From his role as a founding member of Col. Bruce Hampton‘s Aquarium Rescue Unit to playing with the Allman Brothers Band to moving stadium crowds with Dead & Company, Oteil Burbridge has had his hand in many successful projects, but it hasn’t been all roses for the 59-year-old bassist. On his new solo album, Lovely View Of Heaven, he uses the ballads of Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter to confront and work through the grief of losing some of the most important people in his life—his father; his brother, Kofi Burbridge; his musical mentor, Col. Bruce; and his theology mentor Dr. Jim Barnett, among others. The album offers an incredibly intimate view of a deep and tender soul struggling through real emotions, colored by the lens of Hunter’s powerful poetry and new, potent arrangements of Garcia’s music.

Recorded at Flóki Studios in Iceland with a rotating lineup comprised of Jason Crosby (piano, organ, strings), Tom Guarna (guitar), Pete Lavezzoli (drums), Steve Kimock (guitar), John Kimock (drums), and Adam Tenenbaum (guitar sounds), the album marks Oteil’s first time singing lead vocals on a studio record—though he got a little practice with Dead & Company—and includes a bonus track featuring a recording of Kofi Burbridge’s sole performance of a Grateful Dead song.

Live For Live Music had the pleasure of speaking with Oteil ahead of the album’s release. The conversation got predictably deep…

Read a transcript of the interview below, edited for length and clarity. Lovely View of Heaven is now available to stream on all major platforms. You can also order your vinyl copy of the album here.

Live For Live Music: How did this album get started? Did you know you wanted to do a Grateful Dead project?

Oteil Burbridge: Well, it was really very organic. It was because of two things. One was that I started singing these Garcia Hunter ballads with Dead & Company, and the other factor that played into it was the pandemic. During the pandemic, nobody could gig live, so everybody was doing streams and people kept asking me, “Can you play something solo?” And I was like, “No, I can’t,” because I didn’t want to play bass and sing and have no other instruments—which I couldn’t have because no one was allowed to be with each other—and I wanted an instrument where the chords would be there. But I had an acoustic piano, so I started trying to learn the tunes on piano so I could sing and play a piano, which would make a lot more sense to me as a listener as far as what I wanted to hear.

After the pandemic was over, I had learned a bunch of songs and I thought, “Wow, at some point I should probably record kind of like this, just mostly piano-centered and vocals.” Then fast forward to when I decided to do a whole record, and I had to pick eight songs because we wanted to do it on vinyl, so that was going to limit the length. … It was all very organic like that. And then after I decided I was going to do the record, I spent even more time at the piano just messing around, and as I was learning the songs, little changes would happen either through serendipity or maybe I would hear something, and so I would add it to the song to put my own stamp on it.

Live For Live Music: One of the things I immediately loved about the “Stella Blue” single was how new but familiar it felt, especially the string arrangements. Did you write all the string parts?

Oteil Burbridge: Well, that was Jason Crosby. He played keyboards on all of it, but he also plays violin, and if I’m not mistaken, it was his first instrument, so I definitely wanted him to put violin on it, but I had not written parts. He wrote those parts.

That was one of those things where it was like, “Hey, what if it starts with strings instead of just the regular way that it starts?” And right away it sets a completely different tone. … Unless I wrote a completely new part, which happens at the end of a lot of these songs—so if there’s a solo on the end, I might’ve written a completely different set of chord changes to solo over at the end of the tunes, and you’ll hear that a number of times, … my aim is that no matter how much I changed it, you can still sing along to the original that you know in your head. So you can sing along the whole way through, but then you’re going to realize what I did because you can sing along.

Live For Live Music: On the topic of song selection, was it a struggle to pare it down to the eight you ended up with?

Oteil Burbridge: Well, it was always going to be the Garcia Hunter ballads because that’s all I ever sing [with Dead & Company]. Obviously I would never sing any of the Bob Weir John Perry Barlow ballads—Bob’s there. And so for a lot of them, I was thinking about ballads that weren’t being done or ones that I wanted to do that I wasn’t doing, “Standing on the Moon” or “Morning Dew” or any number of things, “Must’ve Been the Roses”, but those will go on the next ballads record. There’s nine more that I want to do. There’s also some Jerry Garcia Band ballads like “Gomorrah” that I want to do. But as far as picking them out, it was hard right up until the very last second.

Live For Live Music: You mentioned how emotional these songs are, and you can tell even from the first single that this is very deep and personal, even though it’s basically a cover or rearrangement. The initial press materials for the single talked a lot about grief and the losses you’ve experienced, specifically your father and your brother and Col. Bruce. Was that the main focus of the project for you? Were you thinking about that when you were making it, or did that play into the process?

