last West Coast tour doesn’t it?

TED: We were in Hollywood of course when that song surfaced, so you can see where the imagery came from.

BS: “Traffic on the five . . .” Yes. The good old Golden State Freeway. “The” Five. Here in California we attach the definite article “the” to our highways. We elevate them, we have a romantic relationship with them, we worship them.

TED: That tour was very stressful because the RV was on its last legs. About every fifteen minutes or so it let out this incredible bang that I think we all have Post-Traumatic-Stress- Disorder from hearing for six weeks.

BS: Let’s shift gears for a moment to the jamming side of things: What is your mind doing in the middle of a long “out-there” jam?

DANA: Sometimes I think about mowing the lawn, old girlfriends, people in the crowd, what’s on TV back at the hotel. Mostly I’m not thinking much at all. Mostly I’m feeling my way along like a ferret in a gun barrel.

TOM: If it’s a really good jam, your mind is on nothing at all except listening to what everybody is doing and feeding off them.

TODD: I think the best way to approach a jam is not to think at all and just listen. And let me tell you, it’s tough. If it works, then we know it works, and the crowd knows it, too. They know we took a risk musically, and they appreciate it. I like when people get pumped when the jam sets in because it’s like we know they’re on board with us. They’re ready for the journey.

TED: As a drummer, first I’m making sure I’m locked in with Tom and that the groove is tight, and then I settle into it. The conductor of the jam could be anybody. Little dynamic shifts by Dana or Todd or me can make the jam step up a little or a lot. I’m generally thinking, “Is this rocking as hard as it can? Are we ripping the audience’s faces right off?”

BS: And how do you know when it’s time to bring the wild beast back home to the original structure of the song?

TOM: When you start thinking about what there might be to eat after the gig or wondering who won the Knicks game, that’s when you know it might be time to wind things up.

TED: Most of the time it’s whoever is soloing or I who gives the musical cues to end a jam. And generally speaking you just know when the right time is. It reaches a fever pitch and you think, “We’ve reached the peak of this jam, and it’s time to rope it in before it loses steam.” I’d also be lying if I didn’t say that sometimes I’m thinking about anything BUT the jam: I’m thinking about watching TV in the hotel room later or that I can’t really hear anybody onstage, etc… We call those off nights!

BS: How do the Ominous Seapods create arrangements? Once a song is written, how does it evolve into the epic jam one hears on the stage?

DANA: Songs evolve in a very Darwinian way. We beat the shit out of them until they stand up and breathe on their own or until we just have to leave them dead on the side of the road.

TED: The rehearsal process is very cool. Someone will come up with a song, and we generally set to work arranging it together and trying out ideas. Sometimes the song is written with a jam in it, and then we decide to edit it out because it seems superfluous, and occasionally we will struggle with a sixteen bar solo that just isn’t working and someone will say, “Hey, why don’t we just open this sucker up!” And presto… One thing we try to do is not practice a jam in a song. We find that kind of kills it. If we rehearse a song and this great jam happens, we tend to say, “Okay let’s move on, and save that for when we’re on stage.”

TOM: Actually, most of the evolution happens right on stage. We’ll sit in the practice room or at a sound check and hash out ideas, but when we play it on stage is when it’s clear whether it works or not. The jams usually just stem from someone trying something one night and it works really well so it keeps happening and eventually kind of becomes a built in part. An example of that would be the jam on the Kingfish song “Jump For Joy.” It started out years ago as a very straightforward guitar solo but different parts just kept forming out of it, and now it’s like a four or five layer jam.

TODD: The other day I told someone that we were like a pit crew at a race. The car is the song, and each one of us has got that crazy gun that whirrrs, and zippppps, and stuff. We put it together till the song runs right. There’s a certain magic a song has once it works. It really does have a life of its own.

BS: Discuss the changes you’ve witnessed in the Gobi scene in the years since Jerry Garcia died and the Grateful Dead disbanded, both musically (the bands) and culturally (the fans). How is it now compared to older days?

TED: We have seen a tremendous turnover in the Gobi scene over the years. It seems to chew bands up and spit them out! When the Grateful Dead stopped touring, it left a vacuum that was quickly filled by Phish, and young musicians began to be influenced by Phish in the same way that we were by the Dead. The Dead had beautiful, poetic songs that painted great pictures and told great stories. Phish’s songs for the most part are a bit more sophomoric, and so, as a matter of course, we have a glut of Gobi bands with long jams and not much else. There are exceptions of course—moe. being one of them—but there are so many bands that have all chops and no soul. It’s tough for me to be moved by them.

TOM: I don’t think the specific event of Jerry’s Death directly changed anything. It did, however, accelerate certain things already in progress. Phish of course got bigger, but they were already getting bigger and would have continued either way, maybe just not quite as quickly. More of the “Third-Generation jambands” started popping up, but they were popping up before as well. To me, the Dead, musically, had said all they had to say several years before Jerry’s death. I used to go to a lot of Dead shows, but I stopped going in the early nineties because it seemed like they were just rehashing at that point. So already there were a lot of younger bands taking on the psychedelic torch of what the Dead had started. When Jerry died it was kind of an historical landmark that made things official, closing a monumental chapter in music, but, like I said, I feel the genesis of this whole scene was already underway.

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