Backstage at Alpine Valley with: John Mayer
by Ken Thorsen
I’ve been covering the Grateful Dead for the last 30 years on public radio. Securing interviews with members of the band is sometimes a challenging and rare opportunity. With the incarnation of Dead and Company The Grateful Dead and Montana have become a little closer. Singer-songwriter John Mayer has joined forces with Oteil Burbridge, Jeff Chimenti and founding members of the Grateful Dead Bob Weir, Billy Kreutzmann & Mickey Hart to form the band ‘Dead & Company’. Paradise Valley, MT resident John Mayer was gracious enough to invite KGLT radio and Bozeman magazine to the beautiful setting of Alpine Valley Music Center in East Troy Wisconsin for a candid discussion about living in Bozeman the people of Bozeman and the not to miss summer tour of Dead & Company. I want to thank John Mayer's management and the fine folks at Dead & Company for this fantastic opportunity I hope you enjoy the article.
Ken Thorsen: John, thanks so much. Usually I thank people for joining me in my studio, but thank you for bringing KGLT Deadshow to this beautiful setting here at Alpine Valley. What a gift.
John Mayer: You’re very welcome. It’s cool to have this convergence of Montana and the Dead.
KT: It’s beautiful. What brought John Mayer to Bozeman, Montana? I guess that’s one question that a lot of Bozeman people want to know.
JM: So, I first learned about Livingston. Actually, I was on tour with a day off in Salt Lake City. I was at the Hotel Monaco sitting at the bar after going out for an afternoon, and I sat next to this traveling business man, which was when it was the original hotel bar not a club. The original hotel bar is a place where weary travelers go; it’s like a watering hole and you have conversations with people that you would have never met otherwise. I met a guy who was a business man, I was talking about how great that part of the country was and he said he was from Bozeman, or maybe somewhere in Montana, and he said Livingston, Montana is just the best town in this country. He wrote it down on a business card. God, I wish I still had it because I would frame it and put it in my house. I held that name in my head for a long time. I remember being in New York and going out for way too many nights and coming home and picking up the iPad and just googling Livingston, Montana. You know I was looking realty, sort of like a fantasy, like fantasy realty hunting, and I just keep looking at Livingston, Montana, and I’ve learned about all these different places. I went to Bozeman on a trip after vocal surgery that I had, I couldn’t speak and my friends lovingly, in attempt to keep my spirits high, took me on this trip. We got a Dodge Sprinter and drove from like Mount Rushmore through Wyoming, the Deadwood through Wyoming, went to the Badlands. We ended up on this fly fishing trip in Bozeman and on the way into Bozeman my dear friend Chad Franscovec, who now lives in Livingston along with me down the street, I’ll never forget he plops down a realty magazine and I open it up, found a realtor, and I said I have a day off in Bozeman. I’m looking around here in Livingston and I gave her keywords. It was the only place I looked at and when I saw the place I went well this looks like it.
KT: Just that simple?
JM: Well, yeah the way it worked I remember I put a bid in on the house and went like it’s a win-win situation because if I get it, I get to live in Montana and if I don’t, I don’t have to move. You know what I mean? I was a dangerous man at that point because I really looked at it like well my life is going to be interesting either way. In one sense I don’t have to get up because I’m kind of lazy and I wouldn’t have to take on such an undertaking, but if I get it I’ll have an incredible house. Really it’s not about the house; it’s about all of it. I say they get bigger but they don’t get better you know? It’s not that big. I moved out in 2011 and slowly sort of, I hope showed my trueness of me wanting to live out there and it seems to have taken hold I hope.
KT: I think it has taken hold with your reach out into the community and specifically the Pine Creek fires and what went on with that and Zac Brown. That was pretty cool.
JM: Yeah that was cool! It was cool for Zac to do it too. I actually just saw him at the Livingston Rodeo the other day. I ran into him at the Livingston rodeo! Isn’t life great? You see friendly faces that are all traveling; it’s like seeing a sailor at port. So I’ve been there pretty consistently when I’m not working, you know. But, unfortunately, it makes more sense to record music where other musicians live so I’ve spent a lot of time in L.A. But, emotionally I only rent in L.A. because I don’t want to be a resident for a couple of emotional reasons you know what I mean?
KT: How does it feel when the community reaches out to you as an artist and a musician and, you know, a prominent figure to help in the community?
