THE FOLLOWING CONVERSATION took place via phone.
Where are you speaking to me from?
Brian Stoltz: I’m in Ft. Lauderdale. I came in yesterday and am playing the next three nights at Alligator Alley. It’s a club and restaurant I’ve been playing for years. The owner is also the bass player in my Fl. band, and he’s had this place for years. It’s a small restaurant with a bar, and it’s a great place to play. I come down here about three times a year and it’s billed under my own name. I keep a band here in Ft. Lauderdale now. I used to come here years ago, and I’d bring in a full band from New Orleans. We’d come down in a van. Now I just keep a rhythm section here. I can fly in quicker, get out quicker and take home more money! (laughs) The main thing I like about it is the group, though. I have a great, great rhythm section down here. My normal run is we’ll do three nights here in Ft. Lauderdale, then go down to the Keys for three nights at the Green Parrot, and on the way back we used to hit the Bamboo Room in Ft. Worth, but it shut down a few months ago. That was a real shame as it was one of my very favorite places to play.
A year ago, on the night this particular gig was taped, did you ever think it would possibly come out one day as an official release by the band?
Brian Stoltz: Not at all! It was recorded last November, and we never had any intentions of putting it out. But we multi-track record ever single show, just to have it. Somewhere around February of this year, we started to think we should try to have a new album out to sell around the time of the (New Orleans) Jazz Fest, but even though we had a few tracks we had done in the studio, there was no way we’d have a full record finished by then. So, we started digging through some live tracks and we remembered the show we did with Page. It seemed really special and definitely one of the better nights. After we listened to the whole thing we decided that we’d just put that out by itself.
At the time, did the gig feel especially great or noteworthy, or was it just another solid night that happened to feature a special guest on keyboards?
Brian Stoltz: Well, a little bit of both. It’s kind of melded in there somewhere! (laughs) When we were heading to Burlington, our drummer Russell Batiste called Page and invited him to come down to the show. He and Russell had already worked together a while back in their band Vida Blue, so Page was part of the family. We said hey, if you want to bring your keyboard down, you can sit in on a couple of songs with us. We brought him up in the middle of the first set, and he wound up staying onstage the whole time! We had such a great time playin’ with him, and it was cool to jam with someone in their own hometown. But we just looked at it as a great, great PBS gig that happened to include Page.
I’ve seen your group a few times over the years, and have always been struck by the immense amount of musical empathy between the three of you. For folks who may not play a musical instrument themselves, or have never been in a tight, long-term band situation, can you explain a little bit about how a musical bond like that occurs, but more importantly is cultivated over time?
Brian Stoltz: Yeah. Absolutely! It’s kinda like there’s three people playing, but really only one instrument. (laughs) That’s the best way I can describe it now! You know, over the years we’ve played together so much. I joined the Funky Meters with George and Russell in 1994, I believe. So, it’s a common bond of music between us. The bond itself is hard to explain. It’s just that music, you know? You’re playin’ that music in a certain way and it just grows over time. When we started writing on our own, that was just an extension of it. It’s the sound of three individuals finding that one bandwidth or space where there’s one communal mind working. You have to surrender to it and when you do, it takes on a life of its own. It just flows.
To what do you attribute the longevity of your partnership with this rhythm section?
Brian Stoltz: Exactly what I’ve just told you! (laughs) That special place — being able to go to that place and just perform. Just go there. There’s no time when we’re thinking about the music. We’re never thinking about the music. We’re just submerged in it and it just flows. That’s why we hardly ever work with a setlist, or if we do, we just use it as a rough guide, and we usually stray from it almost immediately. Once you have a setlist that you feel compelled to follow, you have to think about what’s coming next. We prefer to not know what’s coming next! (laughs)
That sounds like a sort of luxury.
Brian Stoltz: Yeah, it is. That’s exactly what keeps PBS together.
How many dates a year on average does PBS play?
Brian Stoltz: It depends. This year we haven’t done quite as much, because George has been out doing other things. He was on the Mickey Hart tour and went to Europe with John Scofield. He may do some more dates with Scofield in the month of November. We can’t do much when he’s gone, but we do have this string of dates coming up — including the show in Savannah and a night at Smith’s Olde Bar in Atlanta.
