Americana Without Borders: Great American Taxi on Streets of Gold
Great American Taxi is the new band featuring Leftover Salmon guitarist/vocalist Vince Herman. Actually, Salmon announced an end to their 27-month hiatus on the day Jambands.com spoke with Herman; nonetheless, as the reader will see, the lively and cantankerous musician makes no bones about his current priorities. Taxi is his primary objective and after a year of strong live dates in various American locales, the band has produced a unified front on their debut record, Streets of Gold. The band is tight and energetic while mining lyrics that echo their band slogan: Americana Without Borders.
The GAT debut album is a true team effort as the twelve vigorous tracks feature four different songwriters, two traditional arrangements, a cover called “Lumpy, Beanpole and Dirt” which tracks after two politically charged social commentary songs, an obscure but very choice Dylan cover and enough live sparkle to make Streets of Gold a live in-your-face/on the road classic although it was recorded at Coupe Studios in Boulder, Colorado.
Herman has a great wit and can sometimes be misunderstood as an over-the-top festival showman. However, when a serious subject hits his radar, his frank passion for the truth and oratory skills are unmatched. We also spoke with Chad Staehly who was the Salmon archivist, Taxi’s current keyboardist and Streets of Gold executive producer. Staehly is a resourceful musician who has taken his early classical music training and work with the John McKay Band and expanded upon the foundation to help Taxi pursue their vision.
Prelude GAT keyboardist/Executive Producer Chad Staehly
derived properties- the postulate emphasizes the fact that, in perception, parts of a stimulus cannot easily be disjointed form other parts. – Dictionary of Theories, edited by Jennifer Bothamley
RR: How did you get together with Vince Herman?
Chad Staehly: Vince had played with Jefferson Hamer in a side project. I had been playing quite a bit with John McKay who is Bill McKay’s brother from Leftover Salmon while they were on the road and I met some great players who had just gotten off being on tour with Dan Bern supporting his record. Jake [Coffin, drums and vocals] and Brian [Schey, bass, tambourine, shaker] were these great players, too and Eben Grace played pedal steel on a couple of tracks. I knew all of those guys so we combined forces for the Rainforest Action benefit along with Reed Foehl from Acoustic Junction. We did about a week’s worth of rehearsals of Reed’s tunes, original material and some choice covers. Immediately from the first rehearsal, we said, “WOWthis is really cool.” We definitely were into booking some more shows. We were just going to be a band that played some of the bigger festivals but it turned into “we’ve got to get out and tour a lot.”
When we decided at the beginning of last year to hit it pretty hard touring-wise nationally, Reed and Eben both kind of backed down and said, “You know it’s probably more realistic for you guys to go out as a five-piece; we really don’t want to be on the road that much.” It got shaved down to a five-piece and that’s how it’s been for a little over a year and it’s really gelled and come together. The core of the band has really developed an identity which you can probably hear on the record. Some of the original songs, we’ve been grinding out on the road and working over.
RR: The recent Leftover Salmon hiatus-ending announcement made me think that Taxi and the new record might not have a chance to breathe. But it talking to Vince it seems that Great American Taxi is his number one priority.
CS: Vince has kept the thing together at times just with his pure confidence in the project. He’s really expressed that radiowise this band could go further, do some other things that maybe Salmon didn’t have the opportunities to do. He’s really jazzed about it and continues to express a lot of confidence which really makes us want to go out there and get it and keep this thing on the road and going, too.
RR: What’s your background?
CS: I grew up classically trained on the piano, learning Bach and Mozart and taking piano lessons. That got me into playing pipe organ when I was still in high school. Then, in high school on into early college days, I thought I wanted to be a rhythm guitar player and I put the keyboards aside. After Garcia’s death and the Grateful Dead being done and being a Deadhead all of the time and seeing shows, I wanted to pursue my own music. So after Jerry died, I said, “I think I need to play music, now.” I got back into the keyboards and played in some of my own little bands and, most recently, with the John McKay Band until Taxi came together.
RR: You’re credited as the Executive Producer on Streets of Gold. What was your role and how was the material recorded at Coupe Studios in Boulder?
CS: The Executive Producer title comes down to a couple of things. I helped a lot with the financial backing of the record and also the whole organization of the project. Outside of that? There were five producers in the band. Everyone was pretty hands-on with this except for some of the final mixing, which Greg [McRae], our engineer and myself handled because everyone else was out working on other stuff.
