Dave Explains Big Whiskey
By Jake Vigliotti
Dave: I loved that particular improv thing with Roi playing the lead. I said, “What are we gonna do with this? How do you redo that?” After Roi was gone, it was obvious we couldn’t redo it. Then I had the idea that I wanted to tie that to the beginning of “Shake Me Like a Monkey.” You hear that quiet, mournful horn and it opens up your heart a little bit because it’s so calm and kind. Then you step out of that mellow darkness and blast the light on.
Shake Me Like A Monkey
Stefan: “It’s funny—when that first jam came out, I had no idea it was gonna end up like this. It was definitely heavy on the guitar side and the riff side, before the horns were put on it. When I hear this one, it brings to mind almost a Peter Gabriel style. And this year we covered “Sledgehammer” on the road, so maybe there’s a little bit of that feel in there.”
Dave: “When I was playing that song for Roi on the bus after I wrote those lyrics, I said, ‘There has got to be (full horn) sections on this—you’ve got to be blown up.’ I told Roi from the beginning, ‘Stab this thing to death.’ Earth Wind and Fire—everybody loved that section. Before we put the horn section on, the song was cool and marchy, real low and strutting but now it’s got all this attitude. It’s not just coming to slap you—it’s gonna come slap you and then take your girlfriend.
Of all the songs on the album, this one, in a way, is the most throwaway lyric. But it’s not really throwaway because it’s like an invitation: Don’t be all highfalutin! Don’t be too good to feel good! Don’t be too hip to fuckin’ understand! Wake the fuck up! Get off your ass and feel some shit. It’s boastful. When the narrator’s trying to tell his girl they go together like cigarettes and coffee, little girls and ponies, Romeo and Juliet, the hangman and his noose—it’s ballsy, you know? I like that the music isn’t apologetic, either. Gotta stand up on that song. Can’t go, ‘Baby, I like you baby’—no. It’s ‘Do you know how it feels to have the light of love inside you? I’m goin’ all the way to your fuckin’ core!’
It sounds silly when I say it, but in that song, the guy’s got a fuckin’ top hat on, a big cane and he’s slapping people. He’s singing this song with his big platform clogs on, silver pants and a long, black coat. He’s out of his mind—and in this song, he should be.
Funny The Way It Is
Dave: That’s my first guitar solo. That’s a terror, with a lot of ninths—I like those big jumps. Lyrically, I think it’s one of those times that I state the obvious but every once in a while we should consider the obvious. It’s nice to point the things out that, every day, stand in opposition in our lives that we don’t acknowledge that much.
I always thought it was so funny when I was living in Africa how, whether people were trying to get to school or get to elections, they would go across the world to get their voice heard or to learn a little bit more about the world. Just starving, not only for food, but also for knowledge and for the right to have a voice in the world. And it was always so strange to me then, coming to this country, pumped all over the world as the hope of all hopes, that in many cases we treat [those opportunities] with this entitled indifference.
You’re slumped in your chair in the classroom, looking at the teacher like, “God, how bored am I gonna be today because you’re gonna teach me crap I don’t care about?” I’m just saying it’s interesting: To one person information is freedom; to another person it’s a burden. I’m not saying it’s all in the hands of the children—it’s the fault of a society that has led us to believe that the goal of all life is to eventually retire and go on vacation; that the least you can do for the most reward is the best life, which is so bizarre. Why not do something? TV ain’t that good.
Lying In The Hands of God
Stefan Lessard: I really love this song. It has Roi on it and I think Dave started playing around Roi’s melody when he was writing and singing to it. It’s a fun song, bass-wise, and what Carter plays on it is out of this world. That’s probably my favorite track.
Dave: “We worked up an arrangement as a band and then I went off to write the lyrics and the melody. I was like, “I nailed this one!” And I came back and they pressed record while I tried to play the song. It was so slow that I couldn’t sing what I had written over it. It wouldn’t work. So we sped up the recording and I sang over that and it worked like a champion. So we kept all the squeezed music.
Melodically, it’s just so gorgeous and lush, sad and defiant… I don’t want to say too much about these lyrics, but it might be my favorite lyrically of all the songs. I was singing the background vocals in Seattle, before we came down to New Orleans, and we kept a lot of those vocals. I was so tired, because it was the last night of the session, that I was leaning in a chair with a microphone right in front of the board and singing. It had a sort of sleepy sound to it that we couldn’t recapture, so we kept it. ‘Save yourself’—that was me at 4:30 in the morning, sick and tired.
