Interview with Cliff Starbuck from ekoostik hookah

cliff starbuck, ekoostik hookah
Cliff Starbuck

Interview and Photos by Scott Preston

I had the chance to sit down with Cliff Starbuck, bass player for ekoostik hookah, who have been doing it their own way since 1991. Not many bands last more than a few years, but ekoostik hookah has been delighting fans all over the country for the last 18 years. Not only that, but they also have been hosting their own music festival, hookahville, which has been occuring twice a year since 1994. This upcoming hookahville is number 31, which is returning to Frontier Ranch Music Center and features a lineup including 2 nights of ekoostik hookah, Les Claypool, Freekbass, The Wailers, Steve Kimock’s Crazy Engine, Oakhurst, Great American Taxi and many more.

Cliff is also a lover of bluegrass music, and is an accomplished banjo player. This has led to many collaborations with musicians from all over the country. Cliff’s latest journey into the world of bluegrass music is the Desperation String Band, which features Cliff on banjo & ukulele, Brian Flechsig on mandolin (from the Cincinnati 90’s band The Wildweeds), John Armstrong on string bass, Dan Cade on fiddle and Ron Slone on guitar.

Cincy Groove: How was ekoostik hookah’s trip to Jamaica last month? anything interesting happen?

Cliff Starbuck: It was fun, it was the first time we were able to rent nice amps and PA, so that was interesting. It was also the first vacation that my girlfriend and I have gone on together since Grateful Dead tour in the summer of ’90. We had a good time.

Cincy Groove: Is ekoostik hookah or yourself working on any recording projects at the moment?

Cliff Starbuck: Hookah has more than enough material to record a new album, we just don’t have any capital to invest in one right now. These days it’s not really practical or necessary to rent out a big professional studio, you just need a bunch of good microphones and an engineer who’s good with Protools. It would be nice to do some recording in that kind of setting, where we’re not concerned about wasting time at some hourly rate.
I’ve been working on getting a home recording set up going, both on the computer and reel-to-reel tape. My friend John Kennedy and I do some experimental home recording sometimes, you can hear some at

Cincy Groove: What are the side projects you are involved in?

Cliff Starbuck: I was playing a lot with Colin John as an acoustic duo for the past few years, but he moved to Hawaii last fall. Just as I was wondering what I was going to do next, i got a call from my friend Brian Flechsig, a mandolin player, whom I’ve known since the early 90’s when he played in Cincinnati’ Wildweeds. He asked if I wanted to start playing some banjo with him and John Armstrong, the bassist for Local Color. I recruited fiddlin’ Dan Cade, who then recommended his friend Ron Sloane for guitar. It’s called the Desperation String Band. We rehearse every week, it’s starting to sound pretty good, and I really enjoy being in a band that I don’t play bass in for a change. We’re going to do some recording soon too.

Cincy Groove: What have been some of your favorite bands at hookahville?

Cliff Starbuck: Speaking of bluegrass, it was a great honor to have Ralph Stanley there, my favorite of the founding fathers. Bob Weir and Arlo Guthrie are two of my musical heroes, so it was great to be able to meet and play with them. NRBQ, Willie Nelson, Old & in the Gray, Leftover Salmon…there’s been some good ones.

Cincy Groove: When did you start playing bass? banjo? do you play any other instruments?

Cliff Starbuck: I started playing bass in 4th grade in the school orchestra. It was a few years later when MTV began that I learned that there’s an electric bass in every rock band. I knew at that moment that I had a career. I got a banjo when I was about 18. I like to play a lot of instruments, I usually kind of lose interest long before I’m any good at playing them. Right now I’m mainly into the banjo, accordion and ukulele. Everyone in my family is a musician, I started playing piano as soon as I was tall enough to reach the keyboard, taking lessons at age 6.

Cincy Groove: Who are some of your favorite bass players?

Cliff Starbuck: Paul McCartney, Phil Lesh, Jaco Pastorius. I like the ones who use it more as a melodic instrument than just holding down the root or a repetitious groove.

Cincy Groove: What do you think of the dedication of hookah fans?

Cliff Starbuck: I think it’s incredible, we’re extremely lucky. There aren’t very many musicians who can make a living at it, and there are musicians that I know whom I consider much better than me who have to work day jobs. A lot of people who do make a decent living at it have to play music that they don’t really like. I think we started in the right place at the right time, and we were really fortunate to have good musical and personal chemistry from the beginning.

Cincy Groove: What other interests do you have outside of music?

