Over the weekend, I had an opportunity to chat with Jeff Pehrson, founding member of The Fall Risk, to discuss their initial CD and how it all came together for them. We also chatted a bit about his musical past, being in the Twain-Pehrson Duo and Box Set, and present time with Furthur and The Fall Risk, his influences, and tidbits of history that make his musicianship unique.
JBO: So, I’m always curious about how people come up with their band name. My friend joined a band that didn’t have a name yet and told me the long process of elimination. So, how did you land on this name? Kind of evokes a feeling of, well, if you don’t take the risk of falling, you might not ever reach your goals – you know, if you don’t try then…..
Jeff: Essentially, we were kicking around names. I played in a band called Box Set for about 17 or 18 years. We were on Polygram and almost made it huge, but didn’t quite. So, when I started this band, I called a couple of guys from Box Set to be in it, one of which is our drummer, Mark Abbott. Mark’s mother had been ill and he was taking care of her. One day he called me and said, “I got the name of our band.” I said, “Oh yeah, what is it?” He said, “I’m wheeling my mother out of the hospital….” I guess she was pretty [medicated] for one of her treatments so they put a bracelet on her that said ‘fall risk’. So, we thought that would be a perfect name for a band full of mid-40’s guys, trying to jump off the amplifiers like we did when we were 20 and not pull a hamstring!
JBO: Yeah, ya ain’t as young as ya used to be so everything is risky these days, right!
Jeff: [Laughs] Yeah, exactly! You want to run around like you were 20, and ya still do, but… you know, it’s not like it used to be. Stretching helps, it really does, you know, we are more prone to pull things! And, I move around, my center of gravity is off. I’m a pretty big dude so when I start jumping around, sometimes I’ll tip!
JBO: [Laughs] Yeah, when you start jumping around, people start moving away.
Jeff: [Laughs] Well, if they’re smart they do!
JBO: It started with the Twain-Pehrson Duo, then Box Set up to 2006, and now The Fall Risk beginning in 2009. You, Matt and Mark have been together for a long time, a few decades. What keeps you all on the same creative path?
Jeff: It’s definitely both Matt and Mark for sure. One of the first people I started making music with was Matt. We met through a mutual friend when I was still in college for a project when I was at San Francisco State. So, I played him some of my songs and he just hit the harmonies perfect. We just played and sang together so well….. our voices blend together well, there’s always just been a musical connection there. Anytime you find a musical connection with somebody, it just makes things easier. You don’t have to necessarily articulate what you have in mind for things because, somehow, the person can kind of like read your mind and knows what you want, that perfect thing. And, when you find that in somebody, you try to play with them as often as possible!
JBO: Yeah, that’s rare. That’s what keeps a band together in the long haul.
Jeff: Yeah, it makes things so much easier. And that’s exactly the reason why Mark Abbott has always been my drummer and probably always will be my drummer. When I write a new song, Mark somehow instinctively knows what I want. It’s so rare that I tell him how to play. And it’s the same thing with Matt.
JBO: Who does most or all of the writing? You or is it collaboration – you write the words and someone does the arrangements?
Jeff: I write everything, the music and lyrics, so the song comes in complete. But, what the band does is come in and sort of round out that process by adding in different parts that I hadn’t thought of. That’s why the instrumentation in The Fall Risk is such a fun thing for me. You know, I played in Box Set and we were kind of an acoustic-based pop-folk rock band. You know, a lot of acoustic guitars, a little bit of keyboards, drums and bass, but nuthin’ too complicated, really. And, The Fall Risk is loaded, I mean it is stacked from top to bottom with top-notch musicians. So the parts these guys throw out, you know, they don’t change the song but they add in instrumentation I would normally never have thought of. Like Rich Goldstein’s slide guitar. I’ve never worked with a slide guitar in a band before. So, Rich always adds these amazing parts that I immediately love, like, ‘yes, let’s do that!’, you know? And, Mike Sugar, my bass player who is a long-time bay area musician whose been around the music scene for as long as I have. The bass lines that Mike comes up with I could never even thing of. I mean, he’s so good. So, from that standpoint, they basically take the songs I come in with and enhance them.
JBO: Put little touches on it, in places where you didn’t hear it when you were writing.
Jeff: Yeah, exactly.
JBO: So, if someone came to you with a song, would you guys take it and make it your own if it meant something to you? Or, is it, right now, you are really doing your own thing?
