Oteil Burbridge, True Believer
Despite a career that finds him entrenched within the jamband scene Oteil Burbridge mainly views his work as an extension of his wide range of influences from Ralph Stanley to Pancho Sanchez and beyond. “I grew up playing jazz, funk salsa, blues, reggae, all these different things. That’s my mindset. I have the same mindset that I did when I was a teenager and there was no such thing as a jamband.”
He moved from being a founding member of the Aquarium Rescue Unit in 1991 to hooking up with the Allman Brothers Band in 1997. Still, that wasn’t enough for him. He kept busy with his own project, the Peacemakers, while recording and performing with a list that includes Gov’t Mule, Vida Blue with Page McConnell, Bass Extremes with Victor Wooten and the Jaco Pastorius Big Band.
More determined than ever to pursue his own artistic ambitions, Believer, the latest release from Oteil and the Peacemakers, reflects his spiritual side. The music maintains the same mix of jazz and funk fusion heard on 2003’s The Family Secret, with lyrics that are meant to offer insight to Burbridge’s positive nature and, hopefully, spread that feeling to others.
We talked a couple weeks after he had a motorcycle accident, which landed him briefly in the hospital. Still battered from the incident, Burbridge was in great spirits as he conducted the interview while taking care of several errands in his Birmingham, Alabama hometown during some time off from playing live with the Peacemakers and the Allman Brothers.
JPG: How are you feeling? I put off calling you for awhile, not bother you while you recover.
OB: I had a gig over the weekend in Colorado. I’ve been pretty much mobile two days after the accident. I’m hanging in there. Banged up. Nothing major.
JPG: Maybe your head was still spinning from your 14 nights at the Beacon with the Allman Brothers Band? I’d like to hear your impression of this year’s Beacon run.
OB: I thought this year the vibe was just so much better onstage. And the choice of people that we had sitting in was way better than normal. I really dug that part. But, it’s always great. This was definitely a high. I thought it was better than usual.
JPG: With so many guests playing during the Beacon run, is there a lot of planning or is it off the cuff where a band member runs into somebody that day and next thing you know they’re onstage that night.
OB: It works both ways. Some things you kind of prepare for ahead of time. Some people just show up and you have songs that you normally get people to sit in on like “One Way Out” or “Southbound.” If a song’s simple enough they’ll just show it to me in the dressing room before we hit the stage. It could go any kind of way.
JPG: What was an example of one they showed you just before you got onstage?
OB: Actually, I don’t know because I didn’t know the song so I forgot it pretty much right after I played it. (laughs) It was when Gary Rossington sat in. It was a Lynyrd Skynyrd song that was just three chords. He showed me, but I don’t remember what the name of it is. [Gary Rossington was on for Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Simple Man.”]
JPG: When you’re doing a Beacon run is it more relaxing and better for playing because you’re in one spot for a period of time, almost like a day job kind of thing rather than drive hotel show drive hotel
OB: To play with Allman Brothers is never like a day job. (slight laugh) If it gets that way I’m gonna quit. It’s easier not being on the road. In some ways I feel like I was more tired because there were so many people that I had to deal with. I just can’t accommodate everybody.
JPG: As far as dealing with things, you’re doing a set with the Peacemakers and also one with The Allman Brothers Band at the Wanee Festival. How do you get yourself set up mentally and physically for two completely different things?
OB: It’s not really an adjustment. I’ve done both so much that you just get up and do it. It’s not like I have to readjust for one or the other. I’m trying to think of an analogy. If you played pool with friends and then you went afterwards and played poker. It’s not like you’d have to go through some sort of process to get ready to play poker. Just a different game and these are much more closely related.
JPG: As for yourself, you’re out on the road supporting the new Peacemakers album Believer. I read that you just want to concentrate on the Allmans and the Peacemakers and not do any side projects because you see the Peacemakers as the main part of your life when at some point in the future the Allmans call it a day. What is it about the Peacemakers that feels so right to you?
OB: We write all the music ourselves so it’s like a tailor-made suit. I don’t know how anything on earth could fit me better than The Peacemakers. It would just be a miracle someone would be able to write some music that felt more comfortable for me to play than music that I wrote myself.
