This interview ran as the cover story of the Nov/Dec 2007 issue of State of Mind‚ and with Phil about to begin another "NYC Philathon‚" we thought it was a great time to put it up online.
After talking with bassist Phil Lesh‚ it became clear to me that his lifetime of work has had significant spiritual payoffs. He speaks with wisdom and the utmost respect for music -- like it's a gift from the gods and he's been fortunate enough to have the great responsibility to be a catalyst for it. With over forty years of experience playing music with the Grateful Dead and his Phil & Friends ensembles‚ he lives for playing in the moment and the transcendence it can achieve. With this approach to making music‚ it's no wonder Phil describes it as addictive.
This fall is his first extensive tour since the summer of 2006‚ and he has an obvious eagerness and urgency about getting out there and playing. And it makes sense -- Phil always has something new to say. Besides being highly original and having his own voice on the bass‚ he's a musician that has endless curiosity.
Every time I see a Phil & Friends show I leave knowing that the integrity of live‚ improvisational music is being upheld. When the musicians onstage really believe in the moment‚ and the audience is willing to do the same‚ the possibilities for the music that can be created are endless. And no matter who Phil has playing with him as his Friends‚ he's the beacon guiding that philosophy. The depth of his playing is immense‚ and regardless of how many one-of-a-kind musicians he has sharing the stage with him‚ you always know by the space they play in that it's Phil's band.

How's rehearsal for the tour going?
Oh‚ it's going ecstatically well. Everything's just groovin' like crazy.
That's great to hear. I see the band is a mix of some old friends and new friends.
Yeah‚ I've sort of gotten into that mode of trying to cast my net in a wider area‚ you know? Different kinds of musicians to bring in fresh viewpoints.
That's interesting. What do you think that's doing to your playing?
Well‚ everybody I play with changes my playing. I have to listen harder; I can't just assume that I know what they're gonna do. It challenges me to be on my toes‚ which is something that I really live for. Generally‚ what I have to do is just play less and see how these new musicians are fitting into the texture. See what kind of habits or recurring events that I can glean from their playing so I can tailor my playing to what's going on. In an intuitive way‚ so I don't have to focus on anything but what the other guys are playing. Anyway‚ it's complicated.
Well‚ you know‚ I love the approach of Phil & Friends. For years now‚ you've kind of treated it like a jazz band‚ but instead of playing jazz you're playing Phil music. [laughter]
I've always kind of thought of it like that. We even went so far as to call one of our bands the Quintet. So that's kind of the approach‚ but historically‚ that's also the approach that the Grateful Dead used. Because we just borrowed‚ or stole‚ that whole approach from jazz musicians and applied it to rock music. Especially when we would hear Coltrane playing "My Favorite Things" for forty-five minutes; that was definitely an inspiration. [laughter] It's all part of a long tradition of improvisational music. Think of it that way. It goes back to Bach‚ and before him. It goes back to the oral poets; it goes back to Homer. It's a noble tradition‚ and I'm really honored to be part of it.
I've talked to quite a few musicians about improvising and how it's kind of like life itself: there's continuous growth‚ you're never finished. And so I'm kind of curious where you're at. I feel a lot of times when I'm listening to you play there's curiosity in every note. Where do you think you are as an improviser?
We're never where we think we should be. [laughter] That's just kind of an occupational hazard. You know‚ having done this for so many years‚ it's really sharpened my ear and honed my mind‚ so it's possible to pick up on changes that are happening‚ or even intent‚ which is communicated sometimes through the notes‚ sometimes through body language‚ sometimes just through the ethereal -- telepathically. The growth there is in my ability to perceive the whole with more detail‚ as paradoxical as that can sound. And so‚ by definition that's a never-ending process‚ because the art of music‚ of course‚ is infinite. And that's one of the things we try to do with music: we attempt to limit that infinite flow and sort of step it down like transformers; that's what human musicians do. We bring that music into existence‚ or material existence if you can call vibrations in air material. That's our task -- to manifest it in some way. And as I said‚ it's necessarily infinite‚ and we'll never get there. We'll never get there because we would have to become one with the infinite in order to do that. So hey‚ I'm just as happy being a pipeline‚ because that way we can manifest it here on earth for others to be inspired by and hear and learn from.
And if you think about it‚ that applies to listeners as well‚ because I mean as a listener‚ wouldn't you say that over a lifetime of listening to music‚ your perceptions have become more acute and your taste has been refined?
So it's a task for all of us.
You've been doing this for a really long time‚ exploring the possibilities of music‚ honing your craft. And I was thinking about some of the concepts that you‚ after playing so many years‚ go for when you sit down and play. And I had the opportunity to interview Ron Carter about a year ago.
Yeah‚ the man.
Yeah. It was funny because I asked him that question‚ and I was expecting some kind of lofty answer about what he's working on‚ and he's like‚ "Man‚ I'm just trying to get the horn player to listen to me still." [laughter]