Richard Young: I know the new album is still a work-in-progress, but what are you most excited for about it at this juncture?
John Mayer: That’s a great question. I’m excited that I have the songs I have already and that it’s such a solid start. I know it’s going to go to that level of all-killer-no-filler because I’ve got the time now to make two separate runs out of it. And that’s what happened with Continuum — and Born and Raised, too, but not as much as Continuum. I think the reason people kind of gravitate (no pun intended) toward Continuum so much is because it really has a distilled essence of creativity throughout it.
One of the disadvantages of being just one guy is that I don’t have four or five other people throwing ideas in. As a solo artist, I’m kind of at the mercy of it just being me and trying to come up with as many interesting ideas as I can. And the way album cycles work, I normally have to do it in six months or so. I can’t get in six months what I can get in 18 months with a six-month break in the middle.
That’s what happened with Continuum. I went on tour with the Trio in the middle of that record and came back and did the other half.
I’m at that state where I have about six songs I would never take off. And to get those six, I had to write 24 and not even finish them. I’m really excited to take the break from writing now — it’s so good for me because I was probably writing too much.
When I go back and put the two sides together, I think it’s going to be one of those records that will last for a really long time.
RY: I know on Periscope you said that you think the album will come out in 2016. What are some things that you can tell me about the album that you haven't previously mentioned anywhere?
JM: It really is what I said it was. It’s a combination of all these different elements, but only the strongest version of each thing. There’s a song on the record called "In the Blood." I can’t think of another one of my songs that more distinctly affects people—where you could put it on and no matter what kind of music you like, no matter your philosophy, you’d still say, “I have to hear that again.” It’s really big and when I say that, I’ll never mean commercial. I mean people will want to talk to me about it and people will say they felt something there. I think I have a very big fish with it. I think I have a couple of very big fish.
And I think my sense of calm and patience about what I’m going to do in the next few months comes from knowing that when I return to the record, it’s really going to be there.
RY: Which is the perfect segue into my next question. Since your new album is in a holding pattern, how would you expect your time with Dead & Co. to impact the album or the songs yet to be written for the album?
JM: Great question. You ask better questions than most people in journalism.
RY: Thank you!
JM: Y’know, I don’t know yet.
I know that the Trio tour delivered a bit more of that R&B/Soul kind of thing to Continuum. I feel like there is a freedom to this Grateful Dead music. Y’know, sometimes I swing for the fences a little too hard to try to get a message across. There’s something about the Grateful Dead music — the message just floats across. I think it would relax me into thinking: just play. Just play.
I think everybody on MyStupidMouth.com knows me well enough to know that I have a pretty intense left brain as well as the right brain. Sometimes, the left can kind of stop the right from doing its thing. That’s not to say there is zero left brain in Grateful Dead music because it is devilishly complex when it comes to learning the music and playing it.
It could allow me to play some more guitar — and I’m actually, to be quite honest, finding more confidence as a guitar player. A big part of the reason that I never played a lot of guitar on things is because I never really had the confidence. It’s hard to explain. I know there are probably going to be people who are going to be like, “There is no way you lack confidence.” But no, I really do. And also I’m just playing guitar right now so that’s making me a guitar player. All I’ve been since April is a guitar player. So if I’m predicting things, I think you’re going to hear more of a guitar-centric thing on the next record.
RY: I do think there is a contingent of your fan base that prefers Continuum and the earlier sound. Born and Raised and Paradise Valley and the Dead and Co. work is a bit of a shift from that. Do you ever think about that, and does it shape any of the music you create?
JM: No it doesn’t, and I can explain it in a heartbeat and when I’m done explaining it everybody will go, “Oh, right.”
A lot of my life has been reconciling what I thought artists did with becoming an artist and realizing what artists really do. We’re not playing hide and seek with our audiences. We’re not purposefully playing games. We’re not going, “I know you like that but I’m not going to give it to you!”
I’m looking for new feelings making music. Technically, I could go make another record like Continuum with the same people. But it wouldn’t be exactly the same. Because the thing that made Continuum was going into a new situation and bringing all of my inspiration and all of my energy and all of my ideas right up to the edge of not knowing — and then trying to make something out of it. And hopefully I can make another one that makes people feel that way.
When I’m in my 60s and hopefully doing strings of Madison Square Garden dates, and I go from a Continuum song to a Paradise Valley song to a Heavier Things song to a cover, I hope fans will appreciate songs that maybe they didn’t appreciate in real-time. That they look back on it and realize there are all of these different places we can all go in these songs.
If you look at most artists, and the lineage of their records, most artists have one that everybody agrees is the one that did it for them. There aren’t a bunch of artists that have four of them. Everybody kind of gravitates toward one record because for whatever reason, it’s that artist’s time or the music matches the culture.
I’d rather make music with a pure heart than try to make another record that tries to calculate where lightning is going to strike again. All I’ve ever been is true to the music that excites me to want to make.
