An Interview with Midnight North, Strawberry Moon and Members of Cubensis

This past Sunday I enjoyed a banner night at Saint Rocke in Hermosa Beach, where the San Francisco’s Midnight North was playing the lone SoCal stop on their latest run up and down the West Coast. With Orange County’s Strawberry Moon opening and Craig Marshall and Nate LaPointe from Cubensis sitting in, it was every bit the spectacular evening of life-affirming music that SoCal Deadhead’s had hoped and expected it to be. With a unique bumper crop of world class musicians gathering to bridge the Deadhead scenes in SoCal and NorCal, I knew I wanted to try and get into Saint Rocke’s famous upstairs green room and spend the evening interviewing as many musicians as possible. I ended up spending about ten minutes each with Midnight North’s Grahame Lesh, Alex Jordan, and Elliott Peck talking about the evolving history and musicianship of Midnight North. I also spent about twelve minutes with various members of Strawberry Moon. While I had written questions for lead singer Tanya Peterson, her band-mates kept coming in and out of the room and conversation like characters in a Bob Dylan song. With an entire band filled with such incredible humanity, love, artistry, and humor, I genuinely loved everyone’s impassioned contributions to a spirited chat. I also got a few minutes each with both “Nate and Craig” to talk about the recent Cubensis performance of The Beatles album “Let It Be” in its entirety at the Halloween “Mystery Album” show, and their plans to reprise it as part of the “Make America Grateful Again” show at Saint Rocke on Wednesday, November 9th. Everyone was extremely generous, accommodating, and gracious in sharing their time and insight. I hope you enjoy these conversations as much as we enjoyed having them. And may they serve as a lasting souvenir of an especially beautiful, Grateful, friendship-filled autumn night by the beach.

Grahame Lesh, Guitarist, Vocalist, and Songwriter for Midnight North

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Graham Lesh and Jackson Truax. Photo by Dave Thomas

 

Jackson Truax: When you hear somebody talk about going to a show and talk about having a real “Grateful Dead Experience” what does that mean to you? And is there something about that “Grateful Dead Experience” that you try to preserve in a Midnight North show?

Grahame Lesh: I don’t know if I have one explanation for what a “Grateful Dead Experience” is. I think everyone has their own, each time they go to a show. I know that it was always important to the Grateful Dead that people came back and would go to multiple shows. And obviously had a good enough time and were among their people enough to want to keep going… I think it’s something that any band should try and strive for, for sure. To build up a community that likes going to their shows again and again. That’s absolutely something that we strive for… It’s a performance. You want to give everyone a good time. And leave them wanting to see you again.

JT: “Wind and Roses” is my favorite Midnight North song, because it sounds like someone listened to every great album released from 1967 through 1975, and tried to write and produce one song that would perfectly encapsulate of everything we love about an entire era of music. How did that set of lyrics come to you, and how did you capture that vibe and sound on the record?

Lesh: I think the production is a very important part of that feeling and that vibe. That was just rehearsing and working it up with the rest of the band. I had my ideas for how the groove would go and where the harmonies would be… But it was built from the ground up in the studio. We performed the basics and then spent a lot of time making the mix and everything sound right. It naturally came with that vibe and that sound. Which was everything I was hoping for when I came up with the song. I wrote it on an acoustic guitar. It’s not about anything specific. It’s just the vibe that I was feeling at the time. I feel like the performance on the record really reflects all of that. And is about an accurate a representation as I could have hoped for.

JT: How much of the process of creating music in Midnight North comes from the three of you bringing individual ideas into the band and influencing each other, and how many of the songs or jams come from all of you writing or arranging together?

Lesh: I think it’s all of us. It’s all five. Elliott and I bring in most of our songs. And they’re generally pretty fully-formed. There’s the occasional one where we’ve written it together or with [drummer Alex Koford] or [bassist Connor Croonn]. But we bring most of the song [to the band]. By that I just mean, chords, melody, and lyrics. And a vague sense of what the arrangement will be. From there, either live, if we don’t have any time, or in the rehearsal room, if we do have time, we teach the rest of band. And everyone else comes up with their parts… A lot of times, the songs change or get better for having everyone’s input.

JT: With the band spending so much time on the road this past year, do you feel like your own songs are evolving in front of live audiences? Or are you trying to save improvisation for cover songs, and try and present your songs more in keeping with the album versions?

