G.Love reflects on starting the band in ’93, meeting Jack Johnson, and the most pivotal moments that have kept the group going 25 years strong
“No matter what, I need to feel it. My goal when I approach the stage every night is to stick to my mantra — which is that I let my set flow freely, follow the music…”
Feel it. Those two words may actually be the special sauce. The key ingredient to the on-going success of G.Love and Special Sauce for the past 25 years. Whether it’s staying true to his Philadelphia roots or following his burning desire to make a Christmas record, the fearless leader of the Special Sauce, G.Love, has always let his music lead the way. It’s been a conscious decision (and dedication) to trust the music and the process. By knowing that’s the right thing to do, G.Love discovered early on that the music will provide back to you in a way that only it can.
In 1993, a chance encounter between G.Love and drummer Jeffrey “The Houseman” Clemens in a dingy Boston venue sparked it all. The biggest common denominator? Passion. Shortly after, they would add Jim “Jimi Jam” Prescott on bass. Then, in 1994, after a relentless attack on the Northeast music scene, the band, now labeled “G.Love and Special Sauce” would release their debut, self-titled record. Track number seven was a tune just two minutes and thirty three seconds in length, entitled “Cold Beverages”. The rest is history. Eight records later (plus four solo records for G.Love), the band is still firing on all cylinders. Furthermore, they are sticking to their mantra to let life flow freely — from G.Love’s artistic touch, to changing the setlist each night, to continuing to blaze a road warrior trail.
As the last leg of the 25th anniversary tour kicked off, I had the chance to catch up with G.Love just prior to soundcheck in Austin, TX. Here, we reflect on both the crucial and spontaneous moments that put the special in the sauce.
What do you remember about meeting first meeting Jeffrey Clemens and the evolution of the group coming together?
It’s a cool story. I was working in Harvard Square in the basement of a church on Harvard Yard. I was working for a group called Peace Action, which raised money for economic conversion — putting more money into schools, infrastructure, and hospitals, rather than the defense budget. I got a call at work from a fellow street musician friend who goes by the name of Reverend Freak Child right now. His opening act had canceled. It was a rainy and cold December night. My boss was cool with me taking the gig, so I got on my skateboard, went home and got all my gear. I ended up doing the gig, but playing to a completely empty house. The band I was opening for was there, the sound guy, the waitress, the bartender and one guy sitting a table reading the help wanted papers. I didn’t care. I went up anyway and played my heart out.
I came off stage and this guy, who was Jeffrey Clemens, comes up to me and says, “Hey, that was really cool.” I thanked him and started walking away. He then mentions he’s a drummer and that he’s been trying to put a band together. He starts telling me about his flyers that are up all over town, that have his number on the bottom that you could detach. We ended up talking all night. I missed the train back to Jamaica Plain and he gave me a ride home.
Jeff had been playing in a band that was as super close to getting a record deal. He was crushed when they didn’t get a deal. He was telling me how the process is such a pipe dream, but he really liked my music and the fact that I had a professional sounding demo. So, he says he would start a band with me, and tells me to go use his name to book shows at Boston venues like — TT the Bears and The Middle East. Jeff was funny, he told me he would play in the band with me, but he’s not doing anything else — not booking gigs, not putting up flyers, or anything like that. So, I was doing everything from booking gigs to going to Kinko’s. It worked having Jeff’s name. We were just a two-piece. Every time we played, we ended up getting another gig so, we decided to add a bass player and that ended up being Jimi Jazz (Jim Prescott).
An early song in your mix was “Cold Beverages”. When did you write that? Did you know people would take to it?
This is another good story (laughs). The first car I bought was a ’63 Dodge Dart. I bought in Braintree, MA. I took the bus out there to pick it up. I didn’t know anything about the car except for that it drove. I got in it without the plates and just drove home. It was pretty slick — black with red interior. One day I had to go get the brakes worked on in Brighton, MA. While I’m sitting there I started reading one of these rags that a guy I knew named Washtub Robbie gave me. He was a bass player. I’d take him my guitars to fix up and we’d hang out in his basement. He’d give me these old washed up rags that had stuff to read about old vintage instruments. I remember sitting in the brake shop and I see the words “Cold Beverages” in there. It struck me as funny, and stopped me in my tracks. I was thinking — I like cold beverages, so I started writing around the edges and outskirts of this magazine — what ended up being the lyrics to “Cold Beverages”. Just words about drinking.
