Jim DiSpirito, percussionist and hand drummer for platinum-selling Rusted Root, shook my hand warmly. In two hours he would play for the sold out crowd at Salt Lake City’s Kingsbury Hall, but he seemed perfectly at ease. He looked like the boy next door with his friendly eyes, green plaid jacket, jeans, and brown boots.
We decided to take advantage of the temperate spring evening and moved outside for the interview. Breathing the scent of fresh pine and newly melted snow, we sat on a waist-high concrete wall.
What’s the most interesting percussion instrument you’ve used?
A trash can.
I saw Stomp. They’ve made a lot of money doing that.
They sure have. Actually, the Indian drums that I play fascinate me. They’re really complicated and hard to play and the music tradition behind them interests me. It’s based on poetry. It’s something I love and it’s really deep.
He flashed a big smile. It was obvious he meant it.
I read you’re an ethnomusicologist. What is that?
Enthomusicology is musicology focused on non-western musical traditions. It’s a cross-disciplinary field combining cultural anthropology and music.
For example, I studied North Indian classical music from India. Musicologists look at instrumental styles, instrumentation, instrument design, all the historical aspects of the music. Ethnomusicologists also look at cultural environments. Why that design on the drum? What’s the religious significance of this particular ritual? Part of the function of music is the cultural context.
Many people want to play professionally. How did you make that leap?
By doing it! [Rusted Root] was always out playing. Smartest thing the band did was play outside of Pittsburgh as soon as it could, taking advantage of opportunities to get into festivals in upstate New York. Many bands spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to get out of their hometown. You have to just go do it, slug it out. You go back and back again. First, there’s two hundred people. You go back and it’s four hundred. You go back again and it’s six hundred. Next thing you know, it’s fifteen hundred people every time you play. It’s a long road. It’s a little scary because you have to get away from home.
Pay your dues?
Pay your dues. Go to other places to play!
Do you remember being on stage for the first time?
The first time in my life?
Yes. That would be interesting.
That was the old flutophone concert in elementary school that I was petrified of.
Okay, your first time on stage with a band, without the flutophone.
On stage for me was something I did a lot early on. In 4th grade I was playing in school bands. [I started] playing out in bars when I was fifteen. You had to be twenty-one to get into the bar, but I was the oldest one in the band.
How does Rusted Root craft new songs?
We grindfully, slowly incorporate writers’ ideas. It’s six people standing in a room creating a song. Often songs start as one person’s main idea and everyone else adds a twist. Sometimes the songs are very collaborative, going in directions that no one could have planned.
When you get in a very cooperative space, it can keep the music fresh. Your ideas get taken someplace you would never have thought of taking them, and it comes out sounding really nice. This takes an openness of mind. It’s not for everybody. Some writers are very solitary and co-writing can be very difficult for them. I enjoy co-writing with other people, whether it’s outside of the band or in the band.
The other thing is, people listen to a variety of music. Whether it’s rhythm and blues, or West African traditional music, or Indian classical, everybody likes to bring bits and pieces of their music to the music we’re creating.
Can you talk about making Rusted Root?
We made it at home, which was great because we got to stay home in Pittsburgh. The last two times we traveled to California. This time we could be with our families. We’re usually away from home a lot touring, so that was a bonus.
We worked with producer Susan Rogers who I wanted to work with for a long time. She’s produced for The Barenaked Ladies, David Byrne, Nil Lara, Prince. She’s a really great all-in-one talent: engineer, producer, audio tech. That was a treat.
What inspired the album?
It’s always a balance between material that Michael (Glabicki, lead singer and guitar player) brings in and other people’s music. Liz (Berlin) has a song on the album. We have a drum piece, which is always collaborative. A lot of the other pieces are a result of more collaboration than the last record. That felt good, although albums never feel done to me. They always say they’re just abandoned.
You’ve toured with some legends: The Grateful Dead, Santana, The Allman Brothers, Sting, The Dave Matthews’ Band. Any good stories?
Okay. How about a politically correct story?
We’ve enjoyed touring with a lot of great bands. Hot Tuna was a blast on the last tour. We became good friends with them. In fact, they performed with us on “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”. They came up every day and started playing with us. That was a treat because I loved Jefferson Airplane. Having Hot Tuna play on our record was a highlight of what happened with some of the bands we met.
How do you prepare yourself for a concert?
Eat good food. We have a great chef. Tonight is T-bone steak.
I read that Rusted Root helps developing artists. How does that work?
When we had the chance, we’d bring friends on the road, people that were starting out. They’d get to play before more people than they’d normally have a chance to.
Your music has appeared in Twister, Home for the Holidays, and other movies. Also, TV shows Party of Five and Homicide. Do you craft music differently when making it for film or TV?
Twister was just music lifted from an album. I’ve done a little music for films on my own, outside of Rusted Root.
That’s a challenge because you get thrown a film concept, or an approach, or a particular scene. The music director is talking with you about a specific emotion or color, or the intent of a character. It’s very abstract. You need to create music that fits the mood. I would love to do more of that.
His eyes brightened.
Compose music for films?
Yeah, or work with a composer. Percussionists have so many resources to pull from. There’s such a variety of instruments and feels and grooves. Film music often has a lot of textural things in its orchestration.
Rusted Root hasn’t done a lot in that way, but a lot of Rusted Root’s music has ended up in films.
Films pull music that’s already recorded?
Yeah. “Drum Trip” from the first album has been used a lot. Also, “Martyr”, “Back to the Earth”, and “Send Me On My Way”.
One time, Jodie Foster called and asked us to do a piece for Home For the Holidays. She asked us to cover Santana’s song, “Evil Ways”. We did a drum interlude that comes up over the opening credits. The drum thing goes into our version of “Evil Ways”, which we did on her request. It was fun.
What do you listen to?
Indian, classical, jazz. My wife is a very good singer/songwriter, and she’s more from the folk, country side, so I’ve been turned on to traditional country artists, finding appreciation for people like Steve Earle. I like to listen to ethnic music. I have all kinds of African CDs. It’s a pretty wide palate.
Any words for would-be percussionists?
Learn from the good people that you hear around you. There’s a balance between acquiring the old and the new. It’s not about ‘I don’t want to play exactly like that, so I’m not going to learn anything from [other bands]’. There’s plenty to be learned from good teachers that have made a lot of records. It’s good to study, whether formally or not. Once you’ve moved forward with the creativity, follow your heart.
What’s your personal philosophy?
Be yourself. There are a lot of clone bands. Keep to what’s true to your heart and what keeps you happy.
+ Kendeyl Johansen