Raging It in the Big City with Josh ClarkTea Leaf Green: Rock n Roll Band (Part II)
It’s hard to be cool when you’re playing for the prophets;
They really know it if you got it or you lost it. – “Taught To Be Proud,” Tea Leaf Green
On Halloween Tea Leaf Green will release its debut DVD and accompanying live album. The date seems apt since director Justin Kreutzmann has described Rock ‘n’ Roll Band as a cross between Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Amusement Park and the Grateful Dead Movie. The film is an excellent representation of Tea Leaf Green at a tour-opening gig on May 19, 2006 at the Fox Theatre in Boulder, Colorado. The live document serves as a solid bookend to last year’s studio release, _Taught to be Proud_an engaging electric live jamband counterbalanced with the album’s more serene and ethereal shadings.
The DVD also features several tracks which are not on the live album and lest one thinks that TLG has lost some of its jam edge, the DVD includes two segments of freeform improvisation including the benchmark slice of tension and release, “Sex in the 70s,” which closed the show after both Clark and Garrod took celebratory and long swigs from a fifth of Jim Beam during the jam.
Last month, Dean Budnick, Relix Senior Editor and Jambands.com Site Editor, helmed the first of our two part TLG series with keyboardist/vocalist Trevor Garrod. This month, we visited with guitarist Josh Clark and discussed the new DVD, the relationship of painting to musichis art design graces TLG’s releases, the Jammys, CBGBs, big American cities, Kilt Lifters and the inevitable and comical aging process of a life led on the road.RR: How did you get involved with Justin Kreutzmann?
JC: That connection is through our manager, Christopher Sabec. He used to be the CEO of the Jerry Garcia Estate. Justin had done some work with Jerry and David Grisman on some films and, obviously, he’s the son of Bill [Grateful Dead/Rhythm Devils drummer]. He had also done some work with the band and so that’s how we know each other. We hatched the whole idea to do a DVD project together.
RR: How did you select the Fox Theatre in Boulder, Colorado? It’s a nice touch that TLG is playing there again on Halloween, the day the DVD and CD is released.
JC: Serendipity. (laughter) Boulder wasn’t selected for any particular reasonnot to my knowledge. It was the first show of the tour and it just came down to timing. We just wanted to get this thing out as soon as we could by capturing us where we are in the moment before it changes into whatever comes next. It was a good crowd with good energy and I’m really happy that that was the show because I think the band played a really good show that night. You can have all of that equipment and all of that crap there and play a stinker. (laughs) I think we got lucky.
RR: The live set definitely shows a different side. Whereas albums like Taught to be Proud present the band as relaxed, strong and confident, Rock n’ Roll Band is much more of a direct statementyou guys are rocking and that’s the point, right?
JC: My hope for the DVD is that it serves as a good introduction for people who have heard of the band but have never been motivated to go see us. Here’s something that you can just pop right in in your living room and watch from your couch. I think that’s a great way to get more people into the band.
RR: For example, the interviews in the interludes between the songs work well.
JC: Yeah. I’m really happy with it. I can only watch myself so many times without cringing. (laughter) It’s weirdthat’s the best word I can come up with for it. I think my parents will enjoy it. (laughter)
RR: Obviously, musicians state that they never actually get to see their own band so does this format allow that to a certain degree or are you covering your eyes the whole time while watching the film?
JC: It’s pretty educational. It’s almost like football players watching the game on tape and saying, “Oh, yeah. I can do this or that better,” because you never see yourself.
RR: That’s an interesting analogy. What do you notice?
JC: I notice that I’m a little more psychotic than I thought. (laughter) I usually notice my fingers moving around; that’s crazy to watch. It’s a cool thingweird but cool.
RR: Some of your solos appear like an extension of how one would solo on a banjo. There is the heavy rock vibe being laid down and, simultaneously, you’re also layering a cool streak of bluegrass over the top of the mix.
JC: I do a lot of tremolo picking which is more of a mandolin technique, more of a right-hand thing. I don’t know if it has to do with the fact that I’m actually left-handed. The only thing I do right-handed is play guitar, whichI don’t knowis why I have more action going on with my right hand when I’m playing guitar. My guitar playing has come together fairly organically. I’ve never really had any formal training and I’m neither proud nor ashamed of thatit is what it is. I picked the thing up and just kind of came up with my own techniques.
