Interview: Bob Weir

Of the many great musicians who have gotten behind voter participation and HeadCount, none has been more vocal, influential and generous with his time than Bob Weir.  We caught up with Bob backstage at one of his recent gigs, for an interview on our Headliners streaming radio this month. To hear the entire interview click here. Or check out the highlights below.

Tell me about all the collaborations you’ve been a part of this year.

Right now I’m out with Chris Robinson and Jackie Green, a little acoustic trio, and it’s fun. We had two full days of rehearsal and now we’re on the road and working stuff up during sound checks, but it’s coming together and we’re having a lot of fun doing it. A couple weeks back I was on a solo tour and that was something of a revelation to me, I got an awful lot of freedom there. So I might do some more of that again. I could get good at that.

Well it’s always fun to see bands and artists you love collaborate. I know early this year you worked with Indie rock band The National on a project in your new studio in California. Tell me about the TRI experience and your vision for that place. 

A lot of guys who have a little success in life go out and get a fancy car or a boat. I decided I wanted a flying saucer, so we built one. The object is to bend time and space in there. We have a room, our studio, that has a speaker and amplifiers and stuff like that, so that it can pretty much mock any acoustical ambience, from a living room to a club to a concert hall, hockey hall, cathedral, ballpark, whatever. And you can bring up any of these ambiences on a footswitch, so you can take a song on a little trip through all these places. You turn down the lights and you’re in that place. And we’ve augmented that with state of the art technology through and through so that this place is really for broadcast. As good a recording studio as you’re gonna find, but we built it for broadcast, high res audio and video. And we’re doing that now, we’re putting out high res video with high res audio, and it’s pretty much the first on the web. But while this is vastly superior to anything they can get, they still are reluctant to pay for it, not in the numbers that will keep the doors open there. So we’re investigating other models, sponsorship and stuff like that. We still can’t get 5.1 sound over the web, so we’re also looking into TV. We’re looking into any number of directions to see what we can do with it.

How does the national political climate now sync up with the live music scene as compared with how it did back in the day?

Well, music isn’t as fundamental to culture as it was back then, and that’s on account of digital music. Digital music is tiring to your brain, because it’s a bunch of quick snapshots you have to assemble in your head to make an audio picture out of it, whereas analog music was natural, it’s the way nature works, and your brain doesn’t have to work at it. There have been numerous tests that indicate that digital audio raises your stress level whereas analog audio lowers your stress level. So people aren’t as into music as they used to be on account of that. So like I said, culturally, music isn’t as significantly embodied by our culture as it used to be. With that said, young people still listen to a lot more music proportionally than older folks. So we’re trying to use music to draw people in, to get them to register and vote and use their minds, because it’s their future that’s being voted now and they ought to have a say in that, I think, and the folks at HeadCount think. So we’re trying to get as many music listening people with those kind of sensibilities voting as we can.

Well HeadCount is founded on the premise that if you harness that power of the live music experience for social good and political good, the possibilities are endless. I understand you’re sort of mourning the loss of how significant music was, but do you think that’s still possible to harness that spirit and to have it move whole peoples and whole cultures to do good things?

We’re gonna see. There will be some changes in digital music. Digital music has not changed much since the early 80s, since CDs were developed. Gaming technologies have taken leaps and bounds over the years, whereas digital music has just been sort of frozen. And in the studio we have much higher sampling and bit rates, much better resolution for the music, than is currently available on the market. And that’s gonna all have to change, and soon, and when it does I think music will be easier to listen to, easier to embody, to embrace. That said, it’s kind of like Zeno’s paradox, whereby you take a step towards the wall and then you step halfway again and halfway again and halfway again, you’re never gonna get to the wall. But we’ll see if digital music can get to a place where it’s actually soothing to your nervous system rather than irritating. And when that day comes, if it comes, music will step back into what I feel is it’s rightful place in our culture.

So unfortunately this year we lost some musical giants, it makes one feel like they have to go see every show or they’re gonna miss soaking up that history and that culture and really miss out on memories. What are some legends you’ve played with or you are just a huge fan of yourself that you think are a must see?

The legends I’ve played with, they’re all gone or not playing much anymore. I guess guys of my oak are stepping into that role these days; I mean, I’m planning on sticking around for awhile, so you don’t have to rush to catch me. But I learned to play rock and roll from Johnnie Johnson who arguably invented it. Now rock and roll is something that you don’t hear much, you have to sit at the feet of the master to learn that art. And I did that with my band RatDog, he was our keyboard player for awhile. And we were steeped in that tradition. I’ll get RatDog together every now and again and we can play that stuff, and I guess we’re gonna have to because we have to teach it to the kids these days so that they can play it, because really it’s not something you can get off a record. Rock and roll is simple in concept, it’s shuffle against street rhythms, but even back in the rock and roll heyday you can hear the guys who are faking it—there’s an Elvis record, Jail House rock, it’s a great record, but they were faking the rock and roll part.

Your support of HeadCount’s voter registration and civic engagement efforts has really propelled the organization forward, and lots of partner artists help support what we’re doing out in the field. How have you seen that movement change over the years being on the board of directors of HeadCount?

HeadCount is not so much political, it’s nonpartisan. What we’re trying to do is get kids to register, pay attention to what candidates are saying, pay attention to the politics of the moment, and react with their hearts and minds. Back in the day I wasn’t so politically involved. I started getting involved in the 80s with environmental issues. It just didn’t seem right to me that we were plundering our planet and in all likelihood if we continued on that path we would put an end to life on earth as we know it. And that seemed like a boogie man that I could take on, and I waded into those issues and got politically engaged. And of late, it just occurs to me that if kids rise up and take the power that’s there for them to take. And I’m a kindred spirit, I suffer from arrested emotional development, I’m a kid at heart and probably in my brain as well. I’m more like them than I am like the older generation is. And I think I can actually talk to kids, but one thing that I’m bringing from my years of wisdom is now’s your chance. Take it. Vote. Become aware of the issues. You can change the world, you can do it. Kids can be the difference in upcoming elections if they vote in big enough blocks.

On a personal note, I’ve had the pleasure the last couple of years of going to see the Dead movies. Is that something that you plan on every year, and is that part of carrying that culture forward, a way for people to connect even though they’re not at a show?

I haven’t seen the Dead movies in awhile. I’m more interested in what’s around the corner. I’m not real nostalgic. Every day things change and I’m gonna learn to live with that concept. With the exception of rock and roll, which is very much alive and kickin', I’m not married to any particular way of seeing or doing things. I’ll go with what’s up, if it’s reasonable, if I can stay in this moment.

Any last words?

Just register, study up and vote. It’s your future. Don’t let people take that from you. 'Cause in years to come you’ll be wishing you had.