John Mayer’s Dream Life (2002)

John Mayer

Winding up a string of tour dates a few months ago, John Mayer explained to an Athens, GA audience that they were in for a special night. The tall songwriter behind the breezy single “No Such Thing” said that on the road, the band has only so much energy, which is like cheese, and the number of shows are like crackers.

But since tonight is like the last cracker of the tour, he concluded, there’s nothing left to do but use up all the rest of the cheese.

The crowd did, in fact, eat it up.

You might think the 24-year-old guitarist’s analogy was part of a repertoire, honed to court an audience often already in the palm of his hand. However, Mayer pleads innocent to prefabricating his patter.

“I make all my banter fresh nightly,” he insists. “All on the spot. I wish I could have my old standbys, but you can’t say the same stuff, because whatever you say these days, people post it on the internet that night, or it winds up on an mp3. The last thing I want people to say is, ‘That is SO Cleveland,’ or ‘That is SO 2/16/02!”

“I make all my banter fresh nightly,” Mayer insists. “The last thing I want people to say is, ‘That is SO Cleveland,’ or ‘That is SO 2/16/02!”

Mayer wouldn’t have to worry about that kind of thing if his brand of smooth but organic guitar pop hadn’t won him a loyal core audience. They discovered his first widely distributed disc, Room For Squares, and it is safe to assume that some of them also noticed his picture. Many of them subsequently found out that a good live show and a wry sense of humor contribute to the full John Mayer experience.

Low-Solo Strategy

Don’t confuse that with the Jimi Hendrix Experience, but there is one other fact to know about the Connecticut Yankee turned Georgia boy, something he makes a point to leave out of his three- or four-minute recordings: Mayer is a monster guitar player.

The guitar textures on Room For Squares reflect his rhythm skills, but they hide a storied history of solos. From putting on shows for his mom (using her makeup case for stage lighting, playing over tapes, changing outfits behind the door) to studying at Berklee, Mayer grew up refining his riffs. He left music school to play clubs, where people walked out using names like Stevie Ray and Eric. But Mayer eventually became disenchanted with the world of frantic fretwork.

“Soloing is a completely self-indulgent thing for a guitar player. It’s easy to solo that it’s interesting for guitar players, but it’s not easy to do it so it’s really interesting for other people.”

“Soloing is a completely self-indulgent thing for a guitar player. It’s easy to solo that it’s interesting for guitar players, but it’s not easy to do it so it’s really interesting for other people.”

After making that distinction, Mayer refocuses his energy. He’ll still pull out some lead work, “in one song, maybe two songs a night,” but now his priority is the songs, because he believes that leads to an enduring connection with people.

So where did his philosophy get him? It put him in more clubs and some theaters, delivering hooks made hookier with an unaffected vocal style that might be described as the sound of bedhead.

Life With An Internet Fanbase

And as Mayer alluded, his fans have the latest in music trading knowledge (along with permission to tape shows for trading only), and they’re not afraid to use it. Covers and rarities skip across modems nationwide to create a familiarity unheard of ten years ago. Aside from ruling out canned one-liners, cyberspace presents other pros and cons for an artist; Mayer chooses to look on the bright side.

“I get the most obscure requests,” he reports. “The great thing about my fans is they don’t obey the boundaries of any record. It’s like a technicality that I have a record out, so I don’t have to play ‘No Such Thing’ last every night, you know?”

A quick review of Mayer’s setlists confirms that he really doesn’t play is most popular tune every night, a fairly amazing fact for a “new” artist trying to break into the next level of stardom. The same goes for “3×5”, one of his favorites, which landed both on the Serendipity soundtrack and on the remixed, major-label version of Room For Squares.

Instead, the regular requests for rare songs prove these fans are more interested in the singer than the singles (or the solos). Does this kind of persistence about his castoffs ever make Mayer rethink some of his decisions?

“No, I’m still quite sure when something is crap,” he says. “Ideally, I’d like to take a song out for a test drive, maybe try out some lyrics, but I can’t, because it’s officially ‘released’ as soon as it’s played. Still, if you ask me would I rather be able to do that or have the kind of following I have, I’ll take the latter every time.”

You Oughta Know: Tour Bus Dreams

Of course, Mayer’s fans have the luxury of following him around electronically, but the singer can escape the serious bus time requisite at this stage of success. He stays surprisingly upbeat, and he’s also fairly well rested, although there is one pitfall.

“I sleep on the bus quite well,” he says, “except that while the bus shakes enough to roll you to sleep, it also shakes enough so you stay in this mid-depth kind of sleep. So you sleep, but you dream these vivid, whacked out dreams all the time.”

As a result, Mayer often wakes up “factory-loaded,” with my perspective tainted by something I dreamed.” He doesn’t even get any material to work with from this chronic dreaming, “except the occasional material for the old sexual fantasy bank, because your dreams can wind up affecting your opinions for a while.

“I had myself an Alanis Morissette dream the other day, and for two days I was like, ‘Alanis Morissette, wow!’ And two more days went by and then it was, ‘Ooooooh, Tiffany!'”

“But once, I had a dream that I was a big rock star, and everything was really good, so every once in a while, (all that dreaming) isn’t so bad.”


(This article was first published in the Music Monitor, May 2002, “John Mayer’s Dream Life” by Robert Beverly. Many thanks to the Monitor’s then-editor [now Record Store Day empress] Carrie Colliton for her OK to share it here.)

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