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Published: 2011/11/07
by Dean Budnick

Phil Lesh and the Alchemy of a Quintet (Ten Years On)

We look back to November 2001 and this conversation with Phil Lesh

Photo by Alan Hess

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.

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