Gary Lucas   reviews  

Knitting Factory Article/Interview, January 2000

Gary Lucas Celebrates 20 Years As A Musical Innovator
By Matthew Carlin

At first, Gary Lucas seems like a mass of contradictions: a rootsy blues-based guitarist who makes extensive use of electronics; a consummate collaborator who is known for his solo guitar performances; a seasoned rocker who is most often associated with the avant-garde. But sitting down with Lucas for just a few minutes, it becomes clear there is no confusion; rather, he joyfully embraces music in all its shapes and forms. A fact made all the more poignant by Improve the Shining Hour: rare lumiŤre 1980-2000, his new 20-year retrospective out in March on Knitting Factory Records.

"Iím not a rock or jazz snob...I embrace the unity of music," Lucas explained. "Mainly I would say Iím a blues guitarist, of an avant-garde nature. When Iím doing classical music or Chinese music, you know, I do very eclectic covers. But the music that attracts me the most in a spiritual sense has these blue or bent notes because itís the closest kind of emulation of a human crying or wailing. Thatís what I love."

It was exactly this kind of raw, emotional playing that first won the guitarist fans 20 years ago when he began his stint with the legendary Captain Beefheart. Unabashedly referring to Don Van Vlietís group as the "the number one avant-garde rock band," Lucas described Beefheartís music as "the perfect synthesis of these diverse types of music I liked."

After Beefheart stopped touring and recording in 1984, Lucas embarked on his own eclectic career, first as a producer for downtown avant-jazzers like Tim Berne, then as a full-time guitarist/writer. Ever since, Lucas has been splitting his time between solo shows, his Gods and Monsters project (which morphed from a sort of musical collective with a rotating cast of vocalists, including the late Jeff Buckley, into a hard rocking power trio with Lucas on lead vocals) and collaborations with artists like Joan Osborne, Nick Cave and, most recently, The Future Sound of London. Lucas attempted to capture it all on Improve the Shining Hour.

"This record really traces my development as a guitarist and songwriter/collaborator going back to my earliest days with Captain Beefheart, which really provided me with the basis for my subsequent career, extending all the way to the year 2000," Lucas said.

"The most recent track on the record is something I cut with David Johansen as vocalist," Lucas said. "Also thereís something I did really recently with DJ Spooky here in the Knitting Factory, kind of a live collaboration improv. So in between that you get a lot of high points of my career...a lot of rare I did with Nick Cave, Eric Mingus, Mary Margaret OíHara, Elli Medeiros."

While Lucas admitted, "thereís nothing more thrilling than being able to move a large crowd all by oneís lonesome," he still finds collaborations to be the source of some of his most satisfying work. "I think that one of the most beautiful things you can do is to find someone who may not necessarily be on the same page as you, but has something going that you admire," Lucas offered. "And then to get with them and create something that transcends the individual efforts of either party, the work becomes greater than the sum of the individuals. Itís like giving birth to a fantastic child you never dreamed of on your own."

Interview with Gary Lucas, 1/11/00

MC: The new CD: What is the significance of the 20 years?

GL: Itís a good round number, I thought it was time to offer unto the people kind of an overview of what Iíve been up to since the inception of my career. This record really traces my development as a guitarist and songwriter/collaborator going back to my earlierst days with Capt. Beefheart and the Magic Band. Which really provided me with the basis for my subsequent career, extending all the way to the year 2000...the most recent track on the record is something I cut last week with David Johansen as vocalist. Itís a song I co-wrote with Joan Osbourne that was on her triple-platinum "Relish" album and it was also nominated for a Grammy. I really was endeavouring to liscense the track, but MCA records wanted $25,000 to put on the KFR compilation. I thought the best solution was to re-do the track, which I did and Iím very excited about it. Also thereís something I did really recently with DJ Spooky here in the KF, kind of a live collaboration improv. So in between that you get a lot of high points of my career...a lot of rare tracks nooneís every heard before. Work I did with Jeff Buckley, Nick Cave, lots of people, Eric Mingus, Mary Margaret OíHara, Elli Medeiros. I mean some names are very well known Iím sure, and some names are not so well known, but to me theyíre all fantastic talents, very individual collaborators who I was proud to have the opportunity to work with.

MC: Youíre know for working with a bevy of great performers, youíre sort of known as a collaborator to a lot of people, how did that come about?

