Fever Tree - Rob Landes Interview
Here's the Rob Landes interview from the April 1993 issue of DISCoveries, conducted by Allan Vorda. It also probably appeared in Vorda's book PSYCHEDELIC PSOUNDS. DISC: What were the origins of Fever Tree, which I believe was originally called the Bostwick Vines? Rob: The original group was called the Bostwick Vines. They were a little rock and roll group that wanted some help and so they went to Scott Holtzman who became their mentor after listening to them. One thing led to another and he got them into a studio. Back in those days there was a studio in Houston out off the Gulf Freeway and Broadway called Andrus Studios. Walt Andrus was the owner and he also took an interest in the group. When they went into the studio they needed a little more--I?m going to try to be diplomatic about this--a little more keyboard playing than which the keyboard player was capable. So Scott called me and asked me to help with a local record called "Girl Don't Push Me" which got real big in Houston. I had been doing other stuff, but I helped on the recording and they decided to get rid of the guy playing the organ and they asked me to join the group. At that time I was going through a crisis in college and I decided I was going to quite school. It was at that point that they decided to change the name from Bostwick Vines to Fever Tree whereupon we released a couple of singles that were successful locally. DISC: How did Fever Tree get the name? Rob: The name Fever Tree, as far as I can remember, came from Scott?s wife. Vivian Holtzman had read a book that talked about this tree in Africa where all the natives took their sick people. Supposedly, the bark or sap from this tree sapped the fever out of their sick people and it was called a "fever tree." As far as I know that?s where Fever Tree got its name. DISC: Can you remember what your first performance was like? Rob: I was playing organ for a church when Scott Holtzman convinced me to join Fever Tree. My hair was real short and I had no facial hair. I didn?t look like a rock musician at all. Anyway, Fever Tree was booked to play at a little high school way out somewhere and so Scott said that somehow they had to fix me up to look more like a rock and roll person. Later I grew my own hair and mustache, but I had only three days to do this before our first performance. I had never seen Fever Tree perform, other than being in the studio, and I also had to learn all the music. Since Scott had done a lot of theater work, he decided to glue a big mustache on me and to get some trashy clothes to make me look the part. I also had this little music book where I had written out all the arrangements of all the Fever Tree songs because I only knew the two songs from the record I had played on. When we got to the high school dressing room they wouldn't let anybody in because Scott was putting spirit gum and this big mustache on me. It finally came time to go on stage and I had my little book with me and I set it up on the organ. I didn't know they had a light show. I just thought they were going to turn on the lights and we would play. Back then they had an overhead projector where they had plates with oil and gasoline which projected onto a big screen behind us. The lights went out and the light show came up with me trying to play the organ while I read my book with my glued-on mustache. All of a sudden this strobe light came on and when the rear projection went up I couldn?t read my music. I began to panic, then I began to sweat, and then the mustache began to come off. I thought "Oh, my God, what am I going to do now!" When we got through the first two tunes I went offstage and told Scott we had to do something. So they toned down the flashing lights so that I was able to get through the performance, but it was kind of half-baked because I had panicked so much. DISC: What were your early concerts like in Houston and what venues did you play? Rob: We played a lot at a club on Post Oak called the Catacombs and also the Love Street Light Circus down at Allen?s Landing. I loved all that because it had a little bit of danger connected to it. I don?t know why. It?s not dangerous like it is now, but there was a mystique about Love Street where you could lie on the pillows and watch the bands play. Of course, it was such a rathole, but it was an experience to go there. I still get a wonderful feeling in my stomach when I think about those days at Love Street. DISC: The late 1960s spawned a number of good, if not great, groups from Texas: Fever Tree, 13th Floor Elevators, Moving Sidewalks, Bubble Puppy, Josefus, The Clique, Southwest F.O.B., Sir Douglas Quintet, Shiva?s Headband, Johnny Winter, ZZ Top. How do you explain the emergence of all these bands, many of whom had psychedelic origins, in a state which was basically conservative, redneck, and antidrug? Rob: I have no idea. I had been asked that before, not only from a