Grateful Dead

Going Furthur with John Kadlecik: The Dead.net Interview

By Blair Jackson

An interesting thing happened at the very first show by Furthur at the Fox Theatre in Oakland in the fall of 2009. The opening set had been going along nicely, with the new lineup gelling a bit more with each tune and lead guitarist John Kadlecik obviously becoming more comfortable with every passing moment onstage with his new bandmates. Then came the familiar opening of “Bird Song” and as the intro wound down to make way for the first verse, John stepped to the mic and a great roar swept through the room as he sang lead on a Furthur tune for the first time. Clearly, this guy had a lot of fans and supporters in the Fox that night. Yep, his reputation preceded him.

That rep was built over the course of twelve years as lead guitarist and singer for Dark Star Orchestra, the most successful Grateful Dead “tribute” band in the country. As the “Jerry” in the group (and really, there’s no other way to put it), John was adept at both mimicking Garcia’s tone and style exactly, but also using that foundation as a jumping-off point for his own extrapolations on the Garcia style. Thanks to that group’s usual format—playing complete Dead shows from different eras—he necessarily mastered the nuances of Jerry’s approach to playing through the years, to the point where he could play a ’68-style “Alligator” one night, a ’78 “Scarlet Begonias” the next and a ’91 “Shakedown” the third night, and each would sound convincingly authentic. With JK holding down the lead slot with such skill and confidence, it’s no wonder that DSO—and John himself—amassed a large following coast to coast, particularly among younger Dead Heads and jam band fans. It helped, too, that the other folks in DSO are also skilled improvisers.

When Kadlecik (pronounced kad-le-sik) was tagged to be the lead guitarist in the new Furthur band being formed by Bob and Phil last year, there were cheers of “WTF took you so long?” from DSO partisans, many of whom believed that he was the natural choice for one of the duo’s post-Jerry lineups. After all, who can play “Jerry” better than he? On the other side, though, are folks who, to this day, are not comfortable having someone who has been so influenced by Garcia, and plays so much like him, in the lead guitar slot. There are those who disparage him as “JKlone” and feel he has nothing original to say musically.

Photo: Bob Minkin/minkindesign.com
©2010

I understand that argument, but respectfully disagree. I’ll be the first to admit that I was never looking for a Garcia “imitator” in the lead guitar slot in Phil’s or Bobby’s bands, or in The Dead. On the other hand, I have always appreciated stylists who at least paid occasional homage to that sound we all love so much—which is why I’ve dug lineups with folks like Steve Kimock, Mark Karan and Barry Sless, to name three who tap into what I call the “Garcia school.” I only saw DSO one time a couple of years ago and something about the experience left me cold. But that first night at the Fox in Oakland, and at all the subsequent shows by Furthur I’ve seen since, it’s become clear to me that John Kadlecik really “gets it” on some fundamental level—that he’s not simply ape-ing Garcia guitar lines (a near impossibility given the improvisational nature of the music and the fact that what he’s playing must be in response to what’s happening in the moment now, every night), and that he is bringing to bear his own musical brilliance and his obvious facility with the Grateful Dead “language.” Trust me, if Phil and Bob weren’t getting off on what this guy is layin’ down on the stage every night, it wouldn’t be nearly as good as it is—you can’t fake this music. So I’ve gone from being a sort non-committal skeptic to a genuine JK partisan—he’s brought back lots of that old familiar sound and feeling, but is also imbuing the music with a wonderful new energy and vitality.

I realized I knew almost nothing about him, so in mid-May I gave the 40-year-old guitarist a call at his D.C.-area home and together we filled in some of his pre-Furthur history. I wasn’t at all surprised that I liked talking to him—I could tell just by seeing him onstage that his vibes are good and he’s in this thing for all the right reasons.

You grew up in Chicago?

I started high school in the Chicago area; I grew up a lot of places. My dad was a city manager so he moved every three to five years. I was born in Council Bluffs, Iowa; then we moved to an Omaha, Nebraska, suburb called La Vista; then a suburb of Cincinnati called Forest Park; then Davenport, Iowa. Then we moved to a suburb of Chicago called Palatine.

The other thing that was going on when I was growing up is my parents split up when I was 7 or 8; that’s when we were living outside of Cincinnati, and my mom stayed there—she’s an artist, and I think she was craving staying in one place to make a name for herself somewhere, as opposed to constantly relocating and finding a new art community every three to five years.

What kind of art?

Abstract—expressionist and impressionist. Actually a lot of the stuff I remember growing up was pretty psychedelic. [Laughs] My dad won custody of me and my younger sister, but we would stay with our mom four weeks every summer in the Cincinnati/Covington area, and then usually another four weeks with grandparents on our dad's side that lived in the Smoky Mountains region of North Carolina, near Cherokee.