JM: It felt great, you know. It was an honor of mine to sort of help out, especially when I knew firsthand how hard these guys would work to save so many houses, you know. And, of course, wanted to support them and also sort of give some love to the people who weren’t so lucky. You know, I know some people who rebuilt after the fire. I try to sort of keep a low profile. I’m here to help if I’m needed and I just don’t want to dilute myself, but I’m around. I’ve got my ear to the community.
KT: We saw you pop in here and there and play with the guys in Downtown Livingston Main Street a couple of days last year.
JM: I ended up with Rodney Crowell one night at The Hoot yeah, yeah. But, you know I also like being a regular old resident.
KT: Heck yeah.
JM: I don’t like the idea of like being some sort of savior in any way. I just go to Albertsons, do all of that stuff. And when I can help and I feel like it really would help I’m around, you know.
KT: You know, one thing about the Bozeman community is that you don’t generally get that starstruck reaction from people. Do you get bugged a lot when you’re around and when you’re at Albertsons?
JM: No, I said hello, I still do say hello but I had this.. I remember telling myself like ok - I’m going to say yes to everybody for everything for at least two years.
KT: Alright that’s why I’m here huh? (laughter)
JM: Right, well you know I just said yes to everybody for so long, and I still say yes, but I feel like now it’s gotten to a point that if I’m at the supermarket or I’m walking downtown and somebody goes: “Oh my god John Mayer.” I go: ”Where are you from?” Because I know they are not from Livingston. You know what I mean? It’s a really good way to find out, okay. And they go: “What are you doing here?” And I go: “Well I live here, what are you doing here?” They go: “Well I’m on a trip going through town.” I go: “Enjoy it.” You know, it’s interesting now to finally be someone who can say: “Welcome to our town.” Because now I look back and go “oh it’s been five years” you know.
KT: It’s been five years, that’s awesome. I have to tell you how out of touch I was one evening, and it’s your first connection to the Grateful Dead. I had come home from working at a bluegrass festival in Big Sky and you are co-hosting the Late-Late show.
JM: That’s right.
KT: And you are dressed to the nines. You got glasses on kind of like I do, a white tie, and I’m so out of it, so tired I’m like: “Who is this guy talking to Bob Weir?” And I’m barely keeping my eyes open because I fell asleep during the talking portion of the show, and then you guys are destroying.
JM: Doing Truckin’
KT: Like, epic proportions.
JM: Yeah it was really cool..
KT: So I guess my question is: “Who is John Mayer and how did he get with the Grateful Dead where you are at now?
JM: Those are two very long answers.
KT: It would probably take the whole afternoon.
JM: For me what happened was I sort of lost track of my career in a bad way at first, but then it ended up being a good thing. I was sort of unsuccessful at being a commodity sort of pop star, and followed it as far as I could follow it before it ate me alive. Which is interesting now, I see it happening to other people, people I know and love. I have so much grace and compassion for that rocket ride; it really is a rocket ride. And when I got thrown off of the horse, I kind of treated my injuries from it and I asked myself: How much did I really want to be on that horse? How much fun was I really having touring the world on this sort of, world domination scheme. How happy did that make me, you know? And then what I ended up doing was making a couple of records that weren’t designed to be like hit records, and they really touch people. People would come up to me, not as many, but they would have more to say about the work you know. And I never really quite got back on the horse, and I realized, well, this is really incredible to have this kind of career where as a musician, I am constantly challenged, constantly engaged and I’m always feeling.. Like I tell you I’m 38, I look at other people’s careers all through the map of time and I go: wow at that point in their career they were putting out greatest hits records. And they were being sort of regarded as: well here they are. And for me, whether or not I’m regarded that way I feel very much like I’m on the outset of my career. You know, and everything feels brand new. I mean, I’m practicing guitar every day. I look at the set list and I’m like looping on my looper the chord changes for a song tonight just making sure it’s.. it’s gonna crush me but I don’t want to get as crushed, and um.. what brought me to this music, and then to this band was that, you know as a musician most of my life I’ve heard so many hours of music and I have studied it down to the bone. And picked it apart, until I got to a certain point to where I felt like I had heard everything. Processed it and then when I heard the Dead, and I think this happens to a lot of people, it’s such a new discovery of sound, it’s such an ear shower, it’s just like getting in a hot tub you go: woah!
