“YOU’RE BORN WITH A CERTAIN AMOUNT OF TALENT, BUT YOU NEED THE DRIVE TO ACQUIRE IT”
Rob Dwyer is the mandolinist, guitarist, and sometimes-assistant-keyboardist for The Kalob Griffin Band, out of Philadelphia. For the past five years, he has been on the road with the band or at home practicing. He speaks with uncommon directness about his belief in the importance of consistency and work ethic on his path to improvement as a musician. His mouth moves nearly as fast as his fingers on strings, and with only somewhat less force. In his husky Philly accent, while he downed his pre-show pizza and Peroni, he talked about his evolution and work philosophy.
The Great One
THE JALEPEÑO: Tell me a little about your background as a musician.
ROB DWYER: In fourth grade my parents told me I could learn drums. There was a garage sale with a drum set for a hundred bucks. I went up early and sat there and waited first-in-line and I got it. When I got to middle school, everyone else was way better than me. Everyone knew 16th notes, I had no idea what that was. I quit because I didn’t know what I was doing.
THE J: What made you want to start – did you love music when you were little?
RD: I hated music because I only heard what was on the radio. My parents weren’t into music, so I didn’t have that influence. But my dad did have a Steely Dan album. The first song I learned all the lyrics to was “Bad Sneakers”. Then Napster came out and my friend told me to download two Phish songs: “Stash” and “Weekapaug Groove”.
Right now is the Napster generation of musicians. We could listen to whatever we wanted. We have a mix of bluegrass, rap, rock, jazz. That all comes out in one way or another and that’s why there are such eclectic sounds all over.
I was blown away by Phish. I couldn’t believe this noise, the enjoyment I got out of it.
THE J: You were hooked.
RD: Yea. In eighth grade I realized I’m not an athlete. I asked my dad if I should play guitar or drums. He told me guitar because it’s easier to carry and girls like guitar players.
THE J: That’s great you had that foresight. You wanted to focus on something.
RD: I didn’t have an identity then. I wanted to have something. I saw myself getting good at guitar and I wanted to keep going. Through high school I was just jamming. Phish was the biggest thing in my life.
THE J: And you stuck with it after high school?
RD: I convinced myself I was going to be a lawyer because I was caddying and hanging around guys with a lot of money. In college, I joined a jazz band, but the best thing that happened to me was to go to Ireland. I brought my mandolin because it was so easy to travel with. All of the sudden I had time to practice. I loved that. I remember thinking, “Life’s gonna happen soon. Do I really care about law?”
THE J: What about the story of The Kalob Griffin Band?
RD: When I got back from Ireland, I got a text from a friend – who I met at a bar in Ireland and, in passing, told him I play mandolin – asking if I wanted to start a band.
All of the sudden we were selling bars out at Penn State.
That was great, feeling like a rock star. But, it really kicked off in April of 2010 with the Bobby Long tour. All of the sudden I’m traveling the country.
THE J: How’d you get linked up with him?
RD: Plate Tectonics. That’s how I met Bobby Long. His show got cancelled in Iceland when the volcano erupted. That made Bobby come to the states – to State College, Pennsylvania.We opened for him at a street festival ‘cause we were the local band.
That volcano in Iceland got me here, which is crazy because that’s a billion year process. It happened just in time for him to pick us up to go on tour.
I travelled the country as an aspiring musician and now it’s my life. I don’t know what I’d be doing right now.
THE J: Was he already scheduled to play at Penn State?
RD: No. But I got a call from Kalob after our show and he said ‘Things just changed. This guy wants us to be his backing band.” He had found a band willing to come with him. He took a chance on us. I graduated a week later and was scheduled to go on tour all summer with him.
Then KGB started our own tours. Five years now. I’ve been in more greenrooms than my own bedroom, living out of a van. Every state besides North Dakota, Oklahoma, and Montana.
THE J: What an experience.
