Most musicians develop their own voices and playing styles that provide them each with their own distinct identities. In the case of Robert Randolph, the instrument itself is what makes him stand out initially. Coming out of the House Of God Pentecostal Church in New Jersey, Randolph brought the pedal steel guitar with him and for the past decade, Robert Randolph & The Family Band – including Marcus Randolph (drums), Danyel Morgan (bass, vocals), Brett Haas (guitar, keys) and Lenesha Randolph (vocals) – have traveled the world bringing their sacred, soulful beginnings to the secular, managing to walk the line without ever slipping up. While drifting into rock and blues over the years, Randolph and company took it back to their roots on their new album, Lickety Split (available July 16) and sound as tight as ever.
Here, Life+Times talks to Randolph about Lickety Split, his pedal steel guitar and more.
Life+Times: Can you let us know about the chemistry that you and and the band have, the groove that you all were in, and the direction you were trying to go on Lickety Split.
Robert Randolph: Well we’ve always had this ability to embrace the roots of where we come from which is gospel music, growing up in church and being able to write and make music that appeals to rock, blues, grassroots audiences. Being that we’ve grown up in church – our church organization has become known as the “rock and roll church” anyway because we have guitar, bass, everybody’s dancing and shouting, clapping, drums going loud – in the inner-city in [New] Jersey, we’ve always been able to walk a line. A lot of people compare it to Hendrix and Sly & The Family Stone because it’s soulful, but it’s rock [at the same time], but it still sounds a little gospel every time you listen to it.
L+T: What was the creative process like for this album compared to your previous albums?
RR: We actually had a chance to really take our time going to the studios and start off with musical jams as a band. We would just get in there and play like we used to do. We used to just get in and play and see what happens. For example, the title track “Lickety Split” is a jam that we would play in church. When stuff gets high, everybody gets ready to dance and shout and run around, we would play that jam in church. We just came up with some lyrical content around it that could get people thinking in one direction. On the past album we sort of pieced things together with all the new technology. We would create a drum track, then somebody would overdub bass, then overdub guitar. If you listen to the “Blackey Joe” with Carlos Santana or “Brand New Wayo”, those tracks were made with all of us in the studio for four hours and we just went and did it. We worked with a famous producer/engineer, Eddie Kramer, who’s produced for everybody from Hendrix to Led Zeppelin. He created the sounds and created this vibe at his young old age of 75, to have him in the studio, he was really a key piece helping up put things together.
L+T: Trombone Shorty and Carlos Santana both make appearances on the album. What’s your relationship with them and what did they bring to the record?
RR: Well Carlos Santana, I’ve known him for about nine years now. I had the opporunity to record on his record in 2005. He invited me down to the studio with him to record on a song. So we’ve talked a lot over the years and met each other at festivals and we talked about recording. I saw him last summer in Europe and he said, “Make sure we get in the studio in the next two months.” So we planned a session in Vegas and he had all these great ideas – he’s really an underrated arranger from a producer standpoint, a lot of people think of him as a guitar but he comes up with a lot of the ideas and melodies. So it was great to finally work with him and we actually recorded another nine songs with Carlos Santana that we’ll probably use as some iTunes exclusives or something going forward. At the same time, on the other hand, we had Trombone Shorty, who’s a younger guy, a hip guy, everybody knows him for playing trombone but he’s basically the future of roots music in this country and he’s doing it in such a cool way. Since we’re both young and African-American guys, I figured it was finally time to get together and collaborate in the studio. We got together on the song “Take The Party”; it started out with these stomps on there, like fraternity stomps and we had this whole college idea in mind, but then we turned the guitars up a little bit, put a rock edge on it, but it’s also got a gospel vibe.
L+T: The album is all original songs except “Love Rollercoaster” by the Ohio Players. Why did you all pick that song to cover and what’s the influence the Ohio Players have had on you as an artist?
RR: Ohio Players are such a great musical band and a lot of people don’t give them enough credit. We played with them last August at a festival and they played the song and said, “You should try a version of it,” so two weeks later we went to the studio and tried a version of it and liked the way it sounded. So we decided to put it on the record. They’re the same kind of guys, they’ve got gospel roots, grew up in the funk era and had this great big positive sound which I really loved because for me, I think as Black artists, whether it’s hip-hop, R&B, rock, etc., a lot of us tend to run away from our roots of gospel music and you lose a little bit of the soul and positivity with that. So for me, I really embrace the fact of young kids looking up to me, the power of the microphone, to be able to keep a positivie influence on kids growing up. That’s why it’s great to collaborate with somebody like Trombone Shorty, listen to old Stax music or Ohio Players stuff and try to cover those songs.
L+T: You’re one of the few people to play pedal steel guitar – let alone having popular success with it – talk about it being in that position and what it’s allowed you to do.
RR: Well in the church organization that I come from – a lot of people think I’m some kid from the country, meanwhile I’m from Newark, New Jersey, born and raised – pedal steel guitars and guitar music was the special part of our church and it’s been hidden because for 80 years, our church never allowed their musicians to play outside of the church. I was looked at as a rebel anyway when I decided to leave and go play music. When I was a teenager everybody would be like, “What is that thing you’re playing?”, kids would come over to my house and they’d be rapping, I’m just trying to play. So for me to be able to take that instrument and be on a mainstream level and looked at as a great pioneer for this guitar and for music going forward is great and I accepted it. We started playing and going on the road in 2001-2002, signed our first record deal in 2003 and put it out, so from that point I left the inner-city, moved out to another town and lived the rock and roll life for eight or nine years. In the last two years or so – I’m grateful for my uncle and my father – I’ve come back to Newark, Irvington and East Orange and it’s led me into this new excitement now that I’m developing a Robert Randolph Music and Arts program for a lot of these inner-city kids. Everybody’s excited because we have high gang murder rates here, both Bloods and Crips. I’ve talked to a lot of Bloods and a lot of Crips and they’ve been crying out for somebody to come back and give something back to these kids. So they’re excited to stop killing each other and come in and learn all these different things, so they can have a [different] outlook and experience some of the things that I’ve experienced. We all know what music, dancing and singing does, but in the last 10 years they’ve taken that out of the schools, so they’ve left these kids with nothing. So these kids are excited about my Robert Randolpph Music and Arts program that will be open in 2014.
Lickety Split is available here.