Gary Lucas: Ignoring Genre Divisions
Leader vs. Sideman
Interview Excerpt #8
FRANK J. OTERI: I want to talk a little more in this issue about being a sideman versus being a leader, and I want to bounce it off of your scoring a silent film, dealing with a pre-existing work, and adding to it which is sort of along the similar lines of knowing another artist’s work, and then becoming part of that artist’s work by being a sideman on an album or in a concert, which is a very different process than being a leader and taking the music in the direction you want to take it. You’ve done a bunch of TV scoring. I was looking at this list of stuff that you did – you did scoring for the documentary on 20/20 about the Unibomber. That obviously shaped the music that you were doing for these things – that’s on one side of the scale. And then on the other side, you’ve worked with everybody from Nick Cave to Patti Smith. How do you feel that your own identity as a musician got through in all of these different projects, and did that always happen?
GARY LUCAS: I think that I am a bit of a chameleon when I’m asked to play on other people’s records in that I’m able to adapt to the persona of that artist, and it kind of comes though in my playing. But hopefully there’s still that Gary Lucas element, and that’s why they would ask me to play with them anyway, so that also has to be there. It’s interesting. There’s a give and take, kind of thing, and it changes from situation to situation. When I’m asked to do the TV music, or the film scoring, I try to give as pure, unadulterated example of what I can do, and I am often told to tone it down only because of the nature of the medium. You know there’s a thing, especially with documentaries, where they don’t want you to color the news too much, which is to overemphasize the emotions that you’re supposed to feel by exaggerating these characteristics in your music. It really is different. Uh, if you ask me about specific people, I could better tell you how I approach the job. It’s intuitive.
FRANK J. OTERI: It’s interesting because your assignments were all these terrorist stories, the Unibomber, Waco…
GARY LUCAS: It always seemed to me that whenever there was death in the air, somebody up at ABC News would go, “I wonder what Gary is doing.”
FRANK J. OTERI: (laughs)
GARY LUCAS: And I don’t know why that is except that I love life, I’m not death obsessed, but there is this kind of energy, grotesque-rry about some of the music that I do, so that they might think I’m a good candidate to do kind of music that is more on the wilder shores…
GARY LUCAS: It was a top selling tune on a top selling record. Yeah, why is that? I think that it’s basically because I embrace the unity of music, I don’t really discriminate in my taste to reject things out of hand. Like I like top music when it’s good. I think Joan, and the music that I was allowed to work on, or was encouraged to work on, I should say, had given me the opportunity to really put over some music that was personal to me and amplified it to a wider context that made it accessible to people. If you listen to “Spider Web,” go back to my first album Skeleton at the Feast there’s a song in there called “Tompkins Square Dance” and one of the motifs in “Spider Web” is derived from that. It seemed to me that, ok, it’s a natural progression, I can take something that would stand up on its own as an exciting, colorful, mysterious instrumental piece, and put it over drum machines, and sampled percussion, and you can make a song out of this. I think that a lot of the music that I do stands up, if it has integrity as an instrumental work, it’s a good candidate as a pop song. I’ve written songs, for instance, with Jeff Buckley, both of which started as instrumental pieces. I had them intact. I wrote them here sitting in this chair. Then gave them to Jeff, and he came back and he had lyrics and a melody put over them. But they originally started initially as instrumentals. The song “Grace” originally was titled “Rise Up To Be” and I finally recorded a version of it on the Paradiso EP. So, I don’t really see any difference. To me, if it works as a hypnotic instrumental, it’s a good candidate for a Gary Lucas-type pop song or avant-pop song.
FRANK J. OTERI: Do you notate the music that you do?
GARY LUCAS: I don’t. I actually rely mostly on my memory and also my tape recorder here. I do a lot of composing where I mainly improvise on the guitar and I will come up with motifs and chord progressions…If they give me a chill, I think they are worthy saving on tape.
