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Published: 2004/02/28
by Benji Feldheim

The Book of Oteil

Oteil Burbridge smiles as if he came into this world with the same ear to ear grin on his face that shines while he plays with the Peacemakers, the Allman Brothers Band, Vida Blue and Gov't Mule. He keeps that smile strong, even when talking about painful memories, and even while we both shiver in the cold basement under Canopy Club in Urbana, Illinois. People know about Oteil's playing, with his scatting silkily smooth over the tone of his bass, tweaked slightly with an envelope filter, and many other acrobatic bass techniques. To see the man play live is to witness how warm a human being can be not just from the simple joys in his or her life, but after they found a way to make joy out of pain.

Our talk abruptly shifted from music to life, God and a way to have faith without being weighed down by the negativity that has tarnished many religious groups of people. Oteil and I both experienced crises of faith in our lives, and so for some time, this was not an interview, but a conversation between two people who had to see genuine ugliness in life before finding God again. This won't be some kind of missionary effort, especially since I'm Jewish, but if you can simply feel that God is love, then you already believe enough.

B: You’ve called your music with Peacemakers jazzy Jesus funk?

O: Oh yeah! (laughs) It's so hard for me to try and explain the music we do because it has all these different elements in it. Really the best way to describe it would be American music, because it's got funk, rock, jazz, blues, gospel. It's like a gumbo, you know (laughs)? That's really where we are coming from, all those different styles. I even listen to, and have played in the past, a lot of bluegrass. Even though we don't do straight bluegrass tunes per se, the influence is still in there. It's in my head. It's all these different kinds of American music.

B: Let’s talk about The Family Secret. What was it like working with John Snyder?

O: Oh, it was great. It was kind of intimidating because he has done records with Sonny Rollins, Jim Hall, all these jazz legends. People in the jamband scene might not know a lot of the names of people he's worked with, but all the guys in my band having a jazz background, it was…(laughs). It makes you nervous but then it gives you this great sense of affirmation working with someone who has worked with guys that heavy. You know, to dig the music we're doing and see it as valid, and want to work with us. So, it was awesome, really.

B: You’ve talked about having a bad experience on the first CD, and you also said before that you don’t like talking about it. But in broader terms, what did you learn from the experience that you’ve been able to apply since?

O: I think it just made me aware that you really have to…there's all these people in the music business that fool you into thinking you're in a different spot on the food chain, and really without the product you create, they don't have anything. It behooves you to realize that you need to stand up for yourself, don't be afraid to take more control. Nowadays, it's a lot cheaper to make a record. The technology that is available to us now, you don't need to sign away your life for a hundred thousand dollars. That's nothing compared to what they're getting on the back end. If you can do the CD cheaply, sell it yourself to make your money back, you make some more profit. I made more money off of that CD than any records I had done previously. And I just sold it on my website and at live gigs. It wasn't even in the stores. You know? I started to look at people like Prince and Ani DiFranco, people who really took control of their own music. The downside is that you do have to come up with the capital if you want complete control, but like I said, you don't have to come up with a hundred thousand dollars to make a record. You can do it for like ten, twenty, thirty, or forty. It's a good time for musicians right now, if they can realize that, and that's what I took from it, I suppose.

B: It seems that with peer to peer sharing musicians really have to get out there and play live instead of just selling records. Do you think there is a positive side to the technology?

O: With people trading live shows…I mean I guess I would be pissed off about it if everyone was selling them. I've seen old ARU bootlegs of not very good board tapes at a record store for like fifty dollars. That's kind of ridiculous, but when you can get that for free you're kind of a sucker if you buy it anyway. I think that when people share live shows, it's a good thing.

The ARU, we ended up going to San Francisco because these people were like, Everyone's got your tapes out here, and you actually have a following here and these different spots on the West Coast, and you gotta come out here.' Without going out there at all! It was great for us. I think that with what we've done, our album The Family Secret, there's things you just can get from the live show that's on the DVD. People are still buying the CDs when we sell them at the shows. I think that want to have something from that night, when they see the show. You can't find it anyway. Here we are in 2004. Why beat your head against the wall trying to fight something you can't stop. It does have a positive side. We allow people to tape every night. If it helps spread the word, man, Amen! (laughs) Spread the word.

B: How did you find music?

