Back in 2001, pedal steel guitarist Robert Randolph exploded on the jamband scene. He developed his craft playing gospel music in the House of God church for years, but it wasn't until he was recruited as the centerpiece of a gospel rock supergroup with John Medeski (keyboardist of NYC jazz trio Medeski Martin & Wood) and the North Mississippi Allstars that he was exposed to the secular music scene. He's been a fixture ever since.
That band and the album they made, both called The Word, also helped launch Robert Randolph's solo career with The Family Band. Before long, he went from a complete unknown to a festival headliner, and was playing sold out concerts in New York City clubs like The Wetlands and Irving Plaza.
Nearly fifteen years later, The Word is back. They released a new album called Soul Food which has been getting praise from critics, and they've got plans to tour through the summer and fall. Here are excerpts from my conversation with Robert earlier this week:
ZUMIC: In The Word, you've all got commitments in different bands that makes it hard for you to tour together. Is this the longest tour The Word has ever done?
ROBERT RANDOLPH: I think this is the most shows we've played in one year, by the time it's all said and done. I think we’ve all gotten to a place now where we don’t do as much running around as we used to and everybody has a comfortable place that we can all sit down and schedule, talk about that stuff.
Chris Chew hasn't been a full-time bass player with the North Mississippi Allstars for awhile, but he's on this album and this tour. Is there any story behind that?
Well, I don't know what really happened with him in the Allstars. We just said, 'Look, The Word is The Word. If we're gonna have a comeback thing, we need to have Chris Chew there.' We talked about other guys, Oteil [Burbridge], and this one and that one and it would have been cool but it’s not the same thing. You know, The Word is us. If we wanna get somebody else, we gotta call it something else.
The Word's debut album came out during the summer of 2001 and I believe you formed as a group in 2000. How does it feel as you celebrate the 15th anniversary with the band?
Man, what’s weird is it doesn’t even feel like 15 years, but it actually feels good, to get back with those guys and record another album like we did and it came out really cool. So just sort of free flowing, it was great to get back in. I’ve been doing so much recording and writing anyway, so when we got together with The Word we just kind of kept it going. We recorded about 16 or 17 tunes, it might even be more than that, and it was all great man.
This album is a lot different than the first album. The Word's first album included eight traditional gospel songs and two original tunes. This new album basically flips that, with ten original tunes and three covers. Can you tell me about how you came to this approach?
I think everything that we sort of do is in a frame of some sort of gospel. I write a lot of original gospel songs myself and so we just sort of searched some gospel melodies, which kind of fueled some of these sort of long jams. Almost all of those songs are basically 8 to 18 minute jams that we sort of all edited down to one thing. It’s crazy. Some of the songs are just like a 4 minute version that we just cut out of a jam, like that song “[Early In The] Moanin’ Time.” I actually spoke to Medeski last week like, 'Look, we have to release the original version,' because it’s 17 minutes long and it’s this really freakish roller coaster that you can put on and you don’t wanna get off, you just wanna keep going up and it’s like really one of the most emotional things. It’s really special.
A lot of the stuff that we do we get together with The Word, the guys'll say, 'Hey lets hear some of those old jams that you used to do at church.' And that’s where some of those things like “Play All Day” and “Soul Food I & II" came in to play when it comes to The Word stuff.
Other songs sound more like funk, rock, and fusion jazz.
I told them I didn’t want no part in deciding what was gonna be on the record, because there was so much good stuff it would take me all day to figure out what’s good and what’s bad and what’s not so good and what’s not so great or whatever. Being in the studio with North Mississippi Allstars and John Medeski, you know we come up with so many different things, so many different ideas that a lot of things just happen, but you get fusion jazz, you get rock, you get gospel, but you know it’s all along with some of these melodies we try to get, that’s what makes it fun.
Have you been getting any feedback from the gospel community about this album?
Yeah, we've been getting a lot of good feedback from the gospel community. I mean from the real gospel community, not the diehards. The diehards, you know, let them go and do what they’re gonna do. But all the people that’s about one message of love, inspiration and that feeling that we all get when you hear something uplifting that’s what people really dig and grab a hold onto.
How do you approach spirituality in your music?
Well for me, having a good spirit consists of so many different things: Loving, giving and caring, and giving back to the community... My main message with a lot of my music is always about loving one another. It’s a constant love and joy with me, that’s just my theme anyway, and so many times you hear a song and go, ‘man why would somebody write that song?’ you know? But I’ve come to realize over time that everybody has a niche and it just so happens that when you start listening to -- and it’s so funny that so many people associate The Grateful Dead with all sorts of negativity just because people wanna smoke and get high, but it’s the most joyful and uplifting music and group of guys that you could imagine. I think that's really the main reason they've touched so many people.
Did you follow the recent Grateful Dead 50th anniversary shows?
Yeah, I actually went to the show on Friday because we played a late night show with Karl Denson. We did one of those late night shows that turned out really great. I didn’t grow up listening to The Grateful Dead or anything like that. Being in this scene now, you kind of get into it, but the more and more I kind of got into it and I studied a lot of their songs. When you listen to their music you wonder why so many people showed up and followed them and it became this thing, and it’s because they didn't try to make themselves cool, they just played this great music, great musicians singing a lot of uplifting, joyful songs about people coming together, and that’s what music is about.
