We spoke with Gary Lucas about releasing as much work as possible in his life, the hidden hand behind everything, his predilection toward generosity in art, how to not interrupt one’s creative flow and the last moment that brought him childlike joy.
This is what I was put on Earth for, and yes, I am on a mission. I intend to keep “doing it to death” while I still have breath in me.
You’ve had a facilitative role with a pretty vast list of 20th century acts and solo musicians while prolifically releasing your own solo works all the while. I don’t mean to mention the obvious; I’m just curious as to whether you’re driven by a sense of duty, whether as a helper or as the focus of attention. What compels you to do a lot of work over a long period of time, rather than holding back?
Well, music is my life. It is what I do best and what makes me happiest in the world, being in the moment playing music for people and recording new work to astonish and delight folks. So, this is what I do, this is what I was put on Earth for, and yes, I am on a mission and intend to keep “doing it to death” while I still have breath in me.
But there is a practical reason as well for releasing such a large quantity of work. Many years ago, around 1990 just after I had quit my day job and began making music for a living full time, a manager friend gave me some advice; namely, that if you wanted to remain relevant in music, you basically had to try and release as much work as possible all the time, and make live appearances in as many territories as possible all the time. Advice which I took to heart.
Mainly, though, the fact is I have a lot of music in me, and I like to give to people as much as possible. That’s in my nature. And I like to stay busy, and what better way to occupy oneself than to create or arrange new work while waiting around for gigs or new opportunities in music to come in?
Before we continue, can you please describe a project in your career than you began and then abandoned? Why, specifically, did you commence this idea and how did it not show staying power in the end — if that’s what happened?
Well, if you go to my home page, on the righthand side there’s a list of projects which at one time or another were active and could be reactivated at any time given peoples’ interest in them and a demand for them.
For instance, my project Fleischerei, which was basically a duo and an ensemble I put together performing music from Max Fletcher’s classic surrealistic cartoons, especially Betty Boop and Popeye. That album, Gary Lucas’ Fleischerei, came out a couple years ago and was named one of Down Beat’s Albums of the Year, and I did a series of successful gigs around it, mainly at film festivals and cinema venues.
And then, despite my best efforts to keep it going, the bookings eventually dried up.
After a year or so, my singer eventually flaked for the greener pastures of Hollywood sitcom land. I lost work because of that, in terms of gigs she had committed to overseas with me which she just walked away from without any notice. I had to find out about this secondhand from her jerky manager — ugh! And I couldn’t replace her in time for those gigs overseas, which was lost work for me.
But that’s showbiz — many people are constantly juggling their schedules looking for better gigs after committing to partners and leaving people hanging — or worse, in the lurch — trying to improve their own positions, despite assurances and (on the face of it) binding contracts and agreements. Which sucks! I hate that. Your word is your word.
I got in a decent replacement for her to try and spin more gigs off the album, and found a couple more — I thought it was a natural as a project, but generally speaking, it seemed a tougher sell than I anticipated. Also I never found a dedicated agent to pitch it — not that that necessarily makes a difference, but it would have been helpful.
I contacted a few agents about representing it, but nobody “got it” as a surefire easy sell or money-spinner for them. So it was, as usual, basically down to my own efforts alone, which can be incredibly frustrating and also prove a major waste of time if nothing comes back to you immediately. And I only have so much time to devote to these projects before focusing on the next one.
This is one of the crosses I have to bear, dealing with venues and gatekeepers who basically just want to know how many asses in seats your project will bring into their venues. Recently, the James River Film Festival in Richmond, Virginia, contacted me about performing Fleischerei this March, so I will revive it there with a local female jazz singer. And so it goes.
It’s best to have a whole bunch of arrows in your quiver, as it were. That’s the way it goes these days, especially due to the nonstop onslaught of new music all around us.
I continually reinvent myself with numerous projects. They have a certain shelf life, sometimes driven by media coverage and radio play, and then they eventually go dead until somebody rediscovers the music and gets excited about it. You never know when that might be, so best to have a whole bunch of arrows in your quiver, as it were. That’s the way it goes these days, especially due to the nonstop onslaught of new music all around us.
Thanks or no thanks to streaming, the world is oversaturated with music of varying degrees of quality and commerciality and it’s often hard to get people’s attention to focus on what you do as much as one would like. I don’t think the problem lies in my own music per se. A lot of it is quite user-friendly. It’s more a function of marketing and people’s attention spans.
