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Published: 2004/02/28
by Mike Greenhaus

Robert Randolph: ‘Music Is For Everyone’

A prime time Grammy performance followed by an opening slot on Eric Clapton's European tour. When Robert Randolph & The Family Band were performing private parties for the NYC Freaks or even taking home a New Groove Jammy this all may have seemed unfathomable yet both will come to pass in 2004. These developments are just part of the group's extraordinary path. Still, all in all, as this interview suggests, Robert has stayed the course. If you're a TV host just don't ask the band to play "I Need More Love."

MG- This Spring, you are opening a string of European dates for Eric Clapton. You’ve only recently encountered the work of many rock guitarists. How much do you know about Clapton?

RR- Well I wasn’t the biggest Eric Clapton fan or anything, but he is a guitar and songwriting pioneer. He’s found a way in this business to stay around for so many years. He’s done blues songs. He’s done songs that are more pop oriented. He’s done songs that are rock oriented. He’s allowed himself to expand into different things and that’s what is so cool about him.

MG- How did you initially hook up with Clapton?

RR- He heard our CD and was like Wow what is this?’ We tried to get in contact with him and, finally, I got to talk to him. He said that at some point he wanted to do some shows with us. We’re definitely going to do some collaboration with each other, probably more-so in his set. That’s going to be awesome. I am sure we are going to have fun together. He has a great bandthe guys in his band are great. I can’t wait for that. Europe is a whole different market.

MG- Having performed in front of such an eclectic audience, do you tailor your sets depending on your crowd?

RR- Well sometimes, depending on the crowd we’ll jam more. Lately we’ve been doing a lot of "whatevers." I’ll play something and the guys in my band will follow. We’ve even been doing that with some of these O.A.R shows. But with the Clapton crowd you’re already not in their favor, just being an opening bandno matter who it is. It’s the same opening for Dave Matthews. For a lot of people, you’re already wrong for stepping on the same stage as Dave Matthews. So I try to stick with some of the simplest songsthe ones that appeal to an older audience. Songs like "Press On." But it will be cool to just get out there and play with him. He says "Press On" and "Nobody" are his two favorite songs.

MG- Which of your songs are you most proud of and why?

RR- Songs like "I Need More Love" and "Nobody." Things come to me musically first, so I am always trying to find words to go with themhooks or choruses. I was able to really paste those two songs together. I was able to make something that a lot of people enjoy, other than me. If you look at a song like "I Need More Love"all the TV shows we’ve been booked on, they always ask us to play that for some reason. Here we are a young band, one. An African-American band, two. When you’re going on TV, before we even play a note, everyone is automatically going to think we’re rappers. In today’s world there is no African American band going on TV, but the Roots. But they rap. So I understand why the TV shows want us to play "I Need More Love" to show that we are band that plays songs. We played it on the Grammys. We played it on Leno and Letterman. Only Dave Matthews gets to choose what songs he gets to play [laughs]. To us they are like, "Well guys if you want to be on the show this is what you are going to play." I am like "Oh G-d not I Need More Love’ again." [laughs]

MG- What songs are you the most tired of playing?

RR- The March. The March. Well, "The March," "Shake Your Head," and Press On." It’s almost like "Freebird." People are always screaming them out at every show [laughs]. Once one guy screams it out, then twenty guys scream it out. But it’s cool. We have played for so many different fan bases and genresthe DMB crowd, the Clapton crowd, the John Mayer crowd, the Allman Brothers crowdso some of these people have only heard us play "The March" like once or twice. While people in the jamband crowd have heard us play it like 100 times already.

MG- You’ve played before a wide range of audiences. Are there any that seem to respond best to your music?

RR- To tell you the truth, I don’t know. Opening any show is hard. So it’s most exciting when we play our own show, which mixes all these crowds. On stage, I look out and there are people there who are sixteen; people you are sixty. There are hippie kids. Then there are sorority girls and the frat boys. There is the "rock and roll" guy with the long hair. Now since the Grammys we have been getting a lot of African American fans who like that old-time funk. Like Sly Stone. So it’s really weird now. [laughs]

Well, when we played the church there were no white people there. These were big, huge African American church audiences. Some of the stuff we play we started playing in church. Now, some of the jamband people have been to our church. But after the Grammys a lot of African American people are starting to come out again. For me, I try to make music and I don’t think about it. I want everyone to like it. It’s tough because you’re dealing with all the different critics. You’re dealing with the jamband critics who always want you to play the twelve minute songs. But then you have so many millions of people out there who never want you to play any twelve minute songs. For us, at our shows, I don’t intend a song to be twelve minutes or twelve minutes. It just depends on how the crowd is and what not.

MG- Do you work from a setlist?

RR- We never write a setlist. Sometimes before a show I’ll write a down a list of songs that we didn’t play last time we were in town or whatever. But I don’t really write a setlist because you can’t really dictate how a show is going to go.

MG- The title of your studio album is Unclassified what does this represent to you?

RR- We were trying to find a name and there were so many different crowds who like different music and so many different songs that appeal to different people so I just came up with the title Unclassified. It worked out —-we got nominated for a Gospel Rock Grammy, we won a Blues Award, we won Jamband award. So it fits. They play our music on solid blues stations, on rock stations, and Jay Leno. We just found out today they booked us on the Regis and Kelly Show. Imagine that?

We are one of those bands that don’t fall into any category. The jambands want to keep us a jamband. The blues fans want to keep us as a blues. When we try something new they are like, "What’s that?" It’s funny, I was reading an article about Hendrix. When he first did "Little Wing" people were like, what is he doing? But now we all look at little wing like "man that was the greatest song ever.

