No Entropy For Particle
Successful jambands thrive by carving out their own niche without isolating themselves from their fellow musicians. At their most recent after-hours show at New York City’s Highline Ballroom, Particle proved this little axiom, turning their late-night gig into a veritable West coast superjam. In the wee hours of the morning, Particle’s three founding members – keyboardist Steve Molitz, bassist Eric Gould and drummer Darren Pujalet – shared the stage with Tea Leaf Green’s Josh Clark and former New Monsoon drummer Marty Ylitalo. As Pujalet and Ylitalo ease into a dual drum solo, Molitz, whose night began more than six hours ago at the Nokia Theater with Phil Lesh & Friends, gets a fleeting chance to momentarily relax. Still hyper-alert, Molitz takes a second to soak in a little bit of what will prove to be the beginning of the next stage of Particle’s never-ending evolution.
One of the first bands to dive into the fast-paced livetronica sound with both feet, Particle has refused to pigeonhole themselves into one specific type of music and their lack of complacency has been one of the band’s defining qualities. Although cynical observers might attribute that trait to the number of guitarists that have spent time with the band (four in total), it is, more accurately, the result of their adventurous spirit. Since forming more than 7 years ago, Particle has faced down many challenges: they’ve played with Californian forefathers like Robbie Krieger, explored new territory with turntablist DJ Logic, deftly backed kitschy new wave stars Fred Schneider and Kate Pierson for a set of B-52s classics at the Jammys and gone tribal with Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart.
At the time of this interview, Particle was in a state of flux. They had just parted ways with Ben Combe, the third guitarist to leave the band within the past three years, and were on the verge of a month-long West coast tour in which Tea Leaf Green’s Josh Clark would be handling the majority of the guitar duties. The day after Particle’s Highline Ballroom set, their first full set with Clark, I chatted with Pujalet over coffee. Pujalet has a very pleasant manner about him; he’s extremely friendly and remarkably straightforward. Although he’s easygoing, he isn’t careless: he has an appreciation for the power words carry and, without being overbearing, makes sure that he’s getting his point across.
As Molitz had taken up a two week residency in Manhattan – Phil Lesh & Friends were in the midst of a ten show run at the Nokia Theater – I had the opportunity to speak with him in more detail. The talented keyboard player hardly stood still during his time in New York City. When he wasn’t playing with Lesh, Particle or sitting in with Willie Waldman at the Jazz Standard, he could be found at Carnegie Hall catching the Berlin Philharmonic playing Mahler or up at the United Palace for a Black Crowes show. You can get lost talking music with him: he’s just as liable to speak in depth about the discriminating tastes of the jamband scene as he is to point out how Bobby McFerrin’s vocal arrangements on his Circle Sounds tour are similar in nature to Keller Williams work with looping technology. Oh yes, he also some hysterical stories about being mistaken for Chris Robinson.
In need of a guitar player for a month long slate of shows, Particle turned towards Josh Clark, one of their California brethren. “Josh has always been someone we’ve enjoyed playing with,” says Pujalet. “He’s a very soulful player and a really good match for what we do.” Molitz shares Pujalet’s enthusiasm. “We’ve been hanging with [Tea Leaf Green] for many years now,” he elaborates. “I’ve always dug Josh’s playing, and his vibe but we’ve never played together unless I was sitting in with TLG or something like that. Josh was one of the first people that came to mind as somebody who’s a great guitar player that we also dig as a person. One thing I really like about him is that he is a very physical player and I think Particle is that type of band.”
“Tea Leaf Green has played a bunch of shows with Particle over the years, so I already had an overall sense of the music,” says Clark of the connection between the bands. “To prepare for the tour, I basically ingested as much Particle music as possible but nothing beats playing live with the band to really get the dynamic, trial by fire if you will. Every band peaks out a little differently and the challenge is adapting to their arc, which instinctively is very different from TLG’s. It’s already been a lot of fun and I'm looking forward to the whole run with the guys, which will give us the opportunity to really gel.”
With rehearsal time at a premium, Particle and Clark will primarily get to know each other on stage. At the time we spoke, Molitz found it hard to gauge how Clark’s inclusion will affect the band’s sound. “We’ve only done the one show, so it’s tough to answer,” he reasoned. “I think part of why the music on this tour will be different is not just that Josh is with us but also because I’ll be coming off two months of shows with Phil Lesh, which just completely blew my mind and broadened my taste. [Lesh] had me playing in such a different style and I know that I’m going to bring a lot of what I learned from playing with Phil to the Particle tour.”
