The Goat Head Saloon in Mesa, was the band’s second stop on their brief foray outside of California and the band delivered two sets of confident rock n’ jam music in front of a jovial Arizona audience. Quactus is fronted by Gabriel Weiner on lead guitar and vocals, and Seth Gordon on rhythm guitar and vocals, with a solid engine room led by Greg Zachan on bass and vocals and Matthew (Duffee) McDuffee on drums and vocals. Weiner is an extraordinary lead guitarist with an obvious talent and education and, let’s face it, a natural gift for lead textures and general shreddery. Gordon is a great frontman, as well, as he doesn’t just stand back hitting the chords or race through vocal verses, but has a cool showman’s vibe which would be just as much at home inside a theatre as a club. Zachan and McDuffee are a tight rhythm section and keep things interesting as they neither hold a monotonous beat nor improvise without purpose. Instead, the duo weave around the guitarists and provide a solid enough bedrock so improvisation can kick in at a moment’s notice; at other times, the tandem slams a riff home with a formidable punch.
Set I began with a jam which led into a monstrous version of “Van Winkle’s Dream,” which already sounds like some crowd favorite chestnut. “Fever Boy” kept the party atmosphere intact while “Finally Free>Jam>Finally Free>Suzy Greenberg,” served as notice that the band had a mission to accomplishequal parts nod to influences and a statement about their own powerful identity. “Mine All Mine” simply kicks ass and reminded me of Tea Leaf Green in a small club in Tempe, Arizona in 2005 as they played a gig for the ages that was filled with hard rock and great jam music. Quactus has that ability to switch between good hooks and improvisation quite well and Weiner and Gordon were doing an admirable job of sending various signals back-and-forth as the jam ebbed and flowed, changing direction at a moment’s noticearcing upward and then, at the right intersection, descending downwards as the mood altered the sonic atmosphere. “Might Be You” closed the set with a nice snatch of Allman Brothers-like panache with its own original twist and included a “Flintstones Theme” tease intermingled with a wee bit of Zappaesque thrills. The closing jam was incredibly tight and I wondered how many hours the band had to have practiced to get that good at such an early juncture.
Set II was another wonderful combination of fresh rock songs with the almighty hooks (remember those?) as Quactus opened with the Dead’s “Scarlet Begonias,” charged into the swamp stomp spectre known as “Poinephobe,” which provides whiplash and general wild dancing before another excellent workout on “Espirit D’escalier” fed into a smart cover of Bell Biv Devoe’s “Poison,” and, finally, “Drinko” and “The Offer” as the jamband closed the deal on a great evening of rock, funk, pop hooks and improv.
RR: What were the origins of Quactus?
Gabe Weiner: Seth [Gordon, rhythm guitar and vocals] put an ad on Craig’s List and Duffee [Matthew McDuffee, drummer and engineer] had answered it a couple of months before I had even seen it. The three of us got together. I actually got together with Seth, originallyjust he and I playing guitars. It worked instantly, musical chemistry, right off the bat. The three of us played for a while and we were introduced to the keyboard playerMichael Russeckwho did all of the playing on the album. We played with him for six months and had a bass player, in the meantime, before we found Greg [Zachan]. Greg was introduced to us in the guys in Revolutionary Side Effects. They had recommended him to us. He came and tried out and we all realized that he was the guy that we were looking for. Mike ended up leaving about a year and a half ago to pursue his own interests.
RR: What is the story behind the recording of your debut album?
GW: We recorded everything ourselves. We have a little studio down in North Hollywood and we have a computer setup and we’ve been using Sonar and some other computer programs. Our drummer, Duffee, is actually an audio engineer so he’s pretty handy with all of this stuffvery knowledgeable about the technology and everything. It took us two years to finish everythingfrom start to finish. Some of the tracks like “Fever Boy,” we recorded about two years ago. Some of those solos and bits on there are really old. After I got back from India, we laid down a few more tracks as the guys had written some new tunes while I was away. We did a couple of overdubshere and theredoing the vocals and then, it took three or four months for us to mix it down to where we really liked it and getting all the transitions from the sound effects and then, figuring out the order and getting all of that in line.
RR: Why did you go to India?
GW: I’m a graduate student working on a PhD in Ethno Musicology so I had gone there to conduct research for my dissertation. I’m studying the influence of Indian classical music on jazz music in the west and visa versa. I had gone there to study jazz played by Indians in India. I got to see some great shows. I got to sit in with some bands. I also took lessons with some Indian classical musicians and it was a very amazing experience.
RR: You’re the drummer but you also serve as the band’s engineer. What is your background in engineering?
Matthew McDuffee: My recording knowledge comes two-fold from a lifetime of doing live sound at places since I was 14 as an assistant engineer from Chicago. I was in the punk rock scene back then and met a guy who was quite a bit older and he would mix groups like NOFX and all those bands like that when they’d come to town. I was an assistant engineer and I learned from the live sound and, also, I went to Columbia College in Chicago and got my degree in Recording in Acoustics there. I’m actually an acoustical engineer in my day job.
RR: How was the album recorded?