Oteil Burbridge: I don’t think you really have much choice. I mean, a lot of those Garcia Ballads are very sad and melancholy, and he went through some deep stuff when he was young. To me, that’s what they’re there for. When I sing him with Dead & Company or with anyone, with my band, or sitting in with someone else, it helps me process the things that I’m sad about. And we all have it. We all have the blues, even if we were raised in a castle. It’s something you can’t escape, the yin-yang. You can’t escape the dark part of life. And so I find that was there already and that’s kind of what I used it for personally.

I wanted to lean into that in the hopes that other people would be able to do that as well, because let’s face it, man, especially after the pandemic and even before, people were certainly going through it. For some people, it ended up being a good thing where we were able to see the changes that we needed to make that we wouldn’t have even necessarily realized if we weren’t forced to stop and take stock, but for a lot of people, it wasn’t good for them and many of them died, and not from Covid. They died from not being able to deal with the forced changes and deal with the stuff that they needed to change but weren’t ready to yet. All of that just put a lot on the whole country’s plate, the whole world’s plate. And so it was helpful for me learning these songs, working on them at the piano, singing them, playing them over and over again, finding my way through them. It helped me process a lot. And I was like, “Well, hopefully it will not be just me. Hopefully it can do that for the listener as well.”

Live For Live Music: In retrospect do you feel like making this album taught you anything about grief or loss?

Oteil Burbridge: I think, or I hope that it taught me, anyway, and I hope that people will find in it a way to process grief. You need to make it a verb. Grief feels to me like a cloud that just comes and sits over you, and you don’t have any control over it. To grieve is a verb. It’s something that you do. It doesn’t just sit there.

A lot of times if it just sits there, you find a way to ignore it or to get distracted from it, so you’re never doing the grieving verb part. You’re basically finding ways to distract yourself or be in denial of the grief, which you can do, sometimes even for a long time. And then all of a sudden you have a tumor or a mental break or whatever. It’s not healthy long-term to do that. My typical habit is to run away from it. Especially being a musician, you just go to the next gig, you’re at the next soundcheck, the next town, the next hotel, the next stage. It almost feels cruel when someone dies, how the world just doesn’t stop turning and then you’re just off to the next soundcheck. It’s weird and it feels bad, but it was my natural tendency.

Here, I just leaned. I turned around, faced it, and leaned right into it. Or if it was a body of water, I just dove headfirst into it. And you can do that without music. You can do that without this record, but this record is a good way to do it. I just hope people will find a way to do it however they do it. Because once I finally did, it was just so much… so many people passed who were really, really important to my life. My theology mentor, Dr. Jim Barnett, passed at 59 years old, and it was just like, “What?” Just crazy. And man, I had to face that stuff. It was just too much between my dad, my brother, Col. Bruce, Dr. Barnett, and I can go on and on from there, but those ones that were so meaningful and so pivotal and fundamental in my life, it was just too much to be able to be in denial of. So I’m really, really, really grateful that I had this music, specifically these ballads, to help me dive into those waters. And I feel a lot better now.

It makes me feel really good when people write me, and especially men, and say that it made them cry. That’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to move those emotions around, stir ’em up and get ’em moving so that they move through you. They’re going to come in, let ’em flow out also. And they come out with the tears. They come right out, man.

Live For Live Music: Yeah, there was this quote from you in the press release about how the songs were arranged and recorded through many tears, which was a heartbreaking phrase to read. I’m curious if there are any moments that stick out from the recording process like that, or if it was just an overall emotional process.

Oteil Burbridge: It was. We have to edit it out because there’s videos to every song, and every single song that I sang, I’m sure that I broke down at least once in tears, at least, if not two or three times. And all that’s on video. And I said, “Look, man, I’m going to get tired of seeing me crying all the time. We got to take that out. You can put a little in there, but it’s going to get old real quick if it’s every single song.” So yeah, it was quite a process.

Live For Live Music: Wow, that’s really powerful. You mentioned your theology mentor, and I’m just curious exactly what that means.

