Heylo Bassers! Here is another installment of my InterMagsView where I sit down and bribe really cool bass players with food and wine to talk to me about really cool stuff!
My interview below is with Dave Dreiwitz. We had a very nice chat over dinner this winter at Cibo e Vino on the Upper West Side and talked about playing bass in Joe Russo’s Almost Dead and of course, Ween.
Mags: My friend emailed me today and said that he went to all three dates for Joe Russo’s Almost Dead (JRAD) at The Capitol Theatre (January 18, 19, 20, 2019).
DD: He went to all three nights?! What did he say?
Mags: He’s a little star-struck by you. He told me to tell you that it was the best three nights in a row that he’s seen of JRAD. He’s really into the whole jam-band thing.
DD: I thank my lucky stars for the jam-band fans.
Mags: Are you a big Phil Lesh fan? Are you a big Grateful Dead fan?
DD: I am more now. Monica (Hampton), my girlfriend, is a massive fan, and we’ve been together 17-18 years. When we got together, we would see The Dead, Phil and Friends, and I was getting more into it. Ween played the first Bonnaroo (2002) and Phil and Friends played right after us. It was the first time Phil and Bobby (Bob Weir) got back together after Jerry Garcia died. It was great. I remember thinking, “Wow, we just played the biggest show of our lives, and I’m sitting on the side of the stage watching Phil and Bobby play together. This is cool!” I started getting more and more into it, so Monica and I would see them more often.
Mags: How did you hook up with Joe?
DD: Joe and Marco Benevento (keyboard player) were in an instrumental experimental rock jazz duo called “The Duo”, kind of like a Medeski, Martin & Wood type thing. They had a Led Zeppelin instrumental side project that was just drums, organ, and Scott Metzger on guitar (Scott also plays in JRAD). Marco would play all the bass lines on his left hand. He’s a wicked organ player, a monster musician. In 2004, Joe came to see Ween in New Orleans and we met for the first time, I already knew Scott Metzger from his band RANA who opened for Ween a bunch of times. I said to Joe, “Hey, I know about your instrumental Zeppelin band. If you ever want a real bass player, I know all that stuff. That’s my Grateful Dead.” Joe went back to Marco and Scott and told them, “The bass player for Ween wants to play with us!” I joined them in October 2004 and that turned into Bustle in Your Hedgerow. We would do that only a few times a year.
Mags: Where would you play?
DD: Our first show was at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, NY, we played the Highline Ballroom and on Jake Szufnarowski’s Rock’s Off boat in NYC, we played Chicago, Colorado a few times, an occasional festival, a few gigs in California, then the Brooklyn Bowl opened in 2009 and we started doing weekend runs twice a year there. In 2009, Joe also joined Furthur.
Mags: How did JRAD start?
DD: After Ween broke up in 2012, Mickey (Melchiondo, Dean Ween of Ween) asked Joe, Scott, and me to back him in his new project, the Dean Ween Group. We had all been playing together in Chris Harford’s (singer/songwriter) Band of Changes, we were all buddies. At this time, Joe was also playing in Furthur (Bob Weir and Phil Lesh’s current band). So this Dean Ween Group was scheduled to play the annual Freaks Ball in January of 2013 at the Brooklyn Bowl, but Mickey had to cancel. The people promoting the show asked Joe to do a Dead thing, so Joe asked us Bustle guys plus Tom Hamilton from American Babies to play. We did the show as Joe Russo’s “Almost Dead”, somebody recorded it, uploaded it and people flipped out. They loved it. We didn’t do another gig until December – almost a year later, and that was at The Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, NY. It was the night before Phish was to start their New Year’s run at Madison Square Garden in NYC.
Mags: Oh wow, that was like the pre-party!
DD: Exactly, the pre-party.
Mags: When you’re preparing for JRAD gigs, how do you practice?
DD: I practice for hours and hours a day.
Mags: What do you practice?
DD: I mostly practice to the studio versions of the Grateful Dead. For the first three years I had a notebook. On stage, I would turn the pages with my foot and use the monitor to cover my notebook. We play almost 200 songs. I got to be so much better on bass because I practiced for hours.
