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Published: 2008/12/23
by Randy Ray

Sitting on The Porch with David Gans Part I

“..we must seek not so much to create opportunities as to take advantage of those that are offered us.” The Island of the Day Before, Umberto Eco

David Gans has been touring quite extensively in the last decade or so with a rich canon of tunes stretching from folk to protest to jam to bluegrass to straight up rock n’ roll. However, he had not stopped long enough to record a studio album during that period. Until now. Gans has teamed up with members of Railroad Earth, and various other seasoned veterans to craft a poignant and rousing 11-track album called The Ones That Look the Weirdest Taste the Best. With Gans as the chief songwriter, and tracks produced by Railroad Earth’s Tim Carbone, the singer-songwriter/guitarist mines the material of his own experiences either at home, or on the road for a strong set of troubadour classics.

Gans is also known quite well for his two-decade-plus career as a radio producer/host of Grateful Dead programs on Berkeley’s KPFA radio station, Dead to the World, the nationally syndicated Grateful Dead Hour as well as being a consultant to Sirius XM’s Grateful Dead Channel. He has also produced a legion of records by other artists, including compilations of the Dead, spent his early years as a journalist before writing numerous books about music, and is also a well-known photographer. sits down with Gans to discuss his new studio album in a wide-ranging two-part feature that explores his songwriting process and the continuing influence of the road on his music.

RR: How did you get involved with Railroad Earth on this project?

DG: I have been a fan of Railroad Earth since I met them at the High Sierra Music Festival. Roy Carter, the director of High Sierra, passed me a CD, which at the time was a demo that hadn’t even been released yet, of what became most of their first album, The Black Bear Sessions. I was just blown away by the songwriting of Todd Sheaffer, and by the playing of the band. I became a fan and a supporter, and whenever they came to town, we’d see them. I got to see them at many music festivals. The real genesis of our collaboration was a performance at the Terrapin Hill Harvest Festival in Harrodsburg, Kentucky in 2005. They were playing on the main stage, and I was playing on another stage. I asked if any of them would be interested and willing to come over and play with me. To my great surprise and delight, Johnny Grubb, John Skehan, Andy Goessling, and Tim Carbone all came over to join me on my set. We had a fabulous, wonderful time playing together. From that time on, whenever we were in the same zone, I could rely on a couple of those guys, or more, to join me. I played at MagnoliaFest in Florida in October 2005, and Andy Goessling and Tim Carbone played with me. John Skehan and I played sets together at house parties in New Jersey. We just became musical buds, and I was a great admirer of their playing. They seemed to appreciate my songwriting, as well.

We were doing some stuff together in 2006 in their stomping grounds in New Jersey; we played a couple of songs together, and at the end of one of those shows, I just got this little brainstorm, and I went to Tim Carbone. I said, “Listenif I can get scare up the money to pay for the sessions, would you be willing to produce them with me?” He said, “Absolutely.” So I started saving my pennies, and I sent him a CD full of original songs and said, “Which ones do you like? Think of this as if it were going to be an album project. Which ones would you choose?” We figured out that I could afford three days of recording, and he picked out four songs that he felt would work as sort of a demo.

