Established musician Reid Genauer is embracing his arrival to the West Coast with gusto. The Assembly Of Dust and Strangefolk front man recently relocated from New York to the San Francisco Bay Area and has been busy gigging all over northern California in recent months, including multiple dates at Phil Lesh’s Terrapin Crossroads in San Rafael. Genauer is also celebrating the release of Assembly Of Dust’s latest offering Tales From The Oregon Trail, a romping live journey through some of the beloved jam band’s strongest material, recorded in Portland, Oregon.
Below, Genauer speaks with JamBase about the new album, his musical influences, and the on-stage prowess of his AOD bandmates.
JamBase: Assembly Of Dust’s lineup has evolved in recent years with the addition of multi-instrumentalist Jason Crosby, who plays keyboards and violin, and drummer Dave Diamond. How have their contributions changed the sound of AOD?
Reid Genauer: Dave is a fantastic drummer and a songwriter himself. So he gets it. He knows where and when to jump in and to sit back. Kind of like reading text out loud from a book: you can give several people the same paragraph to read and they are all going to read it differently and deliver it with elements of their person, cadence, voice, emotion, etc. Dave is really great at interpreting songs and inserting his perspective into the delivery in general, and my songs specifically. We also have a similar musical worldview and aesthetic. What’s more, Dave and Jason have been friends for at least two decades, so they are really locked-in musically. Similarly, John [Leccese], Adam [Terrell] and I have been playing together nearly as long as well. So it’s nice to have these two different modules of performers in the band who inherently understand one another, and in turn, all play off each other comfortably and intuitively. Regardless of history, it certainly doesn’t hurt that those guys are all burning musicians.
Jason is a natural. He has perfect pitch and is by most definitions a virtuoso on violin and piano. He also sings and plays guitar. He’s just super musical and a tasteful performer. He’s one of the best rock piano players and certainly one of the best violin players out there. Period. Plus, he’s just a gentle, wonderful person. His playing is not egotistical, emotionally or musically, in any way. As an aside he actually doesn’t play the violin — it’s a hybrid of a viola and a violin. Freak of nature!
One nuance in relation to my songs and our playing is that we tune our guitars a half-step low. When Jon Trafton and I started Strangefolk in the 90s, we wrote our songs a half step lower because we thought it was easier to bend the guitar strings in order to realize optimal psychedelic “strange” folkness. There’s less tension on the strings, which allows for more electric-like bends and accentuations. So now all these years later, I’m amusingly stuck with a hundred songs that are tuned lower, and that wind up being in these slightly odd key signatures. So as a result, for a piano player, basically that means they need to play like all black key notes on the piano, which is tough. It’s even worse for the violin, since there are no frets. The fact that Jason can play my songs in key with intonation is a small miracle, really.
JB: How did having Mark Karan as a “sixth member” of the band on the new live recording Tales From The Oregon Trail effect on-stage chemistry?
RG: At one point there is a moment of stage banter on the recording where Adam Terrell refers to it as “Guitarmageddon” and I reference Skynyrd. But the truth is, it really wasn’t either. Mark is singing from the same rhyme book. He did his homework and really knew all the songs and more to the point, he gets the intent. He did a great job of finding his place, texturally, rhythmically, sonically and melodically. Some of my favorite parts of the recording are the interplay between him and Adam doing Allman Brothers-like guitar harmony. In fact, on “All That I Am Now” they pay nice homage to “Ramblin’ Man.” Mark is a pro. He’s someone I have wanted to play with for a long time. I’m glad we’ve gotten a chance to know him and that the run of shows he did with us are captured on Tales From The Oregon Trail.
JB: You’re a New Yorker recently relocated to San Francisco, with experience playing live on both coasts. How do West Coast audiences differ from East Coast audiences?
RG: I remember feeling when I first started performing out here that West Coast audiences had less energy. But that’s actually not accurate. It’s just a totally different energy. On the West Coast, you definitely get less talking and less hollering from the audience, which feels to a New Yorker like something is amiss. The reality is that the audiences are more attentive, more attuned. On the East Coast, audiences are typically more raucous and more celebratory. New Yorkers will make up for the fact that they’re talking over your ballad by screaming at all the right parts, and really rewarding your playing with body language and verbal encouragement. Neither is better, really – just different. Kinda cool, these subtle differences in the collective state of mind.
JB: You cite the Grateful Dead as a major musical influence. What period of the Dead do you particularly admire?
