Did you catch Spock Goes Mental at Vintage in Rhode Island, February 11, 2011? If you did, you got a taste of the thrashing, crashing, laughing, at times frenetic train wreck that this avant-garde MA band can be. If not, whatever.
At first glance, bandleader Robb Millett, 56, seems like a whatever kinda musician. Enjoy the show, don’t enjoy it, just don’t knock his beer over. He may joke around an awful lot about almost everything, purposely turn his amp up to 11 just to piss off the noise police, but when he takes the stage — be it a bowling alley, a tavern, or a real stage with a real rapt audience — he’s serious about the wide range of music he deigns to play the hell out of.
But then again, Millett has been playing music seriously most of his life. He is another of those accidental child prodigies, inspired by the usual rock giants, the Beatles, way ahead of his (and his then-guitar instructor’s) time when he got a hold of Frank Zappa. From a very young age, Millett knew what he liked to hear, what he wanted to play, and to hell with all the other noise. Like most experimentally fusion-inclined, forward-thinking rebellious musicians, he gave little thought to what was on the radio, Top 40, or dance halls. If it moved him, no matter how scarce, rare, weird, or absurd to the rest of the human population, he was on top of it.
A multi-instrumentalist who first fell in love with the guitar, Millett could also easily take on lead vocals, like a Mark King, Don Henley, or Sting. He can replicate covers with the best of the cover bands, in his sleep. But he’d rather put his own blasphemous spin on a few select, established, and inaccessible bands (did I mention Zappa?), and slam-dance on more than a few of his off-the-charts originals. More to the point, he’d rather just play whatever the hell he wants with like-minded musicians — for the music and the fun of it. Nothing more, nothing less.
Millett’s rock ‘n roll train has long since left the track, and that’s fine by him. He had a taste of it in his youth, promises promises thisclose to stardom, ultimately slipping through his fingers due to the usual power-jockeying BS of the music industry types, and more than the small hand of fate.
If you ever have a chance to see him live, do it. You may never know what he’ll do, but then again, you may be pleasantly surprised by his intrinsic musicianship, his ability to play everything in one fell swoop — from blues to California surfer pop, to free-form angry haiku turned rock-jazz, and his off-the-wall humor.
That’s the point.
How’d you even get started in music? We all have affinities for various activities, “talents” if you will. Music has seemed to be one of mine. I can’t ever remember not having an interest in music, and I believe there exist pictures of me as a small child posing with a guitar as if to perform. My mom was a singer, and I had an aunt who taught music — piano and voice — if I recall correctly. I suppose I come from it, a bit, perhaps.
I think though, that my true start was inspired by the rise of the rock groups through the early 1960s, The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Herman’s Hermits and the like. Blame the Beatles, damn their black hearts. I’d watch them on TV and think they were just the coolest thing ever. I asked my parents if I could take guitar lessons when I was in the fifth grade — 10, or so — and they sent me to lessons at a music shop in Framingham, MA. Liberty Music I think it was. My teacher’s name was Roger Eed. Yeah, weird surname, I know. The guitar I learned on was…was, just…OMFG that thing was a tank, brandless, a molded plywood box in the shape of a guitar, with strings about a mile from the fingerboard, the wonder is I made any music come out of it. As an instrument, it was like an Evil Sensai, who brutalizes his students, that they become hardened to adversity…and damn it, I made music come out of that f**king sh*tty old thing. Even under my own personal Cruel Tutelage of Pai Mei.
*I think that’s because performing induces a kind of joyous monomania, where for a little while, you’re only a conduit for the music coming out. You kind of can’t think of anything else. The music is the joy.
Anyway, there came this pivotal event: after paying for one lesson, I had some change, so I spent it on the sheet music for the Beatles tune, “Help!” At the next lesson, I asked Mr. Eed to teach it to me, but he refused, saying I wasn’t ready for it, or something, and so I was disappointed, and lost interest in continuing to learn to pay, “Hot Cross — f*cking — Buns” and the “Two Step — f*cking — Waltz,” and the other crappy simplistic etudes and songs youngsters are taught by the old-school rote repetition methods.
I gave it up actually, for over a year.
