PLUGGED IN TALKS TO BOB WEIR ON BOBBY AND THE MIDNITES 30TH ANNIVERSARY
Interview by Tom Appleton and Ken Youmans
In retrospect, it wouldn't have been too much of a stretch to use the term "supergroup" to describe Bob Weir's side project BOBBY AND THE MIDNITES. The band's self-titled first album featured a heavy-duty line-up that any fan of 70s and 80s rock would recognize. Bobby Cochran, who'd played with Steppenwolf on guitar, jazz and funk great Alphonso Johnson on bass, Grateful Dead compatriot Brent Mydland on keys, and Billy Cobham, already a legend as a progressive jazz drummer, largely for his work with Mahavishnu Orchestra.
Plugged In: Can you tell us about the origin of the band Bobby and the Midnites?
Weir: Well okay, the ancient dusty old origin is: I had, after I put out the HEAVEN HELP THE FOOL record, put together a band to promote it. It was a good band and we kept together for a while. It was just called the Bob Weir Band. That band sort of ran its course. One of the players in the band was Bobby Cochran. We got a good lock together, and then that band sort of ran its course and guys started getting hard to line up and it started to be a lot like work to keep it going. So I sort of let it drift off. And then I went down to the NAMM show to play for Ibanez… Just remembering how Jeff Hasselberger, (former Ibanez director of marketing) and I had our days of sport with those Japanese guys sometimes. One time Hasselberger and I came up with a device—basically a phaser/flanger— that was in stereo. For the sake of the Japanese folks, we called it the Flying Pan… just so that we could yuck it up when they pointed to the product and said: "And here's our Frying Pan!" (laughs)… Anyway at the NAMM show I was playing with Alphonso Johnson and Billy Cobham and we had a great deal of fun that night. So I took my old keyboard player from the Bob Weir Band, Brent Mydland and Bobby Cochran from the old band and I joined that up with Alphonzo and Billy and we had a new band BOBBY AND THE MIDNITES. So it was pretty much born, the band was pretty much born at NAMM.
Plugged In: BOBBY AND THE MIDNITES, where did that name come from?
Weir: Stuff just comes to me.
Plugged In: What do you remember about those early jams when you first got together? Does anything really stand out as the defining moment when you decided: "Hey, I have to keep playing with these guys."
Weir: Well, they couldn't shut us up. I mean, typically those events at the NAMM show you have a tight time schedule. They want to get you out of the room, and get the next act in there and stuff like that. And we were long winded, so that told me that it wouldn't be hard to build a band out of this—we could rehearse up some stuff and just play.
Plugged In: So how long would you say it was from the time you jammed with those guys at NAMM to the formation of the band?
Weir: Two or three months. Long enough to get a tour booked.
Plugged In: Wow, so you guys jumped right into it.
Weir: We were hot to trot.
Plugged In: I know that you guys all met up at the NAMM show a couple of years ago when we came out with your guitar, has there been any talk about a possibly playing together again?
Weir: Well Billy's pretty hard to get a hold of; he's mostly over in Europe these days. And you know I don't know where I'd fit it into my schedule anyway.
Plugged In: Yeah, well you're perpetually touring.
Weir: Pretty much.
Plugged In: Your previous solo work, you had mentioned HEAVEN HELP THE FOOL, what do you think was the impetus there, I mean obviously you were usually pretty busy with the Dead. Was there another voice you wanted to follow?
Weir: I had written a bunch of material that I didn't think was particularly well suited to the Dead. You know 'Bombs away' and oh 'Shade of Grey' and stuff like that. I needed, in order to get that material, for HEAVEN HELP THE FOOL happening it was gonna require a little tighter control from me then is generally the case with the Dead, where, you know, that was a real democratic process. A lot of times the guys in the band had better ideas of how to play a given song before they'd heard it. With the material I had for HEAVEN HELP THE FOOL it was complicated, I needed a room full of studio musicians who would learn the chord changes fast, also guys who wanted to hear from me how the song was going to go, rather than just ahhh… you're going to get what you're going to get. I don't think that approach would have worked real well for material that complicated. So I got a room-full studio musicians down in LA and put out that record.
