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Scott Metzger: WOLF!, JRAD, nicOLF! and Onward

Photo by Dino Perrucci

Scott Metzger is busier than ever. When he’s not selling out Red Rocks with Joe Russo’s Almost Dead or leading his band WOLF!, he’s picking up an acoustic guitar to collaborate with his trio The Showdown Kids or sitting in with Phil Lesh.

“I’m finally getting my shit together,” the guitarist says. “I have a management and booking agency for the first time in about 15 years. And I’m looking at it as a time to make a push. The timing feels right.”

Recently, Metzger paused his hectic schedule to chat with Jambands.com. In a wide-spanning conversation, he touched on recording with WOLF!, JRAD’s meteoric rise, playing with members of the Dead and how a chance run-in with Tom Marshall and Trey Anastasio kick-started his career in the jam world.

As the year comes to a close and we dive into 2018, you’re focusing more on WOLF!. What’s your take on where that band is both in the studio, as well as in the live setting?

In terms of the studio stuff, we’ve been in the studio a couple of times now just putting down rough versions of songs that will become the next record. I couldn’t be happier with the way it’s looking. As long as we hold up our end for the rest of the process, I think it should be the best record yet, for sure.

And in terms of the live stuff, we’ve decided that it’s time to try and get out further than just the local bars and whatnot that we’ve been playing in Brooklyn for the last four years. It seems that in 2018, for a number of reasons, is the perfect time to start to spread out and, at the very least, start hitting all the cities in the northeast.

As far as that new studio project, do you have a timetable on that?

No timetable right now. It is a work in progress.

Tell me a little bit about your newer project, The Showdown Kids with Katie Jacoby and Simon Kafka. Are there certain muscles that you get to flex, or itches you get to scratch, with that outfit that maybe you don’t with WOLF! or JRAD?

Yeah, I mean, both of those analogies are perfect. First of all, it’s all acoustic; there’s no drumming in it, so it’s very quiet. Maybe I’m just getting older. But the older I get, the more I enjoy quiet music. And I’ve always been a huge fan of Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli, who were two musicians that played acoustic jazz in France in the 1940’s and ‘50s. And that’s sort of my attempt at playing in that style.

I know the Showdown Kids covered Phish’s “Stash” a couple of times. How did you learn to incorporate that into your sets and make it work in a three-piece acoustic setting?

That song is kind of the reason that the band is going to start to do more gigs. It got a lot of eyes on the band. Basically, some other fine person at Relix got in touch and said they were doing something to celebrate Baker’s Dozen run that was happening. And every day for 13 days they were asking a different artist to cover a different Phish song. And initially, I wasn’t going to do it.

I’m very aware I’m already in the Grateful Dead cover thing and I am a little afraid of becoming just a cover band guy. So initially, I actually said “no” to that. And then the next day, I sort of started thinking—maybe it would be fun to cover a Phish song. But how could I do it that it wouldn’t sound like Phish at all? Like, totally reinvent one of their songs. And it just sort of occurred to me that the melody on “Stash” is sort of in the gypsy jazz wheelhouse, and that it might lay really well with that instrumentation with just the two acoustic guitars and the violin. And sure enough, when we demoed it out, it’s that great.

I think you guys totally made it your own. Another kind of weird connection you have to the Phish world is that you were in Tom Marshall’s band Amfibian. How did you met Tom? And do you guys keep in touch?

We do. Well, actually, it’s a good story. For the better part of a decade, Tom and I had been out of touch, but I certainly keep up with him on social media and whatnot. And when we did “Stash” I kind of got the thought that he might like to hear that. So I sent that to him and now we’re back in touch and we’re talking about how he has a podcast that he’d like me to be on. So, thanks to Relix, me and Tom Marshall’s thing is kicking back up.

I met him when I was 19. I was playing in a coffee shop with an experimental, sort of noise group that I had called F-Hole. I was playing in Princeton at a coffee shop called Small World. And that’s where Tom and Trey are from, Princeton, NJ. They had gone to high school with the bassist in F-Hole, Matt Kohut, and came wandering into the coffee shop. After the set we all sort of started talking. Trey was asking me about what guitar players I was into, and kind of feeling me out, I guess. And then he looked at Tom and said, “I think this is your guy.” and Tom then said, “I’m putting together a band called Amfibian and I need a lead guitar player. Would you like to come and jam with the guys and see how it feels?” That was probably 1999, I guess.

Were you a Phish fan by then? Did you recognize Trey when he walked through the door?

I did not, no. I was sort of into other stuff at that point. I was listening to a lot of punk rock and a lot of straight-ahead jazz back then. I had no idea what a big deal Phish was, frankly. Just where I grew up no one was into it. So then, when we got into Amfibian, Tom gave us all tickets to the Garden, I think it was the night before New Year’s in ‘98 going into ‘99. And I just couldn’t believe what was happening. How big of a thing it was, and how much freedom the band had, musically speaking.

While we are talking about your super talented friends, Nicole Atkins fronted WOLF! not too long ago. What was it like to shift WOLF! into a pseudo-backing band? How did you and Nicole strike that balance to create nicOLF!

[Laughs] Never heard that before, good word. It was very easy for us to flip into that role because WOLF! started as a backing band. WOLF!’s progression was that we were backing up singers around New York City. And then one night the singer didn’t show up for the gig but the club demanded that there’d be music. So we went out and improvised the set of instrumental music and that was the first WOLF! gig ever. So we had a lot of traction. We had a long track record of backing up singers and we know how to do it very well.

Me and Nicole go back very far—we’re both New Jersey natives and both of us have been in the music game longer than either of us would care to admit. So it just made perfect sense. Nicole’s always been one of my favorite contemporary singers. She’s a great musician and has a real vision for what she thinks her music should be. So we did those five shows last year and it was great. I hope we get to do more somewhere along the line.

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