There’s a new level of funk on tour with Dave Matthews Band this year and his name is Buddy Strong. Specializing in all things keys, Strong, the newest member of DMB, has been thrown headfirst into the mix. We had a chance to meet up with Buddy Strong at PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel, NJ and discuss how he prepped for his role, his favorite gear, and hear about why this gig is unlike any other he’s played before.
AMS: Hey Buddy, thanks for taking the time to chat with us today. Can you tell us a little about your rig?
Buddy Strong: Well, this is my setup for the DMB band. I’ve got a lot of different setups, but as you can see it’s very organic. Starting with the Fender Rhodes – I’ve got a little effects pedal, a Line 6 effects pedal with it – coming out of there. This Rhodes is from Ken Rich out in L.A., modified, everything’s real sweet! My favorite, the Hammond B3, I don’t even know if it’s on yet but . . . it’s on [starts playing], and that’s in the cabinet right there. Can see the Leslie [speaker] is inside of there, mic’d up, right there.
The Nord Stage and Novation are right here – all of my pianos and synths and stuff come out of here. And then you got the rack, the [Yamaha] Motif, [Roland] Integra 7, these are old pieces I just can’t get rid of. Muse receptor for all my softsynths, mixer, and a couple of backup situations down there. Got my Nord Triple Pedal – a volume pedal for my swells and everything. That’s pretty much it, that’s what I’m playing. I get the job with this, I think it’s enough to work with. [Laughs]
AMS: what songs are you using the Rhodes on?
BS: Ah man, “Lying in the Hands of God” on the Rhodes recently, there’s not a lot of songs that I play this alone on, there’s a lot of combinations. The instrument I play the most is the [Hammond] B3. When I auditioned for the gig they asked, “Can you play B3?” and I was like “That’s my first instrument, that’s what I really, really play!” So, I play B3 the most, but I play a lot of the pianos and different things come out of here [his rig], strings and everything, and then I play a little bit of key bass, that’s what I use the Novation for. But this is home right here! [Motions to the B3]
AMS: What was the song you auditioned with?
BS: It’s a song called “Steady as We Go.” It’s a piano song, just piano and vocals. Dave’s got a really, really nice piano . . . I forget what it’s called. Really nice piano out there for the audition and I played that one song, beautiful, it was over with. [Laughs] Quick connection – he sung, I played, and we went and got something to eat and something to drink.
AMS: In a band like DMB, with a long history of not having a keyboard player in there. How do you find parts, where are you adding your flavor to the songs like that?
BS: Well . . . direction, as far as sounds and textures, I definitely have freedom to create but I lean on Rashawn (Ross, Trumpet) and Dave. I always ask them, “What do you want to hear?” because I have my ideas, but I want to make sure – they have a sound, and I’m brand new to it. I didn’t know a whole lot of DMB material before I came here. I want to stay in the sound, but they’re always trying to push for what I want! They all tell me, maybe whirly [Wurlitzer] on this one, B3 and Piano on this one. So, I sort of start from there and venture out, but I lean heavily on Rashawn and Dave as far as textures and tones and sound choices.
AMS: Do you have a favorite song yet?
BS: Man, I love “Recently,” that’s a funky tune man! I love “Lying in the Hands of God,” get to solo on that one, but that’s got like a really sexy R&B feel which you wouldn’t expect on this gig, and I don’t think it felt quite like that before I was here. I remember one night we were playing and after we got done and the crowd was screaming, Rashawn was like, ‘That tune ain’t NEVER felt like that!” It’s got this vibe with Dave singing and I’m playing a row that’s real smooth.
I’ve actually grown to love “Two Step” man, we played that for the first time on my birthday in Indiana. I had a feeling that I didn’t even know about that song by the time we got done playing it, and what’s crazy is I learned the album version and they played this live version that I never even played – so I’m experiencing it right with the crowd. I’m jamming out and it was an amazing feeling on stage!
