The best kinds of interviews are less question and answer sessions than genuine conversations between those involved. Whether they’re music lovers, movie buffs or sports fanatics, the dialogue moves at an increasingly rapid clip because one participant’s comment inspires a corollary from the other(s).
So it went, to some degree at least, in Doug Collette’s conversation with Grateful Dead archivist David Lemieux. Lemieux’s enthusiasm is so highly infectious for his work in general and in specific about his current project Europe ’72: The Complete Recordings, that it only takes one statement or interrogatory for him to head off on another charged explication of the process behind that project, the general checklist for an archive title or the thought behind the genesis of complete Dead runs in the wake of Fillmore West 1969: The Complete Recordings.
Assuming the mantle from the late Dick Latvala, with whom David worked in the later year’s of the Dick’s Picks series, Lemieux has spearheaded a remarkable run in itself including the inauguration and implementation of a new archival series Road Trips to a number of sterling presentations such as Winterland 1973: The Complete Recordings and Formerly The Warlocks. He is as humble as he is gracious in the execution of his responsibilities to the legacy of the Grateful Dead, which in turn lends him all the more credibility in the position he’s accepted on behalf of the most distinctive rock band in American history.
I wanted to pass along regards to you from your friend Kevin Shapiro. He’s a fascinating guy doing fascinating work…
He really is! He’s definitely the right guy for that job as well and that’s a tough job to have. I spend a few days with him in Philadelphia last month; we used to see each other a lot more when I was living in California going to a lot more Phish shows, but since I moved back to Canada, we see each other a lot less, but we talk all the time.
I wanted to ask how the event at Drexel University (The archivist speaking event with Shapiro) went. I read about it a little, but I ‘d be interested to know how you felt about it.
I thought it went great, you know there wasn’t that much actual work; it was a lot of fun. We did a cocktail party at first—though I’m not much of a schmoozer—but the live Q&A was really good, I think, very well received. We had an excellent moderator, which is really the key to something like that, and a good turnout, a couple hundred people I’d guess. People seemed interested; I was interested in what Kevin had to say, sitting there as a Phishhead--I think the fans really dug it. Whether they dug what I said or not, I don’t know. I enjoyed talking.
I remember seeing you conduct a bit of a Q&A at a Grateful Dead symposium at Amherst University in Massachusetts (Unbroken Chain, 2007). I thought it was great: your enthusiasm for what you were talking about was so infectious. It was a terrific dialogue between you and perhaps fifty other people in the room.
Well, if nothing else, I do love what I do obviously. I mean if you love the Grateful Dead’s music how could you not love doing this? I certainly do enjoy the music.
When I prepped for talking with you today, I happened upon an interview in which the introduction made the statement - ”this guy’s got the best job in the world: he gets paid to listen to the Grateful Dead.”
Well, you know I wouldn’t argue with that. Clearly there’s much more to the job than listening to the band, but there is that and, like any job, there are ups and downs, but never does a day go by that I don’t very consciously realize how lucky I am to have this job. And I think the day that it becomes just a job is the day I walk away and that day certainly hasn’t even come close. Again, as stressful as it is sometimes, I am very conscious of what the job is: I represent the Grateful Dead and that is...I’m not going to say it’s a dream job because it’s nothing I ever would’ve dreamed of. It would’ve been preposterous for any of us to have been at shows 20-25 years ago and say “yeah someday I want to be the Dead’s archivist and producing the records.”
I’m not sure that ever even occurred to Dick Latvala at any time either.
You know it’s the same thing he did. He said to Phil (Lesh) “Hey, somebody should take care of your tapes,” and Phil says “Well you know the music.. you do it” And that’s how it happened and Dick ended up not only organizing and cataloguing that collection, but getting it into release and making it into the acceptable world. And that’s really what we’re all about: preserving it but also making it accessible through the commercial releases we do and on-line and other things. It’s a ton of fun!
I wanted to talk a little about the Europe ’72 project, but I’d be interested to chat with you just for a minute about your day-to-day and week-to-week activities. I’d be interested to know what your days are consumed by and if there’s any routine to the days and weeks as they go on.
