Sitting on The Porch with David Gans Part I
"..we must seek not so much to create opportunities as to take
advantage of those that are offered us." The Island of the Day
Before, Umberto Eco
David Gans has been touring quite extensively in the last decade or
so with a rich canon of tunes stretching from folk to protest to jam
to bluegrass to straight up rock 'n' roll. However, he had not
stopped long enough to record a studio album during that period.
Until now. Gans has teamed up with members of Railroad Earth, and
various other seasoned veterans to craft a poignant and rousing
11-track album called The Ones That Look the Weirdest Taste the Best.
With Gans as the chief songwriter, and tracks produced by Railroad
Earth's Tim Carbone, the singer-songwriter/guitarist mines the
material of his own experiences either at home, or on the road for a
strong set of troubadour classics.
Gans is also known quite well for his two-decade-plus career as a
radio producer/host of Grateful Dead programs on Berkeley's KPFA
radio station, Dead to the World, the nationally syndicated Grateful
Dead Hour as well as being a consultant to Sirius XM's Grateful Dead
Channel. He has also produced a legion of records by other artists,
including compilations of the Dead, spent his early years as a
journalist before writing numerous books about music, and is also a
well-known photographer. Jambands.com sits down with Gans to discuss
his new studio album in a wide-ranging two-part feature that explores
his songwriting process and the continuing influence of the road on his music.
RR: How did you get involved with Railroad Earth on this project?
DG: I have been a fan of Railroad Earth since I met them at the High
Sierra Music Festival. Roy Carter, the director of High Sierra,
passed me a CD, which at the time was a demo that hadn't even been
released yet, of what became most of their first album, The Black
Bear Sessions. I was just blown away by the songwriting of Todd
Sheaffer, and by the playing of the band. I became a fan and a
supporter, and whenever they came to town, we'd see them. I got to
see them at many music festivals.
The real genesis of our collaboration was a performance at the
Terrapin Hill Harvest Festival in Harrodsburg, Kentucky in 2005. They
were playing on the main stage, and I was playing on another stage. I
asked if any of them would be interested and willing to come over and
play with me. To my great surprise and delight, Johnny Grubb, John
Skehan, Andy Goessling, and Tim Carbone all came over to join me on
my set. We had a fabulous, wonderful time playing together.
From that time on, whenever we were in the same zone, I could rely
on a couple of those guys, or more, to join me. I played at
MagnoliaFest in Florida in October 2005, and Andy Goessling and Tim
Carbone played with me. John Skehan and I played sets together at
house parties in New Jersey. We just became musical buds, and I was a
great admirer of their playing. They seemed to appreciate my
songwriting, as well.
We were doing some stuff together in 2006 in their stomping grounds
in New Jersey; we played a couple of songs together, and at the end
of one of those shows, I just got this little brainstorm, and I went
to Tim Carbone. I said, "Listenif I can get scare up the money to
pay for the sessions, would you be willing to produce them with me?"
He said, "Absolutely." So I started saving my pennies, and I sent him
a CD full of original songs and said, "Which ones do you like? Think
of this as if it were going to be an album project. Which ones would
you choose?" We figured out that I could afford three days of
recording, and he picked out four songs that he felt would work as
sort of a demo.
We went into Mix-o-Lydian Studio in Lafayette, New Jersey where he
had been recording and playing with Andy Goessling for many, many
years. He brought the Shockenaw Mountain Boys. We rehearsed one day,
we laid down basic tracks for four songs the second day, we did
overdubs the third day, we mixed on the fourth day, and that was our
four-song demo. We shopped it around a little bit, but the music
business has been disintegrating for several years, and we couldn't
really find anybody to fund the rest of the recording.
I saved my pennies some more, and several months later, we went back
to Mix-o-Lydian and recorded six more songs. This time, Grubb was not
available. Timmy brought in an amazing bass player from New York
named Lindsey Horner. He brought in a drummer from the area that he'd
known for years named Ned Stroh, and an amazing player named Buck
Dilly, who is a lap and pedal steel steel and electric guitarist who,
as it turns out, is also an organ player. So we recorded six more
songs, and I was blown away by what we got. (laughs)
A little over a year ago, I was doing a radio show in San Francisco
called West Coast Live, and they had asked me if I had any songs
about food because they broadcast most weeks from the Ferry Building
in San Francisco, right upstairs from a wonderful Farmer's Market.
First I thought I would do this Steve Goodman song called "Chicken
Cordon Bleus" that I've always loved, but then I decided "No, that's
silly. I'm a songwriter. I go to the Farmer's Market every week, and
I should write about shopping at the Farmer's Market." I got my wife
to help me with that because she's the produce expert in the family.
