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John Molo: Methods and ModeReko

Fans of jam band music were introduced to the abilities of drummer John Molo when Bruce Hornsby and the Range started opening dates for the Grateful Dead back in 1987. At that point, no one realized how much more he could contribute to a band's sound other than a solid foundation.

Within the past decade, he’s performed within various lineups that enlightened us to what his contemporaries had known for years. Each one exposed more of what Molo offered his fellow bandmembers as well as to those listening. Performing with Hornsby, The Other Ones and, currently, Phil Lesh & Friends has given him the opportunity to display a well-rounded view of his role as a supporter of the song and the jam.

Molo has taken this another step with ModeReko, a side project that features several of his onetime ‘mates in the Hornsby band (John D’Earth on trumpets and Bobby Read on saxophones and woodwinds) as well as Tony Kobza on guitars and bass. Their self-titled debut is out on Blue Thumb/Verve records. Despite their busy schedules, they performed a few live dates last May and hope to do more in the future. I talked to John Molo over the phone prior to the last date of the Phil & Friends run at the Greek Theater in Berkeley. Sorry Phil, if our lengthy conversation made John late.

JPG: Reading up on ModeReko, I see that it came together very slowly. You and Tim Kobza started working on a project together four years ago and it grew from there. But, you were talking with John and Bobby about such a thing years before that.

JM: We were on the Hornsby bus talking about getting together and doing something. That would be ’94, ’95. We used to sit back there and jam. We had developed this musical language together. Then Tim and I got together and started writing in southern California.

What was happening was, I was visiting the east coast, my father was ill, before he passed away. I’d go back there. I was going back and forth. I had this music I was working on with Tim, so I thought while I’m in DC, I ought to go down and hook up with John Dearth and Bobby Reed and put some horns on this stuff. I left my parents’ home in northern Virginia and drove down to Charlottesville, which is about two hours away. We started recording with Bobby and John. Or I did. It just was very easy very productive and magical in some ways. So that was the start of ModeReko, when we got in the studio the first time with the tracks Tim and I had put together. It became obvious to us that we should pursue this.

JPG: With the bandname, I guess you get top billing cause it was based on your original recording.

JM: (laughs) That’s good enough for me. I’ll go with that.

JPG: But seriously, it started off as a John Molo solo album and then once you started working with people it became a band.

JM: I’m still thinking of doing a drum record, drum duets. That would be the John Molo solo record. [ModeReko] did come out of that body of work. I think that happens a lot. People start writing, start doing one thing, and it ends up, Hey! This is working, I’m going to go with this.’

Basically my collaborations with Tim Kobza, there was writing all of a sudden there. The ideas between the two of us really started to work. I really feel that writing is the rarest commodity in the jam band scene. That’s why the Grateful Dead has always been big because they have great songs. So I really wanted to go for some composition. With Tim, I found that. ModeReko, when we put the combination of the names together, Kobza, Read, Molo, D’Earth. ModeReko sounded the best. It rolled off the tongue. So that’s how that came about.

JPG: As far as the album itself, you talked about composition. It is interesting that the album clocks in at a little over 38 minutes. Whether you think of it as a jazz album or a jam band album, most people would assume that it’s going to be pretty long, at least an hour.

JM: We wrote the material first, went in the studio and recorded it. What we didn’t want to do was make a jazz record or a jam record where we’d play a little bit of an instrumental then play a long solo and then come back. I just thought, that had been done so many times.

The original ModeReko cd that Blue Thumb picked up on, we produced that ourselves, mainly for composition. We didn’t think about jamming. If you took those same songs from the ModeReko debut and we played them live, it would be about an hour and half worth of music. So, if you hear a live cd of us from Stanhope, New Jersey or the Bottom Line, each set is about an hour-and-a-half. We do a lot of improvisation, jamming. We segue from tune to tune. So, it’s a lot more music. That’s the reason why the album’s kind of short. You notice that there’s not much soloing.

JPG: No there’s not. It’s just the groove, the blueprint of the song and then the segues between songs.

JM: The optigan interludes or even the scratchy like vocal, bossanova thing? That’s all off this instrument called the optigon, which is like a vinyl synthesizer. You put in these records into this machine and then you play it. Those recordings were made during the 70’s. You press different buttons and different sounds come out. A rather rare instrument. (for more information on it, check out www.optigan.com

JPG: When John and Bobby added their parts, did they listen to your tracks and quickly add something or write stuff out first?

