John Mayer on Bieber, Cobain, and Coming Back From the End of His Rope

Chris Willman
John Mayer performs on Bud Light’s Dive Bar Tour at the Echoplex in Los Angeles, July 26, in Los Angeles. (Photo: Rich Fury/Getty Images for Bud Light)

“Give Justin Bieber an orange wedge.” This is John Mayer’s advice, coming at the end of a lengthy analogy between touring and marathon races, two endurance tests that he thinks not everyone is cut out to finish at every point in their lives. He’s deeply sympathetic to the beleaguered pop idol, who just canceled the tail end of an epic tour, even if Mayer could hardly be in a more opposite touring mindset at the moment.

Yahoo Music sat down with Mayer in his trailer outside L.A.’s Echoplex Wednesday afternoon, shortly before he went onstage at the club for a Facebook live-stream of a Bud Light Dive Bar show. Unlike Lady Gaga, who performed a five-song set at a previous show in the beer-sponsored series, Mayer performed with his band for an hour and 15 minutes, followed by an off-camera acoustic set during which he took requests.

You might ascribe some of that energy and enthusiasm to his being just a few dates into an arena/amphitheater tour promoting his excellent new album The Search for Everything, except he’s not exactly fresh off a vacation. His solo tour immediately followed an acclaimed stint with ex-Grateful Dead members on yet another Dead and Company trek, where he got to be part of a celebrated ensemble, not the star.

He’s all about the joy right now, but Bieber’s current troubles led him to reflect on his own days of reaching the end of a rope. He also rhapsodized about his love of the Dead and his gratitude for someone at the opposite end of the demographic scale, pop singer Alessia Cara, whom he invited onto his Dive Bar stage for an extended round of duetting.

Yahoo Music: Recently you said, “I get offstage feeling like I could have gone another hour.” But obviously not everyone feels that way on tour. You tweeted support to Justin Bieber the other day for canceling the remainder of his tour. And we’ve seen examples lately with Chester Bennington and Chris Cornell, where people wonder, would things have been different if they weren’t on the road? With your love of playing live, it would seem like you wouldn’t necessarily relate to wanting to quit…

John Mayer: Oh, I can relate to it. I was off the road for four years. I’ve been burnt out. It’s a real thing — a clinical thing. You get strung out. Time zones, jet lag… Even if you’re the Rolling Stones, you’re still up in the air for the same amount of time, and even the penthouse at a hotel is still a hotel. If you went up in the air and leveled out at 30,000 feet for just five minutes and came back down, your body would still be different for the rest of the day. And there’s only one of these artists. If it takes swallowing your pride and calling it so that you can apply that month of shows you would have done — or three months of shows, or whatever — to another tour down the line… We’ve got to live in a world where people start saying “mercy.” I got in trouble when I didn’t say “mercy,” in one way or another.

And that kid could have given a hundred different reasons why he wasn’t going to keep going. And if he says, “I’ve got to call it,” you have to imagine that was a hard decision to make. Because artists never like disappointing their fans. I don’t know a single artist in the world who wouldn’t lose sleep over canceling a show — one show. So you’ve got to imagine that [decision] must have been two weeks in the making, two weeks of going, “I don’t think I can do this.”

But Bieber is facing a potentially crushing amount of blowback.

I feel like we live in a more compassionate world right now, a sympathetic, compassionate world. Because of what’s going on sort of in the larger structure of things, we’re building our own take on what compassion is and what transparency is.

You know, totally separate subject — when we’re talking literally, but not separate theoretically — is: Courtney Love read Kurt Cobain’s suicide note over a microphone in a park in Seattle a day or two after he died, at a vigil. She was crying and despondent and she was interjecting Kurt’s letter with her thoughts. I saw it, as a kid, in 1994, and it never left my body, hearing this person who lost someone they love crying and saying [to Cobain], “If you don’t want to do it, then f***ing quit!” From that point on, I always realized, there has to be a “Break glass, pull in event of emergency” system for artists.

You should be able to get made fun of. You should be able to have people say, “I gave these tickets to my daughter for Christmas and I can’t believe she’s crying. I can’t believe you would do this to her.” You’ve got to be able to have systems in place to deal with that, so that you can live to see another day. And I am in no way saying that whatever Justin’s situation is has any correlation with suicide. I’m not saying that at all. But you brought it up first: They live in the same cosmos. The artists turning themselves into an industry is always going to be a touchy thing. And you’ve got to be able to have fail-safe procedures in store so that if you can’t take it anymore, you’ve got to be able to break glass and pull the lever.

So if he broke the glass and pulled the lever, I go, “Listen, everybody, I know what I’m talking about. I’ve had my freakouts before. Let the kid go home and rest up. He’ll give you his whole life again, if you just give him two months. Give him two months and he’ll give you his life again.” Because when someone takes the stage and they don’t want to be there… Nothing’s worse than a sad touring musician. It’s like, go home before you start building another personality that’s a monster. That’s what I would say if I was Scooter [Braun, Bieber’s manager]. And I like what Scooter’s done for his artists, and I don’t think he’s in any way part of the problem. Listen, call it, man! If you’re in the 25th mile of a marathon, sometimes you’ve got to call it so you can run the next marathon.

That’s the exact opposite of a motivational speech, by the way. “Don’t endure!” If you’re almost through the race and you think you’re gonna blow your knees out, just go get an orange wedge, man. That’s what I say. Give Justin Bieber an orange wedge.

