Bob Weir graciously took some time out to discuss various topics with Dave and Allison Rosenberg at the GDP offices in Marin County on June 3, 2005. Many thanks to Bob and Dennis McNally. Photos by and copyright Bud Fulginiti, Dave Rosenberg, and Alan Hess.
Let's dive right in talking about RatDog. First of all, if you would just talk about where you found these guys and what they bring to the table—what makes them the guys.
Okay, well, so it started out Rob and me as a duo—Rob Wasserman and me as a duo and we played that way for six or eight years and then one day I was working on a project—the Satchel Paige project—and we needed a drummer to put down a tune that we'd written, and it was a tune that was written in sort of a late 40s torch song style. And Rob had just done—I think he had done a commercial for Levi's the night before with this drummer that he'd been working with, so he said, "I know this drummer that I met last night and he was pretty good. You want me to give him a buzz?" and I said, "Sure." And so Jay came up and did this session with us. The next morning, I called Rob and said "Hey, listen. That was kind of fun yesterday. How bout we take a drummer on our next tour?" and he said he was just thinking the same thing. The next tour didn't happen, but we started working together and booked another tour, and we were working with Jay at the time and we were about to go out on tour and my old pal Matthew Kelly came through town. And he was just sort of footloose and I said "Hey, you want to come out with us? You want to come sit in with us?" And that worked so we had a little quartet and we took that on the road and we, let's see what did we do, we first added Vince but that didn't work out so well. You know, with Vince on keyboards, so we were thinking we need to fill this out a little bit, fill out the sound. So Matthew had just heard that Johnnie Johnson was available and so that sounded intriguing, playing with the father of rock n roll basically, so we added Johnnie Johnson for about a year. And in that year we also added Dave Ellis on sax. The band was sort of finding a direction. It was an amorphous direction at the time, but you know we didn't want to be a blues band per se and for a while with Johnnie in there we kind of were to some degree, but with Dave we were headed in other directions. I don't remember who came first, Dave or Johnnie actually. It's fuzzy. I think it maybe….
I think it was Johnnie.
You think it was Johnnie? Okay. Anyway, so we were just starting to step off a little bit in Dave's direction, often to the jazz MO, and Johnnie didn't go there all that readily, so we figured okay, let's get another keyboard player to play when we're playing that stuff and we'll sort of cameo Johnnie when we're doing that stuff—the stuff that was closer to where Johnnie lived. And we tried Mookie Siegel, and that almost worked but it wasn't 100 percent click, and Jay and Dave knew this guy who lived locally, which figured into my—one of the problems we were having with Johnnie is that he lived in St. Louis, and in order to have a rehearsal we couldn't just get on the phone and say "Hey, let's get together and rehearse tomorrow." We had to book him weeks in advance, and this guy was local—Jeff—and so he came in and he worked to take us in the direction that Dave was sort of leading us in—Dave and Rob—and I was pretty readily going there myself. And then he would also play minimal parts when we were playing the stuff that was more Johnnie-centric. And Johnnie more or less fingered Jeff, and Johnnie said "You know he's your boy." And I think Johnnie realized that we were headed in a place that wasn't going to be all that comfortable for him and he would have to burn the midnight oil to learn these new modes, and I don't think that was the right thing to do with him. I was prepared to just keep Johnnie in the band and have a portion of the show—sort of a revue—where we would feature Johnnie and the stuff that he was, like I say, centric to. But there was the other tough business of, you know, he was getting on in years and it wasn't all that easy to watch. Just getting him on and off the bus, he couldn't get into a bunk, he had to sleep on the.... We didn't want to shorten his life and it seemed that he was better suited to going to New York and having a pickup band play the Johnnie Johnson songbook or go off to Australia, which he often did—or once a year he'd go off to Australia and they had a pickup band down there who knew his stuff. I heard some recordings. It was great. And that was it seemed to me a better thing for Johnnie to be doing than…. He liked playing with RatDog, and we loved playing with him. Regardless, he was rehoisting his own flag, and it seemed to me that that was a better thing for him to be doing. It was more