Looking out at Dead World these days is truly remarkable – (probably) more fans than in 1995, certainly many more bands playing Dead music than you can imagine, and more and more energy building for the music. Instead of being fans of the Dead, Deadheads became fans of Dead music…and who you like to hear playing it seems to be a matter of personal taste.
That’s the idea behind Skull and Roses (April 5 to 7, 2019, at the Ventura County Fairgrounds): take 10 or 20 Dead-oriented bands, place in an iconic Dead location by the beach, stir lightly, and fire it up! This year it will include Oteil & Friends (with John Kadlecik, among other heavies), JGB, Stu Allen & Mars Hotel, Grateful Shred, Cubensis, David Gans & Fragile Thunder… and lots, lots more.
By way of introducing you to this year’s S & R, we had a conversation with Dan Horne, bass player for Grateful Shred as well as Circles Around the Sun, which makes him a ground-zero example of what’s happening in Grateful Dead music at the moment…
I was born in 1978 and grew up in Palo Alto, in the Bay Area, surrounded by Grateful Dead history, really. The cool one was St. Michael’s Alley, where Jerry and Hunter would play. We used to go there and do jams and open mic-type stuff. It was pretty cool being in high school and them letting us go in there and play. That was always a lot of fun.
When I was seven or eight, and there was this place (between Palo Alto and San Francisco, in San Carlos) called the Circle Star Theater, where the stage was in the middle and it would rotate around, and I was into the Beach Boys then and we went up there to see them. I was psyched, I knew every song, and we go and it’s amazing. And they’re playing. A second night, so I got my parents to take me again, and they played the exact same set, and they even told the same jokes, and I was devastated. It seemed totally fake. I was thinking, ‘I don’t know what this is anymore,” I was totally turned off. Nowadays I understand it a little better – yeah, you do it.
We had really good school band classes, and so I said I wanted to play guitar, but they said there’s no guitar in the school Jazz Band, but there’s a bass…so I played bass. And then I got kicked out of the junior high band for playing too much, that was pretty funny. I played too many notes and too often, I was doing my own thing all the time.
I was in a bunch of bands in school. “Hey, let’s start a band.” We were barely even playing when we started “Six Feet Under,” that was a good one. I was in junior high, and one of the seniors at the high school invited me, so I got to play at the high school, which was monumental. And then when I got to high school, I convinced the band teacher to clear out the band uniform closet and let it be my four-piece rock band rehearsal room. “Yeah, great, do whatever you want.” And we got to rehearse during fourth period. I remember walking out of there and all the students would be staring at us like we were insane – I guess they could hear us. Whatever weird stuff we were up to.
I got out of high school in 1996, and went to Reed College, which was kind of a hippie-nerd school. I started in physics but it was just too hard, so I switched to music, ‘cause it was easy. Gary Snyder, the famous Beat poet, went there. So did Dr. Demento – his radio show started at the station there. It was funny because he would hang around when I was there. I’d see him at parties and I was a bit of a loner so I’d end up talking with him at all the parties. “I’m going to go hang out with this guy.” So I got to know him a little bit.
As a player coming up when I did, I was into the weird Bay Area metal scene. I would go to the Dead shows at Shoreline to score weed, basically. Jerry died when I was just getting started, so it took a while to become a part of my life. That came through playing with people, jamming. You’d meet new people and it was, ‘What songs do you know?’ and it always came back to like, “Do you know ‘Eyes of the World’, or ‘Bertha’?” It definitely came through that world – almost like the jazz Real Book – everyone knows the songs in the Real Book, and then if you’re playing in rock bands, everyone knows the Dead catalogue. It’s a starting point. It’s a language.
This was mostly after Reed. In high school I had my band, and we mostly wrote our own songs and kind of just developed, learning how to play, and after college and entering back into the real world, and trying to become a professional musician, that’s when you start playing with so many different people. Playing with Jonathan Wilson, we learned a million Dead songs, and stuff like that. I mostly played a jazz bass. I had a kind of plucky sound, and I’d crank the treble on my amp – I played a Fender Jazz bass — and then people started telling me I did Phil really well. Then I went through a phase of learning Phil’s tricks, and I got an Alembic bass and all that stuff, but it all happened in a weird way, not on purpose.
I came up in the indie-rock world for a while, in the early 2000s. But then a big turning point was when I met the guys from Beechwood Sparks, ‘cause they were one of my favorite bands, and just hanging at the bar in Echo Park (Los Angeles), called the Little Joy, I just met them through mutual interests. And they became friends. And then they asked me to play with them in on pedal steel. That was about ten years ago. That was my introduction to California country rock stuff, and they introduced me to a lot of people playing around town. That morphed into playing with Cass McCombs and Jonathan Wilson – I picked up the bass with those guys. Cass and I have an album coming out in February (2019) called Tip of the Sphere that I’m excited about. On ANTI-Records. I co-produced it with Cass, and played bass, and mixed it, so I was heavily involved with it.
And I also play in Circles Around the Sun. That also stems from the Beechwood Sparks thing, because Neal Casal used to play with Beechwood Sparks, but then me and Neal and Cass started a band called the Skiffle Players, a fun side project kind of thing we started, except now we have three records. So that’s the connection. Through doing Skiffle with Neal – I don’t know what came first — anyway, around the same time, Circles Around the Sun formed to make the music for the GD 50th “Fare Thee Well” thing.
Shred started kind of like just through jamming with friends – everyone moved into my house – I have a house in Echo Park, and Sam, Clay, and Austin all moved in to my house, because I was moving out because of my kids (two kids, 4 and 6) kids, so I rented the rooms out to them and I got a new place down the street that was better suited for the kids. So we’re just jamming all the time. And then Austin had a weekly residency at a local bar called The Griffen, and his band wasn’t available or something one night, so he said let’s do the show and do Dead covers, it’ll be easy because we know the songs. I remember the first practice we sounded really good and everybody was playing great and I said, “Oh man, we’re like the Grateful Shred” – and it stuck. It was cool to come up with the name right away – names are tough. I was in bands that would have done much better if they’d not had a terrible name. This one’s light-hearted and people get that.
You can’t go to a Dead show anymore, obviously, there’s similar things, but the next best thing is playing music in front of people, an audience that gets it – playing “Terrapin Station” in front of 600 people and they’re all singing along – it’s amazing. It’s a community thing where everyone moves together, the audience and the band.
After “Fare Thee Well,” it just has a life of its own now. Grateful Dead music is its own genre now, and it’s so cool that you can interpret it in so many different ways and make it your own. And it’s the songs. You can just get a band together and jam, but it will never reach the heights it can reach if it were a jam in the middle of a song like “Playing in the Band” or “Eyes of the World” or whatever – the jams that you can reach through the vehicles of those songs are pretty amazing. That’s one of the things that mystifies me – how those songs take really good players even higher just by following the song where it goes.
Shred’s been going for two years now, and our hometown shows are so amazing – it’s our home town, after all. People sometimes tell me how L.A. sucks for jam bands, and I don’t know about that….we did a tour of the West Coast over the summer and ended up at a festival called Echo Park Rising, and we were the last band, and there was a line down the block, and a party vibe in the show…it was great. That was my favorite Shred show.
Ventura’s such a cool place to play. I really dug it last year with Circles Around the Sun. It’s got that old school vibe, and we didn’t know what to think before we got there. But it was like a flashback, right out of the past. The camping, the ocean – people hanging out and meeting each other, and a lot of good energy. And the music’s so interesting because everybody’s got their own take. It was really friendly among the bands, and I’m really looking forward to going this year.