Interview: Don Was Talks Bob Weir And Wolf Bros, Blue Note & More
Welcome to another edition of The Art Of The Sit-In, where we mix it up with the scene’s most adventurous players and hear some stories from the road. (For more, check out a full archive of more than 60 The Art Of The Sit-In interviews here).
Don Was is one of those career musicians who just seems not only to have been everywhere, but also been at that “everywhere’s” center at a particularly interesting time. As a bass player and bandleader, he’s known of course for Was Not Was. But his list of producing and collaboration credits is miles long, from the Rolling Stones, Willie Nelson and Ziggy Marley to John Mayer, Bonnie Raitt and Bob Dylan, and his bona fides go even deeper: hailing from Detroit, weaned on blues and soul but also jazz, following his instincts all the way to the executive suite of fabled Blue Note Records, where he became president in 2012.
Was’ connections reach everywhere in the music industry, and in recent years he’s been turning up in more specific association to the jam scene, especially as part of tribute concerts and tours celebrating the likes of Little Feat, Willie Nelson and The Band. This year, however, he’s landed squarely in the always-swirling world of post-Grateful Dead intrigue, joining Bob Weir and drummer Jay Lane (best known for RatDog and Primus) for a trio called Bob Weir and Wolf Bros.
Was has known Weir for decades — and also, as is widely known, played a key role in the formation of Dead & Company. But the Wolf Bros trio, whose tour began last week, feels low-key fascinating: a “let’s just try this” unit that by Was’ own admission is a little ragged but rolls on the chemistry among three musicians following an experimental jones where open spaces — it’s a guitar/bass/drums trio, after all — are as interesting as notes.
Don Was also did something special for us, agreeing to talk with JamBase both before the tour began and after a week’s worth of its initial shows. Both of those conversations are represented below.
JAMBASE: When did you and Bob first meet?
DW: We were introduced in 1993. We were discussing making a record together even back then. I’ve run into him periodically since then, and we spoke about something completely different this time that Bobby and Mickey Hart came to see me at the Blue Note offices in L.A. From my time with John [Mayer], I knew what a fanatical Deadhead he was, and I said John, you gotta come upstairs right now. And that was the moment of inception for Dead & Company. But Bob and I have played together a few times, including at Dear Jerry in Maryland a few years back.
This was different, though — he dreamt this. He called me out of the blue in like April or May, and told me he dreamed this whole thing up that we started a trio and it was called the Wolf Brothers. I said, fuck yeah. This will be a trip. I just walked into the lobby of this place we’re at today and there’s the poster — there we are. I’m really impressed when someone has that kind of vision and six months later, it’s here.
JAMBASE: How much rehearsal and preparation has gone into this?
DW: We’re getting the conversation going. It’s probably going to be a little ragged [laughs] but the fun thing about this is we’re starting to get a sense of where the three of us might go. The thing that’s cool is the uncertainty — we know it’s going to change. When you plant a tree in your backyard, you go to the nursery and buy this thing that you keep in a little pot for a while and over a period of time you eventually move it and grow it. I think that’s what these shows will be like. We’ve just picked up the tree at the nursery and driven it home, and we’re trusting in the next steps.
JAMBASE: Did you know Jay Lane before?
DW: No, I knew of him of course but I had never played with him. I was a little nervous actually. I drove up to San Francisco with my bass, and we set up, and Bob had told me six songs ahead of time to get familiar with. The first song we played was his song “Even So,” which was not on the list [laughs].
That’s what we started with, but I could tell in the first 20 seconds that Jay and I feel the groove in the same place. We have kind of common roots in what we like to listen to. I knew it was going to work in the first 20 seconds. We played some more and then kind of went out and got a sandwich and decided this was going to work.
JAMBASE: How big of a repertoire are you working with?
DW: We’re starting small — 70 songs! [laughs] We’ll pick up more. I’m here to play, you know? I want Bob to call the room and say “let’s do ‘Bird Song’ today.” We’ll just add stuff as we go.
JAMBASE: And you’re mainly focusing on Dead and Bob’s own songs?
DW: Yes, all kinds of stuff. We’ll do some covers he’s known for. I don’t really know. I don’t think he knows, either. [laughs] But we do know someone’s going to come up with a good setlist.
