Interview by Mir Ali
Rob Wasserman and I were originally scheduled to talk on tuesday September
11, 2001. Considering Rob and I were both shaken up due to the tragedy in
NYC, Washington D.C. and Pennsylvania, we rescheduled for the next day. Our
conversations about music on those days helped us both find a way to get
away from the madness. Ratdog, originally scheduled to play the final 2
shows at the Wetlands in NYC was forced to cancel those gigs but are
preparing to start a fall tour. I hope you all are well and thank you all
for helping to keep the music alive.
Mir Ali: When did you first meet Bob Weir?
Rob Wasserman: I first met Bobby in the fall of 1988. I was actually hosting a benefit, for the Mill Valley Film Festival, which was supposed to be in the spirit of my Duets CD which had just come out. I invited people down that I wanted to play with but not really in a large ensemble since duets was a one on one thing. I didn’t really know anyone where I lived because most of the people I worked with were either in L.A. or New York, so I thought about
it and ended up inviting some of the Grateful Dead guys, I thought that would be interesting and the club owner got Bobby my new Duets album and he dug it. He called me up a few days later saying that he wanted to open up for the Jerry Garcia Band as a duo and that was the whole beginning of it.
MA: Now the Duets album was part of a trilogy?
RW: That’s correct, there was Solos and Trios.
MA: Now that was 1988, which is also when you first started working with Lou Reed right?
RW: No I had been working with Lou Reed before that, the album came out in ‘88 but I’d recorded with him before that. Right after that we started working on his New York album which I think had come out around the same time.
MA: How was the experience of working with Lou Reed?
RW: It was great, very great artist and tremendous songwriter. What was fun about that is that I got to go into that band, which was the first rock and roll thing I’d ever done and played electric upright bass exclusively and that sort of brought a whole new thing to his music and it was a great way to learn rock and roll.
MA: I see that you played on Van Morrison’s Beautiful Visions album, can you tell me about that?
RW: Another great artist, songwriter, a very intense person, I spent around four or five days working with him and he didn’t really say anything, he was more like let’s start playing tunes. When we started the album it was mainly me, him and a flute player, or a percussionist, but by the end he brought in Mark Knopfler and more rock and roll type people. That was the first time I ever played bass guitar and probably the last time [chuckling]. He asked me if I had one and for some reason I did and I ended up using it on the song “Cleaning Windows.” It was quite an experience, kind of a trial by fire learning thing.
MA: I hear that you are working on a Woody Guthrie tribute of some kind?
RW: It’s not really a tribute, it’s my next record, but it uses, well it’s centered around my bass, and thematically it’s centered around journal, words, writings from Woody Guthrie’s journals that his daughter, Nora Guthrie is offering from his archives. They are not really songs but we’re gonna turn them into songs, they’re not pre-fashioned lyrics, it’s a little more journalistic, if that’s a word [laughing]. What I’m doing is finding different artists for each tune, well, not tune but each composition. Some of them do sound like songs, some of them are spoken word, but they are all with new music created with people like Lou Reed, Ani Di Franco, Chris Whitley and Michael Franti, those are the first four I’ve done. Ruben Blades is going to do one, and I’m approaching all kinds of different kinds of people that I can’t name because I don’t like naming people until they’re actually done. It’s sort of a one thing at a time type of project like Duets or Trios. Trying to find the right people, and then when I find one more person I ask myself, “What does it need next, what kind of flavor do I want to add?”
MA: When are you hoping to have this project completed, or is it an open date?
RW: It’s pretty open but I’m hoping it’ll be out by his 90th birthday which is next July. I’m about half way done, I’ve been really busy with Ratdog, and it’s been really hard to complete it. But we’re not working this fall after this
little tour we’re doing so I’m hoping to get most of it done. The main thing is finding the right people for the words, that’s more important than how fast it gets done.
MA: As far as Ratdog goes, how did you enjoy the So Many Roads tours?
RW: That was fun.
MA: I know with the time constraints it was a little difficult.
RW: Before we did the tour we thought we were going to have 2 hours, and then we found out we had an hour and a half and most nights we played around an hour and forty-five minutes because we would go on as quickly as we
could. Now-a-days that’s short for Ratdog, we’ve got more people and longer solos and more jamming. I thought it was fine we just had to cut to the core of things and not jam as much, not quite as much fun, but it was fine with me. I
had fun jamming with DJ Logic, who was part of the show. I went and jammed with him during his segment after the first couple of gigs, and that was a lot of fun, and then I invited him to jam during my solo and then pretty soon he was jamming with us for other tunes. Now we want to invite him to do some gigs with us.
MA: I know when I saw you guys, Karl Denson sat in and that was a lot of fun.
