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Brent Mydland Interview, Two Years In

Grateful Dead, Nassau Coliseum 10.31.79 | Photograph © Bob Minkin

I interviewed keyboardist Brent Mydland for the first time on April 10, 1981, at the Grateful Dead office. He had been in the band for exactly two years. Here are some excerpts.

DG: Who are your influences, and who are your favorite players? What inspired you to get into playing music, aside from piano lessons when you were a kid? 

BM: I liked the Mothers. The first bands I got into, one of them was the Dead – their first album. Jefferson Airplane, Beatles. 

DG: Were you writing songs very early? 

BM: Sort of. There were jokes, a two-chord tune. In the ’70s I started listening to Herbie Hancock, Jimmy Smith, and I got out of trying to write and got into jamming and playing in club bands. I started getting back into rock in ‘74, ’75. I played in a horn band for a couple of years. After a while it got to be, “I’ll come back when the horns are done.” Everything was arranged around the horns.

DG: Did you play Hammond [organ] in those days? 

BM: Organ is what I actually started playing on. I started playing piano in bands around ’73. 

DG: Why don’t you use an acoustic piano with the Dead? 

BM: There’s no room for it. I used it on the acoustic sets… 

DG: What was it like doing “Saturday Night Live?” 

BM: I didn’t like it. It was weird. Anything but comfortable. The whole format of that show is – know what the two tunes you’re going to do are, wait while they run through the skits once [in dress rehearsal], okay it’s your time, you’ve got five minutes, get up there, do the tune, get off, wait for half an hour, five minutes, do another tune, come back off, then wait for the real thing. Then you go back up and do it for real. You can never really get into it – you just get out there and get used to the room and where people are, then it’s over with. 

DG: In a given Grateful Dead show, how many tunes do you have to get through before you’re really comfortable and can start cooking? 

BM: Just a couple. Usually, the first tune is a warmup. It depends on what we start out with. Sometimes it’s just right and we start out good. I don’t usually feel good when we start off with “Alabama,” ’cause I’m wondering what’s gonna work when I’m playing three different keyboards – the volume might not be right on one, the effects might not be right on another. There are too many variables. 

DG: Do you like being in this band? 

BM: Yeah! 

DG: Do you figure you’ll stay with them for a while? 

BM: We’ll see how long the band lasts. I’ll do it as long as they want me. 

DG: Tell me about joining.

BM: I got a call from Weir one night asking if I was interested. He said there was a possibility they would be looking for somebody else. I said, “sure.” I got a call a couple of weeks later saying they were definitely interested. So I listened to some tunes and came in and played with them. 

DG: What did you listen to? 

BM: Albums – listening to how they play, and figuring out how I’d fit in. The way they put it was, play it like you would play it. Now and then I’ll use some of Keith’s licks, because it seems like a natural part of the song, but more often than not I’m just playing myself. 

Bob told me some tunes they did, and I listened to Shakedown, learned some tunes that I didn’t need to: “If I Had the World to Give,” “France.” I listened to “I Need a Miracle,” “Terrapin.” 

I played with them once, and they decided to keep me around. We only went through three or four tunes. A couple of those weren’t even ones that I’d listened to. It was pretty much to see if I could play with them the way they play. I was a little on edge, but not a whole lot, because I just figured it’s either gonna work or it isn’t. There’s nothing you can do except just play like you play. 

It was comfortable. The couple of tunes I didn’t know, I fell into real easy. They played through them once and then we’d do them. 

DG: Are you musically an employee, or a full member? 

BM: Sort of like the full kid brother. I feel like a member. I think they’d put up with a couple of weirdnesses of mine. Everybody goes through their changes and has their ups and downs, and I’ve been through some downs, too. 

DG: Does it get crazy on you? 

BM: Sometimes it bothers me, but you have to kinda take it for being a joke, especially if it’s coming from like Kidd or Parish. They gotta grind anything in, and you have to consider the source. That’s what I do – consider the source. 

DG: Do Deadheads drive you up the wall? 

BM: Half of them don’t know who I am! Usually if they want to talk to me they want tickets, or something. I’ve been kind of leery about that whole scene.They don’t really bother me. They’ll ask me where Jerry is, if they know who I am – but half the time they don’t know who I am. “Do you work for the band?” I think half the people out there still think that Keith’s in the band. Seriously!