It had been a wonderful evening and what I needed now to give it the perfect ending was a bit of the old Ludwig Van.”
— Alex DeLarge; A Clockwork Orange
And a non-alcoholic beverage. Nothing like a little Beethoven and milk to warm up to a little ultrajam!
Well, this is an intriguing combination of sound, sight, movement, and energy. From deep within the mind of bassist Reed Mathis comes a newly formed visionary project, Reed Mathis & Electric Beethoven. You could call it Classical Dance Music, or CDM.
On the surface, it appears exactly what you think it would be … a brilliant crossover venture bringing classical music back into the minds of jam heads, while maybe opening minds of classical lovers to improvisational rock. I played piano for many years when I was a little kid, and there was plenty of Beethoven being played I can assure you. (Looking back, I really wish I would have kept with it.) I believe that my piano playing years and Beethoven primed my soul to appreciate any kind of music as I got older. Nowadays — as I’m immersed with big jam bands like Phish, Umphrey’s McGee, Widespread Panic, Disco Biscuits, moe., etc. — it’s revitalizing to hear a jam improv take on Beethoven. BUT, that’s hardly what this project is about. That’s the kindergarten version. He’s going for the tantric version. Reed wants you to dance!
INTERVIEW: Reed Mathis
Listen to my conversation with Reed. Or/and you can continue reading to, well, read about it.
Don’t think, don’t be embarrassed, just dance and listen to your body as it reacts to the sound. Become part of the music. Become part of the show.
Reed’s parents and grandfathers are conductors, so he was hearing live music since he was in the womb. He didn’t think of music as recordings, it was just what grown ups did, in real time. Music wasn’t something you learned, it was just part of the day. He thought all families were making music every day. But he wasn’t drawn to classical music until he got interested in group improvising and heard the implicit improvisation in what Beethoven left behind. He realized the music came from improvising and was built to handle it, but nobody played it that way anymore. Reed had been longing to find a way to make group improvising happen where the audience is a part of it to the point where it’s not a head trip. As a musician, you’re shooting to play what feels good in your body. It’s not a mental exercise. It’s a physical thing. You’re moving your body and trying to harmonize your nervous systems together. But in a group, it’s hard not to turn improvising into people trading solos and can get kinda lame. He wanted a band that could do group improvising that wasn’t about instruments, solo, genre, style, etc., but one that embodied the following of your heart in that moment. And then Reed realized that is what Beethoven was trying to do!
What would happen if you took Beethoven’s chord progressions, just the chord progressions, and make up all of the other information? Reed did it. Everybody played it. Everybody came to the gig. And it was the greatest thing they ever felt. Reed knew he was on to something. It’s partially about Beethoven, but it’s mostly about using improvisation and dance as a way to feel less alone.
Growing up, Reed’s mother and sister taught piano lessons in the living room multiple days a week. He never took lessons, but he was able to read piano music by age three and play random things here an there. Later, when he got a Led Zeppelin music book, the game changed. He could play their first five albums on the piano when he in sixth grade. That really opened him up to the way music works. Led Zeppelin is where he hears the genuine echo of Beethoven. Led Zeppelin’s epicness and primal throbbing punch you in the gut with real brutal and bittersweet shit that will make you cry. Much like Radiohead, John Coltrane, Bjork, Bob Marley, Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix … what they express is ancient and new at the same time — it’s sorcery. They’re geniuses of communication. It’s not about music; they just have it, whatever it is. They’re expressing something about being human. You’re understanding what their nervous system goes through by hearing this sound they make. You’re hearing what it’s like to be these musicians.
Electric Beethoven is about Reed and his friends trying to figure out how to feel some sort of authentic togetherness in the music scene that isn’t about classifications or structure. It’s like that dumb movie where they found a map on the back of The Constitution. He found something in Beethoven’s music that nobody saw. It’s almost like a series of yoga positions … if you play these chord progressions in a certain order, it will heal your psyche and your body and your nervous system. It’s not about violins and classical style, and they’re not combining styles. They’re playing styles. They’re playing the actual feelings of their nervous system.
