John Medeski

TM: The Word is set to release a new album entitle Soul Food on May 4th. What inspired the decision to come together and record another album?

JM: Well, I think it was around 11 years ago we did our first record, and when we came together it was all these different entities coming together to make an instrumental gospel group, and did some touring after that, and everyone kinda went off and did their own thing. We’ve gotten together a couple of times, these past 10 years or so. The thing about The Word is, it really is a band. It’s one of those things where the end result is greater than the sum of it’s parts.

TM: That’s one of the cool things about it, how it has a really cohesive sound. It doesn’t sound like a supergroup with all these guys mashed together.

JM: A lot of that has to do with the original intention. It didn’t come from , “Hey let’s put these guys together”, it came from Luther and I talking for a couple years about making an instrumental Gospel record. We both share a love of that music, and Robert Randolph, kind of surfaced. After we had already talked about recording, we found out that Robert was playing outside the church. We loved his music from some of the sacred steel recordings we heard, so we checked in with him, he was up for it, he came down, it’s kind of a serdipitous or magic beginning.

TM: Yeah.

JM: I think the truth of that has been resounding ever since. We get together and play, the last year or so, and we kind of realized there’s nothing quite like this band out there, and nothing that any of does has what The Word has. Everybody does great things, it’s not that we’re better, it’s just different and it’s undeniable. So we had talked about, “We should do something else”, and just everything finally came together. It takes a long time, because we’re all busy, we all do a lot of different things. So, it’s the kind of thing where everyone says they want to do it, and having the time open up. So that’s what we did, we kind of created the space for it.

TM: Tell us what we can expect from Soul Food.

JM: Well, it’s the next step for us. I think it’s a great record, the songs are great. It’s a combination of some really strong songs and some really rocking improvisations combined with this great gospel music. There are some originals of Robert’s that are in the sacred steel vein, and original of mine, an original of Cody’s, and

TM: It sounds like everyone had a hand in bringing something to the table on this one.

JM: Oh yeah, absolutely. That’s kind of how a band like this works. Everybody in the band is a great musician, a composer, a producer, an arranger. So we all came together, and you know, the truth is we just sit down and start playing, and music happens. We went into our second recording session in Memphis and we had tos stop because too much material was happening.

TM: (Laughs)

JM: Really, every time we get together we come up with new things, which is great for live shows. We can spontaneously create music every show to tap into special for that night, that audience, that place.

TM: So who worked as producer for this one, did one of you guys produce it?

JM: Everyone had a hand in it, I would say. I oversaw the final mixing. Producing is multi-levelled, and everybody was involved.

TM: Tell me about the recording studios you chose to record in. You recorded in New York and in Memphis?

JM: Yeah, we recorded in New York at Brooklyn Recording, which is an incredible studio with amazing equipment, and Andy who owns the place is a really great engineer. We were doing a couple of gigs in the city, so we set aside the time to start the record. We’ve played a few gigs together over the past ten years, and we’ve added new material. Stuff we never recorder. We did a lot of stuf that we had been working on and developed live, and hadn’t been recorded. We recorded a couple of new originals. And then in Memphis we went to Royal Studios which is a legendary studio. Al Green recorded a lot of stuff there, and it’s got an incredible vibe. It was really inspiring for everyone. So we went there to finish up some of the stuff we started and while we were there, a whole lot of new stuff came out, including a song called Soul Food. That was created there after we at an amazing soul food dinner. We just went down and started playing, and bam! It just came out.

TM: Your playing is a little more traditional with The Word, as compared with the generally avante – garde jazz and funk keys that you’re known for. Do you have to think more inside the box for The Word, or is just part of your natural flow?

JM: I don’t believe that anybody is one-dimensional. For me, I’ve always loved all kinds of music, always played all kinds of music. Medeski Martin & Wood is probably the best known thing that I’ve done. I’ve played on hundreds of other records of all kinds in the past 30 years.

I just love music. The Word for me is an outlet for this other side of myself. To me it’s pretty natural. Any time you’re playing a style of music, you should be listening to the music and what’s happening, and then adding what it needs, or what you feel, or what’s necessary. It’s not about doing your thing on top of what’s happening, its about getting inside what’s happening and becoming a part of it. That’s what it is for me. It’s pretty easy, you know? It’s more rockin’. That’s just another side. (laughs).

TM: And that’s something the North Mississippi All Stars bring to the table with the rhythm section in this project.

JM: Absolutely. I’ve known those guys for a long time, since they first went out as a duo. I love them. They keep growing. They’re all incredible musicians, at the highest level, the deepest level.

