John Kadlecik Interview

John Kadlecik
John Kadlecik | Photograph © Bob Minkin

I picked up the guitar around 1984. I’d been studying violin for about five years. I was kind of one of those weirdo kids who taught himself everything. I taught myself how to read music when I was seven. I took that into sight-singing music—I was in a family that was going to church every Sunday, which was boring as hell except it gave me a chance to learn sight-singing harmonies off the hymnals… it was a nightmare things that my step mother dragged us into, one of those evangelical things with a four hour service every Sunday. 

When I was playing guitar, I dove into everything, and at that point, Led Zeppelin was the big draw. As a kid, I was into the Beatles, which was really, sadly really unpopular in the ‘80s.  The Grateful Dead were kind of around everywhere but I didn’t have anybody to turn me on to it until my first semester in college, at Harper College, a junior college in the Chicago suburbs. I was a music major and dropped out as soon as I started getting gigs.

It was a drummer friend who turned me on to the Dead, who’d also turned me on to pot and LSD, who said, “You gotta listen deeper than “Casey Jones” and “Truckin’.” He played Europe ’72 and Mars Hotel for me, and somewhere between “China Cat Sunflower” and “Unbroken Chain” I was hooked. I’d kind of been into this idea of new age music, but something that was a little dirtier—I liked the new age ideas, the new consciousness, really, but new age music isn’t really the same thing as new age philosophy. I was looking for some new kind of rock and roll, and then I saw the Dead, and realized that they’d been doing it.

John Kadlecik with Melvin Seals & JGB
John Kadlecik with Melvin Seals & JGB | Photograph © Bob Minkin

I was looking for loose ends and unburned trails in music, and there they were… in my high school years I had been all through transcribing solos from dozens of guitarists, but I’d intuited that it was what was in the hands that makes the tone, as opposed to gear, ‘cause I couldn’t afford gear (laughter).

It was really seeing them live a year later in 1989 and realizing that ‘oh, this is what it’s about.’ The live show is what it’s about. The songs are just snapshots for a keepsake for the year. Everything was growing and had its own bleeding edge, every song had its own bleeding edge for the moment. 

But my first show where I got to see them was the spring of 1989 at Rosemont Horizon. Went to the first and third shows and the middle show I was home going “What the hell am I doing here?”  

So I was going, “how do I integrate this into what I’m doing?” I had a band called Uncle Buffalo’s Urban Mountain Review, which had a regular weekly house gig in downtown Chicago, a punk hippie acoustic trio, I played mandolin and violin in it, I didn’t even play guitar. Then there was Hairball Willy, and when it blew up, the opportunity to join a local long-running Grateful Dead tribute band, “Uncle John’s Band,” came my way, and I jumped on it. 

It was like my first full-time music gig. But after a year, I was kind of disappointed. They had dialed themselves into the North Shore Chicago yuppie scene so much that there wasn’t much I could do. Hits, no long jams, no blues, no ballads…thirty songs a night in three one hour sets. Half the band had only seen the band once, and they weren’t even sure if they liked the band, but it was a good gig. A lot of guitarists playing Donald Fagen-type rock-jazz fusion stuff. Really tight, but didn’t understand what I called the “getting lost and found jam.” That’s what I called what the critics used to call noodling. 

One of the things I had done in Hairball Willie for kicks one time once was to cover a whole Grateful Dead second set and had a contest, getting people to figure out what set it was. It sort of struck me then that it would be a fun framework for a Dead cover band, a way to keep the applause hounds and money grubbers from burying the core roots music, the blues and folk music, and the ballads and the psychedelic jam… a way to create our own postgraduate study program. And that was the birth of Dark Star Orchestra. 

We’d get together on Tuesday nights every week, pick a set list, study what we could about it, and really the study approach wasn’t so much as find a show and try to transcribe it, as find three or four different versions of each song from the same year and figure out what hangs together about it. Really it was like, ‘what if they would take one of their shows and see what it would be like if they played the same set again the next day.’

To my mind Grateful Dead music is very intentional, they crafted a full-blown language like bluegrass or reggae, and yet somehow made it—managed to put it in a bigger box, while still incorporating elements of different idiomatic forms, like blues—“that’s definitely this thing, and here’s why.” 

There’s always been a thing of taking a song from a writer and doing it in their own style. There’s also the other side of it, there’s people who—say do a Grateful Dead song in a bluegrass style, you know, is no different from doing a bluegrass song in a Grateful Dead style. There’s an arranging character that happens with the Grateful Dead. A lot of musicians play parts together—really that comes from big band—but the polyrhythmic thing, which is really what Dixieland was, is what I’m after. I’ve heard David Crosby refer to the Grateful Dead as electronic Dixieland.

Improvisation is a huge territory, and almost everyone that plays any of the traditional forms—reggae, bluegrass, country, klezmer—or whatever are improvising. That’s my frustration with the jam band label. Beyonce’s band, when they play live, jam the fuck out of those tunes. To me, “jamband” is the sanitization of psychedelic rock. It’s just supposed to be music for the mind.

I try to explain to people I meet casually what the Grateful Dead is about—people who have no idea who they are. And I say they’re kind of like the American Rolling Stones, if you need a pop culture metaphor to understand their significance. They were the emergence of rock music as an adult art form. They were there at the beginning, transforming it from teenybopper music to a real American art form. And they’re really woven into the tapestry of Americana. There are hobos that still hop freights, and they might not know G.D. very much, but they do know “Ripple” and “Friend of the Devil.” I followed the hippie movement underground into the Rainbow Family. And in that scene, they refer to something called the heart song. An individual expression thing, your personal ultimate expression song. And to me, in many ways, the repertoire of the Grateful Dead, the body of songs is in many ways collectively the heart song of the American experience.