When did you start playing music?

When I was 9. I started on the violin, and that was my pick. The only rock ’n’ roll or pop music that I listened to growing up was The Beatles. And then I was a Star Wars kid, so I had that soundtrack album that I played to death. So between George Martin’s string arrangements on Beatles songs and the soundtrack of Star Wars, I fell in love with the sound of the violin.

If you’re 40 now, your adolescence coincided with the rise of the new wave and what we called ‘haircut bands.’ Did you relate at all to that?

No, I didn’t listen to pop music at all when those things were first breaking. I listened to classical music and my old, hand-me-down Beatles albums, and that’s pretty much all I listened to until high school in ’83-’84. At that time I had some friends who turned me on to The Police and The Cars and Rush and Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd—which a lot of people considered to be passé and oldies by that point, I suppose, but I didn’t care. I guess I was into The Fixx, as well; they were kind of new wave. I also played some of the hard rock from that time, but I definitely preferred the grittier stuff like Ozzy Osborne to the pseudo-glam of Motley Crue or Ratt. There were one or two good radio stations in Chicago when I first started getting “contemporized,” and I eventually caught up with everything post-Beatles.

How far did you go with the violin and what made you eventually switch to the guitar?

I went pretty far. I was pretty good at it. I started in Davenport, Iowa, and we had a really excellent string program there. Actually they were great schools there all-around. I had some pretty serious music theory training starting in junior high. But between 8th and 9th grades—that’s when we moved to the Chicago area—I moved into a school system that had a dismal string program, by comparison. I was expecting to go to a high school with a full orchestra, an honors orchestra and several ensemble groups—chamber groups—and instead I go to one where I’m entering as a freshman and there are only ten other people in the class. We had to merge with another high school to get a complete string section, and then we’d only have a full orchestra with winds for the last two rehearsals before a performance. But there was a regional honors orchestra, and as a freshman I auditioned to third chair out of eight in the first violin section. Even so, I was a little disappointed with the experience, so that was one factor in the decision to pick up the guitar. But at the same time I was also getting more into rock ’n’ roll.

Was there ever a time during that era when you checked out jazz violinists like Jean-Luc Ponty or Stephane Grappelli?

My mom actually did make me listen to those guys, and later on I got way into them, but I wasn’t quite ready for that stuff yet in high school. I had some exposure to live bluegrass and that was probably the first music I got over my shyness to dance to. When I would visit my grandparents who were living in the Smoky Mountains I saw some real Appalachian bluegrass festivals.

Did you ever go back in your room and try to play bluegrass fiddle?

I learned “Orange Blossom Special” in school, but I wasn’t that drawn to it to play until later on in my life.

Plus, if you were classically trained, you probably weren’t geared to improvisation, right?

That was the thing—I was starting to get curious about improvisation and unfortunately the instructor I had at the time for violin was pretty much baffled by improvisation. The best he tried to do was set up this trio performance in the staff lounge with me and a hot-shot cello player from another high school and [the teacher] playing viola. He was having me sight-read and he said, “Just keep up, and if I the notes look like they’re coming too fast, just play something in the right key.” [Laughs] He was trying to push me to a more classical aesthetic of improvisation.

Anyway, around that time I taught myself guitar. I spent a week at a friend’s house when I was a sophomore in high school while my parents were out town. He was a junior and had a job, so I had three hours to kill after school at his house—he had a guitar and a book on how to play it and within a week I had learned a dozen chords and a few songs—“This Land Is Your Land”; stuff like that out of Hal Leonard [instruction books]. Then he let me hang onto the guitar and I went to the library and checked out some books. My library had a Who anthology.

Was this electric or acoustic guitar?

It was acoustic at this point. It was some piece of garbage with a plywood top. [Laughs] Then, for Christmas, my dad and step-mom got me a little bit better acoustic—it was still a cheapie—and then toward the end of my sophomore year my mom got me an electric guitar and an amp, and that was an Epiphone Genesis—a decent, used solid-body that had the feel of a Les Paul but it was a double cutaway.

I learned a lot of stuff by ear and I got into Led Zeppelin and Rush pretty deep. Those were my two big high school obsessions.

Y’know, Rush has been around my whole life it seems, but I’ve never really “gotten” them. I know Neil Peart and Geddy Lee are considered geniuses on their instruments, and lots of people I know were into them…

Once you get into groove-based music, Rush definitely lacks something. But from a music composition standpoint, they are head and shoulders above most pop in terms of the types of chord changes they’re going through.

Do you think having been nurtured on the complexity of classical playing made you more open to prog rock?

