A Talk with Robin Sylvester of Bob Weir & Ratdog
by Adam Perry for Boulder Weekly
Ratdog was founded by singer-guitarist Bob Weir and stand-up bassist Rob Wasserman in the early-90’s and then cemented into Weir’s main working band when his Grateful Dead partner Jerry Garcia died in 1995. Most musicians who’ve come through the Marin County-based jam-rock band over the years have been Bay Area stalwarts (from the late Vince Welnick of the Tubes and the Dead to Jay Lane of Les Claypool fame), but not nearly enough has been said about Robin Sylvester, a London-born multi-talented musician who replaced Wasserman in Ratdog in 2003 and was actually an assistant engineer at Abbey Road Studios when the Beatles were recording there.
As a young drummer in San Francisco, I played a few benefit concerts with Sylvester; our connection has been sporadic but sustained ever since, and in advance of Ratdog’s performance at Chautauqua Auditorium in Boulder this weekend, we talked a little about his amazing career.
Adam Perry: I want to know all about your experiences in the English rock scene as a young man and how you ended up in America. What bassists did you look up to as a kid and what were your first experiences as a touring musician like?
Robin Sylvester: As I grew up in north London in the 60’s, I was basically just waiting for the next Beatles record to come out, listening to R&B imports and greater British pop between! So the obvious bass influences would be McCartney, Duck Dunn (Memphis soul) and James Jamerson (Motown). Other big faves would include Rick Danko of the Band and Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, who turned out to be using session players all along!
As a sound engineer I heard good musicians every day throughout the first half of the 70’s. I started in 1969, at the peak of the “blues boom” over there, and watched things morph into prog-rock, roots-folk, singer-songwriter self-indulgence and more. The major labels all had budget lines (Deram for Decca; Harvest for EMI) and a lot of my clients were on such labels. Consequently I had some early experiences re-mixing in their big studios, including the famous Abbey Road.
It was a great time! Those experiences to which you allude would fill a book. I look back at one period when I was working a lot at Trident studios when Elton John and David Bowie where fighting for available time and Queen were waiting in the pub for everyone else to finish. Actually, they weren’t drinking much . . . but everybody else was! It could be downright dangerous to run into certain parties like Keith Moon!
People used to do “demos” in the studio back then, and you never knew what might end up being a master. “In The Summertime” by Mungo Jerry started out as a 1.5 minute demo in my studio — they added a sound effect and repeated the exact same material to make it long enough! I’m forever finding obscure prog-rock re-issues with bonus stuff from my old sessions.
I started playing again around ’74, ending up with Dana Gillespie, singer with Bowie’s management, and visiting the States with her. I liked NYC so much I stayed there until the money ran out – way beyond, actually – by which time I had met some musicians who asked me to join a band called The Movies, one of Arista’s first signings. That’s how I ended up over here, and the thread gets complicated from [then] on, though a fascinating show-biz story in itself.
[above photo by Terry Rogers]
AP: What was it like performing and recording with Rory Gallagher? He seems like a mysterious figure in rock history who died too soon but will be discovered and appreciated more and more with time.
RS: A great player, and one of the nicest guys you could meet. His approach was more-or-less live in the studio, so my challenges were mostly along the lines of being ready to roll when he was. On Irish Tour 74 we were working against the clock. The mobile unit declined to be present in Belfast, turned up late in Dublin (during the opening act, Thin Lizzy) and we had to nail it in one night in Cork. Fortunately [Cork was] Rory’s home town and he put out a great performance. Nevertheless we put together side 4 from bits and pieces from the sound check. That contains some once-only edits, let me tell you!
I never performed publicly with Rory, though we jammed and fooled around a bit in the studio. I like to think that somebody somewhere has sat and listened to every tape and wondered who the wild and humorous jammers were! When he added a keyboard-player he told me later that the job was almost mine — how different my life would have been! I miss him still.
AP: Was Missing Man Formation your first entry into the world of the Grateful Dead or had you been a fan of the band previously? And what can you tell us about Vince Welnick as a human being?
RS: Yes, Vince brought me into this world of the Dead, although back in 1970-71 I produced a band called Byzantium who showed major Dead influences, plus a touch more Crosby, Stills & Nash and the Eagles. [Byzantium had] albums on Warner Bros and A&M; they were dropped and then got really good — we’ve got some live stuff in the can which will soon be seeing the light of day. I also played for years with Marty Balin [Jefferson Airplane], so I was no stranger to the SF music scene in general.
Vince was a complex human; very talented, fun to hang with. Musically very picky: we rehearsed vocals for hours and hours. I’m still somewhat in shock over his suicide.
AP: I’m always curious what music people who are immersed all year in the Grateful Dead’s catalog listen to in their spare time.
RS: This prompted a big discussion on the bus when I mentioned the subject. Mark [Karan] has a wide range of new stuff on his playlist, whereas I have more re-issues and old stuff. Even my newer stuff enhances the old-fogey-ness of it all, e.g. Tom Waits. We all agreed that Daniel Lanois is the coolest. Nobody went for Arctic Monkeys; most liked Arcade Fire and Amy Winehouse. You’re more likely to find me listening to old Kinks, Beatles, Zappa, Miles Davis or the wonderful, quirky XTC. Oh, and Jimi is still and forever my special favorite. I also listen to BBC-radio on the internet, so I’m quite up on modern Brit-pop, though not that big a fan.
AP: Were you pretty familiar with Rob Wasserman’s playing before joining Ratdog? He brought such a unique element to the post-Grateful Dead scene, and I’m wondering if you tried to glean something from his legacy with Ratdog or just try to simply be Robin Sylvester.
RS: I’m not one of those bass-players who loves stand-up, I’m afraid. They can be fun, they can sound divine, but there’s always that struggle against unwieldy physical forces…and amplification for the stand-up is still largely a work-in-progress. So my whole approach is really different from Rob’s – he plays with great facility and inventiveness on the big beast, whereas I just try to play in tune. I try to tackle all the tunes freshly every night anyway: sometimes I don’t even make reference to Phil [Lesh]!
AP: Hearing all those old songs is great – and the progression from just Bob Weir songs and covers to full-on Grateful Dead band is interesting – but I know we’d all love another Ratdog studio album full of originals. It’s been ten years!
RS: You and me both! I think recording is finally in our future. As for the musical progression, Bob tries hard to respect Jerry’s performances on the old tunes we have introduced, to do them justice. It took a long time to be ready to pull out “Stella Blue,” for example.