JPG: The Peacemakers have been an on again off again thing for a number of years. Why the change to give it so much attention?
OB: We just started doing more and more dates. The last two years, I’ve done more dates with the Peacemakers than I’ve done with The Allman Brothers. The more we did it the more it would grow, musically. We’re doing this show in Atlanta where Jimmy Herring is going to play with us pretty much the whole night and I was going to make a CD of a bunch of live stuff that I have on my laptop to send to him and I realized that none of the stuff that I have on my laptop was from the last month we played. So, I couldn’t send it to him because all of the tunes have evolved so much in the last two months. There’s whole sections of the song that would be completely unfamiliar to him and some of these songs we’ve been playing for years, but they’ve just changed. Somebody’ll do something amazing and we’ll add it into the song and parts will get written around that without rehearsing or anything. Just doing it live and listening back to it.
I had to get my soundman to send something that was done from last tour. The more you play, the better it gets and things just start popping. I’ve realized that all these other projects that I was doing, as fun as they were, I found myself wishing that I was out on the road with my band. So, it’s something I have control of. You just have to say, No.’ I’m really glad.
JPG: Tough to say, No,’ but sometimes…
OB: You just got to do it. I think the older you get a lot of times you realize what you say, No’ to is as important, maybe more sometimes, than what you say, Yes’ to. I’m 41 now and the road’s not getting any easier. I’m like, Okay. What do I really want to do because this shit’s making me tired? It’s wearing me out. So, let’s figure out exactly what I want to do because if I’m going to be this worn out, I gotta make it completely count.’
JPG: When you’re younger you pretty much take whatever comes your way because you don’t know if you’ll remain busy.
OB: When I was 26 we were out on the road with the Aquarium Rescue Unit and we weren’t making any money. So, I had to be out there a million dates a year just to make ends meet. When I started getting calls from all these different people I was in my early 30’s and still had plenty of energy, and I wasn’t going to turn down anything. I was like, Shit, man. I’ve been waiting for my phone to ring and waiting to be able to make some bread.’ So, I took everything. Two years ago it just got so crazy, I went, Okay, now I’m 39 and looking ahead to my 40th year. I don’t need the money right now for anything because of the Allman Brothers. So what do I really want to do?’ It was obvious to me that I wanted to do The Peacemakers. So, I just said, You know, I think this is going to be it.’ If I can have these two things going as good as they’re going now life will be perfect. Aside from me not being able to ride my motorcycle, life is perfect.
JPG: Are people keeping you off or are you keeping yourself off?
OB: I can’t ride because of my injuries, but I also made a deal with my wife that if I had a serious accident that I wouldn’t ride anymore and she was stuck in traffic when the hospital called her. So, for 45 minutes they wouldn’t tell her whether I was dead or alive or a quadriplegic or a vegetable. Nothing. Forty-five minutes is a long ass time, man. Really long time. That was her worst nightmare come true. I don’t want to do that to her again.
It was nuts, man. Absolutely nuts. I think I’ve recovered from the accident more than she has. She’s still really freaked out. Who could blame her? It’s a bad spot to be in.
JPG: Let’s go back to happier things. Are you more enthusiastic about the Peacemakers because the lineup has been consistent over the last few years?
OB: Absolutely! You cannot grow with different players all the time. Even Miles [Davis], who changed bands a lot when he had a band, he had it for a period of time and that band would do its thing. When he felt it was done with what it needed to do or he was ready to make a change, then he’d change it. I’ve had the same guys for three years now. This is our fourth year. You can tell the amazing amount of growth in just bonding together. It’s like a ball team. It really has been so much fun and exciting to watch. It’s just as exciting for us as anybody in the audience, probably more so in a way because we know what’s going on better than they do. It really flips us out.
JPG: You’ve worked for years as a member of a band, how are you as a bandleader?
OB: I do not believe in democracy in any form for a country or a band (slight laugh) because I’ve always said that benevolent dictatorship is the way to go. Even in the Allman Brothers, things were so much easier when Duane was the leader because decisions get made. It’s easier. Like in the ARU, it takes so long to make the simplest decisions. It’s just so frustrating and I’m just like, You know, it’s just better if one guy does it, for better or worse.’ If I make the wrong decisions in the Peacemakers then I’ve got to take responsibility for it. If I make the right one great, but at least it gets done.
