Dean Delray: I cannot thank you enough for coming over today. John Mayer is here. I've been chasing this for three years.
John Mayer: Really? It just feels to me like every time I've seen you you've just charmed me without, like, you know—I saw you at the store a few times and the conversation you launch into. I go, this guy is into all the same stuff I'm into.
DD: That was the whole reason I wanted ya.
JM: The watch you were wearing, the things we were talking about. You're talking about Dumbles and I'm like, how does he know about Dumbles—these amplifiers that there's probably three hundred of in the last forty years.
DD: I love all the same stuff you love. It's like watches Dumbles, vintage guitars, acoustic small bodies.
JM: Oh, love it. How did we get there? You and I are very different in a lot of ways, but what do you think happened to us that made us take shelter in all of these different little material things that—we actually take it further than it being material—but what do you think it is about the two of us in our lives that make us so consciously materialistic?
DD: I really believe, to me, that it's the thrill of the chase because if most of the stuff that we liked was easy to get I wouldn't really care. I think that it's all about [what] gets me out of bed each day, right? Or else it could just be I'm in bed for life.
JM: I never really got out of my room on tour ever, especially overseas. And the thing that gets me out of my room is basically all the friendships that I made collecting watches, you know? Someone's got a store, someone's a dealer, someone wants to go to dinner. So that actually got me out of my room, that got me out of the curse of the "bowling ace" in every city.
DD: What would keep you in the room, was it depression or—because when I toured a long time playing music I was just hungover, fried. But now I'm a comedian and I don't party or I'm hitting the street.
JM: Oh, I quit drinking three years ago, which leveled my life out in 99% of a good way. And I find—I used to travel with like a recording rig, it was all gadgetry. Recording rig. You gotta have your interface and your microphone and your headphones and your this and your that. And I'd have Pelican cases—that's the other thing I'm a freak about, is Pelican case. I love building a Pelican case. I think I'm the best at it. I think I'm the best there ever was at building them.
DD: I love that.
JM: Oh my god. Double layer, triple layer, stacks of things, and I used to bring all these gadgetry toys. And now it's like aroma diffuser, candle, white noise machine. So it became like this culture of taking care of myself and maybe that went a little too far and I'm a little addicted to alone time. So this is like what I try to explain to my friends is that when you come off tour it's a little—your brain is mush because you begin to have a kind of a Stockholm Syndrome with your hotel room. Like have you ever done a gig where you were motivated by going back to your room?
DD: Oh, 100%.
JM: It's the weirdest thing in the world, right? Because here's the thing you gave your entire life to do and all you're thinking about is: I can't wait to get back into sweatpants and climb into bed and play on my phone and I have another eighteen hours to myself.
DD: I noticed that with you when I was backstage at the Boulder gigs, the Dead and Co., you were gone the second the last note was played and I was like, “oh shit, your bus was already gone.”
JM: I mean I've done things to streamline touring so that I'm able to do it all year. Right it might look to other people like it's a little unfriendly but it's really not, it's just like the only way I can play this many shows is to get in and get out. Is to really see, to really basically shorten the time before the show and after the show and shorten the time in each city so that you can keep doing it and replicating everyday, everyday, everyday the same show or the same feeling. But I mean I think as soon as I'm done with a place I'm done with a place. One of my least favorite things to do is play a city and sleep there. There's something hard for me—I never do after-shows in a city I've just played in. It just feels like the mission is accomplished.
DD: Are you an only child?
JM: I'm a middle child. Are you a middle child?
DD: I'm an only child.
JM: Okay, [I] thought maybe that was the thread.
DD: I think a lot of my thing comes from only child. I have no problem being alone and sometimes when there's too many after-shows, a lot of back slapping, grabbing ya, drunk. People don't realize how loud they are, how aggressive.
JM: You ever have someone's beer spittle on your lip? Just IPAs coming off and it's on your lip. Two or three of them on your lip as you're talking.
JM: There's a lot of psychological work that we have to do when we meet other people, because if you think about it we are trying to make it okay for other people to be meeting us. Like I find myself being as helpful as I can to people who are meeting me, who I think I understand the mindset now where I can be a little more idea than man. I know people are going to a meet-and-greet waiting you know—they don't just appear out of thin air—they're in a line from about 15 minutes. What do I say? So a lot of what I do when I meet other people— you probably have this too—is putting other people at ease. Just helping people feel comfortable, and I think that takes a lot of energy. It's not just this quid pro quo of like 'hey man what's up'. You're responsible for other peoples' emotions.
DD: You don't want to be a dick, but you get into this finesse game of like, “Alright, you got two minutes, all right cool.”
JM: Like you got to find the sweet spot between not being a dick and not being phony either. You have to find a point of connection that doesn't make someone leave the room and go like 'was he even there'? I’ve met people that were so famous and so bothered that I could tell they gave me five percent of their personality. That guy just gave me five percent, you know? Like I've met some super, super big guys and I'm like I really don't think he knows anything about what he just said to me. I got five percent out of that guy.
DD: I think about that a lot because I just had Paul Stanley on and he's 67 and he's talking to me on a podcast and I'm like—I mean it wasn't set up with a publicist or anything, it was set up, you know? So it amazes me that somebody puts in that amount of time...
JM: Absolutely. I mean look, people just want to be interested. People want to be intrigued. There are things you can say to a stranger to get them to talk. There are things someone can say to me at a table that would make me put my fork down and talk. You know, we're all still accessible, you know? I think it's a matter of what's the thing that genuinely intrigues someone else you're talking to, and every time I ever ran into you your topic of conversation was like, ah I can rock on that all day. I think what you and I have in common is this love of differentiating. Right? Like if everybody was into the stuff you were into, you might migrate to something else. You and I have the same phone.
Most people already have the same phone and already have the same apps on their phones and already have the same point of view on things and so for us I think we're looking for these kind of outskirts of thing, these little places to set up camp with real tall grass that no one's run down yet. Then what's interesting is that you and I had settled there for years and then it's interesting when you were the only person to be into something and then thousands of other people are into the thing you're into and then it gives you kind of a seniority for a minute. Right? Like with watches, how long have you been collecting or interested in watches?
Watch Collecting (19:02)
DD: Well since I saw James Bond probably in the sixth grade wearing the James Bond stuff. That's how I got into it.
JM: And so you were buying multiple watches ten years ago when people were saying, Oh, why would you buy this many watches?
DD: Oh, I always hear people, you know, "That amount of money for a watch? You're out of your mind."
JM: You don't hear it so much anymore though, right?
DD: No no no no. Not that and guitars. I mean what a lot of people don't— I've said this over and over: I'm not rich. I have no money. But I have good skills of eventually flipping—I call them parachutes—so I can keep doing art. So early on I was buying blackface Deluxes and Super Reverbs and pawn shops in the 90s when I was on the road. And I was selling those things at Hollywood Guitar Center for ten times the money to keep going. To not work a job. Combing Craigslist. All kinds of shit.
JM: That overlaps with what I have a serious addiction to which is like Googling specs.
DD: Oh, once I like something, I know everything about it.
JM: And what's funny is if you told me when I was in middle school. If I was in a library in Middle School and you said, "You see that card catalog over there? You are gonna flip your shit for that card catalog in 30 years." And I'd be like, What are you talking? "No you're just gonna love looking things up. And you know the Dewey Decimal System, you're gonna love it. It's gonna be for watches and you're gonna learn every reference number."
What could be theoretically more boring than a reference number for a watch, and yet for us they're like visual numbers. I say 5513 you know what I mean.
DD: Yeah. 1016.
JM: See it. Explorer One.
You start saying these things. Who would have ever thought that I would be interested in this sort of mathematics? Are you like me where you will buy something, and you were pretty well-informed the day you bought it, but once it's in hand then you Google everything about it so that it—
DD: Oh, I do that out of paranoia.
JM: Oh, to make sure you got the correct one
JM: Oh, that's interesting.
DD: So I get it and I realize I know pretty much 99% on it and then I'll see something I'll go, I don't think that's right. Then I grab books and then I find out, Oh this one particular year they change these two screws. I got the right one!
JM: Okay so there is one that has a closed nine on the date wheel. So look at it sort of like glass half-empty, I look at it like, I know the thing I have is real, but I want to get my money's worth. The only way you can get your money's worth, especially when things are kind of like gross in terms of how much they cost. Cause my parents were educators, so I still have that as a point of reference. I have my parents annual salary as a point of reference that keeps me grounded.
So when there's something I know would have made my parents sick to their stomach to see the number on, it's like I feel like I don't get the most out of the item unless I Google it to the very last spec both on the spec sheet on the manufacturer's website, and then I go into forums. And then I go into Instagram hashtags. I want to see everyone wear it, what does it look like. I will keep looking and looking and looking and that's what a lot of Rolex collectors have done.
DD: You ever get burned?
JM: I've gotten burned.
DD: I got burned recently selling a watch to a guy. A supposed friend. I sold it to him, he goes, I'll pay you the rest later and just said, No I'm not paying you. And I'll fill you in on that person later.
