Q&A - Barry Sutton with Gary Lucas
At 16, I was fortunate to catch a clip of Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band playing Ice Cream For Crow. I was instantly snared and my fascination for their music has endured since that day in 1982 - informing the way I write, perform and listen to music. Beefheart has been a huge influence on Liverpool music, from Lee Mavers to Dave McCabe.
In 2011, I met and collaborated with The Magic Band guitarist Gary Lucas, during the recording of Ice Cream For Crow. Gary was in town holding his Beefheart Symposium and I was thrilled to sing Grow Finns a cappella.
Gary has collaborated with artists as influential and diverse as Nick Cave and Jeff Buckley (he also continues to perform and discuss Jeff’s wonderful music) and adds live soundtracks to classic films, such as Bunuel’s Exterminating Angel.
Gary told me a great story about Don Van Vliet (Captain Beefheart) which illustrates his poetic, Zen master way of working. “Often, I would be asleep in bed around 4am when the phone would ring-it would be Don. He would say ‘Gary, it’s Don! I got a guitar line!” Beefheart would then whistle a couple of bars of chromatic melody and then hang up, leaving Gary to wearily scrabble around a dark house in search of staved paper to notate the lines.
I caught up with Gary recently to ask him a few searching questions.
What music did you listen to growing up?
AM radio extensively, that's all there was then really. The first song that really grabbed me in my mother's car on the way to the Snowflake Bakery in Syracuse was ‘Itty Bitty Pretty One’ by Thurston Harris. That sent me! That, and Duane Eddy's ‘Dance with the Guitar Man’ a few years later (written by Lee Hazelwood). That's when I knew what my manifest destiny was gonna be.
Who do you listen to now?
Classical music (Stravinsky, Bartok, and Debussy), jazz (the old masters) and blues (ditto).
Which contemporary musicians do you like?
Lhasa de Sela (although she's sadly gone…). Jack White. This hip-hop duo in Mexico City I'm working with called Illuminari. Jann Klose, and the pair in my Pearly Clouds ensemble-Eniko Dzabo and Toni Dezso.
How does the way you hear music now differ from young Gary to mature Gary? For example, The Rite of Spring got me interested in compound time and 'collaging' as a composing technique. I was 30 when I heard it but it would have been over my head at 18.
That's funny, I was more attracted to complex music and abstruse noise when I was younger and so-called "difficult" music. The older I get the more I enjoy simplicity of form and direct statements. Although not always-the music in question has to have some mysterious quality in it to give me chills. But it's hard to identify or name-"if you call it, you stop the flow". Anything communicating un-manufactured and raw and honest passion attracts me.
How has your guitar playing changed over the years and what have been the catalysts?
I was a straight up flat-picking Jeff Beck-ite who loved modal ragas also but achieved finger-picking effects with the flat pick, When I started college, I met a couple of young geniuses who could fingerpick just like John Fahey, with metal fingerpicks (which I never used, I found them cumbersome). They showed me the rudiments of finger-picking. When I lived in Taiwan after college for a year or two I remember really wood shedding on a nylon string guitar living all alone in a little house in the hills outside Taipei, working that guitar on those cold winter nights sitting in front of a roaring fire in my fireplace. That is how I began to be able to nail country blues pieces I'd admired and been faking for some years with a flat pick.
When I joined Beefheart a few years later I took that technique and further extended it on electric guitar in order to play his music. I kind of invented my own technique here because his previous guitarists had used metal fingerpicks. I preferred the flesh of my fingertips hardened and calloused through slow accretion of playing, with my nails cut as short as possible on both hands. Having to basically transcribe by ear and arrange his solo piano piece ‘Evening Bell’ for electric guitar really gave my technique a quantum boost.
What keeps you coming back?
It is my ultimate joy playing for people. And it's what I do for a living. It's too late to stop now!
Name your five favourite guitarists, explain why you like them and specifically how they informed your processes.
Oh there are so many--here's 5 electric guitarists off the top of my head: Jeff Beck circa The Yardbirds and early Jeff Beck group--the finest distillation of crazy bluesy ideas free of blues clichés, Lou Reed for his amphetamine shriek de-tuned guitar skronk grabbing for notes like Cecil Taylor or Ornette. David O'List for his psychotic intensity--ditto Syd Barrett who also had that liquid space guitar thing going. Jimi Hendrix --what can you say?? He's the best. These guys opened my ears at a tender age.
Could you explain why the art and music of Don Van Vliet has enduring appeal?
Because it is essentially ancient wisdom handed to us from a child's point of view. And he followed his own path, which was like no other. To paraphrase how someone once described Wyndham Lewis, an artist Don admired: "The thought of the modern mixed with the energy of the caveman" and I would add "from the perspective of a little boy."
What would be the difference between an America run by Donald Trump to that run by Hilary Clinton?
Oh don't even go there…please.
I met you back in 2011 at your Beefheart Symposium and know you like to collaborate with other musicians. Tell me about some of those creative experiences?
I loved working with Nick Cave. We really hit it off, and he respected my playing from my days with Van Vliet. It was so easy to improvise to his spoken word stuff on steel guitar, I loved it.
Some of your recent performances have been linked to sound-tracking moving images. Discuss how you make creative decisions linking visual and musical themes, please.
I do it instinctually. I have always had a feel for films, since I used to project 8mm horror films in the basement of our house growing up in Syracuse NY to the neighbourhood kids. And I loved film sound-tracks, I have a pretty good knowledge of the classic scores. I think it's just natural to create themes and improvise to images, which is how I do it, I mix it up like an old time silent movie accompanist.
Tell us a little about your work with Jeff Buckley and how you approached working with him creatively in terms of process.
It was very easy, he was the best collaborator I ever had. Basically I handed Jeff finished guitar instrumentals I composed, with all the riffs and harmonic structure intact, and he went away and came back with perfect melody lines and lyrics that fit my music like a glove. That's how we co-wrote every song but one of the dozen or so I co-wrote with him. Some of these still officially unreleased songs are right up there with "Grace" imho.
Finally, how will the music of the 22nd Century sound? How will it be shared, played and experienced?
Are you sure there's even going to be a 22nd Century? At the rate things are going….don't get me started!
Gary’s website is: http://garylucas.com/biog.shtml