Q&A: John Mayer

Grammy-winning singer-songwriter, bolstered by Clapton and King, makes the move to blues

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When John Mayer arrived on the scene with 2001's Room for Squares, the Connecticut kid was touted as a mature singer-songwriter with bagful of pensive, carefully crafted pop tunes. The album went on to sell more than four million copies and score a Grammy for the runaway single "Your Body Is a Wonderland." And when, two years later, Heavier Things was released, Mayer scored again, taking Song of the Year for the acoustic strummer "Daughters."

But Mayer, now twenty-nine, is shaking up his image -- and letting loose his guitar chops -- with his high-octane blues outfit, the John Mayer Trio. Taking a cue from the trio efforts of personal heroes Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughn, Mayer reached out to drummer Steve Jordan (Bruce Springsteen, the Rolling Stones) and bassist Pino Palladino (the Who, Jeff Beck). With great chemistry but little rehearsal time, the group hit the road, and the result is the new live album, Try! -- and a new sound that has been shaking up the making of Mayer's next solo record.

In a New York recording studio on December 6th, Rolling Stone spoke with John Mayer about his ripping new live record, jamming with B.B. King, spending money like Eric Clapton and unleashing his kung fu "deathblow" on his next studio album.

The Rolling Stone Q&A Podcast with John Mayer is excerpted below.

I thought we'd start out with how you met Steve Jordan and Pino Palladino . . .
I met Steve when he came in to play drums on a couple tracks on Heavier Things, my second record, and loved the experience. I loved the idea of composing something for him to play, as soon as he came in to play drums on these songs that I'd already written. He really kind of opened my mind up, on a rhythmic level. And then we kind of lost touch. But we started to play around town, just playing collaborations with people. I would go do a record with Herbie Hancock, and I'd get there, and the band is Steve Jordan playing drums and Willie Weeks playing bass. Playing with Steve made me instantly better by the day, as a musician.

I honestly don't remember how I ended up saying, "Would you work on my record with me?" It just happened. And Pino came on: He initially came out to New York to do a tsunami benefit in January of '05, and the rehearsal was just unbelievable.

You guys played a Hendrix tune, right?
We did a Hendrix tune called "Bold as Love," which is one of my favorite Hendrix tunes. I'm a big believer in a different Jimi Hendrix than most people know.

But the rehearsal was a real fresh injection of muse, you know? I felt at the time that I was coming to the end of this concept of being the "acoustic groove guy," you know, and it just so happened to intersect with finding these guys to play with. But above that, to hear it all together -- it's always nice when something you want to work also happens to naturally work a lot . . . When something conceptually makes sense and pragmatically makes sense, that is one of the best times in life . . . And it opened up this part of my brain I was waiting on, that next phase.

Did you know that you wanted to bring other people in, with this whole trio idea -- because of Clapton and Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughn?
I knew that I wanted to take myself out, rather than put myself in. I wanted to take myself out of the running for this invisible pop prize that just doesn't exist . . . When I do the blues thing, when I do the Trio thing, when I do the new record [Continuum], there's something about it that is a little bit less jockeying for position. It's hard to explain.

I think it's related to you winning a couple of Grammys, for instance, and you're feeling like, "Now what?" You told Rolling Stone that you didn't care if you never won another Grammy, if maybe you alienated a few people with this new record. That didn't seem to be an issue for you.
What I mean by that is the age I'm at now is no age to consider yourself done, or fully realized -- like this is the culmination of all you are, and all you have to do now is just be this. That's a terribly confining thought. The music that I used to play, and still to an extent play, . . . it's started to do less for me. And that's music -- music comes and goes. Sometimes it does less for you, and then you go on the hunt for more music . . . My love of music is changing and progressing the way that yours is . . . The question is, Why am I bound to making the same kind of music if you're not bound to listening to the same kind of music?

Were you just listening more and more to certain people, certain records?
I was starting to listen to certain types of music and really break it down and understand that there's a timelessness to soul music. There's a constantly applicable nature to soul music, whereas sometimes pop music can be a periodical. "Your Body Is a Wonderland" is at its best at this point a throwback to 2002. It's a where-were-you-in-2002 song. That is really, honest to God, the most you could hope for as [a pop] artist. The most you can hope for is for somebody to go, "Oh, I think very fondly on that time in my life."

You think pop music dates more easily?
Yes! Absolutely. That's why there's "Eighties" music. There's never been a decade of music more branded in its time than Eighties music -- and because Eighties music doesn't have a lot of soul in it. With soul, the power in that feeling is what will always be there.

When you say "soul music," who do you mean? Because I think of different people . . .
I mean everybody. Honest to God, what comes to mind is, [sings] "And now you're giving me, giving me, nothing but shattered dreams, shattered dreams." It's fun to sing -- you go, "Aw, that's cute!" But listen to Ray Charles, and it's the same gut punch it was thirty, forty years ago. It's so much more visceral, so much more, like, stemming out of the dirt. And sometimes the pop music that I listen to, or the pop music that I make, comes out of the mind, and it affects your ability to be emotional in the right way.

