The term “supergroup” is suited to a collaborative project like The Word, comprising pedal-steel player Robert Randolph, keyboardist/organist John Medeski and jam-blues act the North Mississippi Allstars. Fourteen years after releasing its debut album, the band returned earlier this year with Soul Food, featuring improvised gospel-blues and sacred steel instrumental jams.
We caught up with Medeski backstage at Columbia, Missouri’s Roots N Blues N BBQ Festival, while Randolph warmed his voice in the background nearby.
What aligned so that everyone could get back in the studio and make a second Word album? Well, we finally got Robert to take a pause and make a record with us. (laughs) It was just getting our schedules together. We had run into each other and talked about it, and finally just made it happen. Medeski Martin & Wood took a year off last year, and Robert made the time for it.
What was the biggest difference making the record this time around? Everybody is a better musician now. Everybody’s grown and done a lot of different things, and made it really easy to make a record.
You recorded Soul Food in Memphis and New York City. Did those cities influence the music you guys made? Definitely. The title of the record came from Memphis, and tunes just started coming. It’s really inspiring to be in Memphis.
I read that Willie Mitchell’s daughters cooked some delicious soul food for the band while in Memphis. That is the truth. That’s where the name of the record came from, and those tunes—“Soul Food I” and “[Soul Food] II”—just came out.
It seems like you had a lot of material to work with for the album. There could’ve been so much more. It was like this faucet that just got turned on when we got together. In Memphis, we had to stop recording and start working on what we have, because stuff just kept coming and coming and coming. [And] every gig is like that. A lot of new stuff happens. It’s pretty exciting.
As you’re playing the new songs live, how are they growing and evolving? We rarely do anything the same way twice. It’s very real that way, really in the moment. They change every night, depending on when in the set we play them, depending on the feeling of the place. Everything can change the way the song is approached. I’m interested to see what going on the road for a few weeks is going to do. We’re going to record the tour, so we’ll see what happens.
Working with this particular group of people, what do you enjoy most about the interplay? I’m enjoying the chaos of it all. You really never know what’s going to happen, with anything. There’s all these different entities coming together. It’s really got a life of its own, and I enjoy being a part of that. It’s nice to be in something that’s out of your control. Musically, I like to be put in that situation a lot, to be in a position where I’m forced to be on my toes and work with whatever’s going on, and be in the moment. This band is like that—every aspect of it is like that. You never know what’s going to happen—you never know who’s going to make their flight. (laughs)
It takes a certain mind-set to thrive in such chaos. Everyone in the band [are] composers, producers. But also, everybody’s a really good improviser, and that’s part of it. Improvising is going with the flow and being able to create in the moment. Everyone’s really good at that.
How does spirituality play into The Word’s music? Is it intended to speak to people in ways beyond just sonically? It’s one of those things you don’t like to talk about too much, if it’s in there. It’s always been important to me—music is a very healing force. For me, it’s more about the spirit than spirituality. I want it to have the spirit, and bring the spirit in. That does the trick for anyone, whatever they believe, wherever they’re at. If you can really bring the spirit in with music, it’s going to take people somewhere, and do something for them.
What else personally are you working on at the moment? I just started recording a record with Will Bernard and Kirk Joseph and Terrence Higgins from New Orleans. Hopefully that’ll be done by the end of the year, working on our new project. I’ve been doing a lot of recording with John Zorn. Medeski Martin & Wood—it’s our 25th anniversary next year, so we’re gearing up to figure out some things for that. Working on trying to conjure a new recording project, actually working with different singers for this one. We’ll see how that goes.
I really enjoyed the DRKWAV project you did with saxophonist Skerik. I love that band! I wish we could do it more. Again, it’s another band where every night’s completely different. Every night’s a different version of that record, but new. But it’s hard to get gigs for that project.
You need to do a residency—be in one place, and have all of your collaborators come to you.That would be cool.
You could even do it in Vegas ... DRKWAV is probably the right vibe for Vegas. (laughs)
The Word with Amy Helm & The Handsome Strangers. October 6, 8 p.m., $25-$30. Brooklyn Bowl, 702-862-2695.