Catching Up With…
The Aquarium Rescue Unit’s Jeff Sipe
by Mike Haid
Home is where the art is for this drummer’s drummer.
When Jeff Sipe met underground art-rock icon Col. Bruce Hampton in the clubs of Atlanta in 1984, his life—and drumming—changed forever. “From the very first time I played with Bruce,” Sipe tells MD, “I felt that I’d found my calling as a player.”
When Sipe joined up with Hampton, he put everything else on hold, including subbing for the likes of Sonny Emory (Earth, Wind & Fire, Steely Dan), and devoted his time to gigs and marathon practice sessions with the singer/guitarist. “It wasn’t for the money,” Sipe says, “but for the creative outlet. I found my voice on the drumset playing with Bruce and ARU. Everyone in the band was a serious, schooled player in most styles, and we brought that experience into ARU and took it into uncharted territories. Bruce would say something on stage that would launch us into any number of styles, from rock to funk, country, disco, jazz, reggae…. Anything and everything was possible and impossible, appropriate and inappropriate.”
Though the band’s activity trailed off in the ’90s following the departure of various members and the increased freelance fortunes of others, the Aquarium Rescue Unit did occasionally reconvene for one-off gigs. Last year, however, fans were treated to a full-blown reunion after Souvik Dutta, owner of the jazz-fusion label Abstract Logix, wrangled together the bulk of the 1989 version of the group for a tour that featured mostly sold-out shows. Now the ARU is planning on releasing a live recording from that tour, and the members are talking about more dates and a possible studio recording for 2016.
As in the original Rescue Unit, Hampton, guitarist Jimmy Herring, bassist Oteil Burbridge, and Sipe make up the nucleus of the group, which also includes various guest artists. “The adventurous spirit is still there,” says Sipe, who last year also toured with Warren Haynes in support of the former Allman Brothers Band guitarist’s Ashes & Dust release. “Everyone is older, more mature, and more professional in caring about the end result. ARU started as a group of guys getting together to escape the musical trappings of the average working situations. The current ARU is more focused and more concise, but with the same reckless spirit. It’s been inspiring to see and hear everyone’s musical evolution after all our years working with so many great artists, and now bringing it back to explore again in true ARU fashion.”