O: I started playing when I was five, on drums. My earliest memories are connected with music. My parents were both complete music fanatics. My dad had one of the most diverse record collections that I've ever come across even to this day. So, the environment in which we grew up was just saturated in it. Around seventeen years old, everyone was deciding what college they were going to, what their major was going to be. I really didn't want to go to college because I just hated school so much, and I didn't want to spend that much money and not really put a lot into it, you know?

So, I just made a list of things that I really like to do, things I could the rest of my life whether I made a lot of money or not. Music ended up winning out (laughs)! I hit the road straight out of high school. It's always been there. My older brother Kofi taught me everything I know. You always want to be like your big brother. I always wanted to be in his band. He had this band in college that was just incredible. I thought, "God, if I could get good enough to where they would ask me to play with them, then I'd have it made." So, I just practiced really hard, and studied all the stuff his bass player was doing, and he just taught me a whole lot. Eventually, they did ask me to play with them, so that was kind of my motivation.

B: Let’s talk about the Alabama scene, and the different styles you’ve adapted from there.

O: I'm from Washington D.C., and when I moved down south…I was actually kind of scared to move down south. All I ever saw was what happened on Martin Luther King's birthday, and all the stuff that happened in the civil rights movement. So, the South was like a different country. It wasn't like America to me, not the one I knew. And that's true. After having lived there for twenty years or so, I still believe that it is different.

But, all of my favorite American music came out of the South. Funk came out of the South. You know, you had the Meters in New Orleans, and James Brown in Augusta, Georgia. You have all of the blues, obviously, that came out of the South. Jazz was born in the South, really in New Orleans. The country and bluegrass obviously came out (laughs), you know what I mean? Everything that I'm into came out of there. Even though it's not part of America, but the Latin stuff I listen to is in the South. The music from Cuba and South America, I mean Cuba's farther South than…

B: The South?

O: The South! (laughs) I found that musicians from the South come by all of those influences naturally. The guys in my band Mark Kimbrell, and Chris Fryar, really have that New Orleans flavor, that Mississippi/Alabama flavor, the Georgia funk flavor. They grew up with all these things, and they just come by it naturally. The music that you make is a product of what you listen to, and it's not to say that you can't get it if you're not from the South. I always thought Little Feat was from New Orleans because of that sound. Obviously, they've been listening to a lot of it. There's been great funk that came out of the west coast. Still, there's just something there.

Most Black families from the North are transplants from the South. My family comes from Kentucky and Mississippi. So the music we're listening to, the gospel and all that stuff, still has the same roots, even though my family lived in New York. The first time I had grits was in New York City, in the Bronx. I just have a lot of empathy with that vibe, and the guys in this band really have it. They're born and raised in Alabama. When we get together and play it just comes out, you can't help it. This one new tune we wrote called Tubby,' we just started playing it. Chris just started playing this drum beat, and I just fell in and Mark fell in. The tune wrote itself on the spot. It sounds like some kind of partially New Orleans, partially…I don't even know what to call it. It's just swampy, funky…you know. (laughs) It just happened! That kind of thing I really dig. I wouldn't say we're even trying to go for that, it's just the sound we have.

B: What did you learn from the groups you started out with?

O: Meeting Colonel Bruce was such a life changing experience for me. Through him I really got turned on to blue grass, and just fell in love with it. I ended up doing a bunch of gigs with traditional bluegrass musicians, and really learning, listening to and playing that music, is something I never…well, maybe I can't say I never would've had it, but that's how I can by it, you know? That was really a life changing experience for me, because it showed me white soul. When you listen to Ralph Stanley, to me, he's like…that's like the white Delta blues. It's so emotionally overwhelming, and primitive but symphonic at the same time. It's just unbelievable.

Then, when the Mandolin player, Matt Mundy, and I got into the really old music, like Charlie Christian, he said it sounded like Tiny Moore, and Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. The he started turning me onto that music, and they were playing a lot of the same tunes as Charlie Christian. It was amazing to see.

I then started to learn about Bill Monroe, and found out that they had a lot of black and white musicians playing together at the same time. The first guy to play at the Grand Ole Opry was a black guy. So here's this racial mixing going on way back when, at a time when we didn't think it would be possible! It was a great learning experience about the South, really about this other side of the South you don't really hear about. We felt what we were doing was a continuation of that, with ARU. We also had Colonel Bruce who was this…this Sun Ra character. He's like Sun Ra and an old Delta blues guy trapped in a white, Republican body! (laughs)

B: (laughing) He should run for president.

