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Published: 2012/04/05
by Brian Robbins

Janis, Bear, Bach & Jams: Sitting With Sam Andrew

BR: I got a kick out of the liner notes, which explain how the album sounds just the way Owsley recorded the shows – the vocals and the drums are in one channel and everything else is in the other. The liner notes suggest that you might want to reposition your home stereo speakers …. push them closer together, perhaps. I have to tell you: my wife and I found that all you have to do is turn it up.

SA: Well, isn’t that what they usually say? “Play it loud!” (laughs)

BR: I look at all the on-stage sound equipment performers have now – individual in-the-ear monitors and all – and then I take it back 44 years ago when this album was recorded. How hard was it to hear yourself? And to hear Janis? I’m especially thinking about when you did those great harmony vocals with her.

SA: Of course, it depended a lot on where we were playing; a tiny club was obviously not a problem. But back then there weren’t any monitors – when you got on a bigger stage, you simply couldn’t hear yourself. You were doing it by sheer rote memory and hoping that everybody else reached the same point at the same time. (laughs)

BR: And a lot of your arrangements – whether they were covers or tunes that you’d written yourselves – weren’t simple songs, either. They were complex arrangements. It blows me away to listen to this and realize that you had to fly in formation without being able to hear yourselves properly or else it was going to be a … a …

SA: Yeah. (laughter) And sometimes it was. (laughter)

Janis and I would talk a lot driving to and from the gigs about arranging. We talked a whole lot about that: “What if the guitar came in here?” “Which guitar player should it be?” “Over here, the bass player could echo that part …” We did a lot of talking like that.

We lived here in Marin County about a mile from where I’m sitting and we rehearsed all day long – like, eight hours a day. We were young and we didn’t have anything else to think about: no lawyers, accountants or mortgages or anything like that – it was totally about the music.

But you’re right, Brian – even to this day, I listen to some of these songs and say to myself, “Oh, man … we must’ve had a lot of spare time to arrange that.” (laughter)

BR: Well, for instance – and I apologize if this is the millionth time you’ve been asked about this – take “Summertime”, which is so totally original, but true to the song’s vibe at the same time. You guys certainly didn’t give yourselves a lot of wiggle room for things to go wrong on that … and the result is beautiful.

SA: (laughs) Well, thank you very much – I appreciate that. Peter Albin and I worked up that arrangement. I’d actually first played that song in high school with my band. It’s one of those simple things … like Mozart – it’s real simple to play, but you have to play it right. We knew the song’s roots and where it came from; we knew it was a jazz standard and all that, but to us it was like a folk song. It was like “Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen” – that’s what Gershwin was trying for when he wrote it. There was this space in it … and I’d been playing a whole lot of J.S. Bach in a recorder quintet where we were doing all this 18th century stuff. And “Summertime” was like that – it had all this big space.

And then I heard Nina Simone’s version of “You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To”. She was a great singer, but she was also Julliard-trained on the piano; and she interwove these minor-keyed classical lines in and out of that song. That’s when the light bulb went off in my head: “Maybe we could do that in ‘Summertime’ …”

So I took this theme from Bach (scat sings): “Deh-da-dut-dut-dah; deh-da-dut-dut-dah; deh-da-dut-dut-deh-da-dah” – it was a real characteristic Bach theme that he used in a few places. I took that and used a descending minor line that I’d learned from a guy in the – literally – summertime of 1965. That’s the way Peter and I did that song before Janis. Neither one of us wanted to sing it … we had a long time to work on it. (laughs)

BR: The version on Live At The Carousel is a great example of the dynamics between you and the late James Gurley: two very different guitar styles – and tones – that weave and dance very well together.

SA: Well, thank you. The tension between James’ lead and what I played as a lead really worked in favor of that song, I think. If either one of us had had our own way with that tune completely, it wouldn’t have been half as good. There was a lot of tension between our two approaches and that kind of made it.

BR: Am I right in thinking that – for the most part – you’d usually play rhythm guitar in Big Brother on the tunes you wrote yourself? It seems like you were more likely to be playing lead on the songs written by others.

SA: That’s right. It was a very cold-blooded, political move on my part … (laughs) The whole idea being that if I wrote the song and I got someone else to play the lead on it, then when that song came up, they’d be more willing to do it … because they got to play on it.

It’s kind of embarrassing … (laughs) I’m kind of ashamed of it … (laughter)

At least artistically it made for variety; it added to the collaborative effect. It was good.

BR: Yes, I think it was all right. You shouldn’t feel guilty. (laughter) I’d love to talk gear with you, but I’ll hold myself to a single guitar question. At the time of the Carousel shows, you and James were both primarily Gibson players, weren’t you?

SA: At that point, yes. After that, we signed with Columbia Records – they’re now Sony – who was owned by CBS. And CBS also owned Fender, so all of a sudden we got a lot of Fender equipment – guitars and amps. But at the time of the Carousel shows, we were still playing SG Standards.

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