JM: It's funny because he was an instrument dealer, music instrument dealer, and he asked me—and I bought stuff from him before. And he asked me did I have anything that I wanted to let go of because he had a bunch of buyers. And I think he did for a time. And I started looking through what I had and I went, Well maybe it's time to start selling stuff off.
I gave him a Dumble Overdrive Reverb.
DD: Because you didn't like that one? We'll get into the Dumbles, you got a bunch.
JM: I thought, You know it's not the one I've fallen in love with the most, and I really worked hard to track it down and it involved a relationship and somebody trusting me and seeing that I was gonna be the guy to own it.
And I remember driving off this guy's out of this guy's driveway with a Overdrive Reverb and a 410 EV cab. The thing was so preserved they took the road case lid off and the foam crumbled out. It decomposed. The thing was absolutely perfect.
And okay well I hadn't fallen in love with that one, and so I'm gonna weed and seed, make some room. A little more money back and just sort of start doing what most normal people do which is to don't own everything. And a couple of other things—and they were important things—and took them and ran.
Kept saying he would pay me, kept saying he would pay me. Filed for bankruptcy. Had to go to court, had to do all this stuff. And I think every musician at some point has to know that there's stuff out there that they got ripped off on.
Keith Urban came across the Dumble Overdrive Reverb and I think he bought it.
DD: Oh shit.
JM: And so it's not his fault. Enjoy the amp. You bought it fair and square. You didn't get screwed.
DD: Is it considered stolen?
JM: That's a really good question. It's not considered stolen. The money that was owed to me is considered stolen. The item itself—this is where it just gets unfun right?
DD: That's brutal, man.
JM: It's really weird. So here's the game of watches or here's what it was up until the sort "brand new" game came into town, which is like, buy it brand new and you can flip it the next day for three.
This also goes to sort of the dawn of using the Internet to create information. Like using the Internet to spawn new information. Somebody called the green Submariner the "Hulk." One guy. And it stuck and it gave him he got his jollies. And it's probably good for that watch because people now go I want the "Hulk." So if you own four of them good for you. You're up thousands of dollars.
And this is the war out there now—and it has been this way for ten years—is like, stare at the watch you already own, see if there's anything different about it, and name it. If you can name it like a rail dial. Somebody just realized that superlative chronometer officially certified lines up a certain way. Rolex didn't care. But it means you don't have to go out and buy another watch you can just say, Oh there's a new spec in town.
It's almost like astronomy, like discovering a new star in the sky and getting to name it. Like the Batman was originally called the "Bruiser." Batman stuck. Steve McQueen, 1655 Explorer II. You never wore that watch. Somebody managed to follow suit with the Paul Newman naming and went, Ah it's Steve McQueen, and it worked!
So it's this game of like manipulating the information which I'm not into doing. I'm not even into people flipping things for 3x. I think it's bad for everybody. We didn't buy these watches brand new because we wanted to flip. We wanted to wear 'em.
DD: And the big bummer to me John is, if I get on the list for a 5711. Now if I got it, I really couldn't even wear it. Because it's worth like $70,000.
JM: I think that you should wear it like you just bought it, and you can get it again anywhere. The only way to really be a true watch guy is to just rip it out of the packaging and just start banging it up. That's the only way to prove your loyalty to the watch gods is to just start wearing it and forget about the secondary market thing, which is so dirty.
For people who've been doing this for a decade and longer, there's kind of just a grossness to it. A steel nautilus is an entry-level Patek Phillipe that should be fun to buy. You should throw it on and you should beat the hell out of it. And I don't think they look good until you beat the hell out of it.
You just should beat it up. Those watches are not supposed to be babied. It's why they made them out of steel. I have a 5164 and it's so beat up. First of all those bezels are made to be chewed up. Anything that has a flush bezel to me, you're just asking for it.
So it's just weird to like see this spike in enthusiasm for a thing that you and I had been enthusiastic about in our own way. I'm wearing a Piece Unique Aquanaut that I bought ten years ago for fun off [of] a guy. He goes, "Yeah this person ordered one of each color. Blue, white, maroon, and green." I've got the green one. I went, Yeah I want the green one. It's cool! I don't know what it's worth now to have a Piece Unique Aquanaut that's green and has a red second set. I don't care!
DD: It's insane. Isn't that from Dubai? Did they make that for India or Dubai, that color the green one?
JM: It depends. I think it could have been Asia. But they do a lot of stuff for the Arab market with emeralds. But isn't it fun? I've had it for ten years and I just pulled it out the other day and I went, Oh that's a fun little thing now that everybody's wearing the green.
Early Career and Success (29:39)
DD: First of all I want to lay this out here when you came on in the scene, I guess it was like 2001, I was still playing music and I gotta say me being a fan of you or enjoy what you do has changed my life in a way. When you came out, I was like ah, fuck that guy. I played music, I was like, "this guy," it was just a jealousy thing. And I realized it over the years that's all it was because I played kind of Americana music and somebody comes out "boom" they're big, they're everywhere.
And I realized over the last I would say six years or so I changed and it made me for the better as far as, I just judged you and, how people judge me when I walk up and they're like "look at this fucking rock and roll dude"and I realized fuck I don't like when people do that to me and so as I dug into more more about you, I was just like this guy's amazing and now I shout it out hard man.
JM: Well you know, thank you. And I understand what you're saying, and I would also take a little off your shoulders and say that I changed too. And when I first started out—see I don't think people really understand what it takes to break out of your town. The force that you must take or must put out to break out of your family, to break out of your house, to break out of your town, to sleep on your friend's couch in the basement, to make it through that. To not give up. You probably need about four times as much force than most people would expect. You have to really drive through a steel wall. And what happens is, you don't know you're through and you're still going hard. If I had to do it over again, and I truly had the perspective to know that I was gonna make it and I did—meaning, like, okay your first record is out, people love it, you're good, you're good to go. Pull back the throttle, drop the booster rockets, you're good to go. I would have behaved completely differently.
But looking back on it from that perspective looking out—like I was still pushing it was only two years removed from me living in my parents house —but it took so much force to break out of that. You know your friends' parents telling you you're not gonna make it. Saying you want to be a musician. You're gonna be a rock star or a guitar player or whatever. At that time it was me saying I'm gonna be a blues player, I'm gonna play the blues—I want to go away and play blues—you know, it sounds crazy when you say it in Fairfield, Connecticut. But then you make it and and I have, that's why I have so much grace for other people if you're still in the if you're still in the first few years of making it, you're in the rocket ride and nobody can tell you you're good. Nobody can tell you you don't have to worry, you just keep pounding pounding pounding.
So my point is that I didn't make it all that easy to see someone like myself who to a certain degree things came easy to and for all to be kind of aggressive, kind of intellectually show-offy, kind of overly sarcastic. I mean the only thing I could have done to really not rub people wrong would have been to have low self-esteem.
That would have been really good for me if I had crippling self-esteem issues.
DD: Like a Cobain style.
JM: Yeah I mean that makes it really easy on people, and it would have been easier for me and I probably did but not in a conventional way and so I just looked at it like: “I want to be great, and I'll tell you when I'm not and I'll tell you when I am.”
And I'll tell you when I'm not, I have no problem.
JM: People have no idea how many songs I throw away, but the ones that I think are great, I think I've always thought were great. You can't change my mind on.
DD: You can kind of tell when you have a great song, it really just starts to stick in your own head.
JM: Yeah, it plays like a radio in your head. If I get home from writing a song in the studio I play a little game. I go, “sing it. Can you sing it?” And if you can't sing it to yourself after you've worked on it all day, if you can't sing the song when you're brushing your teeth it's trashed. If you have to press play to remind yourself how it goes and you just wrote it three hours ago, it ain’t ever gonna stick.
DD: But when you get that one lightning boy, I mean let's just say "Your Body Is a Wonderland".
JM: I don't think that's a lightning song.
JM: No I don't think it is, I think it's a novelty song, in the sense that like if you think about what makes a hit song from a new artist, it's a novelty song.
DD: Well it's got a monster hook, though.
JM: Sort of, but sort of not. It sort of doesn't, I mean this is where I'm really honest, like I'll tell you—you bring up a song that I think is great I'll talk about it like someone else wrote it. I’ll go, Now that's a great song, because I've always been divorced from that. I think that's what rubbed people wrong, is that I'm divorced from the fact I made it. Do you know what I’m talking about?
DD: You never rubbed me wrong, it was my own fuckin’ assholeness.
JM: I'm telling you think it was a joint effort.
DD: When you're like me and you grow up and you look and you go, this guy looks great, he plays great, he sings great. Oh! Fuck this guy!
JM: Well you know, I would say to that: just wait, cause corrections take place.
I wish that young people could have the empathy that older people have because your empathy is directly related to your experience. And it's only after you realize the gray area in life where you can try your hardest and still be an asshole, where it just takes time to realize how to communicate with the world. And that by the time you realize how to cooperate and communicate with the world you've burned some bridges. And that's okay. Sometimes you get in a fight with your significant other and you're like, this fight should be happening. This is not an out of nowhere fight. This is a good fight, this is supposed to take place.
