A Conversation with Phil
From Nashville Scene:
A Conversation With Phil Lesh
by Jack Silverman
Jack Silverman: You’ve played Bonnaroo several times. Does it seem special to you, and if so, why?
Phil Lesh: Bonnaroo is an exceptionally cool festival. The feeling of it is great. I’m going to hang out for all three days this time. I want to catch some of the musicians that are playing on some of the smaller stages, some of the less well-known acts and stuff. The last time we were there, my wife Jill and I walked out and were hanging with the Deadheads and bought some T-shirts; we wandered around and listened to three or four bands in an hour. It’s really neat, because there’s such a variety of experience available there. There’s magicians and artists and the Internet tent, where you can get online and get your jollies that way.
JS: Do you see Bonnaroo as an extension of the spirit of the Grateful Dead, and the ’60s in general?
PL: I guess Woodstock was the prototype [for Bonnaroo], or maybe it was the Human Be-In at Golden Gate Park. The Be-In was certainly the first experience that I had of that intensity of communion. It was ever so much stronger outdoors. Inside, at night, with artificial lighting, no matter how psychedelic it is, it’s a different animal. The whole thing, it was an idea whose time had come, a manifestation of humans’ desire for community. In the late ’50s and early ’60s, there wasn’t a lot of spiritual community to be found in the United States, so things started happening in San Francisco and other places in the ’60s, that thing of gathering together in large numbers and losing yourself in a community ritual of dancing and music. Especially if it’s outdoors in the sunshine, it’s a very liberating thing. It connects people not only to other people, but to nature, to something larger than themselves. That’s part of the spirit of the ’60s that I see today at Bonnaroo, and even at our smaller gigs. I don’t want to put it on quite such an organized-religion level, but one of my favorite sayings of Jesus is, “Where two or three of you are gathered together in my name, there am I, in the midst of you.” When there’s a group of people gathered together who are on the same frequency, good things can happen.
JS: Do you think the spirit of the ’60s has disappeared? Or has it just gone underground?
PL: There’s the political and social rebellion, the counterculture element, which has sort of gone underground. But then there’s the artistic, spiritual element, which is everywhere. It hasn’t gone away at all, as far as I can tell. It changed everything, the way we look at the world. That’s not to say that feminism and the war protests of the ’60s didn’t have a large role to play in that alteration as well. But I think the artistic legacy of the ’60s is a lot more subtle and pervasive than people think.
JS: Anyone you’re excited to see play?
PL: I’m excited to see Jackie Green. And it turns out that Bill Frisell, whose playing I’ve admired for a long time, is playing right after Jackie in the same tent. I just heard Jackie Green’s album, and it’s one of the best-produced and -mixed albums I’ve ever heard. The guitar playing on it is impeccable. The way it’s orchestrated, there’s all these guitars coming in and out of the different channels, and there are three or four guitars layered in the mix; you can hear them all clearly, and all the playing is outstanding. Especially the little fills, the little details, the expressive accents that go under the verses. Just superb.
JS: How have you noticed Bonnaroo evolving in the years you’ve played there?
PL: I think Bonnaroo gets better and richer and more diverse as time goes by. I mean, it started out being a jam-band festival. But is Radiohead a jam band? They’re headlining the Saturday night show. And would you call Tom Petty a jam band? They’re definitely moving to the center, but at the same time, they have people like Bill Frisell, who’s definitely more on the fringe. And besides, all of those categories are just marketing tools.
JS: You’ve been doing this for 40 years. Obviously, you’ve done quite well and you’re not hard up for money, but you just keep going and going. After all you’ve accomplished, where do you find the inspiration to go on, and how do you strive to stay fresh?
PL: The art of music keeps pulling me in. There’s always more to do. You never get to the bottom of it or explore the entirety of any art form at all. It’s like the expanding universe. The faster you go, the further it recedes from you. To me, that’s the challenge that we’re all put here to deal with it. It doesn’t matter what is you’re doing, you’re never going to completely master it. Don’t ever stay the same.
JS: How are things going with the current Phil Lesh & Friends lineup?
PL: We did a couple shows with John [Scofield] and Larry [Campbell] in San Francisco a couple of weeks ago, and it was just terrific. There’ll be plenty of Dead. That’s still the basis of the Phil & Friends show. And Scofield just loves it. Once he gets into it a little bit he just starts throwing out these left-handed ideas, this weird shit that’s always beautifully connected, in this kind of zany way, to the context. It’s like opening a door and finding a stained-glass window behind it.
JS: You looking forward to the Nashville gig?
PL: The Ryman will be a treat. Those are hallowed halls.
JS: So how are things going with your autobiography, Searching for the Sound?
PL: The book was on The New York Times best-seller list. They have an extended list on the website; it goes to about No. 35. I’d say my book was on that extended list for eight to 12 weeks. It got up to No. 9. And I wrote every word of it.
JS: Do you have any surprises in store for the Bonnaroo or Ryman crowds?
PL: If I told you, it wouldn’t be a surprise. But I can say that I’m always looking to provide surprises. And that’s one of the things that I think art and music are supposed to be about.