a meaningful for him to be out there doing his thing because he had to re-sort of-emerge as basically the father of rock n roll as we know it. Now, I have a truly narrow definition of what rock n roll is, and it's not what most people think, and I won't get into that right now but he was the guy who put shuffle against straight. He was the guy who did that. It's a wonderful thing that he did, but RatDog wasn't really exactly a rock n roll band. We learned while we were playing with him how to play rock n roll with authority, and it's something that we'll always dearly cherish, that ability. That's not all we do. We also play stuff that's various kinds of fusions and it just seemed to me that Johnnie was best.... You know, rather than try to teach the old dog a bunch of new tricks, he should be showcased. When we came through St. Louis with the Dead or with RatDog or whoever, we would sit in with him. Maybe if he was doing a gig in New York and I was coming through town, I would sit in with his band and bring some of the guys or whatever and that worked out kind of well actually, that whole approach. Johnnie got to do his thing authoritavely and we got to go and chase whatever whim caught our fancy, and Johnnie didn't have to travel quite so much and quite so hard and it all worked out well. We were dear friends right up until the end. I was on the phone to him for a bit—just call each other and check in all the time. We had a lengthy conversation a couple nights before he died.
Anyway, so then Dave Ellis left the band. He just really didn't—you know some guys aren't born for the road and it didn't look to me like he was. I loved playing with Dave. He was great in the music but the road, it was killing him. And he was getting married or he got married and he was—you know. His wife got pregnant and he was looking at living a more fixed life, and so, you know, I actually tried to talk him out of leaving the band and I probably wasn't doing the right thing there, and he, I think, had a better notion of what he was up to than I wanted to hear about and so we replaced him with Kenny who's the greatest thing since canned beer and—you know, Kootie Brooks, spelled with a K by the way, and that's worked out well for us.
Then the rhythm section wasn't tight enough at that point. Given the size of the band this was something that was beginning to emerge was that Rob was the wrong kind of bass player for that size ensemble. Rob is great, but when I was with Rob he was my whole band, and that was what impressed me about him was he could do all this stuff, but all this stuff that he does gets lost in a larger ensemble so we decided that Rob and I are going to play in small ensembles together, and the band came to me and sort of forced the issue, and I said, "Okay, well I'm going to talk it down with Rob." And we worked it out so, for instance, I'm going to be touring India next year with Rob and stuff like that. We have a little ensemble that we've sort of thrown together—a couple of Indian musicians—a sitar player and a tabla, and we might try to drag maybe DJ Logic into that, but I don't think its going to want to get much bigger than that. We played a gig the other day—a couple weeks back and it worked out real well.
Just you and Rob?
And the Indian guys. And me and Rob sort of opened that thing and we brought the Indian guys on, so we'll be doing that kind of stuff, and me and Rob is going to be more necessarily experimental, which is what that outfit should be and we're going to be as avant-garde as we possibly can.
And you're doing that next year?
A little bit of that next year.
Well this year of course is a huge anniversary that everyone is talking about—it's the 10th anniversary of RatDog.
What's going on for the rest of the year?
We got not a whole helluva lot of gigs this summer—a number of them—and then next fall we'll be doing our standard thing. I don't know how much of the northeast we're going to hit next fall because we just hit that in the spring. I think we are going to be doing the west coast and southeast and the rest, that kind of deal.
Any thoughts about New Year's yet or does that come later?
We've got our best guys on it.
So you've got the mini tour coming up with Hornsby, a few shows in the northeast after y'all haven't played together—at least in public—in five years. How did that come together?
I think John Scher, who handles Bruce, and it just seemed like a good thing to do.
And how are the shows going to be structured?
We're going to get there when we get there. I've been told that Bruce is going to open and we're going to close, but I think that something more interesting can be done if we put our heads to it.
Do you ever put any input into how tours get booked—regions, cities, or specific venues that you do or don't want to go to?
