Rev. Jeff Mosier: Ever Ear Reverant’
After spending nearly 23 years playing bluegrass with his brother Johnny in the band Good Medicine, Jeff Mosier’s music took a turn outwards' when he began playing in Col. Bruce Hampton's Aquarium Rescue Unit in the late 80's/early 90's. It was in ARU that he earned a nickname and a sense of the different settings for his banjo playing.
In 1998 Mosier founded the progressive bluegrass band Blueground Undergrass and spent four years fronting the band. Since Blueground Undergrass' final show in February 2002, Mosier sat in with Leftover Salmon for a stint after the death of Mark Vann as well as the occasional performance with Snake Oil Medicine Show.
But now Rev. Jeff Mosier is fronting a new projectRev. Jeff Mosier and the Ear Reverants (and no, he's not a reverend, "I've had that nickname since '88. Col. Bruce Hampton gave me the name and I've kept it out of respect for him-you know the tradition."). I recently had the chance to discuss his evolution as a musician, the Ear Reverants, and the finer points of sandwich making.
[Editor's not: this interview took place prior to the passing of Ricky Keller or else Ricky's life and work would have been introduced as well…]
MP- How long did you play with ARU?
I was in the first version of it for a year and half. Matt Mundy took my place, the mandolin player; he came on board before they got signed to Capricorn. I was not in the signed band so I never really recorded with them, but I was in it (ARU) when it started-and kind of bought the wacky bluegrass twang element to it.
MP- Well as far as what you did with Blueground Undergrass and what you’re doing now with the Ear Reverants, how far have you explored the ‘wacky bluegrass twang element’?
With Col. Bruce, that was me totally confused. After having been in bluegrass for years, I was playing with jazz fusion cats and I'd never played banjo plugged-in, so that was kind of the factory (ARU) in which a lot of my ideas got developed. And Blueground was me fusing both Aquarium Rescue Unit and kind of Bill Monroe ideas. Blueground was my way of fusing what I'd down with this bluegrass band my brother and I had called Good Medicine together with what I'd learned from the Aquarium Rescue Unit. I really wanted to rock again; I hadn't done it since the early '90's. In '98, I'd done a lot of theater, and sat in with Leftover (Salmon), and went out with Phish in '94 and taught them bluegrass and they encouraged me as did Widespread (Panic) also encouraged me and just said 'you know, do it.' I had this idea for a band in my head that had really all country and bluegrass instruments but with like Velvet Underground sensibilities.
What I'm doing now is more of my solo career with great musicians and it's basically song-driven but it's also highly improvisational. Blueground Undergrass had improvisational moments, but we weren't improvisers in our approach. We really didn't approach the music like that. We arranged everything-and if it went out it went out. But what I'm doing now are arrangements only in the sense that the song has a form, but anything can happen. I'm playing with all guys that are really most comfortable going out. The banjo is put in different contexts; I'm playing it as a percussive instrument a lot more. I'm doing some bluegrass, of course, but really playing it like a piano is played in Latin. A lot of my influences, like Bruce Hornsby and Elton John are in my head as I just love songs. I think the banjo has kind of been used as a 'twang gun' a lot times. It's put up a lot, a lot of complication. I'm doing on banjo more of what players did during the Minstrel era-back during black face where they just had banjo and bones-and it was really all polyrhythms. Fiddle and bones and banjo and horns, it was the longest running popular form of American music. For around a hundred years it was the Madonna of its day.
The banjo was really huge at that time. Even though I don't agree with the black face and the racist overtones and how they made fun of African influence, a lot of great music developed during that period. That's pretty much what I'm doing with it. The band Morphine kind of did it-they did a rock project with a one-string bass and a horn and a drummer. So it's more of a polyrhythmic approach as opposed to the wall of twang which Blueground was.
MP- I’ve been listening to the demo your publicist sent- what’s on there sounds good, will it be an official release?
We didn't think so, but when we sat down to mix it we were really kind of surprised at how natural it sounded. We went and threw down two days live in the studio and kept what sounded good. We might just turn it into an EP and sell it for real cheap. No record deal or anything, just burn them as we sell them. But right now we're giving them away and just kind of letting people know what's going on. We're not really trying to make money on it as much as get the word out on what I'm doing now.
Can you tell me about the bandmates you have now?
