An Interview with Roger McNamee
An Interview with Roger McNamee
Moonalice featuring the New Chambers Brothers and the T Sisters. Back row, from left, Jason Crosby, Dylan Chambers, Rachel Tietjen, Roger McNamee, Pete Sears and Barry Sless. Front row, from left, Erika Tietjen, John Molo, Lester Chambers and Chloe Tietjen. Photo by Bob Minkin Photography
Lester Chambers and Roger McNamee first met in 2017. Chambers of course, is the former lead singer of the storied Chambers Brothers. To wit:
Perhaps the greatest voices in 60s rock, Lester Chambers and the Chambers Brothers flawless four-part harmonies were honed in the Echo hills of Mississippi. The brothers were signed by the legendary John Hammond Sr. to the Columbia Record label.
The group fell out of favor with Columbia President Clive Davis despite their groundbreaking, light show staple of Psychedelia hit, “Time Has Come Today.” The song has been used in over 100 movies and ad campaigns. It is familiar to every generation from the baby boomers forward to Generation Z.
Roger McNamee is a unique hybrid. He developed an influential career as a Silicon Valley investor and was an early mentor to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. As an author he has written a New York Times bestseller entitled “Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe.” The book is a treatise on the perils of Facebook and other platforms that use artificial intelligence in ways that are detrimental to the world.
He is also a guitarist and the leader of the band Moonalice. The group is a rocking entity that since its inception has included some very well-connected personalities in the annals of Northern California rockdom.
The Full Moonalice THC (Time Has Come Review) featuring the New Chambers Brothers and the T Sisters, had been booked to play the Soper Reese on April 25. Unfortunately, the gig has been postponed due to the massive social effects of the COVID-19 shutdown. Nonetheless, the event is still near sold-out status and the show has been rescheduled for Aug. 29.
Lester Chambers’ glorious voice has been entertaining audiences for well over half a century. His resume sports connections with a virtual milky way of stars that few living souls can claim. He met Blues legend Jimmy Reed by chance when he was 14. Bob Dylan asked Lester and his brothers to sing on Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited” track “Tombstone Blues.” John Lennon and Yoko Ono asked Lester for his autograph live on the Mike Douglas Show.
Of the New Chambers Brothers’ collaboration with Roger and Moonalice, Lester states, “Roger is a complete blessing. He has brought me from the depths of depression to happy days again. With joy, love, peace and happiness, the time has truly come.”
Dylan Chambers, son of Lester and one half of the new Chambers Brothers, is also a seasoned pro. At the age of 6, he confidently strode on stage with his dad and uncles and covered Otis Redding’s “Sitting On the Dock of the Bay” and killed the crowd. Pop Lester turns 80 on April 13. Dylan turns 35 on April 27.
On the breadth of it all, Dylan chimes in, “Being the son of Lester Chambers has been an amazing experience. Meeting the people that he’s known that are now friends of mine. I’ve met a ton of beautiful people out on the road, exploring Rock & Roll and making music. Working with Roger McNamee and Moonalice is mind-boggling. We recently recorded a cover of Stevie Wonder’s ‘Too High.’ Contributing to the T Sisters handling of the descending harmonies in the chorus was a huge, fun moment.”
Recently, backstage at a show in San Francisco Roger McNamee leaned into Lester and said, “Brother, you’re just everything I ever dreamed of. I wouldn’t change a thing that you do.
McNamee granted LakeCoNews an exclusive interview in mid-March in anticipation of the now-postponed Soper-Reese show. In addition to discussing the current state of Moonalice, McNamee expounded on the premises presented in his book. Excerpts of the interview are presented here.
LakeCoNews: How did you first become familiar with the Chambers Brothers?
R.M: Their song “Time Has Come Today was it for me.” I’m 63 years old. I was a cub, growing up in Albany, New York when that song was first put out. I had brothers and sisters who were much older than I am. My older brothers went to Woodstock. So, they were really into San Francisco and/or psychedelic music in a really big way and that kind of music got played in my house when I was a kid. For example, in the spring of 1967, when he was a sophomore at Yale, my second oldest brother went to a Jimi Hendrix Experience show at a club in New Haven, Connecticut. It was at the beginning of the Experience’s first U.S. tour, before they exploded on the scene at Monterey Pop in June of that year.
