As mentioned in this week's upcoming Soundbites column, a Q&A I recently conducted with songwriter Tao Rodriguez-Seeger unfortunately wouldn't fit in the music section due to space limitations. However, in the wild and woolly expanse of the internet, no such constraints exist, meaning I can offer you the full, (mostly) unedited transcript of our conversation, rather than the heavily condensed and edited version that would have appeared in print.
In this case, that's actually a very good thing. Because as I found out, in the Seeger family the apple truly doesn't fall far from the tree. And Tao is every bit the engaging, witty, insightful and eloquent person you might expect the grandson of legendary American folk songwriter Pete Seeger to be.
So, in advance of the Tao Seeger Band's performance at the Higher Ground Showcase Lounge this Friday, here is part one of my interview with Tao Rodriguez-Seeger. Part two will appear Wednesday.
SEVEN DAYS: So, I hear through the grapevine that you play a Creston guitar.
TAO RODRIGUEZ-SEEGER: Fuck yeah, dude! Why wouldn't I? Those things are incredible.
7D: Agreed. How did you find out about Creston?
TRS: It's funny, I've never met him. We talked on the phone and I get his emails with all his new toys. But we've never actually met. I think we're actually gonna meet for the first time at this gig, because he said he's gonna come, which is gonna be awesome.
Anyway, he built a bass for Zack Hickman, who plays bass in Josh Ritter's band. And at the time, he was playing bass in my fiddler's solo project. And I admired the bass. And I said, "Where'd you get that thing?" [Chuckles] And he told me the story. So I called Creston and was like, "Hey, can you make me Bruce Springsteen's Telecaster?"
And he laughed and said, "Well, you know, it's not a Telecaster. It's an Esquire." Which I didn't know.
7D: Me either.
TRS: Anyway, he said he'd love the challenge and he built me this beautiful guitar out of Vermont butternut. It's my main guitar now. I used to be all about acoustic guitars and now I'm all about this electric guitar. I hardly ever play acoustic guitar anymore.
7D: That wasn't the guitar that cracked at the inauguration, was it?
TRS: No. The guitar that cracked at the inaugural was my longtime, sweetheart 12-string guitar made by a good friend of mine, Bruce Taylor, who's been making guitars for my grandfather for years. I had that guitar repaired actually, and I'm still playing it. I mean, Obama signed it. "This land is your land, Barack Obama." I kinda have to play it, don't I?
7D: I think you do.
TRS: I put it on the wall for about a year. And I was sort of, "What do I do with this guitar?" It's this heirloom now and I've never really been into heirlooms. I feel like people who buy Stradivarius and put them on the wall … that's sacrilege. They want to be played. So I had it repaired and actually just took it Colorado with me, which was more of an acoustic-y affair. But the band that's coming with me to Burlington, that will be a loud electric affair.
7D: Nice. Now, has Bruce Springsteen seen the guitar that was inspired by his guitar?
TRS: [Laughing] No, he has not. I don't think he would be too impressed. But he's not easily impressed.
7D: Oh, no?
TRS: No. He actually just retired his classic Squire. I think he gave it to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I remember reading that and I was like, "Really? Why would he do that?!" I mean, that thing has been through the war with him. But you know, he's Bruce. He's got plenty of guitars.
7D: You don't question the Boss.
TRS: You don't. And he's been more into acoustic stuff lately anyway. Maybe he's on a different trip. But no, he's never seen that guitar. And I mean, if it were me, I'd probably feel a little uncomfortable if someone was like, "Hey I had this guitar made. It's modeled after yours." I'd be like, "Aw, man. Don't tell me that shit."
7D: I can see how that could be awkward.
TRS: I mean, I know the guy. But not so that I'd show up at his house and be like, "Hey, what's up?"
7D: [Laughing] Right. Let's switch gears. I'm always fascinated to learn when the children, or in your case, grandchildren, of iconic figures realized how important those people are in a larger context. I mean, people like Woody and Arlo Guthrie and your grandfather are larger than life to most of us. But to you, I imagine Pete Seeger is just "grandpa."
TRS: I pretty much remember the exact day. We were on a family trip to Japan — I have Japanese family. My grandmother is half-Japanese, which makes me one-eighth. And as grandpa always did when we'd take family vacations, he would get a few gigs to pay for the trip, and we would go and be a big, rambunctious gang of Seegers on the road.
I was 14 and was living in Nicaragua at the time. I lived there for nine years, from 1980 to 1989. When I got to Japan — I hadn't seen my grandparents in four or five years — I straight up told my grandpa he needed to stop singing in Spanish, because his Spanish was terrible. [Laughs] And he laughed and said, "Well, if it's so bad, why don't you help me out?" And cocky 14 year-old that I was, I said, "Sure. How hard could that be?"
So the concert, it was the first concert I ever played, at a Hiroshima Day peace rally for half a million people.
7D: That was your first concert?
TRS: It was. And when they announced my grandfather, the whole place just went bananas. And that was kind of my first realization that he was a global phenomenon, not just my cool, banjo playing grandfather.
I mean, I knew my grandfather was famous because people would come on pilgrimage and you'd meet these kinda weird folks who felt he was some kind of life-changing force. And I guess he was, to them. But it was always annoying and uncomfortable for me. He was just my grandpa.
But I think that moment in Japan was kind of seminal, because it was the first time that I was performing with him, and I kind of got a taste of what it feels like to be part of that moving experience. Getting people to sing a song is a treat. Getting half a million people to sing a song isn't just a treat, it's magic. It's moving people on a whole other level. And he does it better than anyone that I've ever seen. He isn't interested in his own thing, he's interested in bringing people closer top each other on a global level through music. And I think that's a really important job. And I wish other people realized how important that is, instead of getting caught up in fame and the search for fame and fortune, and all these things that, at the end of the day, are ephemeral and kind of useless. Money can buy you toys and trinkets. But it really can't buy you happiness, or peace, or human touch.
7D: But it can buy you a Creston guitar.
TRS: [Chuckles] Yeah, it can buy you a Creston guitar. That's true. And that can help you in that quest. The tools are important. And for sure, money is part of the equation. But to make money your sole purpose in life is a mistake. And creative people — I hesitate to call us "artists" — when creative people make that leap and decide money is the deciding factor in all of their decisions, it sullies the creation. It can't help but infect the art. Motive is a huge part of the equation. Why you do what you do is as important as what you do.
So, grandpa, I think he exists on a very high plane, on both the motive level and the ability level. When you combine extreme ability with extreme motive, you're inevitably going to end up with somebody pretty special. It doesn't make him perfect. But he's pretty special.