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Published: 2009/01/25
by Rob Turner

Nobody Likes A Lumpy Rug: A Conversation with Jeff Sipe

While you don’t have to be a drummer to appreciate the brilliance of Jeff Sipe, it certainly would help. The combination of technical acumen and playful spontaneity he demonstrates is the main reason he is one of the greatest drummers this reporter has ever seen. One of the many musicians that blossomed from the freedom offered by Colonel Bruce Hampton’s inspiration Sipe has in turn spread that spirit to every unit with which he has performed since his formative days with the fledgling Aquarium Rescue Unit in the 80s. While he celebrates and encourages unbridled improvisation, Sipe also is adept at maintaining and underlying musical order in doing so.

The German-born Sipe also spent some of his developing years in Vietnam, and his worldly awareness influences his music to this day. Inspired by a Lionel Hampton performance he saw on The Tonight Show, Sipe developed an early fascination for music that would ultimately lead him to focus on and excel with the drums to the extent that he was accepted at the esteemed Berklee College of Music in Boston. His music would take him to Atlanta and over the years he has brought his fire to the stages of Sweden’s bass genius Jonas Hellborg, now-deceased underground guitar whiz Shawn Lane, Phil Lesh, Trey Anastasio, Leftover Salmon and of course his partners-in-Zambi Ricky Keller and Jimmy Herring.

In recent years, Jeff has become a part of Keller Williams’ first electric band (Keller Williams with Moseley, Droll and Sipe) and last fall they completed another successful tour and released their debut CD (_Live_) culled from their first 18 months of touring. Within the first five minutes of the new live release you can tell that this quartet clearly quenches Sipe’s thirst for spontaneity – improvising wildly during the absorbing prelude to “Same Ole,” referencing at least three Jazz standards along the way.

In this interview Sipe talks about his experience with Williams, and his own other active trios that are quietly bringing forth some explosively creative music. He also addresses some of his many musical experiences over the years, including touring with Phil Lesh and reconnecting with Trey Anastasio, deconstructs the art of drumming and offers some guidance for proper dental health.

RST – Could you first talk about how the Keller Williams with Moseley, Droll and Sipe came together?

JS – It came together because Gibb, Keith and I had each expressed an interest in playing with Keller. He had been solo for so long and hadn’t done the band thing. I guess he just chose us because we had some interest in it. We had known each other for such a long time anyway. So, we were already friends.

I remember Gibb Droll from the days I was playing in the Aquarium Rescue Unit, he was in his own traveling band in the early 90s. We’ve known each other for quite a long time. Keith and I have known each other since the Leftover Salmon and String Cheese Incident days. Each of us was already friends with each other.

RST – What strikes you most when you watch the DVD or listen to the audio discs?

JS – I like how it captures the spirit of the group. It is a kick for me to watch the group after having a break from the music we were performing. I’m impressed with how much we were really getting into. It is easy to forget all of the details of the music, and when I watch it back it is fun reliving it.

RST – Do you work with a set list or call the songs on the fly?

JS – Only once has he (Keller) really called it on the fly. He prefers a set list because we like to segue and keep the tunes tight with not a whole lot of time between songs. As a matter of fact he carries a booklet and refers back to the last time he was playing that particular venue and he will look at that night’s set list to make sure he doesn’t repeat it. So, he can say he’s never repeated a set anywhere he’s gone. He makes a conscious effort at that, which is nice.

RST – How much improvisation is going on when you are on the road?

JS – I would say 80-85% – there’s quite a bit. The tunes are the tunes and the melodies are the melodies, but the solos and sometimes the arrangements are completely new every time. So, there is quite a lot of room for improvisation.

RST – To what extent is this group listening to previous performance and breaking down what happened musically and using that to frame how you want things to unfold?

JS – That has happened with this group a bunch of times, whereas with many of the other groups I have played with really, none. A lot of bands try to avoid that. They just feel that it is what it is. Keller will listen back to stuff. Sometimes we make an effort to do it, or it just might be on the stereo because someone happens to be playing it and we will end up discussing. There’s always a little bit of the feeling that you are under the microscope and that’s why I think that some musicians don’t like to listen to themselves. It’s such a personal thing. You know, mistakes are flying around.but we do and it helps.

RST – Keller often takes a very percussive approach to his guitar work, how does this impact your approach to drumming in his group?

JS – Yeah, as a matter of fact we’ve done some duets back and forth. He is really fun to engage in that sort of interplay with. He encourages me to play as much as I want to, so I’m free to be a little adventurous, which is really nice.

