Jay Lane is at it again. RatDog’s founding drummer has been game for any number of musical scenarios over the years, even when they seemingly challenged his sensibilities (his initial involvement in RatDog for instance). Lane joined Les Claypool in a protean version of Primus, then in Sausage and also in some of Claypool’s subsequent touring bands. He appeared in the original Charlie Hunter Trio with Dave Ellis, following an extended stint with the big band funk of the Freaky Executives. Lane remains with RatDog but he also has started recording and gigging with a new group, Band Of Brotherz, that harkens back to his work with acid jazz collective Alphabet Soup. The Brotherz have readied a new studio disc that will meld original material with sampled reworkings of Grateful Dead compositions. This recording, Deadbeatz and Murderous Medleys, will be released in the near future but in the interim, Band Of Brotherz has embarked on an East Coast tour with a line-up bolstered by Rob Wasserman and Gabby La La. Prior to the initial tour date, Lane took some time to discuss Band of Brotherz’s origins and explore the source of Deadbeatz.
Let’s start with Band of Brotherz’s pre-history. I know that you and some of the members used to be in Alphabet Soup with [RatDog saxophonist] Kenny Brooks. Can you outline the relationship between the two groups?
In the 80s there was a thriving club scene with a lot of live bands all over the Bay Area. I was in a band called the Freaky Executives. We were an 8 piece funk band not unlike The Time. And we were pretty popular. That’s actually how I met Les Claypool. We rehearsed in the same building he did and then I started playing in Primus before they really did anything and my relationship with Les Claypool is how I eventually met Rob Wasserman and then Bob Weir.
Anyhow, after the 80s, the live music scene kind of dried up and I now realize that the scene goes through these up and downs. I theorize that people get tired of all these original bands and they just want to go dance to some music they know and then the clubs all realize that instead of hiring a whole band they can just hire one guy to spin some records. And it’s almost like all the clubs realize this at the same time. So there was a period of time when there were bands in all the clubs all over the Bay Area and then when the 90s came around, every club was all DJs.
But then what happens is the lack of live music becomes apparent. The early 90s were the years of multi-level clubs, with your techno on one level, your acid lounge on the bottom level and your funk old school 70s on the middle level. There were just different tiers of DJ things. And what happened was Kenny Brooks had a roommate Gary Jones that was a clubgoing guy. He knew a lot of the guys who threw parties at the clubs, the raves and he would get requests for a little jazz trio to play down in the acid lounge or whatever. They wanted a little live music mixed in. So people could hear the thump thump of the techno upstairs or they could come down and mellow out on the couches downstairs and listen to some jazz.
So Kenny called me up which in a way was kind of a mistake because I was kind of anti-jazz. I had already gone through the whole jazz ringer and I appreciate it for what it is but a lot of times there’s like a wall between the audience and the musicians, so that the music is only there to listen to.
You say you’ve been though the jazz ringer. Can you a talk a bit about your education and development in that realm?
I was exceptionally lucky that when I went to public school in the 7th grade here in San Francisco, our band teacher was a jazz saxophone player that turned me on to Weather Report. This was 1978 right around the time that this was exciting music. It was the first time that jazz musicians were using electric instruments and the jazz rock idiom was vibrant and alive. It was incredibly alluring for me being a young musician, so I instantly glommed onto it. I couldn’t play that good but I listened to it all the time. So as I got better on the drums that influence came out.
I have an old friendship with Dave Ellis the sax player who used be in RatDog and Charlie Hunter Trio. When I was sixteen, Dave took me over to Charlie’s house, who was his neighbor right around the corner. Dave and I knew Charlie for years and when Charlie got back from Europe we started up a little jazz trio.
That was before I was really paying attention to what regular people listen to when they hear music. It was kind of eye-opening. And then the Prince thing got big in the early 80s, so I got really Princed-out, George Clintoned out and I went from jazz to funk. So basically when we get into the 90s I’m all the way hip hop. Here’s hip hop fresh and new and I’m ready for it.