When it comes to funk music, so much of what’s going on even in the melodic instruments is percussive and rhythmically oriented. I’ve always assumed that most funk guitarists would make pretty decent drummers. Have you found that to be the case, and do you ever mess around with the drums yourself?
Brian Stoltz: Yeah, yeah. I wanted to be a drummer! When I was eight years old, my parents had a private bar with two bar stools and I used to sit on one and beat on the other one with pencils while I was listening to Beatles albums. I wanted to be Ringo! (laughs) I got a kit at home now in my studio, and yeah, actually, I played drums on four songs on my God, Guns & Money CD. You can tell which ones I played on. Definitely. (laughs) But the thing was, there was a certain feel I wanted and I couldn’t get a “real” drummer to play it. Real drummers always want to play too good. They don’t wanna play innocent anymore. I played it myself, and it’s innocent, alright! (laughs)
Recently in an interview, Ringo Starr was asked about the handful of Beatles tracks that it’s now been revealed that Paul McCartney played drums on, and he admits that the reason he doesn’t appear on those songs was because he was a big alcoholic at the time and was simply too drunk to play well, so McCartney did it himself out of frustration. So, the reporter asked Ringo what he thought of Paul’s drumming, and he said, “as a drummer, Paul McCartney is the best bass player I know.” (laughs)
Brian Stoltz: (Laughs) That’s brilliant, man! I gotta remember that one! (laughs) I wanted to be a drummer, but my folks just wouldn’t hear of it. I begged ‘em for a kit, and they said absolutely not. They said learn a “real instrument” first and then maybe drums. I think what they really meant was learn an instrument that we can turn down!
James Brown is credited with essentially creating the bedrock that the entire genre of funk music has been built on, yet there has been so much evolution since then, as well as cross-pollination with other genres. When PBS goes on stage and plays a gig, how often —if ever— do you find yourself flashing back to some of those building blocks that James Brown and his classic groups put down for posterity? In other words, how much straight-up James Brown influence do you hear in the current incarnation of PBS?
Brian Stoltz: Well, we go off on some James Brown feels sometimes, but I don’t really look at it as him pioneering it. He was definitely one of the pioneers, though. Coming from the tradition that I do —the early R&B comin’ out of New Orleans—there was as much impetus to that style of music as the stuff that James did. I come from that New Orleans R&B street feel, and everything I do seems to revert back to that in some way. With James, it’s just another kind of feel or style. Sometimes we’ll incorporate that feel into a really big and much heavier thing with PBS. We’re kinda like Cream playin’ James Brown!
Your band’s sound at times is so hard and heavy it sounds like an empty cargo ship bein’ hit with a wrecking ball!
Brian Stoltz: (Laughs) You know it!
For you personally, who are the musicians that have had the biggest impact on your own guitar playing — whether or not they are themselves guitarists?
Brian Stoltz: Well, like I said, from a young age I was beatin’ on chairs to Beatles records. George Harrison and John Lennon’s playing on those first records were just huge influences. The sound of their guitars back then were so majestic. I heard a lot of New Orleans R&B stuff around the same time, too. See, back in the early to mid ‘60s, radio stations in New Orleans, and —I guess— everywhere else, they played all kinds of music. In 1964 I was eight or nine years old. And we’d listen to the radio, and you’d hear a Beatles song, then a James Brown song, then a Fats Domino song, and then maybe something just local from New Orleans that wasn’t even gettin’ played anywhere else. Then you’d hear Gerry & The Pacemakers! For me, I didn’t know the difference between any of ‘em. It was all good music. So, I don’t have any prejudices regarding styles or labels. I mean, we wouldn’t understand the difference between some local band and the Beatles! (laughs) It was all mixed up together. That kind of thing really had a big influence on the way I look at making music.
I’m sure you have seen the type of music you play have some amazingly transformative effects on all sorts of crowds — especially among folks who might not otherwise fancy themselves funk fans before hearing PBS or the Funky Meters. What is it about funk music that comes across as so primal and seems to transcend language, age, race and gender? Everyone in each town is looking up at you guys on stage, but you’re looking out at them, and I imagine you must see similar looks on their faces no matter where you’re at.
Brian Stoltz: Pretty much, yeah. (laughs) They’re all kind of wide-eyed and slack-jawed wherever we go! It’s a beautiful thing, man. There are so many different people —and you can sense this— so whenever you have a gathering of some sort like we do, and you can draw all these different kinds of people, it’s a beautiful thing unto itself. Musically, when we go into that space where there’s just one big train rollin’ and there’s no way to stop it — the people wrap into that too and they go along for the ride. That’s when the whole thing just seems to take off.
