John Mayer: Battle Star
GW It’s clear you have chops. Is it hard for you to play with restraint?
MAYER No. I actually like the control. I’m a little bit of a control freak, and I like it when people ask me, “Why didn’t you go in for the kill?” The answer is, it wouldn’t have been appropriate for these songs. I think many of the new generation of players have a better handle on when and when not to play. But then again, I try to work in a spectrum, so after making a very crafted song-oriented record like this one, I’m gonna have to bust out with a guitar record, just to keep myself happy.
GW It was interesting that you decided to cover Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads”. Do you listen to much Delta blues?
MAYER I’m informed by it, but I’m not an obsessive. I think Lightnin’ Hopkins and Big Bill Broonzy sound great in the car, but there is a sonic limitation to those early recordings, and with “Crossroads” I liked the idea of updating it sonically.
GW Do you have some examples of what you think are perfect pop tunes?
MAYER Oh yeah. There are so many perfect pop tunes in different… [pauses] See, I think pop is an incredibly vast idiom of music. I don’t see it as something confining. I can pick five pop tunes that I think are great and they would be from five different genres—R&B, hip-hop, adult alternative, hard rock and so on. You were talking about Paul Simon earlier, and I think his “Train in the Distance” [from 1983’s Hearts and Bones] is one of the most well-crafted songs I’ve ever heard in my life. It covers 40 years in four verses. His economy of verbiage is maybe the best ever in pop songwriting.
GW You hear his influence on your hit “Who Says?” in both style and substance.
MAYER It doesn’t break new ground, but I think the lyrics push it forward. If the lyrics were different in “Who Says?” it would just be a pleasant folk song. They put a different spin on the music and give it edge.
GW What do you mean by “edge”?
MAYER I don’t mean a controversial edge; I mean it perks up the music. It becomes a compound. I really like it when music has at least two different elements that come together to sort of react to one another. The lyrical phrase “Who says I can’t get stoned?” gives it a little bit of a punk/irreverent thing. If instead I sang, “Come with me where I go,” it would fall over, because it would be too cliché. That contradiction is a theme that goes throughout the album. Most of the lyrics are very “late night” and desolate, but the music is “everything’s gonna be alright.” If the music was desolate and the lyrics were desolate, I think it would bring people down too much.
GW You’re a traditionalist in terms of your music, but you’re progressive as far as promoting it. You’re one of first artists to really embrace new media in all of its forms. You’re a blogger, you Twitter, you’ve created some genuinely funny bits online, and you’re a fixture in the tabloids. You seem fine with breaking the “third wall” and making your personal life part of the entertainment. Is it a means to an end? Are you ever afraid of being the victim of it?
MAYER It’s not exactly a means to an end; it’s a means to continue on the original authentic path. My path is straight—bone straight. I’m not going to worry if my “radio transmission” gets misinterpreted as much as I need to worry about my path being correct.
In terms of giving access, I don’t believe any of the access that I’ve given has been a compromise in any way. For example, I don’t really tweet about my personal life; I’m just tweeting the silliest thoughts and some impressions that I have of things, which is what any writer does. I try not to roll over on my back or be too vulnerable, but making sure that you’re constantly landing on your feet admittedly can be a lot of work after awhile. It’s a whole other career, playing this media game. I know it’s not ultimately the healthiest thing in the world, and part of me thinks I now have to close the doors a little bit and go back to a place where it’s just me.