The veteran roots rock jam band Rusted Root is playing at the Taft Theater tonight in support of their latest release The Movement. Over the past two decades, the Pittsburgh based band has built an intensely loyal following. We sat down with lead singer Michael Glabicki to discuss the joys of making music and the challenges of growing a community around it.
CM: I think there are a lot of similarities between Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. They're both Midwestern cities full of hard-working people who love beer and sports. It's interesting to me, given the similarities, how Rusted Root was able to achieve the level of success you enjoy. When you were starting out in the Pittsburgh scene, how did you build that kind of following?
Michael: Well we mostly did it live. At that point we didn't even have a van. We had probably 4 mini compact cars on tour. So we played mostly in Pittsburgh to start out. Then we just circled out from there into different regions like West Virginia and then into Ohio. We didn't get as far as Cincy for the first year or two because we couldn't afford the gas money. Back then it was more like Youngstown. Yeah, we did it slowly, but very effectively building a live audience through word of mouth and selling CDs out of the back of our car. I think our first CD sold 40k records before we got signed. And that was just at shows out of the back of our car.
CM: Wow! That's impressive! Was that more on the college scene or was there a particular niche that you kind of honed in on right from the beginning or did it just kind of grow organically?
Michael: More organically. Any kind of festival we could get. You know, more grass roots kind of stuff. We played bluegrass festivals, rock festivals, world beat and reggae and African drumming festivals. It was just like whatever we could possibly get we did. And we did a lot of political benefits and free shows too. That really kind of had a lot of energy behind it back then.
CM: Yeah, for sure. That's pretty amazing! That's definitely boot-strapping, guerrilla street marketing. If you have the time we might revisit that. If we can go back a little bit before that. This is something that I like to ask everyone that I interview. Do you recall what your first musical memory? I remember my first formative memory was when my dad took our family to see Prince in concert. It's something that's just etched in my memory. Do you recall any formative musical memories?
Michael: I'm not sure exactly. I mean I grew up in Florida for my first 7 years and I remember a lot of the 70's soft rock kind of stuff. And folky too like Jim Croce. I remember I had this little transistor radio strapped on the handle bar of my bike and I remember those songs playing and sitting there staring in space going "Oh, listen to that!" I remember Cat Stevens Greatest Hits. I remember having that on 8 track and I would just sit in front of the stereo and play that over and over again thinking "Incredible!" Even to this day they're incredible recordings. I remember in the back of my mom's station wagon the first time I heard 'Strawberry Fields' by The Beatles. That day was pretty incredible. And then I remember Van Halen and Black Sabbath in high school when that stuff took off in kind of a crazy way.
But then when I got to Pittsburgh I was like 8 and shortly after that I started taking just a few lessons on drums from my cousin. That was really profound; just getting behind a drum kit. My other cousin played guitar and I remember they actually did a lot of world beat kind of stuff. That was a big influence. They played around Carnegie Mellon University and incorporated a lot of African drumming in their reggae and rock bands. That was just kind of going on in my family. So it wasn't to much of a jump for me to go in my mind "I wrote this song and I want some African drums on it." It was already kind of set in my musical foundation.
CM: That's cool! Anyone who listens to your music can tell that there are all kind of different influences in there and it's cool to see that it's foundational for you. That's something that I didn't realize. So who are some of your influences?
Michael: (Thoughtful pause) It's hard for me to tell really. You know, I don't (consciously) know where the stuff comes from. You know I don't normally hear an artist and be like "Yeah, I wanna try that!" You know what I mean? It's probably years later that an influence would come out. So it's difficult for me to know. But I can tell you who I want my influence to be. I love John Lennon's first solo record 'Plastic Ono Band.' That's one of my favorite albums of all time. Musically and lyrically I'm a big Neil Young fan. That's sort of where I'm sitting right now. If I'm in the studio and I'm writing a song and I want to be influenced by something, in my mind that's where I go to. But to say, "Oh I wanna do that!", that doesn't really work. The goal in my mind is to write something that profound or beautiful.
CM: When I think about the overall vibe I'm reminded of like Bob Marley. Not that your music is reggae by any stretch, but the overall vibe of positivity and the mind set of trying to make the world a better place seems apparent to me. Is that just me projecting my musical experience onto your music?
Michael: That's uh, I don't know how to explain it. I think that's what the music is doing to us. So I could write a sad song, or a serious song that's about something really f'd up, but it comes out being positive because that's the experience. That's why I'm doing this. I'm writing a song to feel better or to kind of heal. I believe that music is healing and that's what it does for me. It's not like an intellectual intention at all, but I think it's the process that we're involved in and the process that we take on.
CM: So can you tell me about your(the band) writing process. Do you star with lyrics, percussion, guitar. I mean how does that work in a band when you have all these different influences? And what's the starting point for you sound? Does that vary from song to song or album to album?
