by Lizzie Morelli
Photo by Erik Kabik
Grahame Lesh recently spoke with us from his home in Northern California. We talked about Terrapin Crossroads, the family business, and how music is a language that brings communities together. Terrapin, a place that was born from trips to Levon Helm studio in Woodstock, NY has become a haven of sorts, a place for community gathering and a place to give back to the community. Lesh and the other members of the Terrapin Family have been busy putting on unique benefits for those affected by recent natural disasters as well as welcoming a slew of musical guests. Here is what he had to say.
What was your first musical experience?
I was told I was at a few Grateful Dead shows when I was weeks old so those are probably my first experiences. My folks would take me on all the tours that the Dead would do. I grew up doing that. I started playing music when I was seven. I began taking piano lessons, it was classes more than anything else and it was part of my education. That’s how it started.
How did you switch from playing piano to playing guitar?
I noodled around with it when I was younger then I switched over in my early teens, thirteen, fourteen something like that. I didn’t particularly like taking lessons I just wanted to play. Piano was what I took lessons for and guitar became my instrument to have fun with.
When did you start your first band?
Probably in college, I started to play in high school but it wasn’t really a band it was a rotating group of classmates that I would hang out and mess around with. In college I met some folks. It took a while, but the band I started my freshman year of college sort of turned into Midnight North. I am the only person in both bands but it was all part of the same journey. It’s funny how it happens that way.
Terrapin Crossroads is a music sanctuary of sorts. Can you tell us one of your most memorable experiences there?
That’s tough. There is always a lot going on at Terrapin so its always the most recent shows that I remember the most. We have done a series of benefit shows. I mean we had to with the hurricanes and fires, especially the fires here in the Bay Area. Each of those shows were special. Right before the fires started we did a benefit in the backyard for Habitat Fights Back for Puerto Rico. That was a really fun Terrapin show. It was Midnight North with Phil, Bob Weir, Peter Rowan and the folks from Twiddle showed up. It was a really great experience and then two days later the fires started again. The point I am making is that each time there is something that brings our North Bay community together it is pretty memorable. Whether it’s a birthday, an album release, or more recently tragedy, they stand out.
Many venues start out as these cool organic things and then turn into these commercially exploited places that they were never intended to be. How does Terrapin maintain that low key community vibe?
Well, it’s still managed by my family. My mom, my wife, and some good family friends run it and that’s important to them to keep the local vibe. It is also a restaurant and a community-gathering place it doesn’t have to be a music venue and follow those rules all the time. We are also lucky my dad wants to use it as a place to play and that people want to come see him. So the venue has that trump card, my dad can come be a special guest and it will be a success financially and it can be fun for everyone. Luckily a lot of other bands have formed up out of that and the bands that have come to be apart of it that existed beforehand, they draw on their own to, so it’s a cool rising tides lifts all boats type of thing.
Midnight North played at Levon Helm studio would you compare that experience with the Terrapin experience?
Terrapin came out of Levon’s Barn, from my family going to Levon’s a couple times before he passed. The main thing was that both of my parents who were in the middle of touring again a lot, my dad had just turned seventy. They saw Levon doing shows with his daughter and all his friends and finishing the show and going over to his kitchen, ya know fifty yards away. That was something they wanted. So they built Terrapin out of that. What happened both places happened pretty naturally. When someone like Levon or someone like my dad want to start a place like this, people, especially musicians want to go to that place. The community was built out of that pretty quickly, of local musicians. It definitely matched the vibe of when I went to Levon’s every time. Woodstock is a special place and the barn is pretty amazing. I hadn’t been there for four years when Midnight North got to play there.
Midnight North put out Under the Lights in June, have you guys created any new music since then? I know you just finished up fall tour.
We have mostly been touring. We just recorded our big end of tour show that we played at The Great American, we multi-track recorded that, so we are going to mix that and hopefully put that out soon. Elliot, our other singer is going to be recording her solo album. So as a band we have mostly been touring and letting her focus on that and the songs are pretty amazing for that too. We are excited to dig in and see what 2018 will have for us. The songs that we did for Under the Lights, our last record, we are not really getting bored of them, which hasn’t always been the case with past records so we are in no rush. When the music comes it will come.
Will you guys head out back on tour this winter?
It looks like we are looking at end of the winter into the beginning of spring and then we will hit festival season pretty hard this summer. We are starting to get to a place luckily as a band where we can plan out a little further than we used to. It looks like we are going to have plenty of fun in 2018, that’s for sure.
Do you have any collaborations in the works that we don’t know about?
There are always fun things happening at Terrapin. Elliot and I just announced a Gillian Welch tribute show on January 13th, 2017. We are going to play through her first record Revival, which is sort of a foundational album for the two of us and for a lot of our friends, so that’ll be a fun one. I joined Mihali from Twiddle on one of his solo acoustic shows December 9th. That was just one of those spur of the moment things, he and Ryan Dempsey (Twiddle) both sat in with Midnight North recently in San Francisco and Santa Cruz. While he was out here he said if any of these dates work let me know and sure enough it worked so I said I will fly to Chicago, why not? He is fun to sit in with. So anyways, at Terrapin, its always fun and there are always people showing up. We had Tom Hamilton come play recently. We are doing an Everyone Orchestra and all the other stuff happening that I probably don’t even know about!
What are the holidays like for you?
My in laws are in Nashville so I will be in Nashville. We live by my parents so for the Holidays we go to Nashville generally. We get to have multiple holidays each year which is pretty special. This is my take a breath time. I won’t be gigging until New Years.
Where are you playing for New Years?
The Terrapin Family band is doing three shows in Hawaii, Maui, and Honolulu. That will be with Eric Krasno. Phil and The Family band with Krasno. He is an unofficial sixth member of the family band.
Do you have a New Years resolution?
No! I haven’t thought about it yet. It’ll just be to keep playing and getting better. I want to bring music to as many people as we can with both bands. So there is my wishy-washy resolution.