Oteil Burbridge: It’s funny because my dad had such a bad experience with religion when he was a kid that when he raised us, we never went to church. My mom still believed in God, but she totally rejected the whole organized religion thing, which for them was Catholicism. So I didn’t have it. And at a later point in life, around 40 years old, I really hit bottom, man. I just was lost and I felt very hopeless. I thought I wasn’t going to really be able to conquer my addictions. And as far as the world was concerned, I was doing great. I had the Allman Brothers gig, I was making more money than I ever thought I would when I started playing music, I had plenty of time on my hands, and I was just perfectly miserable. And when I bottomed out in my head, I just reached out to God. I was like, “I don’t know if you exist or whose name of you is right and whose name of you is wrong, but all I know is I need some help right now. I’m done. I can’t do this.”

And I heard a voice in my head say, “We’re here for you.” And I was like, what? I even called my mother afterwards. I was like, “Have you ever heard a voice or voices tell you good stuff and not bad stuff?”

And she said, “Yeah, it happened to me since I was 12. Remember, I always told you.” She called them her counselors and she would use them to find her keys. I do, too. If I lose something like my phone, I’ll look around and look around and I’ll forget. And then I ask them and I find it, it’s funny. So it could be big or small, but I talked to these, what sounded like three voices to me, and they counseled me for what seemed like about 30 minutes. And one of the things they told me to do was go back and stop studying religion the way my dad did, just to find flaws in it, because men wrote it and there’s going to be flaws in it … but wipe the slate clean and go in with an open heart and open mind looking for the truth and see if you find it then. And so, I did.

Fortunately, there was this guy, Dr. Jim Barnett, who was a huge Alman Brothers fan, and he found out from a guy that I knew that I was into theology and stuff. He was like, “What? One of the Allman Brothers has questions about theology?” So when I met him, I started reading from the beginning and I would just highlight things and all the questions that I had, all the old questions that I had—when I was like, this is bullshit and this is a contradiction and this is wrong, and blah, blah, blah. I hit him with all that stuff and he never shrank back from one question that I had. I really appreciated that because that was not the experience that my mom and dad had. It was the exact opposite. It reminds me of a quote, I think I heard Victor Wooten say it: “Better to have a question that can’t be answered than an answer that cannot be questioned.”

And that is Jim. That’s Dr. Barnett. To me, he was absolutely just amazing. I still cannot believe he died. He ended up marrying my wife and I, my wife Jess. He changed my life. I wouldn’t have kids, I wouldn’t be married, none of this, none of this would I have, man, if it wasn’t for him, and I give credit to whatever this mystical thing is. … I hate to even use the word God, because it’s such a loaded term and it has so much negative baggage with it, but I think God is love and whatever that spirit of love is came to my rescue.

That’s what happened, man. And it saved my life. I had swore that I would never get married again. I said I would never have children. I had a vasectomy. And now here I sit happily married with two beautiful children. I never in a million years thought that I could have this. And I do not go to church. I’m not a member of any church or denomination, but my thinking and my mindset and my heart set and spirit set is totally changed and forever will be. And I’m deeply grateful to who- or whatever those voices were, and to Dr. Barnett and all the different people in that community that really helped me get my life to that whole cup runneth over phase, which it most definitely is. And that’s why the song “Believe It or Not” is dedicated to him.

Live For Live Music: That’s great. Do you feel like your religious training or exploration affected your approach to this music or your interpretation of the songs you were working with?

Oteil Burbridge: Oh, absolutely. And Jerry, I mean, if you study his life, you see all these same themes. We’re all struggling with the same stuff, man. There’s this one preacher named Rob Bell, and he said, “The question is not did Adam and Eve happen. The question is, does Adam and Eve happen?” And when you look at it that way… when I read the Bible, and I’m not [yet] off page one, right, and God says to Adam, “Why are you hiding from me?” He says, “Because I was naked and ashamed.” And God says, “Who told you to be ashamed?”

That was like an arrow in my forehead. I didn’t even get out of the first chapter, and I’m just nailed from some stuff that was written thousands of years ago. Does Adam and Eve happen? You’re damn right it does. It still does. We’re not out of chapter one, the same stuff, even when we get older.

Live For Live Music: Did you learn anything or gain any insight into Garcia or Hunter’s writing when you were doing this? Did anything surprise you?

Oteil Burbridge: Yeah, I think they were really tapped in and connected to whatever mystical thing is out there animating all of this. Because I noticed that more than other songs, the lyrics seem to me to be an oracle on different days. Something just slams you and it almost seems prophetic in a way. But yeah, I’m always finding something new and learning something new in the music. If it’s written in the spirit, then that is inevitable. Life is like that. If you have your eyes open, you’re going to learn something new just sitting in traffic. It’s about your mindset. And my mind is more open and looking for truth like those voices told me to do. Like, “You’re missing it all with your mindset.” So, if you could change your mindset to be open and to be looking for it, like you’re looking for your child lost at Disney World, you’ll find it. And this music is definitely that way. It falls in that category playing-wise and lyrically and the whole thing. It’s revelatory.