Everyday is different- completely. Things get thrown at you pretty quickly and need a response immediately, so as much as I try to have a schedule and I try to compartmentalize things, in terms of “I’m going to spend here hours today on this and I’m going to spend two hours today on this,” it generally never works out that way. I’m involved in a lot of the Grateful Dead’s licensing activities in terms of the approvals on the band’s behalf, so aside from the music, I’m doing a lot of things that involve the merchandise, new licenses, what ever they are —t-shirts, jewelry or whatever — I take a look at what the licensing company – which is part of Rhino — is doing just to make sure that everything represents the band well. By the time something gets to me it’s generally pretty darn good and the things I’m keeping an eye out for — that they’re tasteful and that they represent what the Grateful Dead would want their image to be associated with — I bring all that stuff to the band.
So I do a lot of that and I do a lot of listening both in terms of listening to music for potential release. Let’s say we need to have a new Road Trips out and the next one is August and we’re pretty close to figuring out what that one’s going to be, but I’m spending countless hours, literally hundreds of hours listening all day to different things. Saying, you know, like “It would be really nice if the next one was something from 1973” and from that point really narrow it down to the eight or ten shows—you know I’ve listened to enough of that stuff to know what the top eight or ten from a certain era in 1973 might be, so I’ll select those eight or ten and listen to them relentlessly. And by the time I know everyone of those eight shows note for note, you know which one of those shows, you know, when I wake up is calling to me saying: “I really want to hear that show again!” That’s kind of how we get set on a release.
So, if it’s time to do a 1988 release, which we just did RT Volume 4 No 2, I spend a lot of time evaluating. First of all its performance, is obviously first and foremost, sound quality is also incredibly important, so I’m going through the tapes and dealing with engineers and I do a lot of that. I also do a lot of proofing, so in the case of Europe ’72, and its CDs, I’m constantly proofing to make sure everything is absolutely perfect. In this case, I’m proofing a lot of different things and making sure the sound quality is right. I’m not an engineer so I’m listening for little things like if Bobby’s guitar is not loud enough on a solo, let’s say he does on “Casey Jones. ” But you know Jeffrey (Norman, Archiving engineer) is so down with it, he knows what’s going on, so I’ll tell Jeffrey “oh you know it needs a little tweak on this” but again he’s been doing it so long that kind of stuff is minimal.
I listened to Jeffrey’s mixes of Europe, to talk specifics of what I did today, and then once I approve the mix, then he sends it to mastering, mastering then sends me the final: mastering’s really smoothing things out, making sure of the bottom’s there and the highs. I’ll give him a little feedback, although this is a two-time Grammy-winner that’s doing the mastering, so I really don’t have that much input. But sometimes I’ll say “Look, this one could really use a bit more bottom end on ‘Black-Throated Wind’” and he’ll listen and agree and no problem.
I do a lot of proofing of CDs and DVDs things like that and then there’s movie licensing where the requests will come in to Rhino; you know this movie written by so and so starring so and so wants to use a two-minute piece of this song and they will send me the quick-time movie of the scene and I’ll make sure it’s not a scene of you know somebody shooting up in an alley. You want it to be something that represents the band well. If it’s older Deadheads sitting around smoking a joint and talking that’s fine but we have to keep an eye on that stuff to make sure the Grateful Dead’s legacy isn’t besmirched. Being a band that hasn’t played in sixteen years we need to obviously promote the legacy in order to keep the interest high, but we also have to protect it, so you’re not going to see it in a TV ad for a truck or a scene of a bunch of junkie’s shooting up to the sound of the Grateful Dead. We have to keep an eye on that and I do a lot of that.
I write for the Dead’s website so I’m always getting music together weekly and writing for that and then I also do a daily Sirius radio show for an hour.
Do you work 24 hours a day? (laughs)
I don’t, I work like 6am to 10 pm, but I also do take some breaks in that time, without a doubt, so I have very very busy times definitely.
It was interesting to hear you talk about the checklist per se in how you determine what you listen to and when, plus the various tiers of approval you might give it. Is there anyone else besides Jeffrey Norman — who it must be great to work with such an expert in sound quality — who else is involved in finding and finally approving a Road Trips title for release or are you the final word?
