Jeff Mattson Interview

Red Rocks 9/8/19

My guitar playing began—well, it’s kind of a cliché now, but I saw The Beatles on Ed Sullivan.  And even though I was quite young—I was about six years old—It was the first time I realized what coolness was. I couldn’t articulate it, but I said, oh, that’s cool, you know.  And it wasn’t really—especially at six, it wasn’t about the women screaming or anything like that.  I just thought playing guitars and singing rock and roll seemed really cool.

So when I was probably, I think, 11 or 12, I started to pick up the guitar a little bit and I learned, you know, the basic chords and, you know, would sit in my room and play Bob Dylan songs and Beatles songs the best that I could do; and I had a little foray into playing bass for a little while, just because my father, you know, ever the practical musician (Jeff’s father played bebop trumpet and piano), said, If you learn to play bass, you’ll always have a gig, basically. You know, guitar players are a dime a dozen and good bass players are hard to find.  And, again, I was very young, but I liked it.  But, you know, I was drawn to the whole lead guitar thing. I don’t know what particularly about it.  I think because of my love of melody.  Plus, the guitar is something you can always play and accompany yourself.  It’s the instrument to play if do you don’t have anybody to play with. Kind of makes a lot of sense on its own.

So I was playing guitar, you know, very—on a very amateur level, very—and then when I was about 14, my family moved from Queens out to Nassau County, Long Island, and I was kind of a shy kid, so it took me a really long time to make friends.  So I took advantage of the fact that I, you know, wasn’t hanging out with people at the school every day.  And I took guitar lessons, jazz guitar lessons, and I took it very seriously, and was practicing two to three hours a day after school.  So I made great strides in a very short time, the kind of thing where people would say, how long have you been playing guitar and I’d say, you know, a year, two years.  And, wow, you play… now, not so much, you know.  I’ve been playing guitar, you know, for 45 years or whatever (laughter).  So I was studying jazz; but my heart was still in rock and roll.  I was able to apply what I learned from one to the other, regardless.  And, you know, that started an obsession of mine that continues to today. 

Photograph by © Bob Minkin

I kind of initially discovered the Grateful Dead on my own.  I think it was around like 1970.  And I remember taking Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty out of the library, of all places.  I’d heard “Truckin’” and “Casey Jones” and I liked them.  Then a friend loaned me a reel to reel tape of Anthem, and I remember listening to it and saying, ‘Whoa, I’m not ready for that yet.’   I thought it was amazing, but I —  it was just too intense for me.  Needless to say I came back to that later.  But, you know, after hearing —you’re thinking one thing when you hear American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead and then Anthem is a whole ‘nother thing.  And then I was into it, and then I got I got Skull and Roses when it came out.  I loved that, I loved that so much, but the one that really put me over the top was Europe ’72, and I just was obsessed with that record, all six sides of it. 

And then I finally I got to see the Grateful Dead.  My first show was in September of 1973 in Nassau Coliseum and of course that seals the deal for me, because I saw how it sounded exactly like the Grateful Dead, but it was completely different at the same time.  It wasn’t the solos they played on the record.  It was the same songs, had the same vibe to it, but everybody was playing different stuff and having grown up in a jazz family, that sounded about right to me.  You know, aside from The Beatles and The Stones, I had been attracted to bands like Cream and Hendrix that jammed.  I thought that was great.  But, man, just seeing them live and, you know, hearing “China Cat” and just saying, oh, this is all different notes than what they played on Europe, that’s amazing.  You know.  I know that’s off-putting to some people, you know, fans of the Eagles want to hear the same solos as on the records.   That’s really how I got into it.  And, you know, I go to see them every chance I get and it, of course, it got easier as I got older when I could travel on my own…

I was actually in a Dead cover band in I want to say 1977, ’78, just the first band I was in that played gigs.  You know, not that many, but we would play in barrooms on Long Island, wherever they would hire us and work for the door. That was called Wild Oats.  And my brother was in that band and another guitar player who I ended up playing with later—but when my brother went off to college that kind of fizzled and I was looking for something to do and the other guitar player was a guy named Bob Strano.  He answered an ad in the paper for a Grateful Dead cover band called The Volunteers.  At that point, there were maybe one or two Grateful Dead cover bands.  It wasn’t a big thing like it is today.  So it was kind of a bizarre idea.  I loved the music.  I was that obsessed with it particularly at that age.  So he went to audition for the band and they wanted him in the band.  He did the Bob Weir thing, and he said he would join the band but they had to get rid of the lead guitar player and get me in the band.  So I joined that band and went to work five, six nights a week in Long Island bars playing Grateful Dead.  And eventually we started adding some of our own tunes in there.  People came and went in the band.  And at some point, I think in the late 80s, without going into a whole long story, we changed the name and we came up with the Zen Tricksters.  And I think at that point, only I remained from the original lineup of The Volunteers.  And, you know, we don’t play a lot, but we still do a few Zen Trickster shows every year.  Just celebrated our 40th anniversary.

It was always part of the thing with the Zen Tricksters that we did Grateful Dead and our own tunes and any other covers we thought fit in the vibe.  You know?  The Band, Dylan songs, whatever, Richard Thompson, anything, but the problem was when we tried to interest people in our original music— I mean, I’m not objective enough to say whether it was the quality of the music or not—But people were really just interested in us as a Grateful Dead cover band, because they thought we did it so well.  This is, of course, when the Grateful Dead still existed.  When the Dead weren’t around, they came to see our band, and it was the social scene and we did it really well.  We were kind of the house band at the Wetlands in New York City.  You know, I think we played there more than any other band.  And so it was always this double‑edged sword.  We couldn’t get—we couldn’t get anybody in the original world to really pay us much mind, because we just got written off as a Dead cover band.  And, meanwhile, the audience—we had a good following.  What was bringing people in the door largely was, I think, playing Grateful Dead.  So that probably was what kept us from having more success than we did, I think, because the band I thought was great.

