The Art Of The Sit-In | Reed Mathis

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Words By: Chad Berndtson

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 Adam Deitch, Neal Casal, George Porter Jr., Jason Hann, Jason Crosby and many more.

Reed Mathis claims he’s never been as busy as he is right now, but really, it’s tough to remember a time when his name wasn’t part of so many bands or impressive jams.

[Photo by Sterling Munksgard]

A classically-trained musician since the age of 4, Mathis came up as a bass player and built a name in the scene behind his 15-year run in Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, before leaving JFJO in 2008. Over the last decade, he’s been turning up practically everywhere –with Steve Kimock and his various bands, with Grateful Dead drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart and their projects, as a regular with Marco Benevento, as part of countless one-offs and spot gigs with groups like Everyone Orchestra, and since late 2007, as a member of Tea Leaf Green.

But it’s two newer bands that have Mathis fans buzzing and will claim much of his time in 2015: Golden Gate Wingmen –an outfit pairing him with John Kadlecik, Jay Lane and Jeff Chimenti, and Billy & The Kids –the new Kreutzmann band that debuted at Christmas Jam last December featuring Mathis, Tom Hamilton and Aron Magner alongside the titular drumming legend.

Both the Wingmen and The Kids will make long-awaited East Coast debuts over the next few weeks, including Billy & The Kids shows in Ardmore, Pennsylvania and in Port Chester, New York later this week (a webcast of Billy & The Kids in Port Chester is available via Nugs.TV. On top off all that, Mathis also has a solo album –his first –waiting in the wings behind his commitments to these groups, his regular appearances at Phil Lesh’s Terrapin Crossroads in the Bay Area and his ubiquity as a collaborator and sit-in guest all over the country.

Hear from Reed as he riffs on each of these varied projects, as well as reflections on his many years in the scene, including his time with Jacob Fred:

JAMBASE: So everyone’s buzzing about Billy & The Kids and I wanted to hear how this came together. You’ve played with Bill Kreutzmann a bunch already though.

REED MATHIS: 7 Walkers was the first thing I did with Bill. I was in like four bands that year, so I had to cut something. I knew I’d work with Bill again but that band wasn’t exactly a perfect match with me anyway and it worked great with [George] Porter [Jr.]. But Bill, I just adore him. He’s an amazing human being. Everybody knows he’s a great drummer obviously, but he’s a great guy, and I think I’m even more glad that I’ve made friends with him than I am that I get to play with him.

JAMBASE: When did you first meet Bill?

RM: I met him a couple of times before where we didn’t really hang out. The first time we really hung out, I’m not sure, I want to say Telluride and the first 7 Walkers show, even though I don’t think it was called 7 Walkers yet. Papa Mali had put the gig together. That was the first time and we were there for a couple of days and stayed in this big condo and just started getting to know each other. Later on he flew me over to Hawaii to hang a few times at his place, and whenever he comes to San Francisco we go out and eat. He’s legitimately become a friend. And with Tom [Hamilton] and Aron [Magner]…this is a really unique band. I never would have thought to put it together like this, but the chemistry is off the hook.

JAMBASE: How did Bill pitch this band to you? What was that thing that got you guys together, if there was one?

RM: The thing we all have in common is Benjy Eisen, who’s an old friend of mine, old friend of Tom and Aron’s, I think everyone knows Benjy! [laughs] But Bill and I had talked off and on about doing more stuff –we’d get together once or twice a year and maybe do a one-off with Scott Murawski or Lebo or Kimock or something. But we’d talked about getting a band together, and when Benjy and Bill started working on Bill’s book…well, Benjy grew up with Tom and Aron, and at first I remember when it was being discussed, it was like, what would be the dream team? This is two years ago. And at some point he said, you know what would be crazy? Tom and you and Aron and Bill in a band.

And then it was like, well, let’s fucking doing it! They were interested of course. We did a little dry run and at the Christmas Jam and I’ve never seen Bill play that well. He stepped up and he seemed super-inspired and the chemistry, like I said, was just crazy. We weren’t sure it was going to be a thing, but if it’s working, you figure out how it might be done.

JAMBASE: I know you can’t speak for Bill but what do you think excites him about this so much? I ask because he’s been pretty vocal when he has done interviews –and folks who have played with him have certainly said –that after all those years in the Dead he’s not interested in gigging all that much and it takes a lot to get him to return from Hawaii to play regularly.

