We Three Kings: Phil Lesh, Warren Haynes and John Bell
How important is it for bands to record albums for physical release in this age of live shows and digital releases?
LESH: I frankly don’t think there’s any reason to do it. I don’t want to do it myself. That said, I think [with my sons] Grahame and Brian and their bands, so far, what they do is they will make a record and they will distribute it digitally and they will also have CDs that they sell at their shows. That seems to be the model that they’re following. There are so many potential avenues of distribution that really, you can’t single out one that’s superior to the other.
HAYNES: I don’t know how important it is—it seems more important to me than it probably is in reality because I grew up with vinyl records, gatefolds, oversized artwork, concept records and the idea of an album being a collection of songs that were intentionally put together. But, some fans don’t view it the same way. I have a theory that we are in a similar place right now—not so much that I operate in but culturally speaking, in the music business and the world of commercial music—to where it was in the mid-‘60s prior to Sgt. Pepper’s.
I’m hoping that is what is going to happen because, you know, if I were a 15-year-old kid and I decided to download The Dark Side of the Moon, if I just started with one of the songs, I might not get it—but if I listen to the whole thing the way it was intended, I would definitely get it.
BELL: It’s important because it’s fun to work in the studio and it gives you a balance between playing live and doing the studio thing, which is more like a painting where you can sit there and add paint and mix colors and do basically whatever you want, for however long you want, till you dig what’s going on, on the canvas. And with a live performance, that’s a one-shot deal. And I see great value in both of them. They support each other, too—the positive aspects of one lead to the other.
What impact do you think the proliferation of festivals has had over the jamband scene in the last decade?
LESH: It all began from a desire of musicians to play outside for people dancing under the sky and under the trees and at night under the stars. That’s
how it started with us in San Francisco playing for free in The Panhandle. As time went on, more people were attracted to that and it grew. The big difference now is it’s a commercial situation—people spend money and a lot of people make money—but it’s really not that different.
BELL: With festivals, you’ve got every kind of music coming together. Bonnaroo’s a great example: They mix up the lineup all the time—anywhere from The Police to Neil Young and Emmylou Harris. They had some hip-hop acts cooking over the years, Paul McCartney this last time—that one came out of left field for me. [Laughs.] The best thing about the festivals is that it brings all the different kinds of music together in one place for a weekend; folks can really get exposed to a great variety and, there again, it’s just bands.
LESH: It’s a great thing to see all the festivals springing up. It’s a really enjoyable way to see and hear music. I can see why they’re so popular. It also means more work for us and we’re very happy about that. The vibe of the people who are coming to the festival—they’re leaving their lives behind to come out and be a part of a community and just dig music and dig each other. It’s great and I hope it continues.
HAYNES: Festivals are a big part of the music scene in general these days because people can’t afford to go see every show they want to see, so a festival is an opportunity to see a lot of bands at once and get a lot of bang for your buck. Having said that, a lot of the festivals that started out as jamband festivals—at some point, they decided that in order to carry that into the future, they had to widen the scope and not make it strictly a jamband festival. Because if that were the case, you would have a lot of the same bands year after year. So why not add bands that are coming from a different direction? I know we’ve done that with our festival, Mountain Jam. But I think sometimes that philosophy can go a little bit too far, too. And the original concept gets diluted—but it’s not up to me to decide that.
BELL: The idea of jambands—that definition or image is kind of wearing thin. It’s becoming less [of ] a genre because folks are finding themselves musically, and bands are finding their own approach to music that makes everything—you know, all the bands are different from each other, so it’s almost not fair to try to fit them into a category like that. Personally, I go back to something standard like rock and roll, or blues or jazz. With those definitions, you can play your own type of music and express yourself in a unique fashion, but those genres are never diminished by the passage of time.
Does it surprise you that you have young fans?
HAYNES: We always hoped that would be the case. And it’s starting to happen more, largely because there are certain generations of music fans who feel they got ripped off and they’re starting to look backward. Teenagers are discovering Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd for the first time and it’s impacting them the way it’s impacting us. And we’re one of those bands that keeps all those things that made us play music in the first place alive. So, some young fans might get an experience at a Gov’t Mule show or [with] a Gov’t Mule record that they’re only gonna get from those kind of bands. And that’s a positive thing: It means that they’re listening open-mindedly and searching for more than just the immediate.
LESH: I’m very grateful for that but, to me, it shows the strength of the repertoire and of our approach to making music. If that’s what moves on into the future, then that’s a good thing.
BELL: I feel fortunate and I do notice it because as I get older, they still kind of look the same. [Laughs.] But I think every generation has a group of folks that really groove on not coming into things with expectations and to see something new unfold.