Jeff Austin Embraces The Here and Now
Sometimes on stage you have this dark, almost devilish passion that comes out. Is that something that comes when you’re feeling it the most, or just another mode that you have?
I just try to stay open. I try not to affect anything. There may be a song that puts me in a mood. There may be a theme I’m interested in going with and I just tap into that and let it happen. Method singing, basically. This song has kind of cocky, funky groove into so it so maybe I can put that air of persona into the way I deliver it, like a “King Ebenezer.” Sometimes there is a tension behind it, like if it’s a murder ballad, and I want to make it dark then I let myself go there. I’m not afraid to go there. There’s times when you know when to pump the brakes, and that’s just learning from experience. I’ve been singing since I was five, that’s thirty-four years. And I’ve been doing this for fifteen years, and playing with Dave two and a half years before that, and performance my whole life. So it’s just experimentation and time.
One thing I respect deeply about you as a musician is you have the ability, when you’re up on stage, to break through a barrier of just performing into the pure creation of real music and people feel that. So what does that experience feel like for you when you’re up on stage? Do you experience a shift of, “Okay we’re playing…” and then, “Woah, what’s going on here?”
When I think about it that’s when it all goes to hell. Like I’ll be in the middle of improvising something and it’s going somewhere and it has form, suddenly form and structure being created out of nothing, and a vocal phrase and creating a verse and really creating a scene, and as soon as I stop and my brain goes, what’s next? That’s when it stops, and it’s gone. Every time that’s ever happened I stumble and it’s gone. So for me it’s almost something I can’t really enjoy in the moment because I just have to let it happen. When it’s done and I step back and I see our front of house engineer flip his light and go, “Yeah! Fuck yeah!” Or he’ll go, “What was that?” At the end of the night he’ll say, “Well I wasn’t counting on you writing a brand new song on stage during those extra eight minutes of ‘Snow on the Pines.’ So I get to enjoy it on the after effect.
Are there certain elements mentally or with your environment that you feel have to be in place for that to happen? Or can it be any time anywhere? Does it have to be good energy?
It can happen anytime anywhere. Sometimes bad energy is just as inspiring as good.
Sometimes bad energy can inspire you as much as good. Girlfriend dumps you and you’re like, “Oh fuck it here we go.” Or, I found out I’m going to be a father. That’ll inspire you. That will take you to a whole new place.
How does it feel to be the one giving that experience to people?
It’s a gift. It’s a total gift that I’m receiving. It’s not a gift that I’m giving them, no, it’s a gift that I’m receiving…to look out and with a word be able to turn people on their heads. There was a moment a few years ago at All Good Music Festival. There were 25, 30,000 people there. We were doing something and there was a pause and I said, “Go!” I couldn’t help it. It was totally cheesy. It’s a skeet shoot. “How you folks in Philadelphia doing?” (Mimes a skeet shoot) Of course you’re going to get a reaction. But, when I said that, just “Go!,” there was this moment where the crowd went, and there were 30,000 hands just pulsing in the air, and I thought, this is why we do this! This is why we do this. It’s a total gift from the people and in turn I want to keep that cycle of energy going. I get to do it here tonight, in solo shows, when I’m with Yonder, or just by myself.
Do you remember one of the first times that you were an audience member and you had that feeling?
There were numbers of times. When I was younger, like 1983, standing five rows back, and thinking, this is some powerful stuff. And of course the experience of watching Jerry Garcia Band in Buffalo in the late eighties early nineties, having those epiphany moments. Right before I left college, before I dropped out of school I went on Grateful Dead tour and I was standing in the Dean Smith Center in Chapel Hill and I was just kind of standing there and I had a genuine moment. I was going to go back and go to school and going to audition for this off Broadway show and I was going to go to New York and work hard and get on Broadway and do musicals. And I stood there and the exchange between band and crowd, I was in the middle of it and I thought, “I want to do that.” That was a big one.
Phish at the Murat in ‘93. Standing there and going, “Oh man, look what this band is doing to people. What an immediate exchange.” In theatre you do your bit and you get it in the end. You get it from the audience when you make them cry and react or laugh. But, that exchange was something I couldn’t deny I wanted to do.
How is the inspiration you get from the Grateful Dead different from the inspiration you get from Phish, because they’re totally different sounds.
One example, and it’s not something to be proud of is I did 98 Dead shows from 87’ to the last one at Soldier Field and I wasn’t high at a single one of them. I didn’t do drugs, smoke pot, mushrooms, acid, none of that. I might have afterwords in the campground, smoke some pot or whatever, but I didn’t do it. I didn’t want to miss a moment of the experience because when my mom introduced me to them she said, “Embrace every moment of this.” And I listened to my mom.
Now, at Phish…(laughs). So that was a different connection, experience. I would like meditate before Grateful Dead shows and then to be at Phish and maybe under the influence, it can be a different thing. And also it’s a different genuine energy. The Grateful Dead is a lot of people soloing at once to lift up everybody. Phish is like, you have Trey soloing for four minutes and then Page, and Mike, but it has a different kind of a focus and I let that affect me differently.
It’s like the way that I do my touring now. I’ve been drug free for a year. No pot, no this no that. I make weird faces on stage all the time. I’ve been sober for a year and I still make weird faces. I’m not high. I just make strange faces. People are like, “You’re so coked up.” Well, no, you knew when I was, because I wasn’t around. Or I was around making an ass of myself.
But the fact that I tour sober, play sober, well some people want to have the illusion that I’m still blasted. Well, if you want to, go for it. You paid for the ticket, think whatever you want to think. But for me it’s like experience between Phish and the Grateful Dead, and for me now is I used to play shows with seven shots of tequila in me and now I’m playing sober. I stopped smoking pot for over a year and a half, and over a year for anything else. It leads me again to a different place. I used to play like this, and now I play like this. I love the playing like this now because that’s a different connection. I don’t miss a moment. It’s like the Family Guy episode when they’re high and they think they sound great and they sound terrible. They’re doing the folk duet. I’d be like, “Man that show was really great,” and it just didn’t really go anywhere. And now that I’m sober it keeps me in this place of really being in the moment really with it.