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Published: 2013/03/30
by Dean Budnick

Grahame Lesh’s Family Values

You mention that first Ramble at Levon’s barn. I believe your dad has said that the precipitating factor in terms of opening Terrapin Crossroads is the experience the three of you had at that Ramble. I’d love to hear your memories of that initial experience and how that has all evolved into Terrapin Crossroads?

The most vivid thing that I joke about all the time—and memories change, they’re not particularly reliable—but I do remember that after the show, we follow Larry Campbell across the floor, open the door, and we go into Levon’s kitchen. It’s just his house, and everyone’s hanging out in his kitchen and you can just see a light bulb go off in both my parents’ heads being like, “Oh, wow, we kind of want this.” Because my dad likes playing all the time, but touring is always difficult and so they just sort of got that idea. Obviously the vibe is so phenomenal, just the idea of the Rambles is such a good idea, that having somewhere else to do them, close to my home, was very fun. So my parents slowly but surely started looking around Marin for a place to find. There were a few different leads. They were going to build a place but then they happened upon the old Seafood Peddler in San Rafael, and I don’t know if it was for sale at the time, but it became for sale pretty quickly. It’s just been a rollercoaster ride since then. It’s crazy.

Can you recall the moment when it moved from whimsy to serious intent? How long did that take?

You know, I don’t know if it was one moment. I think they just kept pursuing it. We went back to Levon’s a year after, and we went back this year after he passed. So I guess 2010, 2011 and last year. We went each summer and by the summer of 2011 my dad had probably given an interview that said it was a cool idea he was thinking of, and behind the scene my mom was looking at places and laying the groundwork. I don’t know when the exact moment was; there was some drama with a proposal in Fairfax, California, which is a small town in Marin a little closer to my parent’s house. When that fell through they were just driving around and I think that’s when they found the Seafood Peddler. All the other proposals for building a place were going to take a very long time to actually happen. Once they figured out they wanted to buy a place instead and fix it up, it was a matter of months, like two or three months. That’s when it really accelerated, the fall and winter of 2011.

Did you have a sense from the start that you and your brother would be so intimately involved on a performance level?

I’d hoped so. I don’t think I realized the scale of it. I had my band and my music, and Brian was still in college until last summer. I think the fact that this came out of those Rambles at Levon’s, which were the two times that all three of us played together in front of people, I think that experience, as well as having somewhere close to home, was something my whole family was really into. We really enjoyed playing together and my mom loves watching. I figured we’d be involved. How much I didn’t know, but then for the opening run my mom books me for twelve nights. I was able to do it despite the day job, and since then it’s been all good.

In terms of your development as a musician, can you talk about your aims and intents as an artist and how those have evolved over the years?

Over the past year or so, since Terrapin, I think my playing and my singing and everything has gotten much better. A few months before Terrapin opened, a band I was in called Maiden Lane sort of fell apart because people moved. The drummer [Eric Saar] and I started a band, which still doesn’t have a name—it’s called Grahame Lesh and Friends—but that was my first real attempt at writing songs myself, fully. That, combined with playing more with Ross James—who started working at Terrapin at the beginning and who was in my brother’s band before—sort of got me on more of a country, bluegrass kick. Yeah, it’s just getting the reps in. Maiden Lane was more of an indie-rock band; we had a female vocalist, Brodie Jenkins, who is incredible, but it was a little more indie-pop and I was just writing guitar riffs for that more than melody and vocals. So striking out on my own as a songwriter, plus playing in a band every day with a rotating cast of people, who you can learn from, it’s musical boot camp and I think it’s been really good for me.

Did Maiden Lane come together while you were in college?

Yes. We were all at Stanford together, all in the same grade. We had a few different names and we started just playing classic rock covers at frat parties and then we started writing a lot and playing around San Francisco when we graduated. People moved away but it was still a very cool band, I think.

What year did you graduate?

I graduated undergrad in ’09 and I spent another year getting a master’s.

What is your master’s in?

Music science technology. That was actually my minor in undergrad and then my master’s.

So when you came out of the program, what did you think you would do professionally?

Well, my major was in communications, so I went into, I still work, in social media at Adobe. I have a day job that’s not really music-focused. The master’s, you keep studying other things besides just music, but it was just something I was really interested in—it’s all these awesome computer programmers at Stanford that also like to make music, so they create all these crazy instruments and music programs. I started taking classes there sort of as an excuse to use their recording studio for my various musical projects and I learned a lot about recording in those classes. When I came out of college, the plan was always day job and play music when you can, which is still what I do. If you get lucky, which you have to in 2013 in the music business, then you can make a living from playing music.

Your brother decided to attend college on the east coast whereas you’ve pretty much been in the Bay Area your whole life. Were you temped to go somewhere else? Is it because you love the vibe in the area? Happenstance?

I do love the Bay Area, but we’ve traveled everywhere. I know living somewhere is much different than going on tour to a location. Yeah I just loved the school and I think I made the right choice. I had a great time, and I think I learned a lot. Awesome people, it was everything you hoped for in college. I just liked the school. I could have gone back east too but I didn’t feel like turning down Stanford. At least, my group of friends, everyone just went to work in Silicon Valley start-ups in San Francisco and in the South Bay, so I followed right along. I grew up in Marin, just north of San Francisco, so living in San Francisco has been fantastic. I love this city. I can’t imagine leaving. It’s been pretty great.

What are your memories of Jerry Garcia from when you were very young?

He was like an uncle, kind of. He was just one of dad’s good friends. He was very nice. When I was really young I used to sit on his side of the stage. I assume there are plenty of pictures of that. My favorite song of his when I was younger, and even now for different reasons, is “Standing on the Moon.” I remember I was into space. I drew a little kid picture of an astronaut on the moon with Jerry’s beard and gave it to him. He was a very nice, sweet guy. I was eight when he passed—I feel like most of my memories are stories that other people have told.

I assume it was mostly summer tour, but would you go out during other times of the year as well?

Yeah, at least by the time Phil Lesh and Friends happened, most of the tours would be around our school breaks. So, if it was a three-week spring tour, that would be during our spring break, and we would go out at least for that week, maybe miss a few days on either side. We would bring a friend who was a teacher out, to sort of be our tutor, at least when we were in high school. So we didn’t miss much, but the big ones were in the summer.

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