What’s the biggest difference in how your trio operates when adding a fourth member — especially a keyboard— into the mix?
Brian Stoltz: Well, it changes for me personally. That’s where it has the most impact in the band, because bein’ the main melodic instrument, I get used to playing a lot during the shows. I have to fill all the space where a keyboard might go too. Having Page there is nice, because it frees me up. I can just lay back.
And add some subtle textures, as opposed to playing solos all the time.
Brian Stoltz: Exactly. As opposed to helping drive the thing with George and Russell. When it’s just us, it’s an equal, three-way thing. A machine that’s grinding along. Putting Page into the mix, I can play lighter and not as forcefully. I like it both ways. They’re both great spaces to be in.
Do you think that Page will continue to pop up and do short runs with you guys when he’s available?
Brian Stoltz: Absolutely. It will definitely happen sooner rather than later.
Were you surprised at how the jam-band community has so easily connected with the kind of funk music that you guys are known for? It seems that there’s been such a commingling of those two scenes, that it’s now very hard to tell them apart, unless you’re dealing with a group like The Dap Kings or The Dynamites, that specialize in tight arrangements that don’t leave as much room for exploration.
Brian Stoltz: Yeah, it really has all melded into one big thing. As far as the funk thing goes, I can’t really use that label anymore. I don’t look at this band as a funk band anymore. We’re so far beyond that, that I just have to write it off. The music we make is growing into another thing. It’s common that an identifiable style will just melt into something else. Things like that are bound to happen.
I see now where some of the sessions you cut in 1989 for Bob Dylan’s Oh Mercy album have finally seen a belated, official release through his official Bootleg Series boxed set Tell Tale Signs. Have you yourself had any access to that material over the years, and been able to listen to it if you wanted to, or are you now hearing some of those outtakes for the first time since you sat with Bob and tracked them?
Brian Stoltz: No, I’ve had the bootlegs of that stuff since back then. I’ve had copies of those sessions since ‘89 or ‘90. I’d heard all these tracks before, but the difference is, my God, on Tell Tale Signs, they’ve obviously been remixed and remastered. They sound unbelievable! I mean, this is a great, great record. I was surprised that it only sold 50,000 copies in its first week. I would have thought it would have done two or three times that! What’s really wild is that it doesn’t sound like a compilation of outtakes or alternate versions. It plays from start to finish juts like a new Dylan album! I mean, there’s like three or four versions of “Mississippi” on there, and each one is as good as the next. (laughs) They’re just played in different styles and with a different outlook. Dylan’s always looking to find what he wants, and all these attempts lead up to some great version. I’ve already listened to the set all the way through several times!--------------------------- Here's a rare, swampy outtake from Dylan's Oh Mercy LP featuring Brian Stoltz on guitar, now available on the new release Tell Tale Signs: ---------------------------
Looking back after almost 20 years, did listening to those tracks bring back any memories of that project that you had not previously recalled?
Brian Stoltz: It all happened fast, with no pre-production. I just got the call from Danny Lanois and he said Bob wanted to hear me, Tony Hall and Willie Green, ‘cause we had all just played on the Neville Brothers’ Yellow Moon album that Lanois did. On that record, we’d done two Dylan tunes: “With God on Our Side” and “The Ballad of Hollis Brown.” Bob had come down to play a gig in Audubon Park, so we went down and saw him, and he was invited to the studio to hear what we were workin’ on. He came down and we played those tracks for him, and he really liked ‘em. He also dug the fact that we were recording in a house instead of a proper studio. It was real cozy and there was literally no one in the house that wasn’t supposed to be there. Nobody coming and going and staring in the windows! (laughs) They tried out some different rhythm sections, and the very first night we cut “Political World” right off the bat, plus some other stuff. We continued on for a few more nights, and then we were out of there.
How do you think that record, and those sessions hold up today?
Brian Stoltz: It’s definitely held up great over the last 20 years.
Wagatail Presents: Porter Batiste Stoltz
Where: Live Wire Music Hall
When: Wed., Oct. 29, 8 pm
Cost: $15 adv. @ livewiremusichall.com
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