HT Interview: Robert Walter Reconvenes the 20th Congress

Robert Walter didn’t exactly fade into the background, but one reason it’s been a top-marks year for him so far is that one of Walter’s most beloved bands, the 20th Congress, is finally back in action. It just dropped a new album, Get Thy Bearings, on the Royal Potato Family Records label, and a bunch of live dates are already booked, with many more to come.

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[All Photos by Mike Sherry]

To Walter, it was just plain time to get the textured funk and groove of the 20th Congress back from recess. He’s been plenty busy – the legendary Greyboy Allstars, of which he was a co-founder, have been steadily semi-regular since their 2006 reboot, for example. But it became clear during a recent interview with Hidden Track that for Walter, the 20th Congress is still what keeps his creative juices flowing like no other outfit.

Now in his mid-40s, Walter’s no longer a young upstart – he’s the seasoned, heavy-yet-nimble, richly nuanced player his early years with the Greyboys always promised he’d be. Having moved back to California (L.A. specifically) in the last few years after half a decade in New Orleans, he spends time with the reunited Greyboys, and plenty of time with Mike Andrews, aka Elgin Park, scoring movies. But national audiences will see a lot more of him this year.

Get Thy Bearings is a hot album. Walter’s many influences and projects give him a wider palette to paint with in the context of the 20th Congress, so it’s not surprising he’s able to successfully pull in everything from acid jazz to gospel and horned-up boogaloo to freaked-out Hendrix (“Up from the Skies”) and the title track, a reworking of a Donovan song that’s both groovy and paranoid-spooky.

Here’s what Walter had to tell us.

HIDDEN TRACK: I want to get into the 20th Congress but you’ve been out a bunch with the Greyboy Allstars so let’s start there. I remember talking to you and to Karl around the time the Greyboys were rebooted years ago and it just seemed like you guys were going to do it when it felt right – not make a full-time priority, but also make sure it’s kept alive. Still the case?

ROBERT WALTER: Yeah, I feel like that’s always been at least sort of the philosophical home base for me. I don’t know if I could speak for everyone, but the Greyboy Allstars is sort of my garage band that I grew up playing with in a way, you know? It was the first band I went on the road with and it was the band that got me playing the kind of music I’ve been focusing on since then. It’s the fundamental band.

But as it went on, we all got interested in different things. So the good thing about that group is that we’ve never done it when we didn’t all want to do it. For the first five years of it, we hit the road really hard, most of that time in a van, and that’s what bonded us. But by the end of those [early] years, it became a chore. But since we got it going again, we’ve always come together because we feel inspired to do it. It’s always a pretty positive thing to play with those guys again, and part of it is that we feed it with different stuff. Everyone’s got new ideas and new stories to tell.

HT: Do you think the chemistry of the band is much changed by all the stuff you guys have individually worked on in the years between the original Greyboy Allstars come up and these on-again, off-again reunions?

RW: Everyone enjoys it a lot still, I can say that. Everyone has things they can express within that band that they really can’t express anywhere else. I’m not going to say it’s easy because between us we do have a lot of big egos and it’s a lot of people with a lot different ideas. You definitely have to fight to get your point of view heard. But everyone is a great musician. If you don’t have an idea, someone will kick you back in gear. Someone always has some good idea on how to fix a bridge or move a song forward or something.

HT: So that core chemistry is still there.

RW: What I find interesting, yeah, is that it hasn’t changed much at all. The concept of that group is so well defined, in a way. We came together around the kind of records we liked – organ records, jazz, groove, James Brown, various funk 45’s. That’s still the core of what we do. And when we’re doing songs we learned 20 years ago and have been playing for 20 years or more, everyone’s just a little better at their instruments now. You look across the stage and it feels very comfortable.

HT: Rather than regular tours with the Greyboys it seems like you guys have gotten a lot more out of multi-night stands in places and spot appearances. Two of your recent New York runs, Brooklyn Bowl last year and the Blue Note a few weeks ago, were very well received, no?

RW: It’s always nice to soak up a city, and depending on where you play, you play a little differently. Way back when, every Wednesday night we used to play at this place the Green Circle Bar in San Diego. That was our regular thing even when we were about to go on a tour. You could wander in, maybe you have dinner with the guys and then go to the gig. It makes it feel less like a big concert and more casual – more that you’re just up there playing for people.

