Interview | On the Road | A conversation with Jeff Coffin…

 

 

PREFACE

 

Jeff Coffin and I have talked a number of times over the years, both casually and for various publications. With good communication (Thanks BRIAN!), an open heart, kindness and experience, I was able to set up an interview for Relix Magazine with Dave Matthews Band’s saxophonist and 3x Grammy winner Jeff Coffin during Dave Matthews Band long and extensive 2016 Summer Tour. Jeff and I were able to catch up via phone and this is what transpired…

 

 

 

jc-brick

 

Jeff Coffin

3x Grammy Award winner, Dave Matthews Band Saxophonist

 

Phone Interview (2016 Summer Tour | Columbus, Ohio) | 07.08.2016

Photo Credit: Rodrigo Simas & Roxanne Hayes

 

Interview By: Michael Urban

 

 

INTRODUCTION

 

When I first spoke with Jeff Coffin over four years ago it started out as most interviews do…a business casual conversation about music and topics relating. We kept in touch and soon got to know one another over text. Jeff is not only a Grammy Award winning artist who happens to currently play in one of North America’s top grossing touring bands, but is also the sax player in one of my all time favorite live acts. After opening up to one another, we soon became kindred spirits in a way. Jeff is also closely familiar with a loved one who suffered from Alzheimer’s.

 

Jeff Coffin won three Grammy’s with Bela Fleck and the Flecktons. Now he currently tours with the Dave Matthews Band, has a slew of solo projects, does charitable work and has plenty of hobbies. He is a gentleman who not only has a love for music and education, but above all else family and living that life to the fullest.

 

While getting to know one another it was soon revealed that we shared a passion for a cause that has touched both of our lives in devastating ways. Jeff’s grandmother died from Alzheimer’s while my own mother is suffering and dying from a very similar neurological brain disease called Primary Progressive Aphasia (essentially the worst combination of Alzheimer’s and Dementia).

As we stayed in touch we shared stories, comments and concerns about this disease that steals someone away right in front of your eyes. For this reason I always wanted to get what an honest, centered and brilliant person such as Jeff Coffin had to say about the subject.

What became more apparent as I worked though this interview, was that maybe personally I was searching for what the bright side of loosing someone in this way could be, if there ever was one…

 

 

Below you will follow along on a conversation I had with Mr. Jeff Coffin. Jeff and I talked about everything from DMB, his personal plans for future projects and most intriguing…life, death and what it can mean to lose a loved one…and maybe how everything is not lost…

 

 

 

 

“that’s the thing, every little part is necessary and who knows what will happen in the end. You hear these stories of these people becoming lucid at the very end for a brief moment…where does that stuff come from? I get goose bumps now…”

 

 

 

jc-dmb-malta-gorge

Photo Credit: Rodrigo Simas Photography (Dave Matthews Band | Gorge Amphitheater, WA | 09/2016)

 

 

INTERVIEW

 

Jeff Coffin (JC): Hello

Michael Urban (MU): It’s Michael Urban…

 

JC: Hey Michael how are you?

MU: Good man, good to speak with you.

JC: You also, glad you caught me.

MU: You guys [Dave Matthews Band] are out in Columbus, Ohio right now?

JC: Yeah man we just got here last night.

MU: Excellent. Jeff I really want to thank you for taking the time to speak with me.

JC: Yeah I man, my pleasure.

 

MU: I don’t want to take too much of your time, so how about we hop right into it….touring with Dave Matthews Band (2016) and on the road right now…how’s it going?

 

JC: It’s good man, it’s good. Life is good. It’s been a great year, everybody is in a really great space for playing some great music that we have been working on for a bit. Been pulling some music out of the archives here and there, it’s just been a really great year so far…

 

 

MU: Awesome stuff. Looking at the lengthy tour, does it become a grind at some points?

 

JC: I think everything’s a grind at some points, but with this you know, if you’re going to be on the road, this is a great situation because we are so well taken care of. I did notice when we just had a four day break, everyone was a little bit tired right before that four-day break, but that’s a matter of having been out for basically 2 months playing a lot and hitting it hard when we hit it.

