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Published: 2002/02/20
by Dewey Hammond

The Word Is This: A Collective Interview

Sweet music fills the nearly empty Fillmore Auditorium as The Word playfully grooves through sound check and prepares for its first ever show at the legendary San Francisco venue. The brainchild of organist-extraordinaire John Medeski and North Mississippi Allstars’ guitarist Luther Dickinson, the quintet also features Dickinson’s fellow Allstars Luther’s brother Cody on drums/electric washboard and Chris Chew on bass along with Robert Randolph, a pedal steel guitar player raised in the Pentecostal House of God Church.

In the 1930s, the House of God Church gave birth to sacred steel, the blues-influenced gospel-style music from which The Word draws much of its sound. A cheap substitute for the organ, the pedal steel guitar still serves as the foundation for House of God Church services even today. For those not familiar, the pedal steel requires simultaneous dexterity of the hands, feet and knees, and it can be quite an intimidating instrument. Case in point Jerry Garcia joked that he gave up the instrument after realizing that he’d need a lifetime to master it. However, the pedal steel guitar is clearly Randolph’s native tongue and he appears completely at ease behind the clunky monster of an instrument.

In fact, it’s only a few hours before The Word is set to take the stage and the whole band appears at ease, with laughter being the dominating presence in the green room. The Word’s “ass-kicking rock-gospel-blues” (as described on its web site www.whatistheword.com) can without argument capture anyone’s attention and it epitomizes what is beautiful about instrumental music. Regardless, “We want to get singers,” remarks C. Dickinson. He says they might try and record with Aretha Franklin, fife player Othar Turner or “my old man [Jim] Dickinson,” a Memphis musician/producer and father of Luther and Cody. Medeski casually tosses out Ray Charles’ name while Randolph chides L. Dickinson for “holdin’ out on [him],” since Randolph has yet to hear the elder Dickinson’s music. “We’re still a little baby,” jokes Medeski. Whatever the future holds for The Word, one thing is for certain these guys are making original music with a recipe that can’t be replicated. The Word is the real deal.

DH- Religion and God have definitely been a driving force in Robert’s growth, and as I understand it, Chris started in the church as well. How important has religion or spirituality been in the development of the music that the rest of you have been doing throughout your career?

[long pause]

Cody Dickinson
I’ve been listening to Heretic Anthem by Slipknot a lot lately and I do like the music but I don’t find any necessarily spiritual enlightenment from it. So sometimes I don’t really look at music necessarily for spiritual enlightenment, but I’ll tell you what, I did watch my grandfather play piano in church when I was growing up. I grew up in Memphis and there are a lot of fantastic gospel musicians, especially drummers. Man, forget it. There are hundreds, you know what I’m saying? There are just so many smoking musicians in the gospel music scene. Anyway, Chris joined the Allstars band. His coming through the church, his bass playing that style really made it happen and it’s the same thing that makes it the backbone of The Word. So yeah, it’s there. I tried to play in church with Chris one time. I sucked real bad.”

Chris Chew
He did, he played in church. I called him; he was great. He was young but it was cool. It was different but it was still cool.

Cody Dickinson
It was Brown [Missionary] Baptist Church is Southaven, Mississippi.

Chris Chew
Yeah, that’s like the biggest church in the South right now.

John Medeski
I don’t believe in spirituality. I think the whole psyche of spirituality in music is I don’t believe it, or I think that now it’s just a way of talking about it, you know what I mean? I think it’s about whether or not music has a spirit is what you should be looking for. Cody’s listening to Slipknot looking for a certain spirit. Gospel music has a spirit. Different kinds of music have a spirit and there’s music that’s supposed to be spiritual that doesn’t have anything in it, you know? There’s this new age crap that comes out that’s supposed to be spiritual for meditating and stuff and there’s no spirit in that. There’s gospel music that doesn’t have real spirit in it. It either has it or it doesn’t I think. That’s what I’m looking for in music in general, whatever style it is.

Chris Chew
That’s true. It is, it is.

DH- Robert, some members of the House of God Church have been hesitant to accept your playing to a secular audience. Has your success and exposure of the church, getting more people to come to the services and whatnot, has that opened up some minds in terms of your coming outside of that arena to play?