Looking back on my childhood there were certain songs that I know all the words to. “Time Has Come Today” was one of those songs. There was a particular movie that it was in a long time ago, that went out of my life for fifteen or twenty years. But in the ‘80s I was hearing it again and it got back into my head. I was really, really liking it. So I went and bought the Chambers Brothers Greatest Hits on CD because I wanted to have it back. And then I was reminded of the other great songs in their body of work.
After Lester was attacked on stage back in 2013, I made a substantial contribution to the Musician’s Fund page that someone set up for him online, even though I had never met him. I’m guessing this was in 2014 because I didn’t hear about the attack when it first happened.
By the time Moonalice did the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love Solstice Festival in 2017, I was friends with Dylan Chambers on Facebook. When I asked him if he and his dad would be interested in playing the date with us he responded with an emphatic, “Absolutely.” So Lester and Dylan came to rehearsal the night before the gig. It was the first time we met face to face and it was hilariously successful. The next day we played the gig in front of 18,000 people in Golden Gate Park. Lester was totally in his element. We had a ball.
In 2018, we decided that we would do it again and the results were the same. Everybody was completely into it. Afterwards we were yucking it up and I said to Lester and Dylan, “You know, Moonalice has these shows coming up. What are you guys doing? Would you like to do it again? Can you come by every once in a while and just play with us?” So we started this routine where three more times in 2018, Lester and Dylan came and did Time Has Come Today and People Get Ready with us. They did the Summer Solstice with us again in 2019 and it was there that I asked Lester and Dylan, “Why don’t we just fold this thing in, learn more of your songs and make it a real thing?”
The T Sisters who had been working with us also, had recently become free agents. So we decided to all do a show together. So we do one together at Union Square. In a sense we’re just wingin’ it. But it was magical. That was in July. We had a bunch of shows coming up on the East Coast, leading up to the Lockn Festival in August. So I say to them, “How ‘bout if you guys come with us and we’ll go on tour and see how it goes? You know, we’ve got this gig coming up at the SF Giants ballpark we can warm up with.”
So we do that AT&T ballpark gig and fly back east for the East Coast tour. We used a bus for a week and the 10 of us got to know each other. It was complete magic. Imagine, the twins in the T Sisters had their 33rd birthday on this little tour. Lester was 79. That’s a 46-year gap, top to bottom. A bunch of the band members are in their 60s with one being in his ‘40s and Dylan in his 30s. Socially, it couldn’t have been any better. Everybody really liked each other’s company. When we got to the end of the tour, we were all saying, “Damn, that was fun. Let’s do more of that.”
We had a couple of rehearsals before the first show of the tour in Nevada City. It was the first show where we were called Moonalice, Sisters and Brothers with the T Sisters and the New Chambers Brothers. And it was like, nobody could believe it; the people in the audience, the people on stage. Everyone was going, it’s a revue. It’s a musicological trip through Psychedelia. From the T Sisters doing Grateful dead songs, to the New Chambers Brothers finishing with their brand of Psychedelic Gospel. It literally blew the roof off the place. It was a two and a half hour show. Unfortunately, we couldn’t duplicate that at the Lockn Festival because our set was only 40 minutes. But when we played our full set at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival people went completely crazy. I proposed to Lester that we record a complete album. We did a bunch of rehearsing at the end of 2019 and went into the studio and recorded 18 songs in three days. We came up with 16 songs from the live show and two new ones which were written basically by the T Sisters and me. Everybody was incredibly happy and we introduced that with the show at Terrapin Crossroads on the 4th of January, 2020. Everyone was totally fired up for the new year. Now, because of the plague, everything is up in the air.
LakeCoNews: What is your opinion of the historical significance of this collaboration?
RM: Who knows? Here’s the thing I will tell you. We live in an era dominated by a small number of Heritage Acts that are still around; Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones, a handful of people who are still doing it after long, successful careers. Then you’ve got EDM and Hip Hop where there’s still a lot going on, but a lot of turnover. What Moonalice is doing is something different. Because what we are doing is not a tribute to a band, but rather a tribute to an idea. There are some people who are doing mash-up tributes, where they combine a couple of things, right? I believe there’s something more authentic goin’ on in ours because obviously, Lester sang all of his songs. We do a lot of original music. The T Sisters stuff, Moonalice’s stuff and Lester’s stuff is all original material. Calling it a revue is an explicit attempt on our part to recognize the difference. In the old days at the Fillmore, you had a chance to see things that were completely unrelated back to back – ...
LakeCoNews: Like Journey and Yusef Lateef.
