When particularly silly media people asked me where all these Dead Heads went when the shows were over, I frequently said Santa Cruz. It really is a special place, and the China Cats are the Dead Head heart of it. Matt Hartle is the lead guitarist, vocalist, and a co-founder of the band…let’s hear from Matt:

I was born in 1971, March 30, same day as Eric Clapton. I grew up in Kutztown, Pennsylvania. I would say my first musical memory is I got a 45 player from my parents and there was a song that I wanted to get the record for, but I had no idea what it was. I kept trying to sing it to my Mom but she had no idea what I was singing. I remember keeping that radio on until they played it. And it was Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke” with the horns and everything, and I just loved that. I would say that is my first musical memory, getting that record.

Well, my dad bought my mom a piano when I was 5 or 6 and I started taking piano lessons and I had a little aptitude for it. And my younger brothers, I have two younger brothers, they were allowed to quit. I was not allowed to quit. I had to keep going. At that point I resented having to practice, but I’m glad I played the piano. And then, when I was about 13, my grandfather got me a guitar. I remember that it was right when the Apple 2A computers came out and I wanted one. I had just seen that movie War Games with the phone on the modem, I was like this is cool, I have got to get into this. And my parents said, we have got to wait a little bit until the price comes down. And meanwhile my grandfather got me a guitar. So by the time I got the Apple 2e, it was too late. I was gone.

It was 1984 and I got that Van Halen album 1984. And I kind of went into a metal phase in junior high, which progressed to Led Zeppelin, which progressed to Pink Floyd, which progressed to Neil and Dylan and then finally the Grateful Dead.

They would come to town and I was playing in a band with my buddy in high school, and I had really strict parents and they knew what was—I don’t think they knew what was going on, but they knew enough to know that I wasn’t allowed to go. And it was a real regime over there, so I couldn’t even sneak out and get to the Spectrum or the shows. But my friends would go and they would come back with stories and drugs, and you know that is how I got turned on, kind of, what is the word, vicariously, I guess in that aspect.

In High School, my best friend Tim Dugan and I had a band called Tertial Movement. It was supposed to be derived from tertiary flight.I worked at a movie theater, a small movie theater in a small town, and it had a stage in front of where they would show the pictures and it could seat about 400 people and my boss said, if you want to have a concert here, we can do it on a Thursday night or a Wednesday night and whatever it was, and we sold tickets in my high school, and we sold out that building.

And had this concert, which my dad videotaped, and I still have the video, which is a little embarrassing. There was a “Sugar Magnolia” in that set, there was a “Stairway to Heaven” there was a “Casey Jones.” I think those were the only two Grateful Dead songs that were on that show. But, yeah, we were able to finance our P.A. with that gig and we were able to start playing some gigs.

My best friend then, Tim, he is still my best friend, we have been best friends since we were five, and he plays music. He is a preacher now and has a congregation there in Pennsylvania. He could write songs off the top of his head. He was writing songs since we were in second grade.

I recorded an album of his over COVID, actually. His first album. I remember coming back from college. I went to college for music at the University of North Texas. I remember coming back from college and we went on a hike and came back and got stoned in his basement, and with the lights off, maybe some candles on and had a jam. And it was the first time the music took over like Grateful Dead style. The music played us, and we just rode the wave. He improvised this song and we had this amazing experience, and we were blown away. We couldn’t believe what we had found. First time it ever happened. And I remember that whole summer trying to get that experience again. Like of course the first thing we wanted to do was record it. But every time we hit record, and tried to do it, it wouldn’t happen. So we were like okay, check, it doesn’t like to be recorded. We kept searching for the formula to bring the beast into the room again. And so that was my first real taste of that type of experience, where the music plays the band.

That would be like 1990. I would say summer of ‘90. It might have been the next summer, I only saw Jerry twice, that I first saw the Dead. I saw a show at Giants Stadium in the Meadowlands in summer 1991 and ’93. I think it was the only show they ever opened with “Eyes of the World,” so it was crazy. Everyone is freaking. I’m like why is everybody freaking out? They opened the show with Eyes. And basically almost gave us the second set in the first set, which was interesting. I didn’t have anything to compare it to.

North Texas was a serious music scene. After a year of it I wanted to get out, because it was just so intense and it was straight up hard core jazz and I really wasn’t that plussed by it. There was a lot more types of music out there to play. I was on a scholarship where I got to pay in-state tuition. My folks said, we’re not going to help you if you don’t finish in four years, you have got to get this degree. Finish what you started. Because they were paying for it. So I took the free ride and got the degree in four years. It was tough — they start with 90 guitar players and graduate like 6 per year.

And then I went back to Pennsylvania, brought a girl back there, tried to figure it out. And tried to start a band with Tim and he was getting ready for seminary and about to get married and so—I got fired, got unemployment, and I found out you can get it transferred out to California.

Right before I left, another Dead Head – see, Dead heads have followed me around my whole life, like they have protected me, taken me, showed me the way, so many times I can’t even count. I was growing weed the whole time I was in Texas ‑‑ my mom is going to read this – anyway, statute of limitations is over on that.

