Sheldon Gomberg: Sweet Relief III – With a Little Help From His Friends
We are about to get inundated by a tidal wave of articles and reviews of Sweet Relief III, an album put together specifically to benefit Sweet Relief, a charity set up to help musicians in need. And why not? The lineup on the album is outstanding, artists ranging from the huge (Rickie Lee Jones, kd lang, Jackson Browne) to the extremely talented and only slightly lesser-knowns (Genevieve Toupin, Eleni Mandell, Joseph Arthur) whose music missed by a few years the Golden Age of the Record Business.
Already the accolades are coming in, writers having been linked to the music for awhile now, most reviews positive and heralding the efforts of all. A few have even credited producer/engineer/coordinator Sheldon Gomberg for his behind-the-scenes work on the project, but only a few. Most writers are not interested in the workings of such a project and prefer the simple and straightforward end result and, anyway, time and space is limited and to delve into the nuts and bolts is a time-consuming activity in itself. At the same time, the good ones will note that such albums do not magically appear on shelves, even the new digital shelves of today’s music industry, and that without Sheldon, this album would not have happened at all. Not at this time and not in this form. And trust me when I tell you that it would not have happened but for Sweet Relief itself, not because Sweet Relief is the core of the project but because Sheldon had at one time received a bit of relief from them and wanted to give back.
That is the whole idea behind the project— giving back— and as soon as Sheldon made it known, artists gathered ’round the flag to support him and the cause. These days, the fabric of the music scene is such that if you don’t know somebody, you know somebody who knows somebody, and that is how it now works. Stolen equipment? Spread the word. A musician in trouble? Spread the word. A venue needs help? Spread the word. It is not the business itself but the attitude toward the business which has changed and is changing. While the arguments over proper payments for services/music rendered run rampant, the musicians themselves do what they do best: play and compose and support others. Sweet Relief III is them supporting others.
But I stray from the purpose of this piece. I want to introduce you to Sheldon Gomberg, man, musician and engineer, because I don’t think you can fully understand the album unless you know the man behind it. So let us begin:
Q: Did you ever come out of a session feeling like…..
Yikes! I had asked no more than three questions and already Sheldon was cutting me short. Sure, it was in jest, and it did make me laugh, but what the hell? I might have had something really profound to ask there. Then again, Sheldon knows me better than that.
I’ve known Sheldon for a long time and yet don’t know him at all. I worked with his older sister at Peaches Records back in the eighties and followed his journeys through her when she took the time to pass word of them along. She was proud of her little brother, though worried, because he had taken a path less, uh, traveled, shall we say. He had left home when he was fifteen. He lived on the streets of Seattle, crashing wherever his feet took him, sometimes out in the open. It wasn’t what he wanted to do. It just happened. And, luckily it didn’t last long.
“I was young and wanted to play music all the time,” he explained. “Oh, and get stoned. (laughs) And that wasn’t what my father wanted, I am sure. I was young and rebellious, I guess. But I love my parents and we repaired that some time later and I’m glad we did. They get it now. ‘We didn’t have any idea that you would become the guy you are. We were scared when you left home.’ They were doing the right thing but it just didn’t work for me, you know? So I would probably have to take the blame there.”
Those were trying times for the family and for Sheldon himself. It’s not easy attempting to develop oneself as a musician while having to worry about meals and finding shelter all the time. And, yes, he thought himself a musician. Like many others, the day you pick up an instrument and know that’s what you want to do for the rest of your life (Play, not pick up instruments, for chrissake!), you’re a musician.
He began finding his path through the music he selected: at first, Hendrix and Zeppelin and Jeff Beck, among others, and then the New York Dolls and The Stooges and Television— early punk, he called it. The more he learned, the more he wanted to play, eventually finding a band he wanted to play with: The Tupperwares, fronted by Tomata du Plenty, who would soon afterward head to Los Angeles to front The Screamers. Unfortunately, The Tupperwares already had a guitarist, but du Plenty sent Sheldon to a guy named Satz, which was short for Satin Sheets.
“Satz was part of this theatrical group in Seattle called Ze Whiz Kidz. He also had a band called The Sixteen Year Old Virgins. A few of those guys split off and formed The Knobs. I joined them. They called me one day and I was thinking, great, great, they’re going to ask me to play guitar, but instead they told me their bass player had quit. I was thinking, yeah, but what does that have to do with me? Then they asked me to play bass and I said I don’t play bass and they said, well, we’ll teach you. I said, I don’t have a bass and they said, we got one. So I said, yeah, but I don’t have an amp and they said, we got one. So I thought, okay, I’ll get in the band and I’ll ace the guitar player out, you know? In due time. So I joined the band and the drummer was a fantastic drummer and really knew how bass and drums worked together. He taught me and I just fell in love with bass. He was the best guy for me to learn from. I played both guitar and bass for a long time but eventually bass took over, I loved it so much.
