Jeff Sipe Of Ashes & Dust Band
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 our recent interviews with Eric Gould, Tom Constanten, Col. Bruce Hampton, Jennifer Hartswick and more.
Look to where the heart of the action is, and chances are you find Jeff Sipe.
The longtime rock, jazz and fusion drummer, 56, has seen plenty of action in his many decades playing music and at the moment he’s been part or about to be part of two of the jam scene’s hottest tours this year: the Aquarium Rescue Unit reunion, which wrapped after 15 action-packed dates this summer, and the Ashes & Dust Tour, in celebration of Warren Haynes’ Americana album of the same name and featuring a band that includes Haynes, Sipe and the Nashville-based string band ChessBoxer.
Sipe spoke to JamBase from the airport ahead of tonight’s Ashes & Dust tour opener.
JAMBASE: You go back a ways with Warren, right?
JEFF SIPE: Yes. We met in the early 1990s when ARU was traveling. I got to know him, and he revealed a deep cat. Warren knows so much about music. He’s a true musicologist – he knows where things come from. I remember at the time, we were listening real heavy to Charlie Christian and bebop cats, and I remember we talked to Warren about that, and he was like, oh yeah, this and that, and that song came from so and so, and that song they wrote for so and so. It always astonishes me how much he knows.
JAMBASE: When was the first time you played with Warren?
JS: It must have been a sit-in situation, probably at a festival, possibly during the H.O.R.D.E. Tour. Man, I’ve been playing more than 44 years, and since 1983 professionally, so a lot of those memories are way back in my head, you know?
JAMBASE: How did you and Warren connect for the Ashes & Dust Tour? I know you spent time together in the Jerry Garcia Symphonic Celebration but this is obviously something different.
JS: He asked me if I’d be up for it, and I just had to clear a few things off my calendar. I really didn’t know anything about what he was trying to do with this, but I said yes anyway – any opportunity to work with Warren is a great opportunity. He’s a great musician to play with and also a great hang.
So he filled me in on his ideas, and I thought this was interesting, him going from a heavy rock thing with the Mule to something that was a little lighter, with acoustic instruments. But after our first rehearsal, what I realized is that this is no less rocking – it’s just with different instruments. And the ChessBoxer guys, they have an incredible chemistry. It seemed at rehearsal like they were really of one mind. Coming into that first rehearsal, everybody got along and it just felt like a very natural fit. This is very friendly and laid back, with lots of smiles.
JAMBASE: I know Warren was hipped to the ChessBoxer guys by Bela Fleck, but did you know them before?
JS: No. After talking with Warren for the first time about this, I got online and started checking them out on YouTube. I heard good things.
JAMBASE: Has there been a lot of rehearsal ahead of the Ashes & Dust Tour?
JS: We did three days of rehearsal, about five or six hours each day. We touched on about 45 songs that will be included in this first go-round of the tour and we settled on about 25 to start out with. The idea is to keep rehearsing during extended sound checks so we can build a songbook as we go.
JAMBASE: What appeals to you most about playing this type of music?
JS: Being a real dynamic drummer, I enjoy playing all the way from zero to 10. In a lot of heavier situations, the softest you can play is like a five and you go all the way up to 10, or maybe 11 on a good night. But in this situation, I think we can really use a greater range of dynamics. We have string instrumentation and acoustic instruments such as mandolin and banjo, and between them and me and Warren there is so much potential. Coming from a drummer’s perspective, I love the ability to play brushes in places and then go to sticks for the heavier stuff.
JAMBASE: You and Warren spent time together in the Jerry Garcia celebration as mentioned. How was that experience?
JS: It was one of the great thrills of my lifetime, having two, back-to-back years of touring with a giant orchestra, and hearing the more tender, beautiful songs from the Garcia songbook fully orchestrated. I mean, it was really thrilling and beautiful – I would get goosebumps listening to it every night, and how delicate and how powerful it could be.
What I learned is that I can be more dynamic in that situation than at any other I’ve played in before. It was OK to play at a whisper and OK to play at a roar, all at the appropriate time of course. I was locked into the conductor and locked into what the ensemble was doing and enjoying degrees of accelerando and ritard. Once I realized that the conductor was queuing the orchestra to follow the drummer, it was like a license to play my heart out. At first that was pretty intimidating and then I realized I knew what to do.