This holds true for 98% of musicians out there today attempting to do music for a living, I daresay, via recording and performing live. You have your fanbase, you hope to increase it or maintain it as best you can by keeping a project going ’til it picks up enough momentum to have a life of its own. If you’re lucky, it has its day in the sun, and if it doesn’t, then — next! You should always keep it on the backburner though, as you never know what new interest might be lurking out there just around the corner.
When you search your memory, which creative relationships you’ve formed with those around you throughout your life stand out as being especially lasting and memorable? From an outsider’s perspective, I imagine working extensively with Captain Beefheart and Jeff Buckley would be profound high water marks no matter what!
Yes, they have probably left the biggest footprint in my life, in terms of what the general public most readily connects me with. With Don Van Vliet, it was a question of me being his disciple and fan who wanted nothing more than to play with his idol, which I eventually achieved. With Jeff, it was coming into a situation where Jeff sought me out to collaborate with him based on his looking up to me as a guitar hero of his, partially because I had worked with Beefheart — so Jeff initially was my fan. When I heard Jeff sing, though, I became his fan.
I think the work I did with both Jeff and Don stands by itself as everlasting, and I am very proud and honored to have worked closely with both of them. It was a real privilege, and I miss them both dearly. I loved them both, and they have not proved exactly replaceable in my creative life. And yet many of the artists I have collaborated with since have offered me so many different and profound perspectives on music that I count myself lucky to have worked with them also. It’s a big old world of music out there and there are lots of amazing and talented people to collaborate with — and I, for one, love to collaborate. It keeps you fresh and on your toes.
Can you describe how a seed of an idea takes fruit when you create? Do you think of the development of your own ideas in any visual or tactile sense?
This is a tough question. I never have really quite analyzed the process, based on Gary Snyder’s dictum, which was basically “If you call it, you stop the flow.” I think the answer here is that it’s more tactile than visual.
I like Nabokov’s assertion that he knew he was in the presence of great literature when he read a passage and a chill ran down his spine. Similarly with music, I just feel it as I compose, I instinctually pass my fingers over the fretboard and just try and turn off my mind and float downstream, as The Beatles exhorted.
When I hit on what feels like a “keeper” idea instrumentally on my guitar, something magical and unusual and fresh sounding that I surprise myself, something that sends chills down my spine, I archive it on tape (or these days, the iPhone memo app) and use it as a building block to generate new music around it.
In this day, full compositions get built up. That is how both the music for “Mojo Pin” and “Grace” — my titles were “And You Will” and “Rise Up to Be” — got written.
I understand you’ve given some extensive lecturing on the mechanics of scoring films. I would think that would entail deconstructing song structure into something more winding and undulating — perhaps a long landscape rather than a small snapshot. Thoughts?
Again, it is like tapping into a river, a flow of ideas. Some are composed themes and some I compose right on the spot given the inspiration on the screen before me, the temperature in the venue, the time of night, what I had for dinner — stuff like that. Basically, though, I try to inhabit the souls of the dead actors up there on the screen. I go into a seance and try and commune with them and provide a sonic platform for them to thrive again upon. I try to bring them back to life and reanimate them with my music, which flows directly from my heart and through my fingers.
I tend to bury my interest so deep in American and English musical traditions that I wonder about artistic forms that are totally lost on Western audiences. Your album The Edge of Heaven is a collection of covers of Chinese pop tunes. For the unfamiliar and uninitiated, what draws you to that region, style and period of time? How does it hit your imagination?
Well, to me, this form of ’30s and ’40s Chinese pop — known as shidaiqu, or “songs of the era” in Mandarin, is the ultimate fusion music.
It combines Chinese folk music and melodies with Western swing, jazz, Tin Pan Alley and Broadway stylings into a divine blend of enchanting music to my ears. This music originated and flourished in Shanghai, which was, and still is to a large degree, “the Paris of the East.” A truly cosmopolitan and melting-pot city and, historically, the city in China most open to Western influences.
The curious thing is, shidaiqu was kickstarted partially by the black American jazz trumpeter Buck Clayton, later to famously join the Count Basie Band. In 1935, he got a two-year residency in Shanghai playing in nightclubs with his group of West Coast-based black jazz musicians who were called “the Harlem Gentlemen” — though none of them had ever been further east than Kansas City!