Bob Weir And Wolf Bros – Easy To Slip Captured by Brian James
JAMBASE: Have you asked for any songs specifically?
DW: I’ve asked to play a lot of them. I wanted to do “Black Muddy River,” “Brokedown Palace,” “Days Between” which we just played at Hardly Strictly, Bob’s version of “Easy to Slip,” “Standing On the Moon” and “Stella Blue.” And “Only a River” — I love the things from his Blue Mountain record.
JAMBASE: Were you a Dead fan way back?
DW: I saw them play in Detroit years and years ago and I dug what they were doing. They approached it like jazz musicians — it was different, it had a swing to it, and it reminded me of Miles, and of Wayne Shorter. Someone asked Wayne Shorter once how much his band rehearses and he had this quote, “How can you rehearse the unknown?”
The way a musician plays is kind of the way they live their life. You can know a person pretty well by playing with him for only five minutes, and you can’t doing other things. I mean, you could go to lunch with Charles Manson [laughs], and for the first five minutes think, this is an interesting guy, he’s unusual, without really understanding what makes him unusual! [laughs]
But if you play music with someone, you know how they approach life, you can tell. I thought when the Grateful Dead were playing their songs, they brought a really desirable approach to life. The audience knew that. I don’t think I’m telling you anything you don’t already know, but the audience was part of that. It’s a communal experience.
JAMBASE: Was this group intended to be a trio right from the get-go? Why not add other instruments?
DW: Oh, it’s the challenge of it. Playing in a trio is like gorging at a smorgasbord of freedom and musical responsibility all at the same time. There’s all kinds of room to approach the songs, but you have to respect the foundation of the songs, too — you can’t just noodle away. It’s exhilarating to have those possibilities.
I’ve been listening to Charlie Haden playing with Ornette Coleman — I listen to that more than I’ve been listening to how the Dead do these songs. I recorded us playing “Bird Song” the other day on my phone, and it actually sounded most to me like a Lee Scratch Perry record. Bob was using a lot of big spaces and playing single notes and they were echoing all around and Jay and I were locked in this pattern. Lee Perry’s a good reference point for using space, but also taking you on a trip. I think we’re going to do that here.
JAMBASE: Do you see this as a one-off project?
DW: I’m having the time of my life playing with these guys. It’s going to sound kind of goofy to say it, but I feel like all the musical experiences I’ve had have led to this. We’ll see how it goes of course, but I’d sure like it to keep going.
JAMBASE: How do you choose to commit to projects? I can’t imagine this is the first time you’ve been asked to go out for five weeks, and doing that obviously means you take attention away from other things like, y’know, running a world famous record label.
DW: You do it for the exhilaration, no matter what you’re doing. For me they all kind of flow together — I don’t separate the experiences in my mind. I approach running Blue Note in the same way I approach the Wolf Bros. There’s not like some master plan: we do it and try not to run it off the financial rails.
But I don’t feel like I’m juggling. I’ve been up today and making phone calls for the company — sometimes I get more done in a hotel room than in the office [laughs]. But getting out there and playing every night, you stay in touch with the essence of what this business is about. The record business is about music and freedom to create things, and you can definitely lose sight of that, but at the core there’s always been a tense truce between the companies and the artists. You have to remember what it feels like to be out there, play and go on a trip with it.
JAMBASE: Are you feeling good about where you’re at with Blue Note?
DW: Yeah. It was quite a challenge — I was woefully underprepared. But I feel proud of the artists on the label and the things we’re doing. It’s not easy running a record company in this era and staying in business. You’re working every day to keep the doors open. So the fact that we keep going and can help the artists who are on the label is something I’m proud of.
JAMBASE: “Woefully underprepared” — what do you wish you had known ahead of time that you didn’t?
DW: That’s a really good question. I showed up at the Capitol tower one day and they gave me a parking space and a desk and a laptop and a phone. And I was like, what the fuck am I supposed to do? [laughs] But you learn. It’s not that complicated. You trust the conviction that if you make good music that comes from the right place — generous music, honest music that’s something intended to be received by the listener and enrich their lives, give them a thrill or provide some deeper meaning…if you approach it that way, you will run a successful business.