The reasons these chord progressions work with other styles is not an accident; Beethoven’s music really understands American music because of New Orleans. In 1850 there were 400 opera houses in NOLA, half of which had all black orchestras, and what do you think their playing? When emancipation happened and black musicians from all over the south ended up in NOLA, they began making music together, and Beethoven was a common thing they knew. Caribbean African grind, military civil war instruments (trumpets, snare drums, etc.), spiritual and blues from migrants after the war … that is the recipe for rock and roll — black musicians who know how to play Beethoven combined with blues and dance and spirituals and using military instruments to do it. Beethoven’s chord progressions sound so fresh because they are literally what we still do.
Reed Mathis & Electric Beethoven released their debut album Beathoven on September 30, 2016, via Royal Potato Family. The album featured guests from members of Phish, Galactic, Benevento/Ruso Duo, and many more. But those guys have their own bands and tours to do. So, this is the touring gang ….
Electric Beethoven Lineup:
Reed Mathis (Billy & the Kids, Tea Leaf Green, Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey)
Jay Lane (Primus, Ratdog, Furthur)
Todd Stoops (RAQ, Rhythmatronix, Kung Fu)
They’ve been steadily getting some shows under their belt the last six months and have had fun experimenting with these songs. The track “Awakening of Happiness” has been extended as much as an hour. There’s been a one-song first set and a one-song second set! The ritual can go deep. Beethoven songs are based on theme and variation. So in Electric Beethoven, there’s a riff and a variation. They do a loop like a DJ would and then allow it to unravel curiously. Also, the track “In Memory of a Great Man” (which is the first movement of Beethoven’s third symphony) has been a journey full of surprises for the band when they play it live. They can’t believe the music coming out of them. It’s like a feature-length movie of an epic voyage crossing the ocean. DOWNLOAD THIS FREE LIVE RECORDING! The first 34 minutes of this recording is just that song. Here’s the first track, nine and a half minutes, just as a taste.
Reed was previously in Tea Leaf Green. He loves those boys and he loved playing with them. But after some time, they didn’t want to play that much and Reed’s desire to push his craft kept growing. Schedules weren’t working out, so it was time to leave. So he started working on this Beethoven idea that he had been kicking around and wondered if anyone would be interested. He put some feelers out and all of the people on the record thought it was an incredible idea.
Whenever he is too nervous to take the next step or involve somebody else, as soon as he reached out he received so much affirmation. Jon Fishman of Phish said he thinks it’s the most important music being made on the touring circuit right now. Essentially, Reed is using Beethoven’s chord progressions to make loops then improvise dance structures over them, under them, and in them. It’s kinda incredible what they’ve pulled off.
Reed Mathis is excited an serious about his future and about Electric Beethoven. He assembled a good touring group, which he said was pretty easy to do. They had been with so many bands, but suddenly were without a real team, like “Whoa, what happened to my band?!” They were doing shows and only using a little of their skill set. How about we get together and play as passionately as possible all the time? It will make a fiercely grizzly bear of Jay Lane come over and give Reed a big hug after a show and say, “Thank you so much for putting this together and seeing that I have the music in me!” It’s not a gig for them, it’s a sacred ritual. Don’t be afraid to be a complicated person. They hope that when they roll into a new town each night, their vibration will attract other people who want to be a bold human and people with genuine curiosity.
Reed says some of the best advice he ever got was when he was 18, he asked John Medeski if he ever felt insecure when playing on stage. He replied “All the time.” Reed asked him “What do you do about that?” John said, “Nothing. That’s your A-Game. You’re embarrassed because you’re not hiding, you’re embarrassed because you’re being honest. When you’re embarrassed by a project, that’s how you know its your real shit.” So this project makes Reed feel very vulnerable, exposed, and anxious, that is until he feels it, then he feels happy, thankful, and powerful.
Reed Mathis’ spirit animal is a humpback whale.
Listen to Beathoven via Spotify!