Jeff: You know, my biggest thrill in music… I love playing live. I love playing shows, I love playing guitar. But for me, what really gets my juices flowing is writing songs. That is something I take incredibly seriously, probably too seriously, but I do. I’m a real stickler for lyrics. I never could really get into a song that might have a really cool hook but the lyrics are dumb. You know, “baby, oh baby, I love you, baby, baby, baby….” [Laughs] I mean it drives me crazy! Well, that’s why I was such a Grateful Dead fan, because the lyrics were always so good, the stories were so good. In my mind, when you have the kind of access that a lot of big bands do, when you have that kind of audience, the whole world listening to you, and you take that and tell me nothing? I mean, I don’t get it. I don’t see that you necessarily have to write something that changes the world, or write about politics and shove that down someone’s throat, but tell me a story, teach me something! You know, tell me about the human condition. Paint me a picture. That’s why guys like Springsteen, and Dylan, and Pete Townsend… guys who put importance to the lyrics. Like Paul Simon…. you know, these guys will always be my favorites. It’s why I’ve always been drawn to bands like the Grateful Dead and folk music in general, because in folk music, the lyrics are always important, they tend to drive the music. And you can get a history lesson too.
JBO: That is so true! You know, when I listen to your CD, and I’ve been listening to it every day since you sent it to me.
Jeff: Oh good! I’m glad you like it.
JBO: Oh yeah, and I think my favorite song on the CD right now is ‘Angeline’, although ‘Hollow’ is getting to me a bit, but….
Jeff: [Laughs] Yeah, ‘Angeline’ seems to be ‘the one’, I keep hearing.
JBO: Yes, but ‘Hollow’ is… wait, I want to hold off on asking that question but I do want to talk about those songs. I want to ask you, the process for picking the first song on the CD. So, ‘Cross My Heart’. What made you choose this as the first song and what about it maybe starts the beginning of the rest of the story of The Fall Risk?
Jeff: Well, on this particular CD, it’s been different from its has been in the past because we don’t currently have a record deal. We are in the process of having to find a booking agent, to try to get a record deal, potentially, if it makes sense. I’ve been through all of this before, and, well, Box Set went through several record deals so I know the process. I know how they treat new music. When a record company gets your CD, they put it on for 30 seconds, and if they don’t like what they hear, they throw it in the garbage, literally. I’ve seen it. I’ve seen club owners do it when trying to book bands. They have so much music coming in, if you don’t catch them in the first 30 seconds, they will literally throw it away. Normally, you put the CD together for the listener. On this particular CD, I felt I had to put a song up front that I thought was very radio friendly, was very hooky, very catchy, so I would catch people’s ears if they’d never heard of us. So, you know, if they were thinking about whether to give us a record deal, whether we deserve their services as a booking agent or what have you, its the first song. So I put ‘Cross My Heart’ first, it seemed to be a very radio friendly, hooky rock song.
JBO: Agreed, I can hear that on the radio now. Down here [Monterey], we don’t have a lot of choices for radio, but KPIG would love you guys, you are right up their alley, with the roots-americana with a little touch of a southern sound. Have you sent them your CD yet?
Jeff: Oh, I love KPIG, that’s one of the best stations around. We have not sent them our CD yet, but we have tapped into them on our last tour. They were always very friendly to Box Set. Whenever we had a gig down in the area, we’d get invited to the station to play live. I would always request my favorite commercials. You know, ‘Dicken Cider’ is still my favorite. I don’t think it gets funnier than that. You know how it goes: ‘At Christmas time, when it gets cold outside, even grandma liked a little hot Dicken Cider’. [Laughs]
JBO: [Laughs hysterically] I know, when I first moved here I thought, these can’t be real commercials?!
Jeff: Yeah, I love that station.
JBO: OK, back to the CD. As I was saying, ‘Angeline’ is fast becoming my favorite song on the disc. I could listen to this one over and over again. So, what is behind this? It’s danceable, seems like an ode to a girl, or not?
Jeff: ‘Angeline’ is more than just a story about a girl…. its more of a metaphor for when things don’t work out, to try your best to not to get too muddled down and let things ruin your life for a period of time. It’s that life goes on, the river rolls on. Things didn’t work out with Angeline, you tried everything you could, and, you’ll meet somebody else, right down the river. Life moving on, is essentially what that song is about. And, I did it from a standpoint of a relationship, and then threw a lot of river metaphor in there as well. The chorus, ‘The Queen of Coca-Cola’, people have writing to me and asking who the queen is. And, its not a who it’s a what. The queen of coca-cola in my song is the [Cumberland] river boat. I just have this image from when I was younger. I had been to that area many times and I saw John Hartford’s house which is on the bend of the Cumberland River, that’s now call Hartford’s Bend. I don’t know if you are familiar with John Hartford, he was an amazing folk musician, song writer, banjo player, I mean the guy was just an amazing musician. But, he was once a river boat pilot. He never lost his love for that. So, when he made some money in the music business, he built this house on the Cumberland River and he set up this radio where he could talk to the river boat pilots from his house. I kind of wanted to put this in the song, so that’s where I talk about the paddle boat going by Hartford’s Bend. And, when I was there, I also listened to a lot of Sonny Boy Williamson, cuz it just seemed to fit the area I was in. You know, some place along the river where it was kind of swampy and hot. So, this line about ‘the queen of coca-cola, sonny boy and me, sleeping on the banks of a three-part harmony’. You know, its like the sound of all those three things – Sonny Boy is playing, the steam boat is going by, maybe it’s blowing it’s horn, and maybe you’re just breathing along with it all.