rock and roll standpoint, but also from all of the talent that seems to come out of here. Maybe it has to do simply with the number of people to choose from. I was always amazed because of all the Southern Baptists: no drugs, no alcohol, and if you dance with your hips you?d go to Hell. I don?t know. Maybe it?s a rebellion against all of that. DISC: Groups such as Fever Tree, the Elevators, Bubble Puppy (later known as Demian), and the Sir Douglas Quintet went to California to achieve stardom, yet none ever achieved major status. Why? Rob: Ours was partly due to some turmoil within the group. I think if we had been able to work out some problems with personality conflicts then we probably would have made it. Lord knows we had the backing. We had lots of money behind us. We were signed to Universal of which UNI was a subsidiary of Universal Pictures. We had excellent West Coast publicity and we were touring. If we had stuck it out another six months or a year, then we probably would have been a big group. I can?t speak for the other groups. DISC: How did Scott and Vivian Holtzman (who wrote a lot of the songs) get with the band and how did you get signed to your recording contract with UNI (Universal City Records/MCA)? Rob: As far as Scott and Vivian, they were actually the driving force behind Fever Tree. They both did a lot of writing for the group and Scott was our manager. They were the ones that got Fever Tree off the ground; otherwise, I don?t think anything would have happened to the group except locally. DISC: Fever Tree signed with UNI which promoted the first LP with billboards in Los Angeles with the advertisement "Fever Tree Is Coming!" What was your reaction since you were completely unknown to the general public? Rob: We naturally had hopes of the album being a big success, but when it got even as far as it did we were happy with it. There was a huge promotional campaign in Los Angeles before the album was released. They had a big billboard campaign all over Los Angeles. Big, big hype. Fever Tree Is Coming. It never said what Fever Tree was. I think they had one hundred signs around Los Angeles saying Fever Tree Is Coming. And when Fever Tree came, finally, I think everyone was relieved and happy to know it was a rock and roll group. They didn?t know if it was soft drink or a new toilet paper. DISC: Your eponymous debut album remains a classic in sound and design. How was the cover photo done? Rob: The cover for the first album was shot at Frank Davis? family?s house in Laporte, Texas. Down behind Frank?s house was a gully or river--I have a big picture of this that shows a girl pulling the raft by a rope which wasn?t shown on the cover--where they built a raft for us. Most of the things on the cover came from Frank?s house--a bird cage, a telephone, and what looks like a footstool. For that picture they had a tree nailed to the back of the raft and they set the tree on fire. We were scared to death the wind would blow and catch us all on fire. Of course, they enhanced it when they did the coloring for the album, but we were actually floating on a raft. Well somebody got the word out that we were down there and all the town kids came to see us. Also, somebody else put out the word there was a hippie wedding going on because of this girl in these flowing robes pulling this raft. So the police and everybody came to see what the hell was going on. DISC: How did you get to work with the likes of David Angel (Love?s Forever Changes) and Frank Davis (13th Floor Elevators? Easter Everywhere)? Rob: David Angel, who is incredible, was hired by Universal. We used both David Angel and Gene Page on the arrangements. In fact, we even used a West Coast drummer on some of the cuts. I don?t think anybody has ever known that; not because our drummer wasn?t good, but we needed some things that weren?t being done. Frank Davis was an old friend of mine. He was doing a lot of work at Andrus Studios and was one of their chief engineers. Frank and Scott were good friends as well and used to be folk singers together in the early 60s at an old club called The Jester. So Frank took a special interest in Fever Tree due to Scott and me and because he was getting into psychedelic music. DISC: Side one of Fever Tree begins with "Imitation Situation" which employs Bach?s "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor." It then leaps into that unique high pitched guitar that leads into "Where Do You Go?" which has a wonderful flute solo by Rob Landes, which in turn steps into your classic hit single "San Francisco Girls." How did these songs evolve? Rob: I haven?t listened to that in so long, but I think we wanted to do something different since there was an old pump organ out at the studio and we wanted to use it. I had been playing that old Bach "Toccata and Fugue" from my church days. I had played it in a concert right before I joined the group and that sort of music fascinated