JAMBASE: What does 2019 hold for you?
DW: There are a couple of records I’m committed to making, and I’m guessing some great stuff coming out of Blue Note. But for now we’ll see how the next five weeks go.
JAMBASE: I imagine you’ve got a good sit-in story or two. What comes to mind when I ask “Don Was, great sit-in”?
DW: Let’s see. One of my favorites actually was at Hardly Strictly. I played the first true gig under my own name in my whole life. Really. I’ve always been in a band or someone else’s bass player. I put together my dream band, so it was kind of all sit-ins.
I had two amazing drummers, Terrence Higgins and Kendrick Scott, I had Terence Blanchard, one of the premier trumpet players of our time, I had Dave McMurray my old buddy from Detroit on sax, I had two singers from Was Not Was … it was a wild cast of characters. And then Bobby and Buddy Miller came up and we did “Days Between.” That was pretty killer, a real nice version of that song. But there was just a real nice mixture of styles in all the different musicians who were put together just for that one show. It could have been great or it could have been a total mess, and it gelled really well.
JAMBASE: Will there be more Don Was name gigs like that? Has it turned you off?
DW: [laughs] No, I enjoyed it. It gave me a sense … well, let me tell you, there’s a sound I’ve been hearing in my head for 30 to 40 years now, and I’ve never quite achieved it. I thought there were moments where we got there at Hardly Strictly.
Don Was And Friends – Days Between (Hardly Strictly Bluegrass) Captured by Ted Silverman
JAMBASE: What does that sound like in your mind?
DW: [pause] If Charles Mingus and George Clinton had a band together.
JAMBASE: Oh man.
DW: That’s the sound I was always hearing, and by the way, it’s also kind of the sound of Detroit. I grew up in such a great period of time in that city. George Clinton played a sock hop at my junior high school, they were The Parliaments then, it was like ’65 or ’66. And I used to see the MC5 all the time. The Stooges were at another high school. Man, you go through the Blue Note roster and an inordinate number of bands came from Detroit through the years. And that makes sense why Detroit wound up that way — people came for the auto factories after World War II and brought their cultures with them.
I remember one night where I went down to a local print shop and there were MC5 guys jamming with local jazz players. It was music that you never heard before — you had never tasted that particular stew, though you could identify its roots. I thought that was a real virtue. Doing that is not always encouraged from a business standpoint — when you combine stuff, it’s a marketing nightmare — but I think it’s such a great thing, to do something no one has done before. Hardly Strictly from me was a cavalcade of Detroit roots and it was something cool.
JAMBASE: So now that you’ve had a week’s worth of Wolf Bros shows and some really cool special guests, how’s this going for you?
DW: This is the greatest time I’ve ever had in my life. It’s just the coolest thing I’ve ever been involved with. It resonates on a really profound level as both a human being and a musician.
I think the biggest surprise for me was what it’s like to be on the musician’s end of an audience like this — to have that aimed at you like this. This audience is unbelievable. It’s just a tidal wave of good vibes and positive energy and that still surprises me. We talked last time that the audience is the thing with this, but it really is a communal experience — it’s like going to a really great church. It’s beautiful. These folks love Bobby so much and they love the songs, and love getting together with each other and meeting like-minded people. I don’t think people realize how enormous this is.
JAMBASE: And it’s that palpable?
DW: Ha, yes. Once I saw that for a few nights, I was like, OK, this is really not just about learning all the bass parts [laughs]. And when we strip it back as much as we have, that gives the audience a really unencumbered and intimate connection with Bobby that they normally don’t have, or haven’t ever, in some cases. Honestly, this is more intimate than it would be even, I don’t know, going to dinner with him. Like a lot of musicians, myself included, we come to life when we’re up there playing. You can get real close to Bob while he’s playing like this, and you can see in their faces what that does to people — they pick up on that intimacy immediately.
For me, I realized I shouldn’t be playing a million notes — I need to support this best by playing as little as possible, especially when Bobby is singing, and to leave all this room. I can hear his voice resonating around the hall. So that’s what this show has to offer: a real intimate glimpse of Bobby and these songs.
