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Q & A with Jerry Saracini

The drummer for Forgotten Space explores his passion for the music of the Dead.

By Julie Wenger Watson

Jerry Saracini is the drummer for Dallas-based, Grateful Dead tribute band, Forgotten Space. Performing since 2006, the band plays Cain’s Ballroom Friday, November 5Sam Morrow’s Rocket In My Pocket: A Tribute To Little Feat & Lowell George is also on the bill. Forgotten Space features two guitars, bass, keyboards, a drummer, and strong three and four part vocal harmonies for a journey through three decades of Dead.

How and why did you start playing drums? 

I discovered drums through a friend at age 11 and started begging my parents for a drum set for Christmas in the fall of 1980. That December, John Lennon was taken from us, and I was so intrigued by the reaction I was seeing people have that I started to investigate the Beatles’ music through an aunt’s record collection. I can remember to this day the experience of listening to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band all the way through for the first time. I’d never listened to an entire album all the way through before, but I just couldn’t pick up the needle once it started. I was transported that night. It was like I knew I was stepping closer to adulthood or something. The things that had interested me before vanished. I knew what I wanted to be from that moment forward, and astonishingly, it’s never changed. Just a few weeks later I got my first drum set. 

What were your influences? What did you listen to growing up?

I studied jazz both privately and in school from 7th grade through college and started to play in bands at around age 14. The ethos was to play as much as I could, in as many different styles as I could, in as many different environments as I could. The goal was to learn from everything, which also to helped establish an openness and appreciation for a wide variety of music. I imagine that acceptance of different music ultimately assisted in my understanding and relating to the Grateful Dead’s music, with it being such a collection of various styles merging into one. However, what I listened to most was probably Grateful Dead, The Beatles, Rolling Stones, The Who, Steely Dan, Miles Davis, Todd Rundgren, R.E.M., Chick Corea, Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, and Cream. 

Tell me about your relationship to the Grateful Dead and the band’s music.

I was introduced to the Grateful Dead’s music through my brother, Mike, when I was 13 and saw my first Dead show at age 15. Over the next 11 years I would get to see Jerry Garcia perform 56 times. (132 total Dead shows over the years). It always required travelling, and it was always an adventure. Collecting and trading tapes became a passion. I have always loved reading about and studying the band from every possible angle. They just had a profound impact on me from all areas I could experience them. 

Musically, they were not like anything else. There was just so much to discover in their universe. It wasn’t all right in front of you either. You had to dig to get to it. You had to put yourself into it to get something out. Listening to their live catalog of tapes was very different than listening to their albums. It could seem like a totally different band. My ears had to develop to hear past the sonic limitations of an audience tape to discover the beauty of a performance inside. It was obvious that the whole trip wasn’t for everyone either. Anyone was invited, but not everyone would come along for the ride. So many of my friends, and even musicians, just couldn’t get it. It was filled with mystery and adventure, and there seemed to be such a joy-filled reward for those who invested themselves into it. 

In the years after I started performing this music, I’ve been so fortunate to have opportunities, even outside of Forgotten Space, to play this body of music with so many wonderful musicians around the country, and each situation brings out different aspects of the music. Each person brings their own experience to it. It’s quite remarkable. One such opportunity involved Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh, and I’m so thankful to have had that experience. I’ve also been inspired greatly by my friends in Dark Star Orchestra, drummers Dino English and Rob Koritz. They’re probably most responsible for me turning my attention towards playing this music professionally. 

What is your audience like for these shows? 

I think our audience mirrors the classic Deadhead audience. It’s men and women ranging from age 18 – 70. It’s everything from hardcore heads who know facts and statistics about the band to those who just enjoy a lighter experience of seeking out a real good time. It’s those who have been to anywhere between dozens to hundreds of shows, and those who are stepping into this world for the very first time. It’s every part of society that has a penchant for music with a little adventure attached. ‘

How do you strike the balance between pleasing devoted, hardcore Deadheads and keeping the music fresh, alive, innovative?

Fortunately, I don’t feel as though it’s a hard bridge to gap, and that is because Deadheads, or anyone attracted to this type of music, largely have very open and adventurous spirits. There are those who may want some more traditional or familiar aspects to come through in the music, and there are certainly those who are interested to see the new places the music can go. There are probably just as many who find themselves right in the middle of both of those camps of thought, as I find myself. 

We work hard to get the sound, tones and feel as accurate as we can to what is familiar to Deadheads. We study the different arrangements the band approached throughout their different eras, and we try to create an environment that is familiar and comfortable.As far as the performance, I think that once you’ve prepared and done the work in those areas of sound and arrangements, what’s most important really comes down to honesty and “going for it.” When one performs from an authentic place, that’s what connects the audience to the experience. As musicians, we strive to perform things perfectly. When you play improvisational music, that requires everyone to be in the moment and musically reacting to what is happening. There’s inherent risk involved. Audiences recognize and feel the honesty and earnestness when you “go for it” when playing, and they like going out on the edge of that risk with you. They’re generally pretty forgiving of an occasional mistake here or there because the fun comes with the adventure of the risk involved. They want you to go for it, and that just inspires us to see how far we can take it. 

What do you think it is about the music of the Grateful Dead that has allowed it to endure? Is it the culture as much as the music?

Most importantly, it’s the songs. They wrote and performed songs with extraordinary melodies and stories to them, and they created them in a way that allows for a wide range of interpretation in their presentation. There’s such power in those songs that they transcend the need of only being played by the original artist for their magic to come through. Furthermore, their music doesn’t sound anchored to the time it was conceived. A particular performance of it might, but the songs themselves do not, and that allows the music to continue to be fresh, alive, and still permeate new generations. I think the attractiveness and excitement of the scene that surrounds the band also draws a lot of people in, but it’s the songs that keep them there. 

What are your favorite things about playing and performing in this band? 

There are so many things. There’s the privilege of playing music that I personally enjoy so much and that has meant so much to me throughout my life. There’s the opportunity within the framework of the music to allow me as a musician to be myself while honoring it, as well as grow and stretch as a musician. There’s the extraordinary privilege of playing for audiences who “get it” and contribute their own joy and energy to the whole experience. There’s the joy of rolling around the country with some of my best friends and all the shared laughter that comes with it. There’s the reward of contributing something positive to the world, something that seems to help others to be happy, and there’s the satisfaction and sense of purpose that comes with putting all of myself, my best efforts and abilities into something that I truly care about and want to make great. I feel extremely fortunate to do what I do. 

Anything else you’d like to share before the Tulsa show? 

I’m so excited to be performing at Cain’s Ballroom. I had the privilege of spending time with some of my friends in Dark Star Orchestra during one of their performances there in the early 2000’s. Longtime Grateful Dead soundman, Dan Healy, was working with them for that tour, and it was amazing to hear the sound in that historic room. Forgotten Space is honored to play here, and we’re excited to welcome Sam Morrow’s “Rocket in My Pocket: A Tribute to Little Feat and Lowell George” to the bill. It’s going to be a memorable night of music. 

 

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