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Gregg Rolie Band

Interviewed by Scott Montgomery
Interview with Gregg Rolie from 2010
MSJ: Note: An audio recording of this interview is available in the Music Street Journal members’ area – memberships start at just six buck. Use the log in box on the main page of the site (musicstreetjournal.com) if you have a membership – or the “click to register” link next to the box to get your membership.
 
MSJ:

Well, one thing I’m really interested in, if you’re willing to talk to me about is Lee Conklin, the artist.  He did the album cover …

The Santana one…
MSJ: Well, I’m actually working on a book on Lee and I thought if you had some insight, that would be wonderful.

Uh, the only thing…that was a poster for the Fillmore.  Yeah, it was a poster.  What was it for, as a matter of fact, that’s interesting… and I’ve forgotten.

MSJ: and I always wondered…because it looks like you guys are opening, but this image got so connected to Santana…
Well, we just…we took it.  He let us use it.  He still owns it
MSJ:

Did you guys ask him?  How did it come about?

Yeah we did. We asked to use it because we thought it was incredible.  I forget, there are eleven faces…and everyone misses a bunch of them.  The eyeballs are a face...the nose is…that is…that is…that is…

MSJ: Thank you. I’ve always been kind of interested in how it ran from that to that (points to different images).  And these are unrelated tickets.  I mean, that’s what you guys looked like.
I know. It is the perfect cover.  You know everybody smoked a lot of weed back then and just stared at that thing for days.
MSJ: One of the things that I’m kind of curious about…one of those shows…
(looking at a poster for Abraxas Pool) That was the band Abraxas Pool
MSJ: I was wondering… you started as Abraxas and then became Abraxas Pool
Yeah, we just added a “pool” to it…
MSJ: Just, why not? I like that.  Obviously Abraxas - its pretty obvious where that came from, but why did you pick that one?  What was it about Abraxas, given…
Number one – the way it sounds, the way it looks, how you spell it – there’s an X, there’s As, it’s sharp figures…you know its eye-catching.  And we called it Abraxas.

Anyway, the artwork for Abraxas came out of New York…Mati

MSJ:

It’s a great cover.

Yeah..Carlos actually found that.  He wanted to do that and then we named it “Abraxas”…I can’t even remember where that came from.
MSJ: It always amazed me, that album (Abraxas Pool) sort of proved that you can have Santana without Carlos.  And I think what the Gregg Rolie Band now is doing is showing that you can have Santana without Carlos and Neal Schon.  What it underscores is how much you’re at the center of that.
Well, you know what – when you listen to new music that I’ve written for this band, it becomes really apparent.  I mean it’s just because -  it’s really obvious that the organ and the vocals had a lot to do with the band, the arrangements and a lot of the sound.
MSJ: So, the other thing I’m really interested in, just because no one seems to ask about, is the early Journey.  Part of the journal for which I am doing this is progressive, so I thought that’s I think the most progressive stuff, as a genre, that you did – those first three album.  I was wondering if you would talk about the origin of Journey.
Well, actually what happened there is I got a call from Neal and Herbie Herbert, the manager, and they were putting something together.  I was up in Seattle – I had a restaurant up there with my father - and they said “are you doing anything?” “No,” “we’re putting this band together”… It was going to be a band that played for individual artists that might come to San Francisco.  And we would play their music.  But, within a couple of weeks we were writing our own stuff and became a band.  Prairie Prince was the first drummer that was doing that with him, and Neal wanted to keep him real bad but he was in the Tubes and wanted to do the Tubes and that was that.  So then we went searching for a drummer.  We auditioned I can’t tell you how many – and ended up with Aynsley.
MSJ: And it became, in terms of the Bay Area, a little super group.

 Yeah, in a sense.  And the music was very progressive, like you say.  It was rock fusion with vocals.  It was built around a lot of soloing, much as Santana was, but in a whole different way.  There was no percussion.

MSJ:

 It is a totally different sound, yet there is that link.

Yeah, the link that way.  And then… if we had done that band now, we’d be touring the jam circuit – Matthews and Phish and all of that.
MSJ:

 You guys would fit there now.

We would have been explosive.  We were ahead of our time.

