By Ryan Dembinsky (Ryan Demler)
Long before he cut his chops as a guitarist at the Manhattan School of Jazz or formed the seminal 1990s improvisational rock band God Street Wine, guitarist Lo Faber was a born and bred country and bluegrass music kid. In a nearly-hour-long chat discussing his solo album under the moniker Doctor Lo, Bottomland, he explained:
“I grew up in Jersey and when I was a kid, it was still rural. Today, it’s all subdivisions, but back then it was all dairy farms. My mom played in a hippie bluegrass band called the Millstone Valley Boys. She played mandolin and I started on banjo at age 8 on an instrument that their bassist made for me. All I played was bluegrass stuff, gospel and folk music like Joan Baez, John Prine, Tom Paxton and early Dylan – not electric, just the folk stuff.”
Bottomland represents a sharp return to these folk roots with a striking set of highly personal Americana songs that conjure up virtually no God Street Wine comparisons. It’s a totally unexpected sound for anyone who knows Lo Faber solely from God Street Wine – and it’s something he expressed a sense of nervousness about with respect to how fans will receive the change, but that’s downright silly. Bottomland is a terrific album, adorned with all the trademark instrumental prowess, but it comes in a new format; played with different instruments; and complemented with dramatically improved singing.
“When I was teenager,” Lo continued, “I got my first electric guitar and started listening to The Beatles, Stones and the Dead. So, I got out of playing bluegrass at some point, but I always had it in me. I went to Manhattan School of Jazz, which was great for my learning and my chops, but I could never get the country out of my playing. You do these jury performances when you go to jazz school where you play in front of the faculty and it’s nerve-wracking and awkward and artificial. One of the comments from the jury was, ‘Faber has been unable to eliminate country from his guitar playing.’ And I felt so bad about that. I was thinking, ‘Shit, I really cannot get this country inflection out.’ Now that I’m 50-years-old, I’ve finally decided to just be OK with it and embrace the country.”
The thought of one of the forefathers of the 90s jam scene in this environment is reminiscent of Miles Teller’s character from the film Whiplash, but was Faber a star student? Did he feel the same kind of pressures portrayed in the movie?
“A lot of us who went to jazz school think that movie is kind of silly because they take it too far,” Lo said. “It isn’t that bloodthirsty. It can be a little bit like that, but that movie was totally over the top. It does have that aspect to it though: the athleticism and the competition. I met [GSW guitarist] Aaron [Maxwell] there though, and that completely changed my life. We were both just two out of about 20 guitar players, and they were all really good. It was intimidating. Aaron’s father was a jazz trumpet player, so he had more of a jazz background and probably felt more comfortable than I did.”
The point in Faber’s musical development when he started realizing maybe he was getting distinctly good at guitar came earlier.
“When I was 13 I started taking guitar lessons with this teacher and he had about 20 students who were also fellow students at my school,” Faber said. “I knew what they were working on and I knew what I was working on, so I knew that I advanced pretty far compared to them. I also realized that whenever my teacher needed to do a showcase or have a student perform, he always chose me. So, I thought, ‘Hey, I think I’ve found something I can do well,’ which is a great feeling as a kid. I loved baseball as a kid too, but I was too little and I wasn’t ever going to be good at it, so I stuck to playing music and listening to records.”
Bottomland & Jitters Of A New Sound
The material that comprises Bottomland came about as Lo was writing new material during the recording of last year’s God Street Wine record. He came up with what he felt were extremely strong new tunes, yet felt like the material was not in a style to which longtime GSW fans would necessarily relate. Frankly, he thought the GSW audience would find it potentially too weird and coming out of left field. It seems crazy to hear given the new material is practically universally likable, but some of this trepidation seems to date back to an experience the band encountered after the release of Red years ago.
“The audience that exists for God Street Wine today is an older audience,” Faber explained. “They want to hear God Street Wine play God Street Wine – music like what they are used to hearing. I don’t know for sure, but we had an experience in 1995 where we put out an album called Red, that was stylistically – for a lot of fans – so different that we ended up alienating a lot of them. The record before that is the album that all our fans love, $1.99 Romances, and we just wanted to try something different. We didn’t take into account people’s expectations enough. We assumed that they all love us, and they will all go along with whatever we do, but that turned out to be a conceited amateur band mistake.
“It’s not a mistake to be true to yourself musically. But if you’re lucky enough to have an audience, you have to figure out a way to meet them halfway. We weren’t even very diplomatic about it. So, I learned a lesson from that, which is that you can’t always just count on people for their unconditional support. They have a lot of other things vying for their attention. You need to find something new, but something that stays true to why they liked you in the first place.”
