Then, of course, Rob Barraco joined them and I played with him for about 11 years and shared a house with him for about 10, so there’s a very strong connection there, and there were a few times on the way – the better part of a set at Mexicali [Blues in Teaneck, N.J.) and then at the Gathering of the Vibes one year – where they asked me to sit in. They were very generous. So when this came up, I was the first guy they came to.
HT: Right, right, so it just kind of made sense and it fell into place? I guess, to pick up the story, when it became clear that John was going to be leaving and focusing his energies on Furthur last fall, how did the conversations between you and DSO go? Rob Koritz told me they called you right away.
JM: Well, first, they didn’t know J.K. was leaving, so they just told me to fill in some dates where he had to be out with Furthur to rehearse. So that was in November of last year and then there was a new year’s run that I agreed to do. It wasn’t immediately discussed of course about taking over the job because they didn’t know John was leaving, but then when he was leaving, we started talking about. I was a little… well, I don’t know…I was very involved in playing with Donna Jean and I was having fun with what I was doing. But it’s a wonderful gig in that they’re [DSO] really nice people, and after I did it for a while, I thought, yeah, I can do this.
I had to do it first and see. I’ve never done the thing of just playing the music of the Grateful Dead; the Zen Tricksters, for better and for worse, always played original music, too. So I wasn’t sure about it, but it’s really fun, it really is a good time, and I love everybody’s dedication to doing a great job. The work ethic is great, and that inspires me. Perhaps if I’d gone in there and everyone was like, eh, yeah, we’ve been doing this for a while so let’s just bang it out and call it a day, I might not have been as anxious to join.
HT: Well that’s part of what struck me. They’re obviously very nice guys and talented musicians, but seeing you on a fill-in basis with the band last fall, that’s just what it was: a hired-gun spot. But when I saw you back in Montclair, N.J., in May, it was like you’d been with them for ages, not just Dark Star Orchestra with special guest Jeff Mattson. It feels like a fully formed band. What got you that comfortable so quickly?
JM: It was a couple of things. First of all, what it makes it easy is that it’s not like I’m coming in and learning this whole repertoire from scratch. It’s a gigantic repertoire and I’m still catching up on a few things, and some of the things if I have played them before it was like 20 years ago. But we’re coming from the same place of loving this music, and having listened to it for a long, long, long time. My mind is filled with all kinds of arcane Grateful Dead knowledge.
HT: …Which comes in pretty handy here…
JM: …which is very useful here, yes. I found a place for it. Without blowing my own horn, I’ve also been a professional musician for a long time. I know how to work in band dynamics: when you’re a guest, your place is what it is and you defer to the band. But as a lead guitarist, you also have to step up occasionally and lead a certain kind of way. So I have a certain amount of confidence in that area. I’ve always been kind of the music director in the Zen Tricksters and leading the action. There are a long of strong personalities in DSO, but being the lead guitarist in the Garcia role, it’s kind of centered around that direction. As much as he said he was never the leader or anything like that, you get the feeling that if Jerry didn’t want to do it, it wasn’t done.
HT: So what put you over the line to say ‘yes’? I know DSO was looking at other guitarists and they had Stu Allen for a few shows, but they made it pretty clear to me and others early on that you were the guy. What did convince you to do it full time? Did you need to talk with Donna Jean and go over priorities and whatnot?
JM: Well, yeah, she’s friends with them too. And we’re like best friends, she’s always been sort of a champion of getting me more well-known and is always trying to spread the word, and she’s very kind and meaningful to me. So it was tough because it obviously means we’re going to be playing together a lot less. But there’s also the economy’s in a slump, and it’s getting harder to get strong, meaningful tours going. It was a tough decision. But like you say, I really enjoyed playing with them and doing the shows I did, and that’s what convinced me. I’ve even adapted to sleeping on a bus. I didn’t get much sleep during our first tour, getting into that little coffin on the bus, but it’s an adaptation!
HT: Indeed. We hear often, from outside the band, about all the things they do, and their – well, no, your – commitment to this music, the period details and getting that right. They study the setlists and the details with the same intensity that they did 10 years ago, I understand. Talk about that.