MSJ: You absolutely were. You were right at where that cusp is – several times.  With Santana through the third album.  You were also on Caravanserai too, which I think is also very shifting…and Journey comes out of that.  You were always at the front of that.  And even in the 80s, you shaped that sound.
Yeah, that’s true.
MSJ: I think it’s great that you’ve sort of come back to the Santana…
I went back to my roots.
MSJ: Like the album…
Yeah.  Every time I would sit down and start noodling on things, it’s either in that room, or blues, or…it’s more that.  It’s more who I am. Journey - after the first three albums of Journey, it was a little harder for me.  Going from a minor mode to a major mode based upon vocals - more so than what I had done before.  Not that we didn’t do songs, but it was really focused on vocals and harmonies.  It was a whole different ballgame.  And that was a little more difficult. It was like switching gears for me.  So, when I got into doing this again, I just went back to what just came out.
MSJ: It feels good.
Yeah.
MSJ:

Just from someone who grew up in the Bay Area….would the original Journey ever do a one-off or something?

Neal and I have talked about doing that.  But, it wouldn’t be the original Journey.  There would be certainly Ross and myself and Neal.  That’s as original as we…
MSJ: I think that counts as original.
But we did.  We talked about doing something like that.  But it’s just, I don’t know.  Everyone’s gone their separate ways…nobody’s angry, just gone separate ways.
MSJ: I remember growing up, going to Bill Graham shows.  He would always show footage of previous shows.  I remember seeing some phenomenal early Journey.  Any chance we’ll ever see that?  Will that be archivally released?
I don’t know.  That’s kind of up to … They own the recordings.  I’d be surprised if they did.  They’re all in so much trouble, they can’t go experimenting anymore.
MSJ:

So, when you put Journey together, were you trying to be – you said ahead of your time – were you trying to be progressive?

Well, in hindsight we were ahead of our time.  At the time we were just doing what came naturally.  That’s what we played and solos were the predominant thing.  That is when fusion hit, you know McLaughlin and all that.  But, we did a rock version of that really.  It wasn’t fusion music, but it had that air…it was jam music.

MSJ:

Sure, before they called it that.

Sure, so everybody knows what it is now.  That’s what we were doing.
MSJ:

It was just music.  Back to the shows that were in that era (late 1960s)…there seemed to be a lot of cross-pollination - the big jam, where bands would play, there would be people sitting in.  It would be much more improvisational than even the jam band scene now.  Do you think that too?

Well…yes and no.  The Dave Matthews is very cutting edge stuff.  There are some great players in that band.  Ours was a little more straight-forward, driving.
MSJ: So, who do you like now?  You mentioned Dave Matthews. Anyone else really tickling your ears?
Well, I don’t listen...I listen to a lot of country music at this point.
MSJ: Anybody in particular?

Jason Alvina.  Jason Alvina – it’s basically rock.  It’s guitar rock with a twang on it.  It’s great stuff.  If you listen to the radio…the whole point about it is they are writing songs – there are some really good songs.  A lot of where pop music has gone has kind of left me cold.  I just don’t care about it.

MSJ: I think you’re in good company.
Yeah.
MSJ: On that first Journey album, you have songs without words – “Kahoutek” and “Topaz.”  They are songs.  They’ve got a flow and a structure.
Yeah, that’s the instrumental thing that Santana did.  I was used to doing things like that. We did it in a different genre.
MSJ:

So you…I don’t think you are playing any early Journey.  You’re playing a lot of Santana now.

We’re playing off the first three Santana albums.  The stuff I did with that with that - the vocals and all of it.  And the new music that is like it.  The biggest compliment that I get on that is people come up afterwards and say “is that an old Santana song that I don’t remember?”  You know, that tells me a lot.
MSJ: Sure. And I think it hits a lot of people just how much you were at the heart of that sound - at the center.
Carlos and I did the lion’s share of the work.  It’s really who I was.  But without Chepito doing the breaks, no; without Shrieve playing the way he plays…everyone had something to offer to this band to create that style of music.  But, Carlos and I did a lot of it.
MSJ:

But you always have that sense of a band.  It worked as a band, though you can have someone in the driver’s seat.

Yeah, Carlos put it that sometimes it was hard to tell who was the needle and who was the thread.
MSJ: That’s nice.

It’s nicely put.  It’s accurate – very accurate.

MSJ: So, now what I’ve seen and heard – this band is a live band.  As was Santana always.   Recording?  Anything?
Well, we just did a live album.
MSJ:

Exactly.  Anything studio? 

