Veteran producer Rick Rubin recently appeared on The Huberman Lab podcast where he discussed, among many other things, what made the Grateful Dead so great. The Def Jam Recordings founder and Andrew Huberman, Ph.D. carved some time out of their three-hour discussion to talk about the intangible qualities of the San Francisco giants of jam.
Segueing into the conversation like the Dead may have transitioned from “China Cat Sunflower” into “I Know You Rider”, Huberman brings up the topic of unpredictability. Rubin is interested in things like sleep and dreaming, the ocean, and wrestling, which Huberman identifies as things that can be accessed in predictable ways, though the subjects themselves are often unpredictable. You can go to the ocean, but you don’t know what the waves are going to do; you can wrestle, but you can’t predict your opponents moves; and you can sleep and dream, but it can take you somewhere unexpected. This leads to a discussion of what bands, if any, had a hard time capturing their unpredictability on the predictable format of studio recordings.
The Grateful Dead, of course, are the prime example of such a phenomenon. Rubin, who has worked with everyone from Jay Z to Red Hot Chili Peppers to Johnny Cash, admits he only recently discovered the Grateful Dead. He states simply, “I like being surprised by music.” This element of surprise is what has drawn the mystical visionary toward the band’s music.
“The Grateful Dead is a good example of a band where I feel like their albums are not their strong point,” Rubin says. “But if you hear live recordings, they’re really interesting and really different from each other. And that’s part of what makes the Grateful Dead interesting is their unpredictability.”
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Huberman, a neuroscientist and tenured professor of neurobiology and psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University School of Medicine, admits he was dragged to a number of Grateful Dead concerts in his youth by his sister. The sprawling improvisational journeys of “Space” didn’t quite connect with the punk rocker who was used to 90-second thrashes.
“They’re looking for something. And sometimes they find it,” Rubin said of the Grateful Dead’s jams. “And if you’re there when they find it, it feels exciting. Because it’s not just following a script. It’s like something is really happening. It’s a real moment.”
Though he only became acquainted with the Dead recently, Rubin has for decades employed similar strategies in his prolific production work as the band did in its thousands of concerts. The idea of creating “real moments” is something central to both Rick Rubin and the Grateful Dead.
“It’s something I aim for in the studio is to create real moments that, when you hear them, they don’t necessarily sound perfect,” he said. “They sound like something that really happened, and in that moment something happened, and it’s a special moment. And you can feel that if they were to play it again it wouldn’t be like that. There’s something really exciting about that.”
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Speaking about what made the Dead such an attractive live experience that generations of fans spent months on the road, following them from town to town, Rubin summed up the experience as effectively as any bumper sticker.
“It’s not like going from city to city to watch a movie over and over. ‘Cause it’s not a movie, it’s different every night. It’s changing,” he said.
“I don’t know of anything quite like it except cults,” Huberman added. “And those often don’t end well.”
Watch Rick Rubin and Andrew Huberman discuss the Grateful Dead on the Huberman Lab podcast.
Why the Grateful Dead Were So Good | Rick Rubin & Dr. Andrew Huberman