Gary Lucas interview: Beefheart, Buckley and beyond

Pre-eminent avant-garde blues guitarist and collaborator of Captain Beefheart, Jeff Buckley, Future Sound Of London, Chris Cornell, Lou Reed, Nick Cave and John Cale speaks about his career prior to solo UK tour.

Henry Lewis

Last updated: 13th Apr 2018.
Originally published: 12th Apr 2018

Image: Gary Lucas (credit)

Gary Lucas' guitar playing is unmistakable, an intriguing, bewildering mangling of the blues. No doubt his first famous gig, as part of Captain Beefheart's early 80's Magic Band, had a lot to do with the formation of his sound. An avid Beefheart fan, he befriended the iconic, psychedelic bluesman in the early 1970's at Yale's radio station, while Lucas was a student there. Lucas set his heart on one day becoming a member of Beefheart's band. And that dream came true. Lucas appeared on Captain Beefheart's final two albums and toured America and Europe with him.

He has since recorded over 30 albums, working with a variety of acts including Future Sound Of London, Chris Cornell, Lou Reed, Nick Cave and John Cale

He formed his own band, Gods and Monsters, at the start of the 1990s and at one point the band included Jeff Buckley, who Lucas had befriended around the same time. At that point, Buckley had yet to release any music and the experienced Lucas acted as a mentor to the vividly talented prodigy. They co-composed two tracks, 'Grace' and 'Mojo Pin', which would be the explosive openers on Buckley's debut album.

Since that time, Lucas has performed in many differing scenarios, with orchestras, providing music to films, constantly exploring within music whether that be in rock, world music, folk, blues, electronica, avant-garde or jazz. He continues to pay tribute to his past collaborators, in particular the deceased Captain Beefheart and Jeff Buckley, by performing their music in concert.

Prior to a UK tour in which he will do just that (and much more besides), that takes in Liverpool Philharmonic on 4th May and Bush Hall in London on 14th May, Marko Kutlesa quizzed the guitar legend on his career to date.

You're very well travelled as a musician. Have you ever felt any particular affinity with the UK on your visits because of having studied English literature at Yale? From your perception, does the England of such literature still exist anywhere?

It’s true, I have been an Anglophile for most of my life. I would like to think the qualities that made England and English culture so appealing to me in my youth still exist there, even if the psychic and the physical landscape has changed somewhat. I know that it always inspires me every time, coming back to play in or visit England. And I must have travelled there well over 100 times in my life. The literary scene and the music scene there is abundantly flowing as ever, with all sorts of inspired writers, musicians and composers. 

How did your relationship with The Future Sound Of London/Amorphous Androgynous begin? What are those guys like as people and how are they to work with?

This came about through the head of an NYC-based label I recorded for at one time who thought my collaborating with UK female electronica artist Riz Maslen would be a good idea. At that time Riz was the girlfriend, or the ex-girlfriend, of one of the two guys comprising FSOL. And it was through Riz that initial introductions were made to FSOL’s Brian Dougans and Garry Cobain, who I hit it off with immediately. 

I think they are both really personable and extremely talented musicians and producers, and I found it very easy to work with them. We sparked off each other right away. I recorded lots of tracks with these two, and also did a voice-over for a radio show they were working on. 

The live gigs I played with Garry were something else again, in Russia and in Australia. In fact, playing live with Garry and sitar player Baluj Shrivastav at 2am in a soccer stadium during the White Nights Bicentennial in St. Petersburg Russia in 2002 was one of the highlights of my performing career. So was performing in Moscow and Australia with the expanded FSOL / AA line-up. 

You are credited as being the engineer at a session in the early 1980s when The Stranglers recorded Vladimir & Olga in which Vladimir has a psychedelic experience. Is that really you? If it is, how did that happen?

You must be referring to the 70’s English recording engineer of the same name, based in Cambridge, who also has the distinction of recording Syd Barrett’s Stars famously shambolic gig live at the Cambridge Corn Exchange in 1972, Syd’s last time on stage, I believe. I got a letter about this a few years ago, in particular some details about that live recording (I am a massive Syd Barrett fan). 

