Interview: Bob Weir & Searching for Freedom
Searching For Freedom WithÂ BobÂ Weir
BobÂ WeirÂ is the co-founder of the Grateful Dead. His other bands include Furthur and RatDog.
His latest project is TRI Studios (http://www.tristudios.com/), which broadcasts high quality concerts live online.
He recently called in to discuss the impact of technology on his songwriting, the creation of TRI Studios and the free-flowing nature of the Dead’s setlist creation.
McClain Johnson: How did the concept for TRI studios come together? How did it get started?
BobÂ Weir: It was a long, involved process. I picked up a recording console, an API recording console. In my opinion, it was the best console I could get. We started building a studio around it. Along the way, an old friend of mine, John Meyer, had his Constellation System. It’s a system you put in a room and it emulates the acoustical properties of any of the number of rooms that they have measured. For instance, you can make the room sound like a cathedral, or a club, or a concert hall, or any of a number of other places. You can do this all on the fly. The acoustical properties of the room are pretty amazing. It’s sort of a jaw-dropping experience for the musicians that come in.
McClain Johnson:Â It’s amazing to be able to plug in all those sorts of settings for the acoustics.Â
BobÂ Weir: Right. You can tailor the sound of the room for the dynamics that are called for within a song. It’s pretty cool. The overarching concept was that we were going to build this with the purpose of making it a prime place for live broadcasts. We can also record there, audio and video. All of it in HD.
McClain Johnson:Â The shows you’ve done have been awesome. The quality is something else.Â
BobÂ Weir: Yeah. Well, that was the whole idea, to take it to a new level on the web.
McClain Johnson:Â I think it’s awesome that you’re doing so much to push things forward into new ideas. It’s innovative to be able to get such high quality music out to people in such a high quality.Â
BobÂ Weir: Well, music and technology have always been married. Technological innovation has changed music over the years. From the invention of the violin, the invention of the piano, the invention of electric instruments, and so on. All this stuff changes music, changes the way music goes. I think this is another of those developments.
McClain Johnson:Â Has the studio changed your approach to creating music?
BobÂ Weir: It has and it will continue to.
McClain Johnson:Â How so?
BobÂ Weir: As I learn to work the Constellation System, for instance, that’s going to change my writing and my performing. The acoustical dynamics of what we’re playing will influence the way the song goes. As I get better at working the system, the more that’s going to come out.
McClain Johnson:Â It allows you to really try out different styles of music and approaches to it, right? Even within the same song?
BobÂ Weir: Yeah. There are all kinds of tricks, all kinds of things the system allows us to do. For instance, there are slap backs and delays that are inherent in some of the rooms that we sampled for the Constellation System. We can tune those slap backs and delays to rhythmic intervals of the song. That sort of reinforces the groove.
McClain Johnson:Â Did you choose the rooms you wanted to sample from for the system?
BobÂ Weir: Yes and no. Some of them we chose, some of them came with the system. They were working on the system for a couple of years before I became aware of it.
McClain Johnson:Â You’re in so many different projects. How do you approach songs differently within the different groups (RatDog, Furthur, The Grateful Dead)? How did you approach things differently with each of them?
BobÂ Weir: Well, it’s an experimental process. If I’m either going to preform or write a song, I try to select a Constellation setting that sort of captures the mood and the rhythm of the song. Then I work with that. I play with it. I expand it, I contract it. I do all kinds of stuff. All these acoustical properties in the room can be folded back into any recording or broadcast that we’re making at the studio.
McClain Johnson:Â Who would you like to see in the studio that you haven’t had yet?
BobÂ Weir: Well, we’ve only had a few folks in the studio so far. I’d love to have everybody that I’m used to playing with, and a bunch of folks I haven’t played with yet in there. I’m not going to start naming names. There are too many.
McClain Johnson:Â Does technology change how you write? Do you start off with melodies? How does your process work at it’s core?
BobÂ Weir: You know, it’s different every time. I can start with a rhythm, I can start with a melody, I can start with a lyric. Or, I just let my fingers do the walking and find a chord sequence. Like I say, it’s different every time. So, that probably won’t change. I get started however I get started, and it goes from there.
McClain Johnson:Â With the Dead, was it the same sort of process? Was it just free-flowing?
BobÂ Weir: Yeah. Will of the winds. Wherever the music wants to go. Starting from anywhere and going to about anywhere.
McClain Johnson:Â No matter who you’re working with, what you are doing, there is that sense of freedom and joy.Â
BobÂ Weir: Yeah, that’s the whole idea. We’re basically looking for freedom. We’re looking for the windows of heaven to open and take us to new places musically.
McClain Johnson:Â You’re constantly looking for new ideas?
BobÂ Weir: Yeah, or reestablishing old ones for that matter. Furthur pushing it on.
McClain Johnson:Â That’s got to be fun for you, at this point in your career, to be able to go back to classic songs. Always pushing them and always changing them. Trying to do something different with them.
BobÂ Weir: Yeah. The songs redefine themselves as we come back to them.
McClain Johnson:Â Does that change from project to project? Certain songs, do you feel that they work better with certain projects?
BobÂ Weir: I can never tell. From day-to-day, from group-to-group. It’s up to the songs and whether or not they want to peak through and show me something new.
McClain Johnson:Â With Furthur, which songs have done that for you, surprised you by showing you a different aspect of themselves?
BobÂ Weir: Almost any song we play has done that at least once for us. All the songs are alive and all the songs are in-development.
McClain Johnson:Â I could see some people just staying stuck in the past and resting on the past excellence of what you’ve done. You’re trying to make something that’s real now. That’s really true to your spirit.
BobÂ Weir: Well, otherwise we’d get bored with it. Everything would stop right there.
McClain Johnson:Â Night-to-night, do you plan the set a lot in advance? Do you know what you’re going to play going into the gig?
BobÂ Weir: We do these days with Furthur. The Dead was a little looser in that regard. I think Furthur is getting there, to the point where we can start picking and choosing stuff. With Furthur, it’s a matter of everybody being familiar enough with all the material. There’s a lot of it. So that we can pull stuff up on the fly. In the first couple of years, that was kind of challenging. Things are starting to change now. I wouldn’t be surprised if pretty soon we can start doing it the old way. With the Dead, we used to figure out the first two or three songs we were going to start the set with. We’d have a general notion of what we were going to end the set with. Then we’d pick and choose in the middle of the set what we were going to do on the fly. I think we’re getting to the point where we can do that with Furthur. We’ll see.
McClain Johnson:Â In the old days, would somebody just call out a song or a certain change? How would that process happen?
BobÂ Weir: You know, if Jerry was singing and I was up next. I would have the whole song Jerry was singing to decide what I was going to do next. I’d sort of feel it out while I was playing Jerry’s song. I’d just call out what I was going to do, and we would go into that. Then it was Jerry’s turn.
McClain Johnson:Â You’d just go back-and-forth?
BobÂ Weir: Yeah.
McClain Johnson:Â With covers, how do you choose what songs you want to cover? Do you hear a song and know, right away, that it will work for you?
BobÂ Weir: Well, you know, if I’m listening to a song and it occurs to me that I would love to do this song, then we’re going to do it. If there’s a moment of quiet and I hear a song in my head, we’re going to do it.