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Interview with Steve Jordan

Layin' It Down With Steve Jordan, Part 2

Steve Jordan: Welcome back to Layin' It Down with Steve Jordan and my guest today my dear friend John Mayer. This interview is so fabulous that, if I say so myself, you can say that we can make a two-part out of this, which is kind of like what we thought about Continuum for about 48 hours. I had a double album there for a minute.

John Mayer: We had a double album—sitting by the Four Seasons pool we both had a sheet of paper. We're like, Okay what's on your list, what's on this—and we were sequencing it and there's so many other songs for that record that didn't make it.

SJ: You know the ten year anniversary, which is now. Are you thinking about putting some of this stuff out or what?

JM: I think we passed the point.

SJ: Got it. [Laughs]

JM: So it's a little quick to turn around it after 10 years and start celebrating. I fear retrospection. There's no greatest hits album you know, but there is certainly—

I mean there is a "I Don't Trust Myself With Loving You" Part Two. I don't know if you remember this. There's another: [singing] "how wrong, you were, about me." I did that horribly out of tune, I changed keys in the middle. And it was just a kick. We would mute stuff.

SJ: That's right. I totally forgot about that.

JM: It was just like this 10-inch thing, you know, like—don't they call it twelve, it's ten inch?

SJ: You know what, we should do that live. We should work that in.

JM: Yeah we have to find the old track somewhere and use it as a—that to me was the ultimate in my life of making records. I don't know that it's the ultimate record I think it's the ultimate time. This is where it's interesting to dissect what people think of classic is just the right time in their life.

There are songs that are on The Search For Everything that if they were on Continuum people would have been like, still a great record. I use that as a litmus. I go, If "Rosie" were on Continuum that wouldn't have changed the batting average for that record one bit. You know what I mean?

SJ: Absolutely.

JM: [If] "Still Feel Like a Man" were on Continuum it would not have changed the batting average one bit, you know?

But that time of my life, man, was the perfect confluence of everything. It was before every storm. It was right in this beautiful eye of the storm of making it. I had made it, so the storm of trying to make it was over, but the storm of trying to keep it going had yet to hit. Or the storm of how you deal with being a needy little bastard for your whole life and then having the world come to your doorstep.

Right in between these two things was me living in LA up in Pacific Palisades and riding my bike around Venice Beach listening to rough mixes of "I Don't Trust Myself (With Loving You)" and "Belief" and "Dreaming With a Broken Heart" and "Gravity." 

Everything after that got bigger and stranger, but right there was the perfect mix of the music that I was making being great and my life being, like, really, really excellent.

SJ: One thing, said Donnie Ienner—

Jeffrey Wright: Steve is referring Don Ienner who is chairman of Sony Music label group in the late 1990s. In addition to helping John Mayer's career he also worked with Mariah Carey, John Legend, Franz Ferdinand, among many others.

SJ: I had a meeting with Donnie Ienner during Continuum, and he said to me as he was giving me a pep talk—because we had never worked together before, so you know, he was kind of concerned, like okay, you know, whatever—and he said, "whatever you do, John is a catalogue artist."

JM: I love Donnie Ienner by the way. [I] should have said that before you said that.

SJ: And he got you, he understood that you had songs.

JM: I like label bosses. I like them. I like having a boss, I like having a guy who came up in music who can tell me that thing that I think is exciting is not that exciting, or the thing that I don't think is exciting is more exciting than I think. I always liked Donnie Ienner. He was a music guy who was not afraid to give an opinion, and he was right a lot of the time.

SJ: Yeah.

JM: He was right a lot of the time. I always appreciated that. And I feel like a world without the Donnie Ienner type is a little bit less impactful in terms of artists putting music out, because there's nobody to throw a phone. It's hard to look at it now any other way than like, I was never really a hit artist. Any time I had a hit, quote-unquote—or actually had a couple hits not in quotes—they were sort of these outlying, quizzical like, Oh he got one through. I was never cool in terms of being signed in a world where people were super into what I was doing. I was always told, well, they're into this right now, not really what you're doing. So I've kind of always stuck my way around.

