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Rob Wasserman
Radog and Beyond
By Toni A. Brown

The upright bass has never had such a protagonist as Rob Wasserman. His peaceful demeanor and soft-spoken words lend grace to his large frame, and his playing reflects his gentle persona. With subtle nuance, his bass becomes a lead instrument, taking listeners on imaginative forays into soundscapes designed with precision.

While on tour with Ratdog and this summer's Furthur Festival, we had the opportunity to discuss his past projects, present involvements and future expectations.

The upright bass is not a typical instrument in the realm of rock music. What drew you to it?

Wasserman: Actually, I don't know. When I was in my late teens, around 18, I just found myself in this little shop in San Mateo. It was a second-hand store that had a lot of musical instruments and I remember this string bass was in the shop, and I started playing it. The owner let us hang out, kids were always sitting around playing all the instruments. One day I got together a couple of hundred dollars and bought it.

Did you ever play guitar?

Wasserman: I've fooled around on acoustic guitar just like everyone else. When I was a hippie, I'd go camping with my guitar, but I was never very good. I played violin when I was real little. I think that's one of the reasons I got into the string bass. I always liked the violin. I just never stuck with it. So I just connected [with the bass]. Of course, logistically, sometimes I wish I'd connected with a piccolo or something. (Laughter) I'm envious of these guys with their guitars 'cause even my electric uprights weigh 30 pounds.

Do you get a lot of grief having been born on April Fool's Day?

Wasserman: I used to, now I just try to cause it. I could tell you a good April Fool's story. I was on tour with Lou Reed and we were in Athens, Greece. It was my birthday and there was a song, I think it was called "The Beginning Of A Great Adventure." The band sort of moved away and let me play a three-or-four-minute solo, and I got the idea to throw in a few bars of "Satisfaction." I thought it would be clever. I didn't realize the whole audience would start singing along (laughter), and we couldn't get the tune back for a long time. We could see smoke coming out of Lou's ears. He doesn't like that kind of thing. So, the rest of the show, he wouldn't look at me. I was afraid to go backstage after the show, but when I did, he goes, "What were you thinking? Why did you do that?" I couldn't think of anything, but I remembered what day it was, and I just said, "April Fools," and he started laughing.

You played on Lou Reed's New York album...

Wasserman: Yeah, and the one after that, too.

You're part of the Bay Area exploratory music scene. How did you fit in with Lou Reed's approach to music, which is very different from yours?

Wasserman: I was on tour in Europe with Rickie Lee Jones a long time ago, and I ran into him sitting at the bar drinking some water or something. Rickie Lee's guitarist said, "That's Lou Reed." I was telling the guitarist about my Duets concept, trying to figure out people I like and I had Lou on my list, but I didn't even know how to reach him. So I went up to him, which I never do, but I said, "Hi," and we talked for a while and I gave him a cassette, and I told him about the record. I didn't invite him to be on it. I didn't want to be that kind of person. I just said, "Let me know what you think." Around 20 minutes later, he called up and flipped out and from the conversation, he wanted to be involved. When we came back to the States, we recorded "One For My Baby And One More For The Road" for my Duets album. And he called me up a little after that and said, "Do you want to play on New York?" And then he told me he changed his idea for New York because of his experience with me; that's when he decided to do a minimalistic record. He was planning a big production, but he just loved this sort of live, stripped down thing [that I did].

The Duets and Trios albums were very successful. You worked with a lot of really great players. Are there any collaborations that stand out for you?

Wasserman: A lot of them. Aaron Neville, that was incredible. He's a wonderful person, and it was fun because I asked him where he wanted to record it…I was trying to give people some reason to do this aside from money because I didn't have any money. He said he had been invited to work at Willie Nelson's home studio. Back then Willie Nelson had a home studio, but the IRS took it away. It was great. A real adventure 'cause it was just me and Aaron. We had an idea of what we wanted in the song, but when we got in there, there was no rhythm section, there were no drums. Aaron couldn't sing until he had that so I put down all these bass parts as a reference for him to sing over. It was great to work with Aaron because he's like an angel. But there were so many experiences it would take hours to go through them.

You got to work with the legendary Willie Dixon.

Wasserman: If you talk about anyone, he's the greatest in the sense that he's no longer with us and he is, truly, now in legendary status since he's somewhere else. He's affected generations of people. Bobby [Weir] and I actually met each other while seeing Willie Dixon. I went to the infamous Sweetwater to hear Willie Dixon 'cause I was doing the Willie Dixon thing, and Bobby was a Willie Dixon fan for a long time. I didn't know Bobby, but we were in the [club's] basement with the owner, Jeannie, and that's where I met Bob Weir. He knew me from my work with David Grisman, even though I hadn't worked with him for some time. We both hung out with Willie and a couple of years later, I was jamming and Bobby came down 'cause he heard Duets. That's what started this whole Weir/ Wasserman thing.