RR: Speaking of that angle, will TLG play some acoustic sets in the future?
JC: Yeah, we will eventually. It just comes down to having the equipment. I don’t even have a functioning acoustic guitar. Usually whenever we usually do [the acoustic sets], we have to rent something. I still, as yet, have to get an instrument that I’m comfortable with in that format. Eventually, we’ll get a bunch of instruments out on the stage that everyone likesbanjos, mandolins, guitars and scavenging to get some kind of percussion thing going for that sort of scene, the TLG Acoustic Set. It’s all crappy equipment right now off the seat of our pants. (laughter)
RR: In the film you state that, without shame, “you’re a huge fan of the psychedelic jam.” Any past moments in particular that made you get into that form of music?
JC: Yeah, I think it comes down to being a teenager. I grew up in L.A. and they would have these parties up in Angel’s Crest in the summer at winter ski resorts, which had shut down for the season. This was before the festival scene was what it is now. They would just have a stage and a bunch of cover bands (laughs) so all of these Heads would converge up there. As a teenager, these was like my first time going out into the world a little bit, outside of the house and seeing this sort of scene. They’d have a little bit of this and a little bit of that and the psychedelic jamI had never heard anything like that, a mental journey with all of these little avenues and waves. I had never heard music like that; it was always the three-minute pop song. The psychedelic jam was more like a winding road and I really liked itthe whole idea of improvising as you go along fit in well with painting and art that I was interested in at the time. It all kind of came together and was a big moment in my formative years. (laughs) It’s who I am today, especially artistically. It altered my path foreverthe first winding psychedelic jam I heard. (laughs) Whether it is in or out of style, I really don’t care. I’m still going to do it.
RR: Is it important to keep TLG’s music timeless and contemporary without being part of any fad or genre?
JC: We can only do what we can do. All of us appreciate timeless music like The Band and all of those really great singer/songwriters from the 1970s. Trends will push it aside but it’s still there and always will be. You can go after the trends and try to hit it big with what’s happening today or whatever that isI don’t even know what that is. (laughs) It just all seems too confusing to me.
RR: There are some comments in the fan community that perhaps Tea Leaf Green isn’t jamming as much as they used to in the past. Is there any validity to that statement? I know when I saw you play at CBGBs as part of the Green Apple Music Festival that certainly wasn’t the caseit was an all-around heavy jam rock show. Could it be that particular shows feature songs that don’t have jam elements?
JC: Yeah, I think that it depends on the songs. Certain songs lend themselves more to improvisation throughout than others. With some numbers, it’s just not appropriate. You also have to be aware of your audience. If they’re starting to snooze on you, it cuts into the jamming, you know? It also depends on how inspired the band is [because] when you’ve got to do a show every night, the easiest thing to do is have your song start-to-finish, play it. With us, there has always been a thing that every song has a section where you invent something. So, you’re basically having to invent every night whether you’re feeling creative or not. It also depends on every factorwhat you ate (laughter), drank, all of that. I don’t think we’re jamming any less. I think we’ve cut off a lot of fat over the years and sort of gotten more to the point, which I think is a good thing. It depends on the showsome people will think that we’re jamming too much and another guy is loving it so to each their own. (pauses) We actually probably have made a little bit of a conscious effort to trim the fat but if you’re really feeling it, it’ll go further; it’s up to the collective mind of the band, reallyhow a jam is going to go.
RR: That’s a good point that you brought up about the awareness of the audience. For example, you have a pretty cool five-night run at the end of October through the heartland. TLG plays from Ohio through Minnesota ending up at the Cabooze in Minneapolis. I would assume that you have a little bit of a fanbase at these venues where you can stretch out. Is that a correct statement?
JC: Exactly. It’s a matter of trust. When you go into a room and you see all of these new faces, you want to give them the power set; something that you know is going to please them. But when you’re returning time-and-time again, you’re starting to see familiar faces and you know that they want you so you need to feel that sort of audience trust and that helps to get the jams out. I have a sense that people are willing to go there with you. I’m not saying I have ESP or anything but, you can sense whether they want to go there or not. It’s usually in second sets, too (laughter)you know, to sort of go deeper.