Michael: I usually come in with the guitar and the vocal. Usually I'll work it percussively first with the guitar. And then everything else just kind of falls into place. But I think the biggest thing for us is developing the music in front of a live audience I think is very Important. When you get in front of an audience and you try to come up with an arrangement, it's either gonna make sense or it's gonna be really apparent that it isn't working.
CM: When you're writing songs, you percussively work it out on the guitar to give it some rhythm. When you start though, do you start with the music or the lyrics?
Michael: Yeah. Typically I'll start with the music on guitar. Then I'll just kind of scat sounds and sort of make melodies or rhythms with vocalizations that are emotional on a certain level. And when it's working the lyrics just kind of follow through on that sound. It's much easier for me to lead with the music and be on a musical emotional vibe. Then have the lyrics just sort of float to the top.
CM: I know you were talking about music as a healing force. For your latest project, The Movement, is that something that's intentionally incorporated as something you would like the listeners to take away?
Michael: Yeah I really tried to focus on the healing aspect of the songs and what it would bring to the listener and the live experience of Rusted Root. You know how it would expand our vision musically out live. So The Movement was very different in that way. For the first time I was like "Ok, well this would be great live!" I never really did before. I just kind of wrote songs before. I think that's probably a big reason why this album is getting such a good response from our audience. They can feel how it's gonna fit live and how it's gonna effect the live show other than them just liking the album.
CM: What was the inspiration for The Movement?
Michael: I can only explaining like its a more introspective album. It's a more loving album. It's a more personal album. So it's kind of like where I'm at as a songwriter and also where the band is musically. Those two things just came together really well. It really was great to make the record. And I think that experience of us having fun in the studio really came out on the record. We tried to do it as live as possible and bring that live energy to it. It really was just about having a good live experience and bringing everything that we've learned over 20 years to the studio. And really just focusing on what we know and what we do well.
CM: So how much did you bring to the table in terms of the actual technical production and engineering on this one?
Michael: Well you know I produced and engineered the record at my studio here in Pittsburgh. It was more about setting up a vibe in the room that was comfortable for everybody. Because everyone has families now and girlfriends, we just wanted to keep it relaxed. From a technical standpoint it was crazy, because I took the pre-production aspect of it as far as it could go. Meaning that we brought in a bunch of gear early on that we could try out. And we ended up buying gear just for the record. Like the microphones, I had 10 microphones set up for Liz and for Patrick and they went around and found the ones that sounded the best for them. Then we sent the other ones back. I have some good connections with some companies that are willing to do that, you know give us some gear for like a week so we could just try it out. It was probably three weeks of just finding the right gear and the right vibe so that we could bring out the best in our band. That was a really important step in the whole thing. And we just did a lot of experimentation before we even got into recording the songs; as far as the sounds went. And the room was set up really neat where everybody could kind of play live and get the live vibe going. So that was important for us. We also went out and played some short tours in the middle of recording to test what we were doing and what we'd learned in the studio. We would go out an test live then come back and finish it up in the studio. We tried to intermingle the live experience as much as we could.
CM: That's slick! I like the whole idea of being able to capture the essence of you show. There's a vibe there that can be very difficult to reproduce in the studio. It sounds like with this project you were able to go ahead and take the time to do that. I think the holy grail for musicians is to be able to create a community around, and driven by, the music that they produce. You guys have been really successful at doing that. Can you give us some insight on how were able to connect with people to build that vibrant and engaged community around your music?
Michael: Again I think it always centers around the live experience. If you can turn on a live audience continually, I think you've got something. A lot of bands nowadays just put out a record. They might even have a pretty good hit, but then they just go away in a couple of years. It's really about being able to consistently bring it to a live audience. Lately, we're doing a lot more stuff on the Internet. Having a place where we can go to play and connect with our audience has been a lot of fun. For The Movement we fan funded the record. We did a lot of neat things where people could buy certain little packages that we put together. Some people came to the studio and actually sat in for a day in the studio. They got to do some hand claps and screams on the record. Some people opted to come to a live show and sound check. We would bring them up on stage and they would play a song with us. We'd some video of them playing on stage with Rusted Root and that was their package. Some people got signed drum heads. It was just a different way to connect with the audience.
CM: So I'm wondering what advice do you have for young musicians out there?
Michael: I would say go for what you can do live. I mean that's where everybody's uniqueness turns up. And I think that's what drives success and longevity. Nowadays almost anybody can get together and make some pretty cool sounds on a computer, but it's just gonna sound like everything else. It's gonna fall into that category "Well I've heard it before." What makes great artists and great musicians is what comes though them from the ground up through their head. It's a mystery and the live experience allows you to bring in that mystery and project that.
CM: Wow! Well said! Thank you for taking the time to sit down with me.
Michael: Cool man! I appreciate it. Good interview.