Keyboardist/composer Robert Walter is nothing if not modest in talking about his playing, composing, performing and recording. On his own with The 20th Congress, as a founding member of contemporary funkmeisters The Greyboy Allstars, as accompanist to the likes of drummer Stanton Moore and guitarist Will Bernard or as a collaborator on music for film, his confidence is as palpable as his sense of self, no matter the. Not surprisingly, those virtues are just as clear in this conversation with Doug Collette.
Walter’s original material is similar to his style of playing: the melodic and rhythmic motifs within compositions grow on a listener slowly and imperceptibly. Unique as is his willingness to accommodate the needs of other musicians, Robert relishes leadership as much as those of collaboration: he addresses the challenges of any musical landscape directly and authoritatively, but with an open-mindedness that allows ideas to flourish as they coalesce.
Busy as he may be juggling diverse roles in various projects, Robert Walter’s conversation nevertheless displays the same relaxed yet purposeful air of his musicianship. He has the rare gift of making a point clearly, sans the verbosity, emotionalism or cliché that can adversely affect any kind of dialogue—exactly the same way he creates music. With two recent releases (Get Thy Bearings) with his own band Robert Walter’s 20th Congress and another one (Inland Emperor) with the jazz/funk outfit The Greyboy Allstars, along with a tour kicking off this week in Frisco, CO, Robert Walter is proving 2013 to be as fruitful a year as ever in his accomplished musical career.
Comparing The Greyboy Allstars tour schedule with that of The 20th Congress, it doesn’t look like you’re going to have many days off anytime soon…
No, we’re working pretty hard–at least for these days. It’s not like before, when we used to tour all the time, but we’ve lightened it up as we’ve gotten older and gotten families and stuff. We are on a push right now though…
It must be great to have this stuff come together all at once? Did you plan ahead to do the new Greyboy Allstars album (Inland Emperor) or did you just get hit with a lightning bolt of inspiration and say “Let’s do The 20th Congress again!”
It all kind of happened at the same time. I actually started recording my album before we started The Greyboys’, perhaps a little before we got serious about doing the sessions. Part of that approach was a way to work out the kinks in the studio: it was mostly the same setup and we had some time to do it, I had the tunes and we just started working on them. It wasn’t necessarily intended to be a 20th Congress record, but the nature of the tunes I had fit that band.
I hear more detail in the record (Get Thy Bearings) as the more I listen to it. Did you guys put much preparation into the arrangement and structure of the tunes before you started to record?
Most of the material I brought in, I had made demos of at home where I’m playing all the instruments, but some of them were just written on the piano. Then, others I just taught to the band right there. But we’ve all been working together for so long, we have a kind of shorthand that makes it pretty easy for us to come up with ideas: “Why don’t we repeat this part” or “Why don’t we go back to this?”–it goes pretty quick. So I’d come in in the morning, I’d teach them a tune and we’d arrange it, then record it: we’d do two or three tunes in a day.
That’s pretty productive! But you must have a lot of confidence in yourself and the people you’re playing with not to second guess it too much and be tempted to go over a tune too much or go back over a tune too often.
It’s more difficult with people you’ve just met, but we all have these favorite records of ours, so we’ll say, “Why don’t we do this kind of a thing??” It’s a collective thought process.
Is that how the Jimi Hendrix tune (“Up From the Skies”) ended up on Get Thy Bearings?
Yeah, that was Elgin Park’s idea. That tune had always been a classic on long drives on the road with Axis: Bold As Love. We wanted to do a Hendrix tune, but not an obvious one, and the idea was to do it in a style of somewhere between Miles Davis electric and Grant Green (famed jazz guitarist) Live at the Lighthouse, a combination of eclectic influences. And we just did it in one take as we half-knew the tune and played it.
There’s probably something to be said for that as you don’t play and then worry about it sounding ‘right.’ It works as a great conclusion to the album as it’s so different from everything else that just came before it.
Right! And it is an example of the group improvisation thing as we’re all thinking on the spot and responding, so it’s got a little more of that jazz kind of playing.
I’m interested to know, in terms of the production of the album, how you came about the sequence of tunes? You didn’t happen to record these tracks in the same order as they appear on the album did you?
No, not at all. But I did have a sequence in mind from pretty early on, not before we tracked, but as I listened to rough mixes. I made a CD for the car and I have an hour commute into Los Angeles when I’m working on film music with Mike Andrews, so I have a lot of time to listen. And I tried to sequence it a couple different ways, but with the first sequence of rough mixes, I got hooked on it.
Speaking of Miles, he often spoke of having space in music, and certainly this album allows room for the music to breathe naturally as it was played.
