Spotlight: Robert Walter
photo by Jim Brock
Robert Walter wasn’t sure what he wanted to do for his next solo project. He just knew he wanted it to be different. The Greyboy Allstars, the group the keyboardist co-founded, were coming up on their 25th anniversary, not quite as active but still in a creative space, and Walter was content with his high-profile sideman work—particularly with Phish’s Mike Gordon—and gigs composing film music. Yet, when he began thinking about a follow-up to 2013’s Get Thy Bearings, his previous solo release, Walter was stuck: He was finding inspiration in other artists’ music, but not deep within himself.
“Music can tend to be really self-referential,” he says. “I spend a lot of time being a big fan, listening to so many records, and a lot of my points of reference were other people’s music. Of course, I could learn from imitating, picking up a little bit of this, a little bit of that. Playing instrumental music, the songs aren’t really about anything, but I wanted to start looking at visual things and start using my imagination in some ways, rather than saying, ‘I’ll pick a little James Brown and a little of this and put them together.’”
Walter’s conceptual wanderlust led him to Spacesuit (Royal Potato Family), a 10-song collection featuring an all-new lineup of his 20th Congress, the band that, since the late-‘90s, has served as an outlet for his compositions.
On their previous releases, 20th Congress zeroed in on jazz-soul and funk, with Walter spending most of his time parked at a Hammond B3 organ. For Spacesuit, he’s cranked up the electronic keyboards as well as the organ and the piano. Aided by guitarist Chris Alford, drummer Simon Lott and bassist Victor Little, Walter delves into some headier sounds, ranging from dub reggae to Krautrock to prog. And, more than anything else, he embraces the electric jazz fusion of the ‘70s and ‘80s.
“[Fusion] got bad connotations because of the super complicated stuff,” the 48-year-old Walter says, “but somebody asked me to describe [Spacesuit] and I actually think that’s pretty spot on. I love the earliest fusion records, the idea of jazz-rock. I love The Tony Williams Lifetime and Miles Davis’ electric stuff. Yes, it’s self-indulgent when people are playing fancy music for its own sake; it became a caricature of itself after a while. But I don’t mind; I’ll bring it back. I’m claiming it.
“I wanted to keep myself interested and I felt like I had exhausted what I’d been doing,” Walter continues. “I tend to vacillate between ideas. When I started writing [Spacesuit], I wanted to use more harmony that wasn’t so blues-based, and I wanted to get away from typical funk rhythms, to slightly tweak things and make them more contemporary.”
That philosophy, on the surface, is not very different from the one that’s always guided the keyboardist. Originally from San Diego, Walter and the Greyboy Allstars have, off and on since their inception, explored that line where soul, jazz, funk and dance music intersect. They, too, have always worked on the cutting edge. The band has a new album ready to go, which, says Walter, “takes us right back to the garage funk.”
He’s proud of all that Greyboy have accomplished (“There’s something about it that feels better than all other bands; it just has a chemistry,” he says), but the group’s infrequent touring schedule has given Walter many opportunities over the years to work his keyboards into other situations. As a sideman, he’s guested on recordings by dozens of artists, primarily in the jazz arena, but it’s his membership in Gordon’s extracurricular outfit that’s brought Walter the
“Mike’s music is more based on rock music, in a way that I have not played a lot,” Walter says, when asked what he gets from the collaboration. “It’s taught me a lot about approaching my instrument in different ways. I can’t fall on my old tricks; everything about it has to be a real creative choice. Mike has always encouraged me to do my own thing and play the way I want, and I really try to do that. I try to serve his vision, but I’m not trying to fill anybody’s shoes, and I’m not deliberately trying to take [the Phish elements] out of it either. I’m just doing whatever comes naturally.”
Similarly, working on music for film has allowed Walter the chance to examine different compositional techniques. “When we’re making music for film, the music is not the thing,” he says. “The art is not the music; the music assists the real art, which is the film. You’re there to serve a higher purpose.
“It’s a much different discipline than playing live music with a band,” he continues. “You have to use restraint and economy when you’re just part of a bigger thing. When you’re playing a gig, the music is the reward. You tend to stretch things out longer.”
Still, the concept of thinking cinematically when composing his own music found its way into Spacesuit, which pays homage to Walter’s childhood love for sci-fi and space exploration. “Spacesuit brought me back to a place where I was using my imagination more, when I was more in the world of my fantasies. I wanted the palette to be vague enough that it could be interpreted in different ways, but still bring to mind all that stuff,” he says. “The tunes on this record hold together as a story but I like that you can’t tell where it goes from one song to the other. The lines are blurred so the composed passages feel a little bit off the cuff. Some of it is super improvised, like everybody soloing at the same time, and there are a couple pieces where we said, ‘Let’s just make up something.’”
The same mentality applies to Walter’s overall career. “I get a little restless if I do the same thing for too long,” he says. “Change keeps me awake and flexing different muscles. I feel challenged.”
This article originally appears in the October/November 2018 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here.