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Continental Grooves: An Interview with Erik Egol of Schleigho

By Brian L. Knight

The band Schleigho has been churning along steadily for the last seven years. The quartet was one of the first bands to spearhead the presently burgeoning jam band movement and they still show no sign of letting up. Consisting of Jesse Gibbon (Organ, Piano, Vocals), Matt Rubano (Bass, Vocals), Erik Egol (Drums, Percussion), and Suke Cerulo (Guitars, Flute, Vocals), Schleigho plays well over 200 shows a year yet they still maintain a sense of musical spontaneity show after show. Even their studio efforts reflect a sense of constant innovation and evolution. Since the band’s inception, each of their albums have assumed a unique face of their own. They released albums that had a progressive feel while others reflect a more crisp fusion jazz sound. Their latest effort, Continent (Flying Frog Records, 2000) is a tip of the hat to the days of Headhunters funk. Continent hit the stores this fall and yes, Schleigho went on tour to support the fantastic sounding recording. The Vermont Review caught up with drummer Erik Egol at the band’s CD release party where we discussed the band’s annual fiesta, the Hoe-Down, the evolution of the Schleigho sound and the band members mutual admiration of jazz.

VR: To get things going, let us start with Schleigho’s annual event, the Ho-Down. How did it go this year?

EE: It was great. It was killer. It gets better every year. Half of the bands do it every year and the other half are bands that we have been trying to get for years and they couldn’t do it because of their schedule or vice versa. We had Soulive. We figured out that Peter Prince and the Evans Brothers had played at every Ho-Down. Moon Boot Lover played the first two, than Lettuce and than the last two with Soulive. We also had Derek Trucks Band…Lake Trout…It was sick.

VR: Why do you choose Wendell, Massachusetts?

EE: That is easy. We lived in Wendell for almost three years. We were living in Boston for almost four years and we wanted to move out to the country. We had friends with roots in Wendell and we knew it was a beautiful place – a very inexpensive and gorgeous getaway. We lived there for a while. When we were looking for a site for the first one, I did not quite find the Wendell State Forest and we had it in Eric Krasno’s backyard. The second year, we found the State Forest. Even though we have moved two years later, we keep on going back.

VR: Where do you call home now?

EE: Just north of Manhattan. 25 miles north of Manhattan in Westchester County. It is called Croton on the Hudson.

VR: Do you live there as a band?

EE: Yes. We are a little bit scattered but we are all within fifteen –twenty miles of each other. The studio is in Cortland, which is about ten miles further up the highway.

VR: Why did you choose to move?

EE: Jesse and I grew up there. We needed to move out of Wendell because we were touring so much and paying rent for a place that we were not really living in. We had an hour drive off the highway just to get to our house. We wanted to be a little more centralized, so we shacked up with our parents for a couple months until we found a place.

VR: How long has the band been together?

EE: Jesse and I have been playing together now for ten years now. We met when we were sixteen and played together in dead cover bands, heavy metal bands, and we played all sorts of Floyd. That was ten years ago. I met Suke at Berklee seven years ago. It has been me Suke and Jesse since 1993. Drew was the original bass player - he was with us for five years.

VR: Did you go to Berklee the whole time?

EE: I did. Suke graduated a year earlier than me. They hung out while I finished up for a year but it was a good chance for us to practice every day without playing any gigs. We got a bunch of material together.

VR: In retrospect, which was more important to you – the education of Berklee of the experience of the road?

EE: You need them both. We were one without the other for a while. We knew our instruments but had no experience on the road or with songwriting or with playing 200 nights a year and making it different every night. We are really getting into a stride now where the experience is starting to payoff. On top of that, you have the whole time where you are hopefully honing your listening skills and your playing skills and your compositional skills. Once that becomes so “everyday,” that is the experience. Driving four hours, loading in, soundchecking, hanging around doing nothing for three hours and make it something truly special and something different than ever before or ever again, that is the experience starting to come in.

VR: How do you keep yourself motivated night after night?

EE: There is so much music in our heads that we hear other people play and that we think up ourselves. I know all of us are completely addictive and obsessed with our instruments and music. We hear music all day and even if we are not listening to music, we are hearing tons of music. Every night, you have to will yourself not to play what you played the night before. Sometimes it goes into patterns night to night. That is interesting because a lot of songs really go three or four different life stages because of that. Say, we will settle into an improvisational pattern – certain things work on certain nights and you try to do them again the next night. You expound upon them. We listen to tapes that we played a year ago and we are like “Oh, My God! That section is totally different and now we do this thing at the end. How did that happen?” You do not notice, but slowly things begin to stick and they settle and you start working off those for a while. It is interesting- sometimes you feel stagnant but in fact, it is changing right out from under you without knowing it.