Maybe. I also had a short romance with some of the neo-classical people like Tony MacAlpine and Yngwie Malmsteen. But there was something about it that didn’t grab me. Instead I was starting to drift toward jazz. Because actually, classical music, harmonically speaking, is not too elaborate either. You learn that in “theory”: There are substitutions, but a lot of it is still I-IV-V. Whereas jazz gets into some real innovative changes.

At what point did you discover the Grateful Dead?

I had a high school drummer friend that turned me onto the better Led Zeppelin, Jethro Tull stuff. He also turned me on to pot and LSD. He eventually turned me on to the Grateful Dead—“You’ve gotta check this stuff out!” [Laughs]

What era is this?

This is 1987.

Were you an “In the Dark-er”?

[Laughs] I guess you could say that, although it wasn’t the In the Dark album that got me. That wasn’t one of the albums he turned me on to. What he turned me onto was Europe ’72 and Mars Hotel.

Before that, who were some of the other guitarists you were into? Jimmy Page, no doubt…

Definitely Jimmy Page and Alex Lifeson [of Rush], of course. I was into David Gilmour [of Pink Floyd]. I was into George Harrison. I liked some of the songwriting of The Who, but I wasn’t really a big fan of Townshend as a soloist so much as the rhythm playing he did.

So, did you copy solos off records as so many young guitarists do?

Yeah, but with Led Zeppelin there was also an abundance of live stuff, and Jimmy Page isn’t really the kind of soloist you can always go for note-for-note. He has a certain amount of slop, but I learned to sort of approximate the slop. And I must have had a passing resemblance to him because it actually became a bit of a high school nickname for me among some of the “burn-out” girls.

What was the first band you were in where you thought, “Wow, this is really cool, I can see myself doing this for real”?

It was kind of right away. The improv thing came to me pretty quick with guitar. With violin, there was something about it that was more challenging, but with guitar it’s almost built into it—the improvisational muse of the guitar is very accessible. The first time I got a chance to play electric with a bass player and a drummer we tried some 12-bar blues and we did it for like half an hour, so there was immediately that magical group entrainment and trying to go somewhere.

Was there a point along here where you formally dropped the violin?

I dropped out of the orchestra program sophomore year of high school, and stopped playing for a couple of years. I didn’t have much of a budget for equipment, so I didn’t have any way to amplify the violin for a while. Once I turned 18 and was starting to listen to more jazz and folk music and I got turned on to some modern groups that were using electric violin—like Camper van Beethoven was using it in a kind of psychedelic rock context—I finally saved up and got an electric pickup and I pretty much played it in most groups I was in from the age of 18 until Dark Star Orchestra. Actually I tried to sneak it into Dark Star Orchestra, but the original rhythm guitar player shot it down. [Laughs]

I know you’re sensitive about the notion that you sat around memorizing solos…

I did that as much as possible with Led Zeppelin and Rush—Alex Lifeson is another sort of slop player—and I think he and Page were both inspired by Coltrane in that aspect—he was another what you could call a slop player; but in his case they called it “sheets of sound;” that was a more graceful way to say “a flurry of notes.” [Laughs]

At what point did you sit down and try to learn the Garcia style? You don’t arrive at that by accident certainly.

By the time I saw the Dead live—which was spring ’89—I’d been listening to recordings for a year, maybe a year-and-a-half, not necessarily obsessively, but regularly. But by the time I did that, I’d been playing music for 10, 11 years and run through a lot of different guitar players’ styles already and been able to get the essence of them. And the Garcia thing just sort of hit me like a switch as soon as I saw the Grateful Dead. I went psychedelically blazing to my first shows, so my subconscious was pretty wide open. I didn’t know this at 19, but I guess if I wanted to keep my musical groundwater pure, I probably shouldn’t have gone to see more than one or two Dead shows. But instead I went to see about 50. [Laughs] It just kind burned in. Any guitar player I like enough to see more than once, I’m going to be able to get varying degrees of an impressionistic flavor of, just by choice.

Did you do entire Dead tours?

I did once do an entire Spring tour in '92, but mostly I’d do shows that I could here and there. I had a band and I had jobs. I was committed to a more bohemian lifestyle, with bare minimum income and a job that would let me take off whenever I needed to do gigs or rehearse, and living in sort of communal situations, so it didn’t leave me a whole lot of money for tickets or time to travel to shows. But like I said, between ’89 and ’95 I probably saw 50 Grateful Dead shows and 15 Jerry Garcia Band shows. I also saw Planet Drum and some of the early RatDog stuff.

Jerry used to talk about how he developed his chops and his style both by listening to a million albums but also practicing out of clarinet or saxophone books, learning different scales, how to play them backwards and forwards, and learning how to construct solos from knowing scales…How did you approach learning how he thought as a player and understanding how to play that way?