Oteil Burbridge – “Stella Blue” (Jerry Garcia/Robert Hunter)

Live For Live Music: I noticed in the “Stella Blue” video there are what looks like action figures in the background in the studio.

Oteil Burbridge: [Laughs] Those are my professional wrestling figures I brought with me. I got into that really recently and now I’m glad because it has explained a lot of things for me. Col. Bruce Hampton, one of my mentors, was really into it, and I think he was a manager of some wrestler for a minute there in Georgia Championship Wrestling back in the old days when they still had the territories. But I just was never into it until a couple years ago and I just got it for some reason. And I discovered so many of my friends were into it—my sister and her husband, and this bass player, Kevin Scott, and Duane Trucks, and a bunch of different people. They would comment on my wrestling posts on Instagram so I texted them and then all of a sudden they’re just flooding me with, “Oh, you got to see this match. You got to see this promo.” And then I was just down the rabbit hole.

I find it fascinating because they’re exactly like musicians. They’re on the road all the time. They have all the same drug, alcohol, double-life, whatever, just rock and roll lifestyle. But they are in so much more pain than we are, which causes lots of problems with pain pills, addiction, and stuff like that, which also makes me realize what an idiot I was saying all that stuff was fake. They get hurt more than mixed martial artists. Guys that do mixed martial arts and professional wrestling will tell you professional wrestling beats your body up more, period. So like JR said, “You can’t fake gravity.” But I was so down the rabbit hole that yeah, I brought my figures with me, which my wife was really bummed about. She was like, “You’re not bringing that crap, right?” She humored me.

Pro wrestling and theology, I think they’re really the same thing honestly. People have done a lot more harm with theology.

Live For Live Music: It’s funny, I haven’t gotten super into wrestling myself, but I have some friends who are really into it, and they happen to also be into theology.

Oteil Burbridge: Well, here’s what I think may help you with it. This is what I realize, and it’s freed me from ever being mad about politics again. It helps me with the politics of music—because we can’t escape politics—and it helps me with religion. It just decodes everything. But this is how I distill professional wrestling down. There’s many facets to this too, but you have a heel and you have a babyface, and they’re both protecting the business, and once you realize it’s just a story to get you invested, you see there needs to be a heel. And I realized, “Oh, that’s what politics is doing.” They know it. And see, Trump is in the WWE Hall of Fame. He knows how it works. It goes all the way back to Greek tragedies. It goes all the way back to ancient Egypt, the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads. There’s no religion or fairytale or myth or anything that doesn’t tell this same story.

And the other thing is basically they were comic book superheroes being played out live. I think having kids helped me with it because now I can look at it through my kids’ eyes, and I relate to their stories so much as a musician. But I got to tell you, man, I’ve played with the Allman Brothers and the Grateful Dead guys. I’ve heard the craziest s—. The wrestler stories are three times as crazy, maybe four. It’s unbelievable. I listen to these interviews and I’m just like, “Holy s—, are you kidding?” I thought I had heard it all. Oh, no. Oh, no.

Live For Live Music: It sounds like a brutal lifestyle, especially physically. But I’m curious, do you experience any physical issues being on the road? I mean, even just standing for several hours a night…

Oteil Burbridge: Yeah, dude, my back is completely screwed up from playing six-string bass. I had to do a post maybe couple years ago because I was sitting in a chair during “Drums > Space” and so many people were talking about it. My back was just done. I need to sit down, but all I have the time to do is run to the bathroom really quick and then come back out and play the drum solo while everybody else is getting to sit down and take a load off their back. But I’m also holding the heaviest instrument, a six-string bass. So fortunately it helped me find this company, Sandberg, that makes a six-string that’s only seven and a half pounds, which is lighter than a Gibson Les Paul guitar. So that helps. But yeah, my back is screwed, dude. My back is jacked up.

Oteil’s hurting. I can tell you that. I envy the other guys. Mickey and Bob, they’re so much older than me and they’re just fine. Mickey can bend over and just palm the floor. It’s no problem with his legs completely straight and locked. I’m like, “Damn, this dude’s 80.” Like, what? But hey man, it is what it is. That’s part of the sacrifice that I made. Cue the small violin, right?

Live For Live Music: Looking ahead to your tour, how are you feeling shifting from playing these giant stadium shows to relatively small venues? Do you have a preference between big stadium crowds or more intimate shows?

