Robert Walter: A Super Heavy Organ (INTERVIEW)

Robert Walter has been around the block more than once – the first being with the too short lived powerhouse funk unit, Greyboy Allstars. That band made it’s early mark and then quickly fell apart due to some heavy personality clashes. So next Walter took on the front man role in his own band, 20th Congress, which drew critical acclaim, but never rose to the level of mythology that the Greyboy Allstars had before. And while he worked on 20th Congress records, he also managed to release his own solo albums with some of the legends of funk, including Chuck Rainey and Red Holloway. Now Robert is putting the past behind him and stepping out with his brand new project, Super Heavy Organ, featuring Stanton Moore, Johnny Vidacovich, James Singleton, Tim Green and Anthony Farrell. But that’s not all. Glide’s Joe Adler caught up with Robert after his soundcheck with the newly reformed Steve Kimock Band, which he also recently joined, to discuss the legend of the Greyboy Allstars, his new projects and the history of funk music.

Let’s get started with a little bit about yourself, growing up, getting into music and about your influences in general.

My stepfather was a musician playing in bands – rock and roll bands. As the seventies wore on, in order to work, he played in a lot of country bands and blues bands, some oldies bands and stuff like that. So I was around musicians. I would help him set up his gear. So I was around clubs and musicians and stuff. He had a great record collection that got me turned on to the Meters and Bob Marley, Joni Mitchell, Ramsey Lewis, and Herbie Hancock. He was a musician and a big fan of all this different stuff. So we would just have records around the house and I would listen to that stuff. I took piano lessons when I was real young to play classical music, but quickly got burnt on that and discovered rock and roll. I played drums for several years in rock bands and started writing tunes for those bands and took up the piano again. I’ve been doing that ever since.

So you were writing from a pretty early age?

Yeah. From very young. When I was eight or nine I would compose these little things. My step dad was a drummer, but he would also build these synthesizers in the seventies. He built these homemade synthesizers. So I would record these little tunes I would make up on his gear.

When was the move to the Hammond B3? Early on you were just playing on a piano and a Rhodes?

Yeah, I was playing on a piano for years – just piano – and then I started playing with the Greyboy Allstars and they said, “You need a Fender Rhodes for this gig.” So I got one and fell in love with it. Anything I played on it sounded good. I just loved the sound of the instrument. I think it reminded me of my childhood and records from the seventies. Instantly having the connotation of that sort of music. So I stared playing that a lot and during that band, we became fascinated with all of these late sixties, early seventies soul jazz records when all of the jazz guys started incorporating elements of pop music and funk and R&B; and stuff. A lot of those records are based around the organ. So I started collecting that stuff and got really into it. And at some point I realized I had to figure out how to play the thing. But when I was a kid I hated the sound of an organ. I would hear it on Doors records and be like, “This thing is so cheesy. I hate it.” But once I heard Jimmy Smith and John Patton’s stuff, it blew my mind. It’s been a love affair ever since. That thing’s amazing. The days of making instruments like that are sadly

What were some of your earliest bands and gigs?

I would play four sets of blues with my step dad when I was young. Which was a really good education in how to play a gig and how to pace yourself, and just the ins and outs of your gear and what do you do if something breaks. And the whole time I was in regional bands that would play little gigs here and there. Like punk rock bands and shit like that.

Punk rock with the organ?

Usually playing drums. And I was a kid in the eighties so I was really into that kind of stuff. And it’s still part of my esthetic. I always love shit that’s like, “do it yourself.” So suspicious of corporate music.

How did the Greyboy Allstars thing happen?

Well, he did a tune with (DJ) Greyboy that became kind of a hit in Europe called “Unwind Your Mind.” And they were getting ready to release that album, Freestylin, and Greyboy wanted to have a band instead of a lot of guys at that time who were doing DJ sets with a horn player or with a guitar player or singer or something. So he felt that because he was a fan of all of that older music that he thought it would be great to hear a live group playing, a live rhythm section. So we originally formed to play his record release party and as soon as we got in rehearsal the thing just kind of clicked. It’s happened only a couple times in my life where that happened. Where you really didn’t have to do anything to make the thing sound good. Something about the players just getting better instantly. And everybody can relate to each other’s ways of playing rhythms. That band was really easy.

