Much like he slowly unfurls the guitar passages he plays, Steve Kimock collects his thoughts carefully, patiently and precisely when he talks. As a result, his account of the sequence of events leading up to the release of Satellite City, crystallizes slowly but surely as it reaches its conclusion. And that progression in turn clearly mirrors the course of the man’s career leading up to the formation of his eponymous quartet too.
Steve Kimock has been pivotal in the establishment of various groups over the years, including one called Zero with John Cipollina, formerly of Quicksilver Messenger Service, whose album Chance in a Million had songs written by lyricist Robert Hunter of the Grateful Dead. And this guitarist who elicited admiration from none other than the late Jerry Garcia himself has also performed in a variety of similarly high-profile collaborations, all as a means of exploring the possibilities of his chosen instrument and the craft of music in general.
Steve Kimock’s 2016 adventure in sonics titled Last Danger of Frost actually contains the seeds of his latest project, so both efforts elevate his stature as an independent musician. Yet his participation in projects under the aegis of other musicians reaffirms his willingness to fulfill the role of a contributor. In 1979, he joined the Heart of Gold Band with Keith and Donna Jean Godchaux and from 1998 to 2000 was a member of Phil Lesh and Friends as well as the post-Garcia band, the Other Ones.
Kimock was also featured on two recordings by Bruce Hornsby (Big Swing Face and Here Come the Noise Makers), touring as featured guitarist with the keyboardist/composer and his band in 2002, four years before joining the Rhythm Devils, an alignment formed by Grateful Dead drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart with Mike Gordon of Phish. The very next year, Kimock was asked to fill in with Bob Weir’s Ratdog and roughly a decade later was added to Weir’s touring band as the youngest member of the iconic band supported his splendid Blue Mountain album.
Furthering his connection with that charter member of the Dead proved fortuitous when it came time for Steve and his quartet to record Satellite City at the latter’s TRI Studios. In this good-natured conversation with Doug Collette, Kimock describes as much self-direction as serendipity at the heart of his latest project, a dynamic extending all the way to an off-handed invitation of production offered by Dave Schools, bassist of Widespread Panic and Hard Working Americans.
The peripatetic Kimock already has scheduled gigs later this year in support of Hot Tuna as well as an ad hoc group comprised of Dead & Co. keyboardist Jeff Chimenti, former John Scofield and Gov’t Mule bassist Andy Hess plus his drummer offspring John Morgan Kimock and the fearless author of one of 2017’s best records (Love and Murder), Leslie Mendelson on vocals and keyboards. If there’s any quality more obvious than the mutual delight of the participants in this dialogue, it’s the restless creative urge Steve so casually recounts as he speaks.
I was really eager to talk with you because I went to the (KIMOCK) show at Higher Ground in June this year and I really enjoyed it from start to finish.
That was a good show (laughs). I remember that was a lot of fun. I mean I like that place and the community up there is super supportive of all things musical.
It was a great audience that night. Before the first set was even done, it felt like we were all sitting in your living room as you played with John (Morgan Kimock, Steve’s drummer son who lives in Burlington VT), (vocalist, keyboardist and composer) Leslie Mendelson and (bassist) Bobby Vega. I also must tell how much I am enjoying Satellite City; I might say it’s one of the best records I’ve heard so far this year!?
I love it!
I really like the way it’s paced from start to finish and how it moves in and out of instrumental and vocal passages. I’m eager to learn how the album came about and how it got recorded, so let me ask how this group came together: did you hand-pick the musicians or did it just come together over a period of time?
It’s a combination of both factors. The idea for the album came together over time. Where it began was pretty far back and it was kind of a silly idea of mine on some level: I had previously made a solo album called Last Danger of Frost, for me a kind of neat searching around for sounds, unlike my normal rock band guitar activities.
I was thinking more in terms of sounds unlike what I might do on stage as lead guitarist in a rock band configuration including acoustic stuff that doesn’t make it to the stage for volume reasons and energy levels and stuff. I’ve always been a fan of synthesis and sound design and I got to a point in my head where I said “Wouldn’t it be neat if you had something electronically sequenced that served the same function as finger picking on the guitar?”
So I put some of that stuff together, like different tunings on the guitar, and built up a catalog of that stuff that I thought maybe I should take on stage. Because people were enjoying Last Danger’s naively psychedelic sound. So I called Johnny because he’s real good with machines, super-talented having grown up with computers etc.
And he’s really got a fine touch as a drummer to keep a rhythm going on an almost subliminal level as when I saw you guys live: I could always feel the heartbeat, no matter how ambient the sounds got (and it’s much the same effect on this record)
Well, we are always trying to find something to do together, but it’s most often in a rock band context, with r&b tunes and funk tunes etc. Which is fun, but it’s the well-trodden path and Johnny’s got his own intellectual creativity: I can’t ask him to do that stuff forever! So, this looked like an opportunity to stretch out and try some new things. Sometime before that, perhaps a year or so, I met Leslie at one of (Bob) Weir’s broadcasts that he did from TRI Studios (Weir Here), before he got busy with Dead & Co.; I had just gotten off a plane from Japan and I was in some shape, but he called to ask me to come to the studio and I made it. So she and I got to play together and hang out some and it was immediately obvious we had this overlapping interest in songwriting, song craft, pop songs, that kind of style.
