Indie Music Interviews: Jeff Mosier of The Mosier Brothers
There are few musicians out there who embody their style of music more than Jeff Mosier.An original member of the legendary Aquarium Rescue Unit and founder of genre shattering Blueground Undergrass, the banjo player/songwriter has been playing live music for well over 20 years and has recently started a new band with his brother, Johnny, called The Mosier Brothers. I recently sat down with Jeff to discuss his new band, their latest album, a little about his past, and about his nickname, Reverend, which I found out suits him just fine.
Gravy and Biscuits: Heard any good music lately?
Jeff Mosier: I went to see Chris Thile and the Punch Brothers, I’ve heard Esperanza Spalding. I do a lot of Youtubes. My latest thing is Jackie Evancho, she’s this 11-year-old girl who seems to be channeling a 40’s jazz singer. She’s 11 and she’s beautiful, she’s fresh. She came through the “America’s Got Talent” thing but she’s not cheesy. I’ve also heard Greensky Bluegrass. We played with them in Kalamazoo. There’s a lot of good music out there. I like Mumford and Sons. I just saw them for the first time live on AOL or something like that. But yea man, we listen to a lot in the van. We pass the iPod around.
G&B: In 2009, you disbanded Blueground Undergrass to form The Mosier Brothers. What was the reasoning behind that?
JM: A lot of it is I think the genre that we were in and had been in had run its course in the sense that it’s morphed into a lot of electronica music and dance and light driven stuff, and Americana has become more broad. So as jamband [music] has gotten less broad, Americana got bigger. So bands like Ryan Adams and The Avett Brothers, people that write songs like I do, we have more room to go in so we’ve been real successful, even with the economy the way it is and even with things…people seem to be desensitized from live music a bit. Even with all that, this record and what we’re doing…I call it Jamericana, it’s jam sensible Americana, meaning we have a jam element and you can tell we improvise but we don’t do the “jamband” thing. So, I’m really loving it. I needed a change too. I’ve been in that whole world for so long, and we’re still in that world, but we’re not marketing ourselves as a “jamband” as much and it’s been kind of nice, you know, to still be related in that world and be known in it but not have to be holding up a flag, you know, of 12-minute songs and trying to make people spin around at three in the morning, and that’s cool and we still do that, but it’s not our focus now.
G&B: What where some emotional hurdles putting Blueground Undergrass on the back burner or was it a pretty easy transition?
JM: I think it was a pretty easy transition. Me, David [Blackmon], and Johnny, my brother really, and [Mark] Van Allen, were the core of the band so I’ve got three of us and we can still make those sounds and the original music of Blueground, which is stuff that I had mostly written myself, so we’re still doing that in The Mosier Brothers. In fact, I don’t think people have said very much about, you know, that it’s such a radical change, it’s very similar but presented different. Still rockin’, still loud, still got electric guitar, you know. The biggest thing missing is the pedal steel, a full time pedal steel.
G&B: Speaking of pedal steel, I am a big fan of Mark Van Allen, who played pedal steel in BGUG. Do you plan on collaborating with him again in the future?
JM: I’m not really sure, man. Um…if there was an oil and water element in collaboration, it was me and Mark. We just didn’t see eye to eye on a lot of, you know, ways of being and personal stuff. People knew that. We just don’t have a natural ability to understand one another. I love Mark. I could talk to him right now and I recommend gigs. We’re not enemies. We didn’t have the ability…seemingly have the ability to feel comfortable.
G&B: You brought in Jack Watson (drums) and Chris Dale (bass), they’re the newcomers to your band. Can you tell me how you met up with them and what their role is in The Mosier Brothers?
