Interview with Matt Slocum
Matt Talks Oteil Burbridge, Susan Tedeschi, The Lee Boys, Aquarium Rescue Unit & more!
Matt Slocum is a well known keyboardist amongst music nerds and fans alike. He’s played with the best of the best and remains a humble musician always trying to better himself and his playing. We had a chance to speak with Matt leading up to his show this coming Saturday at Aisle 5 in Atlanta with Roosevelt Collier. The show will feature the band King Baby playing with Sacred Steel genius, Roosevelt Collier of the Lee Boys.
You’ve played with a lot of different people including Susan Tedeschi, Lee Boys, John Popper, John McLaughlin and some members of the Allman Brothers. Who are your favorite artists you’ve played with over the years? More importantly, what makes each of them unique and why did you enjoy playing with them?
I enjoy playing with a lot of different people, but some of the greatest experiences I’ve had are playing with people like Oteil, Jimmy Herring and Susan’s band. It’s all been an awesome learning experience. There are a lot of people and I’m not going to remember everything about each one. The most important thing with people like Jimmy, Oteil and Jeff Sipe is that they are just real people. They’re good people. I’d want to hang out with them and go see a movie, or hang out with their family because I liked them for who they are. It’s just amazing that they’re such incredible musicians at the same time and that sparked my interest. I mean, I’m totally interested in the fact that they’re such amazing musicians and are able to communicate on that higher level of music that can peak my interest, but the most important thing is I like to hang out with these guys.
We were discussing the higher level of musical expertise and how much you appreciate that. Could you elaborate on that more?
Yeah, I do. I definitely crave that in music and that’s kind of where I want to go and want to be. One of the really cool things about my personal experience is that I’ve been able to play with people that are (in my mind) way above me and I get to grow from that experience. I get to see the way that they do things and grow from that. I respect them musically and as people, period. It’s like playing with some of these people you get into that mindset of letting go, and allowing things to happen. Trusting people musically is key. It’s important to be yourself and for them to be themselves, and for everybody to be paying attention and on the same page, while still being an individual. That is super important to me.
Yeah, definitely. Could you talk about the new project with King Baby. You told me that you guys did a tour in Bangladesh. How did that happen so fast and at what point did you decide it was a good idea to do something with the band?
Yeah, King Baby is Kevin Scott on bass and Mark Raudabaugh on drums. Mark also plays with Donna The Buffalo. Rick Lollar is on guitar and he’s an amazing guitar player. They’re all top notch musicians in my mind. They’re all from Atlanta basically, at least at this point. I’ve met them through just being in the scene. I guess it happened over the last few years when everybody had downtime and we would get together in Atlanta at Elliot Street Pub. We’d play a gig just for fun (the four of us). They had the name “King Baby” already and they said “hey man come over and play with us.” We would do that maybe once or twice a year and we would do it for fun. This passed September I got a call from the manager who works with Aquarium Rescue Unit (ARU) and John McLaughlin; Souvik Dutta. He’s amazing and he’s got his hand in a lot of really cool stuff that’s going on right now. He has a record label.
Yeah, Abstract Logix. He works with a lot with musicians who are at the top of their game and playing at a high level.
Yeah, totally. The guy’s incredible. He also wants to work with people that are good people. Good people that are friends, that put good projects together and do something with it. I know him well from doing Jimmy Herring stuff and then got in with ARU and all those guys. Souvik called me up and said “hey they’re doing this festival in Bangladesh and they want an American roots, blues, funk band, do you have a band you could take over there and play?” I told him I was all for it so I called the guys and they were like “Okay, Bangladesh? Alright.” You know, they were totally into it, it was just awkward because it was Bangladesh. That’s really how it started. We went over to Bangladesh, had an amazing time and got to headline one of the nights after John McLaughlin. We headlined the second night and we did our thing. We did some cool originals and some covers that we all enjoy. When we were over there, they made us feel like kings, man. It was like we had been around and like we were a band that was already something. They had a life-size poster of Kevin Scott and King Baby stuff everywhere. It was surreal. We were like man we should do something with this while we have a buzz around it. This is fun. We should do something we all want to do and play music we all want to play. You know? We talked to Souvik about it and asked if he’d be willing to do something interesting with it.
