Behold the Seer: An Interview with Jeff Hill

Jeff Hill

Jeff Hill may be the newest member of the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, but he’s no novice. The skilled bassist cut his teeth on rock and jazz in Chicago and New York City for years before becoming a go-to player for artists like Rufus Wainwright, Shooter Jennings, Linda Thompson, and more. Now his fantastic groove and tone are featured in the Brotherhood’s latest album, Barefoot in the Head.

The album is tied together by Hill’s big, rich sound, which he gets in part from his love of vintage gear. He also knows how to get his sound after working for years as a recording engineer and producer.

We caught up with Hill to get the scoop on his musical path, the band, the new album, and how he likes to record his bass.

How did you get your musical start?

I started out with alto clarinet and then I moved over to tuba. I started playing electric bass when I think I was around 12. It was a musical progression from starting to listen to Led Zeppelin and rock and roll and trying to figure out what instrument was doing what. It’s funny because I went straight to bass as opposed to guitar or anything because I just loved the bass. My grandfather, who lived in Puerto Rico, played a nylon string guitar. He’d always hand it to me and say, “You play,” and I always liked the sound of the low notes. So I think I was just born to be a bass player. My great grandfather was a tuba player as well.

What kind of stuff were you listening to? Were you always a rocker?

When I first started, yeah. I also liked jazz as well but I was a pretty typical teenager in the early ’80s. I was listening to Ozzy Osbourne and Black Sabbath and that stuff.

How did you get into the music scene? You’ve played with so many people so I’m wondering what that path was like.

I was living in Chicago in the early ’90s and I was playing a lot of upright bass. I’d play at the Green Mill every Saturday night from midnight to 5 am with a group called the Sabertooth Jazz Quartet. Then I started playing with Von Freeman in Chicago a little bit, and I’d take calls to play with people from out of town.

My wife at the time was working for United Airlines so I could fly anywhere I wanted for $50. I just started flying everywhere [laughs]. A lot of times I’d fly to New York [because] it turned out I had a lot of friends there and I just loved it. Shortly after that, I moved to New York. When I was in New York I was playing on the jazz scene, then I got a gig with a woman named Holly Palmer, who was on Reprise Records at the time. She has since gone to back up sing for David Bowie and Seal and a whole bunch of other people, but she had a record deal at the time so I went on tour with her. We were opening for Paula Cole and a bunch of other people.

Two years after that I started working with Rufus Wainwright and I played with him for about a decade. He toured all over, and I played on four of his records. It would be like a year on the road and then a year off the road to work on a record. On those years I’d either start a new band or work with some different people. On one of the off years, I played with Shannon McNally, where I ended up working with Neal Casal. We toured for about nine months with her and at the end of that he and I and a drummer named Dan Fadel started a band called Hazy Malaze. We played a ton, opening for Robert Randolph and different people. That lasted a couple years and then he got the Ryan Adams gig. We hadn’t seen each other in a couple years, but he is how I ended up hooking up with the CRB. When [bassist Mark “Muddy” Dutton] left, both Neal and Tony [Leone] – with whom I had recorded and toured with for Shooter Jennings – they both said, “Why don’t you come out and play with us?” The rest is history.

Touring is a good way to get to meet people for that kind of thing.

Yeah, getting on a bus and touring around is a good way to get to know people. Sometimes too well [laughs].

Chris Robinson Brotherhood: Barefoot in the Head

I love your playing on the new album, especially that opening on “Behold the Seer” where you play in the higher register. What is the writing process like for this band? Do you come up with everything or are you given direction?

I can’t recall anyone saying anything to me about anything I’ve played since I’ve been in the band. It’s pretty much an empty canvas. I play what I want to play and it seems like no one has had any objections yet. In terms of “Behold the Seer”, it’s a funky little number. I have to balance between the other rhythmic elements that are going on, because [keyboardist Adam MacDougall] likes to play a lot of low-end clavichord stuff.

It’s about choosing what role you’re going to have in that rhythmic scheme. In this case, there’s a riff going on, and I jump in on the riff to punctuate that intro. Then it goes into a solo section that has a lot of elements going on. I try to keep my playing improvisatorial. In live shows, I try to play differently from night to night because I feel that’s the spirit of this group; to try to come up with something new.

