The Art of the Sit-In | Marc Friedman
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 Tom Hamilton, Rob Barraco, Eric Krasno, John Kadlecik and others.
Marc Friedman picks his spots, and this year, those spots are a typically eclectic mix of projects, from American Babies and work with Ryan Montbleau to the next phase of his ongoing collaboration with Big Light’s Fred Torphy.
We’re no closer to another reunion of The Slip; Friedman’s Slip mates, Andrew and Brad Barr, just announced a new album and national tour as The Barr Brothers. But like the unspecific, yet reassuring notes that appear on screen at the end of every James Bond movie, Friedman is sure The Slip will return.
JamBase caught up with the much-admired bassist and guitarist to hear about what the rest of the year holds.
JAMBASE: When we spoke with Tom Hamilton a few months ago, he told us he had the same reaction I think many folks did: surprise that you were freed up enough to take the American Babies gig full-time. What compelled you to join American Babies?
MARC FRIEDMAN: Well, the reality is I’m not that busy –I have plenty of time on my hands to do different things. American Babies was a no-brainer. I’ve known Tom and appreciated his music and personality for many years going back to Brothers Past, and when I heard there was availability, I was like, sure.
I lead a pretty simple life out here in San Francisco and it happened that I plenty of time to do a national six-week tour.
JAMBASE: You’ve played with a number of bands and in a number of different styles. What itch does playing with American Babies scratch?
MF: That’s a good point: there is a style there that I was interested in getting more into. There’s some free-form instrumental stuff they’ve been doing a little bit more recently – the band has been focused more on jamming and guitar-based instrumental explorations out of songs, and that was really appealing. But it was also that I hadn’t been playing a lot of live shows and I hadn’t been playing a lot of bass – I’d been playing more guitar. And I feel Tom Hamilton’s songwriting is excellent and I was digging on the album.
I think it was a departure, though; I went from playing guitar and writing songs to playing at least two hours of electric bass every night. I liked getting in that zone of playing, and it all just kind of fell together for me.
JAMBASE: Is that improvisational piece of it something you and Tom had talked about much before you joined? I know the shift in American Babies toward more live improvisation – beyond the more song-based band that it was before – happened fairly recently.
MF: It was actually something Tom had been injecting into the band six months prior to my arrival, or maybe even longer. The Grateful Dead is one of the earlier bands he ever got into, and even the roots of his songwriting and playing with Brothers Past…well, he had these cool apparitions inside that needed to come out. I think he’s been on that kick.
But, you know, music is music – people want to get involved in some different things once in a while and change up a format and that can be a very organic thing. Tom’s history, his playing, his involvement with JRAD [Joe Russo’s Almost Dead], these are good, symbiotic things.
JAMBASE: Is it safe to assume you’re into the Dead as well?
MF: It is a style that I’ve grown up playing and that I played in my high school years. Brad and Andrew [Barr] attended Grateful Dead shows; I never got to see them. I’d say Phish hit my ear with a bit more of a calling when I was younger. The Phish era – the younger jamband gods – that was very inspiring.
The Dead stuff I’m into because of their songwriting and where they come from. They’re an original institution. Sometimes it can seem a little unoriginal to play like that because so many acts are highly influenced by what the Dead did and also play their repertoire. But it’s a natural thing – I always look for progressions. It’s like church; I’ll play any music that makes people happy.
JAMBASE: Is it important to you to focus more on original music and original styles?
MF: That’s a huge, relative topic. I’d say I like a balance. But as a musician, I see myself a monk – some form of monk that if it involves Grateful Dead music or playing, I don’t know, the music of Blondie in a bar in Korea and if that’s what it’s about, then that’s awesome. It’s music. Sometimes it’s not the most modern thing but repetition can be a Zen-ful pattern – traditional folk or Dixieland music, stuff like that is all about telling stories that have been told before.
Music is storytelling. If the stories come from the past, well, fuck it, that’s where they come from. When it comes to my own songwriting, I lean a bit toward injecting something with more of a “2014, now” feel. But I also write tunes that have ska, or reggae feels. As a teacher, I would always tell students to be comfortable getting their hands on the roots of music, and to learn music chronologically to form your own voice in a modern setting. It’s always a delicate balance.
JAMBASE: Are you committing to American Babies long term?
