Steve Kimock came into wider public view when Jerry Garcia referred to him (in a 1988 Guitar Player Magazine interview) as his favorite unknown guitarist. His musical career took hold in the ’70s,’80s and ’90s in San Francisco, where listeners appreciated his work with the band Zero and other groups (The Goodman Brothers, The Underdogs, the Heart of Gold Band with Keith and Donna Jean Godchaux, KVHW) and relished his occasional sit-ins with various Bay Area musical luminaries — as well as his work on the road with the Other Ones, Steve Kimock Crazy Engine and Ratdog. His new CD Satellite City features him in a mix of styles, from his trademark explorational improvisation to song-based fare featuring Leslie Mendelson. TipJar was lucky enough to chat with Steve about his new release and to veer off on some fun side tangents about his early years in San Francisco.
Tipjar: Hey Steve, how’s it going?
Steve Kimock: Hey, good to hear from you.
Thanks, last time we spoke you were splitting your time between Pennsylvania and California. Is that still the case?
It still feels like that, although I would say the main residence now is here at Camp Kimock in Sebastopol. But I still have the house in Pennsylvania and I still have my barn there, where I’ve done a lot of recording and rehearsing in the past few years. I’m going back that way soon to get ready for the East Coast portion of our new tour.
Is your son John Morgan still playing with you on the drums?
Yes he is. And what a joy that is for me.
How old is he now?
Uh, I gotta say he’s 28 years old. Or at least it feels like that.
Cool, and happy birthday to you by the way. I want to say that you just turned 62?
Yes, thank you, that’s absolutely correct. My birthdate was 10.5.55. Weir just had his birthday too. His was on the 16th [of October]. I asked him how he felt and he said “70 is the new 17” (laughs).
Are you still calling your touring project “Kimock?”
Yeah. It’s me and my son Johnny and Leslie Mendelson. And on this particular trip coming up it’s Andy Hess on bass. He’s played with Government Mule and John Scofield, among others. Johnny and I played with him in an earlier incarnation of the Steve Kimock Band in which we had [the late] Bernie Worrell on keys and Wally Ingram on drums.
What’s the vision behind your new CD, Satellite City?
To answer that I have to go back just a bit. My last record was called Last Danger of Frost. It wasn’t a songwriting collaboration and it wasn’t a rock band thing. It was just me being naively psychedelic and running around the studio looking for cool sounds amongst my pile of noise makers. It was not something that was intended to go on stage. It was supposed to be what didn’t happen on stage. Anyway, I did that in Pennsylvania, then I moved to California and the idea came up hey you know we should try another record in that vein, but this time around we should write some tunes with Leslie Mendelson, who I had originally met at TRI and then went on to do some gigs with. So Johnny and Leslie showed up and we started working on stuff based on sounds. It started as an extension of my last record but then we got my old friend Bobby Vega to play bass and so we had a band. Dave Schools came to our first gig and he said hey we should make a record. A year later we actually got it together and went to the studio at TRI and made the record. We recreated my sound tracks and cut some great songs with Leslie. Dave did a fantastic job of tidying it up. He was able to put it together in a way I couldn’t figure out how to do. I think I signed myself on early as co-producer but eventually I let Dave take over. I was happy to be off the hook for that. Dave’s overview helped immensely.
How do you feel about backing up vocalists? Or, how do you feel about playing in a band where the vocals are more a part of the sound versus playing in a more instrumentally focused band?
As a player I probably derive my most satisfaction in the moment from backing up a good singer. If I could have spent my entire life in Van Morrison’s band or with Bob Marley or Bob Dylan, I would be totally fine. But if you’re into modal and improvisational music you of course like to try and play that way too. When I was a kid, during my formative listening of records on my little teeny turntable up in the attic at my parents’ house, I somehow stumbled onto a couple of really nice albums that included Johhny Winter’s first release The Progressive Blues Experiment (1968), which I think is one of the greatest records ever made from a guitar perspective. The energy of the thing and the way it sounded was spontaneously modern yet completely raw. It was great. As a result, I developed an appreciation for more of what felt like my generation’s version of the blues, which included players like Mike Bloomfield. I eventually got into the older, classic blues stuff like Freddy King and BB King, but I really liked that modern blues sound. I also liked a record called Live: Ravi Shankar at the Monterey International Pop Festival. It was a double record. It featured Ravi Shankar and his tabla player Alla Rakha bringing north Indian music to the United States. I loved that. And of course the Beatles eventually helped bring the sitar sound into pop music because of George Harrison’s appreciation of it. I loved the Beatles and the Beach Boys too. For me there were three thing: world stringed instrumental music, like sitar and oud and those kinds of more exotic stringed instruments; electric blues, which I just talked about a little; and quirky pop like the Beach Boys, the Beatles, the BeeGees, et al. That was my foundation.