I don’t know if anybody would actually want a Continuum Part II because I think it would be a little inauthentic. I think if you wait for the next record, there is a song called Still Feel Like Your Man that is Continuum Part II all the way. There’s a song called Movin’ On and Gettin’ Over that, if you’re waiting for a Continuum thing, it sounds like it fell of the Continuum hayride. The whole thing is in falsetto, it’s got a kick drum, it’s electric guitar, it’s crazy bass, it’s all of that.
And then there are some sad ones on this record. Brutally sad. There’s a song called "Never on the Day You Leave" that is just the saddest song I ever wrote. It’s about guys and how guys work in regret and it’s "Never on the Day You Leave" and you can figure out the rest from the title.
I’ve never tried to taunt anybody, and I’ve never tried to get anybody to think I’m going left but now I’m going right. That’s not the art form for me. I’ve tried to give people what they wanted while also trying to give them what they didn’t know they wanted.
And I did that with Continuum — remember, critics didn’t think it was anything when it first came out. The thing got Cs across the board. It was just another “whatever.” So because I know the randomness of that thing catching fire, I also know the randomness of the next one catching fire and the next one and the next one. And I’d rather win with two different records than two similar records. It’s a bigger risk but it’s a bigger reward, so there you go.
RY: And you never know what time will tell.
JM: Yeah. I mean I know that most of those Born and Raised songs don’t age. They don’t oxidize. People say they love Continuum, but are they listening to Waiting on the World to Change? I don’t know. But that’s what it took to have a hit — to have one song on the record where you go, “Nah, skip that.”
Born and Raised, I know what that record is. I know because I was there and I listened to it and I felt it. It may not be the music that got people into me first, and that in and of itself can be confusing and it can divide an audience a bit.
If that was my first record, only the people that would have dug that kind of music would have come into it. So I understand that I’m kind of shuffling up the audience a little bit when I’m saying, “Well, inside of this audience that’s been created because of my initial music, there is this other thing that other people might like but aren’t going to find because they already align themselves with not being fans of mine.”
If Born and Raised had come out first, I’d have a whole different career. Probably smaller. But a whole different career. I’d be on tour with Wilco. There’s a little cognitive dissonance where I’m putting out a record that could be great in a different artist’s repertoire but because the walls come down on you and they go, “Oh, you’re this guy!” it probably got listened to by certain people who didn’t dig it and not listened to by certain people who would have dug it.
But I can’t concern myself with it because I know when I go onstage, I can pull out something from Born and Raised or other deep cuts anytime I want. It’s all a fun ride.
RY: And now that the word is out about the upcoming Dead & Co. shows, I wanted to ask you, what can a John Mayer fan expect if they buy a ticket to see you?
JM: I think you can expect to hear some music and have an experience. Perhaps I don’t have as much to do with that experience, but when you get there, and you feel what it is, you’ll be glad that you wanted to see what I was doing. You have to be there to understand it. I just don’t see anybody standing in that room when that music is playing and not understanding it. So that’s most of it.
And the other thing is — if you’re familiar with my guitar playing, maybe there’s a way that I’m communicating a certain idea, even just during a solo, that is in a language you understand more easily because you’re used to my guitar playing.
If that serves as a bridge for people who are familiar with my music and like it to like this other music because there is a familiar sound in there, then I think that’s awesome. I think that’s almost artistic public service. To put the guitar playing in a certain dialect so the fans can understand and be introduced to the music. That’d be great.
RY: How much of their extensive catalog will you be learning?
JM: I’m learning as much as I can, obviously starting with the ones that are the most iconic and the ones that are the real bedrock of the live shows.
I have my own system of layers to familiarize myself with each song — just listening to it, just putting it on in the car, just having it, then picking it up, and finding out where it lives on the guitar. Then learning how the arrangement goes, then learning how the solo works — basically, the theory on the guitar for each song — and then learning how to sing over it and do that at the same time.
I’m moving through on an X/Y vertical/horizontal level. Just because I know how the song goes doesn’t mean I fully understand the song. But if I can understand it and where it comes from, then I can understand how to communicate it in a way that it’s a little bit deeper than simply reciting it. If I can understand the theory of it, then I can expound on the theory of it.
There are songs that I’ve known how they go for four months but I’m still going deeper and deeper and deeper into them. And I think that’s a testament to that band and Jerry Garcia and those songs that you can just keep peeling away the theory behind them.
It’s a real master class.
RY: You seem really excited for this chapter. What is it about the music and the band members that brings that out of you?
JM: The first thing that excited me about it was that it felt to me like what musicians used to experience in the jazz world in the ‘50s and ‘60s — when they would do time in other people’s bands and they would come up through those bands.
To me, this is no different as a guitar player in this band than it would be for any instrumentalist to be in Miles Davis’ band. If you were in Miles’ band, you got your own band after that. It meant something. You became a better musician forever because you learned from Miles.
That’s the way I see this. I can learn from these musicians and then always have that on any other project. It feels almost like taking a year off to go to school or taking four years off to go to college. It’s another lesson.
