Boston's Randy Roos-A Local Legend Sustains Infinitely
At one of those gigs, I purchased his 1978 masterpiece, Mistral, released on white vinyl by the Boston-based Spoonfed Records, featuring the first even-close-to-major-label recorded performances of guitarist Mike Stern and bassist Neil Stubenhaus, along with drummer Luis DeAndrade and Weather Report percussionist Alyrio Lima. Upon giving this record its first spin, I was convinced it was the greatest single recording I had ever heard up until that moment. Today, it certainly remains a personal favorite, but unfortunately, an unheralded gem for such a watershed achievement in the fusion genre. It featured Randy on his double-neck guitar, one of which was a fretless, with a stainless steel neck, on a body equipped with an infinitely sustaining pickup device. The other was a conventional fretted six, on which Randy comped absolutely miraculous chord voicings, unfathomable to the average guitar hobbyist-unrecognizable even from the telephone-book-width guitar chord "bibles" of the day. I remember a friend who studied with Randy, who is now a successful producer in Nashville, fittingly dubbing them "Roosian" chords. Suffice to say Randy was every bit the chordal master then (and now) as guys like Frisell and Goodrick, who, as it turns out, are friends and former co-duettists.
Not only is Randy under-recognized nationally, he's also a rarely acclaimed local hero, an unacknowledged touchstone on the local scene. Prior to his "jazz" career, he enjoyed great notoriety as a member of Orchestra Luna, an eclectic pop/performance art band with a rabid local following. After Luna, he became easily guilty of jazzer greatness by association, with many, now more recognized, players either playing with him or becoming members of his band at some point. I've personally seen his duet dates with Goodrick and Frisell. Stern and Frisell were co-guitarists in his band. Stubenhaus, Jeff Berlin, Victor Bailey, Kai Eckhardt, Jimmy Earle and Baron Browne filled the bass chair. Tommy Campbell and Jun Saito played drums, and future Allan Holdsworth band member Steve Hunt held down the keyboard chair for many years in Randy's band. Speaking of Mr. Holdsworth, when Bill Bruford decided, after finishing up his Feels Good to Me and One of a Kind records with Berlin, Holdsworth, and Dave Stewart, that he wanted to come to the states to pursue a bit more of a jazz direction, guess who filled the guitar chair for an incredible series of 1980 Boston dates?
A well-respected teacher, Randy's been doing it since he was a teen. A number of world-class players have benefited from his mentoring, both privately and formally, during a teaching stint at the New England Conservatory, including Frisell, Stern, Dave Fiuczynski, David Gilmore and Brian Ales.
Randy is probably most well-known to the music consumer as George Jinda's partner in the early 90's outfit, World News, and as a recording artist for Narada records. His Liquid Smoke and Primalvision received superb reviews and sold respectable, yet ultimately, not business-plan proof numbers. Primalvision, in particular, skillfully melded world beat elements with guitar mastery while avoiding "smooth-age" rhetoric, and remains an exemplary genre-specific recording, in large part, because it avoids so many genre-specific drawbacks.
You can find Randy most often now at his home studio, recording the soundtracks to the PBS show, Scientific American -that's every sound folks. A gig working for a former student, Sheldon Mirowitz, on the PBS special, Columbus & the Age of Discovery, led to both the Narada contract and the Scientific gig.
I forgot to mention a key facet of Randy's musical persona that makes him such a good fit for writing to picture; he bought into synthesis early, and if anything, should be rightfully acknowledged as one of the great pioneers and most proficient connoisseurs of guitar-synth. As you might imagine, he's quite capable of fashioning a one man recording project, but seems to prefer collaboration with others, evidenced by a newly issued EP of 'electro word-rock' called 'Media Today,' by the intriguingly monikered VanGogh Shadowtree . Also in the can is another band collaboration, the yet-to'be-released jazz-jungle-electronica crossover project Vertigo Z .
But Randy regularly strips his rig down to a Red SG and Fender Twin for engagements with a new Boston Institution, bassist Mike Rivard's Club D'Elf , usually found bi-weekly at Cambridge's Lizard Lounge. This unit features a revolving cast of Boston's best, jamming on free, funk, ethnic, trance and jungle forms. I'll assume there's no need for me to finger the one guy in the lineup that makes a certain iteration of this band my favorite.
Randy also happens to be one of the best photographers (notice the absence of the word 'amateur' here) of the great outdoors that I've ever seen. The distinguishing feature of his photographic skills comes in direct contrast to his ardor for musical techiness; that is, he captures otherworldly imagery while utilizing absolutely zero photographic effects.
There's a lot of other stuff missing from the intro, so read along, in installments if you'd prefer, for a good long look into a multifaceted intellect and like, totally great guy.
AAJ: Let's start with Orchestra Luna .
Randy Roos:I'll go before that, with Softwood, a really neat band. That's when I was in college, from '70-'73. I was at Tufts University as an electrical engineer, and then switched to music quickly. It worked out because they knew their music department was a bit weak and they let me do outside things. They paid for two years of outside music lessons with Mick Goodrick that I got full college course credit for-so you know, that was cool. They paid for the lessons because some sort of private study was required, and they acknowledged that what I wanted to do was worthwhile. The head of the music department liked my playing and he was formerly a jazzer. He was the only one- all the other guys were straight classical guys and they had no interest in anything about what I did, but this guy was a former jazzer and he knew I had some capability and said, 'Sure, get what you need and we'll do it.' So I had four semesters of private study from Mick, who would always give me an A, so I got four semesters of A's which was cool, too. This was right after he started Berklee. Do you know Thom Rhotella- the smooth jazz guitarist? He was a teacher at Berklee then too. When I first got to Berklee, I was assigned to Rhotella and right away, he recommended I study with Mick. He said, 'I am not the guy for you.' And I had met Mick when I was in high school in '68, and took a summer course at Berklee. He was my assigned teacher. I was a little blues guitar kid, but he liked me, and we had a great time together, so when Rhotella recommended Mick I was enthusiastic. At Tufts, I hooked up with a guy who's still a great friend of mine, Phil Owens, a vocalist, and he had a bassist. They added me and we added a drummer.
It started out as a nice folk 'rock kind of a group, but we all got more and more' we were always looking for music, and playing stuff with each other, and getting stoned, so we went through this whole evolution that ended up as a blend of Zappa and Weather Report at the end. Phil started writing these tunes that had rather bizarre lyrics and a lot of sections, and sometimes really comical little things happening, with outrageous soloing and a lot of different eclectic stuff'really cool. We started playing at Club Zircon in Cambridge. We had a deal playing there every Tuesday. It became kinda like what 'Club D'Elf' does now. The club would be packed with people who'd just come to see what we did next. It was pretty open and loose and we suffered from a similar problem that D'Elf has. That is, if we played in any other place in Boston, no one would come! They would get used to us being a fixture at this place. We all lived together for a summer. We rented a house together, set up a basement as a recording studio and together, we wrote an entire repertoire of material the first half of the summer. The second half we recorded it. We were really diligent. We would be on each other to practice. We would practice individually all day and then all night work as a band for a whole summer. We did two gigs that summer. I had a job with my early guitar teacher who owned a music store in Wellesley and he hired me to teach as a senior in high school. He bent policy for me, which was very nice of him. He gave our band equipment to use when we needed it, etc., and was one of the biggest supports you could ever hope for. I told him I needed to support myself for the summer. I had stopped teaching there by that time, which was going into my third year of college. He designed a program where I would teach groups of kids three half-days a week. It was torture- it wasn't for me at all- but I did it and it got me through the summer-so obviously I wasn't practicing all day on those three days.