That experience seems to have consciously or subconsciously informed the desire to take this material under the new Doctor Lo moniker. He decided early on that it was going to be a solo album and that he would be working simultaneously on a God Street Wine project. For that reason, it took place slowly at first. During this time, he was still teaching full-time and working on the two recording projects parallel to one another. The God Street project eventually took priority because they had a batch of tour dates over the summer after releasing the GSW album This Fine Town in June. Meanwhile, Faber opted to take his time on Bottomland, figuring rightly that this was his first solo album in 16 years: what’s the rush if he takes a couple more months?
Discussing the origins of the material, Faber indicated Bottomland marked a bit of a shift toward more personal experiences.
“The material all comes from my adult years,” Lo said. “The oldest song is called “Perfect,” which was written in 2014 the day my son got kicked out of first grade, but most of it is more recent. Everything was recorded at my house, mostly in my bedroom. I recorded most of it in the early morning hours. I would drop my kids off by 8 a.m. and have to be at work by about 11 a.m. for teaching, so I would record every morning between about 8 and 10 in the morning.
“These songs are all very close to me. These are all very personal songs about my life, my family, my marriage, middle age and my relationships. That stuff is all part of the country genre as well. These are songs about real life and that is not an easy thing to do. You walk such a fine line with these kinds of songs. Some people might find it very corny, while some people might find them very touching. You get older and you live life and you start to want to write more about what you’ve learned about life and your experiences. When you’re 22 and you write a song, what the hell do you know about life? Nothing. The goofy songs I wrote with God Street early on were not about life. They were just about weird, goofy shit that was in my head back in those days.”
In terms of a favorite song on the record, Faber has a soft spot for “33.” It’s the one about Rolling Rock beer. There are a lot of people now who hate Rolling Rock and who don’t think it is a good beer, but back in the day in the 90s when GSW started playing clubs, they would always get a case of Rolling Rock backstage. It was just the band’s beer for some reason. They don’t even really remember why. On the back of the bottle, it says, “From the glass-lined tanks of Old Latrobe, we tender this premium beer for your enjoyment as a tribute to your good taste. It comes from the mountain springs to you ‘33’.”
“I would always look at that and say, ‘One day I’m going to write a song with these words as a chorus’,” Faber said. “I think of Rolling Rock as an old white man’s beer, so the song is about an old white man who is a history professor and what he learned as a history professor. It’s the day after a bunch of history professors went out after they finished grading all their history papers and got shitfaced at a bar on Rolling Rock. It’s about how I love these people who do a hard job and don’t get paid much for it. It’s about some of the experiences I had in seven years as a history professor. We even have a nice video that we shot for it with real history professors getting shitfaced [laughs].”
Past, Present & Future
When God Street Wine decided to hang it up in 1999 after achieving major-label success during a golden age of improvisational rock, it was a case of everybody just needing a break. They had run into some business setbacks in dealing with their record label and things like that really have a way of sucking the joy out of being in a band.
GSW was signed to Mercury and Mercury was part of Polygram. In 1998, Polygram became part of Universal and somewhere in that tangled web of corporatism about half of the acts on the label got cut – including God Street Wine. The band was dropped, but they had one more contractually obliged record on the deal and they needed the money for it. So, they had to fight the label with lawyers and the whole thing became a real drag. At that point, the band had been seeing each other constantly for about seven years straight. It was just time for a break. Everybody knew they wanted to do other things, and it turned out what they all really wanted to do was have families, because that’s what most of the band did immediately after splitting up.
“It was amicable as these things go,” Lo remembered. “We were probably sort of sick of each other at the time, but that’s different from having actual deep issues. In recent years, we have all been really friendly and it has been great getting back with those guys, both musically and as buddies. It’s an amazing thing to have a band, really. It’s like having another family.”
Fast forward to 2009 and out of nowhere, the internet started clamoring for a God Street Wine reunion. The Bring Back God Street Wine Facebook page started up in earnest and Hidden Track began posting God Street Wednesdays both as a regular reminder of the band’s storied history and a call to arms to get GSW back together. While the band collectively thought God Street Wine was just something they left behind in their youth, sure enough, before long they were playing at least a few shows every year and they even tested their touring legs this past summer – if not just a bit too much.