And sometimes I see other people be so extreme in their black and whiteness. Taking other people down and—one day something will happen to you where you'll realize you said something you didn't mean or behaved a way you didn't mean to behave, or had a year where you were drunk, and then you'll forgive other people in the midst of their doing thing.
I watch people online all day and I go, come on man, you can do it. Even if they're being a total asshole, I root for people cause I know how hard it is. You know?
DD: Oh, I do too. I know what's going on with them, their evilness is just—
JM: It’s an invention! It's like, David Geffen in the American Masters—I forgot what they called this, that PBS series of documentaries on like American Masters, I think it was called. The very first thing David Geffen says is something to the effect of: all artists, to some degree, are an invention that they made up. And this is a horrible paraphrasing, but that's the takeaway from it. And I still look at people—everybody's a dumb idiot who just made choices to invent themselves. And some people have better taste in their invention, and some people just don't. But no matter how big your name is you're still a little human-sized person inside the robot. And I just look at people’s robots and I go, “You're doing your robot wrong. You programmed your robot —I hope you figure it out." But I never personalize it because I know how hard it is out there.
So you know it's, I think you're kind of saying the same thing. Whatever your empathy level is for how you felt about me it's probably directly related to your experience since then. I just think empathy and experience are related. Very few people—maybe like the Dalai Lama—can have empathy for a thing he's never experienced. But you pretty much in life have to go through it to get it.
DD: You do, you know, and also I think it was just for me once I stopped playing music I became a serious music fan again because you're out of the business.
DD: So I stepped out of the business and I stepped out of the grind—I'm in a different grind now, comedy, but once I got out of it—and it wasn't competition or anything to me—but it gets into that thing of your life of like, “how come how come it's not happening, I'm out here 25 years, I got a great record, I got a different [...]," you know? And I was never doing it to be famous or rich or anything, but I did want to be able to keep doing it.
JM: I understand. I feel the same way. And I have to say the difference is I've never experienced the ground hitting me when it came to putting music out. So I can't ever really say that I know how I would deal. And I have a feeling I wouldn't have taken it well.
JM: I really think that if I hadn't hit the ground running I think the ground would have kicked the shit out of me. I think it's important to remember that as things continue to sort of still stay in orbit for me career-wise, that I have a feeling that I would have been a complete and total fuck up if things didn't go my way. I don't think I would have tolerated it super well. I think I would have always done it but I think it might've eaten me alive. I'm not sure
JM: But I think it's a good healthy thing to always hold out this little idea that you're never quite sure how good a person you would have been if it didn't go your way. And of course things have come along the way that have been challenging and now for me it's like you said, like I'm not really gonna be able to judge my future work based on commercial success because the world is just different.
DD: Oh, absolutely.
JM: Both age-wise I'm just different than young people, and you could say that the terrain is so different now that it's just so hard to understand if something's working or something's not working. I think everybody just takes a smaller piece of the pie, that's all. More pieces to go out to people, and that's cool right like, I enjoy the equality of that in art right now. That everybody can get a slice of the pie the problem is that the slice keeps getting smaller for each person and every Thursday night on Instagram there's 200 songs coming out.
JM: There's more songs coming out per week than there are minutes to listen to songs.
DD: That’s crazy.
JM: And it's wild and I think for me the only judge of whether I'm making it or not is: are my ideas safe in the sense that they will be made if I want to make them. That's what we're talking about. It's like, can I have job security so that if I have an idea I can still make it? I wouldn't want to be fighting for the opportunity to make music and alongside fighting to make great music. That's already a fight in itself, like, going into the studio and trying to hash out this idea you have in your head for this song and come out with the best version of what you had in mind. But also figure out how you're gonna do that.
That would be—as long as I don't have to do that, as long as I'm safe emotionally in the shower having a song idea going, we can do that, we can make a phone call. You want a string section? We can get a string section. That to me is making it. And again it sounds like it's corny but making it for me is if I'm in the shower and I have an idea for a song I don't have to worry about how can I get it done.
DD: Well you created that kind of safe space. I mean you had some hits, you know, you got "Daughters." All these hits, but then you go “oh, here's the blues band."
JM: Yeah, it's always been a mess.
DD: Yeah, but what's great about that is you didn't box yourself into, “I’m just this radio guy.”
JM: Sure. True.
DD: And then getting into Dead and Co. later is a complete freedom landscape.
JM: I think it took 15 years for people to understand me and the thing that had to take place was 15 years of decisions had to sort of come to light so you could see that really what it is, is this inability to sit still. It's actually just pure curiosity. That's what you and I DM about, that's what we talk about, it's pure curiosity.
JM: And I think if you're just making one record you can't see the picture, if you’re making two records you can't see the picture, but then you go off and do this other thing you want to do that you're curious about which is the power blues trio which is me and Steve Jordan and Pino Palladino. I remember that, that was a war with the record company.
DD: That had to be!
JM: "Daughters" was the last thing I had done before I went out to do John Mayer Trio.
DD: You know how mad they must have been, it's right up there with when Neil Young signed with Geffen and then turned in the electronic record.
JM: What was it? Trans. Yeah
DD: And then they're suing him. I mean—that is the lockdown right there. I think that is where John Mayer branched off and it was like, “you don't own me and I'm not a pop guy.”
JM: I had to—I don't even think of it like as much I had to go and do this particular thing, it was I have to not do this again.
JM: I remember talking about being triangulated like, okay "Your Body Is a Wonderland" was a hit and "Daughters" had just been a hit. And I mean, it's on the record I didn't want "Daughters" to be a single for the very reason that I didn't want to be pigeonholed as this super sensitive guy. But once "Daughters" was a hit—and god bless everyone at Columbia for sneaking it on the radio and showing me that it really could be that big—and I wouldn't take it back now, but I remember going, The next thing I do, if it's a soft rock ballad is going to lock me in for life as that guy.
And the Trio thing came out of breaking out of that box.
DD: That was a genius move. I mean cause look at what was going on: Jack Johnson, you know, Dave Matth—they were really trying to, record companies they'll be like “oh shit we got some kind of formula going.”
JM: Yeah that's true, there was a thing that worked which was this kind of sensitive sweet thoughtful acoustic-based thing, you know.
JM: And then I just went, well remember this isn't what I wanted to do. Like I wrote these songs—it's difficult to talk about these songs that are so meaningful to people and I love them so when I talk about them I talk about them like my kids. I hate that analogy but, you write these things because you're alone with a guitar. Nobody sits alone with a guitar and writes a rock song.
DD: Oh I say that I can write a thousand ballads, writing a rock song on an acoustic, almost impossible.
JM: You’d sound like a crazy person [sings hard rock melody], just playing an acoustic—people would walk by: “what's going on in that house?” If someone overheard you singing a ballad with an acoustic guitar—you play what an acoustic guitar can support. It ends up being 85 beats per minute, man. You know, and so these songs came from me not having a band, from me wanting to reach this other place as a lyricist. But it wasn't the whole picture and what my point is, the whole picture doesn't come out for 15 years, when you realize, "oh, he’s kind of a crazy person in the sense that you've got to zoom all the way out to see the picture.”
DD: Which is genius. That's what I love about you. I went backwards with you, so I go from Dead and Co.
DD: You know when I get the text, secretly, from a guy at Paul Reed Smith, and he says look at this, making this guitar, John Mayer is gonna be in Grateful Dead, he said. And I was like, fuck you. I’ll show you the texts, I was like, no. And then they made the announcement and I was floored. And from there I started peeling backwards.
JM: Oh, that's cool.
DD: It was really cool because I'm a huge John Hiatt guy, I'm an alt-country guy, I love Lucinda Williams, and then I get to these records, these Montana records.
JM: Oh yeah you get to like Born and Raised, and it's all right there, yeah.
DD: And I’m going like, Hey man, I didn't listen to any of this stuff, this is great.
JM: Thank you.
Songwriting, Willie Nelson, Sting, Led Zeppelin, and Pearl Jam (46:12)
DD: And so I'm going backwards, and then of course I knew the hits from a long time ago, but then I went and dug into those records anyway, like, wow. And then I started getting into the songwriting, then the voice and then the production. Everything. I was like, all this shit is great.
JM: It's almost like savings bonds, and they weren't worth all that much when I got ‘em, and if you just stick with it and keep playing and you're true of heart, you know, then it means something years later. You look down and you go, oh, these are different because they don't make these anymore.
It's kind of what we're talking about, like, these things are discontinued. They also, to some extent, have been discontinued from me in the sense that I'm not the same person who could ever write those. I brought this up to a few people and they go, “no that's not true," because they don't want to think that it's true but it might be true. That I might no longer possess the kind of psychic energy necessary to write something like "Stop This Train." I'm not sure that I would sit in a room alone and write twelve verses for a song with that much intention, with that much need to create, with that much fire. As you get older you don't write twelve verses and pick the best four. Young people: [sings made-up wordy lyrics], and I go, this is gonna kill me. I can't. When I was younger: [singing quickly] "welcome to the real world she said to me, condescendingly, take a seat, take your life, plot it out in black and white"—we're halfway through. And at this point as I get older I go, I don't know that I could ever summon that much energy to go da-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba [...].
