I didn’t tell anyone the name of this record until about the last month of recording it. I didn’t want to be talked out of it. That can happen easier than you think, you know. All you have to do is say ‘I’m thinking of calling it SOB ROCK’ and just wait for a facial expression or a vocal inflection that you don’t like. Don’t get me wrong, that still happened, except by the time I told people around me, it was my facial expression and the tone in my voice that sent the message this record is SOB ROCK.
This record is SOB ROCK, and nothing else. If there's something you were expecting from it that you didn't get, I've got plenty more albums to make. The way I see it, it's a waste of job security not to give each idea all you've got. And this idea rang loud like a bell from the very beginning: make music for the times you wish were upon us, not the times that are. Maybe, and I mean just maybe, a record could have a little bit of influence by way of dreaming something beautiful into reality.
This album is a group effort, a small, closely-knit group with nowhere else to go but into this dream world we all helped each other build. We left the fear and the emptiness behind when we walked into the studio, and found a joyous musical landscape to find cover in. My hope is that you can stake out some hiding places in it as well.
It's often said, but I've never meant it more than right now: I hope you like it.
Interview with Don Was
Don Was: Hey John... Good to see you, man... I've missed you! We spent 7 months in a bubble together! Can you describe the extraordinary circumstances under which we recorded SOB Rock?
John Mayer: Good to see you, and I sure missed you too. Well, these songs all came out pretty quickly during the pandemic. I'd say around April until June. I tend to write in these concentrated little trances, and when I know I had an album's worth of material, I thought it was the perfect time to make a record, seeing as there wasn't anything else to do that could be nearly as constructive. I remember thinking "I need Don to help on this one," because you have this way of keeping me from feeling lost or helpless as I'm putting an album together. The way I think about it is that you sort of let me tether myself to you creatively, and then I can be free to dream really big without feeling like the whole thing is a waste of time, which you know as an artist, that feeling can creep in pretty quickly with little provocation. And so we set off to make this record, thinking that we'd throw each song on the table, record it in a few days and move on to the next. Which is always a big mistake when it comes to how I work [laughs] because the record just kept getting bigger and deeper and wider and more dense as we went.
DW: The lack of a rushed deadline and absence of distractions were definitely once-in-a-lifetime bonuses. I saw you dig in and devote weeks to making each track better and better... let's talk about how the luxury of unlimited time made this a better record...
JM: Not just the luxury of unlimited time, which I suppose I've had for a while now when making records, but the luxury of unbroken time. We were sort of sequestered like jurors, not taking in any outside cultural or social distractions – because as we know, there weren't any. It was home, studio, home, studio, home, studio, with almost zero deviations from that for months on end. And that allowed us to all see the same picture in sync, and nobody came in after a week in New York, or some other pause in the action that would make us come in and contradict ourselves with a new idea. This record is one idea, executed in one place, in one time, with one shared vision, and you can really hear and feel it on the album.
DW: Out little bubble at Henson Studios was extremely relaxed and comfortable. However, there was an inescapable overtone of Pandemic anxiety and fear that we shared with everyone on the planet. It was an odd contrast. How do you think that impacted the music?
JM: I think we all made a record that was less about any real finish line – nobody was waiting on it to get turned in so we could book a tour – and more about building a dream world we could visit by pulling a song up, enjoying the music and finding new ways to add more color and depth to it. We were making a record so that we had a place to go, both physically and emotionally. If you stopped the music and walked outside, you had nothing. Just fear and silence and unknown. The music became our little clubhouse, and I can hear that when I listen back now. It's insanely special.
DW: The tracks operate on a couple of different levels... I think the thing that listeners will notice first is a certain fascination with the musical textures of the 1980s. That's probably most evident on the first single "Last Train Home"... it certainly goes against the grain of current trends in popular music. What's that all about?
JM: Well as much as I would like to take some stand on it not being "an '80s album," and maybe I could if I tried – Sob Rock is somewhat of a period place. I thought a lot about Quentin Tarantino as I made this record, where it's about stoking a real love affair with a time and a feeling, and wanting to create more supposed reality from that time. And the pandemic gave me that blank canvas to pick a time and place to take shelter in, as a form of self-soothing. Time and place ceased to be for an entire year. Why not pick your favorite to hide out in, and find ways to laugh and smile and possibly feel like you're making a little mischief, and really – quite honestly – make the art that you dreamed of making when you were a kid? That's the joy of being an artist, that you can make old dreams come true whenever you want. For all my wishing I was a famous musician in 1988, I got to pretend I was me then, but now! Or maybe me now, but then. As for going against the grain of trends, you know – I spent so long missing the trends that I figured I might as well take advantage of the freedom here. Nobody's expecting me to do anything in particular, and that's actually the ultimate place to be as an artist.