And Jay, man. We stay out of the way, but Jay is such a big part of this. I haven’t met someone who plays quite like he does — he swings like crazy, but it’s also just really easy for me to lock in to some part of the rhythm, and then the two of us create the right mix to let the voice be out in front.
JAMBASE: Any particularly great moments so far? What jumps out from the shows the Wolf Bros have played so far that captures what you’re talking about?
DW: We did “Stella Blue” the other night — it was the last song of the second set. I just let those notes ring, man. Something clicked. When we got to Portland, the three of us got together and listened to the Santa Barbara show. What we discussed was that even though we had stripped it down, we could strip it back even more. Portland, we did that. It upped the ante on leaving space out there.
Bob Weir And Wolf Bros – Corrina (Live In Seattle) Captured by Pete Smith
JAMBASE: Are you listening to all the shows and tinkering as you go?
DW: Oh yeah, absolutely. I love the nugs.net thing — I get it as soon as I wake up. What I think we’re all hearing is the things we’re doing right, which is a sense of the right dynamics for this setup. But we’ve realized we can do even more — play to the strengths of being set up like the three of us are. You can feel people respond to it when you step on the gas and when you hit the breaks, so I think going forward you’re going to hear us stay true to the foundation but work on the dynamics even more.
JAMBASE: Makes sense, and it’s seemed like that’s come into its own more with each show.
DW: Definitely man. Hey, you asked me about a sit-in story when we talked the last time. I have another one for you. It’s a recording session, though, not a live performance. Does that count?
JAMBASE: It definitely does.
DW: Alright, here goes. In the 1990s I was producing an album for Ringo [Starr]. We had Benmont Tench in there and Mark Goldenberg on guitar, and we said among ourselves, we should start a band with this!
We brought in [singer] Jonell Mosser, and I remember we wanted to have both a female vocalist and a male vocalist but we were having trouble locking the male vocalist down. We called Levon [Helm] and he said, yeah, sure, but then he was a no-show. Delbert McClinton came in for a session but it was really rushed and he was on his way back from Tokyo so he was kind of fried. Lyle Lovett came in and did some with us but he was booked for like the next two years.
We had a couple of gigs, including a Farm Aid, and it hit me that, man, Merle Haggard would be perfect for this. Through Willie Nelson we got ahold of Merle and he was into it. So me and Ringo and Benmont and Mark went up to Merle’s place near Redding [California]. We were just going to overdub him on some stuff we had already cut. He had this funky little ranch up there and I was honestly just picturing a chicken shack. Instead we got there and it’s this fucking state of the art digital studio! [laughs]
We couldn’t really play our analog tapes or overdub him on anything because of the setup, so we said fuck it let’s cut stuff. We cut a version of “Born to Lose” that was something else. And this whole thing just should never have happened like this, there was no reason for it to. I played Bob Moore’s bass. Bob was like THE Nashville session guy of the 50s and 60s and Merle had his bass, and also the engineer who cut a lot of the big Billy Sherrill records. So many of these guys were just up there at Merle’s ranch in Redding, hanging out and making records with him. So here I am playing Bob Moore’s bass, which is already a trip, and like three feet in front of me there’s Merle singing. Benmont and I were just looking at each other the whole time like, this is the most surreal session ever, and it’s fucking great.
We never put it out. This version of “Born to Lose,” sometimes I think it’s the best fucking vocal I’ve ever heard in my life.
JAMBASE: Will we ever hear it?
DW: [laughs] Maybe I’ll try to put it out on YouTube or something.
JAMBASE: Was there ever any more from that?
DW: Man, well, we called the band The New Maroons. We booked Farm Aid, and Merle didn’t show up. [laughs] So Lyle sang for him that day. We did another gig for Gorbachev or something, someplace, without a male singer, just Jonell on the vocals. Ringo and I talked about a little more, but then The Beatles Anthology work kicked in and he got really busy. We never got back to it.
The New Maroons – The Dark End Of The Street (Live At Farm Aid 1993)
JAMBASE: Ever any inkling that The New Maroons might try again?
DW: Well, Merle is gone now so that would be a challenge. And it wasn’t long after this that Ringo went into doing the All-Starr Band and that’s been kind of his main thing ever since. But never say never.
Tour Dates for Bob Weir and Wolf Bros