DD: It’s almost like joke-writing.
JM: Oh, is that true?
DD: When you’re first writing jokes—
JM: That's setup city.
DD: It’s dense dense dense. Later on you realize it’s “bop, bop, boom”.
JM: That's right, that's right! “Bop, bop, boom”.
DD: That's right and that's also a great song formula.
JM: Okay so the song that is for me now the benchmark of songwriting is "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain".
DD: Oh, yeah.
JM: I drew it out. I'll sometimes map a song—I'll listen back to it. I'll just want to understand it genetically, and I like, write the song out. I listen to "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain." I took a blue pen when it was not the hook, I took a red pen when it was the hook. I counted the number of lines. The thing, you could fit it on a cocktail napkin. The whole song. And [sings] “blue eyes crying in the rain” comes when you least expect it and it just keeps resolving and you get a bridge in the first forty seconds and it's perfect. If I could have ever written "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain" I would have. That's just the most genius thing ever written because it's, “bop bop boom”.
DD: That’s it. It’s weird when you listen to the new country now. They don’t even have pre-chorus anymore.
JM: Yeah, right, pre-chorus is gone.
DD: It’s really bizarre. That’s a little bit of the ADD too. It’s just kind of like [singing] “driving down that road, here we come—big time on the mountain!” And you’re like “whoa?! already?!”
JM: [Laughing] It's also I think taking away B sections and bridges takes a layer of a song away. The bridge to me was always the “but also," or “and additionally," or “but conversely." If you're writing a song that is "screw you," the bridge should always be like, “eh but it's probably me too."
JM: That's a wonderful place to expound on your thought. and when the bridge is gone—I love bridges.
DD: I do too.
JM: No one writes a bridge like Sting. That's the king of bridges to me. You know "All This Time", that song? [singing Sting]. He's the bridge master. I don’t understand a lot of the references—a lot of ships and ponies. Doesn’t matter.
DD: I'm a huge Police guy. Ghost in the Machine, to me [...]
JM: I know every Police song. I know it through the box set. I’m one of these kids who don't know what songs on what record. I just know it was like—the box set was the original playlist.
DD: It really was!
JM: I don't know what record it's from, I can't tell you what Brimstone & Treacle is on but I know how this song goes. I think it's disc four of the box set, I don't know.
DD: Are you a Zeppelin guy?
JM: Good question. I happen not to be a Zeppelin guy. It never caught me.
DD: It still could though.
JM: It still very much could. Um, the vocabulary isn't my vocabulary. Jimmy Page playing a, basically, you know, a Gibson—whether it's an SG or Les Paul—that's a different sound for me. I’m a Strat guy. Everyone I love comes from the Strat sound. I also am a melody geek. Now there's certain—like I think "Going To California", is that what it’s called?
DD: Beautiful, yeah.
JM: That song is outstanding.
JM: Outstanding. I mean Blind Faith probably wishes they wrote that. So, you know it sounds like a—anybody would have killed for that song, and you know anything that has melody in it I can get into but when it gets into like bluesy Led Zeppelin, it’s just genetically just a little outside of my zone. Just by a little bit.
DD: I'm 53, how old are you?
DD: So I was deep into that when what I called the “Strat and a hat” era. Where Stevie comes—
JM: That’s funny, I love it.
DD: Yes, it’s great. Strat and a hat. And everybody went and bought a Strat and a hat.
JM: That’s right. The most famous and successful being Mike McCready from Pearl Jam.
JM: Who was basically Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan off to the side of the stage wearing the hat and Strat. And it was awesome to me. I mean I'm a Pearl Jam fanatic.
DD: Love em.
JM: And a thing that adds another layer to that band is that the solos were basically Jimi Hendrix solos.
DD: It’s funny too that he was able to do that because Eddie—you think of Eddie would maybe lay down the law right on that, but I think that Eddie definitely knew we do need some rock here.
JM: That's what made it great. You got Eddie Vedder who is like, probably existentially torn for life between the melody he loves and the rock gods he admires.
DD: Right, absolutely.
JM: The moment he wanted to be the most melodic person in the world you know he can. You know he can open the can of whoop-ass when it comes to melodies but it's like his Fugazi brain, he just can't leave "Spin the Black Circle," and "Hail, Hail"—it has to be ugly. And I and I get into this all the time right like people feel right now—and it's a different way in pop music—but people have always felt like things couldn't be too pretty. And I never had that problem. I think it can't be pretty enough.
DD: Oh, well I worship Prince, you know, so. That’s all beautiful the whole time.
JM: I can't get enough pretty.
DD: And I'm a ballad freak.
JM: You can't be too pretty with music. You can't be, and look I've never been cool in any one year that I had my record out. Maybe Continuum for a second. But the rest of the time I was like “no no no, these are the people who we think are cool, you're not.” And because the songs were too pretty they go “no no we want whatever the dynamic, interesting, futuristic version of today's music is."
But then like now I'm playing on stage in front of more people than I've ever played in front of playing really pretty stuff and I feel like, Oh, it was good to invest in pretty. You just wear it, you wear all of it. Your first record, your second record, all the records. You just, you know, it's hard to explain. I'm one guy. I'm not eight records. I’m just one guy. I've made records.
Career Arc, Bob Dylan, and Recording Born and Raised
JM: This is what changed in my life, is I used to try to be a star, thinking that was my job or that was my role, and I was horrible at it.
DD: You're playing the fucking guy.
JM: Well you should try. God knows if it lands in your lap give it a run.
DD: Oh yeah, you got to. I did shit loads of drugs—you’re just riding!
JM: And for me dude it was never going to be drugs. It was never going to be a DUI. It was never going to be me wrapping my tree around a car [sic]. Had it been, would have been maybe an easier next few years for me.
DD: Well people can understand that too.
JM: Because there's protocol for that.
DD: People are like, guy’s a rock star, he crashed his car, got on coke.
JM: You thank the cop that arrested you, you thank people for helping you get help, and it's on a calendar. You're back in two months. You’re a changed man, you know. But that was never gonna happen to me. I was always going to pick the more abstract way to do it. Cause nobody was gonna tell me what to do.
And the problem is when you're right about eighty percent, nobody can tell you about the other twenty, because you've been right most of the time. So other people go “I don't think you should swear so much on stage.” You go “fuck you!” Now when I swear it feels terrible.
It just feels wrong. When I was younger you'd swear while you're tuning, you know, like swears were funny when you're playing to your crowd. That's another thing too is I was playing to my crowd. When you say stuff while you're tuning you always get a laugh. They love you. They're also uncomfortable while you're tuning as well. You should be playing, but you're going [makes tuning sounds], you're just watching this light try to go from red to green. Six times.
DD: And you get insecure a little bit and say “fuck” and they laugh and you're still trying to tune, and it's getting caught up in the nut and you’re like, “what the fuck!”
JM: [Laughing] And it’s funny, you don't expect to hear the guy say the “f” word, you know.
JM: That was the way that phase one ended in my career—
DD: And you go out to Montana. You get some rehab?
JM: Well, yeah. I didn't have a drinking problem, my only problem was that I swam way out past the buoys, my eyes were closed, and I was just swimming, swimming, swimming, swimming and I got a whistle, and I turned around and the lifeguard was a mile away. And I was like, oh I really thought I was behind the buoy, you know?
It just so happened at the end of the summer tour of 2010 I discovered No Direction Home, the Bob Dylan documentary. Maybe the very first modern digital documentary that blew my mind.
DD: That thing. "Ballad of a Thin Man" on that movie is a game changer.
JM: For me it’s when he did "Forever Young" in The Last Waltz. It changed my life again. And I was at the end of the Battle Studies tour, it was 2010 and I was laying in a hotel bed—maybe I was in Philly or something, I'll never forget it. My feet started going under the covers and I was watching Bob Dylan and I went, “I'm done. I'm done. I have to, I have to know what this music is. I have to know what this music is. I can't believe I have to keep touring right now, I can't believe it. This is it, this is it for me.” I watched him play all these songs and I just went, this is it for me. This is my future, this is where I want to live. There's honesty here. This person is not interested in the things I've been interested in.
DD: Not at all.
JM: “I have to go here, I have to go here.” And that’s why as soon as I got off the road in September of 10 I was in the studio. I was at Electric Lady. [I] started writing song after song. I mean a song a day, Dean, I was writing a song a day. And I was drinking a lot. Because I was working my shit out, because I had gone through it. And I had stopped the bleeding. I stayed on tour and I knew, “okay John.” And maybe this is what—maybe I had synthesized, "not making it." And I didn't mean to—maybe I did mean to—but that would be super psycho deep. I had a couple of years where I walked around New York City and nobody knew who I was.
DD: No shit.
JM: Cause I was 20 pounds heavier, I had long hair, I had a hat on, I was layered up because I was so heavy, I just layered. You know, if you see me in a t-shirt and jeans I feel good about myself. If you see me in a t-shirt, vest, undershirt, button-up shirt underneath and a jacket and a scarf, I don't feel good about my myself. Right?
DD: Oh, I love that honesty.