JM: I can tell you, from my point of view, we listened to the tracks, some of the melodies Tim and I had already put there. Bobby and John told me they like it if I’ll sing them a line or a melody and then they’ll take it and embellish it. They’re great at that. That’s one of the things. Bobby Reed’s ears are so good. Some stuff was already on there. Some of the ideas I came up with, some of the ideas Bobby came up with and, occasionally, this is one of the great things about John D’earth, he would just sit down and scribble out 16 bars of some great bebop melody. He and Bobby would play it together.

All of us contributed on the different tunes, the melodies. Some of the material came to Bobby and John almost done. Some was less done and needed more attention. It varied from tune to tune. They absolutely contributed. It was mostly collaborative stuff.

JPG: A lot has been made about the idea that this is a group of sidemen getting together. Was that your intent, We’re sidemen. Now, we’re gonna go to the forefront and have our own band.’

JM: No, Absolutely not. I quit thinking like a sideman after I left Bruce Hornsby. I just started doing my own thing a little bit more. I remember somebody saying to me, Wow, maybe you can get the gig with Bryan Adams.’ At that point I realized I don’t want to play with Bryan Adams. I played with Bruce Hornsby cause he was my friend. The thing I’m doing with Phil, yeah, I’m a sideman, but it’s more of a featured performance thing. It’s a real communal musical scene.

I’d been a sideman for awhile, done a lot of different stuff. There wasn’t any motivation from that point-of-view. It was just time to get some writing done.

JPG: You mentioned about leaving Bruce. I was reading your interview on the website, www. philzone.com. In it, you spoke of how you encouraged Bruce when he left his solo career for awhile to play with the Grateful Dead. When you left Bruce, was it a similar, amicable split?

JM: It was a nice split. We split up when we were doing The Other Ones. I had mentioned it to him a couple times. I had started playing with a lot of different players in L.A., doing a lot of different types of music. He was frustrated after some shows. I said, Bruce, you should get some people you really would like to play with, man.’ In other words saying, I’m ready to go bro.’

I really don’t think it registered. I don’t think he heard it the first couple times until some other people were in the room. I said, Bruce, you should get a drummer you really like to play with.’ It wasn’t until we did The Other Ones and we went out for dinner one night, he goes, Molo, I think you’re right, man. I see your point.’

With The Other Ones Bruce and I were really having a good time. We were having a ball! We were playing well together. We also hung out a lot more. It was a lot of fun.

When [The Other Ones] didn’t work out this time with Bruce, I mean, we were both kind of bummed with it. Quite frankly, I didn’t think they would last through that tour without the chemistry we had before. I know that it’s not cocky, that’s just the truth. It just wasn’t going to work. I knew Bruce well enough and I knew Steve [Kimock] too. I knew they’d have some problems with it and they did. They split; Steve first and then Bruce. Those are the two guys out of that whole thing that I really connected with musically, and Mark Karan too. I love; Mark’s take on improvisational blues with Jermiah Puddleduck.

The thing with Bruce was amicable. We get along really well now. We talk about music a lot on the phone. He asked me to sit in with him at Wolftrap, so that might come about.

JPG: When you mentioned about having a good time with The Other Ones, that was something I noticed a lot at those shows, the communication onstage between you and Bruce. I brought it up to him during an interview several years ago how at the St. Louis show he communicated first to you and then the others onstage a key change when Johnnie Johnson came out for “Lovelight.”

JM: Sure.

JPG: Maybe he motioned to you first cause you were closest in proximity but also due to playing together for so many years. Besides, it seemed after each number he’d get up and come over and talk to you. I noticed the same thing at the Phil Lesh & Friends show in Pittsburgh. There were times when Phil would come over to confer with you about things. I’m curious what it is about John Molo, the musician and the person, that the main guy will come over and discuss matters with you?

JM: Yeah I know. Man, that was happening!’ or Did we miss that?’ Every once in awhile something will happen like that and they’ll come over.