RST – I saw you perform with Alex Machacek in Atlanta recently and was stunned at how sharp you guys sounded having not played together for very long. How did you find him and what should people know about him?

JS – Souvik Dutta, who runs the Abstract Logix website and record label, invited me over to India for his wedding. I stayed eight days there. He put together a concert and paired me up with Alex and Jonas Hellborg. So, the trio was to play in India right before the closing act which was Pandit Debashish Bhattacharya, the great Calcutta slide guitar player. So, we played. Jonas was unable to make it so we found a local bass player who turned out to be pretty good for the amount of time he had to work on it. Alex and I met there at that gig that Souvik put together. We just had one night to rehearse before the show in India and we hit it off. I had studied his material. He had sent me a couple of charts of some really advanced things. Some of the tunes, most of the tunes actually that we played just can’t be “faked” because they are so specific rhythmically. So, I had the advantage of learning some of that stuff before I met him.

Then we decided we should probably get together and do a tour, and I brought up Matt Garrison [widely sought after bassist that has worked a stunning variety of musicians including Joe Zawinul, Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny and Joni Mitchell]. We had recorded with him, but schedules do not permit us to tour together very often. He is a very busy guy. I decided that we should get Neal Fountain. Neal and I had been playing together off and on for years in various different groups in Atlanta. He lives in Athens, Georgia now and I live in Brevard (North Carolina) which is pretty close so it is easy for us to get together these days. I knew that he would be a really great bass player for this unit and then when Neal and Alex met they hit it off just like brothers right away. It seemed like the chemistry was pretty immediate, it wasn’t something we had to work on. Those guys are each open books.easy to get to know. It seemed logical that these guys would meet and play together, and the results have been pretty special.
RST – And your other trio, with Mike Seal (guitar) and Vince Ilagen (bass), these are Knoxville guys?

JS – Yes, Knoxvillains. Mike Seal is 23 now, he’s finishing up his music degree and playing as often as he can. He plays with Jeff Coffin and his Mu’tet. Vince Illagen is playing with various groups in Knoxville and considering a move to Nashville. The two of them are roommates. They know each other really well musically and have played together quite often in other groups as well. I picked them up as a package (laughs), and I like the way they work together. Everybody gets along great.

RST – How is the music you are creating with these guys different than what you are playing in other units lately?

JS – There is a more of a focus on a softer volume with more nuances in the music. There is a jazz feelfloating in and out of traditional and modern jazz, with at times a few more intricacies. Vince plays electric and acoustic, and it allows us to branch off into softer volumes with the acoustic and then pick up the volume with the electric stuff.

RST – As you get older and are more experienced with improvisation do you find you are getting more open to new approaches or more set in your ways as to how you should approach such a thing?

JS – I have to constantly work on the ideas I have amassed and written down. Because if I am just touring with one band and only playing that music and not practicing anything else, it’s easy to become specialized and not have the level of versatility I expect from myself. So, I practice all the time working to learn new stylesto find new approaches and more sophisticated cadences. It seems to me the book is getting thicker. When you discover one thing, then all of a sudden it unfolds into a hundred parts and then you get deeper into that stuff and it in turn unfolds into hundreds of parts. So, the book of stuff I’m working on just keeps getting added to.

RST – Could you describe “In The Pocket” drumming in a way that a non-musician might understand?

JS – That’s a handy phrase for “feeling good.” If it’s dialed in and it is something you can dance to and not get thrown off track, then it’s in the pocket.

RST – When you are performing with a band that is driven by improvisation, like Phil Lesh and Friends, how do you explore rhythmically without “losing the pocket?”

JS – Exactly that’s the challenge. If you are in 4/4 you need a heavy 2 and 4. A heavy backbeat no matter what the time is that you are in really helps glue everything together. You can be ornamental but you have to have something of substance to ornament, and it has to be simple. So, there are layers to the approach. You gotta hold the bottom and then sort of sprinkle the top with ornamentations. It’s a balancing act. You have to listen to everything that is going on and remember that you are the rug upon which everyone else is playing. It’s good to think of it that way. Nobody likes a lumpy rug. You want to have it comfortable so everybody is feeling good.

RST Like a fancy, thick oriental.

JS (laughs) Yeah.

RST – How did Lesh prepare you for his gig?

JS – He sent me an iPod of 110 songs.I’ve still got it.he said, “Now, this is some of the stuff.” (both laugh) and he told me to learn as much as I could. He told me to learn as many as I could so I dug right into it. And I’m a latecomer to his music, so it was all kind of fresh to me.

