Bob Mathews: The Music Will Tell Us
"It really all started when I was in the middle of 7th grade," says Bob Mathews. "I wanted to get into a more academically oriented school than the public middle school I was going to, so I applied to this progressive school in Menlo Park [San Francisco] called Peninsula School. 7th grade was full, and in the middle of the year, a student left and allowed me to enter that school. And one spring Sunday afternoon, they were doing a benefit. There were wandering minstrels, as it were, and one of them was a three-piece bluegrass band with a banjo, and it just knocked my socks off. I'd never really heard a banjo before. And of course, it was Jerry." And so Robert C. Mathews's long and storied career with the Grateful Dead had begun. Mathews would go on to develop recording techniques and implement them in his position as Producer for Live Dead, Skull & Roses, and Europe '72, as well as engineering for Workingman's Dead, Garcia, and Ace. But before jumping all the way to his seat in the producer's chair, we walk backwards to a time ripe with possibilities. A time of Acid Tests and experiments. A day of Free Love and low rent.
THE DEAD ARE BORN
Jerry Garcia by Jay Blakesberg"I still kept up with my friends, and we played music. Late in the year, they brought this new guy around - it was Bob Weir. I met him once, and then the next year, he showed up. He had finally burned all his bridges in private school, and he showed up in my school sophomore year." Mathews continues, "We became close because we were similarly rebellious freaks and very quickly established a pattern of - I had a first period class and he didn't have one till second period, which was nine o'clock, so at nine o'clock we'd meet out on the street and hitchhike into Palo Alto to the music school where Jerry [Garcia] taught lessons in the back for a couple hours in the afternoon."
The influence that Garcia and Weir have had on Mathews's life is both obvious and undeniable, but what many don't know is the influence Mathews had on the two of them. Not only was Mathews the first person to figure out how to record the band, he was there when the name "Grateful Dead" was chosen, and he had even been credited with creating the original jug band that started it all. "We decided we wanted to start a jug band. Jug band was really... first of all, it's the whole issue of 'grab a piece of something and make music out of it.' I was a washboard player in the beginning. But the next day or shortly after, we [Weir and Mathews] had made this decision [to start a jug band]. When we were in the music school - Jerry playing - we mentioned that we started a jug band. Not missing a note - very "Jerry" - he looked up and said, 'Good I'm in it.' And that was basically it - Dennis [McNally] has credited me with having created the idea of the jug band." Starting to laugh, Mathews continues, "I was in the jug band for three weeks, I think."
LIVING WITH THE DEAD (AND HOW TO RECORD IT)
Bob Weir by Jay BlakesbergAs Mathews describes his growth into a Producer, he starts with his days as a "hanger-on." "Sometime in 1966, I had managed to drop out of school, which was the thing to do, and I was living/crashing on the floor in Bobby's room, which was a public living room at 710 Ashbury Street." After starting the first Grateful Dead fan club, he tells us that, "I got involved with my first recording exposure later that year at Buena Vista Hill at this huge Victorian house with a studio on the top floor. About the second time we had a session there, I became really infatuated with recording. Something to do with watching the spinning wheels, and other influences. I mentioned to Bobby that I thought it was going to require somebody in the family to do the process of technically creating a recording to represent what takes place musically. And I said I was going to be that person. And that's sort of what started me; I had a goal, a desire to see that happen. It was 1970 when Live Dead was released, which was really a satisfaction with the accomplishment of that goal."
While Mathews downplays his vision and the depth of his involvement, it was far more than spinning wheels and spinning splifs. "The actual technology that we used, I perused and created for Live Dead, and then it was used - exactly the same system of equipment and approach - for Live Dead, Skull & Roses, and Europe '72. Like many of man's innovations, the "system" Mathews developed was really quite simple. More than the actual concept, what is so impressive is that Mathews was able to see the problem and to remove it. As he tells us, "The music was always what the Grateful Dead were about, and my job, from my point of view, was to remove all the usual obstacles that required attention before you could pay attention to the aesthetics of the music. I tried to work diligently so that the music was the only thing that decisions had to be made about." Nowadays, with the amount of technology we have to record music (live or in the studio), we can't even consider the task at hand for someone like Bob Mathews as he tried to transfer what the Dead did as a band on stage to a tape. "My experience with remote recording trucks was that usually when you got back in the studio, it didn't have any cohesion. It never represented at all what had gone on. What I came to realize was that decisions got made in the truck that you were locked into, and Murphy's Law said that they were more often wrong than they were right. So what I created was a keep it simple approach where the microphones on stage went into the PA, and they didn't go through a console - they were plugged one microphone into one track on the 16-track, so there's no signal processing or other processes done. There were no decisions or alterations of the original signal until we got into the laboratory environment of the studio, where you could make decisions and be able to reverse them. And that's what allowed Live Dead to have 'Space' on it that sounded like it was in the hall."
