by Livewire's Matt SchwenkeLivewire: First of all, how long have you been in Ratdog?
Jeff: I guess since '97. Late spring,... early summer.
Livewire: You were in the jazz scene at the time?
Jeff: Yeah. I was definitely doing more of an acoustic jazz thing.
Livewire: How is it that you ended up playing with Ratdog?
Jeff: Well, um, with Dave Ellis, the original sax player in there, I was playing in his jazz quartet at the time. And by fluke, I knew he had just gotten the Ratdog gig, and I said, "If you guys need someone to jam with let me know." And I knew Jay (Lane) from prior as well, just a little bit. I thought it would be cool to jam and then about two days after that he said, "You're not going to believe it, but they're looking for a keyboard player." So, it kind of went from there.
Livewire: That seems to have worked out pretty well.
Livewire: You started playing piano at a really young age?
Jeff: Yeah. As far as I can remember. I mean, consciouss memory is probably from about four.
Livewire: Growing up, I imagine you had numerous lessons from different teachers.
Jeff: Well, I basically,... I mean I definitely studied classicaly from the age of seven to about seventeen and eighteen. And I was more studied in that realm, and then once I got into high school my freshman year, I was auditioning for the jazz band and the teacher basically put a chord chart in front of me and I was like "Well, what's this?" (laughs) And I went from there basically, trying to understand labels of chords and all that stuff. I had taken some jazz piano lessons from reputable teachers around the area here. Just a couple handfuls of lessons each. I never really did get too far into that end of it. It became more of just playing and learning that way as far as an improvisational level. I had a lot of chances to play, basically.
Livewire: What have been some of your favorite musicians that you've played with over the years for whatever reason?
Jeff: Oh God, that's a hard one to peg.
Livewire: A few that stick out?
Jeff: Well, obviously doing the thing with Dylan and Willie Nelson last summer. That was really an honor. And uhm, you know, just all the people I've sat in with. Ratdog... I mean, just so many come to mind right now. I'm just trying to think of a favorite-favorite. I mean it would be kind of hard to pinpoint. Um...
Livewire: Was there anyone that really changed the way you looked at music, or kind of changed your approach?
Jeff: Really, just getting around Bob (Weir) definitely was a big change for me I'd have to say. It took a little while to sink in. To understand his methods and where he's coming from, was, I have to say, the big change for me. For the better, you know?
Jeff: And everything I do, all the different kinds of styles I play, everything seems to benefit one another. It can all be applied as a whole, into one as a person. No matter what you're doing, it's kind of cool everything kind of helps each other, so to speak.
Livewire: You have all this jazz experience, what was the biggest challenge when you first started playing with Ratdog,... musically?
Jeff: Well, I guess maybe that's some of the approach, because in a lot of jazz a lot of times you spend, as a piano player, you're rolling and there's a lot of expanding harmonies off the root, per se. And maybe inside some of the stuff, it's more root-based material. The thing for me was trying to get away from playing too jazzy chords, or something like that, against what was going on. There's times for it, and it can work really well. But it's just really stripping down, and going back to song here. It's almost like wow, trying to think simple. Being simple is very complicated, you know?
Jeff: Sometimes all the embellishments on the jazz side make it easier to go in different directions, but maybe it's like how do you come from the root or straight bottom there? It's a challenge.
Livewire: I'm curious as to what the creative process is like in Ratdog. How are new ideas handled?
Jeff: A lot of times, you know, it either happens spur of the moment and we just follow it, or we'll be jammin in rehearsal and someone sparks up an idea or whatever, or Jay starts a beat or something. We all just play with each other. There may be some pre-set stuff, like "Oh hey, I got an idea here. Let's check this out." A lot of it is just trying to play together, and stuff comes out of nowhere. All of a sudden you grab onto it and try to work it a bit. Make it into a form, if possible. Or at least set a bed to work off of in the near future to come back to. I mean, everybody has input. It's not one person or anything, per se.
Livewire: So it's very collaborative between the members?
Jeff: Yeah. Everybody came from different backgrounds and not playing together to now working together. I think we've developed that over the years, getting stronger and stronger every time. More telepathic in a sense.
Livewire: With the obvious relation to the Grateful Dead, what has it been like following-up post Jerry Garcia? Is there a sense of not being able to quite break away from, I don't want to say the mold, but... ?
Jeff: You mean from a Dead standpoint?
