The Dave Rawlings Machine (Dave Rawlings, Gillian Welch, Willie Watson, Paul Kowert and John Paul Jones) plays tonight at the Brown Theater at 8 p.m. LEO caught up with him for a chat.
LEO: Hi, Dave. Where are you today?
Dave Rawlings: I’m in Nashville, actually, I just walked over to a recording studio. I’m just recording some stuff. I don’t like counting chickens before they hatch, but working on recording some stuff. I don’t know if any of it will be of any value, but I’m doing it.
LEO: So you don’t know yet if it will be out on your name or on Gillian’s?
DR: Yeah, exactly. If it isn’t terrible, it’ll end up out there in the world, or I would hope. But recording’s a tricky thing, you gotta get it right.
Recording has never been much of a hang-up for us. once we have the material we like, it’s usually about, when I think about most of the records we’ve made, they take about five weeks or so to get them together. And I’m out working all the time, there’s usually some songwriting that needs to still to be done or some stuff that needs to be adjusted. We’re lucky enough to have a studio, we have our own studio so we can fool around with stuff that isn’t as much of a huge project now.
LEO: I hear you guys in a lot of newer bands these days. Do you hear that, too?
DR: Going back a little bit to some of those late ’60s – the Band or stuff like that, they had a lot of people at different ranges singing, and you know, those records have cast a wide net of people who they are a big influence on.
LEO: So you’re just part of the continuum?
DR: Yeah, exactly. And that’s what it is a lot of times, as you travel and get years under your belt, as a musician you forget that there are people who – every time something like that comes back around and a record comes out that uses a particular flavor, and you think. ‘Oh, that’s just like this record from 10 years ago or 20 years ago or 30 years ago…’ At this point, it would be the majority of music, there’s a chance you’d hear something and you’d go, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s from a record from 1931, and here we are almost a hundred years later and that’s the primary influence of this record.’ There are always people who are hearing that music who have never heard the source. And just like those people in 1931 might have been doing a knock off of something they heard great 50 years before that. It is a chain. A lot of times, those early records get a lot of extra credit because no one ever heard their source. They don’t know where it came from.
LEO: Does that lessen the pressure you might feel as a songwriter?
DR: At least from my perspective as a musician, you just gotta do what you love and you can’t help but do it, so if you hear something that you’re crazy about and your music is influenced by it, that’s the reason you play music. If you kinda leech all that out, ‘I’m just gonna play whatever distinctly comes from me and only me,’ it’ll be silent. You think of it as a recipe for a cake or something like that – there are ingredients, but if you don’t add other things, you’re just gonna sit there and be flour. Music comes from a combination of things, in my mind, and when I’m improvising on a song, I can sort of follow what happens in my brain. When I hear this or that, and it’ll sort of tug me through the song, and I just follow that path. But it has to do with music that you’ve heard and music that you feel, and you have to try to combine it and make something that, hopefully, does have some spark of new and does come specifically from you, and when you do think of thoughts that you’re pretty sure you’ve never heard before, those are really important ones to remember and to hold onto and to try to craft together into your own song. I’m always really happy when I come up with a song, or Gillian and I or whoever I’m working with, where you come up with stuff that you like and you can’t put your finger on it and point to anything else that does it just that way.
LEO: You’re touring this month with quite the all star band. How did you meet John Paul Jones?
DR: John was always interested in acoustic and folk music, so he played a lot of mandolin on Zeppelin stuff. I first met him at a bluegrass festival in North Carolina that he’d come just as a spectator to. There was a midnight jam on Saturday night, I think after hours, where all the musicians are just sort of backstage and you might say to someone, ‘Hey, let’s go out there and play this song,’ and you go down a list and they’re just sort of putting people out there and you just go out and play whatever. It’s just to encourage art collaborations and everyone is just sort of worn out after the big day at the festival. And somehow John Paul Jones and his wife, they hadn’t been invited up to this thing. So I was talking to him, like, ‘We’re about to do this midnight jam, are you going up for this?’ and he said, ‘Well, I don’t know, I don’t think we can.’ I was just, ‘Yes, you can.’
So they piled in the car and drove just up the road half a mile up to where this theater was and hung around, and that’s kind of how I got to know him. But when he was coming to work on some records in Nashville, I played on a couple of those things and I got to know him a little better. When I did the first ‘Friend of a Friend’ tour in England and Scotland, he called up and said, ‘Do you wanna have a mandolin on the tour?’ And I said, ‘Sure,’ and he played the tour with us. It’s the thing that we all love doing together, it’s sitting in a circle and playing music or standing in line on stage and playing for people you know improvising and not knowing what’s coming next.
I think John sat in with Gillian and I at Bonnaroo years back, and that might have been the first time we really played together on stage, if I’m not mistaken. We realized pretty shortly into that set that when we — I’m using my guitar technique, some people call it cross-picking, it’s so you get this sort of flow going on, and John plays like that on the mandolin and had a similar feel, and so when we play together, we get this sort of swirling thing going on that we both like, and our styles intermesh in a way that we thought was fun. So I think that’s part of why we kept playing together was we felt like our instruments sound good together, and obviously he is such an amazing musician, it’s kind of unbelievable. He’s so facile and capable of doing anything you throw at him, from electronic music straight across to the furthest region of acoustic music. His ears are huge and he can play any kind of polyrhythm or anything. He’s just vastly overqualified to be in my band.
But everyone in my band is. They’re all giants, in my mind, at what they do. So we try to bring that to people. We get up on stage and fall into some song that crosses my mind. I usually feel good about how it’s gonna turn out, and if once in a while we miss the mark, well, that’s part of the experience of not putting together a show that is too rote, too arranged if you will.
LEO: You’re doing these two weeks more for fun than as a promotional obligation.
DR: It’s a thrill for me, and it’s been great to do, and it’s kept fresh for everybody because everybody does different things and has different projects. So all of these shows are like special events to us, to everyone in the band. If there’s a week window or two-week window where we can make this happen, we sort of savor every show. Now we want as much as we can put together. I know John says he’s been writing an opera – oh my god, I think when he gets done writing the original melody and the rough sketch of the opera, I don’t even know if you call it a sketch, but I think the orchestration takes a year and a half for these things. He’s been real busy with this and obviously other musical projects that he’s involved with, but he was playing at Bonnaroo and there’s a little bit of time there, I thought, ‘Well, if we could time it right, we could play back in Nashville and go to sort of some of our favorite towns to play in.’ I always loved playing in Louisville, that’s been a real strong place. The Machine did well there and a lot of the music I like is from there
That’s the thing, there’s always a sort of uncertainty involved and that’s what keeps the energy up. It’s never a sure thing, you can’t take it for granted when you get up there and you’re trying to do your best or whatever, you have to be there and the crowd is always part of it. We shall see, we’ll try to make it good, try to make it fun and we might have some surprises for people.