One of my understandings, and this was also backed up by conversations with Tiff [Jerry’s older brother], is Jerry had his period of learning other guitar players note for note when he was a teenager, and it was Chuck Berry and Freddie King mostly, which he then abandoned for a while in favor of playing banjo and doing bluegrass. I gather for a while he thought the electric guitar was sort of bubblegum mass market, but obviously he changed his opinion about that. [Laughs] I hear the Freddie King and Chuck Berry in his playing, as sort of the foundation, of then going into Django Reinhardt or Joe Pass and various others. And I got all that stuff second hand—Jimmy Page is arguably a Buddy Guy clone as far as soloing over the blues goes. You listen to ’60s Buddy Guy and some live Led Zeppelin recording from ’69 and it’s the same tone, some of the same riffs, but nobody was calling him on it! [Laughs]

As far as my approach playing in Jerry's lead solo style... it really comes more from passive absorption while listening to live recordings for pleasure. The study I have put in is much more around how he constructed and arranged song parts—riffs, fills, comping styles, and so on, and how those parts evolved over time. But I have also always preserved my own edges as an artist, and I pick up different books on technique, jazz improvisation and music philosophy from time to time to work on those edges. I also listen to a lot of jazz recordings and Hindustani classical, which are two forms that challenge my ear. Most rock, pop and folk songs sort of chart themselves in my head the first couple of times I hear them, but jazz and Indian classical escape immediate analysis, either rhythmically, melodically or harmonically. I've been digging John Abercrombie and Ralph Towner lately, and I have adored the East Meets West album by Ravi Shankar and Yehudi Menuhin many years.

What was the band you were in called Hairball Willie?

That was a band I joined in 1991. Their guitar player was leaving, moving out of the area and getting an advanced degree somewhere and they wanted to keep going, so I went to their audition and they hired me on the spot. They had a demo of original stuff they had, and they were also doing what they called a “Dead Zeppelin” style—a heavy power trio sound with a frontman-singer. I pitched for them to add a second guitar player, who I had played a bunch with in a band called Pogo Web, which was the first band I played any significant amount of Grateful Dead with. Hairball Willie was the first band I recorded a full-length CD with, which I actually produced and co-engineered, called Just Defying Gravity, and it got a nice review in Relix in '92 or '93.

What guitar are you playing during this period?

I still had the Epiphone Genesis and I also had an Ibanez Artist solid body, which both got stolen, so I picked up one of the entry-level Paul Reed Smiths, around 1992. It was an EG, one of their Strat-like models with a bolt-on neck; they didn’t have the SE yet. I actually went and swapped out some of the pickups on it and put in these miniature humbuckers—Jeff Beck Juniors—in part inspired by Jerry, who had a middle humbucker. I wasn’t hip to coil tapping or onboard effects loops yet. I heard a certain sound from Jerry I didn’t hear from any other guitar players and couldn’t get out any of my previous guitars. And it turns out the Jeff Beck Juniors were pretty close substitute for DiMarzio Super II [pickups].

You’ve said that the Dead cover group Uncle John’s Band, which you joined in the mid-’90s, was your first full-time music gig.

Yeah, I was hitting a wall with Hairball Willie. The original lead singer and the rhythm guitar player had left. I had roped in a new guitar player and a keyboard player and we played for a year with that lineup and that gave me my first experience being principal lead singer, but things were kind of falling apart in the group. Then I saw this ad in the Illinois Entertainer for guitarist wanted to play… I think it said something about “Woodstock Nation” music—they were being low-key because they didn’t want to alert their current guitar player that they were on the hunt for a replacement. [Laughs] The guitar player they were playing with was really not a Dead Head at all—a really good guitar player, but more into people like George Benson. So I answered the ad and auditioned and got the job. It was a quartet with the bass player, keyboardist and me all sharing vocals and they had pretty good momentum—they were playing two to four gigs a week.

There was a pretty good market for Dead cover bands in the first couple of years after Jerry died.

They had gotten pretty popular in late ’80s, actually. And for a little while, when they still had Jon Gram in the band, they changed the name to just “UJB” and they recorded an album of all original music under that name, and they were opening for the Freddie Jones Band and getting some bigger theater gigs here and there, and playing Park West [in Chicago]. They were telling me about their heyday in the early ’90s when they were packing places in college towns downstate. So I don’t think it was just a post-Jerry thing for them.

And actually, before Jerry died, Hairball Willie was doing pretty well, too. Our home turf was DeKalb and we were starting to do two-nighters at the biggest club in town, Otto’s. We probably had about 25 original tunes at our peak.

But at some point I started to burn out on Uncle John’s Band in part because I thought you really need two guitar players to play Grateful Dead music right—at least most of it. And there were other factors, too.