With Bruce I really developed this kind of, it’s interesting, I’ve played with some good piano players before so when I started working with Bruce, I had this feel for working with him. Also, we have some similar personality traits. I can say this, I’m pretty quick with Bruce, not all leaders, but some. And Phil is another one. I have a really good communication thing going on with him. Sure, every once in awhile, Phil and I will look at each other, Oh man, we blew that, but we got through it and it’s cool.’ There was some of that with Bruce too. He would come over with The Other Ones and say, Oh, that was great!’ or Come over. Man, did you hear what was going on there? I thought we were going to lose it for a second.’ We just have some nice intimate moments like that.

Now that you mention it, I can remember some of those things we Bruce. We did sort of look at each other and smile and go, Yeah. Hey, there you go.’

JPG: How long did you work with Bruce?

JM: Twenty years

JPG: Twenty years. Wow, that’s quite a long time.

JM: You ask what is it in my personality? I just care. I want them to sound good. I want the music to sound good. I’m a drummer that thinks about how the music is going to sound. I mean I care about how my drums sound but I want the music to sound good. When I worked with Bruce, it was his music. I think he knew I wanted to make him sound good. There’s just a nice support thing.

JPG: That’s a little different than drummers in general. I mean, drummers are usually thought of as the foundation, the backbone, but usually they’re not the ones who are looked to for advice or encouragement.

JM: Yeah, or direction or anything like that.Well, I got to say, one of the things with Bruce and me, we knew that the vocals and the drums were it. Without that, I mean I’ve been onstage with a lot of crappy guitarists before. If you don’t have drums and a song and a good vocal coming across, let me restate that… If you don’t have, first of all, a good song, a good vocal or whoever to connect that song to the audience, and a good drummer, you might as well stop. So, bands are as good as their drummers. And that’s why they’re on the hot seat. They can make the song good.

You were talking about Aerosmith earlier. Steven Tyler just wails on Joey Kramer doesn’t he? (note from JPG: Before the interview began we were talking about Aerosmith because I had reviewed the band’s concert the night before.)

JPG: Speaking of Kramer, in a recent "Rolling Stone" article he talked about how brings to the mix is his funk background. He was playing in a r&b band that became Tavares. Similar thing with Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham. All he listened to was Motown records and that’s why his drumming is so different from every other hard rock drummer who followed and wanted to emulate him.

JM: Yeah, I think a lot of the drummers out there just don’t realize where John Bonham came from. He’s a swinging guy. He had a tremendous, very soulful feel. That comes from listening to soul music.

You asked earlier about my thing. I’m into church music. Roots music. Gospel music. I’m not into fashion. So, when I see Destiny’s Child or Sugar Ray on at half time at the NBA [finals halftime] show, I’m like, ‘Okay, how bad is this guy going to sing?’ He didn’t sing one lick in tune. That’s the side of the music business, it’s going to go on, I can’t change it but I’m just not really interested in being part of it.

You were talking about songs, what I mentioned earlier, traditionally great written folk songs. You can hear Garcia’s song writing. You can hear the church, Stephen Foster. That’s why people get so taken by those songs, not the lyrics but just the musical part. It’s hymnal. Elton John said, If you can write a hymn, you can write a popular song.’ I don’t know. I’m off on a bit of a tangent. That’s what I’m into, that soulful, rootsy type of music.

JPG: Which is interesting because when you think of gospel music, there’s rhythm, but how you don’t think of a guitarist with a big band, you don’t think of drumming in regards to gospel. One would expect you to mention Gene Krupa or Buddy Rich or somebody with a jazz background.

JM: Oh, I love all that stuff! I love it, but I remember one time, I was having dinner with Hornsby and Pat Metheny happened to be there and he said, Why do all these bands play on two and four?’ I told Pat, ‘It’s folkloric music. It’s around the campfire. It’s in the village. People clap on two and four. Gospel music.’

I love the rave ups at the Black Baptist Church, Church of God in Christ, the drums, especially the organists. I love the rhythm sections of those things. Very intriguing to me. So yeah, I’m really into that.

JPG: That brings up this nice segue, the influences question. As we go through life, different things hit us in different ways. What originally made you take up drumming? What then influenced you at some point 10-15 years later and what influences you now?

JM: Initially two things. When I was about four or five years old, we would go to Andrews Air Force Base with my family. My father would take me out there and I watched the musicians play and I loved the drum set. I loved the way it looked. I noticed it immediately. We had a piano in the house. That was cool, but I loved the way those drums looked.

