Freak Speaks with Reverend Jeff Mosier of Blueground Undergrass
FreakIntro: Some of the funniest descriptions I’ve ever heard or read about a band were about Blueground Undergrass & to their immense credit. The funny thing is I’ve written some of these aforementioned descriptions myself. In fact in an eblast for the recent BGUG show Weekly Freak 19th Annifreakinversary bash at the Cabooze, I wrote this: “(Blueground Undergrass’s) unique collective personification is indeed larger than the sum of their parts. BGUG lights up a night of music like the most powerful aurora borealis our northern skies have to offer. Feel the celestial spirit of these music graced moments shared as we ascend higher together as one…” And then some! What a perfect prediction of the awesome return to power of this stellar band that we joyously witnessed for the hugely successful party show. I’ve always maintained I had some degree of ESP. So as you can see, I adore the latest “excursion” of this band & even deem them my current faves. Come on along for this conversation’s ride. Here’s how it went down:
Timmy the Freak: Good to hear you!
Rev. Jeff Mosier: Good to hear you, sir! I’m thrilled that you’re there, & you’re going, & you haven’t stopped.
Timmy: Thanks man. Yeah, I’m psyched too. We’ve known each other for a long time. You know, (we met up) back in ‘98, that was a very big year for me. You know, I think I was kind of at the peak of my life, & I feel like I’m heading towards another peak right now.
RJM: Good for you, buddy. Me too, man. Life’s about change and change is life– that’s what it is. It is.
Timmy: Yeah, I agree. So much has happened in these years, and yet, our species seems to keep evolving, somehow, and–
RJM: Somehow! (Both laugh) Things sure have changed since we talked last, oh my God… Pshew!
Timmy: Exactly. You know, I couldn’t even give you the date. I remember seeing you at High Sierra a bunch of times, and I’ve seen you up here (in Minnesota) at Harmony Park, & I remember talking to you in San Francisco, which is kind of really strange because–
RJM: That was right before the (tour bus) crash, right?
Timmy: That was right before. I saw you play, & then you were going to Oregon, and the next thing I knew, I read about this crash, and I just flipped out. (freaknote: BGUG’s vintage tour bus sustained a gnarly crash near the gates of the Oregon Country Fair where luckily everyone on board recovered but the bus was total wreckage) I remember making sure you guys were ok, and it was just a really emotional thing for me, because I remember how excited you were and I remember hanging out on the bus with you. I think it was at the Last Day Saloon, wasn’t it?
Timmy: But that was just another one of those things that we don’t see coming.
RJM: No, man, not at all.
Timmy: But I’m really excited that you’re traveling, & your band– is this, the fourth incarnation of the band?
RJM: Man, this is really– I don’t know, every version is an excursion. Blueground Undergrass is something I put together, & I’ve always wanted to have a band that did these things that we do, and I naively jumped into having a rock band for the first time. All I’d ever done was really have a regional bluegrass band, & I’d played with ARU and Phish & stuff, but never had borne the brunt of trying to lead a band & convince the guys in the band that you’re not an egomaniac out to make them look small and you look big, so I never really put my name on it. It’s just never been my solo career where I’m saying, “You stand back there and play and shut the f*ck up,” I’ve just never done that. I’ve always believed in the sanctity of communal expression. And communal expression meaning when a group of people mount a stage, and they have yielded ears– meaning that they’re playing reactive music– in other words, what they’re playing is a reaction to what’s going on around them, & not them touching themselves in the shower. There!
