John Molo keeps a steady beat for an array of musical outfits, including Jemimah Puddleduck,
Modereko, and Phil Lesh and Friends. He has also performed with The Other Ones and Planet
Drum, and for many years provided the backbone for pianist Bruce Hornsby.
Molo's intense delivery is a result of extensive training, along with a
love for a cross-section of musical styles.
Digital Interviews: Where were you born and raised?
John Molo: I was born in Washington, D.C., in 1953. Washington is a great musical
community. Besides having the National Symphony Orchestra there, they have
the Air Force Band, the Navy Band, the Army Band and the Marine Band. A lot
of great private instructors. It’s where the North meets the South. When you go
to the far left end of the FM dial, you can find gospel, or you can find bluegrass…I
grew up in a great musical area. My father was an oceanographer, a meteorologist
who came home after work and listened to Bach’s Brandenburg concertos. My
mother was the daughter of Irish immigrants who played Irish folk music. She
tap-danced. We had a lot of music around the house. I grew up in southeast D.C.
until I was about 11, which is over in the 'hood. Then my family moved to McLean,
Virginia, about eight miles from the White House. It was the affluent suburbs, and I
went to a great high school, Langley High School, with an excellent music program.
Most of the kids were “CIA kids”, sons and daughters of government employees --
ambitious parents who felt that academics and art should be emphasized. Sports
should be for fun -- not taken too seriously. We had a great music instructor named
George Horan, who told the administration, "No, we will not march at halftime.
This is a serious music program, and we’ll perform a certain number of concerts.
Marching takes away from the seriousness of music." If they wanted halftime
entertainment, he would play with a band designed to play popular tunes, but no marching.
DI: So he set the tone right away of a structured framework.
JM: Our sax section went to MIT, Harvard, Dartmouth -- they were all
bright guys. I want to remind people how important music is, and arts.
They should be in school. It kept me in. My music instructor in high school
hooked me up with a great private instructor, and also directed me towards
the University of Miami, North Texas State or Berklee College of Music. Rod
Morgenstein and I both tell a similar story. We were very good high school
drummers. Rod’s from Long Island, I’m from the D.C. area. We showed up
at the University of Miami, young cocky guys, and we were just blown away
by the talent down there. I mean, Pat Metheny, Jaco [Pastorius], Hiram Bullock…
Steve Morse, Danny Gottlieb, Mark Egan…
DI: So, there was some jazz going on.
JM: It was so strong, the American jazz scene at the University of Miami.
It just overwhelmed the Cuban, or Salsa. Whatever you might get from the local
scene was overwhelmed by the students who had come down there. Their
teachers were saying, “Well, do you think you’ll be able to play a gig on
Miami Beach?” They’re going, “No. I’m going to get a record deal.” And they
did. Steve Morse, Pat Metheny -- they were going up to New York and doing it.
Bobby Watson, Curtis Lundy, Carmen Lundy -- they had visions of being great
DI: This must have been a good environment, to go to a place where people
are really driving to make it.
JM: It’s finding out a way to access the mainstream musically. I was directed
that way. Also at Miami, I met my wife and I’ve been married 20 years. We have a
daughter. Nancy, my wife, graduated from University of Miami, and then got her Masters
degree, and recently her Ph.D., from UCLA -- in Education. I met her there, a very important
part of my life. Also, I met the great piano player, singer-songwriter, Bruce Hornsby.
DI: When was this?
JM: I think I met Bruce in ’75. He’s got a little bit of a better memory than I do. We
were in one of the big bands together, and eventually we started talking and we realized
we were both ex-jocks from Virginia who were at the University of Miami. Not only
did we like Charlie Parker and Coltrane and Keith Jarrett and Bud Powell and Chick
Corea, but we also liked the Allman Brothers and the Doobie Brothers and James Brown.
He liked the Dead through his brother, and I liked Steely Dan. We got along musically,
and socially as well, although we didn’t hang out. After his senior year, he put together
a band and I had heard about it. I said to Bruce, “Hey, if you start a band next summer
give me a call. I’d like to play.” He called me, and we started playing in 1978.
DI: You didn’t release your first album with him until 1986. What happened during
the intervening years?
JM: ’78 and ’79, we played around the Virginia Beach Tidewater area, and
Bobby Hornsby, the great bass player, who is Bruce’s older brother -- John’s the
younger brother, the lyricist -- was the first guy who I really respected as a
musician who said, “You check out the Dead.” I’d seen them at American
University in ’72. I just happened to go there. I was in D.C., my buddies and I
were just hanging out, and somebody said, “Hey, there’s a concert. Let’s go.”
I saw them and I thought, “Hey, these guys are okay.” I wasn’t crazy about them.
