Q&A with the wizard of keyboards Ross Rice - feeling balancing the upper and lower chakras via the music

"I miss the raw energy of rock ‘n’ roll, jazz, and blues from the past, there seems to be less risks taken in live performance in these digital times."

Ross Rice: Seven Notes on Seven Chakras

Ross Rice has been a professional musician for more of three decades and enjoyed a career in the music business, based out of Memphis, New York, and Nashville. After finishing a Bachelors of Music Composition degree at University of Memphis in 1983, he then went to the REAL University of Memphis music: the Memphis club scene. Working his way through the ranks, he ended up in a group called The Coolers, which featured Donald “Duck” Dunn, Stax Records house bassist (Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, but, most notably, Booker T. and the MG’s). This became the premier ryhtym section in town, backing up Charlie Rich, Ron Wood, Jerry Lee Lewis, Joe Walsh, and Luther Ingram, among many others.

After 2 1/2 years, Ross left to form Human Radio, which signed with Columbia records, and had a minor hit in 1990, “Me and Elvis”, the video of which was briefly in heavy rotation on MTV (back when they actually showed music videos). After a coast-to-coast tour, and several years in Nashville, the band broke up, and Ross continued writing and performing, co-writing songs on albums by Susannah Hoffs (Bangles) and Adrian Belew (Talking Heads, King Crimson). A batch of publishing demos found its way to Steve Earle, who promptly signed Ross to his new E-Squared label. Ross’ CD “Umpteen” was released in 1997 to international critical acclaim (also released on Sony Japan). Ross relocated back to Memphis, and became a mainstay on the local scene, producing and performing frequently. As a sideman, he contributed to CD’s by Steve Earle, Jill Sobule, Steve Forbert, Tim Easton, Amy Rigby, Banyan (w/ Stephen Perkins, Jane’s Addiction), Garrison Starr, Swan Dive, and the Bloodthirsty Lovers. He appeared on tour with Banyan, Rob Wasserman’s Space Island, Todd Snider, Eek-A-Mouse, Scott Miller and the Commonwealth, Kim Richey, Jamie O’Neal, Willie Waldman Project, Mark Farner (Grand Funk RR), and most recently, Peter Frampton. Ross has recently relocated to the Hudson Valley of New York, to pursue a less volatile quality of life for himself and his family. Ross has worked closely with School of Rock founder Paul Green at his Paul Green Rock Academy in Woodstock NY, teaching students from 7 to 18 how to perform the intricate music of Queen, Frank Zappa, and Yes, while mastering the valuable keyboard skills needed to make interesting music of their own!

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the blues & rock n’ roll culture and what does the blues mean to you?

I grew up in the late 60s/70s, in the white bread states of Utah and New Hampshire, so I had no exposure to blues culture other than blues-derived rock and pop music of the day. Mostly English Invasion, heavy on Beatles and Stones, plus Motown and San Francisco bands like The Dead and Airplane. I was aware of B.B. King, but mostly as a singer, “Thrill Is Gone.” But I loved to rock out hard; I played drums in my guitarist brothers band, lots of Aerosmith and Van Halen….and I loved how rock ‘n’ roll levelled the playing field for me, a skinny little long-haired nerd, with the ladies, and the jocks as well. Much later when I ended up in Memphis, the blues didn’t speak to me as much even then, I was too busy in Frank Zappa and Steely Dan mode in my college years. I finally matured and got exposed to Furry Lewis, Sleepy John Estes, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Son House, and it got me to the core. This was the elemental music upon which everything I felt and was a part of in the American music sphere was built, and I found myself enjoying the blues more, though mostly Delta and Mississippi Hill Country, as opposed to Chicago style.

How do you describe Ross Rice sound and songbook? What characterize your music philosophy?                             (Photo by Ron Coons, Ross at Joe Pisapia's studio)

Well, I’m kind of an oddity for sure! At present I have two outlets. The first is Human Radio, the band I was in from 1988 to 1992 (Human Radio, 1990, Columbia Records, single “Me & Elvis”) that has recently reformed. With it the writing is more epic and grand scale art-pop, with some rock and R&B colorations.

Not very bluesy really, but sometimes it actually does get in there via our soloing, between the synthesizers and violins. But not getting all that far away from basic rock forms. More like we’re trying to be Pink Floyd, and lord knows we need more of those kind of bands, I say! But my Ross Rice material is more power-pop meets neo-soul. I like falsetto vocals and Fender Rhodes playing sexy chords, mixed with open-tuned jangly guitar over a tastily sloppy rhythm section. R&B meets rock for heavy petting in my playground regularly. Those are modes that interest me now, plus I’ll write the occasional atonal string quartet. I guess my musical philosophy is whatever feels good at the moment, while balancing the upper and lower chakras.