Bryan Lopes is the sax player. He's been around for a long time in the jazz and pop world. He's played with Stone Temple Pilots and Frank Sinatra and Bob Hope and Aretha Franklin and even Glen Campbell. He's also known in the hippie world for playing with Jeff Sipe in the Apartment Projects. I can't believe he likes playing with a banjo player! I am always thinking he's gonna call me one day and say 'man, I just can't?' (laughs) But he really likes me and likes banjo. He's friends with Jeff Coffin (off Bela Fleck and the Flecktones) even though Bela does something completely more complicated than I do. He's more of a jazz player and I'm more of a kind of Neil Young. The banjo's my prop to accompany myself. I have interesting moments but I'm not, nor would I ever compare myself to Bela, but he has the sax and he's a friend and an influence. But Bryan is really doing great and this music gives him something that jazz doesn't. He gets to play some interesting lines. He's kind of just improvisationally vomited for so long and done so much 'out' stuff that I think he likes the change of pace with some of the 'in' things that we do. But he's an amazing player.
Count M'Butu goes out with us whenever he can. And we've been friends since the ARU days and he's been with Widespread and Phish and is just an amazing player and a great cat.
On bass is Dave Tunkel from Lynchburg, Virginia. He's from the band The Soundmen and he's a really good all-around bass player. He comes from fusion and metal and played a lot of hard rock, but I'm teaching him the ways of two-beat bluegrass and swing and blues. He's doing great and he's good on both acoustic and electric bass.
The drummer is a really interesting guy I met through Jeff Sipe and Count a really long time ago-his name is Matt Cowley. He's beyond the normal drummer. He reads and he composes and he's an amazing percussionist-he's one of the Count's students from years ago. He was in a drum corps that the Count had. He's real versed in Afro-Cuban and Indian music and just really knows world beat. He's a very sensitive drummer. He doesn't beat, he doesn't just provide a back-drop for me to do my thing on, and he plays music on the drums- very intricate symbol work. He can do the real pop beauty stuff, but he's really a great jazz and world beat drummer.
Right now we're playing with different people, but that's the core of the group.
MP- So what all is in the Ear Reverant repertoire besides what’s on the demo/EP?
I'm kind of writing like a fiend and I'm actually doing some real esoteric versions of old, American roots standards. Old-time songs like "Boll Weevil" and black Delta blues songs. Things that start off real slow and they're real sparse, as I pitch-shift my banjo to where it's a whole octave lower and it really sounds like an old gut-string sometimes. We build the tunes and start off real acoustic and then build up to sonic rock and then it will break back down to acoustic.
The reason we named it Ear Reverants is-I am a little irreverent-but in this project I'm really trying to write everything that I do in front of a live audience. I come to the stage with semblances of ideas, so I bring the ingredients to the stage and then I try to make the sandwich. That's the best way to put it. I'll bring different breads and meats and different cheeses—literally cheeses. We're really trying to trust our ears.
For years I've sat with a cup of coffee and a pen, you know, trying to be creative in the privacy of my own basement. And I've never been good at that. I did radio for 14 years and I was my best when I didn't prepare my show. I sing best when I don't know what I'm doing. I play best when I haven't planned. I'm parlaying my mental illnesses into an art form. I believe in confusion-confusion is "with fusion". Some of your nicest artistic moments are when you're really clueless about what to do next. That's something I really got from Col. Bruce. He says, 'When in doubt go out or do something completely familiar.' And that's really what I do-I was really trained well by him in improv.
I think a lot of jambands today aren't jamming. They're trying to find a String Cheese or the Disco Biscuits or the Phish formula. And they don't realize Phish didn't have a formula. Admittedly, sometimes improv won't work, but you have to be able to fail in your mind. Is planned jamming really jamming? Evidently at the end of the night, the things that I thought didn't work are the things that the audience will ask me about. It's weird, when I think we suck, they think it's genius. And when I think we're genius, they don't ever ask or seem to notice. It's a phenomenon. I'm with a group of guys who are real secure with that notion. They follow me down every trail and follow me through every tunnel. They don't freak if I don't seem to know what I'm doing. In that sense, we're really making music up there, right then and there, and that's why we're irreverent/Ear Reverent.
That's what I really want to do for an audience; I want to give them something original so they feel like they've witnessed a moment. I think that's the best thing you can get for your money when seeing a show.
MP-I think that’s the best thing I get out of my money sometimes.
I feel like our ears are so much more sophisticated than the mathematical theory of music. I don't believe in the math although I like using it. I think to construct songs as a writer or arranger strictly for the math is ok but it's just not what I want to do. It's not reverent to the ear and is definitely not my cup of tea.