Country Joe McDonald, Here We Go Again
Country Joe McDonald has always been a prolific artist although in the past few years he has had a somewhat lower profile with a few releases on his own internet label. Of course, Joe aside from being a successful solo artist and activist fronted one of the best, but in retrospect sadly neglected, 60s psychedelic bands, Country Joe and the Fish.
Despite the low profile much of McDonald’s solo material and the albums by the band are available on CD. In fact, in Italy, the Arkama label has re-issued many interesting Country Joe and Country Joe and the Fish albums in recent years in collector’s editions. Politics was always a part of McDonald and the Fish’s music, so given the climate of the past few years it was no great surprise that McDonald would bounce back with renewed enthusiasm. Later this year McDonald will be honored for his musical efforts towards peace later this year with a world peace award at the World Peace Music Awards. Perhaps spurred on by the uncertain political climate Joe has reformed the original Country Joe and the Fish (minus guitarist Barry Melton) for a reunion tour with dates already scheduled in California and England for the spring with more dates to come.
The most famous line-up of Country Joe and the Fish, McDonald, Barry Melton, Chicken Hirsh, Bruce Barthol, and David Bennett Cohen, recorded two of the most enduring albums of the psychedelic 60s. They were Electric Music for the Mind and Body and I Feel Like I’m Fixing To Die both from 1967. These albums are highly recommended and show that the Fish were far more musically accomplished at the time than their contemporaries, The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Big Brother and the Holding Company. The band would last until the early 70s with various line-up changes before finally imploding. Of course, McDonald’s impromptu performance of "I Feel Like I’m Fixing To Die" at Woodstock is immortal. A few years back Vanguard issued a live Country Joe and the Fish album, Live at the Fillmore West 69 which included a grand finale jam session with members of the Dead, The Airplane and Steve Miller among them. Again, it’s a highly recommended album and one that should delight jamband fans, especially the 38-minute jam "Donovan’s Reef.’
The new band will be known simply as the Country Joe Band because obviously Barry "the Fish" Melton is not part of it. In recent years keyboardist/guitarist David Bennett Cohen has played some gigs with McDonald and with Bruce Barthol as well as having a busy recording career which has included several excellent instrumental albums.
Chicken Hirsh has been living in Southern Oregon making a living as a painter and jazz drummer, while bassist Bruce Barthol has been the resident composer/lyricist/musician for the famed San Francisco Mime Troupe. On getting a call from Joe to reform the band he says "There’s a war going on, the country is divided and it’s feeling more like 1968 every day, so I wasn’t totally surprised to get a call from Joe. I had a lot of fun playing with those guys, and I’m looking forward to doing it again." Cohen also has similar feelings, "With the country in the shape it’s in, I think it’s the right time to get together." On being asked why Barry Melton (now a very successful and busy Public Defender in San Francisco) wasn’t involved, Joe nonchalantly said "Barry doesn’t like anything we do anymore. We’ll never play together again," but as they say, never say never as despite his busy legal career Melton continues to play with the Barry Melton Band which includes various other alumni from noted 60s San Francisco bands such as Banana from the Youngbloods, Roy Blumenfield from the Blues Project and Pete Albin from Big Brother.
The current reunion promises much. Although McDonald can get into politics and his other passion, the life of Florence Nightingale (indeed he is one of the worlds foremost experts on the subject of her life) I chose to keep the interview to the musical activities, but you can check out Joe’s website for lots more information on both.
M.S. Hi, Joe. You’ve had quite a lot of your stuff come out lately in Italy.
J.M. Yes, a lot of really great stuff. They’ve done a good job on them.
M.S. Why don’t you tell me what you are up to? It seems like you have a few projects going? Isn’t one of the albums you are working on a "meditation" album?
J.M. Yes, with Bernie Krause. He played with the Weavers (also with Beaver and Krause) at one point in the 60s and then he created or invented this kind of music that is soundscapes with a musician and they have sold millions of copies of these soundscape things. He has been doing it for almost 30 years. He has this niche but to me it is new because I’m just learning more about it. For about three years now I have been thinking about making an instrumental album because people would hear me playing these instrumentals and ask "do you have an album of just that?" I’ve always done instrumentals, maybe one every other album throughout this decade. Then I got this idea, because the stuff I do instrumentally, is kind of like relaxation, meditation stuff. I was sitting outdoors as I do occasionally and performing this stuff for just me and nature and I thought the idea would be cool.
M.S. So how did you hook up with Bernie Krause?
J.M. I asked Joel Selvin, the rock writer who does this, and he said Bernie Krause. He said the man rules the roost in this genre. So, I sent him a sent him a tape and he said yes and it was bing-bang. We put it together and it is done. We are just trying to figure out the packaging. My idea was to have one environment for the whole album, but we have nine tracks and a different environment, a different soundscape for every track. It’s quite a journey,
M.S. So did you collaborate or did you just send him your acoustic instrumentals and he added his stuff and sent them back.
J.M. Just like that. I am over the moon with what he sent back. I’ve listened to it 50 times now and it is incredible. The only problem I have now is putting titles to the tracks and explaining what it is because it is really as remarkable as "Section 43" was.
M.S. It sounds very interesting.
J.M. It takes you from the sea shore to desert to the forest.
M.S. How are you going to market this one?
J.M. It will be on Rag Baby but it’s a challenge as it is a new market for me.
M.S. You have always done a lot of complex instrumentals. I really like "Colors for Susan."