Lesh: We’ve been able to hone in on the songs a lot better after we’ve played them a lot live, for sure. We get new ideas. Even at soundcheck today, Connor, for one of our songs that will be on our next album, had this idea for an entirely new feel… We’ll chase that down and play it that way and try it and see if it works. But it’s not really about the jamming with the songs. We’re not playing it exactly like the record. What we try and do is have what we call “escape valves.” Where we can just power through and not jam there. There can be no guitar solo, no keyboard solo, no nothing. No instrumental break there. And that’s fine. That works for the song. But the option’s there to take it. If we have time in a show, or if the performance feels right, we can start jamming there. But if not, we just go on to the next section, and the song doesn’t lose anything for it. It’s a “Choose Your Own Adventure” kind of thing.

JT: A generation ago, musicians could make records, or even play shows, with a lot more built-in distance from their audience. Which seemed to be both the cause and effect of musicians being malcontents like Bob Dylan and Neil Young, and later Pete Townshend and Roger Waters. Now, for working musicians everything is taking place on Kickstarter and Pledgemusic and Twitter, which are all full of people who want you to have lunch with them before the gig on Friday. Have you sensed this shift at all? How do you experience it as you travel across the country?

Lesh: That’s a very interesting question. I hadn’t really thought of it that way. Because I’ve assumed that the rock stars of earlier years, they’ve had to build up to that point. There was a point where they did have to schmooze and talk to all of their fans. They probably did, even when they were giant stars, some of them. I imagine that’s something that was always there. I think that’s a good thing to do. Be kind to your fans. If they want a little time, that’s great. I think for us, we’re very grass roots level. We’re doing ourselves, DIY style. If someone comes to a show and spends money on us, that’s amazing. They deserve our time. And not just on stage… I don’t think it’s explicit as “Donate to a Kickstarter and you can have lunch with us.” But if someone wants to chat with us after a show and we have time, than we’re all for it.

JT: I saw Midnight North last summer at the Mint in LA, and then in April of this year at the Wayfarer in Costa Mesa. In the span of less than a year, the band really evolved dramatically, becoming a really tight, top-shelf, world class live act. To what do you attribute that? And how much of it has been playing regular gigs at Terrapin Crossroads?

Lesh: The Terrapin gigs help. And each experience helps. But I think it’s the totality of it all. We have to play a lot of shows. And each time we do, we get a little bit tighter and better. It all helps us. When we were first starting out, the weekly shows were absolutely better than any rehearsal could be. It got us to that level. And it’s still great to have something on the schedule constantly when we’re at home to keep us sharp and keep us tight. But just getting out and touring and playing, any improvement we’ve had, that’s what I attribute it to.

JT: Whether it’s at a regular gig at Terrapin Crossroads, or one of the several cross-country tours Midnight North plays every year, why should fans make sure to come see Midnight North? And what do you think the Midnight North experience has to offer that’s unique?

Lesh: Potential fans of Midnight North should check out all of our music online, or whatever they can find it, be it our studio albums, or especially our “Live at Terrapin Crossroads” album which is free [on Noisetrade]. If that’s the kind of music you like, I guarantee you’ll like the show. We’re all about the harmonies, and the grooves, and the good songs. Whether they be ours, or any covers we do… We just love to play for people. Hopefully they love us playing music for them.

 


Alex Jordan, Guitarist, Vocalist, and Keyboardist for Midnight North

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Nate LaPointe (Cubensis) and Alex Jordan. Photo by Dave Thomas

 

Jackson Truax: A lot of the SoCal Deadheads first heard you play with Cubensis, filling in for Nate LaPointe when he was on tour with Bobby Womack. What was the most important thing you got on a personal level from playing with Cubensis? And what was the most important thing you learned about jamming and playing live Grateful Dead music?