We came up with this song called "The Bounty of the County," and
performed it on that show, and it was immediately popular. I started
getting phone calls from farmers and market people asking if they
could put it on their web site. I sent a copy to Tim, and I said,
"We've got to put this on the record." He listened to it, and said,
"Well, it's kind of another mid-tempo tune, but I hear what you're
sayin'. Let's do it."
Last February, Timmy and I went into the studio with Paul Knight on
bass. Paul is a bass player here in the Bay Area, playing in Peter
Rowan's bluegrass band, and does sound for the David Grisman Quintet.
We also brought in Zac Matthews on mandolin [who just recently
resigned from Hot Buttered Rum]. So those were our eleven songs. Ten
of them were recorded in Jersey, one of them was recorded here, and
all of them were produced by Tim Carbone, who played the fiddle on
almost everything. I couldn't have been happier. Timmy just
understands. We're in the same general age cohort. I think I might be
a year or two older than he is, but we sort of came up in the same
time, and we have very similar political and philosophical views, so
he totally got my point of view in terms of what I was trying to say
in my songs.
I knew from listening to Railroad Earth that these guys would be
great sidemen. To me, the most important thing is the song. I don't
care how great your licks are, if the songs suck, I don't want to
hear it. I knew that those guys understood that the role of band
members in a band like Railroad is to tell the story. They understand
that the songwriter is the main thing, and their job is not to
surround him with hot licks and swamp the song in flashy playing.
It's to underscore and support what the song is doing. There's plenty
of room for shredding in a band like that, but I knew that if I
brought them in to do my songs, that my songs would be served by
these amazing players. They're all instrumental storytellers of the
RR: What you just described makes me think of your song "That's Real
Love" with its multiple parts, different sections, and a band's
ability to bring something unique into a song, and then not repeat it.
DG: There are two things you need to know about that song. First of
all, the bridgethe clarinet sectionwas invented for the recording
sessions. I brought that song in, and it was a pretty straightforward
song. There is just one section, the A section. There's no bridge to
it. We were rehearsing it, and somebody in the bandI forget
whosaid, "This song needs a bridge." And this magical thing
happened. I don't even remember exactly how it happened. I think it
might have been Skehan who made the changes happen, but we came up
with this little section of chords that we played, and some notion of
what the changes would be. When we got to the studio, Andy Goessling,
who's the Most Valuable Player in the whole thing, showed up with
clarinets. We played the song, did the basic track, played this
regular mandolin solo and then, we stopped and played these chord
changes. When we did the overdubs, Andy laid down a two-part clarinet
overdub. In other words, he played the two different melodies. He
played one line, went back and overdubbed another line, and then he
played each of those lines a second time so we have two clarinet
parts doubled. He also overdubbed a bass clarinet melody underneath
that. So that whole thing was a collaboration. We all agreed that it
needed something, and this mysterious process happened by which all
of us came up with these parts, and so I shared the songwriting
credit with the four of them because of the amazing way it all came about.
The other thing about that is something that Tim understands, and
that I learned from another amazing record producer named Stew. That
is to do something really amazing, and you only do it once. You don't
do everything to death. Repetition is part of music, but it's not
necessarily the most important thing, or the coolest thing. One
really, really amazing thing that you can do is to do something
really neat and unique and only do it once, and make the listener
kind of listen for it to come back. When it doesn't come back, it
piques their curiosity, and makes them come back to listen to the song again.
RR: Let's talk about lyrical content. Sometimes, you are singing in
the first person, sometimes, third person. In our first feature about
three years ago [Author's Note: "Workingman's Artist"8/9/05; also,
the 10th anniversary of Jerry Garcia's death], we spoke about "An
American Family," which appeared on Solo Electric, and debuts as a
studio track on the new album. I'd like to explore that style of
songwriting a bit further with you.
DG: That song was a deliberate attempt on my part to write something
that was not first person, and was not about my life. I'm not a very
fast songwriter. "Headin' Home Already" is more than 30 years old.
I've been playing that song in various bands since the 70s, and most
of the songs on the record are newer, but in general, my writing
output is very low. I'm not one of those guys that bats them out
every week. I sort of cook them in my brain for sometimes years until
I can't keep them inside any more, and then they get written. That's
a function of both not making the time to do songwriting, and also
being a deliberate songwriter. ["An American Family"] was my telling
myself that "the last couple of songs that you've written have been
very explicitly about your own life." Why don't I try to write
something that's a pure work of fiction?
For some reason, as I'm telling you this story, I remember where I
was when I first hatched the idea. I was driving on the San Rafael
Bridge, heading toward Marin County in what must have been 1995 or
so. I don't why I remember that so clearly. I had the idea that I was
going to write a character sketch about this person who was sort of
based on a human being that I actually know. As is the case with
these things, the person in the song very quickly became somebody
else, and amusingly, eventually, the person became three people. It
became this song that was sung in the voice first of the father, then
his wife, and then their son. Again, it's a mysterious process, and I
can't tell you exactly how that happened, but each of the three
voices of the song is sung in a different key. The structure of the
song dictated itself in a way that I can't recall. The mystery of
inspiration is that one moment you're sitting there, and minutes
later, you have something, and you have no idea how it got there.
