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Published: 2004/07/30
by Dean Budnick

Bob Weir: Storyteller and Gizmo Freak

Bob Weir was still a teenager when he joined the band that would become the Warlocks and later the Grateful Dead (think about that for a moment). Given the scope of his ensuing career, the recent release of the Weir Here two disc compilation justly gives him his due (and after four decades as a songwriter and performer some would say this recognition is overdue). The following conversation considers the music represented on Weir Here while also touching on Ratdog, the Dead, senior moments, and the archaism of albums.

DB- First off what was your initial reaction when someone approached you about putting together a career retrospective?

BW- There was the sort of "you're kidding me" reaction. It had never occurred to me but I was talked into it pretty quickly.

DB- In terms of selecting the songs, let’s start with those on Disc One, the studio tracks, what was the process?

BW- We went back and forth. I wanted to pack it full of the tunes that I felt didn't get the respect and attention they so richly deserved at the time they were out. The people who market me wanted to pack it full of the hits. And so we went back and forth and I think it came together pretty well.

One tune I had to champion but wouldn't have made the greatest hits list was "Fly Away". That tune came together very quickly. It's kind of an adventurous cross between reggae and fusion jazz. For what it's worth, in the Jamaican equivalent of the Grammys it won the best foreign reggae song.

DB- You’re certainly someone who thrives in the live setting but I’m curious, as you go back now and listen to these songs, is there one where you absolutely nailed the studio version in such a way you feel you can’t attain it when you play the tune live?

BW- Yes, "Cassidy" from the Ace album. There's a stark simplicity and beauty. There was no bass, just myself and Billy. I recorded the basic track with guitar and then went back, doubled what I'd done with the electric guitar and that was that. It was pristine and I'll never get that with any of the ensembles.

DB- Are you ever tempted to perform a stripped down version?

BW- I suppose I could do it live. I would do the acoustic part and then get one of the guitar players I'm working with to do the electric part and have just one drummer. But on the other hand I'd have to remember how I played it because it arose from a tuning that David Crosby taught me and I can't remember the tuning (laughs). So needless to say I can't play the original guitar part that's on the record until I discover how to do that tuning again.

DB- Stepping back, you mentioned "Fly Away." Will the process of re-engaging that song lead you to play it out live again?

BW- Yes, next time RatDog goes out I'm going to have it up with them. I used to play it with Bobby and the Midnights and I played for a while with Rob Wasserman when we were a duo.

DB- Over the course of your career, occasionally songs have disappeared for extended periods of time. For instance you put away "Black Throated Wind" for about fifteen years. Why was that?

BW- We stopped doing that one in 74 when the band took a year off. When we came back there were a lot of chord changes and I just sort of forgot about it. I don't listen to my old albums. I only have so much time in my day and if I'm going to listen to music I better get at it and I want it to be new information. You can get new information from old stuff but more often than not it's not going to be the first place you look.

Anyhow, when we came back together we didn't have any lists, we just worked off what we could remember. So we started working up a repertoire again and I didn't even remember "Black Throated Wind" until a number of years later.

Later, with RatDog, one of the guys brought it up. When we were working stuff up, I'd send them home with little homework assignments to learn a particular tune. I wanted to be able to play it exactly like it is on the record one time and then there are no rules anymore. So, and this is years ago, I sent them home with the Ace record to learn something like "Greatest Story" and their curiosity took them to other songs. And Mark might then say, "How about Black Throated Wind?' And I'd say, "Sure I know that tune." (laughs) So that's how that one came back around again.

DB- When you’re out performing now, and in particular singing some of the older material, how often do you find that particular lyrics will jump out at you, either because you simply enjoy enunciating a specific phrase or the words themselves take on new resonance?

BW- Pretty nearly every night something like that happens. I don't keep track of it. It takes you unaware but that's what I live for and I know it's going to happen all the time.

DB- In terms of taking you unaware, I think that people are still surprised that on those songs you’ve been playing for many years, occasionally a lyric will elude you.

DW- (Laughs) Yeah, we have our senior moments.

DB- (Laughing) Although, most respectfully, that has happened infrequently since you were a junior. Do you find that there’s a precipitating factor?

BW- Generally something else is grabbing your attention, you're kind of singing on auto pilot. I may be listening to something that someone is doing or the sound of my instrument may be bugging me and I'm trying to think of how I want to change it. Or somebody may play a riff that crosses my eyes and it sort of leaves me vacant for a minute (laughs). It used to happen all the time. Jerry would do a little clang or something, I'd leave my body for a minute and then I'd have to come back and sing.