Other people did other things. A couple of the other kids had their parents supporting them. Matt Gordy was the drummer and was studying percussion, including vibes, at the Conservatory and was quite good. He and I would practice for hours together playing tunes. Ron Mooradian , who is known for making gig bags now, was the saxophonist We were a bunch of hard working serious guys. We used two stereo tape-recorders and did overdubbing by doing sound on sound between them.
AAJ: Did you release anything?
RR: Oh no- there was nothing to release then. What would you sell? A reel-to-reel tape? Cassettes didn't even exist then! I guess they did, but very few people had a good quality cassette recorder at that time. We just didn't think about it. The way that you got your music out then was you got a record deal and someone spent 20 grand on you to go into a cheap studio in those days and you know-in those days it was a big deal to get a record contract of any sort. There weren't many records being released as a result. Now everyone who as a cd burner puts out a cd.
Another story from that time is that for one of our two gigs that summer, we went out for the night and played, and when we got back, all of our recording equipment had been stolen from the basement. It was mostly my stuff too. They took the tapes off the machines and left them, which I think it was considerate. I know who they were and they lived two doors down from us.
Anyway, one of the waitresses at the club was Lisa Kinscherf who was Richard Kinscherf 's sister. Richard later changed his name to Rick Berlin . That was one of my initial connections to Orchestra Luna . There was another bassist, Scott Chambers, who went to Tufts, a good friend of mine, who had answered a newspaper ad to play with Rick Kinscherf from this band they were going to start. He kept telling about this band with this crazy pianist/singer guy with this whacked out music and he was trying to get me interested in it and succeeded. Lisa had heard me play with Softwood, and they kept on trying to get me into the band, which they did. I was 20 at the time, the summer before my senior year at Tufts. They had management and the whole idea was to do a record. In those days, I thought I was charmed, and that, 'Ok, let's see'Softwood was good, creatively it was good and we got a thing happening' and now I think it's time for me to make a record! It's time for me to get a major recording deal!'
We worked our tails off with that band. We auditioned 30, 40 drummers. We found plenty of players we liked, none of which wanted to do the gig! (Laughs) Finally we found someone we really liked who said he couldn't do the gig and we talked him into it. He was the perfect guy- Don Mulvaney. The other guys thought the music was completely out there, plus we wanted them to commit to rehearsing 4 or 5 times a week. We're going to go for it. Management's goal is to get a major contract. We needed a drummer to commit his entire life to us for a couple of years so we could make it. How many people can do that?
AAJ: Can you describe the music?
RR: The music was the precursor to Queen really. In fact, I think they were somewhat influenced by us. We'd heard they were very interested in the record that we did. I don't know if that's true or not. Rupert Holmes , the 'Pina Colada Song' guy-he was the producer. That summer we rehearsed a whole lot and started playing in this restaurant in Allston on Harvard Avenue. The people who owned the place loved us. We did an audition gig there and they flipped out. That was our first real gig. They asked, 'Would you guys play here four days a week for the whole summer?' We said, 'Sure, This is perfect'.
By the end of the summer there were lines to get in to hear us play. It was instant. My thought was, 'Let's win over the city. That will be a good start.' And by the fall, we had major label people coming up from New York to see the band, one of whom was Tom Worman who worked for Epic Records, who said, 'Hey this is great! Let's sign ya to a big deal'. They signed us fairly quickly to a 90 grand deal! Which in '73 was a lot of money, like six months after starting the band! (Laughs). I mean, multiply that by at least 4 to get today's dollars. Easily more than a quarter million dollar deal now, dontcha think?
Up until the week of our record release, nothing could have gone better for us. The gigs we had were sometimes great and sometimes, the band just was flat. Everything was arranged, and there was a lot of guitar playing for me. I just made sure I had space. I had too much space really. It was almost inappropriate. You would think that things that were highly arranged would always be good, but they're not. It requires a certain kind of energy and 'oneness' for the band to be on, right? We were just so lucky! Every time that it was important, we would have the best night you could imagine. We used to play at 'Jack's' in Cambridge a lot. When we played there, the place would be full two hours before we started, and there was just a mania. You couldn't get in. It would take a half hour for me to get from the front door to the back of the club. After we had recorded the record, but before the record release, the whole executive branch of Epic records flew up. A critical time in a band's career. We had one of the best nights we ever had - we blew the roof off the place! We did three or four encores. People were screaming, but when the music got quiet, you could hear a pin drop. There was a lot of dynamics and we got to those quiet minutes- by the way I'm sure fire laws were being violated - and there was cacophony at the ends of the tunes. The execs went back to New York and decided we were going to be their major push. It was unbelievable.
The record just did not do justice to the band. It was not produced right. There are some good moments on the record, though, but the drum sound is much too wimpy. The engineering wasn't done right-not meticulous enough. Rupert Holmes is a great orchestrator- he really knows his music and did some very nice arrangements. This was before synths. Basically, the sweetening that was one was with a 40-piece orchestra. There are also horns on the record, but those are arrangements. There were seven pieces in the band - and one was a poet. The band was just keyboards-an RMI electric piano only, guitar, bass and drums. There were two girls singing- Lisa and Liz Gallagher and that was the core of the band. Then we had Peter Barrett, who initially started as an 'artistic consultant,' and then we added him doing these recitation things in there..then he would actually start doing some singing, and he was really good. Then we started doing some things that involved play acting and props and stuff like that, which I would never take part in. One of my whole things was, 'I am only here to do the music'. That was perfect, because I was the perfect foil for everything else happening. I said, 'No. I am just going to stand here and play my ass off. That's what I do! OK?' Then everybody said, 'Oh, this is really good-having this guy who is out in left field.' And I had an Afro like, out to here (laughs). I would just stand there and play and all this other stuff was going on. Anyway, Peter eventually became a main part of the band.
AAJ: There were no equivalents around. What was a point of comparison? Zappa, maybe?
RR: Not really at all no. I think we could have taken it further musically in certain ways. I probably say that because I was so close to it I could imagine it going in other ways-but it was pretty cool. We did so many gigs and it got that we were so on top of that music and we could shape it.
AAJ: It's a legendary outfit.
RR: We had some gigs- the band at its best 'we had half a dozen gigs I know were life-changing experiences for a lot of the audience. There were times that the band would hit so hard and there was so much happening that you'd get this connection that was scary at times.
AAJ: It was like the Blue Man Group or performance art mixed with great music
RR: But it was a band -it wasn't ever like a theatrical presentation. It had theater in it but it felt so much like a band. It was like, people were there to hear a band, yet it had all this other stuff to it. If you go see Blue Man Group, at times it's a theater thing that's almost like a band, but it's not. A theatre experience is quite a bit different from a band/musical experience, you know. This was a band/musical experience that completely went nuts. At the end, when I left, and the drummer and Lisa all left at the same time, it was'I basically decided I needed to do something that was pure music. This was in '75-6.
The record came out in '75. It was supposed to come out fall of '74, but the guy before Steve Popovich, the actual head of Epic Records, came up to hear us and decided two tunes into the show that we hadn't recorded two tunes that needed to be on the record! It was a totally good call. So it ended up coming out March or April.
AAJ: What a level of involvement from a label.