RST I get the sense he likes it that way these days though.

JS Yes, I think there is an aspect of that. He was very kind. He was always very supportive. He was comfortable telling me what he wanted so it was easy to give it to him and the more we played together the more that was happening. So, he prepared me by sending me a mass of material and telling me to go for it.

RST And with regard to the instrumental sections and the way you moved from song-to-song it was just sort of jump in to the unknown and enjoy?

JS Yeah. I grew up on that kind of approach. “Jamming” for whatever people think of it. That’s what it is. It’s improv, going with the moment. It’s about setting something up and having fun with it.

RST But were there elements to how he approached it that were different than you had experienced before?

JS Absolutely, he didn’t like the idea of the soloist per se. He greatly preferred the group movement. He didn’t use the term “solo section,” he refers to those moments as the “instrumental parts.” One of his concepts was his idea that the group should swim like a fish.moving chords and leading tones around and never stealing the spotlight or commanding too much attention to oneself. It was always about the group sound. I found that to be unique. It served to bind everyone together. Everyone had to listen harder and think more, rather than just play the licks, you know.

RST – While you knew Trey from back when Phish and ARU were each sort of coming of age, the two of you reconnected at a Lesh gig, didn’t you?

JS Yeah, we were in New York and he came by. That was a really, really nice experience. He came and joined us in the middle of soundcheck. Then after everyone else had gone to dinner and we still had a few minutes before the doors opened and he, Barry Sless and I were playing together, just the three of us. It wasn’t in any particular time per se, it was all just colors and washes of notes and extended tones. We had such a blast just creating these gorgeous movements of sound and then the doors opened and people started coming in and we found it hard to stop, but we had to.

RST So, were you still playing as people trickled in?

JS Some people did see some of it. I’m glad it was witnessed by however many people. That was really special. You don’t get to experience moments like that all that often.

RST When you were in Trey’s band, did you feel they were getting into some adventurous stuff?

JS Absolutely. His only guidance for me in his group was not to ever slow down, to always keep the energy driving. And I said, “Hey, I can do that, ok!” Other than that it was, “Play what you want.” I tried to honor the drummers that had played with him in the past with regard to choosing beats. I kept true to certain rhythms that I was aware of. However, I also can’t avoid injecting my own style into the mix.

RST From what I’ve heard of the shows it sounded like you were enjoying playing off of the horns.

JS Yeah, yeah. The more we played the more I started realizing what a genius Peter Apfelbaum is. He wrote the arrangements. At every sound check he and Trey would get together and discuss ideas and then come up with new approaches. Then between dinner and the show Peter would go and write up all the parts to these fresh arrangements.

RST Would you then read and react or would you in advance try to find a way to get an idea of what would be coming in those arrangements every night?

JS I would listen in, pay attention and listen to what they were coming up with. Then I would listen carefully onstage and hit some of the notes that were accented by the horns. It felt like I was part of a big band. It was really cool. I miss that very much.

RST – When ARU reunites, how long does it take you to feel comfortable with that material, some of which has lightning-fast changes?

JS (Laughs) Yeah, oh yeah. It’s like riding a bike with those guys. It comes back immediately. I’ve known Jimmy and those guys for over 20 years.

RST – Any plans for more ARU dates?

JS As a matter of fact, Jimmy wants to do a tour in support of his new album and he wants to do some more dates with ARU.

RST Is there any chance of a package thing, with perhaps a set of Jimmy’s solo music followed by a set of ARU?

JS That would make sense. Now we just need the booking agent and promoters to get together and see what we can do. But all of us want to do it.

RST – The Colonel has often spoken about unlearning your instrument and getting outside of yourself. I understand that with regard to improvisation, but how could you have possibly played some of the intricate ARU music without having a full working knowledge of your instrument?

JS The tightrope is walked between knowing your instrument and letting go completely. For us it was easy to go in both directions often and quickly. We had no problem just playing behind our back or picking up a rock and scraping it against a cymbal or doing something crazy. It was construction by deconstruction and it served as a kind of therapy for us so we didn’t go mad working in our local music scenes. We all worked in the scene and could play our instruments, yet we wanted to take it further. When we met Colonel Bruce Hampton, he invited us to go as far as we wanted to. He would be an example of playing his instrument the way nobody would even want to. (laughs)

RST I believe I experienced a nutshell example of this when I was working for a radio program here in Atlanta, and most of ARU was doing a taping for future broadcast. At one point, the daughter of the hosts went outside and started honking on the family car horn. The hosts started getting concerned until Bruce encouraged her to continue honking and you guys somehow seamlessly incorporated the horn into your musical stew.

