Jeff Pehrson: Furthur’s Vocalist Embraces The Fall Risk
Let’s jump back to The Fall Risk. How did the group develop beyond the initial trio you described?
We started doing more gigs and then when the Furthur thing happened it became easier to get better gigs because people knew that I was now in Furthur. I don’t like to go around promoting The Fall Risk by saying “With the guy from Furthur” because I feel like I’m stepping on Bob and Phil’s toes and using them to push my own thing. But it became easier locally because like New York and Philly, this is an incredible Grateful Dead area. The Bay Area lives and breathes the Grateful Dead. So I started thinking, “Well maybe I should take this more seriously,” and I recruited the organ player from Box Set, Sam Johnston. I also called my old buddy Matt Twain who I used to play in a duo with years ago before Box Set. He’s an incredible musician, probably the best technical musician in The Fall Risk and an incredible singer as well, a great harmony singer. Mark knew this guitar player Rich Goldstein who’s a great slide player and then we went forward with that lineup for a while.
Then I was looking at Facebook one day and this crazy guy named Phil Savell sent me this video of him playing “Eleanor Rigby” on the electric guitar. Not Stanley Jordan style but just kind of shredding this lead part all over it, and thought, “Wow, this guy’s amazing.” We had this gig coming up at a club in San Francisco, so I wrote to him and said, “I see that you’re in L.A. If you’re ever in the city let me know, we’d love to have you sit-in.” And he wrote back, “Okay I’ll come up, when’s the gig?” I told him, so he shows up for soundcheck and I threw a couple covers at him and I’m like, “You don’t know our stuff so why don’t we do ‘Dear Mr. Fantasy’ or something.” And he said, “No, I know all your songs.” And I said, “Excuse me” And he said, “I went back through the Box Set repertoire and I learned all your songs.” And I said, “All my songs?” And he said, “Yeah, all your songs.” So I showed him the set list and he said, “Yeah, I know all those.” I was completely blown away and he sat in the whole night and at the end of the show I said, “Do you want to join the band?” And he said, “Yes I do,” and that’s how we got Phil.
I guess that’s how you get a gig
That’s it man. (Laughs). Yeah it was amazing and Phil is just an incredible guitar player and the work he did on The Fall Risk CD is just insane. The rhythm parts, the parts he came up with, he’s just really a genius. And then we still had this old bass player from college. I love the guy, he’s a good buddy of mine but he just wasn’t bringing what needed to be brought to the table. So there was a band called Jambay back in the 90s when Box Set was coming up that I really liked. Matt Butler who does the Everyone Orchestra was in Jambay and the bass player is named Mike Sugar. And Mike is world class, he can do anything. So we asked him to join and he agreed and that kind of rounded out the group.
You mention the new album. Originally you were going to record an EP and things just grew from there?
That’s a funny story too. I was going to do an EP just to get something out there and let people know what we were doing and then I was talking to Sam Cutler one day and in Sam’s own way he said, “Listen mate when you talk to me do you talk to me in incomplete sentences?” And I said, “No.” And he said, “Well then why put out an EP? It’s half a record. You’ve got enough songs, get in there and record an album.” I started thinking about it and decided, “You know, he’s right. So I credit Sam and he’s going to come to Brooklyn Bowl and Bear’s Picnic and introduce us.
In terms of the material on the new record, how would you say your songwriting has developed over the years?
I’ve definitely got more Americana. The storytelling has moved away from me to focus on putting myself in the mind of a character I’ll come up with and exploring their thoughts and ideas. I’ve traveled around the country 26, 27 years and I’ve spent time in most areas. So I write songs that are based in certain places and I try to convey the thoughts, the smells and the sights of those areas. When you do that musically it tends to follow in this Americana vibe.
There’s this song “Angeline,” on the new album that’s probably my favorite and it’s written from my memories of being up and down the Cumberland River and listening to Sonny Boy Williamson and thinking about John Hartford because he had that house on the Cumberland River. He used to be a steamboat pilot and there’s a bend in the Cumberland River called Hartford’s Bend where his house was and I incorporate that into the song.
There’s another one called “LeClaire,” which is an old story that happened to Box Set. We were going up to Minneapolis to play a show. We were leaving Davenport [Iowa] and we broke down in a little town called LeClaire, which has since become famous because the TV show American Pickers is based there, I guess. We broke down there and we’re on the side of the road freaking out because as I recall the transmission actually fell out. And these guys pulled over and asked what the problem was. It was a set of brothers who said, “Well, we own this auto shop, why don’t we get our tow truck?” And we explained we had to make this gig the next day and they said, “No problem.” They stayed up all night to get us back on the road again so we could make our next gig and gave us the deal of the century on the price. So the song is not about them but I kind of fell in love with LeClaire. It’s right on the Mississippi River and I just wrote this story about a guy who was passing through town.
For folks who have never seen The Fall Risk and might come out over the coming days, what can they expect to see?
They’ll see a lot of high energy, incredible musicianship. Basically the band is there to serve the songs and they do an amazing job. It’s an incredible band, a lot of high energy but for us it’s all about the songs and we try to present the songs in a way that will be interesting to people. There’s a lot of jamming, not Grateful Dead style jamming but Phil is such an amazing guitarist player and Sammy is such an amazing organ player that we feature them quite a bit.
Final question, since this will run tomorrow on Jerry Garcia’s birthday, can you share your thoughts on what his music has meant to you over the years?
For me it’s all about Jerry’s songwriting. The jamming was incredible, I loved his guitar playing but for me it was the songs. In fact all of the Grateful Dead it’s about the songs. Something like “Tennessee Jed,” that song’s just amazing or “Terrapin Station,” the whole side of a record and the music’s incredible. It just blows my mind how amazing that man was. It’s sad that he’s not with us anymore but talk about leaving a legacy behind. I look out into the crowd at Furthur shows and I see kids wanting to capture what they missed out on and it’s the music that brings them back. People argue sometimes that it’s the scene. No it’s not the scene, it’s the music. The scene would get people there once. They keep coming back for the music and that’s because the songs are so powerful. So for me Jerry has always been about the songwriting.