I recently watched some of Mike Bloomfield’s documentary and I found it interesting to learn that he turned down an early invitation to tour with Bob Dylan’s band, because he didn’t want to be relegated to playing shorter/more scripted solos. Instead he joined the Butterfield Blues Band so that he could stretch out and do his thing . . .
Bloomfield is such a special case. He was an incredible catalyst in the ’60s rock and roll scene. There might not have been a bigger shit-disturber than that cat. Everywhere he went he took it to a whole new level without consciously inserting himself into the process commercially. He showed up and he played with Dylan and kind of blew everyone away. The first record with Dylan and Bloomfield was the first real American rock and roll band in my opinion. When he showed up in SF he just kicked everybody’s ass. They’d never seen anyone with that kind of vocabulary and energy. He could just play all night and never run out of ideas. He was a beautiful improviser and a great musician. He was hugely influential.
Well with your outfits it seems that you get plenty of opportunities to ply your guitar chops . . .
Yeah, well you know the problem with my attraction to the variety of formative listening stuff that I just spoke of is that when I try to do it all at once it’s a little schizophrenic. I try to keep things separated so as not to confuse people. But getting back to playing with a vocalist, I like that Leslie [Mendelson] has a great work ethic. She’ll try anything and she doesn’t quit. If it takes her three weeks to get one word right, she’s game. That’s dear to my heart when someone really puts their shoulder to the wheel.
Did you record all of Satellite City at TRI?
Yeah we did most of it at TRI. I worked on a couple tracks at home where I have a computer and some microphones, but of course it’s nice to have everything I need in front of me, so being in a real studio is best. We did a couple vocal overdubs at a place in the East Bay, but the majority of it was done at TRI. And it’s self-financed. There’s no record company or anything.
How do you feel about releasing CDs with the market being what it is for most recorded music these days?
Unfortunately (laughs) recorded music is pretty much worthless. So, no matter how much you invest you’re pretty much guaranteed not to get it back. At the same time, the process and what you might learn from it and what you gain from it, the intangibles, are still off the charts. So you have to ask yourself — am I not going to do the art I wanted to do all my life because I’m not gonna strike it rich? It’s not like getting a winning lottery ticket to make a record anymore, it’s more like getting a regular lottery ticket, where the odds are not in your favor. Your chances of profiting from it are almost like the odds of getting hit by an asteroid (laughs). Thirty years ago, I might have been able to make some money if I got lucky on some level, but I probably wouldn’t have made much money anyway. Now I just know that I’m not going to make much money, so I figure why not just make the record anyway. Times change and the economy changes. The era when it was possible for an artist to make a good living or even a fortune from recording has pretty much passed us by, but I’m not gonna fold up my tent and go sell shoes, because it’s part of what I do, so I do it you know. I feel like I have some really good music to capture so I’m going to continue to record regardless of the economics of it.
How often are you touring?
Looking at the recent past I was super busy. I was playing all over the place with bands. I was flying around so much that I got to the point where I literally couldn’t turn my head left or right. I was tired from the travel and the jet-lag and being stuffed into airplanes and vans. There’s only so much I could handle and I handled all I could. So I’m taking a little break at the moment, but I’m going back out for a short tour, and then maybe I’ll go to Europe. I try to work as much as necessary and as little as possible because I have a family and I don’t want to be away from them for that long. So I have to compromise and go out quarterly. Now that I’m living in California, with a higher cost of living, I have to work as much as I can to keep the lights on. I plan to make more records and pick my spots, get the intangibles, such as going to Europe. I don’t think of it in terms of numbers, I try to take as much as I feel I need. And then I try to get some chill time and then do it all again. I don’t have a plan. My direction is forward in time. I continue to play and keep things together. It’s improvisation.
I saw that you played with Kingfish in 1986. Was Bob Weir still in the band at that point?
When I was doing it, it was the occasional Bob Weir. He worked with those guys for his own solo rock stuff, but the band also worked without him. At that point it was Kingfish or Bob Weir with Kingfish. I played a lot of shows with that band with and without Weir. It wasn’t a particularly Grateful Dead-heavy band in terms of material. It was more of a a blues band with some country.
Did you get into jazz very much as a young player?
Well by the time I had gotten into my late teens I knew that jazz was part of what I needed to learn, you know it was essential listening for a young player. I took in a pretty steady diet of Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Wes Montgomery, George Barnes, Karl Kress, Billie Holiday and Ornette Coleman. That kind of thing. I actually don’t think that guitar speaks jazz as native language. When I listen to a lot of world music, like the oud, it’s ancient prehistoric music. It was fully realized music long before jazz came along, and it’s more string-based. Jazz is fairly modern. You need keys to play jazz I think, in order to modulate and handle chromactic scales and tempo, whereas guitar is more rooted in traditional form.