Alex Jordan: On a personal level, I hadn’t been performing in a while because I was in college. I had just finished getting my degree. I hadn’t been performing with anybody… It was a big deal to get in front of an audience again. And a much larger audience than I had played to in high school and college. So playing guitar on big stages with fans and nice PAs. And doing it consistently, too. I think I played between twenty-five and thirty times that year. That was a big thing for me… I really enjoyed the opportunity. Those guys were very kind to me before that when I was in the road crew. So it felt like family. On both sides, the audience and the stage… As a musician, wow. Cubensis is a very interesting band. Because they’re playing Grateful Dead music, with that sort of Grateful Dead spirit. But not particularly interested in making it sound exactly like the Grateful Dead. And the cool thing about that is there’s a lot of room to explore within the roles. I was doing the rhythm guitar role, the Bob Weir role. And there was a lot of leeway to experiment. It was very inspiring, to know that you can play this music. And it doesn’t have to be imitation. And then, doing songs that aren’t Grateful Dead songs. And playing them as Cubensis, as the Grateful Dead Music Tribute Experience… There was a lot of growth as a musician, in terms of just being aware that you can do anything, really. There’s no real limitation, other than that which you impose on yourself. That lent itself very well to when I started playing up in the Bay Area where that’s totally the attitude.

JT: After your time in Cubensis, how did you come to join Grahame and Elliott in Midnight North?

Jordan: Midnight North came down and opened up for Cubensis for one of the shows I was subbing. They were called Grahame Lesh and Friends then. They were a four-piece band. They had a couple of singers. Elliott still played keys and guitar like she does now. They were interesting. But they were kind of still getting started. They had been performing for maybe eight months, give or take. They had just put out an album, and they changed the name to Midnight North when they did that. I struck up a conversation with Grahame. And they invited me to come jam on and off over the rest of the year… I really studied their record one time I went to sit in with the full band. They sort of extended, “Have you ever thought about moving up to the Bay Area?” I said, “Sure. Yeah.” So in January [2014] I moved up and played a handful of shows. Then they said, “Hey, let’s do this.”

JT: You’ve played Grateful Dead music and other covers with Cubensis, Grateful Dead music and other covers with Midnight North, as well as now a lot of original Midnight North songs. Do the two bands approach arranging Grateful Dead music and other covers the same way? And is that different from how Midnight North arranges or rehearses their original material?

Jordan: Gosh. They are very, very different. Cubensis is laid back, right? It’s not an “original” machine. So if you’re doing a tune we haven’t done before in Cubensis, like for the Halloween albums, everyone listens. They spend a lot of time studying and getting to know the material. And then they get together, maybe two or three times, and go over it. You’re trying to capture the record. But you’re also trying to put the Cubensis spin on it. It’s very much self-starting. You take it upon yourself to do it. And then when you’re performing different material, that we haven’t done in a while, or when it’s something that I had never done, that the band had done a bunch of times… You’re just kind of having to go with it. Midnight North, because it’s so principally original music driven, the stakes are higher… There’s still a lot of freedom, with your individual part… But there’s very different ways of looking at it.

JT: I’ve seen Midnight North live and had what feels very much like a wonderful Grateful Dead Experience or a Jam band Experience. But a lot of the Midnight North songbook actually consists of tightly written, well-constructed songs, with insightful lyrics and catchy choruses. Do you think of yourselves as mainly a Jam band? Or do you feel like you write and record in a different spirit, and live jamming comes more authentically in the moment?

Jordan: I don’t think we regard ourselves as a Jam band. There’s something that we all like about the Grateful Dead. Everybody. Not just us. And it’s that they have songs. They’re tight songs. If you remove the jamming, if you make “Jack Straw” a four-minute song. If you remove the long guitar solos between the first and the second half, it’s still a great song. “Ripple,” there’s no guitar solo… But it’s still a great song. So you can jam. You can open things up. You don’t have to… And if they’re great tunes, it doesn’t matter if you open it up or not. It doesn’t matter if that goes over well or not. The tune itself is going to be good. I don’t think we consider ourselves a Jam band. I think we more consider ourselves an Americana band. A Country-Rock band. A Rock and Roll band. A Blues band. Those kind of things. And in some facets a Folk band. And combining those elements to create our sound, without worrying about the Jam product. Because of the nature of where we play, of who we play with, Grahame’s association with his Dad’s music, all of these things, we’re going to end up playing with other artists who do Jam… We like that energy and that improvisational thing. But it’s not an obligation.

 


Elliott Peck, Guitarist, Vocalist, Keyboardist and Songwriter for Midnight North

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Elliott Peck and Jackson Truax. Photo by Dave Thomas

 

Jackson Truax: What had your experience as a singer, songwriter, and musician been before joining Midnight North, and how did you come to start playing with Grahame and Alex?

