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Published: 2001/11/19
by Dean Budnick

Phil Lesh and the Alchemy of a Quintet

It has been just over a year since Phil Lesh solidified his roster of Friends. During the intervening months, his mighty five-piece comprised of Warren Haynes, Jimmy Herring, John Molo and Rob Barraco continues to amplify its musical repertoire and interplay, yielding some scintillant results. Any given Phil and Friends show fulfills its promise of a journey well-worth engaging.

At present the band is in the midst of its Paradise Waits tour which carries the quintet through the northeast. In addition, the group will conclude its Beacon Theater run with a benefit on December 3rd spearheaded by the Unbroken Chain Foundation with proceeds to benefit New York relief efforts. Phil and Friends will also headline two shows at the Henry J. Kaiser Auditorium in Oakland on December 30 and 31. Beyond that, Lesh indicates that the band intends to enter the studio early in 2002 to record some of its original material.

The following interview touches on eternal consciousness, the group mind and the nature of improvised music. There’s also a Barney reference. For updated Phil and Friends info as well as some free soundboard downloads stop by www.phillesh.com.

DB- Before your summer tour you announced that you were going to incorporate progressive themes into your shows. How were these themes manifested in your music?

PL- The plan was to take seven shows throughout the summer and play a suite of music I composed which is related to the journey of the soul through the planetary spheres after death. So there’s music for the moon, sun, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, the seven planets that were known to the ancients. We played this music as instrumental introductions to the second set in some cases and in some cases as interludes in the second set of the shows.

DB- As far as I recall, during these shows themselves, you never articulated the specific origin or nature of the pieces.

PL- We wanted it to be subliminal. There are seven tarot trumps which relate directly to those spheres. Our light show had a circular projection surface and at each of the shows when were playing this music we had a version of the tarot trump appear in the circular frame. That was the only clue, really. That and the music itself being more or less clearly not improvised.

DB- What type of feedback did you receive?

PL- It was very interesting because people interpreted it in different ways. Some people related it to the rest of the set because I try to lay out the set so that it describes a journey or tells a story, and also so that the two sets tell a larger story. So a lot of people were relating the planetary music and that progression to the stories that were being told by the set. Others went deeper into the astrological significance and some numerology, so it received more of a variety of responses than I expected.

DB- That’s interesting, I didn’t realize you had taken such an approach to constructing your set lists.

PL- Yes, that’s pretty much the policy, if you want to call it that, that’s evolved. I don’t just throw the sets together from an arbitrary position, I like to tell a story. Sometimes it’s not obvious what the story is and sometimes it’s told only through the relationship of the music and the lyrics are just commentary on that. Sometimes it has to do with how the lyrics relate, all of those things.

DB- How long is the process of putting it together every night?

PL- An hour, maybe less

DB- And the content of that story itself reflects your mood, the vagaries of the day

PL- And the moment. The day itself, the events in the world, the events in our subconscious and our level of awareness.

DB- That leads me to a related topic. How has your relationship with music itself changed over the years?

PL- I can safely say that it has fluctuated. At times it’s deeper than others. Ever since my transplant my relationship to music has been tribal on the deepest level, and with this band it’s almost automatic. I hate to say that because I don’t want to jinx it. The alchemy is so strong that it’s almost automatic the way our group mind can open up the pipeline for that eternal music that we’re all trying to channel and funnel through ourselves so that it can exist in our plane.

DB- In terms of channeling that music is there any way that one can prepare to receive it?

PL- You can’t train for it, I don’t think. This is something I’ve never really articulated before verbally, but what you have to do is remember that who you are is that eternal consciousness which is in everyone and it’s all one. That eternal consciousness is the same in you as it is in me and the same in the guys in my band as it is in me. It’s a subliminal and subconscious process but when the nodes of that eternal consciousness link together and become one consciousness then that’s the group mind, the eternal universal archetypal consciousness. The door is halfway open at that point and we just try to lean against the door a little bit. There’s some kind of feedback circuit that operates when that’s happening and enables the valve, which might be a better metaphor, allows that valve to open and let that divine eternal music to come flowing through.

DB- The challenge then is to avoid distraction?

PL- The challenge is to avoid yourself or what you think of as being yourself, your ego. And also the challenge is not to play what you know and what you can always bring out of the superficial level of your ability to play music.

DB- Can one refine this over time?

PL- I think so but I don’t think it’s a conscious process. I don’t think you can train for it, you just have to do it. It’s really more of an attitude than something you can practice.

DB- So even though you’ve been playing music for many more years than say Jimmy and Warren, that doesn’t matter if they have the ability to tap in?

PL- No I don’t think it does.

DB- On a similar note, how has your relationship with the audience changed over the course of your career?

PL- That’s kind of an interesting thing too. At the very beginning I used to think of there being a carrier wave that was stringing us all together, the audience and the band. For the first three or four years of the Grateful Dead it seemed as if there was information being transmitted back and forth on that carrier wave. Then in the early 70’s it seemed to change in that the energy and the link was still there but what was transmitted back and forth was just energy, there wasn’t any information of any kind. And that sort of held through the rest of the time with the Grateful Dead. But now I feel like I’m getting more of the feeling of the early years, like there’s information of some kind being circulated or transported back and forth between the band and the audience independent of the music itself.

