Interviews & Features
Playing In The Band
John Mayer talks about life in Dead & Company
By Gary Graff
May 27, 2016
It’s a long way from “Daughters” to “Dark Star,” but that’s the journey John Mayer has made during the past year as part of Dead & Company. A chance meeting with Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir while Mayer was guest-hosting CBS’ The Late Late Show during February of 2015 lit a spark between the two, and, while the Grateful Dead was saying “Fare Thee Well” to fans during the middle of last year, the two had already teamed with Dead percussionists Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart on a new project that would keep the music alive.
And Mayer — a well-established solo artist with six studio albums and seven Grammy Awards to his credit — quickly impressed those elder statesmen; Weir says that “It’s a lot of fun for me to have a fire-breathing sidekick again” after spending the Dead’s 30 active years alongside the late Jerry Garcia, while Hart notes that “John has just put his nose to the grindstone every day. It’s a lot of learning, but he really knows the inside language now. It was an amazing effort on his part.” Mayer, for his part, is having the time of his life being part of — and helping to continue — the long, strange trip, and he shared his enthusiasm with us as Dead & Company prepares to launch a summer tour of North America.
FGPO: What was the experience like of incorporating yourself into the Grateful Dead universe, musically, with Dead & Company.
Mayer: Musically it’s exactly what I was hoping it would be and what I thought it would be. Man, I’d never experienced anything like that, musically, where I floated in that particular place in the sound of the band. Bob carries so much of that; he’s sort of one of those true band leaders where it’s always going to feel like him, no matter who’s playing. But when you got in the room together with Billy and Mickey, the idea just took ahold of me when I heard it. It was as big and strong as any idea I’ve had in my life. Certainly I wasn’t sure how it was going to be received, but I knew that in the nucleus there was a lot of authenticity and a validity to putting a band together and making music people would want to listen to live and hopefully record and listen back to for awhile. And in terms of the way it was received, it was absolutely what I was hoping it would be. So it couldn’t have been better for me.
FGPO: What kind of preparations were involved in getting ready to play with these guys?
Mayer: I think by the time that I knew that it was more likely that this tour would happen than not last year, it was not much more than 100 days out. So it really sort of demanded that I do only that in terms of learning the songs. There were songs I knew. There were songs I didn’t know. So I kind of built this assembly line in my head of learning the songs I knew and having my guitar in my lap and really listening hardcore to the songs I didn’t. What most people don’t understand is I was falling in love with the music as I was learning it. So it was not a task. It was not building a deck. I could’ve discovered the catalog in its entirety, but this pushed that process up a little bit. It was a little bit of force-feeding, but for the most part I was going on the same ride every other Deadhead goes on when discovering the music a song at a time. So it was a lot of learning the music.
FGPO: What kind of “relationship” did you develop to Jerry Garcia and his parts?
Mayer: It was really trying to get to what was the music, and in some ways what was Jerry Garcia? Would I be doing the music a disservice by trying to emulate him? That was almost harder than learning the songs was figuring out what to reproduce and what not to gene-splice into the way I wanted to go about playing the music.
FGPO: What’s your own background with the Dead and its music?
Mayer: I always saw it a little bit from the outside, but it really does make me who I am based on the world I grew up in. I try to have a full circle moment every night, and I usually have it when I sit on the side of the stage and watch the drum solo and just experience the full circle of it all. It’s a little like bending time. I remember when I was in high school I didn’t really understand it. But the music has revealed to me that the United Stations of America is a very nuanced place in terms of the regions and the families and the way people have traveled and moved and taken the culture with them. I really don’t think that the spirit has changed at all since I was in school in 1995. I think the spirit just continues on.
FGPO: The Dead draws from such a vast array of sources and influences — as do you. But has this sent you deeper into that exploration?
Mayer: When you’re into music the way that Bob and I are … It’s almost like collecting baseball cards. You collect the Texas blues card. You collect the Chicago blues card. You collect the country-western card. It’s sort of like this love of all these cards you can collect and walk around with. So really for me, it was about getting another card or trading a card, and when musicians look at music that way it’s sort of like this Rolodex of influences. It’s really great to have that conversation, musically. It’s just a matter of rearranging the cards a little bit when you have that building block; oh, I do a little Lightning Hopkins here or do a Muddy Waters thing there, and communicating that way. So when we go into “Smokestack Lightning” or something, it’s like, “Yeah, let’s do a Howling Wolf thing, but let’s filter it through who we all are. There’s something almost miraculous about being a guitar player or being a musician who understands these different little trading cards and going, “Oh, I want to collect that card, too” and shifting the vocabulary a little bit. It’s the love of seeing that thing happen.
FGPO: What kind of perspectives or revelations have you made about the material?
Mayer: You build a new appreciation for all of them. You learn how they move as chords. You can sort of get into the head of the songwriters a little bit — Why did you go to this chord? Why would you take that bar out? Why would you extend that? These arrangements just represent people’s instincts to where these songs go, and for all of it I got a really deep sense of appreciation for the construction of the songs.