I don’t like it if it’s too self-consciously trying to ‘be’ anything. Somewhere along the line, even with records I listen to, I think of it as documentary style record making. It’s not some master plan: I want to capture the moment and people’s personalities and not over-fix everything. I like when there are little mistakes and little details: that’s good for repeated listening to me.
It makes the music true to life. And over-thinking really tends to kill music like this, which is so reliant on a bounce in a rhythm: when bands think about it too much or try too hard, the music flattens out and never goes anywhere.
Yeah, you can edit it down to the most by the minute detail and people tend to over-consider the music.
That’s a great temptation these days because it looks so easy—and in a way it probably is—but then it robs the music of its soul. You made an interesting comment a minute ago as you mentioned listening while you are driving and listening on the road; what kind of music do you pick listen to when you just want to sit down and enjoy hearing music for its own sake?
Well, I go through all kinds of phases, depending on what I’m into. My latest go-to music, over the last couple years, has been soul music with vocals, usually from the Sixties and Seventies. I was really into instrumental music for years and listened to a lot of jazz, but somewhere along the line I became drawn to vocalists. And I like those older records because they have mistakes and feel off-the-cuff a little bit. But then too I like the stories that they tell and I’m fascinated by all these voices. So you’ll never do me wrong if you put on one of those records (laughs). I do stretch into all kinds of things though as I like electronic music and classical.
It’s interesting you say that about going in different directions as I’ve found myself doing that over the last couple of years, usually based on a show I’ve just seen: I will listen to that artist only or related artists for upwards of a month or more. Taj Mahal is a good example…
The Natch’l Blues album is a great record. My parents had that album and actually gave it to me. It has all that we’ve been talking about.
I wanted to ask a little about how you work when you’re writing film music, but also comment on gigs I’ve seen you do acting as sideman to artists like guitarist Will Bernard and drummer Stanton Moore. You seem to have a natural ability to fit right in that’s equal to your penchant for leading a band.
I don’t think I’d be happy leading my band all the time any more than I would by being a sideman all the time. And this leads into talking about film music. I like to look at a body of work or a song, and figure out how I can make that thing better without insinuating too many of my own ideas. Not that I don’t use my own ideas, but I don’t want to make the thing in my own image, I want to try to elevate the artist’s perspective, I try to see where people are coming from.
Like in Stanton’s group, I write a lot of the music, but I write specifically for him to play. So it’s not something I would necessarily play on my own, but it’s stuff that I imagine “What would Stanton want to play over and sound good on?” It’s serving his style, so to speak.
I’ve heard about various methods of composing for film: watching rushes from the film, reading the story…how do you most often compose original music for a movie or a television program?
Just to be clear, most of the work I do for film is with Mike Andrews—who is also Elgin Park, guitar player for The Greyboy Allstars. We had worked on a film as a group years ago and when the band started to dissolve, as we did our solo things like mine and Karl Denson’s; Mike, instead of doing that, continued on getting film work. He worked a bunch of small things first and then kept his career going: he’s quite an accomplished film composer and has done a lot of films (Donnie Darko, Orange County andWalk Harder: The Dewey Cox Story). So most of the time I am working for and with him: we go into the studio and hang out, as we usually get involved with film while they’re editing it. Sometimes the film itself is cut to fit the music and sometimes our music is cut. I see my role as a sideman really, as I see what Mike’s ideas are and I try to encourage him if it sounds good to me or move it in another direction if he’s barking up the wrong tree…just try and help him with what he’s doing. He’s brilliant really, because he has a way of looking at film and usually knowing, spot-on, what it needs.
That must be fascinating: to play the dual roles of participant and observer…
Yeah, sometimes things will come out of little jams we’ll play together, but when it comes to actual composition, most of it’s him.
I can’t help but ask how you picked the name ‘20th Congress’ for your band?
Mainly I just liked the way it sounded. But as I understand it, there was a special session of the Soviet congress that was a turning point in the Russian communist party, so the joke was when the Greyboy Allstars went on their first hiatus, this project was my effort to get out from under a totalitarian regime (laughs).
As I said though, I like the name because I didn’t want anything like ‘soul’ or ‘groove’ in the name, so I could leave it open to interpretation.
The name does have a rhythm and a melody to it all at once.
My only regret is that people always get my name wrong as ‘Walters’ instead of ‘Walter’ and I put an apostrophe in the name—which only makes it more confusing.
(laughs) Well, you are making a name for yourself, slowly but surely.
Robert Walter’s 20th Congress kicks off its tour this week- visit here for tour dates and more details