Robert Randolph
Most of the church leaders, they give me a hard time about the whole thing, what I’m doing. They think it’s wrong to play in any bar or any club regardless of where it’s at, what kind of music you playing. They just think it’s wrong. I mean, you get mixed reactions from some people, you know, but we’ve been getting a lot of different people to come out to the church. Our church doesn’t know how to act when white folks come, you know what I mean, so it’s something new for them now. We got some white members and what not and a couple of Spanish people, but it’s not like a whole lot.

DH- Is it a problem now that people are coming just to hear the music and they might not necessarily be there for the service? Is that upsetting people more?

Robert Randolph
Nah, nah, nah, nah, no, no, no because music is a part of worship. Music, especially in our church, music is actually the backbone of the church really. I mean, yeah, if you ask the church folks, of course everybody comes to church to hear the preacher and to hear the message and to hear the Bible being read, but also there’s different parts of the service.

There’s the praise and worship, which is all music and singing clapping of the hands. Then you got another part, which is called the spirit of giving. And the last part which is the preach service the word. You’re getting the word. You’re getting fed Scripture and what not and in detail according the Bible how to live right, how to do this, how to get rid of all your problems and what not, but music is the main thing in our church.

There’s some people in the church that don’t believe that but if you come to our church service, you will hear more music being played at our service than you would hear at a show. We jam for hours at church, for hours, and just keep going you go slow then you go fast then you go slow. But most of the people in the church, you know, come to hear the music anyway. Some people come to hear the music and they leave. I’m talking longtime members. That’s just how our church is. Some people accept it, some don’t accept the fact that people are coming to hear the music. I don’t understand why some think negative about it.

Chris Chew
It’s half and half. You think about it, young kids these days in churches, they’re coming for music. I guarantee you 75 percent of people in church now, and I hate to say it, they come for music, you know, the music. The challenge is getting young kids involved in church, because if there were no music in churches, churches would be empty as far as youth and young kids. Kids don’t wanna come listen to a man talkin’ for hours about the Bible, and there’s nothing there to catch their attention. The truth of the word is supposed to catch your attention, it is, but the music is what grabs those young kids and have em starin’ and lookin’. And once the music ministry has got the kids, then it’s easy for the preacher to preach after the choir and the musicians got the crowd going.”

Robert Randolph
It’s all certain parts of the service. You get the praise and worship, you’ve got the givin’ and you got the preacher service. All that makes up a church service, you know what I mean? That’s what gets everybody involved in the service and that’s what gets people going. It’s the singing and the music. For everybody, I don’t care if you in church or you not in church. If you’re down about something, your girl done dumped you, you gonna go put in a tape or something and start listening to some music, you know what I mean?

Music is a way for everybody to just get out of any state of mind. That’s where some people get the whole spirituality thing mixed up, because music is spiritual in itself that it just, it speaks to you. If you’re depressed about something, you gonna go listen to some music. If we’re all musicians and we’re down about something, Cody’s gonna get on his drums, he’s gonna grab his guitar, he’s gonna grab his bass, he’s gonna get on his organ when he’s depressed about something, I’m gonna get on my steel. We’re musicians. That’s what’s going to get us uplifted. I’m sure when the whole September 11 thing happened, everybody was ready to play. People got tired of looking at the TV screens because it’s depressing. So what’s the first thing everybody’s ready to do is do something, you know, get out of that negative state of mind. Let’s play some music.”

DH- Do you think that music has the power to transcend God or transcend religion in and of itself?

[long pause]

Robert Randolph
I plead the Fifth on that question.

Chris Chew
It’s all in you. The music is great. It’s all in you. You can play music all day. When the day comes and you got to stand with that man, he don’t care if you play steel, the guitar, organ. It’s still about what you do, so as long as the energy’s right [Yeah, yeah, yeah,’ says Randolph], you know what I mean? That’s all that matters. My preacher told me I was in the same predicament as Robert for the first years of my career Oh, that’s not right, blah, blah, gobble, gobble.’ My organ player made it real plain to me one day. He’s a pastor’s son. He was like, Man, if you play A flat in church, it’s A flat in the club.’

It’s no difference. You play C sharp, it’s still C sharp in the club, in the church, on the street. The music doesn’t change. So don’t try and throw it in our face about it’s not in church and it’s not right. That’s what you think. Can’t nobody judge us but that man. That’s the bottom line.”

DH- Robert, how are you handling the sudden onslaught of pressure and exposure just blowin’ up in such a short amount of time?

