If you're, as you're doing right now, sitting with the guitar and noodling,
is that for the sake of your chops?
It's partly neurotic, I guess.
Like worry beads?
Yeah. And then the other thing is, you're trying shorten the times in
between the times you're playing. If I sat down right now and played all
day and all night, and then didn't play until, you know, Friday, then it
wouldn't do me any good.
So you can't "bank" it.
Yeah, so I was playing before I went to bed, and I gotta get up and play
some more just to keep that time inbetween short. It's better for your
hands and it's better, even if I'm not doing anything too specifically other
than knocking the dust off, it's what allows me to be in some kind of
shape in case I do get an idea, and you never know when that's going to
happen. You'll be sitting around, you'll finally get warmed up, and
something will hit you, and you'll finally get a piece of something. Then
you can assemble those later, but you don't get the opportunity to do that
if you don't have the thing in your hands a lot, so I do sit with it a lot.
It seems that music is on some level a physical discipline, an athletic
thing. So you're kind of staying in training, keeping yourself in condition
As best I can. What do they say about talent and work? There's something
they say about talent and work. It's like 99% perspiration and 1%
inspiration. It's that kind of thing. It's mostly work. It's nowhere near as
much talent as it is just application.
Do you revisit inventions that come up in that spontaneous way later on
when you're performing?
Most of the stuff that hops up and then is usable later, hops up in an
ensemble context. I'll find something that works and like a fool I'll try to
apply it the same way another time and go, "Oh, that doesn't work now.
What's up with that?"
Are you conscious of when you're learning to do something new, when
you're on the threshold of a conceptual breakthrough?
You'll get to a point with something where you can feel that
you've almost cracked some idea, or illuminated some concept from a
different angle, but you don't know what you're going to get. You're just
breaking into some unknown territory, and then you work, and you work,
and you work, and you work, and you work, and you might be working on
something that seems like it's going in one direction, and then when it
finally reveals itself, it's something completely different.
It will either be difficult to do and then I'll know to work on it, or it'll be
easy and then I'll do it a bunch and I'll remember it.
Always the Same, Never the Same Way
Is there any conscious will or effort not to repeat yourself? Does any of
that thinking go into your playing?
Sometimes it does. I don't think of it like that, and I wouldn't prefer that
it be that way, because that's kind of knee-jerk. That's not like going
towards something; it's like going away from something. In the case of
having played a tune ten thousand times - like in Zero we've played
Catalina ten thousand times or something like that, or a hundred million
times - then to spite myself I'll go, OK, I'm just going to play it ska today,
even though I know that that's not it. That's not really going for it.
That's like pricking yourself with a pin to stay awake.
Nothing against kids, because I was a kid myself and had the same thing
going on, but that's that "rebelling against yourself" kind of thinking. You
don't necessarily want that. It would be better not to have a path that
consisted completely of negating this or negating that.
Sure, and I don't want to keep hammering away just on this one thing--
No, it's cool! It's a cool thing. You're hammering away on a cool thing. We'll
all learn something.
All right, let's beat that horse. When I've listened to you playing a solo,
perhaps on a song that I myself have heard you play twenty-five times
before, maybe it's just speaking this language and having heard the music
of this culture, but my ear knows when there's a certain expected note or
I expect the intonation to fit a pattern, and the kind of soloists who excite
me end up dealing with the requirement of that cultural conditioning, but
not in the way that my mind had preconceived it.
And, that often comes down to kind of dancing around that last note. When
the band seems to be heading toward some inevitable climax or resolution,
often there's dance to come up with a fresh way to get there. That's one of
the things I enjoy the most about your playing. There are times where I'll
think, What the hell is he doing now? and then I realize you're there. You
actually were going there, and I just couldn't see it myself. Are you
conscious of the thing that I'm perceiving as a listener?
Yes and no. Say, there's a space in this song that's x amount long that's
going to have to come back to the tune. You're trying to wind up with
"always the same, never the same way." That's the basic Big Dumb Idea
that's at work. What happens in my head to try and get it there and what
happens in your head as a listener are very necessarily different. You're
just going to hear stuff differently on different days, different things are
going to surprise you, and different things that I'm going to try are going
to work to varying degrees on different days.
And sometimes, exactly what you're saying, "Where is he?" shows up in
the Zero thing quite a bit. We'll begin to play, and the thing will instantly
be on Mars, and I'm going, "Where are they?" I'll go back to where I knew
the tune was and I'll just start playing quarter notes, like 1, 2, 3, 4,
playing the old straight time against the prevailing time, which often
sounds totally weird, and everybody's looking at me like, "Where the fuck
are you, man?" and then it kind of flips up, comes back over, and there you
are, and I'm already there.
So it's different for the listener and the musician?