So it was time to end the grow operation. My parents were coming down for graduation, so it was time to harvest and shut down the operation. And my friend called his little community college friends up in Fort Worth and had them throw a party because we wanted to get some money, sell some dime bags of weed, whatever. So we go there and we’re selling these little bags and loading bong hits. And in walks this guy who is probably 35, which at that time was an older person, with short hair, and I’m like great, the cops are here, and I’m finally going to jail the day I decide to stop growing weed in Texas.

And so he sits down and we give him a bong hit. And he had a guitar and started playing and we played “Bird Song,” I believe. And the party just like stopped and everyone listened to us play this song. And we introduce ourselves — they were great friends, him and his wife Amanda. They moved out to Zayante (near Santa Cruz). It’s the other side of the canyon from where Jerry lost his finger. He lost it in Lompico and there is a little space between Zayante and Lompico. And I went to Pennsylvania for a year and a half and then I got unemployment sent out here. And I came out and lived in a tipi in their yard for about four months.

Anyway, I was going to leave CA and go back to PA, my unemployment ran out and I was going to pick up that last check and drive home, because I hadn’t gotten a job. But I had put in an application at Marianne’s Ice Cream. So I’m with my friend’s wife, a couple days before I’m going to leave, and we’re driving to a drum circle in downtown Santa Cruz. She goes, there is Marianne’s Ice Cream. I said “I had a job interview there.”She said, “really, what day?” I said “Saturday”, she said “it is Saturday.” She said, “what time is the interview?” I said, “I think it was noon.” She was like, “it’s 11:55, why don’t you just go?” So I went and I got hired by this old guy Sam Lieberman, who owned Marianne’s Ice Cream. And I wound up working for him for 20 years. Stayed in California. And played my music while I made ice cream, you know, during the day. So there you go.

First band in Santa Cruz was Shady Groove. We played a party in 2001 on Jerry’s birthday at a place called Palookaville, I believe it’s 2001, it was the show after the last show in Palookaville, they let us open it for one last party. And we played a Jerry birthday party with this band. And I was originally going to be the drummer in the band but then they switched me over to guitar.

And we played like all Jerry Band stuff. and Santa Cruz has the best Grateful Dead dancers in the world. We can support a couple Grateful Dead events on the same night. Anyway, Shady Groove played that party. And we did it again and we played for four or five years until we kind of stopped. And we kind of evolved into half original, half Jerry Band type of band, and it was really fun. We still get together and play once or twice a year. We have all moved to different places and we’ll have reunions.

And then China Cats, which of course started with Scott (Cooper). Scott has been a musician in Santa Cruz, just kind of seems like he has always been here. I don’t remember exactly when we became the China Cats, they were originally called the Dough Knees, like dough as in cookie dough, Dough Knees and they had a different guitar player. They changed their name to the China Cats. That guy left, and they auditioned me, and hired me to be in the band.That would be, I believe it was 2011.

China Cats is pretty close to Grateful Dead in a lot of ways and kind of in the vein as DSO, in that direction. You know it’s a really interesting question, because it’s—in playing the music, it’s a fine line to be true to the Grateful Dead and true to yourself. What is part of the song, and what is not part of the song. And for my style of playing, me as the quote/unquote Jerry guy, I try to honor what he, what is part of the song and for the rest of it I really do try to do my own thing. I’m not trying to be Jerry at all. You know, I never sit and transcribe the Jerry solos or anything like that. I try to play what I would play, and I would think that that is what Jerry would want, if he were playing his music. He wouldn’t want you to try and like copy his licks. So we always try to play the 2023 version of the song whatever year we are in, you know.

Grateful Dead songs are hard to beat. You know I write songs and I want to want to focus on that. But I have no desire to write a shitty song or a half assed song or a song that anybody—you know I mean, Dead songs are just timeless and the lyrics are perfect and they stand up in the face of death and heavy acid trips and break up and love and everything.

And that’s just lyrically. Musically, the songs are more like magic potions than songs in that they open up a space for improvised jamming, unlike most other people’s music.

I do this Grateful Sundays thing which is every Sunday, six and a half year residency. It was at Michael’s on Main, now it’s at Felton Music Hall, because they had a fire at Michael’s on Main.

So every week it’s a different band and different combination of musicians from all over the Bay area. And it’s always great that way because it’s turned in to a genre like jazz in the ‘50s. You show up at a jazz club, there is a certain book that you are supposed to know, and you show up you know the bass player, you know the piano player, so you have your roles. And people know what they are doing. They know the music and we get together and play them. And a lot of people have a lot of different takes.

I love playing with Reed Mathis who really takes the song in a different direction, you know, I played a string band with Joe Craven who was in the Garcia Grisman project, in David Grisman’s band for 17 years. And we really rearranged the songs, so you can play them way off, you can play them real close. It’s just the joy. I love it. Good thing to do with life.

Phototography by © Bob Minkin

See Matt Hartle with the China Cats at Skull & Roses Festival