I was living up near Brighton Center and we had the band together. We would practice a few times a week. I pulled this tune out and played the guitar riff, which is really just a simple blues riff — an arpeggio and then a blues riff from Robert Johnson. Jeff immediately had a beat to play for and Jim had a bassline that came together so quickly. We thought it was just another song for our repertoire. When we started playing it, people would freak out. I’ll never forget Washtub Robbie coming up to me one night after a gig and saying, “I hope you don’t mind playing that song “Cold Beverages” because you are going to be playing that motherfucker for the rest of your life.”
The song is like any other song that I write. Because of the success and stickiness of it, it can get overlooked, but it’s poetry — the lyrics, the three instruments and the syncopation are perfect. Live, the song is great. I’ve tried to figure out what parts of that song work, and why it resonates, and then attempt writing something with a similar sense of composition. But, I can’t do it. It’s one of a kind, man.
Thinking back on 25 years now, do you recall what it was like to embark on that first tour as G.Love and Special Sauce?
A lot of our initial run on the road is cloudy. We were working so hard and having success, but we didn’t know it because we were doing 250 shows a year in a van, all around the world. I don’t know how we did it.
One day, we are driving in Minneapolis. We pull up to the club in our van and I say, “What are all these people doing here?” I’m told they’re for us, they are coming to the show. It was a line down the block and I was floored. How did these people know about me? I’ve never even been to Minneapolis.
There were a lot of magical moments like these that make a lifelong connection with fans. In Pontiac, Michigan, Jack White was at our show. This was years before he started The White Stripes. I had the vintage blue sparkle guitar, a polyester suit and everything. We didn’t have the look as mapped out as Jack White did. When The White Stripes came out, they nailed it. Kid Rock was also at that show. They didn’t even know each other then. We had a lot of underground buzz going on then — we’d attract underground musicians and tastemakers. We might have lost a little of that over the years, but that’s all where it started.
On the H.O.R.D.E. tour in Pittsburgh, we played on the side stage, which is run off a generator. We’re playing a song called “Blues Music”, our first single. Half way through the song, the generator dies. All of sudden you hear the crowd yell, “Awwwww.” Then you hear them come back with “Ohhhhh”, because we just played through it and didn’t miss a beat when the generator came back on. It was one of those moments you never forget. We knew everything went down, but playing mostly acoustic, we knew we could keep the beat going.
How did you end up linking with Jack Johnson along the way?
A surfing buddy of mine from Avalon, New Jersey was out in Los Angeles making surf videos. One day he started telling me about this guy Jack Johnson, how he was a fan of mine and I should hear this killer song of his called “Rodeo Clowns”. So, I went out to his house and we surfed in Malibu. Jack came by and said to me, “Hey, you want to jam? I know you do it professionally, so I don’t want you to do it if you don’t want to.” I was totally up for it. We went to my hotel and he started playing me all these songs that basically ended up being the entire Brushfire Fairytale record. I felt like I was in the presence of greatness — to the point where I felt uncomfortable. He’s playing me these songs and you could just tell they were hits. He was singing so effortlessly, the chord movements were unique, the vocals were good, the melodies were pure, and the lyrics were like poetry. I kept asking him to play “Rodeo Clowns”. That’s where I wrote the little solo to it.
I played Jack the song “Rainbow”, which I was working on at the time, and he really liked it. I explained how it really wasn’t a “record” song, it was more one of my sit on the front porch style songs. Years, later we ended up putting it on one of Jack’s surf albums.
So, we traded songs and I took his to a producer. The label didn’t think they heard a single for me to record. I said to them, “Here’s your single, its ‘Rodeo Clowns’”. I called Jack and asked him if he was OK with it. He wanted to think about it and finally asked if we could do it as a collaboration. I had never thought about that. He was unknown as a musician at the time, but we went into the studio and he nailed it on the first take. Jack’s flow was a lot different than mine. I had to learn his flow in order for the song to work. It was frustrating, and I didn’t think it needed me on it. I thought Jack could just take the track with just him on it and it would guarantee a record deal, but he was insistent upon me doing the song with him. It was a moderate hit, and four years later when Jack’s record came across 99X in San Diego, they had championed our original “Rodeo Clowns” and they remembered Jack’s name. They started playing his record and it spread like wildfire in California and then the rest of the world. The timing was perfect. The rest is history. It couldn’t have happened to a more generous guy. He and Brushfire have donated tens of millions of dollars to environmental causes, and they are just really great people.