Timmy made me sing that song in the studio several times, and worked
with me on each of the three parts to make them sound a little
different, and I could not tell you, Randy, what exactly is different
about the three performances. It satisfied Tim that each of those
voices that I used to portray the three characters was subtly different.
RR: How about a song that I assume is definitely in the first person,
and has a strong message attached to it: "Shove in the Right Direction?"
DG: That song is a collaboration. Lorin Rowan and I wrote that song
together. The hook, the basic tag line"a kick in the ass is a shove
in the right direction"is something that I learned out of my own
life experience. Many, many times in my life, I've had something bad
happen to meI got fired from a gig, or something like thatand it
wound up being something that set me off on what proved to be a good,
The song came out of a conversation out in front of KPFA with Lorin
Rowan. The Rowan Brothers were friends of mine by then. They came in
to sing on Larry Kelp's program, Sing Out. I stayed to listen to them
perform after my show, and after they got off the air, we were
standing out in front of KPFA shootin' the shit, and we were having
this conversation. I guess it was about being musicians, the music
business, and our mutual love of Beatles music, etc., and I said
that: "You know, it seems to me after living all these years, a kick
in the ass is a shove in the right direction." I could see the little
light bulb going off over Lorin's head. I said, "You cannot have
that. That's my phrase, and I'm going to write itbut I'll tell you
what, man. Let's get together and write the song together," and we
did. Some time in the next month or so, I went over to his house, and
spent an afternoon developing that song. I would say 98% of it was
written in that afternoon. I took it home and tweaked it a little bit
more, changed a line or two.
The first verse is pure fiction, the second verse is kind of based on
a life experience of my own, and the third verse is a summation of
the other two. It was really pretty much a full collaboration. We
wrote it together based on a line that I came up with and used a
little of my personal experience in one of the verses. It's working
out really well, and getting airplay. I hired Home Grown Music
Network to do some promotion for me, and I get these reports every
day about the stations that are playing it, and I noticed that's
being played on various radio stations, and it's even started to get
RR: And how about another song written in the first person with a
potent message, "Save Us from the Saved?"
DG: "Save Us from the Saved"yes, indeed. That is actually the second
incarnation of a piece of music. I had written a song with another
collaborator, and I wasn't very happy with the way that song was
sitting. I had written it, but I didn't feel inspired to perform it.
One of the things that I've observed in my touring around the country
is that God seems to have a marketing budget. When you're driving
around, particularly in the South, you'll see signs, billboardsthey
will, literally, buy billboardsthat say rude shit, and they are
signed by "God." I remember one in North Carolina: "Stop taking my
name in vain, or I'll make your commute even more annoying. Signed,
God." I sort of accumulated a bunch of notions in my memory in my
years of traveling around. One time, me and my buddy Stu Steinhardt
were in Farmington, New Mexico, driving along the main drag on our
way up to Moab, and there is this building, a plain brick building on
the main drag, with a sign sticking up with just the words "Adult
Video" in very plain type. No name of the establishment. No
typography. No logo. No nothing. Just the words "Adult Video" on a
pole out in front of this plain little building. Right next to it,
about 50 feet away, is a billboard that some religious organization
had taken out that said: "Jesus is watching." We stopped the car, Stu
and I got out of the car, and we both took pictures of it because it
seemed so intimidating. People want to go buy an adult video, and
some religious nuts are trying to tell people how to behave.
So that was the thing that prompted that song. I just thought,
"Godstop telling me what to do. Who the fuck are you? Jesus doesn't
give a shit what I'm doing in my private life. Didn't you read what
the man said?" And that's what gave rise to that songjust my own
annoyance with the moralism of these fundamentalists.
RR: You also collaborated with someone who has had a lot of poignant
things to say over the years, Robert Hunter, on "Like a Dog."
DG: Yeah, man. I was posting my tour diaryI forget exactly where he
was seeing itbut I was posting my stuff on a blog. I still have a
blog [cloudsurfing.gdhour.com], but it must have been a different
one. I was posting some stuff on Jambands.com for a while, too, and
Hunter, I guess, had been reading it. One day, I was checking in at
my hotel in Michigan (I was on my way to a festival gig), and I read
my e-mail, and there's a message from Hunter: "David, I've been
reading your on-line diary with interest and empathy, and I thought
you might like this," and it was this song lyric. The amazing thing
about this lyric is that the words are words that I could have sung
based on various experiences in my life, but it's also one of those
things that's universal. It could have been his own experiences in
the rough and tumble world of the Grateful Dead, which is a pretty
brutal social scene in a lot of ways.
