An Interview with John Kadlecik

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After already touring in 2016 with the Golden Gate Wingman, his “Solo Electric” show, and with the “John Kadlecik Band,” the insatiable John Kadlecik is back on tour, once again fronting his full band collaborative. The Dark Star Orchestra founder is among the most prolific and beloved standard bearers of the live Grateful Dead Experience, having toured extensively with Furthur and continuing to play recurrently with Phil Lesh & Friends. Another stalwart Kadlecik compatriot is longtime Jerry Garcia Band member Melvin Seals, whom Kadlecik played with in The Mix as well as in various tributes to “JGB.”

“SoCal Deadheads,” in what Cubensis’ Craig Marshall dubbed “The Year of the Jam,” have been lucky enough to see Kadlecik twice already on their home turf. Kadlecik headlined a beautifully resonate “Solo Electric” show at Saint Rocke in January (for which Marshall and fellow Cubensis member Nate LaPointe opened with a stellar “Duo Acoustic” set), and returned in April for a full band show at the Hotel Café. Kadlecik again brings his long, strange, trip back around to Southern California this week, with shows at Sainte Rocke in Hermosa Beach on Thursday the 22nd, and at Winston’s in San Diego on Friday, September 23rd. LaPointe and Marshall will be opening the Saint Rocke show again, which kicks off the final four shows of the tour, for which Tom Ryan from Cubensis will be taking over keyboard duties and singing.

Prior to Kadlecik embarking on his latest run of shows across the country, he called me from his home in Maryland to spend almost an hour generously pontificating on all things relating to playing live Grateful Dead music, as well as provide some insights into the recent and upcoming tours. Getting to speak with Kadlecik was a wonderfully fulfilling experience for this SoCal Deadhead, as he proved to be a remarkable savant of so much relating to both experiencing and playing the music of the Grateful Dead. And much like in his live shows, Kadlecik was happy to meditate in the moment on wherever his “stream of consciousness” muse would take him. Here’s what Kadlecik shared with me about a range of topics including how his prolific career has evolved, his “open concert” approach to playing live music, and what might be ahead for both for the Golden Gate Wingmen, as well as what Southwest audiences have to look forward to in the coming days.

Jackson Truax: Much of your career, especially with Dark Star Orchestra and Furthur, has been so well-chronicled and documented. So let’s pick up there. To the best of my knowledge, after your last show with Further, you started playing solo shows fairly immediately.

John Kadlecik: I never stopped playing solo shows. Even with Dark Star Orchestra… I had an active, original band when DSO began as a Tuesday night house band, actually. And I launched a bluegrass band right around the same time as DSO. That’s been an on-going thread, all the way back into picking up the guitar in high school.  I taught myself multi-track recording and recorded all of my bands’ terrible, fifteen-year-old, high school angst songs. But I learned how to do it. Then I began learning about arranging.

JT: Your “Solo Electric” show is such a genuinely incredible experience. When did you start playing in that format, and how did you know that it would resonate with audiences?

Kadlecik: I’ve actually been working in that format since I crashed open mics when I was too young to go into bars without a guitar. So, actually, I’ve been working on that, also, concurrently, since the late eighties. It’s just that lately I feel like I’ve gotten some sort of breakthrough in my sense of flow and what songs to play next to create some sort of metanarrative to the show.

JT: Over the last several years you’ve played with the JK Band and the John K. Band, both of which appear to be different entities from the John Kadlecik Band that’s about to go on tour. Is there a real distinction to be drawn among these bands, either in your mind or in the audiences’?

Kadlecik: These were sort of early experiments in avoiding the full “vanity band” notion. In JK Band, the keyboard player was actually named John Kattke. So, at some point, I still might revisit that project and call it “JK Squared,” or something. I like to say that I start bands as a hobby. I’ve started dozens of them. Some of them only played one gig. But the notion of basically pulling together an ensemble, finding the right repertoire for that ensemble, and then booking a gig, or rehearsing that ensemble, and then promoting it and then booking the show, is something that I do for fun. Whether something takes off or not is up to a lot of factors that I can’t control. But I sure like to do that… Just to create unique, collaborative situations. I happen to think that music making, as it approaches art, in collaborative environments, is one of the great cosmic social experiments that humans have undertaken. It’s like some strange hybrid between hunting party and group marriage… Dark Star Orchestra, for me, as a project to launch, was just an idea to get together in the early nineties. I just wanted to assemble what I thought would be the best musicians in the Chicago area that really got it… Musicians have to make a lot of compromises in playing with each other. So it’s been interesting to get into bands. And find out that bands that were actual Grateful Dead tributes in the Chicago area had guys in the band that had never seen the Grateful Dead and privately said, “Well, they’re okay…” Whereas there are people who got what was unique about the Grateful Dead style of performance, as well as being good enough to execute it. And they were all guys that were pretty much working full-time already when DSO started. We all had bands we were successful with, doing originals, to varying degrees. A couple of them actually had a weekend Grateful Dead tribute project. We did it as a Tuesday night thing, just for the fun of it. And just for the setlists. That was the reason from the beginning as well. Getting together the best of Chicago Deadhead musicians and using the setlists as a sort of curriculum for study. And creating for ourselves, basically, some sort of cross between a post-doctorate study in improvisation as well as a musicalogical study and anthropological study of both the interpersonal side of being in a band as well as the greater cultural fit in the flow of the history of music.