It feels like it’s a free flow even on the album. I was wondering once an idea is a presented and you get to jam on it, what is your process for whittling down what you want to play. Do you do that?

Yeah, of course. I try different things on any given night. Sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t. There’s never really a whole lot of judgment about it because that’s the spirit of live music. If you’re not willing to take a chance, then you may not discover something new. I think everyone in the group is allowing each other to take those chances, especially in moments where we’re really trying to extend something to another place. We also like to morph songs into each other, so we’ll have a very loose outline of how we’re going to do that. Sometimes magic happens and sometimes it doesn’t. We do a lot of listening to each other, which helps. We’re rhythmically and harmonically on the same page at the same times.

Chris Robinson Brotherhood

Does that harken back to your jazz time?

I think that’s the basis of where my ear has been trained. If I hear somebody play something, I can react to it. I’m not sitting and saying, “I’m just playing the bass line.” If I hear someone play something rhythmically or melodically interesting, that could shift me to go in a different direction. I guess that comes from a jazz setting, but jazz is such a broad, simplified term. You could apply that to what the Grateful Dead were doing and you could say they are jazz influenced. I think jazz influenced everything and everybody in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. It was making its way into all sorts of music. I definitely come from a ’70s musical mentality. That’s the music I love that makes me feel something.

Speaking of having that ’70s love, you get a huge creamy tone and I saw that you use old school gear. Is that your thing?

Yeah. I love old Ampegs and old Fenders. I have a few Hofner basses. Actually, on this next tour, I’m going to be using an old Gibson Ripper bass. I love that bass. I found one at the Midwest Buy and Sell on the west side of Chicago. It was $400 and it was super light, so I grabbed it about eight years ago. I’ve been experimenting with different instruments to see what really fits with the band.

You played upright on the album, too, right?

I played upright on “Blue Star Woman” and “High Is Not the Top”, plus I played upright and cello on “Glow”. There’s a little line from the beginning that goes all the way through on the cello.

I was wondering if you played that because I saw in your credits that you’ve done some other cello work.

Yeah, I’ve done some cello work. I wouldn’t call myself a cellist, but I dabble. I have a very cheap Kay cello. It’s like a 3/4 size student cello and I brought it places to have it looked at. When they first look at it, people say, “Oh, throw that thing away!” Then I play it and they say, “Don’t throw that away! It sounds great!” It just happens to be a cheap, beat-up instrument that sounds good. Sometimes Kays are like that, they just have a sound. I switch the tuning sometimes between having it be a little bass or tuning it like a cello. If I’m bowing, the fifths are easier.

I know you engineer a lot as well… I know you didn’t engineer this album, but how do you like to record your bass? Are you a big direct guy or a miking guy?

You know, I go both ways but I’m pretty simple. I like a good sounding bass and plug it into a nice preamp with a little EQ on it. I have an Inward Connections Vac Rac, which is a tube limiter. That kind of creams it up, too. I usually plug into a Neve-ish kind of preamp and give it a little boost at 100 or 150Hz. I like to get a fatter, tubbier sound sometimes, too. I have a Fender Showman head that I mic up sometimes. I’m not that picky with that. It’s more about the direct and the mic signal. But I’ve used so many different things and it just comes down to the fingers. I don’t even know what he used on the record [laughs]. I think we had a B-15 up in a room somewhere. I kind of took my engineering/producer hat off as much as I could for that recording.

Is that tough for you?

No, not at all. I’ve done it both ways. I also didn’t want to be like, “Hey, I have ideas.” [laughs] That’s not my style. I’m pretty low key and not trying to always prove myself. So if I had an idea, I’d say something, but I wasn’t trying to impose at any time. I was mostly trying to come up with good parts. I’m proud of this record. I think it’s a great record. We made it start to finish in two weeks, which is pretty amazing. We recorded at Panoramic Studios in Stinson Beach. It has this amazing view of the beach that’s kind of a half-moon shaped bay. We were all living at this house that someone built out of old shipping materials. It was way overbuilt and beautiful. It was really just a great house that they put a bunch of gear in. It’s not really a traditional studio. All the editing was pretty much live on the floor with a couple fixes here and there. It was a really great experience.