What was easy about the five people all being hands-on and all producing was that we all had the same vision for the record. We wanted to have a big live room feel to it and we captured that. We didn’t want a ton of reverb or effect on anything; we wanted to get as close to analog as possible. It was all recorded in Pro Tools on a hard drive but we used outboard gear on everything and it was piped through an FSSL at Coupe Studios, which is a really warm, analog rock n’ roll board. When you mix through the FSSL board, you pipe everything back through the board by mechanical automation. The boards are all analog so besides it being recorded on a hard drive, everything else about this record went through the warm, fuzzy analog route to get that big, warm furry sound on the record.
RR: I’m glad you described it as “warm and furry.” Today, I played Streets of Gold in my car and the bass guitar was pushing my left leg against the steering wheel which is usually a fairly strong indicator of a fine warm mix. Let’s talk about a song you wrote, “Straw Man,” which follows another strong socially conscious song by Vince Herman, “Appalachian Soul.”
CS: I lived up in the foothills here for a while and moved into this little mountain home by myself; I got a lot of writing done up there a few years ago. I was doing a lot of reading, too. Eric Schlosserthe guy that wrote the book Fast Food Nation, he followed up that release with a book that was a collection of three essays. The book, Reefer Madness, has one essay in it about the migrant strawberry pickers in Southern California and how they get across the borderlegally or illegally. It seems that legal and illegal immigrants are in the same boat in Southern California as far as the strawberry pickers and the kind of migrant farmer that exists down there.
This particular essay was about these Mexican migrant workers who were picking these strawberries and with the strawberry crop, they’re really fragile. You could get one bad rainstorm and it could wipe out the entire crop. These big strawberry farm owners in Southern California started to wise up and thought, “we could probably avoid suffering these lost crops.” What they did was setup essentially indentured servitudetenant farming. Some of the workers that have been around for a while that know the trade and the business all got suckered down into leasing the land at these exorbitant amounts of money. What happened is that these guys are getting set up for their entire existence. They get setup as the owner of this land, the foreman of this land and they get caught working their entire livesor as long as they put up with itin debt to these land owners. That’s what Eric Schlosser’s essay was about. I read it all in one sitting, was affected by it, sat down and wrote that song from beginning to end right there over an hour and a half period. And of course, those are always the best songs that come out that come together at once like that. The vibe was a Bakersfield country vibejust north of that orange and strawberry farming beltand I think we captured it a little bit.
Part I Roadability “There!” he said. “I’ve spoiled Europe for you, and you haven’t even seen it yet. And maybe I’ve spoiled art for you, too, but I hope not. I don’t see how artists can be blamed if their beautiful and usually innocent creations for some reason just make Europeans unhappier and more bloodthirsty all the time.” – Bluebeard, Kurt Vonnegut
RR: So Great American Taxi has a few days off but you’re out there playing, right?
Vince Herman: I’m playing tomorrow night in Vail [Colorado] with a pickup bandJon Ridnell of Black Dog on guitar, Chris Lakancek on drums and Jodie Holland on bass.
RR: What’s the name of that band?
VH: AhhhVince and Friends. (laughs) It’ll be the first time that band has playeda pickup gig. I like to do that around Coloradogood friends getting together for things.
RR: Leftover Salmon announced an end to their hiatus today.
VH: Yeah, well, I wouldn’t say that the hiatus has ended. We’re just doing three shows. (laughter) We’re not going to get the machine rolling again.
RR: The announcement has been made that after 27 months, Leftover Salmon is getting back together to play three gigs. What does that mean at this point?
VH: It’s been 27 months?
RR: Yes, New Year’s Eve 2004 was Salmon’s last gig.
VH: Thought it was longer than that. (laughter)
RR: Seems like a long time.
VH: A lot has happened in that time.
RR: Yeah, it’s like we’re living in the Sixties again.
VH: (laughs) Something like that. BoyHigh Sierra has always been a great festival. How it started was that Roy Carter from High Sierra was trying to talk us into doing a Cracker/Salmon thing with Drew [Emmitt, Salmon mandolin player] and I and the guys in Cracker like the O’ Cracker, Where Art Thou thing [the 2003 album recorded with Leftover Salmon and Cracker]. That kind of evolved into this. All of sudden, there was an All Good thing and we kind of thought that’s enough to do for now.
RR: Obviously, it’s been a while. What do you anticipate in rehearsals for the gigs? Get the machine slightly well-oiled?