O: He should be president. He’d fix a lot of this stuff. It was just a magical time, something I never could’ve counted on. I always thought I’d go try to play with my jazz heroes, Weather Report and Wayne Shorter, those guys. I ended up playing Colonel Bruce in this psycho funk bluegrass band (laughs)! I never could’ve seen that one coming, you know? Through that we met Phish and Widespread Panic, Blues Traveler, and they really helped us find a home, a scene where we could play this music. Nobody really knew what to do with us. They were like, We don’t care what it is! Just come out and play with us!' That's how we kind of got adopted by this jamband scene."

B: What sort of changes in the jamband scene have you noticed over the years?

O: "I think it's really good. The H.O.R.D.E. tour really showed people you could create your own scene. Out of that grew all of this, and I see also the jamband scene being very inclusive of other stuff not related in any way to the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers. You hear bands like the Roots. You got rap groups, jazz groups like Medeski Martin and Wood, John Scofield. I say jazz in a broad sense. Obviously it's not traditional jazz, like swing. But then you can't even categorize that because it's in so many eras. It's broad in of itself. There's more groups coming from a jazz background than an Allman Brothers, or Dead background. It's so great to see.

Guys like Scofield might not be able to tour as much. Most of the jazz groups are usually in Europe or Japan doing festivals. They can have jazz festivals in major cities, but they might not be able to tour in clubs across the country. Now, they're out there, doing that. It just wipes me out going to one of these clubs and seeing Scofield just playing there, and this is guy who's played with Miles. The list of people this guy has played with is just ridiculous. I think it's wonderful that people in this scene really will give anything a listen, from bluegrass to whatever. They will judge it purely on its own merit, and not have to compare it to the Dead or the Allman Brothers. You don't find that in other scenes."

B: Joining a band as well established as the Allman Brothers might put you in a role more of like a hired gun. How have you expanded on that to make a presence?

O: They do have a legacy to uphold. Yet, at the same time they don't want to be confined to doing what they've done already. They're still alive and changing and growing. It gives you a broader job to do than just being a hired gun. If I just played everything exactly like Berry Oakley, I would get fired pretty quickly. You have to bring something to the table yourself, of yourself, and yet still be able to do the old stuff. I feel really blessed to have that opportunity because it’s mandated that I be myself to an extent. I mean, I can’t go off the way I do with the Peacemakers, you know (laughs)? But it’s not the Peacemakers, it’s the Allman Brothers. Each band is different. Same thing with Vida Blue. I get to stretch out more with Vida Blue than with the Allman Brothers, but it’s not the same thing with the Peacemakers. So, you have to play that. I take each band, each project for what it is. Same thing when I play with Gov't Mule. But, there's things I get to do in the Allman Brothers I don't get to do in the Peacemakers. I don't play with a pick in the Peacemakers. That's something I only get there, so it's been great. Really great."

B: During an improvised section, is there something in particular that you would like to play or hear?

O: It's all about chemistry. Chemistry is something you cannot foresee. Page had an idea, a picture in his mind of what the chemistry was going to be like in Vida Blue. But when it happened, he couldn't have even predicted…I mean, it worked out great. I couldn't have predicted it myself. It became something else that he didn't even count on. The ideal situation is when you have this chemistry that just works. If you're cooking, you might try different spices and you think, "Well this might be good together." Then you try it, and it's like, "Oh no! That's not so good." My wife does this a lot. She doesn't have one ingredient and so she substitutes something, and then we're like, "Wow! That's even better than what was originally intended." And then you can have a new recipe.

It's the grace of God when you get good chemistry no matter what type of situation, whether it's the Peacemakers, Vida Blue, Allman Brothers or Gov't Mule. Once it locks in, then it moves and creates on its own. You don't really have to work at it, you know what I mean? You just start playing and it just happens. And I'm sure if you talk to Warren [Haynes], the situation he's had with so many bass players, you really can see that in action. Some tunes work better with this bass player, another tune works better with that bass player, you know what I mean?

