Two schools of thought exist when it comes to critiquing art. There is pure entertainment value and then there is criticism based on originality and artistic merit. The film "Pearl Harbor "comes to mind in this analogy. It is a very predictable, clichollywood blockbuster. However it kept me extremely entertained throughout. I thoroughly, and rather shamefully, enjoyed my experience that afternoon at the movie theater. This brings me to RAQ, a very young quartet hailing from Burlington, VT. When I listen to their music, I get off. The music fan in me really digs what these guys are doing and I can’t help but let go of reality and lose myself in their dizzying improvisation. Although, the rock critic in me can’t get past the fact that they sound eerily similar to that other Vermont band, the one that couldn’t shake comparisons in its early days, Phish.
Of course all bands are compared to someone else when they first form. In this genre, it’s almost always The Grateful Dead or Phish. What separates RAQ from the fray is the sophisticated communication between the band members. There is a constant musical conversation taking place within the jamming; a proverbial "fifth member." This magic is rare, especially in bands that have been performing for less than a year. Sure, RAQ sounds exactly like Phish at times, but the musicians are actually talented enough to create their own telepathy within the borrowed formula. Chemistry is not something that can be copied. It’s either there or it isn’t. Think of it like a first date. The person sitting across from you may be gorgeous, but you usually know right away if they are special or not. RAQ is a keeper. Trust me.
The band’s inception occurred in 1999 when guitarist Chris Michetti and bassist Jay Burwick were introduced by Michetti’s girlfriend. The duo jammed together regularly and eventually put an ad in the local paper in search of a drummer. The first gig came in September of 2000 at Club Metronome in Burlington, under the name Shadraq. The original drummer had some stylistic differences, so current drummer Greg Stukey joined the band in the spring of 2001 and changed the whole dynamic, according to Michetti. The trio became more serious and began searching for a keyboardist. At the recommendation of a local waitress, the group invited Marc Scortino to try out for the band.
"The night finally came when we were going to get together with Marc and we were waiting for him in the practice room," says Michetti. "We got the call that he had lost his car keys and that he couldn’t make it. We thought it was such a bummer, but that he’d be perfect for the band, obviously."
Marc sat in with the Shadraq for the first time in April of 2001 at Club Metronome and an immediate magic was sensed by the band. Unfortunately, the next day Scortino left for Block Island, where he had planned to spend the summer, but the band members all agreed he was the man for the job. When Marc returned to Vermont in the fall, he was immediately thrown into the mix. His first official gig came at Strangefolk’s annual Garden of Eden festival, where former Strangefolk manager Brett Fairbrother, already a fan, saw the band and was so impressed that he decided to work with the group full time. He soon came on board and has since accelerated the group’s growth significantly. The quartet’s name was officially changed to RAQ (because of a Christian rock band on the West Coast with the name Shadraq) and now the moniker is suddenly everywhere. There has been no shortage of feedback, both negative and overwhelmingly positive. Either way, RAQ has created a buzz.
The group has just released its debut album, Shed Tech, and will head out on the road this summer and make appearances at the High Sierra Music Festival and the Great American Music Hall in California and Tulagi’s in Boulder, CO. Details can be found at www.raqmusic.com.
Jambands.com recently spoke with RAQ guitarist Chris Michetti, who had just returned from his weekly guitar lesson with Paul Asbell. *JW: What kind of things were you working on today? *
CM: Well, we dont really work on technique. I mean, I work on technique on my own, like running up and down scales and arpeggios and stuff like that. We work more on me being an efficient guitar player; really trying to open up the fret board. Hes really a jazz master and Im not much of a jazz player, but the skills that [jazz players] use are so invaluable. They just know how to do everything. Right now were working on some modal stuff, which is basically just like evoking different kinds of feels out of the same scale. So if youre playing a major scale, thats always going to sound pretty happy. If you put different chord progressions over the same scale that will make it sound either happy, sad orits kind of hard to explain without having my guitar in my hands. But, the jazz guys take it to the next level. Theyre not always playing one scale. Theyre playing one scale for four bars and then theyre switching it up. Its called playing over changes. Stuff like Coltrane. Hes the master of that shit. Were working on playing over changes. That song you like, Late Night, it does that in the end. It fluctuates over these two chord progressions. For me personally, the guitar is an instrument you can play forever. You know? *JW: Yeah. Well, lets talk about that song, Late Night. To me, that stood out as something that sounded fresh. Obviously, you get a lot of comparisons to certain bands, but that song sounded a bit different from everything else youre playing. *
CM: Yeah. That song is a culmination of all the practicing. Im really into the jazz-funk thing too. I just think with jazz, you have to have more than what Ive got. Youve gotta be doing that stuff every day. Youve gotta be around serious musicians and be reading and writing. Its gotta be a constant, dedicated thing. Im not a player, so I dont know if it comes easier to Joe Pass to play jazz than it does for me. But Late Night comes from the Soulive funk influence I have. When I wrote that song I was just sort of getting sick of playing over one chord. I think a lot of our comparisons come from our early jams, which were kind of Grateful Deady and kind of Phishy. Late Night has a lot of that kind of new school Disco Biscuits feel, when Marc does that middle kind of freak out trancy thing. *JW: Its interesting to hear you cite bands like Soulive and The Disco Biscuits as influences because it seems like the genre as far as this generation is pretty young. Its an interesting perspective to see things evolve because both those bands have not been around for that long, really. *