VH: I’m sure we’ll do some playing. Rehearsal has never been a strong point of ours understand. It’s not the core of what we do(laughs) improvisation and stuff. I imagine it’ll take a couple days of playing to be ready. It should be a lot of fun.
RR: How close is the experience to hopping-back-on-the-bike-and-riding-again?
VH: I don’t know. (laughs) I guess I’ll have to see if I can remember the chords by playing along to an album. (laughs) “Oh, yeahthat song.”
RR: So if people want to see Leftover Salmon, they need to get out to those festivals because who knows if it’ll happen again?
VH: Yeah. I think that’s all we’ll do this year.
RR: I wanted to talk about the Salmon news so I appreciate your comments
VH: No worries.
RR: but my number one priority in this interview is Great American Taxi.
VH: Me, too. (laughs) I’m so psyched about this record. One of the reasons I agreed to do [the festival gigs] is that the attention to Salmon is going to help this Taxi thing. I’m really wanting to do everything I can because I really believe in this record.
RR: When I heard the news about Salmon I thought: “Oh, manthat’s fine but I hope Taxi gets a chance to get up and run because there’s some good stuff on this record and it needs a life, too.” Let’s talk about the genesis of Great American Taxi and then, we’ll get into Streets of Gold.
VH: It was a benefit for the Rainforest Action Group that a friend of mine got together. She asked me to put together a band of Boulder players. I kind of thought of a fantasy jam. (laughs) I called my friends and said, “Heywe got a little bit of money, do you want to play?” I’m sorry if I’m munching in your ear. At that point, it was a seven-piece band which also had Reed Foehl.
Are you familiar with Reed? He’s a great singer-songwriterlot of fun doing his stuff. We also had Eben Grace on pedal steel. He also played on the [Taxi] record, as well [on “Appalachian Soul” and “Straw Man”]. Once we did that gig, it was really fun, really really fun so we decided to do three or four more gigs over the next couple months. Enjoyed it so much that we thought we should prepare this for roadability. (laughs)
At that point, Reed got his deal with Red Parlor Records, started working on his solo record and didn’t want to do much in the way of Taxi; he wanted to work on his solo stuff. Eben wanted to stay home. (laughs) We got it down to a five piece and were able to travel with that, which makes transportation kind of easy. We’ve been going out on the road for a little over a year and having a lot of fun with it, some good tours, playing with some good bands and doing that kind of thing but we are really, really fired up to do this festival season.
RR: Yeah, you’ve got some strong dates like Summer Camp in Illinois over Memorial Day Weekend.
VH: Where do you live?
RR: I live in Arizona but I’ll travel on the road anywhere during festival season. Speaking ofdid you say you were preparing Taxi for “roadability?”
VH: (laughs) RoadabilityI don’t know if that’s a word. It’s really hard to go out with seven guys in a band. All of a sudden that suburban you’re renting has to turn into a stretch van. (laughs) You get dangerously close to having to have a bus. It’s really, really frickin’ hard rebuilding or building a band and, in my case, trying to get Taxi to play in front of crowds that Salmon has doneit’s beenbeen kind of tough.
RR: I was going to ask you about that double-edged sword. Are you trying to steer clear of a certain environment or would you like a certain environment but you have to go through all of these steps to get there?
VH: (pauses) You mean a certain environment in terms of building the machine?
VH: Yeah, you knowit’sit’s, yeahit’s a challenge and a good question to ask: “What do you want in the long run out of a band?” Besides a lot of record sales. (laughs)
The questions: How to tour? How much? How much of the side projects will you be able to do while you’re doing this? It’s always a balance that’s ever-evolving. Generally speaking, I guess if we do real well on the summer festival scene, I imagine that we’ll keep at it really hard during the winter and go for a larger festival season next year.
I guess that’s what you aim at but, man, there’s so many different ways to do it, now. With the Internet, there are bands that have never even played, never played a live show. There’s a band that sold out Madison Square Garden. I was talking with a promoter who works in New York who was talking with the band and said, “If you can do this, do you want to put together a tour?” And one of the guys said, “Naw, we don’t really like each other too much, we wouldn’t want to do that.” (laughter) There are so many different ways to build a band, now and I’m pretty old school. It’s kind of hard to teach an old dog new tricks. I just figured a way to do it was to go out and play it, play it, play it. That’s kind of what this dog does.
