Dead Ahead with Jeff Mattson
Now that you are playing with Dark Star Orchestra, what is the status of the Donna Jean Godchaux Band?
I’m absolutely into keeping that band going. I love that band, it’s a different thing. I mean obviously having accepted the job with Dark Star, that’s limited my availability quite a bit and DSO does quite a bit of touring. But I am going to play with Donna during the openings in the schedule. So we might not be playing as much, but I will continue to tour with them. We just did some gigs at some festivals Dark Star was also playing like the Grateful Fest and Nelson Ledges and All Good and Gathering of the Vibes. I’m there to play so I don’t mind at all…and they’re very different bands.
The Donna Jean Godchaux Band is real stripped down compared to Dark Star Orchestra, which has two drummers, two guitar players and all these singers. We get to explore a lot of different material too with Donna Jean, and I have a tremendous connection with David MacKay, Donna’s husband, who is a tremendous bass player. Joe Chirco is also on drums, and he used to be a Zen Trickster back in the day so we are completely locked in.
Do you have any plans go into the studio and record another album with Donna Jean?
We’ve been talking about doing a studio album for a while now. We are readying some new material and will probably have enough songs to make a record, but want to get some more so we can pick and choose a little bit. It is a little tricky finding time to do that but it’s definitely on the agenda because the band really needs to be recorded, even though records keep becoming more and more obsolete. I’m still buying them, so somewhere else must be as well.
How would you say your songwriting relationship with Donna has grown over the years? I believe you first started playing together in 2005 and started writing soon after.
We have a good writing relationship because we dig a lot of the same things in music. We have a really good connection on that level and we have a similar vision for the band because Donna came from that Muscle Shoals world. She sang on all these hit records before she went to California and joined the Grateful Dead. But they are both powerful sources of Americana music so we’re planning a way to blend that deep groove of the Muscle Shoals with the psychedelic thing…and of course The Dead. It’s selling them short just to call them a psychedelic band, I was just sort of referring to the jamming ability. You can’t get more Americana then the Dead in a lot of ways because they’re drawing from folk and blues and jazz. Anything that’s good in traditional American music is all pulled into the Grateful Dead sound and that’s where we’re both coming from. We’re very compatible in that sense.
Another thing that’s fun with that band is Donna’s singing lead on a lot of these Grateful Dead songs that she just used to sing backup on and this is a new thing for her. Sometimes we change the key and change the arrangement a little bit like that but she’s enjoying the songs on a whole new level, and it’s really coming out nicely.
Joining Dark Star Orchestra also gave you a chance to play with Rob Barraco once again. It had been ten years since you played together in a fulltime project. Was it easy to reconnect on a musical level?
Yeah, but every time we played together it’s like it was yesterday. We’ve both gotten better hopefully, I mean it seems like that to me—we are just more seasoned musicians. But the musical rapport we have is very much alive and never went away, so it’s like putting on our comfortable pair of shoes.
The Zen Tricksters only played two or three shows in the past year. What is the status of that band?
I mean the Zen Tricksters, including the time we were called the Volunteers, has been together now almost 31 years. I still play with those guys. But we’re sort of on hiatus and now I’m incredibly busy but [of course I’ve been] able to find time to do some shows every year just because those guys are like brothers to me. We played a benefit [for longtime Wetlands archivist Dave Nolan] at Brooklyn Bowl, and we did a reunion of the acoustic trio, which was just me, Klyph Black and Tom Circosta playing acoustic. We did a whole run like that back in 2003 and that was a lot of fun, too, we really had a good time doing that. We were never shy about playing anything in that context, you know? It wasn’t like well we’re just going to do “acoustic songs.” We’d play “The Eleven” acoustic if we felt like it. You could almost hear the drums if you tried.
Looking ahead, you and Rob are playing a pair of shows billed as Mattson/Barraco & Friends. What can we expect from those performances?
We’re keeping it really loose. This is all about fun. We just kind of said, “Let’s get together and jam because everybody there is really good.” Joe Chirco (Donna Jean Godchaux Band, David Nelson Band, Zen Tricksters) is playing drums and Barraco is playing bass, which he did with RatDog a few years ago for a tour. He’s just a great bass player, so I knew that I could get him excited in doing something. And then we got Jason Crosby who use to be in the Tricksters and, of course, played with Susan Tedeschi and Robert Randolph on keyboards and fiddle.
