I don’t know who first coined the nickname “Mount Molo” to describe Phil & Friends drummer John Molo, but I’ve always thought it was very apt. This supremely talented journeyman is capable of drumming that is absolutely volcanic in its power—in fact there was a moment during “Cumberland” at the Greek Theater this fall when I thought his drums were going to explode, he was playing them so hard and so fast. It’s no wonder he and Phil have been such a great match as a rhythm section these past ten years; these are two guys who have no fear of turning it up past “11”!
Mount Molo at the Greek with Phil and Jackie.
Photo: Jay Blakesberg © 2007
But Molo isn’t just a basher. He’s also marvelously adept at negotiating the subtle rhythm, tempo and dynamic shifts that are so much a part of this music. He knows when to lay back and when to kick it. At times it can seem like he’s devouring his drums; but then you’ll see him dusting his cymbals and toms with incredible delicacy and restraint, floating on the river of music the band is creating. And yes, he’s also a classically great time-keeper. He does it all.
The first time I heard him was probably on Bruce Hornsby’s The Way It Is album; then I saw him a couple of years later when Bruce opened a show for John Fogerty (with whom he later toured) at the Oakland Coliseum. I definitely noticed him that night, but even more so when Bruce Hornsby & the Range opened for the Dead at Laguna Seca the next spring. Fast forward a few years: After Jerry died and Bobby, Phil, Mickey and Bruce put together the first incarnation of The Other Ones, John was a natural choice to fill the slot normally occupied by Bill Kreutzmann, who didn’t feel he was quite ready to play Dead music again. He acquitted himself very well, everyone agreed, and that led to John’s long and very fruitful association with Phil & Friends. Molo is the rock Phil knows he can rely on no matter who the other players in the band are, and his contribution to that group’s ever-morphing sound should not be underestimated.
We tracked him down at the tail end of the pre-Nokia part of the fall 2007 Phil & Friends tour…
John Molo in action at the Warfield Theatre.
Photo: Jay Blakesberg © 2007
My first question is kind of weird—what’s your ethnic derivation? What kind of name is Molo?
It’s Swiss-Italian, but I’m three-quarters Irish. It’s kind of a rare name, actually.
So your ancestors were immigrants…
Right. My grandparents moved here from Ireland. Three out of the four were from Ireland.
“Molo” is also used in the snows of Kilimanjaro: it means “slave.”
You grew up in Washington, D.C., right?
Yes, I lived there in town until I was about 12. I had great Catholic nuns as a kid; the Sisters of Notre Dame.
Are you being serious?
Yes, most people tell horror stories about nuns, but I liked the ones at my school. It was a real musical order and they taught us a lot about singing and harmony. Not just spiritual stuff, either; a lot of secular songs.
I went to public school in the suburbs of New York and it seems like we were always singing there—old folk songs, patriotic songs, you name it. I loved it!
I did, too. I don’t know what happened. Somebody along the way must not have liked it, because people don’t sing as much as they used to in school. I think it was a pretty good idea.
Anyway, after a while the neighborhood got to be too rough so my dad moved us out to the suburbs.
What did your dad do?
He was an oceanographer and meteorologist. He ran the National Oceanographic Data Center in D.C.
So we moved to Langley [a Virginia suburb of D.C.] and I went to high school there. I had a great music teacher there named George Horan, and he’s the guy who really got me squared away as far as music goes.
Was the CIA already in Langley?
Yeah, a lot of the kids were in CIA families.
How old were you when you first got into drums?
I was probably 3 or 4 years old. I saw a set of drums and I knew immediately I wanted to do that. At one point I was thinking maybe of the trumpet, but drums were always in my heart. I liked the way they looked, the way they sounded. It hit me hard.
When I got into it, though, was around seventh grade, when I was maybe 12 or 13, and I started playing in a band and I sort of taught myself to play a little bit.
So this is right after The Beatles. Were they a big influence on you as they were on everyone else?
Oh yeah, a massive influence. But pre-Beatles I also listened to a lot of pop music. I had music on all the time at my house when I was growing up. So whatever was popular, whether it was Mitch Miller or The Beatles or music my parents were listening to, I was surrounded by music all the time.
Before The Beatles, show tunes became pop hits, movie music was popular and, like you said, people like Mitch Miller. There was a lot of different stuff out there in the late ’50s and early ’60s.
