RY: How much of their extensive catalog will you be learning?
JM: I’m learning as much as I can, obviously starting with the ones that are the most iconic and the ones that are the real bedrock of the live shows.
I have my own system of layers to familiarize myself with each song — just listening to it, just putting it on in the car, just having it, then picking it up, and finding out where it lives on the guitar. Then learning how the arrangement goes, then learning how the solo works — basically, the theory on the guitar for each song — and then learning how to sing over it and do that at the same time.
I’m moving through on an X/Y vertical/horizontal level. Just because I know how the song goes doesn’t mean I fully understand the song. But if I can understand it and where it comes from, then I can understand how to communicate it in a way that it’s a little bit deeper than simply reciting it. If I can understand the theory of it, then I can expound on the theory of it.
There are songs that I’ve known how they go for four months but I’m still going deeper and deeper and deeper into them. And I think that’s a testament to that band and Jerry Garcia and those songs that you can just keep peeling away the theory behind them.
It’s a real master class.
RY: You seem really excited for this chapter. What is it about the music and the band members that brings that out of you?
JM: The first thing that excited me about it was that it felt to me like what musicians used to experience in the jazz world in the ‘50s and ‘60s — when they would do time in other people’s bands and they would come up through those bands.
To me, this is no different as a guitar player in this band than it would be for any instrumentalist to be in Miles Davis’ band. If you were in Miles’ band, you got your own band after that. It meant something. You became a better musician forever because you learned from Miles.
That’s the way I see this. I can learn from these musicians and then always have that on any other project. It feels almost like taking a year off to go to school or taking four years off to go to college. It’s another lesson.
When this is said and done, I can’t imagine not being a better musician, whether it’s technically or philosophically, and that really inspired me.
As a solo artist, I have my pretty set paint colors to work with. And this guarantees that the palette that I have to make my own music will keep widening and diversifying. And that’ll mean I can keep putting records out where I don’t repeat myself because I have new vocabulary to work with. I don’t ever want to get to that place where it’s the same vocabulary, just in a different order.
And with this band, oddly enough, there’s a real youthful energy to this right now. It’s really youthful. Everybody is sort of putting on their parachutes and we’re going to jump.
For my whole career, I’ve only wanted to do that — I’ve only wanted to take the thrill ride part of it.
Now I also want to go through my career in the scenic view. I want to go up the coastline and look at the water and I want to take extra time to do it because it’s really all about that trip. It’s not about getting records out on time. It’s not about making sure that the cycles fall where they’re supposed to. It’s really about a journey and I can’t think of a better journey to take right now.
I’ll always remember how to make John Mayer records. I don’t think I’ll forget [laughs]. That’s always going to happen, so that’s why it was very easy to follow this path wherever it leads.
Nobody’s quite sure where the future is going to take us and that’s all I ever wanted to do when I made music. Ever.
I want to be reliable but I don’t want to be predictable. How about that? Reliably unpredictable is exactly where I want my career to live. You don’t know where I’m going to go, but you’re sure I’m going to give my all to you.
RY: Jerry Garcia's guitar playing was different from yours and obviously you’re not trying to replace him. I'd love to hear more about your approach to his sound and his playing, as he was an exceptional improviser with a deep-rooted knowledge of scales.
JM: It would take six guitar players to cover a show to come even close to being able to cover all of the influences that Jerry Garcia was drawing from. There’s nothing else like it.
I think the way I can approach it so that I don’t completely panic is to find the balance between where the guitar lives under my hands, what these songs dictate, and where Jerry Garcia’s playing melded into the composition of the songs. I’ve tried more than a couple of times to play stock “me” over these songs and it doesn’t work. They sort of die on the vine.
I’m doing this with the utmost respect also because this is a respect thing and not just a science. It’s a very spiritual thing where I’m respecting these notes because they won’t ever die. That’s Jerry Garcia’s genetic code in all of these songs and in all of that playing. It’s really interesting how his music can do that. It’s so expressive.
I’m learning how he thought and how he felt and where he was coming from, so I want to deeply respect that and also not hyperextend myself to try to go for something I can’t get.
It’s a lot of playing and listening. Because I want to be authentic, I want to sound alive and organic but I also want to respect what those compositions were and that guitar playing has so much to do with the feeling that it gives the audience. I’m learning new things about it all of the time.
It’s one of the most intense pursuits musically I’ve ever been on, maybe the most because there’s so much to look at and there’s so much to dissect.
How do I build using the pieces that I have here and some pieces that I can build based on practice and study? How do I put together this thing that in its own way is vital but respectful and authentic and true to what that music is?
So it absolutely is one of the most fascinating, frightening, rewarding experiences of my life. I am 100% online as a musician right now. All of my brainpower and soul power is devoted to music.
And I thank Bob, Billy, Mickey, Oteil, and Jeff for giving me that opportunity to put all of my energy into music. To make me care this much. It keeps me on my toes and it makes me listen to more music than I’ve listened to in a decade, honest to God. It’s its own amazing study.
I’m already on the journey. The journey doesn’t begin October 31st. I’ve been on the journey and there’s nothing else like it. It’s going to be great. All I’ve ever wanted out of music is to look forward to waking up the next morning and seeing what’s going to come out of the guitar and what I’m going to figure out and what I’m going to create.
RY: It seems like you're in an interesting spot because you have your own fan base, there is the Dead fan base, and then you have the Dead & Co. band members, all of whom may be expecting different things from you come show time. It seems like a lot of pressure, too! How do you find that balance of trying to please everyone while being yourself?
JM: One day at a time. One day at a time. If I looked at the whole thing at once then I would get too scared to leave the house. I have pretty good instincts. I care a lot and I like to make cool stuff and I usually don’t settle for less than cool stuff. I just work harder to make sure it’s cool. No pun intended, I trust myself to figure it out.
And here’s the thing about being in a band — you have these other guys to help you. Everybody can help each other and that’s what is so great. Everybody is going to take a corner of the couch. I’ve always wanted to be in a tribe where everybody can work together and you can rely on other people. You can go, “WE will make it happen” and I am one part of “we”. That is all I’ve wanted, man, for the longest time.
I want a diverse experience in my life as a musician and I am only guided by the stuff that I love. I don’t think anybody could deny that I’ve been trying to get this feeling in my own music in the past couple of years. It’s proof that I’m pure of heart in wanting to play this music and cover these songs during my shows — trying to access some of that spirit for my own music because I love it so much.
And now, to be able to go straight to the source is a whole other story. I have no idea how that happened. I am along for the ride and it can only be great for me.