Since taking the stage with the Grateful Dead one last time in the summer of 2015, Phil Lesh has charted his own path. Rather than join the spin-off group Dead & Company, the bassist has kept busy with various other projects, including Phil Lesh and Friends, who will play the Amphitheater at Coney Island in Brooklyn on September 14th and 15th, followed by two shows in Hawaii to close out 2016. Rolling Stone recently sat down with Lesh to discuss his earliest musical influences, his still-vital connection to Jerry Garcia and why he feels the Dead were never the same after 1975.
You were a teenager in Berkeley during the Beat era. What are your memories of that time?
In high school, we would go over to San Francisco and hang out at [the bookstore] City Lights and the Co-Existence Bagel Shop. We never met any of the great Beats. They were just in the air. The closest I ever came was a poetry reading in ’64 or ’65 with Lew Welch, Gary Snyder and four or five others. My favorite memory was Lew Welch’s line in one of his poems. He was describing looking in the mirror in the morning: “I don’t know who you are, but I’m going to shave you anyway.”
Who were your heroes then?
[The composer] Charles Ives and John Coltrane. The music of Ives contains the world. It has marching bands, fireworks, bubbling streams – it sounds like the inside of your head when you’re daydreaming. Coltrane was the realization that you could improvise in the moment and tap into the music of the spheres. I saw his classic quartet in 1962, with [guitarist] Wes Montgomery sitting in. That experience formed the approach of the Grateful Dead when I joined them.
Do you have heroes now?
No. It’s not that we outgrow our heroes. We either live up to what they ask of us, or we don’t.
What was your favorite book as a child?
I was a space nut. In elementary school, I checked out Destination Moon, by Robert A. Heinlein, about 3,000 times from the library. I’ve always loved sci-fi. More Than Human, by Theodore Sturgeon, is the one, in my mind, that helped define the Dead.
What music moves you the most these days?
I listen to a lot of Bach and string quartets. I’ve always seen the music we make [in Phil Lesh and Friends] as electric chamber music. Interestingly, I’m starting to do performances that don’t involve drums, which frees you up in a certain way.
You have a club, Terrapin Station, in San Rafael, California. There’s a regular event there on Sundays – Stories & Songs: Phil Lesh & the Camp Terrapin Family Band. What is that?
It’s for really young kids. I read children’s books and do songs: The Cat in the Hat, “Puff the Magic Dragon,” The Little Engine That Could. I’m hoping that as the kids get older, I’ll be able to start reading The Hobbit – in chapters, like a movie serial back in the day.
What was the best part of the Grateful Dead’s success for you?
It was wildly successful for me until we took the break from touring [in 1975]. When we came back, it was never quite the same. Even though it was great and we played fantastic music, something was missing.
What was missing?
It’s hard to pin down – a certain spirit. It would come back now and then, on some awesome evening, some particularly great performance. But that was even more frustrating, because it would disappear again for X number of shows, just disappear.
“The family made me realize there was life beyond the Grateful Dead – it enabled me to put things in balance.”
You started a family late in life. What did you learn in raising your two sons that might have helped you in the Dead?
When we had kids, they always went on the road with us. I made everybody book the tours around school. Or we took a tutor along. The family made me realize there was life beyond the Grateful Dead – it enabled me to put things in balance.
What do you do to relax?
I have new digs on the hill in Marin County. There is a feeling about the land, the spirit of the place, that is tranquil, renewing. I can walk out the door and go up the hill, right into open space on Bald Hill that extends all the way to the beach. I never knew how much I needed this.
Jerry Garcia would have turned 74 on August 1st. Do you have a favorite memory of him?
It’s the three of us – me, Bob [Weir] and Jerry in the Los Trancos Woods near Palo Alto in the summer of 1965. We’d wander around – you can imagine the state we were in – and I ran with Bob into some gully. We’d hang out there, looking at the trees. We came back up the road, and there’s Jerry scuttling across the field, kind of like a badger, a three-toed sloth, on all fours. He’s scurrying across, and he’s moving fast. Then he sees us, and he gets this sheepish grin on his face. And he flops on his back.
With his legs in the air?
Yeah, literally [laughs].
Do you still feel Jerry’s presence in the music when you perform Dead songs?
Sometimes very intensely, sometimes not at all. At the same time, you have to feel like he is the song. When you’re in the song, you’re with Jerry. It was very palpable the other night. We did “Mission in the Rain.” I actually saw him and [lyricist Robert] Hunter, walking along the Mission District. That was the image in my mind.