Gary Lucas is back in the UK, more than 30 years after first landing here from the US to tour with Captain Beefheart. He’s travelled the world in the intervening years, writing songs and playing guitar with a plethora of both legendary and obscure artists. This time around he’s here to promote his first book, ‘Touched By Grace’, an account of his time working with the late Jeff Buckley, in what claims to be the first publication about the singer authored by someone who actually knew him. The day before Gary’s first UK tour date, he sat down with me, Imelda Michalczyk, in the Victorian lobby of a north London hotel to tell me about Buckley, Beefheart, Dracula and how to be an entrepreneur at the age of nine.
Why did you decide to publish a book about your working relationship with Jeff Buckley at this particular time?
I was asked to a do a tribute by the Italian Jeff Buckley fan club almost three years ago. It was very lovely – I played in a club in Rimini. About a month later the organiser sent me an Italian magazine that had an account about Jeff in which I was mentioned. I was disturbed by what it said – it was erroneous in a lot of ways and it was hurtful to me because it was bad history and wasn’t true. It was suggested I write a letter to them as it was a big Italian cultural magazine. A letter may not do much good – they may or may not publish it and even if they do, it’s not going to live or hang around as long as an article like this. So, then it was suggested, well why don’t you write a book? I wrote a sample chapter and it was circulated to a big music critic and one thing led to another. I was connected to a company in Italy called Arcana, who publish music books mainly, and they were quite interested. I had thought of doing a similar book before and I tried to drum up interest in the past just because I thought I had a good story to tell but I found no interest in the US. So, I just said OK I’m going to roll with the Italians and it came out a year ago and it was well received.
I then said I must get this out in English and the contract allowed me to shop for a new publisher. My friend Mike Barnes, who writes for Mojo and The Wire, had written a biography of Captain Beefheart and I helped him with that book. So, almost in returning the favour, he hooked me up with Jawbone Press and I’m really happy I rolled with them. People in many respects would say there’ve already been several books about Jeff. I would say yes, but none of them were written by anybody who either knew him or had ever seen him live! None of them that I know of. They’re all cobbled together second and third hand accounts and old interviews. I’m totally coming from an insider perspective, fresh, as a key collaborator on two of his most famous songs. I’m very proud of the book
How long did it take to write?
It took me nearly nine months. Almost like having a kid. I worked really hard. I was on tour a lot – I’m always on tour! (Laughs) On my days off I would hole up in my hotel room and just get focused. I had a lot of diaries, so I could specifically recall dates. You get a very close flavour of what it was like to be with him with the dawning of ‘Grace’ and ‘Mojo Pin’ and those songs. It was a pretty great period for me when I worked with Jeff.
On this tour you’re going to be reading parts of the book as well as playing songs, is that right?
Shorts readings, not long readings! Maybe they put too much emphasis on the readings? I’m going to be playing more. It’s a bit of a retrospective. To the general public my career goes back to my work with Captain Beefheart and that was when I first came over to the UK in 1980 to tour with him. I’m going to play some music I did with him and then key in on the stuff with Jeff. Although, the flow of it, I just make it up every night. I don’t really have a patter or set anything. I’m very of the moment. That’s how I am in my shows. So, whatever strikes my fancy, as the spirit moves me is how these shows go. But I have specific singers I’m working with to sing these songs because I would never attempt to sing these songs myself. I have too much respect for them and Jeff’s performance but I have some really excellent singers, mainly female. I find that women are able to really come to grips with this in a way that’s usually better than males. For a male singer I think Jeff’s vocals are so authoritative that it gets stuck in their head and it’s hard for them to come with a new approach. Whereas female singers are somehow more able to take risks and change the delivery.
Who did you choose to sing with you and why?
