Rusted Root’s breakthrough hit “Send Me On My Way” was inescapable upon its release in the early ‘90s. MTV put the infectious, bubbly song’s video clip on heavy rotation, introducing the general population to the nascent outfit from Pittsburgh.
Even then it was clear Rusted Root was no ordinary pop-rock ensemble; the group’s innovative blend of world beats, island grooves, acoustic guitar, and—in the case of “Send Me”—mirthful penny whistle set the steel town newcomers apart from the brooding alternative bands and angry grunge rockers who dominated the airwaves at the time.
Listeners latching onto Rusted Root’s all-inclusive, tribal-like oeuvre soon learned that many tracks on the band’s major label debut When I Woke were retooled from 1992’s independently-released Cruel Sun. The Polygram versions of tunes like “Send Me,” “Ecstasy,” and “Cat Turned Blue” effectively launched their career, earning singer-songwriter Michael Glabicki and his cohorts coveted tour slots with Dave Matthews Band, The Grateful Dead, and Santana.
Subsequent albums like Remember and Welcome to My Party saw Rusted Root broadening its already considerable musical horizons and galvanizing a fervent fan base. Joined by longtime collaborators Patrick Norman (bass) and Liz Berlin (vocals, percussion), Glabicki hit the festival circuit, playing package tours like Lollapalooza and HORDE between regular Rusted Root road trips.
“Send Me” remains the band’s highest-charting hit, but that song’s frequent use in major motion pictures (Matilda, Ice Age) and on television (New Girl, Ally McBeal) has kept its creators in the public consciousness—and still prompts many “Who does that song?” discussions amongst the uninitiated. It truly is an endearing, timeless feel-good cut, its loping beat, slinky bass, and memorable woodwind melody and vocal (laced with nonsense syllables) adding levity and color with every appearance.
But the Rusted Root players aren’t content to trade entirely on their past. Their eighth studio effort, The Movement, dropped in late 2012 and was occasioned by a gig at Musica in Akron. Augmented by guitarist Colter Harper and drummer Preach Freedom, the band continues to craft joyful, entrancing new tunes that further its love-all, heal-together message and make for engaging, energetic live shows.
Rusted Root returns to Ohio on January 23rd with a show at The Kent Stage. New York jam band Donna the Buffalo will support.
Rejuvenated from a Christmas break with friends and family, bandleader Glabicki was eager to discuss Rusted Root’s Shanachie Records debut, their ongoing tour—and a particular environmental interest very close to his heart.
CLEVELAND MUSIC EXAMINER: Hello, Michael! How were your holidays? How was your New Year?
MICHAEL GLABICKI: How was my year?
CME: Your New Year. Apparently you had a show in your hometown.
MG: Oh! Oh, yeah [laughs]. We had a great gig in Pittsburgh. We hadn’t done a New Year’s show here in a while, so hopefully we’ll start the tradition again. It was really off the hook and free. And we had Jenn Wertz—who left the band a while ago—she was there to sing some background vocals and be part of the set. So that was a good time, too.
CME: Your tour itinerary has you in Shirley, Massachusetts for a show tonight. Is the weather as bad there as it is in Cleveland?
MG: Yeah, it’s pretty bad here. Don’t know if we’ll make it or not.
CME: Rusted Root’s latest album, The Movement, was partly funded by fans. A lot of groups are doing Kickstarters and Pledge projects these days. How’d the “We Are Rusted Root” campaign go for you guys?
MG: Yeah, we did a fan-fundraising campaign. It was kind of different for us, because we’ve never done anything like that. So we had these packages that were set up to be creative, and we set up in the studio and had fans coming in to hang out for the day. And that kind of got us out of our routine a little bit! And they had a good time, and got to do some hand-claps and screams on the record. So it was just a different way for us to connect with our fans. The music itself…we kind of got back to old-school. I wrote the songs and picked out what was going to be on the record, and we took ‘em on the road to arrange them and structure them in front of the fans. And that kind of brought out our energy for the record.
