Talking Dead

Phil Lesh talks about learning new things in your 70s and shares his views on piracy

David Accomazzo | Boulder Weekly

When 71-year-old Phil Lesh, founding member of the Grateful Dead and widely acknowledged as one of rock ’n’ roll’s greatest bassists, called Boulder Weekly a few weeks back, there was a hint of satisfaction in his voice.

“I’m in San Rafael [Calif.],” Lesh says proudly. “I’m in our new offices at Terrapin Crossroads.”

Terrapin Crossroads, of course, is Lesh’s new venue/restaurant, a joint project he opened with his wife, Jill. It’s a small performance space coupled with a dining room, and it’s the culmination of decades of dreaming and planning, as well as a nifty little retirement plan for the septuagenarian bassist.

“Basically, that’s what Terrapin Crossroads is all about,” he says. “I’m not going to slow down, but I’m just not going to travel as much. It’s like 10 minutes from my home, so that will cut down on my travel time considerably.”

He plans on sitting in with his sons and with local musicians (“the Terrapin All Stars, we’re going to call them”) in the 400-person venue housed at Terrapin Crossroads.

That doesn’t mean Lesh is done touring. He and his recently reanimated project, Phil Lesh and Friends, will come to the 1stBank Center in Broomfield Feb. 16-18, for a one-off performance with an all-star lineup, the first Phil and Friends show since the creation of Furthur, the post-Grateful Dead group he formed in 2009 with GD rhythm guitarist Bob Weir. Joining him on stage will be Gov’t Mule guitarist Warren Haynes, virtuoso jazz guitarist John Scofield, guitarist Jackie Greene, Furthur drummer Joe Russo and Furthur keyboard player Jeff Chimenti.

Lesh studied trumpet in college before meeting Jerry Garcia, who invited him to play bass in his new rock band. The rest is history. With a classical and jazz background and no preconceptions of how a bass player should sound, Lesh went on to develop a unique and melodic style of playing bass, influenced more by Bach and Wagner than any ideas of how the instrument should sound in the context of a rock band.

Deadhead culture is as fanatical as it is ubiquitous. Get any two Grateful Dead fanatics into a room, and you’ll hear debates over which decade produced the best jams, which lineup had the best “Scarlet Begonias,” and more. But to Lesh (and non-Deadheads), those performances are ancient history. Lesh spoke with Boulder Weekly about looking forward, piracy, tape-traders as the first social network and more.

Boulder Weekly: I was doing some digging and I couldn’t find out if you had played with this exact Phil and Friends lineup before.

Phil Lesh: Warren and Scofield have played with me before, and Jackie has played with me before, but not with Warren or Sco’.

BW: Why Broomfield for this oneoff performance?

PL: Broomfield is a really cool venue and location. Furthur has had a really good experience there the last couple of years, and I wanted to reintroduce Phil Lesh and Friends, since I haven’t done a Phil Lesh and Friends show since Furthur has been in existence, so this is just kind of like reintroducing the whole thing to the listening public, if you will.

BW: It’s interesting that you’re playing with Warren and Scofield, because you have one guy who’s coming from a jazz background and one guy who coming from a blues background. Is it fun, as a bassist, to mesh with both those styles?

PL: You know, I don’t pick the musicians because of their styles, really. It’s kind of the level of commitment and interest they can bring. Warren is the kind of musician that can really play anything, and Sco’ is the same way. They just, they’re just willing to step out of their comfort zone — step away from the blues and step away from jazz — and bring that same sensibility to Grateful Dead music, which is basically my prime directive. Find musicians that can actually come to Grateful Dead music, even if they’ve never heard it or know much about it, and bring their own perspective to it, essentially add to it. It’s like fairy tales. Every version of a fairy tale is true. Every version of “Dark Star” that we play, with 50 different lineups, is all true. They just all add to what the song basically is.

BW: When these other guys are playing, bringing their different sensibilities to the music, does it alter how you play, too?

PL: Well yeah, that’s basically what improvisation is all about. Collective improvisation, anyway. What you’re doing is that you’re moving through time and you’re reacting and actually spitting out ideas that have to do with what’s going on in the moment. They don’t have to do with anything that has been composed previously necessarily, or that has ever been played before. That’s really the whole idea, is to take these songs and use them as a springboard, to take us to places that allow us to create music that has never been played before.

BW: A lot of Deadhead culture revolved around taping at the shows, and trading around these tapes of the live performances. I don’t know if you’ve been following it, but Internet piracy has been in the news recently. What are your thoughts on the attempts to pass anti-piracy legislation?