And you get to a point where you go, well what did that really bring me? Like what does fighting for hits really bring you? Well everything about it is flawed. The actual ring you're in changes every day so even if you train for a fight that's gonna happen on a Friday and it's a Monday by the time you get to Thursday your opponent could change completely. 

SJ: Yes, it's like the goalposts are moving all the time.

JM: Yeah you age out of it in a certain way and you go look, I know where I want to go to. Now the years in between are uncomfortable they're hugely uncomfortable. If you want to go for longevity in catalog you have to go from being the guy who should play waiting on the world to change every night to the guy who disappoints some people every night.

To become a guy who doesn't have to and therefore can go out any time and bring the same amount of focus and excitement to the entire catalogue, which I believe in. Like I want to get to a time where we're playing so often and this band is so firing off on all cylinders that we bring even more music in.

SJ: Right, yeah, absolutely.

JM: You know, people go, Let's all play more stuff from Paradise Valley.

SJ: I mean I'm getting to know, just personally getting to know, that part of the catalogue that I wasn't as familiar with. They're lovely songs.

JM: Thank you, man.

SJ: Right. They're fun to play and they're so musical and it's just it evens out in a really beautiful way. And here again, it's like, "catalogue." "Catalogue."

JM: I wish that I could tell other artists—it's nothing you can ever explain you have to live through it—that there is life beyond release week for music. And it's called "the rest of your life." 

SJ: Well you know my thing is I always say, you have your whole life to make your first record, and only six months to make your second record.

JM: Yeah. 

SJ: And everything's shorter and shorter. But if you're thinking of it as a whole, then it's like, no you have your whole life

JM: But I got to tell you something that hit me the other night, you're gonna appreciate this. So I've been doing these shows with Dave Chappelle.

Jeffrey Wright: John brought up being a part of Dave Chappelle's current tour. If you haven't seen Chappelle's show, John makes frequent appearances during the comedian's trek across the US where he plays guitar and chats with Chappelle. You never know what will happen when the two of them are on stage together.

JM: I've seen his hour that he's been working up and it's tremendous. It's tremendous and he's crafting it and it's got to a point where it's really really, really good. Not that it ever wasn't, but then I saw him at the Comedy Cellar about three nights ago and he went up and he off the top of his head did at least 90 minutes. And I say at least because I had to leave, I had to go to, we had a show in Syracuse the next day.So I had to be good to myself for the next day. 90 minutes top of his head. Glorious. Was it better than the hour? Less restrained, less contained, less crafted and therefore glorious by comparison in some ways.

And I sat there watching him and I went, oh my god I get it. What I've been doing is buffing, shining, cutting. This precision crafting. And if I do anything like what Dave did for 90 minutes off the top of his head it is a completely different beast and in a lot of ways touches on a whole different element of art than what we think we're doing when we sit and spit-shine. And I thought to myself, I've got to make a record like his set is right now.

SJ: Mm-hmm.

JM:And I don't give myself the opportunity to do that because I'm so exacting, but there is something you lose when you're exacting. Obviously there's something you gain.

SJ: You do that with the Trio.

JM: You do it with the Trio, but you do with a record where you go in and you go, don't be precious. People do want to see sparks fly.

SJ: Right.

JM: And that means you might have a song on a record that's not great. But I think my next record is going to borrow very heavily from that moment that I had where I went, well we are not our best judges. We're not our best judges of our own ideas. 

And so what's falling through the cracks? Because it just doesn't please me at that one moment. But like if I really just let it happen it could be great. So I remember sitting there going, I've got to do a three-month album. Just three months. All right do it in three months which is still long by album making standards, and find out what's there at the top of your head. There's beautiful stuff at the top of your head. But for me—I don't know if most people know this, I don't know if you know it, but it certainly wouldn't be a surprise—as I'm singing live I'm producing my vocals. I'm in front of me as my own gymnastics coach.

