Raise the Question: THE DEAD

Dead Bites: Q&A with the Dead

(Mickey Hart, Bill Kreutzmann, Phil Lesh, Bob Weir)

 On October 13, 2008, the DEAD performed together for the first time in four years at “Change Rocks,” a Barack Obama benefit show held in Pennsylvania.  They sat down with director Danny Clinch to talk about their music, fans, history and politics.


TOURING IN 2009

Bob: We have some unfinished business.  It has been awhile, we’ve all been off in our own directions. Everybody has a whole new bag of tricks; we all have the body of material that we worked up over the years.  We have a little mind meld going here–it would be a sin to let that just wither and die.

Phil: A mind meld is a terrible thing to waste.

Mickey: It’s just the right time to do this while we’re all healthy and we feel the way we do. It’s just one of those things that came around.

Bill:  The reason I’m going out on tour is I know there are a whole lot of Deadheads out there that would love to hear us play again, and that to me is a really good thing to do, plus what Bobby just said…I wanna play for the folks again.

Mickey: Once it’s in your blood, come on.

Bill: I mean yeah, you gotta play.

Mickey: Music is what we do and we do it together really well and it seemed like the right time. We kind of cleaned out our closets and came back for the right reasons to play together.

Bob: I think all of us are playing a little less and listening a little more. This is something that happens to musicians as they mature but it’s happened to us and we’re benefitting mildly from it.

Mickey: Well, the rest of it is going to be fulfilled in the music–that’s really where it’s all at. It comes right down to the experience on stage, and I look forward to bringing the best possible version of me to the stage and I’m sure everyone else is going to do the same, so it can be really exciting, a lot of fun.

Bill: I get goose bumps just talking about it, just thinking of the possibilities.


EVOLVING AND REINVENTION

Bob: In the last 14 years since Jerry checked out, I’ve evolved, we’ve all evolved. We still have our brotherhood and so we still react.  We can still hear each other think, we can still intuit each other’s moves and stuff like that, but there are many, many more surprises in store that each of us has for one another.  That’s a delight you know–you get that surprise and it spurs you, it kicks you up and straightens your back up a little. It’s fun.

Mickey: It’s kinda like a reinvention of our music. That’s what we’ve done over the years–we’ve grown personally and as a group. In coming together like this, it’s a real thrill to see the evolution and this journey that we are all on, and it’s really very fortunate that we can enjoy ourselves at this time of our lives. Like Bob said, this is the most fun that we can ever have.

Phil: I’m pretty much on the same page as these guys.  I’ve been working with my own band now for almost 10 years and the perspectives of other musicians that have come through my band have helped evolve my appreciation for the music in a way that makes me want to see what’s going to happen when we get back together. A lot of it is curiosity on my part; it’s the question mark that’s really pulling me in, what’s gonna happen and the fact that we cannot predict what’s going to happen.

Bill: No, there’s no prediction, but I can guarantee it’s going to be new music. I can guarantee that.

Bob: The surprises are going to come thick and fast because we’ll be free and we’ll get freer and freer with each other and with what we are doing individually.  The stuff we’ve picked over the last few years when we haven’t been playing with each other is going to start coming out and I can’t wait to see what comes of that.

Phil: Yeah, when you walk out onstage the possibilities are infinite.


IMPROVISATION

Mickey: Improvisation is built out of trust, love, and time in the groove.

Bob: And intuition.

Bill: And listening really closely.

Mickey: And conversation. You need to have something to say and someone else has to be able to come back and counter that.  Then they go with it or take off and you have to give people space to do what they’re supposed to do, and like Bill said, listen really deep.

Phil: Listen more than you play really.

Mickey: Yeah, it’s about listening.

Bob: And if you’re hung up for something to say, then you sit back and sandbag it for a while and listen to everybody else.

Bill: Because something’s coming your way.

Phil: Something’s gonna come up.

Mickey: And that’s where the trust comes in.

Bob: We’ve finally learned this, and I think taking a little time off has actually helped us with that. I’ll sit back now. I’m going to listen to these guys and see where that takes me. And so far every time I’ve done that, it’s taken me somewhere new.


