Emmett Malloy Explores ‘America’s Dead’

Dean Budnick on November 23, 2022
Emmett Malloy Explores ‘America’s Dead’

Emmett Malloy is a Grammy Award-winning filmmaker, producer and music manager, but up until now, many folks may not have realized that he is also a Deadhead. The Los Angeles native, who saw his first Grateful Dead show as a high school sophomore in 1988, draws on a wide range of his interests and affinities for his Sonos Radio podcast, America’s Dead.

Malloy likens the experience of creating America’s Dead to his work directing documentaries such as Biggie: I Got a Story to Tell, The White Stripes: Under Great White Northern Lights and The Big Easy Express, for which he took home the Best Long Form Music Video Grammy in 2013. He explains, “This took me the better part of a year. It was a big undertaking. Originally, I was thinking, ‘Hey, I’ll just do six conversations with some friends and call it a day.’ It ended up being much more serious—and much more on the level of making a film— than I would’ve ever thought it would be.”

America’s Dead’s 10 episodes present a tapestry of voices, as Malloy speaks with Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig, Mac DeMarco, Branford Marsalis, members of Animal Collective, Dr. Varun Soni (Dean of Religious Life at the University of Southern California), former Grateful Dead tour manager Sam Cutler, mycologist Paul Stamets, Grateful Don—who co-founded the sobriety group Wharf Rats—and many others.

“I didn’t have much of an agenda as I moved forward,” Malloy adds. “But, ultimately, I decided that I wanted to make something that would be interesting to people like me, as well as for listeners who don’t know all that much about the Grateful Dead and are curious about them.”

How did this series come about?

A friend of mine who was working at Sonos knew that I loved the Dead and had been to a bunch of shows. So he came to me and asked if I could read some liners for their station, which was called Scarlet Magnolia.

So while I was with them all night reading, I ended up giving them a little history of all the Dead shows I had been to, growing up in Southern California, then going to school in the Bay Area in the ‘90s.

My first show was Long Beach ‘88. I was a sophomore in high school, and I got my aunt and uncle to take me. I tried to go to Ventura in ‘87 when I was a freshman, but I was just too young. I watched everybody a little older than me pack their cars, go to the shows and then come back to school with their new shirts. I was like, “I’m gonna get to the next run of shows.”

So my aunt and uncle chaperoned me, although I got to soak it in because they didn’t really want to be there and were just kind of hanging out. I didn’t have a very long leash, but it lit the fire, and I got to show up Monday in my own T-shirt—a Long Beach one. It had a skeleton surfing on it, and I was just so psyched. Then, after I got my license, that shit was on. [Laughs.] Later in college, I’d go to three nights at Cal Expo, Halloween in Oakland and all of that.

I also explained to my friend how I had done some video shoots with Vampire Weekend and The War on Drugs, and I had been talking with Ezra and Adam Granduciel from The War on Drugs about all of this. They’re not crazy younger than me, but they’re certainly a generation behind me. They’re both very into music and extremely into the Grateful Dead at this point in their lives. I sometimes find myself almost becoming an elder statesman, talking to one of these artists I love about seeing the Dead.

When I explained to my friend that I sometimes end up talking to people about the Dead when I am not expecting it, he asked me if I wanted to do my own show. I didn’t necessarily think it would happen, but he laced it up for me and, all of the sudden, it was on.

As you were finding your way into this, can you recall the first interview that really made you feel like you were heading in the right direction?

My first formal interview was with Ezra, which kicks off the series. I learned a lot in that conversation. He has an incredible take on Jerry’s guitar playing and the Grateful Dead’s songwriting power, which had a big influence on him.

I had just shot a few videos for them, and the whole time I was thinking, “This sounds so much like a Dead jam.” Then, when I saw their artwork, it felt like something I would’ve seen in the Dead parking lot.

I remember driving to Palm Springs with him on Easter Sunday to shoot a video for “This Life,” their second single, which he mentions is influenced by Robert Hunter’s writing style. We were listening to Dead shows during the whole drive to Palm Springs to shoot that video with Mark Ronson, and Ezra was both asking me questions and sharing knowledge.

After interviewing him, I felt a bit more confident and in control of what I was doing. Then, like every project, I had to head down the path and find interview after interview. In the end, the best interviews made the series and I was able to make something that I felt had a lot of different angles.

In that episode, you point out that Kurt Cobain once wore a shirt with a cartoon punk duck that read, “Kill The Grateful Dead.” Ezra suggests the source of his wrath was likely hippie excess rather than the band’s music, and he notes that Nirvana covered the Meat Puppets, who were Dead fans.

Ezra articulates this so well. He’s a student of music, and I’ve always appreciated his wisdom because he’s very thoughtful with everything he does. As for the Kurt Cobain thing, I think the “Touch of Grey” era came with a lot more visibility for the Dead, who were viewed in a different way. But I think Kurt would’ve come around.