RW: I thought that was a real upbeat, positive tour creatively.
MA: Can you tell me about the evolution of Ratdog?
RW: I’ll start it off with me and Bobby after 6, 7 years of, actually 8 years, as a duo on and off again in between what he was doing and what I was doing. I think in ‘94 we started talking about, we’d always considered ourselves a band and ‘94 we thought it would be fun to actually add people. Up until then we’d always thought we’d always have different funny names for our duo, aside from Weir/Wasserman it was like Scaring Children or The Fabulous Chew Toys. Anyways, I had just met Jay Lane, the drummer, who has been with us ever since the first version of Ratdog. I
was producing some Levi’s ads and one of them was with Les Claypool, radio ads, and it was two basses and I wanted some drums. I hadn’t really worked with drummers that much in the bay area and so Les recommended Jay and I liked Jay, and Bobby ended up needing a drummer for a thing he was doing and I recommended Jay and he like him, and we just talked about it and thought “how about adding Jay?” So Jay was in our first version of Ratdog, though we never actually did any gigs as a trio, by the time we actually did a concert, Bobby wanted to add Matthew Kelly to the mix and our first gig ended up being the four of us, which was around for a few years.
We also had at various times and not necessarily in order Vince Welnick as our keyboardist, and the great blues pianist Johnnie Johnson was with us for a while, we had Prarie Prince on drums with Jay for a couple of gigs. We’ve had numerous people sit in with us over the years, but that doesn’t count I guess. Mookie Seagull was the keyboardist for a tour or two. We started experimenting with lead guitar players and ended up with Mark Karan after trying someone else. Jeff Chimenti came in after Johnnie Johnson, because we wanted more of a band that could improvise and Jeff’s from a
jazz background. We had Dave Ellis on horns and now it’s Kenny Brooks. The band the last couple of years has been me, Jay, Bobby, Jeff Chimenti and Kenny Brooks, Kenny’s the newest member. We’re pretty solidified right now, this seems to be the one everyone us enjoys.
MA: As far as influences, bass wise, can you name off a few?
RW: I guess, I’m trying to remember, the first bass player I ever heard, string bass player, was Charles Mingus. Who I should go back and listen to again now, just to see what I think. Back when I was first starting, it just seemed like a real exotic, unusual instrument in the way he played it and I was just attracted to the sound. I listened to a lot of orchestral music back then too, now I listen to, when I’m at home, my wife Ann Scott, she’s a big music fan from down south, Mississippi and we listen to a lot of R&B, D’Angelo, and old blues and stuff, not a lot of bass stuff. My daughter is actually an up and coming singer who draws a lot from the R&B world, I’m not sure why I mentioned her, but...
MA: Hey it’s a free plug for your daughter.
RW: Yeah why not, her stage name is Ciana, she’s working with gospel and R&B people and she’s a great songwriter.
MA: You recently released an album titled Dua, could you tell me about it?
RW: Actually it came out, basically that’s a special project, it’s not
really an official release. I decided to create a label called Rare Wasserman records, I should have called it Rare Me records. It’s exclusively for things that I do that normally would sit in the so called vault, everyone has their own vault, and never be heard by the public. I’ve done a lot of sessions with people for ideas, and records I decided not to do. I made friends with Ustad Sultan Khan around 4 years ago and as you know he’s the incredible sarangi player, and we talked about doing a record, but mainly what we did was play some concerts together with various tabla players. We would just make everything
up on the spot, no set music.
MA: So pure improvisation?
RW: Our idea was that he would make up a melody and we’d improvise around it. Then the next tune I’d play a melody that I wrote or make up one on the spot and we’d improvise around that. We did a session last summer, and it
was so great that my wife kept playing it for people and I decided to put it
out, but I didn’t want to go through whole thing with record companies, promoting it and making a big deal, so it’s available only on this tour and online and that it. Once it sells out, that’s it, I just wanted to offer it to people who wanted something special as a treat. It’s great, listening to him, you just feel like you go to higher place or something, playing with him is incredible, but even just listening to him as a musician. What we did with him and a tabla player named Asif Khan, who is actually from Afghanistan, he’s in exile and is actually living in London now. It’s just some of the best improv I’ve ever been a part of, so that’s what it is to make a long story long! The response has been really good, this is the first time I made a record I didn’t want people to find, it’s like how do I get that, I want that. We’ve kept it away from press people since it’s not an official release, I’m not sure how you heard about it.
MA: Your website.
RW: The covers on there, my wife is an artist and she did the cover, that was her interpretation of how Sultan Khan and I looked playing, so it’s a family production.
Ratdog finishes their tour this week in the Northeast and the Midwest.
The photos are from RobWasserman.com.