With ten years of ever-evolving studio work and touring under the moniker of Hiss Golden Messenger, it’s become clear that frontman M. C. Taylor is unafraid to venture into the strange and unexplored. The darkness, according to him, “is just a different kind of light.” Perhaps most surprising about Taylor as an artist is his ability to sound just as exciting crooning soul-infused Americana in a stripped-down duo setting with friend and right-hand man Phil Cook as he does making noise with a rounded out six-piece. It seems appropriate then, between his dynamic performances and appreciation of the uncanny within 20th century Americana canon, that M.C Taylor and his constantly shifting lineup of Hiss Golden Messenger have been chosen to play at the fast-approaching Jubilee: A Celebration of Jerry Garcia. The festival is set to take place Friday, March 30 in LA at The Ace Hotel Theatre, and aims to celebrate the life of Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia with performances from artists influenced by Garcia’s legacy. In this conversation Taylor reflects on what got him into Garcia and the Dead while growing up, his favorite Dead works, and his relationship with the jamband scene at large today.
I was wondering if you could start by giving a little background on how you first discovered the Dead’s music and how that experience fits in with your musical quests in general.
I don’t know that I started listening to the Dead in earnest until I was maybe 18 or 19. I grew up playing hardcore and punk and noise music and I had kind of a standoffish relationship with whatever I thought the Dead symbolized. This was in the late 1980s, 1990s, and it’s hard to explain why I had that relationship other than I was looking to be involved in something or felt an affinity with music on the fringes and it wasn’t until I started listening to their music deeply that I realized that they, in a lot of ways, had created those fringe communities that I was seeking out. I just didn’t realize it. I mean, their music contains multitudes. It contains all of the sort of American traditional music that I love and that really forms the basis for a big part of what I do in my own music. But they also knew so much about avant-garde music, sort of out music, free music, and that was part of their story too. It created a whole universe. I think that they were not accepted in whatever musical world existed when they first started so they created their own, and I love that. And they stayed true to themselves as long as they were making records as the Grateful Dead.
Was there a certain album, or a certain era of the band that got you into the music?
The first Dead record that I really connected with was Workingman’s Dead, and it was about the time that I was discovering country records by The Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers. And at that time, coming out of the musical world that I had been a part of, that felt like as far out as I could go, listening to the music that at the time seemed very traditional. I realized that they were stretching the boundaries of what traditional music was and could be with those records, but Workingman’s Dead was a point of entry for me into much older stuff, into old-time music—Child Ballads, and Reno and Smiley to Elizabeth Cotton to Bill Monroe. That whole universe was sort of opened up to me by Workingman’s Dead.
You mentioned that you have a background in hardcore music and you lived in San Francisco and California. What about that area do you think is conducive to both creating the world that the Dead and their brethren grew up in as well as San Francisco’s obviously great punk and hardcore scene?
I suspect that when the Dead were coming up, part of it had to do with being affordable to live there. I think that you don’t really get a vibrant and wide open cultural situation without there being affordable places to live. I think that was a big part of it. I’ve never actually read any research about that, but I have to think that that was part of the story. And they were coming out of the 1950s, which was a very staid time in American culture and I think that young people were tired of it. They needed more. They needed something that felt richer and more true to their experiences and emotions as people. It feels like there are parallels to now, having just witnessed all of the March For Our Lives gatherings over the weekend. It seems like what the Dead and their compatriots were doing then was a grassroots thing. It was really from the ground up, it was not a top-down movement. And like I said, they created their own world, and they created their own rules. Or, they created a world without rules. They also had an affinity with The Beat Generation and poets like Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg, and Gregory Corso and writers like Jack Kerouac. The sort of emotion that appears in those writers’ work was kind of foundational for what came ten years later with the Dead.
In terms of your own quest for the Dead’s music and Jerry’s music in particular, once you got through Workingman’s Dead, was there a point when you felt either a certain album or song brought you into loving their other periods and phases, whether it’s the more psychedelic or jazzy stuff or some of the other avenues that you were introduced to?
