Steve Jordan: My good friend, John Clayton Mayer.
John Mayer: Beyond good friend. There's no word for this. Brothers?
SJ: I was going to say "brothers" but I didn't want to be too presumptuous.
JM: No you can't be too presumptuous.
SJ: And since I tend to get lost in conversation and sometimes we get to need to explain things, I've asked another dear friend Tony, Golden Globe, Emmy, and Drama Disc award winner Jeffrey Wright to help me out. So you'll hear him jump in from time to time. But now let's get back to my relationship with John.
JM: You get to a certain age in life and the results are in on who are the special people in your life are. There's room for some more. We're gonna make a couple more. The partner slot is still open. It's cleaned up and open and freshly paved, but the results are in. And you are someone who I've spent more hours than I'll spend with most people in my life. And very people understand this—not just knowing each other for a long time but in so many different fields. I've seen you over the drum kit in front of thousands and thousand of people. I've seen you fall asleep on a couch in the studio.
SJ: [Laughs] More often than not.
JM: But it's beautiful. Billions of people in the world and you start to get to a certain age and you go, This is it for my life. These are my brothers, this is my cast, this is the crew.
SJ: And for me it's really great because to actually see you evolve over this time is so freaking awesome. Just stepping back and checking. Just as an artist, it's really amazing for me.
JM: Thank you. Well you're the one who grounded me. All artists, they're in a custody battle with themselves. Especially if they got a big personality, like I always have. And always wanted to be. But you're in a custody battle between the artist and the person. And for me it was a contentious custody battle between, are you going to be a mess of ideas and impulses, or are you going to be a human being. And how are you going to reconcile the two of those things? How are you going to borrow from the one and stay a human being?
And again I guess one of my moments of reckoning and looking back and seeing the image that's
SJ: Right. The one thing [is], What is going to keep you in the game? And the thing is, that is consistent, is you have a big heart. Everything that's gone on, I've never questioned your heart. And that's why we're here now. And no matter everything that has gone on, whatever. I know that you have a good heart.
JM: Thank you. For me, if you knew the kid, if you knew the whole thing. He was going to say, Give me all of it. Let me work with the sharpest knives without instructions. Let me work with fireworks, and knives, and nunchucks, and chains, and bullets and swords, and let me figure it out. Except, that's a very high stakes thing. And I'm at this point now where it's just all good.
SJ: You know, Brian Wilson wrote a tune, "In My Room."
[Plays excerpt of "In My Room"]
You mentioned something to me a long time ago about when you were growing up in your room like making pedals and all kinds of stuff. What was that like? Did you think while that was happening that you'd be here?
JM: But not this long.
SJ: Right. Kind of like Ringo, saying he'll be famous for five years or something?
JM: Yeah, that's as long as dreams reach. The butterfly net doesn't go that far into the future. And actually, a lot of the reason why people have trouble around their third or fourth record is cause they just never dreamed that far. They're not prepared for it. You just lose perspective, you know?
Yeah, I knew that I was gonna do it. But then again so does everybody, so maybe "making it" is the only difference between me and everybody else who thinks they're gonna do it. I mean you should think that you're going to do it. I guess that's what it takes.
SJ: Right, sure. You need that.
JM: But even more immediate than that. If I really think about it, I wasn't ever doing it to make it eventually. I was doing it to make it that day. Like I was playing music to survive that day. I was playing music at the end of a day to remind myself that I was cool. That I was okay. When you're fourteen years old you don't play music because you want to make it as much—as I think, people talk about—you play because you're trying to undo the voices that have been coming at you all day.
JM: I really looked at it like alter-ego. I would go to school, mild-mannered, sleepy kid. Not pictured in the year book. Whatever. Couldn't find a place to sit. But I knew that school was something that had to do to get done so I could get back home and like hang with my heroes.
So I had this league of superheroes in my mind. I covered my walls in pictures of Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimi Hendrix, Buddy Guy, Eric Clapton—if there were a book or magazine with pictures in it, I'd buy two of 'em so I could use both sides. If there's a picture on both sides of the page you got to pick the bigger one and you have to buy another one so you can use the photo on the other side.
JM: Rolling up little balls of masking tape and putting them up. So it was really insane. I wish someone would have taken a picture of this room. It was serial killer stuff.
SJ: It's so weird. My room was kind of similar. I painted it orange, and then put all of the pictures—I didn't have musicians, I had sports figures.
JM: Oh that's great. Well hey, like I said, you play like an athlete, you know.
SJ: That's really funny. Yeah.