RR: They would roll out the red carpet for us when we went into New York too. They'd take us to places in a limo and we'd come into the big CBS building there and the receptionist would usher us up. They had a dozen people on the label. There was Patti Labelle- they loved her-and we hung out with her a whole bunch. It was a whole different time. Then the record got released, and I'll explain where it started to fall apart. What they should have done was put us into CBGB's. They didn't. Their point was, "You've won the hearts of Boston. You've got to get New York." They put us into a fancy club on the Upper East Side, called the "Little Hippodrome," four nights a week for a month. They put us up in a beautiful residence hotel within walking distance of the club. It was great fun but it wasn't right for the band. It was the kind of place that would have nightclubby acts, and then bands sometimes. It was glitzy, playing more toward the cabaretness of what we did than the "bandness" of what we did. We should have done CBGBs, and in fact, we played there later. I'm sure Epic could have massaged that. I mean, we played there afterwards without a record deal. When we played at the Hippodrome we got a lot of good reviews, some bad reviews, but we never packed the place. It just did not really happen. The real killer is that everyone at Epic records that was into our band, the whole upper echelon, all left the company in one group. It was Popovich who replaced whoever it was that had us add the tunes. He was the new guy. A bunch of them came to hear us at the Little Hippodrome and they basically decided they weren't really into it; a week after the record was released! First of all I thought, 'Wow! They spent 90 grand on us. How are they not going to want to recoup that? No matter what, they're going to promote us enough so that they get their money back and then we've got a good start.' They didn't care about losing the 90 grand! They were like, 'We're not into this. See you later.'
AAJ: So you lost the core group of backers and that was it?
RR: In one month we had everything and at the end of it we didn't have anything. It was like the whole thing. I think we sold, like 10,000 records. That's probably before returns. We probably sold 7,000. So we hung on. We actually played at Frank Zappa's anniversary party for something. Someone decided we'd be perfect, along with Patti Smith. I remember he really liked it. He was going to help us with another record deal. We started playing CBGBs that summer. We started playing with other bands, and after four gigs, it started getting packed with fans. I mean if Popovich had seen us at CBGBs with lines coming in, instead of a half-full room at the other club, who knows what would have happened? We started blowing the roof off of that place. Trying to do that without label support was difficult. So between that and seeing the other kinds of bands that were playing CBGBs, the whole new wave thing, I decided it wasn't for me by the end of that summer-like '76-'77. So I quit that and started trying to do my own band. I had some management.
AAJ: Is this Mistral ?
RR: Well, I think you're familiar with the record and the band post the record, but the band prior to that point, with Ron Mooradian on sax, was the real next part. I had the drummer from Luna and Ron playing tenor and soprano and a few different bassists, one of whom was Kermit Driscoll. Then toward the end of that period, Bill Frisell joined the band. So for about four months we had Frisell and Driscoll. That was really, really tough.
AAJ: With Frisell and Kermit?
RR: It's like I thought I had this whole charmed existence for Luna and when that fell apart, I still thought I did. I had a guy immediately approach me to manage me, because 'I was the guitarist from Orchestra Luna and everybody loved you and so all we gotta do is continue that momentum into this music and it will be a piece of cake.' He'd successfully been managing the John Payne Group and they had a deal with Arista and did OK for a while. He was hooked up with the right system for a jazz project - he thought he could really make it happen. I had written some tunes, and what happened was, I had written a tune a year, and they were all great! (Laughs) So my batting average was 1,000 and suddenly, I've got a band and I have to write the whole repertoire for that band'like fast! I didn't have it together as a writer. I didn't have an idea what I wanted for direction. I didn't think in terms of what would connect with an audience at all. I was just thinking in terms of what I loved. And the two things I loved at that time were Coltrane and Bartok.
What I learned from that experience was it's great to combine aspects of different musical languages as long as they don't fight each other. It's easy to look at musical languages and see elements where they potentially fight. Suppose you look at Coltrane's music and compare it to Beethoven's music. If you were to consider Coltrane's music from the standpoint of Beethoven's, Coltrane's would be bad. Because Beethoven's music was built on highly organized structure that were adhered to in a magnificent way; tremendous use of orchestral colors, development of themes (which is also a big element of Coltrane's music), development through different uses of color and orchestration. If you look at Coltrane's music, there's no orchestration, there's no sonata form happening-all these things aren't happening, so it's bad music. Similarly, if you analyze Beethoven's by Coltrane's structure-there's no improvisation, no soloing, no drummer, the rhythms are stiff, the rhythm section isn't happening, western classical music is all inside-actually it's not, but' I was trying to combine aspects Coltrane, Bartok and Weather Report, which was the third thing I loved, in ways, that just did not work at times. Sometimes they did. Like I'd say, 'Marcel Marceau' worked. I had elements of Bartok in there- I even used the Fibonnacci series that Bartok was into in some of the compositional elements . That was one where some of these language elements, by chance, worked together. But a lot of the stuff we were doing just didn't happen like that, and it was very challenging for us to play, and we were not at the level where we could play the stuff consistently, and even if we did, it was at a point where audiences just couldn't understand it. We were getting gigs in listening bars where yeah, they could handle jazz, if it had a beat, a melody and hot soloing ' we did a lot of hot soloing - but we didn't have the kind of consistent groove thing and consistent structure thing that people could just understand immediately. That group did very badly. We played a lot of rooms that called our manager back the same day and said, 'Don't ever send that band to us again!'
This was the precursor to stuff that ended up on the Mistral recording, before we weeded it out. I was really struggling with learning how to compose. I'd say I was doing student works and presenting them in public as supposedly professional compositions. Some nights were very good, but we had a lot of bad gigs with that band. I remember meeting Bret Willmott years after that. He said, 'I used to go hear your band. That was a good band on a good night.' I said, 'I know what you mean.' He said, 'I know you know what I mean.'(Laughs)
AAJ: Can you shed a little light on the Fibonacci thing?
RR: Some of Bartok's stuff was based on the series to every bar of music. Not only did it adhere to that mathematical formula, but also it sounded great and was emotionally happening- totally. To be able to put that together, to decide, well, here's a mathematical law of nature I want to incorporate into my music, and to make it beautiful the way he did- unbelievable. The Fibonacci is an additive number series. If you take one and add it to itself it's 2. 2 added to 1 is 3. 3 added to 2 is 5. It goes on 8, 13, 21, and off you go. If you then take all the ratios of pairs of numbers, like out to infinity and average those ratios you come up with the 'golden section,' which is phi, the basic ratio all the Greek architecture is built on. This is part of why his music exudes nature. It makes you feel like you're outside and there are beautiful things happening around, with creatures around, maybe at night. He wanted to get a law of nature to be consistently part of his music and thought that it might work. And it did! It's one thing just to write a good tune. Then to be able to write good music, but constrain yourself to a very tight mathematical schedule throughout every aspect of the music is just way beyond genius. The first movement of 'Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste'- even the bar numbers- it's 89 bars long and the climax happens at bar 55 -both Fibonacci numbers. After 55 the whole thing mirrors down and goes quicker because it happens two thirds of the way between the piece. In those days I was fascinated by that and it was deadly, because I was trying to get those kinds of things happening in groove oriented jazz. I should have been learning how to play more rhythm guitar at that point, y'know! (Laughs)
AAJ: How'd you hook up with Bill Frisell?
RR: I met Frisell through Kermit. They were roommates from the Midwest going to Berklee. We were playing at Michael's Pub in Boston every week and we were looking for a new bassist, so I invited Kermit down. We had a good night. He brought Bill and they both completely loved the band. Frisell called me up to do some lessons. I gave Bill Frisell lessons for about half a year.
I couldn't-I mean we'd play some tunes and it would just be so great-so I was like, 'Well' what?' It was like he was hiring me and paying me to teach him stuff, so I would assume the role of the teacher and say, 'Here's some stuff to work on that maybe you don't know.' And he didn't know some of the things I knew so I'd give him those things.
AAJ: Maybe it was like Mick, because you wound up playing with him too.