Mags: Wow, just practicing the studio versions?
DD: Sometimes I practice to live versions, it depends on the JRAD arrangement. It took me a while to figure out how to approach this music. I’m a John Paul Jones type bass player. That’s my guy.
Mags: Yeah, I hear you. I can relate to that.
DD: Right! I grew up studying music and went to school for jazz. I approach this music like jazz and in a way it kind of frees up the bass player. It puts me in a position where I can just “go”. I have a structure that I work from and then I can do whatever I want within that structure. I can play really busy, or not play busy, or drop out.
Mags: When you’re playing the songs, how do you know when the changes are coming?
DD: The songs go seamlessly one from the next –
Mags: Yes! Who makes the indication to change?
DD: Joe does. Sometimes I miss the cues and screw everything up.
Mags: I can’t tell. When I’m watching and listening to JRAD, I feel like Joe’s the lighthouse, but you’re driving the ship. I don’t know if you agree, or disagree.
DD: I over play.
Mags: Oh no! I don’t think you do. Actually, I really love your bass playing. Especially for me because I can’t say that I’m a Grateful Dead fan. I know what a Grateful Dead fan is, so I can only say that I’m someone who casually knows them.
DD: Gotcha. You were like me before I had to learn 200 songs. It also got me into playing odd time signatures. I was a 4/4 guy. Now I can play in 7, 9. I grew up listening to King Crimson and then I could play it, but now I can actually count it.
Mags: If you know where the one is –
DD: Exactly, it’s a groove; a cycle. You can count it. Anybody can do it, if you just do it – just like anything else.
Mags: When I play in my band I’m constantly thinking about the pieces of the puzzle of the song and how am I supporting the singer. How do you find the thing to do during the jams? What’s your beacon?
DD: Sometimes I’ll just lock in with Joe and what he’s doing. I defer to whatever instrument seems to be the one to lock into. It could be by just staying low and keeping the music moving, or by just being in the bass register. Or I could be a little more melodic and follow whoever is soloing, and follow the melodic chordal structure. I don’t really think about that so much, it just kind of happens. We’ve been playing together so long.
Mags: How do you find the groove? When Joe is doing a lot of stuff on the kit –
DD: That’s why I go to the studio recordings because that seems to be the anchor. Then I become the anchor.
Mags: You do! You’re finding that groove in the moment with so much cacophony going on.
DD: I stick to something that seems to be the obvious thing to me. Does that make sense?
Mags: I’m always really interested in the process.
DD: Maybe it comes from playing jazz and growing up around jazz. The bass (not always) maintains some kind of semblance of holding the structure of the music together. The bass is marrying the rhythm and melody and the harmony and becomes the glue. The bass is supposed to be so supportive of everything around it. The bass supports the music. My job is to make everyone else in the band sound better. In JRAD I’m free to make my own choices, whether or not to go up high or go low, as long as I’m in the realm of the structure of the tune.
Mags: I like the JRAD jams because I like your bass playing so much. You play with intention.
DD: Thank you. I try to support the music the best I can.
Mags: I like it. I was so surprised when I saw you and I did my Dave Dreiwitz research, I was expecting you to play an Alembic bass and a million notes.
DD: I do play a million notes though.
Mags: Your choice of notes are excellent. You play with such an intensity and aggression that I was blown away. It wasn’t passive jam-bandy bass playing. You know what I mean? You were attacking! For three fucking hours! I didn’t see you phone it in once.
DD: Thanks, I appreciate that.
Mags: It’s the truth. You have an intensity throughout the whole set.
DD: Aw, thanks. I never go back and listen, so I don’t even know!
Mags: I love your Gibson SG. I have the same exact bass, the 2014 reissue. I love your bass tone because it’s so punchy. If I was on that gig, I would not have picked that bass. It sounds awesome, but why that bass?
DD: When I dove into the Grateful Dead catalog I was listening to Live/Dead, and fell in love with Phil’s sound on that record and later found out he was using an EB-3, which is similar to the SG, it’s the same bass Jack Bruce used in Cream! The early Dead is really kind of punk. I mean, like coming from left-field type punk. I was going for that, but I actually have a couple of Alembic basses. I’ve used them occasionally with JRAD.