Bobby Hornsby was the first serious musician I respected who said, “No, check
them out. They’ve got a good thing going.” Bruce led me in that direction, too, and
made me aware of the Dead and what they were doing. Conceptually, they were the
first guys who clued me in to what they were trying to do, the improv side. 1980,
I moved to Los Angeles.
DI: Why was that?
JM: Well, you know, I wanted to be the next successful, big-time studio drummer
out there. I could play. I could play some jazz, I could play rock, and I could play folk,
and I played a little country, and I could read and I could play with a click -- so I thought
maybe I could go out there and be a session player. The late Jeff Porcaro, it looked like
he was doing what I wanted to do. So, I went out to LA with open arms, and Bruce went
out. Bruce became a staff writer for 20th Century. Steve Watson, the guitarist, went out
and started doing some sessions. I went out and did a few sessions.
DI: Why did you go to LA instead of New York?
JM: Most of my friends that were going to New York were more jazz-oriented. I love
jazz, but I love George Jones, and I love Art Blakey, and Rush, and I like the Dead, and I
like punk rock -- and I love country music. The guys that I talked to that went to New
York, who were playing jazz or bebop, nobody was calling them to do a country gig. I
like all sorts of music. LA seemed a little bit better for that. They’re not a jazz town, but
there are great jazz players out there -- Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Tony Dumas on
bass. Now, you gotta dig…in Los Angeles, I played with Mike Watt, the great punk rock
bass player, the “Mingus of Punk,” I call him. Stephen Perkins. I played with Albert Lee.
Dr. Art Davis, who played bass with Coltrane. So, that’s why I moved to LA.
DI: You were continuing your education being there.
JM: Yeah, you could call it education. Other people would call it scuffling for gigs. I got
there in ’80. I was doing a few singer-songwriter jingles, demos. Mike Post used me on a
few TV gigs -- Hill Street Blues. So, I kind of got a taste for some pressure
situations. And Mike was pretty nice about it. I was able to get through them. So, I
was doing some live country work, a few demos -- I’d kind of left the jazz thing, and
was doing a few TV dates, but mainly trying to just find my way. So, yeah, continuing
education. A few gigs here and there. And Bruce would have a few gigs every now and
then, and we would do those, but it wasn’t until ’86 where he made a demo on his own
and submitted it -- he got a record deal.
DI: How did The Range get together?
JM: Bruce might have a different take on it, but, as I recall, he had some really good
tunes and he was looking for a band. George Marinelli, the guitarist with Bonnie Raitt,
was the guitarist. This is really wild. I did a gig with Luke Duke -- Tom Wopat, from the
Dukes Of Hazzard. [laughs] We heard George play, and Tom Wopat hired
George Marinelli, and then Bruce heard him and hired him for The Range. So, we’ll
thank Tom Wopat for that. Joe Puerta, the bass player from Ambrosia, kind of helped
Bruce along the way when they had a record deal. Dave Pack and Joe Puerta and
Burleigh Drummond befriended us and would try to guide us in the right direction.
The bass player was Joe from Ambrosia, and on guitar, the great multi-instrumentalist,
David Mansfield, who has worked with Dylan and also done films for [Michael] Cimino.
That was The Range.
DI: The album The Way It Is really sums up the whole feeling of American music.
Did you know, when you guys were recording, that this was just going to go through the roof?
JM: No. As a matter of fact, the conversation Bruce and I had was, “Man, I hope we sell
enough records to be able to do another one.” “What do you think it would take?” “I
don’t know…50 to 100 thousand.” “I hope they don’t drop us.” We had no idea.
DI: Any specific songs off that album that you particularly like?
JM: I’ve played “The Way It Is” probably 500 times, 500 plus -- and I can hear it on
the radio, and it still really moves me. I love Bruce’s music. I love his writing. It was a real
enabler for me. He’s just so determined, and just through brute determination, we had this
understanding of “We’re gonna get there somehow!”
DI: As time went by, Bruce disbanded The Range, and went in a different direction,
but you were still there. How’d you make the cut?
JM: I had that background, a similar background to Bruce, and I wanted to really do it,
and I practiced a lot. If you’re going to work with Bruce, you’ve really got to put the time in
on your instrument and be one of those guys that works at it. There are two types of
musicians, the guys who are working at it all the time, practicing, writing, and then
there’s the guys who, kind of, just are good players and wing it, and are good but aren’t
incredibly deep. Bruce has always gone for deep. I think I made the cut because I was
going for that, as well. I think some of my best recording for a drum piece would be
“China Doll” on Bruce’s Harbor Lights. Bruce really gave me the opportunity to
perform and record at a high level.
