A Tribute to Z: An Archival Interview with Ricky Keller and Jeff Sipe
When you search Allmusic.com for the name "Lincoln Metcalf," you get a very brief entry about a musician who is credited with playing the chazoid on the Aquarium Rescue Unit's 1996 release In a Perfect World; background vocals on the Blues Busters' album, This Time; and programming on a romance compilation album titled Obsession: Music for Romance.
While very little can be said about Metcalf's diverse musical career, there's plenty to say about his alter ego, Ricky Keller. Keller, who passed away of a heart attack on Monday June 16, was an Atlanta-based producer, engineer and musician that connected with Colonel Bruce Hampton in the early 1970s following the demise of Hampton's notorious Hampton Grease Band. Keller later went on to open Southern Living At Its Finest, a studio originally founded to record Hampton in all his glory, and where Keller produced and recorded with the likes of Paul Barrere of Little Feat, Peter Buck of REM, Isaac Hayes, Shawn Mullins, Naughty by Nature and the Black Crowes. Keller also has string arrangement and conducting credits on Bruce Springsteen's 2002 release The Rising and The Thorns critically acclaimed debut album.
Upon their meeting in Atlanta in the early 70s, Hampton and Keller would form the foundation of the New Ice Age, later the Late Bronze Age, an improv-committed group of musicians that dogmatically pushed the limits of their music and deliberately pushed the patience of their audiences. This distinct approach to music, rooted in Hampton's live-in-the-now spirit and Zappa-esque work with the Hamptom Grease Band, was a catalyst for a whole new generation of improvisational-based musicians in the Southeast, including Oteil Burbridge, Derek Trucks, Dave Schools, Jimmy Herring, Rev. Jeff Mosier, John Bell, and a young, amazingly talented drummer named Jeff Sipe, better known as Apt. Q258.
To be honest, my interview with Keller would never have even taken place if it weren't for Jimmy Herring's parents. On September 8, 2001, I walked into Ziggy's Tavern in Winston-Salem, NC to interview Herring before a Project Z gig. I hardly even knew who Ricky Keller was at the time. Being a liner note junkie, I had seen his name listed as a producer on a couple of albums, namely Tinsley Ellis' Fanning the Flames and Colonel Bruce Hampton’s Outside Looking Out and One Ruined Life of a Bronze Tourist. But when Herring's parents showed up after making the three-hour drive up from his hometown of Fayetteville, I agreed to scratch him from the interview that day and catch up for a phone interview later in the week.
"Why don't you talk to Ricky and Jeff?" Herring offered. "They're around the bar somewhere. Tell them I sent you over, and that you want to hear some Bruce Hampton stories."
When I stepped through Ziggy's circus-tent flap door, the first thing I heard was this loud, cackle of a laugh. Standing next to the stage, this short, little balding guy with long hair was talking and laughing louder than anyone I'd ever heard in my life. The laugh a distinct, ear-piercing, full-on cackle is what I'll always remember about Ricky Keller. I walked up, introduced myself to Ricky, Jeff and their road manager, Eric, pressed the record button, and looked down when I noticed the wheels weren't turning. Enjoy.
Ricky Keller: You got enough in your tape recorder there! (Looks at Sipe and both laugh at my expense; my torn and tattered Panosonic RN-405 is nearing the end of its illustrious career)
AT: Yeah, I think so. (I check to see if the all-important little red light on the recording is glowing. It is, for now) We’ll see. Why don’t we start out by you guys telling me how you first met?
Jeff Sipe: '84? (Looks at Keller) I think it was '84, when I moved to Atlanta from Boston. Ricky was a…a cornerstone of the musical community there. (Laughter) Shortly after moving down there, I discovered that there was a whole jazz scene in Atlanta, led by such madmen as Ricky Keller, Dan Wall…T. Lavitz was playing down in Atlanta. It was a fun…the underground scene.
AT: Eventually you ran into Bruce Hampton. Talk to me a little bit about playing with him?
JS: First time I met him was at somebody's wedding. I forget who was getting married. Dan Wall was on keyboards, and he needed a drummer. I had never heard about Bruce Hampton before. Bruce had asked Dan to play this wedding gig, so that's where my connection came- I knew Dan. We're setting up in the lodge, and everyone's getting their food, kind of a formal thing. We start the music, and we're playing very smooth secretary-kind of jazz- real proper, real polite. I hadn't heard one note out of Bruce the entire time we'd been playing. Finally Dan looked at him and gave him the high sign, you know- take a solo. He played the most awful stuff I've ever heard in my life. (Laughter) Especially in a professional situation. I couldn't believe it. (Laughter) I look back over at Dan, and he's practically on the floor he's laughing so hard. He was trying to reharmonize Bruce, to make him sound in. (Laughter)
So I get a call a week later to play at the Harvest Moon with you (pointing at Keller), Joe Zambi, Bruce and a few others. That was my introduction to Bruce and Ricky, and all those guys down in Atlanta. Probably '84 or '85.