Well, there are certain venues that we do or don't want to go to, like you say. Some of them just sound-wise are impossible. There was one place I can't remember—don't even want to remember where it was—that the bass bins were under the floor, and that's where they had to be in that building. I don't want to play there anymore 'cause I can't hear myself singing over the bass, and it's no fun at all. If we're not having fun, we're not doing our jobs, and it's not possible for me to have fun there.
How about opening bands? Any feeling on those?
It's interesting every now and then and I like it every now and then. And the bands we've been having for the most part we've been lucky with. As it is now, Hornsby's opening for us on a few shows, but that's an opportunity. That's not just an opening band being force-fed into the situation so we can sell more tickets. The situation is rife with collaborative opportunities. And then at some places where there's a situation where we might be able to play multiple nights in a given venue. If the promoters think we need to put an opening band in there so that we can go multiple nights, I still think that's a good thing to do, 'cause multiple nights we get to settle into a place, we learn a touch, we develop a touch for the room and the audience. Audiences are as different as the rooms are in different towns and you learn how to work them or work with them.
Are you with them that you'll wind up selling more tickets with opening bands?
I'm not sure. I'm in no way sure that that's the case. But I'm willing to in some circumstances if it doesn't cut our show down too much. Like two hours isn't enough time for us to play. That two-hour show in Boston—I wanted wring my own neck when we were walking off stage. You know, I was loaded and primed and the show was over. It takes me a couple hours to get—I'm used to developing a show where in the last hour or so is when you deliver the mail, and that opportunity didn't come around that evening.
Has there been any talk among y'all of doing a DVD release for RatDog?
We were just talking about that this morning. Right now we're recording our shows live and distributing them, and its not going to take much for us to expand that facility to be able to record 5.1 and do some film as well. One of the things that we're thinking is on some of the shows that we had last tour, we had the light show going on behind us. And one of the things we thought of is we could be interspersing photographs that we take 'cause everyone's got a camera. We can just be doing that. We could have a camera going around backstage during vocal rehearsals and stuff like that. We thought about maybe getting a blimp with a camera on it or two on them and floating them around the audience and mixing all that up in the show behind us. If we're going to do that, if we bring a guy who's a fast hand at editing, we could be putting out DVDs. I don't know if we could burn them on the spot. That might be ambitious, it might not be. I'm not sure. It's maybe the kind of thing we could only be doing, say, once a week or once every other week while we're on tour. I don't know. We're looking into that. But one of the things that's kind of exciting is that the live DVD market is opening up. Kids these days are buying—they like live raw DVDs. It's a big market and we should be doing that. We've got enough creative minds and we could be doing fun stuff like that and offering them at modest prices and enough to just get that thing going so that we could prime the pump for other sort of DVD offerings. There are a couple of directors—Hollywood guys—who expressed considerable interest and they've been flogging me actually about doing some. One of the guys, for instance, he's sort of a B movie Western director—that's his realm of expertise—and he has all kinds of contacts down there where he could get a DVD done very cheaply. We could take a couple of tunes and storyboard them and actually go down to film them. That would be a lot of fun, and do some of it in 16mm, some of it in digital video, and make it really interesting. You know, music is my life, but I have a couple of hobbies and some of them are more visually oriented, and if I can carve out some time in my schedule to pursue a couple of projects like this, I'm going to have to do it 'cause I've got all kinds of stuff. Jerry and I used to—we storyboarded our videos. We used to do that, and we used to have a lot of fun. We got better and better at it. Unfortunately we didn't put into finding the proper direction for those videos that we put into the storyboards. Actually, the one on stage with all the skeletons came off pretty well, but the other ones were done sort of in-house and were nicely storyboarded, but the finished product didn't have the look and feel of what we had in mind—what we were going for. Though it followed lick for lick, it was not lit right and all that kind of stuff. The film wasn't grainy enough here and there. Stuff like that.
How are things going with RatDog Live?
You mean the live offerings we've been doing?
So far so good. We don't sell out every night, but we come close every night.