RJM: And I think what can happen is that group of people can grow bigger than the sum total of the all the talent on the stage. That’s why I have a band. I’ve got the energy and the talent to go out there as Jeff Mosier, & come out and put people in the back. I know how to do that, I’ve done some standup & acting, but when it comes to music, the reason I stick to the band thing, karmically & human-wise that in a band situation, if you can keep it healthy, it can be so much more powerful than (just) some guy. And that’s why the kind music, the Grateful Dead, Little Feat, The Band, all the great bands, I really feel like that’s why I’ve stayed there. I might do something different later if I get exasperated with the band idea, but what you’ve basically seen is me run out of fuel, run out of money, deal with 9/11– I mean we went four years, two tour buses, the crash, I have had two additional kids after we started touring, & it’s just me going, “If I don’t stop and be healthy right now, I’m not going to have anything else to say anyway.” Because your message is only as good as your messenger, & your messenger is only as good as the personal health of the individual. And I just got to a point where my zip-a-dee-doo-dah was gone, & we had internal conflicts. So I say we didn’t break up, we broke down. (After Blueground Undergrass disbanded) I did The Ear Reverends, I went out with Leftover to help them find a banjo player after Mark (Vann) had died, helped out around here emotionally when Mikey (Houser from Widespread Panic) died, some stuff like that. And then, you know, what really got us back together was David Blackmon had broken his neck & been paralyzed from the neck down. You know, we’d had to fire him because he was falling down off of the stage, total drunk. And he broke his neck, came back to life, went through rehab, & they told him he’d never play the fiddle again. And I ran into him during the two year break, & there he was, man! Just sitting in a chair, & what was coming out of that fiddle– f*ck me, I couldn’t believe it! He was playing that great. I said, “Man, listen, I’ve got this thing called The Ear Reverends, why don’t you play with me?” So he did, we did that together. One day, we were talking with Randy Judy, me & David were talking– Randy’s a promoter down here in Florida, & David said, “Look, man, we met onstage with Widespread (Panic), you told me you had this idea for a band, you told Todd (Nance of Panic), J.B. (John Bell also of Panic), you told all of us, you know, because it’s your thing. You did it! Let’s do it.” And we put it back together. The biggest difference musically is that we don’t have a pedal steel (note: Jeff’s brother Johnny played pedal steel in BGUG & they played for years previously in the band Good Medicine). But man, I tell you I’m as proud as anything we do right now as I’d ever been. If I couldn’t see the progress, God, I’d be depressed, because I’m such a freak to get better at what I’m doing. I’ve got to get better at what I’m doing, or I just can’t take it. I’m one of those guys, I don’t settle into anything. So if it’s not moving & changing…
Timmy: Right! Well, I really admire your passion, & I’m excited to tag the Weekly Freak name along with your show coming up in Minneapolis as our 19th anniversary show, because I couldn’t think of a band that better personifies the spirit of our magazine, the definitive of our mantra, “Seek your curiosity, explore, and see what’s out there!” And I think it’s great that down in the South you’re kind of the go-to guy for all these people– when Mark Vann passed away and Leftover Salmon needed some inspiration to get their tour going, they went to you; when Phish wanted to do some bluegrass, they got you as their coach & went on tour. It really shows that you put an impact on this whole scene beyond Blueground Undergrass, & The Ear Reverends, & even Aquarium Rescue Unit (freak adds: Good Medicine). You’ve really touched into all these places. Another issue I like to look at sometimes is the differences in the scenes between the North and the South. Down in the South, it’s a little bit different. It’s more like a family in the scene.
RJM: I think there is that, but I think it depends on the genre– if you had to learn a certain style of music, like David & I have that connection, we first came out of bluegrass. But then you go up north, and the cool thing about the jam band scene up there, is that either people know about it, or they don’t, & the ones that know about it (love it). But man, it’s growin’ up there because of the accessibility of this music, see. There’s bluegrass coming from Wisconsin & up that way. Art Stevenson, that guy represents to me the northern version of what we do here. But to me, everything is becoming less & less North, South, East, West, liberal, conservative, red state, blue state. Especially in the music, we’re realizing that we’re all for the same thing, and that is civilization through music, you know. To me, music is the ultimate nonviolent weapon of mass construction. It truly is. It’s nonviolent, but it is a weapon of mass construction. It consistently helps large groups of people categorize philosophies & ideas through lyrics, dance, and music to come to conclusions that are outside of capitalism, outside of violence, and outside of (nationalism), like (America saying) “We are the world,” well, guess what? We’re not the f*ckin’ world. And this president is realizing that now, because the world’s standing up and going, “F*ck you. You’ve never been the world. We have couches in our country that are older than your f*ckin’ country. And we are the coalition of ‘Get the F*ck Out of My Face!’” And without being political, I can go out there & play what I think is music about life. Self-help for hippies, whatever you want to call it. Music that’s about getting’ your sh*t together, about not tolerating the status quo, turn off the f*ckin’ TV, start using your brain again, start writing, learn to play a musical instrument, go see live music, save your mind, & you’ll save the planet. Because once people save their mind, they start realizing, “Oh, in order to survive, I can’t tolerate this subset of issues; I can’t tolerate a company for profit that is destroying the environment that my children will have to grow up in.” And the greatest thing about the jam band people is that they listen with an ear that requires that you mean what you are doing. They don’t want you to sound like the radio. They don’t want you to sound like you recorded it. They hate studio albums because it’s a wax figure of your sound. They want to hear what you do live. They want to hear how you respond to them, they want to hear how you respond to each other on stage, & they want to see your ass. They want to see you affected by your music, & if you are, they like you, & if you aren’t, they categorize you as bullsh*t. And that’s why I’ve never left the scene, because of people like you, man. When I first came up to Minnesota, to Harmony Park, I’ll never forget it– when we got up there, you were the first person (we saw). You came up with that little zine, man, you made us feel so welcome, and we all looked at each other, & we said, “Holy f*ckin’ sh*t! These people know who we are! I can’t believe they’d even heard of us.” And then Art Stevenson (Midwest bluegrass royalty) walked up and he said, “Hey, Reverend Jeff!” I was like, “Hey!” & we never assumed anybody knew who we were, ever. So, man, I owe you so much karmically. What you do is so much bigger than you will ever imagine it.