We went into Mix-o-Lydian Studio in Lafayette, New Jersey where he had been recording and playing with Andy Goessling for many, many years. He brought the Shockenaw Mountain Boys. We rehearsed one day, we laid down basic tracks for four songs the second day, we did overdubs the third day, we mixed on the fourth day, and that was our four-song demo. We shopped it around a little bit, but the music business has been disintegrating for several years, and we couldn’t really find anybody to fund the rest of the recording. I saved my pennies some more, and several months later, we went back to Mix-o-Lydian and recorded six more songs. This time, Grubb was not available. Timmy brought in an amazing bass player from New York named Lindsey Horner. He brought in a drummer from the area that he’d known for years named Ned Stroh, and an amazing player named Buck Dilly, who is a lap and pedal steel steel and electric guitarist who, as it turns out, is also an organ player. So we recorded six more songs, and I was blown away by what we got. (laughs) A little over a year ago, I was doing a radio show in San Francisco called West Coast Live, and they had asked me if I had any songs about food because they broadcast most weeks from the Ferry Building in San Francisco, right upstairs from a wonderful Farmer’s Market. First I thought I would do this Steve Goodman song called “Chicken Cordon Bleus” that I’ve always loved, but then I decided “No, that’s silly. I’m a songwriter. I go to the Farmer’s Market every week, and I should write about shopping at the Farmer’s Market.” I got my wife to help me with that because she’s the produce expert in the family. We came up with this song called “The Bounty of the County,” and performed it on that show, and it was immediately popular. I started getting phone calls from farmers and market people asking if they could put it on their web site. I sent a copy to Tim, and I said, “We’ve got to put this on the record.” He listened to it, and said, “Well, it’s kind of another mid-tempo tune, but I hear what you’re sayin’. Let’s do it.” Last February, Timmy and I went into the studio with Paul Knight on bass. Paul is a bass player here in the Bay Area, playing in Peter Rowan’s bluegrass band, and does sound for the David Grisman Quintet. We also brought in Zac Matthews on mandolin [who just recently resigned from Hot Buttered Rum]. So those were our eleven songs. Ten of them were recorded in Jersey, one of them was recorded here, and all of them were produced by Tim Carbone, who played the fiddle on almost everything. I couldn’t have been happier. Timmy just understands. We’re in the same general age cohort. I think I might be a year or two older than he is, but we sort of came up in the same time, and we have very similar political and philosophical views, so he totally got my point of view in terms of what I was trying to say in my songs. I knew from listening to Railroad Earth that these guys would be great sidemen. To me, the most important thing is the song. I don’t care how great your licks are, if the songs suck, I don’t want to hear it. I knew that those guys understood that the role of band members in a band like Railroad is to tell the story. They understand that the songwriter is the main thing, and their job is not to surround him with hot licks and swamp the song in flashy playing. It’s to underscore and support what the song is doing. There’s plenty of room for shredding in a band like that, but I knew that if I brought them in to do my songs, that my songs would be served by these amazing players. They’re all instrumental storytellers of the first rank. RR: What you just described makes me think of your song “That’s Real Love” with its multiple parts, different sections, and a band’s ability to bring something unique into a song, and then not repeat it. DG: There are two things you need to know about that song. First of all, the bridgethe clarinet sectionwas invented for the recording sessions. I brought that song in, and it was a pretty straightforward song. There is just one section, the A section. There’s no bridge to it. We were rehearsing it, and somebody in the bandI forget whosaid, “This song needs a bridge.” And this magical thing happened. I don’t even remember exactly how it happened. I think it might have been Skehan who made the changes happen, but we came up with this little section of chords that we played, and some notion of what the changes would be. When we got to the studio, Andy Goessling, who’s the Most Valuable Player in the whole thing, showed up with clarinets. We played the song, did the basic track, played this regular mandolin solo and then, we stopped and played these chord changes. When we did the overdubs, Andy laid down a two-part clarinet overdub. In other words, he played the two different melodies. He played one line, went back and overdubbed another line, and then he played each of those lines a second time so we have two clarinet parts doubled. He also overdubbed a bass clarinet melody underneath that. So that whole thing was a collaboration. We all agreed that it needed something, and this mysterious process happened by which all of us came up with these parts, and so I shared the songwriting credit with the four of them because of the amazing way it all came about. The other thing about that is something that Tim understands, and that I learned from another amazing record producer named Stew. That is to do something really amazing, and you only do it once. You don’t do everything to death. Repetition is part of music, but it’s not necessarily the most important thing, or the coolest thing. One really, really amazing thing that you can do is to do something really neat and unique and only do it once, and make the listener kind of listen for it to come back. When it doesn’t come back, it piques their curiosity, and makes them come back to listen to the song again. RR: Let’s talk about lyrical content. Sometimes, you are