RM: Yeah. But I think it’s like this. You can only keep a creative person like that out in the middle of the Pacific for so long. He’s a brilliant artist and also has a lot of combustible energy. He had some trouble with his elbow last year or the year before that hampered his playing and then got really healthy, and you know, it’s just time for it. I think it’s just time for it. Everything goes through a cycle and he just feels like doing it.

I’ve seen him go back and forth too. I’ve heard him throw out some big ideas and say we’re going to do all this stuff and then later on go, yeah, we’re not going to do that. And hey we’re not doing like this three-month long tour. It’s mostly festivals and week-long jaunts –we’re not going to get all Furthur on it at this point. But who knows? If it presents itself, maybe we’ll talk about it. We’re doing that Merriweather gig, Dear Jerry, we’re doing Vibes, Peach Fest –mostly just surgical strikes. That’s his thing and that’s the way he wants it: it’s the perfect amount of gigging for him. And besides, me and Tom and Aron, we have a lot going on –a lot! I’ve never been this busy. I’ve been doing this 20 years and I’m still getting new experiences all the time, that’s pretty amazing.

[Photo by Stewart O’Shields]

JAMBASE: It’s interesting to hear you talk about how Billy & The Kids came together and became more gigs because it seems like Golden Gate Wingmen happened in a similar way. John K told me recently that you guys played together kind of as a lark, and then the gigs went well, so then came more gigs, and now there are a lot more gigs and you’re bringing Golden Gate Wingmen east this summer.

RM: It’s true! No one did this on purpose. I’ve known John [Kadlecik] and Jay [Lane] for like 15 years or something. Jacob Fred used to open for Dark Star Orchestra in like 2000 or 2001. I’ve always liked and admired John. He put together one show at Terrapin [Crossroads] last fall, and he didn’t want to play by himself, so he got us together. I didn’t really know Jeff [Chimenti], I didn’t know what to expect, but it was insane. It was one of those gigs where you just come off it and you’re like, what just happened? Like you just woke up. So yeah, we booked more stuff, did a West Coast run, and we’re really excited. And not only are we excited, it seems like there are rooms full of people excited for this band.

JAMBASE: So there’s more coming?

RM: Yes. There’s a pretty frantic email chain going around with everyone’s availability, but everyone is really in. I didn’t think it would be the case because surely everybody’s busy, Jay and Jeff have all this going on and there’s no way this is going to work for schedules. But between that band and Billy & The Kids, I really get to do my thing and be who I am. Sometimes I do gigs where I’m more of a traditional bassist, you know, and there’s not much I can do beyond that. It’s rare to be playing in two bands with real peers where there’s no hierarchy and I can be me.

JAMBASE: Neither band focuses only on Grateful Dead music but there’s of course a strong Dead flavor to each. Do you have a long background with Dead songs?

RM: I don’t, actually. I’m an anomaly in the scene that way. I grew up in Tulsa, and I have to say there weren’t a whole lot of people listening to it and you know the Dead didn’t come through Oklahoma really after 1979 or whatever. Of course i was aware of it, and people would play it around me sometimes, but it never caught me until one night when I was touring with Jacob Fred.

We used to prefer driving after gigs, so this was the middle of the night, like 4 a.m., 5 a.m. and I’m falling asleep, and our sound guy suddenly cranks the music really loud. I’m in that twilight, almost-sleep zone but I’m listening to this record and suddenly I’m awake again and I’m like, who the fuck was that? And he was like, are you kidding? No, I’m not kidding. That’s the Grateful Dead! [laughs] And I’m like, wow, no wonder so many people like this shit. After that I got a little obsessed. I have my favorite 1980s shows and I got super geek with it starting then, but I was in my thirties before I really got to know that music.

JAMBASE: What did the sound guy play?

RM: Oh, it was Blues for Allah. And then later I did a tour with Kimock and he had a recording engineer with him, Charlie Miller, who is a real scholar of Dead music. I asked him to give me his best show, and told him that I like Charlie Parker and Jimi Hendrix and Aphex Twin, so give me something I might like. He gave me his recording of the Watkins Glen soundcheck. And of course I was blown away. And then [DSO’s] Rob Eaton later gave me his Cornell remaster, and that was amazing. I was sold.