Obviously, I was blown away that Robert Hunter gifted me with one of
his lyrics. I played the gig, then I went back to my room, and spent
the rest of that night making a song out of it. I drove to Ohio the
next day where I was playing at Nelson Ledge's Quarry Park, on a bill
with Dark Star Orchestra among others. I was friends with the Dark
Star Orchestrafriendly enough to try this little experiment. I got
to the gig, and I started grabbing band members. I said, "ListenI
just wrote this song with Robert Hunter, and I want you guys to play
it with me. O.K.?" They all said, "Sure, why not." I taught it to
each guy individually. I didn't get a chance to rehearse it with
them, but I showed it to each of the band members individually. When
I got up to do my set, I did a couple of songs, called them up, and
without any rehearsal, and working off a cheat sheet that I had
written out with a Sharpie and stuck on the stage in front of us, we
made it through this song, and then jammed off into some Grateful
Dead songs. It was a glorious thing, really, that I was able to get
these guys to do this song with me basically sight unseen within 24
hours of having gotten it in e-mail from Hunter.
Then it became a solo piece, a looped song. I use a digital delay in
my performing rig as a rhythm instrument. In other words, you have a
digital delay on the floor in a little stomp box, and you have a
pedal that you tap in time with the music so that the delay is
rhythmic. I create a rhythm by playing a chord through the digital
delay, and it comes back in this rhythmic way. I grab that into my
looper and lay a couple more melodic ideas into it to create this
rhythm track, then I improvise over that, and launch into the song.
So I had used that as a solo piece, and a lot of times, I'll roll
right into "Terrapin Station" in my live performances.
When I showed it to Timmy, and he agreed that he wanted to put it on
the record, we had to make it into a real band song. We had to
develop a groove with real musicians because I didn't want to record
it as a looped thing. I wanted to record it with the live players. I
was beyond happy with the nice dark groove that those guys came up
with. Lindsey Horner, the bass player, immediately knew exactly what
I was doing as if he'd been inside my head. I didn't really have the
vocabulary to tell the drummer what I wanted. We just kept trying
stuff until we got what everybody liked, and then we were locked in
on that. Andy Goessling played the banjo on the basic track, and then
came back and overdubbed baritone sax. I played rhythm guitar on it,
and Buck Dilly came in and overdubbed that amazing, gnarly Fender
guitar over the top of it.
RR: There is also some beautiful guitar work on "Echolalia."
DG: Yeah! That's just a simple little fingerpicked guitar piece, and
when I showed that to Timmy, he said, "Well, let's see what Andy
wants to do. I think it'll just be the two of you," and it was Andy's
decision to play a fingerpicked National steel on it. We also didn't
want to polish it up too much. Timmy wanted it to feel like two guys
sittin' on a porch. We didn't play it over and over again until we
were tired of it and it was really slick. We played it a few times
until we were both happy with the take so it has a rustic quality to it.
RR: The guitar lines remind me of waves lapping the shoreline, and
then rolling back because of the seemingly effortless flow to the music.
DG: That's because Andy Goessling is an amazing musician.
RR: Well, I don't think you give yourself enough credit.
DG: Oh, you knowI know I'm good. I won't sit here and say I'm an
amazing musician, but I'll say that about those guys. If you look
through the credits, you'll see that Andy played like ten different
things on these sessions, and he played them all with real authority,
real wit, and real power. There's a lot of guys that can dabble on
the mandolin or whatever, but Andy's a real deep guy and he's got a
lot to say on every instrument. I'm thrilled with everything that he
did on [The Ones That Look the Weirdest Taste the Best].
- We return to "two guys sittin' on a porch" in January for Part II
with David Gans.
Sitting on the Porch with David Gans Part II
All truths wait in all things,
They neither hasten their own delivery nor resist it…
- Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman
Jambands.com concludes its two-part series with the
singer-songwriter, producer, author, photographer, and radio show
host David Gans as we take a further look into his creative process,
and a deeper focus on the resonant quality of the songs that appear
on his vigorous new work, The Ones That Look the Weirdest Taste the
Best, as well as his other recent endeavors.
RR: Let's look at another side of your influences. You developed a
unique take on "Down to Eugene" with lyrics by Jim Page which has
Grateful Dead references.
DG: Jim's a real hero of mine. He's a songwriter from Seattle, and
I've been a fan of his work since the early 70s. I met him at the
High Sierra Music Festival probably about 10 years ago. We shared a
little songwriter-in-the-round session one night, and I just
introduced myself. I said, "I've been a fan for years," and we stayed
in touch. I would play his stuff on the radio, and then at some
point, I asked him if we could do some gigs together. I think in 1998
we did a short tour here in the Bay Area, and I would back him on his songs.