In what sense?
Let’s say performance...
Performance is Blair Jackson. He’s an integral part of that process on an official level. On an unofficial level, there are six or eight people hard-core Deadheads who know the music as good or better than I do. I’m objective and that’s one thing I’ve really had to become with the music is objective, more objective than I ever thought was possible with this. But these are people who are not only objective, but also get incredibly enthusiastic about the good stuff. I’ve got people who I’ve been friends with for 25 years who have never stopped listening to the stuff to the level that I do, so I’ll start the discussion “Hey we’re thinking of doing a ’73 we’re thinking of hitting up the October through December tour what di you think?” And then they’ll come to me with that same list I told you about: the six or eight top shows. So then I’ll call them up—because they have their own copies—and say “What did you think?” and they’ll go “Oh man—it’s awesome!...What do you think about that second night?
These are incredibly informal discussions but discussions we take incredibly seriously and there’s a lot of them… a lot of that. Honestly, it’s months of discussions like that so it’s far from a unilateral decision-making process, but it’s ultimately up to Blair and I to make sure we’re happy with it. I don’t know who Blair talks to about this stuff, but I certainly have five or six main people I rely on and I don’t generally fill them in on all the stuff, but what I do is kind of get a consensus and then if we don’t get that, then we have a very open discussion about it. It’s pretty cool.
You’ve piqued my curiosity in a couple of ways, one of which is: when you’re talking about reaching and talking in general about specific times, dates of venues, do you always have a specific release in mind, or in the case of Winterland 1973: The Complete Recordings, did that just evolve into a box set from an initial discussion about something much smaller?
I’ll give you the specific of Winterland ’73 which is after the success of Fillmore West 1969 which was the 10-CD set, the first ever complete run, really the thing that allowed something like Europe ‘72 to become a reality. Virtually weeks after finishing Fillmore when it sold out in August of 2005, we immediately — Jeffrey and I-– said, “We have to do another one.” People have demonstrated they’re extremely interested in things like this and we thought “What else is good?” It doesn’t have to be multi-track, but it has to be good from start to finish.
We had never considered doing a complete run and part of the reason we had never done the Winterland stuff is that I’d really had a rough time ripping those shows apart. No matter how I cut it — which is to say if I did a complete show of 11/11 I was missing out on 11/10 and if I did a compilation I was leaving a lot on the cutting room floor and I was also missing the first night which was exceptional. I was never comfortable ripping those shows apart. There’s a lot of shows that (I hate to say it) beg to be cut up: there are mediocre parts and great parts. We will generally do a compilation of something if it warrants it, but these shows never warranted it.
So when it came time and the management of Grateful Dead Productions said “Yeah, yeah, get another box set done for spring/summer of 2006,” only about another eight or ten months later, that’s the one we settled on very quickly. And then the transition of Rhino happened and things slowed down a little bit: it’s hard to get things like that through when it’s such a new relationship, but we got a lot of pre-production done on it and then we put the project on hold. And, ultimately in 2008, Rhino said, “Oh you mentioned that great Winterland ’73 — is that still possible? And we said “Yeah!” and so we got that out in 2008 and then we followed up on that almost immediately in 2009 with the Winterland ’77 (The Complete Recordings) box set, which was the same kind of thing as the Winterland ‘73 set: it was so good and the request obviously came in immediately: "Can you do another one?"
There’s a heck of a lot of complete runs and it was around that time in early 2007 that I started pitching the next logical step, which is a complete tour. And if you’re going to do something like that you start with the best and the best to me and to a lot of people, choosing first on performance quality first and foremost, and multi-track audio quality, it’s Europe ’72. It was subject to a lot of laughter and skepticism and I won’t say it was dismissed, but in the 2007 / 2008 record industry, having the faith in a box set for four or five hundred dollars…
Anyhow that’s how we got here. I pitched it hard and fortunately a couple of people at Rhino, especially one guy in particular in October of 2009 who green-lit it but unfortunately he was let go from the company in the summer of 2010 right as we were officially getting the green light, but fortunately the new guy who took over the Grateful Dead management at Rhino completely had faith in the contracts and made sure it got green-lit internally, which is to say he got budgets approved, he got schedules approved all that kind of thing and that was August of 2010 about eight months ago and here we are three and half-months away from completing it.