JS That was the spirit of Bruce Hampton and ARU right there. We liked to groove with whatever. It was just about self-respect, it was also about letting go of self-respect and just being in the moment and not being embarrassed by silliness.

RST – What are your immediate memories of the earliest ARU days?

JS For me it started at Atlanta places like the Little Five Points Pub, The Point and The Moonshadow. Those three clubs, it seems like, hosted Bruce Hampton, Ricky Keller, Yonrico Scott, T. Lavitz, Charlie Williams, so many, many more.basically all of the “experiment type” groups. Any time we had a break from our other work we would play with Hampton just because it was always so much fun. I was playing with Jimmy over at my house sometimes, and we eventually met the Burbridge brothers when they came to town. We got a group together with Charlie Williams, just for fun, we didn’t have any gigs or anything. So, one day they met the Colonel and he guessed their birthdays and totally impressed them and ultimately provided a way for them to get up on stage and play everything they ever wanted to. So, Oteil was hooked, he became Hampnotizedlike I was…and Jimmy came after that. He was just dying to get up play with us. Finally, Bruce invited him on stage. It took him about three giant steps from across the club to get on stage he was so eager to get up and play with The Colonel so bad (laughs). I remember most those moments when the feeling of the band would be such that there were moments when suddenly the whole group would just rise up three or four notches. Everybody was on their toes and they would at times get lifted right up. The best moments happened when we just let go of ourselves completely.

RST – What were the audiences like then? To what extent were people grooving and to what extent were you getting blank stares and to your mind how have audiences for improvisational music changed over the years?

JS In the beginning the Bruce Hampton Experience and the initial incarnation of the Aquarium Rescue Unit were performance art groups that played music. Then ARU became more of a music group that did a little bit of performance art. So, there was a time there when we were able to put up some really “respectable” music and then instantly go to the crazy side and destroy everything and just go nuts. There was a portion of the audience that loved each of these sides of us and got it. Then there were some that, like some of the players who played even, just rolled their eyes when we went crazy. There were the extremes that wanted the crazy stuff and those that just wanted the music, and you never knew what you were gonna get with Bruce. Much like the music we were creating at the time. The audiences were unpredictable.

As for today, I think that people are ready for this again. It seemed to me like during the Reagan years people were extremely creative and expressive. They were not afraid to express themselves. Then in the Clinton years it sort of mellowed out a little bit. Then things got quiet. I don’t know why, but it seems like people were walking away from the edge and back toward safety. But I feel an edge coming back; maybe we will go through another real creative time. It seems to me now though that audiences are again starting to again accept the real beautiful put-up stuff and the real dark, crazy stuff as well.

RST – What do you miss most about Leftover Salmon?

JS – If we never play another note and just hung out every few months I would be happy, because they are such good friends and the hang is just so enjoyable. That we get to play music too is a bonus! I can tell you that while I cherish the time we got to play together, I don’t miss touring so much. They were on the road almost 300 days a year. That is so stressful.

RST – Is their any talk of more Leftover live shows, even just one-off gigs?

JS Yes, we are still having a really good time playing together when we get a chance, but they are going to stick with festivals. They aren’t very interested in returning to the club scene at all. They’ve been there and done that and don’t really need to do it anymore. Everybody else has got other things going on in their lives, so we don’t have to try and make Leftover Salmon our paycheck, it’s more enjoyable to get together when we can.

RST I understand that Indian music has started to greatly inform your playing in recent years. It has also influenced many musicians that to my way of thinking continue to impress me greatly in new ways as the years roll by, Steve Kimock and Derek Trucks for example. My question is, could you speak directly to the young musicians that might be reading this, and explain why it is important to explore world music and maybe suggest the best way to get started?

JS I think if we trace music back we will discover the roots of humanity. It is a better trail than digging for bones. If you follow the music of the world it will lead you right back to the ancient sources. It is a fascinating and I think necessary investigation to deepen your perspective of your own instrument and realize that we as a nation are the newest on the block. Things began long before we came along. The Persians gave us algebra, for example. Essentially people from other cultures have given us our roots. For me it is really necessary to go back and explore approaches that preceded us. So, I would say to young players and even listeners who want to go as far as they possibly can with their instruments and music to study as much music from around the world as they can. Also, never forget to brush your teeth and say your prayers.

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