singing in the first person, sometimes, third person. In our first feature about three years ago [Author’s Note: “Workingman’s Artist”8/9/05; also, the 10th anniversary of Jerry Garcia’s death], we spoke about “An American Family,” which appeared on Solo Electric, and debuts as a studio track on the new album. I’d like to explore that style of songwriting a bit further with you. DG: That song was a deliberate attempt on my part to write something that was not first person, and was not about my life. I’m not a very fast songwriter. “Headin’ Home Already” is more than 30 years old. I’ve been playing that song in various bands since the 70s, and most of the songs on the record are newer, but in general, my writing output is very low. I’m not one of those guys that bats them out every week. I sort of cook them in my brain for sometimes years until I can’t keep them inside any more, and then they get written. That’s a function of both not making the time to do songwriting, and also being a deliberate songwriter. [“An American Family”] was my telling myself that “the last couple of songs that you’ve written have been very explicitly about your own life.” Why don’t I try to write something that’s a pure work of fiction? For some reason, as I’m telling you this story, I remember where I was when I first hatched the idea. I was driving on the San Rafael Bridge, heading toward Marin County in what must have been 1995 or so. I don’t why I remember that so clearly. I had the idea that I was going to write a character sketch about this person who was sort of based on a human being that I actually know. As is the case with these things, the person in the song very quickly became somebody else, and amusingly, eventually, the person became three people. It became this song that was sung in the voice first of the father, then his wife, and then their son. Again, it’s a mysterious process, and I can’t tell you exactly how that happened, but each of the three voices of the song is sung in a different key. The structure of the song dictated itself in a way that I can’t recall. The mystery of inspiration is that one moment you’re sitting there, and minutes later, you have something, and you have no idea how it got there. Timmy made me sing that song in the studio several times, and worked with me on each of the three parts to make them sound a little different, and I could not tell you, Randy, what exactly is different about the three performances. It satisfied Tim that each of those voices that I used to portray the three characters was subtly different. RR: How about a song that I assume is definitely in the first person, and has a strong message attached to it: “Shove in the Right Direction?” DG: That song is a collaboration. Lorin Rowan and I wrote that song together. The hook, the basic tag line“a kick in the ass is a shove in the right direction”is something that I learned out of my own life experience. Many, many times in my life, I’ve had something bad happen to meI got fired from a gig, or something like thatand it wound up being something that set me off on what proved to be a good, new direction. The song came out of a conversation out in front of KPFA with Lorin Rowan. The Rowan Brothers were friends of mine by then. They came in to sing on Larry Kelp’s program, Sing Out. I stayed to listen to them perform after my show, and after they got off the air, we were standing out in front of KPFA shootin’ the shit, and we were having this conversation. I guess it was about being musicians, the music business, and our mutual love of Beatles music, etc., and I said that: “You know, it seems to me after living all these years, a kick in the ass is a shove in the right direction.” I could see the little light bulb going off over Lorin's head. I said, “You cannot have that. That’s my phrase, and I’m going to write itbut I’ll tell you what, man. Let’s get together and write the song together,” and we did. Some time in the next month or so, I went over to his house, and spent an afternoon developing that song. I would say 98% of it was written in that afternoon. I took it home and tweaked it a little bit more, changed a line or two. The first verse is pure fiction, the second verse is kind of based on a life experience of my own, and the third verse is a summation of the other two. It was really pretty much a full collaboration. We wrote it together based on a line that I came up with and used a little of my personal experience in one of the verses. It’s working out really well, and getting airplay. I hired Home Grown Music Network to do some promotion for me, and I get these reports every day about the stations that are playing it, and I noticed that’s being played on various radio stations, and it’s even started to get requested. RR: And how about another song written in the first person with a potent message, “Save Us from the Saved?” DG: “Save Us from the Saved”yes, indeed. That is actually the second incarnation of a piece of music. I had written a song with another collaborator, and I wasn’t very happy with the way that song was sitting. I had written it, but I didn’t feel inspired to perform it. One of the things that I’ve observed in my touring around the country is that God seems to have a marketing budget. When you’re driving around, particularly in the South, you’ll see signs, billboardsthey will, literally, buy billboardsthat say rude shit, and they are signed by “God.” I remember one in North Carolina: “Stop taking my name in vain, or I’ll make your commute even more annoying. Signed, God.” I sort of accumulated a bunch of notions in my memory in my years of traveling around. One time, me and my buddy Stu Steinhardt were in Farmington, New Mexico, driving along the main drag on our way up to Moab, and there is this building, a plain brick building on the main drag, with a sign sticking up with just the words “Adult Video” in very plain type. No name of the establishment. No typography. No logo. No