Dark Star Orchestra

An interview with guitarist Jeff Mattson
by Sal Serio
January 2013

Dark Star Orchestra - photo by Bob Minkin

Dark Star Orchestra
photo by Bob Minkin

AUTHOR’S NOTE:  This interview was conducted in December 2012, but the content is still current and relevant to Dark Star Orchestra’s Winter 2014 Tour (upper midwest dates include Jan. 29 at First Avenue in Minneapolis, Jan. 30 at the Barrymore Theatre in Madison, Jan. 31 at The Vic in Chicago, and Feb. 1 at the Pabst Theatre in Milwaukee).

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One of the true originals in the history of American music remains the Grateful Dead, and even though the group disbanded in 1995 after the death of lead guitarist, vocalist, and co-founder Jerry Garcia, the Dead phenomenon continues full force. Among the strongest contingencies involved in keeping the vibe of the Dead authentic, and turning on new fans to the GD concert experience is Dark Star Orchestra, who formed in Chicago in 1997 when guitarist John Kadlecik and keyboardist Scott Larned shared the concept of starting a band that recreated entire Grateful Dead concerts from the past. Over the years, Dark Star’s legacy has grown, and a few line-up changes have occurred, including the shocking passing of Scott Larned in 2005. In 2009, Kadlecik was asked to join the band Furthur with original Grateful Dead members Bob Weir and Phil Lesh, and at that point Jeff Mattson, of Zen Tricksters and Donna Jean Godchaux Band fame, was logically asked to fill the Jerry Garcia role in Dark Star. In anticipation of DSO’s approaching upper Midwest dates, I had the opportunity to speak to Jeff Mattson by phone while he was enjoying some time off at his home in New York state. While I typically like to use quotes from interviews to form more of a storyline, the conversation flowed so freely and easily that it made sense just to transcribe our chat verbatim and leave it at that. Enjoy!

MAXIMUM INK: How long have you been associated with the Grateful Dead’s music, both as a fan and as a musician?
I’ve been in to the records since the early 70s, and then I saw my first show in 1973 at Nassau Coliseum.

MI: At what point did you start meeting or making associations with members of the Dead? Was that later when you were in Zen Tricksters?
Yeah, much later.

MI: Are the Zen Tricksters still together? On hiatus?
Actually (we’re) playing a private party tonight. Yeah, we’re more or less on hiatus. We do about one, two, maybe three shows a year, just because we’re old buddies.

MI: I remember that Bob Dylan/Phil Lesh tour in the late 90s, which was a lot of fun, and Zen Tricksters opened those shows. Did that open the door to getting you to play with Phil?
When I played with Phil, it was just three shows (in 1999) at the Warfield (Theater in San Francisco), but Rob Barraco, who’s in Zen Tricksters and also in Dark Star now, went on to play hundreds of shows with Phil & Friends. In fact, he just did a run at Phil’s Terrapin Crossroads, just last weekend.

MI: You’re also playing with Donna Godchaux’s band, which I assume must also be on hiatus…
Yeah, well, we play when we can, because Dark Star’s schedule is pretty busy. We’re actually working on a CD right now.
MI: Cool! I liked the first one a lot!
Well, thank you very much.

MI: I find it interesting that Lisa, from Dark Star, who sings the Donna parts… her last name is MacKay, just like Donna’s…
(Lisa’s) is MacKay (pronounced “Mackie”) and Donna’s is MacKay (pronounced “Mah-K”).

MI: Okay, I found that kind of ironic! Also though, with Donna’s band, you’ve had the opportunity to play with great musicians like Mookie Siegel and Barry Sless.
One of the things I’m most proud of is that I’ve gotten to play with so many of my musical heroes over the years. At one time or another I’ve gotten to play with all of the living members of the Grateful Dead, and the guys from the New Riders… I got to play with Rick Danko from The Band one time… the list goes on and on. Pete Rowan. Vassar Clements, people like that.

MI: Did you ever meet Jerry (Garcia) while he was alive?
I did! I met him one time in New York City (in) the bar downstairs at the Ritz Carlton. I just had a very brief conversation with him, but obviously one I treasure nonetheless.

MI: Now that you’re fulfilling that role of the lead guitarist with Dark Star Orchestra, did you ever have the opportunity to play any of Jerry’s guitars?
No, I’ve never gotten to play any of Jerry’s guitars. It’s funny, I just saw a picture on Facebook of Jay Blakesberg, who’s a photographer associated with the Dead scene for many years, and it was a picture of him holding one of Jerry’s guitars called “Wolf”. I posted on there, “Can I have that”? (laughs)  But, I would love to do that. Before the Grateful Dead exhibit at the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame opened up, I was honored to go back behind the scenes and see some of the artifacts that they had. I didn’t get to play them, of course, because they’re insured for ridiculous amounts of money, but I got to see several of Jerry’s guitars very up close and personal. That was a thrill!

MI: This is a two part question. What do you see as the difference between Dark Star fans and the Deadheads, and what set the Deadheads apart from other music fans?
Well, I’ll try the second part of that first. I think Deadheads tend to be people with a little more of a sense of adventure. They weren’t looking to go to a concert and hear what they were used to hearing on the album, exactly reproduced. The thrill in it for Deadheads was the fact that it was going to be different every night, and you never knew what was going to roll your way… what was going to shine, and what they might just pull out of their hat. Then of course, the long stretches of group improvisation that was completely unique to that night… and I think that appeals to a certain kind of person. The difference between Deadheads and Dark Star fans is very little, with the exception that we have a large portion of our audience that never got to see the Grateful Dead, being too young, and (they) have sort of adopted Dark Star as their band, to feel like they’re getting a taste of what it was like back in the day. It’s obviously not the same, but as close as we can come.