JM: And I think that I did that, looking back, to drown out the other stuff. So that every one of my sense can be constantly fed with this thing. And also I'm growing up in Fairfield Connecticut where you can't find it. So you have to construct it. It doesn't exist outside of my house. So I built a shrine.
So I wanted to be surrounded by it. I believed in osmosis. And I played along to CDs and ignore the guitar. I found a way to just ignore the guitar that was on the CD and play as if I were the person on the CD. And I play it while I slept thinking that it'd make me better. I remember grabbing a Charlie Parker "Best Of" CD and it had "Now Is the Time" on it. And just putting that on—cause I was like, Okay this is way over my head. And falling asleep to it. Like learning a language. Being like, If I sleep with this playing all night, it will do something to me.
So it was really the only thing I had to remind me of the identity that I wanted to have. Cause the rest of my life was nothing like it. So it was superhero dress up. And it took. I did nothing but learn how to play guitar, how to hold a guitar, how to play—do Robert Cray. Now do Eric Clapton. Now do Stevie Ray Vaughan. Now do Jimi Hendrix. Now do BB King. And that was my life.
And I played—not to make a dream come true—I played so that I wouldn't feel like garbage. Cause when you pick that—it is a blessing and a curse to picking that at thirteen. "Oh I'm going to be something." Knowing what you're going to be can be a tough thing at that age.
SJ: Now this is freaky. So now, those are the people that you emulate, and then you end up knowing them. Isn't that wild?
JM: It's amazing. One of the greatest things is learning how to be friends with your heroes. You're friends with your heroes.
SJ: Yeah no. It's crazy. It's really weird.
JM: But, it's like being a Yankee. You dream of being on the Yankees and then you're on the Yankees and you're like, Okay well, you're on the team. And I played with heroes and learned how to be friends with heroes and learned how to email with heroes and compartmentalize.
SJ: It's weird.
JM: There's Eric Clapton the friend and then there's that Clapton thing you can talk to anyone about. There's two separate things. There's the person and there's what they've done. There's their style, there's their technique, you can talk about their catalogue or their contribution. But then you need to learn how to know both and navigate both. So it's a combination of saying, How amazing is this, this is incredible I can't believe I'm here. And also like, Yeah this makes sense.
SJ: Yeah, exactly.
JM: Cause it has to make sense or else you won't be—
SJ: And, here's the trick bag with that too—I think you and I are basically the same in that we're fans. We're like mega fans. Right. So you're never not going to be like fans of the people that you're now friends with. You're still gonna be their fan. And you don't feel bad about that, you like that. Don't take me being a fan away from me. But at the same time, they don't necessarily want you to stay in fan mode because they respect you.
JM: That's right! That takes a few years to realize that. When you ask for an autograph you might insult them.
SJ: Yeah or whatever! Or even do something like when you're working with them and you defer to them too much. I remember the first time apologizing to Keith [Richards] for something.
Jeffrey Wright: This is Jeffrey Wright. Air drummer for most of your favorite bands. The apology that Steve is talking about occurred during recording session for the Main Offender album with guitarist Keith Richards' solo project, The X-Pensive Winos. After a long, unsuccessful session in the studio, he felt compelled to apologize to Keith about the outcome of the day and night. I wonder why. And just so you know, this was the first and only time this would ever happen with the band.
SJ: And he was so angry that I apologized to him. He was like, "What are you apologizing for? Don't ever apologize to me ever again."
JM: You know what it really comes down to is like, when I was younger I wanted to be it. And that's not fun and it's impossible to even know what you are, if you are. And I thought, Oh I'm going to be it. All of it. Rock and roll stardom, talent, it's just going to be me, I'm going to be it, I'm going to embody it. But where it's so much more fun is we get to be around it. We get to cavort with it, run around with it. Any time I get to go to the studio to work with somebody who's a talented person. Any time I get to play guitar next to somebody who's incredible. That's where it's at. It's it adjacent. That's our playing field. That's what we get to do for the rest of our lives. Is be around talented people and share the stage with them and be included in what they're doing it. That's it. It's not about fame, not about people knowing your name. That's come and gone for me, in terms of what I can take off of that and digest.
And I look up to you for that. The number of laminates that you've been given to walk on stages and play with the greatest musicians of all times, plural, is countless. And that to me is cooler than what you quote-unquote are as a star.
JM: Like, when you see McCartney walk in a room, you're not like, Oh that's Paul McCartney, he's a star. You're like, he sat here, he flew here, he wrote that, he put that down on a piece of paper. He was at Shea Stadium. You're still only adjacent to all of it.
