Volume #18, Issue #3 -- June 1991
An Interview with Vince Welnick
By Toni A. Brown
Relix had the good fortune to interview Vince Welnick back in February, 1991. His enthusiasm was catching, and we had a great conversation about the changes in his life surrounding his induction into the Grateful Dead. Since our interview, spring tour has come and gone. Some of the newness may have worn off by now. But Vince is a welcome addition to the band by all the accounts that have crossed my desk. If you want to get to know him a little better, read on.
Relix: A good place to start would be with your history. I have seen the Tubes, so, when you became a member of the band, I was a little intrigued. The Tubes were a theatrical conglomerate, so much was going on on the stage. You performed some rather racey stuff. Just before you joined the Dead, I'd heard that the Tubes were considering going back out on the road or reforming in some way. Is that so?
Welnick: There was a little bit of talk about it, but it's kind of on hold because of my situation with the Grateful Dead, which I gave utmost priority over the Tubes and Todd Rundgren. The Tubes at the time weren't touring with Fee [Waybill], sometimes Prairie [Prince] wasn't available because he had other musical gigs, and I wasn't always around because of [my work with] Todd Rundgren, who's a little more steady band, and who at the time was doing an album.
Relix: You toured with Rundgren when he went to Japan as well?
Welnick: Yeah, and I played on his new album, Second Wind. It's live at the Palace of Fine Arts. So the Tubes were taking a kind of long vacation. Todd were taking a kind of long vacation. Todd had just finished his album, and that means we usually won't be seeing him until six months down the road.
Relix: How did he feel when you told him you were now with the Grateful Dead?
Welnick: He knew about it, and he liked it. In fact, he's trying to come out and see us, but he's always working on his computer or doing something. But I think he kind of liked the idea because I wanted to be in something more steady, and I kept coaching Todd to do more touring and more projects. In fact, I suggested to him that he do the album, and if he's going to do it live, to do it at the Palace of Fine Arts because the Tubes have worked there before, and it was great. So, anyway, there was nothing going on at the time, and the Grateful Dead came up.
Relix: Were you approached by the Dead?
Welnick: They didnít approach me, I approached them. I had heard through the grapevine about Brent and my wife Lori called Mimi Mills, who used to work for the Tubes and now works for Bob, and said, "What gives?" She put me in touch with Bobby, and he said, "Bruse Hornsby is in the band now, and we want a synth player who can sing high harmony," which I can do. So they said that they were auditioning. There was one guy that I thought was going to get it, Tim Gorman. He just toured Japan as the Tim Gorman Band, so he had his own thing going, but perhaps my vocalization helped because I was pretty strong in the high harmonies.
Relix: When did you start playing keyboards?
Welnick: I saw my mom playing boogie woogie when I was a baby, and that caught my fancy.
Relix: What kind of music do you prefer now?
Welnick: Everything, I like it all, except I'm not too keen on opera. But I like Coltrane, Hendrix a lot. I like the Four Tops, Stevie [Wonder], Marvin Caye, Captain Beefheart. I like lots of various people, including soundtracks. When I started playing, a man in school got me into classical piano for starters. I did a couple of years of that and then went into pop.
Relix: Do you think classical prepared you for the Grateful Dead?
Welnick: It helped, although it's been a long time since I've played the classics. The thing that helped was the Tubes, because we played a wide variety of music. I kind of identified with the Dead from the beginning, in the '60s. I lost track of them in the '70s when I started going out on the road with the Tubes.
Relix: So you hadn't seen the Grateful Dead since the '60s?
Welnick: No, I saw them twice. I saw them in Phoenix at the Circle Theater, and I saw them in L.A. when I lived there, at the Shrine. I listened to them live. In fact, Anthem of the Sun I listened to.
Relix: So I guess you basically came in from a non-familiar background of what they were up to now. Did they just pile tapes on you so you could familiarize yourself with their material?
Welnick: I got so much stuff. They were very helpful and generous. They sent me everything on CD and cassette, including a CD player because I didn't own one, and they gave me a list of songs I might want to learn for the audition, which was helpful. There are a few songs that we've never practiced, that we just do.