He’s been doing some playing recently where he plays guitar and has been writing all these songs so we might hit some of that stuff too. But basically we’re going to be playing any material we feel like playing. There’s going to be some Grateful Dead in there but we also want to do some Dylan, Traffic and Beatles and anything else that’s really fun to open up into a jamming vehicle. It’s not so much a band, it’s a jam.
I’ll tell you, I’m really enjoying playing with the Dark Star Orchestra. I’m just so impressed about how seriously everybody in that organization takes their job. They’re really professional and everybody comes to work, including and especially the crew. They want to get in there and put on the best show possible every day, and I’ve played with musicians and crew people over the years that were always whining about something. It’s not always the best conditions and they don’t care—they’re going to put the best show on possible. Even as long as these guys have been doing this, they still spend time every day listening to the original show, not to copy the notes but to see the way the arrangements of the songs were in that period and stuff like that. So [they’re] still taking it very, very seriously and I think that’s why they’ve been so successful. They have a very professional attitude and everybody’s really nice and I was wondering if I was going to be like “Oh, this is a drag you know, just playing Grateful Dead”…but I’m really enjoying it. Plus, the production values are wonderful and I’m upgrading my gear and everything too to meet up with these guys.
In terms of the improvisation, have you found that when you’re doing the original setlists, it allows the band to maybe jam looser or do you still find yourselves tackling a certain period in the band’s history or how does that usually…
Well, here’s the thing. The way the band looks at it is if you doing say, an [’85?] show, you know what the arrangements of the songs are, you know sort of how they played them in that period of time, but you know, you can listen to the show and maybe the Dead were kind of off that night. So, that doesn’t mean you go on stage and you play a little off…we’re still trying to play the songs as good and interesting and inspired as possible. I think that in some cases we play a better show than the Dead, I mean at least more energetic and stuff like that. I mean, of course the Dead were the people who originated the everything so I mean, you can’t take that away from them. Just as far as being tight and having energy and stuff like that and maybe just having a better night in general, you know, it could work the other way, too. So, the jam is real, meaning that we’re not trying to play the same notes they played at the show. We’re trying to jam within the context of just the arrangements and setlists and maybe some of the gear from that period. So the drummers or keyboardist might set up in a certain way, but when the music happens, it’s just happening in real time. I mean, it would be so contrary to the spirit of the music to try to copy anything on the improvisation level…it’s not improvisation then if you’re copying it. Plus, it would be an ungodly amount of work to do that.
With that being said, in terms of the Grateful Dead’s music, obviously, as you mentioned before, there are periods that you were both more familiar with or you liked more or preferred more, is there anything that having now recently restudied the entire canon from the ‘60s to the late ‘80s that maybe you rediscovered that you hadn’t before or kind of found a new approach or a new angle?
Well, you know, I’m kind of a Grateful Dead geek in the sense that I possess a lot of arcane knowledge about the Dead. I started seeing them in ’73 so I lived through all of those periods, but I’m having to look at it at a much more…deeper level than I’ve ever had to before, so I’m like do you play this, were the Dead doing this in…. did he do that verse in 1985? Or how did they go into that, who started the song…little details like that but I’m also going back and listening to a lot of periods that I may not have done on my own. I’ll be honest, if I listened to Grateful Dead…I had gotten to the point where if I listened to the Dead it was usually something between ’69 and 1977. I didn’t find myself compelled to listen to a lot of ‘80s and ‘90s, even though I was at all those shows. I listen to so much other music that if I’m going to pick some Grateful Dead to listen to I tend to go back to those things, but now, I’m getting to hear all of this stuff again and there was great stuff in every period and I was actually doing myself a disservice limiting myself to that. And of course, there’s people out there who, to them, the best period was…whatever, the late ‘80s or whatever so, and that’s fine, everybody’s going to have their own different opinions, but you want to give them what they want to hear…the music the way they went there hoping to hear it, too. Can’t go in there and play an ’88 show like a ’69 show, it’s just not appropriate.