Interview: John Sebastian’s Spoonful of Magic
By Charlie Bermant
(Originally Published: 03/26/2010, Sonic Boomers)
The best 1960s bands always sounded so original, when in fact they filtered existing musical idioms such as folk and blues to gain a unique sound. While the Lovin’ Spoonful made some great pop singles (“Rain on the Roof” and “She is Still a Mystery” immediately come to mind), they used an infusion of acoustic blues known as “jug band music” as its calling card.
After the Spoonful, principal member John Sebastian parlayed a last minute appearance at the Woodstock Festival into an active solo career. When the Woodstock buzz had worn down he scored again with “Welcome Back,” a catchy tune written especially for the TV show that gave another New York John–Travolta–his first break.
After slipping out of the public eye, Sebastian has moved back toward his roots through an excursion with the J-Band in the 1990s and a recent partnership with mandolin player David Grisman. His solo act has some unique qualities, since he faces the audience armed with an electric guitar and a small amp, rather than the acoustic setup that everyone else uses. His act is a little like Roger McGuinn where he mixes up performances and stories that, taken together, are a bit of a history lesson. Perhaps that’s why they both play in a lot of high school auditoriums.
He plays a baritone guitar to accommodate a lower vocal range, and mixes it up between old blues songs and Lovin’ Spoonful staples. The former are well-served by his vocal growl, while the latter becomes a bit of a shock. You hear the familiar intro, but the voice doesn’t come in at the same pitch. It’s similar to the adjustment of Bob Dylan’s voice over the same period, but not quite as drastic.
Sebastian shared some of his recollections in a call from his home in (where else?) Woodstock, NY.
Sonic Boomers: Who comes to see you these days?
John Sebastian: I get people in their 60s, my contemporaries, who want to hear as many Spoonful songs as possible. There are a lot of people who came to me as a result of the album I made with David, and want to hear a lot of acoustic guitars. In the Northwest there is another faction, fans of jug band music. I discovered that audience in the 1990s, while I was playing with the J-Band. These people would come to the shows, to hear whatever renditions we would do of the songs they loved.
I provide a pen and ink approach to the songs, providing a guitar-only version of what was on the record. I give a pretty close approximation even with one guitar. I know all of the layers, and what licks are needed. When I play electric I use a baritone guitar, which has a lower pitch and a larger sound.
SB: How did the Spoonful sound develop?
JS: Adding elements of jug band music to the Spoonful came out of the need to fill stage time, when we were playing eight sets a night. So we’d do whatever we knew, which were electric versions of songs that we knew from before the band got started. These songs started as filler on the albums, and then became the best parts of the albums. We had a silent mission statement: we did so many singles that we tried to make the next single sound completely different from the last one. Although there was some continuity. “Do You Believe in Magic” and “You Didn’t Have to Be So Nice” were both shuffles and both used the autoharp. But the songs themselves were very different.
We realized that albums deserved more thought, so we decided to make sure that everything we put on the albums was worthwhile, and different from what we had done. We would do our best to introduce new musical styles whenever possible. (Guitarist) Zal Yanovsky was a wonderful mimic and could play all kinds of things. He would suddenly say “hey, I want to play like (C&W pianist) Floyd Cramer,” and come up with a solo that sounded just like him. We spent a lot of time trying to do different styles of American music.
SB: Are there unresolved issues with the Spoonful?
JS: The Spoonful had a fun reunion when Paul Simon asked us to be in his movie One Trick Pony. I couldn’t turn that down, but after it was done a door was closed. At one time the other guys offered Zally a chance to join without me and he turned them down. Then they asked me to join without Zally and I turned them down. It seemed like they were trying to cut Zally out, which was unfortunate.
About twice a year I get calls from places like casinos, where they offer to pay three times the normal fee if I bring in a band. For a while I got the guys from NRBQ. They’re wonderful, but they are dispersed through different bands. The three members of the Spoonful are playing together, and I don’t have problem with that. They do the material well, with the right energy. The fact that they are playing the old songs has freed me to do what I want.
SB: You can tell that a lot of the Spoonful clips are lip synced. What was going through your head at the time?
JS: By the time the Spoonful went on these shows to lip sync we had seen enough other groups do it, so we knew what we needed do to perform the songs without actually singing. When we did the high visibility shows, like Ed Sullivan, we did what we were supposed to do. Even on those shows the camera would move by Zally, and you could see him mouthing “I’m not really singing.”
Sometimes we would do local TV shows where the DJ didn’t know anything about us, and was just trying to get another group to fill up air time. For those shows we would come up with stuff to do, like we would change instruments, and just pantomime. This was kind of a wink to the real fans, who knew how it was supposed to be. It became a way for us to differentiate ourselves from the Serendipity Singers, or whoever came next.
SB: You are famous for tripping while onstage at Woodstock. How important were the drugs, really?
JS: We were all smoking pot. After a while Zally became more of a drinker, because he was Canadian. When he and (bassist) Steven (Boone) got busted and were forced to name their source it ruined the whole mood of the Spoonful. Which was ironic, because I was the big pot smoker. By the time I got to Woodstock I remained a pot smoker, but there was a natural high there. In an interview it is the easy thing to say “yeah, I was really high,” but it was actually a very small part of the event. In fact, I had a small part of some pill that someone gave me before I went onstage, but it wasn’t a real acid feeling.
What is harder to explain is the experience of being uplifted by the audience. So if someone says “you must have been really high” I say yeah, but I was high because a million people were watching me.
SB: You’ve done a few instructional tapes for Homespun, which is run by Happy Traum. Is this a way to keep the folk tradition going in the digital age?
JS: I used to think instructional tapes were kind of corny, so the first few times that Happy asked me to do one I turned him down. But after a while I gave in. Happy has a real understanding of the information that we are passing along. It has to do with both our backgrounds, when we started out we were idolizing those 70-year-old guys from the south who played the blues. It can be very hard to understand these guitar parts. So I decided to give something back while my knuckles are still working, so people can see the mysteries of some of these guitar techniques.
SB: “Younger Generation” contained some real wisdom that fit any time. Did writing that song give you an edge in your own child-rearing experience?
JS: I don’t think that it made it any easier for me. I didn’t have any articulate insights. It was the same road traveled by many of my contemporaries who were having children at the same time, where we were finding out that the fun and laughter is usually in retrospect, especially if you are raising a pair of intelligent, inquisitive boys.