Jeff: Well, I don't know how they could break away from the mold, so to speak. They were all a part of it, ya know? To me, obviously if Jerry were alive and they were still playing today, I don't think they would've change much of themselves. They're just doing what they knew how to do from all the years of it. I didn't really know, I'm ashamed to say, the Grateful Dead a la Jerry Garcia. I never saw them live. I didn't really know any of their music until I got into Ratdog. I knew of them, obviously, but I never really realized the impact in America that they had, and on music. You know, that was all new and fresh to me. It was amazing, but to see those four guys together, I could hear that history come through. I think they're life-long brothers, and they're just doing what they've always known to do. I don't know if it's about breaking away from that aspect of it without Jerry, but they all do their own thing too. And, maybe that's their breaking away with the Jerry influence and everything. Does that make sense?
Livewire: Yeah, sure... definitely. When you're out on the road, you're always playing random covers and the set-list is always changing. Could you give me a little insight on how you come up with that?
Jeff: Well, if it's something we haven't played prior, someone will say "Hey, let's play this song" or someone might break into a lick of a song in a sound check and we'll work it out for a gig or two later. And we normally try to find a set-list or nights that flow, and that could be a good set to work from. Just trying to find stuff that works, or that we think works, or maybe we don't know how it will work, but we try to keep it changin'. We definitely have a set-list for the evening, but wether we stick to it or not is another story. (Laughs) We generally try to have some sort of flowing thing. You may see a kind of a similar set from the first night to the fifth night, it might come around again in that time period. Not guaranteed, but it will have a flow like that sometimes.
Livewire: What other music out there right now has caught your ear lately? What's been in your CD player or iPod this week?
Jeff: I've just been going back and listenin' to a bunch of old Dead stuff and working to see what I can do to better myself in these songs. I haven't been listening to much other outside music lately. You know, I'll listen to classical music to chill out or to work on something on the piano. I just haven't had a whole hell of a lot of time to sit down and listen. I couldn't give you an honest answer on that.
Livewire: Is there anyone in the jam band scene that caught your ear?
Jeff: Oh, well there's tons of bands and great players and stuff. I guess I'm looking forward to... looks like we're probably going to be at Bonnaroo this year, and the Word would be playing right after us. I really love Medeski's work. Let's see here... I don't know. There's a lot, (laughs) and I get bad with names. I apologize about that, but I don't remember a lot of bands' names on this or that.
Livewire: Oh, that's alright. Are those festivals like Bonnaroo and that as much fun to play at as they are for a fan to attend?
Jeff: Oh absolutely. I've been fortunate enough to be there all three years so far, and you know, it's the kind of people out there. Great energy and I think you can feel a lot of love and still feel like you're touching some people all the way in the back there. It's a big energy thing. It was really cool. Really gratifying. Kind of a little intimidating. You might look out there and go "holy shit!" But once you get into it, it's what it's supposed to be.
Livewire: Has there been any night where the jitters took over?
Jeff: Maybe not like jitters to the point where I'm scared to go on, but I think any musician that really cares gets a little anxious. Just wants to get out there, you know, and get your mind geared up. That's just natural. But once you sit down there and get going, it all goes away.
Livewire: In general, what can Ratdog fans expect to hear and see on this coming tour?
Jeff: We've been working on a lot of old new stuff, ya know? Some covers. Some Dead stuff. We've been working on jamming a little bit of our own stuff. Trying to get back to that and get it out there again. So yeah, I think the band's been soundin' really good. Rehearsals have been really good. Everybody's real anxious to get out there and play. I expect good shows to be had.
Livewire: Have you released stuff on your own?
Jeff: Not like Jeff Chimenti blah. No I haven't actually. I've been involved in a lot of groups kind of thing and never put my name on a stamp or whatever. Maybe down the road.
Livewire: Ron Carter was just in town here, and I read somewhere that he has appeared on over 2,500 albums.
Jeff: Oh, I'm sure. You know, he's one of the most recorded or session recorded bassists in the world.
Livewire: I'm just wondering, what is it like switching? There's so many ties between the forms of music, but how do you become a musician that can play in so many different styles?
Jeff: You gotta keep yourself open, you know. I think naturally you'll gravitate toward the stuff you like, but keep open to learn and study from the stuff other people have done. Maybe take a lick... you know, "this person played this, let me check it out, I really like that," and just see it and then apply it to yourself. And, you might find other ways of coming at it. But, just get enough under your belt to be able to bounce back. You gotta be honest with it. It's just not about learning tricks. If you're gonna go and do it, go and do it, you know? And that's why it gets tougher. The deeper you get into it, the less time you have for doing other stuff. This Ratdog thing has really changed my world, because I used to work with tons of people. Then all of a sudden, I thought "Oh, I'll have more time now. I can just concentrate on one band and then it'll be easier to manage other stuff." But then other stuff, it just got busy, ya know? Other stuff gets harder to do, and you gotta still lead a kind of home life sometimes. Try to find the balance. But study as much as you can and just have big ol' ears. That's really the bottom line.
Concert review - East Troy, WI Aug. 24, 2001