 

 

 

“Yeah we have been playing some new material. I think we have maybe 4-5 new tunes we have been pulling out, which has been great for us to be able to pull out new material. I love that whether it’s with the Mut’et or the Flecktones or Dave, I’m always excited to play new music, I’m a big advocate. It keeps it fresh, keeps it interesting. I love on first play, bringing stuff out no one knows the music or what to expect in the audience and watching the reactions is always funny. A lot of times they don’t know how to react…”ahh I don’t know…ahh that’s a new tune… awesome”…”

 

 

 

 

 

MU: Well you guys aren’t young men any more Jeff …

 JC: [laughs] No, that’s true…

 

MU: Don’t get me wrong though… I saw you last month in Mansfield, MA and Hartford, CT and you guys sounded fantastic. As a band, you really did, especially in Hartford where you brought out more of the jams…

 

JC: Well Thank you. I think that… that’s one of the things that I notice and I think everybody notices is that the recovery time is a little bit longer now then say 15-20 years ago, even 10 years ago and that’s something you have to take into consideration, this is a career for us as musicians and as a career you have to look at it in a way that you need to take care of yourself. You can go out, have fun, stay up late whatever but you got to get rest you have to take care of yourself.

 

MU: Well I do see you guy juicing a lot on Instagram

JC: Yea we juice before every gig its good stuff it’s easy on your system, gives you energy.

 

Pre-gig juice wagon! #dmb #davematthewsband #davematthews #jonesbeach #jonesbeachtheater #juice

A post shared by JC (@jeffcoffin) on

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MU: Getting back into DMB a little bit you guys are busting some stuff out of the archives if you will, but have also been playing some new songs.

 

JC: Yeah we have been playing some new material too. I think we have maybe 4-5 new tunes we have been pulling out, which has been great you know for us to be able to pull out new material. I love that whether it’s with the Mut’et or the Flecktones or Dave, whatever I’m always down to play new music, I’m a big advocate. It keeps it fresh, keeps it interesting and I love you know on first play bringing stuff out no one knows the music or what to expect like in the audience and watching the reactions is always funny because a lot of times they don’t know how to react…”ahh I don’t know…ahh that’s a new tune… awesome”…

 

 

 

MU: I can imagine maybe that the ‘Two Step’ chants can get old after a while…?

 

JC: I don’t know… I wouldn’t say that. I don’t think it gets old, a lot of stuff gets rotated. Again it’s like whatever group that you’re in and I even find this with the Mu’tet that there will be tunes that we play many, many, many times and the challenge for any musician is to find new ways through you know to listen and interact in a way that helps you find new ways through and part of that is the work we have to do outside of the band practicing and listening, staying on top of our craft so when we get there the reaction time is quick. For example if you’re a boxer you don’t not box for 2 weeks before you go out and fight, you know what I’m saying? Because you’d just get your ass kicked. The same thing musically. You have to be on top of your game and we do that, including everything that goes on outside of the stage.

 

 

MU: Its obvious that with DMB and Mu’tet you guys are great listeners.

JC: That is the key,

 

MU: Do you find you still rehearse much with the Dave Matthews Band? I’ve heard that soundchecks have somewhat go to the wayside, but are you still rehearsing with the band before live shows?

 

JC: There’s a fair amount of rehearsals, ya know… I’m not sure I would say there’s a lot, but a fair amount.

 

Tour Practice Room - Wantagh, NY | 2016

 

 

MU: With 2017 being off are there plans to hit the studio with a producer in terms of some new DMB material?

 

JC: Hmm, you know not that I know of. I’m not really sure what’s going on with that to be honest with you, I haven’t heard a thing. I know that we are taking a year off, so I plan on doing a bunch of Mu’tet stuff… I’ve got a bunch of projects I’ve been sitting on for a while that I’ll be spacing out over the next year. I got my own label [Ear Up Records] also that I’ll be putting out other people’s projects on.


 

EDUCATION

 

MU: Let’s talk about this Super Band you have with some very lucky students…

JC: Yup, Caleb Chapman’s Crescent Super Band, which consists of a bunch of high school students. The last record we did (Inside of the Outside), we started in Cuba and we finished in Utah. Once Cuba opens up fully all the proceeds from the sale of the record will go back to the National School of Music in Havana.

 

MU: Love it. I have listened to the Super Band record titled Inside of the Outside and it is awesome. Jeff I know you were a producer on it with lots of guests and I got to tell you it sounds great.

