Interview: Robert Randolph
December 28, 2006 02:55 PM
by Christina Fuoco
With active airplay on MTV2, Robert Randolph and the Family Band are happy for the mainstream success they've had with the album "Colorblind."
"People are really tired of the hype and being let down by something that's not good and not different," frontman/pedal-steel guitarist Randolph said of that success during a recent interview. "People are really grasping on us because we bring a touch of a certain energy and joyful vibe to the music scene. A lot of people just kind of forgot how to be true to themselves."
That "energy and joyful vibe" was founded in New Jersey's House of God Church, where Randolph honed his skills as a steel-guitar player. Woven throughout "Colorblind" is a positive vibe that he feels is a vital part of his music.
"It's always important for me because I grew up in church. Growing up in church and having this outlook on life, we're taught how to be positive, stay positive. When you get down about something, you have to be faithful and prayerful. It helps you gain a certain mental thing. For me to be able to share that message and be positive with people and give the kind of things they didn't have growing up in their lives is a great thing for me to share with them."
A native of Orange, NJ, Randolph--who is joined in the band by bassist/vocalist Danyel Morgan, drummer Marcus Randolph and Hammond organ/pianist Jason Crosby--talked to LiveDaily about the making of "Colorblind," working with Eric Clapton and Dave Matthews, and staying humble.
LiveDaily: The album has a real live feel to it. Did you record it live?
Robert Randolph: Yeah we did it all in the studio live. We wrote a bunch of songs with a bunch of different people. We did the album in a lot of different pieces because we worked with so many different people--Clapton, Daniel Lanois, so many people. What we wanted to do was just get in and take a lot of the influences that we got from a lot of these people and write the songs first, and go in and create the most energy and the most sounds we could get out of it. It was a great time.
What was it like to work with such a range of artists?
We had been on tour, especially with Matthews, for the last couple years doing a bunch of shows with him and the band. Being with Clapton on tour and Santana on tour, we had learned a lot. For us, it was getting in and seeing the mindset these guys get into when they are making records and how to learn a lot from them. It was a great time. Working with Dave Matthews, he's so crafty I mainly wanted to get in his head and figure him out and see how his process was. That was a great thing. Doing a song like "Love is the Only Way" on the record, that was a song he had had for his band when they were making their last record. He was just like, "Man, I got this song and I think you could really turn it into something else. I think you guys could really do a different thing." We got in there and I listened to it and I was like, "Wow, this is cool. Let's see what we can do." Being with him helped us out a lot.
It must have been a really educational experience.
That's what this whole process was. We started out just coming from church and having the whole gospel background, and really just kind of going into clubs and playing and doing a lot of jamming. The last couple records we made were cool. But this one really taught us a lot in terms of having a song and how to really expand on a song, instrumentally, vocally and the whole mind frame of it. That was the key about doing this thing here.
What was the most important thing you learned?
Being with a guy like Eric Clapton and hearing about how he first was a regular guitar player and he had never really thought about having this long career. He saw himself as a guitar player and just really wanted to build on that. That's basically how I was at the beginning--just a guitar player. Really, now, I've learned how the guitar meshes together with the song and the vocal idea that you have. It's opened so many [musical] doors. Just having a conversation with him led to "Ain't Nothin' Wrong With That." You got the guitar first coming out, but then you surround the guitar with these vocals and make it big and joyful for everybody. That's one of the things I loved about it: not just playing guitar through the whole thing; having the guitar help you create melodies and a mood. That was the main thing that I learned from working on this album.
What was it like to work with producer Tom Whalley?
He doesn't really care about hit songs or anything like that. He just wants to see musicians and artists have really long careers and be true to what you're doing. He gave us the opportunity to do that--to be original. Every time we were worried about something, he was like, "Just be true to yourself and remember what you're doing. Twenty years later, you want to look back and say, 'Man, that was cool what I did.'" You don't want to do something to just be trendy. The label was really supportive of us the whole time.
As a child, what inspired you to pick up the guitar?
For me, it was mainly growing up in church. I grew up and saw a lot of older guys playing lap steels and pedal-steel guitars in my church, which was kind of like this original church. For me, growing up and watching them, that was the outlet I had to try to be original. My family is a big musical family. My sisters and brothers are all singers.
You've been called the "master of pedal steel guitar." How does that feel?
Well, I don't really claim myself to be a master or trying to be a master. That's cool when people say that. That means I kind of took something in a traditional way and kind of changed it around and tried to do something different. Hopefully, that could influence a lot of other kids and a lot of other people these days to do something just a little different. It kind of puts pressure on me to keep being creative.
Do you hear from a lot of kids that you've inspired them?
Oh yeah, there's a lot of kids from all over who have been inspired--a lot of kids, even a lot of inner-city kids who see me on TV. It gave them a sense of change and direction in their life--something they can do different. That is a cool thing when I get that.
What do you have planned for 2007?
Touring, making a couple more videos, really collaborating with a bunch of others like Daniel Lanois, Dave Matthews Band, working on their new record. Really, just working with a lot of people and keep it moving, keep the train rolling, and for me to continue to stay humble and open up a bunch of different doors.
Colorblind isn't an adequate title for this album. Randolph's follow-up to 2003's Grammy-nominated Unclassified is bright and energetic as a tie-dye-patterned pinwheel. Mostly its 11 tunes are about grooves plucked from the era of Sly Stone and Stevie Wonder, dappled with brilliant classic rock musicianship (think Jimi Hendrix and Jeff Beck) and driven by frenetic verve. When things slow down, it's usually to let the young pedal steel virtuoso revisit his roots in the Holiness Church, although the team of pop-world songwriters he collaborates with make the lyrics of Randolph's R&B hymns ambiguous between devotion to a woman or to God. Guests Dave Matthews (singing backup on "Love Is the Only Way") and Eric Clapton (lending second guitar to a hot-but-rote cover of the Doobie Brothers' hit "Jesus Is Just Alright") are oddly subdued, but neo-soul diva Leela James puts sex and smolder into her duet with Randolph on "Stronger." Ultimately, though, this album's all about Randolph himself, who has loosened his grip on the blues and gospel bedrock of his earlier playing to become a master of flashy funk and rock riffs and the owner of a tone so gargantuan it's earned him a place in rock-guitar Olympus--if not Heaven. --Ted Drozdowski