SJ: Absolutely. I know that. Of course. 

JM: Going, Eh, didn't hit that, don't worry nobody heard it. Oh yeah, loosen up your breath, a little more breath. Stop it. You are fine. Yeah, okay, nope missed that one, why did we fail, John? As I'm playing.

SJ: I know. I know that.

JM: And lately I've been saying to myself, Doesn't matter just go for it.

SJ: Yeah.

JM: Just go for it. Just sing it, sing it like you don't care. As I get older I'm going to experiment with stopping the real-time coaching.

You know what the hardest thing to do as an artist I think, as an artist who's capable—because if you weren't capable you wouldn't have the problem—is to respect and admire and be influenced and inspired by music and be able to understand what it is you should take from and what it is you should just respect and admire and love and not do.

SJ: Right.

JM: It's the hardest thing for me. It's a lot of who I am as a person, is being a mimic in a certain way. Like when I hear people say like, he's just playing this and this and that and the guitar is just doing this person, that person. That's not untrue. I mixed it up in my songs. My songs are where they get blended. "Slow Dancing in a Burning Room" is my guitar style, I just have to compose a song to do it.

SJ: Right.

JM: But it's just really hard to listen to something and be inspired by it and then go, well I want to do it! There's a very quick turnaround between being inspired by something and wanting to hear yourself do it too. And as I get older I'm starting to learn that not everything I love can be replicated by me, and I'm starting to go, Love it, wish I could do it, can't. 

[brief break]

SJ: This is Layin' It Down With Steve Jordan and my guest today is John Clayton Mayer.

I know from my journey you stopped wanting to sound like somebody else. Like you know once you've been able to mimic—because we're all that way, that's how you get good, that's how you get good. You pick your favorite people and you do the thing and then you nail that down.

Like I remember I could sound exactly like Harvey Mason, I guess sound exactly like Steve Gadd; there was a period of time I could sound exactly like these people. I would even get work as a studio musician because they couldn't get those guys, and then you get to a point where, I don't want to sound like that. I want to sound like me.

JM: I think you forget to sound like that. I think you just naturally drift from it, and you think you're still sounding like that and you're not.

SJ: Right.

JM: Does that make any sense? You think that you're still doing Harvey Mason but you're now doing you. 

SJ: Right. Yeah, or you really fight sounding like that. Especially when you think something is a little bit too buttoned up. You know, my epiphany was my favorite players are just loose, I gotta get loose! I'm too tight, I gotta get loose!

JM: Yeah, I'm doing it too. That's what the Grateful Dead music is for me.

SJ: And I see that. So what's happening with your relationship with Bob?

Jeffrey Wright: Steve is referring to John working with Bob Weir as part of Dead & Company which [was] born back in 2015 and features former Grateful Dead members Bob Weir, Mickey Hart, and Bill Kreutzmann, with former Allman Brothers bassist and southeast DC's own Oteil Burbridge. And keyboardist Jeff Chimenti. And you know Steve has an interesting connection to the members of the Grateful Dead; back in the 90s concert promoter Bill Graham put together a band for John Fogerty's comeback which featured Steve playing with Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir with the Grateful Dead along with Randy Jackson. 

SJ: I know that you've really gleaned a lot of cool stuff from Bob Weir. I mean I've seen it as far as loosening up and doing your thing. What's that been like? I mean, because it's been really successful. Everybody I know, first of all, that has seen Dead & Company with you are like really so happy about the whole situation.

JM: We made the leap. We landed on the other side of the chasm and it was like, Oh you made the jump. And we all did it together over I think a period of three tours, you know, to get where we we're at now. For me personally it's sort of like a hands-on boots-on-the-ground stage thing for me, experience-wise. Bob has taught me the glory of asymmetry.

SJ: Mm-hmm.

