A Q&A with Butchy Sochorow
Of Splintered Sunlight
By Geoff Gehman
Butchy Sochorow was way too sick to show up at the show but he showed up anyway. There was no way in hell or heaven that the teen-aged musician would miss the final concert of his first tour with the Grateful Dead, his favorite musical tribe. That night he protected himself in a blanket cocoon. He protected other Deadheads by sitting as far away as he could in the Spectrum, the Philadelphia arena for Dead nirvana.
It was one of many examples of Deadication for Sochorow, who attended more than 200 shows by the Grateful Dead from 1984 to 1995, the year the band disbanded after Garcia died. The same year the child of Mongolian immigrants began playing guitar and singing in Splintered Sunlight, a Dead tribute band named after a phrase in the song “Box of Rain.” For nearly 20 years he’s been sparking Garcia’s spirit with measured, spacious, bluegrassy instrumentals and the earthy, ethereal vocals of a Civil War storyteller. His uncanniness has earned him the nickname “Asian Jerry.”
Sochorow and his Splintered mates will perform Dec. 19 at the Mauch Chunk Opera House, where 15 months ago they recreated a Dead Halloween gig. This time they’ll offer regular sets of ballads, blues and shakedowns. Expect a sprinkling of relative Dead rarities. Expect a few Christmas tunes dosed with Dead soul. Expect a surprising non-Dead cover or two from a band that has snuck in the last three tracks of “Abbey Road” and Stevie Wonder’s “Boogie On Reggae Woman.”
Below, in a conversation from his New Jersey home, Sochorow discusses the trickeries of performing Dead tunes faithfully yet originally and the glories of Garcia’s missing-finger finger picking.
Q: How did you get your first Dead dose?
A: I first saw the Grateful Dead on “Saturday Night Live” when I was in fifth grade. Later on that year my father took me to a concert by Timberwolf, a Grateful Dead cover band, at Six Flags Great Adventure [amusement park] in Jackson, N.J. There was also a Rolling Stones tribute band called Sticky Fingers; it was a re-enactment of one of those old shows, like [the] Altamont [Speedway Free Festival in 1969].
At the time I was more into the Beatles. I didn’t really get 100 percent into the Grateful Dead until high school. At the time all my friends were into them, too. I went to see them for the first time when I was 16 at Nassau Coliseum [in Uniondale, N.Y.]. I probably saw them over 200 times between 1984 and 1995. I saw them mostly in Madison Square Garden, mainly because they played there so often. Once I attended all six shows there. I went to many shows at the Spectrum; that was always one of my favorite venues. I remember them playing “Unbroken Chain,” which they hadn’t played in a long time.
My first Dead tour was in the fall of 1987. There were four venues and 13 shows and I went to all 13. The last three were at the Spectrum and I was so sick by the last show. I went anyway: I couldn’t go to every show on the tour and miss the last one. I had a blanket wrapped around me and I sat as high up and as far away from everybody as I could, so they wouldn’t catch my cold.
Q: How did you come to join Splintered Sunlight?
A: Well, I didn’t live anywhere near them, so I hadn’t heard of them. I learned about Splintered Sunlight from a friend of mine who was talking to an old drummer with the band who ran the Wharf Rat Table; wharf rat is a sober Deadhead. The drummer told my friend they were looking for a lead guitar player. I liked the way they sounded, so I signed up. I had to drive an hour and a half to the south Jersey area to practice, but I didn’t care. I just wanted to be in a Dead band with two drummers.
We started playing at this small bar. Within two years we were headlining at the Electric Factory [a pivotal venue in Philadelphia]. We got ourselves a management company that asked us if we wanted to travel around the country or be a regional band. We decided to stay regional.
Q: Your onstage role involves playing lead guitar, singing and conjuring the spirit of Garcia. What’s your offstage role?
A: Onstage I’m more like the conductor, making sure everybody’s musically on time, making sure we’re playing the right chords. Offstage, I’m pretty much the same person. I make sure the music is top notch. That’s my first priority: to make sure the music is as good as it can be.