Elliott Peck: Growing up, I played classical piano and started getting into Rock and Roll in high school. My uncle bought me a guitar. I joined various bands throughout college and afterwards. I moved to the Bay area in 2005. My main project was called Auto Mobile and the Motors. That was a good band. And met Grahame, basically through a Craigslist loop. He met Connor through Craigslist, and I met him through Connor. And then we started playing together after their project split up. We had a four-piece going for a while. Which was really cool. But we really wanted to grab another singer. So we could do three-part harmonies. Because Grahame and I both really enjoy singing with three-part harmonies. We actually came down to LA and did a show with Cubensis. Alex was filling in for Nate LaPointe that night… We liked his playing and his singing, and invited him to come up and jam with us at Terrapin. So a few weeks later he came up and sat in. Then sat in a couple more times. And then we invited him to join the band.

JT: Since you just mentioned the three-part harmonies, I know you were just involved in a big production paying tribute to Crosby, Stills & Nash (and sometimes Young). What were the biggest challenges that you found in arranging and performing those songs?

Peck: It pushed us hard. We first started with “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.” We learned that one and figured “Why stop there? Why not learn a few more?” So we tackled some of the other challenging ones. We literally had to sit down and pick them apart. Because the harmonies are so intricate and difficult. So it taught us a lot about how to harmonize together, how to sing together. And it was just a lot of fun… So we did a Brooklyn Bowl show. And then we did a San Francisco show on Friday, which was a lot of fun.

JT: CSN has almost always played “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” with two acoustic guitars and three-part harmonies. Midnight North performs it in a very different, full-band, electric approach. How did you decide to put that spin on it?

Peck: It just fit our style. Because we love doing cover songs. But we also love staying true to what we do as a band. So we took our style, which is a little more Rock and Roll, and kept the integrity of the harmony, but brought up the energy a little bit. We want to give people an experience where they can dance, and really enjoy rocking out to us.

JT: In the time that you’ve been playing with Midnight North, how do you feel your musicianship or sound has influenced the direction of the band? And how have Alex and Grahame influenced you as a musician, singer, and songwriter?

Peck: Grahame has influenced me by showing me really different and intricate chord progressions that I probably wouldn’t have written myself. And I’ve learned a lot from that. I would say I bring a little bit more of a country and blues influence from growing up in Chicago. And also just being a fan of good country music – Emmylou Harris and that sort of thing. So I bring that to the band. And a lot of our style molds around those two themes.

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Elliott Peck. Photo by Dave Thomas

JT: You’re known for your love of Chicago Blues. What do you love so much about that specific style of music?

Peck: It’s the working man’s song. It’s folks who have something to express, and may not have had any other outlet to do that. It’s a piece of history. And we can learn a lot from it… The style and the musicianship that goes into Chicago Blues, particularly the singing and lead guitar playing, it’s just something that you don’t hear in any other style of music.

JT: The kind of country music you seem to cover and write might be most accurately thought of as the “Bakersfield Sound.” What draws you to that?

Peck: That is really just good, simple, catchy melodies. And good lyrics that tell a good story. That’s what really draws me to that sound.

JT: The show Midnight North played in Bakersfield in April was a very different kind of show, with a more laid back vibe and a lot more country-leaning covers. Did you get anything meaningful from playing your songs, as well as so many songs that have inspired you, there?

Peck: Definitely. Getting to play that style of music in a place where people genuinely appreciate it, and really understand where it came from, and history of it, was something really special that we hadn’t done before. We definitely played to that style a little heavier that day. Just because we were there. And we wanted to pull out all of our good country songs and covers. It just made the experience really enjoyable. And I think we’ve tried to incorporate a little of that in all of our sets since then.

JT: I also saw the show in Costa Mesa the night before. It felt like a really potent and meaningful statement, that Midnight North was announcing to the world that the band had earned the right to be thought of as a world class live band. You have obviously been working so hard for years, individually and collectively. But how do you think you came to evolve so dramatically in the span of a year?

