Uni­ver­sally Speak­ing


Total Guitar - - GARY LUCAS - Words Matt Parker / Pho­tog­ra­phy Olly Cur­tis

Gary Lu­cas is a fas­ci­nat­ing gui­tar player. The jour­ney­man mu­si­cian has deep as­so­ci­a­tions with Jeff Buck­ley (hav­ing penned the oth­er­worldly in­stru­men­tals that be­came Grace and Mo­jopin) and Cap­tain Beef­heart (who he man­aged and played with) but he has never rested on those lau­rels. In­stead, he has con­tin­u­ally striven to un­der­stand what it is about these six strings of shift­ing pitches that makes the gui­tar – in par­tic­u­lar, blues gui­tar – such a fine com­mu­ni­ca­tor. Across an as­ton­ish­ingly var­ied ca­reer he has ex­plored Chi­nese pop, Hun­gar­ian folk and cre­ated scores for mul­ti­ple films, not to men­tion some 30-plus al­bums. His play­ing – a char­ac­ter­is­tic blend of au­da­cious blues slides, avant-garde tex­tures and rich, melodic psychedeli­a – is the sound of a gui­tarist who has learned to speak many lan­guages, but who still knows his own voice. He is a master crafts­man and when he talks about the in­nate, uni­ver­sal con­nec­tion of blues mu­sic, it is with a sense of en­light­en­ment, as if amid the wran­gled strings on some far-off stage he has opened a por­tal to some­thing ce­les­tial. “Where words fail, mu­sic speaks”, said Hans Chris­tian An­der­son.

By that token, Lu­cas is a skilled lin­guist.

SAY MORE WITH LESS Why Gary is not one for GAS...

“I’m a vin­tage gui­tar guy. I don’t have a lot of gui­tars. I’m not a col­lec­tor, per se, but I take my Strat and my J-45 with me all over the world. I’ve lived with them and it’s hard to con­tem­plate re­mov­ing them from my show. I do like to ex­plore [mu­si­cally], but there’s a part of me that feels like I do have enough of an un­usual gui­tar vo­cab­u­lary as is, that I’ve built up over the years, that I don’t need to fur­ther ex­pand it in the quest for, let’s say, an ex­otic gui­tar sound. I’m not even that picky on am­pli­fiers. I used to do a lot with ped­als and stereo gui­tar, but nowa­days it’s like, ‘Do peo­ple re­ally care?’ I like it, I can hear, but I’m not sure it’s re­ally com­mu­ni­cat­ing to the pun­ters. A good pedal can do a lot as far as the son­ics, but if you don’t re­ally have an ex­pres­sive tech­nique in your hands then I don’t think all the ped­als in world are go­ing to make a big dif­fer­ence.”

USE PEN­TA­TONIC SCALES AS A VOICE Pen­ta­tonic does not mean pen­i­ten­tiary

“Five notes would seem to limit you, but if you hear a blues master – some­body in elec­tric blues like Hu­bert Sum­lin, or Buddy Guy, or Hen­drix – it’s what they do with those five notes be­cause they’re adding mi­cro­tonal slurs, ei­ther by slid­ing or bend­ing those notes. In terms of your at­tack, you can make what would seem a lim­ited amount of op­tions in that scale, sud­denly ex­pand into a scale that might have 20 or 30 ‘notes’ in it and they’re all go­ing to be played dif­fer­ently. If you’re care­ful, you’re not go­ing to be just par­rot­ing these re­peated stock phrases. But lis­ten to a blues master and it’s as if they’re say­ing some­thing. Peo­ple think the pen­ta­tonic scale is just a tech­ni­cal thing and it’s noth­ing, right, and they can dis­miss it, but that’s a mis­take. To pare down to the essence and find a wayto take this es­sen­tial blues scale and make it new is what el­e­vates the best play­ers to some­thing re­ally wor­thy of re­spect.”

