Grahame Lesh’s Family Values
Photo by Stuart Levine
This month marks the one year anniversary of Terrapin Crossroads. As Phil Lesh explained in a recent Relix interview, the idea for the venue originated with a Ramble at Levon Helm’s barn in 2010. That gig saw the bassist perform with his sons Grahame and Brian, and “It was such a magical day and we came away with a strong desire to do something like that at home.” Last year he finally attained that goal with the opening of Terrapin Crossroads on the site of the former Seafood Peddler restaurant in San Rafael, CA. The opening month not only featured Phil Lesh on stage in various ensembles, but Grahame Lesh was a steady presence as well. Grahame’s brother Brian entered the fray after he graduated from Princeton a few months later, and since then the Lesh siblings have maintained an active role at Terrapin Crossroads. The pair anchor the Terrapin Family Band on Wednesday and Sundays, while making other regular appearances as well (with Grahame Lesh & Friends and American Jubilee). Grahame recently spoke with us about how all this came about, reflected on his musical development and identified some Bay Area unsung heroes as well.
I’d like to start off by talking about your musical influences while you were growing up.
I went through phases that I think most kids growing up did, around my age. Obviously, I went to hundreds and hundreds, probably thousands, of Dead shows and Phil Lesh and Friends shows. That was probably the most formative music. In the house, my dad, and my mom too, listened to a lot of classical and jazz music. My dad’s really into the opera, and Wagner, that sort of thing. When it came to rock and pop music, I was sort of on my own. Lots of the classic rock: Led Zeppelin, the Stones, the Beatles, I went through all those phases. I went through a Metallica phase. I think that some pop songs are really well done for what they’re trying to do. I don’t dislike any one genre particularly more than any other. Whatever strikes me as interesting at any one particular time I’ll listen to. Obviously the Dead, and Phil Lesh and Friends especially, influenced a lot of this. I love Gov’t Mule ever since Warren Haynes joined Phil Lesh and Friends. I love everything Jimmy Herring does. I went through my freshman year in college listening to 75% Ryan Adams, so those artists that were in my dad’s band were a big influence. Not just what they played with him, but also their stuff outside of that.
Plenty of young people go through a rebellious phase where they try to push back against their parents’ input and influence. Did you go through any of that? You mentioned pop music. Derek Trucks has explained that he has a no tolerance policy when it comes to his kids listening to disposable pop in his presence.
Well, I did mention my Metallica phase, which I think for both of my parents, they assumed it was just loud noise (laughs). I mentioned my dad being into really complicated classical music and especially modern classical, the really weird twentieth century stuff, and the more complicated and interesting the rock music he’s listening to is, I think he likes it. The gunshot snare drums and the turned-up-to-11 guitars, I think he even appreciates the musical stuff that Metallica did. That’s probably the closest I got to rebelling.
We had the radio growing up and I don’t think I loved or listened to any of the pop music that was around, but that was my choice. No one discouraged me. I still think, and always did, that things are catchy but sometimes they are disposable. I think there’s always been good and disposable pop music throughout the history of pop music. So I don’t think there’s anything worse about this generation of pop music than the last, there’s just more of it.
When we interviewed your dad for Relix recently, he spoke about discovering music through yourself and your brother. Can you talk about that experience from your perspective?
I think some of it’s just a two-way street where what we listen to, or listen to around the house, would filter back to him. I think it mostly happened when we started playing together more. A couple years ago we did a Ramble at Levon Helm’s barn and that was the first main time the three of us had done it together. And I think what really clicked there were our three-part harmonies. It was a little bit more country than what we had been listening to.
At the same time, my brother and I were both in college and there’s a lot of modern popular country that comes out of that. But then you dig deeper to campfire bluegrass and country, which you can sing around a fire, and it’s really community based and family-based and we really enjoyed that. When we play with him, at least at Terrapin—it’s less so when we play with him in Phil and Friends because that’s his band—we try and do more of those family harmonies. I think the three of us singing together is much better than the individual parts. That’s how family singing works, if you listen to any brothers or family members that sing together. So when we play with him at Terrapin we try to push that old folky sound more than the wild, psychedelic stuff. Not that that isn’t very, very fun on occasion. But I think with the three of us, what we do best is the more country, more song-related playing.
