Phil Lesh explains how Miles Davis and John Coltrane inspired The Grateful Dead


Phil Lesh will team up with Wilco’s Nels Cline and Jeff Tweedy for a unique “PHILCO” show on August 26 at the Sacred Rose Festival in Chicago. For the perennial 82-year-old, gigging with Cline and Tweedy continues a collaboration-based career spanning more than six decades, beginning with The Grateful Dead.

As he explained during our recent chat, The Dead was built on the musical unions he saw in two of the greatest jazz combos of all time, fronted by Miles Davis and John Coltrane.

“The basic inspiration for The Grateful Dead was the Miles [Davis] Quartet with Coltrane or the Trane quartet of the early sixties. So that was pretty much the inspiration for how we approach our music,” Lesh said.

Collaboration, as well as creating discourse through music, why his love for performing live never waned, politics were just a few of the topics we discussed in a fascinating conversation.

Steve Baltin: One of the things that Mickey Hart and I discussed for his Drum Circle album was the importance of unity. And you left the road, we talk a lot about collaboration. So how important is it to be out there and practice unity and collaboration at a time when we are more divided than ever?

Phil Lesh: Yeah, that’s obviously the most important thing we can do right now globally. So here is. I’m really happy to do this. But I always thought that in a way, in terms of The Grateful Dead, the medium is the message in the sense that when you see us playing music and collaborating and making music together, making music that doesn’t has never been done before, there is always a new element in it. The message I see giving to everyone is that you could do it too. In other words, we demonstrate the power of collaboration in an area of ​​human activity. And no matter what your industry, you can get those same kinds of results by collaborating with your peers.

Baltic: It’s so interesting to me, because I had just done an interview a few months ago with Danny Boyle, the director who made the FX series Gun, all about the Sex Pistols. One of the things that came out of that is part of what inspired people about the Pistols or a band like the Ramones is that there was that kind of simplicity and it made you think that you could do it. And The Grateful Dead musically are so much more complex, but the idea was that it could inspire everyone to do the same.

Lesh: Yeah, but that doesn’t mean anyone can start this band and make music. But people could start a business and create a new product or software that has never existed before and that fills a need. And that, you will see that if you look back, you see that this has been happening at least in Silicon Valley for 50 years.

Baltin: I spoke to Patti Smith who is close to your age. And she talked about how she had never seen her so divided. So it’s so interesting that we’re talking about collaboration at a time when politicians are a disaster.

Lesh: Yeah. I don’t understand how they get up in the morning, put on their shoes. You know what I mean?

Baltin: So do you think music can hopefully, at least for a few hours, bridge those divides and get people talking in a way that we can maybe regrow some brain cells?

Lesh: Yeah. I think as the music plays, it engenders a sense of unity in our community. Beyond that, when the music stops, it’s the same old country divided. So it’s great that the music has that power but there has to be something more I think for it to stick.

Baltin: It’s interesting that you say we would do this if people knew how to do it. Unfortunately, many people today want to talk and don’t want to listen.

Lesh: That’s the key. It’s like evolving spiritually, you have to want to do it, and you have to work to do it. You have to be active to do that and I agree that most people prefer to sit comfortably in their own set of values ​​and condemn anyone who doesn’t believe the same things they do. And it’s true on all sides, no one is safe from that.

Baltin: You talked about how The Grateful Dead was a collaboration. Do you remember the first show you saw as a kid where you felt like anyone could do that?

Lesh: I got it from the Grateful Dead, I didn’t get it from any other source.

Baltin: For you, who are the artists who best illustrate the collaboration?

Lesh: The basic inspiration for The Grateful Dead was the Miles Quartet with Coltrane or the Trane quintet of the early sixties. So that was pretty much the inspiration for how we approach our music. It was the cautious and exuberant freedom they had, the way they listen to each other and how everyone improvises at the same time, there is nothing set in stone. I heard a performance of the Trane Quintet in 1962, in San Francisco. It totally transformed my life and my vision of music, because it never stopped evolving. It kept changing and evolving and yet you were always aware of where you had come from. It was the best thing I ever heard [chuckle]. And I grew up in the classical music scene, so I didn’t know how deep improvised music could go and how powerful it could be and it really opened my eyes, my ears, my heart.

Baltin: You are doing this festival in Chicago with Wilco. Do you see how this first inspiration from listening to the Trane Quintet or the Miles Quartet still influences you today?

Lesh: Absolutely, it’s like a fundamental part of how I approach the music that I make. It was the transformative experience. And I kind of tried to live up to that.

Baltin: You say you tried to live up to it. Are there times when you can look back where you achieved that perfection?

Lesh: Yes, it does happen, but they are transient and rarely last very long. If they do, that’s unusual. When you’re in the middle of this and it’s all happening, you’re not really there as an individual consciousness, you’re just a conduit. Your personality kind of disappears.

Baltin: As a writer, you just hit those moments and it’s like you don’t know where they come from, you just enjoy them.

Lesh: Yeah, exactly. It is a kind of gift and your duty is not so much to enjoy it or benefit from it, but to pass it on.

Baltin: What made Wilco the right group to collaborate on this project?

Lesh: What we’re doing this year is just opening it up. Post COVID we have been closed for so long and really wanted to be aware. We have our team here, my son, Grahame; our road manager, Molly and my wife Jill. And we brainstorm various ideas of lineups and everything. So it kind of came up in one of those sessions, “Hey, let’s do something with Wilco.” Because Nels Cline came to sit with us at camp a few years ago and it was a really cool experience. So it looks like now we’re going to have Nels sitting through the whole set, and then Jeff’s going to come in and sing a few songs from time to time during the set. So that’s far as we know now.

Baltin: Do shows like this keep the music fresher for you?

Lesh: Yeah, I can be surprised, I can be amazed, I can laugh with delight at something absurd that someone is playing. So yes, all of the above.

Baltin: Will Jeff sing Dead songs or Wilco songs? Or is it a mixture?

Lesh: We’re in negotiations on that right now and so we’ll settle that before the show starts, I guarantee that.

Baltin: You toured so many years ago with Bob Dylan, who of course did the same with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and with The Band. So does it continue that legacy of working with different musicians and opening yourself up musically?

Lesh: Yeah, and also opening up these other musicians to Grateful Dead music.

Baltin: I really discovered the Dead for the first time Dedicated because there were a lot of bands I became friends with who covered Dead songs on them. Can you understand that Dead music was so broad for everyone?

Lesh: Yeah, I really appreciate that and it gives me hope that the songs at least will last, and that they’ll still be playing the songs for quite a while. And it gives me great pleasure to contemplate that.

Baltin: Are there any songs you missed playing live?

Lesh: Oh, I missed playing everything. I constantly missed playing live.

Baltin: When you go on stage and see that, how much does it inspire you as a musician?

Lesh: Oh, it’s like a big jolt of good vibes, I’ll tell you. I was amazed at the intensity of the audience response and the welcome they gave us, they were really happy to be there together out of COVID. It was a bit shocking actually, I didn’t really expect it.


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