MG- From your perspective, in terms of the songs themselves, what was the biggest change from Live at the Wetlands to Unclassified? To what extent do you feel your songwriting has changed?

RR- It has and it should. As with everyone, you don’t want to be predictable and have the same thing going. [pause] To tell you the truth, I am becoming more musically-talented. [laughs] I am practicing more—practicing my singing more and my songwriting more. When I started playing in church, I never wanted to be a singer or songwriting. People saw me playing and were like, "Wow, you should go out and play some bars." I was like "cool." So I started playing some small bars in the city, but it didn’t really hit me. It was always like "this is fun." The all these things started happeningBonnaroo and what notand all these doors started opening.

MG- To what extent does the singing style you’ve developed emulate your guitar technique?

RR- I’ll never be able to sing as well as I can play because my guitar is the ultimate singer. I try to emulate it in some ways, but I try to work between both. I have words and I have messages in me and want to let them outthrough singing, playing or whatever.

MG- What impact has your steady touring had on your life in the church?

RR- I haven’t been able to go to church as much. But what it has done, to tell you the truth, is it has opened my eyes up to so many other things out there. The good, bad, the ugly [laughs]...the world is so huge. A lot of artists really don’t like to do that grind. Look at Dave Matthews. If he went to Germany he would play what would be equivalent to [NYC’s] Mercury Lounge. While in New York he would play Giants Stadium. But I haven’t been able to go to church as much—-we’ve been playing 250 days a year for the last two years. It’s been cool, but I am kind of ready for a break to try and get some new ideas together. But, as I said, there is always something new. This O.A.R crowd is a whole different crowd…for us and them. It’s definitely a younger audience and not the jamband crowd. This Clapton crowd will be a whole new crowd. Every since the Grammys we’ve gotten calls to open for all these people…everyone from Brooks and Dunn to Lenny Kravtiz.

MG- What ran through your mind while you played to millions of fans in TV at the Grammys?

RR- To tell you the truth, that whole performance I was blank, man. Once they lifted up the curtain I looked out and saw all these people sitting in front of me: Biance, Alicia Keyes, Carlos Santana, Quincy Jones, Big Boi from Outkast. I went blank…that’s all I saw. I couldn’t even remember if I sang in tune or played in tune. Everything was a big blur until after it was over.

MG- Who were you most excited to meet at the Grammys?

RR- Prince. I met Prince! Actually, Prince walked up to me and said, "Thank G-d for you and your band. For the sake of music and black music." Everyone is looking at musicians and black artists and everyone wants to be a thug or a rapper or a hip-hop guy. But thank G-d for us because it’s wonderful for you guys to come out and do this. He said he’s been a guitar player all his life and he said in the last 15 years there hasn’t been a sound out there where we was like "wow " until he heard our record. It was cool man to hear that from Prince. We laughed and talked for like 35-40 minutes.

MG- When you started to play the jamband circuit you had a similar conversation with Phil Lesh, right?

RR- I’ve learned a lot more about bands like Grateful Dead and Phish, but at that time I didn’t even know who Phil Lesh was. He said, "Yeah, I am Phil Lesh from the Grateful Dead" and I am like, "Uh OK, what do y’all do. What do you all play?" He was like [laughs] "We play like eight nights at Giants Stadium." I am like "Uh really?" He was just a nice guy. He could tell I wasn’t just some fan trying to get in with him or something. He could tell I didn’t know anything about the Grateful Dead [laughs]. We hung out for hours, sitting at the airport and next to each other on the plane. We listened to different types of music. He talked about how loyal his crowd was. He told me to always stay true as a musician and to do different things as a band. But he also said it’s a grind and a hard thing to do because you’re touring everyday.

MG- Recently, multi-instrumentalist Jason Crosby joined your band. What has he brought to bear?

RR- He brought a whole lot of musical talent and a whole element that we didn’t have. His singing, his whole musicianship, and everything. He is just a great guy and added so much stuff. He has been playing fiddle, keyboards, and piano. We do a lot of improvising on stagewhen he hears something he just goes with it. He definitely keeps that improvisational feel going.

MG- Why did you part ways with John Ginty?

RR- We toured so much and he’s married. He just felt like we were doing too much touring. I understand, he wants to have kids and all that. John did a lot of touring before uswe wish him all the best.

MG- Were you surprised by his departure?

RR- Not really. I could kind of see it coming because he was trying to get unhappy on the road. Especially overseas. Overseas is something completely different- there are flights you have to take every day. It’s just brutal flying overseas, especially in the winter time. Being that we started to become more popular overseas and all, I could see it. But you take steps back when you go overseasyou don’t get some of the perks that you get when you tour over here. Once you make the grind over here you have to make the same grind over there. We wish him all the best and I hope everything goes well with him. But right now we got Jason in the band and we’re excited. We met him three years agohe played with Susan Tedeschi. We actually became close and when we had time off the road we would practice together. It’s cool man, he is a great.

MG- Do you feel resentment from jamband fans since you’ve received so much exposure lately?

RR- Yeah, it’s been out there. But that is never going to go away regardless of who you are. That’s one thing Phil Lesh told me. Mike Gordon told me the same thing. Fans still tell them the same thing. We’re not the only band to come from a jamband background and go on make videos and stuff like that. The Grateful Dead made videos. The Allman Brothers made videos. Phish made videos. Fans are like, Oh you guys are on TV and making videos?" But that is always going to be there. I don’t understand why people say that. Music is for everyone. A videos no matter how cheesy someone thinks it is, is just a music video. Some people do videos just because they’re fun.

I really appreciate all the jambands have done for us since day one. They took us under their wing and lifted us up. They gave us that confidence of being musicians and gave the band the encouragement and overall love. I appreciate that and I appreciate them a whole lot.

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