CME: So a lot of the material was already written and arranged before going in to commit it on tape?
MG: Yeah. I think the only one that wasn’t was the drum piece, “In Our Sun.” We just did that in the studio.
CME: The Movement is the band’s first release for Shanachie Records, and you produced it yourself. Did the changes make the going easier for you and the band?
MG: This is the second record I’ve produced. And on this one we just did it at our studio in Pittsburgh. We just really took our time with it. That was the best thing about it; we just took our time and didn’t rush it. So that was great for us.
CME: I wanted to ask about the new video for the single “Cover Me Up.” Where was that shot—the footage with all of you wading out into the water?
MG: That was Nantucket.
CME: Oh, see, I’m afraid of sharks. You’d have never gotten me out there, and that’s near where they filmed Jaws. I give you credit!
Watch the official video for “Cover Me Up:” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YAZk33aBmj8
CME: On a more serious note, your professional musical career started after you did a bit of traveling around the world. How did your experience galvanize you? I mean, how were you able to take those sights and sounds—some of which were hardly optimistic—and sublimate them into some great upbeat music?
MG: Yeah, I was politically active in high school and was involved in a student organization. And when I finally got out of high school, I went to Nicaragua. It was mainly as a witness. Because there was so much information about Nicaragua and Central America coming out at the time. So it was good to go down there and bring back some information that wasn’t insanely wrong [laughs].
CME: Again, I give you credit. Visiting that part of the world at that time would’ve been rough on anybody, let alone a high school kid from the Midwest.
MG: It was pretty tough on me, and when I came back I floated around for a bit. And music was a way to get through that. And that’s when I dropped out. I went to college, but left after a semester. That’s when I started Rusted Root.
CME: So how does a landlocked kid from Pittsburgh tap into all these wonderful sounds—these Latin, African, and Native American beats and grooves—and work it into fresh songs like the ones on Cruel Sun and When I Woke?
MG: It was…I guess for me at that time, I had a couple cousins who had played in some bands with some world beat stuff going on, like African drum circles. And I caught a few concerts at the universities—Carnegie Melon and University of Pitt—some African drumming. And my friend in high school brought home and African drumming tape, and we’d listen to it. He’d try to figure it out on his drum kit, and I’d tune my guitar in these weird tunings. And we’d play for days and days and days and just see what happened. Then Peter Gabriel’s So came out, and I was like, “Okay—I like that!” And it’s not that I wanted to do what he was doing, but what he’d done there gave me the okay to go ahead with what I was doing, you know? And that it had the possibility of working out. So that’s how all that came together.
CME: I looked up the meaning of the word “Agbadza” because I always wondered about it. Apparently it’s a kind of African dance, so that makes sense.
MG: I didn’t name that one. That’s something that [former percussionist / drummer] Jim Donovan came up with. I’m not completely sure where that title came from!
CME: I think that’s a major appeal of Rusted Root, the eclectic sounds. You might hear some calypso or reggae on one song—some major dance vibes, like on the new “Monkey Pants”—then the next minute there’s some low key acoustic folk, then back again.
MG: I really don’t think about it that much. It’s all about feeling, and trying to dig deep into this pool of emotion that has meaning, you know? It’s like the real things, the things you find out about yourself and the world when you dig down deep, and you can’t always express it in words. So it comes out in music—in tone and rhythm. And those things just make sense and become your truth. That’s how I write. I just try to find the things that make me feel that way.
CME: What’s the writing process like for Rusted Root? Do you typically come in with guitar parts and lead vocals already written, then have Patrick add bass and Liz add her vocals? Or is it a more democratic, open process?
MG: I usually bring the song on the guitar, with a vocal and lyrics. I might have an idea for rhythm—or I might not—and we go from there. Sometimes I’ll have other parts, background parts or other guitar parts in mind, and I’ll dish them out. But mostly we keep it pretty free and let people get involved in it, so they can make it their own.