Relix: Do you feel comfortable enough to just go in there and play?
Welnick: It's hard to feel uncomfortable because they are so friendly and personable. The first time I saw Bobby and Jerry, I wanted to play with the band. When I heard about the audition, and my wife was pushing for it, I thought to myself, well, I'd like to know if they want me in the band, then maybe I'll decide if I want to be in the band. I was used to being free and didn't really know what I wanted to do, but then it sounded intriguing to me because they're such a great band. They represent the '60s and a really great time in my life, which I still feel in my heart even though my hair is falling out. But then I met Bobby and Jerry, and it wasn't a question of bucks or fame, I knew I wanted to play with these guys. Then I went to audition and met Mickey, Bill, and Phil, and they all had the same kind of vibe about them. Then I was sitting there by the phone waiting for a week. Yeah, it was a crazy week, but I practiced hard. I really wanted to play with them, and I tried my damnedest, and I didn't know how the audition went. It was like a blur. Next thing I know, I'm in my car on the freeway wondering what happened.
Relix: When you do shows with Bruce Hornsby, is it difficult to stand out? Did his early presence help in your transition because you could lay back and listen more, or did you just dive right in?
Welnick: I played with him there about the same way as I play when he's not there. Because of the nature of the synthesizer and the piano, we play different registers and don't really step on each other much. I play about the same way, but more to fit in with the sound because you have two keyboards there and you don't want to have them dropping out. It makes it more subtle and richer at the same time. It depends on who's playing what, and I notice that Bruce sits out a lot and comes in on embellishments. I try to play textures, and I try to be conscious of what's going on lyrically. I try not to step on words or play louder than Jerry. I try to hear what Bob's doing, and I can pick up Phil really easily, but Bobby, sometimes, I have to get him pumped through the monitors.
Relix: I was wondering if it made it a little easier playing with Bruce because then you could listen a little bit more.
Welnick: It makes it easier except when it's a part that would require a piano part primarily. When Bruce is there, he has a signature "Bruce Hornsby piano." There is no way I'm gonna be the one to play the piano or a piano sound. I don't like the digital sound of piano as much as the real thing. I can always tell the difference. I've had to play digital piano because there aren't too many bands that could drag a nine-foot grand around with them. But I prefer the real thing. The only part that is really hard is when a song obviously calls for a piano, then I have to figure out what I'm going to do instead of playing piano. I take all the piano sounds out when Bruce is there. But overall, I think if I had my choice I'd rather play with Bruce just because he's a great player and we play different styles.
Relix: And it adds another texture.
Welnick: Yeah, and he's also a wonderful guy. He's really cool to work with, and it makes it richer. Again, there's a big evolution going with trying to get Hammond sound without having a Hammond. Also, learning the songs and trying to remember them when we don't play some of them so often.
Relix: The band doesn't remember them all. They forget an occasional lyric.
Welnick: But they do have 25 years on me, so there's a little bit of catching up involved. But they make it really easy because they are so forgiving.
Relix: And the audience is so accepting.
Welnick: There is so much unconditional love coming from out there.
Relix: I was wondering if you feel that. The Dead's fans have a unique outlook and approach to life. Has this affected you in any way?
Welnick: [Laughs] Yeah, probably in every way. Let me count the ways. Yeah, I mean, my whole life is different now. It would really have to be a whole separate inteview just to go into that.
Relix: When you get up onto the stage and you see this sea of color and you feel this love emanating from the audience, it must be amazing!
Welnick: Well, one can't be too cocky here, either, because I'm new at this game. I'd imagine some of the fans are probably looking in another direction when they're relaying their admiration out. But I feel the ripple here and there when I reach for a solo or go for something that may stand out in a small place somewhere in a song and get recognized. But I read magazines and what's said, and I realize that even though everyone's having a whale of a time up there, they are listening to every note. I mean, you can't slip one by them.
Relix: Do you have any ideas about what you'd like to add to the Grateful Dead?