There’s a lot of really nice musical songs on this gig, there really, really is. So those are some of my favorites, but I really like everything that we played. I haven’t come across a song yet where I’m like ‘ehhhhh,’ where it becomes work. I haven’t come across one because these guys are so musical, but yeah, those are a few that come to mind.
AMS: You play off charts or you just…
BS: That’s the only way I’m surviving is charts. [Laughs] I make my own for this gig, so it’s not notation, but it’s basically chord charts. That’s the only way I’m surviving, it’s too many tunes. I learned before I even got to a rehearsal, I learned like 30 tunes, and then every rehearsal they’re handing me four or five new tunes. There’s no way in the world you can memorize all of it that quick, you got 25 years of music trying to learn it in two weeks.
AMS: is that what you had two weeks?
BS: Well, I had two weeks of rehearsal, but they started sending me tunes to kind of like learn and listen to probably a month before that. My boy Rashawn is my friend – he did an excellent job of preparing me and helping me catch up. It’s a lot of music and there’s a lot of experimentation on stage too, so you got to be flexible for the different stuff. As you can see, that’s what these are [motions to his tablets] – for my charts! I put my charts on there because sometimes I got a combination over there and I don’t want to be looking back like that, so I got one on each side. I do mine off the little Apple iPad, so yeah, happens like that.
AMS: How much time do they give you with setlists?
BS: The setlist, we usually find out the setlist, an hour before the show? [Laughs] You don’t have time man, you know? [Pauses and Laughs] Yeah, an hour before the show, it’s funny how our fans always hit me up on Instagram telling me to play such and such, [Laughs] I don’t even know what we’re playing! It’s cool though, this is the first gig I’ve been on like that, where they’re changing the setlist every night and you get a notification that late. I dig it though, I really, really dig it, I love it!
AMS: Keeps you on your toes?
BS: Oh my god, definitely, definitely man. It’s a challenge, it really is, it can be frustrating at times, but I’m one that firmly believes when you’re uncomfortable and you’re challenged that you’re growing. You know what I’m saying? So, I take on the challenge, like bring it, let’s do it! [Laughs] I haven’t crumbled yet.
AMS: So what were you doing before this?
BS: Well, I’m a musical director at a church, even now still, I handle things back in Phoenix. So I’ve been doing that for the last 17 years. But I toured with Ariana Grande last year. Actually, I want to say, the end of 2016 going all through 2017, so that’s what I did then. Before that, I was main keys for Usher for like 10-15 years – I was with him for a long time. I did a bunch of live recordings with different gospel artists. I did some spot dates with Selena Gomez, some spot dates with Camila Cabello. So I been working man, I’ve been blessed to work for a while. I toured with NeWBReeD for five to seven years which is a pretty big Christian group, an international Christian group. So, I did a lot of touring with them too but that was more like, pre-2008.
But yeah man, I’ve been busy working but this is a special situation right here man. A lot of those gigs were the same show every night. NeWBReeD wasn’t, that would change but there was still a formula. This is a completely different experience every night, because the setlist changes so drastically. So, it feels different, and we all get solos, and get to experiment pretty much however you feel. It’s really open to the creativity that you have in you in that moment. I haven’t been in that type of situation I don’t think ever. The closest that would come to it is church. Church is spontaneous like that where someone might sing a song you don’t even know it, different things like that.
But yeah man, I love that spontaneity and the changes and the offsets. I’ve already experienced it in several shows where we HAVE a setlist and he detours from that, “Let’s do such-and-such next, I’m feeling something else.” And I don’t even have it on my chart and I’m like, “Ohhhh shoot,” you know? So, I gotta pull it up and try and find it or just wing it. Some of those I’ve had a chance to get to memory by now, like I know “Ants Marching.” I don’t have to look at the chart for that. I don’t have to look at the chart for “One Sweet World”, a couple of em’ that I pretty much know now. But yeah man, it’s a special situation and I love it!
Check out Buddy on tour now with The Dave Matthews Band