RK: He was like a magnet down there. All the best musicians sort of like got stuck to him somehow. (Laughter)
JS: I think that's cause he allows everyone to do what they wanted to do. (Keller nods in agreement) To go as far out as they wanted to go- and it was ok. As long as it was in the moment. Bruce was a catalyst for a lot of frustrated musicians. (Laughter)
RK: Yeah, that's pretty accurate. (Laughter)
AT: I went to Van Hoy (Ed. Note: Van Hoy Arts and Music Festival, September 1-2, 2001) last weekend and spoke with Oteil a little bit about him. He told me that no musician has ever been fired by Bruce Hampton, which I found pretty amazing. And the other thing he told me was, "Without him we’re nothing…
JS & RK: with him, we're nothing."
JS: That's one of the old sayings around all of Bruce's bands. (Laughter)
>AT: Oteil also told me a great story from an early gig in Greensboro. Talk to me about what you remember from that night.
RK: This was with Late Bronze Age. We're on our way to New York City…to play for the press. (Laughter)
AT: Late 70s, early 80s?
RK: Early 80s. It was me, B. McPherson, Jerry Fields, who was the original drummer for the Grease Band. (Ed. Note: The Hampton Grease Band released one album, the 1971 cult classic "Music to Eat")
JS: Bill Hatcher?
RK: Yeah, Bill Hatcher was there. When we started playing, there was nobody there. Bruce started grabbing barstools and building this structure at the center of the dance floor. We got everything in the entire building that wasn't nailed down piled up all the way to ceiling. (Laughter) It took about an hour. Jerry was the only one playing, the drummer. (Laughter) He was wailing on the drums. We're all out there constructing. The owner comes over and says, "Get all that shit down. You're fired." So we just packed up all our stuff and left it in the middle of the dance floor.
JS: Were you at the gig that flooded? When Bruce was hanging from the rafters?
RK: That was at the Floodgate. That was when Bruce played this place called the Floodgate- this was back in the hippie days, early 70s. Bruce was a swimmer then…(Laughter)...very athletic.
AT: I can only imagine…
RK: This place was kind of an underground-kind of a joint. All the plumbing was exposed. He would reach up, grab it and swing around while the band was playing. Paul McCandless was playing – you know, the guy with Oregon? One night Bruce grabbed the pipe and yanked it, and water started spewing everywhere. (Laughter) The place started filling up with water, and there's Bruce hanging from a broken pipe. (Laughter)
Bruce would do some really crazy shit. Mike Holbrook (bass player, Hampton Grease Band) told me this story about one time they were playing this huge outdoor festival. I can't remember which one. Bruce ran onstage and knocked him about 20 feet. Just ran into him full blast while the band's still playing. (Laughter) Nearly ran over his own bass player.
AT: Obviously, Bruce is a huge influence on both of you. Talk to me a little bit about some of your other influences.
JS: As far as drums….there's so many. Jack DeJohnette, Billy Cobham, all the Miles Davis drummers. The Eastern music too, like Zakir Hussain and Trilock Gurtu. I'm fascinated by the Eastern thing.
AT: What about you, Ricky?
RK: You can't help but be influenced by Jaco (Pastorious). I saw him at this club I used to play at all the time. I think I was more influenced by composers rather than bass players though. I especially like John Cage, Stravinsky…violin composers. I studied classical music as a French horn player. So playing bass was really just me trying to make a dime on the weekends. And then I discovered jazz, and I was like, "Holy shit, what is this?" (Laughter)
AT: Cool. Jeff, you’re playing with Susan Tedeschi now. She’s a little different than most of the other folks you’ve played with in that she’s a lot more bluesy. Talk to me a little bit about playing with her.
JS: I think she's a world heavyweight, man. Her vocal talent is just incredible, and she's a really strong performer. It's been a lot of fun she's really funny, you know. She speaks, and everything's really light and kind of happy-go-lucky. And then she does her thing onstage and it's like the devil's coming out of her. (Laughter) It's weird, man.
