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Podcast Interview with Rick Rubin

Tetragrammaton with Rick Rubin


Rick Rubin: Stop, we're talking about the Grateful Dead. Do you mind? Tell me about your relationship to the Grateful Dead's music, historically.

John Mayer: I pick up on knowing about them probably in the early '90s when I was in high school. And I related their music to the people who were listening to their music in high school, which was, okay, that's not for me. There were cooler kids who were driving Jeeps with the doors taken off, and they had the stickers, and they were going to Dead shows and talking about dead stuff. So, I went, okay, that's not my world.

RR: So, describe who your world was, so I know.

JM: My world was Stevie Ray Vaughan, Buddy Guy, BB King—all those guys. To me, that was like when did this start?

RR: When did your Blues fascination start?

JM: At about 13 or 14, a neighbor handed me a cassette, and he was like, "You know, everyone had like the cool boyfriend of the mom of the neighbor, like the kind of cool in-between guy between adult and kid." And he handed me this tape, he goes, "if you can play like this, you're already playing guitar just a little bit." Yeah, I didn't even really understand soloing. I just knew there was the one thing you could do on the guitar that didn't look like you were sitting by a campfire. I knew there were two types of playing. I didn't even know how to describe the second type. I just knew that I wanted something to do with it, and I and it was Stevie Ray Vaughan in double trouble. Looking back on it, Stevie's music was perfect for being 14 or 15. Yeah, because it's like atomic, it's like fast, it's in your face, and it was also produced in a way that I could understand. So it was produced with an '80s thing. It was produced with reverbs, and really high-quality recordings. So it wasn't like I was ever going to discover Sun House when I was 14.

RR: What was the other music you were listening to at that time?

JM: Well, I would go back and forth. It's funny, I'd go back and forth between hardcore guitar playing stuff and then like Pearl Jam. And songs. I'd grown up listening to MTV, just songs, songs, songs. Then I discovered the guitar, and that was like a whole other dimension for me.

So, I was coming home from school, going right into old records when I got home. Those were my imaginary friends. I would be at school, and I remember thinking that 21 Jump Street was a good allegory for my being in high school, which is, I'm not really a student. I'm undercover. Because what I'm doing is, I go home, and my classes start at 3:30 when these ones end, and you have no idea.

RR: Did you know you wanted to do it professionally already, or no?

JM: Yes, but I didn't know it was professional. I just thought that's going to be my life.

RR: Did you ever have the idea of having a regular job in life?

JM: Never. I mean, I got good really fast, and I could hear myself get good really fast.

RR: Who do you attribute that to?

JM: Luck. I mean, when I see all these other guitar players on Instagram, I don't assume they want it less than me. We all want it the same, yeah. So it's a luck thing. It's an ergonomic thing, it's something, some something, you know. I just looked at it and went, that, and for a guy who overthinks everything, that was the most zen sentence that ever came into my head. "I'm gonna do that."

RR: What was your first guitar?

JM: It was a rental Washburn acoustic. My parents were renting it from the music store. My father said there are two types of guitars: there's an acoustic, and that's beautiful, a beautiful sounding guitar. Then there's this thing called electric, and you plug it in, it sounds like dreck, he said. So that was him trying to steer me away from rock and roll.

RR: What was your dad's taste in music?

JM: My dad was into show tunes, '40s, '50s. My dad's 95 as we speak. He was 50 when he had me, so my father was already sort of in that golden era.

RR: And was that the music that was playing in your house?

JM: My dad would play the piano, never improvised a note in his life, but he would play these songs on the piano. So yeah, Cole Porter stuff. He would just never smile bigger than if he's recalling an old song.

RR: Would always play piano every day or once in a while?

JM: Once in a while, once in a while, he would more of a recital guy, so the improv part of me was kind of sprung up. It wasn't really handed down to me. I would look at the piano and go, this is the most incredible thing, too. I just wasn't that good at it, but I just remember understanding intervals from the very beginning, going, okay, look at all these things are laid out. It's not like they're out of order. I would understand if they're out of order, right? So you can look, I remember being a kid and going, aren't they getting higher as you go in even increments? That sort of, to me, like, got it. Let me work it out. It's a length of a string, that's all it is. You know, so I remember sitting down and trying to work out the piano, but it just didn't come as naturally. But I still saw it as this magical thing that you open the lid up and you can do anything on it. There's a disconnect in my brain between my looking at an instrument and going, you can do anything on that, and me realizing I don't know anything about it. I still look at it like anything's possible on it, yes, and I just cancel out the fact that I can't do it and I'll try it still. I'll sit down and still want to play it. That's the wonder of it.