At any point, did you ever consider moving out to the west coast?
I moved from Philly to Boston to try and make it. When we finally did, we were on the road so much. I moved back to Philly at one point instead of moving to New York or LA. I wanted to be with my family, friends, and my dog! That would have been my chance to move someplace else, but I didn’t. I chose my roots over my wings. Who knows what would’ve happened had I lived in California? Maybe I would’ve been a junkie or maybe I would’ve been a billionaire. But I still live in Boston and we’re still doing it.
One of the most unique elements to your music and your group is that you have a customized setlist each night. Can you take me inside the thought process to do it that way as opposed to playing the same songs each night? It seems like a simple concept, but so many artist play the same show every night of a given tour. It makes such big difference, and changes the experience for the fan when you mix it up.
In a way it’s lack of discipline. It’s hurt me and it’s helped me to have a different set each night. I always want to feel the music immediately when I’m playing. Sometimes you have to do things that you don’t want to do. I don’t want to play “Cold Beverages” right now, but I know I should. The same holds true for radio stations — it’s common sense, you know you are going there to promote a single. I didn’t care about that though, I would go play a blues song or something new I was working on that day. It wasn’t the smartest move. When we went to make our first video for “Cold Beverages” I refused to lip-sync. I thought — if we are going to play the song, then we are going to play it live on the street. These are decisions that I made out of the spiritual dedication to my music. A lot of these artists that we influenced like Jack Johnson, Dave Matthews or Jack White taking the aesthetic, are bigger than me, but I’m happy because I made the decisions early on that no matter what, I need to feel it. My goal when I approach the stage every night is to stick to my mantra — which is that I let my set flow freely, follow the music and let it flow naturally. The goal of the show is to have everyone together in this euphoric ball of happiness. The way I do that is, I’ll be playing one song and then I’ll be able to see by judging the crowd what the next song should be. You get a sense of when you should wrap things up.
There are only two tours ever — where we played a structured set. The first was on the 20th anniversary tour where we played the first record in running order from start to finish. Then, two years ago with the Love Saves The Day release, we did that record, not in order, but all of the songs. They were great exercises for me. Now, on the 25th anniversary tour, it’s mostly greatest hits and deep cuts. It’s perfect, it’s right in my wheelhouse for where I’m at right now.
What are some of the most pivotal moments or driving forces behind the past 25 Years? How have you been able to consistently keep doing your thing?
When you’re young you have this energy, and this ability to say I’m not going to do what you want me to do, I am going to do what I want to do. No one wants you to be a musician, and in a way, you are saying, fuck you world, this is me. Along the way, you grow up. You start thinking, well, maybe we should play our single on David Letterman. For me, it’s been a combination of holding your ground and really being true to your values of what feels right to you, and what’s the safe and smart thing to do. We figured out a way to do that. You have this energy, and you learn how to work. Now, this is work. That’s not to say it’s any worse you just go from being this 20-year-old kid who doesn’t care about making money to trying to make sure you can cover your mortgage, put money away for your kid’s college, pay your car payments, pay your employees so that they can feed their families — it becomes a career. There’s nothing wrong with that. My drummer always says, “If I’m ever having a tough time with anything, it’s all about the music.” The music is the one thing in your life that is never going to lie to you. If you give it a lot of love, nurture it and talk to it, it talks back to you. If you ignore it and turn your back on it, then it turns its back on you. That’s the one thing you got that no one can ever take away from you, your music. That’s all that ever mattered to the three of us in the big picture of things. That’s why we’re still here.
To come full circle, in a close your eyes moment, what does 25 years mean to you?
25 years just means a whole lotta love. It’s what’s kept us going. The love from the fans and the people that support you. You make a record and people take it into their homes and they raise their kids on it. Your music becomes part of their lives and the soundtrack of their lives. It’s really an honor and blessing when you think about it. The stories we hear every night, it’s beautiful thing, helping people through a tough time. It’s all about coming from the heart and giving it to the people — giving them that love and then they give it right back.
Catch G.Love & Special Sauce on the remaining 25th anniversary tour dates:
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