Anybody who's not a trained musician is necessarily listening
referentially. They're hearing the music, and they're comparing it to
something else. They're getting an emotional hit from it, or a feeling like
"ship tossed on a stormy sea," and I'm thinking, "G Minor." So what I've got
to do, to operate my equipment on my end, is completely different than
what you've got to do, to receive it at the other end. I wind up mostly
being an absolutist as opposed to a referentialist about the musical stuff.
I'm quite content with the interplay and the juxtaposition of the actual
intervals and the math of it. That's fine with me. I'm not trying to paint a
picture. I'm actually working with the intervals, with the music, and I'm
delighted by that.
Infinity Goes Up On Trial
Would you say that when music is working, it works across that spectrum,
if for different reasons? When the music is right, it should make the
dancing people dance, the thinking people think, and the musicians, what?
Think about chord changes?
Yeah, or not at all. Ideally, not at all is the place to be, but you don't often
get to start there, with the no-thinking thing. That's where it's heading.
Ultimately, one of the reasons why I sit around and play all the time is
because, playing music or being in that music thing, there's a timeless
quality about it.
That's interesting, since you're dealing with time in a very hand's-on way,
when you're playing music.
Well, musical time is different than chronological time, extremely
different, and the actual experience of music is a no-time kind of thing.
When it's really happening - when it's really happening, when it's really
in the zone - there is none of that duality of time. There's none of this
thinking like "all nine of my old ladies are here," or "this guy's looking at
me," or "that's not right." There's no judgement. There's no thinking like,
"He's not playing the right thing," or "I'm not playing the right thing," or "I
really have to go to the bathroom," or whatever possible thing you could
think. There's no thinking when you actually get in the moment, and the
time thing kind of stops entirely, and so does all the rest of your duality,
all the rest of that nonsense, judgement or thought about yourself.
Do you think it's that feeling that makes you want to play music?
Yeah. Yeah. Oh, yeah. That's why people listen. That is it. If you're loose
enough or can indulge yourself to the point where you actually get it, you
get those moments where everything stops, and it's just there. When you
really get to that flow state, that's it. That's what it is, and the
attraction to that seems fairly obvious: cheating chronological time. It's
kind of a godlike thing to do.
It's just like, boom, you've got the eternal moment there. There's other
ways to get there. You can crash your car into a tree or you can kiss a girl
for the first time, stuff like that, but music consistently, I think, more
than anything else, gets people to that space, and when you're in that
space, that's the "piss in the ocean" consciousness raising that music
does that's good for people, for everybody involved, for the community.
When you get community, you get the music, and you get to that place,
everybody comes out better. That light that happens right then, that's it.
That space, that's God. That's where people are trying to go. When they
write the book about how to get there, that's where they're trying to go!
The divine feeling.
Yeah. It's the now.
That might be the thing that bridges the fan's "tossed on the ocean"
feeling and the musician's technical understanding of what's going on,
because if you're both in that place, it really doesn't matter how you got
in that place.
No, it doesn't. On the way in, there's necessarily a me and you, and there's
up on stage and there's out in the audience, and there's right foot/left
foot, and all this stuff, but not when it really gets there. All that shit just
disappears when it's really good, and everybody that's heard good music
knows that. All the rest of it's gone. The job is gone.
Would you say that you become conscious of the people who are just
hearing the music? Does it feel like a group thing to you or is there a self,
an ego at the center, that's generating it?
No. It's not an ego-generated space. People will try and talk to me at a gig,
or before a gig, or inbetween on break. They'll start talking about the
music or about me, just like what we're doing right now. I understand that
there's a need for it, but for me personally it's counterproductive, because
anything that you do that creates a sense of self around the ego needs to
be discarded to go ahead and play the music in the first place. So you wind
up having to tell people, "Thank you very much," and that's it. It's hard to
talk, because you either walk away feeling like "I fucked up" or you're all
full of yourself and either way, whatever that is, it's going to have to be
dropped before you actually get to some kind of zone. It's part of the
responsibility of musicians.
It's also about being with many other people who are also in need of it. I
see you guys very much as being in service to our spirits.
Right, yeah. Exactly.
How many times have you not heard somebody say, "God, I need a show"?
Absolutely. It's like a well that you've drunk from and you're thirsty again.
It's not necessarily to see big famous musicians on stage. It's being
together and enjoying an experience, that manifestation, together that
produces a result other people can only dream of having.
For me, what I feel the work is, is to try and do what's necessary to
produce that authentic musical improvisational experience, which tends to
take people to that place. It takes me to that place. That's the job. All the
rest of this guacamole, all the rest of this work is for that. It's for
Well, I've had to consciously restrain myself from bugging you at gigs...