RR: I’ve sat in studios and seen bands slaving over album mixing and sequencinggetting the right songs back-to-back and that’s how I listen to albums on an iPod. The album format is a continuing theme with me because the listener can just breakup a sequence and throw it on an iPod. Who knows? It’s a growing process.
VH: Yeah, the whole idea of the recent albums where you release all the tracks and you have people mix it themselves(laughs) maybe that’s what we’re getting to, you know?
RR: Still bizarre to me but it could reduce some of those headaches in the studio.
VH: Yeah. (laughs) No mixing required!
Part II Appalachian Soul
all these forms of wastefulness in American life stem in large part from the fantastic productivity of the nation’s mechanized, often automated offices, factories and farms. – The Waste Makers, Vance Packard
RR: Streets of Gold has a lot of strong voices and songwriterspretty much the whole band participates in the writing process and the diversity creates a unified sound on the record. You mentioned Eben Grace playing pedal steel on a couple of tracks including a personal favorite, one of your own songs“Appalachian Soul.” Would you like to talk about how you wrote that song and what it means to you?
VH: You bet, man. I spent a lot of time in West Virginia, grew up in Pittsburgh and I come from a coal mining family. That Appalachian thing has always been a real major part of my life, going back generations. Moving to Colorado in ’85, I kind of lost track of that whole thing and got into a different world. I’m thinking more and more of heading back that way after spending some time out there. The incident that got me starting to writing the tune was that I had a day off in Hazard County, Kentucky and happened upon this meeting of people doing an environmental impact statement, a public comment period on the impact of mountaintop removal mining in Kentucky, West Virginia and Tennessee. Heard some things that blew me away like the head of the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources saying things like “until such a time that the land is leveled, it has no economic value.”
RR: Oh, boy. That is amazing.
VH: The meeting was really interesting. There was a ton of cops outside which was what attracted me to it (laughter) as I was passing by. There were a ton of miners, a ton of people in suits and a ton of hippies with backpacks. All the sides were having their say. It’s amazing how there’s these guys running the big earth moving machines and saying, “I want this to happen so my kids can have jobs.” But man, that is such a shortsighted world and it absolutely destroyed this thing when we all know that tourism is what drives the economy these days, especially when it comes to natural resources.
RR: There’s a line in “Appalachian Soul”
VH: “just takes one machine now, to tear a mountain down.”
RR: I heard that line today and it blew me away. Yesterday, I was looking at the January issue of National Geographic and there’s a photo of a guy on a machine
VH: Yes, really. That’s exactly
RR: You know what I’m talking about?
VH: Yeah. I was glad that was published. It surprised me.
RR: And he’s in charge of 400 acres of deforestationone guy, one machine for 400 acres. There’s definitely a parallel to your own story in “Appalachian Soul.”
VH: This [past] summer, there was supposed to be some activist organizers who were trying to have this summer be the Redwood Summer. A couple of summers ago in Northern California, there were a bunch of tree sittings including Julia Butterfly. That was a year of intense activism that people got that issue in front of the American public. Everybody was talking about the Spotted Owl and all that stuff. This [past] summer, people were really going to try to bring some attention to mountaintop removal mining and it didn’t work so well.
I believe in the power of music and songs that can do something. I want to get this song out to those songs and do some documentary stuffnot specifically on mountaintop removal but New Orleans and that embarrassment. I believe that there’s a lot that needs to be done now and music can get a lot done. I land 100% on the side that politics should be in music; everything’s politics, especially music. You can get a lot done; you can draw attention to things and I’m hoping that that song does.
Part III That Goin’ Down the Road’ Tune
circus freak side showon the Great American Road – “Ride,” Great American Taxi, written by Vince Herman
RR: What’s your take on the Colorado music scene and its political importance?
VH: There’s a lot of great music in Colorado, so much cool stuff coming up from the mountains, specifically around Boulder. It’s a really fun scene to be a part of and, you know, people having fun, getting rowdy and playing roots music is a political thing. You don’t necessarily have to be talking about mountaintop removal mining or George W. Just having fun being mountain freaks is a statement. It’s a gathering point for people. Music brings people together of like minds and good things can happen when music is used as that gathering thing. I really believe in the tribal use of music. It brings the community together. Basically, these days, you have sporting events and churchesa lot of people together in large numbersand music is the other one. That’s my church.
RR: How did you come to know everyone in Great American Taxi?
