Merl Saunders Publicity Photo

Still Having Fun:
An Interview with Merl Saunders

(Part One)

First Appeared at The Music Box, August 2001, Volume 8, #8

Written by John Metzger

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Merl Saunders is well-known within the Deadhead community for his many collaborations with the Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia. Additionally, he achieved mainstream attention surrounding the 1990 release of his sterling, new age effort Blues from the Rainforest. Yet, these projects show only two of the wildly diverse roads that Saunders has traveled in a career that defies categorization.

His latest project — the live album Struggling Man — finds Saunders returning to a style he helped pioneer in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Recorded with the Toronto-based jazz-rock ensemble One Step Beyond, the disc delivers a hybrid of jazz, funk, and improvisational rock that fuses James Brown, Jimmy Smith, and the Grateful Dead into an adventurous musical collage.

In early June, I chatted with Saunders by phone from his office in San Francisco.

Your current album was recorded live with One Step Beyond. How did you hook up with them?

Actually my agent [Skyline Music] brought them to my attention. I heard the group open up for me, and I asked them if they wanted to go on a short tour. I flew up to Canada. We rehearsed for about two or three days and played a club up there. And we blew everybody away.

We started the tour on the east coast, and at the end of the tour was the Poconos festival...

The Gathering on the Mountain?

The Gathering, yeah. And we just blew everybody’s mind, and the record company said, "Do you mind if we tape it?" And I told them to go ahead.

So about eight months later they called me and said we’re going to send you some cassettes and CDs and we want you to listen to them.

So I listened to them and said, "Wow, that happened?" So they said, "We want to release it."

Do you think you tour with them again?

Umm....probably. They’re something like the horn section I use here on the west coast — the ex-members of Tower of Power. So I’m also thinking about taking the ex-Tower of Power guys with me on the road — Skip Mesquite, Mic Gillette...

Now you guys go back a long way don’t you?

Yeah, they played on my first album, one of my albums [Heavy Turbulence] in the early ’70s with Garcia. The horn section is these guys.

You contributed a track to the upcoming tribute to Phish titled Sharin’ in the Groove and you will be doing an album release party in San Francisco on July 12. How did you get involved in this project?

They asked me. I’m friends with the Phish guys, and we’ve been crossing paths. I’ve been sitting in with them, and Trey had been showing up at my gigs. So, the Mockingbird Foundation asked me because they knew I was involved with helping kids and everything.

How did you choose the song (Julius)?

I liked it and I wanted to do it a little bit different. Kind of like an instrumental, but I still sing a little.

Did you consider any other songs?

Umm, yeah we do another song — Wolfman’s Brother.

This brings up another topic. You do a fair amount of cover songs in concert. What makes you choose the songs that you do? Are there any that you are currently considering adding to your repertoire?

I like them. I do a lot of writing, but some songs will just catch my ear and I'll do them.

I went to see James Brown last week at the Paramount. I haven't seen James Brown in about 20 years. It blew me away. I had to go back a second night.

Do you get to see a lot of other concerts?

No. I saw Soulive when they came here about two or three weeks ago at the Great American Music Hall. That's one of my favorite hip new groups that I like. They're not too hip to them out here. They're a trio that is just killer.

If we can go back a bit — when you made Blues from the Rainforest, you had not yet visited the Amazon, correct?

No it was all just a dream. All that music was a dream.

How did you manage to capture it so well?

(laughs) The man upstairs.

I have no idea. This company from Florida sent me down there because they were doing a film on the rediscovering of the Amazon. Now I actually ran into the guy in New York in a record store. He walked up to me and he says, "Would you like to go to the jungle? Because your music — you've been there."

I said, "No sir, I'm sorry, I haven't been to the jungle."

He says, "But you HAVE, your music..."

I said, "I know, but it was nothing but a dream."

He said, "Would you like to go see if it was true?"

I said, "Sure!"

And I went to the jungle, and by George, it was.

At the time, I was married and my wife went with me, and things were happening. Music things were happening in the jungle. These witch doctors were singing these melodies — the same melody I played on the record.