Well, I mean I love it all now. [Laughs.] I feel like the sweet spot for me with the Dead as a band is probably Europe ’72 because it felt like everything kind of comes together on that record. The using [of] American roots music writ large to create something new that pays homage to so much great American music of the 20th century. But they weren’t playing dress-up. There’s an emotion in those songs like “Jack Straw” or “He’s Gone” that feels contemporary to their time. It feels fresh and doesn’t feel like they’re trying to re-create another era. It feels to me like they’re living in their own time and in a really important way. I think the writing on that record, Robert Hunter’s writing in particular, is really quite astounding.
Do you cover any of the Dead’s music regularly with Hiss or other projects?
Yeah, sometimes. We do “Brown-Eyed Women” occasionally. We’ve played “Althea.” We have a recording of “Shakedown Street” that we’re going to do something with this year. You know, The Grateful Dead are a funny one because their songs are not as easy to play as you expect them to be.
I know Phil Cook is the other steady member of the band and he has a deep appreciation and roots in the Dead’s world. Was the Dead’s music part of the way you guys bonded musically, and if so, how has Phil’s Dead influence and his work in the Dead world worked its way into your music and the band’s music in general?
I think that the idea and aesthetic of the Dead, more than any particular musical idea, has been the biggest influence on us. This notion that they were a family that didn’t always get along but they were… what’s the saying? The sum of their parts was greater than them individually in a lot of ways. And again, just this idea that they created their own universe out of sort of scraps, or clues that had been left or laid out for them. It was exclusive in a lot of ways, in that you really had to be on the level, you had to be wide open to be a part of it, and being wide open is not so easy. [Laughs.] But they lived it for real. That is something that is inspiring to both Phil and I for sure, just seeing this group of musicians come together and evolve in a really beautiful way and create their own unique voice. There’s really nothing that sounds like The Grateful Dead. And there’s nothing that sounds like Jerry Garcia’s guitar playing, it’s really unique in the wide spectrum of American guitar playing. You always knows know when it’s Jerry Garcia’s that’s playing.
When I first started to listen, Hiss was in a lot of ways a solo project for you and I know that it’s morphed over the years. Was there a point where it became more of a band of steady players versus more of a solo thing and how has that family ethos evolved along with the band?
I think at a certain point I just felt like I wanted to make more noise and I wanted to have more harmonic information, more harmony than I could create by myself on stage. It’s sort of cosmic that I came together with the people that I play with now because not everybody understands exactly the colour that I’m trying to create on stage, but Phil does. Phil always knows. Phil always knows what harmony I’m looking for without me even telling him. So in that way it’s kind of mystical that we even live in the same city. But I’m always leaving the door open for this thing to change and shrink and grow, whatever I’m kind of feeling. Like we did that thing for you guys in Texas and did a couple other shows like that, just the two of us, and then I was like, “This is really fun. This feels fresh to me.” Just the two-piece, the two of us having to cover a lot more territory. But over the years I’ve had a lot of different feelings about that. There would be some times when I feel like it’s really important to have a six-piece band up there and some times I feel driven to just do it by myself because I’m feeling that sort of connection with the songs. So it’s always changing and evolving.
In terms of the improvisational and jamband music in general, I know that the Dead is obviously one that has direct influence on you, but while growing up and being in California, I think you went to school at the same time as some of the guys from ALO and some of these West Coast jambands. Were you ever part of that orbit or was that always kind of a parallel thing going on?
I think at that time it was kind of a parallel universe. All of us were very close friends and I personally had a different sort of musicality. Over the many years that we’ve known each other I feel like our paths have actually crossed in a lot of beautiful ways. At that time we were all so young. They were already great musicians. I was using a guitar as a tool that was not always totally musical. I was doing something else with music. But I love improvisational music. I don’t know that I’m the hugest jamband fan all the time. Sometimes it’s hard for me to listen to bands improvising over blues changes. [Laughs.] But there’s a whole massive, massive world in improvisational music that I do love. There’s so much jazz, there’s bands like CAN from Germany that did a lot of improv, they’re one of my favorite bands in the world. So I would say I share a lot of common ground with the folks that you were mentioning just in terms of improvisation. I was close friends with Jack Johnson and we’d play around together.