Guitarist discusses group’s current tour, how he learned there was more to the Dead than “noodling”
by David Fricke
“It’s 2016, and a lot of things are gone,” singer-guitarist John Mayer told Rolling Stone in advance of his current tour of amphitheaters and stadiums with the Grateful Dead-offshoot band Dead & Company. “A lot of the norms, as we know them, are gone. A lot of things that were comforting to people are gone.”
Related: Bob Weir on Dead & Company’s Future, John Mayer’s Strengths
But at least one great American tradition, Mayer insisted, is still in effect: “You can go see the Dead in the summer of 2016. These are the guys from the Dead. You get to hear the music and have the spirit of that music come alive in the summer with your friends.” Mayer’s first open-air run with Dead & Company – launched in arenas last fall by Dead guitarist Bob Weir and drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart with Mayer, ex-Allman Brothers Band bassist Oteil Burbridge and keyboard player Jeff Chimenti – kicked off June 10th. “As much as I’m committed to making it work from the inside,” Mayer said, “I’m just excited to be there and in that spirit.”
During an hour-long conversation, Mayer recalled his earliest impressions of the Dead as a high-school student; his subsequent, obsessive immersion in the music and culture; the weight and honor of his role in the new band, in the spot and spirit established by the Dead’s late singer-guitarist Jerry Garcia; and his hopes for Dead & Company as a continuing enterprise, on stage and possibly in the studio.
Mayer also expressed one improbable dream for the summer tour. “I’m a masochistic optimist,” he said, laughing. “I hope one night Phil comes down and grabs the bass,” referring to original bassist Phil Lesh, who performs with his own Dead-repertory band, Phil Lesh and Friends. “No disrespect to Fare Thee Well” – the surviving members’ final run of shows last summer – “but that would be fun, wouldn’t it?”
DF: When I first heard you were going to play Grateful Dead songs in a band with original members of the Dead, I thought it was an interesting choice. You weren’t the first one that came to mind either.
JM: I was self-aware enough to know it was going to be a head-scratcher. But I thought it was cool. And it was going to make people go, “What?”
DF: Dead fans are very protective of the legacy.
JM: They guard the gate closely. I understood that from the beginning. I wanted to honorably introduce myself. And I got the sense that as hard as they guard the gate on the way in, they defend you that hard once you’re through.
DF: What are some of the songs you would like to see in the summer-tour set lists, that you didn’t get to play in the shows last year?
JM: I’m really keen to check out “Dire Wolf” and “High Time” [both on 1970’s Workingman’s Dead]. Bob mentioned “Box of Rain” [on 1970’s American Beauty], and I said, “Do I need to reach out to Phil, get his blessing?” [Lesh co-wrote and originally sang the song.] And he said, “Absolutely not. Phil would love it.” The great thing is that its one of those rock-solid core songs that happens to be in my range vocally – but also in my range metaphysically.
These songs have varying reach in terms of singing outside my narrative – my normal, narrative comfort zone. It’s been fun to deliver the story about cheaters and gamblers, hung-over truck drivers – this beautiful, connected universe where I get to sing about that “dusty bottle of whiskey” and the “last fair deal in the country.” I’m trying to make everything both natural and a reach for me. It should be a reach, an evolution, but I’ve been trying to contain that balance.
DF: How are you and Bob choosing which songs to sing, especially those originally sung by Garcia such as “Dark Star”?
JM: Bobby is singing “Dark Star.” The delegating of songs falls into two rules. If Bobby sang it originally, Bobby is still singing it. If Jerry sang it, if my vocal range can get it, I usually go for that song. And it’s really sweet. There are a couple of songs Bob wants to hold on to half of the blanket with, so there are some songs that we share.
DF: “Standing on the Moon” [from 1989’s Built to Last] is one of the Garcia songs you sing.
JM: The version I first heard was a very weak, ill Jerry. To hear that song delivered in that porcelain, beautifully broken voice – I got emotional when I first heard it. It’s so vulnerable. Bob sang it the first time [with Dead & Company]. He was so connected to the song. And he sort of taught me how to sing it, by going the first time. Every time I sing it now, I get choked up. There is something about that song that is so free of the songwriter’s ego. It’s such a one-directional love letter.
DF: We have spoken before about your teenage education in blues, especially Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan. What is your personal history with the Grateful Dead?
JM: I knew the Grateful Dead as a cultural assignment. I didn’t know it as a musical thing. Where I lived, in Fairfield, Connecticut, if you liked the Dead, it was like you were issued clothing. I was going to school with the Deadheads’ younger brothers. I never looked down on it. I was just into Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
It was probably around 2011 when I first got into the music, based on a groove thing – the way the guitar was bouncing around on “Althea” [on 1980’s Go to Heaven]. It wasn’t one of the front-line tunes. It came up on some Pandora algorithm – I don’t remember who the artist was. It was a total, blind taste test.