I just think of the music that I can still go back to, like Ray Charles or Jimi Hendrix or Buddy Guy or Eric Clapton. These are guys who just dug into the ground, you know? And I think of the music I loved two years ago, and I don't love it anymore but I revisit it and go, "Wow, that was fun two years ago." So I'm just investigating [that difference].

And you've actually had the chance to play with a lot of those people at this point. Has that been a part of it, that thrill?
Yeah. It's been a part of everything. The greatest thing that's happened in my life is for people like Eric or Buddy or B.B. to do something very rare, which is to accept me, to accept a younger guy, a guy who's made pop music but wants to play blues. To be accepted like that is all I need. You know, Albert Collins used to say at the end of a show, "Thank you for accepting me." And I thought that was such a brilliant way to say it. And that's really all it comes down to.

And for those guys, especially, I think there's this understanding in the blues lineage that it's going to be a tough time getting through to the inner circle. That you're going to have some people play goalie -- and they certainly do: "What's this white boy doing?" is kind of a stock question that you run up against at this point in the game. And it's almost like there's two levels that my relationship with those guys works on: One is that we genuinely like each other; and the other is that they acknowledge that it's going to be tough for me and they want me to know that they like me. So who cares about so-and-so from the so-and-so press, you know what I mean?

There's this moment on "Try!" where you're just talking to the audience, the bit about "where the blues is born, Fairfield, Connecticut!"
Yeah, trying to stare at the white elephant in the room and go, "Hi, I'm the white elephant. Hey, how you doing?" But I've always stood up for blues music as something that is self-anointing. There are enough things in life that people are jockeying into position to try to fake -- blues is not one of them! Maybe someday you can accuse somebody of being a poseur by selling out and playing blues music, but that's just not going to happen in my lifetime. If you are cool enough, if there's a fifteen-year-old who's hip enough to decide that he wants to be like Freddie King, and he's going to go buy a cherry red 335 electric guitar, he's already like Freddie King. He might not play like him, but he's as much like Freddie King as Freddie King was -- in the sense that . . . it takes certain people to go, "Wait a minute this is where it's at."

I defend that. And I'm really so thankful that my heroes haven't snubbed me, because it would have broken my heart. I didn't want to meet Clapton for a long time because I didn't want him to not like me.

Did you have this theory that he'd think you were a hack or something?
I don't know. Sure. Or, "That boy rubs me wrong." But we get along great. Not to exploit a relationship, because we don't talk all the time, we keep in touch. But I need it. I need it in the sense that there's not a huge community, and I don't have a lot of people to relate to in what I'm doing. Eric was the first person that I'd ever met who loved blues and had a bunch of money. I'd never met anybody who loved blues and had a bunch of money!

Wait, where'd the "bunch of money" come in? Seems like a separate issue . . .
I'm the only person I know who's got a bunch of money. I'm not saying it just to say it. I mean to illustrate a different point: it's a lonely experience doing what I do because I'm not in a band. It's not like you get together with your four other bandmates and you all go buy Ferraris and race them to Las Vegas -- which I think would be a blast! I mean, I would love to get a royalty check and go, "Hey, guys, we got six of these this year. What do you say we take this one and let's go get Ferraris and just drive them from L.A. to Las Vegas?" That would be fantastic!

But that's not going to happen for me because I'm a solo artist. So I've always been very shy [with money]. And then you meet a guy who buys as many watches as you do, and you go, "This is great! And I can see how you react to life when you play guitar and I can see how make your life work." That was a very pivotal relationship for me, meeting Eric, figuring out how to behave.

But with the Trio, is it about seeing other groups, their live dynamic, and envying that in a way and wanting to go out and do that?
Yeah.

Because I know you guys didn't rehearse much at all before hitting the road.
No, we only rehearsed for four or five days. But that's when we wrote all the original tunes, in that streak: it was all out of pure necessity. I was so scared of being a cover band that I wrote these tunes really fast. I wrote the lyrics in the hotel rooms in the first week of the show. I wrote the lyrics for a song called "Try" in the production office in San Francisco, taped the lyrics to the monitor and sang off the monitor. I wrote the lyrics to "Good Love Is on the Way" before night two of L.A., went back from sound check, ordered room service, turned all the lights off and just went, "How bad do you want to have this song done for L.A.? Real bad. So write it." It was an amazing place to write songs from. It was just a run-and-gun thing.

Were you worried at all? Did you have this thought that your fans' reaction would be, "What the hell is this?"
A little bit. But number one, my audience is fantastic. Smart, incredibly giving . . . So if I mention in an interview that I love Albert King, people go and buy Albert King records and listen to find out what it is. And then I go and play these shows, and girls are cheering for guitar solos in these hip places to cheer where most people don't. And it's like, how did they know?

Then again, my outlook to being a musician is calibrated to being as much of a normal person as possible. If you're a normal person, then the things that you like will be normal-person likes and dislikes. If you become so refined that you refine yourself out of the game, then you're doing things that are so esoteric that they don't satisfy anybody else but you. So I like to stay as normal as possible and then hope that well, and then I do the math, and I think, "OK, I'm normal. I like what this is, so I'm thinking other people will too."

What are you talking about musically, though?
I believe in blues, and I believe that it's been misrepresented.

As sort of inaccessible?
It just needs somebody to take that blues fire and put it into a capsule that a lot of people can get into . . .