Interview with Grahame Lesh

McNALLY: When did it dawn on you that most kids did not grow up sitting on stages at stadiums? 

LESH: I’ve been asked lot of variations of this question  

McNALLY: Sorry 

LESH: before. No, no, no, but that’s a specific way of putting it, because I think I realized pretty early on that we had a unique experience growing up, my brother and I; but I’m not sure that I knew the extent of it until I was probably an adult. I was eight when Jerry passed away and so it was my more formative years later in middle school and high school and whatnot, when the Grateful Dead wasn’t the cultural force that it is even now. It was more underground or the internet didn’t let me know, you know, it was small enough that I didn’t know that those people weren’t connecting the same way. 

So the extent to which these people that I knew, my dad and our family and our friends were these huge cultural forces, didn’t really dawn on me until much later. I would probably say until around Fare Thee Well. Because all these people came out of the woodwork who I would have never expected to be Dead Heads before. People from all other, not just genres of music, but types of people. Like all these skater punk bands or like friends who were into those bands who were like secretly Dead Heads. And they had been the whole time. They knew the lingo. They knew the stuff. They just weren’t open and out about it or I just didn’t know. 

When I was in high school and around then in the early 2000s, and late 90s and stuff, my dad’s bands, Phil and Friends, were on a much smaller level playing Grateful Dead music in different ways than the Grateful Dead used to do them based on who was in the band; and so having all these Dead cover bands like a JRAD become a huge festival band based on their interpretation of this music and mixing it with other music, just doing different cool things with the music, it just really hammered home how much it was a repertoire that was just tied to American music. 

Photograph © Bob Minkin

My brother and I took piano lessons starting when we were pretty young and learned piano and music theory; but it was almost like just part of our education. There were pianos around the house and there were guitars and stuff like that; but I think my dad was I’m sure he practiced, it was more just that he would write music or score stuff. I’m thinking back to when he wrote or conducted a symphony. At some point I got my own little, you know, squire Stratocaster, you know, super short scale for young folks, and a little amp and just sort of switched right on over from piano to guitar. We listened to a lot of like a lot of Grateful Dead stuff was around, usually the albums, not live stuff, like I remember listening to “Uncle John’s Band” from Workingman’s a lot. Grateful Dead have such great melodies that are sort of I don’t know if primal is the right word, but they definitely appeal to kids, singsongy melodies that you feel were always there in the ether. So I think a lot of those songs sort of stuck with me as a kid, too, but you know, I think some of that came from the people around us and the family, maybe not what my dad was listening to. He was listening to a lot of classical music and jazz around the house, and when Phil and Friends started getting going in ’99, past that, we listened to a lot of music from the folks who were going to be joining the various bands. 

I got into a lot of Allman Brothers and Gov’t Mule and Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks and Jimmy Herring when they started playing with Phil and Friends. And then at that point I’m 14, 15 and getting into my own things. Punk rock or a little bit of hip hop and sort of branching out and finding your own identity as a music person. I sort of had a few friends I would play with in high school; and then in college I met a few more folks that—it’s pretty easy in a college dorm to find other people who play instruments and just be like, hey, we should spend our time trying to make some music. So I had a few bands in college too and beyond, but I’m not sure that I expected to do this as a living until around when my folks started Terrapin Crossroads; and Midnight North, which wasn’t called Midnight North at the time—it was starting right around the same time in 2012. We had a gig all the time. 

You can play in a garage or rehearsal space as much as possible and that’s what all my college bands did. We played all the time. We practiced all the time. We didn’t have that many gigs and when we did, a lot of them would be frat parties and we would be playing classic rock covers and that’s cool, but this new band, writing our own music and also learning this Grateful Dead, this American music catalog that all the other musicians at Terrapin Crossroads were bringing in from, Bakersfield Country to the Band to all the Bob Dylan songs, and the Stones and old blues songs and all that stuff is just being brought by— unique music being brought by everyone who plays it in the Terrapin bar and plays it to everyone else. We were able to just plug in and get this download of this amazing music from all these musicians at our level. And also all these great touring musicians who would come through, Neal Casal and and John Gray above, and, you know, all these great folks that you know, Warren and Jimmy would stop by and Bob (Weir), you know, like Mark Karan, all these great players in our scene would just be coming down. So we’re all learning from that and Midnight North is starting at the same time and we were able to learn so much and grow so much as a band so quickly that I started believing I could do this as a career. 