VR: How much does the audience affect the way that the band goes on a certain night?

EE: That is interesting too. A nice big crowd with a lot of energy does incredible things to push the music in new directions. It makes you feel safe. It lets you know that there are open ears there to hear something that you might not normally say. It kind of makes you think before you speak. We have been doing this for a long time and we have played our fair share of sparse shows. In the beginning, it was a year playing to “whoever was going to hear your band that they never heard of before.” That taught us that even when you have to draw from the energy within and there isn’t much coming back, that is a different kind of thing. We used to trudge through it like it was hard. We have learned now to pick up on every piece of energy from the room. If there are five people there, we know they are listening just as hard as if there were 500.

VR: To me, your albums all have a different feel to it. Farewell to the Sun had a dark progressive feel. In the Interest of Time had a Latin tinge while Continent sounds like 1970s jazz-funk.

EE: Those are accurate. It is interesting because those are musical as well as production. We don’t have much production to our albums. We like them to sound like we sound but the environment that we record them in changes the color a lot. When we did Farewell to the Sun, it was live. We are heavier live. It is definitely more nitty-gritty than if we were in the studio polishing stuff. So, it has a dark sinister feel to it. In the Interest of Time was recording in a really fat, beautiful studio where we stayed for two weeks. It was awesome. That has a very crisp light sound to it. It is all not Latin music but there are a few Latin tunes. The whole feel of the album is very “cymbally” and very staccato and I think it is because of the crispness of the room that we were playing in. Our engineer Mike, who does everything we do, is very into capturing the atmosphere of where we do it. This new one, Continent, was recorded in my parents basement in Croton with the recording gear that the record company gave us. It was very homey, cozy, and raw. It wasn’t studio and it wasn’t live. It was like we were playing for the tape. It has a much more intelligent sound to it. It is dark like the first one and polished like the first one. We just played. It was newer material too so the songs were more in a developmental stage. We were still working on the stuff. So, it sounds spontaneous.

VR: To the listener, Continent sounds very raw. I am hard pressed to believe that I would hear an exact rendition of any of the Continent songs in concert.

EE: Right. Not at all. The melodies, maybe, are repeated. They are embellished a lot of the time too. The compositions have also changed to the extent where it is more jazz oriented approach to writing. It is a melody, a stated head, maybe a bridge section and couple of different sections but really full improv within each section. The older material was more part-to-part to part. Each part played the same with a little inflection each night but with short solos. Now it is totally wide open.

VR: Has your live repertoire changed with the times?

EE: No, we try to play stuff from every album. We try really hard. “Palindrome,” the first song on the first CD – we still play three out of four nights and we have since the tune was written. It is has become something completely different that it was when it started. We like playing new material more but when you are pushing to do something different that you have done for seven years, it can really yield some wild results. You know it so well that you really have to change it a lot to surprise somebody else in the band. “Oh. It’s going there! I thought we played this a thousand times. I never thought I would here that.” With newer material, you are more accustomed to being surprised by what someone is doing.

VR: Is “Palindrome” a vehicle for Schleigho’s improvisation?

EE: Yup, and “Farewell to the Sun” or “Something,” “Tongues of the Homogenized”, we play almost all of “Interest of Time,” and almost all of “Farewell to the Sun”. We like to mix it up a lot.

VR: How’s Flying Frog Records treating you?

EE: Good, they are awesome. The recording equipment is great. We have the studio set up. We are going to record our second album in January probably. It’s all there. It’s like sit down with your instruments and the snake is going into the control room. It sits there dormant when we are not recording; that’s a great initiator for lots of music to come out of us, which is awesome.

VR: Is there a live album in the plans?

EE: I don’t know. We could do that at almost any time because we multi track every night now. We have Mike our engineer; he’s got two hundred shows from last year. We are going to put an album out every year for the next two or three years so we are going to be really picky. When it comes December, we’ll sit down and say do we want to put out a live album or do we want to record. We have a lot of new material now. We have a new bass player, who is just spouting new music all the time because he hasn’t had a band in a while, an outlet to play his stuff. We’ve already got five new tunes since the last album came out (its been out a month and a half), so I think we are going to be itching to put out another studio album, but I think there is a Live at the Hoedown video that is coming out. The sound quality on it is incredible, and it should be really good.

VR: Is that Groove 2 that did that?

EE: Yeah we are working with them on the whole thing.

VR: I’m going to name some names and I’d just like to hear what you have to say about them…Tony Williams?