It streamlines things if there’s one leader and that’s it. It’s not like I ignore what everybody wants in the band. They’re my friends, for one thing. I care about them as people aside from the music. Obviously, I care about what makes them happy or unhappy musically or as far as being on the road. Some stuff I can’t help until we start making $100,000 dollars a night (slight laugh). Then, whatever problem they have you just throw a little money at it and go, All right. You happy now?’ (laughs) Right now, I’m not able to do that. You just got to suffer through something. Just the way it is.
JPG: You mentioned how much the music has evolved. How do you look at Believer now?
OB: Oh God, you’d be shocked. If I gave you a live tape of us playing all those exact same songs, and we did that last February, it all sounds so much better now. It’s ridiculous. The actual parts of the songs have changed. I’d really love to do a live DVD right now. There are some tunes from the first album that we’re still doing because they’ve evolved so much since 1998. I would drop the tune except it keeps changing and getting better. It’s like a completely different song.
JPG: In regards to Believer and the Peacemakers sound, you came up with the term Fujospel’ for funk, jazz and gospel. Is it fu’ like funk or foo’?
OB: (laughs) Who knows? I get so sick of trying to classify stuff, man. It’s a made up word. I guess you can pronounce it however you want to. To me it’s just all different kinds of American Music thrown together. And I can’t even say that cause a lot of rhythmic stuff that I hear comes from Africa, Cuba and a lot of the harmonic stuff comes from Europe, from classical composers like Stravinsky. I really get quite sick of trying to describe what it is to people (slight laugh) cause I can’t. An exercise in futility.
JPG: Compared to The Family Secret, the previous album by the Peacemakers, there’s a more pronounced attention towards spirituality this time. What brought about the change?
OB: I guess probably that I didn’t give a shit what people thought (slight laugh). I got into this big thing with my producer on Family Secret over the song “Thank You.” It got me starting to think about it and I was like, Did Bob Marley ever tone down his religion in his music?’ No.’ Do the Blind Boys of Alabama tone down their religion in their music?’ Why should I have to?’ I think it’s bullshit. This is me. If you don’t like it, no one’s forcing you to buy the record.
I don’t know why some people are so afraid of that, but I’m not. I didn’t see any reason to change it because of other people’s fears, my producer or whomever. This is America. You can believe what you want to believe. If you don’t believe in that, on your record don’t have it. I got no problem with that. I don’t tell you what to do on your record.
JPG: Does it help that the jamband scene seems to be accepting of so many different types of music that having a spiritual side isn’t frowned upon?
OB: I don’t know cause we have more of the musician fans that are into jazz and fusion. We are starting to get more fans from the funk scene. Our fanbase is kind of all over the place. I think it’s really the spirit in which you do things. That’s something that everybody can relate to. A lot of people think that they don’t consider themselves spiritual, but even if you’re in court, which I would consider the opposite of a spiritual environment where people are trying to mess with loopholes and things like that they’ll say, You’re violating the spirit of the law.’ Everybody knows when you’re spirit’s not right. Like, Hey man, that’s messed up.’ We know what the spirit of the law is. You’re going against that. To me it’s the same with music. If I go out and I play the music and it’s in a positive spirit and a spirit of love, then it could be about Jesus or be about anything. People are not put off by it.
Earth Wind and Fire and Stevie Wonder were two other people besides Bob Marley that I really look to. You give [the listener] that incredible groove on a silver platter and you give em a positive message…I mean, I haven’t had any complaints.
JPG: I read a quote of yours where you say that you have to face your fears in order to be open about your spirituality which allows you to be an artist rather merely a musician.
OB: There’s two things for me. One is just honesty, and the other thing is I don’t really know what else to write about. You have your own life experience to write about. I would have to try to not write about it, which would be dishonest and also be a lot more difficult. It’s a lot easier for me to just say what’s on my mind. My singer’s dad is a preacher. Has been for 50 years. That’s what he writes about. That’s what his life has been.
