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John Mayer: The Blackbird Spyplane Interview
He comes thru talkin' new music, beautiful watches, David Letterman, rare Visvim, and more -- a Spyplane World Exclusive
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John Mayer — he’s been slinging these expert rock chunes and getting off these expert fits for ages, achieving not only BBSP GOAT status but also BBSP ELK status (Extraordinary Legendary King) and BBSP CODFISH status (Champion of Donliness, Freshness and Incredible Swag, Homie) along the way.
And if you were within earshot of Spyplane H.Q. any given day this past month?? Chances are excellent that you heard John’s new PANORAMIC HEATER “Last Train Home” pulsating through the walls, back-to-back with his SUN-KISSED 2018 VIBE-ODYSSEY “New Light” — two great tracks that appear on his 8th album, Sob Rock, dropping July 16th.
Since John is a smart and funny dude w/ Mach 3+ taste, it’s no surprise he f**ks with Blackbird Spyplane, so we hit him up for a SPYPLANE WORLD EXCLUSIVE to talk NEW tunes, BEAUTIFUL watches, SICK Visvim, a RARE possession so cherished he keeps it in an undisclosed Montana bunker under bulletproof lucite, guarded by a loyal pupper named Moose… and more “unbeatable topics.”
Blackbird Spyplane: “Last Train Home” is such a fun song — it flashes me back to being a kid in my parents’ living room circa ‘88, and they’ve got Dire Straits Brothers in Arms and, like, Eric Clapton Behind the Sun on the record player…
John Mayer: “I’ve had the idea for as long as I can remember to make a new record from archival cloth. Not a reprint, but something new. With ‘Last Train Home’ there are footnotes attached to each moment — distinct musical references — but I was mindful of making sure the composition felt new: I tip my hat to the ‘80s on the execution of the song, but when I play it on the acoustic, it doesn’t sound like an ‘80s song.”
Blackbird Spyplane: In the Sob Rock zine you sent to fans, you compare the album to a period piece…
John Mayer: “Yeah, it was, ‘Pretend someone made a record in 1988 and shelved it and it was just found this year.’ I think if you’re wise enough and care enough about the thing you’re doing, you can go back to another time and reanimate it —you can go heat that mercury back up, and find a way not to reproduce something but continue to produce it from the original loom.”
Blackbird Spyplane: Why reanimate that era specifically?
John Mayer: “You and I were there — we know what that dynamic innocence sounded like, and that melodicism. When ‘Where the Streets Have No Name’ comes on, to us it represents this incredible innocence and excitement and wonder and promise. And in that era it wasn’t necessarily about inward psychological drilling, it was about excitement pulsing outward: ‘What are we gonna do out in the world?’ I think music got very interior, where it became about the struggle within. When I listen back to Sob Rock now, the lyrics are very inward — which feels very now — and the music is very pump-your-fist-in-a-convertible — which is very then.”
“I’m trying to bend time and space a bit. This is the record I would have made back then if I could have. It’s kind of like the wish from Big: I’m 11, watching the Mötley Crüe ‘Kickstart my Heart’ video, Paula Abdul ‘Straight Up,’ Phil Collins, Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie — and if I had a wish granted that I could be just like them, what would my record have been?”
Blackbird Spyplane: I like the distinction between making something new out of archival fabric vs. just doing a “reprint.”
John Mayer: “It’s not a ‘costume’ record. That’s what took the most time — the songs were written fairly quickly, but they took a while to record, because I started off by saying, ‘OK, let’s go full Def Leppard Hysteria on this,’ then I’d do that and have a blast, and then I’d listen back and call bullshit on myself. Yes, it’s funny to hear a chorused Jackson guitar going through the same amp they used back then, but I had to figure out this genetic tightrope walk, where if it has too much retro-DNA, two things happen: I lose interest, and I don’t believe it.
“So it was about moving the line back, and it turns out that — dialing back from 100% full asymmetrical-neon-sunglasses ‘80s — you really only need 8% to make people understand the vision. Anything past 8% and people say, ‘Got it, next.’”
Blackbird Spyplane: You’ve said you took inspiration from Quentin Tarantino on this album — how?
John Mayer: “So, any song I write has to work on acoustic. You have to believe that I believe it, and it can’t leave the stable of what it is I do. So with Tarantino, he can do a western and still be Tarantino — he’s such a great manufacturer because he’s such a great consumer, where he can write enough love letters small enough, on enough small sheets of paper, and put them in a leaf blower, where you can’t really point to any one thing. That’s been my hope: ‘Can you grind the influences into a fine enough dust that you can make a new paste out of it?’”
Blackbird Spyplane: So the ‘movie’ you made here was —
John Mayer: “It was, ‘What music would I be making if I was a blues-rock guy from the late ‘60s through the ‘70s, but now it’s the mid-’80s and someone comes and says, ‘John, what the kids are doing now is electronic music — hear me out, there’s a new thing called a Yahama DX-7 and it’s like a piano but it can sound like any instrument.’ Back then they didn’t think these sounds are ‘cheesy sounds’, they went, This sounds like a brass section, now I can put horns on my song!’”
Blackbird Spyplane: Especially if you get Greg Phillinganes the ‘80s session O.G. to play the keyboard, d*mn!!
John Mayer: “That was another Tarantino idea: If you’re gonna write a love letter to a world, get the guys who were actually in that world.
“If I could put on my sociologist hat for a second, I think we went into a cloyingly sweet era by the end of the ‘80s, where the melodicism turned into this gummy, syrupy thing, and eventually there was a sea change where people said, ‘We’ll do anti-melody, or obtuse melody,’ which is what Nirvana did — they had a melodic sensibility but it’s almost inverted, it’s not what we hear as sweetness. Then around 2002 there was this singer-songwriter moment of, ‘How much sweetness can you deliver in a song?’ — and I was part of that.