There was. A lot of people look at the ’50s and say it was a bad time for music, but I thought it was a magical time—Coltrane, Elvis, the Rock and Roll trio, Ike Turner…
Did you hear much jazz in the ’50s?
Yes, I heard a lot of jazz in the D.C. area. The other thing about D.C. is there’s the Army Band and the Navy Band and the Marine Band, so there are a lot of people there who could teach you to read and play different styles.
Did you go that route—marching band and stage band and all that?
It’s funny, my high school was very serious about music so we didn’t have a marching band—[the band teacher] said, “We’re not going to be entertainers for the football team!” [Laughs] He took a chance and just said, “No way—we’ll play some music, but we’re not marching.” But he had Stage Band and he also had Jazz Lab.
The Army and Navy also had jazz bands and I’d go see them. They were really good. In fact, the Army Band had the great drummer Steve Gadd [later of Chick Corea and Paul Simon fame]. You know, at that time, too, getting into the Army or Navy Band was a good way to stay relatively safe if your draft number came up. You’d do the boot camp for six weeks and then you’d enlist and play music for two and-and-a half years and your service was over. That’s what Steve Gadd did.
Did you go to college?
The University of Miami. That’s where I met Bruce Hornsby and my wife of 27 years, so it was a great place for me on a number of levels.
Was Bruce already super-musical at that point?
Oh yeah, although he certainly wasn’t anything like what he is now. He was extremely talented, but he hadn’t gotten into the singing and songwriting thing; his playing was really developing. But he was driven. One of the great things about being around Bruce is he’s inspirational; he’s a good leader because he works really hard. So it’s really great to be around him.
You weren’t part of any of his Grateful Dead cover bands were you?
No, I wasn’t in the Octane Kids, I think it was called. But I did play in the Bruce Hornsby Band, and that was my first introduction to any Grateful Dead music. But actually more through Bobby Hornsby, Bruce’s older brother, the bass player. He had it goin’ on with the Dead. He knew how to do that style and he’d seen them like 13 or 14 times, which was amazing to me back then.
What drummers were influencing you in those days?
Mostly pop drummers, and a lot of them were people whose names I didn’t even know because they were sidemen and didn’t always get their names on the records they made. I’d say Gary Chester, Hal Blaine and Earl Palmer were three of my favorites.
Serious pop drummers.
Yeah, serious reading pop drummers who played on a ton a records.
I got to know Hal Blaine a bit a number of years ago. What a funny guy.
A real joke-meister. But he’s one of my idols, just for the grooves and how he’d play a song.
You liked the “pocket” guys.
I did, but I also liked Buddy Rich and Art Blakey, Papa Joe Jones, Philly Joe Jones, Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, Jack DeJohnette…One of my favorite drummers, and an influence, is Paco Sery, an African guy [from Ivory Coast] who played with Zawinul for a time. So those are some, but I think that just about every time I’ve gone to see a band and watched the drummer I’ve walked away with something.
Did you ever have one of giant kits with double bass drums and 11 tom-toms and ten cymbals?
No, that’s never been my thing.
So you didn’t go for the Ginger Baker-Elvin Jones “drum-off”…
No. But Ginger was a really good double-kick player. Louis Bellson was another. But I never got into that.
Drums are easy to play and hard to get good at; probably the hardest instrument to play well, because you can ruin the music quicker than anyone else. [Laughs] You need a certain level of musicianship and then you also need to have a certain kind of body to be able to play it, so it’s a different kind of instrument.
And as someone like Mickey has shown, there’s also a spiritual dimension to it sometimes.
That’s true. No doubt about it. Mickey’s probably done more for drums and drumming than anyone you can think of, as far as getting the word out about what it’s about.
You know, if you looked at who the greatest drummers are out there today, you’d be surprised how many have found some kind of faith one way or another, either Christianity or some other form of spirituality. A lot of them don’t talk about it because they fear a lack of tolerance. But it’s definitely out there.
Was the period when you were with Bruce around “The Way It Is” the first major success you’d had?
Yeah, if you mean monetarily. It also helped my confidence—“Wow, this can happen. I can make it as a drummer!” I remember when that album came out in 1986, the goal we had for that record was to sell over 50,000 copies, just so we’d get to make another album. We had no idea how well it would do—I think at this point it’s sold more than three million records. So it was an incredible opportunity in a lot of ways. Not only was it commercially successful, it was also critically acclaimed and it really enabled me to become a drummer that toured, played in front of a lot of people, worked with producers and played on albums that were heard by the public.