JM: If you can just wear a t-shirt and jeans you're looking good and I remember I had this year where—I never drank growing up—and I had the year like I was in college man, I drank every night. I drank most of the day and I wrote these songs at the same time because I had to work it all out. I had hit the wall. And everybody hits the wall, no matter what that wall is—you've been an asshole, you have a drinking problem, you have a drug problem, you've got to admit to yourself that you're never gonna make it in this, you know. Or everybody hits a wall: this person you’re with you have to leave them, you're in a relationship that's doing you no good, you've got to give up, you've got to surrender. And when you surrender that takes a minute.
So people think that I went from LA, kind of Battle Studies, to Montana, but I actually was in New York.
DD: I didn't even know that.
JM: I wrote Born and Raised in New York.
DD: Oh yeah, I know that, but I thought you were like, "I'm out of here" and just went to Montana.
JM: I said, "I'm out of here," and I went to Lafayette and Spring [Streets]. So I was right there but nobody really cared. Which, I was like, “okay, this is a market correction and I'm ready for it.” I remember taking it like, "alright, look, we're in this for the long run, let's just go back to music—" Cause I remember doing comedy, going, like, well music’s locked down. No, that’s it for the rest of your life. That's where the joy is, and I just went back to it. And I remember discovering the therapeutic—did you used to drink?
DD: Oh yeah.
JM: Did you ever have a year where it was good for you, where it was therapeutic? You worked shit out while you were drunk?
DD: Absolutely, I mean there were times after I saw Barfly and I got into that whole Bukowski thing of like, I’m going to be a day drinker. And you get into this different frame of mind of drinking till 6pm and then going home. And it’s a total different world.
JM: It’s an adventure though, right? You’re adventuring.
DD: Yeah, I needed that. I feel that all the phases of the drugs and the booze that I did—and that I got out—I look back on em and am like “oh, yeah.” I‘ve got stuff now in my mind that I learned from that time.
JM: Oh, yeah. And that's sort of the test of any drug is, “do you get anything out of it?” If the answer is no it's like, “leave it alone." I mean for me it's like can you take anything from it and for a while I took so much out of drinking. I found drinking was the only way to sit next to myself and look at myself from the outside. I used to say drinking is a good way to sit across from yourself at the table.
DD: That's gonna be wild to start drinking—the guys around you, are they like, “Hey what, you drink now?”
JM: Yeah. I didn't really drink til I was 27 or 28.
DD: That's gotta be wild.
JM: And then I discovered, like, Lagavulin 16, and that was it for me. And I would do Lagavulin 16 on stage and—pretty good—but it made me sloppy towards the end of the show. I played some guitar solos at the end of shows that were pretty insanely stupid. But I would go to the studio and I'd wear, like, a Brioni suit—I remember I got into Brioni suits. I just wanted to go to the studio in a suit. And right around 6 o'clock the Sierra Nevada would come out.
DD: Oh, love it, that's great.
JM: Oh, you put a Sierra Nevada right down on the microphone stand, and you just start going in your own head writing—and songs would come out! Then I go to dinner, and it's like three margaritas. And sometimes I go back to the studio. Cause I'd be excited. I walk right back into Electric Lady and I just go back, “I got it, I got it," and it would come. But I would stay out ‘til 4:00 AM.
DD: Yeah, New York style! Drinking. Yeah, drink ‘til four in New York!
JM: I'd come home and I would watch a movie and not really pay attention to it and eat like four Skinny Cow ice cream cones.
DD: Oh shit!
JM: And I would look up—this is where it intersects with Montana, ready?
I'd lay on my couch drunk having been berated by downtown women. Young women who saw me as the guy from the internet.
DD: Yeah. Lower East Side?
JM: Yeah. And didn’t realize that I was a real person.
JM: And that I was really going through it, and they would rip me apart just rip me apart.
DD: Just saying shit to you?
JM: “Why are you drinking that? Like I know you're John Mayer, but—” Like just coming up to me and acting like I came up to them.
DD: Like, “you ain’t shit!"
JM: I always thought, “oh, you've never come up to a guy before.” This is what happened—and it's over for me now, right? Like, there's other names that people would want to talk to at a bar. I'm more just sort of off in my own little world. But I remember like, oh, your legs brought you here, but you think that I walked up to you. So there's a part of you that went, “I've got to engage.” And everybody's drinking, by the way. Everybody's drinking.
So I can't just go up to this guy and say I like your work because I've never done that before. Guys come up to me. So it was this twisted thing where people come up to me and start making fun of my drink or my hat or my hair—and they would roast me, they would just roast me.
DD: It's their thing, their insecurity to get into the conversation. Which is bizarre, right?
JM: Something happened every time between the moment they went, “that's John Mayer, I gotta meet him” to the moment they got up to me. And I think—if I can guess—somewhere around halfway to me they went, “wait don't tell him you love his music, everyone tells him you love his music. You will disappear in front of him, he will pay you no attention. Give him shit instead and he will never forget the one person who gave him shit.” Little did they know that everybody chose to put the number on black.
DD: That's crazy that that would affect you though.
JM: Oh god it broke my heart.
DD: That's bizarre because they’re just strangers. I don't know. To me I'd be like, “get out of here," you know?
JM: But I never had that in me. And I think they thought I did—they thought I was much more rugged than I was. And so I'd go home drunk and I'd lay on my couch and watch 30 Rock. And for anybody keeping score 30 Rock goes by way too fast if you're drunk. You don't get the jokes. It's too fast. But I would let it play in the background and I would go on like realtor.com and I would just look at places in Montana.
Montana and Throat Condition
DD: What made you pick Montana?
JM: I was in Salt Lake City playing a gig in 2010 and we had the day off and I was at the hotel bar. I sat next to a guy who said he was from somewhere in Montana and said the most beautiful town in the world is Livingston, Montana. He gave me his card, wrote “Livingston, Montana” on the back, and god knows I still wish I had that card but I don't. And from then on I kept Googling Livingston, Montana, this guy said this was the most beautiful place. And as a catharsis when I was drunk and my heart was broken for whatever reason I would go, “I'm out of here!"
And I remember the world's worst catch-22 was that the same drink that made me want to leave made it impossible to drive. I mean the things that you would have done had you had the mobility and the right to do, you would have woken up 800 miles away. And I remember laying on a couch going, “I have to go, I have to get out of here, but I'm too drunk, and I know I'm gonna wake up tomorrow and I won't be drunk and I'll want to stay.”
DD: Oh, that’s the worst. The “yo-yo!"
JM: I wish somebody would come and pick me up right now and drive me 800 miles.
DD: Oh, I had the same effect with living in San Francisco but not with booze but with the dot com—the first wave of the dot com—coming in and just wiping out the music scene. You know, each night I’d be like “I’m out of here."
JM: But you were too drunk to fly.
DD: Yeah, and then the next day you’re like, “where am I gonna go, I’m just here.”
JM: And then you get mad at yourself—that guy's a wimp the next day. And you start bifurcating the tough guy who wants to make the change and the wimp who wakes up hungover and goes “I can't."
DD: And then eventually you’re just like “I’m fucking out of here.”
JM: And I sold my apartment and I moved out to Montana.
DD: You saw something online and was like “this is it?”
JM: I called a realtor—well I had had a vocal surgery so I was on voice rest.
DD: Did you have nodes?!
JM: No, I had a granuloma, which is worse. It's a benign thing that is a terror on somebody because where it grows is where your vocal cords hit. And there's acid reflux coming up from the bottom, and there's vocal cords hitting. And this flesh doesn't get a chance to heal.
DD: Oh, shit.
JM: It's this almost like a feedback loop of flesh that keeps building up and then your vocal cords won't close. Oddly enough my vocal cords were fine it was that they wouldn't close because this granulated tissue would just keep growing. And the first thing I had done to it was I had it removed— which creates a scar that I’ll always have and I'll always deal with—
DD: Who did it? Like Sugarman or somebody?
JM: No, it was a guy on the East Coast. A real, real sharpshooter. But he didn't get it done right. He did it right but it didn't take because it's such a tricky thing to have. You ever tell the doctor everything and they go, “oh boy?" I have a granuloma, “oh boy.” They'll all tell you it's from three or four different causes, very difficult to pinpoint the cause—so I was in it.
I just felt like a basketball player who had to get his knee fixed. Whatever it takes. They put things up my nose down, my throat. I wore a monitor that went up my nose and down my sinuses and down my throat for a day. And when I swallowed food it pulled my sinuses. It was like, it was disgusting. But I did it because I want to sing again.
DD: Oh well nodes were my whole nightmare.
JM: Oh, you had nodes?
DD: Oh well I had some coming on and then he said, “You gotta quit drinkin’, don't talk, and stop singing” for like three months. And then I had to relearn how to talk. I got the nodes not from singing, it was from talking. I was like a lazy talker [talks with a throat voice] I was talking—no chest, no belly nothing, just all in the throat.
JM: A lot of speakers get granulomas. A lot of the people who do a lot of talking get granulomas it's
DD: It's the scariest!
