Jeff Sipe: The Apartments Projects
I caught up with Jeff Sipe while on tour with Herring, Rodgers and Sipe between New Jersey and Washington DC. Sipe helped define the scene we all hold near and dear. His impact can be felt throughout the jamband world beginning with his contributions alongside Jimmy Herring, Oteil Burbridge, and Col. Bruce Hampton in the Aquarium Rescue. If you ask the members of Phish or Widespread Panic you’ll quickly realize how much our current scene owes to ARU. While that project remains an ongoing (if infrequent) endeavor Sipe (aka Apt. Q-258) has gone on to play in many other contexts, including a recent reunion with his ARU guitarist in Herring, Rodgers and Sipe as well as his current gig as Trey Anastasio's drummer. His drumming manifests a trinity of passion, humility and knowledge that few possess today..
CB: You have played in so many various line-ups over the years. Is there one band or period of time closest to your heart?
JS: I’ve had some really lucky breaks, allowing me to play with some masters on earth. The latest is Debashish Bhattacharya an Indian slide guitar player who is a classical Indian player. Lately the Indian music has been a big challenge for me and it’s close to my heart. Anything that is played beautifully, with respect, depth and commitment to the fine arts that is what really attracts me. Music with enough science to stimulate the mind, but with enough soul to stimulate the heart, and with enough challenge to stimulate the physical bodyif you combine all of that you can’t really do any better. For example, some of the Bebop music in America is harmonically and rhythmically really advanced coming from the blues with a depth of suffering. So you have that challenge all wrapped up in one music. In most music you’ll have some elements but not the soul and that’s just half the picture.
CB: There seems to be a heavy Indian influence in your music and those in your extended music family- Derek Trucks for example. Is there any point in time that you could see the shift among your fellow musicians or has this been a gradual evolution?
JS: For me it started when I was about 17 and got the first Shakti albums with John McLaughlin then I started listened to Ravi Shankar and Zakir Hussain. When I listened to it I didn’t understand it, but I was hit on a soul and technique level because it was really incredible. Then I got a chance to work with Shawn Lane and Jonas Hellborg and through them I learned the rhythm system called tihai. That is a cadence that outlines the music and once I began to hear that I began to hear the whole music all over again.
After working with them and playing in Europe I began to appreciate Indian music on a new level. I’ve had a few friends help me out but I’ve never taken tabla lessons or anything. So, I’m trying to take that and apply it to the drum set the best I can. Some of the cats that have been successful doing that are Steve Smith, the drummer from Journey, who was really educated in Indian music. Trilok Gurtu is a tabla and drum set player who has combined east and west in really exciting ways. You hear all these amazing rhythms coming from the Indian systems, its pretty fascinating stuff.Derek Trucks, when he was teenager, you know a few years ago (laughter) I did a tour with him right after ARU. As a trio with Todd Smallie, we went across America and his dad was the tour manager. On that run I had a bunch of Indian music which I kept turning him on to and he soaked it up so fast. He was probably 15 or 16. Their whole family is wonderful. He really took to it.
CB: How is the current Herring Rodgers and Sipe tour going?
JS: Really good. It’s getting better every night. Last night was our fifth show and each one gets better and better.
CB: What material are you playing?
JS: We’re playing Bobby Lee Rodgers original songs with some improvisation sandwiched in between each of those songs. The first few nights we had a setlist. Then we decided to just go ahead and call it as we felt it. The setlist was up there, but in between songs; Neil [Fountain], Jimmy [Herring], Bobby or I will start something texturally and we’ll end up coming with some great improvs, intros, or outros to the songs that are already there.
CB: How is the search for a band name progressing? [Editor’s note: The group had solicited suggestions from its fans via its Myspace page
JS: (Laughter) We haven’t had a chance to talk about it. We’ll probably end up just staying with this name.
CB: Are there any plans to record with this line-up?
JS: Were are making a bunch of live stuff now and it will be ready for download. But you know Jimmy just joined Widespread so this band will have a more difficult time getting together.
CB: How will that affect any future collaboration between you and Jimmy?
JS: We have played together long before ARU. Life is long, life is short, and life is long again. We’re playing now, we’ll take a break and we’ll play again I’m sure. It will be on and off our whole life. The music we are playing right now is so satisfying. Everybody in the band is kicking each other’s ass. And I can’t imagine him going for very long without having that kind of outlet.
CB: How has your musical relationship and friendship evolved over the years?
JS: It’s getting deeper all the time. We find new levels of communication on and off stage. I think the world of him as does anybody who as ever met him. There is so much respect. We bring out the best in each other when we are on stage. I can’t imagine that ever stopping.
