I grew up in the St. Louis area. I had two older sisters, so they had an influence on me. In the 70s when they were teenagers they were listening to Styx and Billy Joel and stuff like that. So I would hear all of that stuff. And then I would go perusing through my parents’ record collections and remember fondly listening to Harry Belafonte’s Calypso and Greatest Hits album, and you know I’m really a big fan. Growing up I was hearing all kinds of music. Do you remember the Columbia Record and Tape Club where you could get 16 albums for a penny?
So I would join those and get everything from rock to reggae to oldies to country and just pop them in and put on my head phones and play along to them. So all kinds of styles. You know the only things I really don’t care for are heavy metal with really heavy distorted guitars and what they call new country, because it’s not country music.
My very first concert was when my sister took me with her to see Hank Williams Jr. My first rock concert my mom took me to see KISS with AC/DC as the opener. So I feel like I had a really then because of the school bands and stuff I was in I was hearing classical music and all of that as well. So I really feel like I had a really well rounded musical education, when I was growing up, hearing lots of different kinds of music.
I started banging on shit probably when I was four or five years old, pots and pans, just like a lot of kids. I had a McDonald’s cup with a plastic top on it, and it was my babaloo drum like Ricky Ricardo. I would not let my parents throw it away. And so I was always enamored by drums. If we would go to a wedding I’d stand on the side of the band stand and watch the drummer all night.
When I was 7 years old my parents recognized this, that I was just into this, man, that I was just enamored by the drums. So when I was 7 years old for my birthday, my parents bought me a snare drum and six months of drum lessons, and we will see how it goes.
Eventually they built me once they saw I was going to stick with it. You know it started out my first two years because of the type of teacher, I was just snare drumming, learning how to read music and learning the rudiments. And then so then I could do that on a practice pad and it wasn’t really loud.
And then as I got into it, I got a bass drum next and just got a kick and a snare. And as it started getting to a drum set they lined this is the ‘70s they lined a room in our basement, a small room with cork paneling and put a bunch of black light posters on the walls and black lights. And my sisters used it as their club house. So they soundproofed a room for me to be able to practice in. And I would come home from school and get my homework done as quick as I can, so I could get down to the drums and I would play until dinner every day.
They were incredibly supportive. When I decided I wanted to study music in college. What are you going to study in college? And it was immediately music. And my parents were not, probably not thrilled. But they were supportive and paid for my college education. And gave me the chance to be a professional musician and go for it. I am sure they were questioning my decisions along the way.
My father owned a business and I know he would have loved for me to have gone into the family business. But they were incredibly supportive. They are until this day. My parents are in their 80s and when we played here in St. Louis last week or two weeks ago, they were at the show, they never miss a show.
You were there the night that they finally got it, and really, I don’t know, accepted that I am 30 years old, at this point, I have been paying my dues in local bands and doing everything you can think and working in restaurants and then I joined Dark Star. And in 2002 we played the Warfield for the very first time and my parents came out.
And Bobby sat in with us for the very first time. And then there was an article in Rolling Stone about it. And I think that was a validation point for my parents, and okay, he is really making it as a musician. This is a big deal. I am glad we let him do it. They felt a lot better about it after that, if you know what I mean, no more questions, no more questions.
The first time I got paid to play was at a church playing Handels Requiem at Christmas because my high school band teacher hired me to come in and play percussion. And that was the first time I ever got paid to play music. And it was $75, and for a high school senior in 1987, that’s a lot of money. I fooled around with some garage bands and what not. My first professional, though, playing gigs, really were when I was in college and I started playing in a wedding band every Friday and Saturday night.
This is when I came home, I started out at the University in Arizona in Tucson. And I was studying classical music, I stayed for three years, and decided that really wasn’t my path, it wasn’t what I wanted to do musically. I was way into the Dead by that point. So I took a semester off and I backpacked through Europe, and met you for the first time at that book store in London at a Mickey Hart book signing. Because the last two weeks of my Europe trip were the Grateful Dead tour.
It just happened. I mean, seriously, my trip was planned before the Dead tour was announced and then Mickey did that, the signing and that was the first time I met you. And when I came back I came back to St. Louis, and went to a place called Webster University, and got my degree in jazz music. And I started doing wedding gigs with my professors, and that’s where I met the guys that I was in my first real rock band with trying to get a record deal. So it all kind of really started, when I was around 20, 21 years old playing with real bands.