GL: I think I have a penchant, in an almost chameleonic way, to be able to work with other people and create empathetic dialogue very easily. I would say that it has something to do with my own love of pretty much every genre of music, I can find something worthy things to (???) Iím not a rock or jazz snob. I embrace the unity of music. And I think that one of the most beautiful things you can do is to find someone who may not neccesarily be on the same page as you, but has something going that you admire. And then to get with them and create something that transcends the individual efforts of either party, in other words itís like the work becomes greater than the sum of the individuals. And itís like giving birth to a fantastic child you had never dreamed of on your own really, you needed the other person to make this child come alive. I like it. As much as I like solo work and working my band which I think Iíve done in parrallel to the collaborations, it may be that some of the best work arose out of collaborations. I have a kind of feeling of generosity of spirit which I like to engage when working with other people. And I think that the best results can occur when you both...itís like trying to inspire the other person to greater heights when you working with them.

MC: You still have all this very solo stuff, you canít get much more solo than standing on a stage with a guitar...

GL: Right, which I do a lot. To me thereís nothing more thrilling than being able to move a large crowd all by oneís lonesome. I became aware that I have this power early in my career. Thereís an example of it with Beefheart—the first piece that really put me on the musical map is on this record, itís a piece called "Flavour Bud Living." Itís a Capt. Beefheart composition that comes from "Back at the Radar Station". One of the earliest things on the record, the thing that put me on the musical map is "Flavour Bud Living," and itís a solo guitar piece that was given to me by Capt. Beefheart. And it took me a long time to master it and he invited me to play it cold on stage with him on the last Beefheart tour, of 1980-1989 in Europe in America. In the middle of the set, my guitar would just be sitting on the stage, heíd say "Now we have Gary Lucas to play ĎFlavour Bud Livingí" and Iíd have to walk out, pick it up and move the crowd. And I was able to do it. Iíd always get a little bit nervous, and then after a while I got addicted. Itís quite an ecstatic feeling to have a one on one experience—I should say one on many—but itís like a one on one where the crowd becomes kind of a living, corporate, sentient creature with lots of different intelligences out there, yet theyíre kind of unified as one and you are confronting them. A man and his guitar against the world. To be able to get that mass of bodies excited is a wonderful feeling. And I experienced it early on with Beefheart, so that when I launched my solo career here, well actually, the old Knit, in June of í88, I remember very well going home the night of the show feeling a tremendous sense of empowerment because I had been able to generate such a wildly successful response from the crowd and that night I was convinced that really my future lay in a music career full time. Previous to that I had done it more or less as a hobby—I loved playing with Beefheart, Iíd produced a number of artists for CBS records such as Tim Berne, Peter Gordon, they were downtown saxophone composers...but I kept my day job. I was really reluctant to give up the security of the day job, however, after that night I thought itís now or never and I proved to myself Iím able to do it and Iím gonna hit it as hard as I can and thatís what Iíve been doing for the last 12 years.

MC: What is it about the guitar?

GL: To me, guitar is the most tactile instrument I know. I also studied French Horn contemporaneously, but I barely have an upper lip so it didnít really work out. Guitar is very visceral, I mean the strings are almost like extensions of the nervous system and I can instantly translate my emotions or my internal mechanism to the guitar. I can make the thing talk. I can really bring it to life and give it a voice. So, for me, itís always worked. Iím lucky in that my father was the one who suggested I pick up the guitar. I really didnít have a clue when I was a kid, but he came to me at the age of nine and asked me, how about the guitar. So you have him to either thank, or curse.

MC: Your first solo show was at the Knit in í88, thatís 12 years, and 20 years...

GL: I never stopped after that though. Beefheart broke up in 1982 and I had done some records—I was the only guitar player besides Zoot Horn Rolo to be given solos in his entire oevure. When he dissolved the group, and said ĎIím just going to have an art career,í I was in a real dilemna, I had based my entire musical existence on promulgating the work of this guy, who I still believe is one the great geniuses of the 20th Century, a totally seminol figure in music, not just avant-garde music. And then it was like, how do I come down after playing with the number one avant-garde rock band, do I join a lesser band? I hadnít written songs, had some offers to join groups, but how do I go from A to like not such an A group. I bided my time and I was presented opportunities to produce Tim Berne and Peter Gordon and while their records were not hit records, they were extremely well-received and reviewed. Later on in the mid-80s I met the band the Wooden Tops who were a very interesting English, I guess you could call them punk, and I hit it off with their leader Rolo McGinty..produced.. that turned me on to the idea of playing again and suddenly I started to get calls to do other sessions, like Matthew Sweet and Adrian Sherwood, so it kept me in the game.

