In anticipation of two nights with Dark Star Orchestra at The Bowl on Monday, November 14 and Tuesday, November 15, we asked drummer Dino English, a few questions about his music history and path to all things the Grateful Dead. His life story and experiences provide an awesome sense of nostalgia while preparing us for what’s to come this Monday and Tuesday at Brooklyn Bowl!
Brooklyn Bowl: Hey Dino! Happy to have you today and really looking forward to your upcoming shows on November 14 + 15. Let’s start with the basics… when was the first time you heard the Grateful Dead and how did you feel? Do you remember which song it was?
Dino English: I most likely heard Grateful Dead first radiating from my brothers’ rooms while growing up. They are much older than me and into the music of the late 60s and early 70s. One brother saw the Grateful Dead in February of 1969 and he had the classic “skull and roses” sticker on his mirror. However, the music didn’t resonate with me at the time. I remember as a teenager hearing “Truckin'” on the radio and wondered what prompted the loyal followers I had heard about. It wasn’t until I attended my first concert on June 25, 1991 that I got it. The only songs I recognized that show were
“Truckin'” and a cover of “Good Lovin'” but the show blew me away (as did my surroundings).
BB: What a time it must have been to be alive. Can you tell us what is it about the Grateful Dead’s music that moves you the most?
DE: I think what moves me the most about Grateful Dead music is it’s all encompassing; it’s the universal way the songs can resonate with anyone’s life. The songs have a way of changing meaning depending on where you are in life and they create a soundtrack for one’s own life.
Beyond the songs, the musical open-ended jamming reflect that too.
BB: Well said. With so many Grateful Dead shows to choose from, what approach do you take in choosing your set for the night?
DE: The most important ingredient for our approach is variety and more or less that’s what dictates show selection. The Grateful Dead’s sound morphed over the years creating these fairly distinct eras which creates a different style in the way we play our interpretations of these eras. We try to bounce around all the different eras from show to show. One night we may play a late 80’s show. The next night we may play an early 70’s, one drummer show. In addition, we try to play a different style show from the last time we played a particular venue. This keeps us on our toes and keeps it interesting for the audience and us. If this was a band that played the same 20 hits every night and played them the same way, I would lose interest real quickly. We play maybe twenty to thirty songs a night but we have several hundred songs to choose from.
BB: We have to know, what’s your favorite Grateful Dead quote of all time?
DE: My favorite quote is a probably a song lyric from “Comes A Time”. “You got an empty cup only love can fill”.
If you a referring to something outside the realm of lyrics, the one that comes to mind quickest is Jerry’s comment on why people like the Grateful Dead so much: “We’re like licorice. Not everybody likes licorice, but the people who like licorice really like licorice.”
BB: Love these quotes… we can say with confidence that we really like licorice here at The Bowl, that’s for sure! With obvious inspiration from Grateful Dead, were curious as to what other artists and bands move and inspire you as a musician?
DE: I’m a fairly big fan of Frank Zappa. I like his compositions but mostly, I like his guitar solos and open jams. I’m very inspired by his guitar albums, “Shut Up And Play Your Guitar” which features Vinnie Colaiuta on drums and “Guitar” which features Chad Wackerman on drums. The drumming on that album inspired me so much that I sought out taking private drum lessons from Wackerman. I now take lessons on a semi-regular basis when I tour near where he lives or via Skype.
I’m also inspired by jazz, fusion, and progressive rock. That’s a fairly wide range of artists but includes all the common names in those categories. For me, these styles of music represent the forerunners of modern jamband music.
BB: Can’t disagree there. We’re dying to hear some stories from your history of playing with members of the Dead. Could you describe the magic that occurred on the nights you have played with them, namely Phil, Bob, and Billy?
DE: Magic by definition is hard to describe as it always falls short of the actual experience, especially within the limited scope of this interview…but I’ll try.
Bob was the first to sit in with us and it was in the early 2000’s when we were first getting established as a steady touring entity. We were playing the Warfield in San Francisco for a Rex benefit and we got word he might make it down. The magic actually began when his amp and guitar got dropped off. That’s when we knew it was on. You have to realize, this was one of our heroes and it was our first brush with him so just having his amp and guitar there with us was very exciting. I think I actually strapped on his guitar and strummed a few chords.