JM: Jack we found when we were looking for drummer for Blueground, for that last version. We found Jack through a friend, believe it or not. Usually I find drummers through Bruce (Hampton) or some other musician but we heard about this blues drummer and we met the guy and we were amazed. He has great meters. He had an open mind. He lived in Colorado, he knew the jamband scene and he was a fan of like…he knew about Blueground Undergrass and he knew my friends Brighter Shade. He grew up in Gainesville. He wasn’t not familiar with jambands but he wasn’t a jamband drummer which is kind of nice. He could take a song and flesh it out and play drums on it, like a blues singer. So he’s really good to sing with. And as a singer, you love that in a drummer, someone who marks territory and tells the audience where things are going. It’s going up, it’s coming down, it’s getting ready to stop, it’s getting emotional, might get emotional, getting happy, speeding up, time to dance, the song’s getting ready to end. All of those things the drummer cues subconsciously, and the bass player, and he’s great at that. So he’s like our brother, he’s the other Mosier brother.
Chris Dale came along when his natural ending with Bruce and the Quark Alliance happened. And that wasn’t any…that’s probably been the smoothest transition of all. Bruce was ready to switch into playing with Duane Trucks and Kevin Scott, and Chris was ready to move on from Bruce. But we all remain friends and I was looking for a bass player and it worked perfect. Now Chris is really happy. And really the first big job he did was play the entire record, except for the ones Oteil (Burbridge) did. His name is Chris Dale and he is, uh, the happiest, most consistent guy I’ve ever played on stage with, bar none. He’s a great entertainer. Can’t say enough about him. He’s therapeutic to be near, to be around, to be on the road with. He’s just a fantastic musician. Plays pedal steel too and at some point I would love to have the ability to get another multi-instrumentalist down the road, to be able to incorporate steel and stand-up bass, and some other stuff into our stage show.
G&B: I’m going to read a quote from Hunter S. Thompson: “The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs- there’s also a negative side.” I thought of this quote while listening to your rendition of Ola Belle Reed’s, “I’ve Endured”. How have you managed to navigate your way through the music business for over two decades?
JM: Well, one of the weirdest misunderstanding fights Mark [Van Allen] and I ever got into, he had that quote on his website for years, a lot of musicians have it on there. It’s tongue-and-cheek and all that. Then when Hunter Thompson did what he did, that to me…I’m not a big suicide guy. (He laughs) I don’t celebrate suicide. It doesn’t make you a hero, to me. I don’t know, I don’t see the music business as that. To be honest with you man, I really do [feel like] Barney, the purple dinosaur. I really feel like I’m giving people something. (In his best Barney impression) ‘Hey kids, gather round,’ you know? I really feel like somebody, there’s always somebody there deciding whether to jump or not and I could actually help pull the gun out of their mouth. And I perform like that. It’s not spiritual, it’s not ministry, it’s not religion, but it is reality. I think that what we’re best at as human beings is making things, we’re doing a lot of breaking things and music represents the noise of the creative mind. It’s the fumes; human beings doing what we’re best at. We’re great dancers, we should be moving more. We sit around on couches, which are caskets without lids, we don’t do much moving. We don’t do much noise making; we let other people make our noise for us. We should be singing more. And so I really feel like I’m part of something that’s healthy, just like good food and sunshine. And so I don’t ever see it…music was never intended to be a business, so I don’t take the business of it that serious, I just think it’s full of shit. I have to be in it, but I’ve always separated out the business from the music. The music is me sitting in a chair, doing what I love. In the words of “On My Way” (the title track on his album), ‘That’s what we do.’ The business is the fact that I grew up in the United States, in a capitalist society that turns every fucking thing into a product, regretfully.
G&B: You are more known as a song writer who plays banjo instead of just a banjo player. Where do you get the inspiration for your writing?
JM: I get the inspiration from the pain and disappointment in life, having children, aging, from having met my heroes like Col. Bruce. So most of my songs are a combination of self-help, but they’re to help me, they’re sermons I’m preaching to myself. Like, “On My Way” reminds me to enjoy that moment.
‘Play that show like it’s your last because it may really be. Remember when you learned to play and the way it made you free.’
I mean, that’s a message to me.
‘People have the music in their heart and they have it in their feet. It makes you laugh, it makes you cry, remembering to dream. Remind us that the songs we play can bring a brighter day. The music is for the ones who hear it and for the ones who play.’