Anyhow, I started playing with Charlie Hunter but all I wanted to do was make people dance which is why on the first couple Charlie Hunter albums I’m playing funk beats and stuff. Although it’s very jazzy and in the jazz idiom, funk stuff was coming through. And the band I was in all through the 80s, Freaky Executives, that was straight funk.
So funk and jazz was my thing and as you noticed no where in there have I mentioned the Grateful Dead. I have a buddy named Tom Pope who is a drummer in the New York area who has sat in with RatDog a couple times that I met at the same music camp I met Dave Ellis: Cazadero Music Camp. He turned me on to the Grateful Dead although I never really gravitated to the Grateful Dead.
Did you ever see a Grateful Dead show?
After I got the gig with Bob, they were playing the Oakland Coliseum, I guess it was their last tour. So I got a ticket and I went with a buddy of mine, this hippie dude, and we ended up in the lot, we never made it to the concert. So I never saw the Dead.
There was quote on RatDog site where you describe the original trio with yourself, Bob Weir and Rob Wasserman as “the birth of something brand new no one had heard before." Can you talk a bit more about that?
Bottom line I had no idea how to play like that. I met Bob when Rob brought me in to work on a project they were working on and it was almost like, “Hey this kid doesn’t even know or care about who I am. I kind of like that.” I was coming from jazz and funk, everything super up tempo. I had never played any slow, down tempo music. Of course it’s all relative. Now I’ll listen to tapes from the 80s and I’m like, “That shit is racing.” Now seemed what seemed slow then seems normal to me now but I never played anything at those tempos with those kind of grooves.
I had never listened to that kind of music and to be perfectly honest, I was lost. I didn’t not know how to do it but just the fact that Bob wanted to play with me was enough for me to want to play with him. And I think our friendship is what brought our music together. He and I were almost night and day musically but something that we connected with eventually brought it in. I can only say it sounded like something that had never been done before because Bob was going completely out of his element to get someone who had never heard his repertoire before. I’m not sure if too many dudes with his level of accomplishment would actually do that and then bring the person out there on a tour in front of everybody who’s expecting to hear the Dead.
How long was it until you were comfortable?
It was about 5 or 6 years because honestly it wasn’t until I started sitting down listening to the Grateful Dead all the time and enjoying it, instead of studying up on tunes. Now I’m always kicking back and throwing on the Dead and when I started doing that, all of a sudden the music started making sense to me and I could play it. It’s kind of like what comes in goes out and if it ain't going in, it ain't going out.
Back in 2002, Wasserman left the band. Can you talk a bit about that decision and how it impacted on your role?
That was completely heartbreaking after Bob and Rob had played together for so long. Rob is a master bass player but he’s never really been an ensemble player. So I think we all had to come to terms with that. And at the end of the day, RatDog had evolved from 2 dudes and 3 dudes into 6 dudes, so we all had to decide what was best. It was hard but believe me, I am so glad I’m playing with Rob right now because he’s such a tremendous player and I’ve got him recorded on some of this Band of Brotherz stuff, so I have him on the album.
Which leads us back to Band of Brotherz. I apologize for derailing you while you were still outlining how Band of Brotherz came together.
So I started doing these little gigs with Kenny Brooks and the jazz part was cool but I was always leaning to, “Let’s gets these folks dancing.” I didn’t want to have them sitting down listening to me with that separation between audience and band. That’s kind of what the Grateful Dead paved the way for. So I wanted to do that even in situations where it wasn’t called for.
So here we were this little jazz trio and I’m playing the drums as loud as I can competing with the dance music pounding on the ceiling and trying to get the kids up and dancing. Well after a while, a couple of rappers came around. Kenny had a friend who was rapper and he brought a friend who was rapper and we had this little a stable of rappers who would hang out come up and rap. There was this one guy, Zach, who always blew my mind. Every time he got up there the drumming was butter when this guy was rapping and he was singing too. He kind of sounded like David Hinds, the lead singer from Steel Pulse but he was a freestyler.
The group Alphabet Soup never rehearsed, it was a freestyle thing. It was genuine jazz guys and a genuine hip hop thing happening too. This was at a time when hip hop and jazz was happening and new, which it is isn’t anymore, so it was exciting. But for whatever reason this one vocalist didn’t remain in the band and it kind of turned into the jazz guys calling the shots too much. And I kind of fell out of the band too because I was playing with Charlie Hunter, RatDog, Sausage with Les Claypool and I had to pick and choose.