You got nominated for three Grammies for Duets, and you won for your song with Bobby McFerrin. How did you feel about winning a Grammy?

Wasserman: I think I was in the bathroom when we found out. (Laughter) I didn't expect anything like that to happen. I was nominated for Best Instrumentalist, and I was up against Miles Davis so I didn't win that one. And then I was up with Rickie Lee for "Autumn Leaves." I thought she'd win that, but she didn't. Well, now I know it's not such a small deal. I'm amazed when I think about it, so much stuff goes into winning one, and we had no record company support. Literally, it came out on MCA, but they didn't do anything.

This record was a cult record. It stood on its own. It didn't get promoted or pushed, so sometimes music can do things just 'cause it's music not because of the publicity. It sure wasn't because of the record company. They dissolved the label I was on two months into the record. And now I can't get the records anymore. It's out of print, even though it won a Grammy and everyone still wants it. I'm hoping someday they'll either reissue it or give it to me or something 'cause it's a real tragedy. It's very sad, I spent a combined ten years on those two [records].

When you and Bobby started playing together, what were the first indications that a touring entity would come together? Did you expect it?

Wasserman: No, not at all, we just jammed. There were six or seven other people there. We did some duets, and it just clicked. It was just one of those instant things, and he called me up a few days later and wanted to open for Jerry's band in San Francisco. Actually, the Weir/Wasserman Live album is from those first shows in San Francisco-most of it.

Why did you pick that particular era to release material from?

Wasserman: Because it's acoustic, and it sounds great. I listened to a lot of tapes. I actually listened exclusively to the later material we played as a duet. I was done listening to all the more modern stuff where I played electric upright bass. I didn't use the acoustic anymore, and Bobby was playing more electric guitar at times. I really liked a lot of it. I was ready to go with that stuff, but I asked John Cutler if he had anything else. He goes, "I think we have tapes from the first shows with Jerry. I don't know if they're any good anymore. You have to be really careful." So I took them home and listened and was knocked out.

In an interview from several years ago, before Trios came out, you said that you wouldn't do a live album because it was just too easy to put out a live album.

Wasserman: We weren't ever planning on doing it. Ironically, the reason I did this is we don't want to go in the studio and do a duet album now that we have a band. When I said that, we had a duo and we were planning on doing a studio album, but it never happened. We never had the time because of the Grateful Dead and my schedule. Finally, I realized that we made this record nine years ago, we just didn't know it. (Laughter) The whole basis of our duo was live anyway. It probably wouldn't have been a good studio record because we didn't have the patience for it. We just liked playing for fun. Vacation was what Bobby called it-from his work and from my work. When I heard these concerts, I realized there's no way we could have done that better in the studio. We actually did some studio recordings at Front Street with John Cutler engineering, but they just don't have the same origin and after considering them, I said, "Nah."

How did you select the material that appears on the album?

Wasserman: There were other things to choose from, but these were the songs we were doing. I didn't use the standards for the very simple reason that I didn't have time to go get the publishing rights. Also, the tunes that are on this record are pretty much most of what we did that was nice. The only thing that was [from a different period] was "Eternity," which hadn't been written then, but I had to put it on because it's very special. Willie Dixon wrote that with us, and we recorded it in his home studio, actually, after he died.

Your involvement with Bobby has made you an integral part of the Deadhead community. How has that affected you creatively?

Wasserman: Well, I'm working on my next record. I sort of helped form Ratdog in its current configuration. It's been a real struggle because I've never started a band before. Bobby just sort of lets things evolve and I went along with that, and it evolved in a way that didn't work that well. So finally, I've taken a more active role. We've had some great players, but there was never the chemistry that there is now.

Is Ratdog doing original material?

Wasserman: Not on the summer tour. I'm actually doing original bass material [during solos], but we've written some songs that aren't completed. Robert Hunter's writing some lyrics, and Bobby, John Barlow and I want to work together. Our goal is that we're gonna come back [from Furthur] and start working on this mythical album. Everyone's real excited. We could never do a record before until we had a sound, a format. Now I think we have. We finally decided on sax instead of lead guitar. I think we'll have something well under way during the fall. But we're having fun playing some of the Dead tunes.

It seemed like Ratdog was resistant to pulling out the Grateful Dead material, but you've been breaking it out this summer.