Peck: Just hard work. And just doing it. Every year we play more shows. Because we play more shows, we’re on the road more often. So we’re perfecting that stage presence. We’re getting better at our sound. And really defining what our sound is. At the same time, you’re playing so often that you want to write more songs. Because you get really tired of playing the same old shit every night. So you’re kind of pushed in that direction. To write more. To write better. To do a little bit better each time that you write. All of those things have contributed to the growth of the band.

JT: When you tour across America, has it been your experience that there are fans wanting to come out and support live music? Or have you felt live music die along with recording? Or is there a sense that you’re immune to that if you’re able to tap into an audience of Deadheads?

Peck: It’s a tough reality for people. There aren’t enough venues to support all of the talent that exists. So we are incredibly lucky when we get to play some of the nicer venues like this one here tonight, Saint Rocke. Us being on the road so much, again, it contributes. It kind of snowballs. You’re out there so people hear about you. It’s a word-of-mouth thing. They tell their friends. So, each time, hopefully, when you come through town you get a little bit more growth and you see that. We’ve really started to see that, particularly in the last year. We’re actually making a little bit of a dent on the scene. And people are getting familiar with the name. The Deadhead thing doesn’t hurt. But it’s also not exclusively what we’re going for. We want to encompass new fans and people that may not even like the Dead. But at the same time, that music has influenced all of us. We appreciate it and love that music. And it’s really dear to our hearts. So to incorporate a little bit of it into each set, it’s fun, it’s exciting, and it helps keep that music alive. At the same time, maybe it appeals to the crowd and brings people that like the Dead out to see us.

 


Tanya Peterson, lead singer of Strawberry Moon, and her bandmates “Sitting In”

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Tanya Peterson. Photo by Dave Thomas

 

Jackson Truax: Tanya, Saint Rocke has been a regular venue for SoCal Deadheads this year. What are you most looking forward to about playing here this evening?

Peterson: What I’m most looking forward to is listening to Midnight North after our set. The place is really nice. I’ve actually never been here.

JT: How did you come to open for Midnight North?

Peterson: I believe it was our bass player, Robert Fisher, who was talking to Alex Jordan of Midnight North. They’ve been having conversations, previously and up to the June Lake Jam Fest. Alex said, “Well, let’s see how you do at June Lake Jam Fest.” I guess he liked us.

JT: How did you start singing regularly for a SoCal Deadhead audience, initially in a handful of other bands, and how did that lead you to forming Strawberry Moon?

Peterson: Ryan [Schmidt] and Brett [Davis] from BR3 were holding an open mic night at the Harp. So I went and sang, “Angel from Montgomery,” the Bonnie Raitt tune by John Prine. They liked it. So they invited me back. Then they invited me to sing sometimes when them when they were doing their gigs. Then my friend Cathy [Hackett] and Ben [Karmelich], we started a trio, The BenCentrics. Very casual, acoustic harmonies. Then Robert Fisher joined the BenCentrics. Then Fish and John [DeMaria] started Strawberry Moon and they had me in mind.

Strawberry Moon bassist Robert Fisher: [Walks in to the green room] HEY! How’s it going? Oh… I’m sorry.

Peterson: Interview in progress.

 

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Strawberry Moon. Photo by Dave Thomas

JT: I’m talking to Tanya for ShakedownNews.

Fisher: (Completely and genuinely stunned) Wow.

Peterson: You name was mentioned, like, four times already.

Fisher. Uh-oh. That’s dangerous.

JT: Actually, Fish. I’m learning you were a big catalyst for getting Strawberry Moon on a bill with Midnight North. What about that idea appealed to you?

Fisher: I saw that Midnight North was going to be playing here. I’ve been friends with Alex Jordan for a number of years now… I just thought it would be a good combination, especially after June Lake. We’re an original music project. They are…. I just thought that the two bands would be a good mix together. So Alex and I talked about it. At first, the venue wanted to maybe have a Grateful Dead-style band open up. That didn’t work out. So we ended up getting the call and it worked out for us. We’re really excited to be here playing this show. Especially with my friend, Alex Jordan. And the talented Elliott [Peck], Grahame [Lesh], and the other Alex [Koford]. There are like three Alex’s here.

Strawberry Moon Percussionist Scott Fox: There’s another Alex in our band!

Fisher: There’s Alex Jordan, Alex Koford, and we have Alex Vo. So there are three Alex’s tonight on stage.