RR: Oh, no. I knew nothing when I started with Mick. We had the student- teacher roles very much intact when I studied with Mick (laughs). But Mick became a great Orchestra Luna fan. He was doing these group lessons and a few times he'd bring his entire group down to like, Paul's Mall to hear us. Every time Mick came to hear us we had a great night. And I had no idea he as there 'til the end or near the end. I'd probably have played like crap if I knew he was there. I was glad he heard good gigs when he brought his group. He was into the whole Gurdjieff thing then. I was in one of the first group-student things he did. We'd meet like 4 hours, one night a week. He had projects for us to do and we'd work on stuff together and present stuff to each other. He's totally one of the great music teachers- ever.
AAJ: So back to your band
RR: When Frisell joined the band it was right at the end of that band's time. That's when it started to hit a stride, which was unfortunate because we'd burned all our working bridges. We did college gigs and some other stuff, but we broke up. I worked on Nantucket at a restaurant for a summer, with a pianist. It was fortunate because there was one jazz club there also. The restaurant I played at had just a single seating, a set menu. We only played from 8 to 10. At 10 I'd go to the jazz club and sit in with people.like I sat in with Webster Lewis for a week'that was great. That's because Alyrio Lima , who played percussion on the Mistral record, lived in Nantucket at the time and played in that band. That night there was a lot of jamming and a lot of it was rearranging tunes, like a funk arrangement of 'I Remember April'. I remember me and another guitarist, a more rock guy, got into this 15 minute, wailing-at-each-other kind of thing that was actually completely appropriate. The band had worked itself into this zone..these wailing, sweeping, interweaving lines together- and then it just stopped. The crowd just screamed for ten minutes. In a musical life, maybe you've done thousands of gigs and you think back to your dozen most memorable musical moments..that's one of them. One of the reasons is that I distinctly remember thinking, 'This stuff is really weird. We are really doing weird stuff here and I am afraid to stop because I am afraid the club owner is going tell us to leave or that the audience is going to start throwing things at us.' The jam ended right at that point. After a pregnant pause and the audience screaming, the band kind of looked around at each other and said, 'Oh, I guess that was okay.'(Laughs) That's my 1977 Nantucket highlight!
Then- I went to Berklee! For one year. I wanted to just do Berklee and try to make some contacts. My band had folded. I thought, 'I have to learn some more stuff 'it's clear to me there is a lot of stuff I don't have together.' I thought, 'What you should do is try to land an established sideman position.'
To do that I need some more skills I could get at Berklee- some ensemble work and really work on my reading. That whole summer I was in Nantucket, I worked on my reading three to four hours a day. I'll never be a good reader. I put a lot of time into it and got so I was an ok, functional reader. It's something I have a negative talent for.
I auditioned for placement with a teacher who had heard me in clubs. He said, 'What are you doing here?' I said, 'I'm going to Berklee.' He asked me if I could read and put something simple in front of me and I read it. Now, if most guys go in and can read, they give a score of three. He gave me sevens and eights. Within five minutes of entering the school, I was in the absolute upper echelon of students. I didn't have that kind of reading skills. His point was, 'I don't know if you can cut this or not..I am just going to give this to you.' He gave me that look of, 'I don't know if I'm doing the right thing or not, but here it is.' It was great! I hooked up with Phil Wilson and I did a lot with Mike Gibbs- recording'wise and stuff. When I did the advanced placement for ear training, I placed immediately out of the entire program, so they were really sensitive to that. So I did four years of stuff in a year! After having done literally thousands of gigs, etc., I found I had acquired some very useful skills.
AAJ: So had you developed all those wonderful chords, all that advanced chordal stuff that you do and have done for years, by then? Before you went to Berklee?
RR: Yeah. I learned all that from Mick.
AAJ: Can you tell me what some of that is?
RR: It's very simple. It has nothing to do with chords and everything to do with lines and scales. If you take a scale and you harmonize the scale-just like going up diatonically with some kind of structure-you can decide on those structures any number of ways. If you harmonize a scale that way, you therefore have harmony that applies to that scale and what's really important, any mode from that scale. So if you harmonize a melodic minor scale for instance-the seventh mode will be altered dominant- so by harmonizing some chord structure and moving it through a melodic minor scale, not only do you get interesting ways of dealing with melodic minor harmony, you get interesting ways of working with dominant seventh chords-provided that chord is functioning as a V chord and can handle all those tensions on it.
AAJ: That's like the 'trick' of playing melodic minor up a half step from the root of the fifth chord right?
RR: Yes. Now if you take harmony that way, and stop thinking of chords and just think of using the harmonic zone of say, an altered dominant scale, and you work on interesting combinations of intervals applied to each other from that scale- all aspects of that scale- and all harmonic aspects of all the modes of that scale 'you end up with a ton of possibilities. First, you go through and generate possibilities, and then you use your aesthetic to decide which stuff you like and which you don't. As soon as you mathematically permute something-well, you might like a sound somebody else doesn't. You end up with a bunch of possibilities that intrigue you and sound good to you. You work on them and start applying them. Eventually you start to get so that you can mix and match with these things and start to see the fingerboard, not so much in terms of chord forms, but more in terms of say, parallelisms happening on individual strings relating to combinations of notes coming from these scales. It's a different mindset. It's not like I'm playing a chord, now a different one, like out of a chord book- you remove that kind of thinking from the way you deal with the instrument. You deal with it the way a keyboard player does-it's linear. Guitar is very linear-it just happens to be six parallel lines. But if you can see the scales on those six parallel lines simultaneously, you can play whatever voicings you want to play. If you tie these into things you've worked with, that you know you like, being generated by these various ways of permutating harmony- basically, just by taking structured notes and running up and down a scale diatonically and then trying all that against all the modes- you end up with a much more open view of harmony than if you are playing out of a chord book. It's really simple, but it's not easy.
AAJ: Holdsworth has explained it ultra-simply in interviews before..something like, 'Just take all the notes of any scale, and play them as the chords.'
RR: That's it, but there are lots of ways of finding ways of doing that. You can take a fourth structure, a triad over a bass note, or just a triad. That's what I always start students with-triads up and down the scales. Get so that you can see that. Learning to do that against all the scales and especially all the modal implications of those scales. So a major scale is not used for a major tonality, but a Dorian tonality, a Mixolydian tonality, a Lydian tonality, a minor 7th flat 5, which is a Locrian tonality. If you get so that you're equally comfortable with all those different viewpoints...
AAJ: That's easy enough on a major scale, but carrying that to melodic minor, harmonic minor and'
RR: You don't need that many and the thing is, if you really explore a lot of cool possibilities from really important simple elements -major scales, melodic minor scales, to some degree harmonic minor scales, to some degree George Russell's Lydian minor - he calls it Lydian diminished but it's a Lydian with a minor third. With diminished scales you get some really neat stuff. You get some really neat triads over bass notes. There are a lot of major and minor triads in the diminished scales. It's just like math-it generates a whole ton of possibilities-then, you use your tastes and your particular genius to figure out which of those really rock your world, and you learn to make really good use of those. Of course, sometimes it's good to go back-sometimes the one that didn't rock your world suddenly do. But Mick-very early on I got into his way of looking at it. It made total sense to me right away. It was like, 'OH! Why didn't I think of that?!' A piece of cake in terms of understanding it and where it could go. Then you spend the years and try to get enough stuff together so that it's useful to you.
AAJ: The average cat can barely get past the first cut of that stuff.
RR: Well, it takes time. For a number of years I was blessed with a real nice cheap living situation. I had a cool little apartment in an old farmhouse. I could have a few students over, and work on my music. I even won a grant - a friend convinced me to enter a grant competition. The only requirement was sending in two finished pieces of music. One of the two pieces was an early version of 'Marcel Marceau.' 3000 bucks was a lot of money then! It's a lot easier if you don't have to work eight hours a day.
