The Toni Brown Band Logo - Click for Home Page
Home Page | Album Info | Bios | Concert Dates | Toni's Videos | Listen | Contact Us | Toni's Journalism | Repertoire | Reviews | TBB News | Venues & Performance History | Toni's Photos | Links

Zen Tricksters
Watch Me Pull A Rabbit Out Of My Hat
By Toni A. Brown

The Thai restaurant just down the street from Wetlands is a favorite pre-show eating and meeting place for bands appearing at the popular New York City club. Wetlands has featured the Zen Tricksters uncountable times, and Thai House seemed as good a place as any to catch up with the band, even though it wasn't scheduled to play that night. During our leisurely conversation over curry and noodles, some folks from the next table approached and asked the name of the band. Founding guitarist Jeff Mattson and keyboardist Rob Barraco affably gave the band's name, and were greeted with an enthusiastic, "Wow, we saw you at the Crystal Ballroom in Portland [Oregon]! We've got tickets for you there this New Year's Eve! What are you guys doing here?"

The band couldn't have planned a more perfect set-up in light of the recent national recognition it has achieved. The Zen Tricksters has been part of the New York music scene for as long as most of us can remember. Having previously been known as Volunteers, the name change did little to offset its recognition amongst East Coast fans. As a matter of fact, the new name actually served to bring fresh attention to the band.

In the past couple of years, the Zen Tricksters has taken its music on the road, gaining it national notoriety...without record label backing. The grass roots efforts that have recently helped launch the band nationally all came about with a natural ease that isn't surprising in light of the band's long-standing commitment to playing the music it loves.

Here, Mattson and Borraco discuss the music and the muse, and share some insight into the band.

Let's start with the history of the band. You were previously known as Volunteers...

Mattson: Volunteers started in 1979. They were actually together about a month before I joined, but they weren't really doing much. Right from the get-go, it was a band about playing Grateful Dead songs. It was a few months before we started playing original stuff, but that was the idea right from the start. Of the members from 1979, only I remain to this day. People have come and gone, but we've got a solid lineup now.

About nine years ago, we became the Zen Tricksters. We needed to come up with a name that wasn't so widely used already. There was a band on Arista that was called the Volunteers. The University of Tennessee Marching Band is the Volunteers. Everything in Tennessee is the Volunteers and, of course, the Volunteers of America. We had done a trademark search and got back 50 pages of people who owned the name already so our lawyers said, "Change the name. Just come up with something nobody else has." So we came up with the Zen Tricksters.

You've had an evolving membership. Jennifer Markard was in the band for a long time, so you had female-based vocals-songs that were written with a female vocalist in mind. She also did a lot of the writing. How long was she with the band?

Mattson: She probably did it for about ten years, beginning in the Volunteers days.

There weren't a lot of women in "Dead cover bands." It gave you a different slant, which helped keep you from being called a "Dead cover band" quite so blatantly. But also, you always had original material in your sets so you were able to back off from that "cover" stigmatism.

Mattson: Over the years, we also played what we like to refer to as the well-chosen cover that was not a Grateful Dead song, something that we could take very much in the spirit of the Dead-a Beatles song, a Dylan song, a Traffic song, whatever, and interpret it our own way, do our own version of it.

There was a point when you said you wouldn't be playing Dead material anymore.

Mattson: There have been periods in the band's history where we wondered if we were ever gonna get credibility as an original band as long as we were playing Grateful Dead. We always enjoyed playing it. It's tremendously fun music to play, but in the music industry, we always got written off as "Oh, that Dead cover band," as if anybody would sign such a beast.

There have been times when it's been a topic of discussion and we thought if we really want to go for this, maybe we need to try to get away from playing the Dead. We were never really able to do it because that was so much a part of our identity and what kept people coming to see the band-we would have needed to be braver than we were. (Laughter)

Barraco: There was a point, though, for a little while that we were doing more original stuff than Grateful Dead-especially when we played out of town. Like when we played up in Portland, Maine, we were noticing that people were reacting more to what we were doing than the Grateful Dead tunes. So that was encouraging, but then, just as we were really getting on that roll, band members started leaving the band and we had to go through the whole process of relearning all the songs-the originals, the Dead repertoire and all the other tunes we did, and that really stifles your growth-going back to square one every time.

Mattson: Yeah. Every time we would get our original repertoire up and running, someone would leave the band and it would be back down and build it up again.