Plugged In: Looking at the material on the BOBBY AND THE MIDNITES record it looks like it was a fairly democratic process when I look at the authorship of the songs. What can you tell us about the way the material came together for the record?
Weir: Well I had it pretty well sketched out. Or I had most of the songs pretty well sketched out. There were a couple that the producer wanted to do that he had material started on: I think, "I'll Be Dog Gone" and "Easy to Slip," a tune written by a dear old friend of mine, Lowell George. Anyway we included those and the tunes that I had written. When stuff comes together in the studio I tend to give the people who had helped me put it together in the studio some authorship on it.
Plugged In: Funny thing is lately I am hearing a lot of airplay of these songs on Sirius. "Too Many Losers" and "Book of Rules" in particular seem to be getting a lot of play, so it's apparent some of these songs still stand out for a lot of people. Josephine I hear quite a bit a lot as well. Any songs on there particularly that you remember how they came together?
Weir: Well, let's see… "Josephine" came to me all at once words and music, which is the best way songs come, well at least the first verse. I don't think anybody really helped me with that one, I did the lyrics myself for the most part and the music, it all just came in one sitting. I think I woke up with it in my head, and just grabbed my guitar and went to work. "Too Many Losers" is you know, I was having a fling with a young lady and that was addressing a issue that came up with her, she liked the pixie dust and I so it was sort of a cautionary tale. 'Book of Rules' was just an old favorite of mine. Originally done by the Heptones, it was a poem by a guy named R. L. Sharp, written around the turn of the century that I had just adapted to music, I think that the lyrics had fallen into Public Domain. The Heptones might have written, might have tacked on an extra verse, so I used that, probably could have and should have written my own for that matter.
Plugged In: I'd say the overriding feel of the album is that it's a straight-ahead rock and roll album, but with a occasional side-trips into other territories. Was that the idea from the beginning?
Weir: Yeah, I was trying to write stuff that could be open-ended to the point where the guys in the band— Alphonso and Billy, Brent, Bobby Cochran and myself could, you know, state the theme and then take it for a little walk in the woods, cause that was what the band excelled at.
Plugged In: So, on the album these songs don't extend out very long, but live you stretched them out?
Weir: Oh we did, for sure, "Josephine" used to go on endlessly and would sometimes sort of rumble into "The Other One". But I think what happened was the A-and-R department at Arista wanted—rather than playing a few songs real long, they wanted us to shorten them up and put more songs on the record. This was back in the days of vinyl discs, so we had time considerations. You could really only get 18 minutes a side, so a record could only be like 36 minutes. If you exceeded 36 minutes—I guess you guys probably don't remember this, but if you exceeded 36 minutes, the grooves on the record had to be narrower…
Plugged In: …groove cramming, right?...
Weir: …yeah, and so you didn't get any level out of it. So if you put it on in a stack of records, it would be noticeably quieter, so nobody wanted to do that.
Plugged In: Okay, how did you get Billy Cobham to play like he only had two hands and two feet on the record?
Weir: (Laughs) That was the producer's job—Gary Lyons. I don't know how he worked that out, but somehow he did.
Plugged In: So, speaking of Gary Lyons what was it like working with him?
Weir: He was a lot of fun. I wonder what he's up to these days.
Plugged In: How was he selected for the job?
Weir: He had done a record with the Dead… which one was that? I think it might have been 'GO TO HEAVEN' but anyway, he was fresh off the… Arista Records wanted us to have a slick producer, a hot producer. I don't want to say "slick"— I want to say "hot" producer. He was just off success with Foreigner. He was a good producer, knew what he was doing, knew his way around a Neve board. This was back in our Neve era. I developed a good working relationship with him so right after we were done with that record¬—very shortly thereafter we started working on the BOBBY AND THE MIDNITES record. I think we did the Dead record in the summer and fall of one year and in the spring we got started on the BOBBY AND THE MIDNITES record.
Plugged In: How did the other Dead members feel about the record? Did they ever come out on tour with you?
