A: But isn’t that what we’re supposed to do? Aren’t we supposed to spend our lives questioning our identities? … When I was in college, they said, “You have to declare a major.” I said, “I have no idea what I want to do. Why would I declare anything?” This idea that you have to declare a major at 19 or 20: my god. That’s one of the reasons why almost no one has a job in their chosen major. It’s a strange way to do business. That attitude has served me well in music, because what I do is the inverse. I listen to all music expecting not to like it. Then, if I end up liking it, it’s a pleasant surprise for me, as opposed to this thing where you convince yourself that something’s really good because everybody else likes it, then you put it on and you have to spend more time bullshitting yourself. That’s a tough row to hoe for me.
I have a friend who went to highschool with me who’s a physicist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. One of the things he told me was that anytime one of his colleagues comes up with a theory, they rip it to shreds. They try to destroy it, and if it withstands the scrutiny, then it actually might end up to be true. It might work. And in music, we do the opposite. We don’t hold anything up to scrutiny. We just like it... If somebody has the audacity to say, “Why don’t you like it?”, we rarely get a musically intelligent answer.
Q: When you are listening to music and you’re trying to figure out whether or not you like it, is there a criteria you’ve built for yourself?
A: When I was younger, I had to take a lot more time, because my brain wasn’t really developed to hear that way. Now, for me, music has to have a groove and it has to have a very strong melody. You have guys like Gustav Mahler, who have a great groove and a great sense of melody, and they’re able to do things with melody that are so phenomenal. You have to know a lot of music to get it.
There’s a movement I’ve been listening to — the second movement of Mahler’s second symphony — and there are things in there... You have to know Beethoven’s music to know where he gets these ideas from. But he takes the Beethoven idea and turns it on its head, in a way... To hear that stuff is humbling... [A friend of mine] was saying, “You really want to write like Mahler, don’t you?” I said, “No, man, I want to hear like Mahler.” It’s funny how academically we have a reverse process going on, where we study harmony and we think we’re writing like somebody. But the process is actually that they hear it, and then they write it. They don’t write it first. We’re taught the reverse process. Harmony is easier to deal with than melody. They don’t have a class called “Melody 1.” Melodies are very difficult to rope in and codify, and harmony isn’t, hence the over-reliance on harmony and the study of it.
Q: Everyone I spoke to about this interview wanted me to ask you about the times you played with the Grateful Dead. Does that question get old for you after awhile?
A: The Grateful Dead is kinda hip, man. It’s not like they’re saying, “Tell me about your solo with [Mick] Jagger,” or some shit like that. That would be a drag. But they’re a hip band... It’s one of those things where the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. That’s ultimately what you want a band to be, if you have to choose. I would rather the whole be equal to the sum, but that’s hard to find. They were American historians. Their music had the influence of jazz in it, ragtime, swing, bluegrass music, country music, the blues. They had everything in those tunes. Plus, jazz is not popular, man. I get it. I got it when I left the Tonight Show to do this again. I didn’t go in uninformed. It just became a matter of turning 35 years old and saying, “How do I want to be defined? What is it that I want to define me?”
I decided at that time that I wanted music to define me, and I went out with Buckshot Lefonque, and I did that for a couple of years — and loved the band. But in the end, I just thought that I wanted to be defined by things other than elements in popular culture. Buckshot was one of those bands that if I had just stayed with it for three or four years, it would have done very well. It had a unique sound, and it was even better live than it was... We had started to open up for some of the big-time jambands, and it was working. When I look at it now, now that I’m 52 years old, I’m comfortable doing this. This is good for me.