MF: Well, I’m off for now. I did about half a year and I think I will come back to it at some point in the future. I loved being on the road, and being back in the Northeast and home state was of course really cool. But I also do have this newer vision of myself in San Francisco, focusing on things here. So I split this year up and who knows what it will look like next year. I like being a nomadic musician. My dwellings have ended up San Francisco and this West Coast existence.
JAMBASE: What drew you to San Francisco?
MF: First just kind of an inner yearning. I’d been an East Coast person my whole life but always felt like the Bay Area was a second home. Maybe it’s a slight mid-life crisis, and I can’t buy an expensive car, so I guess I chose to move to San Francisco.
I’ve been working for a while now with [Big Light’s] Fred Torphy and we have an ocean-side apartment and studio and we’re working and seeing what sticks. I’m sure we’ll be putting that on the burner and playing some shows. But I will be heading back to the East Coast, too, to do some shows with Ryan Montbleau. We’re playing Gathering of the Vibes and a few other dates.
JAMBASE: Well I was going to ask you about other stuff you have coming up, so let’s start there. What’s your history with Ryan? I know his longtime touring band broke up late last year and you guys also played together in Costa Rica a few months ago.
MF: My history with Ryan is that he seemed like a familiar face out there at festivals, and we finally got to know each other around 2009 or 2010. He was familiar with me because he had been to a lot of Slip shows, and we did one show with the Ryan Montbleau Band in New York at some point. But we got acquainted on Jam Cruise and at Jazz Fest, too, and I think it was last summer I poked him and I was like, if you ever want to do something, let’s do it. We’re both from Massachusetts and we’re homeboys. We’re starting to play together a bit. Gathering of the Vibes will be one, and I don’t have the exact details on the others. He’s a wonderful songwriter.
JAMBASE: Here’s a question I’m sure you’ve gotten before. What’s the future of The Slip?
MF: The Slip is in a long-form hiatus period. But we have a lot of love for each other and for that music, still. Do I see albums and tours in the future? For sure. Right now, we’re still taking a break from hardcore touring and work on The Slip. Brad just had a baby, you know.
We’re probably looking forward to something creative in the near future, and we talk about this every year. We get together, whether it’s for someone’s wedding or for a private show, and we talk a lot, and whenever we get together it’s like not a lot of time has been lost. On The Slip, the heartbeat is very slow, but it’s still there.
JAMBASE: That’s good to hear. In hindsight, why did you guys decide to step away from The Slip?
MF: At the point we stopped touring, we were all in our early 30s and we all realized that we were completely, umbilically tied to this thing, since we were freshmen in high school. How it should develop beyond where we were then was a little bit abstract to us. We simply wanted to say, hey, let’s see what else is out there – let’s see other people for a bit of time. That’s the state we went into and have been in.
We almost finished a record. We did get into this slow pattern of doing New Year’s shows or festival shows, and we did a lot of recording in Montreal, which is where Andrew and Brad live now. But there were different projects being developed, taking us in different directions. We all wanted those projects to get off the ground and to discover other sides of ourselves.
JAMBASE: So there will be a new Slip album at some point?
MF: Absolutely. Stuff is in the can. We’ve got about 25 tracks.
JAMBASE: What about Surprise Me Mr. Davis?
MF: That one in some respects is a similar discussion. Everyone is ready to do it again when the time is right. We’re all living out our solo project fantasies, and I’m sure when things come back in alignment we’ll do it again.
JAMBASE: But in the short-term it sounds like you’ll focus on your work with Fred.
MF: We have 10 to 15 songs recorded in demo fashion, and I imagine our next step will be a recorded project, releasing an EP, and that’ll kind of be our debut for this. That’s not to be said we won’t be playing around San Francisco, trying out different things to see what fits. It’s a modern kind of songwriting project. There are some instrumental sides to it, but it’s very composition-oriented. There may be some shows later on.
JAMBASE: Well before I let you go, I have to ask for a good sit-in story. You with another band, or someone with American Babies maybe, an old one, a new one: What comes to mind?
MF: There has been a lot of activity over the years, of course. Among the moments that stick out: a person we listened to a lot in high school was Oteil Burbridge when he was with the Aquarium Rescue Unit. He was definitely one of my favorite bass players, and there was a moment very early in our career when we had a co-bill with Aquarium Rescue Unit at the Living Room in Providence [in November 1997]. We were ecstatic going into that show, and Oteil heard what we were doing and he came up and sat in with The Slip. That was such an energetic and inspiring moment for a lot of us and to experience that when we were like 19 or 20 was quite a gesture. Oteil is a Zen master of the sit-in.