Weir: Every now and again, we would find ourselves booked with the Garcia band on tour. We had some fun on those nights, but aside from that, back in that era, all the guys in the Dead were busy and in the month that the Dead weren't booked, everybody was, Jerry was doing his band, Mickey had his projects, I think Billy and Phil had their projects and on it went. Brent was in the Dead at the time and was part of the BOBBY AND THE MIDNITES project.
Plugged In: When you released the album and went out and toured behind it, was there enough material to fill out a night? What did you do to fill any gaps?
Weir: Well we had that material, we had some Dead songs and some other covers and then the material from the HEAVEN HELP THE FOOL record and we had enough for two or three shows, enough material to put up 2 or 3 different shows so that was, like I said, we state a theme and then take it for a little walk in the woods so it wasn't real hard to fill up an evening with music and still have more stuff for the next night and then more stuff for the night after. It wasn't hard to put together.
Plugged In: Since 'Fly Away' ended up on your 'Weir Here' collection, is that your favorite track on the album?
Weir: I'm not sure it's my favorite track, it's up there, I really like the tune, incidentally, in the Jamaican version of the Grammys —I don't know what they call it —that tune got 'Foreign Reggae of the year!'
Plugged In: Speaking of Jamaica, you had done a video release of live show in Jamaica is that when this was filmed?
Weir: We did a show in Jamaica, the Jamaican International Pop Festival, BOBBY AND THE MIDNITES played there and the Dead also played there, and I played with a few other bands as well…I don't remember, I remember later we made a video for the second record. The Arista A & R dept and our producer on the second record 'WHERE THE BEAT MEETS THE STREET', they came sort of came down heavy on the band, they saw potential in a place where I'm not sure one should have been looking for it. So they wanted to make a real slick pop record and I wasn't all that pleased with the results of that second record, the first one was pretty good start to finish I thought.
Plugged In: Do you have a favorite on that first one?
Weir: I'd be hard pressed to pull a favorite from there, the one that I got the most mileage out of, was probably "Josephine."
Plugged In: Collaborative projects sometimes morph in surprising ways were there any surprises as you put this record together?
Weir: Well, it happened fairly quickly, the recording happened fairly quickly, and the overdub process and the mix…
Plugged In: Was their much overdubbing?
Weir: Not a whole hell of a lot, didn't need to be, the strength of the band was how we played live and we tried to capture that on the record. We did it at the record plant here in Sausalito.
Plugged In: What do you remember about the gear that you were using in BOBBY AND THE MIDNITES?
Weir: I think I was still using Peavey gear at the time. Bobby Cochran had an endorsement with Peavey at the time, and they more than happy to provide us all with stuff and I was playing my Ibanez. Guitar and pretty much throughout that era I was playing through Peavey gear. More than that I don't much remember.
Plugged In: We noticed some interesting things on the line notes so we'd like to ask you a little bit about that. What can you tell us about the acknowledgment given to "Studio Bitch"?
Weir: (Laughs) Pretty much a gopher.
Plugged In: While a lot of Dead fans might be familiar with Otis (Bob's dog) who were the Ambuloids? The album liner notes state "comic relief by Otis and the Ambuloids."
Weir: One of the problems we had making that record is the owner of the studio had a pet raccoon and he was just too much fun to play with. We…actually I… in particular… had a rough time ripping myself away from the pet coon and getting to work. My dog enjoyed the coon too. They mixed it up, that little guy could hold his own.
Plugged In: Also, in the liner notes you thanked Jeff Hasselberger and Ibanez, what was your relationship like with Hoshino?
Weir: It was pretty much Jeff, he was a great guy to work with, real bright, and we designed a couple of really swell guitars, that final model… the one problem is it's awful heavy. But amazingly, it was a guitar that you could get an awful lot of sounds out of, it could be a Les Paul, it could be a Fender, it could be anything anywhere in between and a bunch of things that I'd be ill equipped to try and describe.
Plugged In: So did you play the final version, the heavy one on tour?
Weir: Oh yeah, I was young and strong.
Plugged In: So you retired that around the mid-80s maybe?
