While the members of Robert Walter's 20th Congress may be in constant flux, the music they help create is always the same hard driving funk and air tight grooves that have the scene calling this his best lineup yet. Consisting of Will Bernard, Cheme Gastulam, Joe Russo and Chris Stillwell (filling in for Mike Fratantuno), this band is leaving it’s mark as it heads across the country. As Robert took a break from his current tour I had a chance to catch up with him as he chilled out in his hometown of San Diego and talk about the new lineup the Greyboy Allstars and some of the scenes other forces.

Andrew Warren: How has tour been?

Robert Walter: Really great. We were in Colorado for a week and just played San Diego last night.

AW: So you guys have a new lineup in the Congress, who exactly is in the band now?

RW: Well, on this tour, the new official lineup is Joe Russo on drums (from Russo and Benevento and he was in the band Fat Mama for a while), Will Bernard on Guitar, Mike Fratantuno from the Black-Eyed Peas on bass, and Cheme [Gastelum] of course on sax. We did a tour and every one is really into it so we want to continue with it.

Yeah, I'm hearing the response to the band has been really good?

Mike Fratantuno is having a baby so he couldn't make the tour, so I called up Chris Stillwell and he said he could do the dates with us. So its been a combination of playing with the Greyboy Allstars and the old Congress and the 'new' Congress.

I know that everyone is a huge fan of Stillwell and was sad to see him leave the Congress...

Yeah he has been my bass player for 10 years and I was sad as well. He just wants to spend a little more time at home. Not everyone wants to do [the road] their entire life. (Laughs)

I saw you play together at the SF Funk Fest with Brian Jordan and Zigaboo and it was good to see you back in the mix together.

Yeah, we're gonna continue to work, I mean the GBA are talking about doing some more stuff... So he'll be out for that and he'll be out for some other things. We're supposed to do a show down at JazzFest, the same as the SF Funk Fest with Zig, Brian Jordan, me and Chris.

Was that the first time playing with Zig?

Yeah, I always wanted to play with him. I've got this list of musicians that have influenced me and I'm trying to knock 'em all down.

So who else have you played with on that list this year?

Ahh, I'm trying to think. I haven't had my coffee yet. [laughs] There's a whole list of people. It was really cool playing with Russell Batiste and Rob Wasserman... That one was in Denver, a regular show time... With DJ Logic, Rob Wasserman and Russell Batiste and this really interesting music came out of that. It was much more modern, you know. It wasn't bunch of soul covers which is usually what you end up doing when you just meet each other. This was much more free-form, modern and hip-hop influenced.

So when you do these power jams with so many players from different backgrounds coming together, do you practice or just see where it goes?

Usually we have the sound check and practice for an hour and say, "Do you know this tune?" or "Hey, I've got this groove we can play." We loosely talk about it and some times there's stuff that happens purely the first time you've heard it.

You and Brian Jordan have known each other forever, right?

Yeah, and Brian and I are into the same kind of music, we have a real similar taste as far as our record collections are concerned.

What was the name of the band you were in, in San Diego... Daddy Longlegs?

Yeah, that was like my first band.

And his first as well?

Yeah, when we were kids. We were into Prince and P-Funk and Bad Brains. From there we got into James Brown and The Meters.

So what have the crowds been thinking as far as the new lineup?

You know it kind of surprises me. For in a way the music has been more improv and more experimental, kind of dissonant at times and really aggressive a much harder listen. We're so excited about the action, it is real natural and everything is happening right in front of you and fun to watch even though sonically it may be a little more challenging.

I think that the whole attitude of music is growing a little harder edged for a darker sound.

I think people are feeling that way these days.

It's been pretty breezy in the last few years and the new bands are offering a little more in the way of in your face style music, like the OM Trio, RANA, etc.

Photo by Scott Chernis
Yeah yeah, Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, that band I love, they are really my favorite of the super avant-garde influenced jazz bands.

Yeah they are definitely breaking new ground.

Them and "The Duo," Joe and Marco: that's one of the greatest things I've seen.

The night before NYE in Boston I saw them open for The Slip, which was a real highlight of the week for me, maybe even the year.

Yeah, The Slip are great too. Those guys are awesome. I haven't heard them in a while, yet I've known them for a long time too. I saw then for the first time in Providence years ago with the GBA. I think it was right when they were coming out and everyone in the know was like, "Yeah, you gotta see this band."

I think they are one of the most underrated bands on the scene, such talented musicians both songwriting and musically.

There is certain kinds of [music] that are just a hard sell, ya know. I love the Living Daylights and it's just, it just doesn't have broad appeal because it's so intense.

Like people just don't get?

Yeah, just people just want to go out and have a party and it's not a soundtrack for that, unless you're a real cerebral person.

So tell me, do you think there are different parts of the country where you can play more cerebral music, as you were saying, or places where you want to play more of a straightforward type of show?

Yeah, personally I feel like playing differently depending on where I play. So if I am down south, and this isn't a steadfast rule, but I tend to get a more bluesy influence and just cause I'm down there I feel like I'm in a movie and tend to soak up the vibe and in New York things tend to get more aggressive. The environment tends to influence us; I think that is true of most bands.

I have a love of pop songs and stuff that is more broadly pop. But I'm choosing to do more instrumentals, which limits your crowd to a certain degree.

I know people tend to get into bands where they associate a moment in time or a particular experience with lyrics or things of that nature.