them because it was unlike anything they had played before. We decide to start out the album with something totally different and that pump organ was sitting there. I think it was Scott?s idea. He said, "Go over there and see what that Bach ?Toccata and Fugue? sounds like." So then we all threw in ideas about the arrangements, but I guess that is how it initially happened. The end of that piece is interesting. It was supposed to fade out. We had done several takes on it and we had used up all the tapes. So we ran the tapes back to the beginning and started over. When we did it we found a beginning tape we had done days before. Mike was still wailing on his guitar and all of a sudden here came "Out there it?s summertime..." from another take. So we just left it and Mike kept playing his guitar with it and then they faded it out. That was unexpected. It wasn?t planned. DISC: "Nowadays Clancy Can?t Even Sing" outdid the original Buffalo Springfield version. Discuss this composition and Keller?s great vocals, notably the momentary lapse before Keller?s elongated delivery of "even sings." Rob: Yes, that was his idea. I remember we were in Denver and the local radio station held a contest. They played both versions of "Clancy," the Buffalo and ours, and then they had a phone-in contest which we were really glad to win. We heard all over the country people talking about that song in particular. Dennis was incredible on the vocal and sang his ass off. There?s also a backward piano piece on that song which I wrote out. Then I played it from the end to the beginning while they ran the tape backwards so the piano had a kind of "pfft pfft" sound. That song has always been one of my favorites. DISC: It also seems Another Time, Another Place is not up to par with your first album and may have been put together too quickly. What do you think? Rob: Our tastes began to change as we played together. Another Time, Another Place is still my favorite album and has some of our best material. DISC: What are your thoughts about the third Fever Tree album called Creation? Rob: I think the Creation LP is all right, but I think we were kind of experimenting. The only way I can justify it is that we were branching out and times were changing. Psychedelic music had begun to run its course and we felt like we were a forerunner of it since we were there at the beginning. I guess we reached a point where we felt we had done it and thought let?s move on to something else. DISC: Wasn?t the For Sale LP made after the band had broken up? Rob: The fourth album, For Sale, mentions John Tuttle and Rob Landes as being formerly with Fever Tree. We had a contract to release "X" amount of albums, but we had broken up by this time. The record company said we had to fulfill the contract or our asses would be cooked. Everything on this album had been recorded and rejected from other albums by all of us. The second side is a thirteen minute cover of "Hey Joe." "Hey, Mister" was recorded before I joined the group during the Bostwick Vines days. So they dug out all these tapes and used studio musicians. The result is the worst hodgepodge of sound you've ever heard in your life. DISC: What led to the breakup of Fever Tree? Rob: This is real sensitive. It's probably real surprising to any rock and roll person from the 60s and 70s, but I was completely antidrug. I didn?t care if the other people in the group smoked the bark off a tree, but just as long as it didn't affect our performing. To me that was what it was all about: the albums and the live performing. I didn't have any big thing about being a rock and roll star. I just wanted to make good music. The bass player (E.E. "Bud" Wolfe) and I always roomed together because we never did any drugs. After performances, during performances, and before performances kids would come up and thrust fistfuls of pills into our hands. Of course, we? go back to our room and flush them down the toilet, whereas the other guys were practically jumping in the toilet after them. They were getting into some pretty heavy stuff at the end. By that time I was road manager and I was supposed to keep everybody a little bit corralled and semi-professional. Anyway we were playing a date in Chicago and Mike had done something really heavy. He got out on stage and couldn?t play. He was just standing there. I was doing all the guitar licks on the organ and we were trying to cover for him, but he was just standing there. When we got through we went back to the hotel and I said if it happened again I?m gone. My reason for being in this group is to make music. If we make a few bucks on the side then fine. A couple of nights later Mike did it again. That was the end of that leg of the tour and we came back to Houston and met with Scott. I said that Bud and I were quitting. We had, with some regularity, what we called gritch sessions where would all get together and bitch about so and so. That was