DB- To what do you ascribe that lull?

PL- I have no idea. Maybe in the 60’s there was more of a consciousness of the spiritual world and then later on people’s consciousness became more materialistic perhaps, I don’t know. But I really feel that now there is a hunger for spiritual sustenance and music is food for the soul as well as being food of love.

DB- Has your own ontology or spiritual engagement been consistent over the decades you mentioned?

PL- Well no, I’m just as human as the next guy. My commitment to the spiritual path has wavered. Of course after the transplant it returned in full force. Now I feel pretty strongly that I’m steadfastly on the path and I don’t wish to be blown away, I don’t want to be tossed by the currents of astral or emotional or other situations that arise in life. That’s one thing about connecting with that eternal consciousness that’s in you. There’s a part of you that’s just there and it’s observing your psyche and your emotions and what your physical body is doing. It never sleeps and it’s always there. It’s that thing that makes us human and makes us children of God.

DB- Is that manifested in your music, and if so, to what extent?

PL- Well I certainly hope so. I can’t really make that judgment because it’s impossible for me to be that objective at this point.

DB- Well do you feel appreciably different say from an emotional standpoint when you perform nowadays?

PL- Oh sometimes it’s just chill city. The electricity is just running up and down my body, some of the stuff that’s played by the group mind. The thing about it is that what occurs when we play together is so much more interesting and rich and deep and full of range and expression than any one of us could have thought up by himself.

DB- Certainly the heart and talent of your current bandmates facilitates that as well. You have two my favorite guitar players in your band.

PL- I’ll tell you, they’re two of my favorites too.

DB- What led you to move from a fluctuating roster of players to this core band?

PL- It was the alchemy that this band has together. In the first thirty minutes that the band played together we went to places that were new to me and very exciting. We all looked at each other after those first thirty minutes and said, “Whoa, what was that?” It stops you cold sometimes and you have say, “This is impossible.”

Although everybody in the band had played with me in other contexts with other musicians, this was the first time they all played with me together. I just didn’t want to let that go because it was the closest to the shit, the real shit that it had been, and it just keeps getting closer. Of course you never really get there but that’s the fun of it because it’s infinite. The higher you get it keeps receding a little farther and you keep going, keep striving for it.

DB- As opposed to the Grateful Dead, you really have two guitarists playing lead. Has this led you to engage with the music any differently?

PL- That was the idea. I wanted everybody to be a lead player and whoever has the spotlight at the moment is the first among equals for now. Then someone else will take that position, or ideally what’s created is a web of lines and relationships. That’s the best way to perceive it. That’s what Charlie Mingus said about his music. He said, “Focus in front of the music and listen to the whole thing, don’t try to pick out any one strand because you’ll miss the totality.” That’s how I ask the players to approach it.

DB- Well you have players with big ears.

PL- That’s the prerequisite I think.

DB- Moving back to something you said earlier about setlists, I remember at one point you indicated that your goal was to move past setlists but it seems that now they are essential to what you hope to accomplish on stage.

PL- Your goals change as experience enlightens you. For now the idea of telling a story and describing a journey of some kind through the setlist is working really well. But that’s still a goal and hopefully we’ll be able to improvise something like that in the future. What we’re doing is a way station en route to that goal. It’s all a journey.

DB- The composed pieces that you performed in the summer, do you plan to return to those?

PL- It’s been planned from the beginning to turn them into a set-length song cycle. Hunter’s already written the lyrics for everything. I now have to integrate the lyrics with the music that I’ve already composed and in some cases compose new music. But it’ll be a set-length song cycle with seven songs, improvised interludes and composed interludes as well.

DB- How did that collaboration work? What sort of information did you provide him?

PL- I just played him all the music, put it on a CD and sent it to him. He sort of put the bit in his teeth, went ahead and wrote the lyrics, ignoring the fact that I had composed some different music to be sung. But that’s the give and take that you have, so I’ll be modifying everything that I’ve done to fit with the lyrics. In some cases if I compose new music he’ll write some new lyrics for it but it’s a back-and-forth give-and-take kind of thing.

DB- When do you anticipate that it will be completed?

PL- I don’t know because I still really have to compose it and figure out what kind of instrumentation I’m going to have. It’s not just going to be the band involved. There could be an ensemble of wind and brass instruments, extra percussion, keyboards and stuff like that so I’m not sure exactly. But I’m hoping to try and do at least a performance of it by next summer and maybe a recording later on.

DB- Returning to the current line-up, have you considered giving this band a particular name? Phil Lesh and Friends suggests a transience that no longer seems applicable.

PL- I’ve thought about it. If I could come up with a name that could describe it or was eloquent enough about it I would float it to the guys in the band. People have said, “Why don’t you call it the Phil Lesh Quintet?” I like that a lot as it evokes some of the great jazz bands and in terms of rock music I think this band is on the level of any jazz band. That’s something that I have considered and I’m still considering.

