The Third Mind’s Uncertainty Principle

From one perspective, the sounds made by The Third Mind, a 21st century collective of artists each acclaimed in his and her own right – has little to do with the music each of its members has made before. The group features Dave Alvin, co-founder of powerhouse proto-roots rockers The Blasters, along with bassist Victor Krummenacher, bassist with indie rock heroes Camper Van Beethoven.

Other members of the group include folk-rocking singer-songwriter Jesse Sykes, Michael Jerome (in-demand drummer for Richard Thompson, John Cale and many others) and multi-instrumentalist David Immerglück of Counting Crows and Camper Van Beethoven. (For the tour, Ratdog guitarist Mark Karan will take the place of Immerglück.)

And while it’s true that The Third Mind’s improvisational approach places it well outside the scope of nearly all of those groups, Alvin and Krummenacher don’t view their latest collaborative project as an outlier. “In my other bands,” Alvin explains, “there are certain songs of mine where we don’t know how they’ll end. That keeps everybody on their toes, and they don’t get like, ‘”Oh, I’m so tired of this.’”

“And that’s why I come and see you play a lot,” Krummenacher tells him. Because although Krummenacher’s journeys have taken him to wildly different musical places, he says that The Third Mind represents the realization of a long-held desire. “I think there’s something special,” he suggests, “about having a song as a general guidebook, and then working with people who are crazy enough – and competent enough – to use that script and then go off.”

That kind of unpredictability and reliance upon spontaneity and communication – writ large – is at the core of The Third Mind aesthetic. Using classic folk-rock songs of the ‘60s as raw material, The Third Mind embarks upon musical excursions that soar well beyond the parameters of the songs in their original form.

The group tackles songs both beloved and obscure. The Third Mind’s 2020 self-titled debut featured Fred Neil’s “The Dolphins,” and the band’s latest (The Third Mind/2, released last October) included reinterpretations The Electric Flag’s ‘‘Groovin’ is Easy’ and The Jaynetts’ haunting “Sally Go Round the Roses.”

“One of the reasons why I’m leaning toward the ‘60s sort of underground songs,” explains Alvin, “is that all of those [artists] came out of the folk/blues/garage band kind of thing.” He says that within tradition is where he has always worked. “It’s a different way of playing it,” he admits, “But it’s the same stuff; it’s the same starting point.”

Only on an improvisational classic like The Butterfield Blues Band’s “East West” (featured on The Third Mind) does the group present an arrangement with more than a passing resemblance to the original. And even in the case of “East West,” Alvin and his band mates are never reined in by preconceived ideas as to where the song “should” go.

Yet neither Krumenacher nor Alvin is comfortable with the label “jam band” being applied to what The Third Mind does. Alvin admits that “all of us have been involved in enough jams” to concede that there’s a fine line between the two. But with a chuckle, he observes that in group improvisation, “you’re listening to each other more than thinking, ‘Boy, I got off a good lick!’ And you’re going toward something. Where in jamming, it’s like, ‘Fuck it; I don’t care!’”

Krummenacher agrees. “Rock and roll jamming does leave a bad taste in my mouth,” he says. But the give-and-take of improvisation at its best is something that he has grown to love. “When I came up, the Grateful Dead were poison,” he admits. “Now I listen to them and love it.”

Alvin says that with most of his other musical endeavors, “there are those one or two places where we don’t know what’s going to happen.” That keeps things interesting for the players and the audience alike. “But with The Third Mind,” he emphasizes, “that’s the whole show!”

Asked to what degree that spontaneity extends with The Third Mind – do they even use a set list? – Krummenacher and Alvin cast glances at each other before breaking into laughter. “We did, the one time we played live!” Alvin cackles. For these dates on the band’s first-ever tour, audiences will simply have to show up and find out.

Playing together during the completely improvised sessions that yielded their debut – and more recently its followup – has helped the five musician develop a kind of mind meld, unspoken communication between them. So while they’re conforming to structure ever so briefly as each tune lifts off, from there it’s anybody’s guess. “It’s in the interior of the songs where things are going to happen,” says Alvin.

At this point in their respective careers, the members of The Third Mind are willingly facing – inviting, even – the unknown. “We’re trying to embrace the good, forward-thinking elements in the music,” Krummenacher explains. “The idea is really rooted in what great music [represents]: freedom, exploration, fun.”

“So much of contemporary pop music is choreographed completely,” Alvin says. “Roots music, too.” He says that he gets bored with “dance moves and AutoTune.” And taking that into consideration, he chuckles and suggests, “So maybe the most punk rock thing to do is have a group like The Third Mind.”