Kung Fu has been busy touring around the country, coast to coast. Live For Live Music caught up with saxophonist Robert Somerville to talk about what he’s been up to as well as get his take on opening up for moe. during their comeback performance at The Capitol Theatre after bassist Rob Derhak recovered from cancer.
Somerville has been gracing the stage for over twenty-five years with Kung Fu and other bands like Deep Banana Blackout. Not normally one to give many interviews, this exclusive conversation with Somerville covers everything from the early days to the present day and provides some words of advice for up-and-coming musicians.
Live For Live Music: Take us through the early years of your life. How did you get into playing the saxophone and who were your earliest influences?
Rob Somerville: I find that there’s a common denominator with a lot of kids from the public school. I grew up in Wilmington, Delaware so I was the first generation of my family not to grow up in Aroostook County, Maine on both my mother and my father’s side. It’s potato country up in northern Maine, so I lucked out and grew up in Delaware, which was awesome.
Musically speaking, the public music program had music teachers in second and third grade and it was a class. It was not uncommon to start learning music on a recorder. As I meet other horn players and musicians, a lot of them have that common thread, in that they started in music on the recorder.
I was also taking piano lessons but my teacher was an old, crotchety lady who never made it fun. I hated it. I hated practicing and I hated the whole thing about it. This was when I was 7 or 8, but when I got the recorder, everything just clicked. I was good at the recorder and I just ‘got it.’ I was into music class and we learned to read notes, scales, and rhythm. They were really big on teaching you rhythm and reading music at that age.
When I applied the recorder, I knew that I was learning it faster than other kids. This all coincided with hating my piano lessons but realizing that I really liked music and I got it, unlike math, which always baffled my math teachers. They somehow equated being a musician with being good at math. I was horrible at math but I was good at music.
In this conjunction of not having fun with the piano but having fun with the recorder my mother suggested I play a different instrument. At the time, I had been listening to an old record that my grandparents had called Chet, Floyd & Boots. It was guitarist Chet Atkins, pianist Floyd Cramer, and sax player Boots Randolph. Randolph played the Benny Hill theme, a tune called “Yakety Sax”, and it’s all sped up. I just loved that song and thought, “why not the saxophone?”
In elementary school, we had band as a class [a few] days a week and would also have private lessons with the band director. We were playing music almost every day and the band director, Don Hendrick, had a summer jazz program that was a week long and you would play like a stage band. It was the summer after fourth grade and I just wanted to play in a jazz band. We didn’t have one at school at the time, so me and a bunch of the other kids asked about having a jazz band. Somebody came up with the brilliant idea of doing it during lunch and recess, which was about an hour and a half, and he agreed as long as our parents signed off on it. So here we were in fifth grade having basically jazz band rehearsal five days a week. The nucleus of this crew from fifth grade ended up playing together all through junior high and high school. By the time we were in high school, we were a serious kickass stage and jazz band. I was listening to big band and fusion and sax players. It just went from there. Nobody in my family was really a musician. My grandfather was a singer. My grandmother was a piano player. Music was always around but nobody was in a band or anything like that.
I was 16 years old and one of the teachers had this old-timers swing band. This band was the first one that I actually got a gig with. It was summertime and I remember driving to this barn in the farmlands of eastern Pennsylvania, and we played in a hayloft full of all these people at the party. It was 1986. When we got done, I was handed $20. $10 filled my car and the other I spent on Doritos and Gatorade.
I was into lots of stuff like sports, cycling and musical theater. All of it blossomed from my elementary school and having awesome teachers who were willing and wanting to take the time for each student. When I hear music and art programs are getting cut from school, those are the things you want. You want something to touch you and if you stripped that away from schools, there are countless souls that may never get that spark. I never would have known that I had a knack for music unless I had teachers and programs that supported that.
L4LM: How did the early years evolve into what later became Deep Banana Blackout and Kung Fu, among others?
RS: Once I played that first gig, I remember driving home and [waking] my parents up. I was so excited. Two summers later, I was touring around Europe with another big band. I was 18 years old. It was mostly high school-aged kids. There was another music director, Hal Schiff, who would take students to South America and Europe. It was awesome. Even before that, I knew that this was what I was going to do. There was never a moment that I decided. I just started doing it. This was early in my teens. I went to college for music at the University of Hartford, and thus begins the story of the Connecticut connection.
First, there was a band called Tongue & Groove that a lot of the guys in Deep Banana Blackout played in: Dave Livolsi, Andrew Gromiller, Jen Durkin, and Eric Kalb were in Tongue & Groove. When I was in college, we used to go see them because they were the funkiest band in Connecticut, by far. They played all classic funk, James Brown, Funkadelic, Curtis Mayfield, everything – blues, funk, funk blues – and I just wanted to be in the band. My roommate and I asked to sit in on shows so Tongue & Groove was my first real gig and I was right out of college, living in Hartford, not having any job lined up.
