Moby Grape - Interview with Peter Lewis - part 3

 

Getting Inside the Song

CM : Having a band like Moby Grape with three guitarists is quite a balancing act.

photo from the back cover of the first album

PL : Yeah, but if it’s done well, it’s cool. But it takes some thought. Everyone can’t be playing in the same position and somebody has to stand back. We had it with me and Skip, because when Skip played more of a chunky rhythm, I played a finger strum. Then Jerry just wove it together, playing lead guitar, but sometimes not really learning the arrangement. I think you need to think about it more conceptually and take it further.

CM : What you’re talking about is getting inside the song.

PL : Yeah. That’s what you’ve got to do. You’ve got to figure out how to play, so that it doesn’t sound like every other song you’ve ever played. Zal Yanovsky was a great guitar player, because he didn’t do that. Somehow naturally, or with a lot of effort, he was able to think his way through everything the Lovin’ Spoonful did so that they came out with a thing that was unique. Every song was like that. But then there is this other type that just plays lead guitar, it knows the scale, and it just dwiddles. I call it noodling.

CM : I know all about that.

PL : Yeah. I don’t think that’s very cool anymore. I don’t think people like it. When they harp back to the ’60s, that’s not what they like about it. Not that we don’t remember that there was noodling then too, but what people would like about it is something that was really baked, that people had figured out, so it was not like the same picture being painted over and over and over again.

CM : But that’s one thing that Moby Grape was amazingly good at.

PL : I know, but then that went away. Because when Skip left, the balance of power was not there.

CM : What was his role in the balance then ?

PL : He and I were on this song side, arranging side, and then, these other guys were going along with that. They had been in the Frantics and that wasn’t working, so they were checkin’ this other scene out. They were ready to do it right, now. That’s what was going on as long as Skip was there. He kind of went nuts because it wasn’t happening too, after a certain point. He couldn’t get it to go the right way. It became this existential musical thing, where they have the chops that they need to just sing and play no matter what they’re singing and playing. But that was always my fear, that they would think that was enough, because I don’t think that it ever is. Show business has the effect of trying to isolate people, and get them in a position them where they can be pinpointed. Say, what’s different between you and Neil Young ? If you don’t know that, and Neil’s got more access to the media, then he gets to be one of those guys that makes it. You gotta be hep to how that works, and be thinking about it all the time. I don’t think that they do. Skip did ! And I did. But they didn’t.

CM : So you two were more into song arranging and making it special.

PL : What is Moby Grape ? It’s not just what we’re doing at this moment. The idea about being able to get a hand for playing a nice solo can be taken too far.

CM : Because the ego comes in pretty quickly.

PL : And then you get out of balance with the rest of the people in the band. They’ve become irrelevant to you, and then you’re not listening. So that’s the ego again ! That’s the Ahab syndrome. But that would be the thing, in our case, that would either make or break this whole process, this whole adventure. We can see now, if we’re about to get our name back, how to deal with this, and work together, and make what’s in the box more important than the box. Then there’s a chance ! If it doesn’t end up being, it’ll just be like the ending to Moby Dick, because that’s been written. That’s what show business people are supposed to do. That’s what they’re getting paid to do. Re-write this. It keeps putting the thing back in a new spin.

The same process went on with Buffalo Springfield. Of course, that band did not survive, but they went on to figure it out and do it with other people, [such as] Crosby, Stills and Nash. But Neil was left to his own device. His saving grace was that he was a guy that, because of his epilepsy, was just one step removed from the process that overwhelms a famous artist. He always had that ability to, or he needed the ability to laugh at life’s cruel joke. What you hear him doing in his songs is reaffirming that, in a way that other people can understand. Here’s a guy that’s totally imperfect, and yet he makes up for it by being cool anyway. He understands that in a way that’s succinct. It’s not like Stills. Neil is more like the guy who puts one foot in front of the other, which is why I respect him.

CM : I do too. I saw him in concert about a month ago. I got the feeling from Steven Stills, though, that he’s still doing the guitar hero thing.

PL : Yeah, he’s always wanted to do that. We played with him about four years ago in Seattle. But he’s great, man ; he can get up there and do his thing. He can do an acoustic thing that blows you away. I really like the way he plays, and his electric thing is seamless. Whether he’s playing too much guitar or not for him doesn’t make a difference - he’s written all these cool songs. It’s not the same as it is for Jerry. Jerry may be a better guitar player, but who fuckin’ cares. Steven can play good enough to get away with whatever he needs to, especially when he’s playing acoustic guitar.