YOU’RE AL­WAYS LEARN­ING There’s al­most al­ways a bet­ter way

“Of­ten one thinks you know the genre back­wards and for­wards and then you hear some­body’s ap­proach and then sud­denly there are in­fi­nite pos­si­bil­i­ties that open up. Like, for years, I’ve been a re­ally big Rolling Stones fan and my favourite riff al­ways was The last time. For years, I learned it in the first po­si­tion. Then five or 10 years ago, clips started to emerge on Youtube of Brian Jones play­ing live and sud­denly ev­ery­body was like, ‘We’ve been play­ing it all wrong!’ He’s like do­ing it up on the fourth string and the third string on the 7th fret and there’s these pull-offs and it’s like, ‘That’s how he got that sound!’ No­body con­ceived of this but Brian Jones. It all goes back to the most sim­ple things, but de­pend­ing on how you voice it and at­tack it, phrase it, you re­ally can achieve mir­a­cles and change it around from a lim­ited se­lec­tion of notes.”

BLUES DOES NOT RE­SPECT BOR­DERS The hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence is uni­ver­sal

“This blues feel­ing is some­thing that is shared in all cul­tures. It’s a spir­i­tual mu­sic: the es­sen­tial emo­tions. I can’t think of a cul­ture that doesn’t have this un­con­scious vi­brato and wail­ing and slid­ing in and out of pitches as the cen­tral fo­cus of ex­pres­sion vo­cally and in­stru­men­tally. That’s the dots that are con­nected for me in the cul­ture. That shows there is a com­mon ground of hu­man­ity, you know? Some­body can hear this mu­sic and it might be com­pletely for­eign to their cul­ture but they can recog­nise as­pects of it as be­ing sim­i­lar to their ex­pe­ri­ence. I think it’s a good way to bridge lapses of com­mu­ni­ca­tion and a way of find­ing com­mon ground. You can use it as a ful­crum to bring peo­ple to­gether, which is why mu­sic is the great­est com­mu­ni­ca­tor. It never re­spects any ar­ti­fi­cial bound­aries. Peo­ple who were in a very badly sub­ju­gated state, like the Czech Repub­lic or Rus­sia, and they would get these record­ings of jazz and blues and they fell in love with that. Those peo­ple were re­ally able to grasp the pas­sion, be­cause they were liv­ing un­der the heavy yoke of this op­pres­sive bu­reau­cracy.”

AIM­ING HIGHER Live is where you re­ally con­nect

“I’m try­ing to reach out… I want to reach be­yond my lim­i­ta­tions and re­ally play some­thing to as­ton­ish peo­ple, but

if you put too much at­ten­tion on why you’re do­ing some­thing, it in­hibits the flow of the ideas, I find. So the best thing is to re­ally go into it with a very re­laxed and open feel­ing where you’re not tensed up and then this en­ergy – I just feel it some­times – just goes down right through you and I’m un­con­scious of what I’m do­ing but some­how it’s just di­rected into my fin­ger­tips and they just go where they will. I don’t have to do too much con­scious thought to push the notes around. I think that’s also a re­sult of play­ing for as long as I have. I think live is re­ally where it’s at. Of­ten I come up with stuff and I’m sur­prised with it. I don’t know what it means. And those are re­ally great mo­ments, I’m not fall­ing back on any stock clichés, be­cause God knows it’s easy to…”


A true col­lab­o­ra­tion takes re­spect

“I def­i­nitely go into it with a re­spect. Of­ten these col­lab­o­ra­tions came about be­cause some­body said, ‘This might be a good per­son for you to work with!’ Or I knew the work, I’d hear the per­son’s work and I’ve said, ‘Yeah, we can do some­thing here,’ be­cause there’s a res­o­nance here that I can recog­nise and I can feel a com­mon ground here. So some of it is in­tu­itive, but it’s also to just re­spect the col­lab­o­ra­tor; to let them do their thing is a very im­por­tant thing to me. I hate to dic­tate to any­body. I’ve done it, in my band, but pretty much I op­er­ate that in a more demo­cratic process. Beef­heart was one of the big­gest dic­ta­tors in mu­sic, in a nice way, but he was very con­trol­ling. It had to be ex­actly as he heard it. Of­ten, I’ve tried to go the other way – and I got fan­tas­tic re­sults with a guy like Jeff [Buck­ley]. I never told him any­thing. The only in­struc­tion I gave Jeff was on the demo for Mo­jopin where I remember telling him, ‘More Robert Plant!’ Be­cause he was do­ing a thing with his voice that sounded to me very Led Zep­pelin. But I just trusted he knew what he was do­ing.”

