While in Japan for this year’s Summer Sonic, the annual music festival held simultaneously in Tokyo and Osaka, our marketing director, Gary Boss, caught up with keyboardist Rami Jaffee. Read on to learn about Jaffee’s early days with the Wallflowers, his session and production work throughout the years, his current gig with the Foo Fighters, and much more.
Gary Boss: Tell me a little bit about how you got your start. I know you started playing in high school, but are you self-taught or did you have formal lessons?
Rami Jaffee: I actually did take proper classical piano lessons starting at an early age, but even then I begged the teacher to throw in the “Star Wars” theme and even “Stairway to Heaven.” That led me to forming bands as early as the fifth grade. Throughout high school, I had many bands in Hollywood that played great shows and had record label interest, but nothing that stuck until I met Jakob Dylan at Canter’s Deli one night. I was 18.
GB: Your early career started in a band called the Apples then transitioned into what everyone knows as the Wallflowers. Talk about the early days in that band. Contrary to popular belief, it was a bit of a struggle, correct?
RJ: Starting in what we called the Apples became the Wallflowers, and shortly after rehearsing up a bunch of songs – surprise – we had label interest. We went with Virgin Records, who promised a growing phase instead of throwing us to the wolves by stating the leader of the band was Bob Dylan’s son. This may seem like a struggle to me, who was definitely ready for some success after the struggle of loading an organ to every club on the Sunset Strip throughout the 80s! But, honestly, it was an amazing thing to be able to “work it all out” with opening slots for bands like 10,000 Maniacs, Cracker and the Spin Doctors. We did make a record for Virgin, so we were granted freedom to record and tour without the “Bob” factor over the band’s head. The problem was when the label was shifting and we got dropped before getting to our “Born to Run.” So there we were, roughing it and playing every show we could in L. A., trying to get signed as a roots-Americana band in the midst of Nirvana’s Nevermind release. So, struggle it was, but as luck would have it we signed with Interscope and took Americana into the mainstream a few years later in ’96. So it all worked out in the end. Patience is a virtue (they say).
GB: You are also known as a first-call session player. Let’s do a little compare and contrast: the life of a musician in a band vs. a hired gun session player.
RJ: I’ve been lucky to both be in a band AND be a side guy session player. Of course, my first choice was to be in a band as I thought of session players having to read sheet music and check in 9 to 5. But when hero, and friend to the Wallflowers, Benmont Tench asked me if I’d be into doing sessions for some big producers when he was busy, I was totally game. Luckily, these huge producers – Don Was, T Bone Burnett, Rick Rubin, Ross Hogarth, etc. – knew my strength was in my organ playing, where I’d just improvise, and never shoved sheet music in front of me! Hard to compare the two since I love playing in a band as much as I love sneaking into a band for the afternoon (or the week). I count my blessings that I never had to really pick, and, instead, just went with the flow and counted my lucky stars along the way.
GB: How did the transition from player to producer/studio owner happen?
RJ: Being in so many sessions throughout the ’90s, once the Wallflowers had success and I had a bunch of money, I just invested it into pro audio and gear. It seemed obvious. It wasn’t to make more money or to take over the world as a producer or a studio owner but just to pay homage and make more music. To this day, I really only produce bands I love and can help, and even the amazing studio I built with Ran Pink (www.fonogenicstudios.com) is mainly for our own projects, though now we’re renting it out for other people to enjoy since I’m on the road so much and have begun setting up shop in places that inspire me more.
GB: Which side of the glass do you prefer?
RJ: Funny, ’cause when I’m producing an artist, I try to stay in the control room so I’m paying attention to the rest of the band, since big tracking days should be focused on the drums and the guys I’ll lose in a few days, rather than what nutty sound I’m getting on some wacky keyboards! I allow myself plenty of time to get into that when the clock isn’t ticking on having a full band in the room. If the piano or a keyboard is the main part of the tune, then I’ll make the exception, but always have to remind myself to get on the other side of the glass.
GB: You have used A-T products personally for quite a while – a “user and abuser,” I think you said. Has that been primarily in your studio?
RJ: I’ve been using A-T gear since the ’90s, and, honestly, it’s been a mainstay ever since. All through the Wallflowers career we’ve had A-T all over the stage, from the drums to the keys and even Jakob singing through one. In the studio, I always use most of the drum package, 4041s on pianos, and everything from 4040s to lavalier mics on the Leslie speaker. For vocals, depending on the voice, I’ve used a 4033 and lately a 4060 tube mic.
GB: Well, 2017 has to be a standout year for you as you officially became the sixth member of the Foo Fighters. You have been working with them for quite some time, does this change anything or is it more business as usual?
RJ: As I said before, I did set out to be IN a band. It feels more of a brotherhood than the sideman thing (though some 2-4 week sessions with amazing sidemen do become a brotherhood too). I guess I felt like I was a member of the Foos even before. The only real thing different is now I’m not sitting in a hammock on some faraway island while it’s press/video time. And now, it seems like I’m famous all over again. Fun.
GB: I have to say, the “Run” video looks like it would have been a blast to make. Is that a wrong observation? Oh, and by the way, you looked pretty cool in that. I think the years looked kind on you.
RJ: It figures that the first real video I got to be in we were aged 25 years! So sad. But now I look real young in the new video for “The Sky Is a Neighborhood.” At least compared to the “Run” vid.
GB: As someone who has toured the world, tell me a little bit about touring in Japan. Observations?
RJ: Japan is amazing. There’s so many “different” things than the western world. Like in between songs you can hear a pin drop. That’s odd. Like hearing a guitar tech giggle a li’l after rocking out during a song. Everything from their sushi to the bullet trains and the fans bringing us gifts to the bullet train platforms… I mean, what’s not to love?
GB: Thanks for taking the time to talk with us, we really appreciate it!