Rod Morgenstein and the Making of the Jam
An Interview by Kara Uhrlen
When you hear the name The Jelly Jam, it may not strike a bell, but most will recall hearing about the band Platypus, which began about four or five years ago, and featured members of Dream Theater.
Drummer Rod Morgenstein recalls, “I think the way it started was John Myung had given me a call to see if I’d like to do a project with him. Then we started talking about who would be a cool to work with. Both us were fans of Kings X. Kings X had done some shows with Winger, but I’m not sure if they had ever done stuff with Dream Theater.
So, we contacted Ty (Tabor) and he was totally into it, and then John said, you know, as far as a keyboard guy is it cool if we use Derek (Sherinian), who was in Dream Theater at that time, and I always thought Derek was a great keyboard player. I’d never worked with him, but I though it would be a great idea. It was really interesting, because when we got together, none of us other than Derek and John really knew each other all that well, we were acquaintances and mutual admirers.”
Interestingly but not really all that surprising, Morgenstein says that they all kind of came to the table with different agendas on what they wanted the Platypus project to be, and in the end there might be a perception that Platypus was kind of searching for its identity, but he says after a quarter of a century with the diverse Dixie Dregs, he’s been battling that his entire career.
“My whole career other than Winger is involved with the more fusion, progressive instrumental bands, so most the records I’m on have no singing. I was more interested in doing something that was vocal oriented. Derek had the total opposite interest, because his dream is to be recognized as an instrumentalist, he’s quite talented and so he wanted to do an all-instrumental record. So, I think between that we ended up meeting in the middle.”
Progression from Platypus
After meeting in the middle and releasing two innovative albums, Platypus lost a member and again was faced with a directional decision. Instead of searching for a replacement for Derek Sherinian, when it became apparent that he would not be continuing on with the project, the remaining members of Platypus thought that it may be really interesting if they just did it as a trio, and The Jelly Jam was born.
“We all had enough creative ideas, where between the three of us we could come up with material for a record. The process has been the same with all of the three recordings (When Pus Comes to Shove, Ice Cycles, and The Jelly Jam S/T). The guys come to my house, a couple of them live there for a week or so, and we kind of just go through ideas that we each have or just jam and see what emerges. That’s a very exciting part of the process, having nothing, then all of the sudden before lunch you have like three really cool ideas that you’re going to work on that will actually become songs.”
From the drummers perspective, some things on the Jelly Jam CD that make it interesting are that two or three of the songs were initially inspired by drum beats, namely, “I Can’t Help You” and “I am the King.”
“I teach at Berkley College of Music, so during the semester, I have a four/five hour commute (from his home of New York), and so when I drive it sometimes, I’ll set the car on cruise control and drum on the steering wheel and my feet are free. And so, the drum beat to the very first song on the record (he demonstrates) that started in my car…”
Morgenstein says that the reason he likes the album so much, is that it’s not an album of the stock drum beats that you hear on most albums. He says, As a drummer, it’s always exciting to hear a drum part that can almost start alone. If you can hear a drum beat and then know what the song is, he explains, they call it a signature drum beat. And, he believes that those who know The Jelly Jam songs, will be able to place the music by the drum beat even if they hear it again years down the road.
Another great attribute of The Jelly Jam, Morgenstein adds, is that “If you’re just a music listener. If you’ve never played a musical instrument, if you just hear something and you like it, I think you can listen to Jelly Jam that way, because it’s melodic enough, they’re all vocal oriented tunes pretty much and you know, you can be fooled into thinking that it’s just this. And you go ‘Oh, yeah, it’s a nice song.’”
However, on the other side of the spectrum, he adds, “If you’re a musician and you enjoy the challenge of having to dig a little bit deeper and figure things out rhythmically and harmonically, there’s a whole lot of that stuff there too. Because, usually the two worlds don’t mix, If there’s someone who just loves pop music and they hear the Dixie Dregs, they’re going to go, ‘There’s no singing. That music sounds weird’. Or, if you have someone who’s like a prog head who digs Dream Theater, if you play them AC/DC they’ll go, ‘That sucks. It’s so stupid. It’s just basic rock-n-roll’, So, to me, Jelly Jam could appeal to people that are in both of those worlds.”
