Jim Donovan of Rusted Root
Paradigm Shift Interview by Philip H. Farber
Rusted Root is a strange entity among rock bands. They play with the rhythmic intensity of a tribal horde and the melodic flavor of a folk or pop band. Their concerts are powerful events that have gathered their own tribe of fans -- who also storm the record stores in search of Rusted Root's several albums. With the emphasis on ecstatic rhythms, the concerts sometimes resemble a wild pagan ritual more than a rock concert.
Paradigm Shift recently spoke with Rusted Root drummer Jim Donovan.
PHF: How would you describe the way your sound has evolved?
Jim Donovan: We're a funny bunch because we've never really tried to do any one certain niche thing. It's always been our own thing, and that's really just a factor of the collection of personalities that are within the group. We try not to be redundant, yet on this specific record we really wanted to make some music that has the elements that we do really well, that had the really strong melody that had the really strong rhythmic foundation that people really know us for, and really turn that into some good songwriting. We pay attention to the lyrics this time. We pay attention to all aspects of the song.
PHF: There really seems to be more of an emphasis on the melodic aspects...
Jim Donovan: I think so. You try to make a different record and still be yourself. There's a fine line between completely changing your sound to do a new record and doing something that you've done a million times. We were kind of walking the line. This is my favorite record, by far. This is one of the things that I can look at now and go 'I actually like this.' We're always so critical of everything we do. We're always trying to make everything better all the time. This is the one thing that came out and I was like, 'Boy, I really can listen to this. It's beautiful.'
PHF: What's the creative process toward creating a Rusted Root song?
Jim Donovan: It happens differently on different songs. On a lot of the songs, Mike will bring in a lot of the parts, some guitar progressions and some vocal melody ideas. He'll start playing them in the room with everybody. From that point we all take it in fifty different directions until we distill it down to the one thing. We always end up playing it a bunch of different ways, but there's always that one way that keeps on sticking. It's not even really a speakable process, it just kind of happens. I guess that's why it works. We all kind of brainstorm on the thing... Once we get it into the studio, then we further refine it and tear it apart. Then there's the problem, usually when we get into the studio we really tear everything down to its simplest part -- that's what happened on this record, anyway -- and try to find where the very bare essence of a song was and what we could do to the song to make it the very best that it could be, not overrun it, not put everything and the kitchen sink in it. I know that we are evolving in that process and the next record that we do will be even better.
PHF: So these songs were created more for the studio effort than your live show?
Jim Donovan: Actually, no. Over half of the songs were actually played live first. That's part of the process. We played these songs since as far back as the summer of '97. We had a few of these tunes out. The one thing we really wanted to do on this record was make sure the songs worked live first. That's actually one way that you can really get to know a song, get to know how it works and how it feels -- just play it in front of people and see how they react to it, see how you feel when you play it. I keep saying the word 'feel' -- it's a very intuitive thing, but either you know it works or you know it doesn't work. It's really intuitive at that point.
PHF: How did you end up working with Hot Tuna on this album?
Jim Donovan: We met Hot Tuna on this past summer's Furthur Festival, with The Other Ones. The first couple days, we met them and we invited them to come up on stage and play this cover song that we were doing. We really had no intention of recording the song for the record, we were just doing it for fun. One by one those guys came out each night and played with us. By the fifth night, I think, they were all up on stage with us, both full bands on stage at the same time, playing this song. It was so much fun, and we ended up playing it every night, and it got such a great reaction that we said 'We should record this!' The record wasn't done at that point and we still had another month to go. So we asked them if they would please come to Pittsburgh and help us record the tune, and they did. They came in one day and we played it about seven times -- the sixth time was the magic tape. Those guys are phenomenal. Phenomenal people and phenomenal players.
PHF: I've seen you play a bunch of times and the audience reaction ranges from what would be 'good' for another band, at the lowest level, to an ecstatic reaction at the upper level. What happens?
Jim Donovan: You know what? That's the big magic to the whole thing. We really try to structure the sets that we do to have a kind of energetic flow. You start them in one spot and you try to take them to another spot by the time you're finished. On a really good night, you can really get that happening. I think what happens is, when we see the audience reacting to what we are doing, that feeds us to play differently and to play better and to put out even more energy. Then we put out more energy and they react to that. Then we see that and it turns into this big circle. By the end, people are out of their minds, including us. That's one of the most fun parts of playing in this group -- to have that kind of effect on people is phenomenal. I've only seen maybe a handful of other really established bands do that. People like The Other Ones (the Grateful Dead) do that, Dave Matthews Band does it... I think people react to it because they know we are being real on stage. We're not up there posing. We're not there for any other reason than to get something happening and to bring people together like that.