In terms of family vocal harmonies, have you given any thought as to how or why it works as it does? Biologically? Physiologically? Longtime exposure to cadences and rhythms? From your experience, what is that like?
Well it’s hard to explain what that’s like, other than it’s really cool and I think it sounds really good. As for my thinking on why, I think everyone hears their voice and thinks it’s very unique, but I do hear similarities between my brother’s voice and my voice when I listen to recordings of us. One of my majors in college was in music science technology, which is basically music recording, and I found that it always sounded different if you layered a lot of your own vocals and harmonies together. It didn’t necessarily sound better, because they would all sound the same, but it was different and there’s a unique quality to it. So I think having families, whose voices are similar but not exactly the same, is just an interesting wrinkle. So you get that sameness that makes it nice and full and creamy, while having it different enough so that it’s not sterile.
You contrasted Phil and Friends, which is your dad’s band where he dictates what goes on, with the Family Band. So when he plays with the Family Band, who is the bandleader and how do you decide on the repertoire for a given show?
Most of what we do with the Terrapin Family Band is by the seat of our pants, and we like it that way. We joke that we don’t rehearse, well we do rehearse, but we do it in front of people. For example, we have one tonight and I’m making a list of a few songs we’ve never done before. And we do that plenty—myself or Brian or Ross James, or any of the other guys who are in the band, will just bring whatever tunes we feel like. And we’ll just be, “What’s the groove on that? Do you have a chart?” “Ok, cool,” and then we’ll just go and do it. If we’re lucky we’ll have a couple hours beforehand to jam on it, but it’s mostly flying by the seat of our pants. At any one time there’s a different bandleader, and it’s usually whoever is singing, so usually my brother, Ross James, or me. When my dad feels like joining in he can, and does.
The other musicians in the group are clearly your peers in terms of age, so when your dad sits in, do you alter the nature of what you do? Do you try to throw something in that’s more in his wheelhouse, or are you like, “Hey, if you want to play with us, then this is what’s happening”?
When my dad joins us it’s usually Dead tunes. I don’t know how much of our crazy set lists you’ve seen of the shows he doesn’t do, but it’s very much just whatever—classic rock, folk, country—whatever songs we come up with. We even throw in a couple originals here or there. It’s not exclusively the Dead catalog, although a lot of them were played by members of the Dead at one point or another, but when he sits in it’s more the Dead catalog. And it’s dictated by whoever’s playing. We are sort of the house band and we have our jams on Wednesday and Sundays, and those are a little more freeform. Whereas if we do a show with my dad in the Grate Room, or my dad and Mark Karan, which we did in December, then that’s more dictated by the Dead catalog or what Mark wants to do, or whatever guest is joining us.
Your dad also said in that interview that he was impressed with the arrangements you do, and that they surprised him in a positive way. Do you have any recollection of that?
Well, we are a little more bluegrass than the Dead ever was, so we’ll do faster versions. The most drastic one we did wasn’t with the Family Band originally, it was in one of our Hoedowns at Terrapin Crossroads. We had a bunch of mandolins and Tony Leone came out from behind the drums for a bluegrass version of “Candyman.” That one wasn’t actually the Family Band, but we play so much music at Terrapin that we like to take the usual songs and give them our own twist. We do “I Know You Rider” nice and fast and bluegrassy. Brian does a cool version of “Cold Rain and Snow.” I think it’s based off of someone else’s version, it’s not his, but it’s more minor and slow and very cool. Those are the examples off the top of my head. But yeah, the Family Band is a little bit more country than Phil Lesh and Friends. The sound that we try to go for with Phil and Friends—and I’ve only done a few of those—is dictated by the guests a lot too, not just by my dad. If Warren is in the band it’s different than if it’s Mark Karan. It’s always a little bit different.