CM : The Moby Grape band came together very quickly, it’s almost like the chemistry was so strong that you guys almost had to figure out, “Okay who is this guy ?”

PL : Well we know now ! But we knew then. The trouble in our case was we didn’t have any time together before we got famous and so that was a problem. It got frozen too quickly in a place where it wasn’t evolved enough. We were cool together, but we didn’t know why. Everybody thought it was him ; “I’m the reason.” That wasn’t it.

CM : It was the combination.

PL : Right. Everybody thought he had the answer, and they didn’t. If anyone had the answers as an individual, it would probably have been Skip. But he couldn’t have done what he did with a band that was any different than Moby Grape. Clearly he was the guy, to me anyway, who was writing songs that were more Moby Grape songs. All the rest of had, in the end, songs that fit in the band because we did ’em, and we were Moby Grape, but the songs that were more unique to that one particular band, that was Skip.

CM : What was the flavor that he brought in ?

PL : I don’t know. “Indifference,” where did that song come from ? Because he was folk oriented, because he was a drummer, and he thought in rhythmic terms with the guitar. To Skip, the guitar became a drum with strings. It wasn’t a lead instrument, it was more percussive.

CM : He was more of a strummer.

PL : Yeah, but in the same sense that Richie Furay [in Buffalo Springfield] was a strummer, which is not to say they they’re strumming, it’s like a rhythm. Which he sort of learnt from watching Richie, ’cause Richie does that good. There were a lot of similarities between the bands.

I got compared to Neil a lot, for some reason, and I don’t see that because he has a way higher voice than me. But lyrically, maybe. I always considered him to be great at that. My thing is a different take. Somebody called me pretentious once ; yeah that’s true, that’s part of my deal. I’m this guy from Hollywood that wants to do this. There’s a part of that that I do with malice aforethought. Not that anybody would ever dig it, but if I can take it with a grain of salt it might become part of my act. Because you can’t get away from it. Not a lot of people knew that my mom was Loretta Young, but they would find out, and I would have to deal with that. I can’t come off like Dylan because I hadn’t lived that kind of life. So what do I do if I want to play rock music ? Well, the kind of songs I do would be the kind of songs that a guy like Loretta Young’s son would play. They’re romantic, a romantic surreal kind of thing. Then some religious stuff because she was a real religious fanatic so there’s a spiritual part of it that I have too.

New solo album, artwork, Michael Clarke, drummers

CM : Do you see that spiritual quality in certain of your songs, or just as a general thread ?

PL : In the solo record, the one I just did, that’s where you can hear more of it than you can with Moby Grape, but that’s why I did it the way I did it. What Moby Grape do is a more a raw, free guitar thing, and what I do in that context is cool too because it’s not like you would find it there, so to arrange my songs to play with Moby Grape isn’t easy. You have to figure out a way to do it.

CM. Your solo album has just come out. Are you pleased with it ?

PL : Yeah, it got a 5-star review in Rolling Stone in Germany. I’ll play you a cut from it. You’ll dig it. John McFee produced it. He’s one of the Doobie Brothers. He lives right down the street.

plays a track : “Milk and Honey”

CM : Very nice ! And in the booklet they reproduced your “Land of Milk and Honey” painting that’s in your living room.

PL : Yeah, it’s going on tour with the Rock ‘N’ Roll Art Expo [a traveling exposition], some rock musicians that are artists, and they’re making some limited edition prints. I just go the transparency done for that and it’s better than the painting. There’s more contrast here than in the painting. It doesn’t matter. That’s what weird about the visual arts.

Michael Clarke got me into that book [Musicians as Artists by Jim McMullan, 1994], and on that tour, because I’d played with, not the Byrds, but just with Michael, when he came to town. Then I sent him this [artwork] thing I did of just one bird flying around in the garden. He liked it. When they called him for this book, he said, “Do you know Peter Lewis of Moby Grape ?” They said, “No, but give us his number.” They called me and I got in that book, and then he died [December 19, 1993].

CM : I saw him playing not long before he died and he and the band were terrific.

