This story, like many worthy yarns, begins in the desert.
Or, to be honest, it begins in Muscle Shoals, Ala., before departing for the desert. There, in the Deep South, Zion Rock Godchaux met Russ Randolph in the course of recording an album. They clicked immediately — Godchaux bringing his love of acoustic songcraft and his family's rock 'n' roll lineage to pair with Randolph's top-notch electronica skills.
At face value, the blend may seem unlikely. But the ideas espoused by these two have grown for years from seeds first planted in Godchaux's mind when he was living in San Francisco, where, perhaps, this story really begins.
This was in 1993 or so. Godchaux, a guitarist, had been primarily doing the singer-songwriter thing. Bands came and went. The stage was always there, and Godchaux honed his craft.
"At some point my friend brought me to a rave — a real deal, in a warehouse somewhere, rave in Oakland," Godchaux says. "And I didn't really want to go. I didn't really think of electronic music as being a legitimate form of music. I thought it was kinda like elevator music or something. So I went to the rave, and I really had my mind blown by just the tribal-ness of it. It was very mystical. All of these thousands of people were connected to this one DJ, and everyone just connected to the same rhythm. It was an amazing thing."
The idea gripped him immediately. What if you took this rave thing and all these sequenced house beats, and then infused some melodic songwriting? What then? And what would a live performance of that whole thing even look like?
Godchaux began writing — and he never stopped. He went on to cart a healthy batch of songs and his trusty drum machine down to Alabama when he traveled there to help with the Heart of Gold Band's new album, At the Table. The work with that band — which includes his parents, former Grateful Dead members Keith and Donna Jean Godchaux — continued, leading to Godchaux bringing in Randolph to get some help in the recording studio.
They knew right away that their senses of rhythm and layering fit perfectly together. Still, some of the ideas Godchaux was sharing were pretty heavy at first. Hell, Randolph grew up in southern Alabama's R&B traditions. The electronic club music Godchaux was trying to show him was like another language — blips and clacks from some tripped-out galaxy.
"The only thing I could really do for Russ was to bring him out to Burning Man," Godchaux says. And so the two trekked into the desert.
This was before any shows, before their 2006 debut, Visions of Backbeat. "At Burning Man, everything is going on out there," Godchaux says. "I figured it'd be like a week-long crash course in all things hip and electronic. Once he saw that, we went back home and started getting down to business, infusing the two. He saw it right away."
That first album was something of a supernova for the duo. "Ladies and gentlemen, this is BoomBox," a young child says as Visions of Backbeat begins. An electronic beat bobs and weaves, laying the red carpet for guitar melodies infused with all sorts of effects. "Stereo," the opening cut, is a fine introduction to the BoomBox sound. When Godchaux's vocals begin, lilting across gentle guitar chords and a steady beat, everything that he and Randolph experienced out in the desert crystalized into high definition.
Later on the album, "Midnight on the Run" channels every influence these two guys could bring to the table through the lens of electronica. You've got that R&B flow, the loosely tethered Dead consciousness, the nomadic American songwriter ethos. It's a great road song, evoking the pathways these guys have traveled to get to where they're going. And, put simply, Godchaux's vision of blending these two forces — his visions of backbeat — was something worth taking seriously. He knew it. Randolph knew it. The listeners — droves and droves of them, soon enough — well, they knew it too.
"These were all tracks that I had put together with that vision of having a band that was electronic and rock 'n' roll," Godchaux says.
The goal, from then until now, has always been good songwriting.
Late last year, the band released Filling in the Color, their first album since 2010's downriverelectric. It's an apt title, since this album feels like the guys are settling in comfortably for the long, groovy haul. They've established their sound. They've boogied. They're applying color to a structure they've built, and, whoo-ee, it's a whole lot of fun.
Case in point: "Like a Feather," which stands out as the goddamned catchiest tune on the record. Godchaux's guitars dance amid gentle whirlwinds of synth. The thing is drenched in Alabama soul, sure, but you've got West Coast inclinations throughout. Godchaux acknowledges the melting pot notion here, saying that much of the album was written on the road while surfing great American highways and crashing in a mosaic of hotel rooms.
Filling in the Color is not a live album, but it sure sounds like it. To wit, live guitar riffs were yanked from soundboard multi-tracks at shows for "Waiting Around" and "Dream." But the rest of the album just has that ever-loving flow, that bobbing and weaving mentality that comes with the best sorts of live concert experiences.
Early on, even the studio's drum machines were used onstage in the band's live performances. Godchaux equates the process to how a DJ might spin two records together (although BoomBox employed two drum machines, each rolling with 16 tracks of music). "It was kinda like taking the recording studio and bringing it to the stage," Godchaux says.
But, yes, this is a studio album, and the guys are intent on dishing up top-notch songwriting. That means the whole bag.
"Waiting Around," which opens the album, is a complete sonic journey. The introductory riff, a dizzying reverb joint, flexes over brass flourishes and snappy snare beats coalescing within one another as Godchaux's upper-register flows across the top of the tune. It's a collage of drifting thoughts ("Waiting around/on a boat that's still / connected to the shore / I wanna feel that breeze / make it out the door"), all signifying emotions that flow through the band members' pasts and the pasts of us all.
This story, like many worthy yarns, is an ongoing one. Good music flows always forward. Godchaux and Russell rekindle the traditions of old while inventing new sounds, new vibes.
"The reason we called it Filling in the Color is because up until that point I felt like we had been kinda building the frame of the house, you know? Now, we're just infusing the whole thing with color," Godchaux says.