Welnick: Well, I just like to collaborate with them on songs. Right now, we're still in rehearsal, getting me warmed up in existing songs. There is some talk going around that we might sit down and pair off with various people and write some songs. And I'd like to be on their next record and have an influence in a good way. How, I can't say, because we've never written together.
Relix: But you do write?
Welnick: Yeah, and I don't like to write alone. I write mostly music, and I wrote a lot of music for the Tubes. My wife and I co-wrote "Feel It" on Todd's new album. And I like writing with people. I have a lot of song ideas that are different styles, and I don't want to carve too deep into the Dead's feelings. So that's where it becomes a test of how to work it into the context of what we have here. But I figure if I just leave the songs open enough to work with them at this very moment, it will breathe life into it.
Relix: So you don't think you'll be introducing "White Punks On Dope," "Mondo Bondage," and other Tubes material into the band?
Welnick: Well, if Jerry wants to wear the big shoes, I'll play the songs.
Relix: Do you feel that your performance with the Dead has altered your style at all?
Welnick: Yeah, I get to solo ten times more than ever before, and it's a real kick. There's lots of open improv jamming, and that's one thing I really like. The Tubes had some room for improv, but with the Dead there's places in practically every song, which is unlike any band I've ever played in. My style is changing, and Jerry and Bob or Mickey or Bill or Phil lay a CD on me of a keyboard player (like Jerry turned me on to Little Feat), and you know, just give me a taste, and I want to hear and see everything. It's like checking it all out and trying not to be too lazy when I'm home because there are times when I tour for 200 days a year. I try to keep practicing. But I think half of this learning experience is listening. And I do listen a lot.
Relix: How did you like the Dead's European tour?
Welnick: It was great!
Relix: Considering that you were such a new kid at that point?
Welnick: Well, I had been to Europe before. The Tubes were probably more popular there than in America, and I was just in Germany about a year, but this was a different thing. For instance, I wasn't sharing a room with somebody in the band.
Relix: You've been on the San Francisco music scene for so many years, but you didn't get the recognition of being any sort of front man with your previous bands. Being with the Grateful Dead, every member is a front man, every member is crucial to the whole. Did you miss the solo status before?
Welnick: No, the plan of attack the Tubes took in the beginning, the first concept was that just standing up there playing was boring, and we wanted to fool around more. The second one was how do you remember seven guy's names when they're not nearly as big as the Beatles? You take one guy, you put him up front, you dress him up weird, and you make him a household item. Of course, the idea was to get one guy out there and at least one name, it's better than trying to jam seven people down in front. I was gratified in that I had a lot to do with the music, which is what I did best. And being a piano player, you've gotta sit down sometimes , so you're not exactly Mr. Excitement there on stage. I didn't mind sitting where I was sitting. They were playing my music, and just because a light didn't go on saying, "Vince wrote this," I felt in my own mind that I got to take center stage often enough. With the Grateful Dead, I think it's always gonna gravitate towards the obvious. I don't expect to jump off the keyboards, run up there, and grab a microphone in the center of the stage and entertain people. It's not going to be that way.
Relix: What would you like to see your career evolve to?
Welnick: I kind of like it where it's evolved to right now. I'd just like to see it get that much bigger and more wonderful within the Grateful Dead. It definitely has all the potential in the world. There's every opportunity to make it happen in this band, and there's no lacking of equipment or good vibes. There's plenty of encouragement.
Relix: The Grateful Dead are very environmentally vocal. Each member has his own favorite organization that they may work with or endorse. Do you find yourself getting involved, or were you prevoiusly?
Welnick: The Tubes did benefits and things like that. Not anywhere near the magnitude that the Rex Foundation does. But I'm still learning the songs. Although there are some things I could come up with down the road that I have in mind. I'm really concerned with the purity of water and hungry people and stuff like that. My wife is half Indian, and she's concerned about nuclear waste.
Relix: The plight of the rainforests came to much public attention via the Grateful Dead. They have gotten behind a number of concerns and their endorsements have done mankind a tremendous amount of good. They have that impact on their fans. How does it feel to have such power?