JAMBASE: I have to ask, given what a big year this is in the Dead world, has Kreutzmann talked at all about the 50th and what he’s thinking?

RM: We talked about it a few weeks ago, a little bit. It’s going to be pretty intense for those guys, oh yeah. There will be so many people and so many cameras and it’ll be so super-intense and he was kind of like, “OK, here we go, I guess we’re doing this. It’s really happening.” But he’s excited, too. And I saw Mickey [Hart] on Wednesday and he’s super stoked too. I mean I think they’re super excited. Trey’s [Anastasio] excited –he’s like giddy excited. And Jeff’s kind of taking it in stride. He’s cool as a cucumber, that guy, although he probably knows that music better than [Phil] Lesh and [Bob] Weir do at this point [laughs]!

JAMBASE: Reed, I want to switch gears just a little bit because there are so many other things on your lineup card. Talk about Tea Leaf Green. What’s happening with TLG at the moment?

RM: We’re in a holding pattern. We’re sort of on hiatus. I’m not exactly sure what’s happening in the TLG world. We all got together recently for a band meeting, which really means we just got drunk and laughed a lot. But we’re sort of taking a year off. I didn’t want to, but I was out voted. I’m an addict of playing and I want to be out there and play, but some of the other guys felt it was better to take some time. I’m sure there will be more stuff and we are doing a week of shows in April, which will be great because we haven’t done any shows since Thanksgiving. But the first thing I did when it seemed like we were going to take time off was work on finishing my solo album. I tried to channel my anxiety into a creative project and we just finished mixing it last week. It’s a new solo album –my first.

JAMBASE: This sounds like something you’ve wanted to do for a long time.

RM: Yeah, I’ve been working on it for like three years, and how I did it was to record me with my friends at their studios, on their home courts. Every track on the record is me with a different group. I did Page [McConnell] and Mike [Gordon] at the Barn in Vermont, Stanton Moore and [Robert] Walter at the Galactic studio, Marco [Benevento] and Joe [Russo] in Brooklyn, Mike Dillon and [Matt] Chamberlain in Seattle. The idea was to record everyone in their natural habitat and put that all together.

JAMBASE: Wow. I think for some folks that would sound like a jumble but for you and all the people you’ve played with and different scenarios that’s as cohesive a single “Reed Mathis” statement as anyone could think of.

RM: That’s true, yeah! After doing this for 20 years, I’ve got friends all over the place and know all these people with drastically different styles and backgrounds. But then there’s a lot of overlap, too, and every musician I worked with has something in common with another musician. So I wanted to get all these players on one record so I could highlight that it’s not all that different and that the same concept would work with all these different players even though there would be differences in style.

[Photo by Andrew Blackstein]

JAMBASE: What kind of material is on this record?

RM: I did Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony and 6th Symphony, so it’s a double record. Each section is a different group. I had to cast it almost like a play. I’ve known many of these Beethoven songs since I was a little kid so I thought, maybe I’ll get those guys for this, or these guys for that, or maybe this part sounds good for The Barr Brothers. I matched the energy of each section to the players I got, and it turned out fucking amazing. There’s this one track that has Gordon and Russo just going to town –Russo was bleeding all over the drum kit at the end of the day. It’s borderline psychic bass and drums, him and Gordon are just so tight together.

JAMBASE: Well, hey, Reed, we can’t wait to hear this. [laughs]

RM: We just finished mixing it last week. A couple of labels are interested in it and I’m doing all that work myself. I’m going to play it for a couple of people who have expressed an interest, but you know, how does this stuff work? I’ve made a lot of records but have always just sort of handed it off. Not sure. Unless something crazy happens, I like the idea of giving it to Marco’s label, Royal Potato Family. That’s where a lot of my friends are.

But no matter what happens I’m super proud of it. It’s definitely the best playing I’ve ever put on a record of my own instrument. I am hoping it comes out this summer, but do release times even matter?

JAMBASE: It doesn’t seem like it these days.

RM: Right. I remember coming up in the 1990s and all the supposed strategy behind when things were released. That stuff always baffled me. It seems like if I’ve learned one thing over 20 years it’s that there wasn’t much truth to any of that. It’s a big ocean. Go in it and go swimming. Don’t get a heroin habit –that’s something that’s true. But go on out there and get into it.

JAMBASE: Reed, you’ve worked with so many folks but one of the first associations people would still mention when asked about you is Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey. Are you in touch with Brian [Haas] at all?