My family had a lot of music in the house. My sisters watched "I Love Lucy." I loved that little kid, Little Ricky, on the drum kit. So, my family’s playing music all the time. I had an aunt that sent me a little toy drum set with cowboys on the front with hula dancers. Maybe she sent me two kits. One of them had hula dancers. The other had cowboys. Just a little teeny play drum kit, but I would wail on that as a little kid.

We went to church. We sang hymns. My family always had music around the house. I was in a school called St. Francis Xavier. They sang. We had these singing nuns. They were very musical groovy nuns. We’d sing in Latin. We’d sing scales. Music was very important to them. So it was part of the education. Got to high school. Went to public high school in northern Virginia, McLean Virginia. Outstanding music program there. The principal wanted to de-emphasize athletics and emphasize the arts, which was a great a thing at a public high school. Langley High School to this day still has great SAT scores, and it’s a public high school.

We had a great music department there run by a man named George Horan. We just went to his 70th surprise birthday party, which was a ball. As a kid, I had the church thing, couple of drums. Then in high school, I was in this really good music program. They took music seriously.

My high school teacher recommended a number of schools to me, North Texas, University of Miami, and Berklee. I went to the University of Miami and at that school there was Bruce Hornsby, Bobby Watson, the band known as the Dixie Dregs, Pat Metheny. Great players all around. I met Bruce down there. Started a professional relationship with him after college, which was 1979.

JPG: You were originally from, was it Bethesda, Maryland?

JM: Born in Bethesda, then I moved to southeast DC, Anacostia, then my dad thought it was too rough, over in the hood there, southeast DC, so he moved to McLean, Virginia, which is a nice pristine suburb.

JPG: Was that a connection there, two Virginia boys getting together, for you and Bruce?

JM: Yeah it was. We met at college. We were both ex-jocks from Virginia who loved music. We loved jazz, but we also had this thing in the background where we liked the Doobie Brothers and The Allman Brothers and The Dead and Steely Dan and stuff like that.

JPG: That brings up this, ‘cause I forgot to ask it earlier, with ModeReko is everyone from a schooled background?

JM: That’s a hard one. Actually two of the guys, yeah. I guess I am. Boy, that sounds terrible though. Okay, yeah most of us are. I’d say 4/5ths of the band, even the ones who weren’t in music school, they practice all the time. That’s their education. A number of them are from academic background.

JPG: I went to local university, Youngstown State University. They had the Dana School of Music, which housed a really good jazz program. I was always around the musicians because my sister was a voice major and all the arts departments were in the same building. So, I can see your hesitation because the preconceived notion is that if you have a schooled background it’s said, Oh, you can play, but you have no heart and soul.’

JM: Oh exactly, like those two characters on "Saturday Night Live." The teachers who try to get down. My teachers were never like that. My high school teacher played with James Brown. He told us to listen to Earth, Wind and Fire. He was always giving us Quincy Jones records. He was a very hip cat. And the guys at the University of Miami, same way. They were all players.

One note on that. With my high school teacher, I said Why did you become a teacher?’ He said I’m not a teacher of music. I’m a musician who teaches.’ He was. He was a great player. There are different types of players in academics from the background.

JPG: With that in mind, based on the schooled background idea, I’ve attended concerts by the YSU Jazz Ensembles and everybody’s sitting, everybody’s watching, everybody claps after each solo and after each number. So how was it as it a musician going from that background for years and years and playing with Hornsby in front of a rock audience to playing to Grateful Dead crowds. I found that even with ModeReko that you’re essentially playing jazz numbers with a groove to ‘em, but rather than the audience just sitting down, bopping their heads, they’re dancing to it. How strange was that initially and how enjoyable is it now?

JM: It’s funny, I was with Bruce and we watched Bonnie Raitt on TV one time and they showed a shot from the background and they showed her audience. They were all sitting down. They all had glasses on. It looked like they all had grey hair and were fat. It was awful. I mean, nobody can help the way they’re born. And I look that way, if I was sitting down in the audience, I’d fit right in. But the main thing with the audience was it was so passive.