Someone actually dared me in 1988 to play the Knit, thatís how it happened, on the challenge of a dare. And I thought, you know, itís time to really shit or get off the pot. I had been wood-shedding a lot at home, but I really should take it to the people. So itís an interesting story because I met Michael Dorf, and I liked him and I approached him about getting a slot. And they gave, I think it was a Tues. night in June. And of course by accident I was left out of the adverstising, but despite this it was an absolutely overflowing house, sold out through word of mouth. A lot of great people were there, a lot of great musicians, like Matthew Sweet and the crew. Again, I came home and said, this is what Iím going to do, and I should have been doing this a long time ago. And now I really have the skills, the confidence, to tackle it head on, full time, and I havenít looked back.

MC: Looking back just a little bit, what were those early days with the Knit like?

GL: My memories are of very frenetic barn-storming one-nighters, grueling, arduous one-nighters by train, by bus, by plane. You know, one night we would be in Budapest, the next night we would be in Vienna, the next night we would be in Spain. I have a whole book of stories just based on those tours. I wouldnít have changed places with anybody for the world, I feel really lucky, God bless Michael Dorf for having faith in me and putting me on those tours. Some of my most cherished musical memories are bound up in them. However, it was not all fun and games and there were plenty of outrageously distressing moments, I think everybody was pretty wiped out by the end of the tour. But you could say that we were running around like dogs, but on the other hand, we were atomic dogs, you know what I mean? It was like, it was fun to be in that position. Whenís the next tour?

MC: How do you feel about the music world and how itís changed, with the internet?

GL: On the one hand, itís daunting, Iím not very computer literate. I have a very advanced web site, mainly because Iím fortunate to have sympathetic people around me help me maintain it and develop it. I myself, still believe more or less in the power of the one on one...

MC: Where were we, the early days and how itís changed...

GL: Iím really computer illiterate, however, I think that if someone can demonstrate the efficacy of delivering music to more people Iím all for it, as long as I get paid for it. Iím really a little weary of the potential for abuse by young hackers. Personally I would never want to go MP3s, I donít want to spend that much time around machines, even though I use them a lot, there itís more like a paint box, colors. How has the business changed? I mean the touring is rougher, as far as things like the money has diminished somewhat in certain markets where you were able to get pretty good guarantees in the past. Iím lucky in that I have many options...if one thing isnít working, well thereís another.

MC: Something that seems pretty constant is your Gods and Monsters project.

GL: Oh yeah. Well Iíve had that since 1989 and I must say, based on the show we did Friday night, I feel itís like potential is even stronger than it ever was. It went through many permutations. It originally started as an all instrumental band, that had two bass players. And then I started actively writing songs and bringing guest vocalist. I had great singers over the years including Jeff Buckley. The format itís in now is that itís a stripped down power trio with me doing most of the vocals and judging by the response we got Friday night you know itís like Iím really commited to cranking it up and hitting it as hard as I can..album. I think Jonathan Kane and Ernie Brooks, the drummer and the bass player respectively, are two of the best musicians going. We absolutely maintain a very high level of cross talk, and I think that rivals big bands with my little pocket combo. I just want to drive people out of their minds. I will probably bring in some guest vocalists too for the record. Richard Barone who Iíve worked with.. and underappreciated vocalist, and Iíd like to get David Johanson on the record.

MC: I didnít catch this last one, but you guys rock, itís a powerful band. I donít know if thereís a question in there, itís just such a solid rock, you donít...

GL: We donít fuck around. Iíve always admired bands including the Yardbirds, Cream, Led Zepplin, that have a very dynamic guitar interplay. Itís kind of gone in and out of flavor, I guess. This is so primal, and visceral that itís. Where I got disinterested was with that kind of million notes a minute tapping, shred guitar, from the Van Halen school. That doesnít really hold any interest for me, Iíd much rather hear someone be able to make their guitar talk. Another appraoch is too corporate, polished, vapid. I think that anyone who loves this primal, early rock, going back to ??? would understand what Iím doing, as well as avant-garde musicians..Stockhausen, cause we incorporate elements from both. So fundamentally...appraoch the godhead.