JM: He played Shea Stadium with The Beatles. He was in that. He saw that. That to me is the greatest thing in the world. And we get to do that as well, just to be around it. They don't kick us out of the room.
SJ: Right. And then when they know you, that blows your mind even more.
JM: Well, so let's take it a little further. It's interesting that way that I'm being regarded now differently as I grow up. I'm feeling people be more open with me. I'm feeling the greats be like, Okay now I can talk to you like an equal, like an adult. And that's been so much fun. And I didn't realize it until I had something to compare it to.
SJ: Berklee. Did you like it? Take it or leave it? Love it, hate it?
JM: Loved it for reasons that they probably shouldn't put in the brochure. I'm a big believer in make something out of everything you're involved in and make it your own no matter what. I appreciated being around that many musicians. I have a problem with curriculum. I have a clinical curriculum problem. Whereby day three I'm lost. Day one I'm with you. Day three I feel like I was in a coma and was wrestled out of it in time for day fifty, but it's just day three.
JM: That's what curriculum feels like to me. I can't understand it. "Now take what we learned last Tuesday about the FOIL method in math, and apply it to that to this—," I went, I can't do that.
So I very quickly lost the path of being a student. Immediately.
SJ: Right. But using the facility. And the other musicians. Using it as your own curriculum.
JM: That's right. I started writing songs immediately. The first semester I was there I wanted to be the best guitar player. Cause that's what everybody thinks cause they're in their small town. Like every town in America, if not the world, has the best guitar player. Everyone knows who the best guitar player is in their town. I'm sure this applies to other instruments, but there's something totemistic about the electric guitar. People tend to talk about it more than others.
SJ: Exactly. "Clapton is god, etcetera."
JM: But the point is, everyone comes and they join up and they realize they're not the best.
I'll never forget where I was when I realized I want to be the guy who played the song for the master musician who's tired of working all day and wants to hear a melody. Wants to hear a tune. And I realized that that's going to be my only way to win, because there are so many guitar players. And I do believe that if you took me out of my compositions and just put me in some uniform competition as a guitar player I'm forgotten.
SJ: I wouldn't say that. I mean, you're being humble about that abilities on the guitar.
JM: I think if you took the song away—the songwriting is what makes the guitar playing the guitar playing. The fact that I'm done singing, "I'm slow dancing in a burning room," and people know the arrangement and I'm about to go into a solo is what gives the solo its power.
[Clip of "Slow Dancing In a Burning Room"]
JM: Yeah voices developed from that over the years. And that's cool to be at the age now and listen the radio and be like, Oh someone's doing a little of my thing there. That's cool.
SJ: Let me tell you, there's a lot of that. And I got the tapes to prove it.
JM: Yeah I know, listen, I know. And it's cool, it's one of the tradeoffs of age. But, the songs themselves are what bracket the guitar playing in such a way so as to be understood by people who don't play guitar.
JM: I've often thought to myself—I do this little game at home, I've never told anybody this, let alone you. I pretend I'm in a Guitar Center best guitar player competition. Like a blues competition. I don't do anything differently, you can't see anything, it's just in my head. And I pretend that I'm in an audition for some Guitar Center local, like best blues guitar player, and I judge myself, like could I win that? And a lot of times I'm like, Yeah maybe not. Would I win or would people be like, It's kind of derivative. Kind of doing Stevie Ray Vaughan. Like I'm open to all sorts of attack as a guitar player if you take the compositions away. You know what I mean?
But I really do play that game at home. Could I win—just the local, not even the semi-finals. The Townsend Maryland Guitar Center, super regional, best blues guitar player of the year award. Like, would it be apparent immediately? Or would people be like, oh he's playing pentatonic blues, he's always playing "Pride and Joy," isn't that something? So all of this really, if you add up the whole conversation, is about songwriting.
SJ: You know you do this thing during your shows where you thank the audience profusely, but it's so sincere. It's wonderful. Because your relationship with your audience is so unique, it's really quite fascinating. When I'm sitting on stage with you and you're thanking them, it is not staged, it's not superficial. It's so real. And your audience loves you so much. It's really quite fascinating for a bystander to check. Expound on that.
JM:I can't take the credit for the crowd. I can't take credit for what it's become. They informed me about what it was. I was going out because I got pushed to go on stage to promote this record. They deepened my ability to do this thing. Not the other way around. They informed me about what it meant to them.