JBO: Wow, the harmony of life, you know. I’m glad I asked the question – I didn’t necessarily get that from the song, or know this about the Hartford house and the Cumberland River.
Jeff: Yeah, again, like I was talking about folk music. This part of history, relaying a story. But, I also don’t like to make it too literal either. Because I feel, once the songs are done, recorded, and the person buys the CD, you know, its not my song anymore, its their song. So, if they want to insert their own experience in the song, and you know, decide what they think it’s about, that’s fine too.
JBO: And that’s the beauty of Americana music. It’s so relatable, just tells a story of someone’s experience that could have been yours. The other song I wanted to talk about, ‘Hollow’ – there seems to be something deeper behind this song that I’m curious about. It’s got an upbeat feel, but, I don’t know, I was listening to it over and over and trying to figure out what it meant. There seems to be an underlying heaviness there. Is this is a soul-searching song, struggling to find that thing, that passion that makes you whole, and when you realize it, the joy that can come of the discovery? Can you tell me more about this one?
Jeff: Well, I wrote that on my 30’s birthday. I was looking around and seeing a great many of my peers give up on everything they really wanted to do in life to get that ‘security’, to get the job, to make money, to get that house, to secure that future. It was my kind of anthem, giving advice to myself, literally, to prop myself up and say, don’t give up, don’t give up on your dreams. Don’t sell out and be one of the hollow [workers] that drives back and forth to the office every day and feels nothing. That’s not to say that some people don’t enjoy that way of life, because they do, but for me, that’s not going to work. I just have this creative thing that needs to be let out, and I know myself well enough to know that’s not going to go away. So, the song is called ‘Hollow’ because I always thought that if you just give up on what you are truly driven to do, you will create this enormous hole within yourself that will never be fed, you can’t fill that hole. I kind of tie religion into it a little bit, um, with the line, ‘We’re born to fall in line. Counted to a God. So make me something more. Make me more than lost, and hollow.’
JBO: So, the last song on the CD, HBWA – need to know what this acronym stands for? A very up beat song, a good choice to close the CD.
Jeff: Oh, that’s ‘Hershey Bar With Almonds’. So many people think it’s about me, ‘Hot Bitch With Attitude’ [Laughs]
JBO: [Laughs] I love it, it’s perfect! You know, when I heard this song, the note I jotted was, “I need to know the acronym for this song. It’s very upbeat, its a good choice to end the CD as it leaves you with a full taste, a fulfilling experience, what The Fall Risk is all about.” Hum, Hershey Bar With Almonds, perfect!!
Jeff: [Laughs] Well, this song is about a girl from my past, long ago, when I was very young. Her favorite candy bar was the Hershey bar with almonds. So, the first time I asked her out, I handed her a Hershey bar with almonds. It’s just kind of a about my life at that time, I think I was 19, you know, just hanging out in San Francisco cafes, discovering to music, learning who I was, learning to play music, learning about love, about making love. I wanted it to be carefree. There’s the line that I still love, ‘She’s an angel when it’s right, and a bitch when she’s being denied.’ Or the one chorus, ‘I might not be a dancer, but I’ll keep in step with you.’
JBO: Well, I loved it. I think it is a perfect end to your CD. Its that song that leaves you understanding what The Fall Risk is about, in a nutshell. And, it leaves you wanting to go back to the beginning and start the disc over.
Jeff: Oh good, thank you. I’m glad it makes you do that, that was the goal!
JBO: So, I’ve never had the pleasure of seeing you with Box Set or The Fall Risk. Shameful I know….. I’m really looking forward to this CD release party at The Sweetwater, in Mill Valley, on August 17th – I’m really looking forward to the live interpretations and opportunities for open jams. So, as a new fan, what am I in for here?
