One of the most intriguing groups to come out of 2016 has been Electric Beethoven, an improvisational take on the music of famed composer Ludwig van Beethoven. Normally, a name like Beethoven isn’t associated with improvisation, which underlies the beauty and uniqueness of the new project. Conceived by bassist Reed Mathis, Electric Beethoven already has a handful of performances under their belts, and will release their debut album Beathoven on September 30th via Royal Potato Family.
Listen to Beathoven, streaming in full via Spotify.
The music of Electric Beethoven has a unique energy to it, contrasting the perceived regimented nature of Beethoven’s 3rd and 6th Symphonies with pure improvisational freedom as musicians. While the album features a number of special guests (including Page McConnell, Mike Gordon, Joe Russo, Stanton Moore and more), the band that Mathis assembled for the live shows is a force unto itself. With Jay Lane, Todd Stoops and Clay Welch, this is Beethoven like you’ve never heard before. It’s classical dance music in the truest sense of the words.
With so many exciting performances on the horizon, including shows at Catskill Chill, Brooklyn Comes Alive and headlining performances in Manhattan, Las Vegas and more, the anticipation is high for this great ensemble. We sat down with Mathis to get the full story behind Electric Beethoven, and to get a taste of what we should expect when we see them live soon!
L4LM: Let’s start from the beginning. Where did the idea for Electric Beethoven come from?
RM: The groundwork was me as a three year old, putting on the vinyl of 6th Symphony, building a little fort around the speakers and listening to it in my little fort. I loved it so much, especially the scene by the river when I was really little. We didn’t have rock and roll or folk music in my house. My parents are conductors, and my grandfathers are conductors, and all of their friends were classical musicians. I didn’t end up doing that, but I was around it all the time.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from studying the masters of every genre is that the greats all learned through osmosis and apprenticeship, not through lessons or school. Beethoven didn’t take lessons, he didn’t go to music school. Neither did Jimi Hendrix. Neither did Louis Armstrong. Neither did John Lennon. Neither did Thelonious Monk. Neither did Miles Davis. Neither did Thom Yorke. These people, they did study hard, but they studied themselves. Most importantly, they studied who they were around. Their context and their audience.
Because I got such an inside exposure to that music without being forced to study it, or be instructed in it, I was just around it all the time, I feel like I actually got a unique perspective into it that almost has had in 200 years. Everybody who knows that music well was forced to study it.
I really didn’t like classical music. As I grew up, I got into Led Zeppelin and Metallica and Jimi Hendrix, and a couple years later Coltrane, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Weather Report, and then Aphex Twin, Radiohead, Bjork. There would be a tugging in me when I would hear certain music. I would be like, “That’s the thing! What is that thing? What does Led Zeppelin and John Coltrane have in common? Why does this sound similar to me?” A lot of early Phish hit me that way.
I eventually figured out that the reason Jimi Hendrix and John Coltrane sounded so similar to me is that they were really sounding like Beethoven to me. Not copying it, obviously, not consciously. It’s archetypes. You don’t have to have heard that music to have it come out of you. It’s the sound of our organs. You can listen to a mother soothing a crying baby in any country in the world, and they’re basically going to make the same sound. They’re still going to be saying, like, “Aww… aww… aww.”
We have these archetypes that are just in our bodies, we’re just born with them. The truly great timeless artists, in my opinion, are tapped into that, and are coming from that. They’re sourcing from that. When that’s true, everyone can relate to the music. Not only that, you can do anything with that music and it will still work. You can do anything with John Lennon’s music and it will still work. They are indesctructible because they’re not opinions. They are archetypes. They are facts about what it means to be a human.
Eventually, I figured out that what in stuff had in common, especially the real aching transcendent angry stuff, and the spiritual (as opposed to the religion); all of that stuff, I starting realizing that it all sounded like Beethoven to me.
L4LM: So it all comes back to Beethoven.
RM: Exactly. After I started putting this together, in my late teens, I went out and got the box set I had grown up with on vinyl and got it on CD. I started re-listening to the stuff for the first time since I was a kid, and I was like, “Goddammit, that is exactly what it is.” This sounds like Led Zeppelin to me.
