“This is the most comfortable I’ve [felt] going into a show all tour,” says John Mayer from inside an air-conditioned trailer as he gets ready to play the tiny (for him) Los Angeles club The Echoplex (capacity: 500) on July 26 as part of the Bud Light Dive Bar tour. “This, I know,” he adds.
Indeed, if there’s one thing Mayer excels at, it’s how to dazzle an audience. The singer, songwriter and guitar virtuoso has been doing just that while touring with Dead & Co., the Grateful Dead offshoot featuring original members Bob Weir, Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann, over the past two years. But he’s equally at ease sharing the stage with G-Eazy, Big Sean, and Alessia Cara, as he demonstrated during a 90-minute set highlighted by a scorching “Slow Dancing In A Burning Room,” and, with Cara, a cover of Erykah Badu’s “On And On,” her own “Stay,” and show closer, “Gravity.”
Variety caught up with the endlessly quotable Mayer before the show and talked about the hardships of touring, what he learned from Dead & Co., and how the 39-year-old has altered his lifestyle as he’s gotten older. Read on for highlights from the conversation.
It feels like survival is an operative word in 2017, but we’ll try and keep this on a lighter note.
Humanity finds its own lighter note. Here’s the thing, man, you gotta still have fun. It’s about finding a balance. We’ve got to figure out a way to rock out and do our thing, and live our lives, and find a certain time of the day to object. I think you have to put a new face on objection — and it is no longer radical. You can object, and then the next tweet [you share] can be a cat playing the piano, and that’s alright.
Is that where your tweet defending Justin Bieber’s tour cancellation came from?
I don’t really look it any other thing other than a seed thought, I’m not really considering the roll-out. With touring dates, you hope you do them all, and I don’t know his situation, but I appreciated the transparency. There are a hundred different reasons you can give for canceling a tour. I think the one that goes, “I think I’m done” is the bravest and healthiest one. You can’t send someone else to do the gig; you’ve got to do it. And at that age — I’m 39 and only now beginning to feel like I can weather the storm. You have to apply a certain amount of grace to younger people, who are developing into that.
How do you handle the strains of the road?
I’ve been doing this since March and I’m working overtime to rest. If you want to do this for a living as an adult, resting becomes your other love. We’ve only got one of each artist … and you have to go back in the shop for repairs and rest up so you can do it again. … You spend your life on the road and the road is horrible, it’s what we put up with to be able to play.
Metallica’s Lars Ulrich recently said something similar — that it’s all about the regiment of rest, working out, eating healthy.
It’s the only way to do it. I’m pulling double duty this year. The only way to get through it is to travel with your blanket and candles, and you get back to your room, put on Bill Evans, and you power down. I bought pajamas! If you want to know one thing about how a man changed his ways, I bought pajamas. I sleep on a medicinal pillow that elevates my esophagus so I don’t get acid reflux. We want to be able to hit the stage every night and have it feel like we feel in our heads.
Is it novel for you to do a club show as opposed to the stadiums you’ve played with Dead & Co.?
It’s a little bit like a basketball court. A basketball court is still the same size whether you’re on a playground or in an arena. And I feel the same way about a club. It’s like a street court. It’s regulation-height nets, the ball is still inflated the same way, and it tends to streamline the experience. One thing I remember how to do is that fiery, sweaty club thing. It’s exciting to exercise that muscle.
Your musical styles have evolved from project to project. How do you balance all the juxtapositions and give the John Mayer fan what he or she wants?
Artistically, I’ve got a lot of plates spinning. At first, it frightened me that I would be misunderstood. Then I realized there’s really nothing to understand or misunderstand. It’s all of it; it’s Dead & Co., it’s Paradise Valley, which is like a folk record, and it’s blues stuff with the [John Mayer] Trio. The breadth of that offering is what I think is going to keep the longevity going. It’s not an easy thing, even for me, to figure out what to do. I played a show last night and I saw someone write a comment about how they didn’t want to hear those same songs. And how do you balance one person saying, “I don’t want to hear all those hits” with someone else who says, ‘He didn’t play “Daughters.”‘ So I’ve taken my feelings out of the equation. That’s something Dead & Co. taught me to do: don’t worry about the audience. Care about them and love them but don’t worry about them as you’re playing — play what you want to play. I think it’s probably cooler to dedicate yourself to a certain amount of unknown. That’s what keeps people engaged — they’re not sure what they’re going to get. And I have to remember that because I’m a people-pleaser. I just need to know who the people are and what it would take to please them. And that’s too hard to come up with, so you might as well follow your own beat.