Timmy: Well, thank you. I agree that the rewards come when you least expect them. And really, bluegrass is just huge up here and I think the time is right for your band to come back around. You guys are doing something a little more adventurous, so when I heard Bluegrass Underground, I thought, “This is just beautiful music that doesn’t seem to have a discernable era attached to it, I think it sounds timeless,” and that’s a compliment to your music, and it’s also hard to describe, which is always a compliment. And that’s kind of what I want my magazine to be about. We try to be an all-positive magazine and just cover things outside of the mainstream. I want to scratch the surface a little bit and see what’s under there, kind of like going through the woods and flipping over logs to see what’s under it. Not everybody’s into it, but you can really find some stuff that way. So you’ve got a fairly new album out, “Faces”, right?
RJM: Uh-huh. [freaknote: Faces came out on Landslide Records in March 2006]
Timmy: I haven’t heard it yet, but it looks to be great! You’ve got a lot of people on there, Colonel Bruce (Hampton retired)– [Freak update: I’ve listened & it’s amazing.]
RJM: Yeah, & El Buho (trumpeter Gary Gazaway). And Jimmy Herring, Jimmy’s on two cuts. I’m real proud of it. And hey, if you wouldn’t mind, please note that we have a myspace page (where you can hear some of it) [myspace.com/bluegroundundergrass]. We get a lot of traffic there from all over. As a tool for music, it’s great. I know a lot of people aren’t real hip to it, but I love myspace.
Timmy: (laughs) Yeah, I use it. Sure there are naysayers, but I use it for fun. And I know musicians who’ve gotten gigs off of it, tours, hooked up with other bands, found places to stay– & that doesn’t just go for bands, it goes for people, too. I like it– if you look past the stupid ads and stuff, & just use it for your own stuff, it’s definitely helping. There are a lot of things out there that are hurting, but I don’t think that’s one of them. Sure, things like that get abused, but everything is abused. I just started telling people about this, but I’ve been sort of a closet blogger for a while– I own like seventeen (+) blogs (laughs) so things have gotten really ridiculous on that level. I love doing it. I’m a writer at heart. I use the blogs to improve my writing, like you were talking about before, always trying to improve. I have these blogs and nobody knows about them. I’ll probably never tell anybody about some of them.
RJM: That’s part of the fun of it.
RJM: The power of blogging is anonymity.
Timmy: Yeah, if somebody finds it by chance, that’s great, but I’m on there to hone my writing skills and throw some ideas around. And I’m tremendously inspired by people like yourself, who are career “creaticians,” and musicians, and designers of sound, designers of wordplay. I’m so attracted to the word, & what makes it more impactful, whether it’s music, or whatever it is, & (the Weekly Freak’s) just been a vocation of unequaled profundity, I guess. I’m forty-one now, & I started the magazine when I was twenty-two in 1987.
Timmy: And my first issue was made on an electric typewriter and the whole back page was handwritten, you know. So we’ve really come a long way and I’ve got everything kind of documented & archived to show my progress, & you know, I have all these ideas going all the time.
RJM: Have you thought about doing a film?
Timmy: Yeah, I’ve written some (ideas, material)…
RJM: I’m working on the Colonel Bruce Hampton movie right now. And I’m really into it. Billy Bob’s in it, & Widespread, & Phish, & it’s been an amazing experience. It’s going to come out in January, but, man, I’ve learned a lot. It would be really cool if at some point you did a music film centered around the publication.