When this is said and done, I can’t imagine not being a better musician, whether it’s technically or philosophically, and that really inspired me.
As a solo artist, I have my pretty set paint colors to work with. And this guarantees that the palette that I have to make my own music will keep widening and diversifying. And that’ll mean I can keep putting records out where I don’t repeat myself because I have new vocabulary to work with. I don’t ever want to get to that place where it’s the same vocabulary, just in a different order.
And with this band, oddly enough, there’s a real youthful energy to this right now. It’s really youthful. Everybody is sort of putting on their parachutes and we’re going to jump.
For my whole career, I’ve only wanted to do that — I’ve only wanted to take the thrill ride part of it.
Now I also want to go through my career in the scenic view. I want to go up the coastline and look at the water and I want to take extra time to do it because it’s really all about that trip. It’s not about getting records out on time. It’s not about making sure that the cycles fall where they’re supposed to. It’s really about a journey and I can’t think of a better journey to take right now.
I’ll always remember how to make John Mayer records. I don’t think I’ll forget [laughs]. That’s always going to happen, so that’s why it was very easy to follow this path wherever it leads.
Nobody’s quite sure where the future is going to take us and that’s all I ever wanted to do when I made music. Ever.
I want to be reliable but I don’t want to be predictable. How about that? Reliably unpredictable is exactly where I want my career to live. You don’t know where I’m going to go, but you’re sure I’m going to give my all to you.
RY: Jerry Garcia's guitar playing was different from yours and obviously you’re not trying to replace him. I'd love to hear more about your approach to his sound and his playing, as he was an exceptional improviser with a deep-rooted knowledge of scales.
JM: It would take six guitar players to cover a show to come even close to being able to cover all of the influences that Jerry Garcia was drawing from. There’s nothing else like it.
I think the way I can approach it so that I don’t completely panic is to find the balance between where the guitar lives under my hands, what these songs dictate, and where Jerry Garcia’s playing melded into the composition of the songs. I’ve tried more than a couple of times to play stock “me” over these songs and it doesn’t work. They sort of die on the vine.
I’m doing this with the utmost respect also because this is a respect thing and not just a science. It’s a very spiritual thing where I’m respecting these notes because they won’t ever die. That’s Jerry Garcia’s genetic code in all of these songs and in all of that playing. It’s really interesting how his music can do that. It’s so expressive.
I’m learning how he thought and how he felt and where he was coming from, so I want to deeply respect that and also not hyperextend myself to try to go for something I can’t get.
It’s a lot of playing and listening. Because I want to be authentic, I want to sound alive and organic but I also want to respect what those compositions were and that guitar playing has so much to do with the feeling that it gives the audience. I’m learning new things about it all of the time.
It’s one of the most intense pursuits musically I’ve ever been on, maybe the most because there’s so much to look at and there’s so much to dissect.
How do I build using the pieces that I have here and some pieces that I can build based on practice and study? How do I put together this thing that in its own way is vital but respectful and authentic and true to what that music is?
So it absolutely is one of the most fascinating, frightening, rewarding experiences of my life. I am 100% online as a musician right now. All of my brainpower and soul power is devoted to music.
And I thank Bob, Billy, Mickey, Oteil, and Jeff for giving me that opportunity to put all of my energy into music. To make me care this much. It keeps me on my toes and it makes me listen to more music than I’ve listened to in a decade, honest to God. It’s its own amazing study.
I’m already on the journey. The journey doesn’t begin October 31st. I’ve been on the journey and there’s nothing else like it. It’s going to be great. All I’ve ever wanted out of music is to look forward to waking up the next morning and seeing what’s going to come out of the guitar and what I’m going to figure out and what I’m going to create.
RY: It seems like you're in an interesting spot because you have your own fan base, there is the Dead fan base, and then you have the Dead & Co. band members, all of whom may be expecting different things from you come show time. It seems like a lot of pressure, too! How do you find that balance of trying to please everyone while being yourself?
JM: One day at a time. One day at a time. If I looked at the whole thing at once then I would get too scared to leave the house. I have pretty good instincts. I care a lot and I like to make cool stuff and I usually don’t settle for less than cool stuff. I just work harder to make sure it’s cool. No pun intended, I trust myself to figure it out.
And here’s the thing about being in a band — you have these other guys to help you. Everybody can help each other and that’s what is so great. Everybody is going to take a corner of the couch. I’ve always wanted to be in a tribe where everybody can work together and you can rely on other people. You can go, “WE will make it happen” and I am one part of “we”. That is all I’ve wanted, man, for the longest time.
I want a diverse experience in my life as a musician and I am only guided by the stuff that I love. I don’t think anybody could deny that I’ve been trying to get this feeling in my own music in the past couple of years. It’s proof that I’m pure of heart in wanting to play this music and cover these songs during my shows — trying to access some of that spirit for my own music because I love it so much.
And now, to be able to go straight to the source is a whole other story. I have no idea how that happened. I am along for the ride and it can only be great for me.