Can you talk about some of the personalities in the band?

The problem, and the great thing about that band is it’s huge egos. Huge personalities, everybody was a very unique person and had clear ideas about what they liked about music and what they were trying to promote esthetically. So there was all this rub of these people pushing against each other which made this band have all this energy. At the first rehearsal there is all this energy because they were always trying to push their agenda and the way those things slapped together, it was really infectious. It never got lazy or anything. Too many ideas. As time wore on, that became difficult. It’s just a very combustible group of people. So we were always arguing about the music.

It seemed like when Karl started doing the solo band that, at first, it was billed as a side project?

Yeah my band was too. That was partly because we both used the same manager that was doing Greyboy Allstars and he’s like, “You have to put it in the name because it’s gonna give you this head start.” And we wanted to keep the band as an entity that we could do, which I always had a problem with. Early on I started to say, “You can’t put Greyboy Allstars anywhere in the advertising.” I tried to steer away from that because I didn’t wanna capitalize on something. It felt [insincere] to me to use that because it was totally different. And I came, sort of, crashing back to Earth on a business tip because that band did great and was much beloved. And then when I started my own thing I had to start from scratch again which was a really good education for me, it sort of made me appreciate things about that group or in any success I’ve gotten since. It feels earned. Greyboy Allstars had a kick start because Karl had played with Lenny Kravitz and (DJ) Greyboy had this hit, so we started playing to a lot of people right outta the gate. And I feel like you have to earn that audience person by person.

There [was] something magical about the way that band played. And I feel like I didn’t know what I was doing as a player back then and it didn’t matter in that setting because all of us were a little bit green. There is just something about the combination of people. It’s a great garage band really. It always had this vibe of hand-picked players, when really we were all just kids. We just all fell in love with this certain kind of music so we knew exactly the direction we wanted to go. And the arguments were really about the microscopic parts of that music.

And the Greyboy Allstars continue to do the reunion gigs.

Yeah we have one coming up next month. It’s great to play with those guys now. And everyone has a little more stuff so it’s exciting. And sometimes it takes a gig or two. We’ll play a run and the first couple will be a little bit edgy and were not quite feeling each other, but it snaps back awful quick.

Let’s move on to 20th Congress and how that got started.

That started because Greyboy Allstars was starting to fall apart. Our drummer had given us an ultimatum saying he was done touring and wanted to take a bunch of time off. And I didn’t wanna play Greyboy Allstars without that personnel because of all of the stuff we’ve been talking about. So me and Chimi (Cochemea Castellum) had been playing in little side bands and we were interested in a lot of the same music. We both got really into Eddie Harris’ records and some other things that were similar to what the Greyboy Allstars was, but a little more experimental in nature as far as composition and using more effects. So we just started this band so I would have a way to play and then we started touring on that and it built into it’s own thing.

Did you write a lot for the new project?

I wrote most of it. It’s also a way to play more of my compositions, because in Greyboy Allstars it was five composers so you had to work real hard to get one of your tunes played, and I had all these ideas I wanted to get out. With the 20th congress it was a good way to learn to compose. The first time I played a show with all my music it sort of forced me to kick up my game as far as writing.

What was the response like at first?

It was really good at first. And then something happened to the music scene post-September 11th. People blame it on the economy; I just think it was the general mood in the country that changed. Things got a little bit more difficult then. There’s always been an audience for it and I’ve always been able to make a living, but it was going real strong right before that and it sort of leveled out and it’s stayed there ever since. Until recently, when things have started to go better. I think a lot of people felt that.

What’s the future of 20th Congress at this point?

At the moment it’s on hold but it’s something I will continue to go back to. All that you sort of call my solo career is all kinda the same. It’s all my tunes. Chimi writes some tunes but it’s basically a lot of my compositions. The main difference between the two is that 20th Congress is sort of about my collaboration with him, and it’s also about music players that are younger. Trying to bring in the influence of guys that are younger than me. And most of my solo records have been sort of this tribute to the older players that I love, and I’ve been tempted to play with as many of those guys as I could. I made that record with Chuck Rainey and Harvey Mason and those guys. That was one part of my love affair with the music of the seventies. And then the latest one is about my fascination with New Orleans.