AT: What about Jason Crosby (multi-instrumentalist, Susan Tedeschi Band)? You’ve played with him in Susan’s band, but these guys have never played with him before.
JS: Yeah, I met Jason through Susan, but he's been playing with Oteil and the Peacemakers for a while. Oteil recognized his talent. He played with Solar Circus and has been in the hippie scene for quite a while. Early 90s, I think. He's a classically trained musician, studied all his life on the violin and piano. He plays the trumpet, French horn, and he sings- he's just an incredible musician. I knew he would be really good for this group, but I had no idea how good. When he started playing, it was like, "Oh…... (Laughter)
RK: Yeah, when he started playing, it was like, "This is the guy."
JS: He's broken, like us. (Laughter) He's a true Z man- he had no outlet before to go as far as he wanted to go. But now, we take him all the way out there.
AT: Did you guys rehearse with him before?
RK: Yeah, we had one day of rehearsals. He had the record though, so he knew the tunes on the record.
JS: He had transcribed all the keyboard parts of the record, which isn't very easy.
AT: Jason’s a little different from Oliver Wells, who plays the Hammond B3 organ on the album. Talk to me a little bit about the difference there.
RK: They have a similar genius for music. Oliver is more obviously rooted in gospel and black music, both they both have a classical background. Oliver studied classical music all his life, and was a child prodigy as well.
JS: So they can both hear the harmony really well.
RK: Both of them seem to have the ability….I think we all do to some extent, but they're able to hear the way the music is going, and you're able to steer and turn with everybody as one person. It's not easy to do, given the fact that you don't really know what's going to happen next, but it's an ability to predict what's going to happen musically a few seconds ahead of time. Or what you think's going to happen. Most of time it works really well, but sometimes you have a train wreck. That's all part of music.
JS: There's certainly a degree of ESP going on. People surrender to what they want to make happen, as well as surrendering to what's going on around them. That's when the real magic happens.
AT: I think you’ve hit on something I found really interesting about both the ARU and another band you used to play with: Leftover Salmon. Whenever I saw Leftover during your time with the band, there was a moment in most every show when the band just turned the corner and took off. Either you, Mark Vann or Drew Emmitt would ignite something, and it was like the room exploded.
JS: Slamgrass. (Laughter) That's what we called it. Playing with Leftover was great, because it presented an opportunity to play a lot of bluegrass, but also a lot of be-bop, actually. The tempos are so outrageous. They're really powerful and really loud- it was like playing some really, really fast jazz. It was a good endurance challenge. They played some hyper-speed tempos.
AT: I want to talk to you guys about Jimmy Herring as well. He’s been playing a lot with Phil Lesh and Friends recently. A lot of people who have played with Phil say that the experience of playing with him changes you as a musician. How has Jimmy changed as a musician from Phil’s influence in your opinion?
JS: It's not just Phil. A lot of it started with Jazz is Dead. He recognized the genius in some of the compositions that the Dead had done. That's helped his playing, melodically. In Jazz is Dead, Jimmy literally played Jerry's inflections, note for note, that he sang. That gave him a real lyrical and melodic style to his playing that I think he's developed more and more.
AT: What’s the future of this group? Another album or some more touring?
RK: Susan's going to do a new record with Jason and Jeff…
JS: The Apartment Projects are coming out soon. That's a project were both involved in down in Atlanta every Tuesday night with a revolving lineup. Those live discs will be coming out soon.
RK: It's kind of like a jazz version of this vibe, but with more horns. It's a quintet with the Count Mbutu, along with a couple of local horns players. We'll probably do another Project Z record in January 2002. Jeff's wife is expecting around then, so we want to get the tracks down before that. (Laughter)
JS: I've got a baby boy on the way, due on my birthday, January 31 [Editor's note: A birth date shared by Dean Budnick and Nolan Ryan]
JS: He'll be my second child, so we're pretty excited.
AT: Very cool. I heard a rumor a year or two ago that there was a whole bunch of material cut for a new ARU album, but it never materialized.
JS: Nothing was ever done in the studio. It was all live, one-night gigs. Like Warren Haynes' benefit in Asheville at Christmastime for Habitat for Humanity. And one time before that we did a reunion gig at the Wetlands. Those are the only two times that we've played together since 1995, with all of us.
AT: Thanks for the time guys. I appreciate it. Have a good time tonight.
RK: We will. We promise not to break anything, or stack a bunch of shit in the middle of the floor. (Laughter)