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Published: 2008/10/25
by Randy Ray

Headin Down the Highway with Gibb Droll

Jambands.com caught up with guitarist Gibb Droll on the highway just outside of Nashville during an off day as he tours with Keller Williams’ “dream band” consisting of Droll, Williams, String Cheese Incident bassist Keith Moseley, and Aquarium Rescue Unit, and one-time Trey Anastasio band member, Jeff Sipe. Nashville seems like an appropriate setting for the musically diverse-minded Droll as the famous city has served as quite a place for renewal and re-discovery for many artists.

Droll speaks about his time reinterpreting the gold in Keller Williams’ canon, his own solo work, the growth of an artist, and the idea that one can learn far more about the human spirit when listening to a musician if the attention isn’t so much focused on the notes being played, but the heart and soul of the artist which invigorates the music. Droll’s latest work can be found on the excellent 2-CD, and 1-DVD Keller Williams with Moseley, Droll, and Sipe release simply titled Live, and one hopes that in the near future Droll releases some of the solo treasures he speaks about in this interview.

RR: I enjoyed the chemistry of the musicians on the new Keller Williams Live album featuring yourself, Keith Moseley, and Jeff Sipe. Would you like to talk about that recording, and your connection with Keller?

GD: Oh, thank you. I think they have a tendency to make me look better than I am, probably. They are such great musicians. I’ve known Keller for years, and we’ve been friends for years. I think he had come up with the idea, and approached me a couple of years ago, saying that he had thought about having a group of musicians interpret his work, and he had certain people in mind. For instance, he had Jeff for drums, and he had been friends with Keith for many years, and myself on guitar. I think he had a certain sound in his head of what the combination of the four of us could sound like.

The timing of everything was perfect. For Keith, String Cheese was taking a hiatus at that time, Jeff was taking a hiatus with Trey [Anastasio], and I was as well with the work I was doing, so it worked out timing-wise to have all four of us come together. It’s really a testamentespecially if you hear the Live album that you’re talking aboutto Keller and his vision that he had enough trust in the three of us. He would send acoustic versions of his songs, for the most part, and we would interpret them and implement different kinds of rhythm structures. It turned out to be so cohesive and wonderful that, luckily, we just kept on doing it and people enjoyed it. Keller was smart enough to record every show. A lot of the things on that record are this kind of neat symmetry between the four of us later on in the tour. That’s how it all came together, and it just kept building from that. I think his fans were receptive to hearing him in a different way, too. I think, maybe even, it helps them appreciate him even morehis beauty and uniqueness as a solo artist.

RR: Keller hasn’t always been a big fan of releasing live material in the past, and yet, he felt comfortable enoughand we’re all the better for itto release material from shows with this quartet. Is that a fair comment?

GD: I think so. It’s another tribute to his integrity. He’s very protective and selective about what is released, especially when it comes to live material. The real fun thing about those records is that they’ve been gone throughall the shows were gone throughfrom Keller’s perspective. He’s the one that took the time with the tapes, and really, really got in and figured out which takes of certain songs he really enjoyed. The great thing about that is that showed quite a bitto come up with two discs worth of music, and a DVD, you see the broad range of music that the man comes up with and writes. I think it’s a real honor to be on the receiving end of his trust in that way, and you really feel like you’re part of something special because he doesn’t release live material often.

RR: The Live album spotlights the dynamics in the quartet’s collaboration, and you definitely offer your own unique voice on guitar within that mix. How did you approach the material, and how did it develop on that tour, and subsequent dates like your present tour, which runs through mid-November?