Welnick: Scary, it's thrilling. I got a lot more lines on my face from smiling all the time. Everyday is like Christmas. It makes you want to get up early and start the day.
Relix: What are some of your favorite Grateful Dead songs?
Welnick: There are too many to mention, but some of my favorite are "Eyes Of The World," "Terrapin," "Box of Rain," "Scarlet Begonias," "Bird Song," "Victim Or The Crime." I like "Black Peter," I love the bridge in that. I like the fact that Bobby knows all the words to all these Dylan songs. I like to see Phil sing more.
Relix: So would everyone in the audience.
Welnick: It's funny. We were at a rehearsal learning songs off Workingman's Dead and American Beauty, which have some pretty lush vocals, and a lot of them are very close together. It's hard to tell where to go on it. So I'd be singing a part, and I'd say, "Does it go like this?", and Phil would say, "No, more like this," and he'd just nail the part. So I'd say, "Phil, why don't you sing it?" He goes, "I can't do that, I can't sing that range." Meanwhile he just did it, right there. He feels his range is more down on baritone, but he sure nails it. "Attics Of My Life," I want to bring that back.
Relix: "Unboken Chain," it would be great to hear some of this material. It seems like you like some of the Weir/John Barlow stuff as well as Hunter who is a very strong force with the Grateful Dead lyric-wise.
Welnick: He just showed me in Box of Rain, his lyric book, there's a great deal of lyrics that are unpublished as Grateful Dead songs that he might have done himself, but said that it could be open to new musical interpretations.
I saw him at rehearsal yesterday, and he said to have a crack at some of the words, and I hope to get to do it with him. Jerry and Bobby talk about doing this drum machine party, that is, lay down some drums and party with it. And I've been over to Mickey's a couple of times and tossed him some ideas. I've been to Bill's house, and I'd like to get everyone involved in songwriting without any preconceived, which I'm sure they don't have, notions when they go into it. Just do whatever comes.
Relix: Mickey has brought some interesting percussive music to the public's attention. He's got such an intense feel for world music.
Welnick: Yeah, I checked his rainforest tapes, which was 22 hours up in a tree getting all of the cycles. From the first cycles of the day and then superimposing native songs over the top.
Relix: You have a lot of interesting and creative forces at work here. I think you may have found a very interesting home.
Welnick: It's fascinating. He took me over there, and he started playing some things we do on his major speakers down in his studio, and my God! That could be the answer to male birth control. Just stand down there for two seconds, and you'd be good for the whole day.
Relix: So any unusual ideas you ever come up with, here's your outlet for them.
Welnick: I did one piece where we found a cow out on the road, Lori and I. It was Saturday night, and a farmer was out doing the Saturday night thing. He was gone all night, so he had to keep the cow out in the pasture, and it was making some big-time noise, so I went out and recorded it on cassette. Some time later, I'm playing this and I'm going, "Wow! It seems to be pretty consistent in its tone quality." I found out this cow was going in the key of C, big time. So I laid down this track of "boogie woogie" and recorded it while I played the cow going off at random intervals and just let it be the lead singer. It came out real cool. The cow sings. And if I get a loss for songwriting ideas, what I do a lot with 13 cards off the deck, the aces are one, the jacks are 11, the queens are 12, and the kings are one again, and the 13th card I deal is the key that the song would be in, and I run out three sections of four chords that go with the 12 cards that have been dealt. And they decide what the intervals are and juxtaposition it to intervals of a melody or a chord change. It makes its own tune, for better or worse. Sometimes you get too many sevens or nines in your hand, and you know you get a weird sound. But for the most part, you can come up with ideas you never dreamed possible.
Relix: Now, you're going to be coming up with really weird things. But I'm sure you're finding that the Grateful Dead will give you your voice and your space, and you'll be able to work things, and they'll add to those things, and I think we're going to see a lot of you out there. I know it's a short time, you've only been with them a few months. It's just a beginning for a band that's been around for over 25 years. You have a long strange trip ahead of you.
Welnick: Once I get toilet-trained more, there'll be no stopping me.
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