Joe Russo’s Almost Dead threw down six wild nights of music at Brooklyn Bowl over the past two weekends, pushing the music of the Grateful Dead, and a number of other artists, harder and further than they may ever have before. (Check out our photo gallery of JRAD at Brooklyn Bowl this past weekend at the bottom of this article!)
When he’s not helping crush performances with JRAD, guitarist Scott Metzger is out on his own, making music with WOLF!, the neo surf-rock power trio he has fronted for several years now, or being sought out by numerous artists for his supreme skills and intuition as a musician. Metzger’s career is chock full of incredible collaborations and tours with a growing list of people, from other guitar gods like Trey Anastasio, Warren Haynes and Anders Osborne, to legendary jazz figures like Galactic, Stanton Moore Trio, and John Medeski, and many more.
So it was pretty nifty that I got to sit down with him on behalf of The Poke Around, and get some insight from both behind the Almost Dead curtain, as well as into the life of one of Brooklyn’s hardest-working guitar gunslingers.
The Poke Around: So I think the most obvious place to start would be these past two weekends with JRAD, which were really special shows. Can I get some of your vantage point on the experience?
Scott Metzger: Well, it’s a lot. When you see these long runs looming in the calendar coming up, it’s always a big challenge, because our whole thing is to try and not repeat things, you know? I think we played 80-something songs, over the two weekends…so there’s that, that’s a significant amount of material, as a musician, to tackle and to have confidence enough to get up and play in front of a thousand people.
And the other interesting thing about the whole thing is that…one of the things that I think really does set the band apart from what else is going on out there is the fact that we really are conscious of trying not to repeat the ways that we play tunes. If we play a tune, we’re really conscious of not going back to what we know worked the last time…So it’s a big undertaking, but it all felt great, both weekends felt great. Both weekends felt different, because of the different bass players. Both fantastic in their own way.
So adding someone like Oteil, or Stuart Bogie on sax – is there a lot of rehearsal for those, or was it more just them bringing what they could to JRAD’s momentum?
There’s not a lot of rehearsal, no. Stu, I didn’t even know he was coming until soundcheck. So you just adjust. We did do a day of rehearsal with Oteil, and that was great. He’s this totally professional guy, he showed up completely prepared and with the best attitude you could ask for. So we did do a day with him, but other than that, it’s…you get what you see (laughs).
So I just saw WOLF! for the first time earlier this year. And as I was reading up on it, I found some interesting things you’ve said about it, one of which was that because of the impromptu way you started, with that on-the-spot first gig, you’ve never had a strict plan or itinerary set out for the group. It’s always been just sort of making the music you want to make, playing to create the sound you want…is it still in that sort of mode now?
Yeah, WOLF! is more like a gang, than a band. We don’t rehearse, we just kind of go in and do our thing. We’ve got our songs, and each show is totally different. We never write setlists, or anything like that. Sometimes, we’ll just call out a tune, a cover tune that we all know, up on stage on the spot.
When WOLF! started, there were no songs. We would get up and just start playing, and we’d usually fall into a theme, and the better themes that kind of kept coming around eventually became songs that were eventually put on records. But yeah, the attitude hasn’t changed at all, even though there are more shows and the shows are getting bigger.
And as you’ve said, the idea was to make music that could be in a Tarantino film. I’ve read you’re a big movie guy, too. How did you pick up your influences growing up? Was there somebody that showed you this kind of stuff, or did you find it on your own?
That’s a good question, well…I was really fortunate, I grew up in central New Jersey, where there’s a really incredible music scene going on. A lot of bands have come out of central New Jersey…and in particular, in this sort of jambands world, you know, you’ve got like Phish came out of there, and Blues Traveler…and in the nineties, there were a lot of bands coming out of there, like God Street Wine was not far from us…
When I was pretty young, when I first started playing my guitar, I wasn’t too shy going out and trying to meet people, and I got to be really good friends with the guys from Ween, and a guy named Chris Harford, who was kind of like the foundation of Central Jersey rock and roll for a lot of us. And like, Mickey and Aaron from Ween, there were just great nights of going over to their studio and hanging out and those guys showing me old Sly Stone videos, and old funkadelic videos. You know, those guys know so much about so many different types of music, and they were cool enough to kind of take me under their wing and show me the ropes, and say to me, “Here, this is great music.” I was really fortunate to grow up around there when I did, and really fortunate that those guys took a liking to me.
And here you are, playing with Dave all these years later. He found someone he would end up playing with years down the road!
Oh yeah, it’s been 20 years! Which makes me sound very old (laughs). But yeah, right? It’s all been very cool the way it’s worked out. I really feel like I’m part of a crew, and I couldn’t be prouder to be a part of that crew. And then it was….I think it was me that introduced Dave to Joe and Marco, and that’s how we started Bustle, and now we’re here 15 years later with Almost Dead.
I remember talking to Tom earlier this year, and he gave pretty much the same kind of answer, that it’s been a crew that’s just been too much fun to keep going back to and playing with.
Yeah, JRAD is the ultimate example of that. That band was gonna be a one-off, you know, we were going to just play one show, and last week we did our 100th show. But it really is because it’s just that much fun.
What’s also amazing is the amount of people you’ve played with, and collaborated with and done stuff for, across your career. You said when you were coming up, you were not shy about going and reaching out to people. Has your career, as a session musician, been more people bringing or showing you something, saying “We’ve gotta get this guy Metzger in on this,” or you hearing a project yourself and saying “Oh, I’ve gotta jump in on this”?
It’s definitely been a combination of both. Like, I’m pretty picky with who I want to work with, or who I want to play with. Like if I hear something that just really knocks me out, and I’m excited by what they’re doing musically, then I’ll try and find some six degrees separation thing to follow, and get closer to that and hopefully get to make some music with that person.