Then, sometime during about the seventh grade, and after a couple years + of learning and playing clarinet in the school orchestra, one day out of the blue, I picked up my old guitar and found that “Help” sheet music, and taught myself how to play the chords shown above the staff on the sheet. I remember being enthralled by this one particular chord interval in that song, under the line “…never needed anybody’s help in any way…” It just sounded so cool to my ear. After that, I started just making things up on guitar, in between learning covers, mostly by ear.
I’ve been making up my own songs since the very beginning, it never occurred to me not to. I’ve always been able to sing pretty much on key, right from the beginning too. Lucky me. I did take a few years of voice training in the early 80s. Mostly that has kept me from singing myself hoarse during the course of a single evening
You’re a Zappa fan. Why is he such a big deal, and who else are your musical influences? Most people are put off by the obvious misogyny and constant banal sexual references in his music, since that’s the stuff that gets the most notoriety, but if you can look beyond that, you find that his music is rather all-encompassing, by turns, simplistic, wildly complex, banal, off-puttingly avant-garde, stone-axe simple, theatrical, superficial…he produced 60 albums from “Freak Out!” to the last he did before his death in 1993, (“Leather” but spelled with an umlaut “a”). He was prolific in the extreme, and I admit I found, and still find, his humor and writing style engaging.
He was a troubled genius, misanthropic, misogynistic, bitter, selfish, womanizing, a lonely workaholic who distanced himself from everyone including his family, but… he was smart, and funny, and he put together the best bands in all of rock and roll.
I got into his stuff in the early 1970s, just after graduating high school, and became enthralled. The stuff was just so challenging to listen to, and often hilarious. Over the course of my songwriting career, I have often adopted his compositional ethic, there’s even a song on my soundclick.com page — “Romantic Entanglement Bullsh*t” — that was directly inspired by a song of the Zappa album, “Man From Utopia,” called, “The Dangerous Kitchen.” Because of Zappa, I took up woodwinds again during college and taught myself how to play saxophone, struggling thru ear-learning a couple songs off of “Hot Rats.”
Saw him perform twice in Boston in the 1970s, was highly motivating for me as both a performer and songwriter.
As far as other influences, well, the Beatles were huge for me. Most of my songs follow their early arrangement forms. During my college years, I was heavily influenced by the Mahavishnu Orchestra, then…y’know, the whole “name your influences thing is actually hard for me, because whenever I start thinking about it — beyond the Beatles, Zappa, and Mahavishnu — I think more of particular songs that influenced me, or added something to my songwriting style, or playing, and the overwhelming cascade begins, such that the question is really best answered by replying “too many to list.” Being engaged in music, I find I cannot listen to different styles without being interested in them and wanting to try them out, and see what I take back, what will cause evolution in my own style.
In terms of my guitar playing — and here I’m talking almost exclusively about my improvisation style — I am a graduate of the Old School Rock Guitarists college. You have to remember that I came up at the time during which the popularity of the rock guitarist, as a featured performer and personality in the band, was pretty much created by guys like Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, and well, Zappa too. I would have to say that my guitar improv style takes key elements of Clapton, but there’s also heavy Zappa and John Mclaughlin (the guy in Mahavishnu) going on in there too. At least, I know it’s there.
What kind of music career were you searching for starting off? Duh. C’mon, don’t be obtuse. Rock stardom, what else? Fame and fortune! Huge piles ‘o money! Huge piles of chicks! Constant drug supply! Songs on the radio! Albums in the stores! The fawning adoration of the little people! More Money! Cars! Motorcycles! Guitars!
So far, only the “Cars!” “Motorcycles!” and “Guitars!” aspects of that plan have worked out. I suppose the “Constant Drug Supply!” worked out too, if you count my blood pressure meds. Nobody said they had to be fun drugs…
How would you describe your playing style? Sounds pretty classic rocker to me. Phew. At least it isn’t “oldies.” We all, each of us, as musicians, are products of our strongest influences when we were in our most malleable and formative stages, and for me, that pretty much comprises the rock music of the 1960s into the early 1970s. It includes both electric and acoustic guitars, as I do like playing both. I like to think I can get around the guitar pretty well. I spent the 10 years between 1982 and 1992 playing bass in bands, and so I can get around a bass guitar pretty well too I think.
Wait, you’re asking me to describe my playing style…geez, I dunno. It’s rock and roll. Not for me to really try to describe it. In fact, you’ve already described it, right? It’s whatever it sounds like to the listener, except that they’ll undoubtedly be wrong.
