John Mayer: Battle Star
Battle Studies, Mayer’s latest album, finds him more in his pop mode, focusing on lush textures rather than in-your-face guitar heroics. Even the album’s cover of the ultimate blues guitar workout “Crossroads” receives a tight, slinky arrangement that features a relatively short solo break. While the album makes a less-than-ideal basis for a Guitar World interview, it turned out to be a great springboard to discuss not only guitar playing but also the role of the musician in 2010.
Mayer is engaged and enthusiastic as we discuss topics that range from deeply philosophical to the usual talk about picks and strings. “This is the last sit-down interview I’m going to do for a long time,” he says, burnt out from the constant media attention that seems to follow him wherever he roams. “It’s cool to give it to Guitar World.”
GUITAR WORLD What do you listen to these days?
JOHN MAYER Ever since I was a kid, I’ve bounced back and forth between pop and what I would call “instrument-driven” music. Not instrumental music, just instrument-driven music. For example, when I was real young I would toggle between commercial stuff like Mötley Crüe and Skid Row and more serious guitar-driven blues like Buddy Guy. When I got a little older, I’d switch between Pearl Jam and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
It’s no different now. I still go back and forth between the two. I’ve been in pop-song phase, and Battle Studies reflects that. The guitar playing is subtler than what I would do with the Trio because I was concentrating on supporting the songs. But I’m really getting excited about picking up the guitar again and opening another door. I’ve recently become obsessed with Bill Frisell’s album, Disfarmer. It’s fucking insane. It’s something I can sit with for the next six months and really pull apart.
GW You’ve always taken those two distinct paths with your career: the pop guy and the blues shredder.
MAYER I like to think of it as one path with two lanes.
GW Battle Studies is a pop album, but much of it feels like pop from another era. For example, “Who Says?” sounds like Paul Simon’s solo work from the Seventies, while the groove in “Half of My Heart” is reminiscent of Lindsey Buckingham–era Fleetwood Mac.
MAYER Yeah. I recorded the album in Los Angeles, and that vibe is very present. There’s a proliferation of Eighties and Nineties nostalgia on L.A. radio at the moment, and I found myself in the car listening to a lot of things like Don Henley’s “Leather and Lace,” Tom Petty’s “Freefalling” and Fleetwood Mac’s “Rhiannon,” all of which were produced in California. There’s something about listening to music in the same city that it was born in. You feel the direct connection to it.
GW The songs you mentioned are very relevant to your album. All three have lots of guitar, but they’re tightly arranged and the solos are deployed primarily to serve the hook.
MAYER It’s not immediately apparent, but every tune on Battle Studies has something that challenged me on the guitar. I could go through it track by track and point out a new chord voicing that excited me or some new technique I’ve never used before. If I were to really break down “Half of My Heart,” which is the poppiest song on the record, you might be surprised by how much is going on.
The playing on the album is definitely a reaction to playing in the blues-trio format. I was getting a little tired of those Albert King shapes. The geometry of it was bugging me, and I needed to go somewhere else.
GW I think most people understand that you are trying to achieve the difficult balance between being a pop musician and growing as a musician.
MAYER I hope so. It’s a message I’ve tried to convey over time. I think in some ways the only ally you have in this entire game of being a musician is time, because it’s impossible to reveal everything on a single album.
What might not be obvious about Battle Studies is that it is a concept album. There’s a sadness that runs through all the tunes in the same sort of way. I’m really interested in how Battle Studies will be perceived when two more records go on the shelf after it.