Mathews's work on Live Dead saw the advancement of the live medium, something that would continue to be a calling through his life. His production on Workingman's Dead taught him how to use the studio and how to organize and make a clean, stellar album quickly and efficiently. "And Jerry's first solo record Garcia, musically, is probably the top thing. Because that was artistically, aesthetically, relationship-wise, from a creative perspective, that was almost perfection." The relationship Mathews had with Garcia, and with music in general, was perhaps as big an influence on the recording process as any. "I would maybe further comment that as I was mentioning earlier, my perspective of what my job was, as far as the music and trying to eliminate 'The Murphy' as it were, a lot of it too - I was in the jug band, I was fortunate enough to be the first bass player in the New Riders [of the Purple Sage], I got to play with Jerry, which was great, and I bring a technical side of what I do to the perspective of what I describe as - being able to bring both sides of the glass - both from the control room and as a musician. I think it's really important to have that perspective and understanding to translate the music well to the medium."
LIFE AFTER THE DEAD
We're all aware that our lives are constantly being altered; small "coincidences" lead to life changes. Meetings and happenstance help shape our existence. A band like the Dark Star Orchestra, for example, exists because of the Grateful Dead, and every member of that organization's life has been forever altered because of the band. Similarly, Bob Mathews's life has been molded by the Grateful Dead inferno. Now, in some strange twist of fate, Bob Mathews and the Dark Star Orchestra find themselves wrapping their lives around one another, influencing and adding to the pallet, and shifting the direction of the ship.
Donna Jean Godchaux with DSOThe Fillmore by Susan J. Weiand After reuniting with Donna Jean Godchaux at the Fillmore in 2004 for the All Good Things: Jerry Garcia Studio Sessions [BOX SET] release party (in which Mathews actually plays bass on one track), he decided to film Donna Jean's Heart of Gold Band performance the next month at the Fillmore. As it turns out, the slot was opening for the Dark Star Orchestra. After being frustrated by the mere twenty-five minutes that Donna Jean's band played, he was convinced, against his will, to record DSO. "I describe it as I was dragged kicking and screaming to have to deal with Dark Star Orchestra, so I kept the crew and fortunately had enough tape. And we rolled, and my usual task of making a two-track mix, listening to the 24-track as a monitor mix... I was just starting to do that, and I glanced up to look at the monitor to look at what was going on, and as I glanced up, I was shocked because I realized - from the music, I was expecting to look up and see the people I would have seen thirty years ago. And it was that moment that I had the equivalent of what I would call an epiphany. I realized the phenomenon that I used to enjoy was being re-created, and that's when I became involved."
In one night Bob Mathews heard of the Dark Star Orchestra, got annoyed at their need for two-and a-half hours of stage time, somewhat resented the fact that he was going to record them (as he tells it: "Come you guys. Remember, we recorded the original, why would I want to record this?"), had an "epiphany" at their feet, recorded the performance, and came full-circle to not only loving the band but to becoming a part of their team as well. That show at San Francisco's hallowed Fillmore (5/8/2005) was released as Dark Star Orchestra - Live at the Fillmore. Mathews smiles and reflects, "Everything just worked out. Things were once again coincidentally serendipitous. It's the music that drives it. I've learned in my years, I just tell people: The Music Will Tell Us What To Do. You know when it feels right."
What the music told Bob Mathews to do was to utilize his life's experience and passion to put together a state-of-the-art mobile recording studio and to create ArSeaEm - essentially attempting to make whatever small impact he can in this day of nasty record deals and artist exploitation. "My name is Robert C. Mathews - so RCM - ArSeaEm, kind of a funny little thing. But after that performance [DSO - Live at the Fillmore], I had a justification, not that I needed one, but again, it was a validation. I was going in the right direction, my instincts were correct. But the other thing it did was it determined rather than being a services for hire like I had sort of envisioned my truck would be, where people could rent it, that's not a comfortable position for me - responding to other people's artistic direction. It was now part of a bigger picture as I realized what I was doing was becoming a record label. And on my letter head for ArSeaEm Recording, the little sub-motto says, 'An artist-friendly record label.'" Mathews's friendly tactics include a "communal approach" where bands receive royalty rates that are "a third higher than the best deal that anybody's ever documented in the industry." "And I'm not charging them with packaging fees, production costs, and everything else you end up having to pay off before you ever get to see any royalties."
Although Mathews is busy working on other projects with the Dark Star Orchestra, he also sees himself working with more artists in the near future. Having just recently put his business model into effect, the options seem somewhat endless. "Because of its uniqueness, it's an experiment. With success, we get another chance, and success also means we can offer a different model to other producer/musicians - that there is a place between the two extremes of going to a record company or doing it totally yourself and only selling your product at shows. There is another possibility."
To explore these possibilities as a band or producer, or simply to learn more about ArSeaEm please visit: www.arseaem.com.
To get more information about Dark Star Orchestra - Live at the Fillmore please go to http://www.dsolive.com/.
KaycemanJamBase CaliforniaGo See Live Music!
[Published on 8/8/2005]