When we first spoke with Furthur lead guitarist John Kadlecik for Dead.net over a year ago, he was still getting acclimated to that new band, finding his way with the other players, growing into the material. This is a band that pretty much hit the ground running and was hot from the get-go; still they have definitely evolved a lot together and become stronger with each tour. And John, in particular, has gotten more assertive in his playing, taking the group’s repertoire in some exciting new directions. Over time, too, Furthur has shown itself to be nearly fearless, willing to tackle anything, no matter how weird, in the Dead canon (“What’s Become of the Baby,” “Blues for Allah,” etc.), while also taking on songs by everyone from The Beatles (the complete Abbey Road) to Led Zeppelin (“Fool in the Rain”) to The Clash (“Train in Vain”), and developing a body of fine original tunes. You never quite know what you’re in for when you go to a Furthur show, and that unpredictability is part of what makes them so much fun. If they come anywhere near your town this summer or fall, check ‘em out. It’s a good time!
We caught up with John K. by phone at the end of June at his pad in Washington D.C. (You can find our previous interview, which deals extensively with his pre-Furthur history, here.)
So, what have you been doing on your time off from Furthur?
Well, all kinds of stuff. I played a solo show here a couple of nights ago.
When you say “solo,” do you mean with the John K Band?
I played a couple of shows in May with the John K Band, and I have a three night run coming up Labor Day weekend, but this time, no, I mean literally solo. It was small, home-turf kind of gig in a little café that’s run as part of a co-op that’s part of Greenbelt [Maryland]; the whole city is run sort of like a co-op. If Tacoma Park is the Berkeley of the area, then Greenbelt is kind of like the Mill Valley of the D.C. area, if that makes any sense.
What kind of material did you play?
It was all over the place—some of my original songs, some Dead, some obscure stuff—a smattering of repertoire from bands I’ve been in my entire life.
Do you find that there’s more interest in your solo stuff now that you have greater visibility in some ways.
Well, this gig wouldn’t be the best judge of that. This is a place I was selling out before I was in Furthur. It was a Wednesday night show I did as a favor, and it’s a no-cover tip-jar thing. One voice, one guitar. I’ve done a bunch of different things there, but it’s a little too small to do a full rock band in—the stage is small and it would blow out the room. But I know the owners and the people who run it and they’re really cool. I figured I might be doing that sitting in my living room anyway, and it was easy—a 7 to 9:30 show. They get my dinner and comp me drinks and I make a little cash, but nothing major. I try to tip the soundman well. [Laughs]
Speaking personally, I feel like Furthur has been getting better with every tour. Does it feel that way to you, too?
Oh, definitely. I think that’s just the way improvisational music goes. It isn’t about the individual talents as much as it’s about the group gestalt coming together, and that’s something that gets stronger over time.
Is it just a question of having more time together to gel? What do know about Jeff Chimenti, say, that you didn’t know a year and a half ago, in terms of his playing or what he might do?
That’s hard to say, really. I guess I now have a better sense of when to “poke” him musically—“Hey, what do you think of this?”
Well, he’s certainly playful…
He is, and also a really sweet guy, too. His musical persona follows his personal persona very well.
I think Joe Russo has been a great surprise for a lot of people because he was probably the least known member of the band, especially in the West. But he’s a monster; he’s insane! He can play anything!
[Laughs] That’s true. He’s a fan of just about everything, stylistically, and he has the chops to go any place when the context calls for it. He’s a lot of fun to play with because you can count on him to either anticipate where you’re going, or get someplace at the same time that you do.
I’d like to talk about some of the newer material the band has been playing. There was “Muli Guli,” which showed some promise, I thought, but seems to have been discarded or forgotten…
[Laughs] It’s hard to say which… I like that song.
Tower Theater in Philly, Spring 2011.
Photo: Daren Criswell ©2011
How does Bob teach the band a song like “Seven Hills of Gold”?
That came together in a rehearsal where the stated intention was to try and get some new stuff going, and he said, “Well, I’ve got this riff and I’m playing too much”—meaning there were more notes than he wanted to play. “So pick something in it and I’ll adjust accordingly.” So he had that opening riff and then things just kind of came together right there—chords started showing up from the intro riff and then it was like, “OK, We’ll come back to this tomorrow and see where it is.” The next day he comes back and he’s got a whole verse idea and the chorus sketched out. We try stuff and he decides whether he likes it or not, and he makes changes, and he’ll poll us as to what we think. Sometimes he takes suggestions, sometimes not.
Did he tell you guys that “Big Bad Blues” was somehow connected to “Seven Hills of Gold” and another Hunter lyric?
Yeah, he did tell us it was part of a trilogy. He said he had a song cycle brewing.
How about “Colors of the Rain”?
That came in pretty fully formed by Phil. He had an acoustic demo that he sent to us, but then when we worked it up we tried it at different tempos, we transposed it to some different keys, tried different things with various sections before he finally settled on what he wanted to do.
What’s been great about all these songs—as well as “Mountain Song” and “High on a Mountain”—is they have passages where you guys can go “out” on them a bit and take them to some interesting places. They’re not constrictive.