MM: You can tellsome of them are a lot older, some of them sound way better than others do. Every single bit of it was recorded in our practice space here in L.A. The room has minimal amounts of treatment but there’s foam everywhere to control the reverb. It was all recorded on 8-track. There’s occasional overdubs but the grand majority of it was just us all playing at once. The drums were only recorded with four microphonestwo overhead, kick and snareand each guitar got one mike, the keyboard got one mike and then, we’d do the vocals after the fact. The main core of all of those songs was literally 8-track recordings with vocal and guitar overdubs and extra tracks done after the fact. None of it was expensive gear. Nothing too fancy. We spent, literally, more than a year mixing it. (laughs) I was trying to get it right and slowly learning it because I was more of a live sound guy. It was a learning experience for me. We used Sonor 6.0 to track and mix it all. It was basically learning plug-ins for a year and what sounded good with our setup. The hardest part of the deal was the phase issues because everybody was pointed at each other. There was a lot of microphone bleeds and even using gates after the fact there was only so much I could do to get rid of the bleed crossing from mike to mike. We had a lot of phase issues that were really challenging to deal with and I think next time I’d learn to put some kind of baffle around my drums to at least try to keep my drums out of their mike and their guitars out of my mike.
RR: What are your influences and training?
Seth Gordon: Phish was my biggest influence. My dad very much grounded me through Pink Floyd and The Beatles, which were big ones growing up and strangely, classical and opera. When I was in college, I was in an a cappella group, which was a lot of singing of dorky pop songs with friends. So, there was a pop mentality in my head along with my liking jamband music. I think it is actually one of the reasons I like Phish so much in comparison to some other jambands. I feel that the songs are strong pop songs on their own. They just happen to have jamming in it. Not naming names of other jambands because I like all sorts of music but sometimes a band will wander a little bit aimlessingly to try to get a groove going. I like the idea of a set song structure where you can go in and change it up along the way.
RR: Often in a jamband based on improvisation, the bass player is a fan favorite because of his ability to switch gears and lay down a tasteful groove. How has your role in the band evolved in the last couple of years?
Greg Zachan: It’s funny because I was just talking about that. Just listening to our recordings from now like that Goat Head show compared to some of our first onesas a whole, we’ve really come a long way in terms of improvising, playing off each other and taking our jams in different directions. We’re definitely getting tighter. As a bass player, I just do my best to get better. I practice all the time. In the jam world, there are tons of great bassists out there and I know I still have a lot of work to do. In the end, I just try to hold it down and improvise and keep up with Mr. Gabriel on guitar.
RR: You also write your fair share of songs.
GZ: Yes, I write, too. I’ve been writing songs for a while, since I was 18, 19. “Might Be You” was actually the first song I ever wrote. It’s a long one and it seems to get a good response everywhere we play it and that’s always good. I love the way it turned out on the record. It was good to show these guys some of my songs because I don’t necessarily come in and have the whole song complete with everybody’s parts written. I come in and I have my bass lines, the chord progressions but everybody else adds their own kind of flavor to it, which really turns it into a unique piece. We all have similar goals when it comes to music. We all like the same kinds of music and the whole jam kind of thing but it is good that we all have different backgrounds. When it comes to music, we all approach it the same wayjamming and having fun. We all like each other’s songs and we enjoy what we’re doing and it just comes natural to us.
Once a pond, a spine, the debut Quactus album is an obvious pun on the commencement to many fine tales. The band wears a few influencesPhish, the Allman Brothers Band, Frank and, yes, Dweezil Zappa and Umphrey’s McGeeproudly on their sleeves on numerous tracks but, what is even more impressive, is that the quartet also writes good hooks, can rawk da funkin’ house and certainly show signs of what Gordon [Seth, not Mike] said about the Phish legacy, “the songs are strong pop songs on their own. They just happen to have jamming in it.” The band can also PLAY. Weiner as guitar god with three sidemen would have been so easy; on the contrary, all of the band members write solid material and play quite wellimprovisationally-speaking or not.
The evidence: “Might Be You,” a curling hook which leads to sweet open jam terrain, “Van Winkle’s Dream,” a bass-driven bit of guitar wizardry written by Weiner which also evokes some cool 70s prog rock; “Umbrella,” a languid tableaux written by Zachan that is also a tight yet playful nugget; “Fantazor’s Escape” and “The Journey” are just plain great multi-section adventures with stories to tell, taboot. Listen to the last 80 seconds of “The Journey” and you hear a band fully confident and in control of its tempo. But it is a trio of songs, “Poinephobe” and “Mine All Mine,” written by Gordon, and “Alligator,” by Weiner, where the band shows a true bit of original flair as the hooks are memorable, the playing is inspired and the sections lend themselves to open-ended improvisation before the inevitable return to snakebite riffs. “Poinephobe” is the best song not written by Jack White or Luther Dickinson as the blues via the swamps of the South are explored and rendered with whiskey-blurred eyes and classic riffs. “Mine All Mine” is a mean ole ass thrasherbravado and chutzpah sharing the stage with wicked machismoand is a welcome bit of unapologetic hard rockraw, dirty and shamelessly catchy. Another winner from a group to watch. Quite a few shows are on Archive.org and one can also slide onto YouTube for performance clips or firstname.lastname@example.org for information about the band and their debut album.
- Randy Ray stores his work at www.rmrcompany.blogspot.com. He pays tribute to the late Charlton Heston by saying that “you will have to pry this heady soundboard tape from my cold, dead hands before I will even think that jam is dead.” Good luck, anti-improv indie pop clownsmay your stolen melancholia help you paint the fence and wax the floor of your wayward youth. And, lest we forget, cheers to Phish and the phans.