MONSTER MASH Gary Lucas (Pt. 1)

Whether fronting his
own Gods and Monsters band, scoring films or collaborating with other musical
giants, the guitarist remains a Renaissance Man, period.

BY A.D. AMOROSI

 

Guitarist and composer Gary Lucas is a monster. And a god,
too, in accordance with his one-time position as Captain Beefheart’s lieutenant
and Lucas’ long held wily post-punk ensemble Gods and Monsters. Though that band
has at one time included vocalist-turned-saint Jeff Buckley and (now) Television
drummer Billy Ficca, Modern Lovers bassist Ernie Brooks, and Talking Heads
keyboardist Jerry Harrison (who also produced the band’s long lean grandly
anthem-filled The Ordeal of Civility, issued last month by Knitting
Factory), it is Lucas who wildly diverts the Delta country blues and Fripp-ian
red howls into something avant-guarded yet boldly melodic.

 

Yes, Lucas likes a nice song and a gently swinging rhythm
(check out the melodies he co-wrote for Buckley like “Grace” and “Mojo Pin”) as
much as he likes bombastic askew noise. Lucas also loves the song of the pogrom
and the concentration camp, what from the heartbroken “Jedwabne.” Lucas likes
to compose for silent films, likes to keep up with all that is Bohemian – and,
most of all, talk. Oddly enough, we did all this talking on May Day….

 

***

 

BLURT: When I think
of you and all that you’ve accomplished sonically and historically the first
thing that comes to mind is that you are still somehow under-appreciated and
undervalued.  I’m not talking about the
mainstream or even necessarily the critical elite. Do you think that comes down
to the adventurous choice of music you’ve chosen to make? Or are you the shy
and retiring type?

GARY LUCAS: Not at all. I tour all over the world both solo
and accompanying films, sometimes with other musicians and singers depending on
the project – I love to perform live! It’s my joy and favorite thing in life
probably. My main stress is when my live gig schedule slows down. And I am more
than eager to get this particular manifestation of my music out in front of
people and in their ears,  but  I have been hampered over the years with
promoting the band by the pitfalls of 
“the business”; i.e.,  unreliable booking agents, unadventurous
programmers, labels without resources to properly promote and publicize my
work, etc. But basically lack of money – it’s damn expensive to run a working
band, especially with players of this caliber who all have families and expect
and deserve to get paid decently.

        Couple that
with a faltering economy that doesn’t much support adventurous musicians unless
they can be guaranteed to put a certain number of “asses in seats” – not
my description of my audience, by the way – and it’s tough sledding out there,
not just for me but for ensembles in general doing non-mainstream music. It’s
certainly not for lack of me trying to get out there with the band. I go
through this every time I release a new album no matter what it is. I know I
may confuse people with the dazzling diversity of my music but I totally
believe in everything that I create, and feel that it is definitely “user
friendly” – not really forbidding and “too avant-garde” (with
some exceptions here and there, like my total free jazz collaborations). And I
believe that my band music would be embraced by more people if they ever got to
get to hear it, i.e., have a chance for it to escape through the net of
“the filters” that be – booking agents, promoters, media door keepers
– and the dense noise created by millions of other folks hustling their product
over the net now.

        I think my
band would be a lot more popular for sure if it was more widely publicized and
promoted.

 

 Has anyone ever tried the streamline the “Gary
Lucas” ideal? Has any awful rock artist ever tried to get you to be their axe
man?

 Yes, but I  have refused these offers so far. They
basically wanted me to put my own career on hold stop putting my own albums out
to work with them. Which I think is bullshit. I will leave names out here to
protect the guilty.

 

How did this most
recent version of Gods and Monsters come together? You started G and M with a
revolving door policy but seemingly landed Brooks and Ficca in what looks like
permanent positions?

 Ernie Brooks has been
in there since about 1994-95, shortly after he moved back to NYC from Paris. And Billy Ficca
came in when my last drummer became unavailable for one too many shows – about
2003. I really like these guys and will continue to work with them as much as
possible in the future. Ernie has really been a wonderful enthusiast and
believer in the group for the longest time. As has Jason Candler, my sax player
and all around sonic ears, he joined around ’98 but I’ve known him since the
‘80s when he was a DJ on WNYU and a very early media supporter who believed in
my work. Joe Hendel has been in the shortest time, on trombone and keyboards,
but again, here is a guy who was a fan of my group since he was in high school
and in fact sat in with us several times on stage while he was still in high school!

        They are all
awesome players. I still will ask other musicians to sit in with us from time
to time but I like these guys a lot and I like this line-up! These are the
cats! We’ve been through so much together.

 

 Were the new
guys chosen to suit what has turned out on The Ordeal of Civility to be
a brasher, less spaced-out, less jazz-rocky sound – or did playing with them
live bring out a harder blunter side to compositional éclat?

 Well I still love
that spacey jazz-rock sound too, and these new guys like to play it also – the
only difference this time out is we left most of those type of tracks off the
new CD  but they are available for
download on the digital version of the album!

 


Bra Joe from Kilimanjaro–Gary Lucas & Gods and Monsters live by garylucas

 

        I preferred
this time out to make the cd a more concise statement concentrating on my
songwriting.