DB- The release of Weir Here invites sweeping assessments of your music. How has the nature of your songwriting changed over the course of your career, if at all?

BW- The biggest change is lately I have preferred to write with the guys that I'm going to be performing those pieces with. That way pretty much I know what the carpet is going to feel like, the harmonic and rhythmic textures. You really can't know what you're going to get if you sequester yourself. And the other thing is when I'm working with other people, ideas are going to present themselves that I wouldn't up necessarily come up with. More often than not I am pleasantly surprised by that.

DB- Do think that’s something particular to RatDog

BW- It just feels right. I write by touch, I write by feel. When I'm writing music I let my fingers find it I don't try to impose it with my head.

DB- One element that has remained rather consistent over the years in your songwriting, is you’ve been drawn to non-traditional time signatures. What is their appeal to you?

BW- I particularly like 7/4. It's the best of three and the best of four. I write shuffles, I right up-tempo, I write ballads in it. There's something really, really wonderful about that time signature once you learn to breathe in it.

DB- Do you remember how that initially came about?

BW- Way back, I think this was '67, we were rehearsing, working up material and we had this passage in the key of G and it was in seven. At that time we were listening to North Indian classical music and we went off on seven. As soon as I got to the point where I could play over the barlines and still know where the one was, that was the moment of epiphany, "Hey this is cool, I love this."

DB- Is Indian music still an influence on you?

BW- Not as much as I'd like it to be. An old, dear friend of mine is the resident explorer at the National Geographic Society. There's a project on the horizon that I really want to make happen where I would go to India with him and a couple of other guys, one of whom would be a master of north Indian classical music and it would be Indian Classical Music 101. This would be a DVD and it could air on the National Geographic channel and Public Television, because so much of that music is opaque to western ears. But I believe it's the oldest and deepest music tradition on earth. The stuff I can understand has really rocked my world but the great bulk of it I can't follow (laughs). I want to demystify it for myself and in doing so I might as well do the rest of the western world a little favor and try to make it accessible to them as well.

DB- In the realm of other projects on the horizon, what is the status of your Satchel Paige musical?

BW- It's ready to go. We've got a director who wants to do it but he's been having a lot of success lately and he's real busy. As soon as he can carve out some time we'll get it on the boards somewhere. I think there's going to be a read-through at a theatrical industry seminar in the fall, but I don't know the specifics.

DB- The music is completed?

BW- For the time being it's all written. That might change once we get it into development which is the next phase, if it needs a tune here or if we need to drop a tune because the piece is slowing down in a particular place. But it's tight as a drum and one hundred percent written unless something comes up in development.

DB- To what extent have those songs filtered out into your live shows?

BW- I used to do one of the ballads when I was just playing with Rob. We may do that ballad again but it's tough. When people hear new tunes they want them to rock their socks and this one doesn't do that. It's a quiet contemplative tune, called it "Shoulda Had Been Me."

DB- Somewhat along these lines, I’ve always found that the songs I most enjoy when you’re out with RatDog are the band’s originals.

BW- Yeah those that were written for the band came out full alive.

DB- You mention audience expectation and there are certainly many people who come out to RatDog shows want to see you perform the music of the Grateful Dead. How do you strike a balance with the RatDog material?

BW- Well, RatDog's rendition of a Dead tune is necessarily going to be different from the Dead's rendition because of the simple difference of personnel. They have a different life to them. I love both of them. If I preferred the way one of the bands did a given tune I would drop it from the other's repertoire but as it is none of that's happened. I look forward to "New Minglewood Blues" with both bands because it's different, so I don't get tired of the song (laughs). In fact I get to do it more without getting tired of it.

DB- The Jerry Garcia songs that you perform, you’ve said that you introduce particular compositions primarily because you want to hear them again?

BW- I'll get lonesome for a given tune. I'll hear a clip of it and a bell will go off, "I've got to do that tune. I've got to have that one living in my heart again."

DB- Are there some that you still won’t perform for one reason or another?

BW- Well, "Morning Dew," I'm not going to do that tune unless I get the better part of a month to sit with it. I wouldn't dare. "Stella Blue's" another one that I wouldn't touch unless I have a great deal of time to work it up. It would have to be a really splendid rendition and that takes time which I haven't had to date.

