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A Fireside Chat With Oteil Burbridge

AAJ Staff By

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The only thing that frustrates me is my suitcase and that whole ritual of packing and unpacking and living out of my suitcase. The moving around part I actually dig.
I must plead ignorance, but two years ago if you had asked me about the Allman Brothers Band, my response would have been "Sweet Home Alabama"? But through a friend in the "industry" who is code named "a little bird," I have become somewhat and I say somewhat in the loosest way, a Grateful Dead listener.

And as a result, I have been investigating so called "jam bands" with some regularity, and a day trip to Amoeba provided me with The Allman Brothers Band's At Fillmore East, as close to a jazz album as I've heard from what I would deem to be country folk. But I am a misguided city boy and shit from Shinola is about as much as my college educated ass knows anyway.

Having said that, Oteil Burbridge, once you have heard some Dead and some At Fillmore East, didn't fall far from the "jazz" tree. Burbridge's music is as close to "jazz" as the blues, in this city boy's opinion and damn the Man, music shouldn't be in meaningless categories anyway. Before I break my soapbox from all the weight on my shoulders, ladies and gents, boys and girls of all ages, Mr. Oteil Burbridge, fresh off tour, unedited and in his own words.

All About Jazz: Let's start from the beginning.

Oteil Burbridge: I started playing drums when I was five. The fact that I was beating on everything in the house with whatever I could find, and my parents not being able to deal with that, so they bought me a snare drum. They figured they would channel that energy in some direction.

I think later on though, my parents were always into the arts in general and had a lot of instruments around the house, so there was always something to play there. My parents were heavily into music listening wise and my dad actually played flute a little bit. It has always been around. It was very familiar. We all did piano and violin and I played bass clarinet for a long time.

AAJ: One left turn and you could have been Eric Dolphy.

OB: Yeah, in fact, I remember my dad buying me a five album set of Eric Dolphy playing bass clarinet [laughing]. I think I was probably eleven or twelve and wasn't really ready for it. That is the kind of dad I had. When I was playing bass around seventeen and I had been playing bass for about three years, I really got serious and wanted to do it for a career and started thinking about whether I could actually do it for a living.

AAJ: Aquarium Rescue Unit, interestingly cryptic name.

OB: [Laughing] It came out of thin air. Col. Bruce used to change the name of the band about once a week and when we got a record deal, the head of the label said that Bruce needed to decide a name for this band because they had to put it on the album and just off the top of his head, he said, "Aquarium Rescue Unit," and that is what it was [laughing]. It has no meaning of any kind.

AAJ: Col. Bruce, so no city folk are confused, wasn't really a colonel.

OB: No, but he was call Col. since he was about three years old because all of his family, going back generations, were all military. He was expected to be a colonel. I think his cousin is the youngest colonel in military history. If I am not mistaken.

AAJ: And ARU did the HORDE tour.

OB: The concept was that they didn't have any term called "jam bands" or anything like that, and there were all these bands that played together on this same circuit that we now call the jam band scene that didn't have a slot to fit in, and so they said screw it and made their own slot. Widespread Panic, Phish, and Blues Traveler pulled their heads together and got their favorite bands together. They got us and I think Spin Doctors.

We were all friends and playing together anyway, and so we just made our own tour instead of waiting for the industry to figure out what we are and give us a name.

AAJ: You say "jam band" and people will think Jerry Garcia and the Dead.

OB: When I think jam bands, I think Disco Biscuits or moe. To me, the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers predates the jam bands. Gregg Allman would bock at somebody calling the Allman Brothers a jam band. But he also balks at it being called a Southern rock band [laughing]. "Jam bands" is something recent.

I think you could classify Phish or Widespread Panic as a jam band and they classified ARU as a jam band because we played with all those bands. The ARU was a psycho/bluegrass/funk/jazz band. I think, fortunately, as much as I hate to label things, I certainly don't consider the ARU of the Peacemakers a jam band, but I think the one good thing about that term is that it leaves a lot of room than the term Southern rock would or heavy metal.

In the jam band category, you can have everything from John Scofield to String Cheese Incident. Those are two extremes in my opinion. To go from DJ Logic or Soulive or Medeski, Martin & Wood to some band that is noodling around trying to be like the Grateful Dead, that is a good thing. It doesn't pigeonhole us as much as another label would. If you think the Peacemakers are a jam band, well, that could be anything.

In some ways, I don't like being categorized that way. And then in other ways, I would much rather have that label than anything other one.

AAJ: And how did you get the Allman Brothers gig?

OB: I knew Warren Haynes and Allen Woody, the two guys we were replacing were the only guys I knew. I didn't have any of their records or anything like that. I have had a blast. I have really had a blast. It has been fun and they have treated me well. We've had a chance to make some really good music.

AAJ: The lifestyle of a musician is a nomadic one and must get wearisome after time.

OB: I was thinking just a couple of days ago that I just had seven days in a row at home, and before that I only had three days and they were not in a row since March. I thought that I really am a gypsy. In some ways, it makes me tired, Fred, and then I realize that if I were at home for any more than two weeks, I would really miss it. There are other people I talk to that cannot conceive being away from home that much.

I guess God made me this way and so, ultimately, I guess it is what is right for me. The only thing that frustrates me is my suitcase and that whole ritual of packing and unpacking and living out of my suitcase. The moving around part I actually dig.

AAJ: Why did it take you so long to do a record of your own with your Peacemakers band?

OB: Yeah, I think it came out in '98. It was because I was getting to do so much of my own music with ARU. In a way, the ARU was fulfilling all of the stuff that I needed to do with my solo group because I wrote so much of that stuff that we did. I wasn't frustrated and didn't feel the need to do a solo record because I was doing all my tunes already.

I think what ended up happening was there were certain tunes that would never get done with the ARU because it just didn't fit into that mold, and so I realized I had some other sides that really needed to come out badly that were not getting fulfilled in the ARU. I wanted to record these tunes and they weren't getting done, so I thought that I would put another group together and do these songs. But that took years of playing with the ARU.

AAJ: And finally, your new release, The Family Secret.

OB: After doing the first one, I was really able to focus and pinpoint much more of what I wanted to do. The next album will probably be even more focused than this one. John Snyder has already blocked out some time in the studio for this year. We will be heading back in the studio to do some more stuff soon.

The new album, especially with Snyder's whole concept of DVD, is completely awesome. I am totally thrilled by it. It is something I never really thought of to do. It really helps people see what the Peacemakers really are and what we are like on the road. You get something more than just the audio picture of what we are. You get to see the personalities of the guys. I think that is really cool.

I am touring a lot. Whenever the Allman Brothers is off, I am doing Peacemakers touring. I prayed for this for years. I prayed for God to let me be busy and travel and now all that stuff and in most ways, I am grateful for it.

I am really glad. I remember sitting at home hoping I would get a call so I could make my rent. I am really happy. In my life, things could be way worse. My life is so good, I feel guilty about it. I am blessed.

I really do think about poor people in America, in Alabama that don't have running water. There are a couple of families that we help out that are so poor and I think why am I so blessed in all kinds of ways. I don't know how much of it we earn or how much of it is God's grace.

Either way, I have it good. I try to do something good with it.
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