: 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 .