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HT: The guests you had at the Blue Note – Houston Person, James Carter, Gary Bartz – seemed to add a lot to those shows.

RW: You know, Fred Wesley was on our first album and he came out with us, and we used to play with Melvin Sparks a lot and have had a lot of people we admire as guests. It kicks the band into our best behavior, I think. It’s not only people we want to impress, but you learn a lot with first-hand contact with those kinds of players. We explore different genres on the records but every time you go check back in with the real innovators of a certain style, it’s an education. We felt invigorated.

HT: How did you select Houston, James and Gary for this run?

RW: We knocked around a bunch of ideas. There were people we had asked but couldn’t get, though Gary Bartz was always in the mix. James Carter is someone who was on our radar in the ’90s, we were always playing the same circuits, especially in Europe. And Houston Person I’m not sure how we managed to pull him off but it was great.

HT: Let’s talk a little about the 20th Congress. It seems like in the last few years you weren’t so much committing yourself to one project or another. I’ve heard a few folks describe you as being a little bit off the radar, at least compared to some of the touring years earlier in your career. Accurate you think?

RW: Yeah. I started a family. I moved a couple of times. It was general life stuff that made it difficult for me to go on extended tours or do extended runs of stuff under my own name. I was in New Orleans for a while and played with a lot of people from there; I saw that as sort of my New Orleans jazz school experience. I loved that my whole life, so I wanted to experience that with the people who do that for a living. But I moved back to California and the more straight-up jazz funk that I had been playing with [the 20th Congress], it seemed to make sense again to do that kind of stuff.

HT: Do we hear the New Orleans stuff in the new 20th Congress material? It doesn’t sound like you went completely back to what we heard from you in this band before.

RW: It’s true, I think the lines are all getting pretty blurred now. Playing with people like Johnny Vidacovitch will do that to you. I’m definitely not a young man anymore, so hopefully at some point, all of these things that started as imitations – you know, you admire music and you learn how to play it and what makes sense to do – hopefully, they become part of you. So now, what I do is a little bit less defined. I will continue to work with New Orleans musicians. Simon Lott, who’s in the touring 20th Congress lineup, is..well, technically from Baton Rouge but he’s a New Orleans musician and has so much of that influence. We still cover a lot of stuff like from Smokey Johnson and the Meters. It all goes together at some point.

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HT: How long were you in New Orleans full time?

RW: About five years.

HT: And what prompted your return to California?

RW: To be closer to my family, and plus my wife at the time got a job out there. I wanted to work closely with Mike Andrews, too, he works on a lot of films and composing for films and that’s stuff I’m interested in so I came to work with him. New Orleans, to be truthful a lot of my allegiances and best friends are still in that town. I imagine I’ll end up there again. But when you get into things like living space and paying for private school, all of that becomes an issue.

HT: You did do a lot of recording while there and focused on projects like Super Heavy Organ. What spurred you to reboot the 20th Congress instead of continue as more of a solo artist?

RW: I had tunes I wanted to record and they didn’t quite fit with my solo stuff. The new stuff was more funk, and it just felt appropriate. I was listening and I was like, I want Cheme [Gastelum] playing on this. I want the 20th Congress. I wish I had a more poetic answer for you but it just seemed to make sense as time to do it again.

HT: Do you think the core sound of the 20th Congress has changed much?

RW: It broadened a little The band has changed throughout the years, with different phases and members. But I think between the stuff we did on the Money Shot record (2000) and when Joe Russo was in the band was probably a bigger leap. At points it’s become more psychedelic, or more electric Miles Davis, and at some points it’s really more R&B and soul. It’s a whole bag of music.

HT: You’ve got tour dates on the calendar but they’re pretty focused out West for now. Will you be bringing 20th Congress across the country?

RW: I don’t want to do 200 dates in a van, but we will get to all the places we need to get to within the next year. We’re doing Colorado and the West Coast tour, we’re doing Bear Creek so we’ll probably put together a little run in the South around that, and we’d talked about doing East Coast maybe in the fall or maybe in the new year, and then there are festivals and stuff. We’ll get there. I’m still doing other things but I’ve sort of pared down a lot of my sideman jobs. This year has been about the 20th Congress.

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