Robert Randolph
To me, I don’t really look at it like that. I mean, I don’t look at it like blowin’ up’ or something like that. To me, it’s just playing for a different crowd. I played in church [and] if this show sells out today, I’ve played in churches way bigger than this. And I’ve had the same way you asking me some questions I’ve had church people ask me questions, so I just look at it like, I’m just playing, getting it forward to our people.’ I don’t see it as blowin’ up’ or something like that. It’s just, I don’t know. I just see it a whole nother way. I don’t know.

It’s fun though, you know, playing for everybody, getting The Word out there, all these people I’ve never played in front of. I come from an all-urban neighborhood, two white people in my school, my church is all basically African-American, so to play in front of all these [Honkies, god damnit, say it,’ jokes C. Dickinson] hippies, Chinese folks, we went to Switzerland and played a ballroom. I’m sure we’ll probably go to Japan and play for a bunch of Japan[ese] and Chinese”

Chris Chew
Preach Robert, preach!

Robert Randolph
I never got a chance to play for those people, so that’s the only thing that’s different now, just playing for different folks now, but the reaction is the same.

Luther Dickinson
I bet 20 years from now when you’ve changed, when everything’s happening and falling into place, the church comes back and embraces you.

Robert Randolph
They might but, I mean, it don’t bother me man. But then again, our church might not. We’ve had some people come out of our church and do some things, do a lot of big stuff in gospel and whatnot gospel singing choirs. Some church people, they just think their own ways. They have their own reasons of thinking. You can’t change them because that’s what they believe. They believe God says it’s wrong and you should not, not go out and play in them clubs.

Chris Chew
It’s not in the Bible anywhere!

Robert Randolph
Yeah, yeah, that’s what I mean. It’s just their personal beliefs.

DH- How does playing with The Word compare to the other projects you’ve been involved with in your life?

Luther Dickinson
Oh man, this is the culmination of all of our experiences come together, you know? We’ve known John since ’98. We’ve been talking about it for years. It’s just another part. I think it’s really a growth for us to get involved and play with these cats.

John Medeski
Just getting to play with different people is one of the ways you grow. Getting outside your element. Music is a language. C sharp is C sharp. It’s a language man, it’s a language. It means the same thing wherever it is, although different cultures have different styles, ways of using that, and they have their own version of the language. It’s easier for us to go and play with someone from Peru say, or Africa, or anywhere, than it is to learn to speak the language. With music, you can easily find some common ground rhythmically. It’s just such an amazing language that way. And I think the more you play with other people from other worlds musically, the more you grow and I think for all of us, when we play together in this band, I’m learning something every minute of every tune that we’re playing.

We all play in our own bands and we can slip in another thing where we can leave ourselves in a different way, and just play and just really be ourselves in a different way. With this, you have to really be there at all times. You know what’s going on. We can’t just relax and that makes you grow in a certain way, and when you go back to your other shit, it, [laughter] you know, it stinks to do it.

DH-As part of the exposure and learning processes of new musicians, genres, cultures what’s the most surprising thing about that whole growth and development process?

John Medeski
That it doesn’t stop. I guess that’s not surprising. It doesn’t have to stop. I think for some people it does, but it doesn’t have to.

Robert Randolph
There’s always something to learn from somebody, you know what I mean? And I got so much more to learn, because I’ve only been playing in church

Cody Dickinson
Man, one of the big things about playing shows like we do, almost 200 a year and stuff, is that we grow as a band lots and lots and lots like an unnatural amount. And I’ll tell you what makes that happen is the audience man; It’s a huge part of it because they want to see us play. The fact that they want us, they push us; they push me man. I know that I’m ten times the musician that I would have been had they not been so supportive, you know what I’m sayin’? I want to say that, definitely, to all the people who come to our shows and shit, that we wouldn’t be the band that we are if it wasn’t for them and I mean that they contribute almost in a musical way.

DH- Like a symbiotic relationship?

Cody Dickinson
Absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah, they push us to play more. We spend more hours together on stage than we ever would naturally.

John Medeski
When you’re playing for people, even if it’s a small or large situation, there’s a certain focus that you put into it that’s different than you do when you’re hanging out just playing for fun. And that’s important. That’s a whole nother thing that’s really important because things happen in that setting that don’t happen anywhere else too.

DH- Do you plan to record together again?

John Medeski
This band? We honestly haven’t talked about it.

Cody Dickinson
The first CD was basically us learning how to play these songs right there on the spot. That first record, in a way, is our first rehearsal tape. So there’s no telling what it would sound like now.

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