Bruce always had that thing of being rock but with jazz and folkish influences, sometimes all within a single song. It must have been interesting playing behind him.
It was, but it was also magical just getting to play all the time, and like you say, in different styles. I don’t consider myself a jazz drummer. I’m a drummer who loves jazz and sort of understands it. I think to be a true jazz drummer you have to be committed to that above all else and really put the dues in. I haven’t done that. I do consider myself an improvisational musician, but I’m really song-based.
The beauty of a lot of Bruce’s music is that he intertwines jazz and bluegrass and other things but he makes them his own thing. He’s an incredible musician.
What was it like being in the studio with that band? It was a group that really excelled live, yet Bruce always made really strong and precise studio albums that still had the spark of spontaneity.
Bruce is an excellent record-maker and I learned a lot from him and the guys we were around. Even though I obviously love playing live, I like working in the studio, too. I have confidence going in; I don’t fear it.
I think one of the problems with the Dead is that they didn’t need records to go out and perform. Bruce’s band was also good live, but a lot of the attention he got was from making strong records. The Way It Is is a beautiful record.
Now, you first played on the same bill with the Dead in 1988 in Monterey, right?
Laguna Seca. That was a great show.
What did you think of the crowd and the scene?
I loved it. I had seen the Grateful Dead at American University in 1973, when they were the five-piece. I happened to go down with some friends, heard it, didn’t stay for the whole show actually, but I liked what they were doing and I really liked the audience. I was not a Dead Head by any means; I was just a music lover. Then I think I heard them at The Mosque in ’78 and William & Mary in ’79. So by the time we opened for them at Laguna Seca, I certainly knew what they were up to. It was funny, the first day we did our set and we got a good reaction; people seemed to really like it. Then the next day, we started out with the same two songs and from the audience Bruce and I heard somebody yell, “You’re not going to play the same set, are you?” [Laughs] At which point Bruce sort of went, “Oh yeah, we’re at a Dead show!” and so we started to change things around a bit, and even did a Grateful Dead tune, “I Know You Rider,” which people liked a lot.
I always loved the Grateful Dead audience and was really thankful they kind of embraced us. And not just the audience—the band was really nice to us, too…not so much the crew, but the band! [Laughs]
How long did you tour with Bruce as part of his band?
I was with Bruce 140 dog years…20 years, from 1978-98. We’re still very tight. We talk a lot on the phone and have a lot of yucks. And sometimes we don’t have to say much of anything; we know each other that well.
How is that you fell in with Phil & Friends originally?
Through my association with Bruce. Phil knew who I was and had heard me play, and we were playing at the Fillmore and Bruce invited Bobby Weir and Phil to sit in with us. I think it was one of the first times Phil had played in public for a while [after Jerry’s death] and that night I really stayed on him and watched him and accompanied him as he sort of eased his way back to playing. I think he could feel it, too. Later, Jill [Lesh] told me, “You know, John, that night was important for Phil gettin’ back.” It wasn’t the only thing certainly, but he definitely had a good time playing. So that was my first playing situation with Phil.
Then after that came The Other Ones, where it was me and Mickey, because Kreutzmann didn’t want to do it. Bruce suggested me and Phil thought it was an okay idea. Then I also did Planet Drum with Mickey for about a year.
Let me ask you a question about The Other Ones. That was a very emotional time for Dead Heads since it was the first post-Jerry tour the Dead guys had done together. What were your impressions of that band and playing that music?
You know, chemistry is really important in a band, and that group’s chemistry was okay, but it should have been better. I’m sure it was very emotional for the fans because they had all these memories and these expectations. Frankly, I think the guys in the band were mostly concerned with getting out there and playing great music and seeing if we could make it work. But it was a pretty good band. Having three guitars was a bit much maybe. [Laughs]
And the saxophone and the keyboards!
Right! There was a lot going on.
I know there were fans who said they couldn’t listen to music for while after Jerry died. I can’t imagine that. I would never stop listening, whether it was Mozart, Miles Davis, Coltrane, Buddy Rich, Garcia…the beat goes on.
