Talking with Gary Lucas

Sjimon Gompers

Gary on the left

Gary Lucas has played guitar with the late Captain Beefheart, made and wrote your favorite songs on Jeff Buckley's Grace (Hint: They are not a Leonard Cohen cover), and has a new album with his legendary Gods and Monsters group called Ordeal of Civility. We caught up to talk to finger picking, legacy, the lost Buckley tapes, collaborating with legends and what it takes to be legendary.

Hey Gary! How’s it going?

Not too bad, it’s nice out here in New York, where are you calling from?

San Francisco, it’s beautiful, kind of sunny, windy, the windows are rattling a bit.

Yeah, it’s beautiful, I lived there for a short time back in seventy….seventy-seven. Right at the dawn of ‘77. I think I moved there right after Christmas in ’76.

Right before you started playing with Captain Beefheart?

Yeah, while I was there I remember seeing him play at Berkeley, what was the name of the Jazz club there… the Keystone! Some other good music, some other good shows, early shows by the Midnites, the Ramones came out there, the Dictators, it was great.

What was it like working with Jerry Harrison with engineering duties on your new album Ordeal of Civility?

Aw, I love Jerry, he’s so inspirational. He’s a great guy; it’s always good to get people you get along with. He’s got a fantastic set of ears and a terrific sensibility for let us say avant-garde pop, that is one way that you might describe what we’re trying to do here. I mean, I always looked up to Talking Heads and Jerry was an integral part of it with his keyboards and guitar and then he blossomed into becoming this fantastic producer in his own right. He did million selling records with Live, and OAR, so we thought it would be great to corral onto this project and it turned out that he was invaluable. And plus we had some fun on the road and I’m still trying to get him to come back on the road, we have a pending show in Moscow and I don’t want to jinx it!

And you also had Eric “ET” Thorngren at the helm.

Yeah! You know Eric?

Yeah, that guy is a legendary Island Records good ol’ boy from the Blackwell heyday.

That’s right, well “ET” was really good as a mixer. He has such good, “sonic” skills. And I have to put in a word there for Matt Cohen, who is Jerry’s second engineer there who was invaluable, it was a great to have a good team, it’s a good feeling to have good company. Q: It’s a cool album. I felt that it had a grandiose New York-70s-super-group sound, what with the wild horns and all… Yeah, they’re really cool, those horns. That’s Jason and Joe, they’re the younger members of the band but Jason joined me about 96 or 97 and Joe sat in with us back when he was still in high school some 7, 8 years ago. So yeah, I love to play with those guys, they’re great, great enthusiasm, I love their chops on the horns. The horns definitely added a whole component, its punchy; it has a lot of brass.

It’s very neat; it makes things so celebratory, like “Peep Show Bible.”

“Peep Show Bible,” yeah, oh yeah. Everybody likes that! It seems to be “the hit.” Who would have thunk it man, cause there were people in the band who were like, “awww, I don’t really like this song,” I have always liked it, but I made some changes. I wrote it some years ago, but it has been modified, some of it was up to the minute and some of it I had it in my trunk of material and I was just waiting for the right moment to unleash it and that was one of them. It was one of the first songs I ever wrote.

I like how you shake up the good book of books and turn it into a real rocking song that celebrates it as the art of smut in a sense.

Yeah, well, the Bible is filled with all sorts of um…

Nasty things.

Nasty, scandalous things.

You touch on it from the weirdness of the Job thing to Lot’s wife turning into the pillar of salt and all that Sodom and Gomorrah shit.

Well that’s good man, you got good ears, you’ve been listening closely.

Well it goes deeper than that man. I want to know where you learned how to fingerpick like you do on “Whirlygig” and “Lazy Flowers?”

