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 30 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). 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). His new album is a retrospective double album "The Essential Gary Lucas" (2020, Knitting Factory Records) with 36-track spanned 40 years of Lucas' music.                                                         (Gary Lucas / Photo by Bram Belloni)

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). Gary plays live solo concerts on his Facebook page every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday at 3pm EST for the duration of the pandemic—they are archived and are continually updated.

Interview by Michael Limnios

How has the Blues, Jazz and Rock Counterculture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

I think I got caught up in the Blues spirit from birth—you know, “no one here gets out alive.” Its expressing all the pain and joy of the universe in music. I love to travel and see the world and play music for folks so I guess that derives from seeing many great musicians on tour in my hometown of Syracuse when I was a boy. To want to become one with them and live that life to me was like running away to join the circus.

Where does your creative drive come from? What do you love most about the act of scoring?

I think I have a strong life force that needs to express itself and communicate the joy and wonder of life to people and this is where it comes from, Music is the ideal medium to me for this. It’s so visceral and immediate, you forge a connection and resonate with folks instantly. I love live scoring of films because it’s like trying to breathe life back into the dead actors on the screen, I feel like a reanimator.

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.

"I want people to feel amazed, to feel a sense of wonder about the world and come away hopefully in a happier frame of mind than they were in coming in. The best thing I’ve ever heard from folks after a show was that they were down, saw I was playing, took a chance to come to my show—and now feel alot better about things." (Photo: Don Van Vliet and Gary Lucas, Soundcastle Studios, Ca., 1980)

Why do you think that Captain Beefheart music continues to generate such a devoted following?

Because it is totally unique, it doesn’t sound remotely like anyone else’s music. You hear any one of his tracks, even the so-called Tragic Band era stuff, and there is a grain in his voice that is absolutely authentic. The way he put music together was like a sculptor rather than a composer. Endlessly fascinating to me.

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. The best moment of my career was playing live solo before the General Assembly of the UN for Holocaust Remembrance Day a couple years ago. I played my arrangement of the No.15 Allegro from Leos Janacek’s “On An Overgrown Path”. The worst gig of my life would have to be in Glasgow in Nov. 1990 at a joint calling itself Basement Jazz Cafe, which was basically  a pub with a music room in the cellar. The only promotion for this gig was my name chalked up on the blackboard outside the pub: “An Evening of Jazz with Gary Lucas”! The only people at this gig were two freaks out of their mind on psychedelics who somehow heard about this event taking place through the Beefheart Underground Telegraph, that’s the only way they could have heard about it (and in those days there were no Beefheart websites—hell, there was no world wide web.) Opening were three musicians who played in a Scottish band called Deacon Blue trying to play actual jazz. They drew zero attendance. Afterwards the thug promoter stiffed me on the guarantee (which was very low anyway), smirking in a thick Scottish accent: “Ya gotta roof over yer head tonight, doncha?? Yer gaitin' braikfast tomorrah mornin’, aincha??”

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!                           (Gary Lucas / Photo by Arjen Veldt)

"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.

Are there any memories from The Harry Smith Project sessions which you’d like to share with us?

Yes, it was a fantastic moment for me to connect and collaborate with people who I had looked up to in music for many years: Nick Cave, Bryan Ferry, Van Dyke Parks, the McGarrigle Sisters, and on and on. So many great artists. Plus, the music we were delving into is the bed-rock of American folk music’s, and I have always loved this music, it resonates in my playing and my life.            (Photo: Gary Lucas)

"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."

Are there any memories from your gigs in Mexico City which you’d like to share with us?