Jeff: Well, we play a lot of rock music, so its gonna get you moving, very danceable with tight, driven grooves. It’s a song-driven band, and our players, our musicians are just so good. Everybody needs to shine. I want to take the spotlight off me because these guys are so amazing, I want everyone to see how good they are. So, we stretch the songs out quite a bit, there is a lot of soloing, a lot of passing things back and forth. Our lead guitar player, Phil Savell, is absolutely amazing. Our organist, Sam Johnston, who was also in Box Set, is, well, those two trading solos is just something to see. And, Matt Twain is just an amazing musician and he plays these incredible piano solos, and Rich on the slide guitar, and Sammy also plays crazy harmonica. These guys are just such good musicians, we can really play these incredible jams sessions in the middle.
JBO: Yeah, I’m really looking forward to the live performance. Music always comes out different live. Like a CD is always going to be the CD, its recorded once and that’s it. But the live performance can be different every time, it can change and grow depending on the night, and maybe even the crowd. The CD release party coming up at the Sweetwater should be a great gig. That is a nice space, um, as long as the talking is kept to a low.
Jeff: Well, we will be so loud they won’t be able to talk!
JBO: I wasn’t going to ask any questions “just Jeff” questions, you know, pre-Fall Risk. Just one or two, if you don’t mind? I’m curious about your current gig with Furthur. So, how did it feel when the boys asked you to join back in 2010? Who called? Did you have to excuse yourself on the phone so you could go freak out for a minute? I mean you’d been a deadhead for years – that must have been one crazy moment!
Jeff: Well, it kind of happened over a period of time. J.C. Flyer is the person who called me. He was a writer for Relix, used to do the local Bay Area bit column years ago and he was a big fan of Box Set. The core of Box Set was all about the harmony singing, we had lots of harmony parts. Jim [Brunberg] and I, we were kind of like the Indigo Boys, ya know. [Laughs] So, Bob used to come see us quite a bit at the old Sweetwater. Furthur had done one tour and Zoe [Ellis] decided she didn’t want to be in the band anymore. So, JC called and it was really kind of cryptic. He said, ‘Hey Jeff, how ya been? I have a weird question for you. If you had to pick your five best lead vocals out of the 12 Box Set CDs, what would they be?’ I was like, OK, that is pretty cryptic. So I told him my choices and I said, ‘Hey, JC, do I even want to know why you are asking this?’ and he told me not yet. I kind of had a feeling, I knew Phil was looking around for a new singer. A couple of weeks went by, and he called back, said he played the songs for Phil and they want to know if I want to join Furthur. I said, ‘um, Yes I do!’ I was on cloud nine! I saw so many Dead shows back in the late 80’s-early 90’s, you know, before Box Set took off and I got busy. I think, in a period of six years I probably saw 100 shows. I was always a huge fan. I wasn’t really about the scene, but I was more about the songs. I couldn’t get enough of those songs. The Bobby-Barlow stuff, the Jerry-Hunter stuff. I mean, that is still the best songwriting ever as far as I’m concerned. So, I mean, then to get asked to be in it. I mean, every night when I’m hanging out with these guys, I have to turn around and pinch myself, I mean I really am here, Bob did just ask me to sing the national anthem with him! [Laughs]
JBO: Wow, I can’t imagine what this must be like. Does this current experience have any direct influence on how you write songs today for The Fall Risk or is this a completely separate thing for you?
Jeff: Well, I can’t say that the Grateful Dead didn’t have an influence on my song writing, but that happened years ago, when I first saw them. The main influence that Furthur has had on me, the experience of playing with these guys is not so much the music, the song writing, but it is how to put a show together. Writing the set list, filling in jams, that kind of thing. What I’ve been a part of, up close, to see how all that happens, and seeing their thought process. The song writing has been there since the first time I saw them, I was blown away by the song writing.
JBO: So which side of their music draws you in the most. I mean the Jerry songs are the sweet songs, that hit people emotionally, and the Bobby songs are the rockin, bluesy, cowboy songs. Which side gave you the most? The songs you’ve penned for The Fall Risk, with their Americana feel, seems more on the Bobby-Barlow side?
Jeff: Well, I definitely have been influenced by both sides. But, you know, there’s always that moment when every Deadhead will say, ‘ooohh, when they played that, I got it’. You know, you either get it or you don’t get it with the Grateful Dead. My very first show was a Mardi-Gras show at the Henry J. Kaiser. They did ‘Terrapin’, and I got it. [Laughs] I mean, right at that moment. To this day, that song is one of my favorites of all time. The music and the lyrics are just…. it’s incredible. That song is just incredible to me. That song will always be the ultimate, the song that I will always associate with the moment I really discovered the Grateful Dead.