The truth of the matter is, we’ve been so busy, we haven’t had a bunch of rehearsal time,” relates Molitz. “There’s going to be a lot of improvisation and interpretation of songs. Anyone coming out to see this Particle tour: it’s not like you’re seeing something that we sat at home and crafted or rehearsed for two months. You’re going to see something real: something created that never existed before and will never exist again. It’s going to happen on the spot; it’s going to happen in the moment and then it will just vanish. That’s what’s so special about it: being there to experience it and be a part of it.”
“One thing I love about improvisational music is that the whole point is individual interpretation,” continues Molitz. “Half of the fun of this tour is going to be the excitement of meshing our sound with Josh’s. I look forward to him surprising me and us surprising ourselves with what gets played on stage on this tour. The thing about a band like Particle is that we’re hearing the music for the first time as the audience is; especially on this tour with Josh.
At their Highline outing, Particle explored a bluesy side that they typically leave untouched. “I think there’s going be a lot more of that sound and that soul in this tour,” remarked Molitz. Pujalet looks forward to expanding the band’s horizons with Clark on board. “We figured we’d play some Tea Leaf stuff. We played a Tea Leaf song last night (“Wet Spot”) and I figure it will evolve from there. We’ve done this for so long that we just have to throw what we do into a blender and create our own concoction.” Fans can expect to see the four doing a lot of musical exploration, taking everyone on what Pujalet likes to term a “sonic voyage.”
A surfer, Pujalet prefers to focus on the positive aspects of any scenario. In line with this worldview, he’s reluctant to speak effusively about the band’s recent split with Combe. Pujalet’s hesitance to discuss the topic isn’t defensive. To the contrary, he is acutely aware of how his words may be interpreted and is cautious about a throwaway comment being misinterpreted or read out of context. Although Pujalet would have preferred to stay away from the topic altogether, he understands that to avoid the subject would be to forego discussion of the proverbial elephant in the corner of the room.
“Ben did about 200 shows with us,” says Pujalet when we broached the subject. “I really appreciated playing with him. He’s a great player and I think the two of us played really well together.” When I ask Pujalet to comment on any misperceptions people might have about Combe’s departure, he pauses and thinks it over. Desirous of not giving an answer fraught with negative connotations or inadvertently giving credence to any rumors, Pujalet again remains upbeat. “The only thing I can say is that our intentions are really good,” he explains. “We’ve done 1000 shows together. It’s a lot of work that takes strong personalities and strong people to be able to continuously do that.”
Molitz, who was more expansive on the topic, looks at Combe’s departure in the larger scheme of things. “If you would have told me when we were first starting out, that we’re going have this Spinal Tap drummer thing, I would have said you’re crazy,” explains Molitz. “You can’t predict these things. It really hasn’t been so many [changes]; it’s just that it’s happened in such a short period of time. I could probably rattle off a half dozen bands in our scene that have had changes in the last year or two,” he says before doing just that. “To put it in perspective, the greatest band in our genre, The Grateful Dead, went through numerous lineup changes. Bands go through changes, although I would have never predicted that it would turn out this way for us.”
As to Combe, Molitz is mindful of the difficulty of explaining the intricacies of the breakdown of a relationship to people who aren’t intimately involved with the situation, finding similarities between band splits and a breakup with anyone you were seriously dating. “You can’t possibly tell all sides of the story when there’s a lineup change,” he explains. “We’ve tried to stay out of it. A lot of times a band will put out a press release, usually a paragraph or two, and it will get copied and pasted on all the chat boards. They may list reasons A, B and C as to why they left the band but the truth of the matter is there are reasons X, Y and Z that they can’t tell fans. It’s too personal to them or to the band and then the fans go on line and speculate anyway. I think it is probably confusing and amusing to people that Particle’s gone through so many changes. Unfortunately, it doesn’t make sense to share the entire spectrum of reasons that went into the decision,” he says with a little resignation. “It’s never one thing. I hope that fans realize that it’s never that simple. It can’t always be broken down.”
When Charlie Hitchcock left the band in 2005, Particle went through a lengthy and thorough series of auditions that ultimately resulted in Combe and RANA’s Scott Metzger joining the band. Pujalet’s unsure whether they will repeat the arduous search process and admits that in focusing on their December run of shows, they haven’t set out their course of action or defined their parameters quite yet. “I think we’re in a much different place as a band,” says Molitz. “When Charlie [Hitchcock] left the band, we were all instrumental. I woke up this morning and I’m writing lyrics to two different songs and I’ll probably work on the music this afternoon. To me that’s as important if not more important, right now. For now, I think it’s just important to look inside and do some soul searching and song writing and let the answer of who the guitar player will be develop naturally.” “I will say this,” says Pujalet. “Our first guitarist, Dave Simmons, who passed away about 8 months after the band started, really set the bar for the band as far as guitar players go. He was just dripping with soul and had a phenomenal talent. Bottom line is that Eric, Steve and I have done a ton of shows on our own; we’re a solid unit together, we know each other’s playing inside and out.”