Do you see continuing that the way you are or pursuing other technologies?
Well we've taken maximum advantage of the technologies available. To my knowledge we're still the only ones doing it, and I guess the Pixies were doing it but they bailed. And I don't know who else. I don't know why other bands aren't doing this, but not a lot of other bands do a totally different show every night, and so the market for live recordings of the shows night-of is not so big for other bands. If you're doing a note-for-note show, there's no market for a night-of recording. There is for us 'cause at this point we go for a week or two before we repeat ourselves and you never—we never know what kind of show we're going to come up with, so it makes sense for us to do that and we sell them. And it might make sense for us to go to DVDs as well, either 5.1 or just superaudio or the whole deal. You know, put some video content. I think we can do that. Like I say, we had a meeting today and that was one of the topics that we explored in some depth.
You said in an interview recently that you love football because "everyone's got their specific assignments and places, then the ball is snapped and everything goes to hell."
Now, you go from city to city, you go into a clean concert hall, everything is calm.
People start filing in, they stand around and talk to their friends, then y'all start playing and everything goes to hell.
Yep. We've got our nice neat little song list—setlist—and all that kind of stuff.
Yeah, nicely typed on a little sheet of paper.
Have you come to terms with the immeasurable power of the music you make and the chaos that it leads to?
Well, you know, I came to terms with that years and years ago back with the Dead early on. You know, the Dead bailed on writing setlists, and the setlists have come back around for a number of reasons. Number one, we've always been working new guys into the band. And secondly at this point, I'm trying to retain 160 songs in my head and sometimes I need a little help. I need my cheat sheets. And I need the cheat sheet out there on stage if I want to go to a song that we've just been working on. That said, I'm working with a software designer right now to be able to call up my cheat sheets in real time. You know, scroll through a bunch of stuff. If I get a notion or if I hear a song knocking on the door—we're in another song and a song is knocking on the door that wants in in the next slot, I'll be able to scroll to it and bring it up if I need to do that. And so technology may serve us in this situation where we may be able to pretty much blow off the setlist at some point, and we're working towards that. But the chaos factor in general—I mean our setlists are often as not a pack of lies anyway. And even if we go religiously through it, what comes up in the songs by virtue of the fact that we haven't played a song in a week and a half, two weeks and this is our last chance to play it for another week and a half or two weeks before it comes due up in rotation again, we put everything into it and we're not bored with it and we almost necessarily are going to hear new things and new places to take it. This is something the Dead were doing way back when and RatDog's able to do that now. We have been for the last two or three years.
On that topic about songs that kind of come and go, I just want to ask, off the top of your head, if you're going to do some songs again. Twilight Time?
On the Road Again?
Yeah, I keep forgetting to work that up. If you would remind me, that'll happen.
Heaven Help the Fool?
I've got to rework the lyric on that. I can't sing that lyric any more. I never was comfortable with that lyric and I don't think we nailed what the song was about, so I've got to get back with Barlow and rewrite it. I know that's not done, but I'm going to do it.
Dark Hollow. Yeah, we might. I was just listening to that the other night and I think I might do that one again.
Book of Rules?
We actually worked that up. The trouble with Book of Rules is to do it properly, it has to be in the key of F# the way the original version by the Heptones was, and boy, that's a reach for me. The song is so high that there are nights that I just can't sing it. We may bring it back up, but rather than put the work into that one I'd rather put the work into writing new stuff.
Big Iron may come up again
Beat It on Down the Line?
I burned out on that one.
Esau's another one like Heaven Help the Fool. The lyric is too damned opaque it bothers me. I know what I'm singing about, but I'm not sure that the lyric gets that across. Barlow had to explain it to me. He shouldn't. When he was writing, I was there in the room; I mean we both wrote lyrics to it. But that's something I've got to work out with Barlow. And if it's too obtuse, unless I really really love it and don't mind it being obtuse, I'm going to have to stand my ground and say we've got to define this a little better.
Me without You?
Bye and Bye?
Not my best tune.