If you don’t think of the orchestra, you don’t think of the room that it’s in or the people that look like that, or the people that go to those concerts, or what it takes to learn it. If you erase all of the cultural context and you just hear it as a guy expressing his feelings. One guy saying his truth to you, directly to you. Not across 200 years but directly, now, to you. If you can hear it that way, it will change your goddamn life, because it’s some of the most profound and insightful and courageous shit.
The guy went from being super poor, self-taught in a small town, and then he’s orphaned at 15 with two little brothers. Then he’s just Bob Dylan, he moves to the big city. He comes up with a fake name and a fake back story so he can talk his way into gigs. And then his whole shtick was improvising. He would get up at the piano and he would play back anything anybody else had played that night. He would improvise on other people’s songs, and just basically blow everybody’s mind.
Nobody had ever played like that. Piano was a pretty new instrument around then. Before that it was like harpsichord and organ. Piano was like a drum compared to harpsichord and organ. Piano was the drum set of that day. Nobody had ever played that rhythmic. Nobody had ever played power chords like that. Nobody had ever played downbeats and backbeats like that in the white world, at least. Beethoven started really getting into the Bhagavad Gita, which had just been translated into German. He was getting into African mysticism, which was popular around that time in Austria.
And then, all of a sudden, he starts to go deaf. He hides it for a few years, and then eventually he can’t hide it anymore. He wrote a suicide letter to his little brother, he was 34. He never mailed it – they found it later in his files. When he came back to the city after trying to figure out what to do with himself, he had this unsent suicide letter and the 3rd Symphony. The 3rd Symphony is recounting of the death of what he thought his life was going to be back at that point. It was how he got through it. How he was able to be like, “well, I’m not going to be a pianist, I’m not going to be famous, I’m not going to be able to hear. Ever.” It’s either kill my body, or kill that ego. He had to be willing to let Beethoven the pianist die, and he did, and then he managed to be born anew as a composer. “I can have a career writing.” He gave himself a second life in his early 30’s.
In the 3rd Symphony, the first movement is called “In Memory Of A Great Man.” Well guess who that is? And then the second movement is the “Funeral March,” the third movement is the “Rebirth,” and the last movement is just the “Triumph.” But, at the end of the finale, the Funeral March melody comes back all of a sudden at the end, like he’s tempted with suicide one more time. And then it explodes, and the symphony is over.
L4LM: What a story. No wonder you were so inspired.
RM: It’s an amazing story! You don’t even need to know all that. If you just listen to those four instrumental songs, in order, as he wrote them – and we’ve played them as he wrote them, in my opinion – you’ll get that. That will come across, because he’s speaking in archetypes. He’s speaking in the same chords Thom Yorke uses. The same chords Bob Dylan used. The same riffs that we still dance to, all of them are in there.
So, as soon as I threw all of that together – that was in 1996, when I kind of had this revelation – I said someday I’m going to fuckin’ do that.
The core of who Beethoven was is an improviser, so I want to do it that way. I want to see how personal we can make this music, and have it still be his story.
L4LM: So once you had this idea, how did it transform into a reality?
RM: When I started working on it, it was 2008 when I got the score for the whole symphony – the full orchestral score – and started learning it just in my head and on guitar. But that year I was also in Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, Tea Leaf Green, and the Marco Benevento Trio. All three bands made albums. All three bands were on the road semi-full time. So that was kind of a hectic year.
Then I quit Jacob Fred, I quit the Marco band, and I went into my buddy’s studio and I made demos of the full symphony, with me on all instruments. Drums, guitar, bass. I wanted to see if the songs would hold up without good musicians, you know what I mean? You’re not even allowed to play that music unless you’re like a pedigree music school whatever. I can’t play drums and I can barely play guitar. So if I can play these two symphonies in their entirety on drums and guitar, with no ability or technique, and it still sounds emotional, then this is going to work. So I did that, and it fucking worked.
And then I put it aside for a few years. But I started thinking about, “I want to do something else…” As much as I love the Tea Leaf Green guys, they were a band for 12 years before I ever met them. We were very different creatures, it’s part of why we were so attracted to each other. There was a lot of who I am that just didn’t belong there. I was in Jacob Fred for 15 years; I was in high school when we started that band.
So I started thinking, what else could I do? And I said, “Oh yeah, that Beethoven shit!”
L4LM: How did you go about putting the Beathoven album together from there?