Molitz’ mention of Hitchcock leads to a brief discussion of their ex-guitarist. “I still consider Charlie to be one of, if not the best guitarists I’ve ever played with,” states Molitz. “He’s just such an amazing guitar player. He can really smoke.” With reunions being all the rage nowadays, I throw out the proposition of Hitchcock returning to the band. The suggestion provokes a small laugh from Molitz. “I spoke to him the other day, he’s in Australia writing and recording music over there. I know he’s having a blast over there writing and recording new music.”
Molitz is very pragmatic about the upcoming search and is hardly daunted by the task. He marvels a bit over the attention focused on Particle’s lineup changes, especially when bands as big as Van Halen and The Rolling Stones have gone through their share of transformations as well. “Change is a part of life,” says Molitz. “It’s healthy, it’s natural. For whatever reason, this is the way our destiny has unfolded. It would be arrogant and selfish of me to complain and ask for it any other way. If this is the natural course of how this is to be played out, then by the way I look at life and philosophy, this is honest, natural and OK.”
In deference to Combe and the other guitarists who have played with Particle, Molitz doesn’t want to seem like he’s trivializing their importance or contributions. He also realizes that, especially in the jamband scene, fans sometime have a very personal relationship with the band. “If you’re shocked as a fan, how do you think I feel as part of the band; I’m with you people,” he says with a little mock exasperation. “There’s a certain amount of shock, surprise and excitement as well as sadness and confusion. It’s all healthy. It’s all part of the human spectrum and human experience. Let’s get through this together,” he says while winding down his thoughts. “I don’t really know how to verbalize it. I don’t even know if I’m supposed to.”
It’s a sentiment diplomatically echoed by Pujalet. “One of the nice things about playing with different guitar players is that it’s brought the band some depth and helped us see a lot of different flavors and different energies on stage.” Playing with musicians that come from different styles has helped the band grow and mature. “We’re finding the intersection amongst the intersections,” describes Pujalet, “It’s a fun opportunity when you have a chance to play with a new musician and a new guitar player. We’ve had the opportunity to play with so many different guitarists over the years and they’ve all brought different styles, different vibes and different energies to the band. It’s been a great opportunity for us. Ben and all the other guitar players have brought different inflections to the band.”
“Particle has always been a band that thrives on the energy of their fans. I don’t think they realize how much they are in control of any given performance,” confides Molitz. “Their energy is really going to dictate how we play. We’re really tuned in to where they go or what their mood is; it’ll determine whether a show is really high energy and in-your-face or spacey, mellow and psychedelic. We feed off of them and that pushes us to a new height and they have a reaction to that. It’s a back and forth that happens all night. In the pop scene, it’s more of a one way flow of information. The band is going to play the song the way they play it on the record. It’s going to leave the stage and travel to the audience but there’s really not that much coming back.”
Molitz is coming back to Particle after spending a rewarding and much praised couple months with Phil Lesh & Friends. The venerable bassist brought in Molitz and singer/songwriter Jackie Greene to interject some young blood and new styles into his band. “The level of musicianship that Phil brings to that stage is amazing,” says Molitz with genuine affection for Lesh. He points out that Lesh’s greatest strength as a bandleader is his ability to bring out the best in musicians without making it obvious that he’s pushing you on. Molitz made the most of his daily exposure to his veteran band mates. “Every one of those guys made me a better musician. Each taught me so much. For some it was patience, for some it was perspective and for some it was just plain mastery – enter Larry Campbell.” The Phil & Friends experience also kept him on his toes. “I try not to take my eyes off the band too much because things happen so quickly and if you don’t pay attention, you’re going to get left behind,” he explains. “I try to stay tuned in to [John] Molo and Phil. That rhythm section, if you blink, they’re going to be playing in a different time signature and you better be ready for it. I try not to look at the audience too much because if I do, I’m probably going to miss something.”
“I never feel like I’m going through the motions when I’m playing with Phil,” continues Molitz. “Complacency has always been my enemy,” he confesses. “I try to play from the heart and internalize every note I play, every night. It saddens me when I go to a concert and see a musician with a kind of vacant stare going through the motions playing their tunes. For whatever reason, the thrill is gone. I never want to become that guy.”