R.M: Exactly! And though it didn’t happen at the Fillmore, another variant was Jimi Hendrix opening for the Monkees. It’s the kind of thing where it’s like a happy accident. At the end of the day, what you really have is a group of people who really like each other, trying to make ends meet. And finding in that a creative energy that really stands out in a very crowded marketplace. The music world places a huge premium on your ability to create a social connection, a human connection. What’s interesting is that human connection sometimes only happens between the stage and the fans. But if it happens on the stage itself, that really shows. If you watch the stage at our shows, what’s really obvious is the joy on the faces of the people participating. You can’t fake that.
The notion of putting it together was not something that necessarily would’ve occurred to anybody, including me, except that, I just liked all the people involved. I thought, “Wouldn’t that be different?” Not even knowing what it would turn into. Without even knowing that the T Sisters could sing Grateful Dead, Stevie Wonder or Gloria Gaynor tunes and that people would really react to that.
The thing is, this is a really important time to represent as much of America as you can present. So the notion that we could by putting black (male) and (white) female voices in a way that white audiences can accept has special resonance today. Because right now there are people in America trying to divide us all day long, every single day. Moonalice is gonna stand up for something different.
LakeCoNews: Speaking of something different, how did you become the activist that wrote the book Zucked?
R.M.: I’m not a natural activist. I realize when I started my activism that I had no idea what I was doing so I reached out to someone I had known in the company I co-founded, Elevation Partners. Dr. Clarence Jones is someone who has done activism all his life. He was a professor at Stanford and is now at the University of San Francisco Law School. As a young man he was the attorney and speechwriter for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. So he lived in that world. When I first started out, I said to Clarence, “I need someone to guide me. Would you mentor me?” He agreed and ever since, he has helped me with the public side of my activism. He’s the reason why I always wear a tie when I’m doing my activism. You have to carry yourself in a way that respects the people you’re talking to all the time.
What I really, really believe in is the principles of the Enlightenment, of self-determination and the ideas that derive from that, like equality of opportunity. The notion that whatever your highest moral authority is, we’re all equal in front of that. In this day and age, those are revolutionary thoughts. I’m not by nature a person who looks to make trouble. But I do have a set of values that I adhere to and will fight for. The values that I grew up with went from being mainstream to underappreciated. In that context, I went from what I would characterize as a normal person to somebody who is fighting for things that are out of fashion.
My parents were involved in the Civil Rights Movement. I met Jackie Robinson when I was 9 years old at a Civil Rights event at my mother’s church. It was incredibly informative to me. In my family Franklin Roosevelt was at the top of the pyramid, and then came Jackie Robinson. I thought when the ‘60s were done that our society would just continue to make progress. So, I was just blindsided as anybody with all the stuff that’s going on. I’m not a cynical person. I want to believe that tomorrow is gonna be a better day.
I got involved in Proposition 64, essentially, legalized cannabis in California as a Civil Rights issue. I thought, this is my opportunity to get involved in the same kind of things my parents got involved in; people of color getting incarcerated at three times the rate of comparable usage for whites. It’s an obvious Civil Rights problem and I got involved so my voice could make a difference. And it did. But guess what happened the same damned day? Trump was elected. So we won a battle but lost a war. So now suddenly, that little act of rebellion, of standing up for something in regard to Civil Rights, is now essentially the training ground for the much larger fight, which is, how did we get back in the position where people are encouraged to look down on someone else in order to make themselves look better?
How did we get to a situation where a guy can run for president of the United States assuming that the people will forgive him for stop and frisk? How proud are we of the Democratic Party and Elizabeth Warren for saying, “I’m not doing that stuff anymore”? I look at those things and say talk is cheap. You’ve got to live your life in a way where you’re part of the solution.
Now, someone in my position has opportunities to do that. I simply have chosen in each part of my life to look for ways where I can make a small difference. And here’s the thing. I’m not an important person. I’m just a person doing what I believe in. The thing is, I’m not expecting anybody to focus on me. The story I want to focus on is the story of Lester Chambers. Lester deserves better than he’s gotten. I’ve not even been able to watch the YouTube video of when he was attacked on stage in 2013. His relationship with his hit making brothers is less than perfect. He is my friend and I was in a position to give him another shot. It would be insane not to do that.
