As Dead & Company enjoy a brief pause in their 30-date Las Vegas Sphere residency this week, John Mayer and Bob Weir offered their first in-depth interviews on the unique run of concerts in separate interviews with Variety. Together, the answers they provided to the entertainment industry magazine’s senior music writer, Chris Willman, provide the most insight fans have gotten to date on various elements of the ongoing Sphere engagement—from the setlist-writing process to how they match songs up with the “cinematic” intentions of the visuals to whether or not this run is the last we’ll see of Dead & Co (spoiler: It’s probably not).

Below, read some quotes on various topics pulled from the two interviews. We also encourage you to read the original interviews in full (Bob Weir here, John Mayer here). There’s plenty of interesting stuff in there that’s not included in this collection of excerpts.

On the “mad dash” to create the Sphere production:

John Mayer: I think the timeline is, we kind of knew [the Sphere residency] was probably gonna happen in December [2023], and then in January [2024] it became real. And it became real very quickly. Then the question became, how do we do this within the frame of time and within the budget that we have? It was very compressed. And I get excited by the projects where someone says: If you miss a day, this might not work, but if you run the calculation and the forecast, you could do it, if you don’t miss a day. I don’t know why I’m inspired by those things.  … It very quickly went from an idea to a treatment, to renderings, to a storyboard. I don’t do well with dead air in-between coming up with an idea and executing it. So I loved the mad dash.

On the imagery used in the visuals:

John Mayer: I think the Grateful Dead is probably the band with the most famous cache of visuals in music history, unless I’m really overlooking someone. So you kind of have the toy box there of what could be used and what could be identifiable when you see it — and how can you extrapolate this one idea and marry it with a whole new idea? Also, I think Grateful Dead would’ve done this, had Sphere been around in 1990. I think they would’ve probably invented it themselves at some point.

John Mayer: What was really great was that Bob and [drummer] Mickey [Hart] would give really specific notes based on their experience. So, if we’re gonna play in [simulated] Egypt like the Grateful Dead did in 1978, well, Bob got to see the mockup of that and it really took him back to 1978. In the Sphere studios in Burbank looking at some really early test stuff, it brought back all of these memories that he had of playing Egypt. And we took those notes, and they’re in there. There’s bats flying around in the beginning of that Egypt sequence, because Bob remembers there were bats everywhere. … That part was like having a historical consultant on your movie, you know? Let’s go right to the people who were there.

I also want it to be known, Mickey’s responsible for the “Drums” part of the show. What was great about it is that that was always going to be Mickey’s real estate. I never saw what he was doing [visually]. And when I finally saw the run of it in rehearsal, I thought it clicked into the rest of the show so well, because it was all the stuff that the rest of the show hadn’t touched on. It just almost instinctively completed the circle without overlapping anything.

On using the Sphere as a storytelling device:

Bob Weir: Working from the stage at the Sphere is like opera. The storytelling facility there is really beyond about anything else. Every artist of any tribe is first and foremost a storyteller. And you can’t get this anywhere else right now. The story being told in the visuals is tangentially attached to the story that we’re telling from on stage.

John Mayer: I had this concept for this narrative wraparound of the show, giving it the sense of something a little more cinematic than just a concert. … I had this idea for this beginning and end that would create this modularity for the show. I wanted it to be whimsical, but also sort of epic-cinematic. … I pitched Bob and Mickey the narrative for the show, and thankfully they really liked it. … We begin in Haight Ashbury, modern day, and we end up in Haight Ashbury, in the past. So we go through time and space, and we turn at the right place at the quote wrong time, or the right time at a different time. One of the benefits of the idea was that this now created this ability to change the specifics of each trip we took. But because it was modular, we could go to different times and spaces.

On the process of aligning setlists and visuals:

John Mayer: Setlist creation for Dead & Company is always a discussion, but it was automated to a certain extent [at Sphere], which made going to do the show kind of like, “Here’s the list. Maybe make a couple changes. OK, off to soundcheck we go.” What’s become really interesting — and I would say it’s a challenge, but it’s a really fun one — is that not only do you have to make the songs work in some kind of a flow for the setlist, but every piece of [visual] content has maybe eight or 10 songs that can go with it. … So now you’ve got these two layers… these two columns. You have to write the setlist, but then the content goes to the left of that in a different column. And if your content isn’t balanced enough, then you have to change the music setlist. So it’s really like a 3D puzzle. … There’s a lot of texts going back and forth — and I love the dance. The dance can sometimes go all the way till about 3:30 in the afternoon of the show. After that, it’s like, no more phone calls, because you can’t go back and and reprogram it once they get it to a certain level of being failsafe. …

I’ve got to say, Bob and Mickey have been so great at adapting to this entirely new way of doing shows where sometimes you can’t change a song on a whip. You know, there are times where Bob instinctively wants to go from the first song to the second song and you can’t, because there’s the show piece. He’s just been so great, and Mickey too, at adapting to the very hyper-modern approach to this show. And I’ve just been so pleased and actually impressed that Bob totally gets that this is not your standard tour — and that he has also been really great at suggesting, like, “Screw it. Let’s do this anyway.” Because I can sometimes be a little too [taking the tone of a director on a film set] “Places, people!” And that is I think what makes Bob and I work together really well: We’re the odd couple. That push-pull is awesome.