AAJ: So after Berklee'
RR: My original plan was to do a year or two, but then to nail a sideman gig. But the original manager of Orchestra Luna called and asked me if I wanted to do a record. This was in the spring. I said, 'Sure'. While I was at Berklee, I started to play with Louis DeAndrade, a drummer who was great and a lot more open. I had a gig every Tuesday with my band, which now included Mike Stern. I thought I wanted a percussionist and I wanted someone with a name. I got Alyrio Lima that way. For bass, Stern said, 'We gotta get Neil Stubenhaus !' He was just out of Berklee and ready to go to LA. and make it, which he obviously did. He was great, although he wasn't during rehearsals-he couldn't read at all then. Mike had done a lot of gigs with him. We were driving home after a rehearsal and I'd dropped Neil off and I asked Mike, 'Is this going to work?' He said, 'It's going to be really cool . As soon as the record button is hit he's going to be smokin'.' That's exactly what happened. He had the music totally down. He'd obviously worked on it and he just nailed it. Most of the stuff was one or two takes. DeAndrade also smokes on that record. Last I heard, he moved to Japan and is teaching English there.
AAJ: How'd you meet Stern?
RR: Well, I had gotten to know Bill Frisell quite well, and he was a friend of Mike's. Plus Stern had approached me for lessons also, when I was with Orchestra Luna, and I didn't have time. I had heard about Mike and Bill said, 'You guys should get together.' So we did. We practiced a lot, sometimes 'til dawn together. Turn a metronome on and play 'Giant Steps' with each other for, like four hours (Laughs). He was at Berklee and stayed awhile after. For a while, Bill would do that standing Tuesday gig when Mike couldn't make it. One time we did a gig with me, Mike and Bill only, a guitar trio.
AAJ: Oh my, really?
RR: That was a bizarre night. It worked out really well and we got into some real textural stuff. Three guitars and nothing else leaves a lot of textural possibilities. Then we did the Mistral record. Now the whole point of that was to do a record and then do a band. I stopped going to Berklee and I stopped thinking about getting a sideman gig and I did my own band again. That was probably the worst decision of my life, at that point. If there's anything I regret it was that I didn't pursue my idea to get good, established sideman gigs at that point. That was the time to do it. I had the connections; I was starting to get the skills. I'd never be a good sideman really'I'm not that good at'
AAJ: Incorporating yourself into other people's'?
RR: Yeah, I don't know what it is'but that was the time to learn how to do it anyway, but someone offers you a record deal..and I had a great band that was finely tuned, you know. That's when I got the synth thing happening too. I bought the Arp Avatar. I would work all day on parts that I would add, and then I'd go into the studio and add those parts. I think I had a week and a half of overdub time. We did the basics in two days.
AAJ: I always thought that was your own indie record release.
RR: No, Spoonfed Records was Bruce Patch's label. Here's another bad decision I made. One day, before the record was released, Bruce called me from the offices of Motown records and said, 'Here, I want to put this guy, who is head of A and R, on the phone.' He said, 'I've listened to your forthcoming record and I really like it. I think there's a lot of potential here. I've got a keyboard player I'm working with. I'd like you to come out to Detroit and work with this guy and we'll see what happens.' I said, 'I don't want to do that. I have a band here.' Bruce got back on the line and said, 'Oh you don't want to do that?' I confirmed that these were the guys I was working with and that was it. Didn't even give that a second thought 'til years later. Why would you not explore an opportunity like that. I had this idea in my head. 'This is my band. These are my guys. I am loyal to my guys.' I don't even know who the Motown keyboard player was. The thing is I could have kept that band and done both. Why would I not want to do that?
AAJ: But it was different times then. There was a great scene here in Boston. More than there is now, that's for sure.
> RR: You're right. I think the point was that I was still somewhat under that misconception of leading a charmed life. If I was going to do it this way it was going to work. Yeah, right.
AAJ: Sometimes if you are strongly enough under that misconception, it actually does happen.
RR: What I've learned is, if any interesting opportunity comes along, you at least check it out. Life is too short not to do that.
AAJ: So can you touch on the Avatar and the fretless guitar that came after?
RR: Well, the Avatar happened for me right away. As soon as I got it I used in on Mistral and I was really hooked. I'd heard that Tailspinnin' record by Weather Report, with Alyrio Lima by the way, which is the first one where Zawinul used the 2600 a lot. As soon as I heard that, I realized synthesis was it for me. I was fascinated. I loved the sounds. I loved the possibilities. I have sort of a techie head and it meshed with that nicely. This came with a pickup that was made by Arp and you put the pickup on your guitar.
AAJ: Was that the red guitar? The ES 335 type thing?
AAJ: Who made that?
RR: It was some company in Texas.
AAJ: Was that a thing you put into a guitar?
RR: Yes. They put it in an Ibanez guitar, a 335 copy- a very nice guitar. I was lucky. They put it in a bad instrument before, but I ordered it anyway. It turned out the instrument they put mine in was a great guitar. I had the Guitorgan in the old band - '77 or sometime in there. I added the Avatar later. Then I got a 2600 head I used with the Avatar. The Avatar would put control voltages out so I could use it with the 2600. The 2600 was the electronics and the keyboard controller was a separate thing. After Mistral was released I started doing keyboards instead of the two guitar thing. First Frank Wilkins on keys, then when Louis went away to Japan, Tommy Campbell replaced him on drums.
I had various bass players. I had Wayne Pedzwater first, then Tim Landers . Then Tim went to California and I grabbed Victor Bailey. Victor had just started Berklee. Mine was the first gig he did in Boston. He'd come to hear the band a few times at Pooh's Pub, and loved it. He was like a little kid fresh out of high school, just about. His first gig he was okay, right? His second gig he was really okay? They third gig he sounded good. The fourth gig he sounded great. Fifth gig..he was killing it! It was amazing. He was just beautiful, and what a great guy to work with.
AAJ: He's still a nice guy. I saw him a couple years ago and I mentioned your name. He lit right up!
RR: Total sweetheart. I have to get back in touch with him. Frank and Tommy and Victor. Great band.
AAJ: Didn't Hunt play in that band too?
RR: Well, what happened next was Tommy got the call to play with Dizzy, so Jun Saito replaced him. That was tough, because I was used to Tommy and Jun just wasn't doing it for me at first. I was on his case all the time. He was so dedicated and worked so hard on the music, y'know. We had our first good gig and after that point, it was fine. Then Steve Hunt replaced Frank.
AAJ: When did Jeff Berlin come? I saw a couple of those gigs.
RR: That was summer of 1980 and 1981. That was a good band, with Jun and Steve. It was an exciting band- we had some good gigs. Audiences liked that lot.
AAJ: Didn't you and Jeff also work with Bill Bruford around that time? Yes- 1980. Bill had finished his solo records with Holdsworth and Jeff and decided he would like to explore even more of a jazz direction. So Jeff recommended he play with us-me and Mick (Goodrick). We did some gigs at Michael's and Pooh's. [Note: an interview with Bruford and Randy during this time period is archived here ].
AAJ: What happened with the bass chair after Jeff?
AAJ: I saw you play with Kai Eckhardt, too.
RR: Yeah, just a couple of gigs, though.
AAJ: Well, I guess the point is that everyone who came through your band was an incredible player.
RR: In those days, all I wanted to do was gig. There was no recording unless it was to record what your gigging band did. I had no deal. What was I going to do? It was hip to have jazz then, and I had a good gig playing somewhat challenging music. So of course the good players who happened to be in town were going to play with me at some point. Quite a few good players were coming through Boston!
AAJ: Back to the fretless guitar.
RR: That was mostly the winter of '78. My friend Steve Holland, who originally studied with me, was a very good guitarist and became a very good friend- was going to MIT at the time and was a brilliant guy and brilliant at building things. He could work with any material and make anything out of it. He could look art any machine and immediately understand how it worked and how to make it better. He had this idea for a sustaining device that was the opposite of a pickup. It would put out instead of pick up. It would therefore set up a feedback loop through the string and make a note last forever.