VH: The first time I met Jeff Hamer [GAT guitarist], I was living in a town called Eldora, Colorado and there was a party going on at 2 or 3 in the morning and his band called Single Malt was playing out in the front yard. I walked in just before the cops got there. Jordon, their mandolin player, was doing a zipper solo at the time that the cop hit him on the shoulder. (laughter) That’s the first time I met Hamer. (laughs)
RR: What about Chad Staehly, the Taxi keyboardist?
VH: Chad was actually a representative of Fort SupportFort Collins, Coloradoand was the Salmon archivist for about two years. He collected all of the tapes, built the archive and was very generous with his time. We just started playing music in that way. As Salmon ended up, I kind of took some time off and broke my neck. (laughs) That was tough and then, the benefit thing happened and was really fun. Chad saw that I was having a really good time with it and took on the task of managing this band of mongrels.
RR: How long did it take you to recover from the broken neck?
VH: I think it was ten days after the operation that I went out to see Buddy Cage playing with the David Nelson Band which would later prompt a reunion of the New Riders [of the Purple Sage]. It was about ten days before I couldn’t stand laying flat on my back anymore and got my buddy to drive me out to the festival. (laughs) I had to wear a neck brace for a couple of months and it was definitely twisty. I fell in January and I didn’t have an operation until Maythere was a problem, went through insurance hell and they wouldn’t let me get an MRI to see what the actual problem was and, by that point, 50% of my spine was compressed. I was having nerve damage; I still have nerve damage. I have a metal plate, a bunch of screws and a chunk of cadaver bone in my neck.
RR: (laughs) A chunk of?
VH: Yeah, a chunk of cadaver. (laughter)
RR: This is a great segue. Let’s talk about another one of your songs on Streets of Gold, “Cinched Up.”
VH: (long laughter)
RR: To me it’s Mark Twain meets Woody Guthrie with a little bit of Dylan.
VH: Oh, Mark Twain. (laughter) The song evolved. We had a writing session with Taxi probably around nine months ago where we locked ourselves up in this house for a couple of days and wrote ten tunes at Chad’s place [in Fort Collins]. It was really a lot of fun; we wrote a lot of tunes at that sessionactually, most of the tunes on the record. They evolved but, yeah, a couple of tunes of mine came out of that writing session. [“Cinched Up”] actually started as a trip to Vegas to see Panic and some of the crazy shenanigans that happen there when people get all cinched up.
RR: I heard a recurring lyric in the song about “too much molly.”
VH: Yeah. The whole song used to be about those sort of things and we figuredI didn’t feel too comfortable singing it. (laughter) We hid its obvious content, I guess. We tried to subtleize it a little bit. (laughs) I was really hesitant about putting the song on the record. It’s such a different thing and the night I sang it in the studio, I thought we were way done for the night and the whiskey bottle came out. The laugh at the end of the song really was a real laugh. I never imagined that we’d use anything from that night. Well(laughs) that’s kind of what it is, too. It kind of sticks out on the record as one of these things. It’s Americana without borders, you know?
RR: I noticed that Taxi has that as their sloganAmericana Without Borders. What does that mean to you?
VH: With a name like Great American Taxi, it might be attempted to think that we have perhaps a neo-nationalist political outlook. (laughs) And we don’t. We’re all about the liberal democratic agenda and the new direction that the country needs to be taking. That’s what “New Direction” is about [track 7, written by guitarist, vocalist, Jeff Hamer]; laying a little background for that. We really dream that they’re going to use a little clip of “New Direction” as [Barack] Obama takes the platform as the Democratic nomination.
RR: Is “Ride” one of your classic road songs with lyrics like “circus freak side showon the Great American Road?”
VH: It is but in that allegory of the road is kind of the direction this country’s taken. That thing about the generation just about to go, that sort of last great generation, the World War II generationthat’s on the way out. They had this sense of countrycoming through the Depression, through the New Deal, Works of Progress and all of those thingsand when they were young, they had a country that was building itself up. People could ride it. Everybody was on the same page. Man, we’re doing this; we’re building this country; we all believe in this. It’s really each generation’s job to do that. Man, we’ve lost the last seven or eight wars; things are going downhill; the country has no more manufacturing base; there are no good jobs left and the problem is Big Government; Bush trying to dismantle the whole New Deal philosophy. In the face of that, we need to find some faith in the country, againespecially in the face of things like New Orleans and the embarrassing situation in Iraq. How can a country believe in itself when it’s not behaving morally? That’s what I’m talking about in that goin’ down the road’ tune. (laughs)
_- Randy Ray stores his work at www.rmrcompany.blogspot.com