Bob Weir: Now we’re getting the hang of things, getting the lay of the land, and we can put a little bit of thought to marrying technologies and stuff like that so that we can get to where I think we can get. It’ll take a lot of work, but I think we can get there by the time we get to the next phase. … The technology doesn’t quite yet exist for them to put the visuals completely in time with the music [in a mammoth space]… That’s stuff to do with the drums. They’re generally a little late. … I think what we’re gonna want to do is try to adapt some of that audio technology to the visual technology. … If you go back 50, 60 years to the Acid Tests, when they had those overhead projectors and were doing light shows with clear glass plates and oils and all that kind of stuff, they had that stuff dancing in time with the music. … And then beyond that, right now they have to load everything up pretty much pre-show, or they have to know what’s coming. I’d love to see the arrangement get much looser and much more interactive — and I think it will, if we take another swing at it.

Favorite Sphere visual motifs:

Bob Weir: I kind of like being in outer space. Makes me feel right at home!

John Mayer: There’s a couple of mini-moments that I just live for. But the one environment I love the most are the flowers falling down on what looks to be a glass dome of the Sphere.

On adapting to Sphere’s unique audio quirks:

Bob Weir: We had to work at it. The place is seven and a half acres of hard, parabolic, reflective surface, all focused directly back at the stage, which means that you get a slap-back coming to the stage that’s every bit as loud as what’s happening on the stage. So we have to play with in-ears, and we have had to get used to those. …  And then we have to try to keep the slap-back out of our microphones, by hook or by crook. … And we’ve done pretty well. It took some doing, but we figured it was worth it to put in the elbow grease, to get it working for the audience, because that’s what we’re here for.

John Mayer: It took people a couple of weeks to get things where they like them. Now we just pick up and go, which is an entirely new way for us to play, where everyone’s happy with the way their thing sounds because everything’s already dialed in and the room is the same. So we’re actually playing better shows than we’ve ever played.

On the possibility of livestreams/audio releases for the remaining Sphere shows:

Bob Weir: My thinking on that has been, at least so far, that the whole experience is the whole experience. And there’s a possibility that we might be able to offer a show in VR, those goggles that you wear with headphones. We might do that, but I don’t foresee offering anything less than that.

On what surprises might still await during the rest of the Sphere run:

John Mayer: [Some visuals] were still being finished [when the run started]. I think some things we were holding onto just to have some differentiation. But there were other things that the computer was still rendering, and so we were able to put those in over weeks two and maybe three. There are still pieces coming. They’ll be slow to come out for a moment, and then there will be a bit of an update in August. So we’re working on that right now just to keep it as exciting as possible for everyone. Because I know that there are people coming every weekend who are seeing this for the first time, who should catch up with what this show already is, but in an effort to make sure that people who are coming repeat times still get some surprise, there will be some things that we will add into the show around August, just to really make something of those last six shows.

On whether fans can expect more Dead & Co shows at Sphere or elsewhere:

John Mayer: I’m always thinking about the callback. Look, I’ve learned with this band, never count anything out. I mean, I don’t want to be coy. The show is designed to be perennial, because it’s modular, and we could always go to new places. … I will say this: We have zero plans to return to the Sphere at this moment, and if we did, it would be a while. So I don’t want anyone getting the idea that it’s worth just hanging out until we do it again, because I have not heard a single mention of a year or a month or anything. But I don’t want to be coy. The show is probably designed from the ground up to be perennial.

Bob Weir: I wouldn’t be surprised if we get invited back [to Sphere], and I would certainly make room for that.

Bob Weir: We’ll take that as it comes. Right now, really pretty much all I can think about is what I’m up to right now. … You know, a residency might be fun to do — some other kind of residency — just to keep our chops up. Because this band is fun to play with; there’s no getting around it. We’ll just see what comes up.

Fans hoping to get in on the action at the remaining Dead & Company Sphere shows (7/4, 7/5, 7/6, 7/11, 7/12, 7/13, 8/1, 8/2, 8/3, 8/8, 8/9, 8/10) can find tons of face-value tickets for the entire run via CashorTrade. By choosing CashorTrade over other sites you are supporting real fans, not brokers trying to offload inventory. Unlike other platforms, you may even stumble upon a miracle. Browse what’s available on the site here.

This November, Deadheads can continue their lifelong journeys down the Golden Road with Golden Road Festival at Sanger, CA’s Wonder Valley Ranch Resort on November 8th–10th, 2024. The all-inclusive, Grateful Dead-inspired micro-festival offers 200 fans an intimate, all-inclusive experience featuring lodging, activities, gourmet meals, and full open bar in addition to performances by Jason Crosby’s Golden Road All-Stars featuring Oteil Burbridge (Dead & Company), John Kadlecik, and more; Pink Talking Fish Are DeadMihaliThe Abbey Roads featuring Reed Mathis and Aron Magner, and others. For tickets and more information, head here.

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