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Full Circle: Zen Trickster Jeff Mattson Becomes A Friend of Phil

The Zen Tricksters have proudly donned their admiration and respect for the music of the Grateful Dead on their collective, musical sleeves. When the group emerged in the late 1980’s as the Volunteers, they predominantly interpreted that band’s music. The Tricksters still play a number of Dead covers, although increasingly they have introduced original tunes into their sets (they recently released their second disc, A Love Surreal). At any rate, given the group’s history, many people found it interesting indeed that Phil Lesh tapped guitarist Jeff Mattson and keyboard player Rob Barraco to join him for a number of shows as two of his Friends. This interview with Jeff focuses on his performances with Phil. Next month, we will speak with Zen Tricksters’ bassist Klyph Black about A Love Surreal and other Trickster Trivia.

JG: I’ve talked to Klyph a couple times in the past and finally get my chance at you. (Jeff laughs) Heard you’ve been playing out a bit with some other folks…

Jeff Mattson: Yeah, it’s very exciting. Warfield shows with Phil Lesh and Friends. Three Warfield shows, the 7th, 8th and 9th of October.

JG: How did you get hooked up as one of Phil’s Friends?

JM: Well it was J.C. Juanis. He writes for Relix and he did a big interview, a cover story on Phil, a couple issues ago. I think he’s been helping Phil out, sort of finding talent for the Phil and Friends shows, like getting in touch with people and stuff like that. Phil is interested in finding some new younger faces to play with and he got our latest cd (“A Love Surreal”). I originally though Phil probably had heard of us because we’re known to play Grateful Dead music. But in fact, he had never heard us. He just finally got around to listening to our cd and loved it, which was gratifying. A lot of people just assume, `Why is he using a Grateful Dead cover band?’ Basically we were picked by the by the virtues of our all- original cd. He was really impressed by the fact that we could jam in the studio; something he always felt that the Dead had a hard time doing.

JG: Explain to me how the rehearsal process went prior to the shows.

JM: Rob Barraco (Zen Tricksters’ keyboardist) went down there first because they were rehearsing with Warren Haynes and they didn’t have a keyboard player. So, he went down for two days and that was kind of like an audition for him. Zen Tricksters had a few shows up in the northwest, so Rob came back up. We did those shows.

Then, Steve Kimock was unable to be there for more rehearsals. He was doing shows, so I got to play with Warren for two days. That sort of qualified as my audition. Then the whole thing broke up for a week. People went off and had gigs and stuff like that. We went back home and then Rob and I came back for six days of rehearsals with the lineup, with Steve Kimock and John Molo and they added Bobby Strickland on saxophone. We did the three shows with rehearsals the day of at the Warfield before the shows.

JG: Wow! It was almost like summer repertory theater in a way—rehearsing very quickly and then rehearsing one the day of a show in order to get things right just before the curtains open.

JM: Yeah. Exactly. Phil’s totally committed to doing completely different shows. It’s not like fine tuning one night of music and playing three nights in a row. It’s not the idea at all. It’s three completely different shows.

JG: I would be interested if you could run through the whole gamut of getting the call, ‘Hey come over and rehearse,’ the audition, to the rehearsals to the actual performances.

JM: Let me just say, it was the culmination of a wildest-dream-come-true kind of a thing. Playing with Phil Lesh was something I’ve sort of been fantasizing about for 25 years. It was just a tremendous thrill and lived up to every expectation musically and personally. The other thing about it was that I thought as I saw different people doing these shows I started to feel, without sounding egotistical, that something might actually happen. I didn’t know when or if it really would, but I felt it was in the realm of possibilities. We are a touring act that has a national reputation. We have two cds of original music under our belt, we’re not just a Dead cover band though we certainly understand and know the Grateful Dead music. In some ways it seemed, at least to us, that we could be an obvious choice. As it turned out, Phil heard us and happened to dig us. But nothing really prepares you for that moment… one night we were out on the road and I called my answering machine, and there was a message from Jill Lesh saying, “Would you and Rob be interested in coming down and playing with us?” (laughs) First I thought it was a joke. Someone’s goofing on me. She went on into detail, and I realized, this is the real deal. It was very exciting, and then to go down to Club Front and use that studio- that whole scene, being there, meeting Ramrod and Steve Parrish and Robby Taylor and all the crew there.

JG: Were you trying to split your thought process in half—in awe and trying to soak it all in while at the same time trying to be sharp so that they won’t say, “I don’t know…we thought he had it together…”

JM: Yeah, exactly. You’re right, part of you that’s “Wow! This is really cool.” But you don’t want to sit there and judge like a fan, even though you are. You have to be true to yourself, just keep it under control. I think they know that anybody who’s obviously been a student of Grateful Dead music is going to feel a certain way and they’re very kind about that. By the same token we’re there for a very specific purpose. Fun, but we had work to do and took things very seriously, and got down to it. The experience was really enjoyable.

JG: As for performing live, how was it at that moment, again were you kind of split or were you so into the moment and getting it right that you didn’t even realize what happened until it was over?

JM: The irony of it is that to play good music you really need to be completely in the moment because of the nature of doing different arrangements of a tune. And we’re following these musical cues of Phil. He sort of conducts the band, hand gestures and stuff like that. You need to be very focused and very in the moment. However, in advance I did say to myself, which is the opposite of what I normally think, “A few times when I play tonight, I’m going to step outside the whole thing and just take a mental picture of it all so I have some nice clear mental pictures, impressions of the whole thing.” I allowed myself that. I’d just say, `Hey, instead of listening, I’m just going to look over and realize that I’m playing with Phil Lesh and Steve Kimock and I’m onstage at the Warfield, a sold-out house, and I’m playing some of these songs with the guy who wrote them.’ I did enjoy that and take enough of that in so that I’ll always remember that.

JG: That brings up one aspect of your performance. With the jams of Zen Tricksters, when you do Grateful Dead songs, it reminds people of certain periods of the band, circa ’69-‘77. Did you go there or somewhere else?

JM: Some of our favorite stuff for sure is the ’73, ’74, which is some of the more jazzier stuff they did. Actually, this was an interesting paradox. I tried to shed any direct link except within the song itself, playing the part of the songs, but when we got into the jams, I tried not to quote Jerry anywhere directly. I don’t think that’s what Phil wanted at all. He wasn’t looking for a Jerry clone of any kind in there. So I was not trying to evoke a particular era or anything like that. In fact, I think what the concept of it really is, is that you take these songs further into the future. Phil was interested in finding new ways to approach them and go to new spaces in the jam. There was a lot of jamming and it’s great. The sets are constructed so there’s barely a break at all in between songs. They’re all connected.

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