It reminded me very much of when I first discovered blues music and I went: get me all of that, and I would go to the tape store with my dad. All they had at the tape store.. you would be like get me Albert King and all they would have were off brand Albert King records but you’d go: I want to find everything that’s out there, and I was feeling a little bit like okay, I know music now and I guess it’s always going to be like.. you’re just going to go to your iPod and just going to bring this song up when you need it. Then when I discovered the Dead I knew from like six or seven songs that there is a world of stuff to sort of take on here as a listener and that excited me because I have pretty big jaws; I can kind of like dislocate my jaws and eat things whole. This is not where you just get yourself a little camera setup with a bunch of lenses and now you’re a photographer; this is a real undertaking, and I had so much fun I could talk to you for hours about the way my mind started to map out this music.
The first time I heard Scarlet into Fire the way that I heard it was spring 77’. I think it was like 5-5 in like New Haven or something... the greatest transition and Phil’s bass sounds, godly. And it’s one of those Betty board tapes, and I’ll never forget where it was. My trip with this music was compacted. It’s no less deep, and I just remember driving down Santa Monica Boulevard when the sun was going down and I’m listening to this transition as it goes from Scarlet Begonias and the Fire on the Mountain and I listen to it and I go: this is every inch as good as Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughn and Eric Clapton and all of these things I had discovered before and, just this trip in my mind man like I’ve had two levels in this trip in terms of geography. One of them I like picking up the Grateful Dead’s music through California sort of living, which is where we get into this sort of Mexicali Bob Weir cowboy sing thing. Grateful Dead is in the dirt thing. And they go together really well in my brain and I’ll just never forget hearing “Wake up to find out that you are the eyes of the world.” going: What is this one? I know this one, I’ve heard this one. And it’s what I call shaking the big Polaroid, I’m still shaking the big Polaroid. I still go: ohh out there. It’s out in Clairmont, California you know.
It’s a very spiritual thing for me like in my own way. It is for everybody when they pick up this music. And then in Montana there was this thing where I still listen to things and discover things driving down 89 on the way into town you know. It’s this melding between the discovery of the music you have in your mind and what you see in front of you. Grateful Dead music is as much a true western thing as it is a Mexicali kind of a thing. They go together really well in my brain. I still go “Oh, that’s to lay me down. Oh, that’s sing me back home.” I mean I’m still picking up stuff you know? Oh, that’s Ruben And Cherise, so it’s almost like I’m a human cat looking out a window at nature, at the cars going by, and just taking in more sensory and taking in more information in the last two years than I have in the last 10 years.
It’s just been the greatest ride for me to keep me centered in music and really connected to what I do. I have not been distracted for a second. It’s hard to get one over on me now, you know man? It’s hard to distract me or give me a bad day because you didn’t call me back or these little things that get you when you were not totally fulfilled. I’ll get up from a table sometimes and say “I gotta go, I gotta go play music”. I’m so satisfied.
KT: You know you hear a lot of people talking about you filling shoes. I don’t believe your filling anyone’s shoes. Nobody tries to get up and try to replace Garcia, that just doesn’t happen.
JM: No, I would never do that, never can, never will.
KT: There’s no denying it, but a person that sits in that spot is in the hot seat. How is the reaction that you’ve gotten from the fans? Any positive things?
JM: Yeah, mostly positive. One thing I learned when I started reading message boards was that this is hugely personal to people.
KT: It is, it really is. The Grateful Dead means so much to each individual person.
JM: It means something to everybody. There are people who don’t ever want to replace their last visceral imprint of this music with anything else and I respect that. I’m here to play the music, I’m not here to play the person, you know? I think that’s what I hold on to--the music plays the band right? So I play the music and the music plays the band, and that’s a very cool t-shirt idea.
JM: Also, I sort of look at myself as a professional musician and I can’t think about it. If I think about it too much, I’ll probably get too differential and walk off the stage. You have to be a little bit surgical; just imagine if you’re a surgeon and someone very important was on the table, and you have to operate. You can’t look at how important the person is; you just have to operate you know what I mean?
KT: Take care of business.
JM: That’s right! It’s like this Hippocratic oath, man, to like the music. Here’s this opportunity to bring this music to life and once I saw it that way I just sort of absolved myself of any responsibility to be more than I am. I’m just trying to bring this music to people, and I’ve actually read things on message boards where I go, “Yeah he’s right. I’m going to try that differently tonight”.
KT: Definitely, that’s great input. Taking input from the fans to see what works can be interpreted so many different ways.
JM: I know I overplay, and I’m still working on the overplaying right. It’s a lot easier to play more notes than fewer notes because you get this kinetic bounce. It’s like when you're working out--when you just bounce back and forth you actually don’t get the muscle work because your springing back and forth. When you play a lot of notes, it’s kind of safer because your [bracited] in all of the bopping. I’m working really hard on playing slower and being more vocal. I read this thing on a message board tonight, and I gotta try it tonight. So tonight show 2 is going to be my attempt at being just a little more lyrical because I’m still trying to bring down this verbose kind of guitar playing. It’s all a work in progress.