MUSICAL INFLUENCES

Phil: For me they kind of melt together into an alloy–that’s what Grateful Dead music is. When you can’t see where the pieces are, it’s all one seamless whole really. Even when we’re playing a blues tune, not all of us are playing blues music all the way through that tune.  Other elements come in there and make an appearance in the strictest genres like blues or even reggae. So to me, the magic and the wonder of it all is the way that all these different music styles flow together so you don’t necessarily identify them as the genres that they come from.

Bob: When I was a kid, like 8 or 9 years old, my brother taught me how to tune a radio and that was it for me. I knew I wasn’t going to be a fireman or an Indian chief…I was going to be a musician. I was all over that dial and I’d listen to classical stations, jazz stations, R&B stations, country stations, the rock and roll stations.  I listened to everything and I couldn’t get enough of any of it–I’m sure it was like that for these other guys. The [San Francisco] Bay Area was a great place for that because there were so many different cultural aspects.  We listened to it all.  I remember when we were riding all together in a car to or from a gig or to rehearsal and we’d be hammering all the buttons on the radio all the way there and back.  We listened to all of it and we loved all of it.

Phil: And it sank in. All of that music–not so much the individual songs or the…

Mickey: Sensibilities.

Phil: Yeah, exactly.

Mickey: Like Bob said, the Bay area was a spawning ground for a lot of different music that came to America, like the Indian influence.  Phil gave me a record back in ’67 that changed my life, by an Indian drummer, Alla Rakha.  We brought that into the band, we studied that, and we started doing these revolutions, rhythmic things and Phil brought his influences, so did Bobby.

Bill: Phil turned me onto John Coltrane, living together in Haight-Ashbury, and I said, ‘God, you can do that on the drums?’ I mean once I heard that music…that was it.

Phil: That’s the thing about music, it’s infinite. There is no end to it.  There’s no back wall, there’s no ceiling, there’s no floor, it’s infinite and therefore you can still explore it until the day that you die and you’ll never find the end of it. And that to me is the most magical thing about it.  You can just keep finding new thrills, new toys, new ideas.


THEIR MESSAGE

Bob: [The overriding message is] the song.

Phil: At the moment that we’re playing the song, it would be the song.  In the extended, the medium is the message…that’s the way I see it. The message that I’ve seen go out from our band, and from other rock bands from our era, is that this is what you can do if you agree to cooperate completely, fully without ego and without worrying about who’s going to get credit or get paid more. This is what you can achieve. This is what cooperation can achieve. This is what Americans can achieve, together. It’s really a metaphor for our society and how we can make it better by working together.

Bill: I think that our audience shows that really clearly. The audience is one of the most unique audiences there is and the peacefulness and love that they express for one another is probably the highest thing there is.  One message that I hear really clearly from Deadheads is that we miss you guys, we wish you guys were playing again–and that really makes you want to do it for one thing, you give that expression.

Bob: It’s going to be a dream come true for a lot of Deadheads. There are roughly a million of them out there, a dream come true for most of them, if we can live up to it and I think we can.

Mickey: I see the energy that the band is capable of raising in the group, and also personally, and then you take that energy out into the world and do some good with it, and that’s the thing that the Grateful Dead does.  At the end of the line that’s one of the things I can really get behind because it’s a force for good and we we’re putting the good into it and they’re getting it–and if they can take it and do yet again another good deed, that’s for me what the Grateful Dead is about.


FAVORITE PLACES TO PERFORM

Mickey: Every place that we play good is a great place, it doesn’t matter where it is. I think the criteria is of course a place that can make you feel good and everything. The [Madison Square] Garden is so special because it’s suspended on big cables so the Deadheads now know how to make the whole Garden sway. At first it’s a little unsettling but then you get used to it and you go with the rhythm,

Phil: That place literally rocks. It literally rocks.

Bob: I remember the first time we experienced that phenomenon. I went right into earthquake volcano mode.

Bill: Red Rocks is great to play–it sounds so wonderful there.

Bob: It sounds great.


