Gordon Stone Embellishes the Red Room
As Gordon Stone gets set to wrap up a successful year that saw the release of
the Gordon Stone Band’s Red Room, his best effort to date, Stone took the time for a
wide-ranging interview with me, in which he candidly talked about the jam band scene, the wide varieties
of genres encompassed by the GSB’s bluegrass-inflected sound and his group’s
connection with its growing fan base.
Oh yeah, and he also spoke about that other little band from Burlington, Vt.
Stone said the GSB is planning to tour extensively in 2002, so make it a
point to check them out live when they come to a club or theater near you. It may be your last chance
to experience their grooves in a cozy, intimate setting. For more info on the GSB, check out
ML: When did you start playing banjo?
GS: I was about 12 or 13. I just heard Earl Scruggs somewhere and was drawn
to it. I wasplaying piano and the other guys in the neighborhood were playing guitars and
ML: Who where some of your early influences?
GS: Early on, just Earl Scruggs, I guess. Then I got into playing some rock
and roll guitar. I studied jazz guitar at Berklee (School of Music in Boston) and then went back
to banjo like Bill Keith. I also have a lot of other influences. It wasn’t so much banjo players
but Charlie Parker, Thelonius Monk, Bach, Zappa. Kind of like composers and stylists of other
instruments. It was Bela Fleck that explained it once and it totally made sense. If you’re living
in rural North Carolina or Kentucky and you’re playing banjo, you’re hearing bluegrass and you’re
going to play bluegrass. In the Northeast, you’re hearing funk, reggae and punk. It’s just
kind of a natural progression.
ML: How would you explain the Gordon Stone Band’s music.
GS: It’s an eclectic mix of bluegrass, funk, jazz and Latin.
*ML: Most of your fan base is from the jam-band scene and is college-aged, and
for the most part is unfamiliar with traditional bluegrass. Do you think your music can serve
as a springboard to check out some of the older stuff?*
GS: I think if they look back to the influences and listen to the traditional
music it’s great. But we’re not really traditional in what we do. I think it’s great if they
explore the music that they’re hearing.
ML: Why do you think your fan base is so young?
GS: The reason that we have this fan base is because of the Phish connection,
but I think it would appeal to an older audience, but I don’t know if they just don’t go out so
much! They do like it when they hear it though.
*ML: The jam-band audience is known for being open-minded and encouraging
artists to take risks. What’s it like playing for that type of audience?*
GS: It’s great. That’s the audience that sort of chose us. (Our music is)
too jazzy for bluegrass fans, too bluegrassy for jazzers and we’re excluded from radio play lists,
excluded from jazz and bluegrass festivals and radio.
*ML: What did you aim for with Red Room, and do you think you accomplished
GS: I think it’s the best thing we’ve done yet. It’s just one of those
things, we’re writing music along the way and bringing tunes into the band. Choosing what songs fit
nicely together. It’s just what we’re doing currently. The tunes were just written to be played out or
performed, and I think it flows nicely.
*ML: Talk a little about your drummer Russ Lawton’s contributions, both with
his playing and his vocals as well.*
GS: His singing and his original tunes I think fit really nicely into the
repertoire. It seems like a real natural fit. Because there are words, some critics feel it doesn’t fit.
Here’s one bluegrass tune, and it would be just as easy to say what is that doing here? I don’t
necessarily always understand the critic’s mind. But I think (his singing) breaks up the set. It’s sort of
the opposite of what many bluegrass groups do. Bands played as support musicians to bluegrass bands
that are mostly vocal, and once in a while you have the opportunity to play an instrumental.
*ML: After shows, the three of you stick around to chat with fans, sign
autographs and personally sell CDs. Does that add another dimension to your relationship with your fans?*
GS: I just think it’s nice. It’s very common in bluegrass shows. The
performers will sign stuff and talk to people. It’s easier to do that when we don’t have a bigger fan base.
It sort of gives a personal touch, but it’s what we like to do anyway. It’s another way to
reach the fans. I’d say in the past that in my band and other bands I’ve been in in the past, they get
done with the set and go back to the band room, and that’s cool. But I know Russ has always been
into hanging out, and when Rudy [Dauth, bass] started playing with us, he did it too. It’s actually without
any commercial intent, like we have to stay out here and sell this stuff.
*ML: Speaking off Russ, he’s known by many of fans because of his playing with
Trey Anastasio and co-writing some tracks for Phish’s “Farmhouse” album. You’ve been
associated with Phish for quite some time too. In fact, your initial meeting with bassist Mike
Gordon has almost taken on legendary status among fans. Tell me a little about how you first hooked
up with those guys, if you would.*
GS: Mike called for banjo lessons and I think he was still in college and
the band was starting and didn’t have a name yet. They were playing and I went out to hear them and the
rest is history.
ML: What do you think of their music?
GS: I think it’s cool. I like what they do. I wouldn’t say I’m a huge fan
and I know all their tunes, but I think they did a lot to expand the jam band audience and then to turn
on their audience to jazz and bluegrass. They’ll hear something, “Ginseng Sullivan,” and the fans
will go “Who played that?” and they’ll find out.
ML: You’ve recorded with them as well.
GS: I played pedal steel on “Fast Enough For You” on Rift. It was their
first attempt at a single for Elektra. I played banjo and pedal steel on “Poor Heart.”
Mike later took the pedal steel part and transcribed it, write it all
out and had a horn section play it. I heard a live recording of it and liked it a lot. We also
played at their festivals, on the second stage at Clifford Ball as well as the Great Went and Lemonwheel.
ML: Does your group use a set list?
GS: We don’t write one up. I have tried, and then I’ll write it up and put
it there, and by the time you get to the second tune, I don’t want to play that anymore. I like to go
by feel and a lot of times you’re on a tour and play night after night, and it begins to arrange
itself into something that seems to work energetically.
ML: How would you explain your band’s style of improvising?
GS: Things are pretty much arranged in a jazz format more than a bluegrass
format. In a bluegrass format. every instrument eventually plays one solo and you pass it around and
maybe pass it around again. In a jazz format, you play the head and then one soloist starts
and plays as many chords as they feel like and passes it onto the next one. That’s how a lot of
our stuff is arranged. Some tunes have built-in open sections where we kind of let anything happen
and we let it go where we want to go, like on (the song) “Red Room.” We had a really good
moment in the studio. One take, no fixes.
*ML: Most of your live stuff is pretty upbeat. Did you ever think of doing
more of your ballads live?*
GS: I actually feel like I write them well but don’t play them out for the
jam crowd. The first three minutes in, people tend to start talking. “It’s time to go smoke something.
We’ll come back when they get into the jamming part.” They want grooves.