I recall coming there to play with my live solo guitar score accompanying the legendary 1931 SPANISH “DRACULA” film which was filmed at night on the sets of the Bela Lugosi “Dracula” which they filmed during the day. I was booked to play their national film theater Cineteca Nacional—and I sold out both shows in the same day!! Young people especially loved this film with my musical score (there is no music on the soundtrack of the film, only dialogue in Spanish). The next time I came there with Peter Hammill UK prog group from Van Der Graaf Generator with our “Otherworld “ album and we sold out an old Teatro in downtown Mexico City. I've returned there many times to play but maybe the best of all has been my many appearances playing for disadvantaged Mexican kids at the Biblioteca Benjamin Franklin. I do this for free and it’s quite gratifying to me as the Library which is operated by the US Embassy bus in children from all over Mexico for my concerts there, and I always have received an amazing response from these kids who otherwise would not no of my work and probably would have never have come to see me play.

Are there any memories from Peter Hammill and Frank Zappa which you’d like to share with us?

I did meet him a couple of times and I loved his music when I was a boy. The circumstances under which I met him, were not the best. I was there working for Beefheart’s part and worked on some business that involved Frank Zappa. It’s a complicated story and it didn’t have a satisfying conclusion, there was a little bit of dismay between Frank and Van Vliet. But Frank Zappa was a fantastic artist, he had an inimitable and creative force. He had a much bigger effect on people than Don Van Vliet and he was more successful in this part. Both had some similarities and some vast differences. I wish I had spent more time with him. It would be more interesting to be there as a guy, as a fan and as a musician. Peter Hammill is a hero of mine from the time I was a boy. I think I bought the first Van der Graaf Generator album in ’69 maybe or ’70 and I was still in high school. Then I saw him during one of my very first trips to UK, in 1973 in a small club and we met and I did an interview with him because I was a rock writer writing for a newspaper then and he was very-very friendly. He did a great, an amazing solo show. So, I saw the Van der Graaf reunion at Royal Festival Hall in 2005. I had to get a ticket, I was in London. And I was really impressed at how great he was. He was better than ever. He was musically superb. I got in touch with him on Twitter. So, I made him a proposal to do some recording when I would be in London. That’s how we got together. It was his idea to come to Peter’s country house and his studio and it was like a dream, to play together and fit together like a glove, you know.

"People are people everywhere you go. They are looking for something unique, at least thoughtful sensitive people. The vast majority though are sleeping the sleep of machines as they say, las. Sensitive people love to be challenged mystified amazed and hopefully entertained simultaneously, and I try and do that with my guitar." (Photo: Gary Lucas)

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.

You have traveling all around the world. What are your conclusions? What touched (emotionally) you?

People are people everywhere you go. They are looking for something unique, at least thoughtful sensitive people. The vast majority though are sleeping the sleep of machines as they say, las. Sensitive people love to be challenged mystified amazed and hopefully entertained simultaneously, and I try and do that with my guitar. I’ve been called a magician on 6 strings so I try to live up to my reputation live and have people walk away feeling good about life, like my playing lifted them out of the doldrums, A lot of people are really hurting for authentic experiences in music after so much synthetic lifeless crap clogging up the atmosphere for so many years.

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in music paths?

There is no right way or wrong way to play music, and no music is better than any other music. It’s whatever turns you, different strokes for different folks as Sly Stone said.

What is the impact of music (and art) on the socio-cultural implications? How do you want it to affect people?

I want people to feel amazed, to feel a sense of wonder about the world and come away hopefully in a happier frame of mind than they were in coming in. The best thing I’ve ever heard from folks after a show was that they were down, saw I was playing, took a chance to come to my show—and now feel alot better about things.

"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." (Gary Lucas / Photo by Lars Klove)

What were the reasons that made the most of the Jews artists (Musicians, Poets) to be the center of avant-garde experiments?

A restless quest for knowledge, an impulse to push limits and upset the status quo of so-called normal society in order to move the game forward. It’s in the blood. There’s a very good book about this called “The Ordeal of Civility” by John Murray Cuddihy, I titled my last Gods and Monsters album after it.

Do you consider the Spoken Word Music a specific genre and artistic movement or do you think it’s a state of mind?

Do you mean poetry recited over music? If so, I think it can be very valid as an art form yes.

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

(Gary Lucas / Photo by Faust)

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