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We Three Kings: Phil Lesh, Warren Haynes and John Bell

January 03, 2014

In honor of our 250th issue, we moderated a discussion among three of our scene’s leading lights to discuss the past, present and future of the musical environment that Relix emerged from some 40 years ago. While that environment is constantly changing—as new bands explode onto the scene and older bands fade away—Phil Lesh, Warren Haynes and John Bell continue to push creative and improvisational envelopes.

A quick glance at their respective touring schedules this summer is a good indicator of how tenacious these artists remain in their desire to play—and, most important, to improvise—in front of large audiences. For fans able to attend festivals such as Mountain Jam or Lockn', it was possible to see all three of these musicians during one weekend.

Here, they provide insight into the artistic process both onstage and offstage while also reflecting on their own journeys.

Who were your role models at the onset of your career and how have they changed over time?

WARREN HAYNES: For me, personally, it’s a strange question to answer because I look at role models in different ways. As an example, I took a lot of cues from Miles Davis in the way of not always doing what people expected you to do, not ever being happy with what you are doing and looking for the next thing to make you happy. But, I don’t think that would make him a role model, so to speak.

My dad was at work from the time I woke up in the morning—he would call to wake me up to go to school and he would work till sometimes 10 or 10:30 at night, so there were a lot of times my two older brothers and myself were fending for ourselves because my dad was paying the bills and we were raised predominantly by him. My folks divorced when I was really young, so I’m sure a lot of my work ethic came from him and a lot of my sense of what integrity is.

JOHN BELL: Anyone from George Carlin to Van Morrison—that would probably be a succinct enough answer. And that hasn’t really changed over time. George Carlin would play on words and roll with that kind of imagination, and then somebody like Van Morrison—who’s rock and roll but has realized there’s more of a jazz and spiritual influence, and definitely a stream ofconsciousness kind of thing—the way he approached music.

PHIL LESH: My artistic heroes were Charles Ives and John Coltrane. They remain so.

Talk about the last time you felt musically challenged or felt like you were working without a net. Is there a defining moment in the past two years?

LESH: That happens to some extent every night that we play. There’s always some moment where you feel like you’ve stepped into an empty elevator shaft, as Coltrane said about playing with Monk. There’s no favorite show and no favorite song—it’s beyond all that. It's meta all of that. Everything else is secondary. What else could reach that level of necessity? That’s my reason for existence.

HAYNES: The scared part—let’s talk about the Jerry Garcia Symphonic Celebration—starting with the fact that I was a nervous wreck going into it because I have never worked with a symphony or put myself in a situation where there were moments where improvisation was not an option. Fast-forward to the first night we did “Stella Blue,” which was in Raleigh, [when] I added a bar in the bridge like I am prone to do. I had sung that song many times with Phil Lesh & Friends and The Dead, and it was always one of those things where if you added a bar, the band would follow you and it was no big deal. The symphony doesn’t do that. So the next thing you know, there [are] opposing sections of the same song being played simultaneously. [Laughs.]

BELL: I’d say just last night I felt musically challenged. You just got to face it. We went up without a soundcheck and it didn’t feel like my hands were connected; [like they weren’t] speaking to each other properly for the first couple of songs—that happens. It happens when you play golf, too, if you get out on the golf course without hitting a few practice shots. The only time working without a net was back in the day when I played by myself because beyond that, after meeting Mike [Houser] and Dave [Schools] and the rest of the guys, all of a sudden, there’s your net. There’s strength in numbers as far as that goes.

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