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Published: 2014/02/14
by Mike Greenhaus

Bob Weir Ramps Up RatDog

I know you also plan to use TRI to record a new orchestral project. What is the status of your symphonic work?

To begin with, I’m looking forward to crawling back into TRI with this new streaming service that we’re working with. But I have to get back off the road to do that. Then, you know, I’ve got this symphonic project that I’m working on and it’s plumping out. You know, plumping out kind of nicely. We’ve orchestrated a bunch more tunes and we’ve re-written what we had and are writing what we’re currently working on for a considerably larger orchestra and we’re probably gonna take it into bigger venues. What I did with the Marin Symphony Orchestra was a training wheel session. And having had that experience, I’m big into taking this a bunch further. With regards to that, for instance, one of the things we’re gonna do besides doing a bunch more songs, we’re trying to enable a symphony orchestra to improvise. It’s not like it hasn’t been done, but it hasn’t been done in the manner and on the scale that we’re trying to do it. I think John Cage used to do stuff leaving sections of some of the pieces he used to write open to individual interpretation. But what we’re gonna try to do is get that a bit more collected and organized and still have it be improvisation.

One of the projects that came out of TRI that I read in an interview is that you might actually be working on a new studio project with Josh Kaufman of Yellowbirds. You first performed with him and Yellowbirds’ Sam Cohen when The National hosted the Bridge Session at TRI in 2012. Then, you invited him back for the Move Me Brightly concert. What can we except from your new project with Josh?

Well, Josh [Kaufman] has brought in a songwriter I’m working with named Josh Ritter. And we’re working on a theme album. And so far, so good with that, as well. I have to kick holes in my schedule here and there to work that out, but it is happening. It’s kind of nebulous right now. Basically, Josh’s idea was to do a cowboy song-oriented record. So we’re going with that. I don’t know how tight we’re gonna stick to that, but we’re gonna see.

There’s a place where I can hang my hat because I spent time when I was growing up working on ranches and stuff like that. And I spent time in the bunkhouse with real cow-folks and learned a bunch –well, not a bunch; not near enough—of the tunes. But I was just learning guitar. That was what I did for a summer job back when I was a kid. So, I know that was another day and another time, but I’d love to bring that stuff back around, because it’s kind of a big part of the American musical heritage.

In terms of RatDog’s upcoming tour, do you think we would see some of that kind of material worked into the catalog?

I don’t think we’re close enough to done—well, there’s one tune that might be close enough. We might trot that out. I also have been working on some of the RatDog originals [that we haven’t played for a while]. Having had that time off, they’re gonna reemerge kind of fresh. With this new personnel group, the faces are gonna change a little bit.

Circling back to your upcoming tour, what did your recent solo tours and time with Furthur teach you about this batch of songs you are now reworking for RatDog?

If I’m on stage and I’m delivering a song solo, it’s almost necessarily gonna give me new insights to it, whether or not I’m able to bring those back to a larger ensemble. If it’s me, loud on stage with Furthur or something, the insights that I’ve acquired during a quieter setting don’t really apply. With RatDog—the new RatDog configuration—I think some of it will apply. I’ve been learning that. It’s all part of the snowball.

In terms of other flavors, since the guys in the band have all done so many different things since the band’s toured regularly, are there certain styles or other covers that might be added to the catalog that probably wouldn’t have been there a couple of years ago, given everyone’s new projects?

The guys are supplying me with lists of stuff that they think might work for this band and one-by-one, we’ll get to them. You know, there will be old stuff, there will be new stuff…all that kind of stuff.

One person that was originally slated to be part of RatDog was indie-folk artist Jonathan Wilson. I know he had to step away from the band to work on his solo career and production work but do you have any plans to work with him again in the near future?

Not right away. I’d love to go back out with him in some form. What was working well was the Alone and Together solo and duet tour that we did. I certainly wouldn’t mind doing some more of that.

I remember talking about that last year and you said that one of the great things was the opportunity to showcase your original material and then kind of come together, as you said for the “Together” part, and offer something that was different from both of your catalogs.

Big fan. That was kind of the whole point. I certainly enjoyed it. And gauging from his broad, beaming smile, I’d have to gamble he enjoyed it, too. Yeah, I haven’t had a chance to listen to that yet. I have to dive into that.

I’ve also got a couple of operas on the grind. I’m more or less producing it. And then another one, a local poet here that I was working with down at the Sweetwater had an idea that I think we’re gonna flesh out. We’ll see if we can’t make a little headway in the classical music realm. As far as the symphonic and operatic conditions, there has been for the last few decades now that they’re sort of withering with the audience. So it’s looking like it’s getting to be time to do something about that and get new people in there and I think we have some good notions of how to do that.

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