It’s very simple. So I really get my inspiration from…if I was sitting in that audience, what would I want to hear tonight while I’m sippin’ on my beer and hanging out with my friends. I don’t want to hear about Jeff Mosier’s breakups. (He laughs) I don’t want to hear about his bad relationships. The sadnesses of his life. I want to hear about how he copes like I cope. So I have a very very empathic approach to my songs. Pretty much.
G&B: There are a number of covers on the track list for On My Way, including John Hartford’s “Gentle on My Mind”. How has Hartford influenced you?
JM: Well I got to interview him when I had my radio show. I had a show called “Born in a Barn” from 1984-1998 and I got to interview John as part of my radio show and he’s just one of my heroes. He was a genius. He was a banjo player. That song itself was written on a banjo. It doesn’t rhyme, it doesn’t have a chorus. It’s one of the most recorded songs in the American music catalog. It was just my way of…it was the first album we had done since he died and it was our way of tippin’ the hat. Me and David Blackmon in particular love John Hartford and we were all friends with Vassar [Clements] and Vassar was on all of John’s early records. But that’s probably the biggest tribute song on [“On My Way”]. No doubt.
G&B: David Blackmon is a very talented fiddle player who has played with the likes of Vassar Clements, Jerry Reed, and Widespread Panic. He has been through a lot in life, including paralysis of his lower body which he miraculously overcame. What is it like playing with him and how he has influenced your playing?
JM: One of our other fiddle players put it really well, the fiddle player’s name is Edward Hunter and Edward played in Blueground Undergrass after David quit; we actually had to fire David in the first version of Blueground because he was, you know, falling off stages and everything. But we got Edward, this is before David broke his neck, we got Edward, Edward played with us and he’s really a great guy, loves David. He put it this way: ‘David seems to be encoded.’ When he….Don’t matter how he feels or how much pain he’s in, he looks like a stumbling old man that’s drunk, cause he gets in his chair. You think, ‘God, man.’ And then people, they just stare at him when he starts playing. It’s like…it’s almost like he’s channeling an energy through his fiddle. And of course he was told he’d never walk again, he was told he’d never play again, he was told he’d be in a wheelchair the rest of his life. He just didn’t believe it. He believed that the fiddle could help him rehabilitate himself and it has. And I’ve been really proud to say that I’ve hired him more than anybody since he got better. I’ve kept him out there, probably almost killed him a few times just from exhaustion. But he’s our brother and we love him dearly. He is very frail and we are very worried about him. And you know, with the exception of Diet Coke and cigarettes, he’s pretty much cleaned up his act. But, I’ve never played with a more competent soloist and a more consistent player. He always throws strikes. Never throws anything but strikes.
G&B: Can you talk about your song “The Man in the Chair in the Sky”?
JM: It was the first time I was able to write a song that in my own words, distinguished the difference between religion and my experience as a spiritual person. So what I’m doing is, I’m getting out of the post-traumatic stress of religion and I’m not making fun of it, but I’m more or less telling what a little kid thought when he saw a lamb burning and blood coming out, and Jesus smiling one day and helping everybody and then Jesus suffering, and then how confusing those ideas were about hell and heaven. So when I say, you know, ‘every head bowed and every eye closed,’ and then talking about the preacher yelling, ’The preacher starts yelling so they pass the plate, preaching about love but it sounds like hate,’ I mean that really is what thought. And then he would get up there, and he would start yelling like your dad would yell at you. When you’re a little kid, you don’t get those variances. You know, why is he mad? Why is he scared? Why is he getting so weird? Why is he holding the bible up and shaking it? What is a lake of fire? How could it be a lake if it’s fire? How can water…these are all weird things I thought and I guess I’m probably a fundamentalist agnostic. I’m completely convinced that I have no idea. (He laughs) And nobody can convince me otherwise. I know I don’t know. I know I don’t know. That doesn’t mean I don’t think Christ was special or that I don’t love Christ or that I don’t respect Christians. So that was my comedic way of blowing off steam. And you know that I have a degree in theology, I went on to get a degree in theology. Then Bruce [Hampton] as a joke called me Reverend; that stuck because of Phish. So I’ve had to live with this moniker as a reverend and I’m not a reverend. So not a reverend but for some reason, there’s this Karma cloud of spiritual things that seem to follow me around because I do make comments about life and I am into helping people and I do love people, but it’s not a function about any kind of title or religion. We don’t perform that song, ironically, live because we don’t really want to offend somebody. My goal with it is to animate it and show the little boy and the lamb catching on fire. You know, it really being almost Mystery Science Theater, you know, vibe, or Adult Swim kind of vibe. To where I can get it out on Youtube. I love the tune though, it really, to me, is one of the favorites I’ve written.