He would have been an interesting guy to speak with for this podcast. I think he would have looked back and said that in this particular artistic phase of his life, he was protecting the ethos of what he wanted his band to be. And then later, he probably would have appreciated Jerry in Zabriskie Point or gotten sucked into the production on some random record. Somebody would’ve got him to come around eventually.

What happened back then—with all these artists saying, “Fuck that band, those fucking hippies”—is why this is still a fun thing to talk about with people.

I’m often jealous of filmmakers who are really focused and have a particular style that you can always pick up on. But I’ve always appreciated my diversity and openness to take on different stories. That’s kind of how I’ve always been about the Dead. I’ve always tried to be on top of new music. I’ve tried to be tolerant and to be punk where I can, but I also have always been cool saying, “I love the Dead.”

That was one of the most stimulating topics in the conversations I had with Mac DeMarco, the Online Ceramics guys and even the artist ESPO. For all of them, there was a time when they kind of hid their love for the Dead and presented the hardcore, straight edge, punk vibe out front. Then they started to find their own ways to test people and work it in to get reactions out of them— whether it was through the iconography or the music itself. But for me, I always wore it a little more openly and I never really picked a side.

With the Biggie film that I did for Netflix, I wasn’t the obvious choice judging by my resume, but they appreciated that. I looked at it more as a coming of age story, rather than really getting deep into the details of hip-hop.

This felt the same way. I wasn’t really trying to say to anybody, “I’m the foremost aficionado on the Grateful Dead.” I just enjoy talking about them. Then somebody gave me a hot mic and one interview went well, so I kept going. What I hope comes across here is that I’m more like a fun conversation partner.

In your conversation with Varun, I was fascinated by his perspective as an immigrant who was drawn to the Grateful Dead’s music because it connected him with American culture.

I also really loved the story of his cultural upbringing and how much the Dead gave him a feeling that he belonged somewhere. When I reached out to Varun, I was looking for him to talk about the Dead as kind of like a religion. But then, the most enriching part of the conversation might have been his family background and how he found his strength in this to make him feel more at home.

The Ezra interview was great from a musical standpoint, and the Varun interview was emotionally powerful for me. Varun and I are the same age and we went to school near each other. So our first shows are all the same ones. We saw Jerry at the Wiltern, then we went to the Forum, the Coliseum and the Ventura Fairgrounds. It was fun to talk with him because his story was similar to mine in a lot of ways but also so different. To hear what this band meant to him—from an aspect of feeling at home in this country—was so deep for me.

It was also cool to go to a Dead & Company show at the Hollywood Bowl with one of his students. It adds a totally different story to see it through the eyes of a younger person and how much it has affected them. That was my second interview and it had layers. So I came out of the gates hot with Ezra and Varun, which is what inspired me to keep going.

That student, who is attending her first Dead show, is coming out as transgender. There’s a poignant moment when she describes how her realization that the band members don’t even know what’s happening next leads to a place of trust and peace. That sentiment really encapsulated an important part of why I was first drawn to the Dead.

I felt the same way. I had said at the beginning that I was looking to understand how the Dead keeps getting it done now that we’re 50 years down the line. It was a big priority for me. And Sage, that student, helped me articulate that.

I wanted somebody to give it to me in a way that felt similar to what Varun and I went through. It was something more than just saying, “I went to the concert, had fun and they played ‘Fire on the Mountain,’ my favorite song.” It was a deep emotional connection. You’d go to a show and that helped you figure yourself out. It helped you become more confident and feel a sense of belonging, while being inspired by the music. Sage was able to articulate that, and it wasn’t a scripted soundbite. I got to see it through the eyes of somebody who was in the middle of a complex life journey.

When you speak with Sam Cutler, he describes calling a band meeting where 70 people show up. When I heard this, I was wondering about your perspective on that situation, given your managerial role with Jack Johnson.

I love when they’re having that meeting and he calls out that person who isn’t even part of the family—he’s just some random person who walked in off the street. That felt symbolic.

Listening to him made me jealous of the music era at that time—the freedom and the Wild West qualities of it. They always felt like a bus full of gypsies in a way. So you’d expect that family gathering to be wild and it certainly was.

What I think I got from Sam was the idea of doing things for the right reasons. With the Dead, I always appreciated from a young age, the connection they had with their fans—the feeling that all of us were part of this. Even as a young kid in high school, going to shows and getting tickets and dealing with it, I felt like I was part of the family.

It also felt like their crew was ride or die. They would be there for them for anything. Jack and I always took that approach of being loyal to our crew and that family around us. Jack is still managed by his wife and I. We’re 25 years into this, and it’s still just the same little crew that has always been there.