RR: Was it a grand piano in your house?

JM: It was a stand-up, it was a terrible old Baldwin stand-up. Upright, sorry. Funny story about that piano. I was in LA at the very beginning of my career in 2000. I'm at the Super 8 Motel on Whitley and Hollywood Boulevard, and I'm calling my parents to find out what's going on, how's everything? "Good," my mom says. "We are trading the piano in for a digital piano." I go, what do you mean? "We're trading in the piano? Wait, but that's the piano that I— My parents weren't very sentimental. I had to develop sentimentality or maybe I always was, and I had to figure out how to embrace it. "What are you doing with the piano? I'm gonna go buy it. Well, we still have it. I go, "Listen, hold on to the piano. I will take care of it." I had the piano moved into storage for about 20 years and only recently took it out of storage and put it into my house in Montana. I still have the piano. Saved it, so cool. I mean the piano's worth eight hundred dollars, but it's your piano. That's my opinion, yeah, and we do a childhood.

Yeah, as I get older, memories—It's not that I question them, but I lose touch with them. They might as well not have happened unless you have one totem that you can point to and say, that wasn't a dream, because look, it's right there. You know, my father just got rid of a piece of furniture I would have taken from him in a heartbeat. It's another thing, and he put it on the street. I think they're from a generation where they weren't as sentimental about things.

Yes, my first guitar was an acoustic. It was a Washburn. Then my brother got an electric guitar for Christmas, which was just really odd. There was this strange

RR: Older or younger?

JM: Younger. And I was like, why would you get my brother the electric guitar? I'm the guitar player. So I kind of took it from him. And that's when I went off because you can't really bend strings on an acoustic, you know. That's when I figured out, oh, this is the machine that lets you bend the string. This is the machine that lets you get vocal. And from that period on, I was in a wormhole. You couldn't get me out of the room. I would come home from school, sleep for like 30 minutes, go into a room for four hours, and that was it.

RR: What was the first amp?

JM: It was a Squire 15-watt amp. No reverb, no nothing. Yeah, I went to the music store one time, and I finally heard reverb out of an amp, and I went, this is the most incredible thing I've ever heard, but I couldn't get an amp with reverb. We used to have these Charles chips potato chip cans and I took an empty one and I put it in front of this 15-watt amp.


RR: Would you be playing along with music or just always playing along with music always, and in my mind, muting the singer and the guitar player like neurologically, so it was your rhythm you had a rhythm section to play to? Yes, and you ignored everything else and just focused on playing with the rhythm section, yes?

RR: Yeah, have you heard other people tell you that? No, never heard that before. Have you?

JM: No, I have never heard that. I would ignore. It's interesting though, the top line, or I would start to. I could go back and forth, yeah, I could mute it, so you might harmonize with it or do something.

RR: You would never learn a solo and play along?

JM: I never saw the value in learning a blue solo, yeah, because I knew how ephemeral they were, but I saw the value in learning the vocabulary. And yes, somebody would play something, and I'd go, "Can I get that?" Yes, I could get that. And here's the thing about blue soloing,

RR: This is really interesting, by the way, because most people I know do it very differently. Most people I know learn every solo.

JM: Yeah, I know that's how it goes if you have a pretty perfunctory knowledge of the pentatonic blues scale, and you hear someone play a blues solo, it might sound magical at first, as soon as you go, [sings melody], got it, that's how that goes.

But that's not what that was. Whatever that was before you heard it is the thing. And I always would say it's like playing last night's lotto numbers. The numbers aren't good anymore. They're good if you're in the room. They're good if you're about to play them. So I would always try to go for the thing that made the solo, yeah, so what's the scale that makes the solo, and how can I get into that same spirit that the player is in? And there, now, there were certainly times I would mimic what I heard, more is a way to get me into the centrifuge and then start playing.

RR: It's also often not even about the notes, it's so much more about the attitude and the style, the pocket. Yes, uh, and I'll come back to this word probably a lot, but the intention.

JM: That's what my whole career is all about now musically, is yeah, just coming as close as you can to the pure intention of it, and that's what actually makes and made playing with these blues legends so amazing in person, because it's one thing to play along with a Buddy Guy record from 1972. It's another thing to play in the same moment with the same supply of oxygen as Buddy Guy. You have a point of reference for the moment the same as he has. So everything he's playing is in that moment, and that's the university lesson. That's the highest, that's your doctorate right there, when you hear someone else in that moment playing, you're grabbing from the same moment, and you hear what they do. That's the best teaching in the world, not what it must have been like 30 years ago from the time you were listening to it.

RR: Tell me about those experiences. Who have you got to play with?