JT: That’s a fun fact. So, Fish, since establishing yourself as one of the top-shelf bass players in the SoCal Deadhead scene –

Fisher: Man! I want what you’re smoking!

JT: Let me know when you find any.

Fisher: (laughs) But thank you, that’s very kind.

JT: So by now you’ve gotten to lay down some grooves behind some really great singers. What about Tanya’s singing makes her a unique talent and a fun bandmate?

(Tanya starts making a series of absurdly funny faces. Scott points to her and says “That’s it” while Fish has to intensely look me straight in the eyes so he can answer seriously.)

Fisher: First, her spirit. Her vocal ability, nobody sounds like her. She has such incredible range and pitch. And her presence on stage. I feel it on stage… I get mesmerized and brought into that vibe that she’s putting out there and her vocal talent. If I buy into it, because I’m playing and I feel it, than I know that everybody else will too… I was actually the bass player for her first time ever performing live in public – EVER! It was an open jam at the Harp. Remember that?

(Scott Fox laughs.)

Peterson: We were talking about that.

Fisher: “Love Me Like a Man.”

Peterson: “Angel From Montgomery.”

Fisher: Yeah. And then we did another one, too.

Peterson: Yeah.

Fisher: Afterward, all of us, the musicians who were there just looked at her and said, “Really? Where have you been?” It’s a pleasure to have played in the BenCentrics with her. And this project has really, I think, given her an opportunity to blossom as a frontwoman, as a singer, as a person in general. And as a female leader in our community as well. She’s a marvelous woman. An incredibly talented woman. Her vocals are unprecedented. And unlike anybody that’s out there right now. So I’m really happy to be a part of it.

JT: One of the great stories of the “Year of the Jam” has been watching different bands in the scene evolve throughout the year. How would you say Strawberry Moon has evolved, and what about the journey have you been the most proud?

Peterson: I am so proud to have [guitarist] Alex Vo and [percussionist] Scott Fox with us. They just complete our sound so perfectly.

Fisher: I absolutely agree with that, one hundred percent.

JT: Well, since Scott is on the other end of the room. Hey Scott, what’s your setup on stage this evening?

Strawberry Moon Percussionist Scott Fox: Congas, and shakers, and noise-makers… Yeah, Fish and [drummer Jim Janis] and I go back to the eighties and early nineties.  When I was playing with Mr. Ectomy. For whatever reason, we came back together recently…about six months ago… I decided to come by and jam.

Fisher: It just clicked. Him and Janis together.

Fox: And the funny thing is, Jim Janis says to me, “You’re in the band, man.” I said, “Okay, cool.” So I’m assuming that I’m in the band. But Jim Janis was the only one that knew this. Nobody else in the band realized that I had joined the band. I didn’t know that I needed third-party confirmation.

Fisher: Yes. There were third-party confirmations that were needed.

JT: John DeMaria just walked in, just in time for my next question. Hey John!

Strawberry Moon Guitarist and Vocalist John DeMaria: Hey Jackson!

JT: Out of the massive sea of SoCal Jam bands playing every weekend, what is it about Strawberry Moon that’s unique? What do you think folks will get from seeing them that they couldn’t get anywhere else?

Fisher: The energy we give when we play. I know that it’s out there. I see it. I feel it… When we play together as a band, there’s an energy that we put out there… We know that you have to feel it. Because we feel it, as a group… We’re not just a group of musicians who play songs together. We actually hang out at rehearsals and laugh and talk… That’s what makes us a great band. Everybody has a voice… We have a lot of fun… I feel really good when I play with this band. I’ve been playing in bands since I was eighteen. I’m forty-nine… To have all these years playing in groups, and to feel this energy that I feel right now, there is a greater, higher power. Because I’ve been blessed with something that I’ve been looking for for many years.

Fox: The one thing – (points to John’s “Mad Hatter” hat) – it’s definitely the hat.

Peterson: Awww the hat!

JT: Since we’re on the record and now John is here, can I please get the story behind the hat?

Peterson: Wasn’t it Bob Tuttle?