You mentioned the three guitars being too much, but one of the positive aspects of that is they were capable of building up a pretty good head of steam when they got going.
That’s true. There were definitely some good moments with that band.
And you and Mickey worked well together.
Mickey’s got a real energy and a shaman-like quality that elevates the music. You talk about building a head of steam—that’s something he’s really good at. He’s an integral part of making it roll. I learned a lot from him about drumming in general, and from a metaphysical point of view.
It was 1999 when the ever-changing lineup of Phil & Friends really gets going, with Trey and Kimock, then with Haynes and Kimock, Jorma and Kimock; all these rotating lineups. What’s it like from your perspective to have a repertoire that you’re diving into, but always having the pieces of the puzzle around you constantly mutating?
Well, it’s been a really interesting experiment and also great way to meet musicians! Everybody brought something really interesting. Page and Trey are really hard workers and creative, and Kimock is a great player. Jorma is a great player. Robben Ford…
And then there was the Q—the quintet with Warren, Jimmy, Rob—a really great band. I think staying together as long as you did with that lineup really allowed the music to develop in some interesting and profound ways.
I agree. The chemistry in that band was really good; it was almost automatic. When we would play it was easy. Besides Jimmy and Warren playing together so well, in that band, it also really helped that Rob Barraco knew the material so well. Any Grateful Dead-associated band that he’s in has a great reference point in Rob. He’s incredibly underrated. I think he’s one of the best players out there.
Tell me a little about Phil as a band leader. Obviously, he is directing things in a certain way live—in fact we often see him giving instructions or key changes or whatever into his microphone onstage. And I’ve also gotten the impression you rehearse fairly extensively.
Yeah, we do actually. Phil is an interesting guy, and he’s evolved as a band leader. He’s always been good at it, and he probably had an idea of a certain way he wanted to do things. I think when he was in the Dead he had a vision of how he’d like the music to sound, so in the Q, or in any of the Phil Lesh & Friends lineups really, he’s always had an idea of where he thought the music should be or could be. Sometimes he’ll be very specific—like we’ll play “Terrapin” and he’ll ask me to play a lot differently than the way it was done on the record…or, he might have an idea, like on “Mountains of the Moon” the other night, he asked me to play it really sparse and not be so draconian with the time—to let it flow as much as possible. He sometimes has an interpretation he wants to get to, yet he’s also completely willing to let the music take its own course, which it often does. The thing on the mike, he might say a key, but he also might say something like “just let it go…” and that might mean let if dissolve or let it flow and take it “out.” Or sometimes he might say something like “It’s a journey and we’re all at sea,” and we’ll jam and float around and do some experimental stuff, and then we’ll start trying to find the next song. [Laughs] I love playing those long, connected songs where you’re kind of drifting around. An hour and a half can go by and it feels like about 20 minutes because we haven’t really stopped and you’re so locked in.
Is there a type of music you guys play that’s more challenging than others? Is it harder to, say, develop a 15-minute “Dark Star” than it is to do something more fixed rhythmically, like “Eyes of the World” or “Fire on the Mountain”?
They’re all equally challenging. And also, just to “let go”…the thing with drummers is you don’t have to feel like you’re always controlling it, but you want to play with “drum energy.” I’m 54 and I feel like I’m just getting the handle on it.
Who are some of your favorite guitarists you’ve worked with in this group? It’s run the gamut from Kimock to Paul Barrere, Jimmy and Warren, John Scofield, Larry Campbell…quite a group, and that’s just a few of ’em.
It’s been amazing. Every one of them has brought something different, which is part of the fun of it, of course. Favorites…that’s tough. Definitely Jimmy Herring would be one, because of his incredible dedication to the music. The thing with Jimmy is he tried to learn everything he could and he was always so well-prepared; he’s remarkable. He’s also a fantastic and underrated rhythm player—I don’t know if he ever realized how good he was at that, because obviously he’s a really great lead player, too. For overall feel and vocals, Warren is great. Robben Ford had a fantastic set of hands; Scofield, too. John is a really good musician, obviously, a very interesting player, and also a sweet, nice guy. Derek Trucks is phenomenal; I love the way he plays. I don’t know him very well, because he’s kind of quiet, but he says it all with his playing. If I’m in a town and Derek is playing, I go. I’ll pay, go in, hang with the crowd. I’m always telling kids to go check out Derek.