It was this ephemeral experience. But as soon as you find your first entry, it’s like threading beads on a necklace. I’ll never forget that beautiful, bouncy interlude between the verses in “Playing in the Band” or hearing songs like “Estimated Prophet.” Nobody handed me a record. I took it all in via SiriusXM, the Grateful Dead channel, which I still play for hours each day, whenever I’m in the car.
DF: When I spoke to Trey Anastasio about playing guitar at the Fare Thee Well shows last year, he told me that he spoke to you at one show, with a little bit of advice – to just be yourself when you played with those guys.
JM: Yes – “This doesn’t belong to anybody. It doesn’t belong to you or me or anyone else.” It was loud backstage. There was a drum solo happening [laughs]. But what a sweet guy, who in the middle of his break during one of the most intensive concerts anyone has played, when I asked him about his guitar, he takes it off, puts it around my neck and says, “Check it out.”
It’s the pay-it-forward thing. Someone instilled that in him. He helped instill that in me. And when there’s another guy coming up, I’ll be putting the guitar around his neck.
DF: Trey told me he studied for months, on his own, for Fare Thee Well, before he got to rehearsals. How deep was your study?
JM: I studied for a long time, from April to October, pretty much until we went up [onstage]. I approached it geometrically. Guitar players think in shapes. I’m still picking out stuff. We’re all made out of choices, and those choices are made out of things we’ve heard. You go “Why that?,” “Why there?” and reverse-engineer it.
The thing that is particularly interesting about Jerry’s playing is that nothing is stock. These are newly minted, artisanal ideas, created on the spot. And there are a couple of things in there that are essential to the music floating and not sinking. They are easy to learn but take a lifetime to master. You have to remember it every time you play. It’s so much slower than you think.
When I was growing up, everybody said it was noodling. There is a little noodling. “Space” is noodling. But I was listening to Jerry play [Jimmy Cliff’s] “The Harder They Come.” In his solo, he plays the melody line – the vocal line. It’s the most tasteful thing I’ve ever heard. Just when you’re ready to put the label on him, there’s another song that makes you write a new label.
DF: How did you take all of that study, the lessons from the permutations, into rehearsals and performance when you had to play with the rest of the band – put it into context with Bob’s guitar or the double drumming?
JM: The best way to put it is it’s like being on a horse. You get thrown off, and you’ve got to chase after the horse and get back on it. And you have to do it within a measure. And you can’t get in your head about it. Here’s another analogy: If you’re boxing with a trainer and you get in your head about it, the trainer’s gonna hit you in the head because you dropped your guard. I would record these rehearsals, go back to L.A. on the weekend, play them for people and go, “Look, there it is.” It would be there for eight seconds in a solo, like “Estimated Prophet,” then disappear again.
The “it” is some sort of fluid phrasing that is totally embedded in the spirit of the song – that is interesting but not histrionic, interesting but not repetitive. It’s like catching air – floating. What I’m trying to do and what Jerry was so brilliant at – I told Bobby one time, “Man, I was watching [footage of] Jerry playing ‘Bird Song’ last night. This guy hung out in the same part of the [guitar] neck for so long.” Jerry would set up camp for the night in one part of the neck, cooked the meal, took his tent down, put out the fire – and then moved on to the next part of the neck.
A lot of the great Seventies stuff, especially 1977 and ’78, is very mellow. The guitar has this wonderful breath, this inhale-exhale to it. People have already made their judgement of whether I can cut it. I’m not saying it’s all gone. But the people that are going now are going because they like a particular aspect of what I’m doing. Now I can make this the sequel. I’ve introduced myself. Now I’m interested in having a concert where I can point at the [amplifier] speaker and go, “Look, it’s a bird that doesn’t need to flap its wings. It’s just flying. Listen to that.”
DF: When I asked Bob if Dead & Company had a future in the recording studio, making an album, he suggested an interesting proposition: combining new material with songs he felt the Grateful Dead never fully realized in the studio. Are there songs you feel you are shaping and changing as a member of this band?
JM: That would be the most treacherous thing in the world for me to do. I have to be careful to never look at this as placing myself in someone else’s shadow or spotlight – [meaning] Jerry. If there was a way to do it that was loving and not revisionist history …
DF: Just paying it forward.
JM: That sounds really exciting – to do half that, half new stuff. I’d like to see what the vibe is by the end of the summer. I have this feeling-slash-dream – that the shows, as they go this summer, will attract more people. There’s something about a summer Dead tour that people have to see to understand.
DF: You’ve also had the test run last year. Now is your chance to fly.
JM: I’m gonna fly by flapping my wings just a little slower and a little less – just let the wind take me. I listen back to the tapes from the last tour and go, “OK, that’s a little verbose. Let’s get to the point where the guitar is more like a trumpet, more Miles Davis.” That’s what Jerry was doing a lot of the time, not getting exceedingly verbose on the guitar. A lot of his comping was on one string – he wasn’t even playing chords.
That’s what’s so great about this music. You get one DNA strand incorrectly, and it’s not the Grateful Dead. It’s not their music. I’m on a journey of finding out what is essential to the mix and how I can do that – which part of my voice I can add and which part of the original voice needs to be there.