JAMBASE: You had a healthy command of the Dead material from Phil Lesh & Friends and other associations, but did any songs in that format reveal new things to you?
JS: I think some of the interludes that were orchestrated for the songs did that to me. What we had was a power trio, with myself, Lincoln Schleifer and Warren, along with two incredibly gifted backup singers. It was nice to be able to play along with the songs but also sit back and listen to the spots where it was just the orchestra.
You know one of the frustrating things was that the audience, not quite knowing when to clap, would cover up some of the delicacies of the songs. We might be improvising or playing as the band, and then we would stop – the drums would stop – and the audience heard that happen and it would applaud and some things the orchestra was doing would be covered up. So the challenge became to orchestrate in such a way that the audience would hang on just a little bit longer before exploding.
You can’t really control that audience, though. That’s a phenomenal audience, worldwide. They express their love for that music. It was a really, really special experience.
JAMBASE: It definitely felt that way. I caught one of the Boston shows.
JS: Those were definitely great experiences, getting to play with Keith Lockhart and the Boston Pops. Keith was such a gentleman – what a pro, man. I’ve been very lucky to have these experiences.
JAMBASE: Speaking of your experiences, let’s turn to the Aquarium Rescue Unit reunion. Is it accurate to say you all were having a lot of fun with this?
JS: Yes, very accurate. This is best friends coming back together after a whole other lifetime of experiences. That last time we really toured was 21 years ago, so this was us coming back to sit on that bike again and find the same chemistry. But of course in 21 years, everyone has had so much personal development, on a human level and on a musical level. So it was just inspiring – “inspiring” is the right word here. I look to those guys as my brothers, as major influences in my life on a lot of levels, and what an honor and privilege to be part of that again.
JAMBASE: Has there been talk of another ARU tour?
JS: Indeed there has been. Everyone enjoyed this one and wants to do it again next year if we can. Fall looks like the most likely time period and we’re talking about a possible co-bill with John McLaughlin’s 4th Dimension band. The first show of our 15-show run was the Paul Reed Smith party and I got a chance to play with John. Wow, I mean, wow. I was a teenager skipping school to come home and practice to his records. I’m still not quite over playing with him yet.
JAMBASE: Was there any discussion of Matt Mundy joining the ARU reunion?
JS: There’s always talk about that. He has made his decision that he wishes us well and that he’s happy doing what he’s doing.
JAMBASE: Oteil has the Dead & Company tour coming up. Jeff you’ve been in that stead, having played with Phil and those guys. Jimmy too. What’s Oteil getting himself into?
JS: [laughs] That’s a question he should answer. I’d love to hear him answer that.
JAMBASE: Was it you who suggested ARU add “Dark Star” to the repertoire this tour?
JS: Well, it was Jerry’s birthday, and we thought – wouldn’t it be great to do something totally unexpected? Any Grateful Dead tune coming from the ARU would be something unexpected, though maybe only in the old days now that three out of four of us have toured with members of the band. It was a tribute, out of respect. We decided “Dark Star” would be a lovely thing to do.
JAMBASE: I have to ask you for a recent sit-in story, though I feel like the John McLaughlin jam is probably what’s on your mind.
JS: Oh yeah. Like I said, I’m still not over it. And when Dennis Chambers came up on the second drum set, I looked around, I’m in the middle of some of my favorite musicians on the planet. The adrenaline and joy that kicks in – I can only imagine that this is what Olympic athletes feel like when they do something big.
JAMBASE: What’s going through your mind in a situation like that? Do you hang back? Do you vibe off Dennis?
JS: If I was sitting in with his band, I’d be tiptoeing around him most likely. I thought he gave me the same respect. He was supportive, but when it was time to go, he went, and we looked at each other a lot to make sure we were still on the same page. Physically we were separated by sound and distance on stage, but even when watching his hi-hat, we were respecting one another in a very playful way. I’d go after something, and he’d play something awesome, and we had a little back-and- forth. It didn’t go too long, but I listened to it after, and I watched the video, and I was like, aww, man, we could have gone on longer.
It reminded me of what a pro he is, and why he’s a favorite of mine.