When Rusted Root formed in Pittsburgh in 1990, it made a world-beat influenced splash with a series of releases throughout the decade. During this creative period, the band released its most commercially successful song, "Send Me On My Way." The tune, which has been used on soundtracks for films like Matilda and Ice Age, features the hard-driving percussion and vocal style that have come to define the group's sound. In advance of its appearance at this weekend's Mile High Music Festival, we spoke with Michael Glabicki, lead singer of the Steel Town-based outfit.
Westword (Nick Hutchinson): Are you all from Pittsburgh?
Michael Glabicki: Yeah. We're all pretty much from around here.
Ww: How did the band get its start?
MG: I was going to college in Pittsburgh, but I took a trip to Nicaragua and got a chance to experience the culture down there. The country had just gone through a revolution, and there was an incredible art and music scene flowering, and I got turned on by it.
So I dropped out of college, started writing music, created a studio and invited some friends to join me, including Liz [Berlin, background vocals and hand percussionist]. She helped bring in some people from Pitt University, including one of her friends [Jim Donovan], who played an African style of drumming and who blended right in.
Ww: Did you have a vision for your sound?
MG: Right around that time, Peter Gabriel and Paul Simon were doing their thing with African-influenced projects, and I liked what they were doing. Also, I had some cousins who studied African drumming and played in world beat bands. So I was open to these influences, and it all sort of came together.
I was playing a lot of acoustic guitar and using open tunings. We'd sit there for days trying to mimic different styles of music. The sound I envisioned had a kind of thunderous percussion element, and I was pumping my acoustic through huge speakers. So that kind of approach became our landscape.
Ww: Is that still the sound now?
MG: We've branched off a little, and I do some solo shows with quieter dynamics and more delicate vocals, but we still have some of that aesthetic. My songwriting is a little more pointed these days. If you want to get an idea of what I'm saying, listen to our last release Stereo Rodeo. I think it sounds great. Its my favorite release so far. It has a wider spectrum of dynamic range for us.
Ww: Sometimes you get put into the jam band category. How do you feel about that?
MG: Well, we toured with bands including, the Grateful Dead, Santana, the Allman Brothers and Robert Plant and Jimmy Page. A lot of the older bands have taken us on because we have similar followings. But realistically, we don't sound anything like the Dead.
We do play a bit of bluegrass tinged stuff once in a while. I guess you could call us jam in the sense that we move together organically and we improvise together. We will take off and explore together. But we don't really do lengthy solos.
Ww: How much touring were you all doing at the peak of your popularity?
MG: We did a fair amount, but it was a slow build. We went on the road with artists like Sheryl Crow and Dave Matthews and, as I mentioned, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page. Our first big tour was actually out to Colorado. Having worked out of a van for a long time, we were now touring on a huge bus.
We had a bus driver named Uncle Donny, who was from down South. I think we almost wrecked like three times. At one point, we slid through a gas station up in the mountains there on some very slick ice. Luckily we didn't take out any gas pumps. I also remember playing a set at a radio station and looking out the window to see Uncle Donny dancing naked.
Ww: Did you do any international dates?
MG: We went overseas with Plant and Page for some shows. We played at Wembley Stadium, where everyone was expecting a Led Zeppelin reunion. When the lights went on, we were on stage, and the whole place went kind of silent. We had everyone on their feet by the end of the show, though.
Ww: So whats the focus for the band nowadays?
MG: We've been touring off and on, but we're more focused on writing and making records at this point. We've all done some solo projects, and we're currently working on the next Rusted Root release.
Ww: How does it feel when you get on the road now?
MG: We're having probably the best time ever. We're settling down into touring and having a great time with the audience. In the past, touring was kind of irritating to me. It didn't feel natural. Now I dig it and have fun.
Ww: Who is in your audience these days? Young fans, older fans?
MG: Kids love Rusted Root, and we get a bunch of them at our shows, and we have a whole college generation that comes out, too. It's cool because there are several generations represented in our audience. There seems to be more of a ritual to it now. And the scene feels like a community.
Ww: How does that feel to you as an artist?
MG: Nowadays, when I sing "Send Me On My Way," I sit back and experience all the thoughts that have gone into it. It has new meaning and new healing every night. The more people who know it and the longer it stays around, the more power it has.
Ww: How did you get your vocal style, and what are your influences?
MG: The more limited I can make them the better. When I started writing, I went into a room and shut the door until I felt something that came up from the ground. I waited for something special. Its like meditation for me. It generates from my own connection with the earth.
I have no vocal training and no formal guitar lessons, so I'm pretty much a blank slate. When I first started really getting into music, I dug Cat Stevens, Jim Croce, the Beatles, The Stones, Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden and some punk rock. I like to think those influences are all in there.