And I don't think it's all uncommon when you are first hitting the ground running as an artist where you're not necessarily taking in what it all means. You're playing a game. It's a board game. You're trying to win the game. How many are here tonight? Who's on the guest list? It's very transactional when you first start out. So I didn't necessarily beginning with even the ability to give that kind of love to the crowd, or accept that kind of—I mean I had to learn to be loved as a human being. Learn how to love correctly. And they deepened the whole enterprise. By meeting people and having them tell me what these songs mean to them—I might have to be super honest and sit here and say I wasn't aware until people made me aware of what it means to them, and now I pretend I always knew. You know what I mean? They deepened that. The crowd gave that to us.
It's really funny man; I'm a lyricist. I love all the different ways there are to explain things, and express things. And I feel usually, lately, the last couple years, really successful making thoughts into words. But the one place I have a hard time with is gratitude. There's not enough words, man. There's only a couple ways to say thank you. I think when I take that stage every night I'm trying to find more articulate ways to say thank you, but gratitude is just gratitude. It's pure. There's no real abstract way—and I'm trying to find it because what we want to do it to let other people know how much we really appreciate it. So the "profusely" thing is, I just learned how to really feel it, and I just want to play with it. I want to use it.
SJ: It's great.
JM: You've been along for this ride. Even when you weren't, you're on the ride forever. If you're lucky enough to make it, you sort of drop in on the conveyer belt of time. You have your moment. You continue with your moment. Times change. You either see what you've developed, stay where it is. Or take a dip, because times move on. Your song you're making is no longer in vogue. And you take your people with you to where ever part of the pasture you are meant to go. And you play the rooms and you have your audience. And that's the dream is that you make it, you have a living, and you watch the world regenerate and come up with new yous and go, Well I had my time.
But for whatever reason that didn't happened to me and I'm still on what feels like the very beginning of this ride. It's almost like the beginning of a brand new ride. When you look at the audience; I'm almost forty and there's twenty year olds in the crowd.
SJ: It's a nine to ninety crowd. It's a very wild audience, and it's a loving audience. You have a great audience. And there are a couple things that happen at your shows: when you let the audience sing, I've never heard an audience sing so in tune. [Laughs] It's completely bizarre. And it's mainly women singing. It sounds beautiful. And even when the guys are singing, everybody's in tune. It's like the craziest thing. It's really quite something.
And even when you don't think you're playing—cause we play different songs every night, which is another thing that's really fantastic—and even when I know you might be doubting if [you] pick the right song.
JM: Every night. It's my new problem.
SJ: But I'm checking—cause the drummer has the best seat in the house—
JM: The only seat in the house.
SJ: Except for, you know, Larry Goldings.
Jeffrey Wright: Steve just made mention of keyboardist Larry Goldings, who's part of the current lineup of John Mayer's touring band. Larry played played on John's albums Continuum and The Search For Everything, and he's also been playing in James Taylor's band for many years and has his own trio.
SJ: So I watch the audience on occasion—more than on occasion—obviously I have one eye on you and then one eye on the audience. Because like, when the audience isn't grooving or if I don't see the people moving, that means I'm not hitting the groove right, or something.
JM: Oh so you have that quick a call and response.
SJ: Oh yeah, because if the audience isn't moving, we're doing something wrong. If we're playing "Moving On and Getting Over" and everyone's not shaking their thing, we're not playing right. Something's got to give. We got to do something.
JM: I have to wait five or six songs to calibrate how the audience sounds, volume-wise. So if you're in one room where it's really easy to hear the crowd, you immediately equate that crowd as being really into it. Especially the next night when you play a room that you can't hear the crowd as well, so then you go, Oh they hate it. By the way, I'm embracing this new thing called self-doubt. I like it. There's some texture to it, I like self-doubt. And then I'll be like, I got to put in an oldie. And it's not until I put in an oldie and that doesn't sound loud either, then I go, Okay it's just a quiet room, I'm sure they're going nuts.
So I'm learning to shape a setlist that doesn't need to come out guns blazing. That tells a story. Cause that is the overall theme of the show. And I'm fighting over the next couple of years—not really fighting—but I'm working really hard to establish myself as a kind of artist—I mean to me Pearl Jam is who you want to make. Doesn't matter what kind of music you make, you want to be Pearl Jam. Every band in the world should want to be Pearl Jam as a template for being artists. And what Pearl Jam did was come off of the track of this binary of whether it's a hit or not, and just really explore the catalogue and spend the time in their shows making that case for their entire catalogue being one organism.
SJ: Alright, we need to take a break right now but don't go away. There's much more to talk about here with John Mayer on Layin' It Down with Steve Jordan.