You feature on most of Chris Cornell's 2007 album 'Carry On' to which another three guitarists also contributed. How did you become involved in that project? What is the process like when you do an album like that? Are you guided as to what you should play? Do other guitarists come in after you and fit around what you have put down or vice versa? How do we know which parts are you?

I met Chris at the memorial service for Jeff Buckley held in St Ann's Church after Jeff passed away in 1997. We were introduced and we bonded right away. He was a sweet, soulful guy and Jeff and I both dug him in Soundgarden. 

He reached out to me some years later to come out to LA to work on his 'Carry On' album with producer Steve Lillywhite. I was supposed to do one studio day there and it went so well that, at the end of the day, he asked me if I could stay the rest of the week to work on more songs with him. He really dug my electric playing. 

Of course he had his specific ideas about what I should play, and I had mine, he suggested parts, and I came up with some parts of my own. I am on at least 7 songs on that album, and I think if you know my guitar style it’s fairly obvious which guitars are mine on it, including the rip-your-face-off solo on Chris’ cover of 'Billie Jean'. 

People sometimes ask you to play guitar on a project because you have such a distinct sound and such distinct ideas. That implies that you are given a certain amount of freedom with what you can contribute. You are therefore contributing to the actual songwriting process, yet that doesn't always translate when it comes to songwriting credits. How do you feel about that and have your feelings about this altered throughout the span of your career? Are there any parts of your back catalogue in particular where you feel you might have received more recognition?

If you read the small print on the writing and publishing credits on the 'Grace' (Jeff Buckley) album you’ll see my songwriting and publishing company credit on 'Grace' and 'Mojo Pin', the first two songs on the album. And quite rightly so, as both songs, like all the songs I co-wrote with Jeff (a dozen or so) began life as my original discrete solo guitar instrumentals. In this case they were called 'Rise Up To Be' and 'And You Will'. I gave them to Jeff with all the riffs and harmonic structure of the songs intact, and he fitted his lyrics and a melody line sinuously inside the matrix of that music. 

However, in the roll-out of the 'Grace' album in 1994 Sony never played up my participation in their publicity or promotion, in fact they downright buried it (unlike Chris Cornell, whose record company’s press release for 'Carry On' went out of its way to mention my special guesting on that album). 

Jeff in the liner notes to the 'Grace' album does give me thanks for “magical guitarness”, which was nice. But to this day there are many Buckley fans who believe Jeff composed those famous riffs for 'Mojo Pin' and 'Grace', which sucks, as credit is very important, some would say it’s everything. 

So, I have spent a good deal of time and energy over the years challenging the prevailing ignorance about the genesis of those two songs, by standing up for myself and asserting my co-authorship and “who did what” on that album whenever I run into such misinformation in the music press.

In fact, I wrote a book about working with Jeff in great detail entitled “Touched By Grace” (Jawbone Press) and which should be of interest to any Jeff Buckley fans. By the way, I did receive 50/50 songwriting and publishing credit on 'Grace' and 'Mojo Pin'. 

For those going into new collaborations, a word of advice: Best to insist on a written contract with your collaborator specifying 50/50 on the writing and publishing if it’s a duo collaboration. But you know, these days most artists want to keep as much of the writing credits as possible, so if you are a guitar slinger for hire then best to get your deal worked out in writing beforehand, as many a group has split up and relationships have sundered over this issue. 

How did you meet Arthur Russell? How does he compare to the musicians you have worked with? Did you record any music together (I can't find any)?

Arthur breezed in during a mixing session in summer ‘85 up in Bearsville Studios for Peter Gordon's 'Innocent' album, which I co-produced for CBS Masterworks. We were working on his song, co-written with Peter titled 'That Hat' - my favorite track on the album. 

He showed up with his boyfriend Tom and he was quite a character from the get-go - ultra-cool, soulful and hip. A very sharp and funny guy. He made an observation that the track sounded slower listening to it outside the studio door, ha! We hit it off right away. 