“When I moved to L.A. and got serious, it was pretty obvious that bass was my thing. I started focusing on it. I played a few gigs on guitar, but I didn’t pursue it. At that point, I pretty much considered myself a bass player.
“What it was was every time I played guitar, I wanted to take the bass and beat the bass player over the head with it. It is really frustrating how many bass players don’t get what bass does. When you get a great bass player, it’s amazing, but bass fits a role. It’s not about, hey, look at me, check me out. I mean, there are a lot of bass players with crazy chops like James Jamerson, Jaco Pastorius, John Paul Jones, Ray Brown and the like, but they groove first and foremost, so the chops count. A lot of guitar players can’t get a gig as a guitarist because there is so much competition so they will ‘just play bass’ because it’s so damn easy, right? Then they overplay on bass and cannot understand the groove. They don’t get what groove is or how to work with the drums. I think, ‘F**k, man, just play bass!’ So I would end up wanting to play bass just because I couldn’t take it. And eventually, it became a passion.”
What about the bass/drummer dynamic?
“I’ve only had one drummer— that first guy— who actually would sit down and talk about it. Drake Eubanks. Until then, I hadn’t found any drummers who even thought about it. But there was this one guy— Rob. When we could find time, we would get together and play. What we would do is, say, play James Brown or Aretha Franklin songs or something like that. We would talk about where to sit on the beat. We would try it with each one of us sitting in a different place and then swap and try somewhere different. Just feeling it everywhere. We would work on what it felt like and what the different options were. I mean, we were thinking about it while not really discussing it and not really thinking about it either, per se. We discussed through our instruments.”
The man is intelligent, is he not? Or at least seems so.
With that little bit as background, let me tell you about Sheldon’s career. While best known as a touring bassist, he spent quite a few hours in recording studios as well. While he plays it down, he has recorded with the likes of Warren Zevon, Ryan Adams and Beck, among others.
He found out his touring days were over about eight years ago when he was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. Rather than quit music, he moved his act inside a recording studio instead of the various music venues. He knew musicians and put the word out and slowly began to build clientele. Today, he keeps himself plenty busy producing and recording projects for musicians who are looking for a relaxed atmosphere.
Does he love it? Absolutely. Who wouldn’t? He gets to work with some of the best musicians in L.A. He is at the center of a lot of what is really happening. So what is it like?
“Recording?” Sheldon asked.
“We’re always laughing,” he said. “In ten years, I have had only one really miserable experience.”
It says a lot.
As for his connection with Sweet Relief? It happened this way. Because of Sheldon’s condition, he found that he needed a scooter and that, of course, meant a scooter-lift. He contacted Sweet Relief and they helped him. Which put a bug in his mind.
“Bill Bennett had taken over the charity when it was in dire straits,” he explained. “I talked with him after the scooter-lift thing and he said that the organization was tight on funds, so when I got off the phone, I began to think that maybe I could help them by doing what I do, which is recording and producing records. I thought that maybe I could put some kind of charity album together and they said, yeah, that’s a good idea, but it didn’t seem to get any further traction with them. After a few months, I began to get antsy. I talked with Ben Harper and Victoria Williams and Rickie Lee Jones and got commitments from them. I mentioned to Victoria that the idea just didn’t seem to be going anywhere and she said let me call Bill, and she did. A few seconds later, Bill called me and said, oh what a great idea. I love it. So I got the go-ahead. I already had a handful of artists committed, four or five, and I knew others I wanted to ask, so I set about asking them. A good portion of them said yes and, luckily, the list of people who had already committed helped convince the others. It helped that Sweet Relief already had a bit of history and deals in an area artists and musicians can relate to and have an affinity with.”
Thus, the die was cast.
“From the time we started recording to the time the album was finished, it probably took two years,” he said. “I started mid-2010 and finished it at the end of 2011. Well, I had finished it but later added a couple of things. I was so busy, it took time to get it all done so, technically, it took until the end of 2012. That was just because I didn’t have the time to do the additional recordings quickly.”
A long time, from conception to fruition, but the time has come.
With luck, I will have this posted on September 3rd, tomorrow, the date set for release. As disjointed as this article may be, the album is not. Thanks to Sheldon and all of the artists who gave freely of their time and efforts. And to Vanguard Records, who agreed to distribute it. And to Sweet Relief who, though they will be the main beneficiary, put time and effort to get it off the ground.
This, friends, is musicians helping musicians, the way the industry is supposed to work. Support this project. It is a good cause.
Note: I have pages of the two short interviews I conducted with Sheldon which I will be posting very soon. If you are curious at all about the recording industry and the musicians behind it, don’t miss it. Sheldon’s not only one of the good guys but one of the most articulate. Stay tuned…..