RR: We spoke about that infamous Arizona pirate bar called the Sail Inn back in April at the Green Apple Music Festival. TLG played a killer show there in March 2005 and I guess that went a little deeper, as well.
JC: I was just talking about that place with Ben [Combe], the guitarist from Particle. He used to live there and played at the Sail Inn all the time. [Combe was in the band Badshoe before joining Particle with RANA guitarist Scott Metzgerwho has since left Particleafter the departure of Charlie Hitchcock.] One of the first times we left California, we would turn around and it would be bleak with empty bars everywhere. I remember we played at the Sail Inn on a Wednesday night and people had been calling the bar all day. Everybody in the band said, “What? Are you kidding me?” A bunch of people showed up; we were stoked. Arizona was the first place to embrace us outside of the Bay Area.
RR: That was one of my favorite show reviewsweird but weird in a good way.
JC: The Kilt Lifters. (laughs)
RR: What did you say?
JC: Kilt Liftersthe beer they served there. They were pretty powerful beers.
RR: Ah, yes. How could I forget! Speaking of hallucinogensyou mentioned that psychedelic jams initially influenced your artwork. I like that the new film portrays that side of your workyour paintings, specifically. How does your artwork influence your guitar playing?
JC: I think the two of them inform each other. I went to art school so I learned a lot about theory behind the basics of all the fundamentals. The discovery I had during that time was that I got tremendously better at everything. I was also thinking morein typical termsstarting to think and it sort of took the magic totally out of it but I kind of prefer to keep something a little ignorant. Ignorance is bliss, you know?
RR: What do you mean by that?
JC: I like to go about something without a map. When I’m painting, I’m making deliberate choices. When I’m playing guitar, I’m slightly lost. (laughter) It’s good to have them both. I get tired of playing the guitar and I’m glad that I don’t have just one primary outlet for expression. I can put the guitar down and still be creative. It’s good to have a little balance like thatfor myself, at least.
RR: Are there particular objects or subjects that you like to paint? Do you have something in mind or do you just let yourself go?
JC: If I have an actual project to do, I like to work in a traditional way of doing research and a couple of comps and working up to a finished piece. I also like to get my sketchbook and draw people like I’m out of my mindcharacters and different goofy-looking people. (laughs) There are a lot of people that you see traveling around on the road that you absorb and they start to leak out of you. You kind of have to get them out. Sometimes, I get a little empathetic and start imagining sad things happening to these people and in a weird wayI don’t know whyI just sort of manifest it out onto paper and make them into something, make them special in a way.
RR: That’s interesting. I like that idea. Have you ever thought of constructing stories based upon those drawings and doing some animation?
JC: Yeah. I was doing animation for a while when I was in school. I really liked it. I liked the old 2-D style. I also like 3-D animation and I like to go see the movies and stuff like that but, technologically, I think that’s a little bit beyond me. I like the 2-D style like Spike and Mike and all of those Sick and Twisted filmsyeah, I’d love to one day but I just don’t have the time for it right now. That’s like watching paint dry. (laughter) One day, I’d like to get a little studio setup. All you need is a camera and a light board if you want to do 2-D in a cheap and easy wayit’s not that hard. That would be one thing that I’d definitely like to get going.
RR: In the Rock n’ Roll Band DVD, it shows you in this wonderful hippie nirvana setting stretched out with your painting material in front of you. Was that staged?
JC: (laughs) No, that happens. I definitely do that. Yeah. Yeah. When I’m home and I have time, I’ll strap all of the painting stuff on my back, hit the bike and head on out to different locations through the City (San Francisco) and do landscape paintings. That is one thing I like to do because I don’t have to come up with an idea. I take what is around me and it’s a nice meditative process. Yeah. (laughs) That’s one of my favorite pastimes. That’s in Alamo Square. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the show Full House but there’s an opening shot where they’re all having a picnic. I think they call them the “Painted Ladies”those are all of the Victorians lined up to my right.
RR: Let’s switch colors, coasts and cities. How did you feel about TLG’s performance at CBGBs at the Green Apple Music Festival in April?