Barraco: We finally found a drummer, Joe Chirco, who's not only a great musician and a great drummer, he also loves the kind of music we play and we've never had that before. We've had some great players, but they didn't see eye to eye with us musically.

Our current bass player, Klyph Black, and I have been friends since we were eight years old and when I got him in the band, it just clicked. He's an amazing person and the nicest guy in the world.

Mattson: Plus, another thing happened. When Jerry passed away, there became this tremendous need for people to get together in the Grateful Dead's name on a regular basis. They weren't getting it at Dead and Jerry Band shows. I guess some people were finding that same kind of fellowship at Phish shows, but there's a lot of people who don't find that to be the same thing. There's such a love for the music, the need to hear those tunes. In modesty, a lot of people tell us we do it really well. People come up to us every night and say that it helps fill that void for them. For us and a lot of people, playing the Grateful Dead became a resource instead of being just a novelty.

Ironically, around when Jerry died, you put out a record with all originals. That was really a departure from your standard live show. It was a great potential tool for you. You have such a strong individual sound, and here you are doing Grateful Dead songs.

Mattson: We never stopped doing both. As the band played, went on the road, really went out there and played the stuff every night, over 200 gigs a year, the original stuff became well-integrated into the sets, seamlessly slipping from Dead songs to originals. It is a little hard for us to see 'cause being right there in the forest, so to speak, it really feels like it works together well.

Barraco: The other factor involved in playing the Grateful Dead is economic. The band is pretty much everyone's sole source of income. If we were to become an all original band tomorrow, we'd have to stop traveling because we wouldn't be able to afford to stay on the road. I don't think there would be as much focus on the music and the band as there is now. We're together all the time, we're playing all the time and it makes the music, for me, so much more special.

Mattson: This highly improvised music we play relies on developing inter-musical bonds between musicians, this sort of intuitive ability to second guess what the other person's gonna play and respond to it before they play it. In this kind of music, nothing can substitute for playing as much as we do. Sometimes magic happens when you play with people the first time, but on a consistent night-to-night basis, nothing will do it better than playing together all the time.

Barraco: I've been playing with Jeff now for over eight years, and we have this unbelievable connection. We can go there in a second.

Mattson: It doesn't even involve eye contact. I hear a note and know that Rob's going to a different mode or key.

So you're still able to find different territory in the same ol' Grateful Dead songs-still able to churn up some magic.

Barraco: Yeah, there are definitely certain tunes that when we play them, sometimes I think, "Yeah, one more time." But the majority of the tunes, I find stuff to play all the time.

Mattson: You've got to do it on some levels to keep your sanity. It's absurd in a way, but there's a lot of Grateful Dead songs that I'm sure I've played more than the Grateful Dead. I'm not bragging about that, but you've gotta find ways to keep that fresh. Part of it was also having a pretty large repertoire. There are very few Dead songs that we haven't played.

Barraco: We can go almost a week of playing without repeating a song and still do a good show. That keeps it fresh.

Are you still coming up with originals? Are you actively writing?

Mattson: We are. We have a few that we've been taking on the road that are coming out really good.

What were your intentions for your album?

Mattson: We wanted to have a way for people to become familiar with our original music so that, hopefully, people would start coming to our shows requesting our songs.

Barraco: We knew we'd have to address selling it through magazines and at shows. Then we got a lawyer on the case, and he started to send it to different record and production companies.

Mattson: The quickest way for an original act to get some credibility is to say, "Well, here. We have a CD with all our original music." We also went into making it with the attitude of not trying to second-guess commercial constraints, like needing a hit single. We wanted to make a studio CD that represents what we do live, what we're about. We put as much of it down with all of us playing in the room at the same time as possible.

Your record was a departure because it wasn't as much Grateful Dead inflected as someone would think it would be. It was more avant-garde improvisation than a psychedelic era improvisational approach.

Barraco: We didn't go into it with any preconceived notion. We just basically played the way we play. I guess all of our influences are evident on the record.

Mattson: Yeah. I think that Rob is an amazing jazz keyboard player, and he brings that to it. My father actually pointed out to me that when you listen to us, because it's only a four-piece band, his personality gives a jazzy inflection to it, right off the bat. And like Rob says, very much in the way the Dead were, everybody's coming from their own personal musical discipline. Obviously, there's always common ground, or we wouldn't be playing together and that's what makes it interesting-a melting pot. I'm a jazz fan, too, although I'm not coming at it so much as a jazz guitarist.

What are some of your influences?