MI: So, you feel the Grateful Dead’s music is still relevant in the modern age?
Oh, absolutely. I mean, I would have to think that (in order) to do it (laughs)  but, I really do. First of all, I think the songs stand the test of time. They’re just beautiful, well written songs, with great lyrics, that are kind of timeless. (They) were really nothing that was ever “en vogue” at any time, anyway! And again, the fact that it’s not frozen in time, you know, we’re playing the music in real time every night, so it’s being refreshed on a constant basis, we’re breathing life into it every night, as well as everyone else who’s playing it.

MI: I noticed on the last stretch of the tour that you just ended, there were several “elective” sets, where you choose the songs you want to play rather than recreating an exact show that the Dead did. Who comes up with those set lists?
The other guitarist, Rob Eaton, and myself. We sit down on the day of the show and look to see what we played the last time we were in town, and what we had played the nights before and the nights after, and try to think of interesting new ways of putting the songs together, and also digging out some of the songs that don’t get played in the shows as often, because maybe they were only played for a brief time across the history of the band, so there are some wonderful songs that don’t get played that often, and we try to get those in the rotation by playing them during the elective sets.

MI: Is it more fun for Dark Star to play the elective sets?
Absolutely! Yeah, it’s a particular kind of fun, because at that point we’re not beholden to anything. We can do, like, a “Here Comes Sunshine” in the style of 1973, or a “Let It Grow” that’s got elements of a ’76 version and an ’85 version… you know? We can mix and match, and jump all around through time, and the segues are things that have not ever been attempted, by us, or by the Grateful Dead. Like, on the last tour, we played “Bird Song” and right in the middle of it went in to “Victim Or The Crime”, and back in to “Bird Song”. For better or for worse, I don’t think that had ever been attempted before!  (laughs)

MI: So, it seems like the elective sets might be becoming more of a trend now?
Well, it’s interesting, looking at the forums on our website, which I lurk in occasionally to see what’s going on, and granted, it probably doesn’t represent a large sample of the public, but there seems to be a debate. Some people really like the electives, and some people prefer to see a “show” from the past. We’ll continue to do both. They’re both fun in different ways (and with) different challenges.

MI: There is an original song called “Run Mary”, that Dark Star wrote with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter. Can we look forward to more original songs?
Well, I don’t think that’s really part of the plan for Dark Star as a performing entity. We’ve talked about doing more of that, just as a creative endeavor for the band, for fun. Maybe somewhere along the line, if we get enough of them going, we could open for ourselves or something.  (laughs)  Where everybody would get what they came to see. We have no illusions, we know people are coming to hear the Grateful Dead’s music when they come to see Dark Star, but, that was a lot of fun doing that (song), and of course to have lyrics written by Robert Hunter was a particular thrill.

MI: You use a lot of the same vintage equipment that the Grateful Dead used. What sort of challenges does that present, in terms of finding or maintaining the equipment?
It seems to be particularly a challenge for the keyboards, because there were a lot of different ones over the years, but the band is pretty on top of it, as far as that goes. Being that most of Garcia’s guitars in the later years were one-of-a-kinds, I obviously don’t have (an exact), but I have a guitar that’s wired in the same way his was so that I’m able to get similar tones, but you know, we find these things on eBay and stuff like that. I think some of the keyboards we have actually belonged to Brent Mydland, if I’m not mistaken, so, you can’t get more authentic than that.

MI: And, you recently had Jeff Chimenti (Furthur, Ratdog) filling in on keyboards while Rob Barraco was playing with Phil Lesh’s band.
That was a lot of fun. There was really nobody else that we would’ve accepted to sub for Rob Barraco, because Rob is such a fantastic player. Jeff is such a nice guy and such a wonderful player, we really had a lot of fun with him.

MI: But, Rob is also a truly great singer. Did someone else fill in those vocal parts?
Well, we obviously didn’t do any stuff from the Brent era or the Pigpen era with Jeff. We only did four shows, so it was easy to avoid that (since) Jeff isn’t really a lead singer.

MI: Back on October 13, Phil sat in with Dark Star for a show… that must’ve really been something!
Yeah, he did the whole first set. It’s remarkable how much he sounds just like Phil Lesh!  (laughs)  He really does it well! It’s funny to say that, but you know, it really feels like that when you’re playing, and that’s nothing against Kevin Rosen, our wonderful bass player, but of course Phil IS Phil, so you’re playing, and it’s like, “this feels SO right”! He’s just such a tremendous musician.

MI: I see also that coming up this Winter, you’re doing a week in Jamaica, is that right?
That’s our “Jam In The Sand”. That’s the first time we’ve done something in the Caribbean. We’ve done (the) “Jam Cruise” down there before, but this is our first time doing a four night run in Jamaica. That’s going to be a lot of fun.

MI: We should have fun January 31st when DSO comes back to the Barrymore too!
Yeah, that’s a great place. I really like that place!

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