Interviewee: Oh wow, I got to play with BB King. I played with Buddy Guy a lot. Eric Clapton, got to play with Eric. I got to play with Hubert Sumlin one time, which was incredible. That was wild. Those guys are like digging something out of the earth when they play, like an oil drill or something just getting something out of the Earth. Which I respect and try to go for, but one thing about me, you'll never see me attempt that style of music because when I hear it, I go, I don't buy that for a second, John.

RR: When you do it?

JM: Yeah. It's fun, but you'll never hear me do, yeah, Blind Blake stuff or even Lightning Hopkins, who I love. Yeah, I'll mess with it at home, but there is a line to where I think you should probably... it's off the... you want to play authentic music for you. Yeah, that's right. I came up with these guys as references, they're like baseball cards, they're like if you're into the NBA and you wear different jerseys and you pretend you're a different player in the driveway, that's what I was doing, you know. I did it for a lot of years, so all those pieces are in there still. I could give you Robert Cray-ish, give you BB King-ish, I could give you Eric-ish, I can give you Steve around-ish, but not by duplicating what they did, but playing over the grooves that they're playing over and understanding the style of what they're doing. That's right, like more becoming them instead of copying them, that's right, that's right, yeah, seek what they're seeking, yeah, don't seek them, interesting, yeah, yeah. And when it's really good, even when I was a kid, your feet come off the ground, man, your feet come off the ground as you're playing, you're elated, what else on Earth, you know. And I think about young people today, there really is way less of that. Not to say people aren't going into their rooms and playing music. But I remember having my feelings hurt, being upset, being bullied, being made fun of, feeling small, and knowing that I was on my way to go home and reset from that and hammer out the dents and re-inflate from playing guitar. And it became a secret that no one else really knew about in school. And that was like my 21 Jump Street undercover student thing.

RR: And therapy as well.

JM: The greatest therapy in the world is to play music and say as you hear yourself play, I am not a piece of shit, you know, that's a powerful thing. Where else, if you don't play music today, can you get that feeling when the world is in so many ways sort of telling you you're a piece of shit, one way or the other? Where else can you go and get that feeling where you go, huh, am not. You can't, you know, it's so guitar for me as it is for so many people, and music is for so many people, it was like armor, it was like armor that no one saw that I had under my shirt, and then I'd go to school and deal with whatever that social mess was, knowing that I'm friends with this league of superheroes on CDs, when I go back to my room and to be able to actually play with something.

RR: I had a similar experience without actually being able to play, like I would play along with the Ramones, punk rock, but that was like very rudimentary things, but I still got to have that experience, even without it being no virtuosity whatsoever, but it still was my savior.

JM: Yeah, you got in the simulator, you know, you got in the flight simulator.



RR: Tell me the whole story of this tour, cause this is a different tour than others that you've done.

JM: Yeah, I was always tinkering with the idea of doing an acoustic thing, but knew I just wasn't to the point in my career where I felt like I was gonna be able to pull it off. For some reason. I think it probably had to do with my catalog. I just wanted to have a really good stable of songs to pull from. And a few things happened last year where I was playing acoustic and it really worked. I did a radio show, which I hadn't done in some time. So my memory of a radio show was, throw me in the middle of the lineup, I come out and do my thing, and I'm out, and then the big band comes out and plays. It was an arena show in San Jose, and I was kind of one of the headliners with just an acoustic guitar, and it worked. It only works because the audience made it work. I can't stress this enough. It only works if they build the bridge to paradise for you. If they don't, you're not, because you can't overpower them with an acoustic guitar.

You will sink if you tread too fast. If you tread your arms too fast, you're not swimming, you're flailing, and you sink like a brick. And they were creating this golden road to where I wanted to go. They're all building this thing, you know? And I got off stage, and I was like, wait a minute, that is actually doable. And then I had just started to have this idea about 2023, and I'm pretty good at reading tea leaves in the near future, you know? And I went, I feel like everything's going to change this year before you can really make a plan for anything, so I'm gonna go month to month this year because I don't trust the outlook of December from January. So I'm gonna go month to month.

And I'm not kidding, the first week of January, we booked the tour. The third week of January, we were shooting all the photography, and I was coming up with the name of the tour. What was it going to be? What are you going to call it? How are you going to put a stamp on it? On sale a week later, like eight weeks later, the tour started. And what was so brilliant about it is, number one, artists plan things so far in advance. We want to do them, which is why we plan them. And most of the time, by the time we get to the doing of the plan, we don't want to do it anymore. And the other thing that was fascinating was, in terms of selling tickets, we don't know where we're going to be in eight months. So it's not that people aren't buying tickets to a show in October because they don't want to go. I don't know where I'm going to be in October. So something really interesting happened where in January, we sold tickets for shows in February and March, or March and April. And everyone was like, yeah, I'll still be in school. And that just made more sense to me than booking things that far out in advance. You know what I mean? I'm more into it by the time I do it. They're more into it by the time they go. You're just shortening that fuse between that sounds cool. I think I'll do that and doing it.