CM: I definitely take influence from those guys. Everybodys an influence you know? Its hard not to be influenced by everybody. I think especially if youre a guitar player; there are so many fucking guitar players out there. Its ridiculous. I mean, we play with all these sick bands. The other night we played with Brothers Past. Have you heard of those guys? *JW: Yeah. *
CM: Theyre really good, especially their guitar player. So thats a big influence. And Psychedelic Breakfast was there too. I mean its hard not to be influenced by those guys. *JW: Both of those guitar players are pretty sick. *
CM: Just ridiculous. *JW: Particularly Tim Palmieri [from Psychedelic Breakfast]. *
CM: Hes just frightening. Hes ridiculous. Hes a lot of fun to watch too. I really get off on that kind of stuff. I mean, it kind of fucks with you when you play with bands like that, for me personally. Because I dont think I rip as hard as those guys. Its not my strong point. *JW: Well what is your strong point? *
CM: I think that my strong point is to come up with little, quick melodies within a solo, you know? I try to make it a fun solo; stretch it out a little bit. Its not so much how fast you go. Its kind of like, trying to see how much fun you can have and how much melody you can evoke out of a solo. Its like creating songs within a song. Thats what I try to concentrate on. Obviously when Im practicing, Im definitely practicing ripping and all the technical aspects. Its the stuff that would make people say wow that guys good. Hes got his shit together. But Im learning its a fine line between practicing and playing live. I dont think the people that come to see us wanna see me just jiz out on the guitar for an hour. I think they want to see that, but with some sort of creative, melodic flow to it. No one in our band really rips that hard. I mean, we all do our part. When the band is working together and we make something happen, thats when were at our best. When I play a solo that I really dont work that hard at – thats it. Then the next song you can hit them with a ripper. *JW: Most bands start out sounding like someone else. Down the road, what do you envision RAQs sounding evolving into? Whats the goal? *
CM: Its hard to say because we are still a very young band. Were only nine months into it. Were still trying to find the sound. With songs like Late Night, people are saying that thats what we should focus on, but we like to write rocks tunes with lyrics. I dont know really. Thats a tough question to answer. *JW: So there is no goal, youre just going to let it happen organically. *
CM: I think that thats the best way to deal with it, just let it happen. Its funny. When you write a song like Late Night, and get a big response to it, it kind of takes you by surprise. We werent really expecting that to happen and now its sort of in rotation all the time. So, were just waiting to see what comes next. The three songwriters in the band are me, Jay and Marc. We all kind of bring different elements. Marc brings the straight-ahead, three-chord rock song. Hes very structured and has played in a lot of blues bands and has played a lot of that New Orleans-type soulful music, but definitely a lot of formula: verse/chorus, verse/chorus, bridge, verse/chorus out. You know? I normally take those songs and manipulate them a little. I like weird, sort of Zappa-esque type stuff. Jay comes from both of our worlds. Its funny. Its very democratic and all of our individual influences come through. We talk about this stuff all the time, like where were going to head. And we really do what we like and see what happens. If someone brings an idea that were into, well play it. Were not going to choose any one direction to go in. There was a time where we were doing a little bit of techno, and we were considering concentrating on that a little more, but we dont anymore. We never talked about it, it just sort of phased out. I think thats kind of the way it works. *JW: With any kind of art, specifically music, the goal is generally to create it without much thought; spontaneous songwriting or improvisation. So what comes out is what youve experienced in life. If you grew up listening to The Beatles, its impossible for that sound to not influence you a little bit. Or if youve been to 50 Phish shows, that might come through on a subconscious level. Whats your musical past like? *
CM: Well I think Jay and I have really been influenced by the jam band world, I know I have. I grew up with an older brother, who exposed me to the Grateful Dead and then I saw Phish and that whole scene; moe. as well. The Greyboy Allstars were a huge influence on me, as were the Allman Brothers with Warren Haynes. So, thats where I come from and Im sure it comes through in my playing. I get a lot of comparisons. *JW: Does it bother you when people say you sound exactly like Phish? Whats your reaction? *
CM: It doesnt bother us at all. I look at that as a really positive thing. At one point in my life, those guys were It. It could not get any better. Im sure a lot of people feel that way. I really respect them. I think its fantastic to have someone come up to me and say I sound just like Trey [Anastasio]. I mean, wow, thats great. Thank you very much. But, it can get negative though. I mean people take these bands so seriously. I think there are people that think that were trying to take away from their Phish. I dont think that thats the point at all. Its like, dont you like that band? Well then, hey, why not have a little party right here? Its kind of like Phish, but not really. As a kid, I got hit really hard, maybe harder than the people who are dissing us and saying that its a bad thing that we sound too similar. I really wanna play this kind of music. Its my contribution to it. Here, Im trying to make someone happy by doing a similar kind of thing, by playing a guitar in that type of style.