PL: The thing about piracy is that the whole concept of piracy is driven by the record companies, who have something to lose. They paid for the recordings that are being pirated. They’re trying to squash it. The Grateful Dead, we didn’t give a shit. Jerry famously said, “We play it; we’re done with it. You can do what you want with it.” And that’s our attitude to this day. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a studio recording. As far as I’m concerned, if I make a studio recording, and somebody wants to give it, wants to take the CD, wants to buy the CD and make a bunch of copies of it and give it to their friends, that’s great. That’s how our audience grew. People were making tapes at the shows and giving them to their brother, or best friend, or mom and dad. Hey, listen to this! What better way to grow your audience?

BW: They did your marketing for you.

PL: Yeah, exactly. That way you didn’t have to pay the radio stations. (Laughs) At the same time, that worked for us, because we were not a recording band. We were a live band, and uh, the records were just, maybe in a way they were ads for the live band, whatever. They were definitely of lesser importance to us.

BW: Right, right. Do you ever think about what it would be like if the Grateful Dead had come up in a time with the Internet?

PL: Well, that’s an interesting point, because a lot of people consider the tape traders as the first social network.

BW: Makes a lot of sense.

PL: I’ve read analyses of the phenomenon that single out the tape traders as the very first social network. So I don’t know. The thing is that fundamentally the Grateful Dead are a ’60s phenomenon. I don’t think the Grateful Dead could have happened in anywhere near the same way at any other time. In that sense, we’re definitely tied to our period of history, and that said, the music seems to be strong enough to transcend that and to keep going.

BW: You guys were never really overtly political throughout your career, right?

PL: Not particularly, no, although I’m a lifelong Democrat. I vote Democratic.

BW: It’s interesting that you guys came out of such a period of political turmoil and social upheaval, but you guys kind of stayed clear of that.

PL: Yeah, because we weren’t about politics, we were about opening up consciousness. We wanted to transcend politics, really, is what we really wanted to do.

BW: Back then, did you imagine that 50 years later you’d still be playing that type of music to such a large audience?

PL: You know, I didn’t know or care if I’d be playing it in the next 10 minutes. The nature of it is that it’s in the moment, and it brings everybody else into the moment too, that point where there’s no past, no future, there’s just now. And it, all we cared about was staying there as long as possible.

BW: I went to a message board the other day and said I was going to be interviewing you, and somebody wanted me to ask you about the symphony you wrote for four orchestras.

PL: (Laughs) Ha ha! No kidding!

BW: How’s that coming along?

PL: Well that was in the ’60s! I still have the score. Actually Kent Nagano, who was conducting the Berkeley

Symphony, took a look at it about 25, well 15 years ago, ’95 maybe, and said, well, do you want to try to do this?

And I thought, geez, I may want to rewrite some of it, or something, but I decided I’d rather do something new, and I never got around to it, and you know how those things go.

BW: You’ve been into classical music for a very long time. How do you think that comes out in your bass playing?

PL: That’s interesting, because I really don’t draw on popular music for the way that I play. My bigger influences are Bach and Wagner and Mahler in terms of the bass lines. But it’s more like pure music, you know what I mean? It’s just, I just, I study these masters and deduce general principles from them and apply them to my playing. That’s what I’ve always done, yeah.

BW: You’re not one of those guys who plays in the pocket, that play the same thing over and over again.

PL: Repetition is anathema to me.

It bores me shitless. So, that was how it felt from the very beginning, from the first time I ever picked up the instrument and played it with the band, I did not want to play the same thing over and over.

Luckily, they softened to indulge me in that.

BW: You have any tips for bass players that are trying to improve their technique or improve their musicality?

PL: The best thing you can do, I think, is to play with other musicians. And frankly, play with, and this is not something I did, but I would suggest that they play with as many different musicians as you can, because the more different people you play with, the more variety you’ll be able to bring to your own playing.

BW: Are you still learning new things on the bass?

PL: Yeah, hopefully every time I pick it up, hopefully there’s something new going to come out. Then, of course, because I’ll be playing along and then I’ll say, shit! I’m boring myself! I’m playing the same old shit over and over again! So I’ll consciously try and break out of it. That’s an ongoing thing for me.

BW: Do you ever go back and listen to your older stuff? You’ve got 50 years of material out there. Do you ever go back and listen to it?

PL: That would be crazy! Where would I start? (Chuckles) I would have to think to myself, OK, I want to see what I played on this song back then. I don’t really have time for that! I’m about moving forward.


ON THE BILL: Phil Lesh and Friends plays the 1stBank Center Thursday, Feb. 16 through Saturday, Feb. 18. Doors at 7 p.m. Tickets are $61.25. 11450 Broomfield Lane, Broomfield, 303-410-0700.