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New Groove

Published: 2009/03/26
by Brian Robbins

Boris Garcia

Intro: Point of Grace

The snow was just plain nasty: thick and wet and heavy. No doubt, the ride home later on in the evening would be a challenge. But there was no room in our souls for worry at that moment as right now reigned supreme. And right now, we were tucked inside One Longfellow Square, a sweet little venue in downtown Portland, ME enjoying being among the few who had chosen to not think about the weather and experience the band Boris Garcia. And right now, we were deep into the heart of the song "Point Of Grace", comfortably wrapped in the warm folds of a joyous jam. I nudged my wife and pointed toward the band, shaking my head: you had a front line consisting of Bud Burroughs on bouzouki, Gene Smith weaving sweet recorder riffs, and Jeff Otto head down and driving the rhythm with his ukulele all the while, Bob Stirner rolling a bass line along on top of Stephe Ferarro's jazzbo-flavored drums. I shook my head in wonder and my wife grinned back at me, knowing exactly what I was thinking. "But it works!" she said.

Yes, it did.

Interview: The Winnebago Tape

Composed of five longtime friends, the Pennsylvania-based band had sailed their Winnebago up into the northeast as part of a voyage to promote their latest album, Once More Into The Bliss. Featuring guest appearances by Donna Jean Godchaux, Buddy Cage, and Tim Carbone (who also produced the album), Bliss is the third installment in a series of albums chock full of, well, in the band's own words, "Boris Garcia music.”

Between soundcheck and the gig in Portland, ME, we were invited aboard the Winnebago, where we talked with the Boris boys about their sound, their inspirations, and their friends. (Please note: the finished interview, apart from laughter, only contains one quote from Bud Burroughs, who tends to the quiet side. Not to worry Bud did his talking later on during the show via mandolin, bouzouki, and keyboards big time.)

BR: First of all, the “jamgrass” title: listening to the older albums, maybe but there’s definitely more to your sound than that.

Bob: You know, we just needed a tag a moniker in the beginning. Bud, of course, is a mando player supreme and there is some bluegrass influence in the band

Gene: But we’ve morphed too.

Bob: Exactly morphed and evolved over our three albums, if you listen to them side-by-side. The “jamgrass” thing just sort of stuck and that’s what many people refer to us as. You know, on the next record, we might have to take the “grass” part out of it, I don’t know.

BR: I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but we actually have played your three albums back-to-back before –

All: Cool! (laughter)

BR: And even though your sound has evolved, it still sounds like Boris Garcia from the first cut to the last.

Bob: That’s good to hear. Thanks.

*BR: I mean, sometimes bands get lost; they go through their “death metal” phase *

Jeff: That’s the next record. (laughter)

BR: I guess what I’m asking is, what do you guys call your sound?

Jeff: Boris Garcia music.

Bob: Exactly: Boris Garcia music. There might be instrumental changes happening, or we’ll be dabbling in different genres at times but that’s the way it’s always been with us. We were told early on “You can’t do this you have to have a particular sound -”

Gene: That’s right – from the first album.

Bob: “- or you’re not going to be marketable.” And we were like, “Screw that we’re going to do it this way because that’s what we feel.” And it’s actually given us a great deal of leeway to do whatever we want an eclectic mix of stuff.

BR: Is the bio for real? It basically tells the tale that there was a recording session before there was an actual band.

Jeff: Absolutely. The very first song we did, “Point of Grace” is me playing two ukulele parts and a bass part, while Stephe’s playing brushes on like a piece of cardboard or something –

Stephe: A pizza box.

Jeff: Yeah and that’s where we started. As we went along, it was a matter of “We need this” or “Let’s try this” and Eugene popped into it and Bob came in to play a guitar part; we even had a flamenco guitar player at one point, although by the time we were putting the first album together, he’d moved out of the area.

BR: Really?

Jeff: Oh yeah he was an Iranian doctor who had studied under a master flamenco player in Madrid for years. We’d get together and just do these free-form kinds of jams. A friend of ours who passed away, Tom Hockenberry, would play the cello while I played a self-invented wooden-top electric slide banjo and we do these free-form whacked-out things

Stephe: And man, was it out of tune! (laughter)

Jeff: And from there, the songs just eventually started happening they grew out of those jams in a friend’s living room.

