Moving Full Circle With Vampire Weekend’s Chris Tomson: TRI, Phish and Old-School Geeking
Vampire Weekend drummer Chris Tomson became the poster child for popular indie rockers with heady roots when he started wearing his old Phish t-shirt on stage and namedropping the jamband scene in interviews. But until this month, Tomson had yet to share the stage with any big-name jamband musicians.
That all changed on August 3 when Tomson participated in Bob Weir’s Move Me Brightly Jerry Garcia tribute at Marin County’s TRI Studios. Not only did the drummer play with Weir, but he also shared the stage with Mike Gordon, Furthur keyboardist Jeff Chimenti, Grateful Dead vocalist Donna Jean Godchaux, Joe Russo, Jim Lauderdale and an assortment of other jam-scene regulars. Shortly after that event, Tomson discussed his experiences playing TRI, his roots in the jamband scene and a little known fact about his bootleg Phish T.
You recently played with Bob Weir, Mike Gordon, Joe Russo and a slew of other musicians as part of the TRI Studios Move Be Brightly Jerry Garcia tribute. How did you first get involved in the show and broadcast?
I think it all started because I have this Phish lot shirt. It is a bootleg of the Phillies and Phish logos, and I think I’ve worn that on TV a couple of times, most noticeably on Saturday Night Live. People noticed that and said, “Oh, you like Phish.” So that was kind of all I did. I put myself out there as [a Phish fan] and then, someone from his camp—or whomever was working on this event—e-mailed me and they were like, “Hey, I know you’re into this music, would you be interested in taking part in this.” It seemed like a good idea and a lot of fun so that was kind of all I did to get my name out there.
How long before the show did they approach you about it?
Probably around two weeks or something.
Can you talk a bit about the process of choosing the songs for the broadcast? Did they send around a list before the show or did you each bring in different ideas?
Well, I think that there was a general batch of songs that Bob, Joe Russo, Mike Gordon and Jeff Chimenti—the core band—had in mind that they wanted to play. Once the song list was done, some of the different singers chose what songs they wanted to play. I ended up only playing on a couple of songs—a few songs I thought I could do OK on. You know, it’s hard to take Joe Russo’s zone because he’s kind of awesome up there.
One of the songs you played that really stuck out was “Shakedown Street.” Was that a song that you requested or was it one that Joe thought would be good for you?
That’s the one that when I looked at the song list that they were planning, it felt more in my wheelhouse than some of the other stuff because it’s kind of got more of a groove with jazzy flourishes or whatever. Yeah, so that was definitely one that I knew I wanted to do and then, “Franklin’s Tower” was one I played drums on that Joe kind of suggested. He said, “This one might work for you too,” so that’s the other one I ended up subbing the kit for. But yeah, “Shakedown” was a song I’ve always liked and have been playing that for years on guitar, though not drums so much—but I kind of listen to it a lot. I was very nervous, probably more nervous than I’ve been in a while for a show. I thought that one worked and went well, specifically, for me on drums.
Can you talk a bit about the rehearsals for the show? Did Bob organize a formal rehearsal or did everyone sort of do their homework and show up ready to play?
I think everyone, obviously out of respect for both Bob and the idea of the show, did their homework. But there was definitely a very conscious rehearsal effort before the show.
I think a lot of the solos stuff and maybe some of the jam stuff wasn’t rehearsed, but the core of the songs were [fleshed out during rehearsal]. We made sure they had the structures and then, we paid a lot of attention to the vocal harmonies.
It was kind of cool. No offense to him, but Bob Weir was kind of the oldest guy in the room, and he was the one leading the rehearsals on. And he, out of all of us, was the one that could’ve phoned it in the most. But he definitely spearheaded the rehearsal idea and really wanted to make sure that when this was performed it was performed right and that people would enjoy it. It was inspiring to see him, 45 years or so in the game, still wanting to make sure that you get it right.
It is interesting you mention that he was the oldest guy in the room. With the exception of thr few songs Phil Lesh played on and Donna’s contributions, Weir was also one of the few people from the original Grateful Dead family who performed. But at the same time there were all these connections between some of the younger, more indie and singer/songwriter-leaning musicians in the room. Did you personally have any connections to the other players involved?
A guy in Vampire Weekend, Rostam Batmanglij, has worked with Cass McCombs a bunch so I vaguely knew him but I hadn’t played with him before. Other than that, I’ve played festivals with a lot of people that I’ve seen around or maybe met, but never really sat down and played with any of them.