So I had the idea of let’s start a band, and I liked the name Wingnut. We started out concurrent with Uncle John’s Band. We’d do cool art festival gigs where we could do whatever we wanted. We were tackling Mahavishnu Orchestra and Jean-Luc Ponty songs, mixing that in with psychedelic rock. At one point we tried to tackle “King Solomon’s Marbles.” But that band went through a bunch of changes, and at one point we roped in a couple of guys from a Miles Davis tribute band for a little while, and that didn’t really work out, either.

When Dark Star Orchestra first started forming, I was still doing some things with Wingnut—that was my weekend band, when DSO started up as a Tuesday night side project. At that point I roped Scott Larned into keys and on bass was Wavy Dave [Burlingame], who plays banjo in Cornmeal now. That was going a little while and I also started a bluegrass band around that time, but eventually DSO started taking over all my free time.

And from the beginning part of the concept in DSO was to play specific Dead shows?

Yeah, that was something we all agreed on right from the start. And we did it kind of as a way to create a curriculum for ourselves: “OK, let’s pick a show that has three or four songs we don’t know collectively yet.” We’d figure out what show we’d want to do on a Wednesday, then we’d all go to our tape collections for the next five or six days and listen to stuff…

“If I Had the World to Give,” Cleveland ’78.

[Laughs] It was more like we’d go through whatever the new songs were going to be in the setlist we were doing and we would listen to every version we had in our collections.

Were you a serious tape collector?

I wouldn’t call myself a serious tape collector. But I knew serious tape collectors. So I’d go over to their houses with Deadbase and say, “Oh, do you have this one? How about this other one?” [Laughs] The keyboard player, Scott Larned, was a pretty serious tape collector. The rhythm guitar player, Mike Maraat, had a pretty large collection, although he didn’t have it sorted—he had it randomly piled in boxes! [Laughs] So when we’d decide to learn a new song, we’d try to learn its entire arc and then try to figure out what made it sound, say, like a ’73 or an ’85 version.

We did it mostly because we thought it would be fun. And it was. It was a fun exercise. We’d all played Dead music in previous bands and we’d all been a little let down by our experiences playing in those bands, so we looked at it as what Mike Maraat called “a finishing school for Dead Head musicians.” [Laughs]

What became of him?

When we started touring a lot, he ended being one of those guys who even though he was a brilliant musician, he didn’t have the right personal makeup to tour. He didn’t like wandering around and being in different hotels all the time. That wore on him emotionally.

Early on with DSO was it clear to you that this group had the right chemistry to do what you were trying to do and also become popular?

We felt the jamming chemistry immediately, and everyone had both the ambition and the persistence to meet our self-imposed musical academic goals. And we’d all done start-up bands before, but none of us had seen a weekly Tuesday night thing [at Martyr’s in Chicago] go from 80 people to 500 people in just two months. For a while we were also trying to do a Wednesday night in addition out in the suburbs somewhere but it didn’t catch on. Eventually we starting going out of town a little bit more and I guess the word got around.

What were you playing at the beginning of DSO?

I started out with that first Paul Reed Smith and then I started modifying it. I learned pretty quick about the outboard effects loop [that had been designed for Garcia’s guitars] and did that installation myself. I learned about buffering and built my own buffer—I went to the Craig Anderton books and learned buffer design. I had been a ham radio hobbyist and had a lot of electronics background; it was one of my side hobbies. So then it was like, “All right, I guess I’ll get a JBL speaker” [like Garcia]. [Laughs] I just kept adding things.

Did you have a preference for the years you guys were hitting with your show? I guess each era has its own challenges, but was there a golden era you particularly enjoyed?

I think I like in equal parts the ’73-’74 period, ’77-’78 period and ’89-’90.

What sort of progressions do you see in the band in each of those instances?

I think in the ’73-’74 period you can really hear them going from having espoused a sort of simple bar band or honky-tonk approach—in the wake of Mickey leaving [in early ’71] and having written two albums of very country-rock kind of material [Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty], to trying to model themselves after the classic John Coltrane Quintet sound. You can really hear the ornamentation they’re adding to it—the level of ornamentation that all of them are putting into everything is pretty outrageous by the summer of ’74, but I enjoy it a lot.

And by ’77-’78 they’ve sort of simplified things a little bit…

I think that’s when they really gelled with the new two-drummer approach—it was the return of Mickey and I think Keith was doing well, and the new repertoire was really cool—the stuff from Blues for Allah and Terrapin Station was taking the jams in new directions and giving them new contexts.