GD: Thank you. Right. Well, you know, for me, there’s so much material to cover, and Keller was pretty open about going for things every night, stretching things every nightnot doing the same set in a particular town; maybe, a town he had visited two years prior. We wouldn’t do any of the same songs that he may have performed two years ago, so it gives it a real freshness. How I interpret the music on a nightly basis is kind of what you end up hearing on the record. It’s a very, very stringent listening atmosphere where you want to make sure, as an accoutrement to the process, you’re not trying to stand out, and you’re not trying to be too reserved where it’s not accenting the material. For me, I listen intently to Jeff’s rhythm, I listen intently to Keller’s ideas as he’s going along because he’s so used to playing solo for so many years that he can go off-the-cuff and go places, and it’s really fun and interesting to follow him into those places without thinking too much. Of course, having Keith in the background being so solid, gives you a really great canvas to find your voice. I think of all the projects I’ve ever doneespecially anything that’s been captured on recordthis is the truest representation of me, my tone, what I’m thinking, and the freeform improv aspect of it.

RR: That’s really interesting that you said that because I recognized, through numerous rounds with the album, how relaxed you appear to be within this music. It isn’t like you are playing specific solos within specific sections of Keller’s songs and color palette, but you also brought your own material into the sets like “Reinhardt Rag.” How were versions of your songs chosen for the live release?

GD: It was really chosen on the strength of whatever the recording might be. “Reinhardt Rag” was chosen because of the energy and playfulnessat least in my mindof Keller’s mouth flugal. To me, that colored and textured something differently other than anything else on the record. That was chosen because it was so different, and it was quick, and it was a really unique instrumental song. Something like “Lonesome Angel” was chosen by the strength of the song itself, and maybe that performance was strong within the four of us. In my mind, that’s how we bounced back and forthKeller might
send me three different versions of “Lonesome Angel,” and that particular onethere may be one where there’s more energy to it, but the playing might not be 100%had playing that was more mature.

The funny thing is, Randy, is that really through three tours with all of the recordings if you probably heard a recording of the first show, or the third show of the tour versus maybe the thirteenth or fourteenth show, it’s amazing how everyone grows (laughs) and matures even in that amount of time. I think it’s because we only have a certain amount of time to do this projectwe only have a couple weeks here, and a couple week thereso you have this really intense maturing project as a band. It’s really interesting. Some of my [songs] were picked because of energy or playfulness, and maybe something else was picked because of the maturity of the playing.

RR: I was also thinking that Keller has that Django Reinhardt energy himselfnot so much his playfulness or technique, but his ability to take it as far as it needs to go.

GD: Right. He really does. The thing ishe’s such a funny human being. I’m sure you’ve talked with him in interviews over the years.

RR: Yes, I have.

GD: He’s really such a wonderful spirit that his songs, with his lyrics, the way he is live, the way he is in person, there’s nothing hiding with him. He’s very true and very fun and very sweet, very intelligent, and very funny. He’s one of the funniest people (laughs) I’ve ever had the pleasure of spending time with, you know?

RR: Jeff Sipe brought an element of strength, energy, and improvisation into Trey Anastasio’s band in 2006, and he kicked you guys in the ass, too, if I may be so bold.

GD: Yeah, that’s exactly true. You’re right. Anybody that’s played music in the last 10, 15, or 20 years can attest to Jeff’s acumen. He’s amazing. Sometimes I think all of us on stageand I could probably speak for people that have played with Jeff beforemarvel at how easy he makes it look. If you’re listening to it, you find it hard to believe that someone is actually doing all of that, and look as pleasant as he does when he’s doing it. (laughter)

Jimmy Herring is another person who comes to mindfor mewho does that exact same thing. You can’t believe what you’re hearing, and then you see the man, and you know the man and how sweet and amazing he is, but you just can’t believe what you’re hearing. He’s that accelerated at his craft.

If you put Jeff into any circumstance, he’s going to raise that project to a new level. Again, I think Keller knew that getting into it. Jeff was going to bring just a whole other level of musicianship to this band.

RR: Right. I also agree with your statement about Jimmy Herring. I would add that when I’ve seen you play live, you also take me to places I didn’t know existed with your musicalways a very interesting journey, whether it’s on record, or the stage.