It's such a shame that [Allen] Woody died, because to me, he will always be the bass player in that band, you know? But things change , and it's the same with the Allman Brothers. The chemistry they had when Duane and Berry were alive was just…unbelievable! They died, and it's like what should you do? Do you stop? Should you move on and evolve? You can see from some of the different bands there after Duane and Berry died, some of them were not so good (laughs). But then they really hit it when they got Allen and Warren. Even since I've joined the band, we've gone through all these different lineups, and what we have now is just like…you find one of these things every once in a while that's great. It's just a blessing from God really. But you gotta keep at it!"

B: Let’s talk a little bass technique. It seems there’s many different aspects that could be applied from just holding a groove down to lashing out on fills. What sort of balance do you look for?

O: You know…I like players that have great chops and players that have none, and players that have anti-chops. I love Charlie Parker, and I love Art Tatum, and Gonzalo Rubalcaba, you know, these players that have this amazing facility. But then I also love John Lee Hooker and Cedell Davis, and I'm pretty sure none of them know what a sharp eleventh chord is, or altered dominants. So for me, the emotional content has to come first. Of all the players I like that have the chops, it's still their emotional content that gets me.

A hummingbird is not bad because its wings flap faster than other birds. It is made that way by God. Some of these musicians are that way. They're playing their true nature. I think what happens is that there's these people that lock themselves in their room for their entire lives with an instrument, and all you hear is practicing. They have great facility, but no life experience, or a limited life experience. On top of that, they have not tapped into their pain. Everybody has something bad that happens to them, a parent dies, or something in their childhood. We all come from dysfunctional families to a certain extent. That's why you have so many people that are addicts.

So, play me the pain of your addiction. Play me when you did something stupid and you had to laugh at yourself. Play me when you were a child and couldn't play, and had no chops. I need to hear your humanness. I need to hear comedy and self effacement. I need to hear pain. AIDS, cancer, death, birth. All these things that you experience in life feed your playing. I practice a lot because I have ideas that I want to play that require playing fast. Sometimes I take a stroll, and sometimes I'm sprinting. If I have this feeling where I want to sprint, then I have to practice to play that feeling. But also want to play falling down the stairs, you know (laughs)? Colonel Bruce taught me that. He was like, "Let me hear your emotional content. And if you don't have any emotional content, then get out of your practice room." I don't think it's bad to have chops, but your emotional content has to come first.

B: If you don’t mind going into it, what sort of painful experiences have helped you draw that content?

O: Oh my God! All kinds of stuff. I've struggled with addictions of different kinds, since I was a teenager. I struggled with alcohol, with pot, with sex addictions. Those things you're definitely hearing. Watching my wife's mother die of cancer…that's the first time I witnessed a death and it was a slow death. That's some other stuff. That'll really get you. Life itself, you know? The heartbreak of my first love not working out. All kinds of things. My wife and me were split up for nine months, the pain of that. The joy of getting back together. The joy of finding God. My daily struggle to turn my pain and my weakness over to God, and fight temptation, and to not run away from my pain, but to feel it and to trust God to help me endure it, instead of trying to escape it and medicate it through smoking weed or getting drunk or having sex with a stranger, you know? I've got plenty of that (laughs)! I've got more fuel than I'd like to have! When I get up there and I sing my first note, that's what's coming out. Hopefully people will feel that.

B: What led to the religious rebirth?

O: Well, actually when my wife and I were split up for nine months, and we wanted to get back together, and we decided we would try. She went back to Birmingham, and I went back to New York, where I was living at the time, and I realized it wasn't going to work because I hadn't had any success in defeating my demons and my addictions. I knew that I wasn't going to be able to do that, and I was in such despair because I really didn't want to hurt her again. I finally reached a point where I said, "God, I don't know what to call you whether you're Allah, or Jesus or Yahweh, whatever your name is." But I know that there's a God because I just feel that. And I just said, "I really need your help right now."

I think that was the key because I believe, being a Christian, that God leads you to yourself. God is not going to control you like a robot. He's going to give you free will and he's going to let the Devil have you if you choose that, because it will be the one thing that proves to you that you need him (laughs). Someone once said to me, "If God's so all-powerful, why does he let evil exist?" And I said, "He lets the devil exist so there's proof that we’re not all powerful, not him (laughs)." At that point I had a revelation, and I said, "Okay, I’m going to stop fighting all of things that are wrong with religion and check it out." Because, all things I thought were wrong with religion, I still think that the same things are wrong. But religion is what man has done to create that. God is different from that.