Cliff Starbuck: Well, I try to be diverse. As my instrument-learning pattern suggests, I have a short attention span. I’ve always made art, and lately I’ve been learning to use Photoshop and Illustrator. I’ve been interested in Tibetan Buddhism for a long time, I practice it now and then. I’m into medicinal herbs and natural food. I like cooking, reading, traveling, staying home and having a girlfriend.

Cincy Groove: How long have you and Steve Sweney known each other?

Cliff Starbuck: About 21 years. We went to different High Schools in Columbus and met at a party where I was playing with a band, he came and sat in. I think I was the first bassist he had met, lucky for me. I’ve learned a lot from him, mostly from just trying to follow and compliment what he’s playing.

Cincy Groove: Who are some of the bands you would like to see at hookahville?

Cliff Starbuck: I’d love to have Bob Dylan there, and Tom Waits. More realistically, I’d like to see Gillian Welch and David Rawlings there. Up until a few years ago we picked the bands together with our booking agent. It was a lot of fun to think of all of our favorite bands and have him call and see how much they cost. We would put a lineup together that fit the budget. Now the guy who owns Legend Valley produces the festival, which means he picks the lineup, but he also assumes the financial risk, which is nice to not have to worry about. A lot of the bands that open for us ask us about playing there, so it’s also a relief to be able to tell them it’s not our decision now.

Cincy Groove: To what would you attribute to the longevity of ekoostik hookah?

Cliff Starbuck: Well, the simplest answer is that there’s never been anything that forced us to stop. There’s something we used to say when we heard about other bands breaking up, ‘survival of the stupidest’ – meaning that this is the only thing we know how to do. I’ve been in this band for half of my life now, it’s difficult to imagine it ending. There have been times that our company has been bad shape financially and we were unable to pay ourselves, but we’re all dedicated to it. We have a new system that we started when John rejoined, we don’t go on tour. Maybe you’ve noticed. We realized that we do really well in Ohio and the adjoining states, and the farther away we went, we usually made less money and it cost us more to get there. The cost of fuel, hotels, etc. and playing weeknights in towns that we probably couldn’t even draw a crowd in on a Saturday. So this new system seems to be working. We had a lot of fun on the road, but you can get pretty burnt out there. I think that kills a lot of bands. It’s probably good that we never had a meteoric rise and fall too. Eric once said “Slow and steady may not win the race, but it is slow and steady.”

ekoostik hookah:
Dave Katz – keyboards, guitar, vocals
John Mullins – Guitar, vocals
Cliff Starbuck – Bass, Harmonica, Banjo, Vocals
Steve Sweney – Guitar, vocals
Eric Lanese – Drums

Desperation String Band:
Cliff Starbuck- banjo, ukelele, vocals
Brian Flechsig- mandolin, resonator mandolin, vocals
John Armstrong- string bass
Dan Cade- fiddle
Ron Slone- guitar
ekoostik hookah, 8.31.08, Little Maggie, Legend Valley, Thornville, OH – Hookahville 30

From Under Full Sail: It All Comes Together, the new hookah CD. Recorded in front of a live studio audience at Tree Sound Studio in Atlanta, GA.

ekoostik hookah tour dates:
for more details visit
5/8/2009 The Dame Lexington, KY
5/9/2009 Bitter End at the Anchor Pointe Marina Curtice, OH
5/23/2009 Spring Hookahville at Frontier Ranch Pataskala, OH
5/24/2009 Spring Hookahville at Frontier Ranch Pataskala, OH
6/5/2009 High Land Spring Jam Elkins, WV
6/6/2009 High Land Spring Jam Elkins, WV
6/8/2009 Ohio Bike Week Sandusky, OH
6/19/2009 Virginia Brewing Co. Winchester, VA
6/20/2009 The Rhythm House Café Bridgeville, PA
6/26/2009 Hookahnanny Festival Hamilton, IN
6/27/2009 Hookahnanny Festival Hamilton, IN
7/17/2009 Centennial Terrace Sylvania, OH
7/18/2009 Chaffee Gathering Girard, PA
7/24/2009 Nelson Ledges Quarry Park Garrettsville, OH
7/25/2009 Nelson Ledges Quarry Park Garrettsville, OH
7/29/2009 The Intersection Grand Rapids, MI
7/30/2009 Chicago House of Blues Chicago, IL
7/31/2009 Cosmic Railroad Family Gathering Janesville, WI

Desperation String Band tour dates:
for more details visit
May 20 2009 Fat’s Billiards Columbus, Ohio
Jun 24 2009 Fat’s Billiards Columbus, Ohio