That's amazing.

Yeah, it was. It was unbelievable.

The album also served as a reunion of sorts with Jerry Garcia. How did you get him involved in the project?

When I finished doing the album — I actually did it in my own studio, mixed it in my own studio — I had him in mind. But I wanted to finish it. I laid about two or three tracks and sent them up to Jerry, and Jerry called back and said I'm coming down. I said, "No, let me finish it." And when I finished it, he came down, stayed two or three days at my place and did his part.

Is there a reason you hadn't worked with him for so long?

Well we did Reconstruction in the '80s. We hung out together. We just didn't do...we were great friends. We went to movies together we went out and saw music together. People just said, "Oh there's Merl and Jerry." I had my way of doing things and was writing scores for television.

That's true. You did do the Twilight Zone thing with him too.

Yeah. I was the musical director of that show. So I got him to do parts of it. Pretty soon, CBS fired everybody but they wanted me to stay.

I had no idea who you were at the time of that show, but I was just blown away by the music on that.

Thank you. That was my thing that I always wanted to do. I had been doing things for Simon and Simon and Whiz Kids, which came on in '82. I was doing music and acting for about two years. That was my dream to do something like that.

During the late '60s, I was doing a Broadway play in New York at the George Abbott Theatre. I was musical director for a guy called Cassius Clay, who changed his name to Muhammed Ali. So those are the things that if I was with the Grateful Dead, I couldn't do.

I played with Miles Davis for about a year. The Lionel Hampton Band. Did a lot of recording with Harry Belafonte and Lena Horne.

I wanted to be myself and go the direction I wanted. Although I did record with the Dead. But when they asked me to come in and do their thing — to join them — I didn't really want to join the band. When it's Grateful Dead time you have to do a Grateful Dead thing. And that particular chair — the keyboard players died — you think twice...

If we can get back to Blues from the RainforestFiesta Amazonica is a sequel of sorts, and yet it's not?

After I went to the rainforest...Dance of the Pink Dolphins — I saw pink dolphins down there. Child's Play, that's the song that was generated when I was playing in the jungle with the kids. Prayer for the Trees, when I sat out in the middle of nowhere and the melody started to come to me. Then I got back to the US and Marada Michael Walden the producer — he gave us the melody to go with it. So he and I wrote that together.

You seemed to take the music in some very different directions on that album. Was this a conscious decision?

No, that was Blues from the Rainforest Part 2. We called it Fiesta Amazonica. The last track on there, Ayahuasca Zone — that's the ceremony that is very spiritual in the jungle. They take these herbs and things, and they have diarrhea and pass out. It cleanses their body. No I didn't try it but I watched it for about 2 hours, and I can see what's happening. I'm very sensitive to music, to what's happening. I can write with feeling for it. That's one of the gifts that God gave me. Actually, there is a track that I had kind of thrown away that I did with The Twilight Zone. It was a jungle scene. I had [Bill] Kreutzmann play hand drums and Armando Peraza play bongos. And there was a scene where it was the Korean war, and they were walking through the jungle with machine guns. And they knocked down the wall, and started shooting. So I had created this jungle with this (Saunders makes a rapid percussive sound). In the studio, we started doing it, and Garcia came in and picked up this guitar and started playing lavishly. Just fiery. And I said, "Jerry, you don't have to do that. I'm not going to use that part of it." He said, "That's cool, but I'm still gonna do it." And he did it, and that was it. Now, fifteen years later, I was erasing tapes, and I had just come back from the jungle, and I hear this tape of him playing. I said that's the mood I want. I listened to it, and I called up Vince Welnick and said, "I've got a project for you to do. We need to play double keyboards and I need your high voice to create this mood."

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To read Part Two, Click Here

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Struggling Man is available from Barnes & Noble.
To order, Click Here!

Blues from the Rainforest is available on DVD from Barnes & Noble.
To order, Click Here!

Fiesta Amazonica is available from Barnes & Noble.
To order, Click Here!

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Copyright © 2001 The Music Box