That’s true. I also really like where “Welcome to the Dance” [another Phil-Hunter tune] has been going. That had been in the repertoire dating back to the first three shows at the Fox Theater [in Oakland] in 2009, and then it got put back in the oven for a while, it came back out and had a new meter and a new tempo. It went back in the oven again and came back out with a new bridge. It’s cool when songs develop like that.
What determines when something goes away or comes back?
Well, that’s up to Bob and Phil pretty much. This is definitely “A Bob and Phil Joint.” [Laughs]
Could you introduce a song if you wanted to?
I’ve put forth some cover repertoire suggestions. “Fool in the Rain” [the Led Zeppelin tune played at Hampton in the spring] was my idea. But I haven’t been pushy with my own songs. I think a lot of people think I’m just a cover band guy, but I’ve actually been writing my own songs since I was 16. In fact, part of the criteria for membership in DSO in the beginning was that everybody in the group was already successful with a band that played original music, because it was just going to be a side project. [Laughs]
Why “Fool in the Rain” out of the whole Led Zeppelin catalog?
It seemed like one of the more danceable tunes in the repertoire, and the story in it is pretty classic. I think it’s one of their better lyrics.
I love that moment in the original where Page switches to that deep, deep fuzz tone…
That sort of octave fuzz. Yeah, that’s great!
I presume Page is somebody you listened to a lot growing up?
Definitely. Page was maybe my first guitar idol when I started playing electric guitar.
Was that your choice to sing Ryan Adams’ “Magnolia Mountain” and “Nobody Girl”? I know Phil likes his stuff a lot, and of course he played in Phil’s band.
No, that was Phil throwing repertoire at me. I think part of it was establishing a character for Furthur as being as much an offspring of RatDog and Phil & Friends as it is an offspring of the Dead.
You guys have been playing RatDog songs really well. I really like “Money for Gasoline,” in particular.
I love “Money for Gasoline”! And as I understand it from Bob, “Two Djinn” was a song that was being worked up in rehearsal by the Grateful Dead when Jerry was still around, but it didn’t come together in time. I also think “Ashes and Glass” is a really cool tune, too. I’ve been pitching for “Shade of Grey” and maybe “Book of Rules,” though “Book of Rules” is a cover.
You’ve also been doing some of the Phil & Friends originals, like “Celebration” and a couple of others.
We’ve done “Celebration” and “No More Do I.” That one’s really started to come together the last few times we played it, in a unique-to-Furthur way.
Going back to the Furthur festival shows in Calaveras last year, can you tell me a little about the process of learning the albums? For instance, that’s where the full “Terrapin Suite” was unveiled.
Well, RatDog had been doing it, so Bob and Jeff knew the whole thing already, I think. And when we played in Brooklyn [at MCU Park], [RatDog saxophonist] Kenny Brooks joined us, and he knew it.
Had you ever played it before?
I worked it up a long, long time ago—learned the pieces—but I’d never played it with a band, no.
Had you played “Reuben and Cherise” with DSO?
We rehearsed it a few times but never played it. I think we got hung up on the ending and it didn’t push through.
“Blues for Allah” was interesting. The first version was great, the second not so much. Was that hard to learn?
Well, it involved some re-writing, in terms of the timings and the arrangement and how to get through it. Phil & Friends had a pretty brilliant version of it that had a little nod to Miles Davis’ “So What” in the structure of it. But it was going to be too fast to sing it in that arrangement. So coming up with the fresh one, it was challenging to remember what we did to it day to day. I know a little bit about the structure of Persian music and the way Middle Eastern rhythms are counted out, and I could see the influence of that tradition in the original version, but in some ways we discarded a lot of that and started over.
I thought covering George Harrison’s “Any Road” was a really great choice for this band.
That was my first cover suggestion. I love that song.
It hasn’t turned up this year, has it?
Not so far. We’ll see…
Do you get any input into the set list?
To some degree. At the same time, I’m pretty pleased with what’s been coming down, so I don’t feel compelled to get in and stir the pot just so I can say I stirred the pot.
How are the set lists constructed? I’ve heard Jill Lesh does some, [manager] Matt Busch does some…
As I understand it, basically Jill and Matt Busch kind of take turns, and sometimes they’ll collaborate, like pick one song at a time and go back and forth with each other. I gather that Bob and Phil in their respective bands before this picked the entire set list, and are happy to let someone else have a shot at it. [Laughs] I think they both still make editorial adjustments, and adjustments will happen the day of the show at sound check, too: “Why don’t we swap these two?” I’ve had input into that sort of thing a few times. Occasionally I get polled, too, on what I want to sing.
How did the whole Abbey Road thing [Furthur played the entire album, in order, over the course of many shows on their spring tour] fall together?
It was planned in advance of the tour. We had a pretty long rehearsal session working the tunes up. But I didn’t know until it was unfolding that it was going to be done the way it was, as far one first set song each night played in the same order as the album side.
axe at the Tower.
Photo: Daren Criswell ©2011
How was it “cast” in terms of who sang which songs?
I don’t remember exactly. I know I had a few ideas of songs I wanted to sing, and I think they were pretty much what Bob and Phil had in mind for me.