It's easy for people to relate too, and they can identify with the singer if they don't play an instrument themselves. In a way I am like that too. I listen to a lot of instrumental music but there are still a lot of times where I want to put on a Neil Young record and sing along with it.
I am not opposed to ever doing something with vocals but I'm just not interested right now. Now I'm interested in improvising.

What bands are you into right now?

The bands I'm interested right now are Garage a Trois and pretty much anything Skerik's involved with. You know, real adventurous music.

Yeah I saw them open up for Oysterhead and at Tips the next year and the Maple Leaf.

Yeah, I thought their set sounded a lot better [than Oysterhead].

Yeah, me too.

Yeah, I love what [Garage a Trois] is doing, and I love what The Duo are doing and JFJO, I just love that whole side of the (scene)

So tell me about the evolution of the Congress. Are you looking to solidify a permanent band or are you looking to have the lineup change every so often as you have in the past?

Well, the band that we have been playing with feels so good and there is so much creativity flying around that I want to do this until at least it runs its course.


I sort of feel, at least for me, what happened with the old lineup is that it creatively had run its course and that the environment for doing it had become difficult.

So do you sit around and talk about it as a band?

It just sort of organically disintegrates, which is what it is. Someone will just say, "You know, really I cant be on the road quite this much" and it's just a really hard life.

And when you go out, you go out hard!

Yeah, so living in motels and living out of a bag can drive some people crazy. [laughs] And ya know musically it just started not moving forward as quickly. When the thing first starts every night, it is a total adventure. I want it to always be like that. To me it's natural to play with things and be smart enough to say, "Great, let's move into something more."

And that's something that sometimes is the hardest thing to do, to know when to say when.

I see bands I love going through the motions, doing the greatest hits show and I don't ever want to do that.

There is so much music out there these days; there is so much to choose from that resting on a greatest hits repertoire isn't going to cut it, or keep the crowd into it or coming back.

I want to keep my music moving forward, ya know. If I had to guess I would think I would change up some part of the band every couple years.

But Cheme has always been in the band right?

I think of the Congress as being my collaboration with him. We sat around before the band was a band and talked about what we wanted to do and we have a shared aesthetic and similar things were trying to accomplish. I really think of the 20th Congress as being my collaboration with him.

So what was it like being back on stage in December at the Fillmore with The Greyboy Allstars?

It was really great. I didn't know what to expect when I got the call about doing it. Honestly I was like, "Well I hope we don't clown it and I hope it still feels like something when we play together." Because you can never tell, even if you learn all your parts you may not feel the rhythms in the same place.

You all have gone to do great things since Greyboy?

Yeah, and we have all done things that are pretty different than the Greyboy. Now that I go back to it, I realize how different it was. It seems like the same genre but just the attitude of how we played. That band was more about songs and composition than improvising, although we did improvise. It wasn't as free form. It was more like we wanted to keep things tight. We were influenced by an older style of music.

So do you think there is future for the GBA?

Yeah, we have talked about a few things. I think were going to do some more playing. Then again were going to do it just enough where were still excited by it. I don't want burn it out again. That's what happened with that thing too. It just reached its peak and we were like, "Where do we take it from here?" But when we did these last shows it re-ignited it. Especially the first night of the Fillmore, it really lit up a thing.

With the Belly Up gig it was good but we were still figuring out the songs. With the Fillmore we really nailed the songs, we were just nervous enough and it was just fun. It was just a funny time. They really make me laugh the whole time were playing.

So you usually play New Year's Eve in SF.


This year you played in NYC. What was the energy like out there? I know there were a lot of big bands in town and a huge crew from, all over I guess, in the city that night.

You know the gig was just a great time. We used Justin Wallace on bass, Chris was busy and Mike was at home. And Cheme and Joe play with Justin all the time in NY and I had known his name and known him from ulu, so we were like "lets ask Justin to do it". And he just learned the material and nailed it.

You played in the small room at B.B. Kings, in Lucille's?

Yeah, honestly I would rather always be in a small place than a big place.

I recently read one review from the NYE show that had the writer hoping you would take this lineup around the country and just put the rest of the B-grade funk bands out of their misery.

[Laughs] This band is really a force to be reckoned with I think. I've never felt this proud of any of my other projects. Just the combination of players, and Will is really kicking up the solos in the band to be more sophisticated and just the influence of all these musicians. They are all real strong personalities on their instruments. So it's less of my concept and more of a collaboration.

Photo by Scott Chernis
I have a few more questions and I will let you run.

Favorite venue?

Maple Leaf in New Orleans!

Favorite city to play in?

San Francisco or Chicago.

What's the best thing about being out on the road?

I would have to say the music. Just getting to play with the band every night, there isn't the opportunity to do that in town. The rest of it is really fun, seeing the places you go and such, but I have done it so much now that I just travel so I can get to the next gig. (laughs)

So what are you listening to in the van?

There is a lot of variety. A lot of old funk 45's on CD and a lot of electronic stuff. I am listening to this band, Boards of Canada.

So Max is your sound guy? He was my college roommate. How is his driving doing? I would never let him drive.

Yeah, he's great; he has been forced to do the driving. The first tour there was a few scary moments but after that he has done pretty well. Max is great; he really is a member of the band.

Checkout the 20th Congress this week as they cross the border into Canada this weekend before closing out their tour with a trip down the West Coast making stops in Eugene, Mill Valley and then a two night tour closer at the Elbo Room in San Francisco's Mission district.

Andrew J.Warren
JamBase | Mill Valley
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[Published on: 1/31/03]

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