The Dead Covers Project Profiles - Rich Mahan & The Cocktail Heroes
Just a few years back, Rich Mahan packed up the wife (Laura, who ironically happens to have the very same birthday as him) and kids (budding rock-stars Liam and Micky) and headed on down yonder to Nashville like the numerous Golden State Refugees before him. In Music City, he honed his classic country style, delivering up 101-proof wisdom through ditties like "Rehab's For Quitters" and "Overserved In Alabam." Along the way, he lasso'd a few of his favorite "cocktail" heroes to join the band and rest, as they say, is what dreams are made of.
Learn more about Rich Mahan & The Cocktail Heroes in an exclusive interview below and at Richmahan.com.
Tell us a little bit about how you got your start as a musician.
Well, both my mom and my dad were musical people. My exposure to music started early and it was pretty heavy duty. They got me started playing the piano so I had some musical theory when I was pretty young, I'd say around 7. I took piano for about 3 years and then I tried to play guitar but my dad had this pretty crappy old Stella. It was hard to play and it wouldn't stay in tune. So I didn't dig that very much but in 7th grade there was a talent show. Some guys in 8th grade put a band together and they played "Since You Been Gone" by Rainbow. And it just turned the cafetorium upside-down! I was like "that's what I'm going to do. Look at all these people! They're going nuts." I was sold right then but it took me a year to finally get a guitar.
What were your early influences?
I listened to a lot radio back then because I didn't have money for records. I'd turned on KLOS and there was another radio station called KMET that played harder rock, so I'd listen to that too. I'd also listen to a lot of what my folks had in the house - 70s rock - Fleetwood Mac, The Allman Brothers, classic country. My dad played Bobby Bare all the time. It was his escape when he'd get home from work. He would totally let go. He'd mix up cocktails, dance around the living room, playing air guitar to "Dropkick Me, Jesus."
Did your parents like the Dead?
They did actually. They didn't go to many shows. They went to one show that they've told me about. I narrowed it down because I've looked at the history of the gigs the Dead did. It was November 22nd, 1973 in St. Louis, Missouri. My mom and dad tell funny stories about that. Their best friend - he was really into the Dead. I'm pretty sure he dragged them to the show.
I didn't get exposed to the Grateful Dead until high school. A lot of the older kids were into them and it was starting to pick up again because it was the mid-80s by then. I finally went to a show and I'm embarrassed to say that at my very first Dead show, I fell asleep.
We can only imagine why...
(laughs) Yea, I was tired. Boy, those Grateful Dead songs grow on you like moss though and pretty soon I was going to every show I could drive to without having to spend the night. When I graduated high school and was able to go away on my own, I started going and spending the weekends seeing the Dead. I got pretty heavily into it and would plan my schedule around it. I was in a band that played Dead covers called Avocado Sundae that later morphed into a more original jam band, funk, groove band. We're still playing. We'll be playing again in Marin this summer. It's fun.
I was actually talking to someone recently who had a band back at that time and they told me they had to schedule their gigs around the Dead's schedule because if the Dead were playing anywhere in the area, nobody would show up at your gig. You definitely had to watch out where the Dead were playing.
Sounds like you went to quite a few shows. Any stand-outs?
My favorite show that I went to has to be summer '87 Calaveras County Fairgrounds, Mountain Aire Music Festival. David Lindley, El Rayo-X, Santana and the Dead. It was 2 nights in a row. Both nights, Carlos Santana came out and jammed with the Dead at the end of the first set. Really magical shows. Nothing like the country in the summer time. Beautiful weather. The Dead scene wasn't too crazy yet so that was nice.
What Dead songs do you find yourself gravitating towards...especially in a repertoire filled with so many different styles from country to blues to jazz...
The Grateful Dead are responsible for awakening a musical side of me that was dormant - country. I'm a huge classic country music fan. I don't go much for the pop of today but the old stuff is so fantastic, so rich and lyrically driven. I love that about country music and I love that about the Dead. The lyrics are fantastic, not to mention the music. Anyway, the Grateful Dead playing a couple country numbers in their sets when I was going to shows, made me feel that country music was cool. All the sudden, it kept triggering all this implanting that my dad had done by playing classic 70s country like Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Paycheck, Bobby Bare. He planted all those seeds in my head but it was the Grateful Dead that made it germinate and grow.
I also love how the Grateful Dead fused all these different types of music. You got Phil Lesh - so into jazz. He brings that jazz element in there. And you got Jerry with his folk background and bluegrass. And Pigpen, the blues. I am a HUGE fan of Pigpen like summer of '70 - that's my wheelhouse. That's the Grateful Dead I absolutely can't live without.
Have you done any other covers or is this your first attempt?
A lot of the Pigpen stuff..."Easy Wind," "Big Boss Man." I want to learn some more... like "Mason's Children." I think that would be a fun one to play. We play "Me And My Uncle." I like that one a lot.
Tell us a little bit about the formation of your current band, Rich Mahan & The Cocktail Heroes.
The current band happened by chance. When I was recording my record, Blame Bobby Bare, I used studio musicians. I didn't have a regular band yet. I did have a "first call" list of people that I wanted. I just went "pie in the sky" - "alright, if I want someone to come in and singing back-ups on the record, I want Bekka Bramlett." So I put her at the top of the list. I started sending emails to the people on my list and everybody said yes! So Bekka Bramlett is singing. PT Gazell's on harmonica and he played with Johnny Paycheck. Robby Turner is on pedal steel. He was in Waylon Jennings band. I've got all these people, blowing my mind, they are musical heroes of my own! I've picked up some other people along the way. I've got Fred Lawrence. He was in Waylon Jennings' band playing keyboards. He's a great singer. Luke Sands on bass, Ginger Sands on vocals and guitar, Jeff Boggs on drums. All these people just want to play! That's the great thing about Nashville. There are so many good musicians.
Did they influence the sound of your album in any way that was unexpected?
Absolutely. There was a lot of "at the end, instead of playing the riff that way, what if we do it like this?" These people have great musical minds. I mean, when you listen to what was put down on that video "Loose Lucy" for instance - everyone takes a turn solo'ing. All those dudes cut it in one take. There are no overdubs. All those solos are as they sound. It's like cooking. You have all these different ingredients and you put them all together and you have this great dish.
Are you gearing up for a tour?
We are! We're booking a lot of gigs right now. We just played SXSW. We've got a run in Southern California planned for early June. There are gonna be some gigs in the Bay Area in September. A mid-West run. We're headlining a festival in Kokomo, Indiana called WeberFest 2013. It's sponsored by the guys who make Weber speakers which are fantastic guitar speakers. Lots of one-off stuff. The great thing about Nashville... 90% of the touring companies, the people that lease buses, operate out of Nashville. You can reach a huge majority of the markets in the country within a 24-hour drive. You can do all these great little tours - 1,2,3 nights in a row. You really don't have to be gone that much...
I love the window on what the scene was like in Southern California.