J.M. Well, both "Colors for Susan" and "Section 43" are on the album. I drew on material from 30 years, "Pat’s Song" is on there with a soundscape. I didn’t write anything for it specifically because I didn’t know specifically what it was when I started but I do have an instrumental that was on my last CD from three years ago and a brand new one. So, for people that like that kind of thing from me they are going to be delighted.
M.S. Why don’t you tell me a little more about the book ( "Country Joe and Me" available from www.countryjoe.com that recently came out by Ron Cabral? It’s a good read.
J.M. Well, it started like about 25 years ago and in between our own private lives it got put aside, but Ron has been the inspiration and a couple of years ago he really started working on it. It’s really the story of a journey of two friends during those interesting times.
M.S. Right, it’s not your typical sex and drugs and rock and roll tale.
J.M. Oh yeah, it is not a rock and roll book but of course it does mention the rock and roll. But it covers my time in the service and school.
M.S. You also wrote a foreword to an Italian book by Ezio Guaitamacchi….how did that come about?
J.M. Well, he has been to my house and interviewed me a number of times. But he wanted to come and play this festival particularly because of his new book as it focuses on the psychedelic era.
M.S. Perhaps the most interesting thing that you are involved and certainly the one that should garner more attention is the gigs with the other Fish members, can you tell us who is involved?
J.M. We’ll be going out as the Country Joe Band, we are dead set on that and we are booking April right now. After that we’ll be doing some club dates. I am really excited as I want to be a band again. I suppose I may do some solo stuff but in the context of those guys we have the possibilities to be a rock and roll band, a skiffle band and all kinds of stuff. We will draw not only on Country Joe and the Fish material but also all my material. We’ll be doing festivals in the summer. We are going to go wherever it takes us and we are planning on making an album. The band will be Chicken Hirsh, David Bennett Cohen, and Bruce Barthol. Barry (Melton) is not involved.
M.S. It might be nice if Vanguard went back to the original Country Joe and the Fish catalog and sonically upgraded it. There has been a lot of advances since they digitized those albums. Perhaps even a box set with unreleased or alternate versions would be good.
J.M. Well, there was talk of a 24-bit box-set a few years ago and nothing happened. It’s up to Vanguard. It has nothing to do with me. But if we do an album it may come out on Vanguard.
M.S. Is there much in the way of unreleased Country Joe and the Fish material?
J.M. No there isn’t much at all. We used most of what we did.
M.S. I still think that the first two albums in particular are all time classics and am surprised that you don’t get as much acclaim for them as you deserve.
J.M. Well, I think it was probably because of the politics that had something to do with it.
M.S. Do you listen to much new music?
J.M. No, I’m not really current. I listen to what my kids listen to. It’s interesting but the last couple of years have not been good for pop music. The scene is in transition again and maybe that is a good thing. The major labels have become overpriced and incredibly boring.
M.S. It’s kind of funny that there are so many bands doing their own CDs now but you did that back in 1965 with the political Rag Baby singles.
J.M. I have always enjoyed new forms of getting the word and sound out there. I like that.
M.S. You did those great talking Rag Baby issues on cassette back in the 80s. That might have worked better in an Internet environment. Could that be done now?
J.M. It could, and some people are doing that but it has to be a labor of love, and when I did it, it was, but I just don’t have time to do it anymore. It morphed into Rag Baby on-line which is on my website now.
M.S. I think that when the Country Joe Band gets out there a lot of younger fans might get turned on your music. I always thought Country Joe and the Fish had great songs and did some great instrumental jams.
J.M. Yes, but I am pretty set on structure. I like instrumentals to be complicated and full of structure. But back in the Country Joe and the Fish days we became just a jamband. Improv is okay to a point. I like a show. Something that is pretty structured and that’s pretty much what I intend to do. You have to start off an improvisation with an interesting base. If you just start off with a concept of we are going to play in the key of A, you are not, from my point of view get anything of much interest. You have to be clever about it. I think the Grateful Dead launched this Dark Star Orchestra phenomena with endless jam with a little bit of peak and a lot of valleys. If you are really stoned out of your mind and very accepting of it, it seems like an entertaining experience particularly if you have three hours to kill but if you only have an hour or two and you want variety then it is not going to be good for you and it has been done to death for a couple of decades now. People like new things.
M.S. You’ve always jumped from one thing to another. You’ve done folk, country, the political stuff as in the War War War album, the feminist stuff with Paris Sessions and much more…
J.M. Yes, well I get bored very easily. I have a very eclectic musical taste so I like to do a bit of everything. I guess my main influences are American Roots based. I don’t like pop music. Roots music is the basis of what I do. But sometimes I just invent stuff. To this day there is no one that does instrumentals that can be compared to "Section 43" or "Colors for Susan." I started making music to keep myself sane and I still do. First off, I make music for myself and it is a blessing that other people want to hear it. But I am my biggest fan and I like to make myself happy creating new things.
M.S. Are there any other live recordings of the various different Country Joe Bands, such as the All Star Band that might be able to come out as archive releases?
J.M. I’m sure there are but I haven’t collected them and I have not occasion to go back and listen to the tapes that I have. I like to think of the future not the past. It wouldn’t be a bad idea but what would you do with it once it was done. The market is in the doldrums right now. It’s like there are these huge corporations selling like 3 titles. You have to go to specialty stores….I can’t worry about that. You can’t live off the volume on the Internet stores. It is not enough to keep you alive. I’m looking forward to playing with the band again.