World class guitar hero Gary Lucas talks about the blues, Captain Beefheart, political satire and Paris in 20’s

"Much music seems to have lost the 'sacred' quality or aura it had in the late 60’s. I think this is through digitization and mass proliferation of it. It’s like a tap now that cannot be turned off, music."

Gary Lucas: The Sounds Of Human Psyche

Gary Lucas is a world class guitar hero, a Grammy-nominated songwriter and composer, an international recording artist with over 20 acclaimed solo albums to date, and a soundtrack composer for film and television. He was recently cited as one of the "100 Greatest Living Guitarists" in Classic Rock magazine (UK). Gary Lucas made well-received performing debuts in China, Cuba, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Croatia, South Korea, and the Canary Islands in addition to touring extensively in Europe and the US (he has toured in over 40 countries to date).                                  Photo by Arjen Veldt

Gary Lucas also co-leads Fast 'N' Bulbous, who have released 2 albums devoted to the music of avant-rock visionary Captain Beefheart, who first put Gary Lucas on the musical map as a force to be reckoned with. He played for several years as part of the reunion of Captain Beefheart alumni known as The Magic Band. Gary Lucas established his reputation as a guitarist's guitarist with 5 years spent playing with his childhood hero, the visionary avant-garde artist Captain Beefheart (aka Don Van Vliet). Over a long performing career Gary Lucas has played and collaborated with Leonard Bernstein, Captain Beefheart, Jeff Buckley, Lou Reed, John Cale, Robyn Hitchock, Nick Cave, David Johansen, Roswell Rudd, Steve Swallow, Joe Lovano, Dave Liebman, the Willem Breuker Kollektieff, Anath Benais, Bob Holman, Greg Cohen, Alan Vega, Ensemble Kamelon, Marc Ribot, Dean Bowman, Jennifer Charles, Lee Ranaldo, Mary Margaret O'Hara, John Zorn, Peter Stampfel, Patti Smith, Lenny Kaye, Jon Spencer, Mike Edison, Kevin Coyne, Claudia Brucken (Propaganda), Paul Humphreys (OMD), Future Sound of London, Joan Osborne, Iggy Pop, Van Dyke Parks, Dead Combo, Adrian Sherwood, Bryan Ferry, Geoff Muldaur, John Sebastian, Allen Ginsberg, DJ Spooky, Damo Suzuki and Michael Karoli (Can), Dr. John, Graham Parker, Bob Weir, David Krakauer, Frank London, Min Xiao-Fen, Celest Chong, Jonathan Kane, Jozef Van Wissem, Fred Schneider (B-52s), Warren Haynes, Salman Ahmad, Dibyarka Chatterjee, and many others. He also recorded a collaborative album with Peter Hammill, co-founder of Van der Graaf Generator, the album entitled Other World (2014).

Interview by Michael Limnios

How do you describe Gary Lucas sound and songbook? What characterize your music philosophy?

I would say my sound and everything I play be it psychedelic rock and jazz, 30’s Chinese pop, arrangements of Wagner etc etc has a touch of the blues in it. Blues informs my life and my playing. I think it’s the essence of communication between cultures and peoples and is universally shared and appreciated, it’s the thread that ties the world together. My philosophy is to make my guitar sound like a person struggling or crying or wailing with joy, I want to communicate these sounds to listeners, and these sounds are the essence of the blues to me.

"The bent note. Bending a string produces a vibration in tune with your nervous system and the way your moods change, from sorrow to ecstasy. It sounds like a primordial wail or a human shouting in ecstasy." (Photo: Don Van Vliet and Gary Lucas, Soundcastle Studios, Ca., 1980)

Which is the most interesting period in your life? Which was the best and worst moment of your career?

I think when I was working with Captain Beefheart initially—everything he did had a magical aura about it in terms of his perceptions and speech, the way he perceived the world, and of course the way he manifested them in his music and his paintings and drawings. And for me as a young player to be around this person gave me a real buzz of joy. I knew I was involved with a great man and a great artist.

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice ever given you?

Meeting Jeff Buckley changed my life, he had a similar impact to my life as Don Van Vliet, although he was a lot younger and growing and not yet fully formed as an artist. He told me after we recorded Grace and Mojo Pin in Woodstock I should collaborate with as many people as possible. The late Arthur Russell too was an incredible artist and character and told me I should play guitar fulltime, as he noticed I was happiest with a guitar in my hands!

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio which you’d like to share with us?

Playing onstage with Captain Beefheart in New Haven in 1980 which is where I had gone to school (Yale University Class of ‘74) was a joy but also confusing as I thought—how did I get from here to “here”? Playing in Moscow on the banks of the river in front of 7000 people was another awesome experience. Opening for Living Colour in London at the Town and Country Club in 1988 and winning over a skeptical crowd who didn’t know who I was was something else too. The first time I played the Knitting Factory in NYC in 1988 and received 3 encores was a turning point in my life, as I knew I was made to be playing the guitar fulltime. So many memories!

"Blues informs my life and my playing. I think it’s the essence of communication between cultures and peoples and is universally shared and appreciated, it’s the thread that ties the world together." 

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

Much music seems to have lost the “sacred” quality or aura it had in the late 60’s. I think this is through digitization and mass proliferation of it. It’s like a tap now that cannot be turned off, music. So it doesn’t have the same impact it once had when it was out there in more limited qualities. I hope this trend turns around as I think it robs people of the primary experience of listening to music with total joy and consciousness—its now very much background music in most instances. People are jaded by music as there is a plethora of bad music out there, anyone can make a recording and put it online and zap, they are your peers and competitors even if they have no skills I hope to continue to play and turn people on with my guitar right up to the end.

Which memories from Leonard Bernstein, Captain Beefheart, and Allen Ginsberg, makes you smile?

Bernstein telling me “Man you were really wailing!” regarding my electric playing in his “Mass” premiere in Vienna in 1973. The highest compliment I ever received at the time. Beefheart exclaiming “Man can play guitar!” on stage in New Haven after I played “Flavor Bud Living”. Allen Ginsberg giving me an autographed copy of his poem “Ballad of the Skeletons” after I accompanied him in a performance of this song at the World War Three Art Gallery in NYC.

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

To make sure artists and writers got paid for their music instead of people being able to steal it for nothing.

"My philosophy is to make my guitar sound like a person struggling or crying or wailing with joy, I want to communicate these sounds to listeners, and these sounds are the essence of the blues to me." (Photo by Bram Belloni)

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues with Psychedelic and continue to Jazz and World music?

The bent note. Bending a string produces a vibration in tune with your nervous system and the way your moods change, from sorrow to ecstasy. It sounds like a primordial wail or a human shouting in ecstasy. These troped are common to Blues, Psychedelic, Jazz and World Music. It’s the sound of human sorrow and joy.

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from the music circuits?

I love to watch John Stewart and Stephen Colbert programs in the US, not sure if you have them in Greece. Political satire of news show commentary, very sharp and funny critique of current events. From music the last artist I heard I fell in love with is Lhasa, her voice sounds ancient and modern simultaneously, the album to get is called “The Living Road”. She died very young very tragically.

Why NYC is connected to underground and avant-garde culture & what characterize the local scene?

I guess because there are so many folks there and it is considered such a melting pot of influences. But the scene has changed a lot there, and not for the better in my opinion. There are many less places to perform now.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?

To Paris in the early 20’s when the modern art scene was cranking up—I would have loved to have hung out with all the wonderful painters writers musicians and authors passing through that city. Picasso, Dali, Bunuel, Joyce, Ernst, etc etc etc.!

Gary Lucas - Official website

Photo by Arjen Veldt

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