That sounds ideal. Maybe you could talk a little about the recording process?
Yeah, well, we’re a great band – but you’ve got to have a record to be a band even if no one is going to buy it. Even if they’ll download it for free, in todays music market you’ve got to at least have a record for someone to download so we decided to record at least an EP’s worth of music. Something to bring to Souvik. So we could say “here’s where we are.” We wrote a couple more and then broke for Christmas break. We’re back at it now. We’re taking some time to do this Roosevelt date or we’d be there now. When the opportunity came up to do the date with him in Atlanta we were like “Okay! Let’s do it as King Baby”.
You’ve been playing with The Lee Boys for a while now, I recently watched a video of you playing with The Lee Boys and Susan Tedeschi from 2008. How did your time with them start?
Well, I was playing with Oteil & The Peacemakers and somehow he got hooked up to The Lee Boys through whatever management he had at the time. We went out on the Sweet Soul Revival Tour, I think it was. They opened up for us every night and we toured all over. That was where I met those guys. We sat-in with each other, you know, that kind of thing. I ended up recording a record with The Lee Boys, a great record, called Testify.
Oh yeah, great album.
It’s a really cool record. I did that with them and I’ve just been playing with them since then. That tour we did with Oteil and them was like, 06 or 07. I can’t remember exactly, but I’ve known Roosevelt for almost ten years.
I saw them play at Langerado in 2007 (Thanks Joe). Rodrigo y Gabriela had trouble with their visa’s (they were a somewhat new act at the time) so there was a handwritten sign that said “Replacement: The Lee Boys” and we were like “Who is this?”
Yeah, I mean, I was so glad I was standing at that stage that day.
Yeah, [laughs] I bet you were!
We were thinking “Who is this guy?” and then we saw him sit in with everyone around the festival.
Yeah, he’s a special guy.
At times “easy” isn’t the best way to describe the life of a full-time musician. Someone might be stuck playing in a popular band type situation and not necessarily be where they want to be musically at a given time, or they’re balancing life on the road with family or personal life. They could even be struggling with their artistic direction. What do you find to be the hardest aspects of playing in a band, musically and personally?
Alright, well two things come to mind.
First off, I’m married and have three kids, so, you know being on the road and being away from home is difficult. It’s tough being away from the school and being away from extracurricular activities that the kids are doing. That part can be tough because you want to be there and you want to do those things, but at the same time you want to follow your dreams and support your family too. You’ve got to go out and do what you’ve got to do. The only thing I know how to do is play music so that’s what I have to do.
Musically it’s interesting. I would say one of the hardest situations for me, a learning experience, a moment of truth, was when I played in Susan’s band because it wasn’t about playing all the notes, playing fast and playing all the cool licks, it was about backing up a singer and playing to the song. I had to realize that it wasn’t about me, it was about me as one of the ingredients in a bigger piece. That was hard for me. When you’re backing up a vocalist it’s about paying attention to what needs to be there and what doesn’t. It’s about leaving your ego behind and playing to the song. When you play songs you have to remember that backing up the vocalist is the main point. You don’t get a four-minute solo. You get eight or 16 bars to make a statement and it needs to have a beginning, middle and end to go with the song so it has a purpose to it. That’s hard to do!
It’s easy to get up there and play a bunch of fast notes and cool extensions, but when you have to get up and say, alright, the reason we’re playing the b7th right now is because it’s going to the IV, and you don’t play it any other time. There’s a reason for that and a method happening. You have to figure it out in a way that you can add to it and not just jam to it and say “oh, cool now were in Dm. I’m going to play in Dm for ten minutes.”