JC: I thought it was great. I love playing in places where there is history like that. It’s just kind of cool. As cheesier as it is, you stand on the stage and think, “WOWthis is where this and that played” and all of that. It’s like Rock and Roll Fantasy Camp. There are lots of people that would have loved to do this just for fun. It’s the same thing at the Fillmore [in San Francisco]. There are other little places like in the North Beach area called the Lost and Found Saloon. It’s a really old place and on the stage there’s a spotit’s a really spongy, worn spot where you almost feel like you’re going to fall through it. You probably will, eventually. It’s just where everybody stood over the yearsfront and center. There’s an actual hole from all of the performances and performers that have stood there. It’s kind of cool to get into that spotto nestle in there. (laughs)
RR: Speaking of historywinning a Best Song of the Year Jammy Award for “Taught to be Proud” must have been quite a moment for Tea Leaf Green.
JC: Right. I didn’t think we were going to win. I thought we were just there because we had the gig at CBGBs. We went to the Jammys to hang out and see what it’s all about.
[From last month’s feature with site editor Dean Budnick and TLG keyboardist/vocalist Trevor Garrod:
DB- I’d like to head back to April and start out with the Jammys. Typically the bands that win awards are notified a few days out so that they can make travel arrangements. Is it true that you didn’t learn that you had won Song of the Year [for “Taught To Be Proud”] until shortly before you came on stage?
TG- Our manager knew a week beforehand but he kept it a secret.]
JC: Needless to say, I did a little pre-partying. I didn’t think I’d have to speak or anything like that. I was a little bit more out of control by that point. (laughs) Had I known we were going to win the thing
RR: Don’t worry about it. You should see my notes from the Jammy Awardsmonkeys with crayons are more legible. Thank God Mike Greenhaus never sleeps.
JC: It was a great time. I met Richie Havens and Manute Bol! Did you see him?
RR: Yeah. I was hanging around the Dude who The Big Lebowski was based on. The cat knows how to party.
JC: I didn’t get to meet him. (laughter) I would expect nothing less. The whole weekend was a really good time. Getting into New York Cityyou’re going to go crazy. [Author’s Note: In a simple twist of fate, at the end of the 2006 Jammy Awards, I walked with Clark and the band to the B.B. King Club and the surreal atmosphere that surrounded the awarded group after several hours of mindbending jam music was something that will not be soon forgotten.] I don’t live there so when I go there, New York City is a big deal. You kind of have to live up to (laughs) whatever expectations you have of Raging It in the Big City.
RR: Let’s try another city. I’m curious about your status in the Big Easy. Do you guys go down fairly well in New Orleans? I would think the atmosphere would be conducive to some solid performances, as well.
JC: Yeah. JazzFest was another one of those life-changing experiences for me. (laughs) Music is oozing out of every cave, just everywhere. The music sounds better down there. Maybe it’s because of all the humidity in the air; maybe it travels better through waterthat’s just hanging there. I don’t know. I just think everything sounds better down there.
RR: Rock n’ Roll Band is a potent live document. What about the future of TLG’s sound? How did your last studio album, Taught to be Proud fit into the picture?
JC: To me, that’s our first record. Everything else we had done was leading up to that. They were all self-produced and our budget was in the negative money, you know. (laughs) We had a little bit of backing on Taught to be Proud so we actually produced something that peaks. I’m looking forward to using that as a springboard to more and the answer to that, in my mind, is that there’s going to be a lot more distortion. (laughter) I’d like to make a studio record that is really loud. I love that record and it’s something that I’m really proud of and I just want it to have a little brother or sister. I think the band is getting more rock and roll as we go alongwe’re getting a little edgier. I’m just hoping to produce more songs which is our primary goal. We want to make them better, broader and meanerjust more fun, hopefully.
RR: Has your fanbase changed over the last couple of years?
JC: Yeah. Absolutely. I noticed it is getting a lot younger as I’m getting older. We started out when we were 19, 20 years old and we were entertaining people in bars 10, 15 years older than us. Now, it’s an alternate reality; we’ve turned a corner and we’re entertaining people 10, 15 years younger than us. (laughter) I’ve almost turned into a role model so it’s a little bit bizarre. I’m adjusting. (laughs) I’m not the greatest role model in the world but moderationthat’s what the kids should knowmoderation!
- _Randy Ray stores his work at www.rmrcompany.blogspot.com