Wasserman: I think it was mainly Bobby, last year. It was too soon after the Dead stopped and Jerry died, and he didn't want to play those tunes for a while. Now, enough time's gone by where he missed them. He's enjoying them and, for the rest of us, it's all new material to us. None of us are Dead musicologists.

In a way, that's great. You'll bring a different flavor to that material.

Wasserman: It's sort of funny to hear Bobby suggest to Dave to listen to Jerry Garcia solos. I'm not sure how it translates to a saxophone, but he's such a good player, you never know. I've listened to a lot of the music lately, but I'm not copying Phil Lesh. It's fun. Great tunes.

When you do a Grateful Dead song, the audience reaction is incredible.

Wasserman: Well, actually, I was worried about that. My big concern for the future was I'd like to have more of a balance-fifty percent our stuff, half their stuff, maybe. But the reaction has been great. I was worried 'cause there's another way of looking at it. People could be saying, "Oh, why are they doing that?"

Not this community. Grateful Dead material has always been strong enough to be performed by anybody. Lyrically, it's great. So you have the option to play with it, and people are going to react well because they're familiar with it. You can do what you want with it as long as they can recognize it.

Wasserman: It's true. Last summer, 'cause Bobby didn't want to do Dead songs, I decided to make the summer my Dead song bass solo theme. This summer, since we're doing Dead tunes, I'm just doing solos of songs I write. I was nervous about going out there doing the opposite of what I did last year instead of stretching out the improv and making it up as I go and then going into "St. Stephen" or something. I'm taking a song that I've written that no one's heard, it's usually a ballad, and just playing it. It's been going over pretty well. It's good for me because it's fun to surprise people by not having to be predictable for too long.

How has Bobby's playing affected you?

Wasserman: I think he's such a great rhythm player, there's very little lead playing of any kind. The lead is usually the voice and, occasionally, the bass, but it's very strong rhythmically and you don't miss drums, you don't miss anything. I don't. And that's the main thing that I've gotten from him is the sense of strong rhythm.

Many would say that a band without a lead guitar is definitely missing something, yet Ratdog seems to be an exception. How have you been able to fill the void?

Wasserman: Well, I used to [play lead parts] before it became such a big band. We decided instead we would have Dave Ellis, who's a saxophonist, [take some leads]. I think he's proven to people in the short time that he's been in our band that he can fill that role along with the keyboard, me and Bobby, and Matthew's playing a lot of rhythm guitar so Bobby's getting better and letting go more on lead. Listening to tapes, which we do every night after our shows, I'm not missing anything, and I don't see any space for a lead guitar any more. But I wouldn't have said that too long ago. But the way it's working, everyone's finally filling those places in ways that are really interesting-not in ways that sound like a jazz group, but in ways that are still like a rock band, which I wasn't sure could happen with sax, but it can.

The band is like night and day [from last year]. The core band is the same-Jay Lane, Bobby and Matthew Kelly-but the chemistry is so good, not just the instrumentation, the personal chemistry. Last year, because we had Johnnie Johnson, we were doing a lot of blues, and I was really against that this summer. I love Johnnie Johnson, but I didn't see our future as a blues band. I don't think the audience really dug it that much either, to tell you the truth. I mean, we're good at that, but to me, it's pretty monotonous to play blues over and over…so we dropped that, which meant not bringing Johnnie on this tour. We're doing more improvisationally, which is where I come from and where Bobby comes from and these younger kids come from.

Do you have any plans for any upcoming solo projects, like Quadruples?

Wasserman: I'm planning on doing a real groove album, rhythm grooves, dance almost, with bass melodies that I've written-melodic shapes played by me on top of it all and then bringing a few guests in on other instruments, maybe. A guitar here, a keyboard there, whatever. It's gonna be very atmospheric and melodic, featuring my compositions. And it's gonna be very rhythm-oriented. It's exciting to me. I never worked with rhythm like that before, and it's an exciting departure for me. It's also fun to think that I could actually go out and play the record without having to wait five years to get everyone together to do it. (Laughter)

Will Ratdog be recording?

Wasserman: Our plan is to come back from the Furthur tour and commit the month of August to working on these tunes we've started and then continuing in the fall on and off because everyone wants to make a record and wants to get this thing out and going. I feel like we finally have a band. We've settled on the players. We know what our sound is now, and we can do it.

Do you think that Ratdog will go in and do a straight studio session, or will it record live in the studio?

Wasserman: We've been recording live with everyone playing together. I'd like to do it that way with the actual interaction of everyone playing. That's important 'cause it really creates magical things.

This article originally appeared as a cover story in Relix Magazine, Volume 24 #5 (October, 1997).

Copyright © 1999-2004 - Toni Brown

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