DeMaria: Bob Tuttle used to wear a hat like this. He passed away. He was a very close friend of ours… And, I’m sure he’s laughing right now with us. The story is, for me personally, yes, it is a reminder of Bob. But also, in a sea of a gazillion guitar players, how do you separate yourself? And I think sometimes you have to be a cartoon caricature of yourself. That is, be who you are, on the outside. And then just live it… I think it’s really important to mention that, we’re inspired by the Grateful Dead. What was so great about the Grateful Dead was the music. But equally as important, I think, is the scene and the people you get associate with. Whether it’s before the show, during the show, or after the show. What we strive to do is mirror that. Musically, we don’t play the same way… But the bottom line is that people that are friends of ours, and are fans, if you will, that they’re having a great time. So we want to pick venues and locations and play music where it’s understood to be that we’re going to have a party. And it’s Mt. Baldy this week. And it’s at June Lake the week after. And it’s down the street the week after. Musically, we try our best, obviously. We pour it out and we care a lot about what we do. I think everyone is comfortable in their own shoes on the stage, as a band, I think that’s rare… Everyone in this band was in other bands… Fortunately, we all come together, and make it one unit of people that are like-minded.

 


Craig Marshall, Founder of Cubensis

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Craig Marshall. Photo by Dave Thomas

Jackson Truax: How does Cubensis usually pick the Halloween “Mystery Album” and how did you come to pick “Let It Be” for this year’s show?

Craig Marshall: It’s a process of elimination. We usually start around Halloween the year before and throw out some ideas. They get filtered in or out. And, really, whatever lasts the longest is the one that gets played. We try to look for stuff that our audience would really groove on. That’s also danceable. And is also possible for us to do. I mean, we couldn’t do the Dixie Chicks. So we do songs that lend themselves to our line-up and our vocal capabilities. Thank God we’ve got three good, three great, singers in the band. So that usually is what does it. This year, the political climate, also made “Let It Be” kind of a nice thing. Because we know that we really don’t have much control over the political process, other than our one vote. So when it comes right down do it, we have to accept what the majority says in a Democracy. So whatever happens this Tuesday, we’re going to “Let It Be.”

JT: When you were picking it, did you know that there would be a “Make America Grateful Again” show the day after the election? And that you would be playing the album again? How did that come to pass?

Marshall: That was an idea that the club had, to do an “after party” as it were, after the election. And because so many people were at Phish during Halloween, and missed our album performance, it was a perfect time to reprise it.

JT: Is there anything in particular that made “Let It Be” stand out in your mind, especially among all of the other Beatles albums?

Marshall: “Let It Be” had been on our radar for a couple of “picking sessions” if you want to call them that. It had been considered before. It’s always been on the list of possibilities. The cream rose to the top on this one. It was the right one to do. We were thinking about possibly doing tributes to those musicians that had passed during the year, such as David Bowie and Prince, and doing just a big salute to, forgive the term, to dead people. “Dead People” playing Dead People. Keith Emerson is another one that we’ve lost. Merle Haggard. So we could have done a whole of that stuff. But “Let It Be” won by far. It outshone everything else.

JT: Cubensis has been “on the scene” for eight Presidential elections, including this one.

Marshall: God, is that true?

JT: Yes.

Marshall: That’s horrible.

JT: You started Cubensis the year I was born.

Marshall: Yes!

JT: So that would make this the eighth election.

Marshall: No wonder I feel so old.

JT: So has Cubensis done a post-election night show before? Or any sort of political tie-in?

Marshall: I don’t think we have. I think this is a first. Everything else has been just a purely musical selection, based on the parameters that I mentioned earlier… So this was unique.

JT: In addition to the “Let It Be” album in its entirety, do you any sense of what, if anything, else you’ll be playing on Wednesday night?

Marshall: Well, if we get Prop 64 passed we’ll do “Okie from Muskogee,” for sure.

JT: I guess the big question is whether or not you’ll play “Throwing Stones” toward the end of the night. One could argue that it’s been played enough lately. But it might seem more appropriate to do a really robust version and then put it away for a few weeks. Have you given that any thought?

Marshall: I haven’t given that any thought. But that’s an excellent suggestion. It would be so apropos to break that one out. It’s a good song, on it’s own. But especially with the message of that song. Great idea, thank you.

JT: Normally I would ask why people should come to a particular show. But with “Throwing Stones” on deck, I would say that if people are looking for a way to shout the election into the ether, then come on down.

