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On the Bill
On the Bill
De La Soul performs with Kenan Bell and The Reminders at 9 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 30, at the Fox Theatre, 1135 13th St., Boulder, 303-443-3399.
Robin Sylvester teaches an old RatDog new tricks
by Adam Perry
RatDog was founded by singer-guitarist Bob Weir and stand-up bassist Rob Wasserman in the early ’90s and then cemented into Weir’s main working band when his Grateful Dead partner Jerry Garcia died in 1995. Most musicians who’ve come through the jam-rock scene over the years have been Bay Area stalwarts (from the late Vince Welnick of The Tubes and The Dead to Jay Lane of Les Claypool fame), but not nearly enough has been said about Robin Sylvester, a London-born multi-talented musician who replaced Wasserman in RatDog in 2003 and was actually an assistant engineer at Abbey Road Studios when The Beatles were recording there.
As a young drummer in San Francisco, I played a few benefit concerts with Sylvester. Our connection has been sporadic but sustained ever since, and in advance of RatDog’s performance at Chautauqua Auditorium this weekend, we talked a little about his amazing career.
Boulder Weekly: I want to know all about your experiences in the English rock scene as a young man and how you ended up in America. What bassists did you look up to as a kid and what were your first experiences as a touring musician like?
Robin Sylvester: As I grew up in north London in the ’60s, I was basically just waiting for the next Beatles record to come out, listening to R&B imports and greater British pop between. So the obvious bass influences would be McCartney, Duck Dunn and James Jamerson. Other big faves would include Rick Danko of The Band and Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys.
As a sound engineer, I heard good musicians every day throughout the first half of the ’70s. I started in 1969, at the peak of the “blues boom” over there, and watched things morph into prog-rock, roots-folk, singer-songwriter self-indulgence and more. The major labels all had budget lines and a lot of my clients were on such labels. Consequently, I had some early experiences re-mixing in their big studios, including the famous Abbey Road.
It was a great time. Those experiences to which you allude would fill a book. I look back at one period when I was working a lot at Trident Studios when Elton John and David Bowie were fighting for available time and Queen were waiting in the pub for everyone else to finish. Actually, they weren’t drinking much… but everybody else was! It could be downright dangerous to run into certain parties, like Keith Moon.
I started playing again around ’74, ending up with Dana Gillespie, singer with Bowie’s management, and visiting the States with her.
I liked NYC so much I stayed there until the money ran out, by which time I had met some musicians who asked me to join a band called The Movies, one of Arista’s first signings. That’s how I ended up over here.
BW: Was Missing Man Formation your first entry into the world of the Grateful Dead, or had you been a fan of the band previously?
RS: Yes, Vince [Welnick] brought me into this world of The Dead, although back in 1970-71 I produced a band called Byzantium who showed major Dead influences. I also played for years with Marty Balin [Jefferson Airplane], so I was no stranger to the SF music scene in general.
Vince was a complex human — very talented, fun to hang with. Musically very picky. We rehearsed vocals for hours and hours. I’m still somewhat in shock over his suicide.
BW: I’m always curious what music people who are immersed all year in Grateful Dead music listen to in their spare time.
RS: This prompted a big discussion on the bus when I mentioned the subject. Mark [Karan] has a wide range of new stuff on his playlist, whereas I have more re-issues and old stuff. Even my newer stuff enhances the old-fogey-ness of it all, e.g. Tom Waits. We all agreed that Daniel Lanois is the coolest. Nobody went for Arctic Monkeys; most liked Arcade Fire and Amy Winehouse. You’re more likely to find me listening to old Kinks, Beatles, Zappa, Miles Davis or the wonderful, quirky XTC. Oh, and Jimi is still and forever my special favorite.
BW: Were you pretty familiar with Rob Wasserman’s playing before joining RatDog?
RS: I’m not one of those bass players who loves stand-up, I’m afraid. They can be fun, they can sound divine, but there’s always that struggle against unwieldy physical forces… and amplification for the stand-up is still largely a work-in-progress. So my whole approach is really different from Rob’s. He plays with great facility and inventiveness on the big beast, whereas I just try to play in tune. I try to tackle all the tunes freshly every night anyway. Sometimes I don’t even make reference to Phil [Lesh]!
BW: Hearing those old songs is great — and the progression from just Bob Weir songs and covers to full-on Grateful Dead band is interesting — but I know we’d all love another RatDog studio album full of originals. It’s been 10 years.
RS: You and me both. I think recording is finally in our future. As for the musical progression, Bob tries hard to respect Jerry’s performances on the old tunes we have introduced, to do them justice. It took a long time to be ready to pull out “Stella Blue,” for example.
On the Bill
Bob Weir & RatDog play at 8 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 30, at the Chautauqua Auditorium, 900 Baseline Rd., Boulder,
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