Bob: Tom Hockenberry was somebody that people should’ve heard of he was a brilliant guitar player and arranger. Tom really pushed things in a certain direction for us early on. He’s no longer alive, but he deserves a shout out he was a great guy.

Gene: And when you take a song like “Point Of Grace”, knowing its origins, and listen to the way we treat it now in a live setting, that song has evolved

Jeff: It’s grown from a 2-minute cut to a 9-minute jam.

Stephe: It’s getting funkier as it goes along.

Bob: Eugene plays a neat recorder part on it now it’s continually evolving, like the rest of the songs.

BR: Even the stuff I heard you do from the new album during soundcheck had some different twists.

Bob: Well, take “Other Side”, for instance: we let Buddy Cage roam on that one in the studio and with good reason he’s Buddy, man. Buddy’s a founding father he was on the train. {Author’s Note: Referring to the 1970 Festival Express.] I’d love to have been on the train!

BR: So in place of the pedal steel, the soundcheck version earlier featured some beautiful electric guitar

Bob: Thanks, man.

BR: -and it doesn’t lack for emotion.

Stephe: It’s all part of the process the songs develop as we play them.

Gene: We have, like, four different versions of each song that we can go into, depending on where we are and what setup we’re playing in: we’ve been doing a lot of radio stations lately where it’s all acoustic, for instance.

Bob: We can play Bill Monroe-style whatever. We can blend to match the situation. We’re fortunate that we can play a roots festival one week and play a jambands festival the next. And we can be loud or we can be contemplative it’s basically a function of the situation and how we’re feeling at that moment. I don’t think there’s any rhyme or reason to why we’ve evolved the way we have the entity is just sort of pushed along by having different songwriters and it all just adds up to what makes the Boris Garcia sound.

Gene: We’re real good backup bands for each other.

Stephe: We all come from different backgrounds – a lot of us have known each other for 20 years or more and we all have our own thing: I came from a jazz background, Bud came from a Celtic –

Bud: (with quiet smile) Kind of an Irish/punk metal sort of thing. (everyone else cracks up)

Jeff: I played in danceable rock and roll bands growing up basic Top 40 cover bands.

Gene: I was laying bricks in Levittown (laughter)

Jeff: and we felt sorry for him

Bob: And I was the perennial Deadhead tour rat in the band Living Earth for 25 years. For some weird synergistic reason, we all came together and it made some crazy sense.

Stephe: We all love American music of all genres.

Gene: And we all grew up listening to everything around us, from the 60’s on up: Celtic, European, Latin, reggae

Bob: And we do rock out at times and that throws some people off, but it’s part of who we are, too. I guess if someone had to call it something, you could say we were an American (stops and suddenly breaks into song): WE’RE AN AMERICAN BAND!! (laughter)

Jeff: Yeah let’s do Grand Funk Railroad!

Gene: But, like, a Klezmer version

Bob: I wanna be Mark Farner!

Stephe: I’m going back to playing jazz, man. (laughter)

Bob: Of course, that’d mean taking my shirt off

Rest of band: (in unison) Nooooo!

BR: I know there’s no cover songs on any of your albums anything special for covers that you’ve done live?

Bob: There’s some Celtic stuff we’ve done; a couple Dead songs we keep in the pocket every now and then Donna Jean (Godchaux) has sat in with us or Pete Sears or Barry Sless, so, you know – it’s good to have some Dead ready. Personally, I’ve played these things a million gazillion times and I really love what we’re doing and I don’t think we need to do a lot of covers, but there’s always a moment when it’s good to throw something out there.

Stephe: Maybe we’ll pull something else out

Gene: Yeah, there’s some things we’ve talked about that might be fun.

Bob: We were going to do the Beatles’ “I Am The Walrus” but Phil and Friends stole all our thunder, man. (laughs)

Gene: I think we should do the bluegrass version of “Sgt. Pepper.”

Bob: I’d love to do something Beatles, actually. And that’s another thing: we’ve all been influenced by the Beatles.

Jeff: And dinner theater. (laughter)

Bob: So that’s who we are: we’re all late 40- or 50-somethings and we all grew up with AM radio and the progressive FM radio late at night, you know? (makes weird tuning noises) We were just bombarded with all this great stuff take a look at 1969 to 1972 and think about the unbelievable onslaught of talent. So what were we influenced by? All of that stuff: The Band, the Dead, Jethro Tull

Gene: It all bounces around and comes back out again somewhere else.