I love his songs so much. He's one of those guys that write topical
songs that are very earnest and serious. He's like a tree-huggin',
queer-lovin' union man. He's very much into progressive left-wing
causes and puts his ass on the line all the time. He was in the
streets during that World Trade Center stuff in Seattle several years
ago, and he wrote a song about that called "Didn't We." He writes
songs about people who are being destroyed by society. He writes
songs about bigger issues. He writes songs about individuals. He
writes beautiful love songs, and he's just an ideal of that kind of
"Down to Eugene" is a song from his album, Whose World is This, and
his version is an electric band, electric guitar and stuff, and it's
not in a style that I can manage. I love the song, tried to play it
his way, and it didn't really work for me. One night, I had flown to
Jacksonville, Florida to begin a tour and I was sitting in my hotel
room playing my guitar, just farting around, and I came up with this
little finger pickin' ditty and got the inspiration to try Jim's
words. Somehow, my mind made the connection that his words might fit
that music. I tried it, and with a little bit of minor surgery, it
fit. I probably played it a couple times on that tour, and then sent
him an mp3 in e-mail and said, "Do you mind if I crib your lyrics for
this?" He said, "No problem."
I put a version of that on my first solo CD, Solo Acoustic. My live
albums, Solo Acoustic, Solo Electric, and Twisted Love Songs, are
just basically made from board tapes. They are not studio recordings,
and I considered all of those songs to be fair game to be recorded
properly with a band. Those are just CDs that I sell at gigs and
stuff so I considered all of those songs to be basically virgin
material, and available for [The Ones That Look the Weirdest Taste
the Best] sessions. When Tim picked it to be on the album, and record
it with the bandI taught it to those guysand it works beautifully.
It was Tim's idea to play harmonica on it, which I think adds
tremendously to it, as well, but Jim Page was kind enough to let me
take the lyrics and put them into my own musical setting.
RR: I'd love to hear about the origins of your composition "Autumn Day."
DG: Yeah. (laughs) There's actually a cool story to go with that
song. This, again, is one of those songs that kicked around in my
head for a really long time. I had the idea that there would be a
song where it started "Her name was Autumn Day." It was just a
sketch. I had the pieces for a while, but didn't really have a
coherent sense of what it was.
It's been 10 years, maybe more. My wife's best friend got married at
Yosemite National Park, and it was at the end of October and it was
an amazing day. The wedding and the party took place at the Ahwahnee
Hotel on the floor of the Yosemite Valley. We had the wedding outside
on the lawn, and everybody carried their chairs inside for the party.
As we were coming inside to begin the reception, the weather turned.
It started raining, and it rained furiously the entire time this
party was going on, about four hours. At the end of the party, the
clouds lifted and there was snow on the top of the mountains and
there were a million instant waterfalls coming down the sides of the
rocks. It was an absolutely stunning display of autumn weather. Also,
there was this woman at the party, this very striking red-headed
woman, and somehow all of things conspired to add to that song.
The process of creativity is so mysterious because I didn't say: "Oh,
this is great; I'll write that song now." But that night, we were
sleeping in the hotel there, and it just sort of was rolling around
in my brain and the ideas started coming. That night I got up out of
bed, went into the next room, sat down and started working on it some
more. Some time in the next couple of weeks, I finished it. These two
thingsthis amazing weather event and just the sight of this
red-haired womansort of became the character. It has nothing to do
with her really except her visual appearance. It's not like I fell in
love with this woman. I was there with my wife who I adore, but this
thing became the inspiration. It was the catalyst to help me over the
hump to finish the song. That song is a work of fiction that was
inspired by a couple of real world events.
RR: You've also been inspired by Chris Rowan and Lorin Rowan in a
collaboration which has spawned the Beatles jamband Rubber Souldiers.
DG: The Rowan Brotherswho I remember from years and years agoare
Peter Rowan's younger brothers and they were pop stars in the early
70s. They made a record that Jerry Garcia raved about and David
Grisman produced. It was kind of a lost record because they got stuck
in the grinding wheels of the music business. They were signed by
Clive Davis to this deal with Columbia Records, and then between the
time they signed and the time the record was finished, Clive was
fired from the label. The record came out, but it didn't have the
support from the label it would have had if their boss had still been
there. I didn't know them or anything. I saw them play a bunch of
times. I remember one particular gig in 1975 when they opened for
Kingfish and the Garcia Band in Palo Alto and that was when the three
Rowan Brothers were in a band together.