And it’s the same sort of thing for ’89-’90. Jerry was back from his coma and sort of re-learning things, and integrating what was probably the largest repertoire they’d had in their history. Sound and lights had always been cutting edge, but by ’89-’90 they were at absolutely the best out there. There might have been people with more lasers than the Dead, but as far as visual art, Candace was such a genius.

Eventually DSO goes national and you’re filling the Fillmore out here in San Francisco…

Actually, our first time into San Francisco we played the Fillmore. We didn’t sell it out, but it was still amazing for us. That was still with Mike Maraat, in 1999.

What is that you guys had that let you get to a level that 99.9 percent of Dead cover bands don’t get to?

Well, for one thing we were all musicians before we discovered the Dead. I would say maybe 80 percent of the Dead cover bands out there are made up of guys who picked up their instruments after they heard the Dead—"Oh, I want to do that, too!" [Laughs]

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

No, no, not at all! It’s a beautiful thing that the Dead inspired them to do that! But we were all guys who started before we were ten years old, so even before hormones kicked in we’d figured out that we loved music and we were driven.

Another thing I’ve seen is that with some Grateful Dead bands that do make it successful someplace they often have a couple of guys in it who are more like “jobbers”—they’re professional musicians but necessarily Dead Heads. So I don’t know if they can fly with the national community; maybe they can get to a certain level with a local scene or something. Uncle John’s Band was a full-time gig and we weren’t ever playing more than three hours from Chicago—but we did 150 shows the year I was with them.

With DSO, there was a certain degree of perfect storm—everyone in the band was a serious musician and a serious Dead Head. And I think the fact that we all agreed on this collective vision of doing set lists as a way to learn more about Grateful Dead music.

Was it hard to keep up with that after a certain point? I know you started to integrate more freeform “dealer’s choice” nights…

At first it was: “We’re never going to repeat a show.” Then it was, “Oh, shoot, we screwed up and we accidentally repeated a show.” Then it was “Not only that, we repeated a show that we played three months ago 100 miles away.” [Laughs] Once we were touring hard, we decided it was more important for the sake of keeping the music fresh for us to not repeat songs from night to night, so that became more of a thing. Then we tried not to repeat a show in the same part of the country within a year.

We also started to be able to document the stuff better and we tried to make sure every town we played in got rotated through the different bands—with DSO we had five different modes: A single drummer for early ’70s; we had late ’70s with two drummers and [singer Lisa Mackey]; we had an ’80s version which had varying degrees of finesse depending on whether it was early , mid- or late ’80s, and that was more about the keyboard rig; and then ’90s. We also we had a make-up-our-show elective set list. So we’d try to rotate those five different kinds of shows in each scene we’d play in.

So with all that, we pretty much learned most of the repertoire, but we were also always fans, so we still listened all the time and picked up new stuff. By 2003, we’d played 900 different Grateful Dead shows collectively, and once you’ve done that and you listen to a tape, part of your brain is automatically analyzing and absorbing—“Oh, that’s cool. I’ll try that next time we play that song, even if we’re not doing that show or that year.”

Did you ever find yourself adding an ’89 phrasing to a ’77 “Scarlet”?

Sure, that would happen. That was fine. We weren’t trying to be exact.

For me, listening to Garcia, I hear certain licks show up. There’s this lick in “King’s Solomon’s Marbles,” for instance, that Jerry was working into a lot of his solos in ’76. It became another way to move through the scale and which had an inside chromaticism in there that would sort of ripple thought the band and create this cool little thing.

And somewhere in the ’80s you can hear this finger-exercise lick that’s just a single-position, diagonal fretboard thing that has this synaptic cascade effect when you listen to it.

How did your association with Furthur come about?

I was on the tail end of a tour right after I got married last year—it was late May, early June—and I was just doing my usual email thing, checking the spam box first and deleting stuff, and there’s this message in my Spam folder, from Matt Busch saying, “Hi it’s Matt Busch. Bob and Phil want to play with you.” I thought I was being pranked.

Did you even know who Matt Busch was?

I didn’t. But I went to [DSO keyboardist] Rob Barraco and said, “Who’s Matt Busch?” “That’s Bob’s manager and he used to road manage for Phil, blah, blah, blah,” and an old friend of Barraco’s.

What did you think?

I had no idea. Honestly I had really hoped that at some point, even if it was only in a private jam, I could get a chance to play with the surviving four members. But then, what Dead Head singer/guitarist hasn't dreamed about that? I was both honored and elated!

Were you conscious of the ongoing debate of whether the lead guitar chair should be filled by someone from the “Garcia School” or someone who brings something completely new to the table? Because Phil has really run the gamut, with people who were very different, but also with people like Kimock and Barry Sless who have a similar approach to Garcia at times. There are all those different levels of Jerry-ness…

Sure, I heard all that stuff, and I could understand where it would be possible that I would never have a real shot at playing with them because I’ve been so influenced by Jerry. But I can also say that with DSO it was a very conscious choice to repress my other influences, from McLaughlin to Alex Lifeson to David Gilmour—people I would normally roll into previous projects. I like to think I also have an understanding of the distinction between having real melodic inspiration that is irrelevant of style, versus just stringing together licks you know.

