photo credit: Gabi Porter
“There’s something about Grateful Dead songs. I think of them as friends because they have personalities, and I miss them when we don’t play them. It’s like missing people; I’ve never experienced that with a song before, where I couldn’t wait to play it again and I was really glad to see it in the setlist,” observes bassist Don Was, who had experienced some separation from the Dead catalog with Wolf Bros in mothballs due to the pandemic.
However, the band finally regrouped over four nights in June 2021, continuing its evolution from a trio with Bob Weir, Jay Lane and Was into a 10-piece that includes a string section dubbed the Wolfpack. On February 18, Third Man Records will issue Live in Colorado, which draws on the group’s performances at Morrison, Colo.’s Red Rocks Amphitheatre, as well as the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater in Vail, Colo. A few days prior to the album release, Wolf Bros will also appear with the National Symphony Orchestra and then reconvene for a March tour.
Was is a Detroit native who began his career by founding the experimental funk-rock collective Was (Not Was). He would go on to produce The Rolling Stones, Bonnie Raitt, Willie Nelson, Gregg Allman, Roy Orbison, Solomon Burke, John Mayer and many others. Over the past 10 years, he has balanced his live performance schedule and production work with his role as president of the illustrious Blue Note Records label. Was hosts enlightening conversations with jazz luminaries such as Wayne Shorter, Terence Blanchard and Arturo O’Farrill in the “First Look” series on the Blue Note YouTube channel.
As you look back over the past decade at Blue Note, what would you identify as your major challenges and triumphs?
To be honest with you, a big challenge was overcoming the negative impression I had about record companies from my experience as an artist and producer. It was a guy named Dan McCarroll who offered me the gig. When I first met him he was playing drums with Sheryl Crow, and he’d gone on to become president of Capitol Records. We were having breakfast one day, and he offered it to me out of nowhere. My reaction was, “Oh, no, man, don’t tempt me with this” because I never wanted a job. [Laughs.]
My whole life was spent avoiding work. I never considered playing music or producing records to be work. That’s all stuff that I would’ve done for free, but my goal was to never have a job. I was 58, and I almost made it. [Laughs.] It would’ve been an absolute no for anyone other than Blue Note Records, which was a label I’d been a huge fan of since I was 14.
I had the same attitude that most musicians have about record companies, and it took a while before it finally dawned on me that a record company is primarily made up of young people who love music, love musicians and will stay until 11 o’clock at night, busting their asses to support the music of someone that they might have never actually met. They love music that much. That’s really who populates record companies. It’s not a bunch of cigar-chomping guys keeping two sets of books.
Also, as an artist who’d had his frustrations with record companies, I decided that I should change the way things are done. I think that the biggest mistake that A&R people make is that they sign an artist that they like, and then they immediately try to change them into what’s trendy at the moment.
So I decided that, even though I know how to make records, I’m not going to give anybody any advice unless they ask for it. I’m going to sign people that I trust to make good records and enable them to do so, unencumbered by data trends.
It’s also a challenge to keep the doors open in this era, but I’m proud that we’ve been able to thrive.
It’s always felt like there’s an ethos to Blue Note. To what extent are you conscious of that and do you actively attempt to perpetuate it?
I think protecting the ethos is probably the most important task. There’s a manifesto that the guys who started the label wrote in 1939, where they lay out their intentions. It’s a nice lefty manifesto pertaining to art and the pursuit of authentic music and giving artists unrestricted creative freedom to make music. We try really hard to think about that. It’s hard to describe, but I think there’s a feeling that you get from Reid Miles’ artwork and the black-and-white photos of Francis Wolff that were taken for all the sessions up until he passed away in the early ‘70s. There is also a feeling from the sound of Rudy Van Gelder’s records and the whole vibe of it.
If you don’t recognize a Blue Note record immediately from the cover art, then the minute you put the needle down on a piece of Blue Note vinyl, you know what label it is, even if you can’t identify the artist. It’s been kind of a repertory company too. So it could be Herbie Hancock or it could be Herbie Hancock playing on a Hank Mobley album.
It’s a feeling that I grew up loving and I never stopped listening to those records. So if you can identify it, you can maintain it and you help it adapt to the ever-changing seas of how music is distributed.
You released so many cool projects in 2021. I’d love to hear your thoughts on Lee Morgan’s The Complete Live at the Lighthouse, which presents all 12 sets from his three-night run in 1970. He died so young and I’ve often wondered where he would have taken the music had he continued.
He released that original live album with a new group about a year before he died. So Zev Feldman went back in, and we did a box set of the music from every night. The beauty of that document is that it comes as close to answering the question you asked as anything ever will—“What would he have done next?” This was like an opening salvo. Of course, he never lived to realize it, but he certainly was transcending the work he’d done in the ‘60s, which was monumental work.
He was one of the finest horn players around, with a really evocative tone he learned from Clifford Brown. But he was taking it somewhere altogether different. He was also taking it somewhere different than where Miles had taken the trumpet. He had his own unique, powerful voice and this is a look at what was next. It’s a very interesting band, and it’s great music.
