JP McLean—Melvin Seals & JGB
I grew up in LA, in Southern California. When I was young, my step-mom used to play guitar and sing and she kind of got me into singing harmonies. And I thought that was a real magical thing back then. I remember on car rides to camping trips, we would listen and harmonize to the music. I thought it was pretty cool how you could sing a different note and make something bigger out of it. I’m doing a lot of that now, and it’s still a magical experience for me. The blend that happens, it just creates this great feeling. It wasn’t until much later that I went to music school and learned how it works and the theory involved with it.
As a kid, my parents would play classic rock a lot, the Beatles, The Band, Bob Dylan. And they were kind of hippies, so we watched movies like Yellow Submarine. Then when I was in high school I got into grunge. I was into Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Stone Temple Pilots. And I started playing guitar, so I could play these Stone Temple Pilots songs. I got an acoustic guitar and I would skateboard to the Tower Records down the street, and they had these books full of guitar tablature. I would try to memorize the numbers and then kind of recite them to myself as I skateboarded back. And then I would get on the guitar—“Okay, that’s the first two chords of that song.”
Photograph © Rupert Coles
I took some private lessons, and later went to Musicians Institute in Hollywood for a couple years, which was geared toward performance. I was a guitar major and really into blues at the time. Then I went to Berklee College of Music in Boston. Looking around at Berklee, you would see all these great players and I was, you know, not the best technical player by a long shot. They have this rating system; they rate you on these four different categories and they use that number to put you in ensembles with like-skilled players, and my ratings were pretty low. I was like, well, I can’t really compete with these guys. I got to figure something else out. I guess I have always liked being in more of a support role anyway. So I got into arranging, where you kind of bring elements together rather than try to stand out. I learned how to write big band charts and orchestral scores, and make voicings for different combinations of horns, things like that. I thought I’d write for commercials and movies someday. I never really did much of that. I graduated as a guitar principal and a Contemporary Writing and Production major. I had always played bass a little in the background, and after I graduated, I just kind of became a full-on bass player.
My friend from Berklee, Jon Chi, lived in the Bay Area. We graduated in 2002, and he got a job at a studio (he’d been an engineering major) and he said, “just move on up here, I will teach you how to do this stuff. You can become a second engineer in a month or two and just work here at the studio. And we’ll play music together in the meantime.” We played in a band in Boston when we were there, called The Blend. And so I did move up, and I started doing second engineering on different sessions. The studio was in Forestville, In the Pocket Studio. One of the engineers there started working for Mickey Hart, who lived close by, and introduced me to him, and so I started working with Mickey. I was one on one with him most days for about six years. I’d record different things for him and edit. Mostly sitting in front of a Pro Tools screen, editing, trying different effects, just doing weird things that he wanted.
The path to JGB was kind of unrelated actually. Jon Chi and I were in a band called Rainmaker, and the keyboard player was Jordan Feinstein, and he and Pete Lavezzoli, the drummer at the time for JGB, would have these breakfasts together. One day at breakfast, Pete mentioned that they were looking for a bass player and Jordan recommended me. So Melvin just called me one day and invited me to come audition. I wasn’t really familiar with the material at the time. I was playing shows at Ashkenaz with Stu Allen occasionally, who I also met at Berklee, and when I told him I was going to try out with Melvin, he did a JGB night to help me get some of the material under my fingers.
So I showed up with notes for some of those tunes and played a couple songs, and Melvin hired me; this was in 2013. I was talking to Pete about what tunes I should be learning and he gave me a list of like 90 different songs, most of which I hadn’t heard of and didn’t know how to play. Horn players were starting to bring out tablets then, and I realized it was the perfect thing. I got an iPad and came up with a system and made a bunch of charts. For a while I just read them on stage. I had this foot pedal that you could flip pages with. And it kind of saved me for the first few months.
Playing with Melvin is enlightening. I keep learning things from him. I guess he is always discovering new ways to do things too. But what really makes an impression on me is his attitude towards playing, the way he goes about creating a texture or melody. It seems like he comes from a very spontaneous place, like he’s just reacting. It’s been really great playing with him.
My first experience with Grateful Dead music was as a kid when my dad would play American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead. I actually first heard the Deadicated album, which was a bunch of different bands doing covers, real polished sounding, and I was really into that. And then I heard some of the Grateful Dead versions of those tunes. And my first impressions of those were like, hmm, that’s not quite as good as the covers. It was much more raw sounding. It wasn’t until much later that I got into the more jammy songs and started appreciating that.
It’s only recently that I’ve started feeling like a Dead Head. If you asked me that a few years ago, I might have said, no. But I feel like, over the years I have become immersed in it and I have learned the songs a lot better, and I have played them enough times to really get into the jams, and feel like I can kind of own them in that way. Like I can be myself and play the song. Yeah, I’m a Dead Head, sure.
And playing with John (Kadlecik) is really great. He is one of the smartest people I have ever met and I’m always learning from him. Whether it’s how to approach a particular musical nuance or some cool science fiction idea of his. He is very analytical but can bring really deep emotion to his playing and singing. The flow that he gets into is really a special thing. And he will do it a different way every time. But that’s G.D. music, really, one of the great things about it. How it can be different every time and how it should be different every time. Kind of like jazz and the idea that everyone brings their own improv to it and is reacting to each other, not just playing it from memory. That’s what keeps it interesting for those playing and listening. That’s how people can go to like five Grateful Dead nights a week these days. And it’s so great to be part of this big pool of players that arranges in all these different combinations. Each lineup has a different flavor and feel.
And I’m busy. Aside from all the GD pickup bands, I’ve gotten to play with a lot of different original projects this summer. Spike Sikes, Steve Pile, Ezra Lipp, Adam Bernie, Sebastian Saint James, to name a few. I’ve really been enjoying playing with Jerry’s Middle Finger. They’re great players and some of the nicest people I’ve ever met. One of the singers, Halina, I met at the very first Skull & Roses. I got to the fairgrounds and it was a real windy day and there was a car pulled up next to mine. We were both getting there at the same time, and I opened the door and the wind just blew my door into the other car. You know, big smack. I was really embarrassed and apologetic and it turned out the car that I had smashed was Halina’s car. She was really cool about it.
I love Skull and Roses. I grew up in southern California and I feel like I’m going home when we play there. And it’s great to have been part of it from the beginning. It was very small at first. Chris Mitrovich, the promoter, is a great guy. I left my tuner there at the very first one, and I occasionally leave stuff behind and never really expect to see it again. But I thought I would ask, and he personally boxed it up and sent it back to me, along with some Skull & Roses merch!
At this last one, my fiancé Melrose got to vend her tie-dye: Art by Melrose. I was playing with JMF and JGB, and hanging out at the booth in the meantime. It’s always such a great thing for us both to be able to work an event like that. They let me drive a golf cart one day which was great fun, looking for errands to do and driving around the race track. And big thanks to Jason Scheuner for letting me play Phil Lesh’s G&L bass. Such an honor and such a big, punchy sound! I’ll be looking forward to playing at Skull & Roses next year!
See JP McLean with Melvin Seals & JGB at Skull & Roses Festival—Buy Passes here!