Q: How has Dead tribute-band landscape changed since you joined Splintered Sunlight in 1995? In 1997 Dark Star Orchestra began faithfully recreating entire Dead concerts; in 2002 Dead On Live began faithfully recreating entire Dead albums.
A: Back in ’95 it seemed like Dead tribute bands were still new. Today, they’re almost mushrooming everywhere. There’s a Web site that lists all the Dead bands. You can find out how many Dead bands are in one state. I know there are a lot down at the [Jersey] Shore area. It’s all good; I totally support it. It’s kind of like the more the merrier. It’s better than the music dying, you know what I’m saying?
Q: How about a few clues about how you set up set lists? For example, will you try not to repeat tunes you played at Mauch Chunk in September 2013, when you pulled out “Sage and Spirit,” “The Monkey and the Engineer” and other relative rarities?
A: That was actually an unusual show for us. We were recreating a Grateful Dead Halloween show at Radio City Music Hall in 1980. Those songs we rarely ever play; in fact, it was probably the only times we ever played them.
This time we’re going to do an original set list. The start of the first set needs to be uptempo, so people are up and dancing. Maybe we’ll throw some ballads or blues into the middle of the set and then by the end of the set we’ll bring it up again. The second set is pretty much the same: uptempo, then sprinkle slower tempo tunes, and then pick up the pace again. It’s designed to keep the flow going; it’s a formula that usually works for us. Starting off slow and then going uptempo and then going back to slow—that feels backward.
I like the songs that are uptempo and rhythmically strong. “Brown Eyed Women” was one of my favorite songs growing up with the Dead. I’d say that my favorite Dead song now is “Scarlet Begonias”; I first heard that in fifth grade. They’re songs that are fun to play, fun to listen to, fun to dance to. They just make you feel good.
Actually, that Mauch Chunk concert was special for other reasons. The Opera House is a beautiful room with beautiful acoustics. It’s optimized for a single vocalist or a single instrumentalist, like a trumpet player. The first time we played there we had 100-watt amps and we were really loud and echoey. That night we learned our lesson. The second time we played with smaller amps and we started the show with an acoustic set, something we don’t ordinarily do. It seemed to work out really well.
Q: Do you consider yourself a Dead musicologist? Do you scour the mines for golden nuggets?
A: I like the history of music. I have some books about where songs come from and who wrote them. If I’m studying the Dead’s “Samson and Delilah,” I’ll go back to the Rev. Gary Davis version to get the inflexion, to get how they’re trying to play it. If you hear the Dead version without hearing the earlier version you really miss something.
I once had a CD called “The Roots of the Dead” with a lot of their early influences. That inspired me to buy CDs by a lot of these old blues guys. My favorite guy now is Memphis Slim. I don’t think the Dead did any Memphis Slim, although maybe we’ll slip in one of his tunes one of these days.
Q: One of your missions is to recreate the clean tone of Garcia’s guitar. Can you think of a song where you go off the Garcia grid, where you take a tune into another zip code?
A: There are a couple of songs where the Dead did a scheduled improv jam: “Playing in the Band,” “Scarlet Begonias,” “Shakedown Street,” “China/Rider” [“China Cat Sunflower”/”I Know You Rider”]. In those sections you’re forced to make your own stamp, because when you’re playing improv you have to make it up. When your own style comes out, that’s when you can take a song to different places. I tell everybody in the band that they shouldn’t try to play exactly like somebody else because then it’s not going to be natural. If you’re constantly thinking “Oh, how did Phil [Lesh] play this or how did Bobby [Weir] play this or how did Jerry play this?” you’re taking away from the song. So I tell them: Imagine you’re adding your style to the Dead; that will make it richer. And, remember, when the Dead had different keyboard players they didn’t say: Oh, sound like Keith [Godchaux] or sound like Pigpen.
I copy some of Garcia’s riffs to make the songs more authentic. But you can’t copy every single bit.
Q: I’m guessing you’re not anal enough to play the Dead note by note.
