Photo by Frank White
Making music is kind of like being in love: You have to take the highs with the lows, and sometimes the chemistry is there, sometimes it’s not. “When you’re not having that great creative process—and we all know how great it feels—that sucks the energy out of you,” says Robert Randolph. After a three-year hiatus, the renowned sacred steel player and his Family Band—a group comprised of Randolph’s actual family members, including his sister Lanesha Randolph on vocals—is on the upswing of that ebb and flow. And the proof is in the outfit’s first album for Blue Note Records, Lickety Split.
“I am just happy we were able to find a great label that shares the same vision with us, musically,” he says. “It allowed me to take some steps back and sit in the house and practice for four hours a day again—which is relaxing and stressful at the same time!”
Randolph co-produced Lickety Split and co-wrote nine of its12 songs, and he says the guitar tones were largely inspired by two things—working with legendary engineer Eddie Kramer, and his acquisition of a great new instrument. “People wonder why Hendrix and Zeppelin’s guitars sound like they do—a lot of that is just from being in the studio with Eddie Kramer. He just knows what to do, it’s the strangest thing.” As for the new tone toy—a Jackson Steel Guitar Company stand-up pedal steel—he sums it up simply, “That thing just has magical tone.” Randolph also included two covers, “Love Rollercoaster” and “Good Lovin’”—the latter of which employs fervorous Hawaiian-style slide riffs.
With song titles like “Amped Up,” “Born Again,” and “Brand New Wayo,” it should be clear that on Lickety Split the Family Band still has its roots in the gospel—and still has its signature upbeat energy. “We were always taught to make that [spiritual] connection and not play to the glorification of yourself,” says Randolph. “The church is about everybody getting together to create this one joyous atmosphere—a great day of singing and playing together.”
Lickety Split has a really live vibe. How do you tap into that so well in an isolated environment where everything is under the microscope?
Studios have turned into this place where everybody doesn’t really play together—nobody is in the studio at the same time. It’s more like, “We have technology, so let’s just piece things together.” With us, the real energy comes from being in the studio for hours a day, just playing all kinds of tunes—because it’s the interaction that brings about that live feel. I know I’ve got something good going when I can’t wait to perform the song live and see how the fans react to it.
When did you first get guitar fever, and what keeps you coming back?
I was a teenager, 15 or 16. I started playing the pedal steel guitar in church and, because our church has a history of the pedal steel guitar, I grew up watching all those older guys before me. They were my Muddy Waters, my Albert King and B.B. King. I always wanted to be like those guys, so I would spend all day practicing and trying to be like them. That’s when I first had the fever.
You’ve recently been bringing some attention to steel players Calvin Cooke, Darick and Chuck Campbell, and Aubrey Ghent—better known as the Slides Brother. Are they some of the guys you grew up watching in church?
Oh yeah. There’s a lot of guys who died along the way, but those are the remaining original guys. I grew up always wanting to be like those guys—they were the big stars of the church. The steel player was always the star.
There used to be a pretty big stigma from church members when sacred-steel bands ventured outside houses of worship. How is it now?
We’ve all been scrutinized, especially from the older guys. I was younger and didn’t pay it any mind. Older guys got hurt by it because they spent their whole lives dedicated to it, only for people to tell them they’re playing the devil’s music. Nobody pays that any mind, because now they see the love and joy that we share with people. Nothing is more satisfying than to be out here, spreading music across the world.
The new album opens with two high-energy songs “Amped Up” and “Born Again,” which kind of allude to a reawakening. Are those songs sort of emblematic of what you were going through while writing this album?
“Born Again” is actually a love song, to be honest with you. It’s about finding someone that makes you happy. It sounds like it’s a spiritual song, with all of the backup singers that sound like a choir. That’s sort of the great part of who I am and what we do—it can seem spiritual, and you want to lift your hands up or something. That’s just the root of where we come from. It’s like Sly and the Family Stone—they have the gospel influences, as well. I saw an interview with Sly explaining the song “I Want to Take You Higher,” and he said at the time everyone was getting high and it was all about getting higher—but it sounds spiritual.
Watch Robert Randolph & the Family Band perform the energetic single “Born Again,” which also appears on their new album, Lickety Split. Check out the solo around 4:30, and the slow, natural fade at the finish.