The Family Stone: "What we’re doing feels like back in the day to me."
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The integration was reflected in their music too. The Family Stone mixed together funk, soul and psychedelic rock to create a vivid, rambunctious backdrop to Sly’s commentary on the issues that gripped his country. It resulted in a slew of dynamite singles, and three classic albums: Life, Stand!, and There’s a Riot Goin’ On.
But something that shined so bright was always in danger of burning out, and by the early '70s the group were in disarray. Sly had moved to Los Angeles and descended into a life of heavy drug use, whilst drummer Greg Errico and bassist Larry Graham soon departed for fresh projects. By 1975 the original band had all but dissolved. Stone himself continued to record, but with an endless succession of session players. Little was heard of Sly And The Family Stone in ensuing years, other than a spluttering, one-off performance at the 2006 Grammys and an abortive show for last year’s Coachella Festival.
It was a surprise then to see The Family Stone pop up on the bill for the Harvest Festival, which hits Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane in the middle of this month. Original members Cynthia Robinson and Jerry Martini have been touring intermittently under the banner for the last few years, and by February had convinced Errico to get back onboard. They’ve since been travelling outside of the United States and receiving strong reviews, with charismatic Las Vegas singer Alex Davis fronting the group: not Sly. In late September, The Family Stone’s reclusive front man was found by the New York Post to be living in a camper van on the streets of Los Angeles. Just last week he checked himself into a rehabilitation facility in Malibu.
With Harvest Festival less than two weeks away, TheVine got on the phone to California to chat to Errico. It was an opportunity to talk about The Family Stone’s halcyon early years, the 2011 renaissance, and explore the possibilities of the band ever getting back together with their much-revered, much-loved front man.
You’re still living in San Francisco, Greg?
Yep. Just north of San Francisco – Sonoma County – which is about 45 minutes north of SF.
Is San Francisco very different compared to 45 years ago? A lot of America’s changed a great deal – what about San Fran?
Yeah, San Francisco has changed tremendously since the '60s. But in relationship [to the rest of the country] it still represents a unique place with a lot of diversity, a wonderful geographic area. And it’s still an international intersection – like a New York or Tokyo or London. It’s a great place to live. And I was born and raised here, so I thought the whole world was like this [laughs]. Then I was surprised: “I’m a lucky guy!”
Living somewhere like California, like San Francisco: do you feel disconnected from the east?
In what manner?
Socially and politically it’s always been a forward-thinking place. Do you feel the rest of the country runs at a different pace?
Well, not really. San Francisco’s always been a place that has a voice in society in the United States, and also in the world. It’s been part of a lot of changes around the world in the past: the music that came out of here helped change the world – along with other places, also – but that 60s explosion that came out of the Bay Area is still living today.
The Family Stone are often seen as a product of San Francisco. Do you think Sly And The Family Stone could have happened anywhere else at that time?
You know what, I really don’t think so -- it being such a unique place. When we started the band we were so far outside of the box, getting black and white, male and female together. To us it was no big deal, but when we started travelling, it was vicious at first -- it was a big deal. But luckily, we didn’t realise that [laughs]. All of a sudden we did, and we got what we got. I thought about that very question, and I don’t think it would have happened -- not like it did, you know? Something else would have happened, maybe, but not what we did.
So that naivety worked to your advantage.
Exactly. What you don’t know, doesn’t hurt you. We may have been afraid to go out there and do what we did, had we known better [laughs].
The mixing of genres in your music was reflected in the physical sense by mixed races and mixed sexes in the band. It’s a large part of what you’re remembered for, but did that occur to you at all when you first got together?
We definitely knew we were doing something different. We were aware of the challenge, but it was exciting to us: “Wow! This is cool!” Because so many things at that point in time, musically, the radio was full of just the same old stuff. We consciously talked about not wanting to do that. Even in the beginning of the group when we didn’t yet have original material, we were going to do covers but we were going to take each song and make it our own -- rearrange it and own it. So we did that from the very get-go, and of course when it got into creating new music, we followed suit and did the same thing. It was a very exciting time, and I wouldn’t change a thing.
What about the industry –
Did they see the mixed race thing as a help or a hindrance, something to market or something to be avoided, if they could?
They had a hell of a time marketing us at first. They didn’t know what to do with us. Luckily we stuck to our guns, and listened and tried to bend a little where we felt we could. Our manager at the time, he was a VP at Epic, so we had support. And back then, when a big label signed an act or an artist, they would figure a three record bet: by the third record, if you don’t start getting some traction, well you might be lost in the wind. Fortunately, by that third record we had our first hit – ‘Dance To The Music’ – this conscious attempt to make a song that was simple and would connect with people, but still hold the integrity of what we were. A lot of the music was just a little ahead of what people were into, I guess. And they listened: I mean, that same music now connects to young generations who don’t know anything about us and weren’t around when we were promoted and marketed and all that. It talks to people now.
I’ve read that it took you guys a long time to realise you were a big deal. When did that realisation hit home?
We didn’t really feel it for a while. It was the year of Woodstock and the Ed Sullivan Show. Back then there was no internet, and there were only three networks in the US — that’s all there was — no cable or 500 stations or Netflix. When you were on a primetime show, 40 or 50 million people were seeing you, and the next day it could change your chromosomes [laughs]. That’s what it is, like your DNA has changed. I think that was a significant thing. There might have been other things, but we didn’t feel it, until something like that happened.
And then of course Woodstock. Your performance there is mentioned so often.
Yeah, then Woodstock gave us a lot of traction, just because the world watched this event and you were part of that event.
You left Sly in 1971. Obviously, there was a bit of strife in the band at that time, but do you have any regrets about that decision?
Yeah, obviously you wish that everything could have continued how it was in the earlier days. But chemicals came into play, there were no-shows, and just a disconnect: Sly moved to LA, and there was a lot of discontentment. I left and [bassist] Larry Graham left a year after I did. What was, was. Really, I felt like I had no power in bringing any positive change or fixing things that might have been taking place. So I left and I took off for a year, and when I decided to go out and start playing again I was fortunate to have some wonderful opportunities to go out and perform with all kinds of great artists and groups. I don’t have any regrets: I wish that the chemicals didn’t get in the way of the band, because we had a lot of fun when we went out. It was all about the music, and it really showed.
Why get back together now? I know you played at the 2006 Grammys, but what was the inspiration in 2011 to get everything going again?
Well I joined up with my original bandmates, Cynthia Robinson and Jerry Martini, somewhere around February. We’ve just had a fantastic time. The chemistry we have with the rest of the band — they’re out of Las Vegas — is just really good, it’s just working. And it’s just showing in the music -- we’re really connecting with the audiences again. The stars have just lined up for it, and it’s been amazing. I’m really pleased with it, and it’s fun to be back out there performing this stuff again. I’m having a ball.
You’ve been getting some strong reviews since you got back together.
Absolutely. It is what it is. I’m feeling it, and when you see people getting it and the press getting it, it’s really satisfying. When it all works, there’s nothing to get upset about [laughs]. The timing’s just right, you know, and you’ve just got to stay out of its way: show up, keep yourself healthy and do what you do. So it’s all good.
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