RM: I’m not really in touch with Brian, no. I’m probably his biggest fan, though. We basically grew up together. I was 17, he was 18. He’s a huge part of my life. We’re not really in touch these days but I’ll tell you what, I listen to Jacob Fred several times a month. I’ll put on one of our records, and that’s still some of my favorite music ever. Brian and I made music for our own religion. It was this soundtrack to our own personal revelation. I’m not sure that music ever affected anyone else as much as it affected us.

I assume Brian and I will reconnect at some point –at least we’ll sit down and have a beer or something. We haven’t hung out in like five years, and that was after we hung out every day for 15 years. Literally every day, we lived together, we logged more time together than either of us has ever logged with anyone. There was a natural crop rotation to it. At some point it became time to step away.

JAMBASE: You know I have to ask you for a sit-in story. You with someone else or someone with one of your bands –I have to think you have a few!

RM: Ha, for sure, and I love that kind of stuff, if, for no other reason, it’s guaranteed spontaneity and risk. That’s my favorite thing in music. Improvised music is risk. My favorite one recently was EOTO. Michael [Travis] and Jason [Hann] were in San Francisco and they invited me down to the gig –they played at the Independent, which is my favorite San Francisco venue. And they were like, hey, bring your rig. And I was like, my whole rig? They were like, oh yeah, bring the whole thing.

They had me do an entire second set with them, all improvised. They’re geniuses at that, man. I don’t even understand Michael Travis’ brain. He’s multitasking on a level that baffles me. It was insane and very blissed out, and that kind of group improvising can either be the greatest form of it there is, or it can be a total nightmare. Truthfully, if it’s a nightmare, you blame the guitar player [laughs]. But there was no guitar player in that –no chance for it to become guitarded. We just fucking took off, and the place was sold out and everyone was dancing –it was like a 90-minute song. I wish I got to do that more often. I get to do Everyone Orchestra and a lot of very improv-heavy things, but those guys in EOTO just go at it like predators. It’s not gentle. It really reminds me of what we wanted to do with Jacob Fred back in the early days –just jump off the cliff and go. So that was awesome, it was in January. We just fucking got down, and they were like, you should come on the road with EOTO, and I laughed and I was like I don’t think your fans would appreciate that!

JAMBASE: Is there anything we haven’t talked about that you’re working on now? I feel like I’m going to kick over a rock and find another band you’re in.

RM: I’ve also been playing with Keller [Williams] lately –it’s so fun playing with him. It’s been me and him and Allie Kral and sometimes Vince [Herman] and Jeff Austin. We’ve had some amazing sessions together, all without a drummer — it’s basically me being the drummer.

[Photo by Suzy Perler]

JAMBASE: Is this a whole new band?

RM: No, no it’s just sort of Keller and Friends, I guess. We’ve only done a few festivals and it’s some combination –[Bill] Nershi did it once with us –with me, Keller and Allie. We just get down. It’s so much fun. I wish I could do that all the time, just for my technique. Keller and Allie play so fast. I did not grow up playing bluegrass, man. Those guys play fast. I have not been in a fast band before. We played fast phrases in Jacob Fred, but this is like a runaway train, playing this music. It’s super scary and I think this is the most challenging music I play right now. There’s no drummer, again, so the buck stops with me. I actually have to be a grown man in this and hold it together [laughs]. I have responsibility. Maybe that’s how drummers feel all the time.

But that’s that –Keller’s band, and apart from all these bands I’m playing at Terrapin all the time.

JAMBASE: It’s been amazing to watch the scene that developed there, and the musicians that play regularly not just in the Grate Room but in the bar.

RM: That bar, man. That bar. There are like 40 or 50 local musicians and now it’s this collective. Every night of the fucking week there’s a different combination of that pool of players. I’ve basically played with all of them at this point. I did a night of Bob Dylan with Scott Law last week and then we recently did a Dead night with Grahame Lesh. It’s that kind of stuff. They just put it together. It always cracks me up when someone walks up to us in the bar and they’re like, what’s the name of your band? This band has 50 members, man!

Phil is the patron saint of the San Francisco area music scene right now. I tell him that every time I talk to him, and I’m like, you don’t even know what you’ve done for this community of musicians. But he actually does know it. He’s into it. That’s the beauty of it.