Did you study music formally?
No. Zero formal training. That wasn’t the point for me. When I realized I could pick up a guitar and make a noise, I liked the way it made me feel. It was of course presented to me that I should learn music theory. And I was like oh yeah it would be nice to learn why I feel the way I feel, but I soon discovered that theory had nothing to do with what I was after. I was after the connection between the intervals and the sounds of music and the feelings that you experience when playing those sounds. It turned out to be a different study for me.
I wanted to ask you about The Goodman Brothers, the band that you went West with in the ’70s . . .
Yeah, they were the crew from back East that I first came West with [in 1977]. It was two brothers who sang and played guitar and had good sibling harmonies. It was the Everly Brothers meets the mind, or like Simon and Garfunkel or something. Those guys were actually bigger fans of the Grateful Dead than I was at the time, but yeah we were very into the SF scene. We covered a bunch of Dan Hicks and the HotLicks and stuff like that. On some level it was sort of an acoustic-oriented songwriting project but we were kids so we blazed on the guitar too.
Where did you guys live at that time?
In Fairfax. It was the first place we landed . . . to absolute culture shock, I might add. Coming from the farmlands of Pennsylvania to Fairfax in the ’70s was as big a jump as you could take. I’m surprised we all survived.
Were you able to get some gigs?
Well, I’ll share a story. The first gig we got was opening up for Hot Tuna at the Old Waldorf . . . and we were just over the moon. We were like whoa man we’re taking the country by storm! We were 20 years old. We couldn’t believe it. So we had a van, with an expired registration and a broken windshield, that we had driven across the country, and we get in this van to head to our very first gig and we were on our way across the Golden Gate Bridge and the van died right in the middle of the bridge. We had to push it across. Four little guys. I was the biggest guy if you can believe it. We managed to get through the toll plaza and got to the other side and we were like so what are we gonna do now?! And right at that moment the only girl we knew in town, I mean the only girl, Carol Rogers, happened to drive by in her little VW Beetle. It was a tiny yellow thing with a rusted fender and a like sunflower on the dash, you know that car. But she let us pile in. We had to make a few trips, and we shuttled our gear to the gig one piece at at time. But we made it to the show thanks to Carol and it was a blast!
So how did you first get to meet Jerry?
I met [Garcia] for the first time at the old Front Street Studio in San Rafael. Around that time I was living in a place that I was taking care of in West Marin in Lagunitas. Keith and Donna Godchaux had just left the Dead. So maybe it was around 1979. Well, one day I was at the place in Lagunitas noodling away on the guitar or whatever, and I got a call from Donna Jean. She says is this Steve Kimock the guitar player? I said yeah. And she says this is Donna Godchaux. And I said no it’s not, cut the fucking shit, who is this?! I thought it was one of my friends pranking me. She said, no it’s Donna can you come down and play? And I was like uh, yeah of course. So me and Keith and Donna start playing at Front Street off and on, and one day Garcia comes in. I had a guitar and he had a guitar and he sat down and it was just two guitar geeks talking shop. We kind of had a code of silence around us, and no one would bother us. Pretty much all I did was play guitar and that’s what he did. We developed a great camaraderie right off the bat. I never really hassled him too much because I wanted to respect his privacy and if anyone was over-peopled it was Jerry. He had people pawing at him all the time. And being able to navigate that space is tough. The Dead guys had a lot of people who wanted to be around them, especially Jerry. We got to play a little more together as time went on, but as much as I enjoyed it I kind of stayed out of his way. We probably should have hung out more, but I respected his space.
How often do you still play with the Dead guys?
I play with them as often as I can. Weir is around and Mickey is right across town, and Jeff Chimenti will be playing with us in Colorado as part of my upcoming tour. I occasionally do stuff with Billy too.
Do you always want to play with a Dead-related act or are there times when you prefer to play with your own project?
That’s a good question. It’s not not my own thing when I play with those guys, insofar as I grew up in the SF scene and cut my teeth playing with them and tapping into their music and their scene. So it’s natural for me to be on the same page with them in terms of how we approach music. I’m comfortable playing by myself, but they know stuff about relating to music as it relates to an audience that is just off the page. There’s no book, there’s no class, there’s no school you can attend where you can learn it. You just gotta go there and drink that water with those guys and not think you know what’s going on, because they’re on a different level. They know how to make it work, and it’s all part of the legacy of the San Franciso scene that I’ve become a part of. So I jump on it when the opportunity presents itself. I’d be crazy not to!
Steve Kimock tour starts Dec. 7, 2017.
Catch Kimock and Friends (feat. Jeff Chimenti, John Kimock, Andy Hess and Leslie Mendelson) at Cervantes Other Side , Denver, CO, Dec. 15 and Dec. 16, 20017.