Tonight you’re participating in Bud Light’s Dive Bar campaign. Other people who have done this sort of thing — whether it’s Lady Gaga being part of that same campaign or arena bands that have done well-publicized club shows — have tended to make a big deal out of proving they can get back to their roots or keep it real when they’re not doing the big, choreographed stage things they do every night. But you don’t really have anything to prove there. You’re keeping it real, as it were, in the arenas too. It’s not as if you come off a tour with Dead and Company thinking, “Man, this is such a drag, I wish I could get back to playing bars.”

No, there’s nothing that I’m particularly missing. But I look at it like, playing bigger rooms doesn’t exchange playing clubs for bigger rooms, it just adds bigger rooms to the places you’re able to play. The way I look at it is, I can play the arenas and the amphitheaters — or the stadiums, depending on what band I’m in — and I can also play anything that I’ve played up until that point, in perpetuity. I’m backwards compatible.

Any surprises you have planned for the Dive Bar show tonight?

Since this is postdated, I can say that Alessia Cara is going to come out and do her song “Stay,” which she did with Zedd, and we are going to replace the sort of EDM quotient with a live band. I happen to love Alessia Cara, and I’m not just saying that. I think that she’s like a sleeper, sneaking through all sorts of pop music, and she’s hitting it and hitting it. I put her up there with only one or two other pop voices right now, that when I listen to it, I feel communicated to. We’re gonna do her song, then she’ll sing on one of my songs. We’ll figure out at sound check what she wants to do. She can hack any of these songs. [Cara ultimately chose “Gravity.”]

And you’re equally comfortable with Cara and the Dead. How’s it been, transitioning so quickly from the Dead and Company tour to John Mayer shows in the same month? Does it feel like a seamless transition, or do you have to reset?

No. I have to reset. I have a hard time. I have to really focus on what it is that I’m doing and that I have to offer. Because this particular Dead and Company tour was a revelation for everybody on that stage. That’s hard to walk away from. The last show that we played was at Wrigley Field, and we set an all-time attendance record for a concert, and it was under a half-moon, and it was right before the Fourth of July, and it was sold out, and everybody was at the height of their powers. And then it stops. You do a bow onstage and literally walk your separate ways, and you realize you’ve all bonded in a way that suggests you shouldn’t stop doing this, but you have to stop doing it, at least for that time being. You go from that to trying to put back on your old clothes. It’s like putting on a pair of shoes you haven’t worn in a while. You’re like, oh, OK, that’s how we feel. So we’re getting there. For me, it was like being on the moon, and now I’m not on the moon. And it’s up to me to sort of get that out of my head for a while. But it’s not easy. I’m very emotionally tied to that.

I think about how much more emotionally tied I would be to something that I’d [participated in originally]. I don’t have any of the associated history or struggle. I was allowed to enter this catalogue of music and just have at it. I don’t remember any fights from the ’70s. I don’t remember how hard it was to get that lyric to work. I have no auxiliary information. I just get to play, and I get to climb these ladders inside of these songs and slide down these slides. It’s magical. And then one night you can’t have it again, and that’s tough.

It’s evident from the way you’ve mixed up the set lists every night, just in the few dates you’ve done since starting your own tour, that you’re trying to keep some part of the Dead’s spontaneity alive, at least structurally, and have that carry over.

That definitely does. The way that the temporal lobe works at a Dead concert is completely different from any other live music concert. When you tell somebody that it’s four hours, if they haven’t gone, they don’t understand it’s not four hours. Like, you wouldn’t say to yourself, [petulantly] “I’ve been having dinner on this beach for four hours.” You don’t think it’s four hours. It’s the number of conversations, it’s the number of glasses of wine — it doesn’t really exist in a chronological realm. And that’s actually helped me look at my own shows in a way that can be just a little more nontemporal.

And if you look at the way the show goes, it’s not linear. You’ve got five songs as a band, three songs as an acoustic act, three songs with a trio, five more songs with the band — then you get in the encore and you can mess around and do whatever you want. It takes away this idea of the contiguous show, which I think people kind of want anyway, because we’re in this world now where we’d rather watch [episodically]. Instead of a two-hour movie, we’d rather watch four half-hour shows. So it’s a two-hour show, but it’s subdivided in a way that’s a little bit easier to swallow for each piece. Because even I will go to a show I want to go to and sit there and start doing what I call Show Math, where you’re like, “OK, I’ve been here for [however many] songs; it’s probably another three more of these, then we get to go.” You’re at a show you’ve been waiting a month to see, and you’re already doing the math on when you get to go. So for me, even as a performer, that show feels over before it starts.

You admitted recently on Twitter, “I should be sincere and admit that goofiness on Twitter helps with loneliness on the road.”

One hundred percent.

Do you think some other touring artists would be better off too if they could develop that kind of healthy Twitter relationship with their audience?

You just have to do whatever it takes to make it through that night. Any time I tweet a whole bunch of stuff and I’m getting crafty about, like, the format of my tweets, yeah, I’m lonely. I’m not hiding that. I’m looking for a connection. I think that’s got to be fair, right? Definitely, I’ll take likes on Twitter if I can’t get likes in real life. And I’m going for likes in real life first! But if I’ve got to go for a more plastic-y version of likes, I’m not above it.

You’ve actually been a pretty impressive self-help guru with some of your followers on Twitter lately when they write in for advice. It’s good that you’ve stopped muting yourself, like you did for a while.

It’s impossible. It ain’t never going to happen. If I haven’t shut up by now… Listen, I’m having fun with Twitter right now. I’m having fun getting my voice back, both as a singer and also as a guy who is naturally outspoken but now finds himself having grown up in the public eye and done a pretty good job of leveling out. I’m 39 and I know how to express how I feel now. Not every thought gets translated just because it has some interest as a thought. So I feel like my voice has matched who I am as a person. You can be outspoken, but be you and be true to yourself.