Molitz also savored being an integral part in the Grateful Dead experience. “At least once a night, I try to look out and catch a moment; without fail, I do. You’ll start to play a song and as soon as the lyrics start you’ll see a group of three or four people all look at each other and then their faces light up and they hug each other. You can see they aren’t celebrating the fact that Phil Lesh & Friends is playing that song in 2007; you can see they are celebrating the fact that they first heard that song the night they proposed to their wife at RFK Stadium in 1973. You can tell that that’s their song and the lyrics have meant so much to them over the years, literally decades. To get to be a part of that and to tap in and tell a story that has so much meaning and history to so many people, I feel lucky and blessed and thankful. It’s such a cool thing to get to do.”
In immersing himself in the Grateful Dead’s history, Molitz noted lots of similarities to his own band’s development, even if, on the surface, Particle’s style seems radically different from that of the Dead. “Without intending to, certain parts of Particle’s existence really mirror the Grateful Dead,” explains Molitz. “We got our start and for many years played these late night marathon shows and in reading Phil’s book I learned all about the stuff they used to pull in the early Acid Test days. People would get together for the Dead shows and it was really a multi-media experience. That’s not that much different from Particle starting a show at 3:00 in the morning and finishing at 8:00 a.m. which so often was the case. I was thinking to myself, We did this forty years later. It’s really cool,’” says Molitz with a tinge of excitement in his voice. “Look at “Dark Star,” which is completely interpretive and at times 45 minutes in length; there have been times when we’ve started “Ed & Molly” and its gone 45 minutes or we’ve segued into other songs and picked it back up in the second half of the show. It’s not something that we intentionally modeled after the Dead; it’s just a similarity that I noticed once I started to get more into their music.”
“The other thing that I think I’ll take from both the Grateful Dead and Phil & Friends is the depth of the songwriting and the meaning behind what they’re playing. For the first five years of Particle, we were basically an instrumental band. Our goal was always to add lyrics at some point but we wanted the progression to be natural. The power of narrative within music has always been a place where Particle wanted to explore. We didn’t rush it.”
It’s in the area of their songwriting that Particle looks to make a significant step forward. It’s a leap they aren’t making hastily and they’re holding their cards close to the vest with their new songs. In preparation for their first full-length release, Launchpad, Particle worked out the majority of the songs on stage for a healthy period of time before bringing them into the studio. For their second album, targeted for 2008, their approach is different. “We want to put out a record of fresh material that people haven’t heard,” explains Pujalet. “It’s hard to say until you get all the pieces of the puzzle together and see how the puzzle forms. I think the mentality is a little more traditional: shorter songs a lot of them maybe three or four minutes – and vocals.”
“To do an interview [about the new material] now, we’re going to be discussing the fruit that this tree will bear while the tree is still growing. I don’t want to start telling you how shiny my apples are as a seedling. There’s no point. It’s more in my nature to let the apples grow, let them be delicious and share them with the people,” says Molitz, finding humor in his extravagant farming analogy. “The songs that we recorded that we feel are the best songs, we’re intentionally not playing live,” says Molitz. “I want to record them and I want them to sound like they sound in my head. I want them to have the tone, texture and clarity that I heard when I created the demo version of the song,” he explains. Although some of the new songs have made their way onto Particle’s set lists, they holding back the ones they feel will benefit from being recorded first. “There are some songs I’ve written recently that I’m so proud of and I can’t wait to share with our audience. It’ll be up to them to say, Wow, I love that song’ or I wish Particle had stayed instrumental’ and that’s their decision and I respect it either way. All I can do is write what’s in my heart and play the song from a place of honesty and hope it resonates with people. I think that’s all any artist can ask”
For the meantime, Particle is focusing their energies on the tasks at hand. They are gearing towards a New Year’s run at Cervantes Masterpiece in Denver, Colorado with Karl Denson Tiny Universe guitarist Brian Jordan and Doors legend Robbie Krieger and also looking towards releasing some the new songs they’ve been putting together. With a glut of recorded material on hand, they are considering an EP before putting together a full-length release.
Particle are cognizant that the New Year brings with it some pretty big questions about the next step on their journey. At the time I spoke to Molitz and Pujalet, they were quite honest about the fact that they didn’t have the answers . . . yet. Rather than act impulsively and make rash choices, they’re planning to act thoughtfully and pragmatically. “I’ve never been more excited, thankful and motivated to play live music than I am right now,” says Molitz “I’m just so excited for what the future holds and part of my excitement is the uncertainty and the change.”