Mags: I love that little SG and it’s not heavy.
DD: That SG is the shit. In JRAD, the first three gigs I played a 1968 Guild Starfire then switched to a 1969 Gibson EB-0 that belongs to my mom. My mom and dad are musicians. My mom plays the tuba and my dad plays the trombone. They were both in Woody Allen’s jazz band for thirty years. From the mid-sixties to the mid-nineties – they played on the Sleeper soundtrack. When my mom was in her thirties she played in the Harlem Blues and Jazz Band with legendary Harlem musicians like Doc Cheatham and Cozy Cole who were in their seventies, they toured Europe.
Mags: Wow, that’s so interesting!
DD: Right?! A woman tuba player. She’s kind of famous because there aren’t that many Dixieland jazz tuba players, and fewer female ones and playing with Woody Allen gave her a bit of fame.
Mags: Do your parents still play with Woody at the Carlyle Hotel?
DD: Now? No, not at all. They played with Woody at a club called Michael’s Pub from the ‘70s to ‘95.
Mags: That’s a long time.
DD: A long time. I would go often and I met so many cool people. I’ve hung out with George Segal, Howard Cosell, I’ve met Zero Mostel, all these guys because they would come to see Woody. My mom would come home every Monday and say, “Groucho Marx came tonight”, or “Benny Goodman sat-in”. They always played on Monday nights and back then the Academy Awards show was on Monday nights. When I was a kid Annie Hall won all these Academy Awards. Did Woody go? No! He’s at Michael’s Pub playing jazz! All the news outlets reported, “While Annie Hall is winning ‘Best Picture’ – we’re here at Michael’s Pub with Woody where he’s playing with his band!”
Mags: That’s crazy!
DD: At some point in the ‘70s somebody calls my mom up to play bass. She didn’t play bass, but she does have a master’s degree in music, so she figured she could pick it up.
Mags: Upright or electric?
DD: Electric. They said, “If you play electric bass, I can get you a lot of gigs.” For some reason all these guys who doubled on tuba and bass also played the Gibson EB-0. The next day she goes out and gets this beautiful 1969 EB-0. Her friend was the organ player from Mountain, Steve Knight, he put in this DiMarzio pickup for her. It was a great bass. She also buys a beautiful, 1967 Fender Mustang. When I was twelve, I start listening to Zeppelin. I grew up playing trumpet, but there’s no rock and roll in trumpet. I hadn’t yet discovered Miles Davis. I started listening to Zeppelin and I was sold. I grew up with the Beatles, jazz from my parents, the opera and classical music from my grandparents, and going to Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts on Saturday mornings at the New York Philharmonic Hall.
Mags: You’re from New Jersey.
DD: I grew up in Hackensack, New Jersey, but we were in New York City all the time. I always went to my parents gigs and hung out in the Village with them. I started picking up the Mustang when I was twelve and it’s really funny because my mom would say, “You can play the Mustang, but don’t touch my Gibson – that’s mine!”
Mags: Really!? Oh man, your mom is such a badass.
DD: Oh yeah! She’s such a badass and she still is!
Mags: I love that. A strong woman.
DD: Totally! My parents still play. It’s great. My dad is 83 years old and plays every Sunday night at Arthur’s Tavern in the Village from 7-10p with The Creole Cooking Jazz Band.
Mags: Do you play with him?
DD: I used to sub a lot with The Creole Cooking Jazz Band, but now I just go and sit-in. It’s almost more fun to just go there and see them. John Beal, the bass player is incredible. He’ll let me sit-in and play a couple tunes a set. I play upright, but playing that whole gig – there’s no amp and you’ll be playing for three hours straight. By the end of that my hands are shot. You’re playing with a six-piece band with no amp.
Mags: With upright you have to play consistently to keep your hands strong.
DD: Right! And there are solos on every tune.
Mags: Do you play standards at Arthur’s?
DD: They’re more like Dixieland/swing tunes. A lot of those tunes are standards, but a lot I don’t know. I hear the way they go, so I kind of fake it. They start the tune and by the time it’s in the second chorus, I’m good to go. I’m always thinking, “have I ever heard this song in my life?” or “have I heard this song a million times and I still don’t know it!”
