"I don’t enjoy chasing anyone to do anything anymore, fuck it. Be your own hero." - In conversation with Gary Lucas
The Grammy-nominated songwriter and composer dubbed "The Thinking Man's guitar hero" may not be a "household name" (wrongly so), but I managed to grab five minutes, ahead of his upcoming gig in September as part of a Jeff Buckley tribute night, with the hardest working musician on the scene today to chat all things Beefheart, Buckley, and beyond. Ladies and Gentlemen, the one and only Gary Lucas
Hello Gary, where do we find you today?
I am here in the West Village of Manhattan Dom, where I have lived for nearly 40 years now.
How has your year been? You've seemed to be busy, so thank you for your time!
It’s been pretty good Dom, and I am quite looking forward to going into the fall strong with this London Jeff Buckley Tribute.
Your first professional gig was with the legendary Captain Beefheart. I can imagine that working with someone with such a wild and eclectic artistic flair had the potential to become volatile, was this the case? How was Don to work with?
He could be SUPER charming, very sweet and extremely affable. At other times he could be quite a handful, let us say. But, I choose to remember and celebrate the big-hearted incredibly generous and warm side of Don Van Vliet.
Your next UK show is as part of a Jeff Buckley tribute. When did you realise that he was such a special talent?
When I first met Jeff he was an unknown quantity to me musically—yet he exuded such a sense of charisma and electrical energy!! He had come to NYC take part in a Tribute to his father Tim Buckley in Brooklyn and the producer Hal Willner had suggested I collaborate with him on several of his father’s songs. My first impression when we met was that he looked the spitting image of Tim, albeit a younger version. There was a real aura around him. When he came by my flat the next afternoon to rehearse , my jaw literally dropped as soon as he began singing.. Right then and there I realized he had the most astonishing supple voice. And as far as sheer musicality goes, he was certainly the most gifted young musician I’ve ever worked with.
You have been consistently ranked as one of the 100 best guitarists ever, collaborating with so many different artists in a variety of different genres. But ask the average music listener on the street, they will know the results of your work and collaborations without being able to name you, you seem to have mastered operating "behind the curtain" with a certain degree of anonymity - do you see this as a curse or a blessing?
It’s a mixed blessing.The very nature of my survival strategy in the music biz has been to generate an incredibly diverse range of projects , sometimes several simultaneously, in order to keep my work flow happening and consistent. This is what I do for a living, and I work bloody hard at it. And also, I have a lot of music in me, and to narrow-cast my palette as an artist would bore the hell out of me.The fact is though, none of these projects have as yet reached “critical mass” with the mass audience. But my music is a bit more on the experimental side than mainstream anyway--although some songs of mine for other artists, like "Grace” and “Mojo Pin”, are anthems to millions. So in the process of reinventing myself many times as an artist—and I’ve put out over 30 acclaimed albums to date, in a variety of genres--my essential identity as as a guitarist/ songwriter/recording artist has become somewhat blurred--unlike some guitarists and artists who are essentially one-trick ponies.
You started your musical career in the height of the 1960s flower power and hippie movement, but it's also clear you have a love of the music from the 1930s (such as last year's Fleischerei). What is it about this music that speaks to you?
Well I am not that old Dom! During the hippie/flower power era I was still in high school, and played in some amateur bands in my hometown of Syracuse NY--basically what are known as “mixer bands” playing covers of stuff like “Inna Gadda Da Vida” in frat houses. My first real professional engagement was not until 1973 as lead guitarist in the European premiere of Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass” in Vienna with the Yale Symphony Orchestra. As far as 30’s music, I love that era. There was a real feeling of sly innocence about jazz and swing music in that period—a very creative and bluesy bubbling flow of ideas from the big bands and small groups, with lyrics that could melt your heart and also suggest a sophisticated worldview without being vulgar. I love music in general from all eras in fact --with the exception of the present era, which I find profoundly lackluster, sad to say. I mean there are exceptions here of course, but let’s say the pop AM radio I grew up with, which had room for instrumentals. novelty songs, dirty ass r&b, teenage rock rebellion and schmaltzy ballads all thrown into a blender has been homogenized, bleached and flattened out with a rolling pin into insipid beats and fake emotive melismatic vocal acrobatics-- all of which leave me cold cold cold. I mean I like good beats as much as the next guy, but where’s Public Enemy and Terminator X nowadays when you really need ‘em? Play-listed into oblivion.