The first real band I was in was called the Groupers, which was a terrible name. And you probably heard us because the music was good. And we got signed to a small label, it never went anywhere, like so many bands back then. Never went anywhere, and we ended up owing the record label money, when all is said and done. You know. And at the same time I was doing the wedding gigs and jazz trio gigs, and then I started playing with the local Grateful Dead band, and it all kind of mushroomed from there.
That was the Shwag, yeah. Well before that there was two of the guys from the Shwag and me, that had a trio first called the Kind and then it got a little bigger and turned into the Shwag. And Dino was in that band with me as well. And then we all, at different times, left. It was just time for a change for us. I had plenty of other stuff going on musically, my book was full, I was working every night. And Dino stayed for a while longer, yeah.
And as he told you, he was looking at DSO’s website as an example of a good one and a popup said they were looking for a drummer. And when he auditioned they asked him if he knew another drummer. I owe it all to Dino, that is exactly how it happened.
So Dino gives me a call, I am out of the Dead scene at that point. But I really missed it, I would listen to Grateful Dead in my car and go, God, I wish I was playing that song still. God, I wish I was playing that song, but I was doing really well as freelance musician. And I had a company going out during the day and doing team building workshops through drumming. So I had it going on. I was set in what I was doing.
And Dino gives me a call, and tells me there is this Grateful Dead band in Chicago, I think I am going to be joining them and they need two drummers. Now would you be interested, I thought about it, I am like, I don’t know, I am kind of doing really well. Let me talk to the guy. He puts me in touch with Scott Larned.
And I get on the phone with Scott. And I have got a list of questions ready, how are you traveling, how is the business structure, what are your goals, all that stuff, you know, just because I’m 30 years old now and it’s time to get serious. And he answered every question right, man. We were on the phone for like two hours and he answered every question right. Thought about it, called him back the next day and asked him some follow up questions, answers to them all right, so Dino and I load all our drums in the back of his pickup truck with a camper shell, and we just load all of our drums in there.
They had told us what show we would play that night and we drive up to Chicago together in his pickup listening to the show we are going to play that night. I have never met any of these guys, we have no rehearsal except for the sound check, nice to meet you, nice to meet you. Dino and I get on stage and we play the show with them. And when the show is over they walk up to us and say, when can you start?
So he came in about a month earlier than me. But we came in as a package deal, you know, we had already played together for 3, 4, 5 years. And we knew each other’s nuances. The hardest thing was not hard, but he was always more influenced by Billy, and I was always more influenced by Mickey.
But up to that point, we had been sitting on opposite sides of the stage, so just because we weren’t doing the thing, you think, so when we joined DSO we had to switch sides of the stage and get used to playing looking at each other from the other direction. But you know, I am very fortunate, if I would not be in this band, if it wasn’t for Dino and there is not a day that goes by that that is lost on me.
So I got into the Dead in ’87, and Mickey was playing a lot in ’87 and it just spoke to me. You know, I loved his approach to the instrument at that point, partially because of that big tom fill type style. And also because, he played the drum set like a percussionist, and I very much love playing just percussion to you, so that spoke to me.
And when I first started going to shows, it’s not that I wasn’t paying attention to Bill. But my eyes were always on what Mickey was doing, then as time went on I discovered Billy’s solo style because I started hearing the drummer stuff. And then after that I was really able to put together how the two of them make one drummer. And see now, okay, first I learned about Mickey, then I learned about Billy now I’m learning about how it works together.
Dino and I have played like 3100 DSO shows, and I’ve learned things about Dead music. First of all, obviously, its all improvised, so the first thing I learned is that it doesn’t always work, you know, you can try as hard as you want but since it’s improvised, it’s not always going to be at least in your mind good because you are flying by the seat of your pants. I hate to use the cliche, but you are playing without a net. And I used to be such a perfectionist musically, and I still am, but I’ve let loose a little bit on that on those reins since I joined Dark Star, knowing it’s not always going to be perfect. You know, that was one of the beautiful things about the Dead, you know, you could love them warts and all.
One of the other big things I learned was, you know, I came into this from a jazz background and playing in jazz groups and studying, and a lot of jam bands are improvising and a lot of it is because of the Dead. But I have learned so much about the interplay and the conversations between musicians that goes on on stage. Even more so with the Dead than I did with jazz, and the Dead really is jazz in a rock idiom that is all it is.