JM: Every day before the show … well, you don’t have time every day to listen to the complete show, but that’s not really necessary because we’re not looking to duplicate the jams or anything. But maybe there’s a part where the drummers are playing halftime, or that we end on this one chord that goes into the next song, just those details that were unique to that show or that period, we check that stuff out. It’d probably only mean anything to someone who has listened to that show a lot, but that’s alright: that’s what the idea is. I was very impressed with that attention to detail. The end of the day, the jams are solos are still us being played in real time and what we’re feeling, though.
HT: That strikes me as part of what makes DSO so good and so respected. There are a ton of Dead cover bands, and then there’s a much smaller group of really good Dead cover bands, and then there’s a still-smaller group of bands that can converse musically the way the Dead did, and then DSO is still on another level from that. You’ve won over a lot of Deadheads and have a fanbase not only spanning younger folks, but those who were there in the ’70s and remember the Fillmore [Mattson raises his hand]. Yes indeed! So what do you think it is that puts you all in that top echelon?
JM: First of all, it would have to be the quality of the musicianship. You have to be a certain well-practiced, well-learned musician to be able to converse on that level. It’s one thing to play a song and another entirely to get into the process of the way the Dead played and be able to react to each other in real time to each other musically. That’s really what it’s all about. There are a lot of Dead bands out there who can play the songs, but they’re not really getting to that essence of musical conversation. There’s nothing wrong with any of it, remember: what makes me so happy is to know that this music is being played everywhere. But what makes DSO special is the level of musicianship is very high, the attention to detail is there, and also the production values. We have a great crew, great lights, and a full-sized semi to haul around all the gear. The crew gets up, rolls out of their bunks and puts in 12 to 13-hour days, and I’ve never heard a complaint. They want to make it better every night, too, and you gotta love that.
HT: That leads me to my next question. Being able to play this music in this way, I’m sure you’re always finding new shades and way to converse in the Dead idiom. That has to be appealing. But at the same time, you’re an original musician, too, and assuming playing Dead remains DSO’s mission, DSO isn’t really going to be an outlet for that…
JM: Well, actually, we are starting to work a little bit on original music. There’s a song called Run Mary that has lyrics by Robert Hunter that we’ve played a bit, do you know it? [ed. note – Run Mary can be streamed online at darkstarorchestra.net]
HT: I was going to say, I had seen that. I think it’s on YouTube, too.
JM: Right. We started working on that a little bit, as you said, it’s not going to replace what we do. But everybody also has this itch to be creative, so there’s no reason we can’t write songs and find a place to place them. I don’t think anyone should worry that we’re going to stop playing the Dead – that would upset a lot of people – but that doesn’t make it wrong for us to write and record together. Maybe we, I don’t know, maybe we open for ourselves some time playing original music. So, no one gets cheated out of [his or her] Grateful Dead experience, that’s still happening. But original music is a fairly new development for us.
HT: No kidding. I like the concept a lot, it’s kind of reminiscent of what the New Riders did with the Dead way back when, as another outlet for some of the Dead members. But that is something I had wondered about you when you joined DSO – what happens to your interest in writing originals.
JM: If we made an album, such as they are today anyway, we’d sell it at the merch table or something, and people can buy it or not. If you love the band and the musicians, maybe you’re interested. It doesn’t take away from the basic premise of the band.
HT: But original music is something we’re going to be hearing more of from you guys?
JM: Yeah. We’ve got the one song, and another in the hat that’s about half done, and I have some ideas I’m going to bring to the band and everybody’s going to take turns and we’ll kind of do it collectively. So there’s that. And I’m still involved in writing and playing and recording with Donna Jean, so I still have that outlet. That’s something I always want to do and always will want to do. I love that band.
HT: I want to get to the Donna Jean band in a minute, but first, just wanted to touch a little more on your relationship with Barraco. It’s a full-time reunion for the two of you.
JM: We’re like brothers. We love each other, we get on each other’s nerves, the whole nine yards, but we have a great musical conversation. We’ve played together long enough that we can finish each other’s thoughts sometimes and throw really subtle musical jokes at each other. It’s pretty deep.
HT: Did his involvement with DSO help sway your decision to take the gig?