DI: When Jerry Garcia passed away, and the Dead disbanded, the Other Ones
came around. Bruce was there, and you were there. How did that come about?
JM: Basically, because Billy Kreutzmann had decided he didn’t want to play.
Bruce put my name in there. Phil Lesh had sat in with Bruce Hornsby one time, and
I think I had a pretty major connection with Phil that night. He came out and sat in one
night with Bruce, and we connected. So, I think, Bruce and Phil provided my entry into
the Other Ones. I had sat in with Mickey and had gotten along with him. I knew Bobby,
of course, and had played with him sometimes. When I played with Mickey, I really
would watch him. He, at that point in time, had really enjoyed working with me, and
it worked out fine.
DI: You also played with Mickey in Planet Drum, and then Bruce went on his
own way. Was that on a friendly basis?
JM: It was more than friendly. The hardest thing about it was, a lot of what Bruce
and I do -- just hang out and play basketball, shoot the breeze -- we have a lot in
common. Not that we’re a mirror image of each other, by any stretch of the imagination.
But at the Other Ones rehearsals, we‘d get there a little early, and he and I were playing
duets, coming up with sections and being very creative. We really weren’t doing that on
his gig. And I was aware of it, and Bruce became aware of it there. We were out for sushi
one night, and he said, “Molo, I think you’re right, man. Maybe we should take a break.” I
had mentioned it to him before. After 20 years, I was playing with a lot of other people,
and maybe he needed to. When we got into the situation with the Other Ones, we saw
we had this enthusiasm, this thing going again. Maybe we should take a break. Because
we were brothers in arms on the Other Ones. Bruce and I had that sushi dinner, and I
thought, “This is great.” I don’t know if he talked to Mickey or not, and the next day
Mickey came up and said, “Hey, John, would you be interested in playing in Planet Drum?”
I was like, “You bet, Mickey.” It worked out just fine, time-wise.
DI: What was it like playing with Mickey in a real percussion ensemble?
JM: It was a great opportunity, first of all, to play with the great Giovanni Hidalgo, Rebeca
Mauleón, Glenys [Rogers], [Gladys] "Bobi" [Céspedes], Rah [Fredericks], Nengue Hernandez.
It was a great thing. I always went there trying to make the band sound good. I was thinking
of the way I like to hear Mickey, and how would Mickey like to be heard? That’s what I was
up there trying to do in Planet Drum. So it was a very nice experience.
DI: You’ve also been performing in Jemimah Puddleduck.
JM: I’m still doing that. That’s Mark Karan from the Other Ones, Bob Gross on bass,
and Arlan Schierbaum -- it’s a four-piece. We do a lot of improvisational style music, but it’s
based out of traditional blues. It’s maybe like the early Dead, in that it’s blues, but it’s
quirky blues. It’s off the beaten path. Mark Karan is doing most of the vocals, and it’s a
very fun band to play with.
DI: Now you’re playing in Phil Lesh and Friends. In a revolving personnel arrangement,
you and Phil have been the two constants. How did that come about?
JM: Phil likes the way I play. It’s provided me a great opportunity to play with so many
different players, and I really enjoy it. A bass player of Phil’s caliber, he’s able to get a lot
of great players out there, so it’s something you really want to do. I love playing with him,
and I really enjoy this music.
DI: How does the dynamic work, playing with different people, on different songs?
JM: My background in jazz has really helped, because conceptually what he’s doing
is really trying to play free in the middle. He’s playing these great songs, like, maybe,
“Pride of Cucamonga,” or “New Potato [Caboose],” “Cryptical [Envelopment],” and we’re
using them as departure points to go into some exploratory areas. The players he’s using,
interestingly enough, really know nothing about the Dead, but they understand the concept.
It’s a very refreshing thing. What they bring to it is just guys playing music. We’re extending
the jams. One of the things that I think is very interesting -- and this is not to “diss”
contemporary jazz in any way -- but we’re up there playing really free. We’re playing by ear.
There’s no sequence of changes. There’s not, “Okay, now you solo. Now I’ll solo. Now
bass solo. Now drum fours.” It’s collective improv. You have to listen to each guy.
We go into odd times. He can pick that up. We go into key changes. He’s very refreshing
to work with in that way. It can only get richer and richer with that kind of combination.
DI: What do you think about the crowd, and their appetite for the pieces you’re playing?
JM: I think they’re one of the most unique, best audiences a musician could play for.