I know the difference from being there. The muse doesn’t always show up, but you know that’s what you’re going for—you’re going for the muse to show up. You’re not going for just having the right ornamentation. So I hoped that I’d be able to bring the parts in that would make everyone else’s parts fire up and at the same time be able to pull in from some other ornamentation so it wouldn’t necessarily be completely Jerry-ish all the time. With Furthur I’m really pulling a lot of non-Jerry things in there—various effected tones, process tones, that Jerry never used, and trying to pull in some of my other guitar player influences. But I’m also letting the Jerry guitar stuff fly where it feels appropriate. I’m always conscious of that: Is this called for in the moment? Would I want to hear this, or would I want to hear something else here?

What was the first rehearsal like?

It was a Bob’s studio in San Rafael, TRI [Tamalpais Research Institute], which is the same place the Dead rehearsed for the 2009 tour. It was Bob, Phil, Jeff Chimenti, Joe Russo and Jay Lane. I didn’t know who the drummer was going to be until a couple of days before that first rehearsal, which was August 2.

First rehearsal, the first thing we played was “Playing in the Band” and I thought we effectively assembled the psychic vehicle and took off and really went somewhere.

Were you nervous?

Maybe a little bit. I’d played with Bob a few times in the past, including one really unstructured second set with DSO where we had no setlist, and we did a really cool “space” together, so I already had a sense that we had that kind of chemistry.

Had you ever met Phil before?

No, I hadn’t. But he was very gracious and kind and friendly and we just jumped into it immediately…

How different was it from playing with “Bobby” and “Phil” from DSO?

Pretty different, but also similar at the same time. The language is similar but the subject matter or topics of discussion are different and I have to do quite a bit of catch-up to be where Bob and Phil are now. Like when we’re trying to move to an unrelated key, that’s been the really big “ah-ha” of working with these guys—hearing their suggestions for transitional chords to get to a new key. They’re usually nothing like what I would think of. [Laughs] So it’s been very mind-opening in that regard.

What sort of stuff has been the most fun to play?

All the stuff that jams. It’s all been fun, but the stuff that connects one song to the next when we’re doing that sort of thing, and the interior jams of songs.

Photo: Bob Minkin/minkindesign.com ©2010
Do you feel you’ve learned things you didn’t know about the interior workings of some of these songs, even though you’d studied them so intensely for so many years?

There’s definitely been some of that. And I think it’s gone both ways, too. Phil and Bob have both been in this place for 15 years where there have been a lot of sort of Dead reunion events but their main push has been with Phil & Friends and with RatDog in which they’ve been trying to create some new styles. And in that time period, deliberately, they’ve gotten out of the flow of where they were going collectively with the Grateful Dead before Jerry died. And they’ve been very kind in letting me have a lot more musical direction than I expected to get in Furthur.

You mean to influence the sound?

Yeah. From time to time they’ll actually ask me, “Do you remember how we used to do this?”

“Why yes…which year do you want?”

[Laughs] Right! It’s been interesting to hear Bob say he considers the Dead’s peak to be the ’89-’90 period as a band.

At the same time, I’m very open and willing to throw that out. They’ll say, “Nope, that’s how we used to do it, we don’t want to do it that way anymore. What have you got for this?”

Like you have to do Bob’s version of “The Eleven” now…

Fortunately I had enough experience with listening to both RatDog and Phil & Friends to hear where they’ve been going with some of these songs. I think Furthur’s “Eleven” is actually a bit of all three—Dead, Phil, RatDog.

What is the guitar you play primarily now? It looks and sounds Jerryesque…

It’s a Carvin. I was on tour with The Mix [a short-lived aggregation featuring Melvin Seals, Greg Anton, and Jeff Pevar] in ’05 and we were hitting the West Coast through San Diego and I saw this one hanging on a wall. It was discounted because it has a router burn. It was everything I wanted in a basic guitar—a maple neck-through, a maple top, ebony fingerboard. I wanted room for extra electronics and this one had the Fishman Powerbridge in it, so it had an extra jack already for the output. It was hard-tail as opposed to a tremolo. I had it pocket-routed by a guy in Chicago for the middle pickup and I rewired it completely—[like Jerry’s later guitars] with three humbuckers in the place of the two humbuckers and a single-coil in the neck. The string geometry is sort of like a Travis Bean in terms of being a string-through body and the tailpiece. The top is more “Wolf.” It has aspects of all of them but it’s not a copy of any of them. It’s sort of my idea of hybridizing.

