Bobby Lee Rodgers Embraces The Now
Just at the point when the Codetalkers seemed to be taking on a new momentum, with the release of their second studio effort, now, life intervened. Bruce Hampton was forced to leave the road and enter a hospital for immediate heart surgery. The band continued gamely onward, although there was some fallback from Hampton’s decision to end his association with the group in a touring capacity.
Meanwhile, even as Codetalkers’ front man Bobby Lee Rodgers, continued with the group, he also started performing with two of Hampton’s longtime acolytes, Jimmy Herring and Jeff Sipe. Herring/Rodgers/Sipe (a new moniker is reportedly on the horizon) has started to pick up speed as well (although this may change slightly given Herring’s recent commitment to Widespread Panic, a topic that was not addressed in this interview, which took place before the group’s announcement that Herring has signed on for fall tour duty).
Bobby Lee Rodgers is an affable, engaging raconteur. A gentleman and a scholar (quite literally, on both accords, as he used to teach at the Berklee College of Music). He is also in Herring’s words “a bottomless pit of creativity.”
DB- First off can you talk a bit about the state of Bruce’s health?
BLR- He’s doing okay. He had angioplasty and a couple stints in his arteries. He’s getting his diabetes under control and I think he’s going to be okay. He’s doing a couple of local gigs here and there but I don’t think he’s going to do a lot of touring anymore.
It was just a little scary because we were in the middle of all this touring. It was good that he was notified that all this stuff was going on his body and I feel a lot better that he’s okay now. He doesn’t need to be in the band playing all the time, staying up until three in the morning with the smoke and listening to people scream. He’s told me that he wants to stay local around Atlanta. He has to watch his health and doesn’t want to do a lot of heavy touring.
DB- Speaking of touring, you’ve recently started performing in a band with Jimmy Herring and Jeff Sipe. In an interview I did with Jimmy a little while ago, he praised your songwriting and called you a machine, in a nice way. I’d like to hear your reaction to that.
BLR- (Laughs). Man I don’t know what to say about that. I feel like I’m full of so many experiences and I’m just writing about those experiences. I feel honored that he would consider me a prolific writer. I feel that the experiences in my life have come out in the music. It’s just a culmination and a kind of release of what I’ve gone through. I’m sharing it with people whether it’s good or bad news.
I’ve never been able to sit down and do writing with people or have writing appointments or anything like that. It usually comes in the worst possible situation, I could be eating dinner or talking on the phone or in the middle of a huge television program and then I have to get up and leave. And my wife gets mad and says I’m not attentive (laughs). But I just have to jump on it.
The challenge in songwriting is I can’t develop a narrative like in a nice novel or even a short story. It’s more micro-stories. It seems like the lyrics are attached to the notes for me, they’re inseparable. The melody is always attached to the lyrics. So I couldn’t sit down and write a novel or history book. I wouldn’t know where to start, it’s so vast. I can write in small little pictures.
DB- When you sit down to write music, do you make some determination going in as to whether a particular song is going to be for the Codetalkers or for some other project?
BLR- To me there’s no delineation. It’s all from the same place and whatever band it happens to go with is where it happens to go. I’ve never been the kind to write songs for people. Sometimes if I hear a singer in my brain I may say, “What would Nat King Cole sound like today?” and I might lean that way. That might be the goal or the influence of the day. I feel like I have all these territories of melody from all these experiences and maybe on a particular day I’ll bring out something that was in my high school jazz band and write in that territory.
It’s like, say you’ve learned a word, any word. Cardiology, for instance. And you’ve never been able to use that in a poem. But then it happens that you’ve been talking to somebody about their heart and it just comes out. There’s no way you can insert that word until it’s the right time. These melodies are the same way. I internalize them in a way that I don’t try to force them out. I feel like if I’m in that zone then they’ll come out in an instinctual way. But I don’t even think about it that way. I hear those notes and the lyrics because they’ve already been programmed into me.
DB- How would you describe the development of your songwriting with the Codetalkers from the first disc to the second?
BLR- I don’t know if it’s disc to disc. Some of those I wrote before I was in the Codetalkers. I had a band called Bobby Lee Rodgers and the Herd before the Codetalkers. It’s funny, I was on [NPR’s] Morning Edition. Ashley Kahn heard “Niagara Falls,” and said, “That’s a great new song.” But I literally wrote it 20 years ago. I’m always writing new songs but some songs that we end up doing in the Codetalkers might be from 5 or 7 or even 20 years ago.
When I was young my band director told me I needed to have piles of songs: “That’s what going to give you a future because it’s going to give you your voice.” It’s like what Herbie Hancock says, “Writing is improvisation slowed down and improvisation is writing sped up.” So I always looked at this as one and the same.
DB- I ask because the tone of the two albums are very different and I don’t just mean your guitar tone. Do you agree?
BLR- Definitely. The new album I got into this thing where instead of playing multiple instruments, I said, “I want to dial this to a sound of the band where I can take one guitar and cut an entire record.” That was the goal instead of saying, “Now let’s use this guitar, let’s use this banjo, this acoustic or mandolin.” The last album had textures in that way. For this one, I wanted to make the textures more in the music.
Collectively now we’ve been together 7 years and when you have time together with people you can develop to the point where it takes on its own life as a sound. All the gigging and all the touring has created a particular sound. So let’s just get down to the music more than the production. Let’s let the melodies and themes be the breadwinners here, instead of coloring it for the sake of coloring it. We just wanted a really natural sound.
DB- So I take it that decision had an impact on the song selection as well?
BLR- It sure did. It brought out certain aspects of the writing where these songs fit for this record.
DB- Getting back to Bruce, how has his absence impacted on the live shows?
BLR- The business is bizarre. He’s been attached to this band and he’s been my mentor but he wants us to go on, which he has done with everyone. He’s said that nothing would make him happier than to see the Codetalkers move on but he can’t do it anymore. It’s a double-edged sword because his name as a marquee value has helped us. And then we went out without him and people were dropping our guarantees in half because of his physical presence not being here and he was really upset about it. It’s the nature of how the business is but I think we’ll get through all this. I believe in the Codetalkers and what we have. Now he feels that maybe his presence has hurt us a little bit. It’s tricky
He went home and had his diabetes treatments and his heart stuff and he came back two weeks later and said, “Y’all are on fire.” I think we had been there to support him for so long that when he went off it turned us into wild animals (laughs). Of course I say that we were supporting him but he has been supporting us for a long while as well and I’m just so grateful for that. Like I said, he’s been a mentor.
DB- Meanwhile things seem to be picking up with your other project.
BLR- When I talk with Jimmy he says, “We’ll do some stuff with the new band and try to get your music out there even more.” And it just is just unbelievable because the guys in this band, there’re sick. I feel like I’m on a rocket ship. I’ll listen to them play and I’ll go, “Oh my god, oh my god.” That’s “Oh my god” twice (laughs). But that’s just the way I feel, I’m in awe.
As I said earlier I haven’t been able to sit down with anyone and come up with something that’s really worthwhile but with him we’re starting to get there. I think this’ll be the first time when this happens because we’re so connected. It’s like family because there’s no ego involved, it’s all about purity with us. It’s not “Did I get my guitar solo?” or “Did I get to sing enough?”
To me writing takes time where you really get to know someone on a whole other level than just swapping tapes. I think we’ve stopped the swapping tapes realm and we’re about to get into something incredible. Both of us feel so strongly spiritual about it that we want to it be pure intention when it comes out.