MC: What influenced you in your formative years?

GL: You know, I always had all my orifices open, all my ears unplugged. My earliest of music I enjoyed was Duane Eddyís "Dance With the Guitar Man" it was a hit single. That really sent, and I learned it after my father had gotten me (my guitar). I used to sit and listen to the top 40 radio in Syracuse, NY, before I was in kindergarten. I used to sit in a rocking chair at my house...Then when the Beatles hit, the Stones became like the in group for me Keith Richards was probably my first guitar hero. At the same time I discovered jazz, blues, folk music through the radio station of SU, where I was growing up had a very good...I was doing deliveries for my old man after high school and Iíd be pulling into the delivery space with my fatherís truck with the FM radio blasting Archie Shepp, Pharoah Sanders. When I heard Beefheart I finally thought I had discovered the perfect synthesis of these diverse types of music I liked, the way he would incorporate everything from country blues to sea chanties to out Coltrane-esque saxophone and melded it with a rock and roll approach definitely. I could probably find something worthy in any kind of..Iíve very Catholic in my listening, thereís nothing Iíve really heard that I would dismiss out of hand.

Mainly I would say Iím a blues guitarist, of an avant-garde nature. When Iím doing classical music or Chinese music, you know I do very eclectic covers, when Iím playing Wagner. But it comes down to music that attracts me the most in a spiritual sense has these blue or bent notes because itís to me, the closest kind of emulation of a human crying, wailing, coming. Thatís what I love, what I try to stimulate people with. I like to hear the sound of a human struggling. As much as I like electronic music, mostly when I used electronics itís still grounded in real time guitar playing. So the signals that Iím manipulating still have that basic human frenzy..emotion. Itís hard to talk about this, but I mean your inspiring me...

MC: All these different styles canít help but make me think about NYC...

GL: The melting pot. Well, hopefully my music mimics all the different influences and and sounds of the street that are thrown up around you, walking through the streets every day it's like a shook or a bazaar. Like, I hear them all. But I don't actively go out, I have to say I'm a little bit reclusive. If I go out to a show I sit there a little bit bothered with myself: I should be home practicing or how does this compare to what I do. So it's hard to let myself just relax, to enjoy it as music. And also I'm worried a little bit by being too overly influenced by what's considered a trendy stylistic innovation, such as drum 'n' bass, I've never really worked in that idiom, although I recently contributed and played on the new record from the Future Sound of London, but that wasn't really drum 'n bass. I've done experiments with DJs, there's a track with DJ Spooky, but it wasn't drum n bass, it was ambient electronica.

MC: Do you approach something like that differently, or are you just always Gary Lucas?

GL: I'm always Gary Lucas, but it's like I'm always trying to bring the Gary Lucas persona into the collaboration and making it work. By having a real kind of meeting of sensibilities and souls, I wouldn't think that they would be successful if I wasn't listening, I think it's all about listening to the other person. And it's amazing what you can come up with. There's a track on here with this French pop star, Elli Medeiros, she's a big star in France, she used to be the singer in a band the Stinky Toys, that was the first French punk band. Then she had a hit record which was under her own name, she's very well known in France. I have music that I wrote and it's really powerful, I had written my own lyrics for it, they were very dark and I had never really cut the track and I wasn't totally satisfied with it, but when I met Elli I thought it would be really good for her voice, just on a hunch. I gave her the music, she came back with the most languid, sexy, lilting, lyrics and melody on top of this that totally transformed my music and kicked it into a whole other plane I would never have envisioned going there. It's still unmistakebly my music, and yet her voice is like the icing on the cake, or she lit the lights of the song and made it her own. Like if her fans heard it they'd consider it a great song by Elli. It's got characteristics of both of us and I'm pretty sure that both of our groups of fans out there dig the track.

MC: I don't know if this is comfortable, but Jeff Buckley is a name...such a powerful force in music...