This box set is a beautiful package, a really important document and it was gone before it was released. The problem we’re having is that we can’t manufacture enough records. Everything we do sells out, and we can’t get enough because everyone is fighting over time with the vinyl-pressing plants. It’s one of our biggest issues.
Can you talk a little bit more about the issues there?
There aren’t enough vinyl presses, and we have to fight with other labels for press time. If there’s something big, like an Adele record, then all your plans get messed up because the plants stop to make the big records. There are a number of plants but there aren’t many that sound really great.
One of the things I’ve learned is that, while some pop music fans may be less fanatical about the quality of a vinyl pressing, the Blue Note fans are very fussy and vocal about it. [Laughs.] I learned that the hard way, and we’ve really worked on it. I feel like we have it down.
There’s a guy named Joe Harley, who is highly respected in audiophile circles. When I first started working at Blue Note, we were licensing masters to his company, and he was producing audiophile versions of these records.
People were really laying into the quality of the pressings for the first series of reissues that were done while I was president of the company, and it was upsetting. I thought it sounded OK, but I’m not an audiophile. But then I put on what Joe was doing, and I couldn’t figure out how he was getting it to sound so good. I finally met him through Charles Lloyd and I said, “Why don’t you come do this at Blue Note?” So he did, and that’s our Tone Poet series.
He serves as an unofficial quality-control person and advisor. I’ve learned from him that a dozen different things contribute to a great-sounding pressing. What that means, for us, is that we can only work with a limited number of plants because they have to have certain kinds of presses.
Another thing I learned is that every press has got an audio signature. They all sound a little different. It’s like Fender Stratocasters—every Strat sounds a little bit different. You can’t just say, “I’ll play a Strat.” That’s like saying, “I’ll buy a car.” It doesn’t mean anything. [Laughs.] Every press has a different quality to it, and Joe figured out which individual presses in the country sound the most conducive to the music of Blue Note Records. That was an eye-opener. I don’t think most people know about that. So we frequent those presses.
Moving on to your role as a producer, you worked with The Rolling Stones on multiple occasions. What can you say about Charlie Watts from your perspective that the rest of us might fail to appreciate?
I have a couple things to say about him. One is that all musicians play like who they are. In real life, in conversation and when you are socializing, you learn to hide things and you can fool people. We could go out to lunch with Charles Manson, and it might take 10-15 minutes before we start saying, “Hmm, there’s something really different about this guy.” He could probably charm the pants off of everybody for a while.
But you can’t do that in music. You can’t fake it; you can’t assume a persona. If you play music with somebody for five minutes, then you know them—you know what’s going on with them personality-wise and what makes them tick as people.
Charlie was a beautiful guy. He had this inner tranquility. I never saw him get upset or frustrated. He would sit there, sometimes for eight hours, while people worked on songs, and he just kept playing and never complained. The beauty of his character and his personality came through in his drumming. I believe that a significant component in the allure of The Rolling Stones was just who he was.
Beyond that, I don’t think people knew how good he was technically. There was one point, when we were in the writing stage for the Bridges to Babylon album in 1996, where we said, “Let’s make some loops out of Charlie.” So we put on a Dr. Dre CD and we said, “Play along to this.” We thought we’d get Charlie playing those beats and it would have Charlie’s feel, then we could build something cool on top of it. Well, he played through the whole five songs and he never got off the beat. He could lock in and get the feel of that record so that you didn’t hear two different snare drums. He just became the thing.
You can’t do that without having extreme technique. So even though his playing is considered relaxed—some might even say sloppy—it’s far from it. Charlie could do anything, but he chose to play with a real deep pocket.
Speaking of choices, have you started thinking about what you’re going to do with the National Symphony Orchestra?
I’ve thought about it a lot. We just rehearsed for a week. This is something Bobby has been working on for a long time, prior to my involvement with Wolf Bros. He’s been looking for a way to introduce those textures.
Also, Bobby’s a disrupter. That’s his joy, doing something that shakes up the foundations. So he’s intrigued by a way to take the least improvisational musical form out there, which is classical music—where every note is written for you—and figuring out how to employ elements of improvisation organically in the thing. [Laughs.]
This is not a case of songs with orchestral accompaniment. This is an orchestra playing songs and a band finding their way into that. The orchestra is driving it. That’s the way it’s written, and we’ve got to find a way to engage.
So Bobby’s been working on that, and it’s going to be a work in progress. You have to avoid stepping on the orchestra, but we’re trying to get things written into the score that allow us places to stretch and to go off the map to some uncharted territory at will, yet get back in seamlessly.
What adjustments will you make given the fact that the NSO already has a bass section?
Well, I don’t think I should double the parts of a bass section in the orchestra. They’re playing with bows and they’re really good at what they do. It’s easy to muddy up the low end, and I don’t want to step on what they’re doing or obscure it.
Sometimes it’s very busy. I may stop playing at times. If there’s a point where I’m not adding some counterpoint to it, then I’ll just stop playing. We may find that, in general, there are too many notes in the orchestration. So the next time we do it, we’ll leave more space. Like I say, it’s a work in progress. We don’t expect the shows in D.C. to be the end all, be all.
