The Third Mind is a supergroup of folk/rock heavies who play freeform, improvised takes on their favorite songs from the ’60s.
The band includes Grammy Award-winning singer/songwriter Dave Alvin on guitar; Victor Krummenacher, known for his work with Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker, on bass; drummer Michael Jerome, who spent many years playing and recording with Richard Thompson as well as with John Cale and the Blind Boys of Alabama; guitarist David Immerglück, former member of Counting Crows and Camper Van Beethoven; and singer/songwriter guitarist Jesse Sykes, leader of Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter.
The band’s genesis began with an idea Dave Alvin had almost 20 years ago. “I knew Victor from Camper,” Alvin said. “I was talking to him backstage after a gig. I mentioned the Miles Davis biography, So What, by John Szwed. Miles made albums by hiring guys like [drummer] Tony Williams and [pianist] Herbie Hancock.
“He’d go into the studio, suggest a groove or a key, and they’d start playing. Then he’d edit the jams into compositions. He made Jack Johnson and In A Silent Way like that. I thought it would be great to record, free from lyrics and structure. We talked about it over the years, then finally went into the studio and did it,” Alvin added.
“I like playing music without being afraid to walk out on a limb, which is what this project is about,” Krummenacher said. “When I met Dave, he had a cockamamie idea of doing a fundraiser for the Palms Playhouse in Davis, improvising on ‘Truckin’’ by the Grateful Dead.”
He continued, “We did it and, when we suggested an improvised session in the Miles Davis/Jack Johnson model, I joined in. We had a group of players sympathetic to each other, willing to leave their comfort zones, which is where the magic happens. It was all improvised, but not unstructured.”
Krummenacher put together the session for the first album, The Third Mind, drawing on players known to Alvin and himself.
“Michael, I’ve known for 20 years,” Alvin said. “Victor had played with Immie [David Immerglück], and I’ve been friends with Jesse a long time. Victor paid for a session, and we hit the studio. No rehearsing, no arranging, just go in, pick a song and play. Immie and I would agree on a key and we’d go. We’d switch off leads, playing off each other.
“I play blues guitar, like Mike Bloomfield sitting in with Quicksilver Messenger Service,” Alvin said. “Immie’s style is hard to pin down. He reminds me of John Coltrane, when he played with Miles. He was blues-based, but his mind was floating through outer space. Immie’s our Coltrane.”
Krummenacher came up with the Third Mind as the title for the project. “You have your first, ordinary mind: ‘I gotta pay the rent and go to the store,’” Alvin said. “Then, regular creative mind: ‘I gotta write a song and go to band rehearsal.’ The third mind puts all the various parts of your life and art together to create something new.
“Everything on the albums was improvised, so everything gets arranged as we play. You have to listen to everybody and look in their eyes. You have to worry about what everybody else is playing, as well as what you’re playing. We made the first album in three days, producing it as a group. We chose tunes from the ’60s blues/rock canon like the Butterfield Band’s ‘East/West.’ That’s when the barriers between genres were starting to loosen,” Alvin added.
“On the first record, I curated the tunes,” Krummenacher said. “I wanted Dave [Alvin] to sing Fred Neil’s ‘Dolphins.’ He brought in Jesse [Skyes] to sing the Dead’s version of Bonnie Dobson’s ‘Morning Dew.’ That went so well, we invited Jesse to join the band for The Third Mind 2.”
Sykes said, “I had no expectations when the session started. I didn’t know I was going to strum my guitar and sing the majority of the songs. We revisited more gems from the ’60s—the Electric Flag’s ‘Groovin’ is Easy’ and ‘Sally Go Round the Roses.’ The arrangements were spontaneous, created when we started playing together. The biggest challenge is shutting off your conscious mind to be present and hopefully channel something that’s outside of yourself.”
With two exceptions—“Claudia Cardinale,” a short instrumental on The Third Mind, and “Tall Grass,” an ecological protest song written by Alvin and Sykes on The Third Mind 2—the songs are all familiar standards, like the 13th Floor Elevators’ “Reverberation” and Fred Neil’s “Little Bit of Rain.” They’ll be riffing on the tunes from both albums when they play this Saturday at The Chapel.
“Mark Karan will be sitting in for Immie on this tour,” Alvin said. “He played with Bob Weir in RatDog for 13 years. He can be earthy, gritty and abstract. He has the fluid melodic sense that Immie has. Hopefully, we’ll record a few shows for a live album.”
The Third Mind plays this Saturday at 9pm, Jan. 20, at The Chapel, 777 Valencia St., San Francisco. Info at: thechapelsf.com.