As far as sounding “Jerryesque,” there's really a touch thing that comes way before gear in getting a sound—the gear only enhances and refines what the heart and fingers are going for. I've heard other guitarists on my rig and without changing any settings they sound nothing at all like Jerry. I think the real beauty of Jerry's hardware was the transparency with which in conveyed his intentions, both sonically and emotionally.

Was it hard to leave DSO?

Of course, to a certain degree. DSO was an idea I nurtured from a pipe-dream in the late ’80s to actuality in ’97, and then helped build into a touring institution for over a decade, with a lot of blood, sweat, and tears, literally, if you'll pardon the cliché. I had to do some ritual work, shamanic therapy, around accepting my replacement and releasing control. But truthfully, I was in a place where I was ready for a change. I had kind of decided the year before that I was ready to do something else. I was looking at Robbie Robertson’s take on The Band: After ten years of hard touring with one group—or in my case 12 years—maybe that’s enough.

I’m sure a lot of people are really disappointed…

Maybe, but at the same time I think it’s a good thing for everyone involved. It’s a good thing for DSO to give someone else a shot at that situation. I really pitched to those guys as I was leaving that they should think of DSO as a “school,” and to think long-term—think 20 or 30 years down the line when all you guys are out of it, too. What do you want it to be?

So where do you see Furthur going? Are there plans beyond this year?

It’s not my place to talk about that. This is about Bob and Phil deciding they still really enjoy playing with each other still after all these years. My first goal with this is to facilitate that. And if I can get some “ya’s” in around that, cool.

Is Furthur satisfying you creatively?

Very much so. It’s great to be able to take all of the historical knowledge I’ve acquired through DSO and integrate it fully with all my other influences. I think I definitely share in some degree the underlying artistic thrust that I feel Jerry was going for, as far as just trying to light people up—in the band and in the audience—and facilitate a creative group unity with band and audience.

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tphokie1's picture
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Joined: Jun 9 2007
Great interview, Blair.

I too was a John skeptic, but he's made me a believer. You said it well. He knows Jerry's style but brings his own originality to the music. Nice to learn more about his background.

Canyon Critter's picture
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Joined: Oct 20 2008
John just Fits

I must say, great interview and insight into how this all evolved. I too grew up with alot of the same musical influences as John @ kind of the same time period. One thing's for sure, you can't just get stuck on the Grateful Dead (although we all love it) musically. Shoot Motley Crue to Hank Williams Sr. to Zeppelin to Pantera to Jethro Tull to Prince...it doesn't matter as long as you feel it and "get it".

I've seen this band from the beginning @ Hammerstein, and right up to the Furthur Festival. At first I was defending JK for his interpretation of the Jerry Style...then it got to the point where people understood how talented he really is, and now it's to the point where only the "angry ole codger-bitch about everything" type deadheads are not realizing how improvisational this music really is.

Thanks for the interview Blair!

_____________________________________________
Will you come with me? Once in awhile you can get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right!

marye's picture
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Joined: May 26 2007
I love this bit

"I think the real beauty of Jerry's hardware was the transparency with which in conveyed his intentions, both sonically and emotionally."

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Joined: Aug 21 2007
great

excellent interview! thanks! i had the pleasure of chatting with John briefly after one of the stealth show. a real mensch and very gracious.

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Joined: Oct 24 2008
Nice Read

Thanks for the nice long piece Blair. I grew up in the same time frame as JK and had the same musical interests in high school, so it's cool to see he came from the same background. The Rush references were cool also. When I tell folks that the Dead and Rush are my favorites, people give the that "squinty-eye, raised eyebrow" look. I have not seen JK with the boys, but I did see him with DSO. Hope to catch them in Columbus this summer.
Later,
rg

lamagonzo (not verified)
Great interview!

Wow, long and insightful interview with JK. It was really cool to to see how he has evolved to the current role he is in. He completely understands his place and is so respectful. This has given me new respect for him. Also, it should now be apparent to everybody that he has the perfect mix for playing with Bob & Phil in that he's got Jerry's style down as a jumping off point for his own improvisation.

Thanks to Blair for putting this interview together and giving us all more context and the plot line.

Snark's picture
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Joined: Dec 20 2007
Great interview!

John's living the dream, and I was grateful for the chance to read this interview--I'd wondered about his background, his rig, and his influences (other than JG), and I think that this clearly shows that he will take his music to new directions after Phil & Bob park the Furthur bus for good, while still keeping his love of this, the most honest body of music in the rock world.

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Joined: Jan 12 2009
WOW

this is really neat, Johns a cool guy

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