That’s fascinating to hear when you are talking about ’73 and the difficulty in breaking it apart because I remember when I got that, I spent an entire day listening to the whole thing, just because I wanted to get the experience of it.
That would tell the story of it. Because I was too young to see the Grateful Dead in 1973, but that would tell you what I was like to spend a Friday through Sunday with the Grateful Dead.
Absolutely! And the thing that struck me about it most vividly was that in listening to that whole set of CDs, the flow of that entire weekend was the same flow of a really good show: they start out confidently yet patiently, work up to the points where they really stretch out and then come to a nice conclusion where you rave it up and just go “Boy, that was a great trip!”
I completely agree and by the end of the second show, and particularly the end of the third show, they really started taking the chances: playing the “Uncle John’s” and “Morning Dew” and the “Dark Star”-“Mind Left Body" part. On the first night you don’t take chances like that, you play it a little safer because you gotta pace yourself. I remember in The Grateful Dead Movie, which was a five night run at Winterland of October 1974, there was an interview backstage - not so much an interview but Jerry hanging out with a buddy - and the buddy trying to give Jerry some alcohol and Jerry’s like “Nah, I gotta get some sleep, man, this is the first of five nights, I gotta pace myself.” You don’t think of that because Deadheads…frankly when I used to go see the Grateful Dead four or five nights in a row, I didn’t pace myself. I went full-steam ahead from the first show to the fourth to the tenth to the fifteenth! It’s interesting to hear, from the band’s perspective: they took the job very seriously and did that.
That’s one thing that struck me, as I became interested in the Dead and listened to them more and read about them more, I notice a misperception--outside the world of their community--that they weren’t bonafide professionals at making music, recording music and playing music live. But, on the contrary, they were the ultimate professionals in knowing what they had to do, to do what they did best. It must be very great honor to work on their legacy because there really is nothing like it, as far as I know, in the canon of American pop or folk music.
There really isn’t. Jerry once said “The Grateful Dead are like black licorice: some people really can’t stand black licorice, but people who like black licorice, really really like black licorice.” And it’s the same kind of thing. I remember running into Randy Bachman of the Guess Who and Bachman-Turner Overdrive and I told him what I did and he said “You know I really respect what the Dead do and their fan base, but I never really understood what the appeal was.” And it’s the same thing: you get it or you don’t.
And it is beyond an honor to do what I do. It goes back to what I said earlier: I do wake up very conscious of what it is that I do. I realize what I do is a huge privilege, it’s not a right, and that’s why I take it so seriously and that’s why when something needs approval, it comes down to: it’s not about me it’s not my unilateral decision, it’s truly an honor to represent this stuff, to have the influence I have—as big or small as it is—on releases like this it really is an honor.
I remember when we did the Dead movie, I had worked on it for a year, twelve hours a day for a year on this thing and then we did a big public screening and one of the band’s friends who been at the shows in ’74, she came and after the screening came up to me with the biggest heartfelt thanks for getting this done and I just shrugged and was very appreciative of what she had just said but commented “Look, the band plays the music, I just co-facilitate getting it out to the world.” I’m very conscious that that’s really all I do, as much as, I’m a Deadhead and I enjoy the heck out of listening to these things, but I didn’t play the music. It’s nothing to thank me for.
Well, with all due respect, I would disagree with that only in terms of having been a music lover for upwards of forty years or more and seeing, especially in the compact disc age, how other artists’ music has been so poorly archived and presented to the public…
The music’s devalued, eh?
Very much devalued!