I think it’s been interesting when you’ve had a Ryan Adams or Jackie Greene in the band, because you not only get what these guys can add instrumentally, you get new repertoire because they’re such good songwriters.
Yeah, that’s fun. I think Ryan’s songwriting is incredible. Jackie’s got a lot of really good songs, too, and he seems to be having a good time with this band. He’s like a lot of good songwriters in that after you play their song, he’ll come over and say, “That was great,” and that makes me feel good as a drummer. Joan Osborne was another one who was always really appreciative of what the band was doing and would tell you; I like that. I mean, I’ve played with a lot of people, with everyone from Wynonna to John Fogerty, and it's really important to me to have a connection with the person up front.
It looks and sounds like you’re enjoying the current band. I saw the show at the Greek and loved it…
The show at the Greek was good. We’re better now. I love this band. Larry Campbell is a great talent—not just his guitar playing and string work, but he’s also such a knowledgeable musician. I mean he just produced Levon Helm’s latest record. I really enjoy Jackie, too. That guy could be a big star some day; who knows?
It must be interesting having that kind of youthful energy in the band.
Well, he’s an old soul. He’s an old guy in a young body. I’m a young guy in an old body. We get along just fine. [Laughs] And Steve [Molitz, keyboards] is also a great guy and a great player. He’s got so much enthusiasm and he’s there for the right reasons. He’s got a great, pure energy and I love being around him and love the way he fills up the music. He’s a real hard worker, too. Phil is doing great, too.
With Phil and me…our intimacy comes from the music. We don’t hang out a lot. We’re friends and everything, and if anything came up and I needed to see him or he needed to see me for anything outside of music, I’d be there in a heartbeat for him. But our thing is really about music.
You’ve been part of this for ten years now—do you experience it as an evolution, a constantly mutating thing, or does it feel like the same band in a sense because there’s always that core of you and Phil?
It’s both. I’m really flattered that Phil and Jill feel that strongly about my playing that I’ve been able to stick around. [Laughs] There’s been other drummers who have come in from time to time—Jeff Sipe has done some gigs, and what a great drummer he is. But I think there is a chemistry with me and Phil and Jill. I totally respect them and their space, and they know that I’m advocate for their cause, which is this music. I think this is one of the reasons I’m there.
What’s your life like outside this band? I know you live in L.A. and have been there for a number of years—
I’ve been in Los Angeles for 27 years and I love Southern California. There’s only one place I like better, and that’s Northern California. [Laughs] I have a daughter at Sonoma State and my wife and I are legal guardians for our 14-year-old niece from Michigan. I have a very basic lifestyle. I enjoy hiking and biking, which I tie into drumming—that’s how I stay in shape.
You’re definitely in shape!
I work really hard at it. I did the Fogerty gig for three years, and you really have to be in shape to do that gig. It was a lot of fun, but it was sort of like being a jukebox at a bar!
I was thinking that it must be different from Phil & Friends in so many ways. Fogerty pretty much likes everything to sound the same night to night, right?
Yeah, and that’s the toughest thing about it. I think John might be better off rotating his set lists around each night, but he’s not from that school of thought. Springsteen does it, the Dead do it, but not that many other people do it. I don’t understand why—who would go see the same show two nights in a row? It gets a little weird playing the same show every night. It’s a little like that movie Groundhog Day. [Laughs]
When I interviewed Mark Karan a while back, he told me that you like to play around L.A. with different groups or club settings.
That’s right. If someone calls me up for a gig in L.A. and the players are good and it’s not too hard or too late at night, I’ll go do it. I also do session work down there. Not a lot, but some—mostly independent records with singer-songwriters, demos; anything. I even did jingles for a while. I also worked for a guy named Mike Post who does a lot of music for TV—a few [episodes of] A-Team, Hardcastle and McCormick, Hill Street Blues…
When you’re on the road with Phil, do you have much contact with the fans?
Sometimes. I walk a lot, so sometimes I’ll run into them that way. They’re always very nice. Very friendly. They’re open to other things. Some are the same people you’d find at Telluride Bluegrass or New Orleans Jazz—they’re big music supporters and they’re also very knowledgable in a lot of ways. They’ve been great.
For a list of John’s album credits check out his listing in the online All Music Guide.