nothing. Just the words “Adult Video” on a pole out in front of this plain little building. Right next to it, about 50 feet away, is a billboard that some religious organization had taken out that said: “Jesus is watching.” We stopped the car, Stu and I got out of the car, and we both took pictures of it because it seemed so intimidating. People want to go buy an adult video, and some religious nuts are trying to tell people how to behave. So that was the thing that prompted that song. I just thought, “Godstop telling me what to do. Who the fuck are you? Jesus doesn’t give a shit what I’m doing in my private life. Didn’t you read what the man said?” And that’s what gave rise to that songjust my own annoyance with the moralism of these fundamentalists. RR: You also collaborated with someone who has had a lot of poignant things to say over the years, Robert Hunter, on “Like a Dog.” DG: Yeah, man. I was posting my tour diaryI forget exactly where he was seeing itbut I was posting my stuff on a blog. I still have a blog, but it must have been a different one. I was posting some stuff on for a while, too, and Hunter, I guess, had been reading it. One day, I was checking in at my hotel in Michigan (I was on my way to a festival gig), and I read my e-mail, and there’s a message from Hunter: “David, I’ve been reading your on-line diary with interest and empathy, and I thought you might like this,” and it was this song lyric. The amazing thing about this lyric is that the words are words that I could have sung based on various experiences in my life, but it’s also one of those things that’s universal. It could have been his own experiences in the rough and tumble world of the Grateful Dead, which is a pretty brutal social scene in a lot of ways. Obviously, I was blown away that Robert Hunter gifted me with one of his lyrics. I played the gig, then I went back to my room, and spent the rest of that night making a song out of it. I drove to Ohio the next day where I was playing at Nelson Ledge’s Quarry Park, on a bill with Dark Star Orchestra among others. I was friends with the Dark Star Orchestrafriendly enough to try this little experiment. I got to the gig, and I started grabbing band members. I said, “ListenI just wrote this song with Robert Hunter, and I want you guys to play it with me. O.K.?” They all said, “Sure, why not.” I taught it to each guy individually. I didn’t get a chance to rehearse it with them, but I showed it to each of the band members individually. When I got up to do my set, I did a couple of songs, called them up, and without any rehearsal, and working off a cheat sheet that I had written out with a Sharpie and stuck on the stage in front of us, we made it through this song, and then jammed off into some Grateful Dead songs. It was a glorious thing, really, that I was able to get these guys to do this song with me basically sight unseen within 24 hours of having gotten it in e-mail from Hunter. Then it became a solo piece, a looped song. I use a digital delay in my performing rig as a rhythm instrument. In other words, you have a digital delay on the floor in a little stomp box, and you have a pedal that you tap in time with the music so that the delay is rhythmic. I create a rhythm by playing a chord through the digital delay, and it comes back in this rhythmic way. I grab that into my looper and lay a couple more melodic ideas into it to create this rhythm track, then I improvise over that, and launch into the song. So I had used that as a solo piece, and a lot of times, I’ll roll right into “Terrapin Station” in my live performances. When I showed it to Timmy, and he agreed that he wanted to put it on the record, we had to make it into a real band song. We had to develop a groove with real musicians because I didn’t want to record it as a looped thing. I wanted to record it with the live players. I was beyond happy with the nice dark groove that those guys came up with. Lindsey Horner, the bass player, immediately knew exactly what I was doing as if he’d been inside my head. I didn’t really have the vocabulary to tell the drummer what I wanted. We just kept trying stuff until we got what everybody liked, and then we were locked in on that. Andy Goessling played the banjo on the basic track, and then came back and overdubbed baritone sax. I played rhythm guitar on it, and Buck Dilly came in and overdubbed that amazing, gnarly Fender guitar over the top of it. RR: There is also some beautiful guitar work on “Echolalia.” DG: Yeah! That’s just a simple little fingerpicked guitar piece, and when I showed that to Timmy, he said, “Well, let’s see what Andy wants to do. I think it’ll just be the two of you,” and it was Andy’s decision to play a fingerpicked National steel on it. We also didn’t want to polish it up too much. Timmy wanted it to feel like two guys sittin’ on a porch. We didn’t play it over and over again until we were tired of it and it was really slick. We played it a few times until we were both happy with the take so it has a rustic quality to it. RR: The guitar lines remind me of waves lapping the shoreline, and then rolling back because of the seemingly effortless flow to the music. DG: That’s because Andy Goessling is an amazing musician. RR: Well, I don’t think you give yourself enough credit. DG: Oh, you knowI know I’m good. I won’t sit here and say I’m an amazing musician, but I’ll say that about those guys. If you look through the credits, you’ll see that Andy played like ten different things on these sessions, and he played them all with real authority, real wit, and real power. There’s a lot of guys that can dabble on the mandolin or whatever, but Andy’s a real deep guy and he’s got a lot to say on every instrument. I’m thrilled with everything that he did on The Ones That Look the Weirdest Taste the Best. - We return to “two guys sittin’ on a porch” in January for Part II with David Gans.

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