The next TV Bruce did, man, we brought in a lot of young kids. They all stood. We were getting hip to the Dead thing or he was. I love their crowd for the most part. A lot of them are really into the music. They respond. It’s really cool. I’m not a Deadhead. I like some of the songs. I really like what they did improvisationally. I learned the stuff through Bruce and Bobby Hornsby and some other people. I was never part of the lifestyle. I have friends who were in there.

The only part of the Dead scene I thought was a little strange and I still have this habit, people come up to me and start talking to me about the first show they saw and how Garcia changed their lives and they didn’t listen to music for a number of years after Jerry died. To all those people I always say, and Jorma [Kaukonen]said this, The beat goes on. Miles Davis is dead. Jerry’s dead. People die, but the music never does.’

This one guy came up to me and was talking about Jerry Garcia and the first show he saw. He was about in tears and I finally looked at the guy and I said Yeah, I think that’s how I felt the first time I saw Buddy Rich.’ He looked at me like, Buddy Rich? It’s like I just slapped him in the face. He looked at me and went, ‘The drummer?’ I said, ‘The first time I saw him, it changed my life.’

Now most people think I’m kidding, but I’m not. When Buddy Rich died, his music’s still there, his spirit’s there. That music should be played and listened to. People who ask me about playing or being in the scene. I did it. If you look at the jazz scene or bluegrass, they play old songs. They play em in a traditional way. That’s what we’re doing [in Phil and Friends]. We play traditional Americana rock in a jam band way. I love that. I love the people that are just into the music. We have a lot of people out there that are young enough now that didn’t even see the Dead. They’re grooving on it.

So, for the most part I really like the scene. I like the energy. I just like the spirit that the people have. They come out and they’re into it. They’re hopeful that you’re going to be good.

JPG: That incorporates what we were talking about earlier, communication and enjoying yourself onstage. The musical projects that you’re involved in, what do you get from certain situations? From ModeReko, Phil Lesh and Friends, Jemimah Puddleduck. Even your recent contribution to Action Figure Party album.

JM: For ModeReko, it’s the writing. Compositionally coming up with a piece of music that you like as a very different kind of satisfying experience. With Phil Lesh, it’s the pure connection, musical exhilaration, connection with the audience.

We were talking about the Deadheads earlier. That audience is just wonderful for me. I really enjoy the majority of the people out there. Physically, the music is really a challenge to play. We play for a long time. That gig is great.

Jemimah Puddleduck, I loved the bass player Bob Gross, first of all. I like Mark Karan’s improvisational blues-based jamming.

Now the Action Figure Party, the piano player, Greg Kirsten is just a wonderful guy. Occasionally on the west coast I’ll do some jamming with Willie Waldman, the trumpet player or Stephen Perkins (Jane’s Addiction), Tony Franklin the bass player, I think he was in The Firm. We jam a little bit out there. Mike Watt. It’ s that circle of people. So, I did a gig with Willie one night at this club that Mike Watt had found. It’s kind of a bowling alley with a music club attached to it.

So, that circle of guys out on the west coast wanted to put together a gig and I play with Greg Kirsten and we just hit it off a number of times. It was his album, really. He asked me to come in and sit in on a couple of numbers. I played percussion on this one piece and the drummer from a band called Incubus. Nice guy. It was a fun thing to do. Some of the music was cool. Greg Kirsten is a great pianist. I enjoyed doing that with him.

JPG: Has Stephen Perkins tried to talk you into playing with Banyan? I know Rob Wasserman worked with him

JM: No. I haven’t talked to Stephen about that. I’ve talked to Stephen about playing every once in a while. I think he was at the Greek show the other night. I didn’t talk to him there, but I talked to him the day of the show. We’re always ready to get together and do some playing.

JPG: What about with Mark? Is there any more recording or playing with Jemimah Puddleduck in the future?

JM: I’m trying to leave that open. I’d like to do some stuff with the guys. It’s just our schedules are so weird right now with the ModeReko thing going on and Phil’s thing. Mark has Bobby’s thing [in RatDog]. Jemimah, it’s just very hard to schedule it. I’d like to do some stuff with them. Right now, I feel like I’m holding them back by not being available for dates. I’d also love to do some double drumming with him. I’m trying to talk him into that.

JPG: Another guitarist that you connected with was Steve Kimock during the Other Ones initial tour back in 1998.