Mags: Tell me more about your decision to play the Gibson SG in JRAD.
DD: Every few years since I’ve been playing bass professionally, I would ask my mom to give me her Gibson EB-0. Her reply was always the same, “Nah, I’m keeping it.” By the way, she never plays bass. Finally, ten years ago she gives in and lets me have it after I tell her I’m going to buy one just like it. “Just take mine!” was her reply. Her 1969 EB-0 became my main bass in JRAD until I found this 2014 SG. A few years ago I was hanging out in New Jersey with my parents, my dad needs to get slide cream for his trombone, so we went to Sam Ash. I walk into the guitar section and a used 2014 Gibson SG bass, similar to my mom’s EB-0 is hanging on the wall, so I bought it as a back-up and it’s become my main bass in JRAD.
Mags: I have to tell you, I love Ween’s White Pepper.
DD: Oh wow, that was the first record that I recorded with them.
Mags: Ween is such a weird band for me. I don’t really get the humor, it’s a little goofy to me, but at the same time I recognize that they are super creative. When Ween does melody and harmony…
DD: It’s unbelievable, isn’t it?
Mags: It’s so grand. It’s almost “Broadway”. It’s so magnificent.
DD: It’s all of those things.
Mags: I love that record, so much. I love their harmonies on that record. But maybe I’m not the typical Ween fan. Maybe the typical Ween fan likes Waving My Dick in The Wind. I don’t know!
DD: Ween is all of those things, accepting the beautiful and the ugly together.
Mags: How do you prepare for going out on the road with Ween?
DD: I don’t do anything. It’s in my heart. It’s there. It’s been 20+ years for me, since 1997. I know that music really well.
Mags: Where do you rehearse?
DD: At soundcheck.
Mags: Oh, shut up!
DD: Yeah! And we also have a little set up in the dressing room with tiny amps and a little drum set.
Mags: You must be pretty busy between Ween and JRAD. Do you have time to create on your own, do you miss that?
DD: I play in a few other bands when I have time, Old Rugged Sauce with Paul Sosnowski and Robbie “Seahag” Mangano, we do booze-soaked standards; Scary Burton playing the music of Gary Burton, I play occasionally with Chris Harford and I have a bass and drum duo called Crescent Moon with Chris “Tomato” Harfenist (from Sound of Urchin) that plays the music of Instant Death. Instant Death was my old band with Scott Byrne who passed away in 2005. It was just bass and drums. Kind of like Mötorhead, but without guitar. Mötorhead meets Stockhausen. Scott wrote most of the tunes and played drums and I would play chords on bass. In 2001 Instant Death made a record called New Evil Vibe that came out on the Ween record label Chocodog and was produced by Ween’s previous bass player and producer, Andrew Weiss. Instant Death opened for Ween on the Chocolate and Cheese tour in 1995.
Mags: Is that how you got the gig?
DD: Yes, Ween invited me to join the band in 1997.
Mags: You know what video was a good one, when Ween played an outdoor festival in Georgia. It was awesome bass playing, but you know what was really funny to me? When the band plays a song, then after it’s finished they kind of stop. Then they play another song, then after that song is finished, they kind of stop and say, “Hey”. I was not expecting the casualness of their set.
DD: Yeah! And Mickey will light a cigarette and say something rude and funny. And I’m over here thinking, “Man, that’s brilliant – how does he come up with this stuff!” It’s so natural, too.
Mags: It’s so laid back between songs. The drummer is really good.
DD: Yeah, Claude Coleman, Jr. is amazing.
Mags: You two sound great together. Your shows are full of INTENSITY! then… back-off. Then INTENSITY!
DD: There’s nothing better than playing great music with friends and the audience is digging what we’re doing. That’s the highest honor. What’s greater than that?
DD: Let’s do splitsville on the check –
Mags: Dave, no way. I’m so honored to have shared a meal with you. You played 10 hours of Grateful Dead music this weekend. It’s the least that I can do!
DD: Haha! Aw, thanks, Margaret! That’s really sweet!
See you on the low end!