Mattson: I have really eclectic tastes. Everything. Aside from Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir, and the classic Eric Clapton and Santana people, I love Richard Thompson and Ry Cooder. They're probably two of my favorite guitarists. I love everything from Indian, world music to bluegrass. I definitely have a strong folk and acoustic part of my musical personality.

Barraco: I've never seen anybody with such diverse tastes as Jeff.

Mattson: I think a nice by-product of it is that it all becomes part of your musical personality, but I don't do it for academic reasons. I just can't get enough of all these great sounds that I hear from all over the place.

Rob, what are some of your influences?

Barraco: Early on, the typical rock bands I was growing up with like Led Zeppelin, the Dead, the Allman Brothers, the New Riders. Poco was a big influence for a while. Then I got turned on to McCoy Tyner and then John Coltrane, and that was it. I delved into it wholeheartedly and pursued the whole jazz thing for a long time. Right in the middle of all that, I was going to school up in Sullivan County and a couple of my friends and I started a band.

These guys were really into bluegrass. I was playing keyboard at the time, but I also played guitar. We met this unbelievable banjo player, and that summer I went home and practiced five hours a day on acoustic guitar. I came back the next semester, and we got together and I was ripping all this bluegrass stuff. I really got into that for a while.

When the band evolved, I got back into keyboard and was influenced by Steely Dan. We always came back to the Dead thing because it was the closest form of music to jazz that I could get that wasn't jazz.

Mattson: Rob and I, our tastes really overlap on the more avant-garde, demented kind of stuff like in the Dead, the really out jams that happened during "Dark Star" and "The Other One" and "Playing In The Band" in the early '70s. You see it outside of the Dead, too. We love Tom Waits. We both like later Coltrane, all the Miles Davis stuff, Ornette Coleman, Sun Ra.

Barraco: Even classical music. I own a lot of 20th century stuff-like Stravinsky. It's killer.

You used to be known as a regional act, but you've definitely stepped out of your boundaries. What brought about the national recognition?

Barraco: It was a conscious choice when we realized that if we stuck around and just played the clubs in New York, we would never go anywhere. Plus, we were burning out the audience. New York's an easy place. You could play four nights a week around the metropolitan area. But, how many nights a week can you play in one place?

Mattson: In fact, we did it for a long, long time-15 years.

Barraco: I got a phone call two years ago from a booking agent down South and he said, "I got your name from a fraternity in Virginia, and they really want to have you guys play. Would you do it?" I said, "Well, I guess." So we established a relationship with him and very early on he said, "I can book you all over the South, and you guys would be my meal ticket. They'd eat you up." We gave it a shot and, lo and behold, everywhere we went, people started booking us. Anywhere south of Washington, there were no bands doing what we were.

We gave him an exclusive to do the South for us. So we were alternating between going down South and playing in New York, and then he said, "Would you guys be interested in going to Colorado?" We went out once, and it was a great trip. It was so much fun being up in the mountains. And then we went again, and it was a better trip. Then, we had done a show three New Year's Eves ago, and a guy from out in Portland, Oregon contacted us and said, "Would you be interested in doing New Year's Eve in Portland, Oregon?" And we said "Sure." So we went out there, and that show was really successful so we did it again last year. And we did it again this year.

This guy, Dan Cohen-Peltier, who's now our manager, said, "Would you guys be interested in coming out to the West Coast during the summer and playing the Oregon Country Fair and in Portland and Seattle…I can get you some stuff in San Francisco." And that's what convinced us that being on the road is the right thing because all of a sudden we were getting these huge crowds at the shows. It was all word-of-mouth, and from reading stuff in your magazine.

Mattson: We're always hoping we can remember how to get home.

Just click your heels. What are your plans for the future?

Mattson: We'd like to be able to play what we want to play at any given moment and have people enjoy it because it's good music and we play it well. We want to be accepted because we're good musicians and we play together well and not just because we play the Dead well.

We're gonna continue in the vein that we're going, hoping that people will continue to respond to our original music in addition to the Dead stuff. We seem to be making a lot of people happy, so it seems like we're on the right track.

The Zen Tricksters are certainly succeeding in making people happy. By the number of requests Relix has received for an interview with the band, it's obvious that a lot of smiles have been stretched across a lot of miles. Welcome to America, guys!

This article originally appeared as a cover story in Relix Magazine, Volume 27 #5 (October, 2000).

Copyright © 1999-2004 - Toni Brown

Web Design by Jungle-Eyes Productions
Contact Webmistress at