Buck was called on to play some Chinese music with his band at one of the clubs, and he became friends with the second significant figure in the development of shidaiqu, a famous Chinese composer and educator named Li Jinhui, “the father of Chinese popular music” who did much to create and to popularize a secular form of Chinese pop music on his own, who developed and recorded the famous Bright Moon Song and Dance troupe who toured all over Asia. Li Jinhui taught Buck Clayton some basic Chinese melodies all based on the pentatonic scale, which was easy for Clayton to transcribe into sheet music for his band, who were soon able to play arrangements of these songs in nightclubs and dancehalls in Shanghai and caused a sensation.
Together, the two can be credited into bringing shaidaiqu to life to such a degree that Chinese people all over the world of all ages know many of these songs by heart — they are indelible. I am drawn to them because I spent two years living in Taiwan as a boy, and, visiting Hong Kong frequently, I had a band in Taipei with a Chinese rhythm section. I eventually married my Singaporean sweetheart who first played me this music, so I have a direct emotional connection to it.
I look around me daily for signs of divinity and deviltry on the horizon. I believe in free will, though, and try and stay on the positive side of life.
Brian Wilson supposedly said that “music is God’s voice.” Some people find spirituality in day-to-day beauty itself, but I’d rather consider the possibility of it being the product of what I see as a divine genius, not just an end in itself. Where do your feelings lie in the more spiritual, non-corporeal properties of artistic creation?
I’m a believer, definitely. But I wouldn’t dream of imposing my beliefs on anyone else. It’s a very personal thing, really. I have a very non-rational and non-linear side as an artist that has rendered me hypersensitive to things like synchronicity and paranormal phenomena. I’ve had several close encounters with the supernatural, for instance, that cannot easily be explained away as sheer coincidence. I detect a hidden hand behind everything.
Like my favorite author Isaac Bashevis Singer, I look around me daily for signs of divinity and deviltry on the horizon. I believe in free will, though, and try and stay on the positive side of life, and not succumb to overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
Finally, can you tell me about your last creative endeavor or experience that brought you true excitement or childlike joy? What was it? I’d like to hear about how you felt in as specific detail as you’re willing!
Playing two weeks ago at famed director Emir Kusturica’s 11th annual Kustendorf Film and Music Festival high on a mountaintop in Mokra Gora, Serbia, near the Serbian/Bosnian border, brought me absolutely this feeling of childlike joy, of awe and wonder. The four days I was able to spend there were just magical, and I am still buzzing from the experience!
Every year, Emir gathers together for his film festival the coolest young filmmakers and artists for a week in his secluded mountain retreat complete with breathtaking views of the surrounding countryside. His festival is open to the public, who throng there from all over the world and all assemble in a beautiful wooden village nearly the top of the mountain which is constantly inundated by “snowflakes and sunshine” — the title of a great Ornette Coleman composition!
This year, he brought in directors Paolo Sorrentino and Ruben Ostlund as special guests to show their films and conduct workshops for all interested festivalgoers. I was given the honor of accompanying two silent films live at the opening ceremonies with my original solo guitar scores: the only surviving fragment of the lost 1918 Russian futurist film “Bound by Film” starring Vladimir Mayakovsky and Lilya Brik, and Rene Clair’s 1924 silent surreal masterpiece, Entr’acte. I played my heart out to these films!
I went into a trance, and once I began to play, it was like rocketing through space and time strapped into some amazing thrill ride. I received a wonderfully warm reception from the audience, who were dancing to my solo guitar behind me throughout, and who cheered my performance at the end. It was such a great way to start the New Year playing in Kustendorf, and it made me feel so happy to be alive! And it’s sweet, sweet moments like these that keep me going.
Curated by: Morgan Enos
Conducted by: Email
Published: March 23, 2018
Total questions: 8
Word count: 2663
Reading time: Nine minutes
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About the curator
Morgan Enos is a songwriter and journalist originally from California. His curatorial work for North of the Internet aims to strike a deeper place in his conversation subjects — the dreamy subtext to the linear everyday. Morgan also frequently writes power pop records as Other Houses about joy, outer space, frustration, chess and spiritual light. He resides in New York, where he continues to creatively fire on all cylinders.
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