RM: I started making a list of musicians that I admire, that I thought would fit. I could put together a bunch of different people in different cities that would suit the color of each song. One of them was acoustic-feeling and happy, so I’ll go to Nashville and I’ll record some of my boys there. This one’s super dark and heavy, so let’s do that one in Seattle. This one’s bright and funky, I’m definitely doing that one in New Orleans.
The artists were put together like that. I contacted people, and everybody I asked said yes, and I started booking studios and flights. It took me almost two years to record the nine songs, but that’s not two years of working every day. That’s like two weeks a year, and a lot of traveling. That was a fun thing in and of itself. I knew so many brilliant musicians. I was like, “if I’m going to make a record, I really don’t want it to be a dork bass album. I don’t want it to be about me, I want it to be about the songs and the project.”
I really set out to feature everybody, and really play up what I consider to be their strengths. And it fucking worked! I think it worked. I think everybody’s really featured. If you want to hear Joe Russo, fuckin’ put on “In Memory Of A Great Man.” I’ve never heard him play like that. So ferocious. He was bleeding. He was bleeding by the end of the session. Him and Gordon together, it was the darnedest thing I’ve ever seen. Russo didn’t even use the chart I made him, he just memorized the fucking thing. It was ridiculous. Ri-diculous.
When I asked Stanton Moore if he wanted to be a part of it, he was like, “it’s so funny you asked me that, I was just talking about Beethoven today in the drum clinic I was giving. Beethoven was the first white musician to play the second line.” I was like, “What? Come on!” And then he starts singing some Beethoven riff to me, and I was like, “well sure enough, there it is.”
He was the first European musician to study Indian music in Africa, so it’s starting to make sense. And then, wait a second, jazz came to New Orleans but what was the most popular music in New Orleans during the Civil War? Oh, it was Beethoven. What happened right after the Civil War? Suddenly all of the black musicians that had been playing Beethoven couldn’t get work, outside the whore houses. So that’s how this dialect got into jazz and therefore into rock and roll. Not by accident, Beethoven’s music went to New Orleans, where it became illegal for black people to play it, so they started mutating it. So that’s fucking real.
That backed up what I’d always believed about why I liked Led Zeppelin and John Coltrane and Jimi Hendrix. I thought I’d imagined that, but his music actually did get into our music via New Orleans. So, boom.
Yeah, I did all that, and the record was sitting there and I was out of money. So I let it sit there for a minute, saved up some money, and I went and got it mastered and got artwork done. I talked some beautiful, gullible people into thinking it was a good idea to work with me, and… boom, we’re a business.
L4LM: Tell us about these gullible people then. How did you form Electric Beethoven, the band?
RM: That was the thing. Obviously I can’t take the people on the record, because they’re all touring musicians themselves, and all those guys only had to learn one song. I was like, “okay, well what do I need?” I don’t need shredders. What I need is brave people who are willing to go for it, for real, as improvisers.
A lot of people think improvising means soloing, but that’s like kindergarten improvising. Real improvising is what you and I are doing right now. We’re both in the mix. I don’t know what you’re about to say, I don’t know what I’m about to say. I’m pretty sure it’s going to work. When we look back on it, it will look like it was organized the whole time. So that’s real improvising.
My manager Benjy [Eisen] loves Phish, and he talks about Type-I jams and Type-II jams. So I’m talking about type-II. I’m talking about when there’s not a clear soloist and nobody’s playing a scripted part.
So, the opposite of that is what orchestras do. Nobody’s improvising and everybody’s playing a scripted part. If we can take these songs and do the exact opposite of what people normally do, we will have something. And, it can be dance music the whole time. Not cheesy like “Fifth of Beethoven” disco, but straight funky. So that was what I needed.
The first person I asked was Jay Lane. I became friendly with Les Claypool many years ago. Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, we opened for Claypool a bunch like ten years ago. I got to know Jay pretty well, he sat in with us every night on the road during our opening set. He was the coolest, and I grew up on Primus. And he and I are still in this band, the Golden Gate Wingmen. He and I have this amazing rapport, we play so well together. We get along great, which is crucial. I’d rather play with someone I love than the greatest musician in the world – Jay happens to be both. I was nervous to ask him, but he bought it right away.