And there’s been other times when I’ve been sitting around, and the phone’s rang, and people I couldn’t believe would want to play with me, or that they even knew who I was, would be on there, asking me my schedule and if I’m available to do some stuff. So it’s a mixed bag as to how those things end up happening.
Was there a turning point of, say, security in your career, where one day you knew you could do this full time and always have work or some music project to go back to, or down the line?
There wasn’t a turning point until…I had small jobs for a long time. The last job I had was teaching kids how to play guitar at this place in mid-town Manhattan, and it was like a regular job, you know, I’d go in four or five days a week and teach kids how to play. And I wasn’t sure if I could do it. I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to make ends in New York City. Paying the bills playing guitar in New York City, it’s a tall order. Not everybody gets to do that, that tries. And it was scary, but I guess the big turning point would be like when I quit the job. When I just sort of said, fuck it, you know? I just gotta stop working and jump all the way in. Because it forces you to figure it out when you do that. Like you have no choice. I went through a long time where I didn’t know. Like, you used the word security – right now I’m feeling like semi-secure, I feel pretty secure, most of the time (laughs). But it took a minute to get there, that’s for sure. And when I say a minute I mean like six years. Because in the music business, there’s no guarantees. It’s a free-for-all out there in this business.
Another thing that I had read that I thought was really cool was that WOLF! Was a big step in you finding your identity as a leader, and also your personal sound as a lead guitarist. Is that something you’re still discovering or pushing towards? Ever thought about a solo album or something?
Yes. Well now, actually, I just booked a solo gig in town here…
Ah, the acoustic show?
Yeah, yeah exactly. And I kind of booked it as an experiment because I don’t really know…some buddies were really pushing for me to do it, there were some people sort of asking for it. I booked it, and said, “Alright, we’ll see how it does, I don’t know if anybody is gonna want to come.” That was really my thinking, and then it sold out in two days, and I was like, okay, people are coming, so now I gotta figure it out (laughs).
But yeah, solo stuff, and stuff along those lines, is definitely on my radar. Because WOLF! Is great, I love WOLF! so much, it is a blast. But it is one side of what I can do, and I don’t think it covers everything I’m capable of doing, or all of the things that I really enjoy doing. It’s one corner, sort of, of my thing, you know?
For sure. Well I definitely felt even after one WOLF! show that your sound, and your feel, it made quite an impression. It’s totally unique.
It’s not something that not a lot of people are doing, Because nowadays, for most bands, there’s a lot of bigger is better. Guys use these enormous pedal boards, and using drum kits with like a ton of toms on them and stuff..and that’s great. That’s great for what those bands are doing. But our whole aesthetic is completely anti-that, you know? Like Taylor’s drum kit fits into the trunk of a car. We could do a tour with a three of us and all of our gear in a Subaru. And in 2017, I don’t think there’s many bands doing that, you know what I mean?
And that just comes from…that’s what the guys used in a lot of the music I loved, and I like older music. I’m definitely from the old school, when it comes to my main tastes, and most of the music that I listen to. They just didn’t have big amps and huge drum kits and stuff. They were like little rockabilly bands, little trios.
You have a gig, among other JRAD dates, down in New Orleans for Jazzfest. Something called Daze Between? Is there anything you can tell us as a preview to that?
Man, if I knew anything about it, I’d tell ya. You know, I know the guys in the band, you know it’s Oteil, and Danny Louis, and Duane Trucks, Eric Krasno and myself. And…I was talking to Oteil about this, we were saying, “Hey man, looking forward to that gig, do you know what we’re gonna play? Cause I don’t…” (laughs). There’s no gameplan yet, in typical, late-night Jazzfest style. But I know it’ll be fun, it sounds like a pretty damn good band to be playing with. I’m just so psyched to be asked to do it.
And it was really nice to have something to look forward to with Oteil again, after this weekend, because we had never played together before. So it was nice to share three nights, standing right next to each other, and have such a great vibe up there, and then be like, “Cool, well we’ve got a gig together in a month. See you there!”
That’s cool. And you’ve got a bunch of shows coming up in a group with Andy Hess…is that in the same kind of line? Like, let’s get together and do something?
No, that’s more…that’s a concept band, and a lot of that stuff is very New Orleans-centric, it’s an incredible band to play that stuff in. I mean, Andy Hess, obviously, bass player for Gov’t Mule, for ten years I think. And Ethan Eubanks, the drummer for Joe Sample, for the last few years of his life. And John Dell plays piano and sings and kinda runs the show. It’s great. It’s one of those things, like it’s always a rotating cast of guys, because everybody’s always on tour, so whoever’s around in our crew shows up and plays, and we have a ball. It’s like a lot of old Meters stuff, Dr. John stuff.
To get to play with those guys is always…you know it might be a small gig, where you’re not making a lot of money or anything, but to me as a musician those are really important nights, to get to play with guys on that level.
I am a big Andy Hess fan, so the two of you guys together…I’ll be there for sure.
Oh man, it’s a fun time. The other thing about that gig is Ethan, our drummer, he’s a great cook. He’s like an incredible cook. And he cooks food for the crowd and brings it. He always makes red rice and beans, and…when I say Ethan is a good cook, I mean he’s like won the Brooklyn Chili Cook Off the last four years in a row or something. This guy can really cook. So as an added incentive…
That’s a very interesting addition to a show.
It’s cool, right? I’ve never heard of the band cooking for the audience, before….
Photo Gallery of JRAD at Brooklyn Bowl with Oteil Burbridge (3.18.2017)