If you listen to the greats, and then delve back into their influences, you can come to hear elements of those influences in their playing styles, which over time become their own identifiable style. Thus is it for me, and pretty much any musician. Though sometimes my influences are apparent, I think I have an identifiable style, uniquely me, that doesn’t sound like anyone else. If it sounds like classic rock to you, well then, right on. To me, it just sounds like, well, me.
When you get on the stage with your band, Spock Goes Mental, what sorts of things go through your head? I mean, what would be a good gig to you and what would suck? Stream of consciousness — inside my head while performing: “What the f*ck are the words to this tune? Ummm…wait f*ck, how does the signature line go here? Oh yeah…hope the barmaid bends over again…ooops, sh*t (thought whenever I play the wrong chords). F*ck I hate loading out…Boobies!” that’s about it. It’s pretty banal, pretty simplistic. I think that’s because performing induces a kind of joyous monomania, where for a little while, you’re only a conduit for the music coming out. You kind of can’t think of anything else. The music is the joy.
A good gig is where I play mostly correctly, I’m in good voice, I remember most of the words, and I like my guitar tone…if there’s lots of applause that’s kewl too. A bad gig is where my voice is marginal — as in physically diminished by sickness — and, well, that’s about it.
You’ve made mention before of not being interested anymore in chasing the music dream, studio work, big-time record label, national recognition, groupies… At an earlier point in your life, you were. What changed? Well, I got older. I grew up y’know? I’m 55, not 25. The fact of the matter is that popular music is a young person’s game, and the record deals go to young people. I’d venture that most of the “Classic Rock” dudes — who are my age or older now — would find themselves out in the cold if they hadn’t already come up when they were young. Being young, it’s pretty easy to get caught up in the idealism and “magic” of the rock thing. I ain’t saying I didn’t have a good time, ’cause I most assuredly did, and I wouldn’t give any of it away, or change a minute… well, maybe I’d change a couple minutes, maybe an hour, total! At least that one time with the Valium, and the bananas…you laugh, I’m serious. But that’s it.
Over the years of my pursuit, there came many disappointments and disillusionments, at the hands of those who promised much and delivered nothing, and so, I suppose, I have come to view that world with a jaundiced eye, populated as it is with shysters and skeevy ne’er-do-wells… On the other hand — lest I seem a bitter old f*ck crying “sour grapes!” or, more appropriately “heavily cut cocaine!” ‘cuz they didn’t pick me *snivel* — I have had the good fortune to become involved with a group of good musicians, and friends, who are a pleasure to make music with.
I forget when exactly, but there came a day when I realized “The Dream” would only ever be that and after bumming out for a day or 30, I had to reevaluate what exactly was the enjoyment that I got out of music — and maybe that sounds like I actually sat down and thought about it just like that, but really it was more like continuing to play and trying to find a place where I enjoyed it again minus worrying about where it was going to go, more of an evolution in feeling, than a concrete decision.
What I enjoy, what I have always enjoyed, simply, is the music itself. Whatever my status, that enjoyment I have found to remain undiminished.
What do you do when you’re not onstage flailing on your guitar? Climb rock, climb ice, climb plastic, not in that order. Snowshoe into crags, so that I can scare myself knocking big blocks of ice down onto my head. Cut and weld metal on an original design reverse trike I am building using an old motorcycle of mine as the donor. After that project is completed, I want to finish writing a book I began in the fall of 2009, when I was recovering from a badly broken ankle, and that my middle daughter Caitlin has been bugging me to write since she was a tween…wanna read an except from the beginning? Actually, the only thing I have written so far? Beyond that I eat, sleep, and go about all the usual mundane banalities of everyday life.
What is it you’re looking for musically now, if anything? Mostly, to not ruin my hands so much by [rock] climbing, that it affects my guitar playing. Eventually I will stop doing my day job, and then only teach guitar, and I’ll likely keep playing and gigging until I’m so old that it’s really uncomfortable for the audiences, who I think are mostly idiots anyway, so f*ck ‘em.
If you were a tree… j/k. I’d be a Larch. Specifically, I’d be the Larch that was in the Monty Python skit, where they show a slide of a Larch, and John Cleese intones, “The…Larch. Larch. The Larch.”
Interview first appeared in Examiner March 1, 2011.