With the new album, Super Heavy Organ, you have a pretty diverse line-up. Tell me about the players in the band.

It’s Johnny Vidacovich who was Professor Longhair’s drummer and has played in a band called Astral Project for years in New Orleans. He’s very well respected in both the older traditions of New Orleans drumming, as well as jazz and very modern thinking. And Stanton Moore, who was his student, and people know from Galactic. Those are the two drummers. And then James Singleton, who’s also in the Astral Project. And Tim Green. These are all veteran New Orleans guys who have been around and played with everybody and, to me, represent what’s exciting about that music.

What would you say the differences are between playing with a sax player like Tim Green compared to Karl Denson?

Well Karl’s an extrovert. Karl’s an entertainer as well as a great sax player. Tim’s more like a very inward-looking, artistic kind of guy and serious. There’s something heavy and spiritual about his music to me. Like he’s sort of pouring a lot of emotion out into his thing. Karl’s a little more conscious of moving the show along, playing funky and things like that. It’s different. I like to have a guy like Tim in the band because I’m into the more lowbrow parts of jazz, blues and funky shit. I wanted to have somebody to elevate that and counter what I was going to do. Rather than a guy playing the same kind of solos as me on a different instrument.

With Super Heavy Organ you recorded it live in the studio. Were there any overdubs?

There’s a little bit of stuff. Like we put a tambourine on something or maybe a little sound effect here and there. But generally none of the solos are cut again, all the interactions and playing is live. Which is a big contrast as to what I did on the last 20th Congress record which is very produced. Very much of the modern way of making records in a computer. Fixing things, pulling effects out in one bar, a lot of tricky editing. Which is also interesting to me but I feel like nobody really wanted to hear me do that. I can actually play an instrument and that, in itself, is becoming a rare thing. I wanna keep all the rough edges on it, all the humanity. I think that’s more exciting. That’s what I like about records most of the time.

So I guess your recent move to New Orleans was the biggest influence on the album? What was it like going from living in southern California and that music scene, mentality and approach to things as opposed to New Orleans?

Well it’s really saved my life moving to New Orleans. With the west coast thing, there is nothing going on that was friendly to what I was into. Greyboy Allstars was an anomaly, a freak thing that happened, but there was no scene. People are like, “What was it like in San Diego? Sounds like there is all of this great music.” There’s nothing. No place to play. It’s not a very supportive community. It’s a great place to live, but in a way, I think it’s so nice there that there’s not a lot of incentive to go out and escape into music. You go to the beach instead. I’ve been obsessed with New Orleans since high school, collecting records from there. I would travel there a lot and I was already starting to play with a lot of these guys. So I just thought it made sense. Stanton Moore told me, when I was talking about moving to Portland, Oregon because I could afford to buy a house there, “Why don’t you move down here? You play all the time, you’ll be around this stuff.” It’s also the kind of thing that happens by osmosis, being around it. You walk down the street there and can feel a certain connection to that music. So I was welcomed immediately by all the guys I was hoping I would get to work with. So it’s really great.

Have you written much since you moved down there?

Yeah. Most of the stuff on the Super Heavy Organ record was written down there. Not all of it, some of it was written before I moved there. That thing’s all about what I see in that music. I feel like there’s a lot of stuff down there that’s resting on it’s instant legitimacy because it’s from there. I don’t wanna do a record about red beans and rice, not that that’s not cool. Or play a bunch of Professor Longhair stuff or try to sound just like the Meters. What I see happening there that’s interesting has always been all of these influences from everywhere. That’s what made that music in the first place. It’s not about keeping it pure. What keeps it pure is to keep feeding that and keep squishing these things together. The music comes from a combination of Latin music and French music and African music, all these things standing on top of each other colliding. So when I do the thing, I try to not do anything that would be clearly New Orleans-y, but to use those guys that have it in their stuff.

How were you affected by Hurricane Katrina?

