Picking Dave’s Brain: The Grateful Dead Archivist Discusses May ’77 and Sunshine Daydream
The original reason to have another conversation with Grateful Dead archivist and producer David Lemieux was to discuss May 1977, a 14-disc box set that includes five complete shows from consecutive stops in St. Paul, Minnesota (5/11), Chicago (5/12, 5/13), St. Louis (5/15) and Tuscaloosa, Alabama (5/17).
Before we connected there came the announcement of a screening of Sunshine Daydream, the film chronicling the Dead’s legendary Aug. 27, 1972 benefit for the Springfield Creamery at Veneta, Oregon. It’s part of the Meet Up at the Movies showings that have occurred over the past few years. “Sunshine Daydream” takes place at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 1 (Jerry’s birthday). To find out more information or a showing near you, go to www.fathomevents.com.
Still, in the stream-of-consciousness format that usually happens between us neither subject is tackled at the beginning. A recent visit by representatives of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum brings back memories of the Dead’s exhibit in Cleveland and Lemieux’s interview appearance there.
“I just had a meeting yesterday with Howard [Kramer, Rock Hall curator] because they were returning all the Grateful Dead stuff we’d loaned them for the exhibit,” said Lemieux.
“They borrowed a lot of stuff from California, from GDP directly, quite a bit of stuff, from Mickey personally and from quite a few private collectors. They loaded up a big truck. Man, they packed it well. They had like a fine art packing company. Everything was in great shape.”
I mention that the Grateful Dead exhibit, which ended in March, has been replaced by another high-quality representation focused on the Rolling Stones’ career.
“I was absolutely blown away by the entire Museum. It really exceeded my expectations, the Dead exhibit and the two floors [it encompassed]. So, if they have that kind of space for the Stones…man, I have no reason right now to be in Cleveland but I’d like to get there and see that. It sounds really cool.
“As I told Howard last night, “You really did the Dead proud.” He did a wonderful job on that. So, I’d love to get back there.”
But that’s for another day. Getting to the first order of business…
Because this interview is a bit rushed in order to get it done before I head off to Bonnaroo, I didn’t get to plow my way through the entire box set…
Did you get the physical box?
Yes! Yes! That’s the first thing I want to talk about.
I haven’t seen it, but I heard it’s gorgeous.
To tell you the truth, I didn’t open it up for like a day or two because I just wanted to stare at it.
I’ve only seen it on my computer. So, I’m anxious to get my hands on one and I don’t think that I will for a few weeks. But I’ve heard from you now and a couple other media people who are just blown away by it, which is good. And I certainly do think the music and sound quality inside match it. So, this is not to say on my behalf or for my work but certainly the bar has been raised high going back a few years. I certainly think this one is up there with it.
Now as the producer of the box set, how much input do you have? Were you the supervisor in the construction of the box itself?
No, no, Masaki Koike of Phyx Design. There’s an interview with him on Dead.net. He’s a genius. I’ve been seeing his work for years. He did a funk box set for Rhino. He did a couple of Phish box sets. He’s done some major work. And then, when you look at some of his stuff online you’re like, “My God! He’s done some of my favorite package elements.”
So, this was completely his design. And also Doran Tyson and Ryan Wilson at Rhino on behalf of the Grateful Dead (Tyson is the box set’s Associate Producer). They certainly worked very close to Masaki. They got that ball rolling.
It goes back to October 2012, about eight months ago, when we first started talking about what we were going to do for 2013. And when we set on this box set — and we had some good discussions down in L.A. with Mason Williams, the Director of A&R at Rhino who is no longer with Rhino, but he’s the one that said “This package, I’m just visualizing this should be a Masaki package.” So, really, kudos to Mason for suggesting Masaki.
Absolutely one thing I know I’m not is a micromanager. And when we’re working together with someone as talented as Masaki, I don’t have anything to say; slight suggestions when he goes in a certain direction and I don’t think it’s right for the Grateful Dead or for the era then I give input but minimal because he generally was pretty darn bang on. He thought so far, no pun intended, so far outside of the box that I trusted his instincts. I haven’t physically held the box but when I saw it, I trusted in it completely. So, 100 per cent kudos to Masaki and zero kudos to me on the packaging besides for being blown away and approving it.