RR: It makes sense. The whole world has gotten more immediate. Yeah, you know, we live in an on-demand world.

JM: That's right, it makes perfect sense. And now you're seeing me in the middle of my initial desire, the excitement, the fire of the ideas. You get to do it now, and we get to experience it. That's right. And I remember saying, just because it's fast doesn't mean it's bad.

RR: Not at all. I think maybe just the opposite.

JM: And my team is great. And I hate saying my team, sorry, but it's incredible and so flexible and just so immediate and dynamic that I could say, I want to do this and that and that. And it starts with a vision. You can't waffle. I mean, if I waffle and I go, well, it might not, then we're over. You can't do it, right? It's just too short a period of time. But I'm pretty good at downloading a vision and not wavering from it. And so this tour just turned out to be way more special than even I thought. I thought it would be like an appendix to my normal touring, and it became weirdly like the centerpiece of all of it.

RR: So cool. Describe what shows like.

JM: It is like taking a magnifying glass in the middle of the afternoon and trying to get the beam from the Sun so bright into the one tiny, tiny, tiny part of the paper that can burn. Like, how do you get all of who you are. How do you get those lenses to line up so that you really can refract everything that's inside you and make it work. Now, that goes against a lot of the thinking of touring, which is repetition. Let's get doing these shows, so it's muscle memory, baby. Up, we go. Down, we go.

RR: Like a Broadway play.

JM: That's right. And this is the opposite. You cannot do that. You cannot do it. I've never in my life been more in tune with myself in terms of even living in my body of stress. I am in my physical body more than I've ever been before. If I don't sleep, I feel it. If I don't rest my voice, I hear it. If I'm stressed, I wear it. Okay, what do we do? We have to lay down, put on music, you need an hour. It's all of this real, objective,

RR: And it's a solo acoustic tour?

JM: Solo acoustic. It takes me forever to write a setlist because I have to be honest with myself. What do you want to play? What do you want to play tonight? Who are you tonight? And what is the setlist that you will have the most fun sledding down this perfect—

RR: How far before the show do you do the setlist?

JM: About an hour. And I go through two pieces of paper because I'm always fighting with yourself, with my instincts. Yeah, because there's the one instinct in me that goes, like, don't let them down. give them the biggies. And I don't know if you've had experience with this, like, sometimes the audience doesn't want the biggies.

RR: You can't even project what they want. I know they want it to be good.

JM: That's what I'm saying. And if you think about both the audience and the artist having the wrong idea about the other. And the audience would say, we thought you loved playing it. And the artist would say, well, we thought you loved hearing it. And if you come together, you go, well, I don't really need to hear that one every night.


JM: The tour has rejuvenated my creativity. I thought I might be reaching the end of my creative road, but being on this tour showed me that's not true. I'm more energized than ever and have started writing new songs. The tour allows me to be more honest with myself and reminds me that writing the next song is the best way to write music. It's all about being present in the moment and embracing the uncertainty of the creative process.



RR: And something that John Lennon talked about is as soon as you have the beginning of a song, even if it's just a rough draft, write it til the end. Don't let that moment pass, because you will never come back to it.

So again I don't know if you have to refine it, but you have to really get as close as you can to a great first draft, where then maybe it's like, oh I'll change this word. Maybe this line is not as good as it could be, but get to where you're like, I see this whole song.

JM: I couldn't agree more. Just get a circuit going. Get the light bulb to light up cause all the wiring is in there. And then it's so much easier to change it, and then you realize most of it didn't need to be changed.

RR: Absolutely.

JM: I mean there are so many songs I have that have what I thought were—and I call—placeholder lyrics. And they're not placeholder. Because as writers we hold ourselves to this line-by-line standard of impressing ourselves.



RR: Do you think of yourself as a guitar player, or do you think of yourself as a singer-songwriter?

JM: [...] It's 50% guitar player, 35% songwriter, 15% singer. Singing is last for me, because I really do not believe that I have an objectively facile, great voice. As a lot of singers don't. I have to always write for my voice. It's like there's two people. It's like, John, you're stuck with this guy. He sings pretty good, but he can't really reach a lot of notes. How can you compose songs that sound like they're high but they're not high, because this guy can't get above a high E on a guitar string. So if I were able to sing with incredible range, I would be able to write ten times as much music. I'm limited by a voice that's technically a baritone. If pop music venerated the baritone, I would be a mega-star. So a lot of my songs are pitched pretty low. They're not meant to sound that way.