I’m working with a really good British singer named Frances Brennand Roper and Diana Silveira who’s a singer from Portugal, who flew in of her own accord to do this, and she’s great, very bluesy voice. And Najam Akhtar – who lives in London and is of Indian descent – I made a record with her four years ago which was nearly top of the world music charts. She’s going to do a great version of ‘Hymne à l’Amour’ that Jeff and I used to do. Then there’s Mari Conti, an Italian vocalist, who approached me four or five years ago about collaborating and I really liked her spirit and approach on my music. She’s situated in London now and doing more sort of new beats driven electronic pop but she can really sing these songs. In the Scottish shows I have Jay Mathy – I’ve worked on his record. These were just people who wanted to work with me and I thought were good. I prefer often to work with people like this than some big name because there’s a lot of baggage that comes with the fame and sometimes it’s much simpler and easier and you get great results working with talented people who have the spirit.
When you’re bringing in different singers from around the world for different nights on the tour, does that mean you don’t really get to rehearse with them?
I don’t really have time! I’d rather just send people some tracks to rehearse – here’s the track, sing along with Jeff – however you want to do it! I don’t like to tell people how to sing these songs. Let them find something that’s authentic to them. That’s how I love to work with people. Let them rise up to be whatever’s resonant and internal to them is the way I think it should go. That’s how I went with Jeff – we never spent a lot of time rehearsing ever. I hate rehearsing, to tell you the truth. I find nothing more boring than sitting in a room with people and by rote going over and over songs – that just takes all the life out of them. Maybe to some people that adds a professional veneer. I don’t know, I’m not in that spectrum of showbusiness at all. I’m not interested. I would say what I do still approaches pop music. What does Lady Gaga call it? Art pop? I would say the songs I wrote with Jeff could be classified as such. I thought they were functional as art objects and also as pop music. That’s what I’ve designed them to be. They’re not typical songs but they’re not so arcane or obtuse that they’re avant garde to the point where people can’t listen to them. I like to mix it up and I still like to have an audience. We’ll rehearse if it’s absolutely necessary but, I have a low boredom threshold.
Your last album ‘Cinefantastique’ featured your interpretations of some famous film score music alongside your own film scores – what inspired you to put an album together in that way?
I like to mix up the elements. In the same year – 1989 – that I started the band Gods and Monsters, I got a commission to do something with another art form and I chose film. I just thought, I’m going to do a soundtrack on the guitar to a silent movie. I don’t know if such a thing had been done on solo guitar, maybe I was the first. But it was in the air – there were some new ensembles doing soundtracks live to silent movies. I chose one called ‘The Golem’, that’s a Jewish Frankenstein myth, based on a historical rabbi. The legend is that he created a man to be the servant to the Jewish community made him out of clay and brought him to life with Kabbalistic magic. It’s a very contemporary legend even to this day. In Prague you can visit the rabbi’s grave – it’s there in the old Jewish quarter. It was something near and dear to me because I’m Jewish and I also love monster, horror films, mainly old ones. What passes for horror films these days I don’t have much love of – they’re very violent and just formulaic and CGI-driven and they don’t shock, they don’t do anything but annoy me. But there’s something beautiful about the old ones that just seem to exist in this other world, a more refined era where you didn’t have to put overt displays of blood letting on screen to shock people. I love the Hammer Horror films, the British horror films of the 50s and 60s. It goes back to when I was a boy, I used to exhibit silent versions of horror films in my basement for a nickel to the neighbours. And then I had a horror film society when I was at Yale University called Things That Go Bump In The Night and it was a big deal. We had these amazing, I won’t say orgy, but cathartic audience participation of kids who were bored studying, flocking to this theatre, seeing these old films and yelling and screaming and whooping it up and drinking beer. It was a big party atmosphere.
But after ‘The Golem’ I just wanted to do more film music. I did some documentary music in America. The best known is one where I got an email after playing a Robert Johnson tribute with a very fine English guitarist called John Renbourn. I was heard over national public radio by a producer from Maysles Films, who had made ‘Gimmie Shelter’ with the Rolling Stones. They were making a film about a cotton picking family today in Mississippi showing how the slave era had never really ended because they were exploiting people for 9 cents an hour to pick cotton in the field, allowing kids to skip school to do this. They wanted a Delta Blues guitar and I got that gig. I went straight up that day, sat down in front of a TV monitor and they showed me the clip. I have a facility to accompany images on film with my guitar. I love it, it’s like going into a trance.