JT: How did the current line-up come into being? What do you think makes it special?

Kadlecik: Basically, the John Kadlecik Band is me getting behind a band name that I’ll push until I’m pushing up daises… I guarantee that I’ll start other a bunch more bands. I don’t know…if any of them will get past a basement session. But this is something that I tend to get behind. The reality is, I’m forty-seven years old. When Jerry was my age, Brent died. Just to put it in context. I’ve been pretty lucky so far…with life, driving sixty to eighty thousand miles a year as part of the package. And that’s five or six times the risk just in having an accident. So I don’t want to be morbid about it. But I’m closing in on the last third of my career and wanting it to be fun and comfortable. So, this band, is a drummer that I’ve been playing with in the local area. He was in the John K. Band. The reason I did a John K. Band was actually to stay off the radar. I just wanted to play local shows. And I didn’t want to generate expectations of touring. And I’d say, “Hey, I’m doing a show.” And people would say, “When are you coming to California? When are you doing this?…” Out of that, Nathan Graham was a fantastic drummer… He had a regionally touring outfit called Basshound. The bass player is Klyph Black who used to play with the Zen Tricksters. In a lot of ways, I launched this current project as wanting to hear how those two would play together… I was reasonably confident that it was going to work. But it was a bit of a test to see how Klyph and Nate would hit it off. And they hit it off great. And the keyboardist for the last tour and for most of this tour is going to be Todd Stoops. But he’s going to be picking up with Reed Mathis’ new project toward the end of our tour. And actually starting in Los Angeles, we’ll be playing with Tom Ryan from the local group Cubensis for the last four shows of our tour, whom I had the pleasure of playing with in Dark Star Orchestra as well… Everybody takes music, ideally, in directions it wouldn’t have gone in otherwise. My principal area of focus and specialty is modern, psychedelic jam music. And that’s where I put Grateful Dead music. I don’t put them in “Nostalgic Classic Rock American Band.” When I saw the Grateful Dead, they were the hottest fucking live show going. And I’ve seen a lot of shows. Big production shows, small production shows; I was already a budding studio producer and electronics hobbyists who played five instruments. Formerly classically trained on three: violin, piano, and classical guitar. So when I saw my first Grateful Dead concert, it was the most cutting edge live music experience that I’d had the pleasure of playing witness to. And there were things in that that I gravitated toward immediately. Just the striving to be ultra present in the creation of the music. And not just be following a script. But to be generating. There can be a DNA form, a seed idea. But the actual rendering of the music in the moment is about an extreme presence. Sometimes that unfolds as improvisation. Something it unfolds as traditional, idiomatic soloing, from the blues and jazz forms. Sometimes it would be random noodling, waiting for the muse to show up. Waiting for someone to not be distracted by their gear so they can check-in. There’s a lot of waiting for different circumstances to come together in improvisation. Part of improvising is understanding that if you just blow nonstop every window you get, you completely step on what genius is coming through someone else… I put a lot of emphasis in the jamming and improvisation. I’m putting a fair amount of trust into the past that we have, as well as the shared languages that we already have… If folks in my band are going to sing and play, I like for them to have a handful of originals to bring into the show as well, just to feature them.

JT: When you kicked off your show at the Hotel Café in Los Angeles, April, you talked about the idea of an “open kitchen” and how you wanted to put on an “open concert.” How did that idea present itself to you, and how do you feel it’s been manifest in the shows you’ve been playing?

Kadlecik: I love metaphors. At the same time, there are a lot of insider perspectives on music that are really, really hard to share with people who maybe are fans but don’t necessarily have any experience in an ensemble… Or they don’t have any playing experience at all. I think that was just a moment of having a metaphor. There’s sort of a movement where people talk about the “open kitchen,” so you can see what’s going on and watch them cook for you. It was just sort of a way of explaining a different approach to live performance as well… For a lot of bands, maybe even most bands, even bands in the “jam band” world, have a notion that it’s really like putting on a musical. There’s a whole script, from beginning to end. You’ve got the setlist… It creates a lot of time focused on what’s happening next, instead of what’s happening now. So the “open kitchen” idea, as it relates to a band, is the idea that we can change songs on-the-fly… There might be a little, musical debate about it… That’s definitely one of my central messages of my live shows. As far back as I can think of having a message of my live show. Which is that I’m not into what I think of as the New York/Nashville/LA aesthetic, of a tightly scripted show, that’s basically in the model of a Broadway musical… You’re wowing people with your execution. Whereas, what I’m doing is more like a freestyle comedy act, taking improvisational suggestions and trying to work them into a skit on-the-fly that a group with improvise with.