So Midnight North, when we started, it grew out of a band that I was in. Our original drummer, a guy named Eric Saar, was in all my college bands and so that band was coming to its natural end and we met Connor late in that time and he knew Elliott. We started jamming, the three of us, me, Conner and Elliot. We hit it off singing, especially Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris songs we were both getting into at the time, just sort of naturally. And I had five or six songs, and she had five or six songs, this is late 2011, early 2012, and that became our first album, End of the Night where we were a foursome; and so it’s been basically the three of us. Eric didn’t didn’t end up staying with the music thing. He got a great new job and decided to stay with that once we started touring—a bunch of other great players came and went and then we met Nathan Graham. He played in John Kadlecik’s band for a really long time, I actually met him through John, and he’s our drummer now. As of early July (2020), we were very close to finishing our new album which we mostly tracked in January, but had to…pause a little. Now we’re starting to dig a little deeper into actually finishing it up, but, yeah, it’s been great to get to this current lineup. It feels great with the four of us. 

We’re not done tracking yet. We just put out a single. One song was basically done, so we had our wonderful producer, David Simon Baker, mix up one of the songs. It’s called “Good Days” and that’s out and on all the platforms as a single. And the rest of it is in progress. I would estimate around, a little over 90 percent done, before, you know, mixing it and everything. We’re hoping to get it out in the fall or sometime around then. Obviously, the timing with quarantine and the pandemic threw everything in all directions, so we’ll see when that ends up happening; but it’s been nice to have something to work on throughout all this, even if, you know, we can’t get together and back in the studio. 

McNALLY: Is Midnight North as as committed to improvisation as the Grateful Dead? 

LESH: Probably not. Improvisation is a word that can mean a lot of things when you’re talking about Grateful Dead music, because they were inherently improvisatory and in so many different aspects, but they were also pretty set in their ways in good and bad ways. Like they would play some songs the same way and, you know, there are certain aspects of music like, for example, vocal harmonies that I think it’s probably not the greatest thing to be improvisatory about. 

Structure of a certain kind is good. So with Midnight North, we don’t like to call ourselves a jam band. I don’t think the Grateful Dead felt proud of themselves as that either. We are a band who can jam a little bit, but we’re trying to write songs that move us. And if we have to play the songs the same way every time to get it to move us, then we’re fine with that. You know. Three of us, Nathan, our drummer, and Elliot and I are also in my dad’s Terrapin Family Band, along with Ross James, Alex Koford, and Jason Crosby and we kind of get a lot of our improvisational time there. 

Midnight North, for all of our songs we tend to record them a little more straightforwardly without instrumental breaks that we think might be a little unnecessary for the recorded process. But we do leave what I like to call escape valves, so we have the option live to be a little more improvisatory and I think you can have the spirit of improve in everything you do, even if you are putting some structure around what you’re doing. And then, you know, playing off of that structure is, I think, how you get the most interesting improv anyway. Just completely structureless music can also be great; but that’s a different kind of difficult. I think it’s just trying to put our best foot forward, which to us, I think, is our singing and our songs. But yeah, Midnight North does like to jam. 

As far as Skull and Roses goes, Dead Heads are definitely everywhere and they could be everyone. I’m excited about the lineup. Obviously, I know Stu Allan really well and we know the Cubensis folks and some of the other bands who have done some of the more recent lineups. But it’s really cool to see Circles Around the Sun and Ghost Light and obviously I love Oteil and Jackie (Greene). Just some friends who are expanding what the festival’s about as well, people who have a cool connection to the Grateful Dead. It’s just going to be pretty cool to experience a festival in general. And, hopefully, I will have— we all will have experienced a little bit more of live music safely by the time April comes around; but who knows. And if this is the first one we get to do, then it’s going to be a lot of fun.