So I had been studying Indian music. While I was at Berklee I studied with a tabla player learning the rudiments of Indian Classical music and I was fascinated. I like the Sarod, which had a stainless fingerboard. I talked to Steve about that and he said the problem with the stainless steel fingerboard is that if you use your soft finger on it, the note will die out because it doesn't have any fret to anchor itself against. But he said, 'My idea of a sustain device would be perfect for that, wouldn't it!' So that was just what Steve needed. I needed something to excite me to pursue the stainless steel fingerboard idea. Steve needed something to kick him into pursuing the sustain device. He of course was the guy who could build the whole thing. So we hacked up an old SG and put a slab of stainless on it and I started playing that without a sustain device. I thought, 'This could work, but I need a doubleneck to play chords on.' So I bought an Ibanez doubleneck. I took the original neck out in case we ruined it and I found a replacement neck that would bolt on- an Epiphone neck that could fit. We had a good piece of stainless steel made. It was flat but Steve was so good at machining he machined a nice curve on it, just a little bit, with beveled edges and a really nice mirror finish on it. He finished a sustain device and we hooked the whole thing up on that guitar and it worked ! The sustainer worked great. It was a perfect combination with the fretless, because you could control the damping with your left hand. If you pressed really hard the note would get louder after you hit it because the sustain would go nuts. If you wanted the note to die down, all you had to do was let off a little bit of pressure, so you had dynamic control over a note with the left hand; you could let it get softer, louder, and softer and louder again-go nuts and more. So that was Steve. He started a company to market the thing and the company didn't really work. He went out to California and then died in a motorcycle accident in 1983. We had sort of lost touch right before that in '81 or so, and I really wish I hadn't.
AAJ: Amazing that no other company took that and ran with it.
RR: Well, they did. There was a thing called the Sustainiac . Steve patented his invention but I don't know what those patents were. I know the thing in the Sustainiac and the thing that's in the Fernandes guitar - both of those had to infringe upon those patents. Those companies had to deal with Steve's patents.
AAJ: You would do that beautiful stuff with the chords and the sustained single notes, doing solos with yourself.
RR: Yeah, I could have the Guitorgan hold down a sustained thing and arpeggiate stuff on top of it. Or I could have the synth hold down a pedal and do stuff over it.
Still, I wish I really scored a sideman gig then. There was a ton of stuff I never learned. Sometimes I think I should still pursue it now.
AAJ: But you did that sideman stuff with George Jinda.
RR: That was more of collaboration with George and me.
AAJ: How'd that happen?
RR: Well, before that, I had an agent call me and ask if I wanted to make a fusion record. Hence Photogenic Memory. As it turns out, I never needed a manager to do it, because the deal in Japan was made through a contact of mine, so I could have gotten the deal without him, plus I definitely could have gotten all the musicians. It never got distributed in the US, because I would have had to sign a deal tying me to this guy for a couple of years or so. The guy developed a substance abuse problem right around that time, so it would have been a bad idea. This is in 1990. It was recorded in New York. Peter Erskine, who played drums on it, was playing with Metheny at the Bottom Line, so we didn't have to pay any of his expenses. He was always the first guy at the studio and took a lot of direction. So often, when you work with someone at that level it's hard to for someone at my level to tell him what to do
AAJ: I agree. It must have been hard to work with someone below your level! (Laughs)
RR: Yeah, right. Nobody knew me from a hill of beans and I'm telling Peter Erskine what to do. He just wasn't getting the flow, so I just told him exactly what to do and the shape and every little aspect, and his reaction was, 'Oh! That's so cool. Now I get it!' His response was not only so open to direction but so positive that from that point on, for me, it went from intimidating to fun. Victor was great, too, but always late to the sessions!
AAJ: Shifting gears, I have to ask, looking around me; did you have a lot of this equipment in place before you started doing the TV work?
RR: Not really. I had a midi synth in '87 and I started scoring right away when I got that. I did entry-level stuff for a company that did industrial videos, like product releases, called Cambridge Studios. I went in and met with them and said, 'I'd love to write to picture.' I said, 'Give me something you've done and I'll write some music to it, just for fun.'
So they had a product release thing for Lotus Manuscript, their attempt at a Word Processor. They liked the music a lot. About a week later, they said they had shown the version I'd done to the Lotus people and they loved it. So they said they'd pay me for the music. Then they described another project to me and I worked up a piece of music I thought might be useful to them. Instead, they ended up using some of other music I did for the first project, and it worked perfectly. I ended up getting paid twice for music that I'd done for free. I was paid enough to realize, 'This is good!'(Laughs)
I did their stuff for about a year. Then a friend called to help out with a PBS special, and I got hired as a staff composer for a while. I was doing the New England Telephone radio ads. A lick from that made it onto my Liquid Smoke record. Sheldon Mirowitz is the guy's name. You think about musicians you know in Boston-he's one of the most active musicians in the town and people don't know who he is. He's done feature films and advertising. I'm sure you've heard hours of his music over the years. He had a deal with Narada, and he kept telling me to send them my stuff. He wrote them a whole long letter on my behalf. I did finally send stuff to Narada and the number two A and R guy, right away, called back and asked for more. I didn't send him anything until he called me again- so I did. I had plenty of stuff because I hadn't done a record myself in two years.
Actually, during those two years I did two solo projects with George Jinda, and I wrote half the material for those. George was great. I kept all the publishing on that, half the royalties, and it was his deal. Plus he paid me a session fee on top of that. I met him through the Photogenic Memory production company guy. During that time period, I had rented a room in New York and tried to hook up some stuff. But what ended up happening was - I ended up hanging out with George. The Hungarian pianist that always worked with George, Szakcsi , did the demos with him on a cassette playing piano and singing melodies- that was the demo. The producer for Special EFX told us to work up some demos. So I worked on it really hard, and they decided to put it on one of their records. Part of their deal with JVC was George was supposed to turn in a couple solo projects, so it worked out that four of their tunes and four of my tunes were on each record. The first one got a lot of airplay and sold very little. The second one-well, we got too musical with it so it didn't get any airplay.
AAJ: So that's the one to get huh?
RR: No, not really-it's not musical enough to be really serious-it's still smooth jazz
AAJ: Which brings us to your records for Narada, which are classified as New Age-great music!
RR: Well, Liquid Smoke, definitely. Primal Vision came next. Liquid Smoke was at the end of '93. Material I had for two years after Photogenic Memory. I did three records in a two-year period, which for me was major. It was, 'We like your demos. We're going to put this out. Here's this guy who pays guitar and is creative-here's his music-not really new age and certainly not smooth jazz-see if you like it.'
AAJ: How did you veer off from fusion music?
RR: I was not even thinking about it. I think the things I wanted were beautiful melodies and nice grooves 'there's a tune called 'Ferry' that was the most definitive. 'Copan' and 'Not so Far' were also very cool tunes that were more adventurous. As it was, this turned out to be older tunes that I had composed. I was not thinking of beautiful melodies as falling into any category in particular. I was hearing stations playing instrumental music and thinking, 'Well, if this were good and had value, what would it be?' Just like you could have a crappy Top 40 song or a really good, well-crafted, heartfelt, Top 40 song- instrumental music that could be listened to by someone other than a jazz player that had some value.
RR: Then there was the Raz record, which was unfortunate..that was me doing standards in the style of Primal Vision (laughs).
AAJ: I read a great review for that record somewhere.