We wrote our instruments and names on their mailing list and that we would love to sit in with them. The day they were going through the mailer, the sax player was quitting the band and after they announced it they found a sax and trombone player on their list. That band was like funk boot camp. They were so serious and precise. It was like cramming for exams.
L4LM: What was it like being in Deep Banana, because they’ve played pretty much every Gathering of the Vibes festival?
RS: Technically, they played every Gathering of the Vibes because we have to remember that the first one was in 1996 – Dead Head Heaven, a Gathering of the Tribe. Deep Banana Blackout did not play at that one, but the first official Gathering of the Vibes was in 1997 at Croton Point. That first gig at GoV was the gig that put us on the map, without a doubt. It was not even the official show but it was the Friday night campfire late night set. These guys Bob Kennedy and Ken Hays, and that whole crew set up a PA out in the campground with a sound engineer and nothing else. No security. No stage crew. Nothing. They just left it set up. There was nobody there to tell us when to stop.
There was a full moon and a huge bonfire and we were all wearing next to nothing. What was I thinking? I can’t get away with that anymore. We played all night long with guest after guest. We played our full repertoire. I remember it getting light out and nobody still told us to stop. We finally just ran out. They got so many complaints because the sound engineer cranked that shit up. There was a huge bonfire and no barrier or anything. People were walking onto the stage and up to the mics. It was beautiful and magical and all those things. That night really propelled us to start playing at The Wetlands. We really got known because of the Vibes and The Wetlands, without a doubt.
L4LM: What is your most memorable moment with a musician that you have performed with that blew you away?
RS: John Scofield, Bill Evans, Victor Bailey to name a few off the top of my head. Scofield sat in with Deep Banana at the Vibes I believe in ’99. Melvin Seals, Melvin Sparks, Derek Trucks came and sat in with us. Warren Haynes. Deep Banana did a tour with the Allman Brothers in 2001 and invited us out to play on these sets. We were playing sold out places, such as The Meadows in Hartford [now Xfinity Theatre], which was probably the most memorable one.
We had done a bunch of shows with them, and [when they got to] Hartford, we weren’t on the second half of the tour. I still had my tour credentials, and the trombone player Bryan Smith, still had his and we lived about 50 minutes away from the venue. We thought we might as well go to the show. We just drove to The Meadows and parked right there at the backstage door after we showed our pass. We waltzed right in. Warren saw us and asked if we brought our horns, which we did. It’s the most memorable sit-in of my career because that was right at the height of Deep Banana, it was in Hartford, and it was my second home at the time.
We were backstage eating shrimp cocktail and then it was time to go on and play. Warren in typical fashion said, “Please welcome Deep Banana Blackout horns!” The roar of the crowd is something I will never forget. To put it in perspective, Greg Allman literally shook because it was a roar. I had goosebumps. I was smiling ear to ear. That’s a huge sit-in and huge moment. That was a good day.
L4LM: Can you talk about opening for moe. for their come back performance at The Capitol Theatre? In addition, talk about joining in with moe. during moe.down last year? What was that like?
RS: The guys from moe. are so smart because it was so muddy at moe.down. I was walking around in huge rain boots up to my knees. When it was time to play, I had to go onstage in these boots. I get up there and all the guys from moe. get up to the stage and were wearing their boots too so I thought, no problem. However, those guys had their shoes to change into on the side of the stage. The last laugh was definitely on me.
First, hearing that a colleague, Rob [Derhak], got the kind of news he did, it was shocking and frightening. I didn’t speak to Rob about it but watched him through his reports on Facebook. As soon as I saw the support he had and his attitude about the situation, I didn’t worry. I had that feeling like, “you’ve got this.” The support behind him was amazing. I can’t imagine what it’s like for moe. They must be so fucking excited. They don’t need us – Kung Fu – to open for them. The fact that they invited us to open, I was over the moon about it. It’s a real honor and distinct privilege to be thought of to do something like that for them. Everyone in the band was psyched about it.
L4LM: Final thoughts. Is there anything else you would like to share with your fans?
RS: To fans, thank you. We are all in this together and there’s nights that you feel that. There’s no distinction between the band on stage and the fans in the crowd. I live for those nights. Everyone has that equal passion for the music. If nobody’s there, we still love to play. When we all get together, we feed off of each other. Bands love that. You can tell when the crowd is into it and the crowd can tell when the band is into it. You will have bad days, but you have to segregate yourself from that and escape to a high level on stage.
The one word of advice I have for new musicians is the same answer all the time. Don’t be an asshole. I found that you can be the most gifted musician in the world, but if you’re an asshole, nobody wants to work with you for too long. So many musicians have been humbled by that. Bands are all competing against each other but nowadays, the musicians in our scene are really cool to each other. There’s a lot of love out there. I love the world where music and my colleagues are on the scene right now. Also, maintain a certain level of professionalism–be on time, don’t be fucked up, be cool. That’s how you’re going to get work. That’s the nuts and bolts of it right there. To be successful, you have to be nice.
For more information on Kung Fu, including tour dates, please head to their official website.
Words and Photos by Sarah Bourque