 

JC: Thank you Michael that means a lot. As you know the education thing for me is a big part of what I do and a big part of what I try and put out into the world. It’s something I take pride in and to be able to have that experience with them is kind of a once-in-a-lifetime for most of the students.

 

MU: That is really great. Many of the students will be inspired, I have no doubt. Who knows what kind of fire you help light under one of the students and what they’re going to do with the experience that you gave them, you can’t put a price on that…

JC: That’s very, very true and even if they don’t end up being professional musicians they’re going to be the people that are supporting the arts and becoming patrons, it’s all connected and it’s all important.

 

 

 

 

MU: You’re so versatile Jeff and that’s what really amazes me about you. You have such a dynamic range as far as your saxophone skills go and it’s such an impressive sight to see. You’re a creative guy there’s no doubt about that.

jc-double-sax

 

JC: Well I appreciate that. There is a lot of music that I’m really interested in and different things that I’m really interested in. I started the Jazz Composers Collective also and we’re firming up a residence now at Vanderbilt University [Nashville, Tennessee] which is taking up a lot of my focus. I am trying to plan a couple concerts per semester at Vanderbilt, a couple with Wycliffe Gordon a great trombone player, so there a lot of things sitting in front of me and they are all things that I’m really interested in doing. I just want to be able to do them to the highest level.

 

[NOTE: Jeff is hosting clinic’s now at Vanderbilt]

 

 

 

MU: Speaking of other things on your plate and in front of you, any possibility of a [Bela] Flecktones collaboration or maybe Umphrey’s McGee?

 

[NOTE: Jeff guested with Umphrey’s McGee on 12/30/2017 during their New Year’s run]

 

JC: Well I usually play with Umphrey’s on New Year’s, so we will see next year if they have stuff going on. I love those guys I would definitely jump on with them if the situation came up. Who knows with the Flecktones. I saw them just a couple nights ago, hanging out having dinner, but there’s been no talks of anything for next year at all. They just came off a quick two week tour with Howard [Levy], but of course I would love that, I love those guys.

 

MU: I don’t know why, but I find the Umphrey’s collaboration interesting just because they play such a style of prog-rock at times that you so easily adapt to, it’s fun to watch.

 

JC: Well thank you. I love playing with those guys. They are all just really great people. Those guys are out of their minds in the most beautiful way.

 

 

 

LIFE

 

Michael Urban (MU): Alright, well changing the subject a little bit and getting to something we have discussed in the past on a personal level. Your grandmother suffered from Alzheimer’s correct?

 

 

Jeff Coffin (JC): Yes that’s correct, on my Dad’s side.

 

 

MU: Is she still with us or has she passed?

JC: She passed a number of years ago. We were very close.

 

 

MU: My mother suffers now from what can only easily be described as the worse form of Dementia and Alzheimer’s, called Primary Progressive Aphasia. Her verbal skills, along with memories and all of that are 100% gone at this point. Over the years I have connected with people like yourself about the disease.

It’s devastating and heartbreaking, for caregivers, family and loved ones alike and I am just curious, how did you deal with essentially someone dying in front of yours eyes?

 

JC: As you know it’s a terrible disease and it’s strange how it affects people…to go from being very cognitively aware to not being cognitively present. It was that way with my grandmother. She would always tell a lot of stories, she grew up in Nova Scotia and she played music with her sisters. She was a great storyteller and she was very fun to be around, but as the disease progressed whenever I would see her, which wasn’t often because she was in Maine and I was living in Tennessee, the older stories would still be there, but the more recent stuff, there would be questions about this, or about that.. and it’s tough to see. Michael I would think for a child in particular to see their parent sort of losing their cognitive awareness, that would be a difficult thing, losing all those memories that we hold with us. It kind of makes you wonder where it all goes, that’s the thing for me…

 

 

MU: You are absolutely right. I connect with a lot of siblings more, whose parents are going through it because it’s like you said… it’s not your grandparents it’s your mother or father. Please continue, because I wonder when I look into my Mom’s eyes, where does it all go? People dealing with the disease often wonder what they are supposed to make of it all. The body is still there, but maybe the spirit isn’t… Not to get too deep, but maybe it is what most people struggle with, which is the body of their loved one is still there but their mind is not…

 

JC: Well I think that it depends on sort of what you’re philosophical or spiritual view is. I think that in a lot of ways for me, we’re here to experience things and there’s a totality to it and universality to it with our lives. It’s all a big experience and for something like Alzheimer’s or for example I had a former first band director who passed away from ALS a few years ago, and with that you are completely locked in where your mind is sharp, but your body is failing, so it’s almost the opposite of Alzheimer’s in some ways. In the grand scheme of things it really makes me wonder, and question a lot of things. I just had a dear friend pass from cancer in Maine. His name was Steve Grover…he was 60 years young. There is so, so much that is very senseless.