COMMUNITY

Bob: You know it used to be that we were kind of hamstrung by the transits of the heavenly bodies. If it was astrologically a bad night for us, or if there was some predictor that made it so that it was going to be a bad night for us, we went down. Over the years we got more consistent at being able to play the ball as it lies.

Phil: Without even knowing where it lies.

Bob: Without working at it.  It’s just practice makes perfect, even if you don’t know what you’re practicing. Over the years we got to tune ourselves to what the night was giving us. It’s like in football–you take what they’re going to give you. Or in any sport, you take what they’re giving you and we’re a team, we play that way. We play together and whatever the nights giving us, we go there.

Mickey: You can look at the Grateful Dead as a tuning system, not only for ourselves but for people to become in tune with us and that makes for a lot of power. I mean, that shows solidarity.

Bill: And creates community.

Mickey: That’s a really important part of it.

Phil: That’s the goal.  To fuse that greater community together.

Mickey: Community between us and community between them and then community between them and us…both. This is a real interesting dichotomy.

Phil: And then community between them and us and the wider world.

Bill: The Mobius strip between the audience and us. There’s no beginning or end, you know?

Phil: When it’s really happening we’re all the same.

Bob: You know, when it’s really happening, there is a guy up there singing. For instance, if we’re doing a song he’s telling a story. But if I’m singing and I’m telling a story, I’m not there.  I might look like me but I’m not, I’m the guy in the song…the character.  I’m just telling my story and the story of that character. My job is to get out of the way and let that character tell its story. When we’re on, and we’re on more than not these days, we’re all that guy.  We’re all his different faces, different incarnations and we’re all telling that story.


THE FANS

Bill: [We have] three or four generations of fans.

Phil: In the shows that I’ve been playing in the past five years or so, there are more and more young people showing up.  It’s interesting because they’re all too young, or they seem to be too young, to have heard the Grateful Dead with Jerry, so somehow they found out about this music. It’s touched them in some way and they’re coming to see what it’s all about. I’m personally very glad that we’re going to be able to get back together and give a great The Dead experience, from us.

Bob: My theory all along, or for the longest time now, has been that they’re kindred spirits. They’re like us; they’re people who require a little adventure in their lives. Therefore they require a little adventure in their music, and we’re nothing, if not all about that. So it’s a rite of passage for them to discover us and through us they discover jazz and improvisational music and they’ll discover life that way. And these are our folks.

Mickey: Remember there would be no “us” if it wasn’t for them. I mean, you can’t just go out and play for an empty arena.

Bob: Even though we have played some of our best music to smaller crowds.

Mickey: There used to be more of us than them!


JERRY GARCIA’S PRESENCE

Bob: I can hear him.

Phil: He’s all over, he’s all through the music.

Bob: I can hear his harmonic overtone structure and all that kind of stuff. I can’t hear individual notes anymore but often times when we were playing I couldn’t hear the individual notes anyway, if the sound wasn’t good, but I could hear his harmonic structure and know what he was up to and I can still hear that. And I can also feel now just as much as ever that telepathic, that intuitive. I can feel him, ‘No don’t go there, yea go there, no, no don’t go there, go there, yea go there’ and I either do it or don’t, just like I always did.

Bill: You got a guy on each shoulder.

Phil: “No, I don’t want to go there Jerry.”

Bob: “Not tonight.”

Phil: So yea, his presence will never diminish for us.

Bob: Couldn’t possibly.

Mickey: This music was born with that kind of nuance. He brought a nuance to it, besides the obvious melody and so fourth, inner workings and how it all flowed. It’s inherent in the music now because that’s the way it is. We can’t hear the individual notes, like Bob said. It’s all of that other stuff, the weave of it all.

Phil: That’s the spirit.

Mickey: It’s the spirit thing too, yeah.

Bob: At the risk of sounding like abnormal psychology…yeah Jerry is still there. I can hear him, you can hear him, you can hear him.

Phil: It’s an incontrovertible fact.  He is still with us.

Bob: What I really miss most were the jokes backstage, the humor backstage. That also was a huge factor in our longevity–we kept each other entertained.