PHF: My first comparisons were to world music concerts I had seen; juju music or even Haitian voodoo music, that kind of ecstatic reaction.
Jim Donovan: That's where the fun is. Those specific kinds of music are something I've really just gotten into in the last couple months. That stuff -- I learned so much more listening to that than I have in years of going to school. Just listening to the realness in what those folks are doing -- there's always some kind of spirit involved, their god... When you have something that's been going on forever like that, there's so much energy attached to that -- there's no comparison to a pop band that just wrote the song last year. You just can't compare the energy. That's my next field of input, to immerse myself into that.
PHF: What kind of stuff have you been listening to?
Jim Donovan: I recently have been turned on to a lot of different stuff. I have this record I did called 'Indigo.' It's a meditation record that's based in repetition and drumming and chanting. The label I'm on, they do this kind of music. They do Badir Ali Kahn, they are from Pakistan... It's just this repetitious drumming and devotional chanting music. There's another guy named Krishna Datu, who sings devotional Indian music. It's the same kind of thing, repetition to get into another state of consciousness and to really get the whole room higher. I listen to a lot of field recordings, African music from Nigeria, the Mbuti pigmys. That stuff is crazy. There are so many wild things in it. They're not playing music for commercial purposes, they're playing it because it's a part of their life. If anyone in this country could learn anything about music, if they could just learn that one thing, it's that music is for life and for community involvement.
PHF: They're playing for the spirits.
Jim Donovan: It's what they do. It's a part of their everyday thing.
PHF: I interviewed Mike [Glablicki, lead singer of Rusted Root] a few years back. He spoke about there being a healing quality, that it's a healing process for the band when you play. What's your take on that?
Jim Donovan: I think whenever you are into self-expression through a medium like music or art, there is always a selfish aspect to that. Not that you are being selfish, but it's self-oriented. When you play you are exorcising the different demons inside of you. Whether it's an aggressive thing or whether there's sadness or even joy. What we do is very emotionally-based. I think, for him, a lot of the lyrics -- even though they of a poetic quality and not very direct -- to him they have a certain meaning and a certain quality, the emotion that he wrote with at the time. So when he sings, that really releases stuff, whether it be emotional or whatever. That goes the same all around for the band. When people play, they play from their heart, when they're doing it at their best. That's a way to release emotional whatever, whether it's positive or negative. It's not a judgment, it's really just a system that happens. So, yes, it's a healing for us, and a healing for people who listen to it and really make it their own. I think that goes for any kind of music that people really make their own.
PHF: Any plans coming up for the band?
Jim Donovan: The new album is out, obviously... In February, we'll go out and start the big 1999 tour, which will take us off and on most of next year. We'll hit the country a couple of times. If the gods prevail, we may actually get to go out of the country and visit some foreign places. That depends on how the record does. And we'll keep going from there.
PHF: Can you tell us a little more about your solo album?
Jim Donovan: It's called "Indigo." The way I describe the music, it's "altered state-inducing music." It's percussive... The concept of the record is that people can use it as a tool to help them get into an altered or relaxed state of mind. The further you want to go depends on how much you interact with the record. There are a lot of different exercises that I include in the CD jacket that you can do to help you get into a really relaxed space even before you listen to the record. Then there are exercises that you can while you're listening to the music. So you can really have an experience with it, not just a listening experience, but more of a physical and mental experience. For people who want to go even further into it, I've got a web site that is an educational web site that deals specifically with the music and has different explanations for the concepts that are being used. It's at www.jimdonovanmusic.com. It has lots of different links to sites that have more educational material than I even know... so you can learn from people who know better than I do. The next thing on that front that I'll be working on -- it's funny that you used the word "ecstatic" because the next project in this series of recordings that I'm doing is tentatively called "Ecstatic Drums." It's going to be based on the stuff we were just talking about, using ecstatic drumming to get into altered states of concsciousness... I'm hoping to actually do a book on the subject, too. I've got a lot of work to do on that, but that's my dream. It's more of a life-work thing. It's not something I would rush through. I'm going to take my time and do the resarch. It's going to be something that I will include a lot of footnotes in. So it's something that a college professor could look and use. It will be entertaining, but at the same time it will be very real information, not like a New Age book, but more solid information.
Music by Rusted Root