JM: I think that's the best overall way to say it. Four times, they should just call me "four times Johnny." Four times nice and square, good. Split in half, still the same thing, great. Bob comes at it from a different way. He's not counting like that. He's feeling it from a whole different place. So even as we're trying to arrange songs at soundcheck and we're trying to like—cause these arrangements are so bendable. You come up with a new arrangement for something at soundcheck. My suggestion is always like do it four times and then "bop!" And we're out.

It's like no, three times and then go into that thing that happens, we'll do that three times and then end and begin on five and a half. Or we do this once. And then go over—There's this thing called "new one," which I'd never heard before.

Have you ever have you heard this?

SJ: [Laughs] No, but this is good. 

JM: So in their planes of the good so basically "a new one" means on whatever hit that's usually a well-known part of the song you just start counting again. There you just start counting again from that instead of calling it a bar of three or a bar five, you go, Oh that's "a new one" right there! Which means forget about counting and just start again when you get it. And I get it now. And I think if you watch, if you have like a hubble telescope on Oteil, the bass player, and my mouth you might see counting from time to time.

SJ: [Laughing]

JM: There's one of my favorite songs, "Playing in the Band," is in ten, so it gets counted off in "five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten." There's this moment in the song that I that I think is like it's three bars of four and then a bar of two. And you just have to go home there's no way you could feel it right but two bars before and a bar of five a new one one new one one new one new one one two three four one it really taught me—

Well the first song that I heard that really roughed me up in terms of being okay with mistakes is "Wooden Ships" by Crosby, Stills & Nash, and there's this run in there that Stephen Stills does. This is raw like by all accounts as a guitar player, it's just a fret off for like two or three, four notes. And I remember being young being like, That's a mistake. It's like, not really. Because you know where it happens when it were recordings give life to choices the repetition of over the playback of a recording gives life to all decisions and all choices so something's off somewhere it might not be off when you finally hear it or when you hear it again thirty years later there's this little run in "Wooden Ships" that to me now it's just the way that goes and that's how you know where you are in the song absolutely and I get that now where I'm usually trying to buff it out I've had a lot of time to buff things out when I work and there are times I want to make highly ornate statements which the search for everything very much is but I want to make one that's a document warts and all. And you start to learn those worts. I learned how to make mistakes from Dead & Company.

SJ: Like a perfect example of that are Rolling Stones records and James Brown; not only do they speed up but when they do whatever wrong chord, every bar band in the world learns that chord and then the song is not right if they don't play it that way.

When the bass player doesn't change key, the rest of the band, if you don't play it like that, you don't know where the song is. You don't know where you are in the song.

JM: That's what I'm talking about "Wooden Ships." It's a moment!

SJ: Even when I'm doing a cover band or a soul band, and we don't do those weird kind of things that were basically mistakes; if you don't do it, it don't sound like the record!

JM: Repetition validates choices when it comes to records. I mean there are massive train wrecks at Grateful Dead concerts and the people love them.

I made a mistake somewhere in Boston—by "somewhere in Boston" I mean it was at a stadium—and I go into St. Stephen and I just left out a whole four bar I mean four six eight bar I may just lost it but and I went, you could hear me in the microphone, "ahh!" The crowd went wild. They're like, Welcome to the fold. They don't care about perfection, they care that you're taking them somewhere you didn't take anywhere else. They care about discovery, they don't care about the mistakes. 

[brief break]

SJ: This is Layin' It Down With Steve Jordan and my guest today is John Clayton Mayer.

I got one last question for you, any plans for John Mayer Trio?

JM: Here's what I feel—I don't have any plans on my mind right now to do it. Part of it is that my voice isn't what it used to be. it's not it's never gonna be like it was and the ability to wail it's just it's just physically limited now by what I had to do to heal it. And I also think it's a younger man's game. Like these hyper-acrobatic kind of smaller things. Like there's not really a precedent for fiery flame throwing guitar playing for a guy who's 40. A lot of those flame throwers didn't live to 40, you know. I look at you and I can't understand how you are able to stay at the absolute highest level of performance for as long as you've been doing this. Because I can even feel as I'm playing the muscles in my forearms just like spasming as I'm playing.