What’s in a Name
As for the name, The Jelly Jam, Morgeinstein, explains it away to “stupid band stuff.” He says, “Over the course of the weeks that we’re together, everyday there’s fifty new things, one more bizarre than the next. And then one day, I forget if Ty or John said it, they just said ‘Jelly Jam’ and they both went hysterical laughing and loved it. I was like the girl in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall going, ‘I don’t get it.’ Like that’s funny, where as Platypus, we all like fell on the floor. We loved it. Derek said, I’m trying to find a sound for this solo, something that sounds like a Platypus. We don’t know what a Platypus sounds like, but to him, that was the sound he was looking for.
You know, ‘Jelly Jam’, I didn’t love it at first, and then I said if we can say, ‘The Jelly Jam’ I’ll go along with it. Any word that you say enough times, suddenly takes on its own life. And then, I love the cover. I think maybe Ty may have come up with that, just the jar of jelly. I think it’ll make a great t-shirt, especially that stonewashed look.”
A Happy Trio
“I’m the only one of the three of us, who comes from a jazz-rock-fusion background. It’s a totally different genre of music than the progressive rock. Sometimes the two are linked together but the Dixie Dregs and Dream Theater to me don’t sound anything alike. It’s a very different mindset, not that the Dregs come from a jazz base but Dream Theater, that kind of music comes almost from like a heavy metal base. It’s super musicianship, but with a really hard rock, and I don’t mean like a Bon Jovi heavy metal, I mean like speedmetal and all that kind of stuff. So, I guess I bring like the fusion and jazz side to the band, and Ty certainly is heavily influenced by the Beatles. I have to say, he’s the one who brings that really beautiful melodic pop side to it. Although, Kings X, is another heavy rock band but you have that in the mix too.
It’s really fascinating when you have guys that come from slightly different backgrounds thrown in a room together. A lot of times, it’s not going to work, because you sometimes have this polarization among musicians…but, we get along great, I can’t tell you how much fun it is.”
Morgenstein explains that since he and Myung live near each other on Long Island, Tabor will stay with him and once Myung moseys over around eleven, a typical day of rehearsals will begin with a fresh cappuccino from Myung’s personal machine.
“We all have cappuccino’s, talk a little business, then we start working, and then we go out to a nice expensive lunch. Come back from lunch work a little more, maybe another cappuccino, and then a really nice dinner followed by wine and cigars. Part of the recording budget is cases of really good wine and really fine cigars. It’s just like become a thing, and it started with Platypus. And, I think like the band members of our other bands would be really surprised. When you’ve worked with a certain group of musicians for years, and your personalities are established and the whole way the band runs, a lot of times you don’t see the whole side of the person.”
He also added that with The Jelly Jam being a “side project type of thing” they hope it will turn into something, but it is currently not the band that that they make a living from. And, that actually isn’t a bad thing, because they can write more freely without worrying about mainstream standards.
“So, I think you can also have a different mindset. We’re not thinking ‘Oh my God, what’s radio going to say.’ It’s kind of like, ‘What do we want to do, what do we think is really cool?, and then you hope that it will follow where enough of your fans will think so too.”
A Live Jam?
With Dream Theater and Kings X touring together later this summer, one can only wonder if The Jelly Jam will be making any live appearances, and while Morgenstein says that they definitely have to (and want to) get out on the road, he’s not sure if it will happen until they have a second album out.
“You need to have enough music. But, we already have the drums and bass and most of the guitars done to a follow-up CD, we did it in December, basically because we knew that we were all going to be on tour in our other bands…as soon as Ty gets home from that (Dream Theater, Joe Satriani, King’s X tour), we’ll probably try to finish up the next Jelly Jam CD. So, we may get it out the early part of next year. Then we’ll have two CDs and then Dream Theater will not be on the road next year at all, so there’s a good chance we’ll be able to work something out. We definitely want to do it, we get along great and have a lot of fun together.”
Also be sure to read our review from the Winger 2002 reunion tour with additional information from our interview with Rod, and an in depth history of the Dixie Dregs and the Steve Morse Band, from our recent interview with Steve Morse.