This week’s in-studio guest started playing acoustic music simply because he didn’t have a band. (commentary about the move to Atlanta) Educated for a time at Berklee College of Music in Boston and now based in Atlanta, John Mayer says good bands are hard to put together and he didn’t want to have a bad band so he decided to go solo and play unplugged. What he really wanted to do is become a guitar slinger but then he realized his instrumental pyrotechnics were distracting people from his lyrics. So John decided to tone down his playing and played up his lyrics and it paid off for him last year with a "knock 'em dead" set at South By Southwest in Austin. His performance helped him land a record deal that lead to his recent major label debut called Room For Squares. It also gave him enough money to put together a good band. Now he plays acoustic or electric, depending, and he talked about his work on a recent visit here at Acoustic Cafe.
Interview (Between Songs)
Interviewer: I want to talk about the short time you spent at Berklee College of Music, leaving Berklee College, but choosing not to stay in Boston where there’s a very active singer-songwriter scene, and instead just moving to Atlanta?
John Mayer: It was just a matter of wanting to get out of an area where there are so many musicians that it was kind of hard to find an audience, or at least I felt that way. It wasn’t ever a sort of condescending leaving Berklee. I left there a musical idiot in terms of what I could have been learning for another three years. But it was a matter of, you know, I just want to start playing for audiences. Where’s the real thing? When does boot camp end and the real battle begin?
Interviewer: Did you play out in Boston?
JM: Not at all.
Interviewer: So you didn’t even try and find a place there where it’s tough to find a place?
JM: It’s a pretty small circuit and there are so many musicians up there that it’s just a whole bunch of people giving each other paper cuts as they hand each other their fliers. I think college communities are very isolated, they're very exclusive. If you go to BU [Boston University], you live at BU and you’re not going to find your way down to Berklee or you’re not going to find your way to other parts of the street. It becomes very, very isolated. It becomes very difficult to get to those people, you know?
[Plays "Not Myself"]
Interviewer: So you arrive in Atlanta; you fall in with that rough Eddie’s Attic crowd?
JM: [Laughter] Yeah!
Interviewer: Rough and tumble bunch? And it’s a good bunch to be in with some excellent song writers who would have been kicking around at the same time, right? Mullens and Kaylor—
Interviewer: Michelle Malone?
JM: I actually the first or second day I came down heard Shawn Mullins on the radio and uh—
Interviewer: Oh that thing was just breakin', yeah.
JM: Yeah, it was just starting and my friend said uh you know this is a local guy Shawn Mullins and I went, “if this is the local guy, I’m in trouble.” You know? And you know I have to say, I’ve been incredibly lucky in over the course of just a couple years been able to get to know Shawn a little bit and to know Matthew really well. And I played in Michelle’s band for and uh, I don’t know. I mean Dave [LaBruyere], who is playing bass today, played in Shawn’s band and Michelle’s band which was sort of my gateway into that little world.
Interviewer: The songs from Room For Squares are hook filled. They could be any number of different things. You know, they have lots of hooks, classic pop hook type material!
JM: My tendency is to only work on songs in which the hook keeps me up at night. I have a very low threshold for blandness. And that just sort of comes with being my age I think. I think the age that I’m at, a lot of people my age sort of need this super saturation of something to hold on to. Before, that classic rock thing is a little more blues oriented, a little more sort of like—I’m not a rocker, you know, I don’t rock. [imitates rocker sounds]
Like, I acknowledge that that’s the sound of the times but I gravitate more to, like, a super saturated colorburst sort of melody, and as melodic as you can possibly get. I was totally inspired by, like, Dave Matthews Band at the time. They were the only group, for me, that were completely innovating advanced concepts in hookery.
Just like eight hooks in a song. Why the hell not? I’ve got four songs I’m working on, let’s try and make it one. You know? And it’s that complete lack of economy that I looked up to. Because when I was at Berklee, I had a songwriting teacher that said, if you are working on a song and you have two or three good ideas within that song, make two or three songs. And that to me was a little counterproductive than what I was looking for which was like—
Interviewer: Because you’re gonna get three thin ones?
JM: Yeah, exactly. Is to take six months to write a song. And take three of your ideas and if they’re all in the same key, and they all make sense, you know, throw it in there and get it sort of interesting. That’s sort of the goal.
[Plays "Why Georgia"]
Interviewer: [Introduces "No Such Thing"]
[Plays "No Such Thing"]
Interviewer: You said that you hadn’t actually been playing in the northeast when you were up there, so all of this sort of started in the southeast. You now are starting to do touring, nationwide touring?
JM: Yeah, I think the only thing that’s allowed us to be national is a burning desire to play, number one. Which we should never discount.
Interviewer: A record deal?
JM: You know, yeah, I think what's really the done the work—and it’s really great to have Columbia and Aware on my side no doubt about it—but it’s been the internet, you know? And the internet is such a vast thing and there’s so many people clamoring to sort of make a presence that I don’t really understand what the variable is that’s allowed me to sort of benefit from it. And it’s been a great way to establish a lineage of music that otherwise, I wouldn’t have been able to provide to people because I didn’t have the resources to make a record. So to be able to record a live show and put the three or four tracks that I thought came out really listenable and to put them up on Napster and have them sort of downloaded. It’s sort of my little microcosm for record releases even though they were little songs. So I think that’s sort of what’s made us national.
Interviewer: And the people who have been doing this sort of work on the internet have also found that when they actually try and take this out on the road, one of the problems they found on the internet is that it’s really hard to find out where those people are which is where Columbia and Aware come in.
JM: Absolutely, absolutely. I couldn’t do it without them.
Interviewer: Is it fun to get out of the region?
JM: It’s amazing you know? We played Detroit last night. And if you told me that we were gonna sell a place out in Detroit, you know, I had no idea. I think last night in fact I said to Dave, “You know Dave today’s the day that I think something different is going on now.” It astounds me. It’s ridiculous. I shouldn’t be twenty three and go to Detroit for the first time and sell out a room. And also it’s Howie Day. I don’t know if you heard of Howie Day but he’s a great songwriter, and a great singer, and a great performer so the both of us sort of had something to do with that. But I think as long as I keep acknowledging that this is completely ridiculous, I can find a way to feel like maybe I deserve to be there. As long as I just keep realizing that this is stupid.
[Plays "Your Body is a Wonderland"]