What moment in your career are you most proud of?
Playing at the United Nations solo acoustic before the General Assembly on Jan 27th of this year, for International Holocaust Remembrance Day
What's the strangest experience you've ever had while performing live/recording?
Basically having a supernatural premonition on the road in 2002 and having it come horribly true after a gig in the Czech Republic.
Here it is , from a new book I am currently writing entitled “Vampire Circus”:
What's on your turntable at the moment and why?
Currently, Bob Dylan’s Love and Theft, The Flying Burrito Brothers The Gilded Palace of Sin, Howlin’ Wolf The Real Folk Blues, Archie Shepp Live in San Francisco —some of the classic moments of music for me. Old stuff. I find them inspirational and “true”--I don’t know why exactly but they have the ring of honesty and authenticity to them in the compositions and playing department that cannot be faked. I am not that much of a consumer of music for pleasure anymore to tell you the truth though, except when I’m working out at the gym every morning. This is what happens when your hobby becomes your living!!
As mentioned previously, you have collaborated with such an illustrious group of talented people. Is there anyone left on your wish list?
Bob Dylan. Van Morrison. Archie Shepp. I am sure there are more, but let me say that I don’t enjoy chasing anyone to do anything anymore, fuck it. Be your own hero.
Up and coming artists are finding it increasingly more difficult to break through, do you think that artists like Don and Jeff would have a chance in the music industry today?
Maybe. Jeff more likely, Don Van Vliet maybe not-- as major label record companies don’t seem to take many musical risks anymore.
Is there a current artist that you are into that you think isn't getting the recognition they deserve?
Mari Conti who is performing at this Tribute with me is one, I think she’s an amazing singer. There’s a really excellent English singer/songwriter named Ed Laurie who I produced last year. Many other folks I’ve worked with also, such as Chris Shinn, Najma Akhtar, Jann Klose, Alessio Franchini, Ada Pasternak, Jolene Grunberg, Julia Werner, Eniro Szabo and Toni Dezso — a long list. Sheer talent though doesn’t seem to be an over-riding factor in gaining recognition, there’s so many other factors at play now frolicking in the wonderful "level playing field” of the digital universe we live in.
Music has been such a huge part of your life. If that wasn't an option, what would you be doing for a living and why?
Probably writing, which I am doing more and more of these days. Writing is certainly akin to composing music, and it is one of my fortes —I was a National English Award winner in my high school days, and an English literature major at Yale. I have one book out already about working with Jeff entitled “Touched By Grace” (Jawbone) which received 4 Stars in MOJO. And I am well into writing my follow-up memoir “Vampire Circus”, which contains many stories of working with folks like Captain Beefheart and other heroes of mine.
What's next for you?
I am currently putting finishing touches on The Edge of Heaven Vol, Two, a tribute to 30’s Chinese pop from Shanghai, with a superb female Chinese vocalist Feifei Yang and my longtime saxophonist Jason Candler. It’s a follow-up to my 2001 album “The Edge of Heaven: Gary Lucas Plays Mid-Century Chinese Pop” which may be the most successful album of my career from a commercial standpoint. That album got me very well known in a lot of places that had hitherto been closed for me. And I have finished an all -instrumental solo acoustic guitar album Cool Hand Luke, which is kind of an overview of my entire career, ranging from original compositions to film music, country blues, Beefheart, Buckley, and beyond…
and there’s more on the way, folks :-)
Thanks for your time in answering my questions, I'll be at the show at Brixton so I'll see you then!
THANK YOU DOM.
For more information about Gary and the many projects he has on the go then visit his website, check out his Facebook page, and follow him on Twitter. Gary will be playing the Brixton Ritzy on September 9th