My house is OK. I had some damage from wind but I didn’t get flooded, so I was very lucky. It has affected me in that my band is living all over the country now and it’s difficult to tour because you can’t just jump in a van and drive out of New Orleans. And then I’ve been homeless for the last couple months because I couldn’t live there right after. I’m gonna go back right after this trip.

You haven’t been back since?

I went back to clean up for a couple of days. But it will be interesting to see what happens. I’m confident that something of that will grow back. But I don’t think there’s anyway it’s gonna be the same. But I was there and they’re having gigs and making food. It’s a very resilient group of people. But the city’s gonna change and there were some things about that city that weren’t that great. A lot of poverty and class issues.

Which is also the kind of thing that that music grew out of.

That’s the thing. There’s always the argument that some of the bad things about the city are the things that created the culture. But I’m more worried about people living decent lives than some kind of ambiance.

So how did this whole tour featuring you playing with Steve Kimock come about?

I had seen Steve at some festivals, but wasn’t that familiar with what he was doing. I always felt like he was a very lyrical, very beautiful sounding guitar player. And a guitar can very easily not be those things. So I was attracted to him for that reason. Also his music is challenging, sort of complex and different from a lot of stuff. My wife always tells me that, “If a gig scares you a little bit, then always take it. Because when you come out the other side, that’s something you’re comfortable with.” So I went and did it and after playing on stage with this guy it was very freeing from that last baggage that I had from Greyboy Allstars, where you were trying to imitate this older music. We were very strict about being stylistically correct with that stuff. It was almost like a tribute band! Those 1968 organ combos or something. And that started to fade for years but this was the final nail in that way of thinking. It’s completely different than anything like that. Playing a lot of odd time signatures and things like that. So I just enjoyed doing it and I told my wife, and usually I wouldn’t take a sideman gig or a thing like that, but I told her, “If Steve called me…” And then sure enough he called me.

Is your influence and style that you’ve become known for brought into this band?

Yeah, in some ways. In a lot of real subtle ways. Also we started to play some of my tunes so there is some more obvious influence. But in hearing it at first, I don’t know how much you would hear of what you would expect me to do. This allows me to express other parts of myself than I have been able to in other types of music that I’m known for because I listen to all kinds of stuff.

Personality wise, how is it playing with a bass player (Reed Mathis) that is so distinctive with his own style?

Me and Reed actually think a lot alike. That actually hasn’t been as strange as you would think. Our common ground is really in some sort of pop type music or the Beatles or Jimi Hendrix and stuff like that rather than in the jazz realm of things. I can appreciate musicians if they’re serious about what they’re doing and they own they’re shit. Even if it’s something that would normally not be my bag. If I can see that they’re an expert in that field, I am always fascinated with them and want to hear them.

Who are some of the people you listen to that people might not expect from hearing your style?

I like the best examples of any genre. I like listening to Hank Williams records and I like some free stuff like Ornette Coleman. I also like electronic records like Amon Tobins records or Aphex Twin and stuff like that. Pretty much with anything, I think there’s good and bad examples. Then there’s seventies music, and I could listen to the worst organ records. I try to play stuff for my friends and they’re like, “That really wasn’t that good.” But there’s something about it. Or funk 45’s, like some band where they’re barely making it through the tune. There is something about that whole world that I’m fascinated with. The other thing is that I do have a suspicious thing when it comes to new music which I think is a problem for me. I think it’s a bad quality. I feel like after time has gone by I can always see that something has lasted, that it holds up after a long look. So I feel like it’s a little more valued. But when it comes out I’m like, “Is it that cool, a flash in the pan or all hype?” Partly because of the way music is marketed. They’re telling you it’s the greatest thing in the world and there is just no way that it all could be the greatest thing in the world. So that’s the one gap in my music listening. When Nirvana came out it was so hyped. I was like, “This shit is not that good.” And as time’s gone on I’m like, “This shit is really good!” It took me a couple years.

So tell me about your writing process. Where you begin and end and if it truly does end?