KT: I know it’s probably hard to say with the vast catalog of the Grateful Dead, but have any of the songs taken you more personally than the others?
JM: There’s one moment I almost lose it every time. It’s in Brokedown Palace. The whole song I sing it from absolute heart and soul and you know “mamma mamma many roads I’ve come since I first left home.” When I sing that I get chills. I look at other people and you can see tears in their eyes. It’s almost as if this music was specifically designed to last forever.
KT: It is. You’re absolutely right.
JM: It’s designed to be looked at from the future backwards, and that’s genius Robert Hunter lyrics and this Garcia writing, and it’s also a Weir-Barlow thing too. Obviously, the majority of the songs were Hunter-Garcia things and they are so designed to be these overarching songs for life.
KT: The design of folk music can carry on through time and stories to be told over and over again.
JM: How old were they when they came out with Brokedown Palace? I mean you’re in your 20’s right? And your able to say “mamma mamma many roads I’ve come since I first left home.” When I look over at Bob and he’s 68 and he’s singing it, and you look out into the crowd and there are people older than that singing it, I’m thinking about the roads I’ve come since I’ve first left home. I hope I got that lyric right, I think I have it right.
KT: You got it right.
JM: This music is a receptacle. It’s an altar you know. I don’t really look at myself as the priest. I look at myself as the altar handing out waivers or something. I’m not proselytizing. I would never; I’m just helping deliver the message that someone else would if they could, you know what I mean. I’m not the last person to do it, and I’m not the only person to do it.
KT: You’re passing it on. There’s a ton of other people.
JM: There’s Phil and Friends. There’s Dark Star Orchestra.
KT: There’s the Hooligans in Bozeman, Montana!
JM: Yeah, there’s the Fossils in Livingston!
JM: There’s Fare Thee Well, which really means something to a lot of people and it always will. There’s Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, which I can’t wait to go see.
KT: Me either!
JM: They have got it down. It’s sort of like this baton that’s been passed down and has been broken into a hundred pieces, and I’ve got a piece of a baton for a minute and someone else is going to take it, and just to know that for the rest of my life when I listen to this music for the rest of my life that I lived in it for a minute.
KT: I think it will travel on with you for a long time, John. I am highly impressed with what’s been going on with Dead & Company and the interactions between you, Bob, Otiel, Jeff. Those guys are superstars!
JM: We are getting to some place now where everybody looks like a kid.
KT: Before I take too much more of your time, what is the future of Dead & Co? Are you guys going to play some more?
JM: I think we are going to try our hardest. I have to put a record out because it’s almost finished; I have to express myself in that way. Part of Dead & Company’s power comes from this being an answer to the normal work that I do. But let me put it this way, there’s nothing right now that I’m hiding on the books but I think everybody on my end and also on the side of everyone else in the band is going to work some way to do both as much as we can. That said even if it’s just a run every year, I know I’ll take the time to do it. I really think it’s a matter of how do you get this many people in one space at one time and find a way to make it pay for itself. I mean it’s hard if money wasn’t an issue in terms of what it costs to get the Titanic to float you know? We would drop in and do shows every other weekend!
KT: We’d see you at the Pine Creek, wouldn’t we?
JM: You’d see us at the Pine Creek! But the way that this works is just the reality of the situation. When you have this sort of conglomerate that you have to tore in a sort of a capacity that will pay for putting it on. If I could go out and not make a dime on it, I would totally do it, but it’s just hard to drop in and do a garden on Halloween. We’d get sent a bill, you know what I mean? That’s the thing, but never has there been such a fun puzzle to figure out because it’s all out of love for doing this. I think right now it would be silly and wrong in the spirit of the way we all feel as a band to go I mean I’ll do this for the rest of my life as long as they want to do this. It’s just a matter of seemingly trying to integrate playing my shows and making my records and then dropping into a town and starting there and taking two days to rehearse. I think it can be done. This is the band that built the wall of sound; we’ll figure out a way to do it. I’ll certainly do whatever it takes to carve out the time, but I still want to write my stories as an artist because I’ve got this output of songs that have to come out in a certain time in your life after you write them so that you can keep making and telling your story.
KT: There you go, exactly. You gotta keep telling your story. Well you’re telling a great one with Dead & Company.
JM: Thank you.
KT: Thank you so much for your time.
JM: Thank you, Ken.