Flash forward to 2003 or so, Chris and Lorin put out an album on BOS
Music called Now and Then. The first disc was all new stuff, and the
second disc was old stuff from the early 70s that they had gotten out
of their vault. The most amazing thing happened in that the new stuff
was better than the old stuff. A lot of times that doesn't happen. A
lot of times: "Spare me the new stuff. Play me your old hits." I
invited them to appear on my radio show out here [Berkeley] on KPFA,
Dead to the World because I really liked the stuff, and one of the
songs that they did was a Beatles song. I think it was "Baby's In
Black." I couldn't help myself, I sang along with it in the
soundcheck, and after we got off the air, I said, "Do that song
again, man," and I sang along with them there. I said, "I love those
Beatles songs. Do another," and we sat there for probably an hour
doing Beatles songs together. I said, "Man, that is so much fun,"
because they had grown up on the Beatles too, just as I did and we
knew them all. They were just in our DNA.
Some time after that, we spent an afternoon at Stinson Beach at the
home of a dear friend of mine who is also my business manager. She
was dying of cancer, and she was basically camped out in this house
that a mutual friend had given to her for this. She was just kind of
hanging out and partying for the rest of her days. We didn't know how
long she had to live. She was just hanging out up there, and we would
go out and spend time with her and people would entertain her. It was
kind of this salon. One day, Chris, Lorin and I and Barry Sless, who
was in the David Nelson Band for years and is now in Moonalice, pedal
steel player, we just played Beatles songs for Goldie for what must
have been about four hours. We must have played about 75 Beatles songs.
It was huge fun. I said, "We ought to do this. We ought to put a
little band together just for fun and just play Beatles songs jam
style the way we just did." It started off real slow. We did a
benefit concert for Rock the Earth on September 17, 2006 at the Jerry
Garcia Amphitheatre and we had Robin Sylvester from RatDog on bass.
And Robin's the "adjudicator of Beatle Court" because he's an
Englishman who grew up on that stuff and he's a total master of it.
Somewhere along the line, shooting the shit backstage, we came up
with the name Rubber Souldiers. We've done this gig once in a while
over the last couple of years, and just recently started thinking it
would be really fun to do it a little more often. I booked us a gig
as the Rubber Souldiers Revue. I was trying to get them down to
Florida to the MagnoliaFest that I play every year. People in
Jacksonville produce the Suwannee Spring Fest and the MagnoliaFest
out at the Spirit of Suwannee Music Park in Live Oak, Florida, and
Peter Rowan is one of the headliners every time. Peter and I have
been trying to get them to bring his brothers out for a couple of
years. I said, "Lookthe Rowan Brothers are a great act as a duo,
you'd get the three Rowans to do some stuff together, and we'd have
this Beatles jam that would just be great."
They finally agreed to do it in October 2008, so I put together a
rhythm section. I got Byron House, who is Sam Bush's bass player and
also a great record producer. He produced the Jorma records Blue
Country Heart and Stars in My Crown. I got Wildman Steve, the radio
guy from Alabama, who turns out to be a great drummer, and Mark van
Allen from Blueground Undergrass to play pedal steel. We had a prime
We had 6pm on the outdoor stage, we had this amazing sunset framing
our set, and we had a great time. It was kind of the talk of the
festival. So now, the Rowan Brothers and I are hot to do more Rubber
Souldiers gigs. We did one at a club here in Berkeley called the
Ashkenaz, and again had a great time using some local guys as the
rhythm section. A friend of mine who has been interested in possibly
becoming my manager came to the show, and was just blown away by it,
saying, "This is really something. You guys should do this," so we
met with him a couple of weeks ago, and now we've got management.
We're actually going to do this Rubber Souldiers Revue thing that
would include us doing our individual music, as well, because none of
us want to give up playing original music just to do Beatles songs.
We're not a fucking Beatles cover band. It's a Beatles jamband. We
take these songs because we love them. We love to sing them and play
them. We stretch them out, and we run them together. It's a Beatles
jam, and it's music that everybody loves; little kids love it, too,
so it's something that we are going to be pursuing in the year to
come with some management and marketing behind us. Hopefully, we're
going to get out there and play some festivals where we can do this
thing which is a real crowd pleaser, and also play our own songs.
RR: Peter Rowan played live with Boris Garcia on December 10, 2008 on
your KPFA program, Dead to the World. Dennis McNally turned me on to
Boris Garcia, and I immediately loved the band. How did that
collaboration come about?
DG: At the Magnolia Fest, in October, at the end of the show on
Sunday evening when everybody is packing up their camp sites, there
is usually a barbeque backstage and all of the staff and crewsound
people and musicianshave a little backstage gathering. We were back
there eating our barbeque and a woman that I know who is involved
with the support crew said, "I missed all of your Rubber Souldiers
stuff. Could you play us a few songs?" I went and I got Chris and
Lorin and I said, "Come onlet's entertain these people." We grabbed
our guitars and set up in the tuning tent behind the stage, and
started playing Beatles songs. Before too long, we had a crowd of 200
people back there, and Peter Rowan joined us. Again, we must have
played 75 Beatles songs. Various people would come up, a guy with a
hand drum played with us for a little while, somebody played a
harmonica for a couple of tunes, and Peter got his guitar out, and it
morphed into a Rowan Brothers family reunion. They started playing
old doo wop songs and Everly Brothers tunes that they had been
playing since they were kids. It was a great thing, and we wound up
playing for about four hours just to entertain the troops back there.