In this band, we just kind of run with things and go with it. Part of the vision of this project is that things don’t get bogged down too much in committee; there is some freedom for people to run with an idea. And what I’ve really dug is watching how Bob and Phil really honor each other’s process. They both let each other try things and don’t get bogged down in critiques too soon—they let it unfold before they go into any sort of critical analysis.
So all of a sudden you have a one-night thing where Bob’s singing The Clash’s “Train in Vain,” for example…
That was actually something that took a while to come together. It popped up in rehearsals a while back, but we hadn’t ever quite gotten it together. Bob has a personal story about a long night partying with Joe Strummer, where they found they had a mutual love of Howlin’ Wolf.
What have the audiences been like for Furthur? I get the sense that it’s building still and attracting a pretty good range of people, from old Dead Heads to folks who never saw Jerry.
I feel like we’re putting out a call fora certain kind of audience and they’re hearing it and showing up. Not that it's exclusive or anything. Obviously it’s not. But it’s a call for that particular tribe that cares more about getting into the ecstatic dance space than they do about whether something is sounding a certain pre-conceived way.
Has it been fun playing some of the classic places like Madison Square Garden and Hampton and places like that.
Oh, yeah, definitely. Madison Square Garden was quite a treat to play. I was actually quite surprised how good the stage sound was there.
So would “Fool in the Rain” been designed to be a treat specifically for a big place like Hampton?
No, that’s just where it came together as a clear place to pull it out. We had worked on it in rehearsals and also in sound check rehearsals. I had actually had the idea a long, long time ago to sandwich “Good Lovin’” in the middle of that. And actually, some friends of mine in Chicago—Mr. Blotto—ran with it before we did it! I made the mistake of mentioning it to them! [Laughs]
You guys eventually did it by teasing “Good Lovin’,” then playing “Fool in the Rain,” and then doing the full “Good Lovin’.” What’s the connection between those tunes?
They’re the same key, and I think the middle section of “Fool in the Rain” is very reminiscent of the early, original version of “Good Lovin.’”
Did you enjoy playing multiple nights in various venues on the last tour? Four nights in Boston, five nights at the Tower in Philly, etc.?
It was great. From my perspective, it was a way to really be able to grok a city and let that come through. From an improvisational performer’s standpoint, I’m always looking for things to infiltrate my thought processes, or mix them up, or whatever. Keep me out of ruts. [Laughs] It’s cool to be in a town for a while because you get into their cultural ecosystem.
It’s hard to beat a theater, too, soundwise…
Any time you’re in a space that’s meant for music, instead of a multipurpose facility, is cool. And sometimes you can luck out, like with Madison Square Garden, which is a multipurpose space that’s great for music.
How about some of the newer places, like the Bank One Center in Broomfield, Colorado, which I hear is a great place to see the band.
It is pretty cool. I guess in that case, it was built to be a minor league hockey rink and then the team moved before they ever played there, so the local promoter bought it as a concert venue and they did a lot of acoustic treatment in there. A lot of times, for sports arenas, they want it obnoxiously noisy, because it intensifies the crowd noise. But they did a nice job in making it sound good for music.
Do you look forward to the summer touring season with the Gathering of the Vibes and the AllGood Festival in West Virginia and all those other festivals?
Absolutely. We kind of blast in and out of festivals when we’re on tour; it’s rare that I can do walkabout. But sure, they’re a lot of fun to play. The crowds are great.
Have you seen DSO since you left?
No, actually I haven’t. I think Jeff Mattson was definitely the right choice there. He’s a great guy who deserves to be in there.
I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you about the Internet rumor that your contract is up at the end of the year and there are thoughts of dissolving Furthur.
[Laughs] There is no contract. I don’t know where that comes from. Somebody made that up. There was an initial verbal agreement to clear our 2010 schedules, I guess. The only contract I had restraining me at the beginning of Furthur was with DSO, to not talk about my future with them while they were in booking negotiations for an upcoming tour. I did an interview early on where I said “no comment” to some questions about DSO and those were perceived by some that I was being critical, but it was actually part of the agreement I had with them not to comment. [Laughs] I don’t think they had anything to worry about, by the way, but I did agree to that.
I think Furthur goes until it doesn’t. I hope it goes as long as possible and it seems like we’re rolling along. Bobby and I have even been writing together a little. We’ve got some lyrics—we picked through this stack of lyrics he had lying around…
Most of ’em. There was a small stack from another writer that he had; I don’t know the source of those. Actually, I took a liking to one of those lyrics that Bob let me take off and run with: “Indi Riverflow” but we collaborated on a couple more Hunter lyrics that are pretty cool, too. He let me go through the stack and pick out the two that I liked the most.
So, that’s you guys sitting around with guitars and tossing ideas back and forth?
Right. “OK, let’s start with this,” and I’ll say, “What about this?” “All right, and how about this?” [Laughs] I enjoyed the process very much. For me, songwriting usually has been a little like pulling teeth. I much more enjoy the performance than the writing, but this was pretty fun. [Laughs]
Any chance any of these might surface in the next few months?
I would hope so. We’ll see.