Grammy Award winning bassist Rob Wasserman takes a techno laced and hip hop heavy departure to his very own -Space Island-
by Lee Abraham
Rob Wasserman is the ultimate collaborator. Heís played bass with tons of music biz heavyweights, everybody from Willie Dixon, Van Morrison, and Lou Reed, to Elvis Costello, and Oingo Boingo. Regardless of the style, Wasserman makes it look easy. And sound great. He won a Grammy Award for -Duets- in í88, and his most recent solo effort, -Trios- in Ď94, garnered five star critical acclaim from both Rolling Stone and Downbeat.
Over the past several years, Wassermanís talents have taken him in a completely different musical direction: playing bass in -Ratdog- with former Grateful Dead guitarist, Bob Weir. "I enjoy playing with Bob Weir," says Wasserman. "Weíve had different guys over the years and this current configuration I really like. Itís not really -challenging-... but itís -fun-. Thatís pretty much how I look at it. Ratdog is a little musical vacation, a fun time, no one has to really get too serious. Thatís our philosophy, ĎIf youíre not having fun, youíre not doing your job!í"
But as much as Wasserman likes to have fun, he also thrives on expanding his horizons and pushing musical boundaries. Something Ratdogís relentless touring hasnít always allowed for. "The only downside Iíve had is that it takes up too much of my time," Wasserman says about his commitment to Ratdog. "There was around three years after Jerry Garcia died that Bobby made this his full time thing and I did too. But there was no time for any of my stuff. Iím really glad now that I have the time again, because what I really like to do, is work on my own projects."
Even if he isnít working on a specific -project-, Wasserman always seems to be toying with new melodies for future reference. Itís a lifestyle thing. "I live out on the beach in California," he explains. "So Iíd wake up every day and walk out there, and melodies just sort of come to me and I just hum them into my little tape recorder. Thatís how I write." Over the past couple of years, Wasserman has been doing plenty of writing. Although there hasnít been a lot of time off from Ratdog, heís been making the most of the few breaks heís had. And donít let him give you the wrong idea though. The guy has been doing more than just humming tunes as he strolls down the beach with the warm, salty waves of the Pacific lapping at his toes. A lot more. Heís been recording a new album.
True to form, -Space Island-, released on Atlantic, is a collaborative effort. This time his partner is Dave Aron. A celebrated hip hip producer/mixer whoís worked with 2Pac, Prince, and Snoop Dogg, Aronís looped and sampled studio wizardry seems like an odd match for Wasserman. At least at first. Listening to the record proves otherwise. Sure, -Space Island- is very different from anything else heís ever done. Thatís the point.
"Itís a real departure!," agrees Wasserman, who crossed paths with Aron in Ď98. Both were working on Stephen Perkinsí -Banyon- album. Aron was one of the producers. "I really liked his ideas." Although wide open to Aronís input, Wasserman had a definite concept in mind for his next record. "I didnít want to do anything like -Banyon-, which was pretty much free improvisation that got turned into some tunes. I wanted to write the tunes either based on a drum pattern or my melodies. I wrote a bunch of tunes that way with some different people and never quite felt any that really made me excited."
That is, until he started working with Aron. "We got together about two years ago and started writing," says Wasserman. "We had a lot of fun, and I decided that he was the guy to produce the album. He lives in Los Angeles, and in between all my other work, I would go down there for a week or two at a time and write." But it wasnít just writing that made him excited about the collaboration. Wasserman was stoked on being pushed musically. "I wanted to pretty much play most of the parts on this record myself, and then have the drums and rhythm, percussion... but there was very little else that wasnít me making the sounds. That was a big part of the challenge."
Another challenge: Wasserman as lyricist -and- vocalist. "Hill Billy Hip Hop," from -Space Island-, features the critically acclaimed bassistís singing debut. "I wrote the lyrics, and figured, itís my record, why not do something really different?," Wasserman says with a laugh. "I tried it out at like three in the morning, one of the last days of mixing the album. I was really sort of shy about it, and did it after everyone else left the studio. I did this little rap and it seemed that everyone liked it, so I put it on the record."
Not only did he put his rarely heard voice on the record, Wasserman plans to perform, "Hill Billy Hip Hop," in concert when he takes his act on the road to support the new CD. Dubbed, -Buzzztopia 2000-, all of the songs from the new album are fair game for the upcoming tour. "Iím excited about going out and playing them," Wasserman says enthusiastically. "Iím looking forward to it. But obviously noone ever hears me speak in Ratdog. Bobby doesnít even talk from the stage too often. So they may hear me open my mouth once in a while. I think itís going to be a lot of fun." It comes as no surprise that Wasserman is bringing along a few multitalented friends to help translate -Space Islandís- techno laced and production heavy brand of hip hop exotica to the live performance setting. "Iíve got some really good players with me," he says. "While I canít play five or six different bass parts at the same time, itís OK, because weíre going to interpret the tunes. Plus, each guy is going to play two or three, or four, things."
Obviously Wasserman likes to have a lot going on. Even before the new Buzzztopia 2000 tour starts, heís already working on his -next- project. "Itís based on the writing of writings of Woody Guthrie, not songs, but journal entries, and other odd, never before published things," says Wasserman. And yes, there will be plenty of collaboration going on. In fact a couple of the tracks have already been recorded. Michael Franti of Spearhead, as well as Ani Defranco have already contributed cuts. Lou Reed and several big name talents are also slated to participate. Says Wasserman, "Itís one of those records where Iím just going to make a wish list of people I want to work with and see if they are interested."