That was really great for me because Peter Rowan is another guy who
is a total hero of mine, and this was a chance to really get loose
and get down with him and sing with him and let him see what I can
do. That was very rewarding for me on a personal level, and it was
raging good fun to play with these guys.
So…flash forward to December 10. Boris Garcia is a newish band out of
Philadelphia and Dennis turned me on to them, as well. As I said
earlier, my number one thing is the songs. I don't care how good your
licks are if your songs aren't good. That's why I love Railroad
Earthbecause Todd Schaeffer's great. I love Donna the Buffalo
because they have this deep, deep groove, and two amazing
songwriters. And I love Boris Garcia because they have three great
songwriters. I just liked their first record so much. They're in my
age group, and we just related. We hit it off really well. We ran
into each other on the festival circuit and wound up jamming together
at various hotel rooms and on stages.
They were coming out west on a promotional tour, and I said, "You
have to play live on KPFA." I booked the studio and the engineer and
we gave them the entire two hours to play, and because Dennis is one
of their managers, he put them together with Mark Karan to sit in,
which also makes me happy. I love Mark. And as far as Peter
Rowanthere was a Rex Foundation Benefit on December 13, and Peter's
management wrote to me and said, "is there any way you can get Peter
on the air to promote the Rex benefit?" I said, "I've got this band
booked, but they'd probably be real happy to have Pete sit in. Let me
see what I can do." I e-mailed Boris Garcia and their management, and
said, "How would you guys feel about having Peter Rowan join you for
a few tunes?" Their answer was "Absolutely! Why not? Sure." (laughter)
We got there, loaded in, and did our soundcheck. Peter showed up
about an hour before showtime, and we had a little conference. It
turns out that the Boris Garcia guys know "Midnight Moonlight," and
Peter showed them a couple of other tunes. Boris Garcia played for
about an hour with Mark joining in, and then we brought Peter in and
they did this great old mountain music tune called "The Cuckoo Bird."
We talked about the Rex Foundation Benefit and then they played this
kick-ass version of "Midnight Moonlight." It was just a
serendipitous, wonderful thing. We had the time and the opportunity
and Peter fit right in. They loved him.
That's one of the things…I've got to saythe fact that I have a radio
show on KPFA with no program director telling me what to do is
amazing. Add to that the fact that we have a really great performance
studio and several times a year, I can put live performances on the
air to the world free, for nothing, is a miracle. Over the years,
I've had Wake the Dead, RatDog, David Nelson, the New Riders [of the
Purple Sage], Tea Leaf Green, New Monsoon, ALO, Railroad Earthit's
been amazing. If I went back and looked, I've probably had 30 live
concerts on the station of just amazing musicians. It has all been
for free just for the love of the music. It's an amazing gift.
RR: Not to mention the quantity of live Dead music you have played on
your show over the years. I grew up in the Bay Area, got on the bus
with the Dead, and listened and taped your weekly show, so I've
definitely been someone that has benefited.
DG: It's an amazing thing to be able to have two hours of completely
unrestricted time to serve the music, to play the best stuff. The
fact that it has an audience and I'm able to support the music that
means the most to me is just a tremendous gift. It's good for me.
It's good for my karma or whatever, but it's really about serving the
music and turning people on, and if I've been able to help a band
like Boris Garcia reach a new audience, then that's just an amazing
thing. It's a blessing beyond price.
RR: Indeed. On December 21, 2008, the winter solstice, the darkest
day of the year, on Sirius XM's Grateful Dead Channel, Tales from the
Golden Road hosts Gary Lambert and yourself discussed the history of
"Dark Star" over a 24-hour period where various renditions of the
classic song were played.
DG: The Dark Star Marathon is the coolest thing we've ever done on
the Channel. It's not the "best" Dark Stars, but it is an excellent
overview of the Dead's improvisational masterpiece over time. I asked
various knowledgeable Deadheads for their advice, and some of the
messages I got from those informants were quoted in spoken intros to
some of the more significant entries.
We had Henry Kaiser on the air with us for "Tales," and some other
guests as well. The playist can be found at:
RR: We briefly spoke about your photography in our first interview
three years ago. You went through a hiatus period, and then you
kicked back into it, right?
DG: I started dabbling in photography when I was a little kid. My dad
had a 35mm camera and he'd sometimes let me play with it. When I was
in college in the 70s, I had a job working on a newsletter for the
public employees union in San Jose, and part of that job involved
taking pictures and being a photojournalist. I had access to a dark
room while I was in college and I loved doing photography. I was
given a beautiful Nikon camera for my 21st birthday, and so I would
take pictures and work in the darkroom. When I started working for
music magazines in 1976, I would also take my camera with me. I'd do
interviews and I would take pictures of the artists, and take
pictures of the concerts, as well. Basically, from '76 to '86, I
earned my living as a freelance journalist, and I would also take
pictures and sell my photos.