A: To me, that type of music is not improv. I’ve worked on songs note by note as a guitar teacher, but for a Dead band to be like that would be too formal for me. It would take a lot of fun out of the game. Although I’m good friends with a lot of guys who do exactly that—like [Dead On Live founder] Marc Muller.
Q: Is there a question about Garcia’s guitar playing or singing that you’d like to have asked him, a mystery only he could have solved?
A: There was one thing that really fascinated me during the over 200 times I saw him play with the Dead, and that was his finger picking style. Because he had one finger missing on the right hand, he played with only three fingers. He used to take his guitar pick and tuck it into the stump of the middle finger and in the middle of a song he’d bring it out and start picking a solo with his thumb, his first finger and the third finger. It was a style more akin to bluegrass, more of a one-two-three, one-two-three triplets kind of thing. Most finger pickers are trained to use four fingers but he got by with three. That was one of the coolest things about watching him play.
I actually met Jerry three times but I didn’t get to ask him about how he could pick so well with a missing finger. I really didn’t have a chance to ask him: each of the meetings lasted maybe 30 seconds. And then he’d be gone and I’d be walking in a cloud.
The first time I met Bruce Springsteen I got to spend a long time with him and ask him a ton of questions. I was in another band that was playing Mrs. Jay’s Beer Garden in Asbury Park [N.J.]. It was the night he was filming the “Tunnel of Love” video at the carousel a block away. He was fresh off “Born in the USA,” so he was already huge.
So we’re packing up and it’s like 2:30 in the morning. Our drummer was big into Harleys and he notices this really beautiful purple Harley outside the Beer Garden. He can’t believe someone would leave such a beautiful bike outside. Then, all of a sudden, this purple Jaguar pulls up and out pops Bruce Springsteen; turns out the Harley is his. The owner of the bar convinced him to stay and brought out a case of beer. We got to hang out with him, to listen to him tell all kinds of stories. We were just drinking it all in until 5 or 6 in the morning.
The next time I met him was the day after Garcia died. There was a show in Long Branch [N.J.] with Solar Circus, the local Dead band at the time, and he played “Mustang Sally” and other tunes with them. It came out of respect for Garcia.
Q: How has channeling the Dead changed you as a musician and a person?
A: I don’t think it’s changed me at all. I look at it more in a musical context. Rather than channeling music, I’m creating sound paintings or sound sculptures. When you’re a musician you’re thinking essentially of three things: harmony, melody and rhythm. Rhythm is one thing a lot of bands overlook; to us, rhythm is the most important element because it makes the music more danceable. And a Dead band needs to be danceable.
Q: So, Butchy, have you turned your parents into Deadheads, or at least Splintered Sunlight fans?
A: Both of them have come to our shows, even though they weren’t big Dead fans growing up in Mongolia [laughs]. My mother loved the Stones and the Beatles and other ’60s rockers. She gave me all her Beatles and Stones albums when I was a little kid, that’s how I got my start as a music lover and a musician. My dad is not a big music fan; I guess the only person he really liked was Roy Orbison.
Q: That’s a big accomplishment, moving your dad from Roy Orbison to the Dead.
A: Exactly. So now he knows all our Dead songs. Although he won’t listen to Dead tapes like I do.
Butchy Sochorow: The Scoop
His Mongolian parents gave him the birth name of Dorscha.
His first favorite song was the Beatles’ “She Loves You.” His first favorite musical experience was Johnny Cash’s TV variety show.
“Silent Night” was the first Christmas song he learned to play on guitar. His current Christmas favorite is “Jingle Bells.”
He hosts the weekly show “Acoustic Dead.”
He and his Splintered Sunlight mates made two breakthroughs this year. They debuted at Garcia’s at the Capitol Theatre, a Dead center in Port Chester, N.Y., and they’ll be sharing a Dec. 23 event at the Brooklyn Bowl with photographer Bob Minkin, whose new book “Live Dead” chronicles his 40-plus years shooting the band.
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. He attended two Grateful Dead concerts, the last one at the Spectrum four months before Jerry Garcia died. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.