RD: People always reference their twenties as being the best. I don’t know anyone else who has had theirs like I have. I’ve been on a five-year adventure on the road.
THE J: What’s the funniest thing that’s happened to you on tour?
RD: The funniest thing that happens is life in the van. John (keyboard) and I share a lot of the same humor where we just beat a joke to death. That gets me through the day and makes the long drives pass easily.
THE J: Has it been a good ride?
RD: I decided to do something I love, but there’ve been times when I want to quit.
THE J: What makes you want to quit?
RD: The risk of not making it and saying “What the hell have I been doing for the last five or ten years?” I still live in my hometown. I work at a restaurant. That makes this traveling possible. I sometimes wish I loved law so I could make money.
I get grilled by everyone I know asking me what I’m doing. I was working at the restaurant and this one guy said, “So this is what I have to look forward to my son doing?” I wanted to sock him.
THE J: For belittling your ambitions.
RD: I don’t know anyone in my life who cares about their job as much as I care about mine. I’m so obsessed with music, there’s no other option. If I loved cooking, I’d be the top chef. My drive for music is that strong.
THE J: Let’s talk about that, the drive.
RD: I got my dad’s work ethic. He grew up on welfare and moved us to the nicest area in the Philadelphia suburbs. He works 6:30 in the morning to 10:30 at night every day of the week. I respect that.
WHY WOULDN’T I TRY TO BE THE BEST EVER? IF I’M NOT TRYING TO BE, I’M WASTING MY TIME. AND GUESS WHAT? THE TIME’S GOING BY ANYWAY.”
THE J: What’s your practice regimen like?
RD: There’s a huge difference between practice and playing, which a lot of people don’t get.
THE J: How do you mean?
RD: “Just because you own a guitar doesn’t mean you’re a musician”. Trey from Phish said this. Practice makes permanent, permanent practice makes perfect. You need to break down the art of playing and focus on that.
There’s only a certain amount of things you have to know. I practice songs I’ll never perform. I study Chris Thile. Why does he do that there? What’s that riff? Then I’ll learn it.
THE J: Do you want to sound like he does?
RD: If the best guy in the world is doing it a certain way, you should learn that. If you’re a hockey player and you look up to Wayne Gretzky and you want to be the next greatest player, you’d watch him. You wouldn’t learn the exact pattern he skates the whole game, but you would pick up on his style. You need to learn how to do that naturally.
So I’ve been practicing this one song, “Bittersweet Reel” by Thile. It’s showing me fingerings on the fret board that I’d never thought of doing. To train your hand to do these things takes months. Hammer-ons and pull-offs on every fret on the fret board, barring frets with my weakest finger, shifting my hands up the neck as fast as possible. I want to know exactly how it feels and how I should play it in every aspect of the fret board.
THE J: Do you like that process?
RD: I love it. Every morning I wake up and I can’t wait to practice. I can’t wait to practice tomorrow. I’ll keep my phone and computer in another room. Trying to build willpower.
I’m setting myself up in the perfect situation to maximize my results.
THE J: You’re building favorable habits.
RD: I leave my mandolin out so I don’t have an excuse not to use it. I only buy healthy food. It makes me better. The only time I watch movies is for practice. I practice something and watch TV, so my playing becomes second nature. I’ll pay attention toFriends reruns, not because I want to know what happens to Ross, but because I need to be able to play without thinking about where my fingers are going next.
If you’re a great performer, you’re not listening to yourself, you’re listening to what your band’s doing. It has to be automatic. That takes practice. Watching TV and doing that is a routine. I set goals.
THE J: What goals?
RD: From November until now I’ve been practicing one song by Bach. It’s only for violin, but you can rework it to mandolin.
THE J: Four months on one song?
RD: One song. Bach’s E Major Prelude. It takes five minutes to play and it’s fast picking the whole time. I memorized it. It’s crazy. I’ve never tried to memorize something that long. But I knew once I got through it I’d be twenty times better, which I am now.