JT: I keep listening to that show. And every time I hear “Good Shepherd” I’m amazed at how entrancing the vocals are. They’re really haunting and resonate. Had you been working intentionally on vocal arrangements or blending voices? Or was that vocal perfection one of those things about this line-up that was a fun thing to discover about the band as the tour evolved?

Kadlecik: That’s hard to say… My projects tend to be constantly evolving things… So with “Good Shepherd” it’s been more about what’s going to happen in the middle. The rest of it is a pretty much a fairly faithful Jefferson Airplane arrangement. As far as the blend, that’s just a lucky score, I guess. Vocal blends are what they are. That’s part of the joy of putting together an ensemble. Because you can’t really know… It’s hard to tell from listening to someone singing that they would necessarily sound good with someone else.

JT: Would you say that a lot of the best things about the bands that you put together reveal themselves to you once you’ve already starting going on the road and tour evolves?

Kadlecik: I’m trying to just get out there and do it. And trusting that I can anchor into places where I already have solid gigs. And just get out there and do it… But for one reason or another, I have to work at it harder. In that process, there’s a lot of just getting out there. For the execution, my motto for this band or this phase in my life is “everywhere twice a year.” It has to be, realistically, within three hours of everywhere twice a year. I’ve tried to expand that to international.

JT: The version of “Sugaree” was so different than how it’s usually played. How did you settle on that arrangement? And was it important to you to present a more singular interpretation of such a beloved song?

Kadlecik: Ninety percent of any given performance of “Sugaree” by Jerry or the Grateful Dead was a two chord [pattern] of B and E. That’s not even a song… I’m into extracting the essential juiciness. Honestly, I’ve never been about just presenting Grateful Dead songs for their mass appeal… With DSO it became like a Master Class. But leading up to that, it was just pretty much just learning stuff that really felt like there was something in it that I wanted to learn about music in general. About songwriting in general. Things that I could pull away from it and apply to other things. With “Sugaree…” that was inspired, in part, by an arrangement that my friend Jeff Pevar produced for the group Jazz is Dead. I caught their version of it. And it sort of inspired me to do my own. I think theirs is a bit more reggae. At first I thought that was great. Because everybody that does reggae has their own little thing to it. It’s pretty open. So we’re trying that… When we do this in the Golden Gate Wingmen…they’re a bit more multi-driver… With my own touring band, I’m pretty much driving all the time. With the Golden Gate Wingman, there’s definitely much more passing around of the steering wheel. Some of those songs open up pretty far. We depart completely from chord progression for ten-twenty minutes at a time, into complete, pure improvisation land. And then find our way back. I like to do that. I have my piece of it. So that’s all good. My touring solo project is a situation where I can refine my own approaches. But I’m blessed that I have a fantastic band that loves tearing through whatever I throw down for them… I’ve tended to try and have something in it that I think they’re going to shine on.

JT: Do you think you’ll keep playing the same ratio of original compositions to Grateful Dead or other covers? Or do you see yourself ever wanting to shift that ratio at all one way or the other?

Kadlecik: It shifts up and down every night. I’m more into the live experience of the night as itself. My principal, musical product, if you will. I hate using the term, “product.” But, my principal, musical product is the intangible moment at whatever show I’m performing. It isn’t the song that I’m performing. It’s how it fits in with the flow of the evening. And striving to be as much in the moment as possible. As much as necessary to still string together melodic ideas that have some technical form. And aren’t just as much pure noodling. Things that have melody and arc… I’ve never felt different performing my own song or performing someone else’s song. I’ve never felt different at the end… It doesn’t matter whether it’s one of my songs, or whether it’s a new song, a cover that I’ve never played before. There’s always a certain magic moment for me, of that first time playing with a particular ensemble. It doesn’t really matter so much whether it’s a song I wrote or a song that somebody else wrote.

JT: For the SoCal Deadhead audience, you played a great “Solo Electric” show at Saint Rocke in January and Nate LaPointe and Craig Marshall opened with a stellar acoustic set. Although this is a full band tour, you’re back at Saint Rocke with Nate and Craig opening again. Of all the places you could play at Southern California, what made Saint Rocke the ideal place to come back to play?