GL: One of the greatest singers I've ever worked with. It's a real tragedy about his early death. I think the world of music was robbed of a great abundance of visionary music. And certainly he was one of the great collaborators. I still remember the first time I heard him sing, I mean I was just transformed. He came over to my house and we were doing a tribute to his father, Tim Buckley, for the St. Ann's Church having a special evening. And he started to sing on top of my guitar. I set up a guitar loop with an almost Middle Eastern sound and I was like my God Jeff, you're a total star. He goes, "Really, do you think so?" He lacked self-confidence big time at that point. And I was like absolutely. I think he had a lot of negative people around him in L.A. at this point where he was still living. And they were ragging him, like the only reason people like you is cause of your father, you suck. It just shows you need a nurturing environment where people around you to encourage you often, it's very neccesary. The way we worked was I had total trust in him and his abilities and I would take the leap of faith every time and he never let me down, he always surpassed every expectation I'd have. For me the essence of what would make a good song was if it stood up as an instrumental after I composed and I would remember it after working on it, if it would stick in my mind, I thought okay I have a basis. If the music stood alone as powerful instrumental music. So I had a couple of these pieces and I had little titles in my notes. I had one called "And You Will" and another one was called "Rise Up To Be" and I gave them both to Jeff and he took them with him and said "I love this." He dissapeared back to L.A. in the summer of '91 and then appeared midway through that summer back in NY and said, "Okay I got titles, now 'And You Will' is called 'Mojo Pin' and 'Rise Up To Be' is now called 'Grace.'" And I have tape of him in my apartment just starting to you know, he had a big book of lyrics and poetry that kept looking through and he was selecting lines and suddenly there was "Grace" pretty much full blown and "Mojo Pin."And I said, okay, we gotta cut this. I go into a demo studio, I got my band and it just made magic. He came down after I recorded the band tracks and he just did these incredible vocal parts, he had everything worked out, little voices, counter-melodies and it was just to me like the strongest thing I ever heard in my life. I thought it would shake the world, I was convinced. It was like I had total dynamite in my pocket and I think that the music stands. When people hear it they're still blown away by it and he has many more fans now, ironically, than when he was alive.

MC: Can you talk about the Jeff Buckley track on the new one?

GL: Well we agreed to form a group in 1991 after working with him, I wanted to create a group that was sort of like an updated version of the Doors, Led Zepplin and the Smiths all combined. We really liked the idea of these groups that had really charismatic lead singers with guitarists/writers. So we started to make appearances and we would work occasionally as a duo, where I would have all of my guitar effects at my disposal and he'd bring in percussion and harmonica and we also worked with a band, where he would be the lead singer and I would be the guitarist. And this is an example of the duo version. It's also the very first time Jeff was ever on the radio. We were invited to appear Nick Hill's program "Live at the Music Faucet," which was a great show on WFMU FM, a great station as we all know. And I went out there with him and we got in the studio and they turned the lights down really low, Jeff lit some incense and there was a candle going and we just made magic. I had recently discovered Dylan's fairly obscure tune "Farewell Angelina" which had just come out on the Bootleg Series, that was officially a Columbia Records couple of CDs. And I thought this was a beautiful song for us to do. So what you're hearing is us kind of making magic for about 5 or 6 minutes, improvising—I don't think we'd ever played it through before, maybe once at my house. I fly by the seat of the pants mostly with my music. It's not very rehearsed in any sense of the word. It is and it isn't, certainly some of the songs require me to drill my band rigorously in terms of internal structure and changes, even then once they've got the basic structure they're free to add and bring a bit of their own soul to what they're doing, ala Mingus, or a lot of jazz groups where Mingus never wrote anything out, whistled parts and in the duo format with Jeff it was very much like: okay, here we have five minutes and here's the song and the lyrics, but we're free to take it anywhere we want. That's what I like too, to sculpt in real time in the air. It's a jazz approach for sure. I've always felt uncomfortable with labels and being labeled as jazz or rock. I'm happy to be stocked in the rock section of Tower, probably more where it belongs than jazz, but I've often worked on jazz festivals. The first show I did solo in Europe was the Berlin Jazz Fest and I got an amazing reception there. These labels—get rid of them.

MC: What's in store for the big 20th Anniversary show?