JM: It was such a strange time. But I moved out there—we were driving through Bozeman on a trip just to keep me kind of happy and up and out and occupied—and I grabbed a realtor book of magazine outside of Big Sky at some restaurant in Big Sky, and started flipping through it. And called a realtor and I said, hey—maybe I left a voice message—and I gave her keywords, “Neil Young, acoustic guitar, folk music, 70's, cozy.” And she called me back and she said, “I've only got one place, it's a pocket listing it's not even on the market, I can only think of one place.” She drove me out to it while the Sun was setting, I could hardly see it and I went, “I'll take it.”
JM: Actually what I did was I put a bid in on it. And I'm such a dangerous negotiator because I kind of don't care. And I remember going like “if they don't take the bid I don't have to go to Montana, if they do take the bid I get to go to Montana.” I didn't care I was sort of like “let the universe surprise me.”
And the guy accepted the bid and I was like, Okay I'm going.
DD: From New York to Montana, that's got to be a fucking complete change—I mean the first week you're sleeping there you’re like, “What the fuck?!”
JM: But I was ready to get out. I lived in my little guest house—the main house was empty for months. And I lived in this little tiny guest house—it's a little tiny room. It was like living in your grandparents house. And a whole winter went by man and I just—and actually that's when I tried to go back out on tour. And I couldn't.
DD: Because of your voice?
JM: The thing had come back.
DD: Oh shit.
JM: Raging back. Because it was a scar, I mean, right—the guy created an injury down there and that just made it worse. And that's when I went out there and I couldn't have my dog because I couldn't yell to my dog.
DD: Oh, fuck.
Introduction to the Grateful Dead
JM: And I'm out there [Montana] and that's where I just kind of shed everything and I listened to Grateful Dead. And I couldn't play, I couldn't sing—
I mean I couldn't didn't really know the music that well, but the fact that I wasn't a musician anymore—I mean this is Superman Two shit. This is Superman not Superman anymore, right? Remember when Clark Kent loses his power?
JM: He gets thrown into the pinball machine—it's like, this is where I am, I can bleed, I don't I don't have my powers anymore. And that's I think why when I listen to Grateful Dead back then and I wasn't performing, it saved me. It wasn't me trying to listen to music going like “I know what they're doing, I could do it if I wanted to do it.” Number one, I couldn't. Number two, I wasn't able to because I was injured.
JM: So I was just listening to this music and it was lifting me up and taking me away to these places I never thought music could. And I watch Grateful Dead music. I watch it go by. Remember the water games in the dentists’ office, you press a little button and it would blow all around?
DD: Oh yeah! Yeah, yeah.
JM: That's Grateful Dead music to me. Phil Lesh is one of the little gears that moves around, and Bob Weir is a little thing that holds the ball and—and Jerry's the bubbles, or whatever.
And I just stopped thinking about music as “well I do that too, let me break down what they're doing.” And I didn't break it down.
JM: I just listened to it.
DD: I heard you were in a hardware store in Montana and heard "Althea"?
JM: No I was—this is when I couldn't talk at all—and, I guess Don [Was] gave me Working Man's Dead back when I was making Born and Raised, but I didn't really pay attention to it. I paid attention to "Wooden Ships" by Crosby, Stills & Nash and then I got on a Crosby, Stills & Nash kick—those two records are just insane.
JM: And then I think I had Neil Young Radio on or something and "Althea" came on, and I was in Palm Springs—and again, I think I was doing things to not be depressed because I was on depression watch, you know—and I heard [scatting rhythm to "Althea"]—and I had never heard anybody do that and I couldn't—and it's a very rare thing before I heard Jerry Garcia playing the guitar; I couldn't tell what he was doing. I just knew that it sounded like the most fun thing in the world to play. Like it's the most jaunty thing that's ever been played on a guitar. [scatting again]. His inability to write something that repeated makes it difficult to learn and so much fun to play. Right?
JM: The fact that things happen three times not twice. Right here happens five times. Next time only happens—Okay this is like “how do I learn all this”, but once you learn it you'll never get bored of it. The first half of "Althea" ends with an A, the second half of "Althea" ends with an E, so you gotta now every time you play "Althea" make sure you hit that A.
DD: I’ve played music all my life, and it would take me years just to get my head wrapped around it.
JM: For me it was the ultimate way to take what I knew and adapt it to figure out a new problem so it was really cool on a sort of polymath level—which is what you and I are, is teach ourselves as we go about things—so if I don't know something I know I don't know it and I know what it takes to know it after I don't know, and I love that search — and I heard "Althea" and I went “oh my god”— these Grateful Dead songs, there should be a "fake book." Like the way when I" was coming up at Berklee, people would have "Ornithology," "Autumn Leaves," "Days of Wine and Roses.
These were forms for musicians to play on that gave everybody a synchronized place to play music. They knew the forms—if you know the forms you can play over them. Grateful Dead music is like an empty amusement park and each song is a different amusement park, or each song is a different ride. These fantasies of like kids breaking into an amusement park or breaking into a mall and like running around. It's like, that's what it's like.
"Ramble On Rose" is like, to me, this beautiful MC Escher drawing where you get to climb down the stairs but go up, and up the stairs but go down. The song is a Charleston, sort of. It's like you're playing over a D, you gotta play in D: [sings melody]. But now it moves to an E which is technically a modulation, you can't play in D anymore, you'll be done. These aren't jams [...].
DD: They do modulate, absolutely.
JM: You now have to play in E for the next next part. And then the next chord is an F-sharp minor, now you can play in D again if you want to but you should play in F-sharp minor. Once you learn these forms everything else feels like watered down kool-aid. It's like, once you get Grateful Dead in your system—and I think, to a certain extent, you don't have to play the music to have that same feeling. You just don't know why, you just don't know why it feels like it feels. I also I think I understand genetically kind of why it is what it is underneath it—musically I go, Well that's also—and I still sit and listen.
I heard a "Eyes of the World" from 1974 yesterday and Jerry's solo was so slow. We often think about "Eyes of the World" as [sings fast melody]. And he was like [sings slow melody]. And it was beautiful. And it freaked me out again like, Oh I don't have to play that fast. And then you'll hear one from ‘81 [sings fast melody].
DD: Oh, ‘81 cooking! Yeah, yeah, yeah!
JM: [Laughs] So it's like, the thing about it for me as a guitar player is that it's an ever elusive rule book. Just when you think you've figured it out there's a version from 1970-X that comes out and you go “you can do it that way.” Oh, you know what I was thinking the other day? I’ll say two things. Number one:
Jerry's only—I feel like it's weird saying Jerry—Jerry Garcia's only way of thinking was like play the chords, but you could play the chords any way you want. So just as long as you play the letter of that chord you could play it any inversion anywhere up and down the neck. So I'll just keep hearing ways of playing songs—it was like, Oh he never had a set way of playing any song.
DD: That's wild.
JM: Sometimes he would just play like "Fire on the Mountain" the way a beginner guitar player would playing an A chord and a B chord, instead of some inversion up the neck. What that day made him go “I'm just gonna play this like a Mel Bay book B chord and an A chord?” And I listen to it I go “that's right you could be that simple if you want it to be.” Right?
DD: I trip out on "Terrapin Station". Like when you guys played it — the first time I saw you guys play it, I go “how do you even remember this?” It just keeps building, you're like, “what is this?!”
JM: Yeah, the inspiration part is a little bit of a math problem.
DD: It's bizarre to me. And there's Bob Weir remembering it no problem.
JM: Oh, it is in his bones. It is—remember, these guys didn't have teleprompters. We had prompters up on stage for the lyrics because I'm not an alien. I’m not an alien. I mean I can learn music pretty fast, I wouldn't know how to sing 150 songs lyrically. But these guys—the Grateful Dead were touring without teleprompters.
DD: That's nuts.
JM: And you'd only occasionally hear someone—the fact that you hear someone mess up a lyric at the relatively low frequency you do in the history of Grateful Dead live shows is astonishing given how many songs and how many verses there were.
DD: And drugs!
JM: And drugs. But I always think if you were on them while you wrote it you can be on them while you play it.
DD: When you start to dive in and learn this stuff—at what point can you start singing again to where you're like “alright I want to try to learn this stuff”?
JM: Oh, I started singing again, so I had a procedure where they injected Botox into my vocal cords, which killed the nerves—the way Botox does—and so I had chemical voice rest. I couldn't talk if I wanted to. It was a genius way of fixing my voice—for the most part fix my voice.
DD: First of all, before you go any further it's fucking fantastic right now.
JM: I am a monk to keep it this way. My voice needs 12 hours of voice rest, no drinking, no acid reflux, sleeping on a wedge pillow. This is why I love music because I got one bullet left in the gun.
JM: And you better aim every time.
DD: And you haven't had any problem since that botox?
JM: I have moments where I have to back up. Like, nothing's been as—I don't think it'll ever get as bad as it was because I monitor it—but I get sore from singing. My vocal cords get swollen and when my vocal cords get swollen, there's always some stuff down there that's not perfectly symmetrical because of what's happened, but that's life. One of your knees is always gonna be a little—
DD: My neck right now I got a herniated disk, dude
JM: So I have a voice that I'm out of extra chances with. And there's a beautiful spirit to that which is I don't have any room left to look at this thing as anything other than a gift. I'm out of lives. I had nine lives, I got one left. And that means we go back to our hotel room and we're silent for at least 12 hours.