No, no – we just finished that a year and a half ago.  I’ve really focused more on playing live than on recording.  We sell CDs at our shows.  There is no retail anymore, unless you go to Best Buy, Walmart…I mean they’re gone.  The Internet kind of took the place of...it’s kind of where we’ve gone with it all.
MSJ: I can actually see that having a good effect in bringing it back to what you were saying.
It can be.
MSJ: A lot of pop music is kind of pre-packaged...is dull. It’s not exciting.  But if you can bring it back to what’s going on live, you can have interesting music again.
Yeah, well it has gone to that.  If you can’t play… It’s gone back to that, because they were doing everything with smoke and mirrors.  The CDs would have one song that was good and the rest was garbage.  The reason why people say I’m not doing this.  They’re not going to spend $20 on a CD that’s got one good song on it.  They’re just going to buy that one song.  Hence Steve Jobs has become the record mogul – he’s the guy now.  Absolutely.  And the labels pretty much didn’t embrace it.  You know, they sued twelve-year-olds.  It’s ridiculous.  Not that that was correct to do, for those people to steal it.  It’s a property.  There was a guy on…listening to….what was his name?  I’m drawing a blank...it was on the radio.  They were talking about pirating, stealing music off the internet, and this guy – a college student -  says “the music should be free. I pay for AOL.”  And he just railed on him – “You’re in college?  Where’s this country going?”
MSJ:

If he didn’t figure this out….  I teach college…I’m embarrassed.

At any rate, it’s like…so that’s wrong, clearly wrong.  But they had to embrace it.  It wasn’t going to go away.  They had to figure out a model to run that business and they didn’t.  But Steve Jobs did.

MSJ:

nd you as a musician…how are you going to get by… and live is probably more...

Live is more accessible.  And the other point is that live music never goes away.  People go to see good music and good bands.  But they like going to these things, like we’re playing for - Taste of Colorado – it’s more than a band.  There’s all kinds of things going on.
MSJ: It’s a carnival.
Yeah, people like going to these things.  And they’ll come.
MSJ: (pointing to Fillmore posters) Kind of like these things, I think.  A different sort of culture, but it too seemed like a carnival.

It kind of is.  You know if there’s more things to do….We played a – one of the best gigs I’ve had was a rib fest in St. Petersburg.  And there were lines and lines for all different kinds of ribs – ribs, beer, corn...  And the music - the stage was enormous – was of a high quality – and the people love it. Fifteen thousand people showed up.

MSJ:

Fabulous.

Yeah, it’s great.
MSJ: Do you have…well, everyone probably talks about the most famous gig – Woodstock.  Do you have a favorite gig?  You know, the rib fest or Woodstock?
Well, you know Woodstock certainly was great.  At the time it didn’t strike me as anything.  It’s the aftermath of finding out...  It was just another festival to us.  It was huge, but it was another festival.  Nobody knew about the movie, what was gong to happen.  Everybody got total hindsight on what it is and it turned out to be the grandfather of all festivals and probably never could be repeated. You know they tried to, but selling a twenty dollar bottle of water…and that’s not going to work.
MSJ:

You can’t fabricate something that happens organically.

No, it was like Close Encounters or Field of Dreams…if you build it, they will come.  And that’s really what happened.  People just came from all over the world to this show.  And if you were in it you had a career.  We caught the middle of it and Bill Graham got us, you know, a great spot in that.  Bill had a lot to do with it – he loved the band.
MSJ: And you played well then.  Not everybody played well…
Actually we only really played well on that last song – it really came together there.  I’ve listened to the other stuff.  It wasn’t bad, but there were tuning problems.  Everybody had problems.  I’ve talked with Creedence Clearwater… Stu Cook said, “my God, they had one light.”  In fact, it’s a great story.  They had one light on them and they’re playing at three in the morning or something like that and he hears off in the distance, ‘cuz he couldn’t see anything, he couldn’t see any people.  There was no lighting, no nothing, just one like a bulb on them…and there was one guy: “We’re with you, Man!” way off in the distance.  (laughs)
MSJ: A lone voice…
Yeah, so he knew someone was there.
MSJ: That’s fabulous.  That sense of spontaneity – not just the music, but the events, the light shows, all that.  It does seem like people are trying to pull some of that back – the multimedia, the letting loose on stage a little in terms of arrangements.

