Oteil Burbridge: Blessed Are the Peacemakers
The long and storied career of Oteil Burbridge extends from Washington, D.C to Atlanta to Birmingham, Alabama while playing in some of the greatest jambands in music history. His bass playing, whether it be with the six string or the Fender 4-string he utilizes with the Allman Brothers Band, has set new standards in a genre which continually challenges musicians to create new sounds within an old framework, the live stage. Jambands.com caught up with Burbridge during the beginning of ABB’s most recent tour with Bob Weir’s RatDog. Burbridge has had a busy summer. Prior to the Allman dates, he toured for two months with his band the Peacemakers which also included dates with another legendary jam gemHot Tuna. If that wasn’t enough to satisfy the musician’s musician in Burbridge, he also recently reunited with fellow Aquarium Rescue Unit and ex-Brother band member, guitarist Jimmy Herring for a series of dates while recording an album with a improvisatory unit called Go There which also features his older brother and Derek Trucks Band keyboardist and flutist, Kofi Burbridge. However, Oteil does know how to “slow everything back down” as the reader will see in this conversation with one of jamband’s most enduring musical icons.
RR: I caught you on an off day with the Allman Brothers Band. How is the tour going so far?
OB: Man, they couldn’t be any better. RatDog is out with us right now.
RR: Were plans made to have Bob Weir play with the band [Since realized, on August 17 during “Franklin’s Tower” and August 22 during “All Along the Watchtower.” On the latter evening Burbridge took the stage with RatDog for “Scarlet Begonias.”]
OB: I’m sure there are going to be some kind of sitting in going on. We usually just do it on the fly.
RR: This is your tenth anniversary playing bass with the Allman Brothers Band. How have things grown for you within the band over the past decade? What changes have shaped the music?
OB: It changes all the time. When I first got in the band it was Dickey [Betts] and Jack Pearson playing guitar. Then, we had Dickey and Derek [Trucks] on guitar and then we had Jimmy [Herring] and Derek on guitar and now we have Warren [Haynes] and Derek on guitar. (laughs) Life is change; changes always go on and it is part of it. It’s a good thing, ultimately, because a lot of us probably wouldn’t change if life didn’t force us to. (laughs)
RR: What are the dynamics like playing in a multi-drummer band? I know musicians have various opinions about this subject. I was curious about your take.
OB: I try to listen to it as one big drummer. I don’t really think about the differences that much. Every situation that you play in is totally differenteven if it is one drummer in three different bands, it is going to be totally different so I try to listen to it as one huge drummer. (laughs) It’s a lot freakin’ louderthat’s one way to put it. (laughs) I found this 63 P-Bass that Jimmy Vivino sold me and gave me an unbelievable deal on. This thing sounds so huge.
RR: What kind of bass guitar?
OB: It’s a 1963 Fender Precision 4-string bass guitar. It’s the only bass that when I’m soloing, for instance, the drums don’t run me over because it just has an enormously fat sound. That’s probably the only thing that I really notice on a daily basis that is different about it because of how much louder it is. It’s really not so much a difference in playing with three drummers as opposed to one as it is the uniqueness of what Butch [Trucks] and Jaimoe came up with and how that all works with Marc [Quinones, percussionist] for the last twenty years. They have really put it all together and it is a really unique thing to them. That’s a pretty subjective thing; I don’t really know how to explain that. (laughs)
RR: Are you also listening to the twin guitarists as a lone two-headed monster?
OB: I always think about it like Dixieland jazz. You could have seven or eight guys all soloing at the same time. It’s not really that big a deal. (laughs) Because I grew up hearing jazz, and hearing Dixieland music that’s just how I tend to think of it. I don’t really think of it as something you have to adjust for. I mean, really, if you’re listening, none of things should be a big dealjust listen.
RR: It’s been over a year since your motorcycle accident. How are you doing?
OB: Oh, yeah. I’ve been doing great. I got another motorcycle. (laughter)
RR: What kind of motorcycle?
OB: A Triumph Bonneville. Yeah. It’s really insanely cool.
RR: Sowell enough to get right back out there on the road with no problems?
OB: Man, I just read in the last week or so in a motorcycle magazine that the number of deaths from motorcycle accidents has just this year surpassed the number of pedestrian deaths. Up until last year, it was more dangerous to be walking than get killed by a car on a motorcycle. (laughs) People get all whatever about it and I ask people thisespecially guys who want to get a motorcycle and their wives don’t want them to“do you want a motorcycle or do you need a motorcycle?” If the answer is want then it ain’t worth pickin’ the battle over, you know?
RR: I would assume yours is a need, a passion, at this point.
OB: Absolutely. It ain’t going to be any other kind of way unless I get seriously maimed. (laughter)
RR: You just went out on tour in June and July with the Peacemakers. You also played a series of dates during that time in support of Hot Tuna. How did that go?