DW: Underneath those textures, the songwriting hits a new plateau in your continually evolving maturity and sophistication as an artist. The bulk of these songs were written in a relatively short period in 2020, which is astounding! Let's talk about how that came about...
JM: I didn't play music for a couple of months after lockdown began. I just didn't know what my feelings sounded like. You know, we make music because we want to express how we feel in contrast with what the world feels like. There's so much relativity there between artist and world. Loneliness as a song idea is always tacitly compared to the rest of the world that's seemingly bussing around, making things happen. Nobody was making anything happen. So the entire game board shifted. If there's no "we" there's no "me," as a writer. Until at some point, that silence and that blackness sent me deep into myself, not as a famous dude making his [eighth] record, but as a guy just looking inward. There was a fair bit of the mechanics of grief at play, you know? You just start watching reels of your life go by, watching these scenes play out and taking real note of them. And so each song kind of encouraged me to write the next. I can't quite explain that trance, but it's like you can tell from each song what the next needs to be to complement it. And by July, I had every song mapped out. I flew to LA from Montana with these songs mostly finished, all except for some finished lyrics on a couple of songs.
DW: The album holds together as an integrally unified piece rather than being just a collection of singles. Are there some central themes that underscore this music?
JM: Well I think the biggest reason it holds together like it does is because I didn't play that game I usually do where I get ten or twelve songs and then try and keep writing to knock the weak ones out. I remember doing that on The Search For Everything, and though I love the songs on that album, you can hear the different life phases and intentions beating against one another. This was about 'lock the ten vignettes and that's your movie. Want more, make another movie.' I have to tell you, that's the way to do it. What you hear is a straight shot from idea to fruition, and you can feel it when you listen.
DW: One of the rawest and most poignant songs on the album is "Why You No Love Me." I must admit that, when I first heard your demo, I was a bit thrown by the hook line's adverb 'situation.' I totally get it now and am in awe of the incredible beauty of the writing... but it took a minute to get used to that line. What would you like people to know about this song?
JM: It's funny. I would say by the fifth time I hear it back when I first wrote it as a demo, the words sounded right to me. They've sounded right to me ever since. Those words in that order, that's about getting hurt so deep it hits you right in the kid, where you can't even form sentences correctly. To me the saddest part of it is that it's wrapped up in a soft rock banger. It makes me laugh because the two emotions ram up against each other, and I don't know whether to cry or sway to it, so I just laugh, because the emotional mix is so odd.
DW: I think my favorite song on the album is "Shouldn't Matter But It Does" and I'm not too proud to admit that I started crying while we were recording it. Tell us a bit about that one...
JM: I had that song written in my head before I actually recorded it. It was my shower song for several months. I'd just write the parts and remember the structure in my head. Maybe I wrote a few lines down in the iPhone, but it really was the only song I kind of worked out before ever singing it. It's about being a grown up, man. I can't quite explain it. It's what's left after you clean everything up you can from the pain of lost love... it's all about that stuff that you can't totally clear away. And how you just deal with the remains, which in its own right is sad. The sad, unfun truth, maybe the most painful one after you're done with all the exquisite drama of heartbreak is... 'it's fine.' That's what [sic] it's so sad. It's so over. But those little leftovers we all carry... they come along with us our entire lives.
DW: "Shot In The Dark" was a song that we wrestled with a bit. I think we're both thrilled with the way it came out. What made it more difficult to capture than the others?
JM: A bit?? [laughs] — you know I still don't know why it was so hard to get that song down the way I hear it in my head. Everything else on the album, to a certain extent, was point and shoot. Even if we had to try a few times to get there. But "Shot In The Dark" took us both for a ride! I think there are some musicological aspects of that song that made it tough to get right, but also, man — sometimes you just have an impossible dream for a song. You have an idea for a scene in a movie that you just can't shoot in a practical way. But I'm so happy to say that all we had to do was try our best, stay true to what the song wanted, and once it was mixed and mastered, and I gave it a month or so? It's one of my favorite songs on the album! All I had to do was listen to what was there and forget what I had in mind. That happens sometimes. It won't be the last time, unfortunately. You just have to make the record. Just follow your heart and take your head out of things sometimes. Doing that allowed me to have this song, which I'm so happy about.
