“I have six hours of music coming up tonight,” says John Mayer. In a little while, he’ll take the stage in Atlanta with Dead & Company – featuring Grateful Dead alum Bob Weir, Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann. After that, Mayer will play a surprise midnight club gig with Dave Chappelle, one of several pop-up shows they’ve been doing since last spring. “I’m sort of the acoustic DJ,” Mayer says. “He’ll just be like, ‘John, hit me with this or that,’ and I’m pretty good at coming up with any song if I’ve heard it a couple of times. It’s like two guys taking over some little back room at a party.”
Following the Dead run, Mayer will resume his solo tour, where he’s been debuting songs from his excellent LP The Search for Everything. Mayer is breaking those shows into “chapters,” including acoustic and full-band sets, and another one with his blues trio. “Four chapters makes four fresh starts,” he says. “I get offstage feeling like I could have gone another hour.”
It’s your second summer touring with the Dead. What have you learned?
I’ve never had inclusion before. I always created one-man clubs. And one-man shows are very hard to live inside of and inhabit for 50 years. When I was invited into this tribe, I promise you it was the exact opposite of anything you might think along the lines of having to reconcile ego or status. It’s like a basketball team – you are doing your best to help the team win. I’ve never in my life been in that situation, and it’s everything I always wanted. I am a pig in shit.
For me, the accolades change. They’re not these universally agreed-upon credentials like a Grammy or an American Music Award or a chart position. You have to look for them a little more abstractly. To me, being invited into this band is the highest award in the world. You have to be able to roll with it and go, “Ok, the new accolade won’t be that old one.” You’re gonna have to let go of most downloaded or streamed. Continuum, when it came out 10 years ago, was the biggest downloaded record on iTunes ever. Not anymore – and that’s OK.
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What was it like for you to watch the new Dead documentary, Long Strange Trip?
There’s a line where Donna Jean talks about how she joined the band. She said [husband Keith Godchaux] told her, “I don’t wanna listen to this music anymore. I wanna play this music.” I was blown away, because that’s exactly how I felt. Because you can’t get this music anywhere else. You can’t take a stitch of it and put it in something else. The tissue will die. And I am one of a million people who, when they heard the music, eventually went, “Man, let me in on it.” When you hear “Scarlet Begonias” kick off, you’re not quite sure what it is, who’s playing what or how it goes. It’s this glorious stew at the beginning. “Scarlet Begonias” is the epitome of a jam, and it just lifts you. We live in a world where there’s the comedy mask and the tragedy mask. It’s either good or bad. You’re either having a good day or a bad day. But then Grateful Dead music comes in, and it’s this other mask. It’s a third mask. If you get in a fight with a girl, you could either put on something that’s going to make you feel cheery, or you could put on Grateful Dead music, which takes you to a completely different place and it does something that doesn’t just cheer you up. It inspires you, and it soothes you in some way that it’s almost like hanging out in a biker gang of imaginary friends. It’s the gift of my life, to be able to play that music with that band.
Some people are probably jealous of your situation [with the Dead]. Chris Robinson, formerly of the Black Crowes, was just on The Howard Stern Show and took shots at your musicianship. Does that bother you?
I care about this band too much to give that life. I have my thoughts, but it’s not my place. I realized not long ago that I’m done debating my own merits: “No, I am very good.” Music isn’t a sports-page thing to me.
You’ve become a big influence to a new class of pop songwriters, including Ed Sheeran and Shawn Mendes.
I didn’t see it coming. We don’t realize that every five years a motherfucker is born into the world of music. I don’t apply as much from the blues world to my music as I’d like to, but there’s a lot to be applied from the blues world spiritually on this: Those guys are me. I looked up to Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughan. All my heroes were awesome to me, so there’s a contract to make the new guys feel accepted.
What changes have you noticed in the pop world since you returned to it this year?
In a lot of ways, it’s 2003 again, and in a lot of ways it might as well be the year 3000. But what I see right now is that artists care about songs more than they have ever cared about songs. They want them. They want to have written them. You’re seeing this shift back to real fundamentals in songwriting. Ed Sheeran is a huge part of that. He’s really, really serious about songwriting. Ed’s not a guy who goes, “What do you think?” Ed’s in his own thing and he’s a star athlete. He’s also a phenomenal guitar player. His right hand is a monster. So for me, instead of looking at this as if I can’t get the same opportunities Ed Sheeran can get. … [trails off]
What kind of opportunities?