Marshall: Yes! That is absolutely true.  It’ll either be a wake or a celebration, I’m not sure which. But it will be a party. That’s for sure.

 


Nate LaPointe, Cubensis guitarist and singer

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Nate LaPointe and Alex Jordan. Photo by Dave Thomas

 

Jackson Truax: Out of all of the great Beatles albums, what makes “Let It Be” special to you? And what was your favorite thing about playing it live?

Nate LaPointe: It’s always been one of my favorite albums, in terms of the songs that are on it. Things like “Dig a Pony,” and “Across the Universe.” I’ve always loved those songs. The fact that they’re that familiar and that engrained into my musical life, and then we get to perform them, that was great. It was really a treat… Not only was it really nice for us as a band, but also, for the audience. The second I broke into, “’I Dig a Pygmy,” as soon I said that, I could hear numerous people go “YES” and scream and clap. Everybody has a familiarity with that album.

JT: Absolutely. Yet if you’re going to ask people what their favorite Beatles albums are, “Let It Be” might not make the top five or six on the list.

LaPointe: People think “Sgt. Pepper’s” or “The White Album” or “Abbey Road” or “Revolver.”

JT: So in looking at playing an album in its entirety, what makes “Let It Be” invigorating? And is there anything that makes it particularly challenging?

LaPointe: To be honest, one of the reasons that we chose it is because it is an easy album. There’s not a lot of complicated music. But, it’s a funny album because of the production… The album has a very loose feel to it. It’s not spotless. It’s not shiny. It’s not clean. It literally sounds like rehearsal tapes, which is basically what it was… They recorded this album before they recorded “Abbey Road.” And shelved it because they didn’t like it. Then eventually, after “Abbey Road,” they put the tapes into Phil Spector’s hands and he released it. So they didn’t have that much to do with the actual production and the assembly of the album itself. So, I think that not only was something that made it easier for us, but there’s also a challenge to that. “How do we play that forty-five second version of ‘Maggie Mae?” Because for a while we talked about just doing the whole song. It’s a Liverpool folk song. We looked it up and got all the lyrics and practiced it… It’s kind of more accurate to the album to just do the forty-five second version, that one verse and chorus.

JT: Craig has told me before that for most Cubensis shows, there effectively is no rehearsal. What is the rehearsal process for a Halloween album show?

LaPointe: It’s fundamentally different from our regular process. Because we have to define roles with a new album. An album that doesn’t have our roles already defined within it… We each know, basically, what our role is in Cubensis. I’m generally doing the Bob Weir guitar parts. Craig’s generally doing the signature Garcia licks. We basically fall into protocol for vocals. Our roles are already semi, if not completely, spelled out for us already. They’re defined. But with a Beatles album…we don’t know what our role is yet. We started by just saying, “Okay, Tom is Paul. Ed is George. Nate is John.” That was kind of our launching point. But, still, there are guitar riffs in there where Craig and I have to decide what do to. There are drum fills and percussion parts that Ed and Brad had to define for themselves… So we had to define our roles.

JT: We’ll be back here in a few night for the Make America Grateful Again show.

LaPointe: Yeah.

JT: The Halloween show was the first time Cubensis played a lot of these songs live.

LaPointe: Totally.

JT: So with an encore presentation of the album coming up, is there anything in particular you’re looking forward to taking a second pass at?

LaPointe: My friend Steve Harris, who was the drummer of Cubensis forever, he and I were talking one night. We came to the agreement, came to the conclusion that much of the space in a musician’s brain is occupied by, “How did I play that last time?” “What did I do on that particular song the last time I played it?” Somehow, in a musician’s mind, you clear out the old version, and replace it with the one that you’re playing… We all have a memory, both individually and collectively, of exactly what happened on that album the first time we played it in Long Beach. So now we have a reference point. We know what things need to change.  What things worked. What things we need to keep the same. All of that… But we’re also adding “Don’t Let Me Down.” Because that was recorded during those sessions but was released on a single… I believe it was the B-Side to the “Get Back” single… I just love that song. So I’m stoked to get to put that into the set.

JT: After you play the album on Wednesday, there will presumably be another hour or two of music. Have you given any additional thought to what Cubensis might play to help Make America Grateful Again?

LaPointe: That could depend on the results of the Election.

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