JM: The best loud sound I ever heard in my life was AC/DC at the Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame. I mean it hurt. But it was the best sounding hurt I ever heard in my life. It was like, okay you can have these little hairs in my ear.



JM: But when I'm writing a song I have a very distinct vision of what I want it to sound like. I had a song on my last record. It's a song called, "Why You No Love Me," which is just so funny cause people just did not love it. But I loved it, I thought it was great. And I love thinking something is great and finding out I'm wrong. I just think it's wild.

RR: Well you're not wrong, you love it. You loving it is never wrong.

JM: I guess you're right. 

RR: Yeah, you can never know that. That you can be wrong all day! That you'll always be wrong!

JM: I love it. I love the gamble. And I wanted the sort of, Stephen Bishop, "On and On," really sensitive.

RR: Yeah, I love that song.

JM: And we did the drum track three times. And I was trying to explain what I wanted the drums to do. I said, you know what, I finally got it, I want the drums to go, "thit." I want the snare to go, "thit". T-H-I-T. And we got, "thit." And I remember feeling like with Don that I had gone past my line of credit, a little bit, with going for a third drum take. And when we heard it, I went, that's what I'm talking about!

RR: Tell me how do you make your records. What you are describing is foreign to me, so that's why I'm asking.

JM: I'll write a song. I demo it pretty well. Most of my demos have the DNA of a song.

RR: And will that be with machine drums?

JM: I'm a big MPC guy. I decided I was going to get good at one platform. So I'm really good with MPC. It's clunky, but it allows for these other great opportunities to happen. So because it's not streamlined, these other cool accidents can happen.

RR: So you're a hip-hop producer, essentially.

JM: In a way. I've been on people's records through playing into an MPC. Because you can use plug-ins right then and there. Which is wild. I almost don't want to give away the secret sauce, but you can use your guitar as a software instrument. And then you can use all the effects that a software instrument would use. But your guitar becomes a Roads. 



RR: Never do it without words. Always. They could be the wrong words. 


RR: My interest is in the thing being the best it could be, and the less we have to kill ourselves for that to be the case, great. But if we have to kill ourselves, we do.

JM: So if you know in your heart that something wasn't as good as it could have been, but the artist is happy, are you happy?

RR: No. And that's a conversation we have. At the beginning of the project I always say, let's work on whatever it is we are making until we both love it. We'd make that agreement. And if I love it but they don't love it, that's a failure. Either way, it's the same. And when it's a band, we all have to love it. Because I guarantee you, if we both love it or if we all love it, it's better than when just one of us likes it. Has to be. Has to be better!

JM: So have you gone down the rode of re-tracking something just because one person in the band needed to hear three more takes?

RR: Absolutely.

JM: And you know already it's not going to be—

RR: I never know anything. I have no idea.

JM: So you have never demonstratively done something in the studio as a favor, almost, to show someone in real time—

RR: No. It may be the first time I ever did it—everyday someone says, I have an idea, let's do it like this. And I hear what they say, and I imagine it: that sounds bad. Is my self-conversation. I say, okay, let's try it. And then we try it, and it sounds good. It happens all the time. And you can't imagine the results. It always has to be demonstrated. Demonstrate it, and I'll tell you if it works for me or not.

JM: I see. There is that editorial in there. Only after we give it a chance.

RR: We have to give the worst idea a chance because you never know. You can't know.

JM: Can the artist know if they know themselves enough?

RR: No. No. You can't know. Or, maybe you know, but you're putting yourself into a tiny little box. There's so much more possible.

JM: Well that's what I'm learning now. Is having my head opened up for me again. And this tour has proven to me that the dumbest I'll ever be is in my sense of my own capacity for things now. You just don't know. 



RR: We're so lucky that this is our lives. We get to basically play and these things appear that weren't there, and we get to share it with people, and they get to have an experience. It's amazing.

JM: And then, like you were saying, they catalyze it and return it to you.

RR: It's different.

JM: I play Stop This Train every night. It's not a song from a record anymore. It's a feeling for people. It's a feeling for me. I think about my dad. And I look at their faces and I know what's going on. I know that they're thinking about people who might not be there. [Sings beginning of "Stop This Train"] And I look out and people have this look on their face, it's like a pout. It's like adults with this vulnerable pout, they're taking it in and it's melting them down. And it's like, that is a universe away from, "I want to make it as a musician." 

RR: A universe away.


RR: It's not show biz anymore.