“de­pend­ing on how you voice it, at­tack it, phrase it, you can achieve mir­a­cles”

GOOD WORK EX­CEEDS ITS CRE­ATORS The prod­uct can be big­ger than you both...

“I do re­ally be­lieve that col­lab­o­ra­tions are of­ten much greater than the sum of your in­di­vid­ual parts.

“I wrote this to Jeff Buck­ley in a let­ter. I just said to him, ‘I think you’ll agree, that these songs that we did re­ally are pretty mon­u­men­tal and I don’t think that ei­ther of us on our own would have been able to achieve such a level if we’d done it with­out each other’. I know that I had some of the mu­sic of Grace that I had writ­ten be­fore I met Jeff and I’d also tried to come up with some ideas of my own, for what might go over the lyric and the melody, it was one of the sec­tions of the as­cend­ing verse part, and ac­tu­ally I think that they sucked, you know?

“Do you know, if I hadn’t have run into Jeff, this wouldn’t have worked so well. Hav­ing a col­lab­o­ra­tor is like open­ing a win­dow and let­ting in fresh air. Re­ally, I’m all for it.”


How Grace was born

“Most of the mu­sic [with Jeff] I com­posed as in­stru­men­tals and then I sent him cas­settes. He was, at that point, liv­ing in LA with his mom and he called me and said, ‘Oh, it’s beau­ti­ful, let me work on it.’ He came to New York a few weeks later and said, ‘OK, you know that piece you called Rise­up­tobe?’ Be­cause I gave a lit­tle ti­tle as a place marker, so I knew what we would be talk­ing about and also to re­ally en­cour­age him, you know, ‘Rise up to be!’ I was try­ing to en­cour­age my­self [too]. So he said to me, ‘OK, now it’s called Grace.’

“Then he picked out these lyrics from a book he car­ried around, his jour­nal, and he had a lot of po­etry in there and lit­tle draw­ings and ideas. And I have that tape. Then, in the stu­dio record­ing, I go down there and I spend all af­ter­noon do­ing takes of Mo­jopin and Grace. Then Jeff came down and he goes out into this dark stu­dio, I’m sit­ting in the booth and he starts singing in this un­earthly voice… It was be­yond what I’d ever dreamed. The tape made on my couch, he was singing in a low voice with­out a lot of ex­pres­sion, but here I heard magic and I started to get chills. It was like, ‘Where the fuck did that come from?’ I walked out of there think­ing, ‘I have the atomic bomb in my pocket.’”

REACH­ING OUT Com­mu­ni­ca­tion should be bi-di­rec­tional

“For me, when it’s working, mu­sic is the most fun I could pos­si­bly have and the most thrilling way to ex­press my feel­ings about all sorts of things – ei­ther in­stru­men­tally, or in the songs I write. It’s the best way to com­mu­ni­cate. I guess it just was my des­tiny to fall into it. Had I taken time to branch out, maybe I would have done other stuff, but it just sort of came to­gether and it felt right.

“I think my mu­sic is very… it’s dif­fer­ent, but it’s not meant to be an at­ti­tude of in­dif­fer­ence to an au­di­ence. I’m try­ing to reach out half-way there, no mat­ter what I do, I like peo­ple to re­spond. It’s im­por­tant to me. That im­pulse that can touch peo­ple in mu­sic and not alien­ate them. Though I guess I’ve done that, too. A lit­tle pain is good for you once in a while, though!”

“Jeff started singing... i heard magic, I started to get chills”

in per­fect har­monyJeff and Gary: “Hav­ing a col­lab­o­ra­tor is like open­ing a win­dow and let­ting in fresh air”

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