JBO: Where do you get your talents from – anyone in your family with musical abilities? I know you mentioned you were adopted, but was there a strong musical influence in your upbringing?
Jeff: No musicians in the family, but my dad was a major audiophile. He had a lot of music and always had the biggest, best stereo that was on the market at the time. My dad was a big jazz fan. My mom was raised on a farm in Kansas, so she was all about country music, and Elvis, that was about as rock as she got. So, between those things, when my dad had the stereo on with Dave Brubeck or my mom had control of the stereo that day and I listened to The Statler Brothers. So, I had a well-rounded upbringing as far as listening to a whole bunch of music. I kind of got into rock music on my own, you know, cuz that was what pissed off my parents. [Laughs] So, Led Zeppelin, The Who, Townsend. If I had to name my biggest influence in music I’d say it is Pete Townsend – he is my absolute hero. That’s why I kind of feel like I tap into different areas in song writing, because of the music I listened to when I grew up. I wasn’t just subjected to one kind of music, like ‘here’s rock’ and that’s it. I love the power of rock, but I love the lyrical sensibility that hides in country and folk music. I try to do a little bit of everything, stay well-rounded, you know, cuz that’s what’s in me!
JBO: If you opened up your iPod, or iPhone or whatever you use to listen to music today, what would I find?
Jeff: Oh, you’d find just about everything! You’d find Loudon Wainwright, Rush, I’m a huge Rush fan, have been since high school….
JBO: ‘There is unrest in the forest’. I love that song, The Trees.
Jeff: [Laughs] I thought you said, there is unrest in The Fall Risk! [Laughs] We haven’t been together long enough for there to be unrest!
JBO: [Laughs] OK, so I wanted to ask you what it was like to work with Jack Casady. You wrote and performed on his first solo album, “Dream Factor.” What was that like?
Jeff: Oh, that was a real slice of heaven. Jack is one of the coolest, kindest men in the business. Back in the Box Set days, we toured as a band and as a duo, Twain-Pehrson Duo. And, Jorma and Jack having been a duo for so long, even before Jefferson Airplane, for like 60 years so, it was a thing that they recognized about us, that special duo thing. They took a liking to us, put us on their tour bus and we opened for them on four different tours. So, we became really close, Jim and I even both taught classes at Jorma’s ranch for a while. Then Jack approached us and said he was going to do a solo CD, he loved our songs and wanted us to be on it. I was completely honored. He sent me some music, four tunes he had been working on, and I essentially wrote the lyrics, Jim wrote one, and then we wrote one together. I think we essentially did maybe six songs on the CD. And, then when it came time to do the record, he asked us to sing on it too. And that was great. We worked with the Government Mule guys, Fee Waybill from The Tubes, and Elvis Presley’s cousin played hammond, that was cool. Getting to hang out with Jack and his wonderful wife, who unfortunately recently passed away, she was a joy to be around, it was just wonderful. I love Jorma and Jack dearly. They were so good to Box Set. Incredibly warm and wonderful people. One of the great experiences of my life. I will never forget that.
We did a little trio tour. It was the Box Set Duo and then Jack played bass. So, what did we call it? The Jack in the Box Trio.
JBO: [Laughs] I love it. Perfect name!
Jeff: Yeah, we only did an east coast tour as the Trio, it was really fun.
JBO: So, can I call you Snake?
Jeff: Oh gosh, so you found out about that did you?
JBO: Well, of course I did, I like to do my research! My brother in-law is an avid collector of everything old, including movies so he WILL find it for me. The movie, “Christmas in the Clouds”, I know you played a biker.
Jeff: Well, there was a local gentlemen who is still around today, he plays in a Grateful Dead cover band called, Cryptical, his name is Mitch Stein, you may have seen him sitting in with people here and there. Anyway, he has produced many movies and was working on one at the time called, ‘Christmas in the Clouds’. It had a very large American Indian cast in it. Well, you know I was adopted by Swedish people [Laughs], well, my adoptive parents, that is their heritage. But, my heritage is American Indian, if you can’t tell by taking one look at me. So, Mitch calls me up and says, ‘hey man, I know you did some improve in college and everything. I have this part, do you want to come read for the director?’ So I did, and thought, that was fun, probably won’t turn into anything. So, the next day, they called me and asked me if I wanted to fly to LA to do a reading with the whole cast. So, I went into this room and basically the entire cast of my favorite movie, ‘Smoke Signals’ was there. You know, every American Indian actor that is out there. [Laughs] So, they ended up writing a new part in the script to give me something. I initially had four scenes, but that got edited down to one, but I’m in it!
JBO: Thanks for your time Jeff. Super nice to talk to you.