“America’s Dead,” a new 10-episode podcast about the enduring legacy of the Grateful Dead and the band’s profound effect on American consciousness, was released today.
The limited series, produced by Sonos Radio, is hosted by Grammy-winning filmmaker and producer Emmett Malloy and takes listeners on an improvisational journey through a diverse range of conversations, with the intent of understanding why the Dead is more popular and resonant now than ever.
More from Variety
This podcast takes any preconceived notion that the Dead is just some hippie band and completely shatters it. The remnants are picked up carefully by Malloy, who acts as a spiritual guide through varied conversations that illuminate the intricacies of the Dead’s fanbase.
In the series premiere episode, Ezra Koenig, frontman for Vampire Weekend, professes his love for the Grateful Dead and defies detractors by discussing how it is possible to eventually convert anyone with a listen to “Eyes of the World” from the 1970s. “There is something about (Jerry Garcia) over those chords, I don’t know how to describe it,” Koenig says. “It’s joyful. Every note is pure him.”
The podcast features interviews with other musicians like jazz saxophonist Brandford Marsalis (who played with the Grateful Dead in the early 1990s), Mac DeMarco, members of the band Animal Collective and Lila Downs, although the series doesn’t focus solely on contemporary musicians and how they were inspired by the Dead’s repertoire. Malloy also interviews a mycologist, a sober fan, a former Grateful Dead touring manager, an expert on religion, designers, and artists, all trying to uncover what makes the Dead so influential and pertinent across genres.
“For me the Grateful Dead offered the things that traditional religion offered other people,” says Dr. Varun Soni, dean of religious life at the University of Southern California. In the podcast’s second episode, Malloy interviews Soni who credits the Grateful Dead for saving him by giving him a place in the world. “It offered me a sense of community, a tribe, a ritual, and helped open my mind to a reality greater than myself.”
Malloy, a Deadhead for more than 40 years, helped create Netflix’s “Biggie: I Got a Story to Tell,” co-founded Brushfire Records and helped create music videos for the War on Drugs, Blink-182, Metallica and Avril Lavigne. He’s a father, artist and cultural observer who’s interested in understanding why the Dead is more alive now than ever.
“This is a podcast about the Grateful Dead – but even more than that, it’s about the community that made the Dead who they are… a truly American experiment,” Malloy says.
He admits to once deifying the Grateful Dead and worshipping Jerry Garcia in a prophetic way when he was younger. He’s come full circle, and realizes that while Garcia did not want to be a god, there is something about the group that continues to draw people in toward a spiritual experience that makes the music deeply moving.
The series is completely digestible, with episodes that range in length from 15 to 30 minutes, similar to a curated Grateful Dead setlist where listeners can tune in for a bit or, if they so choose, listen to the entire jam — or show — in one sitting.
In another episode, Malloy interviews Paul Stamets, a mycologist with a large following in the psychedelic community. He fell in love with the Grateful Dead’s music when he lived in a remote cabin in the Cascades in Washington state, and says that the Dead were proficient in micro-dosing psychedelic mushrooms before it was a trending topic. During this time in the mountains, Stamets was tripping on LSD and psilocybin and listening to the Dead a great deal. “My best friends were the Dead,” he says. “And the message I received is that we are all connected to nature and need to protect the earth.”
Another episode features a conversation between country singer Margo Price and the Dead’s rhythm guitarist, founding member Bob Weir. “I was turned on to the Dead via an ex-boyfriend who was also my weed dealer,” Price says. People are surprised to learn that she is a Deadhead. “What I loved about the Dead is that they were never limited by genre or the music industry and they never let anyone tell them how to make their music and live their lives,” she says. Price asked Weir his thoughts on this, and whether he viewed genres as limiting.
“Genres are useful to me,” Weir says. “The further you can push the bounds of a genre the more success I feel like I’m having.” In the spirit of going deeper and beyond, Weir also promised that one day he will release a country album. The conversation was prefaced with Price saying that she was “slightly tripping on mushrooms” when talking with Weir, giving the conversation a zany, uplifting glow.
Malloy also interviews the artist Steve Powers, known as ESPO, about the Dead’s creation of a visual language through symbols and iconography like the “steal your face” logo. The creators of the clothing brand Online Ceramics also speak about their popular graphics based on the preeminent emblems of the Dead that are branded on American fashion and culture. Even Lebron James and Old Navy rep the Dead’s marching bears.
“America’s Dead” asks listeners the question: What can the Dead tell us about us? The podcast reveals the answer through a compelling audio story that identifies the power of the Dead was in constructing identity and community around music and shared experience.
In other Dead-related news, the annual “Meetup At The Movies” will occur Nov. 1 and broadcast the band’s show from Apr. 17, 1972 at the Tivoli Concert Hall in Copenhagen, Denmark. This fully restored concert was ground-breaking 50 years ago, marking the Dead’s first major live concert broadcast anywhere, and a first in Danish television history. Tickets go on sale Sept. 23. Additional screenings will take place on Nov. 5 in the US, Canada and selected territories.
You can listen to “America’s Dead” via Sonos Radio on the Sonos app, the Sonos Radio website and on all major podcast platforms.
Best of Variety