This is really, conceptually, and again Ryan and Doran in terms of kind of format of what they wanted it to be was the five individual shows in their own package and the book in its own thing. Those kinds of elements would come from Rhino. In terms of execution and the actual specifics and the cut outs [on the box itself], that’s all Masaki.
It kinda looks like a psychedelic stained glass window.
Yes, exactly. And Masaki is the kind of guy who can not only visualize these kinds of concepts but he can execute them. Again, I’ve never worked with him but…oh no…you know, I did work with him when we did a vinyl release about a year ago for Record Store Day. It was the May 1971 Winterland two LP set and Masaki did the cover art, the whole lay out and package for that and it was just terrific.
So, it’s a Iove working with our usual package designer, Steve Vance but in this case it was a change that was interesting. And the reason that Steve didn’t do it, partly, Mason came up with Masaki and suggested it but also Steve has been so busy with other things that we’ve had him working on. It worked out well that we went in this other direction on this one and it’s, as you say, a spectacular box.
Before we get to the shows themselves, let me go back to it, when they say you are the Producer of the box set how would you describe what you do? Are you more on the music side and just a benevolent supervisor of the packaging and other aspects of it?
When you’re dealing with archival releases an important role certainly is selecting the shows and selecting the concept of what to do. First and foremost, what I’m doing is looking at what we’ve done the last few years. Let’s go back three or four years and we did the Warlocks box from 1989 and then we did of course, in 2011 Europe ’72 and then we did the Spring of 1990 box last year. So, we wanted to go in a direction that was a little different from all of those. We put pen to paper and say, “Okay. What year does that open up? Well, certainly the ’76 to ’78 range is a good candidate for this next release. Then, we looked into May 1977, Spring ’77 and we thought of a couple of ideas and how to do something from it. When we realized that there were five consecutive shows in the middle of the tour right after Cornell, not only five shows but five very, very good shows, five excellent shows.
Really, it always comes to the music. The concept of, “Okay, let’s come up with a box set from Spring ’77…” but then we really need to focus on the music. If the music doesn’t warrant it, we certainly don’t do a 14 CD box, just as Europe ’72 warranted a 73 CD box. And this one warranted five consecutive shows on 14 CDs. So, you’re looking at that. So, it’s conceptual in terms of what is the overall project we’re going to do and then picking the specific shows and then working closely with Jeffrey Norman, who is doing all the audio work, of course, helping him along in terms of CD breakdowns, in terms of proofing the CDs that he had been working on.
All that kind of stuff and hiring liner note writers, working with them. In this case we had Steve Silberman and Blair Jackson. That would be part of my role, and then working with James R. Anderson, our photographer, as well as Alexandra May Hunter, another photographer whose photos are included in the box and finding a good number of photos that we could end up including in the box and negotiating with them. There’s a business side of things that I have to deal with in terms of…we set production budgets and we say, “Okay, we have this much for photos and this much for liner notes…” Then, part of my job is to allocate that money to the photographers and making sure that we don’t go over budget and get as many photos as we can for the budget while also being as fair as we can to the photographer. That’s one thing that we do try to do is be very fair to our contributors, whether they’re photographers, liner note writers…
So, yeah, it’s a lot of things. It’s all consuming in terms of the music, proofing that then the package elements, approving and proofing that. And when you get to a package that’s this beautiful, there are many, many iterations of it, dozens really. I’ve got folders on my computer with images and just the constant matter of looking at things and going, “Well, this one is good but maybe a little more red would be good.” And then he goes back and tweaks it and comes back. So there’s a lot of back and forth with that kind of stuff. Again, with a package like this, it’s just so outside of the box in terms of different from anything we’ve done. We really trusted Masaki so it wasn’t really so much changing things, it was just seeing what works best. It goes right up to the marketing side of things and then the publicity side of things. Doing things as I’m doing now with you.