I thought he was definitely the brightest spark on that album, and we started to meet for lunches. And he gave me an enormous amount of his vinyl catalog, 12 inch dance singles that were gay club hits for him, plus his avant-garde minimalist albums etc. I thought he was the most creative musician I’d met since Don Van Vliet (Captain Beefheart), frankly, and am proud to have signed him to Upside Records, and also to have brought him to the attention of Geoff Travis at Rough Trade (who signed him there and to Blanco Y Negro). 

His tragic death from AIDS left a big hole in my universe. I played guitar on an unreleased session he produced with another protege of mine, the fledgling rapper Mark Sinclair, later on known as Vin Diesel. At that session he encouraged me to pursue music full time, telling me he noticed I was happiest holding a guitar in my hands. He was one of the few people who actively encouraged me to go for it in music full-time (I met with so much discouragement) and I dedicated my album 'Bad Boys of the Arctic' to him, which came out right after he died. 

On it is my version of his classic 'Let’s Go Swimming', Gods and Monsters-style, which I play in nearly every concert I’ve given, both solo and with the band. 

What is the origin of your name Gary 'Mantis' Lucas when you played with The Magic Band?

Don (Captain Beefheart) bestowed that name on me during the last Beefheart UK tour in 1980. He thought my big hands and long fingers resembled the forelegs of a praying mantis.

You met Captain Beefheart when you were quite young, as a fan, and became friendly with him prior to joining the band. What was your first meeting like, how did he receive you, what did you talk about and did you call him Don, Mr Van Vliet or Captain?

I spoke with him over the phone as the music director for Yale’s radio station. I had seen his debut in NYC some months previously, and it was so powerful I made a vow to myself that night, that if I ever did anything in music, I was going to play with this guy. It was that magical. 

Because I was so gung-ho on the band after that show, I was given the task of interviewing him on the phone when he was in Boston on a day off on another tour, 6 months later. He was very friendly, affable and warm, and he gave droll, playful and sincere answers to the many questions I had prepared. 

Right away he put me at ease (I was nervous! This was my idol in music, he’d even been on the cover of Rolling Stone). We talked about everything and nothing under the sun. He made fantastic puns and wordplay throughout. He encouraged me to call him Don. 

His last question to me was “Do you know what the largest living land mammal is? It’s the absent mind.” 

“I have to think about that one,” I replied. I met Don and his wife Jan and the band a few days later when they came up to play a concert at Woolsey Hall at Yale. That was in the fall of ’71.  

What were your impressions of the other members of his band at the time you first met him/saw them?

Very nice guys, very friendly and approachable, although Elliot Ingber seemed a bit withdrawn and in his own universe. I asked him what he thought of my guitar hero Jeff Beck, and he paused, stared out into space for a long moment, and then said: “He made an album called ’Truth’. It was the truth.” 

Artie Tripp and Mark Boston were both quite outgoing and funny (I remember Artie applying a green crayon to his moustache before the gig and remarking: “The fans would be crushed to know this isn’t my real green!”). 

Bill Harkleroad was super serious, a very sincere and thoughtful person who seemed genuinely humbled and touched after I praised his playing to the skies: “Thank you man!" 

 When you toured with Captain Beefheart, what were his feelings about rehearsing and performing his older music, that which was not recorded with the then version of The Magic Band? Were there parts of his back catalogue he was obviously still fond of and some sections that were strictly off limits? If so, which? How did you personally find learning such older song parts and did approaching that material give you any sense of who else were the creative musical forces in previous incarnations of the band aside from Don?

I honestly don’t think Don personally enjoyed revisiting his older music that much, and usually left it to the band to help select the live repertoire and to whip the older songs back into shape for a tour. He told me once: “This music was made to be sung to once. Do you think I enjoy going through my old vomit?” 

So, he wasn’t much into actually singing and rehearsing the songs with the band until the very last minute before a tour, while the band rehearsed the songs ferociously as instrumentals for many weeks with or without Don being there. 

As far as what was off-limits as repertoire to tackle, I would say that would be the songs on the two Mercury albums he recorded, although when the albums came out he seemed to enjoy playing them live and defended his decision to perform them live, despite the occasional cat-calls: “I’ve got a right to win a Grammy!” 