I don’t know whether it’s a song about being lost or being fuckin’ out of your mind because you licked some cactus or swallowed some mushroom somewhere and turned your head upside down. It could be “Hey! (hey), You! (you), Get off of my cloud.” It could be a lot of things. I like songs that just create beautiful images and that’s why I don’t want to talk about the lyrics because I just think it’s perfect. Some of the songs have to be open.
Why I Am
Dave: This song is definitely about death. The whole thing of “When my ghost takes me from you, you will remember the fool that I am, so don’t cry, baby don’t cry.” The urgency of living, I think, is very present in this song.
We played it once in [the initial group improv sessions in] Charlottesville, and Roi said ‘I love that jam.’ The horns on that particular song are from that first time we ever played it, before it was really a song, before it had a chorus or any bridges; from that, we have Roi’s performance.
I named the album before I wrote the lyrics to that song. I like the fact that we had come up with Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King before I wrote the lyrics to that song, so I was able to include it. We were trying to think of names for the record, and GrooGrux was a name that Roi and Carter and Tim and some other musicians before our band used to call each other. But it stuck with Roi. He used to call Carter and Tim ‘Grux,’ but they both called him that, and I might have called him that sometimes, too—so it sort of stuck to him. Roi would always say ‘My name is King’—that’s what he would say about himself. There’s not too much meaning in it; I just liked the sound of GrooGrux King. It’s a mouthful, though.
Then we were out at this photo shoot and there was this guy stumbling around, playing harmonica. He’d play something and then say ‘I need a big whiskey!,’ trying to get some money to go get a little more hammered. And Fonz gave me a $20, and I stepped off the shoot and gave it to the guy. He glanced at the $20 like it was a single, and he said ‘I said I need a… I said I need a… Oh. That is a big whiskey!’ And then he walked off to go and get his buzz. But while he was screaming that, Rashawn, our trumpet player, said ‘That’s a good name for the record.’ I really liked Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King because it sounds sort of like a fairytale, more like an old story.”
Dave: “It’s talking about the future of our planet, but in a very lilting, light hearted way. The gravity of the topic sort of sneaks up a little bit. If you think this song sounds light, you need to listen a little harder. It’s the end of the fucking world, that song! ‘Dive In’ is not the fluffy bunny that it pretends to be. It’s like that Monty Python rabbit at the cave: ‘It’s just a bunny… Oh, Christ!’
‘Wake up sleepy head, I think the sun’s a little brighter today/Smile and watch the circles melt away, see the waters rising/Summer’s here to stay and all those summer games will last forever/Go down to the shore kick off your shoes and dive in the empty ocean.’ That may be the most directly dark song I’ve ever written in my life. But I like that I disguised it and that some people will fall hook, line and sinker into its trap, which is disguised as a ‘We’re all going on a summer holiday’ song.
The whole way that melody falls, it’s got this sort of happy, smiley, joy-joy vibe—while everything is melting into a horrible, end-of-the-world sort of nothingness. There’s actually a great book called The Empty Ocean by Richard Ellis, which talks about that very thing, the end of the world. And as the oceans go, so goes the world.
That’s me [on lead guitar]. Unlike the solo in ‘Funny the Way It Is,’ this one I sort of sat down and put together with Rob [Cavallo, the producer], so that’s different. It’s a guitar ‘piece.’ I guess it’s a solo.
Carter approached the song with such just this incredible urgency, and there’s such an aggressive drum track. If you were just to hear the drum track by itself, you could not believe the song that it supports. It’s almost a ballad, but he’s just attacking the drums the whole time. And that’s really how he played the whole record.
Dave: “I think it’s a love song. But I don’t think the narrator is necessarily good to go. I think it’s a bit about addiction, maybe. That’s where I’m sort of coming from, but it’s not blatant. It’s another song—and I write a lot of ‘em—that’s sort of ‘Everything’s fucked. Let’s lean on the side of love.’”.
Dave: ““[New sax player] Jeff Coffin played an eastern scale thing, a beautiful solo, one of my favorite things on the record. ‘Squirm’ was written after Roi had passed on. Otherwise, every saxophone solo moment on the album is LeRoi. Carter had a drum groove that was pretty awesome but he originally did it over the top of this lilting, melancholy song. And I was like, ‘This drum groove is too good for this song! So I took that drum groove and wrote this new song over the top of it. That song is one of the most joyful songs on the record, if not the most joyful, just because I think it’s sort of “be yourself.” It’s a song about peace and about acknowledging those things we have in common. For me, I have the image of a convention hall, almost like some strange church, where you go to learn that you’re just a naked monkey! And it’s not the only simian-themed moment—I went monkey-crazy on this album. I may be the only monkey I know, but I tend to think that I’m not. I watched monkeys all my life and I don’t see that the difference is that remarkable. I just have to look at a monkey and know that my granddaddy’s, granddaddy’s granddaddy was a fuckin’ monkey. If you can’t see that, damn! I mean, maybe an amoeba’s a leap. But a monkey? Good grief!’”.