GD: (laughs) Thank you very much. Sometimes I feelI really appreciate that. I’ve had the fortune of knowing someone like a Jimmy Herring, or a Warren Haynes, or a Derek Trucks, and I’m such huge fans [of their work]. As a guitar player, I’m in awe of their talent, so for me, I always feel like I’m a very humble servant to my instrument. I have so much to learn, and I’ve got so far to go with it, and sometimes I feel that, maybe, the best thing I’ve got going for me is some positive energy when I’m playing. If that conveys to you, then I’ve done my job. (laughs)

RR: You’ve touched upon an area I wanted to investigate. Let’s talk about some of your original influences that paved the highway for you as a young guitarist.

GD: I would certainly start with Stevie Ray Vaughan, who was my first one as a child, being absolutely moved by his tone, and his precision. I think I went from there to understanding what Jimi Hendrix was about, understanding the use of feedback, or at least being really moved by that and his playing. The longer I dug around into the blues, I understood the beauty of the Buddy Guys, and the Albert Kings, and the B.B. Kings, and the Albert Collins of the world.

Then my view as I grew shifted with meeting Jimmy Herring years ago. He just blew my mind, and you start to morph into the Steve Morses and Jimmy Herrings and then, of course, meeting and playing with Warren Haynes just changes everything. You (laughs) morph into that spectrum of playing that influences you, and along the way, you pick up Django Reinhardt, and Charlie Christian. I have most recently, in the last ten years, been such a John Scofield fan, his use of space, not overdoing things, lying back, and being quirky, but every note means something. Jeff has also really turned me onto Pat Metheny.

As far as guitar players go, Sonny Sharrock was a huge, unknown name that a lot of people don’t know as well, or are not as familiar with him. He’s a great texture-influence person on me. Guitar player-wise those influences wash over me and with me all the time. I remember seeing Derek Trucks when he was only 10 years old, and maybe two nights earlier he had been playing with Colonel Bruce [Hampton] with the Aquarium Rescue Unit, and [Hampton] would say, “You’ve got to see him! You’ve got to see Derek!” And then, I would see him two, three weeks later in a small town, and here’s a 10-year old kid that just moves you to tears.

It seems like my influences have always been based on what they have done for me spiritually as opposed to learning what they do technically. I’ve never seemed to have that side of me that would like to learn all of the scales of people, or how they played. I just simply loved to hear them, and I would, maybe, let them influence me in my heart, or

my playing, but never tried tolike if someone said, “Hey, play the riff from “Spanish Castle Magic” [Jimi Hendrix], or “Sweet Melissa” [Allman Brothers Band], or

RR: “Little Wing.” [Author’s Note: the Hendrix song is covered on the DVD, which is included with the new Keller Williams Live album.]

GD: “Little Wing,” for instance, yes. That was something that, after a period of time, people were saying would be a great song to play. I thought, “I’m going to actually sit down, and listen to Axis: Bold As Love, and see how in the world he does this, but I’m not going to copy it verbatim. I’m just wanting to see how it feels out of respect.” So that’s how those influences have shaped me.

RR: You spoke of Derek Trucks, and his abilities at a young age, which is truly a unique situation. How old were you when you thought, “This is what I want to do”?

GD: I was about 24. I had been playing with the guitar since I was 10. I had the hand-me-down guitar, and I noticed that I could listen to records, play along with them, and it made sense. When I was 13, 14, hearing Stevie Ray, I would be in my room, incessantly, while kids were playing kickball, or whatever they would play, I would be listening to “Texas Flood,” or the “Voodoo Chile” song that I couldn’t believe. By the time I was 16 or 17, I thought: “Oh, wow, “Voodoo Chile,” was actually Hendrix’s song.”

I guess all along the way I’ve always taken it seriously, and been into it, but I think probably ’94 is when I realized that this is something that I want to take a lot more seriously, and that this could be a great, great, wonderful adventurous life. I didn’t want to be pigeonholed into being some stereotypical blues guy, or rock guy, or whatever, so my journey has been a very fruitful and interesting one. I think from 1994 on, I took it into a realm of saying, “I want this to be a long-term profession that I feel that I’m proud of what I do.”