I used to write a lot of stuff and record it and demo stuff. Sort of a modern way of writing, usually on a drum loop or some kind of break from a record. Or I’d program a beat and build a track. Like you would if your were writing beats for hip-hop or something like that. Then I would write a melody and some chord change across this thing. It was a rhythm problem to figure this thing out. That was my way of discovering how to write for a rhythm section. I never liked it when there’s a tune and you insert the beat here. I always felt like the beat was the most important part of funk and dance music, the way the parts fit together, and that was fascinating to me. So I would begin writing by recording. It’s very hard to see that stuff in your head, you gotta hear how the parts bang against each other. And then somewhere in the last couple years I started writing on paper again, writing at the piano and trying to write from the melody down. Think of a melodic idea and write a tune around that. So whichever way you do it, the best part is that first thing. In the older stuff it’s all about the rhythms and on the newer stuff it’s much more about the melody. The best tunes come all at once, all the parts in your head. You wake up in the morning and can hear the whole thing, you just have to figure out how to play it and that’s it. Those have been the tunes that last, that I play night after night.

Like the one “Kickin’ Up Dust” on the new record, that came like that, I could hear the whole tune. Or, we used to play this tune “Sunday School” and that came all at once. “34 Small” on the new record, I heard the whole tune. Those tunes are sort of assembled. And a lot of my stuff is highly derivative of stuff I like. Trying to put a frame on this style of music that was overlooked or seen as not important, not as high art. I love Miles Davis records or John Coltrane records but that stuff has established itself as the high mark of art and there’s great John Patton records that everyone thinks of as throw away commercial jazz records and I think they have a lot of good shit on them too. So through writing I try to make a reference to that stuff without imitating it directly. These are some valuable things too to think of as art.

Who are some of your favorite people you have gotten to play with or sit in with?

It’s been a dream come true to play with some of the older players that invented a lot of music that I like. Fred Wesley is the ultimate example of, “I can’t believe I got to play with him!” I’m such a James Brown freak and Parliament, I like all that shit. Just to be around him, not even just talking about music but his vibe and the way he approaches things. How he entertains every night. It’s because of that old school thing. He’s gonna get the thing done every time. Playing with the Meters guys, Zigaboo, Leo and George, it blows my mind. And really Johnny Vidacovich because I was really into James Booker the pianist from New Orleans and Johnny was his drummer, and I would listen to that stuff when I was a kid when I was learning to play. It felt like I had come full circle, even playing at the same clubs that Booker played with him. It’s crazy. I’m not doing it because I’m such a huge admirer of those guys, but it’s great to be able to be there with him.

So you’re soaking it up from both sides, as a fan and as a participant?

Yeah. And actually having an influence in those guys lives sort of gives something back to them.

Any guys you would like to play with in the future that you haven’t had the chance to play with yet?

I have my heart set on trying to play with Idris Muhammad who played with a million people but he was Lou Donaldson’s drummer on some of the formative funky records. He is sort of the organ player’s drummer. He’s from New Orleans actually. And then Bernard Purdie I wanna play with, he’s a drummer. Those are two guys I love.

What are some of your favorite venues?

I like the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco, and the Fox Theatre has always been great. Really my favorite venue is the Maple Leaf Bar in New Orleans – and it’s a nightmare. Half the time the PA doesn’t work that great, and it’s dirty, and it’s the greatest place. There’s something about it. Music always sounds good in it. And it feels not hype-y. I like performing concerts but I really feel comfortable in a dirty nightclub playing the organ. That’s the kind of music I’m most fascinated with. It’s about creating a vibe in a room for people to have some kind of interesting evening. It’s not about you presenting your lofty ideas. You’re just part of the atmosphere. And there’s something I love about that.

Anything else you would like to add in closing?

I would encourage people to try to visit New Orleans. It could definitely use some people not being scared to go back in there. And there’s already stuff happening. I’m gonna be playing a gig there next month. They’re starting to try to create some music. I just hope people go down if there’s a Jazz Fest this year. If not this year, next year. Because it needs to have visitors, and I’m hoping that the city keeps going. I feel lucky I got to see it before, but I think it’s gonna happen again, in the long run.

Contributing writer Joe Adler is a musician based out of Burlington, Vermont. He performs regularly with his band The Joe Adler Acoustic Project.


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