Mickey: Oh yeah, it was a big laugh.  A very funny guy, his laugh was too.


EMBRACING TECHNOLOGY

Bob: I miss a lot of the analog sound because digital is much, much thinner. I could show you, playing the same material at the same volume at a distance of 50 feet through the same system.  Analog source and digital source are the same material, it’s really abundantly clear which one holds together and which one doesn’t. That said, if you’re clever in how you use digital, you can overcome a lot of hurdles.

Bill: We’re all internet freaks.

Phil: I know I spend a lot of time on the net but, since we don’t make studio records anymore, we haven’t had an occasion to be dealing with that aspect of music distribution agenda.  We do have a download series, that’s coming out from Rhino [Records], of older shows. So in the future I’m sure that we’re going to be offering some of these tour shows for download depending on how good they are. And so you know, we’re trying to be with it.

Bob: It’s been a long dream of ours to digitize our entire vault but it’s going to be very costly and labor intensive, and I don’t know how realistic it is. If we can get around to it we probably should, so that anybody can have any show or song from any show.


PERFORMING THE CHANGE ROCKS CONCERT IN PENNSYLVANIA IN SUPPORT OF BARACK OBAMA

Phil: Well, our country is in a pretty serious mess and has been even before this whole economic situation. One of the things that Grateful Dead music tried to bring, and tried to convey to everyone we play to, is hope for the future, hope and joy in life and a feeling of infinite possibility. It was just something that we felt that we wanted to do also because the campaign that Barack Obama is running is not so much a campaign, or even a movement, as it is a community. We are all about community and we’re all about trying to get people to work together.

Bob: I also see it as our last and best hope to regain democracy in this country because what we have now is essentially not democracy, it is plutocracy. Plutocracy is government of the people by the elite, for the elite, and if you look at the situation in Washington and most state capitals, that’s exactly what we have. That’s not what the founding fathers had in mind. It’s not what we purport to be exporting to the rest of the world. We’re being a little two-faced about this and I see this as an opportunity to reestablish democracy and I think it’s worth it even if you have idiots voting. I think it’s still worth it.

Phil: I think it’s important no matter who you vote for. As far as I’m concerned. voting in this country, or in any democracy, is not a privilege…it’s a duty.

Mickey: Yeah, well these are amazing times and there are great scares out there. Senator Obama is the right man at the right time, as I see it, and perhaps a great statesman that’s come along very much in the mold of Abraham Lincoln, a young man with a vision and a lot of magic, a lot of power and his views on some of the most critical issues, like climate change which is perhaps the largest overriding issue of our day, are visionary and very powerful. He has the smarts, he has the ability and I think he has the trust of a lot of people.

Bob: He’ll gain the trust of more of them.

Mickey: He’s a great man, there’s a lot of hope with him.

Phil: It’s been a long time since we’ve seen it.

Bill: What really turned me on about him was I read his second book and the way he wrote, and the way he spoke, was so human and so personal.


BEING GREEN

Bill: I would love to be the greenest tour possible; I would love to emphasize that aspect in any possible way. My view now is that I’m going totally green. I put solar panels all over my place in Hawaii and I’m doing everything I can to get off the grid.  I know that our country and our world would benefit from being green. That’s my biggest change.

Bob: I’m into that as well. I’ve got solar panels and a couple hybrids in the garage.

Bill: It also affects the music because you’re doing good for the whole world.  Yeah, if you feel good you play better.  If I’m not having a great night or I’m feeling bad, I’m not going to play that good. At least I think I’m not playing that good. But it’s much better to feel good and play good.

Bob: All the buses are going to use bio-diesel so we’ll be doing that. We’re going to be looking into it extensively because there are several of us who are really keen on this.

Phil: I’ve heard rumors of some new venues that are being constructed now that have more solar power and have more sustainable energy resources so that they’re not drawing as much power from the grid. I don’t know where they are but it would be interesting to try to see if we can play places like that.

Bob: We’ve also taken the step to becoming somewhat politically oriented. We’re older guys and it’s coming on us to exhibit a little leadership in regards to the green issues and I think we will just have to step up and bite the bit and do it.

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