RR: It got some great ones and a couple of scathing ones. The scathing ones were because it was trying to be smooth jazz, which it was. We were trying to make it a smooth jazz. We tried to make it be like a band, with Tim Archibald on bass and Steve Hunt on keyboards, who's only on one cut. My name is buried inside. My records had done so badly with Narada, we thought, 'Let's do this and try to do it as a band.' I thought we did a real nice arrangement of 'Afro Blue', and so did the smooth jazz radio folks. All smooth jazz radio programming is controlled by the company called Broadcast Architecture , which is somewhere in the Midwest. A lot of radio is that way now- very centralized.
AAJ: Somebody actually thinks this is a good idea?
RR: Somehow, the math works out that someone's profit margin is better if all the programming is centralized, right? It's that way in rock and pop too now. Anyway, it was a very frustrating kind of thing because initial indications were really great. A bunch of the program directors thought it was great and playing it as much as they could, but they had to get that green light from the office. They gave a terrific early indication, but who knows how they make those decisions. I heard it also happened to coincide with a bunch of other releases by so-called established artists.
AAJ: How big can the smooth jazz market share be, anyway?
RR: It's barely alive now, as far as I understand. But around 1990 or so it was kind of big, and then it shrunk and got bigger again, as far as my perception goes. In Boston, there were two smooth-jazz stations at the time this came out. I did stuff with both of them. I did an interview spot on one, and at the other, the sister of my friend, Phil Owens, was a DJ, and she did everything she could do. After working very hard on the record, very quickly, it was completely dropped. It was going to either make it on Broadcast Architecture or not. There was no other way to make a record happen. What happened, before that, was I did a version of 'Angel Eyes' that was real nice that's on the record, too. The head of A and R at Narada said, 'This is great! We gotta do this record.' I told him that I wanted it to be really hip, and he agreed. After I did a couple more tunes he said, 'We have to go for airplay'. I said, 'How are we going to do that?' He said, 'We're going to push it to smooth jazz markets.' So I said, 'OK, alright'. We tried with Liquid Smoke and it didn't work, we tried with Primal Vision, which I absolutely love as a record. A lot of people loved that record and it did not make it. So I came up with a new idea the record company likes, and I thought, 'I'll do it!'
After it didn't work-and of course through the whole time I had been investigating the smooth jazz medium and trying to figure out how to make it work- the feeling I had and I still feel this way-is that smooth jazz as an art form might be the lowest art form on the earth in terms of integrity level. It could be an embodiment of the worst creative efforts, done- currently anyway and maybe of all time-in terms of the actual level of integrity. You could look at Top 40 and say that, but you really can't, because a good Top 40 song is still a good song and production values are good-well, smooth jazz production values are pretty good, so there's a little bit of integrity there. Looking at the people who do it versus what comes out-you've basically got very accomplished musicians who are obviously doing something very different from what their center is about musically. The difference between what comes out and where that player, if he really, honestly admits it, would like it to be ' that difference is greater in that music than any other that's ever happened.
AAJ: It's music made for people who basically'
RR: Want to ignore music!
AAJ: That's it ..for working at the office in the background. Music that I like, I can't listen to it and work at the same time.
RR: I can't either, By the same token, I could never have smooth jazz on when I'm doing anything. I'd have to turn it off. It's an amazing phenomenon really, that there could be something like that.
AAJ: It's like Muzak on up.
RR: That's exactly what it is. Modern day Muzak. It's even crossing over into like, smooth dance, smooth club -go into the GAP and you'll hear that. Smooth jazz versions of dance music. Electro-lounge has actually got more integrity than what I'm talking about. It's actually an idiom-not that it's very good.
AAJ: On that track though, the DJ type track, it seems like you certainly could do whatever you want on your own, in terms of releasing projects or music, right from here. You could make artistic statements of your own here. Although you'd need help distributing or marketing them.
RR: I have stuff around. The Vertigo Z project is around, which is jazz and drum'n'bass. I don't know of it's real drum'n'bass and real jazz, or maybe even that it has conflicting aspects of language in it- that might be a problem, but then again, some of us think it's a great asset!
AAJ: I'm in that category-the Vertigo Z thing is absolutely ripping! But even if the thing about conflicting elements were true, isn't that just really part and parcel of getting the concept to where you want it to be?
RR: Yeah, the thing is that for me is that I often get too involved in things I really like instead of doing things I should be doing musically. Instead, I get swayed by things that I really like and kind of blend what I think I should be doing with those things rather than doing-or even figuring out- exactly what I want to do.
AAJ: But who does?
RR: What I'm working through now, though, is that I want to structure a way for myself to work faster. The Vertigo Z project got a bit too work and time intensive-not that I mind spending time and working hard, but it's easy to lose sight of the initial impulse that made you want to begin working on a piece of music. If it's overwrought, if you overwork that kernel, the kernel gets destroyed or watered down in some way. I'm getting older and I don't want to work like that. I don't want to go through the suffering I have to go through to make a project like that happen.
AAJ: So what was the kernel?
RR: Each song had a kernel. The main concept was that I was fascinated by the drum'n'bass thing and I just wanted to do something that used those types of grooves and I wanted to do it with live musicians involved, not just machines. I wanted Eric Kerr 's approach to drum'n'bass to be there. Sometimes, I think the pieces may be more complex than they needed to be, then other times it sounds just right. The soundscape can get very dense, but that can make it work in a way, too.
I want to find a way of crystallizing things more and working more spontaneously. For instance, I read an interview with Moby-some of his stuff I really do like. I found the interview kind of inspiring in that a typical day in the life of Moby is; he gets up-he writes a couple songs. Has breakfast-writes a couple songs-has lunch-hangs out with a friend for a bit-comes back writes a couple songs-goes out and plays with the neighbor's dog and writes a couple songs-then has dinner and works all night on four more songs. So when it comes time for a record he has about 150 songs and he's gotta find like 18 out of 150! I would love to have that problem. I would like to have songs at the end of the day.
This is one thing I love about scoring-at the end of the day I've done four cues and they're nice. Especially the way I do it. I have the best scoring gig on the planet, you know? I write for the 'Scientific American' show on TV. It's a very informative, educational show-completely worthwhile television. There are a lot of different places the music can go on it. The people I work with are fabulous. I almost never do any redos on the show because I understand how to do that show and they love what I do for it. So it's a really nice situation. I love to check out the results of the day-especially when there are three or four good pieces of music! Short, well produced, and they work for the visual and thematic thing for the show. I would love for that to happen with my own music, but so far, I just have not figured that out. I'll spend a day on half of a drum loop!
AAJ: You already have it figured out but it's difficult to apply it to your own thing
RR: Exactly. Also, the production necessary for scoring is a whole different kind of production-it has to be minimal. It's a question of getting it to the point that's right or the show. One more sound and it wouldn't be right. That's a level of control that I find very difficult to put on myself. It's easy when the show makes me control myself to it-but when I have to control myself, by myself '(laughs)
On the other hand, maybe I shouldn't say that. There's a lot of music I like and I hear those details on the first listening, and I know the hours that went into getting those details to happen. Maybe there's no way around it. Maybe to do the kind of music that involves working this way 'you just have to be at that level of detail. Parts of the Vertigo Z thing definitely have that. Also, we've been working on some Club D'Elf tunes here for a year! So that can get detailed too, even though the vibe may begin in a very loose way.
AAJ: None of the other guys in the band can have a studio setup this good.
RR: Actually Jere Faison has quite a good setup.
AAJ: By the way, I really enjoyed the gigs you guys did with Frank Heiss , as well as the Kenwood Dennard gig you and Heiss did.
RR: Frank Heiss is really good. We would like to work together at some point. He's a very interesting fellow.. nuts, but'. He has a small setup that he really gets some great stuff out of. That's better. It's better to have a few things and really squeeze some great stuff out of them than have too much stuff.