Then Todd Stoops hired me to do some Grateful Dead nights like a year ago, I want to say, and I’ve known Stoops for a long time. I remember RAQ and Jacob Fred doing shows together back in 2002. Both Jay and Todd are familiar with Jacob Fred, so there’s a whole lot there that I already don’t have to explain. They already know where I’m from, musically. Todd, also, doesn’t have a full-time project right now, so he was like, fuck yes, I’m in. He didn’t know anything about Beethoven, neither did Jay, and they both fell completely in love with this shit. They’d text me at four in the morning about it!
Then I needed a guitar player, and there’s no one around here who really fits the bill. So many of my friends are guitar players, but that fucking instrument… I realized, all of a sudden, in a flash, that there was only one guy who could do it, and that was Clay Welch from Tulsa, OK where I grew up. He is a virtuoso guitarist who somehow made it to his late 20’s without ever hearing Jimi Hendrix or Led Zeppelin or The Grateful Dead or Phish. Last year I gave him some Hendrix, and he was like, “I’ve heard of this guy a lot, so this is that guy?” Clay’s been playing guitar for 15 years, and he’s incredible – the best I’ve ever seen – and yet he’s like “Led Zeppelin, right I’ve heard of these guys. Which one should I check out first?” I’m like, “start with Led Zeppelin I.” And he’s like “wow I really like it! It’s really good.” Yeah, I know it’s really good.
He loves Radiohead, Do Make Say Think, Mogwai… he loves a lot of more modern shit, but he never did the whole classic rock thing. That is why I love it, because almost every other guitar player I know only did the classic rock thing. They don’t know any music before 1964, and they barely know anything since 1980, stylistically.
So I actually talked Clay into moving out to the Bay Area, and I hope that he never regrets it. And that’s my band!
L4LM: What were the first shows like with the new band? I know you played Terrapin Crossroads and Outside Lands Festival.
RM: They were fucking incredible. We had Outside Lands booked, and we had rehearsals booked. Everybody was doing great in the rehearsals but I wanted everybody to dig in a little deeper. It didn’t feel risky enough. Everybody was playing it real safe. Unfortunately, they’d all studied the album I’d made, and so a lot of them were really trying to play like the album, even down to the drum fills and stuff. That is literally the exact opposite of what I wanted to do.
I want to be completely making this shit up from note one. Not leaving the story, Beethoven’s narrative, but I want you to make up your part. I don’t want you to be like, this song has this beat. I want a brand new beat every time. It could be in a different time signature if you want. Just something new, every time. And it took some doing.
I think it was Benjy’s idea, really – let’s book a show and have it the day before Outside Lands, and not even tell the band. So we did it, and the day before the gig, I was like, “hey guys, we’re not going to rehearse at the studio tomorrow, we’re going to rehearse at Terrapin, and then we’re going to open the doors and let people in.” And they were like, “whaaat?” Yep, we’re going live. People are going to hear it. I didn’t know if anyone was going to come on 24 hours notice but the place was packed. It was a Monday or something. I gotta say, it was possibly the greatest night of music making in my life. It was so phenomenal.
It was rough, we were definitely flying by the seat of our pants, but that was part of why I felt like I had to do it. To show everybody in the band what it’s really going to take. It’s one thing to sit in the rehearsal room and do this shit, it’s another thing to charge people money and get up on stage, and do it. You gotta get your balls out.
It was definitely scary for everyone, but everyone was so thrilled, and the audience was dancing the whole time. Dancing the whole fucking time. It was unbelievable. Some people were crying. I saw a couple of people on their knees in some sort of prayer yoga thing while we were playing. Stuff was going on in the room, it felt like a habitat.
That’s what I wanted to have happen; that was my theory all along. The archetypes in Beethoven’s are like magic spells, like incantations. If you come, we will build it.
Then we did it for some friends the next night, and instead of doing both Symphonies in one night, we did one of them way long. It was fucking incredible. In-credible. That one was not recorded and only a handful of people heard it, but it was very special.
And then we went to Outside Lands – that was okay, a little chaotic. We had a lot of friends there who hadn’t seen the other two, and they all loved it, but as the performer I felt like that was our worst showing. That’s how it goes. As soon as you get the big festival gig, you suddenly suck.
Regardless, everything has turned out great, everyone is so frickin’ stoked, and we’re heading out on the road next week. I can’t wait!
L4LM: We can’t wait either! I know Catskill Chill and Brooklyn Comes Alive are going to be a ton of fun, and you have some other dates scheduled as well, right?