...because of that exact phenomenon, and I think I see both sides of it,
because I do get drawn in. It's an attempt to get to the center of things,
but I'm also aware that you're working and that you probably have to keep
your concentration. That person who comes up to you and starts jabbering
away about their theory or the vision they had, they probably really just
want to hug you or something.
Oh, absolutely. Yeah. When people hear music or when they're taking part in
an event like that and they get that feeling, sometimes you have to try and
explain this. No, that's not about me. It's about you. You got that. I didn't
give that to you. You got that. Pat yourself on the back. That's your own
capacity to open up and enjoy music and experience things in the moment
for a minute.
You may have put the foot in the door for that person, though, even if they
still had to push their way through on their own.
They may think so, but it's them. It's you, individually. Different things'll
do it for you at different times. There's music that got me off totally
when I was a kid that I can't listen to now, and there's stuff that I
listened to when I was a kid where I was like, This is horseshit, that I
listen to now and I'm like, Oh, God, I love it so much! It's completely an
individual thing. It's your own capacity to open up and to feel that.
Somebody's not doing that to you. It's you allowing that for yourself.
You used the word "authentic," talking about the improvisation being
authentic or the music being authentic.
Authentic, spontaneous. A real, authentic experience, not some kind of
phony experience, not like audience participation: Everybody clap your
hands, you know? It's like we're just gonna hop up here with our pants
down around our ankles, man, and we're going to go for it, and so are you,
and we're either gonna get there or not, but it's real, something real,
authentic, not phony.
Well, I think that that's what comes across. One of the things I heard
instantly in your playing that has always made me want to come back and
hear more is that authenticity, which I would have called honesty. You
mentioned once, in an
I read up on the web at the old Rockweb
site, that "mood is not a note choice," but music plucks at emotional strings in
our physical bodies and in our heads, and I feel like I'm hearing really you.
You may not be thinking about emotions at all. Maybe it's just one of those
things that comes through the cracks when you're forced to jump off a
cliff and cope. What do you think is the role of emotion in music? Does it
create feelings in you while you're playing? Is that a meaningful way to
think about music at all from a musician's point of view?
Yeah, it is. Boy, this is some thin ice, questionwise! I certainly can prove
it in court that I cannot convey to you a specific emotion through a
specific combination of pitches or tones. There's no one-to-one
correspondence between any of the intervalic or mathematical
relationships that maps directly onto your emotions or onto colors or onto
smells or onto anything. It's its own thing, entirely, and it's complete
within itself. For some reason we get all wrapped up in this emotional
component to the thing. That's a gift that it's there, but it's not how it
starts. In a way it's completely tied up in it, and in another way no part of
it that maps onto it either.
It's sounds like it's the thing you can't go for. It's not like it's an
ingredient you can dial up. It has to come across as a side-effect?
Well, no. You have to intend that it's part of the thing. It's my intention to
play in a way that will engage you emotionally, somehow. What exactly
that means, I don't fuckin' know, you know? I know that when I heard
music when I was a kid that I dug, whatever it was, like Duane Allman or
whatever, or Roy Buchanan or something, it got me! I was just stuck
straight through with a spear.
When they write a piece of music, they say right on the music the tempo
and the key signature, and then, in Italian or French or something, there's
always some kind of thing about how it's supposed to be played. You're
supposed to have a certain attitude to play. "Lively," or "somber but not
slow." You need to think of the physical sound in a certain way sometimes
to make it be that way. You need to think that it's going to be buoyant or
radiant or veiled or open, like a kid shouting. There's attitude involved
that may be emotional entirely and have nothing to do with what you're
actually playing. You can play the same note the same way thinking
"buoyant," or you can play the same note the same way thinking "shrill."
Maybe that part of the thing might come off as being the emotional part of
When you're interpreting a song, someone else's song, how do you decide
what part of the way you learned it is essential and what part is the
arrangement, which can be rearranged like a variable in another rendition?
It depends how often you've heard the song before, I guess. If I haven't
heard the song before, I try to see what the form of it is, listen to the
version that I'm hearing, and separate the stylistic elements of the people
who are playing it from the form.
Is that part of it easy to do?
Yeah, there's obvious elements of style.
How about when you do know the song?
If I do know the song, if I've heard it a million times, then I'm interpreting
my feelings about the song. My impression of having heard the song so
many times has an ebb and flow to it, and an attitude, and I just go with
If you know the song better, does that mean you'd be more likely to take
liberties, to interpret it more radically?
It's almost better if I don't know it. Are you familiar with the concept
of beginner's mind?
Well, that's the deal. In the expert's mind there's few possibilities,
and in the beginner's mind it's wide open. The fresher the better for me.
Was that how it was when you played The Eleven at that concert [The
Other Ones Debut, benefit for the Rainforest Action Network, at the
Warfield in SF, on June 6, 1998]? You didn't have much time to think about
that did you?