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice has given you?

I think that like everyone else, the meetings that meant the most had some sort of mutual recognition. Like when I played a solo opener set one night, at 12th and Porter in Nashville, I looked up to see Steve Earle hanging in the back, full shades, scowl, and sideburns. Got a little nervous, but finished off the set, and made my way back to say  hello, because you do that in Nashville! Shook his hand, said “I’m sure you came for the headliner, so thanks for coming early to catch the set.” He replied “Naw, man….I’m here to see you.” Turns out he had my stuff already, loved it, and wanted to offer me a record deal! That felt pretty good, getting validation from a quality source like that.

Best advice came from Duck Dunn. Though I am known to be a reasonably funky player, like many keyboardists I could get on top of the beat too easily. Sometimes too on top for seasoned Memphis R&B grooves. One day at rehearsal Duck hollered out to me. “Ross, if you want to get yourself behind the beat more, you’ve gotta stop tapping your foot in quarter time. Tap it on the half note.” I thought he was nuts, we didn’t learn that in college! But I tried it...pushed up on my right foot, on beats 2 and 4, like I saw Duck doing. And damned if it didn’t work like a charm! Turns out it was a Al Jackson Jr. trick, used on a certain bass player who got ahead back in the day!

"I hope the future of music emphasizes performance, emotion, and interaction, with less programming, compression, and interference from without. And that artists can enjoy the value of their hard work, maybe even (gasp) get paid for it. My fears are that none of that will ever happen again...in the future!" (PHOTO: Ross Rice on stage, © photograph by Alan MESSER)

Are there any memories from Jerry Lee Lewis and Donald 'Duck' Dunn which you’d like to share with us?

That band with Duck--The Coolers--backed Ackroyd a few times: once in front of 50,000 on the bluff in Memphis,  another time was New Years Eve at the Hard Rock in NYC. He was always a lot of fun, easy to work with, didn’t hang out much though. But one of the benefits of playing in a house band with Duck in the mid-80s, Memphis, was that it was a regular occurrence to have some pretty heavy guys walk in, hang out, and more often than not, set in on a tune or two. Rufus Thomas, Albert King, Tony Joe White, the list is insane when I think about it, a real who’s who of Memphis music and beyond. Got to play “Green Onions” with Duck, Steve Cropper, and Steve Potts, the latter year drummer for the MG’s….seven times! On organ! But one night was wild...Joe Walsh and Ronnie Wood were jamming with us onstage when in walked Jerry Lee! His manager JW came up to me, and asked me if I would stay behind the keys with the Killer, make sure he had everything he needed. Well, of course! Jerry Lee comes up, shakes my hand, “ya sound real good there, son.” “Er, uh, thanks Mr. Lee Lewis, sir, uh, you wrote the book, I’m just reading the page..” Or something like that, anyway. They start the jams, and I’m standing behind a rock ‘n’ roll legend pounding my Japanese synthesizer on a cheesy piano setting. And Ron Wood is hollering at me “hey….HEY!….TURN ‘IM UP!!” And I’m reaching over, cranking the amp to distortion, getting the thumbs up from Ron. There may have even been alcohol involved. Good times indeed.

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I miss the raw energy of rock ‘n’ roll, jazz, and blues from the past, there seems to be less risks taken in live performance in these digital times. But other than that, I’m interested in the present because there’s always something new and interesting to attempt or discover now. Aside from the corporate dominated mainstream music business, all bets are off these days. You can even find ukeleles and 808 drum machines with Tuvan throat singing on top! On a more nostalgic front, I miss that we’re not more interested in bands and ensembles as opposed to individual artists. And recently produced popular music is less interesting, especially with volume wars and heavy compression. My most meaningful musical moments came from hearing and witnessing  spontaneous dynamic events during performances, when the ensemble, music, and audience achieve a mutual awakening  simultaneously. I usually prefer recordings that captures a special performance like that, that approaches the enhancements in such a way that I don’t feel too much craftsmanship involved. I hope the future of music emphasizes performance, emotion, and interaction, with less programming, compression, and interference from without. And that artists can enjoy the value of their hard work, maybe even (gasp) get paid for it. My fears are that none of that will ever happen again...in the future!