G&B: What role has Col. Bruce Hampton played in your career and life?
JM: Yeah, he definitely will go down, in this life, as my musically and artistic mentor. He gave me permission to be what I’ve become and he gave me permission to walk away from the clone prone world of bluegrass music. Before I met him, I didn’t’ play plugged in, I didn’t play outside the box very much. I had written a few tunes outside the box but when I started playing with what became ARU (Aquarium Rescue Unit), and it was ARU when I was in it, we named it while I was in it, but that band fundamentally changed my life. I was playing with a drummer for the first time, an electric bass player for the first time, and an electric guitar player for the first time and they all happened to be and have become world class. Oteil [Burbridge], [Jeff] Sipe, and Jimmy [Herring]. I had no idea, none of us had any idea of what we were doing or what we were embarking upon or what it could become. We were a small band that drew about 20 people; we charged $.89 to get in the door. It was a magic time. Phish would come down and draw 30 people in Athens and then we ended up touring with them and that’s how we got to know them because they would help us up north and we would help them down here. They were huge fans of us and we loved them and were huge fans of them but we had never been up north. So my first time to visit New York City was with ARU opening for Phish at the Wetlands. That changed my life, man. I was never the same after that. It’s like I really broke the barriers down, am I going to do this for a living or not. That’s when I sold all my clothes, got a used car, scaled down my life, paid my way out of debt, all for the sole purpose of playing music. Before I was married of course.
G&B: You toured with Phish for a while in 1994 and are credited with teaching them about bluegrass. What was your relationship with them like and what did you teach them?
JM: What happened was, in 1994 they called, and they wanted me to come out on the road with them and teach them bluegrass around one microphone. They wanted to learn how to do it. Del McCoury started doing it, Allison Kraus was on their record, they had met Del McCoury, Bela [Fleck] had been out on a few shows, so they were starting get where, you know…they could get sit-ins that were really popular. You know, [Phish’s album] Hoist has Allison Kraus on it. I went out, and I was doing theater s at the time, and I went out and had no idea that they were rock stars cause I mean, you know, I had sit-in with them in ’93, at the Roxy, but, you know, that was like 700 people. But by ’94, they were doing hockey arenas. I got there, they had a PA setup in a hockey arena, I thought they were going to play in the lobby of the hockey arena (laughing). I said ‘Well, where are y’all playing tonight?’ they said ‘We’re playing here,’ and I walked in and saw the lights and I went ‘you’re playing in here?’ That’s how naive I was. And so, they were like ‘Yea.’ So on those few days, I would hold classes and I videotaped it so that I could show them what they looked like doing the bluegrass and I could make corrections. I would go, ‘Now you need to do this. You need to come in a little closer.’ I would teach them how to walk in and out of the mike. It was really a coaching job, I mean I was like, ‘Come on in, get over there.’ And I Youtubed all of those videos, they’re on there. I found them in my camera 11 years later and a guy archived them and put them on Youtube. They’ve never been sold, never been a penny made. They’re just out there in perpetuity. They’re great videos. It was a magical time in their lives, you know? But I can’t say enough good things about Mike, John, Page, and Trey. They’re great people. They’re great experimenters. They’re great writers and they approach music with an open mind. I can’t say enough about them.
G&B: Talk about your brother, Johnny, and your relationship with him musically and personally.