GL: Well, hopefully, I'm going to try to rope every performer who appeared on this record, the ones that are still alive of course, although I don't think I'll be able to get them all because some of them live abroad or on another coast. I'm looking to get commitments from at least four or five of the singers who appear on this and it will be a gala evening of music, starting solo, moving to duos and stuff and then I'll close with a set of Gods and Monsters. I did put out one cut on this record of more or less the current band although I'm working with Ernie Brooks again. This cut featured Kato Hideki, who's also a fine bass player. I think it will be a good retrospective of past, present and future and hopefully I'll have some surprise guests. I'm working on getting Elli here, which I think would be a coup. I think NY is ready for her and she's ready for NY.

Tower Pulse!, June 2000

Gary Lucas
Improve the Shining Hour
***** (5 stars)

By Ted Drozdowski

Gary Lucas is a secret genius of American music: a gifted guitarist, songwriter, bandleader and eclectic spirit who has worked with Captain Beefheart, Jeff Buckley, Joan Osborne, DJ Spooky, Nick Cave and others. And this is his diary. These 18 entries span from December 1980 to January 2000—from a live version of "Flavour Bud Living," his one-man Stratocaster showstopper with Beefheart's Magic Band, to a remake of his Osborne hit "Spider Web" with Buster Poindexter singing shotgun. In between is a tilt-a-whirl rush of acoustic blues, pop tunes, poetics, drum 'n' bass, heavenly textural explorations on electric guitar and Lucas' own lyrical folk-pop numbers. It's all knit together by Lucas' unerring sense of melody and soul, whether he's dexterously cross-picking as he croons his blithe sylvan ode "In a Forest" or stomping up the Devil in a menacing match-up of National steel guitar and monolithic synthesizer in "Judgment at Midnight Theme." Cut-for-cut, a thoroughly winning musical biography.

The Wire, June 2000

Gary Lucas
Improve the Shining Hour: Rare Lumiere 1980-2000
Knitting Factory

By Edwin Pouncey

The glittering career of US guitarist Gary Lucas has inevitably become overshadowed by the work he produced for Captain Beefheart during the early 8Os on Doc At The Radar Station and ice Cream For Crow. Although it would be foolish to claim that his involvement and creative relationship with Beefheart was merely transitory after listening to this stack of tracks - featuring him playing alongside a broad spectrum of various musical colleagues and true believers - it becomes apparent but Lucas is anything but a one trick pony.

That said, the main attraction for many on Improve The Shining Hour will be "Oat Hate" (an unreleased Van Vliet instrumental) and the Beefheart songs ('Flavor Bud Living" and Her Eyes Are A Blue Million Miles", both of which were recorded one winter's night in NewHaven, Connecticut at the butt end of 1980). Neither are classic examples of what Beefheart or Lucas do best (Gary sounds nervous and finger sore, while Don's improvised bellow suggests that he is both bored and tired of the love ballad he is singing), but their inclusion will no doubt be received gratefully by those Beefheart fans who have to hear everything . Here's hoping, then, that they will (as I almost did) confuse Nick Cave's reading from his And The Ass Saw The Angel for another Beefheartian rant. Cave comes on strong in a kind of Sam With the Showing Scalp Flat Top groove, barking out his bible black prose with thinly disguised relish, while Lucas supplies the perfect swamp guitar Soundtrack, serenading the bad sickle shaped moon hanging over Cave's tale of hillbilly dread as it slowly begins to rise. This is (even for non Nick Cave fans) an unexpected treat.

The basic frame into which Lucas has decided to hammer his diverse selection of music and musicians bears a strong resemblance to Cave's Harry Smith Project, the climax to his curatorship of London's Meltdown 99 Festival to which Lucas contributed. Some of those present there also make their presences felt here, and both Eric (son of Charles) Mingus' booming gospel whoop and Mary Margaret O'Hara's unsettlingly strange vocal on 'She Was Showing Me' are again given an additional Razor's edge by Lucas's guitar virtuosity. He Also throws an exuberant duet about Japanese Animation hero Astro Boy with Ho1y Modal Rounders founder Peter Stampfel into the mix.

The best bits here, however, are when Lucas is alone with his guitar, when the man and his instrument wrap themselves around each other and sing as one voice. This collection concludes with Lucas's spectral space fantasy, "Listen You Who Dare/Improve The Shining Hour". Based on Popul Vuh frontman Florian Fricke's theme for Herzog's Nosferatu remake, it is a sterling example of how and why his distinctive playing style caught the ear and imagination of Beefheart.