AAJ: You guys should just record here.
RR: There are a lot of things I should do. The other thing is that there are things I really like other than music. The idea of just being in the studio working on music all the time..I don't really just do that. Right now, I've just got to decide on some stuff to do and just do it. The other thing is that I wish I could just get some stuff out.The idea of doing music that doesn't get listened to is distasteful to me. I always felt that the communication thing should somehow happen, and it should somehow get out there and beyond that, do some good.
AAJ: I interviewed Jef Lee Johnson recently, a great multi instrumentalist, singer and guitarist who has put a lot of stuff out all of a sudden. He made a really good point. He said he was sick of recording stuff at home and just making it better. He decided to let go of it. He used the analogy of a painter painting at home and hanging his paintings up on his own walls.
RR: That's a great analogy. But in the other hand, I am wary of just putting it out via the web. If you just throw it up on website, how many billions of things are already out there?
AAJ: It seems to me you need someone to help you with the administrative end of that.
RR: Totally. Trying to get your own thing out there is very frustrating.
AAJ: So, you've had it both ways. You had national distribution with Narada.
RR: Yes, and I must say I lost more sleep with Narada than at any time of my life. I just felt they were dropping the ball and when I tried to get on them to do stuff, they would just get pissed at me.
AAJ: Well, that makes a great segue to this newest project I want to talk about. Where did the impetus for this Van Gogh Shadowtree project come from?
RR: Mo Digliani, the vocalist and lyricist in the band, and I got back in touch in '99. We went to high school together. One of our class mates was in an auto accident and injured his back so took a trip to visit him. In the course of driving to and from the house we talked about the stuff we'd been doing and figured, 'Let's get together and do something.' I wanted to do something that was not instrumental - for years I wanted to do something with words. I had tried writing some things with words and I didn't really like what came out. I thought if I could find someone to collaborate with that was verbal, it would be fun. So I was up for it. Mo came over one day and brought some things with him. The night before I had just worked out some drum grooves that I thought would be fun for us to play with. He listened to my grooves a little bit and looked over what he had and said, 'I want to write something new.' He sat in the chair in my studio and looked out the window and wrote this 'Brain Room' thing. I think he spent about 10 minutes on it.
AAJ: He's doing words and you're all the music right, everything, right?.
RR: Oh yeah. Sometimes Mo will have things that are almost melodic and we'll turn them into melodic things. It's mostly spoken word, but there are some melodic moments in there. When we bring in our third guy, who sings and plays harmonica, B.J. Harpman, he adds a lot to that, but the first tune we worked on was way before B.J. got involved. We worked up that tune in a day. Mo laid down a vocal quick and then we just started adding stuff to it. We were having a rehearsal here for 'Vertigo Z' and I played the cut for Bruce Bartlett . He immediately reacted to it with a guitar part, which he laid down in 5 minutes. The tune's 5 minutes and it took him 5 minutes to record the part.
AAJ: Where'd you get the name from?
RR: That's one of the lines in 'Brainroom.' It's that tree out my studio window. That's the VanGogh Shadowtree. And Brainroom is this room. Mo was kind of looking around and free-associating with everything he saw and watching me work. He looked out the window and grabbed some inspiration from that. We just wound up really liking that line. So we used it for the project name.
Anyway, after we finished that tune we really liked it, but we didn't do anything else for about a year. We hung out from time to time, and we kept agreeing in principle to do more with it.
Then, we had a high school reunion. Mo and I were talking about going to the reunion and we decided we had to find B.J., a vocalist that was in my band in the 9th grade. We hadn't seen him since our senior year in high school. So, we found him the day of the reunion and it turns out he was free that night. So he came and there was a band there, so we found a bassist and wound up playing about an hour and a half set of blues. Turns out he's been in bands ever since, and he sounded great. We talked and all wound up saying to each other, 'You sound great.' So we decided to do some more tunes. We did the three remaining tunes over a period of six months in our free time and decided to do the release.
AAJ: So the tunes are like poetry or rap or Zappaesque in places.
RR: Well, you need a term when you have music that doesn't fit any other directional term that's out there. Mo calls it electro-word rock, which really works. It's like hip-hop in a certain way, but in a whole different way- intelligencia hip hop- I don't know. We've worked on other pieces that have even more of a film-noirish kind of character, but all of the pieces have that, to some degree. The trick is to also get a melody in there and I think we'll go in even more of a direction, featuring melody, by featuring B.J. even more.
AAJ: Yeah, he provides it more in parts. Vocal hooks in the background.
RR: He has the whole R'n'B/blues thing just really there. I mean it's not affected -it comes really out of him. He's very aware of a lot of music. He has a band called 'Geezer' which is a blues band.
AAJ: How did you decide where to take the music side?
RR: I don't know (laughs). I mean it was so easy. It was really easy for me and that's why I think I've got to do more of this stuff because a lot of times for me, like we talked about before, especially when I'm working all by myself, it's much more slow and teeth-pulling like.
AAJ: So hearing the idea first gives it impetus.
RR: It's a lot like film-scoring for me. I approach it the same way. I look at what Mo has done-he'll lay down a word vocal on top of a drum machine, and he does some really interesting stuff with that- he'll give that to me. Sometimes I'll take inspiration from his original groove, but I generally start getting a lot of possibilities for drum stuff. I like to have a lot of that material on hand, and generally use about 25 per cent of what I come up with. The thing that's good about having a collaboration is that I have a real direction in mind right at the beginning. I can write really fast writing to picture and this is the same thing. The words are the picture and I score the words the way I'd score something else. But this can be hipper and edgier and more out there. When you're writing to picture there are a lot more constraints than just what the words are at the moment-this is a lot freer. Any grooves and sounds I want to do I can just do. We're reaching for something here that fits into, direction-wise what I'm into these days. The whole thing coming out of Europe-trip-hop, touching on drum'n'bass, different aspects of dance music, club, dub and all that.
AAJ: You seem to have a real handle on all those styles.
RR: Well, that's the stuff I love, you know. You listen to something enough and it gets in you. So, getting back to the cd, 'Media Today' was the second piece we did.
AAJ: That's a great commentary on sort of, life as we know it through our overloaded senses.
RR: Mo is very much into that. He was into the San Francisco punk scene before he became normal. He wanted his life to be a work of art, you know? He's always been writing material that cut to the quick of society and people around him.
AAJ: We're always taping, watching, surfing or calling someone or something..it's overwhelming. It takes control of what you're setting out to do half the time.
RR: In every tune there's a good thought that's something to hold onto. With 'Media Today' it's good to ask that question, 'What have we had for media today?' What have we been bombarded with and how might it have affected us good and bad? To be aware of it and not let it flood over us and question what it really is, to take stock of it. On 'Drum Heart,' the thought is that we're all musical instruments- a cool idea really, and a positive message .
AAJ: So are you restraining yourself on guitar on the disc? A lot of the stuff is bluesy over a lush sonic background. Sometimes the harmonica and guitar come out of one another quite nicely.
RR: I'm just trying to play as part of the composition. This is not a guitar extravaganza project.
AAJ: Which brings me to a good wrap-up question for Allaboutjazz. I'd say you are definitely of the anti-chops school of guitar these days, but there must have been a time when you thought chops were great.
RR: Oh, yeah. Remember, back then Coltrane was my guy. The way I learned how to improvise in my formative years was not so much by transcribing Coltrane, but by listening to him.
AAJ: Well, when was that? The 'back then' you refer to? You obviously had some point in your career when you thought being a total jazzer was great, right?
RR: Yeah, it's when I was with Orchestra Luna (laughs).
For more information on VanGogh Shadowtree or Vertigo Z, visit Vague Moon Records and Media .