RR: You’ve recorded diverse and solid solo material over the last twelve years. Your last Gibb Droll Band release was 2005’s Ten Days. What is the current status of your solo career? Anything we can look forward to in the next couple of years?

GD: That’s a great question. I’m a lot more fond of that solo work now when I listen to it. As a matter of fact, I unearthed some a couple of months ago that I hadn’t listened to in years, and the memories of the recording process, and the particular band at whatever moment that particular record would have been made with, was really really nice to listen to, and fun to hear where I was there. For me, years ago, I took those records and those recordings off the shelf because I didn’t feel like I had gotten to the point as a songwriter, or as a musician that I wanted to be to start having things out there in the world that I really wanted to be proud of. It wasn’t that I wasn’t proud of the producers, or the band members, or anything like that. It was purely based on how I felt as an artist myself.

The last three years I’ve been writing a lot of things that are in much different genres. [Author’s Note: Ten Days also had its share of diversity with a nice mixture of blues, straight up rock n’ roll, and alternative country.] You can hear it on [Keller’s new Live album] from “Reinhardt Rag” to “Lonesome Angel,” and all things in betweenworking with different singer-songwriters, and trying to develop a more round image of what it is I can do, whether it’s writing stuff for independent films, or whatever. I have a ton of stuff recorded that I’ve recorded that people haven’t heard, and I’m just waiting for the time that feels right, or the right way to introduce that to people. What’s great with the older recordings, because when I listen to them, I think, “I could put those out, again”

RR: Oh, I can attest to that fact. There are some great songs that people missed.

GD: Thank you very much. I’ve had people tell me in the last couple of years: “Hey, you should really consider releasing some of your catalogue because it’s interesting, and people like that.” That’s all about the growth of being an artist. I’m sure there are lots of records out there that I’m sure people feel like: “Well, I’ve gone through this part of who I am, and that doesn’t represent me,” and I know that’s all part of it, and I think I’m becoming more comfortable with that.

I guess to answer your question, there will be a time where I think that will unearth itself, when I’m ready for that, and in the meantime, I’m just continuing to write all different kinds of genres, so that never stops. I’m kind of a workaholic when it comes to that. I’ve been fortunate to have a nice, bright imagination that I feel that I can constantly tap into.

RR: You’re touring with Keller Williams, Keith Moseley, and Jeff Sipe through mid-November. What are you enjoying about this particular moment in time playing with the band?

GD: Without a doubt, the camaraderie of the musicians and the friends. We’ve all respected one another for years. I think when you’re on the bus together, and you realize that at the end of the tour, it feels like it flew by, and you give everybody a hug because you’re really, sincerely going to miss that person after a couple of months together, you know you have something special. That’s the best part about it. Without a doubt, musically, there are a lot of really special moments that happen on a nightly basis that make you look over and say, “Wow, these are some really special people,” and it’s a real special moment, and the people in that theatre are really privy to something special for that time, and that’s the best part about it.

RR: Are there other collaborations that you have on your dream list?

GD: Oh, man, (laughs) there are always dream collaborations, for sure.

RR: Is it essentially about keeping your mind open to different possibilities?

GD: Yeah, I really do. I have a lot of interest in writing. I’m such a visual person that writing music for film interests me in such a way that it opens up my mind up to different instruments, and to different players, orchestra-wise, and to different moods, and so, that’s where I see my collaborations going in the future. I feel that I’ve been so lucky to play with the people I’ve looked up to in my career as it is right now that I feel like I’ve been as fortunate as I can be. (laughs) This collaboration with Keller, Jeff, and Keith is really the beginning of something beautiful in my career, too.

- Randy Ray stores his work at www.rmrcompany.blogspot.com.

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