I was talking with my dad the other day, and I said, "I bet you don't have any problem with one thing Jesus said, do you?' And he was like, "No, actually I don't." And I said, "Your problem is with religion, and all that stuff that you think is wrong, I agree with you. In fact, I'm probably more pissed off about it!" But I cannot continually blame God or blame Christ for what Christians have done, or people from any other religion have done. That’s what I focus on now. I focus on God, not denominations or the history of religion or all of the horrible things that have happened. That’s only thing that has helped me get victory over the weak areas in my life. It’s not something I can prove to anybody else. If you talk to anyone that has felt the spirit of God inside them, and has felt that change them, you’ll never be able to convince them otherwise. Even though I might not be able to prove to you, you can never prove it to me that it doesn’t exist, because I felt it.

I remember reading this thing about the New Testament from a commentator named William Barclay, who's been a real inspiration for me. He told this story of a guy who was a really bad alcoholic, and he became a Christian and had met up with a friend of his who knew him back when he was an alcoholic, and the guy was like, "What happened? How did you get out of all that?" And the guy said, "It was the power of God that brought me out of all that." And the other guy said, "I have no problem with Christ, but I can't believe in the miracles." And he said, "Well, I can believe in miracles because I saw Jesus change beer into furniture for my life (laughs)." That was just like, "YEAH!" I've had that experience myself.

All addicts have to admit that they are powerless to their addictions. Twelve step programs say, "Let go and let God," and that really is the true. He has to do for me what I can't do for myself. It is a miracle every day. I live from glory to glory. But I still make mistakes, and I'm not perfect, you know? I have to ask forgiveness from God almost…no, not almost, on a daily basis. But, he still hasn't given up on me as long as I don't give up on him. But, I'm in a better place than I used to be.

That's why we do that song, "Thank You." I've got to express my gratitude to God for bringing me out from where I was. Paul [Henson], our lead singer, is a Christian, and a lot of his lyrics are about that but you don't really know it. But if you read it and think about you go, "Wow, this really is about Christ." I'm really grateful that we get an opportunity to spread the word in that way, and people get to dance and have a good funk groove at the same time.

B: I know I’m not supposed to bring my own stuff into this, but with what you said about religion…My father is a Rabbi and growing up seeing how synagogues really work was awful. The People that run it and decide they need more money and they fire the Rabbi.

O: Christian churches do the same thing, man. It fact, it's funny, there's a guy who goes to my church, a good friend of mine. He's a Jewish guy, but he converted. His name is Dan Goldfarb, and he told me about his experience. He grew up in Cleveland. He said what he saw was just irreligious. It really bummed him out, big time. He had an experience similar to mine that converted him. You know, that's what man does. There are great synagogues, and there are crappy ones, because people have fallen. Our nature has fallen and we have succumbed to putting ourselves first. God says in the first commandment, "Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and all other things will fall into place." It's hard for us to not be selfish. We end up ruining even our religion. It's a struggle, but if you search, you can find. Think of the amount of effort you put into weeding out good and bad music. You can do the same thing with Judaism and synagogues. You can find good ones out there. If you look for it, you can find it, because God is always going to provide you with a way. He always does, and that's the amazing part about God. He will do it. It won't be easy to find such people because they are always going to be a minority. God always leaves a remnant, and out of it produces the next level that he's going to go to. So, give it a shot man. Look around. Ask people. If you find a Rabbi that you think is cool, or…just hunt around and you'd be surprised that it's easier than you think to find it. I heard a great quote from this guy while watching Inside the Actor's Studio.' He is a writer and he's Jewish, and they asked him if the names Will and Grace' had any significance and he said that it was from a great Jewish theologian, who said the concept comes from a relationship with God where you have to have the will to seek him and the grace to receive him. I was just like, "That's IT!' I know it's out there."

B: Hey, I know we’ve gotten far from music. But, I’ve never been able to talk about these things in an interview I’m supposed to be conducting.