We saw a couple months ago on the Jambands.com message board that people were really dissing us and saying that we were trying to do this or trying to do that and I was trying to sound just like Trey. Somebody even said I was trying to wear my pants like Trey. *JW: Well, you do wear those glasses too. *
CM: Right, I have glasses too. So maybe I should get the laser surgery and Ill get some chinos. Then Ill be set [laughs]. But, Im definitely not out there going, what would Trey do in this instance? I play what I feel and I play it just cause I love it, you know? At the same time, back in the day, I really enjoyed that music and I still do. I dont listen to it as much because I trying to develop my own sound, but I still get it. I enjoy it and Im not trying to hurt anyones Phish. Im just trying to do my own thing and its going to be influenced by that. We all love those guys, but we dont sit around and listen to them anymore. Maybe thats a bummer. Itd be fun to sit around and listen, but when you get so many comparisons, you want to get away and get your own style.
Ten or twenty years down the road, if were still getting those comparisons, I might be singing a different tune and I might be upset with myself for not developing my own sound, but right now, were so young. Im still pretty young as a player. Ive only been playing for about six years or so. *JW: Your manager, Brett, obviously has a lot of experience in this scene and a lot of contacts from his managerial days with Strangefolk. Thats been very beneficial to RAQ, but has also sped up the growing process for the band. How does that affect you? Has there been extra pressure to mature rather quickly? *
CM: Without a doubt, I think there is. I think there is a lot of pressure to do a lot of things really quickly. When were not on the road, we have a tendency to try to learn as many songs as we can in a short amount of time, like two days or something. Our repertoire is not 75 songs. Weve only been together for like eight months. I think its hard to just fire out tunes like that. Sometimes its really easy, but when its hard, we get really pissed off, so the pressure does kind of hit us. Maybe were not ready for this, but its early on and we really enjoy it. If you want it to be your career, you cant say, Slow down. I think you have to just go for it. *JW: There are definitely two schools of thought. On the one hand, you want to get out there on the road and make an immediate impact and get your name out there. On the other hand, if you had five years to mature before anyone had ever heard of you, maybe your sound would be completely different. If people see you and their first impression is that youre young and sound like someone else, maybe thats how youll be labeled. Do you ever worry about that balance? *
CM: I do. I worry about that a lot, but I see us improving really quickly. Over the past two months I really think that weve learned about stage presence and firing through songs and making it more of a show. Weve learned how to put certain songs in a set and I think were really concentrating on that. From the feedback I get, people say that we get better every time they see us and thats what I want to hear. A couple months ago, I was a lot more worried about this whole thing, but now were hitting another whole level. Were gonna be playing on some big festivals on large stages this summer. I bet well be a little uncomfortable and not as dialed in as when we play little bars, but the way I see it, its better to learn that stuff now and get ready for it.
JW: Well, your first gig with Marc was at the Garden of Eden
CM: Yeah, I mean thats kind of the way this whole band has happened. *JW: Thats a lot of pressure. *
CM: Yeah, that was really the first gig under the name RAQ. That was crazy. We honestly thought we played like shit that day. I was really upset after that gig. *JW: Wasnt that the show that convinced Brett to manage you? Supposedly, another industry insider whos been around for years told him, dont let this band fall through the cracks. *
CM: I think that thats funny. I remember being so uncomfortable out there because I was so far away from everyone. Being on a big stage like that is crazy. Im sure this summer will be like that, with big crowds, big stages and big sound systems. Everything is a factor. Right now, when were in the tiny shit-hole clubs and nothing matters, thats when I feel we play the best. Thats when everybodys so relaxed and its just happening. *JW: You have a new album thats just come out. How much has your sound evolved since the album was made? *
CM: Its so out of date. Its so funny. Its a great album though. I guess in a certain way, I wish I could send a letter along to everyone who buys the album. *JW: Well this is your letter. Heres your opportunity. *
CM: Okay, well first of all, we did that album in no time, flat. Im pretty sure it took about two and a half weeks. We did it all in out little rehearsal space. Marc has Pro Tools and we did everything ourselves. We had about $800 and we gave it to Dan Archer and said Do what you can do. And thats really nothing in the world of mastering. For what it is, I think its awesome. Its Shed Tech, which basically means ghetto fabulous and thats what it is. I was just talking to Brett today about getting ready for our next album. I cant wait to really put some time and effort into it. A lot of the songs on the current album we dont play very much anymore. Its different, but at the same time it does get the point across. I think the album is different, but it still displays our quirky songwriting and funny lyrics. There are definitely a couple of cool solos and it kind of hints at our jamming style. The feedback that I get from the album has been pretty good, except for a few bad reviews.
