August March likes all kinds of music. That’s him in the penultimate row of the nosebleed section at the Santa Fe Opera; he’s just waiting for “Che gelida manina” to get its four-and-a-half minutes on stage. That’s also him sitting in one of the dark corners of Tingley Coliseum; maybe he’s waiting for ZZ Top to take the stage.
He was one of the youngish hippies that your family picked up outside Santa Fe after the Dead played the Downs in 1983. A few years later and he was breaking his arms and legs at the Atomic Theater while Coffin Break tore the old theater into pieces. And then almost magically, 30 years on, March was there, picking up broken beer bottles in the street with the intention of making a dark and glassy sculpture of his metallic experiences the last time Yob played Sister. He also may be the mysterious entity responsible for buying a copy of every hip-hop album made in Burque since 2008. The world may never know.
So when he finally got a call back from the drummer of local jam band Pherkad, March was totally psyched. He was happy because his latest research indicated that the type of music made by this quartet of joyfully informed and restless arhats of good times and great tuneage was of growing importance in the middle of the 21st century. Plus, he had to admit that since that trip to Santa all those years ago, he had dug jam band music. He thought it would be a good idea to interview Pherkad.
After an introductory conversation, March drove to the north campus headquarters of Pherkad. The day was greenly great with spring blossoming everywhere and a light and luscious rain falling upon the whole grateful town.
A Volkswagen in the driveway sported a Steal Your Face sticker; an image of Boognish peered from the corner of an old holy book tossed upon the porch, blithely. This was certainly the home of some true jammers, thought March as he approached.
The band (bassist Chris Patchett, guitarist Jason Bowers, keyboardist Zac Ramsey and drummer/lead singer Cheese) was waiting for him and after a brief and smoky interregnum, March hit the red button on his portable recording device and the group began to talk about their origin story and their future as an up-and-coming jam band based out of Burque.
Weekly Alibi: Jason, tell me a little bit about Pherkad.
Jason Bowers: I studied astronomy in high school and had to memorize all the stars. I was really drawn to Pherkad, a star in the northern sky.
That’s an Arabic name, que no?
Yeah, it’s a star in the Little Dipper, where Polaris is at the other end, in the tip of the tail. Two stars make up the top and the bottom of the dipper, the star at the bottom is Pherkad. As the night sky swirls around Polaris, they are at the outside edge of that whole swirling action around the pole star. So when Ptolemy named the stars, he called those two stars the guardians of the center of the universe.
That’s really effing cool. I didn’t know that. So that astronomical history and the star itself inspired you musically?
Definitely. I had been writing and playing music for a long time. Cheese always had an interest in playing drums. I urged him to get his drums; they were in Wisconsin, of course. It took about two years of pushing him. We started off as a duo in 2014.
Cheese: Well, what happened was we were hanging out at our buddy Frank Watt’s place, watching an Ohio State Buckeyes game and during halftime—Frank had a drum set downstairs and Jason always had his guitar with him, Frank played bass—we jammed. It was really rewarding for me. I hadn’t played music in a long time. I found out Jason knew what he was doing! That December, we had our first gig.
Jason: We had our first gig as a duo at Marble Westside. And then things started happening quickly.
So you started adding members?
Well Zac had been a friend of ours ever since Cheese moved here. And I had known Zac a little bit longer.
Zac, What’s your story?
Zac Ramsey: I came down here from Farmington to go to music school at UNM. I met all these guys through Jams of Enchantment, which at the time was like a jam society, a club. Now it’s more of a booking agency. Anyway, I met most of my friends here in Albuquerque through that. By the time I moved here, I was pretty well aware of the jam community. I had also played in several other bands. Briefly, I played in a Grateful Dead cover band in Albuquerque. Since these guys were still getting it going, I felt like it would be a good next step. They’ve always been very inclusive.
So now, it’s like a really open, improvisatory environment?
Cheese: We’ve always wanted to keep that door open, but as wonderful as our duo was, I think we can all agree that there was some key components missing, we had envisioned something bigger. We needed a keyboard player. We needed that vibe. The two of us together were great, but you can combine forces with better musicians and strong personalities; that makes for something really cool.
When did the quartet come together?
Chris Patchett: I was playing with this band Saddle Tramp, I was two or three years deep in that project, mostly still getting gigs for beers or whatever and watching these guys play. They’d pop up everywhere, getting real gigs. I was jealous. But then their original bass player took off. I saw the opportunity and jumped on in and came to a practice. ...
So there was an immediate connection?
Cheese: He showed up with beer and joints. [Everyone laughs]
Jason: And he showed up on time! [More laughter]
Chris: I showed up on time but I also showed up with a piece of paper on which I had typed out notes about all their jams.
Jason: That’s very true.
Cheese: He had learned the songs almost better than we knew them. He knew songs that we hadn’t played in months.
Jason: We told him, “We want you to play these four songs;” we had tried out four people. Chris, or Crispy as we call him, showed up and said he knew all these other songs. We asked him what he wanted to play; and he named all these songs we hadn’t done in eight or nine months.
Cheese: We had another bass player for about a year, and then we were a trio for six or seven months. A ripping trio, I might add.
Jason: Zac played bass with his left hand.
Zac: Yeah, my hand never liked that.
Cheese: But we did a whole bunch of great gigs during that era. We wrote a song about it and moved on.
What do things look like now for Pherkad?
Jason: Things look great. Crispy’s been with the band for two years now, he’s brought some of his own songs into the mix. The vibe is high, we’re grooving together really hard and it’s great too when you can go out on the road and be stuck in the same van, in the same hotel. ...
That’s the essence of what a jam band is all about, right?
Cheese: For sure.
I’ve heard that y’all have also documented and recorded a vast archive of all your performances; that’s another hallmark of jam bands ranging from the Dead to Ween.
Jason: We’re on archive.org, right after Phil Lesh. [Everyone in the room laughs with gusto and excitement]
What’s coming up for you guys, gig-wise?
We’re playing the Road to Rich’s Tie Die Party in Ramah.
Cheese: That’s always been one of those things that’s been very coveted; to go to or to play there. It’s one of those magical New Mexico events. It’s our second year playing out there. It’s one of our favorite things in the world to do; the family vibe there really is something unique and totally New Mexican.
So, at the end of all this history, What does Pherkad really mean?
Well to get there, to understand that meaning, you have to push your limits to the stars. We want to see where this can take us. We’re not defined by one genre or another; yeah we play rock music, but there’s a lot of funk, a lot of jazz. We can even be slow and countrified.
Cheese: It’s an adventure in harmony!
Zac: Every show is different, and the songs are not regularly played the same way or repeated from night to night.
Chris: Pherkad. It’s the truth about musical exploration.