Chris Robinson Brotherhood

Chris Robinson Brotherhood 2017 Tour Dates:

Aug 5Petaluma Music FestivalPetaluma, CA
Aug 9Greenfield Lake AmpitheatreWilmington, NC
Aug 10Orange PeelAsheville, NC
Aug 11Shaka's LiveVirginia Beach, VA
Aug 12Jefferson TheatreCharlottesville, VA
Aug 13Ram's Head OnstageAnnapolis, MD
Aug 15The Music HallPortsmouth, NH
Aug 17Ocean MistWakefield, RI
Aug 18Stone Pony Summer StageAsbury Park, NJ
Aug 19House of BluesBoston, MA
Aug 20Gateway City ArtsHolyoke, MA
Aug 22Mr. Small's TheatreMillvale, PA
Aug 23State TheatreState College, PA
Aug 24The HauntIthaca, NY
Aug 25Bearsville TheatreWoodstock, NY
Aug 269:30 ClubWashington, DC
Sep 7Pompano Beach Amphitheater (w/ Blackberry Smoke)Pompano Beach, FL
Sep 8St. Augustine Amphitheatre (w/ Blackberry Smoke)Saint Augustine, FL
Sep 9Jannus Landing (w/ Blackberry Smoke)St Petersburg, FL
Sep 10The SocialOrlando, FL
Sep 12Vinyl Music HallPensacola, FL
Sep 14Variety PlayhouseAtlanta, GA
Sep 15Variety PlayhouseAtlanta, GA
Sep 16Cox Capitol TheatreMacon, GA
Sep 17The Civic CenterNew Orleans, LA
Sep 19Revelry RoomChattanooga, TN
Sep 21The Lyric OxfordOxford, MS
Sep 22Neighborhood TheatreCharlotte, NC
Sep 23Bourbon & Beyond FestivalLouisville, KY
Sep 24Bijou TheatreKnoxville, TN
Sep 26The Blind TigerGreensboro, NC
Sep 28Charleston Music HallCharleston, SC
Sep 29Lincoln TheatreRaleigh, NC
Sep 30Lincoln TheatreRaleigh, NC
Oct 1Third and LindsleyNashville, TN
Oct 3Sky CityAugusta, GA
Oct 5Infinity HallNorfolk, CT
Oct 6Ardmore Music HallArdmore, PA
Oct 7Ardmore Music HallArdmore, PA
Oct 26Hangtown Music FestivalPlacerville, CA
Oct 29Lobero TheatreSanta Barbara, CA
Oct 31Gothic TheatreEnglewood, CO
Nov 2The Space at WestburyWestbury, NY
Nov 3Capitol TheatrePort Chester, NY
Nov 4Infinity HallHartford, CT
Nov 5Higher GroundSouth Burlington, VT
Nov 7Port City Music HallPortland, ME
Nov 9Columbus TheatreProvidence, RI
Nov 10Seneca Niagara Resort & CasinoNiagara Falls, NY
Nov 11House Of BluesCleveland, OH
Nov 12The IntersectionGrand Rapids, MI
Nov 14Newport Music HallColumbus, OH
Nov 16Fine Line Music CafeMinneapolis, MN
Nov 17Turner Hall BallroomMilwaukee, WI
Nov 18Thalia HallChicago, IL
Nov 19Barrymore TheatreMadison, WI
Dec 2Revolution HallPortland, OR
Dec 3The Neptune TheatreSeattle, WA
Dec 5Historic Cocoanut Grove BallroomSanta Cruz, CA
Dec 7Brooklyn Bowl Las VegasLas Vegas, NV
Dec 8House of Blues San DiegoSan Diego, CA
Dec 9The Fonda TheatreLos Angeles, CA
Dec 10Fremont TheatreSan Luis Obispo, CA
Dec 12Ace Of SpadesSacramento, CA
Photography by Jay Blakesberg & Matt Mendenhall

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