DB- Before you go I’d love to hear your assessment of this summer’s Dead tour. To your mind what has been the greatest area of improvement with the group?

BW- The greatest improvement is the on-stage volume has come down a little bit which makes interaction a lot easier.

DB- How did that come about?

BW- I threw a fit.

DB- On the flip side what area do you think is most in need of some improvement?

BW- On-stage volume again. Even RatDog plays too loud. I just played a party with an outfit called the Waybacks and the on-stage volume was polite. As a singer it's so much easier. There is so much more you can do with that, with those dynamics. It's a different world and I'm a singer.

DB- Is "singer" how would describe yourself if I asked you characterize your artistic endeavors with one word?

BW- I would define myself a storyteller. There's a story that's told with a melody. There's a story that's told with a harmonic or rhythmic progression. There's a story that's told with a lyric. There's a story that's told with a song. I'm a storyteller.

DB- On to RatDog, what does the fall hold in terms of touring?

BW- Probably about seven weeks. I don't think we're going to Europe or Japan this year.

DB- Are there plans in the works for another RatDog studio release?

BW- I've been rebuilding my home and studio for the last three years now and the home is pretty much complete and the studio is very nearly compete. The building is built and we're installing equipment. It's my dream studio basically and I'll be able to work in my studio anywhere there's a broadband connection. For instance I'm going to carry around a really nice microphone, you can't use it on stage because it hears too much. I'll carry it to my hotel room and if we're recording the whole basic track and whatever sweetening that wants to go on top of that, I can download the tune I'm working on, set up the microphone put a vocal on it and if there's time left in the evening I can mix the tune and release it, send it to iTunes. It's pretty cool. As soon as it's built I'll be writing a lot.

DB- You talked about having a senior moment a bit earlier but you’ve certainly embraced technology in a manner that many younger people today have yet to do.

BW- We'll I'm a gizmo freak or a gizmo buff shall we say. That and the state of the art recording is irrevocably headed for the digital world. It's hard to even find analog tape anymore. So if you're going to make songs and record them you don't have much of a choice. Beyond that the facility that the digital recording medium gives you, there's so much you can do, like for instance work on a studio recording in your hotel room.

DB- Are you someone who finds that analog has a warmer sound?

BW- Absolutely but I'm not sure how long that's going to last. In the next few years the industry is going to move to 36 bit resolution and 192k sampling rate and at that point all bets are off. I think at that point digital will sound better than analog. There will be some purists but I get the feeling they are ideologues and will be impossible to convince otherwise but I don't think they could hear it.

DB- Finally, you mention releasing individual songs to iTunes. Do you feel that the album as a form is archaic?

BW- Well, the history of the name album, it used to be when 78s were the medium, you would buy a symphony in an album, a bound, etched book or a stack of books. Inside would be envelope leaves and in each one would be ten or twelve 78s and that would be the first movement, that's an album. When the long playing record came out they kept the name because it still applied and that carried through but it's an artificial constraint. You don't need to put out an album's worth of tunes anymore, you can put them out as you make them up. If they want to be all together, if it's a suite then you release an album's worth of tunes. Otherwise why not release them as they come out?

Oh, and one last thing. This is not music but vote this election. Every interview I do I wrap it up with an exhortation for everybody to vote. Big business is buying our government and when the deal is complete they're not going to give it back, we'll be a democracy in name only. This very easily could be our last meaningful election apart from blood on the streets. We won't own our country anymore and therefore we won't own our lives anymore.

This is real. I'm not being shrill about this and I'm not being rash. If you look at who paid for what in the last election and who's in office and who's getting the big government contracts it's pretty clear . This doesn't mean the people in business, the people who are buying the government are necessarily bad people. If the government's for sale like this one is and you don't buy it then the competition will and you have a responsibility to yourself, your family, your employees and your stockholders to own the government, so that's what being done. This trend can be turned around I hope but this is our last chance to do it this election. So register and vote.

DB- Do you think it will be enough simply to change the governing entities involved or if the situation is as dire as you indicate, is a larger corrective required?

BW- If we save our democracy this one last time we've got to get money out of government. The argument that money is free speech is stupid. Money is not free speech, speech is free speech. It's time for massive change but we've got to start with this election because it's our last chance, Then we need to turn the whole process around and turn it back into a government of the people by the people and for the people rather than a government of the people by the elite for the elite, which is what it's becoming now.

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