always done with Scott, who was our manager, because he wasn?t in the group and could therefore act as a mediator. So we had a session and Scott smoothed everything over. Our next date was in Florida and so we flew to Miami and got to this club when it happened again. I fulfilled the date, but I took a separate flight back. I shaved and cut my hair before they even got back to town. I told I didn?t give a rat?s ass what happened to the rest of the commitments. We finally realized the group wasn?t going to make it with its current personnel because of different ideas. I?m not condemning them, and I still don?t, because whatever they want to do is fine. I just didn?t want to be part of it. We tried to get back together again to do the live tapes because we knew we had to do it. It was not successful and it became very bitter. It was more or less those three against Bud and me. They immediately tried to get another bass player and piano player and keep the name. Well, Bud and I threatened to sue because we all owned the name Fever Tree. So that put them out of commission. Then they got another group going, but nothing ever really happened with them which is hard to believe because they are all incredibly talented people. DISC: There have been several reunion attempts. For example, Fever Tree played in the late 1970s at the Music Hall, Texas Opry House, and at Demians. Why didn?t the band stay together? Rob: It was the third time they got back together that I joined them to open for Billy Joel at the Music Hall. That was when we had Dennis on vocals, Michael on guitars, and me on keyboards. (John Tuttle had sold his drums and had gotten completely out of the music business and Bud Wolfe had moved to Amarillo and become a photographer.) Even though we had a new bass player and drummer the nucleus was still there. We opened with "Day Tripper" and a lot of stuff off the albums which we updated. It started off with the organ, then the bass, and the guitar, and by the time the light switched to the vocals with Dennis the place was insane. They had gone berserk and we loved it. We all got very nostalgic because we had all buried the hatchet. We also had become older and a little more mature. It was a very, very emotional experience. There was talk about getting the group back together again and offers for concert dates, but I wasn?t interested. DISC: Has there been any discussions about releasing a greatest hits or a live LP? I believe Bam Caruso out of England released a Greatest Hits album by Fever Tree. Rob: There was also a live album that was recorded just as we were breaking up. I still have the tape around here somewhere. None of us was even speaking to one another at that point. We hated each other. We didn?t care if we lived or died and the music all sounds like that. It sounds like an organ part, a drum part, a vocal, and then a guitar. It?s like everybody playing their own piece and to hell with everybody else. This tape is worse than the album we did release. We were absolute idiots for not releasing an actual live performance. For example, it would have been so easy to record the Electric Circus in New York which had some of our very best playing that should have been taped, but we never thought about it. DISC: What are your fondest memories of Fever Tree and how would you like Fever Tree to be remembered? Rob: I?ve got to give credit where credit is due. To me the two main sounds of Fever Tree were Dennis and Mike. When you think of Fever Tree you think of that wonderful vocal that Dennis always had and which was so consistent. He was wonderful at screaming the rock, but he could also do the ballads. He could do it all. The second thing you think of is the unique guitar sound that Mike got and he was the first to do that specific sound. I hope Fever Tree will be remembered as an innovator in music at the time and I think a lot of our music still stands up today. Not only was our music ahead of its time, but it also established a lot of musical ideas that are still being used. I?m always flattered when Fever Tree is remembered and with such a warm feeling. There were other groups who make me feel the same way. Neil Ford and the Fanatics was totally different from what we did, but when I think of them I almost get certain smells, and see clothes, and my car, and my apartment. Whenever I hear Fever Tree on the radio I get a specific feeling in the pit of my stomach that I don?t get any other time or when I hear any other music. When I hear that it evokes all sorts of wonderful memories. DISC: Are there any regrets? Rob: It?s really funny. I?ve always felt that if we had stuck it out another six months or a year we would have been giant stars. It?s the strangest thing because I have no regrets. I love the fact that we did what we did and that I?m still making music that I love and enjoy. To me there?s always the question of if. I don?t think you can live your life wondering.