Check out Reed Mathis & Electric Beethoven with special guest and local Jacksonville jammers Lucky Costello at Jack Rabbits Live in Jacksonville on Thursday, January 26, the day after they get off the almighty Jam Cruise, the best party boat festival ever.
LETTER FROM REED MATHIS
We can know only the surface circumstances that made up Beethoven’s broken heart. Rejected as a child performer, orphaned as a teen, deaf at 30 and unable to perform, a string of marriage proposals rejected, and his adopted son’s suicide attempt, but the details of his life are not really the point. We all feel alike the sting of life’s indifference to our wishes, of random tragedy, and ultimately of our own mortality. We are all angels surprised to find ourselves trapped inside monkeys. We’ve all seen that bad things happen to good people. So, what can be done with a cruel and unfair world? A profound, heartfelt answer to that question is what we hear in Beethoven’s music, and it’s why some of us return again and again to these evergreens of a song. The archetypes that Beethoven articulated are in every newborn baby, in every broken heart that heals. They are in me, and they are in you. The real communication happens directly between you and him, without words, in our universal dream-language of sound.
We present here two of his nine symphonies. In the 6th, called “Pastoral,” he admits that his true religion is not Christianity, but the divinity of Nature, of skies, and trees, and rivers, and storms. In the 3rd, called “Eroica” or “Heroic,” he walks us through his suicidal anguish over his encroaching deafness, and his ultimate victorious decision to commit egocide rather than suicide.
It has been such an honor to improvise on these forms, and to chant these prayers. And it is my hope to discover new realms of joy, anger, surprise and triumph lurking in the many different universes of sound contained in each movement, as we put them on top of dance beats and bring them into the new world, in a live music setting.”
ABOUT THE BAND
While on tour with various Grateful Dead side-projects (Billy & the Kids, Rhythm Devils, Golden Gate Wingmen) and other notable projects over the past few years, bassist extraordinaire Reed Mathis spent his spare time rearranging Beethoven (Symphonies No. 3 and No. 6), recording each newly reimagined movement with a long and impressive “who’s-who” list of his musical brethren, including Phish’s Page McConnell and Mike Gordon, Marco Benevento, Joe Russo, Brad and Andrew Barr, Robert Walter and Galactic’s Stanton Moore.
The resulting double album, “Beathoven,” was released last September to critical acclaim and fan delight, but Mathis never intended the album to be the end-game.
His theory was that Beethoven’s works — particularly these two symphonies, given the historical context in which they were originally composed — contain healing properties. As such, they are spells and enchantments as much as they are orchestral scores. Furthermore, since Beethoven himself prized improvisation above composition (a fact often forgotten in music history class), Mathis made it his mission to take these symphonies out of the stuffy institutions they’ve been locked away in, behind glass, for 200 years and bring them back to the people, where they belong — as living, breathing, improvisational MOVEMENTS.
When assembling the touring lineup, Mathis looked for players who weren’t afraid to jump off cliffs and explore the unknown, live in front of an audience. He looked for musicians who sought to create and explore new music every night, making a standard of creating live variations without boundaries. And he wanted to showcase musicians who were being criminally underutilized in their various other projects, providing them with in a space where they could realize their full potential.
Introducing the world’s first CDM (“classical dance music”) band: Reed Mathis & Electric Beethoven, featuring Jay Lane (Primus, Ratdog) on drums, Todd Stoops (RAQ, Rythmatronix) on keyboards, and Clay Welch — a young guitar phenom who literally grew up studying Mathis as a bass player while following Mathis’ then-band, Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, from show to show as a fan.
The band debuted by throwing an “Electric Beethoven Acid Test” in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, as a feature of 2016’s Outside Lands music festival (headlined that night by Radiohead), and showcased throughout the fall including sets at Catskill Chill Music Festival and Brooklyn Comes Alive (where they were joined by String Cheese Incident’s Jason Hann and the Disco Biscuits’ Aron Magner).
INTERVIEW: Reed Mathis & Electric Beethoven Interview by Richie Williams.
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