DB- I’d like to hear a bit about song selection. For instance, John Molo introduced the idea of performing “Golden Road.” This tour you debuted “Liberty.” Who brought that to the group and what is the process?

PL- Actually that was my idea. I want to do a lot of those Grateful Dead songs that were never officially recorded, like “Liberty.” It went through a whole bunch of changes with Garcia and Hunter. It originally had different music to it, there’s an obscure and complicated history. But in general if someone in the band wants to do a song I really trust their judgment. We’ve pulled out a lot of Beatles songs and we’re going to do some Motown stuff.

Oh and I just had a flashback to this Rolling Stones song, “We Love You.” It was a single and the B side was “Dandelion.” It was kind of a psychedelic single, two sides of a coin, the solar and the lunar, something on that level. “We Love You” had Beatles singing on it and it’s a really cool hypnotic kind of song. That’s what’s what we do, stuff like that where we remember great songs.

We’re doing a couple of Van Morrison songs, like “Into the Mystic” which Warren just suggested one day. I started drooling because I wanted to do it myself and to have him singing it that’s the icing on the cake. That’s just how it works.

At our first series of rehearsals, I was just checking out the sound of my instrument in the morning, diddling with it, and I started playing the bassline to “Sunshine of Your Love,” when everybody comes running in and jumps on their instruments. We ran right through it with harmony vocals and everything and it was, “Hey, there’s one for our repertoire right now.” And of course I’m encouraging everybody to write for the band.

DB- How’s that proceeding?

PL- Well so far, so good. Everybody is interested is doing it and bringing songs in, myself included. I’m writing like mad. Yesterday we just worked up a new one ,a Hunter-Lesh song I wrote the music in August and Bob wrote the lyrics for it in September and now we’re putting it to the band. We should be hearing that in the next couple of days, before we get to Boston we’re probably going to put it in the setlist.

DB- Let’s talk a bit about the Unbroken Chain foundation, what projects do you have on the horizon?

PL- Last summer we did an “odyssey of the spirit” where we encouraged people to do good works in their own area. We provided them with certain kinds of support and we sent them t-shirts and CDs to listen to while they’re cleaning up the park or whatever. It was remarkably well-received and a lot of people participated and did lots of good things. We’re doing a benefit in New York City for the disaster relief there on the 3rd of December and Unbroken Chain is going to be the channel through which those funds get to relief agencies. We just finished doing a music in schools thing where we tried to fund school music in all the places we played during the summer. We just got that finished up and sent those funds on the way so I’m really pleased about that. That’s one of my main horses, music in school and the other is hepatitis C organ donor blood drives. We do a lot of blood drives.

DB- In terms of music in the schools, I’m amazed by what’s defined as essential. It really feels like the people making budgetary decisions have limited perspectives.

PL- I would say that that’s true, although it’s funny, the people who are making the decisions have that limited perspective but the people they’re representing, the people of the communities, have a much wider one. We were able to do some good works years ago in my hometown, Berkeley, California. The Grateful Dead did a benefit for music in schools that covered the salaries of the music teachers in grades 4-6 for a year. Then the next thing that happened was the people put a bond issue on the ballot which passed overwhelming and after that the city of Berkeley had music instruction for those grades covered for the next ten years out of city finances. Although interestingly, across the bay in San Francisco, the Board of Education dropped all music and art but not sports from the elementary school and everybody in town was outraged. Why those people were elected is beyond me.

DB- I’m certainly a sports fan but the hierarchy whereby sports are considered essential but the arts are not is confounding to me.

PL- It’s totally ass-backwards.

DB- You mentioned the benefit on December 3. I recall you made a decision not to perform the week after the incident. What do you think the impact of those events has been on your playing or songwriting?

PL- It has to make an impact on everyone. I think it affects different people in different ways. I can’t really say with any precision exactly how the experience is manifesting in any way but I can definitely say that my whole view of the world on that level has changed completely. We no longer live in the blessed isles. Now we have to live like the rest of the world in fear but as shitty as that seems compared to the way it was before September 11, that’s the way the rest of the world lives, with uncertainty and fear. I think in a way the American people need to know that and maybe that will engender some compassion for the plight of those people. Maybe the American people will decide to declare war on things like poverty, ignorance and oppression. I think that would be cool.

DB- Indeed, it wouldFinal question- I’d love to hear your thoughts on the legacy of Ken Kesey.

PL- (laughs). I giggle. That’s Kesey’s legacy. I really can’t say what his legacy is, I just know what his presence meant and his presence is still felt even in his absence. The jam band scene is part of Ken’s legacy, and a certain irreverence which has always existed but Ken sort of put in the mainstream whether people like it or not. Anyway, someone who will be sorely missed.

DB- I always thought the Grateful Dead manifested that ethos. There was something in the approach to form and function. And I’m not even talking about the bass player taking the stage in a Barney costume [4/1/93].

PL- Never trust a prankster (laughs).

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