 I don’t know, everything gets a little tight and almost overdone, nowadays.  Back then, you could probably say the same thing about that.  Everybody had light shows, everybody had those things, and it just became part of the norm and you would expect to see that when you went to a show.  But then it got into coliseums.  After Woodstock we started playing coliseums…and that kind of went by the wayside.  There was no room for it.  You might put a screen behind you, with some guy doing lights behind it...”Heavy Water” was the name of one of those.

MSJ: But the visuals changed.
Everything changed.
MSJ: You see the same with downloads of music…album art has kind of fallen by the wayside.
Yeah, what’s happened there is that…coming from buying albums.   Everybody bought an album and they were huge and you could see….  You couldn’t wait to see them.  The artwork was very important, and who was on it and they took time to read everything and the lyrics.  And sit around and get stoned and listen to the music.  That’s really what was going on.
MSJ:

: …and space out on the cover.

And you couldn’t see that band unless they came to your town.  Which is another thing.  Video has made it so accessible.  I mean it’s good and bad.  One thing is you are seen by millions immediately.  But it kind of takes the mystique away and sometimes I think that maybe it’s not so good.  If you’ve seen too much… …it’s like “that’s my neighbor.”  There’s no romance to it.
MSJ:

And surprise.  I’ve gone to shows and almost expected - I know what the set-list is.  It’s nice to just have that ah-ha moment.  How do you keep it sort of improvisational and still kind of close…?

Well we play it pretty close to what we do.  The point is that the music was built on improvisation.  So, once you find something that’s pretty good – built off of that – the seat of your pants - you know I like to keep it. If I’ve got it to this point and this is great.  And once in a while it goes askew from it…  But for the most part, I play it pretty much the same.  And people like it.
MSJ: It’s a sound.
Well, if they like it.  They know where it’s going to go.  They like… If you don’t take it too far away from it.  It’s kind of like…they buy CDs, they buy this music, they listen to it and they love it.  You go to play it for them, it should be close.  You know, I think if you take it too far away…unless you’re the Grateful Dead where you can do anything you want because they’re all so loaded out in the audience.  God knows what they’re listening to...they’re all dancing to a different…
MSJ: …different rhythms.
Yeah.  I don’t know what they’re hearing…but, that’s a great phenomenon.  I’m not saying anything negative about it.  I think it’s terrific.
MSJ:

 But you always worked within that really well.  It’s never…I mean even the really early recordings where it’s pretty loose, there’s always much more tightness and structure with Santana, than say Quicksilver or the Dead.

Well, we rehearsed that stuff a lot.  There was an entry and an exit and you could do anything you want in between.
MSJ: Would you write that way sometimes? Open-ended?
Well, everything was written just by playing.  Play play play…pretty soon you’re saying, “I like this”and keeping that…
MSJ: Do you have a favorite song you’ve written?
Oh Jeez, no.  I’ve written a few that I really like a lot.  I’ve written ones that I like a lot and nobody likes at all.  So, it’s all so subjective what you pick out and what you don’t and why and all that.  I just recently went…approached a Santana song and a Journey song in a totally different way, which I’m gonna put out.
MSJ: What’s that?
I’m not going to say. The whole point is that it’s just different – something I’ve never done.
MSJ:

Nice.

And it may not do anything, or it may.  It was fun do to.

MSJ:

And there’s that romance that you said, that sort of surprise…

eah, it’s kind of cool.  One song I wrote, called “Love Doesn’t Live Here Anymore”…is above me, but it feels right.
MSJ: Where are you going?  Playing live...but what else are you doing?
That’s pretty much it.  I live in Texas now.  I’ve got twenty acres and I take care of it.  Between that and playing in this band, I’m a happy man.
MSJ: Anybody that you’d love to play with now that you haven’t?  You’ve played with so many people…
No, I really love playing with this band.  So, anyone we play with – great, fine with me.
MSJ: It’s a great band.
: It is a great band.  Have you seen this band?
MSJ: I’ve not seen… I’ve seen some of the video. So, I’m looking forward to tonight.

Oh, you’ll see what I’m saying…

MSJ: It comes out of the live album and it comes off of roots                       
We do “As They Years Go Passing By”…it’s an old…
MSJ: Albert King, was that it?
Yes, that’s right.  It’s not very much like Albert anymore.
MSJ: Didn’t Santana play that early on…68?