Clueless. I was clueless about all of that. Totally clueless about all of
that stuff. So happy.
Were you thinking "time signature"?
No, I tend to not think about it. You can tell when stuff is not metrically
entirely straight, but I have a really twisted kind of metrical conception
Want to talk about that a little bit?
It's kind of technical, but the short version is, in Western music the
metric component to the thing is called compound duple, groups of four
things or eight things, basically, and it's subdivided. It's really kind of a
funny way to do it. The older musical cultures think of music as either
being circular, like the Indians, or layered - layers of rhythms - like the
Africans, and we have this chopped up kind of thing. That's how they teach
it, that's how it's learned, and that's how you talk about it: this fraction
of this beat or this subdivision of this grouping. But what you wind up
getting with compound duple, when you have four things [holds up his
fingers of one hand splayed] is you have no center, and then you have
uneven spaces, and you either have a beginning- or an end-accented thing,
necessarily when you have two things, right? So if you have an unaccented
pulse [slaps lap], and then you accent the first part [ONE two ONE two ONE
two rhythm] it kind of tends to plod or slow down. If you accent the other
part [one TWO one TWO...] and you don't think about it for a minute, it's
turned back into, you know, "ONE two, ONE two." It turns around. So in
compound duple, where we're kind of forced to think, stuff either falls
back or falls forward.
In the last couple of years, I started looking at all the even divisions as
being groups of odd divisions anyway, so eight, for me, for example, is like
five and three. If you look at five things and three things, then you've got a
center for the five and you've got a center for the three, and you've got
even spaces, and so it's just a different way to look at it. If you take five
and three, and you accent the middle of the five and you accent the middle
of the three, you have backbeat anyway so you wind up with the same
stuff. It's just a different feeling, but then once you're that far, what's
the problem with five or seven? [He demonstrates on his lap]
It all grooves if it's got a backbeat, except the backbeats are now in the
middle of the thing. It's all odd anyway, so when stuff's odd, especially if
I don't know it's supposed to be odd, I don't have any problem with it. It
doesn't bother me that much. But when I know it's "in seven" - and so
much of that Grateful Dead stuff that I'm working on right now is in odd
time signatures and odd bars - it's confusing to have to think of it first,
but it's fun to just hear it and play it.
It sounds a little bit like the way, in visual arts, asymmetry can be
sometimes more appealing than symmetry. Those regular, even, perfectly
divided things can seem less interesting.
Yeah, the odd numbers in music, whether it's pitches or beats, tend to be
the ones that seem symmetrical.This seems to be the way most of the
primitive music was generated. If you have a central, starting pitch,
[holds out hand palm down] and you go a note above that [points] and a note
below the starting pitch [points], and you go one more note above or below
that [points to both], you wind up with a pentatonic scale. So it's just a
starting pitch and then pitches on either side of that ... and repetition at
the octave. So that's where the melody's been for the last couple million
Is it time for it go somewhere else?
OK, just checking.
I think it's part of the human condition that we hear it that way.
Limitations, Thresholds, Goals
Can you describe any of your limitations as a musician or thresholds that
you might not have crossed, that you find still waiting for you to get
Oh, yeah. There's a million of them. Most have to do with writing. I always
wish I was writing more. I try real hard to write, man. I come up with,
you know, shit.
What makes you think you should write more?
Well, if I could write like a hundred tunes right now, and any of them were
any good at all, then in twenty-five years one of 'em would be a
toothpaste commercial and my kids would get mailbox money. That's why!
That's one reason. The other thing is that, improvisational music - which
is what I enjoy, I enjoy improvising - even with recording, kind of dies
with the improvisor. The improvisor goes, and there goes that music. It's
different if you somehow manage to wheedle your way into the literature.
It seems like that would have a little more enduring impact. One of the
reasons any of us do this at all is because we want to have more good
music in the world. It's nice to think that you've contributed something.
Anything else you'd like to be able to do?
I don't get enough practice playing through changes. That's another part of
the writing thing, because I think that there are some areas where there
might be something to add, in terms of just having some interesting
"blowing changes" for people to play over. What else? Play more
instruments. Play a decent blues. Sometimes I can play it a little bit.
Are all the instruments you play stringed instruments?
I used to play the saxophone, and the flute, and the piano, keyboard stuff. I
used to do that more when I was younger. I was never really any good at it,
but I dug trying it. I just kind of got stuck with the guitar. I love playing
the lap guitar, Hawaiian guitar stuff.
That's a lot of fun.
When you pick up a stringed instrument but not one you've played before,
how much carries over from what you already know how to do?
It's not that different. If I really decided I wanted to play mandolin, I
could. If I really decided I wanted to play
that might not work. The violin's pretty different.