JM: Yeah, it did. He’s a fantastic musician, and I missed playing with him for all of those years.
HT: You guys played together not only in the Zen Tricksters, but also a short-lived – and as I remember it, fun – version of Phil Lesh & Friends. That was 1999. What do you remember about those shows 11 years on?
JM: Yeah, ’99. For a Deadhead, and especially for a Deadhead musician, it was a dream come true to play with Phil Lesh. To my detriment, I might have been a little too excited about it, and I was always coming up with ideas. But it was just so exciting to be playing Unbroken Chain, and wow, here’s the guy that wrote it. And he’s such a fun musician to play with. You only have to listen to him to know he’s brimming with great musical ideas – no one plays the bass like Phil Lesh. I’ve known bass players over the years who were great players but were more straight-ahead and more of a traditional relationship between the bass and the drummer. Phil? Phil’s not a “bass player,” he’s a fantastic musician. It’s almost like it’s another lead instrument in the bass register. It’s a very different approach, the way he follows, and courses, and echoes, and all that stuff.
HT: Did you know at the time those PLF gigs were just going to be a handful of dates?
JM: I was psyched for it, and I probably did hope it would go on, and of course, Rob went on. But I often wondered. Phil picked us because he had heard the Zen Tricksters record, A Love Surreal, and he said he was very impressed with our ability to jam in the studio. I don’t think he realized how adept we were at Grateful Dead until we got there to rehearse. It freaked him out a little bit, especially how much we knew and how much I played like Garcia. Obviously, that is what they’re looking for now, seeing as they took JK. But this was 11 years ago, and four after Jerry died, so it was a little different.
HT: There were some really interesting lineups that played with Phil at that stage. I remember talking with Phil about five years ago and hearing about how he wanted newer incarnations of the Friends to be akin to chance music, with different lineups tackling the music in different ways, and variable elements. Anyway, you never quite knew what was going to be next, but that lineup with you seemed like it had its moments.
JM: Molo was the drummer, and Steve Kimock was there, right at the end of his tenure with the band. What a fantastic player. I would have loved to have seen where that might have gone, but at that point, Phil was experimenting. Paul Barrere and Billy Payne came in, and Warren Haynes came on, and Steve left so Derek Trucks came in, and there was stuff with Jorma…
HT: Lots of different things going on, for sure. Now, Jeff, before I get into the Donna Jean band, I know you and Barraco have some additional gigs coming up as Mattson/Barraco and Friends, no? [Oct. 6 at Sullivan Hall in New York, and Oct. 11 at Mexicali Live in Teaneck. N.J.]
JM: Yes, yes. And it all comes from the fact that Rob, as some people know, is a fantastic bass player.
HT: I have heard that.
JM: It’s a freak thing, almost. He’s never been a bass player – he’s never really played bass in a band – but he used to play guitar and he’s so musical, and he’s just such a fan of what Phil does. He’s more a student of what it is that Phil actually plays than most people I know, and he gets it on a level that most people don’t. He loves to play. He actually did a short tour, playing bass with RatDog.
HT: I remember, yeah.
JM: He had a great time with that, right before Robin Sylvester came in, and he brought so much joy to it. So I mutter to him, I’m like, you gotta do something else besides play in DSO, you have so much talent! So I said, I tell you what, I’m going to put a band together and you’re not going to be able to say no because I want you to play bass in it. You don’t have to set up your keys or anything. And he laughed. And I grabbed Joe Chirco who plays drums in the Donna Jean band and was the drummer in the Zen Tricksters in our sort of heyday, one of the strongest periods in our history. And then I thought, we need some keyboards, so I asked Jason Crosby, who was also in the Tricksters for a while, and another ridiculously natural musician.
It’s really just the two gigs right now, so the concept has been, let’s just go jam. We all know a lot of songs, and maybe I’ll have them brush up on some stuff, but we’re not going to rehearse. We want it to be really loose and free and kind of a tightrope walk. I tell you, I’m getting a little nervous now because it’s getting a little notoriety; I was just sort of envisioning playing somewhere and maybe 20 people show up and we have a good time. But the level of musicians is fabulous. I might just write a setlist so we don’t stand up there scratching our heads, but we’ll play and jam and make it free, and do free jazz maybe, or maybe free jazz into a Dylan song, which’ll be freer than free jazz! It’s an experiment. I’m confident in the musicians that I know it won’t suck.