JAMBASE: I’m intrigued to hear Aquarium Rescue Unit. Phish wouldn’t be a surprise, but ARU weren’t as well known in the Northeast and don’t often get cited like that.
MF: Well it was definitely the Col. Bruce thing. Much like early Widespread Panic and the Hatters and all those bands, they got spread around the college circuit and you’d hear about Col. Bruce or have an older brother or something who would share that music.
Extending beyond that, John Scofield sitting in with us was a similar inspiring moment. He was someone we listened to for compositional and directional cues and so much influence.
JAMBASE: Two great memories. How about something more recent?
MF: I’ve been on the road so much this year, so it was exciting to sit in with Tea Leaf Green at Brooklyn Bowl. That was a real Johnny-on-the-spot moment, it was this freeform song, I think in the key of E, and it was just so fun. It reminded me of some of the old High Sierra and Berkfest moments of the past – it was fun to tap into that again.
JAMBASE: I still miss Berkfest.
MF: Oh yeah. Those were a sacred few years where anything could happen, and did.
Here are some choice Marc Friedman performances since 2008, which is when The Slip more or less went on hiatus.
Marco Benevento Trio, The Stone Church, Newmarket, NH, 5/5/2010
Marco was keeping his trio lineup fairly fluid for a while, and among Friedman’s stints in the bass stead was this potent gig from 2010, which also features Slip mate Andrew Barr.
The Slip, Brooklyn Bowl, Brooklyn, NY, 7/14/2011
The Slip reunited for the briefest of East Coast reunion runs in the summer of 2011, and this show in particular is a tantalizing reminder of what we’re missing in a relatively Slip-less existence. The band played several new songs, a few rearrangements of older songs, as well as staples like Children of December and Get Me With Fuji. The cherry on top is a sit-in from Sam Cohen (Apollo Sunshine, Yellowbirds).
Jerry Joseph, Wally Ingram, Marc Friedman, The Jewel, NYC, 9/17/2011
Friedman joined Joseph and Ingram during pre-and post-Widespread Panic concert cruises this night, performing as a sit-in guest on the early cruise and for the entire show on the late cruise. Torqued-up and exciting.
Big Light, The Independent, San Francisco, 12/4/2011
What was originally billed as a solo Fred Torphy gig opening for Marco Benevento became a full-on Big Light show, with Friedman, Jeremy Korpus and Bradley Bifulco. Not a bad place to start if you’re less familiar with Big Light music and the band’s later lineup.
The Slip and Surprise Me Mr. Davis, High Sierra Music Festival, 7/2012
The Slip were a High Sierra staple, and that they weren’t on the bill in 2013 – and aren’t again at this year’s installment – is a little disconcerting. Still, we have several strong of performances from 2012 to relish: the laid-back afternoon SMMD set, a more intense SMMD late-night set featuring a sit-in from Josh Clark, and an hour-and-half of Slip featuring a standout Cumulus among other choice jams.
Ryan Montbleau, Jungle Jam, Docelunas Resort, Jaco, Costa Rica, 1/19/2014
Ryan Montbleau’s been keeping his options open since his longtime road band broke up in late 2013, and Friedman – along with several members of that former road band –was among Montbleau mates in this pickup group at Jungle Jam back in January. This is a fun one – a festival pile-on that includes sit-ins from Zach Deputy and Dopapod’s Eli Winderman.
American Babies, River Street Jazz Café, Plains, PA, 4/18/2014
A nice representation of what the American Babies sound like in the Friedman era, weaving in and out of Dead classics like Scarlet Begonias and New Speedway Boogie with Hamilton’s sturdy originals. Check out the progression of “Boy > Scarlet Begonias > Red Eyes > Scarlet Begonias” to close the first set; “Red Eyes” is a War On Drugs cover debuted that night.
The Slipping Daylights, Higher Ground, Winooski, VT, 5/5/99
We try not to look too far back when compiling The Dossier, but with a boatload of vintage Slip appearances having turned up on torrenting sites in recent weeks, we’ll highlight an all-time favorite from 1999 in Vermont. The Slip play a set of era-typical mindbender jams, steeped in jazz fusion, and then join forces with all of The Living Daylights – Jessica Lurie, Arne Livingston and Dale Fanning – to get suitably weird.