OB: That was really fun. Definitely a lot of fun. That is one of the most fun tours I’ve ever done. The guys in Hot TunaJorma Kaukonen and Jack Casadyare so gracious; they’re just unbelievablewe had so much fun watching them. You think about these guys who have been playing together and friends since they were 14 years old. To me, that is such a long time, man, such a long time. Just to watch the interaction and the joy that they have all these years later is amazing. That is the real heroic stuff to me. People ask me about my heroes and it is the ones who have been doing it for a long time that have proved their longevity. And the quality of what they are doing is still high with that much longevity. That is really impressive. I see people out there that really need to retire. (laughs) Give it a break, man. Either do it or don’t do it. It’s like Ty Cobb said, “I can’t get a higher batting average than that so I need to quit, I need to retire.” (laughs)
RR: Let’s talk about the longevity of your band Oteil Burbridge and the Peacemakers with some lineup changes, of course, over the years.
OB: The band is Chris Fryar on drums, Mark Kimbrell on guitar, Matt Slocum on keyboards and I’m playing bass and doing all of the lead vocals.
RR: Mark Kimbrell’s been with you the longest, right?
OB: He’s been with me the longest. I’ve been playing with Mark for around 18 years. When I first met Mark, I was playing in his band.
RR: How do you rate your current Peacemakers lineup?
OB: I think it is the best it has ever sounded. It’s always that way. If you’re not getting better and changing after doing so many gigs a year then something is really messed up. I always find that whatever live shows that we have on tape, that’s always what I want to play for people. It’s a weird dichotomy that you have to balance out because a lot of times I find myself not even wanting to sell our [studio] albums. I think what we’re doing now sounds so much better. At the same time, those albums are snapshots of what we were doing at the time, which isn’t any less valid. I’m just so critical that I only like the latest thing that we’ve done and it keeps getting better. That’s just nature. I’ll let it go and when it is all said and done, there are things on each of those albums that I really like that are crucial to me. It’s crazy not to let everybody have access to all of it.
RR: I’m glad you said that because each Peacemakers album has been vastly different in its approach. What is your opinion of your recent album, Believer?
OB: Well, you know, it’s like I saidI look back at all of my albums and I hate them. At the same time, there are certain things on each album that I love, especially songs on The Family Secret that we don’t play anymore like “Full Circle.” We did “Full Circle” live but not very much; “Hard to Find” off The Family Secret, too. There’s tunes like “Overcast” on Love of a Lifetime which was something I did with Kofi [his brother]I don’t think we ever did it live. That’s one of the tunes that Kofi wrote. There are things on Believer, too but I think that’s just not whereI think what we’ve done recently is always so much better but I’m always going to feel that way so it doesn’t really matter. (laughs)
RR: That seems to be a consistent opinion of many musicians that play live quite often whether it is jazz, jamband or any sort of improvisational music. Is it that the song recorded in the studio just didn’t have a full life? A half life, as it were?
OB: It’s like when you are playing live a lot and you are playing improvisational music, the tunes evolve. One thing that I always notice is that I write the music, cut the record, go out and play it and six months to a year later, the songs will be ten times better. Now I try to write the music and go out and play it for a year and then cut it in the studio.
RR: Will that be your approach for the next Peacemakers studio album?
OB: That’s what I think for everything, for all of it. That’s just how I think, period. I’d rather play it first and let it mutate. I’m actually going to recut “Monk Funk” from my first album Love of a Lifetime because it is a completely different tone, now. It has evolved so much. I’m going to recut “Church” because now it actually has lyrics. That’s also from my first album. We’re going to recut “Butter Biscuit” from the first album because that has changed so much, also. I’m going to recut “Monk Funk” and have a rapper do a rap thing over it. It’s just like you keep playing stuff for years (laughs) especially stuff like “Monk Funk” and “Butter Biscuit” and those are two tunes that I’ve been playing since 1995 or 1996and the reason we’ve kept them in is because they have changed so much. If something stays in the setlist that long and keeps changing then it is probably O.K. to redo it, again.
RR: Are you going to put out an entire album with re-recorded old songs?
OB: Not really. I don’t think there are enough songs on old albums that I want to redo to make a whole album. There are certain ones that I want to do that I want to put on the next album because I think they need to be redone. They are so different from the originals that it is O.K. to redo them. (laughs) It’s not even redoing them, actuallydo you know what I mean? (laughs) It’s new. Even somebody that has the first album will say, “I almost didn’t recognize it until this one part; it is the only part of the song that is still the same.”
RR: And that is the magic for mesometimes, I don’t even realize what I am listening toa song I once knewso I have a completely different experience, a new way of looking at an old image.
OB: Exactly. That’s happened to me with a Wayne Shorter recordit is the title track of Footprints. The song just started playing and I thought, “That’s a really cool song.” Then, way into it (laughs), I realized it was “Footprints.” What?! Get out of here! That’s a totally different song.
RR: Speaking of your brother, Kofi do you want to talk about projects with him?