Yeah…it just didn’t come off right.  On the list of songs, it was down on the bottom.  And so, we did it a bunch of times and then it just kind of went away.

MSJ:

It’s great.  I think it’s a great rendition.

It’s really different now.  Wally Minko, who played with Jean Luc Ponty – a keyboard player who plays with me, just does some great work with the stuff.  It’s just a great band.  I think, the best part about the band is the hang after.  All the bands I’ve been in, all the things I’ve done…the realization that if you can hang with the guys you play with, your music’s gonna be better, it’s joyful do to and you love to come back and do it again.  And that’s what I have.
MSJ: It’s a relationship.

Yeah.  It’s great…every…  It’s the only band I’ve been in where the whole band hangs out at the same time.  No vibes, no weirdness, just fun.

MSJ:

Do you have the pre-gig ritual? Everyone get together…?

No.  We have three rules instead.  I’ve told them, I put this together.  First of all, there’s no band meetings.  If anyone tries to call a band meeting, it’s over.  I’ll quit.  Number two – if anyone turns into an asshole, including me, they’re fired. And number three – no prayer circles.  I think God’s got his hands full.  So whether the bass player runs into the guitar player…come on.  Step out of the way.  So, when I told those rules to the guys that we found.  Ron Wisko and I put this band together.  But at any rate…  as soon as we told the guys the rules…Alphonso Johnson says “that sounds great.”  Everybody was like “man, those are good.”  Just play the stuff.  You’re supposed to have fun with it.
MSJ: How unusual is that? Rules like No Rules?

Very unusual.

MSJ:

Is it?  That’s too bad.  It seems like it should be that way.

(laughs) but, I’m sixty-three – holy crap if I haven’t figured this out yet I really oughta give up.
MSJ: But, did it used to be that way?
Um…Santana was pretty loose, but it got tighter and tighter.  You know, it was very serious.  Santana was a serious band.  It was all about the music.  It really was.  And when we couldn’t see eye-to-eye on that anymore, that’s kind of where it really…and personally as well…we just kind of drifted apart.  I don’t think the music would have been created without all the fire that went on in that band.  It just would have never happened.  We argued.  As Mike Shrieve said, “it’s always you two guys – you and Carlos butting heads the whole time.”  It’s gotta be good.
MSJ:

Well, if you were at the center of it, it makes sense that you two would be kinda…

Well, we butted heads a lot.  But, it’s gotta be good.  We could do better than this, so…
MSJ: Was there anything about the Caravanserai sessions or material, because after that…?
No, I actually quit before that, but I played on it.  The direction that that was going in was Carlos and Shrieve.  They wanted to play with these jazz guys.  But, I don’t play jazz.  I know better.  These guys...that’s their genre…I mean I get it, but I don’t play it.  I don’t know it that well.  And that was not what Santana was for me.  And, it was great to…  I feel that it’s great to explore and do other things.  But you can’t just make a flip-flop.  You’re going to lose all the people that you have built up, that are expecting certain things from you.  So it went from selling three million records to selling two hundred thousand.  I was right.  It eventually sold, and there’s a lot of people who love it.  You know it was very experimental, and I just thought it was way too experimental.  But I really quit the band prior to that, so I didn’t have much input to it.
MSJ:

There’s really triads – those three Santana albums, the first three Journey albums, it’s starting to sound like Star Wars.  Do we get another part of the trilogy?

(laughs) yeah right. I don’t know… That’s just coming out the way it does.  There’s certainly not a plan.

MSJ:

Just waiting for the second Abraxas album.

Yeah, right.
MSJ: To a certain degree, what you’re doing now really follows that.
Yeah it is.  It’s that music.  It’s just fun to play.  And the music is like blues – it will not go away.  It is what it is…and...it’s always exciting, it’s rhythmic, it’s just great stuff.
MSJ:

And people seem to respond to it.

They all do.  All ages.  They’re all shocked.  Young people are “I didn’t know this existed.”

MSJ: I’ve said to people, “well, this is Santana like we all want to see Santana, want to hear it.”           
Santana the way you remember it.  That’s what they call it.
MSJ: ..or vaguely remember it, depending…

 …depending on who you are and what you took.

 

MSJ: This interview is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2010  Volume 5 at lulu.com/strangesound.
 
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