Oteil Burbridge: It’s all the same. I mean, I’ve played and continue to play every size place, from a living room or a campfire to a stadium. I enjoy all of it. Obviously the low-pressure environments are more low-pressure, and that’s fun. I also love to just play by myself in solitude, but then you do that all the way to the stadium. I mean, it’s just like anything else. I enjoy it all. I’m a buffet guy.

Live For Live Music: And you just announced Dead Ahead. Is that a lineup you can see doing more stuff together? Is there anything you can share about future plans?

Oteil Burbridge: I don’t really know how we would keep that lineup because these guys have other bands. They have full-time career commitments. I think this is just a one-time thing for Mexico, and [the members of Dead & Company] want to keep playing. So whenever they call me and they want to crank it up again, I’m like, “Let’s go.” All this music is still new to me. I’m having a blast with it. I feel like I’m just now finding my way. That last tour, I was like, “Oh, now I got it.”

Sometimes I think it was a blessing actually that it was the last tour because it makes you go for broke because you’re like, “Okay, well, this is the last time we’re doing it. It’s all being recorded, it’s all being videoed. How are we going to do it?” And I was just like,”If I could never do it again, here’s how I’m going to do it.” And boom, it was great. So I’m kind of grateful for it in that way. Now that I know what my specific contribution to it is, 10 years from now is when it’s going to be killing. Now I know what it is. And now we’re just going to work on that and grow the plant, prune it, water it, trim it.

Live For Live Music: Speaking of Dead & Company and your history, it seems like throughout the years you’ve had your hand in so many big, ground-moving projects, and I’m curious if you have any idea what your secret is to have been involved in so many things?

Oteil Burbridge: I think my secret is not going against the flow, even when it seems absolutely insane. Every time my life made a hard left, I just said, “Okay.” I didn’t reject it because it wasn’t going towards the path that I thought that I wanted it to go. I went with it. And life is just going to do that anyway, so you can fight against it if you want. Good luck. It’s like trying to fight against the ocean. You’re not going to win. You have to work with it. And so when I met Col. Bruce, I was like, “What?” And then Col. Bruce gave me things that I needed to be able to do.

The Allman Brothers gig was another left. I had none of their records, no background with them at all. And then that led to Dead & Company. I had none of [the Grateful Dead’s] records. I have a background with the scene because the hippie culture were the only people to really get Col. Bruce Hampton and the Aquarium Rescue Unit, so they adopted us before I even really knew all about them. I just knew about hippies from my school when I was growing up. The hippie kids at school always seemed to be the nicer kids, but I didn’t really know the music. But yeah, when my life goes left, I just let it go. I knew zip about rock and roll. I had one rock and roll record and that was Axis Bold as Love by Jimi Hendrix. But then my life ended up being playing with the Allman Brothers and the last version of the Grateful Dead.

I’ll tell you a funny thing, man. There’s this documentary about Col. Bruce called Basically Frightened: The Musical Madness of Colonel Bruce Hampton, and there’s this point in there where … there’s a poster of the Atlanta Municipal Auditorium, I think it was in ‘69 or ’70, and it says Grateful Dead at the top, and then Allman Brothers Band, and then Hampton Grease Band. And my head just exploded because I was like, “That’s my entire adult life.” I went from Colonel Hampton to the Allman Brothers to the Dead. I saw it all laid out on that one poster and I thought, that’s why there’s that lyric, “Let your life proceed by its own design,” that Grateful Dead lyric.

That’s my secret. If the river goes to the left, just go to the left with the river. Why get off the river? Because you want the river to turn a different direction? It’s the river. It’s going to go where it goes, and if you’re floating on it, you might as well go with it instead of trying to go upstream or getting off of it. That’s the only secret I got.

Oteil Burbridge is preparing to take Lovely View of Heaven: The Music of Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter on the road with all of the musicians featured on the record, with additional tour dates coming soon. He also has a number of other projects in the works including a collection of banjo tunes featuring his space banjo, a gospel album with Melvin Seals and Roosevelt Collier featuring songs by Jerry Garcia, and an album with drummer Paul Riddle (Marshall Tucker Band) featuring Marcus King, Derek Trucks, Peter Garbiel, Charlie Starr (Blackberry Smoke), and more.

Stream Lovely View of Heaven on the platform of your choice here, stream it via the player below, or pre-order the album on vinyl here. For more information and to purchase tickets to Oteil’s upcoming shows, visit his website.

Oteil Burbridge – Lovely View of Heaven