I personally enjoyed learning many of the old songs and came away with profound admiration and respect for all of the original members who preceded me. I think anyone who got into the band at any point in time would have to acknowledge their predecessors, as it was a very tough gig to hold down! Ry Cooder, John French, Alex Snouffer, Jeff Cotton, Bill Harkleroad, Mark Boston, Elliot Ingber and on and on, into the later incarnations of the band, including in my era Moris Tepper, Eric Feldman, Rick Snyder, Cliff Martinez and Robert Williams. And I don’t mean to leave anyone out here, it is just that it is a mighty long list of great players who passed through the Beefheart ranks over many years.

What's your favourite memory of The Captain?

My favourite memory of Don is him coming up to me, right before I played 'Flavor Bud Living' in Sound Castle Studios in Glendale California in spring 1980 when we were recording 'Doc at the Radar Station', and handing me some stationery from Western Exterminator (an actual company based in Hollywood), which had as its printed logo a cartoon of a top-hatted guy about to clobber a mouse with a huge hammer. 

On top of the mouse Don had put a huge blood-red blotch of ink with a red felt tip marker, and inscribed it with these instructions to inspire me: “Play like you dyed”. (Don's spelling). I sure did. 

 Jeff Buckley, like his father, was a very good looking man. Do you think he was fully aware of that and do you think he employed his good looks to his advantage within his interactions with other people?

Well I don’t think it was necessarily that deliberate on his part, frankly. As handsome and charismatic as he was, and he certainly was that in spades, he could also be also a very shy and private person, and could also be very critical of himself initially, including his looks. 

When I met him he seemed the essence of innocence, frankly. I think it was more instinctual than a deliberate stratagem then. 

Whatever it was, he definitely had an amazing ability to charm and seduce folks of every age and persuasion. It kind of went hand in hand with his musical gifts, which were enormous. 

Jeff at times seemed to want to disassociate himself from the music of his father. I remember seeing him on his first UK tour and it felt uncomfortable that audience members would shout requests for Tim's songs (At that point Jeff really hadn't released enough that you could shout for anything). Yet there are some similarities to be found. For instance, in the way they used their voices, particularly when improvising (also, somewhat disturbingly, that Jeff dabbled with heroin, a drug which had killed his father aged just 28). Such examples seem to contradict his expressed wish to wholly be his own person. To what extent do you think any similarities may have been studied or simply an inevitable matter of genetics?

I think Tim Buckley was probably Jeff’s biggest influence musically, certainly in his vocals this is unmistakeable. I think the similarities musically were both a combination of genetics and also the result of studying and knowing his father’s catalogue backwards and forwards. 

I know he wanted to be taken for his own man, and who can blame him? But despite what he sometimes told journalists, he had an immense love, respect, and pride in his father’s work. He told me this when he first showed up in NYC. 

I think he struggled with the classic “anxiety of influence” most artists feel in trying to go beyond the work of their forbears, to make their own original mark on the world. 

A musician's untimely death can assign a certain amount of romanticism and status to their story. But, for me, the real tragedy is losing someone who we were prevented from seeing develop, flourish and maybe experiment. I think this loss is starkly evident when comparing the recorded legacies of Jeff and his father. In your opinion, in which directions might Jeff have travelled musically were he still alive?

I think Jeff could have done anything he set his mind to musically had he lived, and done it superbly. And that includes electronica, jazz, world music collaborations, and neoclassical music. But as far as what his next step in music would have been at the point he left us, I really couldn’t say. 

What can audiences expect from your upcoming UK tour dates?

Expect the unexpected. I will of course play some Beefheart and Buckley, as promised. But I also have a large catalogue of all sorts of music, spanning some 30 solo albums, to draw on, the unifying thread being the Blues, in all its light and dark manifestations. Basically I hope to instil a sense of joy and wonder in the audience. For sure, folks are never going to have heard guitar played quite like this before.

You can find Gary Lucas Liverpool tickets and Gary Lucas London tickets below.

Liverpool - Philharmonic Music Room, Friday 4th May

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London - Bush Hall, Monday 14th May

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