HT: Turning to the Donna Jean band, it’s obviously something you care about. Can you bring us up to speed on what you’re working on?
JM: Yeah, we just did a bunch of gigs and it had been a while. We just headed right back to where we were, though; there’s definitely a chemistry that just happens when we we get together, and with Joe on drums, we play better than ever. Plus, David MacKay, who’s Donna’s husband, is just a fantastic bass player. He grew up in San Francisco. And Donna, we go off her whole career, kind of the Grateful Dead meets Muscle Shoals. Everybody loves that thing: deep groove meets deep space, I guess.
HT: Why do you think you and Donna Jean are so compatible?
JM: We hit it off on a personal level and on a musical level. I have pretty wide tastes, and she appreciated the fact that I wasn’t just coming from the Grateful Dead thing. Our tastes are all over the place. We both have wicked senses of humor.
HT: A lot of musicians do it seems like.
JM: Yeah, yeah, it’s a musical connection. I would also just like to say that Donna Jean is singing better than ever. She’s finding new ways to use her voice that she didn’t always feel comfortable doing before.
HT: What becomes of the Zen Tricksters at this point?
JM: We’re not disbanded, we’re just on hiatus. We probably did about five shows this past year, and we did a couple Dead things, classic dates like 5/2/70, just for the hell of it. Dave Nolan [DJ, audio engineer and famed Wetlands Preserve employee], he passed away recently, we did a memorial for him at Brooklyn Bowl. We talked about doing another Nolan show in February, and we may just do a few other shows in 2011, too.
HT: So organic reunions. It’ll happen when it happens?
JM: Yeah, I think so.
HT: To close up, you mentioned classic Dead dates, and I know it’s come up a lot that fans would like to see more DSO shows taken from before 1973. We’ve seen some of that from DSO recently, and it sounds like there’s going to be more of it.
JM: Oh, I love doing that stuff. And it might be me there that’s part of it because the band recognized that that is well within my comfort zone. I think one of the things that stopped the band from doing that in the past — something that really turned out to be a non-issue, at least as far as I can tell – is that for some of that period the band had two keyboard players. DSO couldn’t do that without getting another keyboard player, but hey, you know, Rob can play T.C.’s parts and sing Pigpen’s raps at the same time! I tell you, we might start pushing out in the other direction, too: the era of Bruce Horsnby and Vince Welnick. I think people would be happy about that.
But yeah we’ve done two ’69 shows and done a whole run of ’72 shows, which also had both Keith Godchaux and Pigpen. People were raving and I haven’t heard any complaints. I just think people are happy to hear those shows. People love the early ’90s shows, too.
HT: But those late 60s shows – the Live/Dead era, all of it – people have been asking DSO about that for years. That’s got to be so exciting and so much fun to play with. Where’s that 45-minute Viola Lee, and that stuff, right?
JM: Ha, they got the guy for that, man! You do get so into that primal energy they had then. We did a ’69 show a few weeks ago (7/31/10, playing 4/22/69) and dug deep into Viola, into Alligator, into Viola again, and I think it was about 25 minutes total. When I look back on that, I think, oh yeah, we got pulled into that primal psychedelia there.
HT: Jeff, you’ve got a lot going on. What else do you want to do?
HT: Sleep, naturally. But what else, what other things? You’ve got a full plate, but…
JM: Yeah, yeah, a lot of people of kid me, and say, man, what are you following Warren Haynes with all this? I don’t think think anyone can be Warren Haynes, god bless him. But no kidding I’m very content right now. Some of the joy of my life has been sitting in and playing with some of my heroes, so any time that pops up, I’m only too happy. I’ve played a bunch of times with the New Riders – those guys are amazing – and the experience of playing with Phil, and Donna Jean, and Vassar Clements, and Peter Rowan, these are important moments to me. It’s pretty self-evident that if you just love and honor someone’s music and you get to perform with them, that’s a gift. So any time that pops up, it’s not for vanity’s sake, it’s just something that means so much to me.