Gary Lucas: Ignoring Genre Divisions

1930s Chinese Singers Other Vocal Heroes



Gary Lucas
Interview Excerpt #9


GARY LUCAS: I’ve been working on an album of Chinese pop music of the 1930′s, a genre that I’ve always really loved. My first wife was Chinese, and I lived in Taipei, Taiwan for two years, so I had a background in appreciating this music. I was sort of goated into learning it on the guitar on the behest of my friend Ken Hurwitz who married his Chinese sweetheart in Chinatown a couple of years ago, and they asked me to prepare a some of transcriptions of this music for guitar.

FRANK J. OTERI: For their wedding?

GARY LUCAS: For their wedding in Chinatown, to please his mother-in-law who loved this music. It was a big hit. Lee Ranaldo from Sonic Youth was there at the wedding, and he was also very enthusiastic about this. It’s something that also the critics had picked up on – there’s an example of in on Evangeline. I’ve got this record coming out with Chinese vocalists – half of it is guitar versions of the songs, and some of it is vocal renditions of the songs, and it concerns two great divas of Chinese pop music, Chow Hsuan and Bai Kwong, who are not household names, of course by any means, here, but to the older generation of Chinese, they were superstars. Both of them had different approaches to vocalese. Chow Hsuan had a sweeter, higher pitched voice, the songs kind of remind me of Betty Boop going to Shanghai. Bai Kwong had a deeper, voice, kind of a contralto, really sexy and affecting.

FRANK J. OTERI: Now that you’re bringing this up, we talked about your guitar heroes, your composition heroes, and your poetic and literary heroes, but we didn’t talk about your vocal heroes and where you see yourself as a singer in this whole mix.

GARY LUCAS: Ah, I’ve developed my vocals to the point where I’m comfortable singing a few songs now. I was discouraged from doing this originally because people were like: “Just concentrate on your guitar.” And having had someone like Jeff Buckley in my band, I thought, “This is a hard act to follow.” But my vocals have been getting way more acceptance from the audience over the years. My heroes are people like Bob Dylan who was able to put all the pain and joy of the universe into his minimal vocal style. I like Lou Reed very much. Beefheart, although I don’t really think I’d take anything from Beefheart. Bryan Ferry, another vocalist.

FRANK J. OTERI: I was actually hearing Bryan Ferry in the vocals in your albums.

GARY LUCAS: Yeah. So you know, I think that these are people who I have enjoyed over the years.

FRANK J. OTERI: It’s interesting that you also have a lot of guest vocalists also. I guess it was Bad Boys of the Arctic that had some fabulous female vocalists. Almost things that sounded like the Roches at some times.

GARY LUCAS: Yeah, actually, I have a record that’s being released in France in September, and it’s should be out in the rest of the world outside the U.S. which is like the best of my early Enemy band albums. And I was just now writing liner notes for it, and I was thinking about how great Dina Emerson is, she sang on “Exit, Pursued by a Bear” and she was in my band for a while. She came out of Meredith Monk‘s vocal group. She really has a ferocious range. Also on that album is Sonya Cohen who is the niece of Pete Seeger, and she has a beautiful, clear, Roche-like voice. I continue to like to work with other vocalists occasionally. For the Gods and Monsters album I’ve been working on, I have Elli Medeiros who is a French pop star doing a track. She really brings a different kind of erotic quality to her singing which I really like.

FRANK J. OTERI: Does she comes out of the chanteuse tradition?

GARY LUCAS: Yeah, she’s Uruguaian-Parisian and is a very sexy woman. I definitely responded to working with her in a visceral kind of sense. Also on the record is a singer named Robin Wiley who I made the acquaintance of recently, who reminds me a bit of a country-ish, almost Dolly Parton-ish singer.

FRANK J. OTERI: And what kind of instrumental background are you going to mix with that?

GARY LUCAS: More blues and country, and I’m going to attempt a version of “Grace” with her singing it to see how that goes this week. She’s in L.A. right now. Robin is someone to watch, definitely. Richard Barone is also on the record. He comes out of the Hoboken, power pop sound of the new wave bands of the 80s.

FRANK J. OTERI: So are you doing any vocals on this album?

GARY LUCAS: Mainly, mostly. I’m doing 6-7 vocal songs.

FRANK J. OTERI: Are all the tracks going to be songs?

GARY LUCAS: There are two instrumentals. I always feel that there should be two instrumentals on a record. And there might even be a solo guitar instrumental – I’ve got a back log of them as well. But it’s going to be pretty much a unified band album. The first album with a consistent rhythm section all the way through.

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