Anyhow, fast-forward to a few years ago, Zach came to my house one night with these songs that he did on his computer and I was blown away. I was like, “Oh man, I want to be in this band.” We got to talking and he had the concept for Band of Brotherz. And rather than calling it Alphabet Soup 10 or 15 years later, Band of Brotherz seemed to fit. The jazz and hip hop thing has already been done and especially since 9/11 people are more world conscious. It’s much more about a world music vibe now than it was then and this had a real world awareness.
So he sent me these songs with the other Alphabet Soup rapper. The two of them have a really good contrast with their styles. Zach produced these songs and we started transferring the files from his computer to my computer and started replacing electronic drums with real drums and asking friends of mine to add tracks. I had Sikiru Adepoju lay some tracks, Gabby La La play some tracks, Rob Wasserman play some tracks and then we produced the thing up to have it sound like it came out of one studio.
During that process Zach came to a RatDog show and was hanging out backstage with Bob Weir and Bob was saying, “I’d really like to get into this sampling and looping.” So Zach made this loop of “Franklin’s Tower” and he wrote this song to it, “The River Song.”
At the same time another friend of mine suggested that we do a whole album of Dead sampled tunes. I thought that people might say that’s kind of gimmicky and this friend said, “You’ve already got a killer band with original tunes.” So we started to do more tunes and call it Deadbeatz. It was kind of frustrating because we were just about ready to come out with our album and then we were almost starting all over again.
Other than “Franklin’s Tower,” can you describe some of the songs you’ve sampled and what’s come out of them?
We did this one “Box of Sunshine,” which is a “Row Jimmy” sample. At the beginning of “Row Jimmy” there’s those four chords and I took two of them and put them at the end of the eight bar loop. So you’re kind of going, “Whoa that’s ‘Row Jimmy’ but it’s kind of different and my buddy Zach put all new vocals over it.
We did one of “Golden Road” where we’re pretty much singing the same hook they sang. It’s early Dead and so we put a half-time beat beat and these guys did an early rap to it, like a Run DMC style rap. So it’s early Dead with early rap, which is kind of cool.
So will the album draw exclusively on the material built around those samples?
Well the good thing is we’re sitting on all these Dead-sampled tunes and all these other things too. So while we were getting all the tracks together, we realized there are a couple of the Band of Brotherz original songs that are so good, we probably should throw some of those songs on there as well. That’s why we called it Deadbeatz and Murderous Medleys. And also to let people know we’re not just doing a gimmick thing. We’re trying to show that we had been conceptualizing original music for the last three years before this idea came up.
How familiar is the rest of the band with the Dead?
The guys writing the songs, the lyricists and Zach and myself have been listening a lot. Since we’ve added our bass player and guitar player to the band they’ve been listening a lot. Our guitar player has a very soulful lyrical quality to his playing and I knew that all he had to do was listen to a little bit of Garcia and he would pick up on a really key element of what Jerry was doing and so far he has. He’s a multi-instrumentalist and his grandfather used to play with Fletcher Henderson. When Louis Armstrong played with Fletcher Henderson’s band in New York City before he left to go to St. Louis on his own, my guitar player’s great grandfather, Kaiser Marshall played drums in that band.
Band of Brotherz is about to start an East Coast Tour, with a number of Dead Afterparties. I see that Rob Wasserman and Gabby La La will be joining you but beyond that in terms of instrumentation, what will band consist of and beyond that what can people expect to hear?
There’s bass, guitar, drums, sampler and three vocalists. We're a brand new band and we’ve already got 30 songs of ours that we can play. So we could play 2 ½ gigs without repeating ourselves and that’s pretty good for a new band.
People can expect a little more than just rappers. If people think this is just rapping to a tape they’re wrong. It’s going to be really exciting. We’ve got the hip hop element but for it being a rap hip-hop thing there’s a lot of singing. It’s kind of reggae-ish hip-hop with a world tinge. We have good songs too, that’s the cool thing.