Weir: Mid to late 80s it was starting to get to my back. I still play it every now and again, but it's relegated itself to pretty much being a studio guitar. Every now and again I drag it back out again on tour, it does something that none of my other guitars do.
Plugged In: Can we ask you a little bit about how your new studio is going? Obviously, from the very beginning with your work with the Dead and sound systems, you guys were known for pushing boundaries can you tell me how this all came together?
Weir: A couple of years ago, last summer, the good folks at API who build audio gear and most notably they build great recording consoles, made me that good old fashioned offer I couldn't refuse. They said if I would come back to the AES show they were having that year in NY and play, they were having a little hoedown, if I would play that party they would give me a deep discount on their top of the line all bells and whistles recording consoles. I rose right smartly to that bait.
I had a little studio in San Rafael that I had going for practice purposes—for putting down sketches and stuff like that. I was sort of thinking of putting a little work into that facility and making it into a studio and then putting the board in there. Now it was going to take a fair bit of work we were going to have to isolate and float the floors, and put in acoustic insulation between the rooms and make a proper control room and all that kind of stuff. My accountant was of the mind that we were making a silk purse out of sow's ear. The afternoon that we had that little conversation, another building came up for sale that had been a rehearsal facility. The owners put a lot of money into it and hired some fairly expensive acoustic consultants. And in spite of the money and the work they just wasn't able to make enough to make enough to pay the mortgage and overhead as a rehearsal facility so they went belly up. The building went up for sale. It was right when the real estate market was hitting bottom. If anybody other than me bought it, they would have to rip out all the acoustical improvements. So the building was available real cheap, and I just bought it.
At first we started just blindly building a recording facility. We didn't really know what we were doing. An old friend of mine, John Meyer of Meyer sound—the guys that make our concert gear, and make a lot of other studio gear that we've been using for years, they developed a system called the Constellation System. In our case, it's a system by which there are a great many speakers that are put around the place, around the walls, back, and ceiling of a given location. Then there a bunch of microphones that hang down and hear what's happening in a given room and take that audio information through software and reproduce the acoustics of any of a number of rooms for which we'd shot the response characteristics. So we've got Carnegie Hall in there, we've got sports arenas, sheds, clubs, cathedrals, a number of different places that you can call up instantly as you're playing. The acoustics of the room change to mimic that place and you know if you turn the lights down and you bring up a cathedral setting you're there, your brain is fooled.
And it has a number of other features too. Some of the rooms, the concert halls, have a pronounced slap back, which occurs in halls that have balconies, for instance, or back walls that present a parabolic reflective surface, are reflective to the stage, and then there's a pronounced slap back (claps to give example) and with this system you can tune that slap back to a particular rhythmic interval of whatever song you're doing.
Plugged In: Amazing.
Weir: It's a lot of fun; it's sort of a jaw dropping experience for most musicians when they first play in there. And then along the way as we were building that in and as we were building the place it occurred to us that we should put a video facility in here as well and we should, sooner or later, it occurred to me that live music over the web is going be a big deal and so we built it for that purpose as well so that we broadcast over the web or TV, whatever.
Plugged In: I know you've already broadcast A BW AND FRIENDS and a FURTHUR show from there, and I've noticed you've got some more shows coming up, including one for the debut release of Chickenfoot's new record. How did that come about?
Weir: Well Sammy Hagar is an old friend of mine, we're neighbors here in Mill Valley and he has a studio around the corner from my place and he came over to visit and wigged out and wants to do a live broadcast for his record release.
Plugged In: We're excited to see that, as Joe Satriani is an Ibanez guy and their stand-in drummer, Kenny Aronoff, is a Tama guy. Have the guys rehearsed in the studio yet?
Weir: No, Sammy and I have played together in there a little bit, and Joe came down and played a little bit, but we haven't had the rest of the band in there yet, but they're gonna, I think their record release party is coming up on the 27th and that will be broadcast over the web.
EDITOR'S NOTES: Both BOBBY AND THE MIDNITES CDs are out of print. The iTunes store does offer the single I Want To (Fly Away) on WEIR HERE. There's plenty of Bobby And The Midnites live-show video archive footage to be had on Youtube.
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