Every time I give out the album I tell people to email us and you can get a free live CD. I normally tell people that the album doesnt have all the fun jammy stuff that our current shows do, but that they should check out our website and download some current material. But its definitely good representation of some of the songs. Next time well see what happens. The album just got slashed by the local Burlington newspaper up here. The guy who wrote it obviously hated the jam band scene all together. He said that the jam band scene is dead and someone who says that has no clue. *JW: Wait, the jam band scene is dead? *
CM: The jam band scene is dead! *JW: I didnt hear this. *
CM: Dude, the jam revolution is over. *JW: I could be out of a job. *
CM: Yeah, we really thought it was a funny article. Then we played a show in Burlington that night and made fun of it all night long in front of a packed crowd [at Nectars]. But, its a bummer to have someone just blast apart your album. One of his points was even the production value is so bad on the album. Thats just something that we laugh at because the production was done with our own microphones, totally in the shed. I mean, my guitar amp was in a bathtub covered in sheets, so that we wouldnt get any of the drum tracks bleeding onto it, which of course we still did. My guitar sounds like its in a bathtub. *JW: Someone might think thats brilliant years from now. *
CM: They could [laughs]. If this guy only knew that we did this album in two weeks and we did it all our selves. *JW: In what direction do you see the current jam band scene going? Are we running out of options? *
CM: I think maybe we are. The future for us is what we do, which is more of the rock and roll thing. I like songs, first and foremost. We all love the bands that just go out there and jam. We did that when we were a trio. But, theres this feeling that somethings missing when you do that. I look for songs, whether they are simple songs, like Dirty Sanchez or complex compositions like Moserini, which is one of our newer songs thats pretty intense. Its so hard to predict where the whole thing is going. Right now, there are so many bands out in this community and Im sure a year from now therell be a zillion more. There are just so many good players out there and I think if anything, the jam band community that you and I grew up with especially the Phish and Grateful Dead thing its like, if you can play, get out there and play. *JW: Part of what Phish did was they gave all these young musicians hope that you can go out and play this type of non-commercial music and make a living. The harsh reality is that 99.9% of the bands playing that style of music arent going to make a living, but they all saw Phish sell out four nights at Madison Square Garden without MTV or radio play. When you have a sound thats not really accessible to the mainstream, the odds are really against you. *
CM: The odds are very much stacked against you. *JW: Do you see RAQ as being your long-term career? *
CM: Yes. I would love to do this as a career. I dont know if you can plan it. You definitely have to be secure with your moves. Were not just gonna drop everything and go, which is basically what were doing right now [laughs]. I guess you have to do that. Its a scary, scary move. Right now, were being created as a corporation and thats pretty intense. Do I think it will work? Definitely, but I second-guess a lot of stuff in this band. Im unsure of a lot of things, but I do think that there is something special that the four of us have that we can make into a career. We work really hard. *JW: Whats your rehearsal schedule like? *
CM: Normally we play out from Wednesday to Saturday. Sometimes we skip Sunday, if weve had a really long weekend, but most of the time we practice on Sunday nights. We normally meet for voice lessons on Mondays and then rehearse from about 4 to 10. If things are really rolling and were working on new stuff, we can go all night long. Tuesdays are usually the same. If our manager, the ball-breaker he is, ever gives us some time off[laughs]. It gets really frustrating when you know theres pressure to make things happen and you only have a little bit of time to do it. When the creative process is not happening, its tough. Sometimes youre just not feeling it. Its a pretty intense schedule though. Its voice lessons. Its guitar lessons. Then we practice together. Then we go home and sleep. I think we work harder when were off the road than we do when were on the road. I dont even think thats a question.
Hopefully, RAQ will dominate the world some day, but who knows? Therere so many good bands out there right now. We really just want to make a living. If I always have food on the table by doing this, this is definitely what Ill be doing. Im not gonna speak for other people in the band. I understand if you want to make a million dollars and live the good life. Thats a fun life, but this is what I want to do. I play music. I really enjoy it. The last nine months weve been starting to play in front of people and people have been responding. I love it.