“It showed the stress of what happens we try to push it perhaps a little too far beyond just an occasional one-off thing,” Faber said. “We kind of put a little stress back on it. We had to replace Dan [Pifer] on part of the tour, so TP [Tom Pirozzi of Ominous Seapods] played bass. He was great, but it still wasn’t ideal to be missing a member on every show. There was some back and forth about when we should play and where we should go. I think the thing with GSW is that it must be a once-in-a-while special treat. Don’t get me wrong, we had a great summer of shows. The music was great and we had the best time, but I did come away with the feeling that if I want to get back to full-time music, it’s not going to be with GSW. Musically, it was happenin’ though.”
Faber will in-fact be pursuing full-time music yet again. Ever since May of last year, he is officially a full-time musician and he plans to eventually assemble a new band. Nothing is set in stone just yet, but he would like to find a group of people that can play this new material convincingly, but also play some of the God Street Wine material with a sound consistent with that material.
“I’m trying to cross my fingers that an old guy who is 50-years-old and has been out of music full-time for 15 years can somehow find an audience,” he laughed. “I’m starting to think about another record. I already formed a record label. I’m doing all the indie artist stuff, like social media and making my own merch – the whole D.I.Y. thing. It’s exciting, but it’s also kind of stressful too. It’s a new world out there, but it’s a good world in many ways.
“I’ve also been working hard on my voice for the last year or two. I always felt like my voice was a weak link in GSW, so I found a voice teacher that I started training hard with. It’s not just having my singing sound better, but it’s also having my voice be healthier so I can play more shows and rehearse. That used to be a big problem in God Street Wine. If we played four nights in a row, by that fourth night my voice would be shot and out of tune and scratchy sounding. Nowadays, when we get together, we have to do a lot of rehearsing since we don’t see each other that much. So, sometimes we’ll wind up doing 12-hour days of rehearsal and by the end of it, it puts a lot of strain on my voice. I’m trying to do it in a much healthier way from now on.”
The State of Music Today and “Jam Bands”
The term jam band isn’t one that Lo Faber or GSW feel a strong connection to, but he recognizes the importance of jamming in the band’s development and popularity.
“I really don’t know. We really resisted the whole idea of the jam bands as a genre. We always identified with just being a rock band. People would always say, well you guys jam, but I would say, ‘Have you ever seen a Led Zeppelin concert?’ [laughs] We probably should have embraced it though from a pure marketing perspective, because it turned out to be a good branding thing. It certainly was good for bands like Phish. For whatever reason, we were just contrarian to it and never wholeheartedly embraced that tag.”
Lo noted that he doesn’t get out enough to say what’s going on today to really say how the state of the scene he helped create looks today. If he does make it out nowadays, he is going to go see country music and Americana artists like Jason Isbell, Kacey Musgraves, The Avett Brothers and The Milk Carton Kids. Those are the bands he really loves right now. He also raves about Dead & Company and how they are bringing those old songs to life for a whole new generation. Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, on the other hand, is not his bag.
“I feel like the whole idea of jam bands was Dean Budnick’s invention,” Lo said. “I love Dean. He’s an old friend. He and I have the Ph.D. and history teacher common bond. Music is music though. I think most musicians feel this way. Everybody gets uncomfortable with the labels. Listen, I love hip hop. I love experimental classical music. I love The Allman Brothers.”
Looking back, Faber admitted he thinks that God Street Wine probably didn’t jam enough to reach their critical mass in terms of popularity.
“The true Phish fans – if they don’t hear real extended improvisations at least three or four times a night – they are not down with it. We didn’t do that. At a Phish show, I think 50% of the show is jamming or maybe even 60% or 70% on some nights. God Street Wine would be more like 25%. Even back in the day, if we had a setlist of 10 songs, we would have two songs on average that would have a jam. And even then, the jams were more like a bridge in the song. They weren’t all that freeform. We knew where it was going to be and how we were going to end it.
“We had plenty of songs on that setlist where we would just play the four-minute song. The first time I saw Phish, my favorite song was ‘Bouncing Around the Room,’ because it is one of their best songs as a lyric and melody. If I’m with a serious Phish heads, they are disappointed. There is no jam in it. That would be so shameful to admit that’s my favorite song, but I’m into songs. The jam band world is not about songs. I always felt some contention with it for that reason.
“Don’t get me wrong though. I’m so grateful for the audience that came out to see God Street Wine. When you listen to Willie Nelson or Hank Williams or Bob Dylan, it is about a song. That has always been my mindset. I like to jam, because jamming is fun. It’s great to do live and it gives every show a sense of adventure. That stuff is all great, but the song has to be the core.”