Monkey and the Engineer?
I play that for kids when the kids come over. It's a kids' tune.
You soundchecked it last year.
Yeah but I'm not sure that—I play that one when my kids bring kids home from school.
Welcome to the World?
Nah, once again the lyric didn't gel.
That one's fallen by the wayside?
Yeah. There are all kinds of mouthfuls in there. I can't make that one live.
She Says is one that's become a favorite and it didn't make it onto Evening Moods.
You know, I'm glad it didn't make it onto Evening Moods 'cause in the meantime, it's grown considerably and it's become sort of a high request item now. We'll record it and put it out. I'm not sure what format 'cause I don't know if we're ever going to make another studio record. That said, this meeting that we had this morning was about that as well because there may be no need to make another studio record.
Where did She Says come from?
I wrote the music for that 20 years ago, and it's just been hanging around. And then three or four years ago—four or five years ago I guess now—I met this guy through Narada Michael Walden who's a lyricist, a local guy that he works with. And I gave him this little quip of music. He took it home and came back with the lyric. And I was sort of astounded. It was good. I'd like to work with the guy again. We just haven't recorded it 'cause we haven't gotten back to recording yet. That's probably first on the list or one of the first on the list.
You said y'all are going to start writing some music for RatDog?
Yeah. Really what's happened is over the last three years—actually now it's going on four—we had to move out of our house, which means me out of my studio, to do a big remodel. The remodel is done now and we're moving back in, and when I get the studio sorted out and up and running, then I'll start writing again.
There seems to be a consensus among fans that this last tour there was a real sense of rejuvenation. Do you agree that this was a special tour you just came off of?
Not entirely. I think that the band has been headed in this direction for the last few years. I think we're on a trajectory that if you like what you heard, do come again because I don't see that losing any momentum.
You've mentioned that the goals you set for yourself are sometimes scary but when you're facing those challenges is when you feel most alive. How are you still finding new goals?
Every 30 seconds brings a new challenge when we're on stage, or even when we're just in the rehearsal studio, refining something, finding that one note that if placed in the right place will open a new door, learning to sing a song better, when I'm singing a song discovering an aspect of the character that's actually singing the song that I didn't know about. You know, it's not unlike acting, singing. If the song is character-driven, and most of our stuff is, you study the character. I'm not singing the song. That's not me. That's somebody that the muse wants everybody to meet.
How about long term goals?
We talked about.... Some of the stuff I'm going to keep under my hat, like some of the tunes we're working on. Word will get out anyway. But a near term goal is over the summer to get back to writing so that by the time we get back out on tour in the fall, there'll be hopefully a substantial new body of material that we'll be recording. We'll be making a record at the same time 'cause with today's tech you can do that. you can get a good performance of something on a given night, but there are little flaws or repairs or additions you want to make to that—you can do that in soundcheck the next day, and then the quality of the recordings we're making, it's on a par with studio recordings anyway. It's just a matter of bringing it home and mixing it very carefully, which we never do on the road. We actually could mix it on the road. I don't think anyone's really ever going to find time to do that 'cause you got to have time breathe out there. But we get home if we have a bunch of new tunes we want to get mixed down and make a record. That's the near term stuff. In terms of musical projects, there are some amorphous ones that I have in mind that we'll get around to. They tend to be like songs or more like song cycles, like little suites of one sort or another. We're trying to figure out if we're ever going to put out another record. 95 percent of music sales is still CDs. I can't relate to that 'cause I haven't bought a CD in a long time. I go online to get my music.
You talked about going to see Count Basie not long before he…
He checked out, yeah.
Is it still your plan to play for the next 50 or 60 years?
I got nothing better to do. It's all I've ever wanted to do. I decided I wanted to be a musician and a singer when I was eight or nine years old. And the more I do it, the more into it I get.
Do you mind talking a little bit about the musical relationships you've had and how they've affected your music? For example, Wasserman.