We also do covers, some Hendrix stuff and “Green Eyed Lady” by Sugarloaf. We do instrumental stuff. It’s not 100% religious music. It’s about 90% though. (laughs)
JPG: You described your feelings of God as giving a sense of hope in life
OB: and of love. That’s out of the Bible. It says God is the Spirit and God is Love. When I see stuff like, God, please protect me from your followers.’ If they’re really following God, then you don’t need protection from em because they’re following Love. But, that’s my personal belief. I believe that God is Love so I would never need to be protected from God’s followers.
JPG: At the same time, viewing God as hope and love and the idea that he brings joy, I was thinking how music brings joy. So, you’re doubling up with the Peacemakers.
OB: Oh yeah. I mean I’m of that school of Christians that all good things come from God, whether they’re Christian or not. To me when I hear Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan sing and he’s Sufi. I hear that unbelievable music. To me that’s a gift from God. It doesn’t matter what religion or if it’s no religion. Anything good, sunshine, beautiful feelings that you share between people, obviously music, as long as we try to abide in love and spread love then we’re doing God’s work.
JPG: As far as the music’s concerned with you not dealing with so many extra projects, should we expect more albums from the Peacemakers rather than once every two three years or more?
OB: I don’t know. The writing process kind of happens when it happens. When I bought my motorcycle, man, I did not practice at all. I normally don’t practice anyway. But, I didn’t write. I was on the bike, man, and life is not all about music for me. Life is many-faceted. I know so many musicians that are just unbelievable and there are other parts of their life that are really neglected or nonexistent. I think they pay a price for that. Now, I could be a lot more amazing musician, but then again I got one lifeI want to get out on my bike. I want to spend time with my wife in Jamaica, in Prague or wherever. I want to do things besides music. Now, sometimes it just comes over me like a fever or a sickness where I can get consumed with writing. Then, I let it happen when it happens. I don’t try to force it. That’s the way. It may not be a good thing. Somebody else’ll have to judge that. That’s the way I am. If I didn’t have my motorcycle wreck I’d be out on the bike right now.
JPG: Now that you can’t ride, maybe you’ll have to find a new hobby.
OB: Maybe it’s time for me to write some more music (laughs). Maybe God was like, No. I want you to write music now.’ I don’t think God is that cruel but you know, now that I’m handicapped I’ll probably write some more stuff and concentrate on that. I don’t want to put out an album every three or four years. I would like to do one a year, but sometimes I don’t have enough songs to do one a year. We’ll see. It’s something to shoot for.
JPG: “No More Doubt” on Believer connects your two bands. You should consider bringing up the number then next time you rehearse with the Allmans because it has that type of sound.
OB: When you think about it we did the exact same thing in 1969 that me and Paul [Henson of the Peacemakers] were doing in the late 80s and early 90s. They were mixing blues, rock, funk, jazz and country. When I was in the ARU we were mixing blues rock, funk, jazz and bluegrass and some Latin stuff, too. So, it’s not surprising that there should be similarities because I feel The Peacemakers as just a 21st Century of what the Allman Brothers were doing in the late 60s and early 70s and are still doing now. It’s just a more updated version.
I think the guys in the Peacemakers have a lot deeper background in jazz than the Allman Brothers did back then. Jaimoe really had this serious jazz background, was the one who turned Duane onto Miles and Coltrane, which is where a lot of the long jams came from cause Trane and Miles would have these really long solos. I wouldn’t even call it a major difference. I would say the only difference. Martin [Kimbrell], my guitar player’s dad is a legendary jazz keyboardist here in Birmingham and [drummer] Chris [Fryar] came up playing jazz and I came up playing jazz and my brother, Kofi and my keyboard player [Matt Slocum] had a strong background in jazz. We’re all into the same stuff. We all listen to the same stuff.
That’s why the writing will come out similar. Although, I will say I get schooled in R& B and Blues by Greg [Allman] and Butch [Trucks] and Jaimoe cause those guys… It’s funny for a longhaired white guy with tattoos to know more about black music than I do, like old Soul music and Blues. Greg knows that stuff inside and out. I just started learning about the really old Blues and a lot of the old Soul music within the last 10-15 years.
JPG: Nearly 10 years of it being with Greg and the rest of the Allman Brothers.
OB: God, isn’t that weird? I’ve been with em almost a decade. Wow.
JPG: Time flies.
OB: No kiddin’