DW: Three of the songs were previously released as singles. We did some extra work on Carry Me Away though... Why not just include it as it originally was?
JM: Carry Me Away — and I can say this now — made my bones itch to have released as it was. I'm not too proud to say that I felt like before that song even came out, it didn't have enough of the rocket fuel a track needs to get somewhere in the world. And that was completely my fault. I remember being on tour and experimenting with the idea of making a song as a two week summer vacation project, which I did. And I had a blast, because I really caught a beautiful tune in the process, but it just wasn't fully fleshed out. When it came time to make this album, I knew I could take that extra time I needed to make it great, and listening to it now is a remarkable experience. My shoulders drop, I get totally into the music, and I go 'there it is.' Same song, but it comes to you where you sit now, instead of you leaning forward in your chair to find it. I always knew that song was in there, and now everyone can hear it.
DW: Let's talk about the way we recorded the album: the band was playing live in a room while you played guitar and sang. That's becoming an increasingly rare methodology these days... what are the benefits of recording that way as opposed to overdubbing an instrument at a time?
JM: Well the best part is that it's where you do your finest work! [laughs] Nothing is better than all playing as a band, and you're there in the live room with your shoes off, sitting in that chair with the headphones on, and you're strolling around in each take of the song. Nothing. Nobody will quite understand what you bring to a song unless they were to see you do it. It's lovely. You inhabit the music along with the musicians, and when the take is over, you give your report on what you saw and how it felt, and it's always right!
DW: You put together an incredible group of musicians — many of whom are becoming a true repertory company for you. Tell us about them...
JM: Well I've been lucky enough to have met and played with some of the best musicians on earth, and I can't tell you how good that feels as a writer to know that there's no musical idea that can't be played to perfection by assembling a certain crew from the world around me. Again, I'll hit you with the movie director analogy – there's no scene I can write that I don't already know the best actors to be in, and that sense of freedom is priceless. Having Aaron Sterling and Sean Hurley back in the fold was a treat. We all worked together on Born and Raised and Paradise Valley, and I knew that was the gang for these songs. And then – and here comes the Tarantino reference again – seeing as it was a love letter to a certain musical intention as far as the production went, I wanted to find the guys that made some of that legendary music from decades past. And that included Greg Phillinganes and Lenny Castro. Maren Morris is on a few songs as well. I just think she's as true a musician as they come. I'm incredibly lucky to know her and I was thrilled that she wanted to be a part of this album. And then to have guys like Larry Goldings [keys] and Greg Leisz [pedal steel] in the mix, there just isn't a musical idea they can't bring to life even better than I'd imagined.
Don Was: There was a period just after Christmas and before the vaccine was available to us when there was a spike in new cases of Covid. Going to the studio was deemed to be too risky so we set up a control room in a tent in your backyard and finished the album in there! I've been making records for 40 years and that was a first! How did you feel about that?
JM: I think that was the perfect ending to making Sob Rock. We'd all looked out for each other for so many months that even when it became too dangerous to even go into the studio, we saw it through up here at my house. I sang the vocals for "Wild Blue" in my bedroom! That line about "on a bed of gray"? That's from me looking over at my bed with a gray comforter on it! We saw it through. This record began with a vision, it came to life every day as a way to sooth ourselves and find some respite from so much fear and negativity, and ended on the loudest clearest note of 'adapt and improvise' I could think of. You know in some ways this album was like the albums young bands make, where all they have is each other. It's all we had. We had each other and we met inside the music.
DW: I saw you bleed over every detail of this record... you put your heart and soul into every note and every syllable... I've actually never seen an artist go that deep and care so much... How do you feel when you hear the finished album?
JM: Well thank you. I saw you go to the ends of sanity a few times and never complain, and I won't forget that as long as I live. I can say that you and I have both been to the brink of knowing what to do next, with all of your credits and all the records I've made – we both bonded so deeply in that place of not knowing where the next step could lead us, which is why it's so special when I hear it back – we found new ground together. And if I'd never found any new ground again, I'd have counted my blessing and been happy I have the songs I do. But we found new places to play. And that's what I hear. I hear music that I never thought I could. have made a year ago. I guess what I'm saying is – I can't believe I get to say it's mine.
DW: Oh yeah... one other thing: why did you call the album SOB ROCK?
JM: Lots of little reasons, but the one I feel like explaining at the moment is that if you were to average out the names of my past albums and suppose the name of the next one I put out, Sob Rock throws it WAY out of whack. And that just tickles me and makes me feel like maybe there's a lot more new ground to go looking for from here.