I know exactly what you’re saying and that’s what we do trying to make sure that when somebody in twenty years looks on their shelf, what they have there, they’re proud of. If something they understand the intrinsic value: it’s not just the media and how it got there, but we put our blood sweat and tears into what’s on your shelf and it shows. This Europe box set is going to show people that we do care. There are ways to do this a lot less expensively from a record company’s standpoint and there’s ways to charge more money, but that’s not what we do. We care and fortunately…a real round of applause goes to Rhino for this: I honestly can’t imagine any other record company in the world taking the plunge on this: the production cost and manufacturing costs are astronomical on this and if this had not sold well…I’m not going to say it would’ve crushed the company because I don’t think so. But it would’ve been devastating. But they had the faith. It wasn’t even a gamble: it was having faith in something they knew would be good, faith in the Deadheads that they would appreciate it and that again by putting the blood sweat and tears into it; there’s nothing not to like about it. We do our best.
When I started with Dick’s Pick’s around sixteen or seventeen, I went into the archives with Eileen Law, the band’s paper archivist (newspapers, photos etc.) and they showed me what they had and I said “Why isn’t more of this stuff appearing inside the Dick’s Pick’s booklets?” So if you look right around Dick’s Picks #18, the books went from four or eight page folders to sixteen and even twenty four pages with newspaper articles, original posters. I thought you know this is our one-shot at perfection. If we have to spend another eight cents to do that it’s worth it. It’s worth it to me as a fan, it’s worth it to the deadheads who are going to buy it and I think it’s worth it to the band to have the pride that when they open it and they see this old newspaper article, they’ll get a kick out of it, That’s a big litmus test.
Absolutely! That’s why it was so exciting when the news came out that Rhino was going to take over. Having gotten archival releases of a number of different artists prior to that, they really evinced the love of a true fan in the way they put packages together, with just that kind of memorabilia and the small touches like the Grateful Dead things now are full of. For someone like me who really loves that kind of thing, loves collecting and loves the history of a band, to see something like the outside artwork on the cover carry over into the inside of the box onto the graphics on the discs themselves, it’s one of those things that makes you laugh out loud because it’s truly delightful to see that level of attention given to something that really deserves that level of attention. Because the greatness of that music lies in all that attention the Grateful Dead gave to it when they played it.
That’s it! From the beginning they cared about their fans and that’s the only thing that we can carry on now. I’m not a musician and I’m not going to out and play for them but, as representing them I want that package to be what the band themselves would’ve done if they were putting together these packages. So when you see the Europe box, you’ll understand why it was a thirteen or fourteen month project. You don’t seem many CD releases these days that come with a coffee table book, that come with 72 CD's that come in a steamer trunk that weighs fifteen or sixteen pounds. It’s just not done and with us---it is.
It’s been a trip and fortunately Rhino’s team is so incredibly dedicated to this; I’ve sent out periodic emails through this process to remind them how much I appreciate they’re putting into this because at Grateful Dead Productions, we didn’t have the resources to manage a project like this. We would’ve had to bring on extra people—we ha dessentially three people doing it—and that’s fine for a Fillmore West box set or a Dick’s Picks or a Grateful Dead Movie DVD or a Closing of Winterland, but for something like this, I really recognize that having a team of people dedicated to making this thing perfect, it lessens my responsibility so that I can concentrate on the things that I’m better at which is to making sure the music is perfect. And I’m not an engineer, but I can certainly oversee that the engineering is done to a Deadhead’s spec.
I would think the breadth of a project like this would beg for a staff proportionate to that breadth and without a half dozen or right people, looking at from perspectives other than just the music--in terms of the packaging and the accompanying content--it just had to happen. And it’s great that it did after something of a bump in the road after you got the initial approval. I can't really wait to see it and hear it, because your enthusiasm about that and everything else you’re doing is so infectious—I wish it were coming out next week!
You know so do I. Right now I'm proofing the Amsterdam show — we’re not mixing chronologically, it’s based more what shows are already based on previous editing work we’ve done, so Jeffrey gets complete shows — and I’ve heard the Amsterdam show for twenty years, but I’ve never heard it like this: for a multi-track it’s crackling. That’s the thing about most of these shows; some are in circulation in pretty good quality, some in pretty bad quality, but nothing touches what these things are sounding like. We’ve been putting a lot of sample online, if you’re interested do check those out. There’s stuff on dead.net and the Dead’s Facebook page, we’re putting up two songs a day beginning on the anniversary of the date of the start of the tour.
This article appears courtesy of Glide Magazine.