Elton John interviewing
JOHN MAYER - Interview
by Elton John - April 2002
How do you find a real
guitarist? Ask a real pianist.
ELTON JOHN: The first
thing that struck me when I heard your album [Room For Squares, Aware/Columbia]
was the musicianship involved in it. Your guitar playing, and the high
quality of all the musicians’ work on the album, immediately endeared me
to it, because I feel as far as musician-ship goes, it’s kind of gone out
the window of late. Your playing seems to be influenced by so many different
people. Who were they?
JOHN MAYER: When I was a kid I was influenced
by whoever was on the radio – Michael Jackson and the Police and bands
like that. Until I picked up a tape of Stevie Ray Vaughn’s music. There
was something resonating in it that I still can’t describe. My life was
different once I heard that. I didn’t know what it was, but I wanted to
do it. I remember saying to my dad, “Can I go to blues lessons? Do they
have blues lessons down the street?”
EJ: And when did
you start playing the guitar?
JM: I was 13. I remember the first night
I got my guitar, trying to figure it out for myself – and it didn’t take
long to figure out a chord. I had the guitar two weeks before I took lessons,
and I feel like that’s the best thing you can ever do for yourself.
EJ: I agree with
you. I kind of learned by ear and then I had lessons later on and it really
helped me, just picking things up myself. I think you form your own style
JM: Yeah, I see the guitar in a way that
I could never articulate to anybody. Everyone has their own theory. You
have to have a theory to play the instrument, but for the most part-
EJ: -It’s all about
your own soul coming through. I’m sure you hold your guitar sacred, right?
JM: Absolutely. It’s the biggest joy. It’s
like this firework in your gut. It’s the closest thing to being able to
make things appear and disappear, it’s almost magic.
EJ: You can get so
high off a feeling like that. So when did you start singing?
JM: Singing had always been there. I used
to do middle school and high school theatre before I hit puberty. But I
just got so into guitar playing; I wanted to be the best guitar player.
I didn’t care if people said that John Mayer was obnoxious, because I probably
was. But if it was ever followed up by “But, damn, can he play guitar,”
that was fine with me.
EJ: And when did
your songwriting start to come together?
JM: I was always observational and would
find a way to make people go, “What the hell are you talking about?” So,
I didn’t see how I could not put that into a song. When I heard Ben Folds
and even Dave Matthews before him, there was this kind of going above and
beyond and almost taunting other bands. As a writer, as an arranger, Dave
Matthews was almost taunting everyone else in terms of how many hooks he
was putting in one song. He really inspired me to stuff as much as I could
into a song before I called it done. And Ben Folds, his conversational
style was so breezy-
EJ: -And also very
JM: Very observational! His poetry was
that he wasn’t taking his thoughts and processing them, imprisoning them
through romantic-speak. I really gravitated toward it and decided that
I was going to write the same way.
EJ: The thing I like
about Ben’s lyrics and your is that they sound so American. I come from
a background of loving Americana – Brian Wilson, The Beach Boys, Randy
Newman – and Ben writes about Americana as it’s happening now.
JM: With him, it’s melody first, and I
think you’re the same way. I almost think bands now could be more melodic,
but don’t want to be.
EJ: A lot of bands
are not great musicians, so they’re tied to a certain number of chords
they can play. And that limits them.
JM: I can’t imagine how it doesn’t limit
you emotionally, either. I don’t know if I would enjoy doing what I’m doing
now if I didn’t have all my faculties coming into it.
EJ: That’s one thing
I noticed when I first met you – you are enjoying yourself so much. When
we had dinner the other night and you said, “I’ve done my thing in the
van,” it brought me back to when I did my thing in the van. And then you
said, “I’m now graduating to a tour bus,” which is gonna be like, Wow!
It sounds really clichéd, but I think doing that and serving your
apprenticeship does give you that determination. So when you do progress,
you’re just so happy because you’ve been in that bloody van. There are
times when you’re traveling and you think, Is this all worth it? But you
know inside that you wouldn’t want to do anything else.
JM: Absolutely. I’ve always had a confidence
that I can’t explain. It’s not like a boorish kind of overcompensating
confidence. It’s just that growing up there was enough doubt from all angles
in what I was going to do that I developed this really ice-cold confidence
in being able to go, “OK, well, watch and see.”
EJ: These days it’s
a case of make a record, go on MTV, and then do a gig. You’ve done it the
other way around, and that’s the proper way for a musician to do it. In
the old days, even people like the Rolling Stones had to do that – they
didn’t get the record contract first. It drives me nuts that bands make
those videos when they should be on the road. The record companies should
be pouring money into them on the road so that they can learn their craft
and write their songs.
JM: Right, there’s that and then there’s
the fact that my generation is much more aware than any other before us
about how advertising works and how records are made. One of the best and
worst inventions in the last 10 years is the internet message board, in
which every single person can have the same volume voice as the next person,
whether or not they have the knowledge or not. And so everyone “knows”
about producers now. They have arguments about which producers artists
use. Lay people, who are supposed to have a certain amount of naivete about
these matters, are discussing them. It becomes a debate by people who know
nothing about it.
EJ: And that breeds
mediocrity. That’s why you get Popstars and Survivor on television.
JM: And that’s also why we investigate
records to find out if they’re good before we buy them, which is why Napster
took off. It didn’t take off because [we wanted things for free]. We’re
ready to spend the money; but the thing is that in the past we bought records
that were front-loaded with one or two singles and the rest was crap. So
now the middle finger means, I’m gonna take only what I want from this
record, because I know the rest is crap, because I heard it, and I’ve already
given this band, or this record company, so much money before and they’ve
given me a coaster with a single on it.
EJ: [laughs] Yeah,
but not many artists think like that. I can listen to your album the whole
way through, and it’s a quality album, but most albums you buy you can
only get through the first three or four tracks.
JM: And you know what the biggest problem
is with bands today? I almost feel unqualified to talk about bands today-
EJ: -Go on. [ride]
JM: It’s that record deals are given away
as prizes on TV and on the internet. “Win a deal!” So bands will do anything
they can to get a record deal because they believe that it’s the gateway-
EJ: -to happiness
JM: You know, I’ll go on record as saying
I probably should not have gotten a record deal this early. That is to
say, it wouldn’t have hurt me to have two more years.
EJ: How old are you
EJ: I think you’ve
done your apprenticeship. Your career could not be in better shape than
it is. You’ve done your groundwork; believe me, that’s coming from Grandad
over here. I think your record’s come along at the right time and I think
it will explode. Is there anything in your life apart from music? I get
the impression that it’s all encompassing.
JM: It’s all encompassing because when
I’m not playing I come home and I go all out for that next song. I go in
my bathroom and I dream like I dreamt when I was 13 or 14. I remember growing
up watching the Grammys every year with my guitar in my hands. I would
always do the same thing – I would play guitar during the commercial breaks
or along with the bands playing and just turn up the electric and play
and then turn it back down. I’d just be in love with the idea that one
day I’d be standing up there – and if I ever do get to stand up there,
I’m just going to call out to the kid who’s playing his guitar at home,
watching me. And I’ll say, “Get the hell up here! Come get up here.”