I’m 39. It’s funny, I was 31 for eight years, then I became 39. And there’s something that happens that’s really great with that, where you go, “Oh, well there are things I shouldn’t expect to have anymore.” I can find peace in it and go, “Ok, I’m not gonna be number one on Spotify because you’re not supposed to be Number One.” Unless I luck into it, the world is supposed to keep moving on and there are supposed to be younger people who are supposed to attract younger people to music. So that’s not something that I can do anymore … My path is gonna be: “I’m going to continue to do what I do, and that’s going to change in the way it relates to whatever’s happening in the world that year.” It’s gonna beat against whatever other color the world is that year. I’m not going to say, “Wow, I really want to come back into the charts so I’m gonna work with this person or that person.” What I was able to do is go, “This is your lot. This is your lane. You’re going to be making records for the rest of your life, and it’s not necessarily going to become as avant garde as you wish it could have 15-20 years ago.”
That’s a good question. That could send me over to the studio at great costs [laughs]. I just feel like I know exactly what to expect from the world. Look, it’s highly unusually for me to be playing in Dead and Co. and have a solo career. That’s naturally interesting. The idea of sitting around and going, “Wow, I don’t get as much attention as I used to, so who are the guys who get attention? Get me on the phone with them!” – [I’m] trying to get to that place of writing the best songs they possibly can as I get older.
You’re a great blues guitarist. Why not apply that more to your studio records?
For all the moves I’ve made on the musical chessboard, I am now me. I’m no dummy. I know my record could use some rock bangers. I went in once a week and would play a Black Keys feel on the drums, and distort the guitar, and start making up words. Then I’d listen and go, “I don’t buy it.” The older I get, the more I realize you don’t have to embody everything you love. Does that sound depressing? Or does that sound right? [Laughs]
A little of both! You tweeted you’ve had a concept for a new Jay-Z album in your head for years.
I don’t want to sound like I’m trying to publicly DM him, but I think there’s room for psychedelia in hip-hop. I just always thought a Cream-Hendrix rhythm section for hip-hop would be insanely cool. Of course, all my ideas are just selfish. They all include me.
There’s a sparseness to your record that’s really interesting, particularly on “You’re Gonna Live Forever in Me.”
You get old enough, and you can hit the mark with fewer elements. I read this book one time about the Secret Service. And I love this part: In the world of presidential protection, older people are better at working president detail in the Secret Service. Because the older people have tenure and seniority, and they’re not afraid of losing their job if they overreact, if they throw the President in the car because a car somewhere else backfired or a balloon pops. They’re more willing to do it because they’re not scared of losing their job, like a young person would.
That always stuck with me. As I get older, I see myself artistically that way a little bit. I hope that, as I get older and my career goes on, that I gain the ability to afford writing things that don’t necessarily have to hit you over the head. I can make a little song like “You’re Gonna Live Forever In Me” and ultimately what ends up happening is that it translates into something even bigger than something that you would have sat down and tried to make big.
This brings up another interesting thing as a songwriter. We love the concept of writing huge songs. You always sit down and you go, “I want to write a big one.” Not in terms of popularity, but in terms of scope. I’ve always tried to write big ones, and I’ve always failed. I would love to write a song called “Galaxy.” I’d love to write a song about something taking place from galaxy to galaxy. It never works because the intention of it is just too large. But then, if you get really small like I did on “You’re Gonna Live Forever In Me,” and you write, “a great big bang and dinosaurs / fiery raining meteors / it all ends unfortunately,” that’s tiny. But when you’re done with it, you realize, “Oh, this is gigantic because of forced perspective.” It’s not huge, it becomes huge out of forced perspective. And I’ve learned that now ten times over.
You recently said you were “entering cannabis life.” How is that working out?
I put it where drinking used to go, and the quality of life has gone up considerably. Drinking is a fucking con. How much is enough? Every time I drank, I was looking for some sort of regulated amount. It always feels wrong for me. I always feel like I went overboard. “I said two, now it’s three, now we’re at four?” I never had a serious issue with it, but I remember looking around going, “This feels rigged. I’m taking a break. There’s never an amount that felt like I was succeeding at life. It always felt wrong.
So weed doesn’t make you weird or too inside your own head?
I was always the guy saying that I didn’t like altered states. Once you know who you are, then it becomes OK. I’m much more open-minded to small changes in consciousness. I remember every trip I ever took. I remember every thought I ever had when I laid there.
Billy Joel recently said that he sometimes envies your “guitar face.”
Guitar face is not cool. I feel a little bit uncomfortable with people thinking that I made up the guitar face. God, wouldn’t it be great to go to the jungles of Borneo and give a tribe Fender Stratocasters and have them listen to Jimi Hendrix – but not show them Jimi Hendrix – and come back five years later and see if there’s any guitar face? I have a feeling there would be.
You were just in the tabloids because Katy Perry called you the “best lover” she’s ever had. Care to comment?
I don’t have a cool-enough thought for you. I’ve hacked this game. I pay very little of the price of fame now. I get to play the music that moves me the most. I’m having the time of my life. I’m 39 – I remember 32. I don’t wanna do it again.
With the recent release of John Mayer’s ‘The Search for Everything: Wave Two,’ the singer announced the North American summer leg of his 2017 world tour. Watch here.