JM: We’re very different. He’s four years younger than me. He’s a great guy, we’ve been playing since we were very young. I’m the crazy older brother, he’s the stable Capricorn. Careful, organized. He just genetically knows how to follow me and I know how to follow him, it’s a brother thing. I’ve never seen anybody who can go from acoustic guitar to electric guitar and do it that smooth. [Former BGUG guitar player] Matt Williams did it really well but when it comes to bluegrass, my brother is just an amazing bluegrass player and then he’ll pick up the electric and play great electric. And then when we sing, it’s a lot easier to sing together. There’s just something about that sound and when we get it in pitch, it’s really good, you know.
G&B: You used to be Vet Tech, if I’m not mistaken. Are you still involved with animals in any way?
JM: I have a lot of animals, I still love them, and people still call me and ask me what’s wrong with their animals, that I’ve known all my life. But I’m glad I’m not a Vet, he talked me out of it. I really love ‘em, but I’m glad my living, you know, with my hands, doing music.
G&B: Are you currently involved in any philanthropic endeavors?
JM: Right now I’m getting ready to do a benefit for this woman named Andrea Johnson; she’s going to have a transplant. I’m doing that June 18th. Man I would want to be. I would really like to be involved more in philanthropy. Sometimes it’s easy when the economy is like this, to get caught up trying to pay your bills, but I do as much as I possibly can. I still do a lot with Alzheimer’s. That’s my specialty; I did that for a long time. For three years I was working in a nursing home and I studied that, I’m really into Oliver Sacks and I study all about the affects of music on the brain. My specialty is geriatric dementia, Alzheimer’s, and head injuries, and I love doing that.
G&B: Do you have any words of advice for music lovers out there?
JM: One thing is, nothing will change your life like learning to play a musical instrument, even if you learn to play one song on it, you will have upgraded your life. And you’ll never go to a concert ever again and see it the same. Even if you can only play “Zipadeedoodah” or “Mary Had a Little Lamb” on the guitar, next time you see a guitar player, it changes everything for you because you’ve been behind the guitar, whereas before, you were just sitting on the couch watching a guitar player. So that’s one thing. The other thing is never forget that live music gives you more pixels than anybody else with high definition. It will never get replaced by TV’s, home theaters, or DVD’s and it really affects your body to be in the presence of the vibrations. There’s no replacement…earphones can’t move your liver, but a set of speakers at a club or a set of speakers at a festival can move your liver, heal your internal organs, and make you feel better and give you vitamin D from the sun and put you in a situation where you’re in a community and around human beings. It’s very very healthy, it should never die. And right now there’s an ambivalence. People are getting confused, they are confusing Youtube with live music. The bottom line is there would be no Youtubes if there hadn’t been live music first. Those were spawned from years of live performances and if you like a guy sitting on his bed playing the guitar on Youtube and that makes you happy, then that’s fine, too. But I think people are really missing out by not blocking out at least one show a quarter, that’s what I think. Just one show every three months; start there. Some people are going…they’re doing one show a year. I don’t know how people do it. I mean I’ve got to see it. I’ve got to be in it. Even if it’s a band that doesn’t kill me, I still like it. And of course I get to see it all the time because of my job but it’s sad to see the dwindling numbers and I really feel that journalism, on some level, took a death-toll dive after 9-11. There’s a lot of petty bullshit in the news and I feel that what’s positive in what you’re embarking on, what your magazine is embarking on, the reason I came here, is because this is going to be the future and if nobody is writing about live music, if people quit writing about it, it will die. Plain and simple, it will just die. There has to be journalism around a live show. And you know, I appreciate you talking about the record and all, because we need to sell the CD, but it doesn’t compare to the importance of what we do. When we get in that van and drive somewhere, set up our equipment and play that music like we’ve never played before, never will be anything like it, ever. It doesn’t matter if there’s 30 people there, 300, 3,000; it’s a life changing proposition, not because we’re good, but because of what we’re exchanging between the fans and us.
The Mosier Brothers will be playing at Riverbend Festival in Chattanooga, TN, tomorrow night (June 15, 2011) at 7:45 pm on the TVFCU Stage.
Written by Aaron Sewell