Rob Wasserman's musical career took off at age 17 when an acoustic, upright bass appeared in the second-hand music store where he used to hang out in San Mateo, California. He studied classical music at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, but ultimately he set out on his own, inventing new forms, techniques, and even adding new instruments to the picture.
His career has taken him through lengthy stints playing with David Grisman and Lou Reed, and his historic recording collaborations have teamed him with Ricki Lee Jones, Aaron Neville, Bobby McFerrin, Brian and Carnie Wilson, Elvis Costello, Bruce Hornsby, Branford Marsalis, Edie Brickell, Jerry Garcia and Neil Young.
For the past thirteen years, Wasserman has worked with Grateful Dead alumnus Bobby Weir -- for seven years as a duet and for the past six years in RatDog, the band they co-founded. He spoke to the Independent from Lexington, Ky. on tour with the band, who stops in Denver this Thursday.
Indy: The process of collaboration has really driven you throughout your career. What fuels that desire to be so open to other musicians in that way?
Wasserman: I just like working with people. Sharing ideas and inspiration. That's what RatDog came out of, too, me and Bobby. He'd heard my Duets album years ago, when it came out, and came down to jam with me at this little club where I was doing a benefit. So that album of collaborations led to that collaboration with Bobby which turned into RatDog, six years, seven years later after we decided we wanted to start a band.
Indy: Tell me more about the NS Design 6-String Electric Upright Bass you play.
Wasserman: I used it with RatDog for a while, but as we kept adding more and more people, Bobby wanted me to come up with a more traditional bass tone. That tone was real radical and cutting-edge, like a cross between a bass guitar and an acoustic or electric upright. It didn't sound acoustic enough for him. So I found this great hand-made instrument called a Messenger Bass, but it's a four-string bass, so I went back to a traditional bass to get more of a acoustic sound, less amplified, and I've been using that for the last couple tours. I use the NS Design for solos, when I play alone, because it goes into a higher register and a lower register and it's better with effects.
Indy: Who was playing six-string upright bass before you?
Wasserman: I think I was actually one of the first people ever to have a six-string upright. I probably still am. I have no idea why, because I think it's a great instrument. I commissioned the first Clevinger that was a six-string. With bass guitars it's become fairly common, but that's a whole other instrument.
Indy: There must be some purists who think that once it becomes six stings it's no longer a bass?
Wasserman: Yeah, I'm sure there are. I just got some book of classical scales, just to go back and check out different techniques. It's all for four-string. It's all for shifting up and down the neck. The six-string is totally different, because by adding those extra notes you create a new technique. When I first started playing a Clevinger bass around 20 years ago, [people acted] like I was selling out. I guess when I jumped into the six-string, it's even more of a radical departure. As time goes on, they're obviously accepting the electric uprights, because I'm seeing them in bluegrass and country music and jazz. Back when I started, it was a super radical thing to play, people thought I was crazy.
Indy: Bobby thought the six-string wasn't acoustic enough for RatDog?
Wasserman: I don't know if it's the six-string or just the tone it got. It was a little too electric guitar-like for him, even though he played with a six string electric [bass]guitar player for many years. The tone Phil [Lesh]gets is more old-fashioned or something. It's more of a dark, deep tone. And the tone I was getting with the NS Design bass was brighter and punchier. Bobby wanted something that was more thumpier and more hit-you-in-the-chest kind of tone. So what I have now pretty much sounds like an acoustic, but it gets loud.
Indy: It seems like the collaborations you choose are in part an attempt to keep pushing yourself and challenging yourself. Do you feel satisfied that you get challenged enough musically?
Wasserman: Not really. I think I could be challenging myself a lot more. I want to spend more time practicing. Most of the time I spend now is performing. I feel challenged working on my new [Woody Guthrie] project; I felt challenged working on Space Island, because it was me doing things I'd never done on the bass, using effects and coming up with sounds that went beyond anything I'd done. That's what I really like to do. I have a collaboration with this Indian musician named Sultan Kahn, a great siringi [a 6,000 year old Indian bowed string instrument] player from India, and we just recorded something that I may release as something like a side, interesting east-meets-west jam duo. RatDog is starting to become more challenging because we're letting go more and getting away from the songs more. Even though we play a lot of stuff that people have heard, like a lot of old Grateful Dead tunes, we're pushing ourselves a lot more so a lot of those tunes just get turned inside and out, and that's what I like to do.
Indy: All but one of the songs on RatDog's Evening Moods is credited with the whole band as composing the music. Is there something unique that goes on with the creative process with RatDog?
Wasserman: We just wanted to have a collaborative song-writing process where no matter what anyone does, every one would share [credit] because everyone's in the room at the same time. We decided not to be nitpicky and just say, "OK, we're a band; it's a band creation." But then as it progressed, the words became more and more personal with Bobby, and I think that's why it became more of a solo album than our band album. It centered more around the words. The music supports the words in this record.
Indy: What attracts you to playing with Bobby?
Wasserman: I think of him as like my older brother or something. We don't even need to talk. We can sit in the same room. We're just comfortable with each other. That's probably why it's lasted. The main thing is we have fun, and also, I do a lot of other things and he does a lot of other things. I think that when we get together, it's just fun to get back together again.
Indy: Are there some people that really stick out as especially significant that you've had the chance to work with?
Wasserman: Stephane Grappelli on Duets and Willie Dixon on Trios, those are two of my mentors. Those are probably the greatest collaborations, 'cause they were people that taught me. Grappelli really encouraged me to do my solo music. He started jamming with the Grisman band on our first tour after I joined. He was real encouraging to me. He wrote liner notes for my Solo album. He was great. And then Willie Dixon, we hung out for a couple years. I met him shortly before he died, and he chose me to be in his last band, a special band with Mose Allison and all these guys. He was like a grandfather to me. And Sultan Kahn is only like five or six years older than me, but I think of him as a teacher too because he's so brilliant.
Indy: Tell me about the work you're doing with Mark Morris
Wasserman: Michelle Schocked and I wrote some music for him and he created dances from it and we played live. It's a little scary, 'cause if you black out or make a mistake you think they're going to fall apart, but they don't. He's an incredible choreographer, and it's really exciting to watch music that you write turn into some fusion with another medium
Indy: You're working with Woody Guthrie's daughter Nora to bring some of her father's words to music. Can you give me an example of one of the tunes, who you worked with and what the original written material was?
Wasserman: The last one I did was with Lou Reed. It was called "The Debt I Owe." It was sort of a poem about how he wished that you could repay your life's debts through money, but you can't. Then there's another one I did with Ani DiFranco which is him sitting at a deli on Coney Island. He's always describing what's going on in the street and the unfairness of life and the rich against the poor. I'm trying to find people that are like that as artists too, or that want to sing or talk his words. Michael Franti from Spearhead did a rap version of one of his songs. It's different. The people on this record so far are people that appreciate Woody Guthrie's words and also have their own voices.