It’s something Bobby’s real serious about, though. There are fans of symphonic music who probably don’t overlap with Grateful Dead fans, and he would like to bring them into the music. That’s something he’s thinking a lot about these days—how this music lives on when the principal guys from the Grateful Dead are no longer out there playing it.
Let’s segue to an instance in which a principal from the Grateful Dead is playing that music. Wolf Bros’ Live in Colorado release draws on the band’s return to the stage this summer. What are your memories of that first night back at Red Rocks?
The first single they put out is a version of “New Speedway,” which is the first thing we played on the first night back. It was so emotional—I don’t know how else to put it.
I didn’t really think about it in advance. It was just, “Wow, glad to be back playing.” Then we walked out to the audience at Red Rocks, and the place was full. You could sense everyone’s joy at being back in a group setting like that. After being isolated for so long, to be back in a community of like-minded individuals—and to have survived—was something. If you go back to March 2020, everyone thought it was doomsday. Everyone was worried they were going to die. But all of those people lived and were back here with one another.
I didn’t pick up on it until we walked out there and started playing, but the joy and relief were so palpable that I started crying. I get choked up thinking about it now.
I think you can hear it in that first song, when everyone was singing, “This darkness got to give.” It was a really profound moment.
The shows were very special. All four of them were a big deal for us. It was the first time we went out as a 10-piece group. We did some livestreams, but we never tested it out in front of people.
I’m really pleased there’s an actual record that people put time into mixing, so you can hear how great Bobby’s singing is. I think that gets lost a little bit in an echo-y theater or even in board mixes, where it’s possible for him to get drowned out. There’s so much nuance in what he does, and he’s really approaching the storytelling with a fresh approach every night. He never phrases the same way twice, and he puts himself deep into the characters in each song.
How would you characterize the evolution of Wolf Bros from a trio to a 10-piece band from your perspective as the bass player?
I dig it, man. All of a sudden, we’re painting with a lot more textures. Wolf Bros as a trio was incredible because it was so stripped down and there was so much space. I don’t know if everybody loved that space, but if you loved Bobby, it was a chance to have an intimate evening with him doing his songs. I loved it, and I loved having all that space to play in.
But, by the same token, I also like the challenge of playing fewer notes and leaving room for all these other melodic things that are happening—all the counterpoint. It’s choosing the right note as opposed to the right cluster of notes. So it’s constantly interesting and it changes every night.
Can you talk about a specific song that’s gone to new places with the 10-piece configuration?
I’d never played “Terrapin” all the way through. [Laughs.] It was kind of cool that we were able to play the back part of it, which I don’t think the Grateful Dead ever did outside of the studio. I loved the surprise element. I think the first night at Red Rocks we did part one, the second night part two and then the fourth night in Vail we did the whole suite. I didn’t really know that song. There’s a lot going on in there. [Laughs.] It’s not dissimilar to “Lost Sailor” or “Saint of Circumstance” or “Weather Report Suite,” in that, when I first was learning it, I thought, “This is so unnecessarily complicated.” With “Saint of Circumstance,” I was actually mad while I was trying to figure it out. Like, “What’s the point of this?” But once you learn the song, then it makes perfect sense. It’s genius. Once you get to the point when you stop counting and play the song, it plays itself. It’s beautifully done.
But I was scared of “Terrapin,” and then we made friends in Colorado. [Laughs.]
The new album is coming out on Third Man Records and you were the one who made that connection. What led to that decision and were you tempted to issue it on Blue Note?
I love what they do. I’m a Detroit guy, so I first met Jack long before he was famous. He’s a remarkable character.
As a record company president, I watch what they do and I think it’s really innovative. It’s just a cool record company and the stores are cool. You go in there and you want to buy every single thing in the Third Man store. Jack’s a design genius.
I couldn’t put it out on Blue Note. I spend a large part of every day saying no to super-talented people—people way more talented than I would ever be if I lived to be 500.
We put out a lot of records, but you can imagine how many times I get approached. We have to be very careful about who we sign. It would just be unsavory for me to say no to some great musicians and then put out my own record on the label. I couldn’t do that, man.
I couldn’t go to Capitol Records for the same reason. We are part of that label. So it just seemed like a good, independent choice. And I happen to love Third Man. I love Jack and I know the people involved at the label. So it was a quick call because they were like, “Fuck, yeah, let’s do it.”
As we look ahead to the new year, beyond the Live in Colorado release, what else comes to mind for you?
There are actually two answers. One is getting back to the most comfortable, most familiar thing that I’ve spent the largest part of my life doing, which is playing music in front of people. I’m really looking forward to all these Wolf Bros shows coming up.
Then, the other is the exact opposite, which is all the changes going on with how music is distributed, and how people find out about music opens up so many possibilities. It’s a great time to be an artist. It’s also a great time to be a record company because you can do so many things that you couldn’t do before. There are a couple of things that I really can’t talk about yet, but they are things that we’re going to do this year at Blue Note that are game-changers. They’ll change the way people find out about music and change the nature of how you present music to people.
It’s a cool time to be an artist and a great time do things that no one’s ever done before. And then it’s also great to be able to get back and do things you’ve done a million times before.
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