TM: Robert Randolph plays with a tremendous amount of energy on stage. It’s contagious in the crowd, so I imagine you must feel it too

JM: Oh yeah, I love playing with Robert. Robert is charismatic, he’s also an unbelievable player, and a great musician, and has a sensibility. He’s like a natural star, that guy. So it’s a treat to play with him. It’s always inspring.

TM: The Gathering of the Vibes is our backyard here in Southern Connecticut, and the Word will playing here this summer. What do you like about playing at the Gathering and other music festivals like that?

JM: The audiences for most of the people at these festivals for the most part are there to have a real deep musical experience. Dance, and get lost in the music.  There not going there to hear something exactly the way they’ve heard it before. They’re going there to feel something, and when an audience is open to that, it enables the bands to deeper and further than you can when you’re playing the same old stuff.

TM: Do you get to roam the festivals and enjoy yourself, or are you working most of the time?

JM: It varies, you know? A lot of times these festivals are a way for me to hear some other bands that I don’t get to hear. I’m very busy doing my thing, and I don’t have a lot of time to go and see shows, so, one of the things about going to festivals is you get to hear people you’ve heard about, or bands that you haven’t heard of. The music at the festivals is inspiring, to hear what’s going on.

For me the most important thing is that I am ready to give a hundred-plus percent for the show I have to play. So sometimes that means I need to be in the quiet, getting prepared for the show, and sometimes I go out and experience what’s happening and take that energy in. It’s really different on so many facets. I used to have to try and figure it out, but I really have to do what I feel, when I know my experience is going to put me in the right space.

TM: You’ve done a lot of different projects with a lot of different great musicians. Free form experimental jazz, blues, funk, gospel – when are we going to see you on a Reggae album?

JM: (laughs)

TM: Are there any genres you haven’t made a splash in that you’d like to?

JM: Well, it’s endless. I’ve dabbled in a lot of things, but shoot, you never know.

TM: When you play, how much of it is thought out in terms of theory, and how much is just straight from the gut intuition?

JM: I don’t know if it’s that cut and dried. When I play, for me it’s listening, reacting, playing from the gut and intuition. But, when you do that, what you have to work with is what you know, what you study, and what you’ve learned. So the theory and all the technique is stuff you study, and then it comes into play. And the truth is, only a certain percentage of that will be available. You play with other people, and the energy is going up. So the more you have in your bag, the more you’ll have to draw from. For me it’s different things, because you work on things, you practice, and you study. You can do it by yourself, but you can also do it with the other people you play with, and you develop. But when you play, you get into the music, you become the music, and you let it tell you what to do. It’s  not really one or the other, it’s like one informs the other, and back and forth.

TM: If you had one piece of advice you could give to a young person who wants to succeed in music, what piece of advice could you give them?

JM: Well, I think the most important thing is to find your voice. So even if you’re playing other styles of music, you are yourself, so that means you need to find your connection, and what it means to you. All these notes, chords and rhythms that are out there, that we love. You need to really make them your own, and use them in a way that is really coming from you. That’s the most important thing.

And to listen. Always be listening. Whether you’re playing with people, whether you’re walking in the woods, whether you’re walking in the city, on the subway. Wherever you are, you can be listening, and hear everything as music. You have the symphony that is the universe.

TM: Wow, that’s great advice.

JM: And other than that, practicing.  (laughs)

TM: Yeah, practicing helps.

JM: Yeah, you gotta do your time. You gotta really give yourself over. You gotta give yourself at least a year of doing nothing else 24-7 but music, music, music, music – if you really want to give it a shot. There’s something I read about how many hours it takes to master something, like 100 hours is the tipping point or whatever that is. I don’t know if that’s really correct, but there’s something to that. You’ve really got to put the time in.

TM: Right. I think part of that is you have to train your body as much as your mind and get it built into the muscles, your finger memory, whatnot.

JM: Yeah, there’s where putting the time comes in.

TM: That’s good advice. And it ties in with your first piece of advice. Everyone who learns to play learns from someone else, learns other peoples styles, and at some point you have to spend the time figure out how to make this your own, and figure out what your voice is.

JM: Yeah, and it’s important to learn from somebody else. I don’t mean just records. It’s important to learn from the teachers out there. Teachers who love what they do.  Because there’s a kind of wordless transferrance that happens when you work with someone. That’s the only way to learn music.

I mean you can learn from records too. But the really most important information comes from actual interaction.