Vibing It Out With Jon Trafton (On Strangefolk, The Gathering and Michael Jackson)
Few bands have as a deep a connection with Gathering of the Vibes as Strangefolk. The Vermont-bred band played the festivals original incarnation Deadhead Heaven: A Gathering of the Tribe-in 1996 and has stayed with the festival as it has moved throughout the Northeast, from Croton-on-Hudson to Plattsburg to Bridgeport to Red Hook to Mariaville and finally back to its current home in Bridgeport. In fact, the only year the group missed the festival was in 2005 when lead guitarist Jon Trafton cancer.
Looking back, one can trace the Strangefolk’s own evolution through the festival, as the group make its way through the jam-circuit, split with original lead singer Reid Genauer, recruited new frontman Luke Patchen Montgomery, battled sickness and, now, looks toward a new studio project. Strangefolk will return with the Gathering of the Vibes to Bridgeport, this weekend for the four-day event that will include performances by the likes of Crosby, Stills & Nash, Buddy Guy, Bob Weir & RatDog, moe., Guster, State Radio and George Clinton. The festival will also welcome back fellow Vibes veterans Deep Banana Blackout, Max Creek, Assembly of Dust, Klyph Black and Donna Jean Godchaux featuring Jeff Mattson (Black and Mattson’s band the Zen Tricksters have also been with the Gathering of the Vibes since the festival’s inception). This year the festival will also host late night sets from the likes of The Machine, Lettuce and Perpetual Groove (a first for the festival’s Bridgeport location) and see the return of the event’s eco-friendly Green Stage.
On the eve of the 2009 Gathering of the Vibes, Jambands.com sat down with Trafton to discuss his own Vibes memories, his recent writing sessions with Montgomery and the night he had dinner with Michael Jackson.
You and Patchen recently got together to write and record for a few days. On your blog you described these sessions as “an attempt to rewrite the rules of long distance interaction and creativity.” Can you begin by telling us a bit about those recent sessions?
Yeah, we’ve been – I don’t know if struggling is the right word – but working on a way to improve communications. I live in California and that’s like a 3,000 mile gap. I’ve been out here since 2001, so I’ve had some time to adjust to it and kind of work on getting ideas and using technology to get ideas across to each other and we’ve gotten pretty good at it. We’ll choose covers or write songs—covers are the easiest thing to work with just because it’s a song that’s out there and you kind of listen to it, work on it, get together, maybe run through it during sound check and then pull it off.
But writing tunes is a little different because everybody has got to contribute a part and all that. Patch, our lead singer, and I get together, and he’ll come out here to California and I’ve got a basic ad-hoc little home studio. It is a little Pro Tools rig. He came out last September and then this past April and we just have this ongoing project. We’ll get that stuff together and send out MP3s to the other guys. We are trying to step that up to the next level. We are getting files over to Russ to throw drums on and then pass it around and let everybody stew on the ideas a little bit and then make a contribution, hoping that we’ll be able to get together. Actually, it’s almost like a pre-production. So, for either doing a show or hopefully going into the studio at some point, these tunes will turn into glorified demos.
Around how many new song ideas do you have at this point?
We have quite a few. The two of us start from a writing base and then we have everybody contribute. But, between the two of us, we have six or seven songs that I think could actually make the cut. We have so much older stuff too that I’d like to catch up on. A couple older gems from over the years that I would love to record—take a chance in the studio and see how we can set them afloat.
With the band spread out around the country, how often do you try to play together as Strangefolk?
It seems like our going rate is six to eight weeks. Every six to eight weeks we’ll get together for a round of shows—other than when I was sick. I can’t remember how long exactly I was laid out from playing but we try to keep it pretty regular since then.
Every six to eight weeks is still pretty frequent in the world of touring.
Yeah it is, especially to get in a plane. I usually take a red eye flight to wherever we are going. It’s a pretty big undertaking but I love doing it. We’ve being talking about trying to improve or increase the amount we play but we’re trying to work out a plan where we can spread out over different markets and what will actually work and be viable because obviously this is a little more expensive than all jumping in a van like we used to.
Right, right. Plus everyone is a little bit older and you don’t have the desire to spend weeks going to small shows that aren’t as fun.
Can you describe the sound of these songs for some of our new readers who have not heard them before? Would you say they are in line with Strangefolk’s more recent work or something different?
It’s a little bit of both things. I was remarking to Patch recently that it is a hallmark of a new sound a bit. For me, it happened organically. But guitar-wise, I have been approaching these songs a little differently, and I think it’s because you get tired of your same old ideas and you have your book or playbook that you pull from. For some reason, these latest songs pulled something different out of me which was really fun. It’s almost like a Keith Richards, rhythm guitar thing. It has a groove but if you asked me what key a song was in then I might not be able to tell you.
But I think, in terms of the songwriting, Patch has been coming into his own with these songs, and I’m excited to see where he is going with this because he has made some great contributions over the last couple of years. I have been encouraging him to continue writing and pushing him to put more songs into the repertoire, and he really delivered this last time around. So I think the vibe of his songs is very much in keeping with his recent contributions. There is a song he wrote called “Entitled,” which is a great song with a big lift off at the end. A lot of these also loosely follow that same idea. Like if it were Rubber Soul, you know? These songs all have that vibe to them so that’s pretty fun and it’s cool.
The songs that I’ve got, they range from a couple years ago, right before I got sick to brand new. I have this little MP3 player that eMusic gave us years ago, before the iPod or anything, and this thing is a great little device that also records. So whenever I get an idea or whatever I’ll just flip it on and strum through it or sing a little part and then hit stop and just forget about it and then at the end of the year I’ll go grab this thing and pull off all the files and make a CD of all of it and then listen to it and incubate on it. So there are some ideas that I’ve been really digging back into from over the years that have just sort of been overlooked or forgotten that hearing them again, I’m like, “wow, light bulb went off, these guys actually deserve to see the light of day.” It’s been fun to revisit those songs and putting a new spin on older ideas.