Jeff Hiller—Shaky Feelin’
I grew up on the east coast, in the South Jersey, Philadelphia area. I got into music by hearing it come through my sister’s bedroom door, you know. She is eight years older than I am. We were very, very close. And that honestly was Grateful Dead, Jackson Brown, Stevie Wonder, Yes, Springsteen, of course, living in south Jersey. The No Nukes record and concert was her time. So I was hearing that and I would go into her room when she wasn’t home and listen to it more up close and personal…so, really, she turned me on to the Dead and music.
Jackson Brown was the first concert she took me to when I was maybe like 9 or 10. And I think my first Dead show the year after that. She took me to Red Rocks, the year they did the Kerouac Conferences at Naropa Institute in Boulder—she took me to the shows and to the Conference. I got to see Kesey show movies and talk about Cassady. Then you know on my own, outside of the Dead, it really was kind of like, Yes, Emerson Lake and Palmer, sort of Prog Rock. But it has been the Dead for a long time. I think when we spoke before I told you I played in Living Earth in the early ‘90s with Bob Stirner (now of Box of Rain and Boris Garcia) and those cats, I was just a kid, I was just turning 21 or 22 and, yeah, I’d already been exposed to the music for pretty long.
Photograph by Jeff Doss
I played violin in elementary school and then going into junior high, I didn’t want to play violin. So, we took a trip to the music store. And I think I thought I might play guitar. But just talking to the guy working in the store, he said, well, if you are open, you know, there is a way bigger need for bass players in the world than there are guitar players. I hadn’t already started guitar, and I think the conversation was about what kind of music did I like? The sales guy then said, well, you know, Yes is about the bass, and named off other bass-centric bands, and I said—I said, okay, bass it is, and I got a bass. It was a Cort. And I just couldn’t put it down.
I didn’t know what the hell I was doing but we were just making noise and getting together with friends and not even playing songs yet. Honestly, I think like a lot of bands, “Smoke on the Water” was one of the first things we figured out. You know, it’s just funny how it happens for people. And that was it, you know. My mom bought me a really ridiculously too big bass amp that I had to get a shopping cart to wheel to my friend’s house. And we made noise, then music, and it’s been part of me forever. Oddly enough, when I moved from the East Coast in ‘93, I lived in Seattle and I went to pursue ‘original’ music and work for my sister’s appraisal company.
Photograph by Scott Tuchman
I was supposed to work in my sister’s business, but really I wanted to pursue music. I wanted to pursue the west coast, original music. Got out there, worked for my sister, and then started a business. And then finally I landed at Guitar Center, because I was like, I am going play music and at least here I could practice during the day or whatever and be around musicians. One thing led to another, I became a store manager, district manager, regional VP, VP of training, head of marketing. I mean, I just spent 18 years there, not playing music, and having a pretty good career. And then when that wound down, I was living in this part of the world in Ventura County. I was committed to getting back to playing music after just playing at company meetings or just nonsense, you know. So I started as a kid, I took this big hiatus as an adult, and then jumped back in 2014. And you know, like I said, my goal is to work through this business, flip it and then just really play and see music, play music, and spend the rest of my years that way.
Going back to the Dead, I started listening to my sisters’ albums, and the first was Skeletons from the Closet. I remember sitting and listening to that, and looking at the artwork and, you know, that was probably the first, the first one. Europe ’72 was one that she had in her room. Aoxomoxoa, too. She had a bunch of them. I made my way through all of them. Her boyfriend, who is still her husband now through all these years, had bootleg records, records that were recordings of shows. And you know, the names of the songs wouldn’t be quite right on them. And I would listen to those things. Then pretty soon, Jay, her husband, was giving me tapes and you know he really got me into the full Dead Head thing.
Shaky Feelin’ was an established band, but I joined, no kidding, from a Craig’s List ad. Mark (Masson, Lead Guitar/Vocal) put an ad out kind of looking for a bass player. Phish, Dead, you know, rock and roll, Sublime. I put an ad out, you know, bass player into the Dead, Allman Brothers. We met, we played, I told him about my history a little. We had a good thing from the start, musically communicating. They are way younger than I am, so now I have been with the band 7, 8 years they are not kids any more, but they were in their early 30s, you know, I’m going to be 54 so there is a big gap.