One of my projects is a Spanish language ‘Dracula’. It’s a sound film with dialogue in Spanish. I got into the mood with my score by studying it very closely, working hard over some months. I saw this film hundreds of times on a computer, playing to it and deciding what worked and what didn’t. And then when I do it, I semi-improvise everything, it’s about 50/50 composed themes and the rest improvised.
Much of the music for the film score album written by others must have been intended for orchestras – how did you go about distilling that down to a solo guitar interpretation?
It’s interesting you ask that, because you see, I’m kind of a one man band on acoustic guitar and I have a very good ear. I can hear symphonies and then figure out versions on the guitar using a lot of open tunings and approximate the sound of an orchestra just by ear. But it goes back my training with Captain Beefheart because he was sometimes giving you tapes of him playing impossibly dense piano solos – he would bang them out and say ‘learn that on a guitar’ and I would say ‘what?!’. The first time it happened I said ‘you’re using ten figures, there’s only six strings on a guitar!’. He’d be like ‘you better find another four’. (Laughs) So, he stretched my technique that’s for sure. I think that and in combination with my ear has allowed me to do it. But a lot of it is down to close listening. It’s a slow process, sometimes you do only a few seconds a day, figuring out the notes and harmonies and memorising it as you go along. I don’t need sheet music, I can do it by ear. I don’t like reading music. I can do it if I have to but to me it’s too much like work.
Would you like to see it in reverse – rather than you scoring a film, have somebody put visuals to your music?
Yeah! Well, it may happen sooner than you think. There’s a woman who’s approached me in New York who has made a film about a misanthropic hermit, who’s like a big foot character in Maine. He’d been living for 20 years undetected and then they discovered him. He was outed! She made a documentary about this. I’m going to score it when I get back. She said if you do that for me, in payment I will make some music videos based on your music. Go right ahead! Let’s see what you come up with! I had some video ideas that I thought could be realised but I gave up on that one. Just let the people get on with it. Let them put their vision at the service of my music. But if you know anybody else who wants to do such things, then I encourage it! (Laughs) I like grass roots impulse. You could call it amateur level, but the word amateur has got a bad rap. The real meaning is like a love – it’s from the Latin word ‘amor’, the love of something. Someone who plays music and is called an amateur is doing it for the love of music. But as a pejorative ‘he’s an amateur’ it’s like dilettantes. Some of the best art can arise from an amateur, because when you’re professional you don’t take risks as much, you’re afraid, doing it for a living – well gee, if I fuck up and do this it may impact the bottom line of my business. And it is a business. I don’t think there’s such a thing as a pure artist any more and if there is they have a trust fund or a sugar daddy somewhere. (Laughs) I wish I had such a thing. Alas!
The genres of music and range of artists you’ve collaborated with are so diverse – an album of Czech classical compositions, a psychedelic art dance record, versions of Chinese pop music. Not many artists span that sort of range. When you started out were you ambitious in this way or did it happen organically?
No, it just kind of grew. I knew I was a very eclectic artist when I started out. I’m a double Gemini. I mean, if you give any credence to astrology. Geminis are very diverse in their opinions and their attitudes and they can hold and juggle several situations at once and see all sides of all questions. It’s a bit diabolical, it’s like having a broad knowledge but not really deriving one answer to any question. I have no answer to ‘what’s my niche?’. I’m doing it for myself basically, that’s the only way I know how to do it. I would feel like a whore if I was trying to psyche out the market. There’s a lot of artists that do that, they put music under a microscope and synthesise new sounds. I do it instinctively, I figured if I was true to myself and my taste and my instincts, I would find an audience. It’s probably been somewhat obstructive in a way, because a lot of people can’t handle all of the music I like. You lose people because they can’t follow you or they’re just bewildered. God he can do so much, so what is he? Neither fish nor foul! Is he rock? They’re still fighting about this today. They want to put me into Cork folk festival next year. They cancelled my Irish shows and said they’d get me slot in the Cork folk festival. Am I a folk guitarist? Well, my first guitar roots are in the folk era, early 60s pre-Beatles and I can play folk and blues, roots music very well. I’ve played blues festivals, roots festivals, electronic festivals, avant garde festivals, classical festivals. I can do it all!