So I have learned so much about the interplay between me and one guy on stage or me and two guys on stage or all of us together. There is so many different conversations going on within one song between different people on stage, you know what I’m saying.
It’s been a hell of a trip. When we first started playing, and I was out there, how the hell did we get here? You know the first time we played at the Filmore you were there as well. And I had been in the band for like ten days, and I went from playing local bars from being, sitting there and you are sitting on the steps, on the side of the stage, and you said I give you an A for execution and a D for song selection. We played this horrible ‘88 show I know.
I guess when I realized it most is my dad will be on a business trip, and tells meI had dinner with someone who told me they were a Dead Head, has seen you a bunch of times and loves you or that people out there know who I am or knows who we are. But I don’t feel famous, I still feel like a drummer in a cover band, and you know, who is just very lucky to do it for a living and travel all over the world.
Our little tour of Europe was amazing. The only down side to it was because of the shows we played we played a lot of repeats. You know the because of set lists were almost identical every night, big deal. It was incredible to get over there we had hadn’t been there in a long time.
And most of the places were new for us to play like that show in Paris, in the same room that they played it in. But the thing that really was most impactful for to me it was cool there was a lot of Americans, but I think what really just blew me away was meeting people who came from Albania, Israel, Turkey, Denmark, all over the place to come to Europe because it was the closest we were ever going to get to them. So they came to see us. On the nights I don’t play, I usually stay back stage. On those nights I sat next to Cotter on the sound board every night I didn’t play. And just had a huge grin on my face, watching these people from all parts of the world getting down to this music, not getting down to us, getting down to Grateful Dead music. You know it was such a good feeling.
Well, you know, the standard answer about playing so much would be being away from your family for so much time, you know. I had Dino and I both have young kids, who don’t know any differently because ever since they have been born, we have been lcoming and going. So that of course is hard leaving your family, and missing a lot of stuff. I coach my kids hockey teams, but I miss a lot and things like that.
But to be completely honest the hardest part, once you are out there, and it’s like this with any band; a band is everybody in a band loves each other but you are still a giant dysfunctional family. You know a tour bus is close quarters. So you know it’s hard to balance and make sure that you stay happy with everybody and everybody stays happy with you and you stay happy for yourself. You know we have been doing it long enough to know our roles or to know how to do it and manage it. Some people get up earlier, some people stay up later, some people hang out here, some people hang out there. So we find a way to coexist. But managing that coexistence is really, really difficult. The music, there is nothing hard about it, man. That’s the best part, those four hours are the part we do for free.
Dennis: So the Dead forged their identity at the acid tests, when the audience became partners in a quest rather than just the audience. I get the same feel with DSO.
It’s more so now than I did at the beginning. I personally tend to play drums with my eyes closed, a lot it I don’t consciously do it. But it happens, you know, taking away this sense heightens other senses and what have you. And I have to remind myself that they were out there, not only were they out there but they are giving you an energy that is going to help you do what you do. And there is this symbiotic relationship between the band and the crowd.
So I really had to train myself to bring the audience into what I was doing. It’s much easier for me now. I might cue on one person, whether they are younger, a lot of times I will cue on a younger person, who I know never saw the Dead, and knows every word and just see how happy they are, and that gives me energy to keep doing what I’m doing.
But without a doubt, it doesn’t work if we’re not if we are not working with the audience. We are all one big organism in it for sure. It just took me a while to realize that, even though I had been in the crowd in all those Dead shows, and been part of that organism. It’s different once you get up on the stage. And I was always so keyed in on what is bass player doing, what’s the keyboard player doing, don’t forget about what fans are doing, man, you know.
And that’s what Skull and Roses is about, really. The fans. First of all, it amazes me that there I mean, I love it, but it took me a minute to grasp that there are fans out there willing and wanting to come listen to so much Grateful Dead music and maybe hear the same song four or five times in the course of a weekend. And I love that it’s really a testament to the music.
I love being out there to see all the different approaches and all the different treatments of that Grateful Dead song, because everyone does it differently. So that is a bit of it that I enjoy. And the other part, a lot of these people are my friends from all these different bands, and I get to hang out and see all my Dead music-playing friends. It’s a great festival. I love standing on the side of the is stage and watching the other bands. Whether it’s the all female band, who comes out there, Brown Eyed Women or some young guys who never saw the Dead, and seeing how they approach the music. It’s just a testament to how this music truly is never, never, ever going to die.
See Rob Koritz and Dark Star Orchestra at Skull & Roses Festival