EE: Oh! He’s the man! I can’t say anything more. He’s an alien from outer space who infects my mind at all times. I can’t get Four and More out of my head. That album and Shut Up and Play Yer Guitar by Frank Zappa mind-boggling.

VR: Bill Bruford?

EE: I don’t know him very well. I know of him, and being a drummer, I used to read a lot about him. I’ve never listened to much Yes except what I’ve heard on the radio. I liked it but it’s still too prog-rocky (sic) to me. I dig the musicianship but I have a hard time listening lyrics a lot of the time, but he’s phenomenal, I mean there is no doubt about that. I’m just not familiar with his material.

VR: Lake Trout?

EE: Sick. I listen to only a few bands that are on the circuit with us. I hear a lot of bands that we play with live, but I’m telling you the discs that I always have with me are Lake Trout, both Alone at Last and Volume for the Rest of It, and Yoke. I listen to them because maybe I don’t play with them as often as I like. Mike is an unbelievable drummer. I was just listening to them the other day and my jaw was on the ground, and you know we are peers, we hang out, and we play together. Sometime we open for them and sometimes they open for us, and yet they always blow me away no matter where we are.

VR: Jaco Pastorius?

EE: He’s the man too! He’s fantastic I have a bunch of his material. He did something really different, you know something that no electric bass player and really ever done, and now everyone does it. So people that don’t even know who he is, I’m sure are constantly hearing his influence without knowing it.

VR: Art Blakey?

EE: Art Blakey is incredible. In high school, I heard Art Blakey before I was into jazz. I was really messed up. It was a big party and I was sitting in some room with only a couple of other people…trying to get a grip. My buddy John, who introduced me to Suke, threw on some Art Blakey; I think it was “ A Night in Tunisia.” It just freaked me out. I have never heard anything like it.

VR: the album Bitches Brew?

EE: Disc Two. I’m a big fan of the disc one too but for some reason I always put disc two. Like In a Silent Way, it is mesmerizing pre-trance trance and pre-fusion fusion. It was two things that no one ever thought of – a big electric band just vamping for hours. That is the kind of forcing of intuitive material that I was talking about that we try to do. When you set yourself up with simplicity, you have to go some interesting lengths to move it somewhere.

VR: How does Schleigho come together so well – through contention or harmony?

EE: It is definitely never fighting with each other. There are nights that someone is trying to put forth a musical trend. If is someone is really set of making a musical section into something that it has never been before and it takes awhile for people to catch the drift of what that new thing is. That is not even fighting. That is “Can you guess?” That I more interesting. It is like doing a puzzle up there. 99% of it is all of us knowing that we can play whatever we want in Schleigho. Whatever anybody plays at any moment, unless it is intentionally done, which no on ever does, is valid. It is like waxing philosophical every night about a different topic but with the same instruments. We just groove on each others different direction in the tunes. It is all about being different every night.

VR: Can you name one common influence amongst the four of you?

EE: Maybe not. Of course that is not true, I can name five in a second: Miles Davis, Charlie Mingus, Thelonius Monk, and maybe John McLaughlin, and Herbie, but that falls under Miles Davis. Anybody that has played with those guys. All the McCoy Tyner stuff, any of the Mingus and the Monk, Roland Kirk. Common musical opinions lie in the jazz. Outside of jazz, it would be hard to find one, I really dig Zappa more than anyone else, and Paco is the Jack DeJohnette, Pat Metheny, Gary Peacock freak. That’s probably his number one thing to listen to. Mine is Zappa instrumentals. Jesse listens to Herbie and all Bill Evans and all straight-ahead jazz. Suke listens to horn players and he’s a guitar player. He listens to Squarepusher - he’s getting into certain jungle things even though we don’t use many of them. Outside of jazz it is very diverse but inside of jazz we all love everybody.

VR With so much love of jazz amongst all of you any thoughts or talks of doing a straight ahead jazz record?

EE: That’s interesting. Yeah there is a lot of talk about it, but it is never talk like we are going to do a straight ahead jazz record, but the material for this next album is probably going to be fifty percent that style. It’s never straight ahead because we draw influences from so many other places; we draw influences from Schleigho too. We have been this band for a long time so its kind of like it has its own influence on us. So the straight-ahead tunes are different, but there is straight ahead instrumentation the upright, the organ, guitar, drums, and flute. It’s almost like an organ trio with a flute at times now. It’s going to be at least fifty percent that kind of material, but there is always heavier stuff that we want to put on. We want to be diversely presented because we play thirty percent strict jazz clubs with the pianos on stage, which is incredible, and we play big rock joints where the PA is just blasting. Either way, I enjoy them both for different reasons. I think it will always be a mix.

Check out more of the band at here.