Then we got to playing with Donna Jean and that I think gave us more creditability; but it was the same deal.  And long story short, when the job offer came around for Dark Star Orchestra, I wasn’t really sure if I should.  At first, I was filling in for John Kadlecik and it was really fun playing with those guys.  You know, they had all those bases covered, all the equipment and the truck and it was just kicking it off to the next level for me; and I really grew to love it, you know, and they took it very seriously.  We did all the different eras of Grateful Dead music.  And I knew all that stuff, so I found it really attractive, and it was also wonderful to be playing at theaters instead of barrooms all the time. So it really turned out to be a wonderful thing.

One of the amazing things that’s happened with DSO is that I’ve gotten to play some of Jerry’s guitars.  I had the privilege on a couple of occasions of playing Wolf on the East Coast in Boston, which was a complete treat to me.  What a beautiful guitar.  Plugged it in and it was ready to go.  I didn’t have to change any knobs or anything.  It just sounded great.  And that was actually the first guitar I saw Garcia play.  My first show was one of the first shows he ever played Wolf at.  But The Guitar, for me, was that one from Europe ’72.  I just loved the sound of that guitar and I became a Stratocaster guy on the basis of it.  About 1977 I bought a new Stratocaster, you know, the same finish and everything with the maple neck like Alligator and it was the Holy Grail to me to play that guitar and I just love the—Jerry’s playing and the sound of the band from that time, you know, ’72, ’73 particularly.  I just never thought I’d get a chance to play that guitar.  I mean, it wouldn’t have presented itself.  And, of course, we were doing a Europe ’72 show that night at the Warfield.  And I love those shows.  It’s magical.  I think probably the best tour they ever did. And that’s coming from someone who saw a lot of the shows in May ’77, which were great also.  But it’s not a competition.  They’re great too, but I love that year of ’72 stuff.  So to have that guitar in my hands was just so magical.  And then to plug it in and just hear that sound.  Wow, I mean, you know, it still gives me a frisson to this day, you know, thinking about it.  Playing it, we had the first set with the short songs, and then the second set it got really stretched out and we really put it through its paces. What a joy.

Photograph by © Bob Minkin

I certainly got more comfortable as the night went on; and I also—the magic of playing it is actually a little bit of a distraction at first, you know.  I’m playing it and I keep thinking I’m playing it. And you have to live in the moment. And, you know, the feeling of I want to honor that guitar and I want to make sure I play the best show I can and that’s the kind of thinking that takes you right out of the moment.  You know?  So it took a little while to get comfortable enough to kind of forget, in a way, that I was playing it and just get off on the pure music, playing it; so as I forgot who I was and what I was doing, I got more and more confident. Only thing that can go wrong then is if you stop to think, wow, this sounds good and then you fall out of the moment.

Pandemic Update

At first it seemed like it kind of crept up on us, as to how long it was going to be. First, we thought oh it’s going to be a couple of weeks, and maybe a couple of months and before you know it, you hear people talking about nobody is going out until 2022. You know, so it was merciful in a way to let you get used to it in stages. But we were lucky that we did get some shows in the beginning of the year and then we were able to get the shows in in the fall. We did 13 shows. Outdoors, socially distanced, mostly people in their cars-type shows.

I hate to—it was such a terrible thing, the pandemic; but it was actually kind of nice to have some time off, extended time off, because I haven’t had… it was just wonderful to be here with my wife and enjoy our time together. Of course, it was frightening what was going outside our door you know, and particularly early on here in New York City it was pretty severe. So you know that was never far from our thoughts. But you know I’ve been on the road for—I’ve been doing gigs for all of 40 years, so it was very good for my psyche to have a little time off. 

Early on I decided that I needed to have some kind of routine and some kind of focus. So I started doing these Facebook solo concerts every two weeks, like I would go on a Sunday afternoon at four o’clock and I would go and play for 45 minutes and you know I did a couple of them with Tom Circosta of the Zen Tricksters and a couple with Skip Vangelas from DSO. Most of them were to be solo, so I had to—I really never did play a lot of solo acoustic. I played a lot of acoustic, but always in a group, so it was a fun challenge for me to interpret whatever songs I was going to play to get the most out of it so I would still be soloing and accompanying and singing and all that instead of just taking the simplest route of strumming the song and singing it, you know. So early in the two week period I would figure out what I was going to play and then I would work on it and polish it up. It kept me playing the guitar every day which was a very good thing, and I love to play acoustic guitar and I don’t get to do it often enough professionally at this time in my career, so I enjoy that thoroughly; but, yeah, I played guitar every day.

Our drive-in shows were a little bizarre, you know, it was like playing to a parking lot. Not like performing live in front of an audience at all. And at the end of tunes people would honk their horns instead of clapping, so it sounded like 5:30 in the Lincoln Tunnel. We weren’t masked on stage when we were singing, although I have seen people doing that; but in the fall we were wearing masks backstage, everybody was being very careful. We were not traveling in the bus, because the thought of slamming 13 people into a bus was a little too close quarters. We broke it down into rent-a-cars to get around. Since we started playing again this year, everybody’s vaccinated, so we’ve loosened it up a little bit, but we’re still being a little isolated from the audience.

Thinking about it, I’ll admit I just wish that our collective response had been a little more focused. Even now there are people that are not getting vaccinated or getting one of the two shots, I don’t really understand it. We really need to get this behind us as soon as possible. The other blessing I had from this time was that I got to write a whole bunch of songs, in collaboration with my wife, Randi. She’s writing lyrics and she has written a whole bunch of new songs. I think that was the really nice benefit from the whole thing.