Dave: “There’s banjo all over this record, though it’s not as obvious in some places as it is here. But it started on the National guitar. I sing about grace—a state of grace or the lack of it—quite often. I have a daughter named Grace. I also have a daughter named Stella. So I was at home in Seattle, noodling on my National guitar, and my daughter came up and said, ‘You always have Grace in songs.’ I said, ‘Well, it’s not really her, it’s just the word grace.’ So she said, ‘When are you gonna put me in a song?’ So that’s where that line ‘Daddy, when you gonna put me in a song?’ came from. That’s the only line I had. Then being down in New Orleans made me put it inside a story that I imagined from talking to people down there. Hopefully people will be singing about how this country neglected New Orleans for a long time. Hopefully those songs will start bubbling up, and hopefully that history will tell the story of how criminally negligent we were about that city. It’s got this resilience and hospitality and warmth and celebration. But, man, if you go down there and you just look at the bad, there’s enough bad there for a lifetime.” .
Dave:“It’s one of my favorites. It’s got a real swank and a real cockiness to it. Carter’s drumming is fucking unbelievable on that; it’s a bit of mastery, in my opinion. There aren’t a lot of people that can jump around time signatures the way he can and make it sound so effortless. That one freaks me out. Every time I listen to it I’m like, ‘Yeah-ahhhhh. Shit!’ It’s sexy! I could be singing about frog spit—that song doesn’t care.”
Rob Cavallo: “Dave plays an electric guitar with a delay pedal on it. He has this cool Matchless amplifier and he started to play this riff just from out of nowhere; that original guitar performance is the one we still use and the basis for the song. We called it ‘Seven’ because it’s in 7/4 time.”
Dave:“I was sitting with Roi and Carter and started playing. Roi said ‘I like that thing. What are you doing?’ It was what became the loud part at the end of the song, where I sing ‘Baby when I get home, I will pick up the pieces, hammering the final nail, and lean me up against Jesus.’ Roi said, ‘I like that. Do you have another section for it?’ I said no, and then I went home and wrote more, and he was like ‘You got it, the song’s finished.’ I like the lyrics a lot: ‘What if Martians fell from the sky? What would that do to God?’ Certainly the one would do a job on the other, wouldn’t it? In both directions, I suppose.”
Dave: “It’s a goodbye song. It’s a heartbreaker. That’s a hard one for me to listen to. I love the strings that Dave Campbell arranged. When we first played it, we had a whole band arrangement, and it was pretty loud. But when I wrote the lyrics, the song said, ‘I’m not loud! I’m just big chords. Play me quietly and then I’ll make sense.’ The interesting thing about lyrics sometimes: they can be really demanding. If I didn’t feel so strongly about those lyrics, I probably would have turned to some other lyrics that fit with the heavier groove. But those lyrics they landed right where I wanted them. So then I said, ‘What do I have to do to make these lyrics land?’ And so that meant just play the guitar.
Roi really liked that one. His musical instincts were like no one else’s that I’d ever met in my life, and with that song, Roi said, ‘Man, that’s a big song—don’t make it too big.’ And he was right, because in the end, I took everything off and just had the little guitar."
Rob Cavallo: “There are three songs that have a mini-orchestra on them: ‘Dive In,’ ‘Squirm,’ and this lovely, touching ballad, ‘My Baby Blue.’ With the size and scope of this album, I thought I’d use a larger string section than I normally do with a rock band. We ended up using 30 pieces—18 violins, four violas, six cellos, and two double-bass—and that’s quite a larger size. Usually you hear of something more like 20 pieces in rock. It’s on the larger end of the scale before it turns into a symphony—which you wouldn’t want.”
You And Me
Dave: “I wrote that song while I was sitting on a boat with my wife and kids and some friends, writing the lyrics on my iPhone while we went across this lake. It’s a nice goodbye for the record. Because there’s been a lot of dark stuff, I thought that, at the end, it deserved a really straightforward song about hope.”
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