 

 

 

“JC: I think that part of it is that people live on in us, there is a continuance. A memory that they have or had has been passed on to us and we continue to pass on the memory going forward.  How we live and how we share ideas, how we think of them, we share those memories. I think those things are really important. Getting to the spiritual level of things, I do think that the spirit is separate from the mind, I think that the energy that exists in people is real. I think it continues. Do I believe in reincarnation and that kind of thing…? I can go there, I can definitely go there…I think that this energy, this life energy… I don’t think that it ends, let me say that. There are arguments that can be made for both sides of it, but me personally I believe in what’s always been, will always be.”

 

 

 

 

 

MU: It makes u question things…

JC: Makes you question things absolutely.

 

MU: I guess I was more curious on your thoughts because I respect you, you’re an intelligent guy. I am wondering how you help someone that’s losing someone. You covered a couple things be it Alzheimer’s or a death from ALS, cancer or anything else, I guess you just cherish the past and live the future for them?

 

JC: I think that part of it is that people live on in us, there is a continuance. A memory that they have or had has been passed on to us and we continue to pass on the memory going forward. How we live and how we share ideas, how we think of them, we share those memories. I think those things are really important. Getting to the spiritual level of things, I do think that the spirit is separate from the mind, I think that the energy that exists in people is real. I think it continues. Do I believe in reincarnation and that kind of thing…? I can go there I can definitely go there…I think that this energy, this life energy… I don’t think that it ends, let me say that. There are arguments that can be made for both sides of it, but me personally I believe in what’s always been, will always be.

 

 

MU: I really couldn’t agree with you more and going back to my mother for a second. Her mind is gone, but her body is still there and even though she cannot communicate she is always smiling, always laughing, always embracing. Maybe she does not know why she’s doing it, but she is in many ways still the person that she always was, she’s still there…Nancy Urban’s spirit is still there it and inspires me, certainly I see it in my father, I see my Dad trying to live more to the person that she was…and in the most positive way…

 

JC: I think that’s important. I think that living for them in their memory and in that positive way is really big. Remembering the lessons that we learned from them, the stories and all the things that we can share, that’s all good things that we can and should pass down to our children and grandchildren and so on, and they effect the world… that’s the thing, every little part is necessary and who knows what will happen in the end. You hear these stories of these people becoming lucid at the very end for a brief moment and you wonder, where does that stuff come from?vI get goose bumps now thinking about that kind of stuff…

 

 

MU: I agree and it gives me goose bumps also because it makes you wonder…

JC: Yeah, absolutely there are a lot of the unknowns

 

MU: Alzheimer’s and Dementia is the 6 leading cause of death in the country and it’s something that effects every family and family member different. Everyone deals in a different way, but I think like yourself I try to deal with all of it in a positive way and live on for that person present or not…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

FINAL THOUGHTS

 

 

 

MU: I know you probably have to run, but just back to DMB for a second…Do you have a favorite venue to play?

JC: I don’t know man, I mean I really like The Gorge just because of where its located, “Heaven’s Amphitheater” as it’s called. It is a beautiful place to play. SPAC also is incredible, its gorgeous…all those trees surrounding us, it just feels like playing out in nature and I love that.

 

 

MU: Being from New England, I am curious when you come to Boston, MA, are there any particular hot spots you hit right away?

JC: Yea, there is a placed called The Daily Catch. We try to go there whenever I can. My wife’s parents were over from Japan for about 3 weeks, from the end of May to the middle of June and we went up there, we love the place. The parents were very excited.

 

 

It’s on!!!!

A post shared by JC (@jeffcoffin) on

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MASSIVE, HUGE THANKS!!!

 

Jeff Coffin Music | Ear Up Records

 

Brian Homer | Sound Artist Support | Living the Dream, The Morning After Music School: A DIY Guide to the Music Business

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[NOTE: Full unedited transcript from the phone interview can be found here]

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