Well, you know what… I always loved finger picking and I wasn’t too good at it in my formative years. I was much more of slap picking rock/blues guitarist, I loved Jeff Beck. But I really wanted to fingerpick and when I was in college I fell in with some guys who were really good at this John Fahey stuff but they used real clunky fingerpicks which I found to be a pain in the ass so I learned this technique, just by flesh on the string but the trick is you have to cut your fingernails really short and then toughen the skin of the fingernail just by playing without getting blisters and that’s really tricky but once you get a good layer of calluses, nothing really can stand in your way. I have done workshops where people ask me how I did it, how to pick and I can’t really tell you I can analyze it. I have my own peculiar way that I developed on the fly. I never really stopped to say “am I doing this right or wrong.” Just like with anything, you fall into moments and hope that they’re not bad. But, you know, that was one that I think kind of stood the test of time. I’m very proud of my finger picking. It took me back to some old Takoma records kind of thing. Ah yeah! That’s my roots, my American folk roots. Fahey, Sandy Bull, Robbie Basho…

I’ve noticed that there are a few bars off of “Whirlygig” that are taken from Leo Koetke’s 6 or 12 String Guitar.

Really?

I think there’s a few bars, let me play it for you real quick: (plays Koetke’s “Busted Bicycle”)

Ha ha, must be by osmosis, I like the guy but I haven’t heard one of his record in like 20 years. Maybe I was quoting him! Heh, maybe he was quoting me! Maybe he had access to a time machine!

Also the heaviness of tracks like “Jedwabne,” what’s the story behind that song?

Well, it’s inspired by my family on my mother’s side. I used to ask my mom when I was a boy, what happened to our relatives in Europe? And she would say that, “They were all these Jews in this pogrom in Poland and all the Jews in this town were put in a barn and they were burned by the Polish people who stole all their houses. And then 10 years ago an article ran in the New York Times about this book called Neighbors that was investigating this big tragedy. (Author Jan Gross) caused a big stink in Poland, the church got involved and said it was a lie and if it was true it was because the Jews were commie spies and then the president made an apology, a lot of back and forth, but the song is a memorial to my family and a statement to never forget what happened in Jedwabne.

Heavy. Well you know, I was listening to the work you and Jeff did on Songs to Noone and dare I say that it sounds like you two are really having a good time in the studio.

Yeah, no, we were man! Good friends man, no matter what anybody says. They don’t know, we were very close in those moments when we worked together before the whole thing got pulled apart by…well, it’s a long story. But you know, business and people in New York whispering into Jeff’s ear, “you don’t know need this guy, he’s too old for you, you can do without” so anyway, it’s all water under the bridge. I just want to celebrate Jeff…one of the greatest, you know, singers, great guitar player and all around musician and the best collaborator I would say I ever had. Whatever I gave him as an instrumental piece he could turn into a beautiful song and that’s how “Grace” and “Mojo Pin” were made. I would finish these instrumentals and he would come back with a melody and a lyric that fit like a glove. I didn’t have to change anything, once he said the double length of this part for lyrics but that was about it. I mean, it’s incredible, the songs that we wrote started with my guitar solos. I figured a good guitar solo guitar riff is criteria for a successful song.

And really taking it to sonic levels that make it up there in the great pantheon of albums that have changed the course of how we understand pop music, Thom Yorke be damned.

Yeah, that’s very gratifying that you say that because to this day I’m so proud of those songs man and you know songs to know one, and that did alright, Songs to Noone sold about 100 thousand copies, Grace sold about 2 million. There’s another five as of yet unreleased songs that we wrote together that I tell you are just as good as “Grace” and “Mojo Pin,” and I hope that they come out one of these days but I need the (Buckley) Estate’s permission. I knew when we cut the demos for “Grace” and “Mojo Pin” in August of ’91… all we could afford and that had time for, all I could afford, I paid for it, was to dump the rough mix on to a DAT and we had to leave because another session was booked. I left the studio and I was like…I have the atomic bomb in my pocket with this tape. This is going to shake the world up, that’s what I though. I knew how powerful this is, I knew how fresh they were as music. And that’s what I’m about, I say if you like those you’ll like my music and you’ll like my records. Because it’s always been about pushing the envelope as what constitutes pop and still function as avant-garde, that’s what I’m going for…and it also has to have enough twists and turns to keep me interested.

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