When I got into radio, two things happened. When Peter Simon printed
my negatives on the book we collaborated on Playin' in the Band, it
was so amazing. He did such a good job of printing my stuff, and I
realized that I was never really going to be as good a printer as I
want to be. I was a musician. I was a writer. It would take me a
whole other lifetime to get any good at it. When I started doing the
Deadhead hour on KFOG [San Francisco rock station], which became the
syndicated Grateful Dead Hour, my freelance writing career wound down
at that point. I started concentrating on the radio thing. Something
had to give. I didn't really have a market for photography after
that, and I didn't have the time to do it as a hobby, so basically
photography got pushed to the back burner for several years.
Somewhere along the line, probably 10 years ago, I got a digital
camera, and then it was like "oh yeah, man. (laughter) No dark rooms.
Get Photoshop on your laptop. Carry a camera in your pocket wherever
you go. I'm there, baby." I never go anywhere without my camera. I'm
on the road and I'm in these cool situations. I'm backstage. I'm out
on the interstate. I'm driving around Utah. There's just always
amazing stuff to take pictures of, and so I now take pictures all the
time. I have thousands of images, and I've developed this hobby of
taking pictures at the Farmer's Market. I just started taking the
camera with me to the Market, and taking pictures of the organic
produce and stuff like that, just because I find those things
irresistible. All these digital cameras have macro settings on them
so you can get real close to things and take pictures of detail like
drops of water on leaves and things like that.
I started putting them up on Flickr and Fotolog and places like that.
Then, I started using them in my work. The cover of my album Solo
Acoustic is a photo that my wife took at Joshua Tree and that my
friend, Ned Lagin photoshopped up into psychedelic glory. [Author's
Note: Lagin is also a pioneer in the field of mini-computers and
synthesizers. He played keyboards with the Grateful Dead in the
mid-70s, specifically in performances featured between the first and
second Dead sets, accompanied by his friend, Dead bass guitarist Phil
Lesh, and on occasion drummer Bill Kreutzmann and guitarist Jerry
Garcia. His 1975 recording Seastones features Lesh, Garcia, and
Mickey Hart, as well as David Crosby, Grace Slick, David Freiberg and
The cover of Solo Electric is a portrait of myself that I took. It's
my reflection in an art gallery window. I used a picture that I took
in Colorado of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains for the cover of
Twisted Love Songs. Both of those are what I would call sly
self-portraits because one of them, you have to sort of look at it
twice to recognize that it's my face reflected in this gallery
window. The Twisted Love Songs cover is my shadow. It's a photo of
the sunset facing east so it is my shadow in the image, not me. I
started using my images to make posters for my gigs, as well. If you
go to my Flickr site, there's a whole set of pictures that I took
that I use. I just started using my own images in my promotion just
for fun, and to save money. (laughs)
When it came time to do The Ones That Look the Weirdest Taste the
Best, the title as you may deduce came later as the last song was
written, I did not know what I was going to call that album. I had a
code name for it; I was calling it "The Jersey Project" [Author's
Note: producer Tim Carbone records at Mix-o-Lydian Studio in
Lafayette, New Jersey], but that would have been the lamest of all
possible names to actually use on the album. When I came up with the
song "The Bounty of the County," that line just jumped out: "now,
that's a title for an album." I've gotten a lot of great feedback.
People really love that title. I sent Jeff Otto, who did the package
design, a CD full of my photos of produce, and he used them to create
the cover. He took a picture of me himself that he used on the front
and merged it into this funny image. I painted a face on a turnip. I
don't even know why. I sent that one to him as a whimsical thing, and
he wound up putting it on the cover. The disc itself is a picture I
took of a nice, big, ripe red tomato. There are other images that
Jeff used for the packaging, too.
Photography is sort of a hobby and an artform that I've engaged in.
About a year ago, my wife and I did a show in a coffee house in
Oakland at a show that we called "Water Textures," and all of my
images were from a trip to Hawaii where I would take pictures of the
surface of water. My wife took pictures of surfaces of water up in
the Sierra on her camping trips. The thing about water surfaces is
that there's always three elements: there is what is in the water,
under the surface, there's the texture of the surface of the water
itself, and then there is what is being reflected on those surfaces.
It's one of those thingsit's an infinite source of abstract
wonderfulness, and my wife and I are both photographers and so we had
this showing of stuff, this mutual theme that we both loved of water
textures. Photography's just another creative outlet, another one of
the many, many ways I've discovered of having a great time and not
making a living. And somehow, I've managed to make it all add up to
actually earning a living.