OLD LOVE
Guitar World|October 2021
On his new album, JOHN MAYER lives out a very specific rock ’n’ roll fantasy: “What if it’s 1988 and I had had a band in the late ’60s through the ’70s, and now I’m my age in the ’80s and people are handing me these things called chorus pedals?” The result is Sob Rock, a highly polished, extra-“generous” studio offering that slyly channels the guitarist’s high-school–days guitar gods — including Journeyman-era ERIC CLAPTON
Richard Bienstock

LET’S FACE IT: 2020 was a helluva year. We all dealt with the global pandemic, the resulting lockdown and the general disruption and destruction of normal, everyday life in our own way. In John Mayer’s case, he made a record.

And the record he made, Sob Rock, his eighth solo effort overall, is unlike any he has recorded previously. Its 10 tracks look to the past — specifically, the Eighties music of Mayer’s childhood — in an effort to conjure a sound that, he admits, brought him comfort in uncomfortable times. “I started making music that I would find really soothing,” he says.

But the record also does something else. In revisiting the sounds of his youth, Sob Rock reconstitutes a sort of pop craftsmanship — tightly arranged, highly melodic, excessively hooky songs executed with session-player proficiency and finished with a big-budget studio sheen — that has been largely jettisoned in an era of bedroom computer recording, flown-in tracks, autotuned vocals, digital cut-and-paste arrangements and earbud-attuned production styles.

Of course, as anyone who has followed Mayer’s career over the past 20 years can attest, this is not the first time he has created music that sounds vaguely “Eighties.” But whereas other artists aiming to invoke the vibe of that decade might merely slather on some sparkly synths, break out a drum machine or rip a hot-rodded solo over a power ballad, Mayer’s musical mind works in more nuanced ways. Sob Rock succeeds not because it references a sound from the past, but because it does so with such remarkable specificity. It’s an exercise in what the 43-year-old Mayer calls “wish fulfillment.”

“I think everyone who makes music comes at it from a fantasy,” he says, “but for me the fantasy this time was, what if it’s 1988 and I had had a band in the late Sixties through the Seventies, and now I’m my age in the Eighties and people are handing me these things called chorus pedals, or people are going, ‘Hey, you don’t need a tube amp anymore.’ And I go, ‘You don’t? Okay. This sounds great…’ ”

The result is a record that recalls Eric Clapton and Fleetwood Mac, Toto and Peter Gabriel, Bruce Springsteen and Steve Miller and various members of the Eagles — but recalls, precisely, the type of matured, occasionally mellowed-out music these seasoned artists were making in the Eighties.

Sounds unusually specific? It is.

“I don’t want to say it’s a costume, but it is an intention,” Mayer says. “I’m using sonic color-coding, like the sonic paint codes from the Eighties, but I’m making new images with them. I told myself, ‘Don’t steer away from it. If it brings you joy and it brings other people joy, what happens if you just do it?’ ”

And Mayer did, in fact, do it. From the blooming, chorus-drenched guitar triads that define the ultra-hooky first single, “Last Train Home” to the laidback rhythms and clean, shimmering licks of “Wild Blue,” the Springsteen-ian (and we’re talking of Tunnel of Love Bruce here) swell of “Carry Me Away” to the richly layered instrumentation and adult-contempo vibes of “Shot in the Dark,” Sob Rock is Mayer at, as he puts it, his most “generous,” offering up an expertly written, beautifully recorded [courtesy of ace producer Don Was] and unabashedly warm and tuneful listen.

“There is nothing in this record that has any sandpaper on it,” Mayer says. “I went, ‘Well, I’m just going to go for it. I’m just going to be as absolutely melodic and generous as I can be.’ And I was just putting more and more and more melody on each and every one of these songs. That’s the fun I had on this record.”

Which is not to say it came easy. “It took forever to work on these songs,” he continues. “It was like, here’s the three-and-a-half minutes — how do you inject it with as many moments and layers as possible? How can you just keep jam-packing it with payoffs? What we’re really talking about is, what’s so wrong about a guilty pleasure? Or, what’s so guilty about someone making a record that goes, ‘I’m setting out to please you as much as I possibly can with the art of melody.’ Someone may not like that, but I’m proud to go down with that ship.”

On the eve of its release, Mayer sat down with Guitar World to discuss how he built, and ultimately steered, the Sob Rock ship, from the music he referenced to the gear he employed to his approach to crafting solos. But before diving into the nuts and bolts of the record, there was one burning question we had to get out of the way…

So let’s just get right to it: In the video for the first single from Sob Rock, “Last Train Home,” you’re playing your signature PRS Silver Sky model, but in a never before-seen pink finish. Is that a real thing?

Well, it’s a real thing in the sense that I have one. As to whether or not it’s a real thing in terms of other people having one? It’s definitely being talked about. The fun of having Silver Sky as a project that I can always be working on is that I can test colors out on myself. And in the last couple of years I’ve fallen in love with the L.A. session-guitar concept. Like, the old Valley Arts guitars, they’re all sort of these great shades of pink. And I just think there’s something really cool about a pink guitar. So I thought, Well, why don’t I do a pink one for this record? Sort of to help tell a little more of a visual story of the music. It’s really fun to just shoot a color on a guitar and go, ‘How does this make me feel?’ I had no idea people would gravitate to it like they have.

People dig it.

Actually, the pink guitar in the video is hot pink, and it’s actually too hot. So we went with a cooler pink that I can use going forward. That seems to be the magic slipper, color-wise. I wouldn’t have wanted to begin Silver Sky with a pink guitar, but we’re enough years down the road that we can go a little “out there” on a couple colors while still keeping the identity of what this guitar is intact. And, of course, I’m nowhere near the first person to do a pink guitar. But I think it just aligns with this idea of making your own fun, and of having more fun than we’ve ever had before and taking advantage of the life that’s been handed back to us, hopefully not provisionally.

The Valley Arts session-musician pink guitar is a pretty specific association, but it’s in line with what you’re doing overall on Sob Rock. The record obviously has a strong Eighties sound, but more than that it’s a very particular Eighties sound, the kind of sound that artists like Eric Clapton and Fleetwood Mac and Peter Gabriel and Toto — and Steve Lukather, for one, was also a session guy who played Valley Arts guitars — were playing in that decade. The question is, how were you able to home in on that so precisely?

That’s a good question. And it’s a very flattering observation. I’m very detail-oriented, and I believe the difference between people taking the magic carpet ride with you and not taking the magic carpet ride with you can sometimes come down to what most people would consider an infinitesimally small detail. But if we’re talking about tricking your brain or tricking your heart, there are very, very subtle moves to get there. And especially when it comes to the idea of doing something that is certainly borrowing the intentionality of Eighties records. It’s really easy to apply too much paint to the brush and hit the canvas too hard with the brush stroke and have people go, “I know what he’s doing, never mind.” I mean, I could have slathered the record in chorus, could have slathered the record in a Jupiter-8 [synthesizer], and that would have certainly let everybody know what my intentions were. “Oh, he’s made this.”

You went more granular.

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