IV. KEEP GOING
THE J: Why’d you choose mandolin?
RD: You can’t hide anything you mess up on a mandolin. Phish got me into Grateful Dead, which got me into David Grisman, a pioneer in mandolin music. Grisman changed the game. I thought the mandolin was cool. I was very into this idea that these people were playing acoustic instruments, with no electricity other than mics, and they had more energy than most big bands. Just five wood instruments and they’re blowing my mind more than anything I’d ever heard.
So I went to the guitar store, I didn’t know what the instrument was called. I just pointed to it and said “I want that thing.” I printed out the fret board and memorized all the notes. Twelve sheets of paper.
THE J: A lot of focus there.
RD: I’ve always looked at people who have done it. Business leaders, comics, musicians. They all have drive.
You’re born with a certain amount of talent, but you need the drive to acquire it.
I try to do that as much as I can. Look at John Coltrane. Coltrane would go home after shows and practice all night. Everyone thought it was weird. Then he releases “Giant Steps”, one of the hardest, if not the hardest, horn solos of all time.
If that’s what it takes, that’s what I’m going to do. I’m not going to half-ass it.
THE J: What makes you want to succeed?
RD: [pause] I don’t know. I grew up in a competitive town where you don’t loaf around. I feel a need for success, and it’s coming out through an instrument. I wake up every day and remind myself there’s someone out there doing the same thing I am, and I have to beat him.
THE J: And that gives you the energy.
RD: I love what I’m doing. I have no urge to go on vacation. I have no urge to go hiking. I want to practice. I eat food to get me through practice. I have no urge to do anything else. All I need is a place to eat and a place to practice and a floor to sleep on.
People think my life’s a party, but they don’t see the Tuesday afternoons in Nashville hotel rooms. On a floor with no pillow.
THE J: Drive seems to be the answer for you. What are you working on now?
RD: I know that I will be great. And that’s not because I think I’m good or I’m being cocky. I have a very bad ear for music. But I paid for a class and I’m learning how to get my ear better. I’m fixing that.
I’m trying to get my voice better. I can’t sing but I’m practicing how to sing a G note on call. I’ve been doing that for two months. I have an app on my phone [pulls out his phone and voices a G note]. There, I got it.
THE J: Do you want to sing?
RD: Not because I want to be a singer. I want to have perfect pitch, to tell a note right away. If you do that every day, you can learn it. I do it on every key. It’s a four-year process. If four years passes and I’m thirty and I didn’t do this, I’ll be pissed.
THE J: You don’t romanticize this at all do you?
RD: If you want to accomplish something, you have to do the work to get better.Music is no different than anything. If you were making beer, you’d set out to make the best beer in the world, the best beer ever. Why wouldn’t I try to be the best ever? If I’m not trying to be, I’m wasting time. And guess what? The time’s going by anyway. The time still happens.
I’ll be sixty someday. Whether I’m a really good mandolin player by then is up to me.
THE J: What do you like most about playing music?
RD: The climactic feeling of a well-hit part. As a performer, I like seeing my practice pay off live. People get pumped up and I can see it in their eyes. They say “Keep going.” That’s the stuff that drives me. I take that to heart, the feedback I get because of the time I put in.
THE J: Do you have an ultimate goal as a musician?
RD: To be the best. I’m a nobody right now. The best mandolin player in the world is Chris Thile. I don’t think I can get to his level, but I can get close. Anyone can be good at what they do. They just have to have drive. It’s all about drive and consistency. Anything is possible.
THE J: If you could have dinner tonight with anyone…
RD: Trey Anastasio from Phish. I’m sure Jimi Hendrix and I would have a wild night and it would be legendary, but that wouldn’t get me better. I have dedicated a lot of my time to Trey’s sound, note selection, practice methods. He comes from a very similar upbringing as I do. I know enough about his history that I could benefit a lot from that experience.