CME: Over the years a lot of Rusted Root songs have referenced the Earth and the sun in the titles or lyrics, like “Cruel Sun” and “Laugh As the Sun.” Thematically, I’ve noticed a healthy, almost quasi-religious respect for the planet, and the symbiotic relationship humanity has with it. I’m guessing it’s not all coincidental. Is there something to these spiritual Earth / Man / Sun references in your songs?
MG: Yeah, I think those images pop up a lot. And I think for a while I was tapping into certain things where those images just made sense. I don’t know if it’s a past life, or another culture I was involved with in a past life—something like that. They’ll come up, and I’m like, “What does it mean?” And on some level it just makes sense to you, so you go with it. Then it starts to really make sense, and you’re like, “Okay, wow, this is really coming from someplace else.”
CME: Your first major hit, “Send Me On My Way,” continues to pop up in movies like Ice Age, and on television shows and TV commercials. I’m guessing this exposure has introduced a whole new generation of listeners to Rusted Root. I know my own kids definitely picked up on it.
MG: I think it’s great. It’s kind of bringing in this whole new audience. Some days we feel like we’re just sitting back watching it all happen. That’s how it feels now! It’s a good place to be in.
Watch the official video for “Send Me On My Way:” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IGMabBGydC0
CME: Can fans expect a good mix of old and new Rusted Root when you play Kent Stage later this month? Maybe a bit of “Drum Trip / Ecstasy,” “Martyr,” and “Cat Turned Blue” along with “Monkey Pants” and “Fortunate Freaks?”
MG: We try to keep it pretty even. I think on New Year’s Eve we played like, two-and-a half hours. So we might pull it back a little; we were pretty wiped out after that one! So we keep it around two hours, and it’s usually half old and half new stuff.
CME: I saw you a couple times at House of Blues Cleveland. In fact, I think the last time you played here was New Year’s Even 2009. The band took a break, then you came back and did the countdown and had a toast.
MG: Yeah! I remember that. That was a good show.
CME: I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask about your activism against fracking. Can you talk a little about your work with producer Jason Samel and Movement Music Records for the Buy This Fracking Album compilation?
MG: Well, the fracking companies were trying to frack inside the Pittsburgh city limits, and that’s how I became more concerned. I went to a few town meetings, and what eventually happened was that Pittsburgh was one of the first major cities to outlaw fracking inside the city limits. But there’s still a huge concern. The water supply in West Virginia and around Pittsburgh…it’s all a little too close for comfort. And it’s just not working. Fracking isn’t about oil dependence, since it’s all being shipped out anyhow to China. So Jason gave us a call, and I gave him that track. And just two weeks ago we drove out to Dimock, P.A. And that was a real eye-opener, talking with people in their homes and seeing some of the devastation of fracking, seeing these families and communities torn apart by it. It’s just really terrible stuff. There aren’t a lot of good things to be said about it at this point.
CME: Have you seen the movie The Promised Land?
MG: No, I didn’t.
CME: It’s a Matt Damon drama that came out last year that addresses the issue. I just wanted to see if you had any thoughts on it. It’s an okay movie, I guess, but it was nice to see a major film address fracking, since the topic sometimes gets overlooked because it’s not as “glamorous” a concern as some other issues. I read that the injection process introduces all kinds of nasty chemicals into the water supply.
MG: Yeah, it pumps millions of gallons of water laced with like, over 500 different chemicals in it. It releases methane and uranium, and this whole list of pollutants into the water supply. And at that point it becomes irreversible. It’s never gonna go away. And it doesn’t take that much fracking to destroy a whole water system. It’s just a little bit for it to become irreversible. It’s not something to take lightly at all. And on top of it, the whole process is worse for global warming that using coal. And again, it’s being shipped overseas for the oil companies to make money. They’re just raping and pillaging the communities. When I talked with some people up there, it was like, “First it was the American Indians. Now they’re coming for us.” I can certainly see why they feel that way.
Rusted Root with Donna the Buffalo. Thursday, January 23, 2014 at Kent Stage (175 East Main Street, Kent OH 44240). Doors at 7:00pm, show 8:00pm. Tickets ($28-$32) are available now at the venue website: