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Published: 2008/02/24
by Mike Greenhaus

Young Folks: A Conversation with Seth Winters and O.A.R.s Jerry DePizzo

Seth Winters frequented the New York-area club scene as a pre-teen and, before he scored his drivers license, had already performed with the likes of Warren Haynes, Jimmy Herring, Merl Saunders and Bernie Worrell, as well as the members of moe., Deep Banana Blackout and the Spin Doctors. Almost a decade later, Winters has returned to the live music scene a mature, confident 24-year old performing under his own name. In the intervening time, he’s relocated to Atlanta and back to New York, overcome a series of health problems and formed an all-star band anchored by Spin Doctors drummer Aaron Comess. He’s also recently started collaborating with O.A.R. saxophonist Jerry DePizzo, who recently performed with Winters in Atlanta and contributed to the young guitarist’s debut studio album. Before their upcoming performance at New York’s Annex, Winters and DePizzo sat down with to discuss their mutual love of the Allman Brothers, the importance of the Wetlands and playing the club circuit before they were able to legally drink.

MG: Seth, you started playing out in public when you were still in your early teens. How did you score your first gig?

SW: Well the first time I ever played live with anyone was when I had just turned thirteen. It was in the fall of ’96 with Matt Murphy from the Blues Brothers at the Bayou restaurant. There weren’t a lot of people there and I was just some thirteen-year-old punk kid in the third row yelling out all these things. He said, “Do you play?” and I was like, “Yeah” and he brought me up to play, which was cool. I got to jam with him again at the restaurant and at Manny’s Car Wash and, through the people at Manny’s, I met Jimmy Vivino and people like Derek Trucks. And through the people at Manny’s, I also got into the Wetlandsthere were a lot of the same people playing at Wetlands at that time. I went to go see Bernie Worrell at Wetlands and that’s where I met Pete Shapiro for the first time. I actually also got to jam with Bernie at the Wetlands—-that was cool. So I was just this possessed, ambitious little kid who just wanted to go out and do everything, you know?

MG: One early supporter was Spin Doctors drummer Aaron Comess, who still plays in your band. How did you two first connect?

SW: I actually remember the date, March 28th, 1999. That was at the second ever Wetlands Power Jam, which I actually got to play at with Jimmy Herring, Allen Woody, Aaron Comess and a bunch of other people. So, yeah, that’s the night I met Aaron. I had this gig six months after in August, opening for Merl Saunders at Wetlands. I didn’t have a drummer for the gig and I loved Aaron’s playing and I wanted to use him for the gig. But I didn’t get his number that night or anything and this was six months later. For some reason, his number was not listed on 411, only his fax number was. So I actually sent him a fax being like, “Hey remember me? I’m that kid you played with like six months ago. There’s a gig that’s coming up five days from now, do you want to play?” And, surprisingly, he called me back and he said, “Yes.” We have played together ever since and now it is a real band that is completely rehearsed. He’s the one who got me my current band with Keith Cotton on keys and vocals and Rich Hammond on bass. He plays with Keith and Rich in Joan Osborne’s band. So Aaron has always been a very big help and someone who has been with us for a very long time. He’s one of the best drummers out there. Now I’m really excited about my band because we are completely rehearsed and have a solid set.

MG: One immediate bond seems to be your mutual love of the blues.

SW: It’s definitely a good fit because we all have a common blues root. I feel to be a great musician you have to study the blues. When I started playing guitar, I was listening to great players and my first two years of playing guitar it was all Eric Clapton. You can never go wrong with Clapton. The blues are the roots of American music.

MG: You and Jerry are playing together on March 4 at New York’s the Annex. How did you first connect?

SW: It was down in Florida in April of 06 at Wanee, the Allman Brothers’ festival. I’m sort of small acquaintances with the Allman Brothers and they gave me a backstage pass to the festival. I got there right before Gov’t Mule went on and saw the last part of O.A.R’s set. I went backstage and was talking with Jerry. He was the only guy from the band around and we got to talking. In retrospect, I am surprised I had the balls to do it, but I asked him if he wanted to play on my album. And then, before I even could put Jerry in a tough spot, I was like, “Oh, you know, you don’t have to decide. You haven’t even heard me, you don’t know if I suck or not.” It was a good vibe and I sent him a couple of recordings and he said, “Yeah, I’d definitely like to do it but I’m on tour, with O.A.R.” So five months later when O.A.R. came to Atlanta, where I was living at the time, I picked up Jerry at the amphitheater at 11 A.M., right after they loaded in, and we went over to the studio to record with my drummer Ben Jaffe.

JD: Yea, we chatted a little bit and talked and hung out. I knew from listing to his material that he was a really talented guitar player and, from speaking with him, was also a guy who was serious and passionate about his career and really developing himself as a player and an artist. It was easy for me at that point to want to get involved, play on the record, sit in on shows, what have you, because I just I knew he had a lot of promise and he was going to develop. It was the beginning of a long journey for him and a long career, just from listening. I’ll go on his MySpace page and listen to his new material.

MG: Can you talk about the album specifically? How long have you been working on the project for?

SW: Jerry is on one tune on my album, the album that I’m doing right now. It didn’t start out as an album. In early 2004 I just decided to record two or three song demos. At the time I didn’t have a singer, so I didn’t want to put anything out. This was before I could sing. I’ve been working on my singing for a while and it is only in the past few months or so that it’s finally working out. So, I was just waiting for a singer and I was recording more and more of my tunes along the way, from 2006-2007. And it just turned into an album, really, by 2006, around the time I met Jerry. So I just turned the demos into a real album. I’m almost done with it now. I wish I could have like a month designated in a studio, instead of maybe thirty days in the studio over four years.

MG: Is your current band on any tracks off the disc?

SW: Actually, they’re only going to be on one track. Aaron himself on drums for about
50% of the album and also plays keyboards on some tracks. Ben, who played drums with me when I was in Atlanta, is also on about 80% of the album and Keith, my singer keyboard player, has done a lot of vocal work as well, but most of the keyboards are done by a man named Neilton Chapman, who lives in Atlanta, but Keith who also sings with me is also doing a lot of great vocals on there as well. I am also thinking about fitting in a bonus disc as well with some of the early material, from when I was 18. I find it hard to listen to a lot of that early stuff, but I have this one slamming recording I did with Mark White from Spin Doctors.

JD: Yeah, Seth has grown so much since the last show we did together. I saw a recent show he did in November on YouTube and there was a great amount of development and a great amount of progression for him. You know, that’s what really inspired me to do it again was the fact that I saw so much growth and so much improvement. Just so much maturity in, really, not much time.

SW: The gig is March 4th and we get two hours and I’m so excited about that. We get two hours to stretch out so it’s going to be great. We’re going to do the last bit on the album when we’re doing rehearsals for the gig with Jerry on March. I’m working with this guy Russ Fowler, who mixed the first Project Z album, and this guy Rush Anderson is also co-producing, mixing and engineering.

MG: Both you and Jerry started playing professionally at a very young age. Do you feel it is a blessing or a curse to be in the public eye at such a young age?

SW: Well, I think being out and playing at a really young age, and being exposed to that music is a good thing. You’re faced with your experiences, especially growing up, and I have all these great musicians I was exposed to when I was young. Their music is stored in my brain now and, if I weren’t exposed to it until I was older, then maybe it wouldn’t have developed in my playing as much. Everyone is shaped by their experiences and I think that it just became part of my natural development.

JD: Well, I consider that kind of double-edged sword, cutting your teeth in front of hundreds and thousands of people with O.A.R. And there’s a lot of material out there that exposes us at a young age, warts and all, that I may not necessarily want to sit down and listen to it these days. But I think it shows people the progression of the band, you know, ten years later, as far as learning how to play the instrument in front of people. It just helps tune the live show and, at this point, I can play with anyone in front of any amount of people and be able to go out there and do the show and not have any jitters or nerves. That’s probably the best thing that came out of it, there’s really no situation that intimidates me or the rest of the guys in O.A.R. I think we just go out there and we’re confident with ourselves and our abilities. We just go out there and have a good time and show people what we’re able to do.

MG: Earlier, you mentioned that you met indirectly through the Allman Brothers Band. How have the Allmans shaped your style?

They’ve definitely had an enormous impact on my playing. All of my favorite guitar players have been in the Allman Brothers at one point: Duane Allman, Jimmy Herring, Jack Pearson, Warren Haynes, Derek Trucks, Dickey Betts. But I also have a lot of other influences like Clapton, as I said, and Coltrane and a lot of singer/songwriters. But they’ve had a tremendous influence on me as far as the actual sound I wanted to go for. All those guys I just mentioned are able to get great tone out of their playing. It’s never totally normal or just blues, blues, blues. It’ll be blues crossed with bebop and fusion and then go back into blues. That’s the kind of style that I like to play. Plus, another thing I’ve learned just from watching and listening to the Allman Brothers, is how important it is to just play music in the moment. You know, music is now. I find when I’m playing my best and when my band really sounds it’s best is when we’re just completely in the moment. The Allman Brothers do that as well as anybody and that’s something I really picked it up from them. Another thing I’ve learned, especially from watching somebody like Jack Pearson, is that music goes through you, it doesn’t come from you. I see that guy and he’s just watching the instrument play itself.

JD: For me, the Allman Brothers were an enormous influence. I really learned how to play guitar by sitting down and listening to the Allman Brothers’ records. Even though they are a jamband, they put their songs first that’s what they taught me. That really excited me and the other guys throughout our career: You need to have a song foundation for the musical journey that you take people on. You need to have a song, and you need to have substance behind it. Even when they are going off and doing solos, they’re reacting as a band. It’s not musical acrobatics and it’s not wanking, it’s melody. That’s the biggest thing that I’ve taken out of the Allman Brothers. They can play for twenty minutes and Warren can take you on a journey, but they are saying something.

SW: O.A.R. is really the same way its great songs are the first priority. I knew that right around the time when I was 19 or so, when I’d only written a few songs or lyrics. I love playing “Afro-Blue,” but I’m not going to be playing at amphitheatres and arenas if I’m playing “Afro-Blue.” But, especially at that time, when I was going through a lot of health problems, and it helped me write a lot of good songs.

MG: Jerry, like the Allman Brothers, O.A.R. has the ability to move in-and-out of the jam-world. How do you view O.A.R. in relation to that scene?

JD: Well, I’d like to first say that I certainly respect the jamband community and appreciate anytime anyone says our name and that community in the same breath. There are a lot of talented, very musical and special bands within that community. I think we’ve teetered on the edge of it because I think jambands are on more of a musical journey and we’re on more of a lyrical journey. For us, the story comes first and the music supports that. I think the reason why we play the way we do, or at least the way we’ve played the last eleven years, is we would go out and play these show for two-and-a-half to four hours and, for a while, we only had ten songs. You kinda had to make it go. And we were really figuring things out on stage. So the intro to the song was 2-3 minutes long because we weren’t sure what was coming next. We were waiting for it to develop. But I certainly appreciate the jamband connection and am very proud of the fact that O.A.R. can go and do Bonnaroo but, at the same time, go out and maybe do a more Coachella-like event or still be played on Top 40 radio. It’s an especially unique formula and a special situation that I don’t think comes around too often.

SW: Jerry likes the word jambandjust don’t call O.A.R. a college jamband [laughter].

JD: Even being called a “college-band” isn’t too bad, but like “Frat Rock,” that’s the one that sticks the knife in the side and twists.

SW: Was the frat band at Ohio State the same that it is now?

JD: Yeah, exactly. That was an interview question that we filmed for a DVD that we did at Madison Square Garden. We had a middle school newspaper come in and interview us and the question was “Is Frat Rock in Ohio State the same that it is now?” I was like, “I don’t think I get what you’re saying.” When I was growing up, college music or college bands were people like R.E.M. That was almost a badge of honor, but between that point and the development of O.A.R. it turned into a limiting way to describe us. And I just think that we have offered more than that, and if anyone listens to the pat few records and probably the new one that we’re putting out soon they can certainly hear that.

MG: Your saxophone style is more rhythm-based than many of your peers, who tend to take more solos. What players do you cite an influences?

JD: You know, a guy that I’ve really been getting into and really studying a lot is Clarence Clemons. He really showed me that you can play rhythmically and it’s something that I’ve been developing and have been getting decent at it, playing very minimalistic stuff but making it really count. Like Miles Davis, in that “So What” kind of vibe. It’s just like, “Play just the right notes and get away from musical acrobatics,” and that’s something I’ve really been trying to develop and work on with. I just love that poppy sound that is the pop/rock-and-roll saxophone. That’s just so great even, like King Curtis, it’s just so rad man and its not drenched in theory or anything. It makes people feel good and want to dance and have a good time. Also, J.C. Kuhl from the band Agents of Good Roots, who are longer around. But that guy is a huge influence on me and I can play his records backwards and forwards. He’s just absolutely excellent and, for what I do as a single horn player in a band, I don’t think there’s anybody that’s done it better.

MG: I remember seeing Agents of the Good Roots at Wetlands right before they broke up. Actually, the night after one of those Wetlands Power Jams that Seth performed at. Did O.A.R. ever play the Wetlands?

JD: No. The Wetlands, I think, just ended when we just started getting into New York and that area. But our singer Mark’s brother, Jeff Roberge, played in Foxtrot Zulu who played there a bunch, so I had heard of this mythical place from those guys but never had an opportunity to go there and or play there. Our first New York gig was at the Lion’s Den. We did two nights at the Lion’s Den and we slowly progressed from the Lion’s Den to Irving Plaza and then the Hammerstein Ballroom and The Garden. But, the funny thing is, those Lion’s Den gigs sold out so, as far as NYC proper shows go, the band has never played anything but a sold out show [laughter]. So, if anything, I think we just planned it really well and had a nice stroke of luck as well.

SW: Yeah, I got to play with Deep Banana Blackout a bunch at the Wetlands that was cool. How I feel about the Wetlands is how most people feel about Michael Jordan: There will never be another one again. As much as I would love for it to be open again.

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