"I don’t see music as having a cultural ability to unite people in the U.S. in this day and age. It’s become even more rare to see a completely racially integrated show….maybe Usher, Madonna, Prince." (PHOTO: Human Radio - K. Kennedy, P. Nicholas Hyrka, S. Ebe, R. Rice & S. Arnold)

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

That’s a deep question! Free travel for musicians would be the best thing, but could get out of hand quickly! I would actually love to go back in time and UN-invent Auto Tune. Just go Terminator on that SkyNet bunch! I really can’t wait for that fad to be over with. Seems to be hanging on though. Ugh.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues with Punk and Reggae and continue to R&B and Americana?

The structural underpinnings of European classical music are very much the same as the blues, but with a few more chords and attention to melodic interplay. Even back in the 1700’s Vienna it was mess around mostly on one and four chords (i.e. C and F, major or minor), then set up the five (usually major with the seventh, i.e. G7) to go back strong to the one (C). That chord relation is the foundation for all of it, and it corresponds to the overtone series as well. So it was inevitable that in America black blues based music--especially jazz and rock--would resonate with European-immigrated whites. Musicians naturally share ideas and develop new systems, so little by little variations arise. Punk is basically simple rock with attitude, which is directly derived from blues changes. Reggae incorporates the same chord structures, but twist the beat around. R&B adds more chords and fancier clothes, but still gravitate to one, four, five. Americana? Same thing, less jazz, more country. More than anything, it’s that blues chord structure--one, four, five--that ties all together.

What is the impact of Blues & Rock n’ Roll music culture to the racial and socio-cultural implications?                                       (PHOTO: Fingerprint, Back in the 80s)

Well, I wish it had more, to be honest. I don’t see music as having a cultural ability to unite people in the U.S. in this day and age. It’s become even more rare to see a completely racially integrated show….maybe Usher, Madonna, Prince. I’m probably not as in the loop as others, but I also try to get beyond “cultural implications” when doing, or hearing/seeing music. But I will say that in my Memphis music experience, blues and folk music culture in general brought races and classes together better than anything else around. That and wrestling!

Why Memphis & Nashville is a meeting point and favorite among musicians is ahead of its time as it embraces?

They are very different cities, probably don’t even belong in the same state! Memphis is cool because it’s its own island, a place where music grows naturally, often as a response to the existential crisis that is that great American city. A huge cultural collision happened there, and Sam Phillips captured it on tape, creating rock ‘n’ roll. That weird energy is still there, bubbling off of the river. It’s cheap to live there, you can survive and learn how to make your own music. But Nashville is where people go to try to make money at it. And it can be done….it’s the only city in the world I know of that you can walk into a bankers office, tell them you’re a musician or a songwriter, and they don’t laugh you out the door. The streets are paved with talent, much of it of course wasted. But, especially now, there’s a lot going on there other than country, and country itself has become...I don’t know. Not really country at all anymore except the singer and the song material. The area has experienced a huge influx of young creatives, and immigrants from all over the world. Lots of talent per capita, and more live work available than before. Memphis is jealous of Nashville’s uncanny success. Nashville wishes they thought of rock ‘n’ roll first.

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from the local music circuits?

Had the extreme pleasure of backing up Michael McDonald and Sam Moore (from Sam and Dave!) playing Hammond B3 organ on a recent show sponsored by the Kings of Leon, in downtown Nashville. They killed it on “When Something Is Wrong With My Baby” and “Soul Man.” Just the way they had total command of the music, the moment, gave me goosebumps. There just needs to be more of that in our music world, that kind of connection and respect, the real emotion. What made me laugh recently (other than my own reflection) is how good the band I threw together for a mid-week gig last week was! I’m lucky that I have good players available in both Nashville and Memphis, keep both flavors running in my life.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine; where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

I’d love to be in the audience for Sergei Diaghilev’s premier of Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring), in Paris 1913, Stravinsky conducting, Nijinsky choreography. The place went historically berserk that night and rioted, but couldn’t have been much worse than your average mid-80s mosh pit. I’m also quite sure I would have really enjoyed Woodstock NY--the actual town--in the ‘70s/early 80s when there were multiple venues and lots of cool stuff coming up from the city.

I actually spent a lot of time there between 2004 and 2014, heard all about it! But I’d also like to load a knapsack with some good red wine, choice reefer, and manuscript paper, and transport back to Minton’s (New York City) in the mid-50s, and blag my way backstage to Thelonious Monk, see if I can charm my way into the late night session, maybe catch the next days composition seminar with Coltrane, maybe Miles...

Ross Rice - Official website

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