JM: People might get pissed at me for saying this. I love Steve Kimock’s playing but he’s a strange guy. I can look at him and say this. You can even print this. I don’t give a shit how strange he is. I like his playing.

Hornsby [feels] the same way. We talk about Steve. He’s a phenomenal player. When I say he’s a strange guy, I say that ‘cause he walked off on a tour I was on (the Phil & Friends fall ’99 tour) . I’ve never had that happen! I’ve never been abandoned that way, but he’s a great player. Brucie feels the same way. We talk about Steve every once in a while. Man, has he got it! That’s how I look at it. If a guy’s a great player, can really play, then I want to play with him.

With any musical scene there’s got to be a chemistry and a desire and that’s hard to manufacture.

Along the lines of the fans we had somebody come up to us the other night and she looked at the band and said, You guys weren’t very magical tonight.’ (pauses) And I felt like saying, You know, I busted my ass for three hours, for the music, and it wasn’t magical?’ And every once in awhile you have someone say that to you and I always feel like saying, Wow, the band felt like the audience wasn’t magical.’

I mean, can you imagine saying that?!? to somebody who struggled to get up to the stage, through the heat, through the parking lot scene, get your ticket, get seated, get hydrated, get ready for the showI have such respect for the audience I would NEVER say that to them.

When you mention the crowd, there’s a lot of love that comes up, but it’s funny what you remember, the one person that says that to you. I like the scene but I like most of all is the music and the people who enjoy it. I hope I didn’t sound too offensive there.

JPG: I know you need to leave soon, so just a couple more. You mentioned something about a John Molo double drum project? So, you’d like to do a polyrhythmic, nothing but drums and percussion type of thing?

JM: It would mainly be drum duets with maybe one other person in there.

JPG: That brings up this, I read on your website about you leading a drum circle. Have you done that before? If not, was that a by-product of working so much with the jam band scene?

JM: A little bit. I didn’t really lead it. I try not to lead it. I’ve seen some facilitators lead it, jump up, and instruct the band and they get into this ‘Instruct the Drummers.’ I’m not doing that. I’m just trying to encourage everybody to be active. A lot of people who were at this drum circle, they were just rhythm-phobic. They were afraid of it. (slight laugh) So I was just trying to get em to play along (laughs).

I’ve been around it for awhile and some of them are okay. They’re fun. A lot of the really good musicianslike Hornsby would never do a drum circle. He wouldn’t go out there and suck on the drums. He’s got so much pride musically. You’ve got to let yourself go. That’s not a bust to Bruce. That’s a compliment to him. He’d probably practice a couple weeks before he got out there, knowing Brucie. You know what I mean? It’s hard for a good musician to go out there and not be a good musician on their instrument and join into a drum circle. But it’s a fun thing I encourage.

JPG: It was for something called the La Bologna Wetlands Clean Up. Where is that and how did you get involved?

JM: That’s down by the airport in L.A. It was just one of those things, where somebody was trying to come in and get this really nice land, down near the airport and build this so-called low income housing with our tax money. It was all wetlands. It was just a crummy deal all the way around, regardless of your political affiliation. If you’re down by the airport, close to the beach, along a canal. I don’t care if you’re a Republican or a Democrat, you don’t want to see some chilon (Spanish slang for “dick”) to come along and take money from your pockets to build this eyesore.

It wasn’t so much a political meeting as a clean up environmental activist scene down there, to make people aware, ‘Hey! This is some great property here in LA. What’s going to happen to it. Let’s make sure the right thing happens to it.’ The right thing is not building a lot of stuff. There’s some Little League fields there. It’s a great area to bike on. L.A. can use that. So that’s what it was about.

JPG: That’s unusual to see a plot of land in the Los Angeles area that doesn’t get some structure placed there.

JM: Yeah, and unfortunately down there in southern California, we don’t quite have the organizational activism mentality that they have up here in northern California or some other areas. But we tried. Really cleaned it up. It was a guy named John Singer. He’s the publicist for ModeReko. He organized the event. He did a great job. He had water there, gave the local Little League Guys some money to rent the field. We rented the field from those guys, basically, to clean em up. So it was a really nice thing of John to do. He got a few musicians down there. It was a fun time.

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