FGPO: Any particular songs that have become your favorites to play?
Mayer: I think for me, more than any one song, there’s a group of songs I think are as good as any classic American song that you’ve ever heard. And in a way, they’re ensconced in this larger catalog, and they’re ensconced in this Grateful Dead culture that wasn’t necessarily a Top 20, chart-busting sort of a culture. So you find these absolute gems of songs that are every bit as good, if not better, than the songs we hold on high in sort of the Great American Songbook catalog.
FGPO: And some of those would be…
Mayer: Oh, it’s almost like there’s so many songs it’s almost impossible to focus on the brilliance of any one of them. I think of “Ramble On Rose.” To play “Broke Down Palace” at the end of the night and see what it does to people in the crowd. I’ll always now listen to these songs and think about what they were like to play. What a trip it is to be in your car, falling in love and listening to this music and then go on tour and play this music for people and have these incredibly deep moments with people. You can see it in your eyes. And then to listen to this music for the rest of my life and be able to have the memories of not just listening to it but performing it in certain cities at certain times of the set. I have an appreciation for these songs as moments in my life — not just songs I listen to, but I got to play them. I could not have a bad day in my life, if I just put on some Grateful Dead music and be like, “This is ‘Deal.’ Yeah, I got that right in Philly. That was a fun one.'”
FGPO: Talk about playing in front of this iconic but wholly unique rhythm section.
Mayer: Well, I love playing with Billy and Mickey, and in fact I’ve been trying to get that sound on my last couple of records, that two drummer thing. There’s something that happens with Billy and Mickey; The only way I can describe it is this cascading waterfall of a rhythm section. As I started to dive deeper into being a guitar player and trying to get ready for this project, I wondered, “Why is it some nights my guitar playing can soar and other nights it doesn’t,” and it wound up being because of the drummers. When you listen back to these recordings and try to figure out what makes this music soar, you realize the notes have a place to rest because of those drummers’ playing. It’s rolling and tumbling where you can do less on a guitar and make it sound like more.
There’s this interplay between the notes on the guitar and the notes on the drums. When the music is interpreted without that rhythmical approach of the drums, it loses dimension to me. Billy and Mickey invented a way to play as a rhythm section. It’s a different kind of driving force, and playing with them is going to make me a better musician when I go to make my own record. Being inside that, now I can always tell a drummer for the rest of my life what goes into that Billy Kreutzmann thing and what goes into that Mickey Hart thing. It’s like going to school.
FGPO: Dead & Company is chewing up a lot of time, but what’s up with your own career?
Mayer: I feel like I’m at this point where the shape of my career is sort of in line with the shape of who I am as a person, which is a little broader than just having a solo career. I’m really, really thankful for the solo career, and for the opportunity to leave the solo career and come back to it and have it still be there. So I feel like I have the best job in music right now, where it’s a little bit boundless. It’s not necessarily a guy trying to make a record go to No. 1 to keep the machine going. It’s really me now. It’s very difficult to put something aside that is sort of your life, that is the routine to make a record and tour and sort of keep this world domination thing going. But the music that these guys make, the music of the Grateful Dead and Bob’s support, made this such a no-brainer. The solo artist label isn’t at the top of the pyramid anymore; the top of the pyramid is just musician, and that’s so freeing and so beautiful. I’m not held to any record cycle. I’m not held to any pop culture demands. To be this many years into a career and still be discovering how to play the guitar is a sign I’m on the right path in terms of being a musician.
FGPO: You were working on an album of your own when Dead & Company started. Will you return to that?
Mayer: I put the record aside last April, I would say, and just wanted to start learning all this (Grateful Dead) music, and I came back to the album in January, which was actually really good to take time away from it and come back and see what are the songs that have stood the test of time and what I can do to this song or that song to make it better. I will finish by the end of the year. This year will be sort of the year I’m both in this band, finishing touring, and finishing my record, so next year will be a solo artist sort of a year.
FGPO: And that will co-exist alongside Dead & Company, right?
Mayer: I will never close the door on Dead & Company, ever. I think as long as there’s a desire to do it, I know how to carve time out. It’s always going to be worth doing. I will do Dead & Company as long as fans want it and as long as it feels like there’s something left on the table to try and explore. I couldn’t be happier as a musician and career artist right now.
FGPO: What about Dead & Company as a writing and recording concern?
Mayer: I’m open to anything that … How do I put this … that could really take strong root on a musical level, that could really validate itself on a musical level. If it can state its case for the reason it needs to exist, then I would absolutely jump to doing it. I would actually be very interested to see what the band could do as composers or as composers through improvisation.
But it would have to come out of the earth; it can’t be planted from above the soil. But I’m open to anything this band could or wanted to do as long as it answered the constant question “Well … why?” And if it has a strong answer, I’d love to do it.