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Rob Wasserman Encamps on Space Island

For those who only know bassist Rob Wasserman for his work with Ratdog, here’s a quick history lesson. The Grammy award winner has been a musical explorer throughout his distinguished career. He released three solo albums, “Solo” (1983), “Duets” (1988) and “Trios” (1994). It was during these musical excursions that he worked with Bob Weir and Jerry Garcia among others. Wasserman also played with Lou Reed on his “New York” album and subsequent tour.
Although he enjoys his time with Ratdog, Wasserman welcomes fresh opportunities and new musical challenges. Several years ago he worked with ex-Jane’s Addiction drummer Stephen Perkins in an ad hoc unit known as Banyan. It was here that he met producer Dave Aaron. The two went on to collaborate on Wasserman’s fourth and current solo release, “Space Island” (Atlantic). The work focuses on dance-oriented grooves—funk, hip hop and worldbeat. He recently toured behind it as part of the Buzztopia 2000 Tour with special guests Jazz Mandolin Project and Dirty Dozen Brass Band and Groove Collective.

JPG: “Space Island” is quite a departure from your past work, but it’s really enjoyable. You just hit ‘play’ and let the grooves take over for the next 40-50 minutes. The listener really gets energized by it.

Rob: It’s an interesting album for me too because my other albums you really have to listen to. This one you can let it just be a lot of different dimensions. It can be real shake your house kind of record or it can be a dance record or if you really listen it can be a very serious record. It has the elements that are there to allow you to just have fun also, rhythm stuff.

I really wanted to get back to writing my own music, and I wanted to do a solo album but I wanted it to be with a band. I wanted something that you could really move to. It is a departure, but I felt it was a way to take my writing, I have never really written for something other than the bass, to take it and make it songs for an ensemble.

JPG: It seems that the record kind of represents the culmination of your whole career—playing solo, as a duo with Bob Weir, with Ratdog and with Lou Reed.

Rob: That’s all music ever is for me, a reflection of everything I’ve ever done. After working with Lou Reed and the Grateful Dead guys, I wanted to take my melodies and put the emphasis on both rhythm and melody, not just rhythm. That’s the concept. The way the record was written, approximately, half the tunes started with the grooves and I would make up the melody from there, and the other half I came in with a melody and Dave [Aaron] would make up the grooves to fit the melody. So, it’s 50 per cent rhythmically-driven and 50 per cent melodically-driven.

JPG: On the opening track, “Wild Side,” that tapping of the bass, the clacking sound reminds me of Jeff Beck on his last album.

Rob: I just wanted people to not even know it was a bass record in truth. But I guess it’s hard to hide when you’re the lead person. I just wanted people to enjoy it as a musical album. A lot of people, I don’t tell them ‘Oh I played all those parts.’ They often think. ‘Who’s the guitar player? Who’s this? Who’s that? That’s one of the fun things for me is to surprise people that way. It’s all me.

JPG: It’s been six years between solo albums, do you think it’ll be that long again?

Rob: I’ve already started another record for Atlantic that’s gonna be based on writings of Woody Guthrie. Nora, his daughter, is helping put it together with me. She’s choosing writings and we’re finding artists who want to perform them. We’ve already done a couple, one with Ani DiFranco and one with Michael Franti (of Spearhead). Lou Reed’s about to do one. It’ll be a little like “Duets” in that it’ll be fairly stripped down. It’s all new music to words from his journals that very people have seen.

JPG: Soon, another album is scheduled to come out with your name on it. Tell us about the new Ratdog album.

Rob: It’s a long album. It’s around 75 minutes long because it has a lot of jamming. It’s a studio album with only tunes but we left in all this jamming. I hate to use the word organic (laughs) but it’s pretty organic. Since it did take us a couple years to do, there was some production but, in a way, there wasn’t much cause it was really just us playing and refining these tunes. The fun thing for me about the record is that I played acoustic bass on the whole thing. We wanted to give Ratdog a different feel. Live, I don’t do that or haven’t been doing it because the audience is loud. It was workable in the studio and I think it adds a color to the band that makes it really different. It’s also a lot of fun for me to go back to that because that’s what I started on.

JPG: Where do you think it’s going at this point?

Rob: We got some really good players. We added Kenny Brooks on sax. He’s really a lot of fun to play with. We got the old rock and roll guy, Mark Karan. We have the Grateful Dead guy. Jazz influences. We have me who draws from a lot of different things. Everyone likes each other, which is an important thing. I think, hopefully, since we just finished this album that we’re going to continue writing because I don’t think anyone really wants to spend the rest of their lives playing nostalgia music, which is what we’ve been doing a lot of. For Bobby it’s fine because it’s all he really knows. And it’s his own music.

JPG: I don’t know about the idea of ‘nostalgia’ for him. It seems like, ‘This is my back catalogue of songs and I feel like doing ‘em.’

Rob: It’s nostalgia for anyone who wasn’t in the Grateful Dead or if you’re a Deadhead. Most of the guys in our band weren’t Deadheads. It’s new music to most of us. That’s why we enjoy it but, once you play a song 500 times or something then you figure…I think the best thing about Ratdog is that it has a chance to grow and has been growing, even though it’s been slow. We have been writing material and got a whole album of new material coming out.

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