O: Well, most people are scared to talk about these things, and I was too for a while. But then I realized we gotta put it out there because all people see are the real judgmental Christians…and society does that. The more radical, evil people are more newsworthy, you know what I mean? So we gotta try to put it out there and let people know there's some other stuff out there. We're not judgmental, or rigid, it's just love. It's about love, man. That's what God is about. Love. So, I'm glad we got to talk about it!

I just love concepts of us obeying God not because we fear him, but because we have such gratitude, such awe, that…you know, the only response to love is love. If we can get to the point where we realize that God loves us first, even though we are like grains of sand, individually we matter to him, we would be so blown away and that would be why we obey his laws. Out of love. Not out of fear that we're going to hell or any that, it's all out of love. I'm so glad that you and your dad and people in my church are bringing this gospel of love to people. That's the only thing can save this planet. That's why this whole thing in the Middle East will never really stop until we get a hold of God's grace. We have to forgive each other before God will forgive us. How many times did God forgive Israel in the Bible and they turned away, you know? Sometimes Moses even had to talk him in to it. He'd be like, C'mon God, you know you love em! Can't you forgive them?' and God would be like, Oh, okay (laughs).' If we can get a hold of that, then we can save the planet. All right, we can get back to music now (laughs)!

B: (laughs) You’ve collaborated with tons of great musicians. When working with them, it seems there’s so much to offer between everyone involved, that a balance needs to happen. Who are some people you’d like to work with, that you haven’t had the opportunity?

O: In some ways I'm scared to work with…it's like it's all been said already, you know what I mean? There's no reason for me to go play with Ralph Stanley (laughs), you know? I'd just rather listen to him. At the same time, there's millions. I would love to play with Elvin Jones. Great drummer.

B: Who are some other drummers you would want to play with?

O: "(laughs) Oh is that a long list! I mean, how much tape have you got?! We have to go by eras. I wish I could play with Papa Joe Jones, I mean he's not alive anymore. Man, a million jazz drummers. I'll say Elvin Jones, Jack DeJohnette, Tony Williams, who's also gone now. Peter Erskine…oh God, there's so many! There's so many just in that category. And then you have guys like Jabo Starks, Clive Stubblefield, Zigaboo Modeliste…that list goes on and on and on.

We would then have to go through guitar players, and all the different styles there. I'd like to play with Fareed Haque, he's amazing. I have had the chance to play with Derek Trucks, which was awesome. I've played with Marc Ribot, who also is amazing. I got the chance to play with Scofield…Oh my God! It was also with Bob Moses, who played with Jaco and Pat Metheny. So to have Scofield on one side and Bob Moses on the other at Berkfest was just like…God, thank you! So many different styles.

But you know, the guys I want to play with most are the guys in my band. Truthfully. Mark Kimbrell is about my favorite guitarist on the planet. Mark did a solo record, which hasn't been released. His compositions are so deep. To listen to Mark's compositions and his playing, you realize he's one of the great guitarists of this time. But, we do more of his compositions that people can dance to and are a little more easily understandable to this scene. I have to go to school to learn each one of his tunes. I'll learn a new chord, and be like, "What the hell is that?' Mark is so heavy. Chris Fryar and Matt Slocum too. You ask me who I want to play with, it's these guys I'm about to be with up on stage! We have a chance to create our own things.

I always thought I'd play with my heroes, but God had a different plan. This is my offering to the planet. Instead of playing with all these fusion guys I went off played with Colonel Bruce (laughs)! It was really a great preparation for the Allman Brothers, because I really didn't know about them when I got the gig. Bruce was doing funk, blues, bluegrass, jazz, all these different things. And the Allman Brothers were doing funk, blues, country, jazz and mixing them all up. Duane Allman even got Colonel Bruce his first record deal on Colombia Records. It all tied in.

B: What are hopes you have for the future? What are you looking forward to?

O: You know what, man? I'm looking forward to today. There's a verse in the Bible that says don't worry about tomorrow, because tomorrow has got concerns of it's own. Deal with today. I'm so blessed that I have this opportunity to get out here and play my music with these guys for people. Obviously, I hope it grows, just like I want my faith to grow. I want my marriage to grow. But, really my concern is all of us having gratitude towards God to do what we are doing right now, and to receive his grace while doing it. Everything else will fall into place (laughs). Keep ye first the kingdom of God. That's really what I want in the future. Look how much God blessed me, and you too, when we were turned away from him. That's the kind of love he has.

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