JM: We sleep on a wedge pillow. I travel—nobody knows this, and you're gonna be into this. You're the right guy to talk about this. I travel with my own scope. I scope myself. I travel with a medical vocal scope.
DD: So you put something down—
JM: Down my own throat.
DD: And you can look at it?
JM: I take my own pictures and I text it to my doctor.
JM: I never have to go to an ENT again.
JM: So I was in Amsterdam and my voice was feeling sore and I took a look at it and I went—and I know how to look at it now cause I know what to look for. I know everything about my condition. Again, the curious mind Googling—What are retinoids? What is abducted? What is adducted? What is a granuloma? What is epithelium?”
DD: Holy shit!
JM: So I can look at it and actually kind of go “this looks a little worse, I see well acid reflux let me send this off to my doctor.” And then I also travel with a pharmacy so that he can prescribe me something and I already have it.
JM: So I got a drawer on the road—I think every singer should have this.
JM: You should build a relationship with your doctor where he trusts that you're not an animal, and he trusts you to take care of yourself on the road. ENT’s, I think more than any other doctor, are the hardest to find a great one. Cause it’s very difficult to understand the life of a singer. So I have a great one in UCLA and no matter where I am I traveled with a Pelican case that has a scope in it—I set up the scope same, I swab it down, plug in the fiber-optic light, start a new file for myself scope myself and I go, “It's not as bad as I thought," and I send it off to my doctor. I would take this and that and that, and I have this and that and that, so it really is remote medicine.
JM: The other thing I was gonna say—for those who are completists and were listening to me and go “what's the second thing you were gonna say after Jerry”—I had this idea and I'm gonna do it; I want to listen to a whole show and just listen to Bobby play the guitar. I’ve never done it. It's the most fascinating guitar playing.
DD: I never understood it. Even when I watched The Other One, and he said I had to find places to stick in there. It was crazy. And I actually liked The Other One more than the Grateful Dead documentary because it was so deep on this one guy. What was it like to be this guy with the giant dude next to you.
JM: Key in on Bobby for a whole show and your life will change. I just realized it, I was on the way somewhere yesterday, two days ago, and I heard—I forgot what song I was listening to—and I started listening to Bobby I went: “who could figure that out?” Like, who makes those choices?
And his inversions are upside down. And the hammer on he's hitting—so you and I would go [sings guitar melody phrase]. He's hammering on something else underneath. So almost like "Weather Report Suite" is kind of his playing, but you know it's just backwards but so necessary to let everyone else do what they're doing. Jerry's trampoline-like [makes trampoline sound] just catapults him with that guitar playing.
Dead & Company Gear, Jerry Garcia, and "Wolf"
DD: When you start the Dead and Co. and you sit down and you think alright “what gear do I want to do," because when you're out with John Mayer your gear is so different. I watched a gear breakdown on YouTube from I think '13, but then you know last run it was—when you first were in Dead and Co.—you had that Paul Reed Smith amp and the guitar, then you just, it's so simple it's just a Dumble head. What is it two 12's?
JM: I ended up with a Dumble Overdrive Special 50-watt that I adore and [just like three petals] and that's it. The inspiration is a fixed-gear bike. You ever see a “fixie?" That's what I'm trying to be now. It's part of a deeper thing that might sound artsy fartsy when I get into it but, I want to only focus on my playing. I want to put the guitar out of the equation.
DD: So all you got to do is get the flavor the tone of say, the auto-wah.
JM: Right. That's all I need, and an octave thing and a little overdrive and the rest of it is up to me. The rest of it is my intention. That's the gear. I can't stress this enough: the technology, the innovation—you know, I used to love getting a new pedal, plugging it up—“this one's green. This one I got a true tone.” Oh, you just sit at sound check Indian style in front of a pedal board, leaning forward still Indian style. Now the technology is “what do you have in mind to play?” All of the energy is now in, “are you in your right mind to play these notes?” So I have one guitar, I might take out, there’s a few surprises, I think.
DD: When you first went out you have that custom-made Paul Reed Smith and it had a tremolo, but you never use tremolo.
JM: But I use tremolo as like shocks in a car. So when you bend a note, it comes up the slightest bit.
DD: Right. It’s softer. It pulls a little bit.
JM: It's like an air ride—but the Paul Reed Smith—so the guitars kind of follow my understanding of Jerry's playing. And I think it's one of the hardest to nail down sounds because it's so complex, and it gets misconstrued and mis—in it's replication. It's so broad and interesting and vast that if you start listening to other people play it, it loses something in translation immediately because it's impossible to clone it.
DD: Right, like [Steve] Kimock doing his dead thing, Trey doing his—all the different guys.
JM: If you asked me what I thought Jerry's playing was like listening to the same versions of songs I would have told you well it's "pling pling pling pling pling," and then as I got more into it I'm like, it's actually kind of a Gibson PAF and a lot of that.
JM: And a lot of times we thought he was playing the bridge because it was really bright sounding—nope, it was the neck.
DD: That's wild. I've noticed on your first tour your guitar was pretty bright, and on this last tour you went—I talked to your tech. Not Rene [Martinez], but the other guy.
DD: And he said you just grabbed this time a stock Paul Reed Smith at the shop—you went “this is the one," and that fucking guitar and that amp—it was the best tone I’ve heard in years. And let me tell you this—and not to blow smoke up your ass—I've been to thousands of shows, I've seen everyone, and I thought it was some of the best guitar playing I’ve ever seen. At the two Hollywood Bowl gigs [June 3-4, 2019].
JM: Those were special shows.
DD: The Citi Field [June 29, 2019] shows, and both Boulder shows [July 5-6 2019]—particularly the rain night.
DD: And I was like, This tone and this playing, and the third—I guess we're in the third, fourth year.
JM: Yeah, we're in the fourth now.
DD: Fourth—so I was like, This could be some of the greatest music I've ever seen.
JM: Well thank you. And it's me figuring out what these notes really mean, what they really are. And on first pass you're like, oh I think I know how to do this. So a lot of the first few tours were out of phase positions. That's what I thought they were. Well okay, I thought he must be playing out of phase. So there was the two and the four positions, but that's actually too quacky. So a lot of those early Dead and Company shows I'm playing middle/bridge. So I’m playing between the middle and the bridge, and I've got a preamp on—cause I thought he had a preamp on. Well he's got a unity gain buffer, not really a preamp. Well we had to learn that. We had to figure that out. I'm also not trying to like copy it. But what I need to get is a tone enough so that I don't have to overplay and that I can play that much without people fatiguing.
The only question that I have that continues to elude me as an answer is: how was Jerry Garcia able to play that much guitar for throngs of people who didn't play guitar and have them join him for every second of that ride?
JM: Well, a big part of it is that he wasn't playing in a muscular way.
DD: No. It's not an Angus Young [sings metal guitar riff]. It’s just melodic.
JM: You know I think he looked at it like a pedal steel. I started going, Oh I think he's thought of it like a pedal steel, because he played pedal steel.
DD: And he was into bluegrass.
JM: He was looking to getting an electric guitar to be like a pedal steel. And he was playing it with a certain pressure that wasn't like a guitar player. You and I play guitar, we squeeze it.
DD: Big time.
JM: We squeeze it like a good grip on a baseball bat. Choke up.
DD: Especially with adrenaline.
JM: Yes man.
DD: You get out there—you’re squeezing out a tune!
JM: I had a show I was on prednisone because for my throat not long ago, and my right hand was Thor's hammer. Not a good thing because my strings are a certain gauge. A bad night of guitar playing is where your left hand doesn't agree with your right hand. When your right hand picks too hard and the left hand isn't there or the strings are too late. And that was a nightmare for me to play the guitar cause I was like jacked. But Jerry Garcia played the guitar in this lighter way that wasn't fiery, it was beautiful. Like little bird bones.
JM: Bird bones are playing the guitar. And that's something to do with wanting to hear it all the time because it's not adrenalized—that's a great way to look at it. And so that was one of the things I had to look at. I had to look at like “Oh a lot of these tones are quite pure. They're not in between two pickups.” It's—I'm telling you—it's the way he played the guitar. That's why I don't even think if you're a good guitar player you don't even really need a good sounding guitar. You'll find the one millimeter on the string over the pickup.
DD: Yeah, Billy Gibbons. He played those shit plastic guitars like five tours ago. He sounded just like he's playing pearly gates.
JM: Now me, I’m not like that. I need to sound like me. I need to sound like me or else I'm lost.
DD: What was it like—two things: Wolf [Jerry Garcia's signature guitar] comes to Citi Field, you said a great thing, you said: I wasn't ready to play it until I was ready to play it.
JM: It wasn't time until it was time I don't think. That's what I mean.
DD: I love that, it made me so happy. When the guitar shows up, I know somebody else owns it now, of course it was sold. What was it like when you grabbed it, was the action all—cause I know Jerry used to play the action like way high, I guess. Did you—I know your tech added up that day—was it a weird guitar to play?