From a business standpoint, the Dead had a huge influence on my career managing Jack and starting Brushfire Records. I was looking to create something that felt like a family and to keep that at the core of all of our business decisions. I wanted to make decisions based on what felt good, and I never wanted to do something just to try and get a break.

The talk with Sam was comical because he sounded so lawless and wild. He’s so good at giving you these insane quotes. He’s a real classic with his cadence and way of speaking. Everything is so outrageous. In that way, it’s probably the opposite of what we have with Jack.

But the spirit of how he did business felt familiar. Sam came in out of nowhere, became Jerry’s buddy and they went from there. He sat with Jerry, they talked and then they went and did something. That’s kind of how it always was with me and Jack. We were good friends and it feels like the Dead operated as friends first. If we feel like we have a personal connection to somebody then that’s important to us in deciding whether to do business with them.

In the spirit of memorable quotes, Paul Stamets’ account of taking mushrooms, climbing a tree during a lightning storm and then curing himself of stuttering is certainly up there. That episode also makes some important points about the Acid Tests, in particular the barriers that were broken down on a variety of levels.

For me and my friends, part of our introduction to the Grateful Dead was definitely, “You’re gonna do some psychedelics.” It was scary but the memo came to me as, “You’ve got to experience this music this way.” I didn’t know the whole backstory when I was a high school kid, I was just trying to fit in and do the things that other people in my school were doing.

Now I’ve gone back to discover all this history about psychedelics. I did a whole show for National Geographic on their medicinal qualities. I got to touch on all these topics about their experimental uses, then the government shut-down and the whole path psychedelics have gone through.

Paul is a renowned guy now but I enjoyed the human quality of his story to kick it off, where he’s climbing up the tree and ultimately having an epiphany. I think what made the conversation so good is that it wasn’t just about data.

With the Acid Tests, it’s just so crazy to think that this small group of people affected the entire world. You look at the impact that psychedelics have had and then you start thinking that it generated out of this one scene. You think about the popularity of Paul and you can credit it all to the Grateful Dead, in the sense that their movement built this and made something that attracted somebody like Paul. Then he became this larger than life personality in culture today.

It impressed me in talking to Paul, to hear how much this band played an important part in his life. Again, this band affects people in a deep way and it’s affected culture in a deep way.

It was cool to have him come and present a theory at the end that I wasn’t expecting— that maybe the Dead as older guys are better players because of psychedelics.

That was truly just a good conversation. It has a beautiful opening with his story and then I’m able to tell the story of psychedelics and give people like my mom an understanding of this time and place, as well as the government’s involvement.

The final episode of America’s Dead features Grateful Don, whose story is complementary to Paul’s. You present an autobiographical monologue by Don about his addiction and the creation of the Wharf Rats. What led you to close things out that way?

When I spoke with him, I kind of asked one question and just listened. At the end of it, I felt like he was done. It was time to give him a hug and say, “Thank you.”

I love that I was able to give Don the mic and let him say his thing so that, hopefully, someone will listen and be inspired to do that in their own scene. I also think it was cool to kind of end without me chatting or coming up with scripted lines to tie everything together. I felt like I couldn’t add anything to what he’d said.

I met him through Josh Agajanian, who was my best friend growing up. He’s a producer on the show. Josh had a great relationship with Don from Dead shows, going back 30 years. So by meeting him through Josh, there was a tremendous amount of trust and he gave me a real intimate conversation.

I remember when I was still in high school, going to Cal Expo and seeing my cousin who had gotten sober. When he initially said to me, “I’ll meet you at the Dead show,” I was like, “You’re gonna go to the Dead show? I thought you were sober?” Then he said to me, “I’ve got a whole group of people to hang with there.”

I remember sitting with them and being so psyched that he still got to go to Dead shows. At that age, it almost felt like it wouldn’t be possible to go to a Dead show if you were sober. But my cousin had a bigger smile than anybody that night. It left a big impact with me.

Don’s story helped make this feel like there’s a little something for everybody in there. I think a lot of people can relate to it.

I remember listening to Jerry’s great conversations on those tapes that were used for his book. When they spoke about drugs to him, he quickly cut it off and said that he didn’t want to talk about it because everybody’s story is so different. He said that he didn’t want to condone it because it might not work for somebody else.

I felt it was cool to have somebody speak to people that experienced the Dead in a different way. I also felt like Don’s story was as emotional as anything I got. It was also so different. He was inspired by the music like everybody in this series, but it was another point of view.

I think that Don will be a real emotional episode for certain people, and I think that it will open people’s minds. I also love the fact that it was a building block for other events.

Going into this, my goal was that you wouldn’t have to be in the weeds about the Grateful Dead for this series to work for you—maybe you relate to Don’s episode the most.

As a storyteller, if someone can find one episode or maybe even a couple of episodes that they want to hear or feel compelled to engage with, then I’ll be psyched.