BR: We mentioned earlier that there’s three of you writing for the band, but there don’t seem to be definite “Bob songs” or “Gene songs” or “There’s a Jeff tune.”

Gene: Well, that’s a compliment.

Bob: That’s the deal that’s Boris Garcia.

Gene: That’s one of the hardest things for any band to do. You look back through history, and there are only a handful of bands that have successfully done that.

Bob: By the way, we didn’t plan that that’s just how it works with this band.

Gene: We’ve heard that before and it’s an extreme compliment, so thank you.

BR: Statement of fact, man. Let’s talk about working with Tim Carbone.

Gene: Tim has great hair. (laughter)

Bob: David Gans introduced us to Tim Tim produced David’s latest album, too (_The Ones That Look The Weirdest Taste The Best_). I called Tim and asked if he’d be interested in producing our album and he said, “Send me a demo.” As soon as he heard the demo, Tim had it in his head what he was going to do. Tim’s brilliant, an absolutely brilliant producer, along with being a great songwriter and musician he’s an icon he really is. Tim came in and worked with Phil Nicolo – who’s a legend himself – and they just went to town on that record.

Jeff: Part of it is his sonic flavoring. Tim will listen to something once and say, “Let’s bring in some bells” or “Let’s try some Mellotron” “Let’s try something a little different” and he’s right on. You gotta love that.

Bob: We can’t say enough about Timmy and his friendship and support and creative input. He bumped us up to another level with his production work on that record.

BR: Who made the call on his musical contributions to the album?

Gene: We weren’t going to let him get away without playing!

Jeff: We’d been fortunate to have him sit in with us at a couple of festivals before that with some of the guys from Hot Buttered Rum it was great to have a string section! Very cool.

BR: How about the songwriting process in terms of taking the tunes out on the road do you ever think about the songs in terms of jam possibilities?

Bob: Well, like we mentioned earlier, “Point of Grace” used to be a 2-minute traditional ditty and it’s turned into this 9-minute jam. Do we always know that’s going to happen or do we plan it? No. I can write something and feel it’s going to be a good song as it is. It may grow into something else from there – who knows? The songs come first.

Gene: Sometimes we’re just there on stage and Bud will play something out of nowhere and Bob will look at him and say, “Play that again keep it going!” It just gets orchestrated as we go.

BR: Who does the set lists?

Jeff: (faking panic) Ooh we gotta make one! (laughter) Bob and I usually sit down together. In the beginning, we put a lot of time into making sure we didn’t have too many songs in the same key or similar tempos; and instrument changes, too Bob might swap the bass with me while I switch to ukulele or Bud might put down the mando and head for the keyboard. We used to be very, very serious about all those things. But I think we’re a lot looser about that now. Sometimes things just unfold as they go.

Bob: We’ve learned to go with the ebb and flow.

BR: Any final thoughts you want to share with the Jambands.com readers?

Bob: We’re just stunned and humbled by what’s happened to us in such a short period of time. To think that this group of guys could come together and make this music and have it resonate with people it’s a great feeling. That’s not something that money can buy. But it’s obvious you don’t do this for the money (sweeps his arm around the close quarters of the Winnebago) – you do this for the music.

Gene: Boris Garcia music.

Outro: The Other Side

There was a moment towards the tail end of the show, deep into the jam of "Other Side" when the Boris boys took us somewhere far, far away. Bud's piano rippled and cascaded down the solid stone ledges laid down by Stephe's drums and Jeff's bass; Gene gently swayed by the
mike stand, eyes closed and smiling, his harmonica loosely dangling from one hand; and Bob’s Strat sang to us about loss that isn’t really loss. Ripples built into waves and Stephe and Jeff let the beat find its own way until it began to almost/not quite become something else and the hair began to stand up my arms … for a moment it was a long time gone and we were all caught in a slow sway reminiscent of an early 70’s “Wharf Rat” and Boris Garcia could make us laugh and make us cry and it was okay, just like just like just like

The jam gently touched down and lovingly deposited us back in the here and now. It was February, 2009 and we were in a little hall in Portland, ME and it was snowing outside.

And inside, Boris Garcia was playing Boris Garcia music.

And it was great.

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