PL : It was enough to break your heart. He drank himself to death—he’d been drinking since he was 16 years old—his liver, his whole body stopped working. He was in the hospital. I guess he never thought he was going to die. It’s just too bad. I didn’t really know Michael. Michael was the most friendly of the Byrds. I knew him and Crosby better than the other ones. The Byrds were the ones that changed the course of western music. They did.

CM : I always felt that. They brought in folk rock, then they practically brought in psychedelic rock, then they practically brought in country rock.

PL : McGuinn was my idol, I loved him. The way that guy plays guitar, it’s fabulous. But McGuinn is distant ; it’s hard to get to know him. Crosby’s not too distant, but he can be a total asshole. He doesn’t much care who he’s an asshole around. But Michael was always cool. There’s a guy I would have like to have known better. I know he had his problems—there were all sorts of stories—but to play with him was such a trip because he was this weird kind of drummer. He was so inventive.

CM : I remember him doing something unusual : leaving out a hit that you were expecting in his rhythm, and you’d think, how does he do it ?

PL : Yeah ! Right.

CM : But he got put down a fair bit for his drumming. People seemed to think he wasn’t good.

PL : Well, they’re fuckin’ crazy ! When you hear what he did on those songs like “She Don’t Care About Time” or “Set You Free This Time,” where the high hat would go off and it would be different every time. It was perfect. McGuinn was saying one time, “It takes that guy longer to learn a part than anybody I know but once he learns the fucking thing, it’s the perfect part.” It’s like Ringo Starr.

I like Stevenson like that too, ‘cause he was going to work on it. He had a funny little marching thing that he’d do that was unique and nobody else did. The “Hey Grandma” shuffles that Don played are cool. Drummers are all different. Playing folk rock with Michael was like—he’d go into some chord change and you could feel it four bars ahead of time. The whole thing would build, and you’d hit it and it would go swoosh, like taking off on another level. He could just do that so well, think of the song.

The Lovin’ Spoonful


CM : That goes back to your idea about making the song arrangement more important than just playing through the progression.

PL : It’s not like “That guy’s a really good bass player, or a really good guitar player.” Fuck ‘em, it’s not that ! Yeah, you need a guy that can articulate it, but a guy that can think about the song, as opposed to, what’s he going to do to blow your mind ? That’s not it. The way you blow somebody’s mind, in my opinion, is the way Zal Yanovsky used to do it : play the coolest possible thing you could do on that one song. In “Coconut Grove” he makes it sound like a dying elephant sometimes : perfect. How does he do it ? I don’t know, but that’s what great guitar players do. The combination of him and John Sebastian. Did you ever hear them live ?

CM : Never

PL : Oh ! I remember hearing “Do You Believe in Magic” when I was walking down the Strip one night, and heard this music coming out of The Trip and it was the Lovin’ Spoonful. It was loud, but it wasn’t just loud for loud sake. Playing the blues loud is one thing, but playing that stuff loud was something else. Because it all fits together in one way and it doesn’t fit any other way. And they found their way to fit, the way those two guys played together. Yanovsky didn’t pick. He had his hand underneath the strings coming up from the bottom, and he’d brush them. You’d get this mellow thing. He could do a lot of fingering where he would play suspensions and pull offs, but they sounded like a guy playing an organ instead of a guitar. There was no string noise at all. His right hand was so delicate.

CM : I always thought they were another of those fabulous bands—the way I thought about your band—that just didn’t get their due. They had hits, but not the reputation they deserve.

PL : They were quick studies and they kept looking for that thing that was solid, and they finally figured out how to do that. When the Spoonful came out of the chute they were totally baked, I mean everything in place. To watch them play it took you out of yourself. I’ve been playing since I was 12 years old but to hear somebody that young being that good, because they were like 21, they were just fucking unbelievable ! Everything was perfect, the background parts were there.

CM : That probably influenced your style a lot.

PL : A lot ! That and McGuinn.

thank-you Peter Lewis

see part 1

see part 2


comments or questions ? email me

I have posted interviews with members of the Doors, Electric Prunes, Iron Butterfly, Jefferson Airplane, Moby Grape, Music Machine, Quickislver Messenger Service, and Strawbery Alarm Clock. To go to the index page, click here.

you may be interested to read Psychedelic Music in San Francisco : Style, Context, and Evolution by Craig Morrison, available as a download from lulu.com for less than $5

CRAIG MORRISON
is an ethnomusicologist, teacher, author, and musician
based in Montreal, Quebec, Canada
7 Nights Music Communications, 2006