“Around 2011, the idea returns that being stingy with melody is what’s cool, and it was, because people had gone too extreme with being so melodic. Now we love asymmetrical song composition — as perfected by Frank Ocean. Post-’Pyramids,’ we go, ‘I could be melodic, but I choose not to. I’m not going to paint a face, I’m going to paint shapes.’ Then everyone spoofs that and you get people painting impressionistic shapes — and at a certain point, people go, ‘I really wanna see a face again!’ No offense to anyone doing triangles, but I wanna see humanity in the music, and for me, Sob Rock is this cautious return to how powerful it is to hear wide intervals played loudly on a synth. Cinematic, orchestral, operatic kind of things, used sparingly and cautiously — that’s the 8%.”
Blackbird Spyplane: Let’s shift gears into JAWN TALK. U and I are both Visvim appreciators, but yr collection is truly preposterous. Let’s say you have 5 minutes to evacuate the crib — what’s the one Vis piece you grab?
John Mayer: “Hmm, I’m gonna work backwards, and you can hear my process of deduction. It’s gotta be a robe, because those are so special. The thing about a Visvim robe is it’s a 12-in-1 device: It’s a tarp, it’s a blanket, it’s a pillow, it goes over your head on an airplane if you want a tent, it’s a blanket on a hotel bed, it’s a photo background... It’s just this incredible utilitarian thing. It’s really half-jacket, half-house. And if I had to pick one robe to embody all the others, it would be the Katazuri Blanket Yukata Coat. That’s the pinnacle for me, and I think they only made like 5 of them.”
Blackbird Spyplane: That’s one of the craziest things they’ve put out. Hand stenciled, and the colors are beautiful — arghh!! There’s actually someone selling one online right now for like $20,000 … I wrote an essay here about how Visvim activates my ‘collector brain worms,’ but yooo that’s funny money.
John Mayer: “That’s not really marked up from retail! There are certain things in this world where, for people who are flush with cash, price becomes secondary — where you look at something that’s so alluring, so charming, you go, ‘This is not a number.’ I’ve seen it with watches. I saw a Submariner and a Sea-Dweller where the bezels faded to a gorgeous light tungsten gray, and they went for ungodly sums over the Blue Book, because it was just so intrinsically attractive. That’s the stuff I love. I don’t know how obnoxious that sounds, but I think the same thing happens in different strata, at any level of income.”
Blackbird Spyplane: Speaking of rare beauties, I asked you to pick a special possession to talk about, & you landed on a deadstock ‘80s-era varsity jacket (above) you got from David Letterman. You recently posted on IG about your love of Conan — what does Letterman mean to you?
John Mayer: “Any guy who’s had an older brother has grown up around this engine of cool stuff that we couldn’t quite get to: They’re a little older than you, they have their own bedroom, they’re watching things a little bit over your head, picking up on music that’s a little over your head. So my older brother, who’s a genius as far as I’m concerned, got really into Letterman, and watching him watch Letterman, I was watching him get fed.
“Letterman was this trusty depot: 5 nights a week you could hang out in this place where, if you were a bright person — but one who also didn’t want to use their intelligence manipulatively — you could watch someone use their intelligence for entertainment purposes. Basically misappropriate their intelligence! I grew up in Fairfield, Connecticut, and if you grew up in New England and you were bright, there was a good chance you were going to go into some dark art, like become a defense attorney. But Letterman was sending up erudition by misappropriating it for nonsense, and I always found that heroic.
“He made the show into a club for smart kids who didn’t like a**holes, who didn’t like being bullied, who didn’t like this idea that you could use your intelligence to get rich off other people. Here was a guy on TV who wants to see, with his analytical mind, whether a man wearing a velcro suit can stick to a wall.”
Blackbird Spyplane: You got this jacket when you performed during his last-ever week on the air… How did you get yr hands on it?
John Mayer: “So Dave requested that I come on and do ‘American Pie’, and learning that song was kind of my tribute to him: ‘I’m going to consume myself with this for one week, infuse myself with it, and when I do it it’s gonna be just that one time.’ So I told them, Can I do it in a Late Night varsity jacket? Because growing up, I remembered seeing the crew wear them in the bumpers coming back from commercial.
“They found one for me to wear and they were, like, ‘This came out of the boss’s closet’ — or if not the boss, someone around the boss. And when I was done they said, ‘It’s yours to keep.’”
Blackbird Spyplane: Whatta score… peace to WORLDWIDE PANTS INC.!!
John Mayer: “This might have to go under lucite. It’s this beautiful touchstone of an era. And talk about trying to fold time over on itself — I was able to send off Dave wearing a varsity jacket from, like, year one of the NBC show. Whether I’m playing in Dead & Company — this band that started in 1965 — or I’m making a record that pretends I was me now in 1988, this is the joy of my life: I get to travel through time with a guitar.
“The best thing about my career is when I realized I didn’t care as much about being famous as I’d told myself — the actual best thing is that I get stickers on my suitcase, metaphorically, of places I’ve played. Stamps on my passport. I have this saying I said to Dave Chappelle one time, and we still bring it up — ‘In the Empire State Building, you don’t have a view of the Empire State Building.’ Living in myself, I don’t get a view of myself — but where I do get a view is participating as one small speck of dust in the airflow of another world, or another time. That to me is unparalleled, man: Where I’ve been is way cooler than who I am.”
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