Anytime you go out and the crowd is standing up, and dancing around, and really getting
into your head -- as Billy Payne would say, “Hey, they’re really trying to figure out what
we’re going to do.” And anticipating that. That’s a great thing for musicians. Once again,
these guys are from outside the Deadhead scene, so they’re diggin’ it. It’s great for
musicians to go out and play for these people that are really into music. Sure, there’s
some people that show up just for the party, or the framework, but a lot of the people that
you see at these shows will be the people you’ll see at New Orleans Jazz, Newport Jazz,
Telluride Blue Grass -- events all over the country, where real roots, Americana music is being played.
DI: You’ve played a couple of double-bills now with Bob Dylan and his band. What’s
that experience like?
JM: It’s great. I’ve met a couple of them over the years. Charlie Sexton, I know of from
Texas. Bruce Hornsby and he had the same manager for a while. I’ve known of Charlie’s
talent for a long time, and we’ve been professional friends for a while. Larry Campbell is
another guy -- he’s from New York, I met him in Los Angeles. I think he came out to an
Albert Lee gig. I think David Kemper played with Garcia for a while, so there’s a bit of a
tie-in. And I love listening to Bob. I go out in the audience. I have relative anonymity, and
I can go out there and just enjoy Bob’s show. I love working with them.
DI: Tell us a bit about Modereko.
JM: It’s John Molo, John D’earth, Bobby Read and Tim Kobza. If you take the first two
letters of our last names, it spells Mo-do-re-ko. I put it together with Tim, a guy I met from
USC. He teaches guitar down there part-time, and got his Masters degree down there. We
started just jamming together, doing a few loops, and he started writing tunes on top of it.
I think he went over to Korea for a couple of months to do a musical gig. I took the tapes,
and went to Virginia and got Bruce’s horn players -- Bobby Read and John D’earth. They
played on it, and it started to really sound good. We packaged it, sent it out to a few people.
They said, “Well, are you playing?” We said, “Well, no. We put this album together,
but we’re thinking of playing.” So, the A&R department from Verve called up,
Bud Harner, and said, “Hey, man. What about it? Are you guys going to play?” He
said, “Why don’t you do a showcase.” So, we did a showcase in Los Angeles. We
wrapped it all up in tie-dye, and we had a liquid light show. They loved it.
DI: How would you describe the sound?
JM: It’s really, kind of, fun. If you took the sound of Blue Note horns, tenor and
trumpet, mixed it with a bit of Quinn Martin TV production, Mannix…
DI: Barnaby Jones?
JM: A little bit of that sound, a little bit of the Dating Game. Jimmy Haslip
from the Yellowjackets played bass. We did a few odd-time signatures, but it’s not
jazz in the sense of bebop. It’s more like, Radiohead, OK Computer, more like
vignettes. Like watching a little panoramic view going by. It’s very fun, very listenable,
but also very sophisticated, playing-wise. We’re trying to really tap into something or
hook into something -- be fun but enlightening at the same time. I did the composing
along with Tim Kobza and Bobby Read, and John D’earth did a lot of the horn arranging.
Bobby Read engineered quite a bit of the horns and mixed it. Hopefully, we’ll be out
playing with that. I’ll be doing Jemimah Puddleduck, and I’ll continue playing with Phil.
DI: Any projects with Bruce on the horizon? Is that on hold until he comes and joins Phil? [laughs]
JM: Well, you know, Bruce and I, we talked about that. I’ve extended the invitation to
Bruce to come out and sit in with Phil and Friends, and he may do it. We’re on really good
terms and, he’s very excited about what’s happening with the writing thing and what’s
happening with Verve. He’s very encouraging. We talked about getting a really good bass
player, and getting Bruce and getting somebody like [John] Scofield or [Steve] Kimock,
myself on drums, and go out and do a quartet for a couple of weeks. Maybe we’ll do that,
if we could get it together. If Christian McBride reads this, it’d be great if he came out.
Bruce and I, we talk on the phone. We worked together for 20 years -- a lot of gigs together,
a lot of great experiences. Basically, he can just pick up the phone and breathe into it, and
we’ll start laughing because I know it’s him.
DI: What would you tell a new musician who hasn’t been through the mill,
especially a young drummer?
JM: I would suggest to a young drummer to listen to the great writers and composers
of our time, and realize that the drums are a very special, unique instrument. It’s a very
physical instrument. We have a very unique role, but in the same uniqueness and freedom
comes a lot of responsibility. And that’s why I encourage drummers -- listen to Bach,
listen to Beethoven, listen to Coltrane, and listen to the great drummers. We all love the
sound of drums, but we’ve got to remember what we want to do is make great music. Be a
great team player. Elevate your fellow musicians. Elevate the audience and connect
with the audience. If you can do those things, you’ll be working for a long time,
and you’ll be playing drums, and you’ll be happy and engaged and fulfilled.