Kadlecik: I hate to be blunt. But that’s who was available. It isn’t like I can just wave a magic wand and say, “I want to play here.” But it’s hard to explain. It’s odd. It’s the music world, a community. I had a good time at Saint Rocke last time. I really like the El Rey a lot. I’d like for that to also maybe be a practical home in the LA area. But I’m open to what shows up. It’s challenging to figure this out. Why does my first time on Thursday in Richmond, Virginia bring 450 people? It has an awful lot to do with whether a club owner really wants the show or not. Or whether you’re something that’s just going to fill in the date in their calendar.

 

Golden Gate Wingmen. Photo by Henry Hungerland

 

JT: You sent out an email this morning, which told your fans to “Stay Tuned” for news about Golden Gate Wingmen shows later this year. Going forward with Golden Gate Wingmen, do you see it as being another loose collective that musicians go in and out of? Or do you see the band as being a set line-up of these four guys?

Kadlecik: It’s definitely these four guys. That was something that was immediately apparent the first night. It started out, they were my backing band for a random one-off show at Terrapin Crossroads. That was originally going to be just a solo acoustic and/or electric. Then I said, “Well, who’s in town?” Then pretty much my A-list were all in town. After that I said, “No, this is a band…” We all have the right blend of ambition. Artistic ambition in the moment. As well as restraint and support. We balance all of those three things in a way that I think I can say…we have a great gestalt with this quartet.

JT: You and Jeff Chimenti have played together in a handful of projects, with and without members of the Grateful Dead, on-and-off as you both tour with other projects. How would you say the musical dynamic between you has evolved throughout the last few years?

Kadlecik: I think one of the things that I bring uniquely as guitarist to any of the post-Jerry line-ups that I’ve seen with the Grateful Dead, or the surviving members of the Grateful Dead, is a strong belief in the role of the keyboard. And an understanding of how to set it up. I’m not a big fan of sports metaphors… I’m a big believer in the keyboard getting to makes lots of spikes. I believe I’m the keeper of the knowledge how to do the bump-and-set for keyboard spikes. I feel like everybody that I’ve seen play with them has run rough shot over whoever’s playing keyboard… I think Jeff, in Ratdog, got some really spectacular shining moments. That was something that we brought into Furthur… Jeff would get a true solo. We’d all just shut up and he would drive… We would just to sit and look out the window. And I loved it. When I get to steer, I steer things back to Jeff quite a bit.

JT: In addition to everything else we’ve talked about, I’d be remiss not to mention either Melvin Seals and JGB or Phil Lesh and Friends. In both cases, their playing continues seemingly unabated. Do you have any plans to play with either of them, either formally or informally, in the future?

Kadlecik: I’m up for playing with Phil and Melvin anytime there’s something going on. I had the luxury with Furthur, it was a luxury but it was also an obligation…of it being a project that I was really committed to. But I also had the luxury of not really having to get other projects going. And now I am in a spot where I have to get other projects going. So I’m planning my life between three and nine months out… That’s one of the principal commitments of being a successful entertainer… Once you’ve advertised a show and tickets are on sale, you’re going to be there. There’s no calling in sick. There’s no, “I want to take a vacation instead.” Your life as a touring entertainer, in any field, is that relationship to the future that most other careers don’t have, frankly. So that becomes the main obstacle to playing with Phil or Melvin or Bob or anyone, is that I have to not have already to have committed to playing a show with someone else.

JT: There are so many bands and so many great people all over the country spending their weekends playing or experiencing live Grateful Dead music. What do you think makes the John Kadlecik Band experience unique?

Kadlecik: I’d like to emphasize that I’m into not just the improvisation, but the energy. The way that the energy flows, both within the band and the dynamic of the audience. A part of it is like clarifying the distinction between a scripted, musical style of performance and involving improv, is getting people to experience the now. Getting them to relate to that energy. So not talking. Letting there be some just noodling and some silence between songs. It can be a little uncomfortable. But it’s not a Broadway show. We’re waiting for some ingredients to come up from the background.

JT: Regardless of who is writing the music, I feel like this approach to performing is what makes a show be considered a genuine “Grateful Dead Experience.”

Kadlecik: I’d be truly honored to know that that’s the case with anyone. I’d like to think that’s true. But I don’t want to assume.

JT: In your personal experience, why do you think the live “Grateful Dead Experience” continues to endure?

Kadlecik: Why was the average age at a Grateful Dead concert twenty-three years old from 1966 to 1995? The age spread expanded as there were more newborns and more elders. But the middle point was still that age. I think it says something about the quality of humanity. That there are some people looking for something more. And it’s not everybody. But the people who are looking for it deserve the right to keep looking. And I hope that I’m adding one more adventure to the making of a new experience in America… I can’t wait to get out to Southern California.

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