Wasserman. There's not a lot to say about me and Wasserman that isn't evident in the music. It was just something that we met each other, started playing.... And he listens to everything I'm doing, I listen to as much of what he's doing as I can and still grapple with remembering words and stuff like that, and its cool having a band that's one guy making all that noise, but whatever corner I can turn, he's there and sort of leaning in another direction oftentimes at the same time. I'm looking forward to working with him a bunch.
How about Donna Jean?
Donna Jean. We have a project end of the summer, sort of a Jerry remembered deal, that I think were going to be doing. A bunch of folks I think are going to be involved. I think we're going to do it over at the Greek, and I think Donna Jean's going to be one of them. She's great. I love her. Wonderful human.
It seems that you exploded in the 70s. Your songwriting, your vocal improv, guitar style, getting Bobby mojo going….
In the 70s? I don't know what happened. I wasn't aware of any sort of impetus. I was just doing what I do. The more you do it the more into it you get. And if that means moving around…. It's a matter of getting the song off the ground and flying. That's all that's all about.
Dylan. Of course you play a whole lot of his songs—you play the hell out them. What's the big connection there for you?
The guy just rings my bells. I remember when I was 15 years old listening to him. You know, you'd put the record on and you'd listen to it, and I would be completely transported elsewhere and then at the end of the record there'd be the sadness about knowing it was going to be most of the year probably before he'd put out another record.
Are you going to try to get with him where you can have some rehearsal time ahead of it?
I'd love to do that.
You've played a whole slew of incredible guitars and it seems every couple years, one pops up and another one drops off. What draws you to a guitar and causes you to set another one aside?
Any of a number of things. I had that Telecaster that just sort of fell out of the sky on me. It's a long long story and I think has been in a couple of books—too long for here. A new guitar sort of changes my notion of orchestration and voicing and all the kind of stuff. It's nice to have, and I've got that collection of guitars. I've got them all and they're all hanging on the wall, or at least a real good collection of them is hanging on the wall in my studio. At some point I'll start one by one dragging them back out on the road.
Do you spend time playing around with them?
Oh yeah, all the time.
You talked a while ago about playing banjo. Are you still doing that?
I got to get back to it. I got a banjo hanging on my wall too.
Any other instruments? Piano?
I got a piano finally and I just sort of bang around on it.
See yourself getting up like Dylan and playing it on stage?
No, I don't imagine that.
Has anything been happening with the Satchel Paige project?
Yeah, I think we may have a director and it may happen. At this point I just don't have the time to keep flogging it to see if it.... You know, it's been twelve or 15 years that we've been pursuing that now, which is in no way unusual. It's more or less the standard deal for a musical theater piece that it generally takes that long for it to get together. And like I said we have a director who's indicated interest and a theater group that wants to workshop it. It's a matter of getting that to happen.
Have you considered keeping some sort of journal, not about what you're doing day-to-day, but just about your thoughts? You've had some very deep discussions about music.
I don't know where I get the time. I tell you what. One of the things that I may look into it this summer is getting some sort of voice recognition 'cause I don't type very fast. I can't even read as fast as I can type—dyslexia—but I'm thinking of getting one of those voice—well actually I have a voice recognition setup. I just have to find the time to get it working for me. At which point I might start thinking about that. And I may do a little writing as well.
Well, at some point I'm going to have to get around to it. There's a story to tell.
Would you mind talking about some of your outside interests? Physical activity?
Well I try to mix it up. The best exercise is yoga that I've been able to ascertain. That said, I do all kinds of stuff. I run, I bike, I lift weights, I play tennis, play football. For starters.
How about spectator sports?
Every now and again, I'll go to a ballgame. Not that much; not that often. I watch football in the fall 'cause I love the game. Like you were saying, everyone has a neat and precise role or assignment given a play. And the ball is snapped and it's pandemonium. It's the ultimate team sport 'cause there are like ten other guys on your team working against eleven guys on the other team, and that's a big team and everyone's doing something meaningful at once. That's a lot of fun. And the better a team is—a good team will always beat good talent and no team.
True in music too?