But it was good. I felt young and revitalized and, you know, they all like the Dead and stuff, but I think I had a big influence on them really appreciating it and respecting it and doing it—giving it the respect that it’s due when you go out to perform it. You know, understanding that winging it on the lyrics doesn’t work for the Dead, because everyone is singing along. You know, if you have to get an iPad out, have the iPad out and get it right. It’s okay, it’s better than everyone singing the right words and you signing the wrong words.
It is something especially cool being part of Skull & Roses all these years, you know, other members of the band will bring in tunes now, you know, like why aren’t we playing “Jackor you know, why aren’t we playing this tune or let’s tackle “King Solomon’s,” let’s do something big. So, I’m not the only one always bringing Dead tunes to the mix. You know, it’s been good. They have been good students.
Shaky Feelin’s been a band for about 10 years now. We have mostly been So Cal. We actually played in Vegas a few months ago and are going back in January. We are going up to Placerville and Nevada City in February and trying to get out of the area for some gigs during the Skull & Roses blackout period. Grass Valley used to be pretty routine, with like, Sacramento, and other NorCal stops. We used to play this cool festival in Southern Oregon all the time, so we would do Bend and the Apple Jam. But those guys all started having babies and we stopped traveling and then COVID came. But now all the babies are like, you know, they are little kids, they are 3, 4, 5, 7. They can get away for the weekend. So now we are trying to get something going regionally.
Photograph by Jay Blakesberg
Playing in the shadow of Phil has been truly an education. I’ve learned from him that it’s okay to play more melodically. And to leave the root, you know it’s okay to improvise and play things differently all the time. But the groove is important. I have learned a lot, I think, to be free, to let the music sort of, if you can, let the music take over. I think just to be free in your playing. You don’t always have to approach it the same way.
And I think also that Phil kind of reminds me of Paul McCartney in some ways because the music percolates, you know, they just keep it percolating is how I describe it. You know what, it’s almost like a walking bass line all the time. You know, sort of jazzy. And as much as I love playing Grateful Dead music, I don’t feel like I play it just like Phil, nobody really does, certain people sound like Phil, and really try to duplicate what it is Phil does as a bass player, but it just never really sounds like Phil.
Then once in a while, you hear a guy that does—you are like, that guy sounds like Phil. You know, it’s wild. Like this guy Dave Gantenbein I know. He used to live in the Bay Area, and he played with Stu Allen some. He lives in New York now. And he’s just got a way about him. He’s got a Modulus, he’s got all the right gear. But it’s the way he picks and walks the line around. He’s just got the Phil bass lines really down. Other than that, you know, I think that there’s a guy up in the Bay area named Burt Lewis, I think. He was playing with Jerry’s Middle Finger for a little while, but when I had heard him play prior to that he seemed to really kind of be a Phil guy, I think he plays with Stu also. He’s got that Phil percolating, up and down the neck kind of thing. Like busy, but good busy.
Skull and Roses has become an essential part of the ride. You know, I think I have nothing but good to say. It’s been super enjoyable watching the ride. Like a lot of the fans. Over the years they definitely have gone more out of their way for hospitality for the bands, which is really nice. You know, your significant other can spend time with you. And over the course of three or four days, you know, even lowly Shaky Feelin’, they made us feel like rock stars, you know gracious and inviting.
Photograph by Jim Stidham
But any way I think the festival evolved in a nice, organic way, not too fast, not too slow, it’s a great experience for people. And you hear it from every—I don’t know of anyone that’s gone and been like it was awful. I think it’s been really great and great for the community. Dead Head friends of mine far and wide make the trip now. Music and community both.
As a musician, it’s like great jazz, it’s just getting up, getting to express yourself, it’s getting to sit in and play with different people. You know, I have a couple upcoming gigs booked with just members of different bands in the community, a guy from Alligators, a guy from Wall of Sound, so it’s great to be able to go and have a common language and someone sends out a set list a few days before.
And you’re like cool, we’re all going to get to play this together, so we all know that language. So it’s not just a community of bands and people. But as a musician, it really is great to have this language that we are all speaking that brings us together whether we are in the same band or not, you know, in these opportunities. Because you know for me, I will stand up there and look at my shoes all night and just get off on the sound. I’m not really all that interested in who’s out in front of me, like, I just I like the feel of the music. So there are a lot of reasons why it’s working and why it’s happening, I guess. But I am glad to be part of it at this level.
See Jeff Hiller and Shaky Feelin’ at Skull & Roses Festival—Buy Passes here!