OB: We just completed a project called Go There. Just ridiculous, manthey are out of Raleigh, North Carolina. They have a guitarist, Scott Sawyer and a drummer Kenny Soule that lives in New York. I’ve done so many of these all-star jams sort of things over the years with all of these different people together because of their names and, you know, sometimes it is fun but it is not necessarily guaranteed that you will have some really intense chemistry. We went into the studio and did this and I felt like we had been playing together for thirty years. It was just amazing how natural it was. It’s funny because people who have heard it are starting to e-mail me and say, “Holy crap, this sounds really good!” It makes me feel good.
RR: Any live dates scheduled with Go There?
OB: Man, I can’t.
RR: Just too darned busy?
OB: Maybe here and there but I let myself play and record with six different bands one year and I can’t do it, man. I don’t have the energy to do more, I don’t think, and be happy than the Peacemakers and the Allman Brothers. I just can’t spread myself. I want to concentrate it and get the maximum out of just a couple of things instead of trying to do everything. It taught me that lesson. I think it is great that some people are studio musicians and played on a bazillion different records but my thing is to work one thing with the same people over and over and let it grow and get better and better, at least at this point in my life. Maybe, later on down the road, when I don’t want to be on the road anymore, I’ll switch and just record with a bazillion different people but I doubt it! (laughs)
RR: That’s an interesting point about the Peacemakers and the Allman Brothers. Is it that moment when you first hit the stage with the knowledge that you’re enjoying playing with really good friends and a great band? Or is it the reaction of the crowd as the moment happens? What is it about the live experience that gives you a kick?
OB: The people you are working with. It’s just the people you are working with. If they are not giving it to you, you need to change who you are working withunless you are making just a disgusting amount of money. (laughter) Even then, it ain’t going to last that long. If I was making a disgusting amount of money, playing with people that I did not like, I would do it for two years and then retire. (laughs) Either way, I’m not going to be doing that shit for very long.
RR: What would you like to do with the Peacemakers in the next couple of years?
OB: Just the same but make more money at it so it would be easier to do. Right now it is just difficult being out on the roademotionally taxing and physically taxing. Musically, I couldn’t be happier. In that sense, I wouldn’t do anything different. I would just like it to be financially easier but that’s in God’s hands and we’ll see what happens. I’m going to do it either way so it doesn’t really matter.
RR: Recently, you’ve been able to play again with your former ARU and ABB guitarist, Jimmy Herring.
OB: We always have fun hanging out. We’ve got a big motorcycle ride plannedabout five of usright after we do this gig with Dave Matthews in Atlanta. I need to get out on a boat with him, too. Jimmy’s a big fisherman and I love to see what people do outside of music. I think that men should always have something outside their jobs that makes them feel like they are 12 years old, again. For me and Jimmy, obviously, it is motorcycles. For him, it is also fishing. I want to do that with him. We’ve been playing together forever and it is always fun but I want to get out on that boat with him. We have yet to go out riding together and this is just a new way of bonding, another way of bonding. It was fun doing those ARU gigsjust a blast, man, really, really fun.
RR: No sense that you’ve been there, done that?
OB: Oh, yeah. In some sense, I’ve been there, done that but they are also paying us a fortune to do it, now. (laughter) Everybody is in a really good mood when we do it. It’s the same thing as with the Allman Brothers. We’re still playing “Whipping Post” and all of these songs that they’ve been playing forever but if you are playing improvisational music the right way then you just make it move. I mean it shouldn’t be a big deal. These jazz guys are playing the same jazz standards since the freakin’ ’20 and ’30s sometimes. (laughter) That’s why it’s improvisational because it can always be new. We’ve been having a blast, man. It’s been really fun.
RR: Within the last few years, you moved from Atlanta to Birmingham, Alabama. What is the difference between the two cities in your opinion?
OB: I hate to dog out any city. I really love Birmingham. Do you know what is great about Birmingham? This is not a slam against Atlanta or anything. You can apply this to any city. I feel the same way about New York. Birmingham has all of the things that I need from a big city and none of the things that I hate about a big city. It is small enough not to have all of the shit that I hate and modern enough and big city enough to have all of the things that I need. I am a city person. My parents are both in the Bronx, New York. I have it in my blood. You can tell when I’m driving that I have New York in my DNA. I’m a city person. I couldn’t live out in the country for a really long time. I love to go and I certainly love to ride my motorcycle through the country and I want a place in the country because it is so peaceful and I love the islands but my main spot has got to be in a big city. It just has to as it is a part of me.
Birmingham’s perfect, man. It really is. You have to realize that I live in New York every year for a month in March when we play at the Beacon with the Allman Brothers. I’ve done this for the last ten years and I travel to every other big city in the country multiple times a year so I don’t miss out on anything. In fact, I have to get the hell away from it. When we’re done in New York, I last in New York for about two weeks and then, I’ve got to go. I just need elbow room; it is just too crowded and too loud. Man, when I get off the plane and I’m back in Birmingham, I can just take a bite out of the air because the humidity is so thick and I love it. It slows everything down, man. It slows everything back down.
Randy Ray stores his work at www.rmrcompany.blogspot.com.