JM: I played the guitar for a second at my house because I wanted to make sure that it was worth bringing out, cause they were gonna have to take it out of The Met [Metropolitan Museum of Art]. It was right before they brought it to The Met, and I played it and I of course lost my mind. I played it through a Deluxe in my house and I lost my mind.
DD: Just a Tweed Deluxe?
JM: Blackface deluxe. Reverb deluxe.
And I just started playing. I was playing Wolf in my house. I was playing "Sugaree" and something happens when you play the same instrument —and the question was, is it the guy or is it the guitar? And a lot of it is the guitar. And I was surprised to break that down and I started playing "Sugaree," I started playing as many songs. I was so excited I couldn't remember all the songs. “Oh there's this song, oh there's this one!” And here's what changed me forever: the tone of this guitar was so good, obviously, it's the one that's married to those songs.
DD: Of course.
JM: You don't even know if an EMI console sounds good or not, The Beatles recorded on it, it sounds good. We don't know. Because that board made Abbey Road so it sounds good because it sounds like Abbey Road. So this guitar sounds good because it sounds like Jerry right? And all of a sudden all I have to do is go [sings melody], single notes and I'm in heaven. And I realized, “Oh you got to get a guitar where the single notes make you happy.” Cause if you got a guitar where the single notes make you happy, you don't have to play that much at all. I mean, I've heard versions of Jerry playing "Tennessee Jed" playing one note for comping. He's playing just the F string, just one note: [sings melody] “Tennessee” [sings note], it's just one note. It's a tuba.
And so I was like, Oh, it was difficult. It was difficult to understand that this was gonna go away.
DD: Were you, in your mind, were you going, "What could I offer him to buy it?" Who owns that?
JM: Good questions deserve good answers and the answer is yes. Sorry. But I was—my feet came off the ground. And I'm not saying in any way this is a claim—this isn't sword in the stone stuff. I'm not saying like, I am— But how do you not go—like that was, that's what I've been shooting for, of course. It's like saying, “your wife is really pretty, I need to meet a woman like your wife.” And then being like, “Actually, it's your wife.” You know? You can’t do that. You gotta find someone like a person's wife. So I had to give the guitar back and I went “this is beautiful, this is great, let's do it.” And then I got it at Citi Field [June 23, 2019]. And here's the skinny on that guitar: The guitar needs upkeep, that it hasn't had.
DD: Fret dress.
JM: Oh, it needs a refret. It needs a refret.
DD: Refret. Cleaned. Probably a bunch of old mold on the pots.
JM: The neck pickup is disconnected.
DD: Oh, shit.
JM: There's two cables that should go to the neck pickup and there's only one. And so it's about a quarter of the volume of a neck pickup.
DD: And that's how you played it?
JM: I couldn't use the neck pickup.
DD: Oh, shit.
JM: So then we start getting into the question—and it's a real age-old collectors question—what is more important: to keep the guitar in it's like DNA perfect form, or do you keep the guitar in good health?
DD: A lot like watches.
JM: Sure. You know, like Rolex would say that the loom is cracked. We're gonna put new loom on it. You go “don't you dare”. But to Rolex, well you want the hands to light up!
So for me I go “well it'd be a lot easier to play if the frets were redone," but that's not up for me. That's not up to me to say that you should redo the frets, cause I think the guitar, it means something to people in its complete unchanged state.
DD: 100%. As I stared at it at the Met, you know, you’re just looking at it.
JM: I don't know, I mean that's up to the owner. You know, the owner gets the right to do what they want with it. And I think if you own that guitar and the world knew it, and you felt a certain stewardship it'd be really hard. I mean you could solder the neck pickup back, that'd be nice. But I don't think it's — right now—I know I'm not sure the guitar is meant to be played by a bunch of people, and that makes it more of an honor. And so here's what happens, I get the guitar and it's quite tricky to play because the frets are just worn down.
DD: Right so you're gonna battlin’ it.
JM: I battled it for half the night and I think by the end of the night I got it to move the way I wanted it to move. But it was tricky because I also have this PRS 594.
DD: That plays like a mother fucker.
JM: That plays like a Ferrari! [Laughs]
DD: Yeah right behind ya!
JM: So this thing plays like a Ferrari, I'm playing Wolf, which—it was a molecular honor, like down to the molecule it was an honor. I mean, this guitar was animated, it was anthropomorphized, you know. And I sort of played—it was the lead singer and I was the guitar.
We kind of switched roles for one night, you know. I was the operator but it was the thing. And by the end of the night I had made friends with it. I had figured it out. But that's the thing, I mean the guitar — I mean if you'd brought it to a luthier who didn't know what it was “well this thing needs a refret.” And the question going forward is how much is someone gonna play it and should it have a refret.
DD: Just keep it how it is, I think. Right?
JM: I mean — but you're asking a guitar player though.
DD: Did you make him an offer?
JM: No! I wouldn't do that. I wouldn't do that. But, theoretically would I give a year's salary? Yeah.
DD: Wow! Wow.
When you walked out with it I was fuckin floored cause —
JM: I also don't want to own it. I'll tell you why. Uh, that's too close for comfort. It's too close for comfort. It should be owned by somebody who wants to really think of it as a piece for everybody. And I'm not sure, Dean Delray, that I could own it and continue the stewardship of it as “well this does belong…” If you wanted to think I was an asshole again, I think I could get you to do that again if it turned out that I owned that guitar. That's too close for comfort. That should be owned by an independent sovereign collector who can loan it to people every once in a while to play it. It should not be owned by a player for fear that it would become — no one man should have all that power.
For fear that it would be a sort of brand on someone that they are the next in the bloodline, and I don't think that's true. I think I'd have a really hard time relating to the rest of the world if they were like “ oh yeah, he has Wolf.” I don't think I want that in my house.
But when I played it, uh, obviously the reasonable thought at that moment was well, I mean, how do I get this. But it doesn't take long to think about it, you go “I don't think that's a good idea.” Look at it this way, if I really needed it I could probably get my hands on it. And who could say that, I mean, that's beautiful. But I believe an independent sovereign nation should own that guitar and it should never be owned — no player on the Yankees gets the World Series trophy, right? The organization gets the trophy. And what would happen to a baseball team if one of the players on the Yankees owned the World Series trophy? What would happen between the relationship between that player and the other players on the Yankees?
JM: I don’t want the World Series trophy. I want an exact replica that looks like a Heisman Trophy.
DD: You know what I liked was that you'd never play it again because to me it's a solid, solid memory.
JM: I agree. I agree.
DD: Especially when you did "Morning Dew". There was a part on that Morning Dew — and I wanted to ask you this — where you're doing the solo out and it's almost — you go into a "Do You Feel Like I Do" Peter Frampton thing. Do you notice that?
JM: Oh, wow. Oh, no. I'm gone when that stuff is happening.
DD: I get it. I get it. But I'm listening and I go “this is amazing”, I go, “he did a little nod to Peter Frampton”
JM: That's luck. Or that's so deep embedded in me.
JM: I think about singers a lot when I play solos like that.
DD: Is that right?
JM: I think about Michael Jackson a lot when I play the guitar. You see that video of Michael Jackson and Prince at some new year's gig and Prince shows up high as a kite, knocks over the lamppost.
DD: Yeah yeah yeah! They’re doing a battle?
JM: Yeah, it’s James Brown. And James Brown says “Michael Jackson's here. Let's see Michael Jackson.” And Michael Jackson gets up and all of a sudden they go into like this sort of It's a Man's World groove, this halftime thing. And Michael Jackson all he says is [sings] and he starts going into now a double-time James Brown thing. And it's one of the greatest things I ever heard. I ever heard in my life. Oh, the other thing I think about is at the end of [sings "The Lady in My Life"] — that's on Off the Wall? At the end he's like [singing “I love you girl, I love you girl, I love you, I love you”]. I'm like, “that is a great riff on a guitar.” I don't like playing guitar parts on the guitar anymore. I like, sort of like, “what would you sing?” And then play that sort of —
But yeah man, those records. If you put on Thriller and you pretend that it was your record and you had a say in the mix, what a lesson because you’d change everything about it. Listen to Thriller and pretend it's your record and you can make mix notes you would have changed everything about that record. But that's the lesson is that that mix is everything is up front.
DD: Are you a Prince guy?
JM: Not a completist, but I appreciate it.
JM: I mean the stuff I love, I love.
DD: Yeah. I think Sign O’ the Times is one of the greatest records ever made.
JM: I know that song. I know that song very well—again I'm a playlist baby on that so I don't know what record, but I love that Sign O’ the Times record. That solo is great. That B section on—the chords do a thing, that I—
DD: [sings Sign O’ the Times]
JM: And then it comes back down. I love when things fly up in the air, flip, and then land.
DD: [singing] “Sometimes a man ain’t be truly happy until a man truly dies.”
JM: That’s it. Do you know how great that is?
DD: So great!
JM: But you know the person who's kicking my ass the most right now is Springsteen.
Outro: Okay so there it is, that's the end of part one. Thank you so much for tuning in. Check out part two next week.