RG: Like many Deadheads, I like the 70s. They are flat out one of the greatest American rock bands and they were on fire in the 70s. What I love about them is what I call quiet intensity. Sure, they were loud, but they didn’t win the audience over by being loud, they won the audience by being authentic. I suspect that in addition to copious amounts of LSD, that the West Coast vibe that I described earlier played a role in their approach to performing. It sounds cliché, but it’s true they were part of a social experiment of sorts, and in some ways were a social experiment unto themselves. And their music reflects that. There will never be another Grateful Dead. They were a singular possibility born out of a time, place and mixture of personalities. If you look at their early 70s albums, like American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead, it’s pretty much pure Americana and folk. To me, that’s an area that made them so wonderful. And I feel that it is reasonable to try and borrow from that era, so I really try to emulate certain elements of that in my music. And then, of course, layer in some blazing guitar solos, along with the willingness to take musical risks onstage via improvisation, and a big buzz — and you have stew that owes its stock to their recipe.
JB: With so many musicians helping to inform your music, what makes your sound uniquely your own?
RG: First and foremost, it’s not uniquely my own – it’s the sum of those influences and of the musicians with whom I make it. The primary statement I wanted to make with Tales From The Oregon Trail was that without me in the mix, Assembly Of Dust is a blazing band. That point often gets overlooked with the emphasis that I put on songwriting and lyrics. That said, what makes my music uniquely mine, regardless of how it is musically informed, is a spoken and unspoken emotional authenticity. I write about what I think about, and in sharing that perspective in an unvarnished way, certain people feel genuinely connected to the music, to each other, and I suppose, in a sense, to me. You kind of have to dig past the more overt layers of rock music to find what I’m describing in me or in any rock musician – it’s subtle – but again I salute the Grateful Dead. With them — and [Jerry] Garcia in particular — the subtlety was so magnificent that to the right person, listening in the right way, those nuances became the roar.
JB: When you write a song, are you consciously seeking to create sections that will provide for maximum shredding opportunities?
RG: [laughs] Yeah, I put on a mustache and a leather vest and practice the tunes in the mirror for maximum shreddingness. Nah, those sections present themselves. To be honest, I think one thing we can work on as a band is finding ways to break the chord structure more in the improv to give the songs a little more room to breathe, or work on orchestrating musical sections that are less tied to the core song. But in general, all it takes is for me to step off the mic and voila, notes go a flying.
JB: You played recently with Phil Lesh — what was that experience like? And you’ve also been performing more frequently recently with some of the top NorCal musicians running in the Terrapin Crossroads/Dead circle … what have you learned from them?
RG: I really owe Jason Crosby a big thank you for that opportunity. I know a ton of the guys up here in NorCal from humping it across the country all these years, but there is a tight-knit community, a bohemian resonance of sorts, that is booming in Marin, and Jason re-introduced me around when I landed here last year. To his credit and theirs, I was met with open arms. What can I say about Lesh? As a kid, he was an awe-inspiring personality in a band that I loved. As a more seasoned musician now, I look at him with a different kind of awe. He is an incredibly creative, inventive and determined musician. Dave Schools from Widespread Panic interviewed him at one point and said to him, “Phil, I’m a bass player — what are you?” Largely it’s Phil’s musicianship, his spirit, and his vision that have created the rich scene in Marin. Toss in the Dead’s history here, and with [Bob] Weir and the Sweetwater close at hand, and it’s on. Phil has a Johnny Carson-like approach to the upstarts. He kind of watches from afar and asks you to come sit in the chair when he’s sufficiently moved. I respect his taste. I’m not 100% sure what he makes of me, but what’s really cool about all the guys that play up at Terrapin and around Marin, is that there really is a community. It’s not like “I’m in this band and you’re in that band” and we give each other high-fives as we get off stage. No, it’s more like “Hey man, we are all coming from the same place and we have a petri dish, let’s make some music together, see what grows.”
In fairness, the Dead’s songbook is a comfortable platform for the players and the audience to jump from, but there is all kinds of sprouts and musical fungus growing from elsewhere too. Endless combinations and collaborations. I have played a few gigs with some of the Terrapin troublemakers: Ross James, Ezra Lipp and Brian Rashap, and more recently with Scott Law and those dudes are like “send us a set list and the songs and we will meet you on the stage on the downbeat.” I feel lucky to be a part of it. What have they taught me? Well, Craig MacArthur – another local Terrapin Hobbits — says “keep it casual.” I think that’s a good mantra. There’s a tendency to be really hard on yourself when you play a gig, or to put some huge expectation on a performance and that expectation impacts the outcome. The light-heartedness in keeping it casual is part of the tradition that has grown up around the Dead, and most importantly, it has a home and a longevity in the hearts and minds of the people who make it and who listen to it. These guys have reminded me how lucky I am to be a part of that tradition, and to have music as a part of my life experience, and they have reignited my inspiration to keep it casual and kick some ass while doing so!
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