Sure enough, later he showed up, we talked a little about what we were going play and hit the stage. We played the first part of the set ourselves and he came out to play about halfway through. He strolled on stage, and started tuning his guitar up just like I’d seen him do so many time before but then looked up, turned to me, he locked eyes with me, tacitly asking are you ready. I nodded yes, he counted off the tune and we were off. We hadn’t played a note together yet but it was such a thrill to be a part of that ritual I had witnessed so many times before. But I felt ready and confident, and the music came out great that night. Of course there was the typical classic Bob Weir hiccups and idiosyncrasies with the music but that only made it more fun and meaningful. Overall, I think the band followed along pretty well and seeing the big smile in his face after coming off stage was confirmation that he had a good time playing with us. He returned to sit in with us four more different times and each time was its own little trip. Bob had always been very gracious and supportive to us. He understands our approach and realizes we are in fact making new music with these tunes. He even said “I get it”.
He’s also very funny. One time we had a specific set planned and he showed up so we said we don’t have to stick to the plan. He said “oh no, we have to stick to the plan. We have to play the show just as you would”… having a little fun with us.
Bob would always try to get Rob Eaton to play with him when he sat in but Rob would always step off thinking there would be too much rhythm guitar happening, not wanting to step on what Bob would be doing. So the last time he sat in, Bob called out Eaton while on stage making him come up to play. Right before he kicked off the tune Bob stepped up and joked “What we’ve got here is too much of a good thing.”
Phil was a hold out and wouldn’t cross paths with us for the longest time for whatever reason although he played regularly with Rob Barraco. Finally in 2012 he came down to the Fillmore in San Francisco after Barraco invited him. He showed up 5 minutes before we were supposed to play. We showed him the set list and we said he was welcome to play as much as he wanted. Much to our delight, he took a quick look at it and said “This looks good”, signaling he was in for the whole set.
Rob Koritz and I played particularly good together that night with Phil and the three of us were totally locked in. I could hear everything real clear making it easy to fall into a nice groove. Again, it was the classic way Phil would lean into a note with that way he puckers his lips which alerted me to the fact he was having fun. When the open jam of “Playing In The Band” hit, I could tell Phil was really digging the syncopated way I was placing my kick drum beats much in the style of how he phrases his notes and we were playing off each other very well. The dynamics of the set went up and down and climaxed with a huge “Morning Dew.” He was the last to leave the stage making sure to shake everyone’s hand. I was the last to leave the stage from the band and he gave me a huge complement saying (best to my recollection as I was on cloud 9) “That was exactly perfect” with a look of sincerity on his face. I know he had a great time that night.
He played with us again when we played Terrapin Crossroads and although we played well, for me it seemed to lack the magic of the first time we played together. Such is the ephemeral nature of capturing magic with this music. Some nights the magic is on and comes easy and other nights it’s more of a struggle to get there.
I’ve got some Billy, Mickey, and Donna stories but I’ll have to save them for another time.
BB: Wow, that’s really amazing. What incredible moments to be able to reflect on. Thank you for sharing it with us! Now, this will be your 8th and 9th shows at Brooklyn Bowl! Excited to have you! Is there anything you look forward to about coming back to the venue?
DE: I love the vibe of that part of town which seems to have an artistic nature… so that’s inspiring in itself. The venue is one of those fun places to see a show. I like the idea of people bowling as we are playing as it adds to the fun element. So much so that I even toyed with the idea of trying to put on shows at a local bowling alley down the street from where I live. It doesn’t go so well with quiet ballads but all in all it’s a super fun place to play!
BB: That’s awesome! Bowling and music go hand in hand for us and we wouldn’t have it any other way. But tell us, what do you love most about playing in Brooklyn? How do the fans resonate here versus other cities?
DE: As I stated before, it’s a very artistic community that brings a vibrancy to the whole vibe. I guess it may be cliche’ to call it hipster but I’m down with that. Before I was a hippy I was a full on hipster and I still identify with that part of my life. When I was in college playing in an alternative art rock band in Columbia, Missouri, Brooklyn and New York City was an awe inspiring artistic Mecca in my mind and now I can experience it for real. And it really stands up to that idea I had of it in my mind.
BB: It really does. Now just for fun, if you could be any animal, what would you be and why?
DE: I guess one of those sea tortoises. Aren’t they one of the longest living animals?
BB: Sea tortoises are definitely up there on the list of longest living, and they symbolize good luck and endurance, which is meaningful in itself! Thanks so much for taking the time Dino. Just one last question, do you have any words of wisdom you’d like to share with our readers?
DE: I want to experience as much as I can while I can but I don’t want to do anything that will cut that short. I would suggest you do the same.
Also, try not to compare yourself with others. Learn from others. What really matters most is always aspiring to do your personal best. And always know that your personal best is always something more than what you have done before.
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