 

Did you compose
and/or record the majority of The Ordeal of Civility any differently
than you have any other album of yours or theirs?

 Yes, I was more
meticulous and methodical with the tracking thanks to the input of producer
Jerry Harrison, who also played on the album. He is a great guy and wonderful
player whose sonic expertise was brought to bear to help fashion a record that
would be competitive in the marketplace sound-wise and production-wise. The composing
of my songs, though, I would say was still done as before with the exception
that Ernie contributed some lyrics to “LuvzOldSweetSong” and the
writer David Dalton the lyrics for “Lady of Shalott.” Otherwise I wrote
the songs on my own in my usual manner – some had been around waiting for the
chance to be recorded for some years, and some were hot off the synapses.

 

I like Harrison as a producer. Why did you like him as a
producer – at least for Ordeal? What about him made Jerry perfect for
the CD?

 He thinks big and
knows how to sculpt mixes of very complicated music into a unified sound
field/statement. I loved his work with Talking Heads as a player and his
productions of his own band, as well as groups such as Live.  He likes my songwriting as well. So does his
friend David Byrne, who was very complimentary about the band when he visited
us backstage a few years ago at the Knitting Factory, along with Vaclav Havel.
And as we had some real epics on this album, particularly “Jedwabne”
and “Chime On.” I thought he’d be just the man for the job.

 

How do you know when
a set of writings is yours/theirs/ours? What determines a project’s
destination?

 I guess I just go
instinctually on my inner feeling of when the time is right to unleash a song
on the world on an album of mine. But I definitely write the songs lock stock
and barrel.  I am very single-minded as
the leader, guitarist and songwriter of the project, and I just try and make
these songs as exciting and ecstatic as possible from my writing viewpoint. I
compose them in solitude; I don’t sit in a studio and “jam with the
lads” to compose them. 

        If the
resulting songs don’t really satisfy me, I discard them for the moment and move
on to the next, or wait till I have the chance to properly refine them some
more. I want these songs to be as perfect as possible in terms of pleasing me first and foremost; I don’t really
take the notion of the invisible sea of consumers/existing fan base out there
into account in the composing of them, that’s for sure. If I did I would feel
like a total whore, and I already went through that with my former day job in a
previous lifetime, thank you very much. 

        I didn’t get
into music with the idea of making millions, quite honestly. Look at the
choices of the projects I have pursued outside the band, and the people I have
collaborated with over the years and also produced. None of these were at all
obvious choices – I mean, Chinese pop from the 1930s anybody? To name but one
manifestation of my work. Surprisingly enough, that album [2001’s The Edge
of Heaven
] may be my best-selling album to date. It was re-issued last year
on Knitting Factory and we are doing an expanded production of it with
vocalists I auditioned in Shanghai last summer
for our premiere June 10th in Amsterdam
at the Holland Festival.

 

You were a radio DJ
early on. What type of music were you playing?

 English psychedelic
rock and a few other favorites. In fact I had a radio show on WYBC at Yale
summer of ’73 every day for 5 hours titled “The Sounds from England (and
other Delicacies)” whereby I played fairly obscure English psych tracks I
had collected, mostly on import, as well as a few other non-British goodies
such as Can, Captain Beefheart, and Tim Buckley. Funny. as I wound up working with
both Don Van Vliet and Jeff Buckley, and jamming with Michael Karoli.

 

How did you get
involved with the Plastic People in the first place and how will that
relationship continue? I interviewed Vaclav Havel’s principle translator not
too long ago when his most recent play Leaving made its US debut, and we
talked about Plastic People. You name came up, though I can’t remember exactly
why.

 Well, I am Bohemian
from birth on my father’s side, and I always loved these guys’ music – I met
some of them in 1988 when Giorgio Gomelsky organized a tribute to the Plastic
People at the Kitchen. [Later I] jammed with the spin-off band Pulnoc live in
NYC, which came out some years later on an album that was released in the Czech
Republic. I loved playing over there too and have done so many, many times,
most recently a few months ago with the poet Pavel Zaijek, the front man from
another Plastic People-related group, DG-307. He founded his band with the
Malla, the late leader of the Plastic People.

        I have met Vaclav
Havel several times and am pals with the former Czech ambassador Martin Palous,
who commissioned me to arrange Czech classical music for solo guitar for a
concert at the Czech Embassy in DC a few years ago for the 14th Anniversary of
their Velvet Revolution including music of the Plastic People. This should be
out as a vinyl album later this year on Faust Records based in Prague. [Listen to a track from the album here.]

        I am playing
with the Plastic People again at the Zappanale in Bad Doberan German this
August and am really looking forward to it. They really like my work and most
likely gravitated to it both because of my Czech ancestry and the fact that I
had played with Captain Beefheart, a big hero of theirs and Havel’s. I also
have worked all over the world over the years playing a live soundtrack for the
1920 silent film “The Golem”, a Czech Jewish legend which I have
performed quite a few times in Prague. Every time I play in the Czech Republic
I feel like I am coming home.

 

To be continued…. In
Part 2, tomorrow, Lucas reminisces on working with both Captain Beefheart and
Jeff Buckley, shares his thoughts on collaborations and film scores, discusses
his Jewish heritage, and more.

 

[Photo Credit: Michel del Sol]

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