People can look at it and say, “White people play white music.” I say, “That’s just an accident of history.” It doesn’t have to be that way. Black music is a lot more fun to play! You might watch us play and come to the conclusion that yeah, we’re not the Funk Brothers, but we’re genuine in this. I mean, we feel it on two and four, not on one and three. Our band could always swing. We just swung in the places that were authentic for people like us. But now that we have people who can sing like the New Chambers Brothers and the T Sisters do, then all of a sudden you’ve got this band of people who can play and you’re putting it behind people who really enjoy being on top of that, what you really end up with is a really cool thing. These things are always an experiment. You never know how it’s gonna go. I’m just so happy that so far this has been a beautiful experiment.
LakeCoNews: Can we circle back briefly to your book “Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe.” In chapter 5 you speak of you and former design ethicist at Google, Tristan Harris’ meeting with Sen. Mark Warner on the threat of Russian or outside interference using social media platforms in the 2018 and 2020 election cycles. You offered some very cloak and daggerish hypotheses to the senator. With the 2020 election cycle now upon us, do you think the threat has increased or diminished?
RM: Let me tell you what I think has actually already happened. The original thing that I saw that got me to pay attention to Facebook being a threat was stuff circulating from a coordinated network associated with Bernie Sanders. It was operating outside of Bernie’s campaign. I did not know that then. That exact network cleared the field for Sanders. Initially it went after Kamala Harris, then Elizabeth Warren. Those were the two biggest threats to him. It later went after Buttigieg but the big focus was on Warren because she was the biggest threat.
The irony of this whole thing was having cleared the field of progressives, it turned out that Democrats and specifically people of color, didn’t give a damn about progressive. What they really wanted to do was to get rid of Trump. So Bernie had gone to all this trouble to create the perfect way to win an election that had the same issues as 2016, not realizing that it wasn’t what 2020 was gonna be about. So he effectively cleared out all those people but it didn’t help him. Meanwhile, Trump is trying to dredge up old resentments among those same Bernie people so they don’t support Biden. So yes, disinformation has been rampant in this cycle.
LakecoNews: Just as rampant or more rampant?
RM: It’s very hard to tell because we’ve never really done a complete analysis of what happened in 2016. But I will venture a guess and tell you that I’m quite certain that it’s rampant enough to be more coordinated on a larger scale than it was in 2016. But it’s very sophisticated in terms of its packaging. It has to be because people have learned from 2016, so some people are not as vulnerable to it. And I would say that people of color who were the most manipulated in 2016 learned faster than anybody. In 2018, they voted in record numbers and in 2020 they have determined who will be the nominee of the Democratic Party. In order to do that, they had to resist all of that disinformation.
So the thing had to be more sophisticated because the people who were very vulnerable in 2016 were three groups; suburban white women, young people and people of color. It turns out that young people were just as vulnerable to it as they ever were. We don’t know about the suburban white women yet though it was easy to manipulate them to be negative on Warren. We still can’t have a woman president in the U.S. which is insane.
LakeCoNews: On to COVID-19. Do you see social media playing a positive or negative agenda in the dissemination of related news?
RM: I think social media today is a very big net negative. It’s too easily manipulated and the incentives that it creates undermine critical thinking and good citizenship. We’re seeing this in the coronavirus. The amount of BS that is being created is just staggering.
LakeCoNews: What future do you see for Facebook and aside from reading your book, what advice do you have for us?
RM: In the paperback edition, I wrote a whole new thing about this. The most important thing I say to everybody is, change your behavior. The next time you get a smartphone, make sure you’re on Apple because they protect your privacy. There are other tools you can use. I avoid Google products because they track you. I use DuckDuckGo as my search engine and browser on my mobile device. There are other products that protect your privacy as well.
The most important thing for people to do is to engage in the political process because it doesn’t matter whether your biggest fear is climate change, gun violence, white supremacy or whatever. The reason we can’t make progress on anything is that Internet platforms give disproportionate political power to the angriest voices. We have to stop them. It’s really a big problem. You have to change the fundamental business model and get them away from algorithmic amplification, get them away from abuses of their privacy. That’s gonna hurt. They will fight it to the death. We have to just say, “I’m sorry.”
This is like the chemical industry in 1960 when the profits of that industry were really high because they could pour mercury into fresh water – they could pump lead into the atmosphere because there were no limits on what you could put out of a smokestack. We said to those guys, “Hang on, you’re killing us. You have to pay that cost.”
T. Watts is a music journalist and radio host who lives in Lake County, California. He is the co-writer with Lester Chambers of, “Time Has Come: A Memoir,” slated for publication in the fall of 2020.
© 2019 by Lester Chambers. All rights reserved. Designed and developed by