There’s a difference with that and it’s hard. That was hard for me because I wanted to do it right and that was a challenge for me even though it wasn’t what some people would say. Some would say “Man, I could never imagine playing with Jimmy Herring, he just plays so many notes and I could never keep up.” For me, and not to sound egotistical, that style of playing is easier than playing within the song.
I’ll agree with you. The art of the song is the most difficult aspect.
That’s a good way to put it, “the art of the song.” Backing up the vocalist. Being involved with the band in every aspect. There’s also all of that in ARU. I mean, I love playing with ARU! I wish they were touring all the time and we could just do that! You know? But, there’s definitely an art to it and it doesn’t matter what style of band it is. You want to bring the passion to it in the right spots – do something good with it, which is hard at any rate. That aspect of it was a challenge for me, like a slap in the face almost, but it was a really cool experience.
You come from a formal music background. Where do the worlds of composed and improvised music come together, as a player?
That’s a good point. It happens in every band. If you’re honest with yourself and honest with the people that you’re around then that’s an important factor. I’ve been playing with Rich Robinson of The Black Crowes for about two years now. That guy can write songs. He is a song writer. He wrote all the music for The Black Crowes. His songs have meaning and purpose to them. He wants to play it this or that way and learn how to continue to do that better and better, but at the same time he wants there to be improvisation in there. He wants you to be able to step out at times. A good example of where those worlds meet is in that band. I have to play with the song, but there are times when I really get to stretch out, be myself and step out of the box to see what fits on the spot. That’s a challenge too, to play the song, improvise and stretch out a little bit.
Tell me about how your relationship with Oteil started. I saw the Peacemakers a bunch of times, that was a great band!
Yeah, it was an awesome band. Chris Fryer plays with Zac Brown now and Mark Kimbrel is one of the best guitar players I know. Anyway, Oteil used to live in Birmingham. One of my best friends who lived in Birmingham knew Oteil and I had friends who knew Oteil from taking lessons from him. They were also just friends with him outside of music. We were playing with a band and they said “oh hey, Oteil’s gonna come sit in” so he came, sat-in and played drums the whole night. [laughs] You know that was his first instrument?
Yeah, that was his first serious instrument I think. He’s a great jazz drummer.
That’s how I met him and I thought “man, I wish I could be in a band with him.” A couple years later I got a call from him. He was like “I’m doing a tour in six weeks, my keyboard player can’t make the gig, would you be interested in doing it? Ill send you the CD of tunes.” I said “absolutely.” I started playing with him and we started touring, that was about 2003. We’re still really good friends. I was actually texting with him earlier today about our kids. He has a one-year-old as well. He really gave me a shot and really believed in me. I’ve learned so much from playing with the guys in that band, being on the road and just learning what it’s like to be in a real band that’s doing something. I have a deep respect for him. I respect all the guys that I play with, but I have a deep respect for Oteil just because of that fact. That’s how I started playing with him and from there I met Jimmy and all these other people that I’ve played with just from being around Oteil.
It’s contributed to your development as a player, you’ve got great chops. One of the best things about your playing is your ability to navigate between the worlds of composed and improvised music. How do you tie in your background as a classically trained musician with a different setting like rock n’ roll?
I mean that’s where it all comes from. I enjoy theory too. I can really geek out on the stuff. Jimmy and I will sit in the back of the bus and go over chord structures, voice leading and all that kind of stuff because that’s what I’m passionate about. When it comes down to it, you have to let go of all that and just play. I grew up playing classical music and went to different conservatories throughout high school. I played all classical music. I’ve always had a love for playing music of time as well, but I’ve always played classical music. I’ve done women’s choirs where you’re doing serious music reading with crazy dynamics, time changes and that stuff is cool too. I did all these evaluations and competitions. Most of that has been in the last four to five years. As you said, I play a lot of different styles. I may not be the best at any given one, but I’m able to fit in to all of them and be myself so I can do my thing in each one. If they keep calling me, I’m going to show up.