RM: We’re doing an East Coast run in September and another one in October, starting with Brooklyn Comes Alive. This month we’re doing Burlington, Northampton, Buffalo, Cleveland and DC, and then in October we’re doing BCA. [See the full lineup here] Then we’re doing two nights in Manhattan with a bunch of guests, because in New York I can hopefully get some of the people from the record. The night before Halloween we’re playing after Phish in Vegas, and that’s free! I can’t fucking wait. Someone sent me a picture they took on their phone – somebody that was in Vegas yesterday – there’s a billboard with my picture on it already. Crazy.
Then November we’re looking at Colorado, Chicago – stuff like that. Unless we totally tank, I want to do this for a couple years. If we really do our job well and really improvise with courage, at the top of our game, if everybody plays better than they ever have, every night, which is what I want us to do, then there’s no reason why – in a year – we’re not playing Carnegie Hall and Berlin Jazz Festival and Bonnaroo. The power inherent in this music and in this concept and in this team is staggering. We’re going to have to really fuck up to have this not work. I honestly think that this is the beginning of the most exciting and rewarding music of my life so far.
L4LM: That’s really great to hear. It’s so evident when musicians bring that enthusiasm into the live setting.
RM: One of the other things that all of these players have in common is that we’ve all been doing lots of gigs that don’t use our full skill sets. Like Jay Lane plays in RatDog, which improvises, but it’s real chill the whole time. And then he also plays in Primus, which is rowdy but with no improvising. Todd Stoops plays in lots of dance projects and EDM stuff, but he can do so much. He’s got all of music history under his fingers.
Clay has played a lot of jazz, and as a guitar player he winds up playing a lot of – in Oklahoma they call it “Red Dirt Music.” Sort of like Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris… not really country, more like alt-country. That uses like 5% of who he is as an artist. I’ve been playing in Tea Lea Green and Marco Benevento and Bill Kreutzmann and all of these incredible projects that also use a very small part of my skill set.
So all four of us are finally in a position to actually do our best. That, to me, is maybe the most exciting part of the whole thing.
L4LM: Is that what motivated your recent decision to leave Tea Leaf Green?
RM: Umm… yes. That is definitely a prime motivator.
As with most personnel changes, music is usually a very small part of it. They’re in really good places in their lives, they just have a really different relationship to their instruments and to music itself. I’m not exactly sure how, but they’re all not playing. They’re doing other stuff. They’re doing farming and graphic design, and I’m down with it. I think it’s beautiful, and they all seem very happy, but I can’t get them to hang out with me.
Nobody wants to do gigs. I want to do gigs, I want to do five gigs a week, and I have been. If my band doesn’t want to play, that forces me to do pick up stuff and super jams and all-star weekends. I want to go deep, man. I don’t want a one-night stand, I want the real thing.
I mean, of course, I’m not arrogant. If you get me with Roosevelt Collier or Page McConnell, I’m down. That’s not going to be a band. I want to be in a band. I want to be in a gang, honestly. I want to feel like, when we go into a festival, we’re rolling in to tear shit up. I want to feel like a posse.
L4LM: The Electric Beethoven Gang!
RM: It sounds so dorky! Whatever, I’m a nerd.
But yeah, those guys are not in that place with music right now. It’s taken a back burner role in their lives, and in a way it’s a very, very beautiful thing to do. But that’s not my relationship to music. Music is my lifeline, it’s my source of nutrition. I don’t take a break from having arms and I don’t take a break from playing music. It’s just there.
I love those guys and I’m sure I’ll make music with them again. It’s the same thing that happened with Jacob Fred after 15 years. The schedules get too hard to work around for everybody, and then it comes down to priorities. So, there you go.
L4LM: Well thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us, Reed. Best of luck with everything and we’ll see you soon!
Reed Mathis’ Electric Beethoven will hit the Catskill Chill Music Festival this weekend, and plays a handful of dates throughout the East Coast before their album Beathoven drops on September 30th (pre-orders available now). From there, the band plays at Brooklyn Comes Alive on October 22nd, featured in a lineup with musicians like Joe Russo, Oteil Burbridge, Jason Hann, Marc Brownstein, Aron Magner and so many more across three Brooklyn venues. (More info here). The band will also play two intimate club shows in New York at The Cutting Room and DROM (Oct. 25th and 26th), where they’ll be spotlighting an extended version of one symphony each night! (More info here).
[Photo credit Josh Miller]