FRANK J. OTERI: And when you work with other people, you obviously read music, because you worked with Bernstein. But when you work in the context with sidemen and bands that you put together…
GARY LUCAS: I teach them the stuff. I don’t write it out. I just show them what I want them to play, and then direct them. But I also encourage them to come up with their own parts, and their own feel. I’m not as dictatorial as Beefheart. Because with Beefheart, everything more or less had to be completely how he heard it in his head. And me I’m more open for the group and the people I’m working with, to bring their own thing to the table. And I think that’s sort of the beauty of working with other people.
FRANK J. OTERI: I want to talk a little bit about this notion of collective decisions in terms of the group. You started a band that has sort of been on-again, off-again over the last 11 years called Gods and Monsters. Are the records of Gods and Monsters your albums with sidemen, or are they albums by Gods and Monsters.
GARY LUCAS: The early stuff could be looked at more like an album of sidemen only because from track to track we used different ensembles and players. It was recorded over a few years. And that accounts for that. However, Gods and Monsters is now finishing up a record and it’ll probably be the first unified, band album that I’ve made.
FRANK J. OTERI: And will it be released under the name Gods and Monsters, rather than Gary Lucas?
GARY LUCAS: It’ll be Gary Lucas’ Gods and Monsters. I think it’s important to keep the Gary Lucas only because they have these header cards in records stores – I’ve already got a bin at Tower…
FRANK J. OTERI: It’s interesting because Bad Boys of the Arctic was essentially a Gods and Monsters album but it doesn’t say that until you get inside.
GARY LUCAS: Yes, it was. Yeah, well you know. It was sort of a marketing decision and I thought having established the name Gary Lucas as someone whose records you could find in the rock section of a Tower Records, I might as well continue to use it. And when I toured it would always be Gary Lucas and Gods and Monsters. But I just thought the main thing was to hit on the name. Perhaps if we had just become Gods and Monsters, it would be what people would recognize, you know, as an identity.
FRANK J. OTERI: Now is Gods and Monsters a reference to The Golem somehow?
GARY LUCAS: Actually, no, it comes from The Bride of Frankenstein. It’s a line within this film, one of my favorite horror films, in which Dr. Pretorious, this notoriously mad scientist, tells Dr. Frankenstein about an idea to create a mate for Frankenstein’s monster, and he toasts and says, “To a new world of gods and monsters.” The film that’s out called Gods and Monsters derived its title from The Bride of Frankenstein because it was about the director James Whale who had done the early Frankenstein.
FRANK J. OTERI: To get back to this thing about the group identity… It’s your material; you are clearly the leader of this group. Now that it’s a power trio, do you see collective composition happening, or other people in the band contributing to the repertoire of the band?
GARY LUCAS: They haven’t so far. I’ve still maintained the control over that. I’ve been accused of being a bit of a control freak, and it might be true, but again, I’ve encouraged them within my song, to bring their own ideas to the fore. Now my drummer’s got his own band, he’s got a Blues band, the bass player plays with some other people…
FRANK J. OTERI: They both have very interesting backgrounds. Your bass player played with Modern Lovers, and your drummer played with Swans, and then also with La Monte Young who in some ways is a guru of this entire movement of “it-comes-out-of-rock-but-it’s-not-really-rock-anymore…so-what-is-it” music.
GARY LUCAS: Well, they’re great guys, and because of the wide perimeters of their experience in the modern music world, they’re able come to grips with what I’m trying to get across, perhaps better than people who are strictly rock players.
FRANK J. OTERI: When will this Gods and Monsters album be out?
GARY LUCAS: We’re mixing it right now. We’ve been in the studio for the last couple of weeks trying to finish it in time to get a Fall release but I have feeling it’s going to be delayed until January.
FRANK J. OTERI: What label will it be on?
GARY LUCAS: On the Knitting Factory Label. But I do have several other records coming out that are scheduled to come out in the Fall, and in a way this is good because I don’t want too many things coming out at the same time and perhaps cancel each other out – it’s a danger.