Travellin’ Light

Jason Roebke
Answers 20 Questions About Life on the Road

Jason Roebke                                                                                                  Courtesy of Jason Roebke

Jason Roebke is a Chicago-based bassist and composer currently leading and writing for two ensembles represented by recent recordings: High/Red/Center (Delmark), the debut of his Octet, and the self-produced, eponymous debut of Combination, a quartet melding bop and electronics. Following studies with Roscoe Mitchell and Rodney Whitaker, Roebke quickly immersed himself in the Chicago scene, forming ongoing relationships with, among others, cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm, saxophonists Aram Shelton, Dave Rempis and Matt Bauder, drummers Tim Daisy and Frank Rosaly, and cornetists Josh Berman and Rob Mazurek (who, with drummer Dylan van der Schyff, toured and recorded as Tigersmilk). In recent years, Roebke has recorded with many of his peers, including vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz’s Rolldown, Jason Stein Trio, and James Falzone’s KLANG. Roebke recently joined the Steve Lacy repertory band, The Whammies!; their next Driff CD is due out this month. In the fall, Roebke’s Octet will perform at EdgeFest.   

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What is the most difficult airline to deal with in terms of instruments and equipment?

I mostly lucky that I cannot, for both financial and logistical reasons, bring the bass. I don’t bring anything that would be an issue. So I cannot imagine the days when people hauled around a bass or worse yet a bass in a huge flight case. I have been truly blessed with the ability to deal with any borrowed instrument, in a way the worse it is the better it is for me. The only problem that I have witnessed was on a Vueling flight an alto saxophone was allowed as a carry-on but we needed to buy a seat for the tenor!


Which airline has the worst economy seating and food?

I have to say that I rarely find myself in an applicable situation in terms of seating. I am 5’5” in boots. Leg room is not an issue. I did take an overnight Yakuza bus from Tokyo to Osaka that was comically cramped. I flew on Ryan Air once and that was more like a city bus than a typical aircraft. In terms of food I bring my own and/or request a special meal. I had a couple of Swiss Air flights recently where they served really excellent Swiss beer and came around with good chocolate. Hard to complain about that.


Which airport is craziest for making connecting flights?

I fly direct to somewhere in Europe most of the time, then continue by train. In the U.S. this is an irrelevant question because almost no gig pays enough to fly anywhere. Unless you’re a major star a la Keith Jarrett, people mostly travel by train or car when they tour. Paris and Berlin are the craziest cities to pass through by train because they have multiple main train stations. Your transfer often involves the city subway or if you’re feeling flush, a taxi to another station across town.


What is the most important thing you ever forgot to pack?

I pride myself in packing extremely light so I don’t have much to remember. As long as I remember my passport, I’m fine. I forgot my bow in the trunk of a promoter’s car but he mailed it back to me.


What is your worst lost baggage story?

If your suitcase is lost, you are touring and by definition a moving target. I went 4 days in Italy without a change of clothes before I finally reunited with my belongings. The bag was sent from one hotel to the next, always missing me by a few hours. I forgot that the leader of the band had bought travel insurance and I could have bought new stuff but I didn’t think of it and probably wouldn’t have had time anyway.


What country hassles musicians the most at customs and passport checks?

The USA wins this category. It is not an exaggeration to say that the US authorities assume everyone coming back into the US from Canada is a smuggler or criminal of some kind. My experience crossing the border back into the US has been 100% negative. Canada and the UK also come to mind. I suppose the Canadians have a point. If word got out you could willy-nilly set up shop in Montreal or Vancouver, the streets would be flooded with free-jazz immigrants in no time.


Which city has the worst cab drivers?

I generally can’t afford to be riding around in taxis. The tram drivers in Amsterdam are the angriest and meanest.


What is the best hotel that a presenter has provided for you?

They’re all the best. I have toured the States many times sleeping in the car, on floors, completely gross bachelor pads, etc. A hotel is a luxury that I don’t take for granted. That being said the Mövenpick that the Bimhuis puts you up in is really over the top.


Do you travel with a laptop or a PDA? If so, how many times a day do you check your e-mail?

I use my phone for all of that.


Do you listen to music on the road? If so, what device do you use?

I generally don’t listen to music while traveling. Any musician worth his salt has most of their music as LPs so that limits things a little.


Do you do your own laundry on the road?

Yes. This is an essential part of packing light. Washing is pretty straight forward but drying techniques vary by season. Ironing a wet dress shirt pretty much dries it out right away. European washing machines take hours and hours. I always assume it’s because I don’t understand the settings but no, it just washes the clothes for 3 hours.


What is your most nightmarish sound check to date?

There have been two, one my fault and one not. I once forgot to switch the voltage on my amp from 110 to 220 and it blew the power out. My fault completely. Another concert was a live broadcast on an unnamed but famous German radio station. A technician blew the amp out again.


What is the scariest food that has been laid out for you backstage?

I have never tasted anything “scary” but years ago I had strawberry and whipped cream sandwiches in Japan. That’s more weird than scary. Anyway, you would have to be a complete prick to complain about the effort that anyone makes on your behalf, especially in relation to food. That’s a special thing.


What are your three favorite venues?

Constellation (Chicago), Lady Jane (Tokyo), Zaal 100 (Amsterdam)


Which cities have the best restaurants for late after-gig meals?

I never have any trouble finding something good here in Chicago. Tokyo is also a place where you can find pretty much anything 24/7.


Which cities have the best after-hours sessions?

We usually ARE the after-hours session! Gigs at the Hungry Brain (in Chicago) don’t usually start until 10:30pm and finish at 1am. Gigs later than that technically exist like Sabertooth at the Green Mill, they finish at 5am but I think that’s the outlier. The most famous session for me was Sean Bergin’s Sunday afternoon gig at the Engelbewaarder in Amsterdam.


What is the best city that closes down too early?

You can always find something if you look. Everyone I travel with is a friend and we usually don’t socialize while we’re just in Chicago so we take the opportunity to have fun and stay out late while we’re on the road. I once had Chinese food at 3am in Lodz, Poland. At first glance, Lodz closes down early.


What is the best locale to have a day off?

Amsterdam. I know where I want to eat and where I want to go. I like to wander around and explore neighborhoods. I’m not really an art museum person.


What is your cure for jet lag?

It doesn’t really affect me. I tend to stay up very late the first night so maybe that’s it.


What is your best tip for the novice?

Have fun and don’t be a jerk to the band leader. He’s under enough stress.

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