A FEW MINUTES WITH: Reed Mathis

February 15th, 2017, 4:00 pm by Greg

Story by Jeff Nania

Reed Mathis has played bass for such jam band icons as Marco Benevento and Steve Kimock, as well as being a full-time member of both Tea Leaf Green and Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey. His newest project, Electric Beethoven, is a departure from these tried and true jam bands as he re-imagines classical masterpieces by Beethoven with an electric band to give them some of the modern oomph they deserve.

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The Electric Beethoven tour makes a stop at the Hollow Bar + Kitchen in Albany on Saturday night (February 18), and I recently had a chance to have a conversation with Mathis about the project.

He says he had this idea about a classically inspired electronic dance music, which he’s dubbed CDM, “about 20 years ago. The name Electric Beethoven came from my manager, but for me the name isn’t that important. If you could name music, you wouldn’t have to play it.”

Mathis’ group essentially takes Beethoven’s music as a jumping-off point to explore a world of inter-connectedness with the group and audiences everywhere. “What we do isn’t even so much about Beethoven as it is about a certain method of improvising,” he said from the road, three weeks into the Electric Beethoven tour – which included a week on JamCruise, where he also played with the electro-Indian inspired Beats Antique. “We could be using any music to be doing this kind of improvising, but the reason that I wanted to try it with Beethoven and see what happened is because he is in many ways the first ‘world’ musician.

“He was definitely the first European musician to have studied African music and Indian music. He was also the first Western musician that we’ve heard of who was working class and played shows for the door. He didn’t work for the church, didn’t work for any kind of government… he was a songwriter, and he sold tickets to his gigs. And he was considered to be the greatest improviser anyone had ever seen in that part of the world.”

Mathis says it is the combination of these three things that makes Beethoven “the first one of us.” He says, “My theory is that if he was playing for the door, he had to engage working class people with music. He couldn’t just please the church or the government. He had to please people who were buying individual tickets, and he was going to write things that spoke to everyday experience. And also if he’s an improviser then he’s going to write things that are good for improvising. Even though there were no microphones back then, so there’s no record of it, all we have is what he wrote down and gave to his publisher, but that’s not necessarily what he performed. He improvised at every performance, even after he went deaf.”

He says “the fact that Beethoven was really the first person to combine Western harmony with African rhythm” is one of the reasons that 20 years later “he was the most popular music in New Orleans. He was dead by then so he never found out, but the fact that his music took off in the exact location that Western harmony and African rhythm became jazz and rock & roll makes perfect sense.”

I asked him about this balance between playing music that comes from a place of honesty and the necessity of having to sell tickets. Mathis’ theory is essentially that when the group is coming from this true place that people will naturally gravitate toward it because of their own need to synchronize.

“I’m old fashioned,” he says. “I remember the first time I had a big-time booking agent, and he kept telling us we needed a gimmick. Our gimmick is that we’re awesome! How are we going to sell tickets? We’re going to sell tickets by being a great band!”

Mathis also spoke about the importance of dance as an integral part of the total experience. “That’s what makes it a two-way street,” he says. “When they’re dancing, they’re improvising,” he says of the audience. “When people get on the dance floor, they don’t do the Charleston. They’re not doing dance moves, they are improvising. They don’t know what their body’s going to do. That’s when the whole room fuses into one ritual.”

He says that with this project “the emphasis for me is on a certain kind of group improvisation as an almost therapeutic spiritual technique for healing your nervous system and for tuning your nervous system into a community. Beethoven is just the starting point we chose, but the band is really about improvising in such a way that you are healing.”

The reception has been incredible thus far. Mathis says, “As far as I’m concerned, we know we’re doing the right kind of improvising when everyone in the room is dancing.

“Beethoven didn’t play in concert halls, he played in bars,” Mathis said. “People were drinking, smoking hash, dancing – it was a completely different context than how he’s presented now.”

When asked about how some of his other projects have prepared him with African, Indian and classical styles of music, Mathis responded, “What I’m interested in isn’t types of music, it’s what’s underneath types of music. Genres aren’t particularly interesting to me. To me saying you like a genre is kind of like saying you like people with blonde hair. Just because you know what color hair they have does not tell you if they’re a good friend. Knowing that something is supposedly a genre doesn’t tell you it’s cool music.

“I’ve tried to study what music all humans make. Why do we make music? What music does every culture come up with even when they weren’t in contact with each other? Every culture has a basic dance beat. Downbeat, backbeat which is kind of a model of our heart. Every culture comes up with that, and the sort of one, four, five chord progression, the eight bar phrase. These are things that you’re going to find anywhere in the world in any year of recorded history. If you can look at music through that lens it’s not a far leap from Beethoven to The Beatles to Ravi Shankar to Aphex Twin because you see that maybe 80 percent of what all those musicians are doing is identical.”

“You want to change the way you feel.” That’s the reason Mathis says people listen to music. “You’re like, ‘I feel like this right now, and if I put this on I will feel excited, or calm, or awesome.’ You put on music because you want your nervous system to be in a state.

“Sometimes you put on music that lots of people like because it makes you feel connected to them and you feel like you’re in a tribe which is something 30 million years of evolution have designed us to need. We need each other; mammals don’t heal alone. All mammals freak out alone, and our culture is increasingly making us isolated from each other. We have these virtual relationships through screens, and that is not mammal behavior.

“We’re becoming malnourished spiritually, not because of religion, but because we aren’t getting together in groups with our bodies in buildings. We’re doing all these things virtually, even streaming live music concerts in our living rooms which is great, but we’re losing why we did it in the first place which is – we are mammals, and we need one another. The ritual of dancing to improvised music is ancient – it didn’t start with the Grateful Dead. It started 30 million years ago. Our nervous systems are designed to heal when we gather in groups and dance to improvised music.

“That’s what his music is about,” Mathis says of Beethoven, “healing yourself through expressing the truth.”

That being said, why don’t you get out of the house and heal yourself while dancing to some incredible improvised music through the trajectory of one of the best improvisers ever, Beethoven?

WHO: Reed Mathis & Electric Beethoven
WHERE: The Hollow Bar + Kitchen, Albany
WHEN: 9:30pm Saturday (February 18)
HOW MUCH: $15 in advance; $20 at the door