Timmy: Yeah, that’s a great idea!
RJM: You could call it “The Weekly Freak,” but it could also be a music DVD, featuring music and all kinds of cool things. There is so much you can do with it, just talking about the power of music, and music in the community, and music outside of the label, and outside of capitalist marketing of music, outside of formatted radio, and the whole thing. Because you’re an expert at that, and you don’t even realize it sometimes, probably.
Timmy: (laughs) I appreciate that, and it’s a great idea to run with– a lot of times, somebody throws an idea at me and I just combine it with one of my own, an idea that’s already going on in my head, whether it’s an idea for some kind of my writing, or–
RJM: What about a podcast with slides, have you thought about that?
Timmy: Podcasting definitely is on my list of things I want to check out.
RJM: Because you’re a great communicator, you’ve got a good voice.
Timmy: Thank you. You know, I had a cable access show for about seven years, and none of us (who worked) on the TV show had cable. You know, I didn’t even own a TV, so for seven years, I never even saw my own show, ever, not even once. (Laughs) And I didn’t think it was that good, but in the end, it was pretty good. I think I just stopped short from taking it to the next level because it was TV. It wasn’t like a film.
RJM: TV’s everything! TV’s You Tube.
Timmy: TV’s got kind of a stigma on it for me, just because I never was into TV. Not that I’m not into visual expression like film, and DVD’s, and stuff like that. I think I just got turned off to the medium of television itself. (Some further discussion on the nature of media and mass communication ensues and pretty soon as is wont to happen, the conversation meanders back to the music…)
RJM: I mean, you go on now, and there are shows that I’ve played that I’ve never heard showing up every day. Now I don’t sit around and listen to them, but I can’t believe that they’re out there. Like this Phish stuff that I put out, it’s been in my camera for eleven years.
RJM: And finally I just, you know– I would never make a dime off of it, wouldn’t in a million years, but I thought of all those fans out there, & I put out the Phish Bluegrass DVD, of me teaching them bluegrass. And it’s on the net, man. It’s just footage from my camera, backstage, me walking out with them, them laughing on the bus. And man, it means so much to them, to their fans, you know. In other words, all this (older) material can be “repurposed” into new and interesting content. So who are we playing with for this show again? (transcriber’s note: the question is regarding the Blueground Undergrass December 9th show at the Cabooze)
Timmy: The Brass Kings. They’re jazzy, they’re great. They kind of have an eerie sound to them. I like them a lot.
RJM: We have this keyboard guy coming out, & I can’t remember his name, but he’s really one of the best ever. He toured with El Buho. He’s from Minneapolis, he’s going to sit in with us.
Timmy: Oh, yeah, Peter Schimke.
Timmy: Yeah, he’s great. I’ve met him, really nice guy, & the guy is a genius musically. I’ve seen him play with jazz bands, I’ve seen him play with roots, bluegrass, funk, everything. The guy, he’s all over the place. That’s a good fit, in fact, I remember when Gary (Gazaway) played with El Buho at Harmony Park, Schimke was one of the band members, and they completely tore it up! And I really like Gary a lot. I tried to help him a little bit because not a lot of people up here know about El Buho. But they went over huge.
RJM: Well, man, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it. I can’t wait to see you, and it’ll be great to hang!
Timmy: Definitely. (So) Mikey Ronk(star), Andy Frey, Snax are the sound team guys at the Cabooze. They’re really cool dudes, super nice. I’m really looking forward to it, & I wanted to thank you for just letting me hook up with you on this. This is our 84th issue, coming out December 18th, just around Christmas (& New Years), & it’s our Holiday Oddity Peace Edition, so it’s our end of the year wrap-up.
RJM: Man, if you don’t mind, I might have some of the old (copies of the Weekly Freak) that we were in, but if you can find any copies or whatever, I’d love to have a couple old ones if you’ve got ‘em.
Timmy: Yeah, we have tons! I’ll try to find the one where you were Freak of the Week. (Reverend Jeff cracks up laughing for the next twenty seconds) There’s a cool picture where we were at High Sierra (Music Fest late night) & you–
RJM: (still laughing) Didn’t I pick you up (off the ground)!
Timmy: Yeah! I was trying to get you to pose for a picture & you were like, “Here, let me carry you!”
RJM: I remember that, man!
Timmy: [hardly containing laughter] Thanks a lot, Jeff & have a great day.
RJM: All right, we’ll see ya buddy!
Timmy: Take care.