CB: How would you describe the creative process in Project Z [another project that included Herring]?
JS: Number one and number two were Ricky Keller. On the first album a handful of tunes were more or less complete, and the rest was improv. We then spent three days recording hours and hours of music. We would take our favorite pieces from that and work them into tunes. Like the song I wrote on the first album is called “Rainbow” and that’s three sections I brought in, then I had some help honing it from Ricky and the keyboard player Oliver Wells. When Oliver put his magic on it, the song flowered into this amazing thing. The process included everybody; there was no ego or preconceptions. It was very much a collaborative creative process. It was really organic, we would just role tape and play.
CB: Is that how your last Project Z disc was put together?
JS That was a free for all; we started playing and couldn’t stop. Never talking about anything, we just went in and played. You can’t get any more honest than the second one. Ricky Keller viewed his outlet with Jimmy and I as a rare opportunity for him to transcend all boundaries and all constraints. Normally when a drummer and a bass player play together they try to form a oneness between them. But often Ricky would go directly against me, if I was in 11 he was in 4. Or he would slow down and speed up. I would just have to close my eyes and almost ignore what was going on so I could play my part because it was being attacked from all sides in a comical way.
I also feel Ricky Keller might have known that could be his last album because he poured it on like crazy. This was a guy who was brilliant and responsible in large part to Bruce’s career. He started his recording studio in his basement just to be able to record Hampton doing some of the most crazy poetry and stuff. Then it evolved from there and grew out into a professional studio on Spring Street in Atlanta then eventually on the north side into a full blown modern studio doing Coco-Cola and IBM corporate gigs. He was so tired doing the corporate gig and he viewed the Hampton camp as a way to go completely out of that. The anti-corporate world (laughter), he was undermining the whole reality. If you listen to it again, you can hear all of that.
CB: What were your thoughts heading into the ARU shows earlier this year?
JS: I always look forward to it, a surge of adrenaline shoots through my veins whenever I think of that group. I mean look at who I’m up there with, my god. It’s time to throw down when you’re up there, its time to throw down when you hit that stage.
CB: No off nights huh?
JS: Even on off night there is still some crazy stuff going on. I used to have these insane dreams when I was in that band because it was so intense. The demand to be on 100% every night was so great that there was a lot of anxiety musically and emotionally but that is part of being young and getting involved in something that really matters to you. It’s one of those things that I wouldn’t trade anything in life for, it was one of the major events in my life. And to see it come back together is thrilling. Now we are getting some guarantees that allow us to sustain it. Before it was just us working really hard for very little and that tends to burn you out quickly.
CB: Looking back, what were you initial impressions of the first H.O.R.D.E. tour with ARU?
JS: There seemed to be some electricity in the air back then. There was the first Gulf War. Bruce’s eyes were laser beams and Oteil was on a mission to take over the world. Everybody had fire in their blood. A lot like this band now. Everybody was pushing each other so hard musically and intellectually we all grew so fast with each other. Just that particular chemistry was incredible. It wasn’t just our band then either, a lot of other bands were experiencing that electricity. The first HORDE tour was pretty quiet then the second one grew and that was really enjoyable. Then as the years went on it became so big it was something else. But those first two years were something special to me, the groups that were playing there were cutting edge and creative like MMW. Everybody seemed to get along so great and the camaraderie was like a giant summer camp for musicians.
CB: How did you get the nickname Apt. Q-258?
JS: Just about everybody who has worked with Bruce has a moniker or nickname and I ended up with an address (laughter.) Bruce challenges everybody. And he looked at me and said “Are you really Jeff Sipe?” And I said “probably not.” Then he looked at Oteil and said “Are you really Oteil?” And he said “definitely not.” Like Ricky (Keller) who became Lincoln Metcalfe of the famous Metcalfe Brothers who carried bazookas. He had another friend called Can of Worms. So it’s really hard to escape some nickname when you work with Bruce. But Jimmy managed to escape somehow, he remained Jimmy Herring. When Bruce asked him “Are you really Jimmy Herring?” he said “well yeah I really am.” So he escaped, but the rest of us are nicknamed.
CB: You offer private lessons. What kind of rewards do you get from teaching?
JS: Oh my god (laughter) endless. Where do you start? Teaching lets you know immediately what you know and don’t know. Also, it displays how well you are at conveying those thoughts. Teaching is a mirror; it lets me know what I need to work on because when I’m demonstrating an idea, it has to be spot on, you know? There can’t be any guess work about it. It’s a way to help people interested in learning the craft. And it’s also a way in checking to see how good you are in explaining what you know, and the quality of what you know is always in check. It’s a huge help to anybody.