You look around at all the negativity that's going on in the world today, all this racial division, and this and that -- and a lot of that is due to the media hyping things up -- but as musicians, singers and songwriters, that's all we can sort of hope to do and I think more of us need to grab ahold of that and learn that. I remember being younger going, ‘How come I’m not as cool as the Vines or the White Stripes or The Strokes or this one and that one?’ Over time you realize you’re cool because this is your niche. I’ve accepted the fact that I’m here to uplift people and bring joy and all those things through music and that’s just what it is.
Are you aware that Jerry Garcia played pedal steel guitar on "Teach Your Children" by Crosby, Stills, and Nash?
Oh yeah. I mean Jerry Garcia was just such a great musician. It’s so funny because I read one of those tweets that someone wrote that said, ‘Oh wow I didn’t think Trey Anastasio was this good.' [chuckles] It's so funny to read that kind of stuff. I’ve always been taught to uplift people and bring joy, spread love and talk about love and the good things in life and not focus on all this negativity because the good will always outweigh the bad that’s just what I was taught.
When you look through the history of music and when you start talking about guys in the ‘60s and ‘70s and all these different movements, that’s what all the coolest artists used to do. You know you’re talking John Lennon, The Beatles, Bob Marley, Stevie Wonder -- all these guys with these uplifting messages of equality and all these other biases and stereotypes and all these things, and I think as musicians, singers, and songwriters today there’s not enough of that. To me it’s just a bunch of people acting like a bunch of jackasses and wondering why the kids are all messed up. Well because hey you keep feeding them this music with all this negativity, you know?
I feel you. That's why I started Zumic, actually. I felt like so much popular music had the wrong message and the message is so important.
You know what I’ve come to realize too and it’s so funny because that term 'popular' now is not so popular because you listen to the radio and you might see someone on the cover of an iTunes ad or Rolling Stone. For all of those people there are even bigger bands that are not on the cover, bigger artists that play at all these big festivals, uplifting so many people that’s just as popular. So that’s the great thing about it as an artist we all sort of sometimes kind of forget about that.
I was even sort of guilty about that earlier in my music career, looking at other artists going like ‘How come so-and-so is all over the TV and magazines?’ and people would be like ‘You’re just as cool, man’ and I’d say ‘How come I’m not on the cover of Rolling Stone?’ But it’s just something a lot of artists go through and I’ve talked to many artists but the ones that are just so comfortable now and you get to a point when you go 'Wow, this is cool. We’re playing this music. We’re uplifting people.' You got all of these great artists now.
I've seen you live, and you've blown me away. Have there been any concerts that blew you away?
Man, I'll tell you what, I really enjoyed myself going to a Phish concert to be honest with you.
Do you remember when and where it was?
Well I went to Madison Square Garden last year and I went to Dick's [Sporting Goods Park] in Colorado. Some people don’t get it, but I listen to that stuff and go, 'Man, these guys are playing a song, but they’re doing some of the greatest improv while their doing it.' These dudes ain’t playin’ around, they’re gettin’ down.
There’s another band, Blackberry Smoke, you know watching them live is great. I always like listening to Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi. They're a great live band where I go 'Wow' -- and hey to be honest with you, I said 'Wow' to Katy Perry at The Superbowl because I thought she did a good job!
What are you listening to? What’s your favorite stuff that’s been coming out this year or in the last couple of years?
Man, you know, I listen to everything. I listen to it all. There’s so many good artists, whether it's Trombone Shorty, Lettuce, Phish, Derek and Susan, or Dierks Bentley, Blackberry Smoke, Jonny Lang, Kenny Wayne Sheppard, Gary Clark Jr., John Butler Trio... It’s a good thing. I listen to a lot of that stuff.
I've seen you play lots of instruments: pedal steel, lap steel, electric guitar, I've seen you play drums with your band when you switch instruments up… Now have you ever considered playing sitar?
Well, you know I tried it and I suck at it! [laughs]
Ha! Here's another question, I love the way you play Bobby McFerrin's "Don't Worry, Be Happy," but I looked it up and it's never been released officially. What's the deal with that?
Well you know what? Almost 90% of the stuff we play live has never been released. I was just telling somebody yesterday that you know we gotta put out a live record because we play so much different stuff live. Half the stuff we make up live, some of it is so good that we wind up forgetting about it and I’ll wind up listening to it months later and I’ll go, ‘Man, what was that?’ We record every show, and sometimes my sound guy will play us something and I’ll be like ‘Man what was that?" Then we wind up making up a whole song about it, you know. There’s so many different covers we’ve done: ‘Hey Joe,’ we’ve done Michael Jackson songs, Prince songs. So yeah we’ve gotta release a bunch of ‘em.
Talking with you now, it seems like that Warner Brothers deal didn't work out that great.
Don’t get me wrong. That was at a time when music was different and the music business has actually changed. I mean the music business has changed a lot in the last seven years and it’s been crazy, you know? It was just a different thing. I was younger then, and at that time we would play so many shows over the course of a year that three years would go by and you’d be like, ‘Oh man, we haven’t put out a record in three years?' I wouldn’t put it on Warner Brothers at all. It’s just the music business has really changed a lot.
Last question: Are you gonna be playing Knicks games this year like you have in the past?
Yeah I’m pretty sure I will.
How do you feel about the Knicks?
You know what, I think the Knicks will be pretty good this year. You know I think we’re gonna surprise a lot of people, I’m not worried. I’m a diehard Knicks fan so I think it'll be a good year. We'll surprise a lot of people.
You, sir, are a man of great faith. Thanks for talking with me today.
Thank you very much.
For Robert Randolph's latest music, news, and tour dates, check out his Zumic artist page.