SJ: Yoga.

JM: Oh, is it really yoga? 

SJ: Yeah.

JM: So maybe John Mayer Trio yoga retreat. Could you picture Pino doing a tuck?

SJ: [Laughing] A downward facing dog.

Jeffrey Wright: John's talking about Pino Paladino, aka "Pinot Grigio,"  the most lyrical bassist you ever want to hear who plays bass in the John Mayer Trio. He's also played with a number of other artists over the years including D'Angelo, The Who, Nine Inch Nails, Eric Clapton, and Simon & Garfunkel. Pino and I have done a couple of duets together whereby I play air drums and he does his thing on bass.

JM: Hey I would love to hear Pino's take—I would pay big money to hear Pino do a remote piece where Pino does yoga in Beverly Hills and all the shit he would say under his breath. But there are no plans right now. What do you think?

SJ: Look as you say, it's like after we played three songs in the set and sometimes I wonder, Could we do that for an hour and a half? I don't know.

JM: I don't know. I would have to have enough to say using the Trio vocabulary.

SJ: But the songs—it's just like the way "Vultures" is strategically-placed.

JM: That's right.

SJ: It gives it that body of work. So if you have enough of—here again, the songwriting.

JM: Now that's interesting. It would follow a record. It would have to follow new songs. Otherwise we would be covering songs—we covered a cover of ourselves. We'd be covering ourselves. "Here to perform themselves 10 years ago, please welcome—" 

But what a cool thing, now to have all these different vocabularies that I could use to get a song idea out. I only want to be doing at any moment what is—

SJ: Well we'd have to have new material.

JM: Yeah. New material. Have a new mission statement for doing it.

SJ: Right.

you know I think you know the I bring it up because of the reaction—

JM: Yeah I know, it would be great. Let me ask you this question: We're in the studio, we're making a John Mayer Trio album. People now know about it. They don't know exactly when it's gonna come out, we're in the middle of making it. And we sat down in the studio, we've listening back to what we're doing and it's great. Can I overdub on it?

SJ: Ah, good question.

Hendrix overdubbed.

JM: That's right but they weren't called the Jimi Hendrix Trio, it was the Jimi Hendrix Experience. [Laughs] So you see now well, because you're yourself, we'd be making a John Mayer album with an eye towards being able to play at just the three of us.

SJ: Right

JM: That's interesting. Now what about also a drum machine, that's still just three people.

SJ: I love drum machines.

JM: That's still three people.

SJ: I love drum machines.

JM: Could I use an MPC?

SJ: Yes you could. 

JM: You could play along with that.

SJ: I love that.

JM: Could I trigger loops? that's interesting

SJ: Mm-hmm.

JM: Now that I would do. Because we wouldn't just be doing what we already did. You have to state your case for doing more of a

SJ: Right. I like that idea. Okay.

JM: So we want to announce it's September of next year?

Here's what I say, just make a huge empty promise.

SJ: [Laughs]

JM: Get everybody talking about it.

SJ: And then can it.

JM: Listen hype is the new product, you'd know that if you are an Instagram.

SJ: Uh, see, you know you turned me on to MySpace, I'm still on MySpace.

JM: [Laughs] Everybody please go to MySpace to see Steve Jordan sitting alone in the room. MySpace is waiting for Steve Jordan to cancel his account. The entire company waits on Steve Jordan's checking into MySpace and deleting his profile. Until then the lights are on, the bills are being paid.

SJ: [Laughs]

Thanks, John. Thank you for doing this.

JM: Thank you. Any time.

[end of interview]

Jeffrey Wright: Well that wraps up this week's episode of Layin' It Down With Steve Jordan. My thanks to my brother John Mayer. Be sure to check out his website John Mayer.com for all upcoming tour dates.