What sort of music are you listening to at the moment?
Scott Walker’s new record. I admire him because he’s really going for it – some extreme art, damaged music, plus I love his voice but the record was just so dense I have to go back to listen to it some more. It was certainly foreground listening. I like Vinicio Capossela, who is like the Italian Tom Waits. I just played in Italy three weeks ago and he showed up and I was so honoured. He read from my book, I accompanied him on my guitar. I’d seen him in NewYork and he’s pretty delightful. I love Paolo Conte – I’m going to see him Saturday night at the London Jazz Festival. He’s my favourite current artist. I loved the first couple of records by Joanna Newsom who played the harp. I saw her live and I was enchanted. I don’t seek out a lot of new music. I’m often disappointed. I have an encyclopedic knowledge of music that I absorbed, so I’ve an incredibly developed sense of pattern recognition. Often I can spot influences, I know where stuff is derived from and that’s a bit of a curse. Can be a blessing but it’s mainly a curse! I don’t think there is such a thing as anything new under the sun. A lot of times when I was amateur I could sit and absorb and consume and go out and look for new music without a qualm, very guilt-free. But as soon as I became a professional I’d be fidgeting during the shows – I should be home working on my music. It’s unfortunate but it made me a bit antsy. I’m sure there are many fine young artists out there that I don’t know about and I’m missing out – that’s sad. If you know of any you’d think I’d like, feel free to go ahead and try me! (Laughs) I’d appreciate it – anybody out there reading this! Write me firstname.lastname@example.org and suggest some music I should listen to.
With all the people you’ve worked with, is there anyone left on the Gary Lucas ‘people I’d like to work with’ list?
Yeah, Van Morrison. Dylan. I’d love to work with them. Clapton. Ginger Baker – I just saw him the other night, he’s still great. People who were idols of mine.
What’s the future for the Gods and Monsters project?
We did a great record that came out a year and a half ago called ‘The Ordeal of Civility’ and Jerry Harrison from Talking Heads produced it and played on it. It’s my supergroup with Ernie Brooks from The Modern Lovers, Billy Ficca from Television, Jason Candler on sax. We reassembled to do two shows with Chinese vocalists back in New York in the fall that sold out at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. It was my 1930s Chinese pop project called ‘The Edge of Heaven’ and that was a beautiful couple of concerts. I hadn’t done shows with them up to that point in about six months. I would do more but with that project it has been like throwing oneself against a wall. After a while it just is not pleasurable and it costs a lot, psychically and otherwise. I haven’t given up on the idea and I may get back to it, I just don’t know how to make it pay. I couldn’t afford to tour them. The record came out, we didn’t do any touring – there wasn’t enough money on the table. I do this for a living, so I have to find gigs that are going to pay and generally that’s solo gigs. That’s the tragedy, it’s a great band. Generally, even if you follow the so called savants of the music business, it still takes deep pockets to launch anything. That’s how they’ve got it rigged – from the radio play to everything else.
And finally, you knew Lou Reed, who passed away very recently. What was your lasting impression of him?
He was a genius and he was my friend. He gave me some of the highest compliments I ever had about my playing. I was invited to go to his apartment and play guitar with him one afternoon and he just sat back and said ‘I can listen to you play for hours’. He was a great guy. I’m sorry he’s gone, I miss him.
Reed’s emblematic deep praise seems a good high on which to end the conversation. Certainly there will be many others who are happy to spend hours listening to his music over the coming tour dates and beyond. He may also, of course, now find himself flooded with new music suggestions and film making offers. Which would surely be a fitting addition of new twists and turns in the complex tapestry of Gary Lucas’s musical mission.
‘Touched By Grace’ is published by Jawbone Press
Words and photos by Imelda Michalczyk. 12 November 2013. Imelda has her own website Rebeladelica here