CB: How does that ability to communicate to a student translate to the stage?
JS: One thing enhances the other. It has given me the chance to develop my own book. When I was 18 I decided to write down everything that I knew. That led to writing down everything that I came across. What my peers showed me I would write it down, when I went for lessons with master players I would write their stuff down. As well as when I listened to CDs and records I would transcribe the music. And back when turntables where in (laughter) you had the option of slowing stuff down half speed and that was an amazing help. You could take all these fast rhythms, slow it down and transcribe it all. Then you could see it plain as day. That helped out a lot because when you transcribe stuff you are reinforcing your counting, rhythm accuracy, notation and your library as well. It’s an amazing help to anybody to amass a book or volume of stuff that they know. Over the years mine as really grown, it has probably 20 chapters that are constantly working, evolving and growing. When it’s all said and done and I’ve done my time on earth I think it’s going to be quite large.
CB: What role do you think technology has played in the development of new music?
JS: If we were back in the days of the caveman and technology was just about tools you could use with your hand, you know drumsticks and drum? I don’t think players are any better today than they were a million years ago. There are different styles but the spiritual level of it all doesn’t change with technology. I think technology can only help you as far as your thoughts and ideas can engage it to do so. Obviously, today though kids have a million videos to watch. Just thirty years ago there wasn’t anything.
When I was growing up in high school and getting my stuff together the teaching materials were books, private lessons and concerts. Today you can buy a video and sit in your closet, practice and get all that stuff together. Spending 30 or 50 bucks and get a lifetime of lessons involving the particular angle that video addresses. Technology is unavoidable, and there is a lot to be taken advantage of with the ease you can get material. There are literally thousands and thousands of musicians offering their method books and videos. If you had the money to invest in all that stuff, wow you could get a lot together in a very short time. But if you compare it to what Buddy Rich had when he was growing up; I don’t think there any better drummers than there used to be, there are just different stylists.
Maybe the equipment is better and that allows for easier playing, that level of technology, the drum set has evolved. It’s only about a hundred years old, it’s a bit of a contraption pieced together from all over the world to make this one thing called a drum set. The hardware used to be so bulky and cumbersome; you could only play so fast on an ancient peddle. The new pedals have aircraft aluminum, super light weight ball bearings that can travel a thousand miles an hour (laughter) so they challenge you. So technology does challenge the player to play as good as the instrument. If you get a really great instrument it’s always begging you to put a little more time into it, you know it’s always begging you to try to master it.
CB: Can you talk about some of your experiences playing in Leftover Salmon?
JS: That came along at a great time. My good friend Tye North hooked me up with that gig. It felt like being invited into a family that was already established. They treated me wonderful. They had just left their school bus and got a major manager. Chuck Morris was managing so all of a sudden their guarantees where going through the roof. And they were able to step it up, so I got in just in time. I didn’t have to put in the hard work that Michael Wooten had laid before me. He was bouncing around in a school bus all over the country living in poverty. When he left I stepped in just as things were getting good.
CB: How did the upcoming Trey tour come together?
JS: His drummer Raymond came down with appendicitis. Trey and I go back to 90 or 91, to when ARU played the same venues as Phish. We did quite a few twin bills and opened up for them. We established a relationship a long time ago. Trey was a guest at one of the shows with Phil in New York, when he came by to sit in we reconnected.
CB: How are you preparing for the tour?
JS: He sent me two solo CDs, Bar 17 and the self-titled Trey Album, a live gig too from Aspen Colorado. So, it’s probably around 40 tunes to learn in about a week. (Laughter)
CB: What other projects are you working on and your plans after this tour?
JS: I work with Drew Emmitt who used to play in Leftover Salmon. There is an album possibly to be recorded in December with him. Then in January I’ll be heading back over to India for the second time.
CB: Where in India?
JS: Calcutta and New Delhi
CB: When was your first trip there? How long did you visit?
JS: Last December, I was only there for eight days. And it was the most amazing eight days ever. To tell you the truth I’ve never felt more welcomed by any group of people. And I’ve been all over Europe, South Africa the Americas. There is something really beautiful about the Indian people. And no matter what level they had in society everybody seemed to hold themselves with a certain dignity that was undeniable. There is an ancient wisdom that underlies everything there. Some of the smartest people on earth are the Bangalore people you know, just kind folks. And the food was outrageous. (Laughter) I would just go for the food. I’ve met several people over there I’ll keep in touch with for life. That deep of connection was established in a such a short period of time.