And I’m not exactly the singer/songwriter type myself, but I have a huge appreciation of that facet of the work. I have come to feel I do my best work when I am working behind a singer somehow: figuring out how to put on whatever works in service of the song, as opposed to the improvisation stuff I also love and do a pretty good job at. So working behind a singer is really my main preference
Well, working with Leslie Mendelson, based on what I’ve heard of her live and on record, is a great creative partnership: the record she put out this year (Love and Murder) is really terrific and I was really impressed to see her sing and play with you this past summer.
Yeah, Leslie’s got that same kind of game ready, that work ethic whereby she’ll try anything. She’s very much unafraid to try something, even if it’s not entirely within her comfort zone. And she has a certain tenacity where she’ll work on a line from a song for as long as it takes…
Well, that’s the mark of many great songwriters. Gregg Allman was like that and so was Tom Petty: they would wait for the light of inspiration to come fully on and it was invariably worth waiting for, no matter if it took weeks or months.
Exactly. So it was me, Johnny and Leslie to start with and Johnny’s always got a big bag of ideas to work with plus I had these electronics sounds I had built up, acoustic and electronic things, including pedals and loops that created soundscapes. So we sat down and tried to turn some of those things into songs.
At what point in the process did Dave Schools come into the flow?
Wait, we have to talk about how Bobby Vega got involved!? (laughs)
Please tell me! (laughs)
Bobby Vega became involved when I realized the approach we were taking was kind of a lousy performance move on my end. Because I was basically stuck trying to do three things at once with multiple instruments like a fretless Resonator guitar. It was a not a super flexible role for me because I had to react with different tunings. But I realized I could hire a bass player, then use the samples and machines to take care of it that way. And after Bobby became involved, we kept working so that it began to feel like more of an ensemble and so booked some gigs. And Dave Schools showed up at what might’ve been our first or second gig and he really dug the thing; he said “You really sound great–we should make a record and I should produce it!”
He’s a straight-ahead kind of guy! So we shook hands and wandered off where we continued to write and conspire to record and when we got to an alignment of schedules, more or less, we hopped into the studio and got to work on that first batch of stuff. The basic setup of the recording would not be unfamiliar to anyone who’s recorded a band: we set up in the room with the minimal amount of isolation and played basic tracks, knocking it out in a few days. Some of the vocals and overdubs got done other places and I took the files home to see if I could flesh out some of the stuff at home, but I’m not really set up to record at home.
So let me take a half-step back and ask, when your were all set up and the equipment was ready to go, did you have the material more or less arranged or did that evolve out of the recording?
We had a pretty good idea about what we were supposed to be doing and whenever you’re doing basic tracks, like playing live but not on stage, there is some intrusion by the recording process. But things as we had been playing them earlier remained intact. And after the fact, Schools would listen to a bit and say “We heard this before!”, so there was some editing. A bunch of the stuff ended up a little different and better, at least from a listener’s perspective.
You anticipated my next question about hos Schools participated in the process. Sounds like he was very actively involved?
Oh absolutely! His thinking and sensibilities about things are all over this and I’m very very thankful. At least for me, to be able to concentrate on what needs to be done (in playing) was invaluable.
Oh yeah, it greases the process in a very useful way to have someone producing who has a grasp of what’s possible and to take the decision making out of the core band dynamic: you don’t have to go for a walk with a guy and explain why you want something a certain way.
I would think it’d free up your concentration on the music to have someone listening from a step removed, then give you feedback after the fact from a detached perspective. What was the time lapse to the actual recording from the time he (Schools) attended your gig and made the offer to produce: was it a month, six weeks? Six months?
It was probably longer than it needed to be if only because it was self-financed. If you have rock star money–which I don’t–then you call everybody up and block the studio time and get to work. Working independently–which is what Dave likes too–without a record company and too many cooks spoiling the broth, we end up with something much more satisfying for us and less compromised. but then, things always take longer and cost more than you think–every single step of the way
Too true!…buying a house, making a record!…
Whenever you get a bunch of people involved, even if you have a schedule upon completion and your stuff is together, someone else can drop the ball on their end.
Who decided on the final sequence of the tracks? Was it a group decision?…Did Dave do it?…Did you do it?
As far as I can remember, it’s ninety-nine percent Schools. I had some ideas, as I’m sure everybody else did–and that’s important–but, for instance, I’m busy with family etc, plus which I’m so close to the thing that, if I had an idea, Dave would say “How about this?” and I’d go “Sure–that’s good–I like that idea!” Like I said, Dave was huge on this project and we’re already conspiring on another because we enjoyed this one so much.
There really is a great sense of logic to the record
Yes, there is a nice balance to it that was very much along the lines of my own model for such an album, a Nancy Wilson/Cannonball Adderley record I loved growing up (the 1961 album on Capitol Records under the name of both artists).
One more question that just occurred to me, if you don’t mind: whoever did the engineering deserves kudos on the sound ((Rick Vargas did the recording and mixing, while John Schimpf did the mastering): it’s clear, crisp and deep, headphones or not, and one more added attraction of the record.
Everybody who worked on the record did a great job.