Interview: Quarantine Streaming with Guitar God Gary Lucas

Since commencing his professional career in the early 80s, Gary Lucas has done about just about everything you could do with a guitar, beginning with his stint as guitarist for Captain Beefheart, followed by his songwriting and performance partnership with Jeff Buckley, and collaborations with dozens of notables just beginning with the likes of Lou Reed, Leonard Bernstein, John Zorn, Joan Osborne, Patti Smith and Iggy Pop.

A rarity who is equally adept at acoustic and the most tripped out electric, in idioms from traditional folk, Delta blues to pop, psychedelic, classical, world musics and the most avant jazz,  Lucas has rightly earned the highest accolades from cognoscenti like The New Yorker (“the thinking man’s guitar hero”) and The New York Times (“Guitarist of 1,000 Ideas”).  Even after 40 years and 30+ albums, Gary continues to be one of the busiest musicians going.  He has toured over 40 countries, very often as a solo artist, unleashing spellbinding performances in small clubs to performing with symphonies in huge halls to creating live soundtracks to the projections of silent era film classics like “The Golem.”

photo by Brad Balfour

As per usual, Gary had a very busy year planned when Covid-19 slammed on the brakes, including a new 2-CD retrospective, tour dates in 10 countries and, of course, more collaborations with unique artistic partners,  here and abroad.   

When Covid came to crush the live performance business, Gary did was he does best; he improvised and created great art, and a place of comfort for his fans from around the globe, on a shoestring budget.  On March 19, he inaugurated a series of three-times weekly concerts streaming live solo acoustic concerts on his Facebook page from his Greenwich Village apartment, with a diverse playlist, including tributes to his two biggest partnerships, with Beefheart and Buckley.  Here’s how he did it:

Sal Cataldi: First off, what had you had planned in the way of live work that got cancelled as a result of the Covid-19 crisis and quarantine?

Gary Lucas: I had an album coming out on May 1, a Best Of double CD on the Knitting Factory label titled The Essential Gary Lucas, covering 40 years of music-making from Captain Beefheart to Jeff Buckley and Beyond—with shows booked in NYC, London, France, Italy, and Finland in support of the release. Now the album release has been postponed to early September and I naturally had to postpone the live shows till such times. Too bad as the album package itself by Steve Byram and liner notes by Glenn Kenny is a thing of beauty, and I think people would enjoy it, particularly during this very difficult period. But the way things are going, early September may prove just as problematic a time to release an album and tour as it is now– who knows? We shall see what we shall see, que sera sera and so forth.

SC:  You’ve probably been one of the busiest musicians when it comes to live streams.  When did you decide to take the plunge?  How many have you had thus far and how long do you see continuing at this point?

GL:  I’ve done about 30 half-hour solo concerts streaming live on my Facebook page every Tuesday Thursday and Saturday at 3pm EST since lockdown mid-March.  And I’ve archived them here. I only missed two—once because my iPhone melted down the morning of the show and I had to scramble to get a replacement (an iPhone 11) for the next show. Then this week, because of observing Blackout Tuesday in the music biz in support of the worldwide protests against racism. I was inspired initially to begin by the example of my friend and collaborator Ada Pasternak, who does these kind of shows frequently on Facebook from her family house in Connecticut with her parents and siblings–they are great.

SC:  How has the audience grown through since your debut streaming performance?  How do you interact with them?  Is it actually more interactive on some level than a live performance? 

GL:  It depends really—the streams always get thousands of views, people all over the world share them.  I’ve had Facebook Messenger feedback from Australia, where one fan gets up at 5 am to watch my shows live each time I play, plus fans giving me shout-outs in Russia, Ukraine, Greece, Turkey, Morocco, Israel, South Africa, all over Europe of course, Cuba (where it’s very difficult to get internet access), Canada, Japan, Burma, Thailand…  There are tons of viewers.  I also talk to them directly after the shows on Facebook Messenger for about half an hour, and they also Messenger me whenever they like over Facebook to ask questions, sharing some of their work with me, and showing support. It’s more interactive in a way than a live performance actually —it’s different though. Nothing beats having a living audience in the room with you while playing and getting their feedback in real-time and in one-on-one exchanges after a live gig, I have to say, streaming is more like you’re hurling your music, throwing the thunderbolts into the ether— very strange and disembodied—and you never know who might be watching. The fans do comment while I’m playing but I am unable to read them while playing as it distracts from my focus. I do detect a stream of hearts throughout rising on the screen of my iPhone image as I play, which is a good feeling!

SC:  What are the technical particulars involved in your streaming performances, in getting a good image and sound? Any big glitches?

GL:  I just prop my phone up on my windowsill and hit Live Video on the iPhone at 3pm, and away we go! No other interface involved. The camera and the mic in the iPhone 11 are very good for these kind of seat of the pants performances, which are mainly acoustic or just playing electric through a small amp. I don’t bother with pedals for these streaming shows—this gives me tremendous freedom to switch between my guitars at will depending on my mood at the time.

SC:  You seem to be doing a lot of thematic performances, retrospectives on your work with Captain Beefheart and Jeff Buckley for instance.  How do come up with what you play, is it very pre-meditated or seat of the parts?

GL:  A little bit of both actually. With my Jeff tribute, it started as me wanting to pay homage to Jeff, specifically to mark the 23rd anniversary of his tragic passing on May 29.

SC:  Obviously live work is a significant part of your revenue earned as a musician.  How has this impacted you and are able to make up some of the difference with donations via PayPal?

GL:  Yes I have, some fans have been extremely generous and have contributed to my virtual tip-jar multiple times. It’s been a help but not enough to fully replace the typical income from my live shows. On the other hand, it’s been steady work. It’s given me some relief from the constant pressure of having to constantly line up new shows out of town on my calendar, which have to be decent paying gigs, in any case– I won’t play any old gig at this stage of the game, certainly not a door gig. 

SC:  On the cancelled gigs, how many have been rescheduled and are you now rebooking tours?

GL:  Not yet, as no venues anywhere have truly re-opened at this point, to the best of my knowledge (and I keep checking with agents around the world). This is going to be a problem for awhile I reckon, as how can clubs and venues stay in business if they are forced to cut their attendance policy in half in order to satisfy social distancing requirements? Every time it seems the curve is flattening somewhere there are new spikes, and now with the recent mass protests in the streets…I am trying not to think about this too much, I’m just keeping on keeping on at this point with my live streaming concerts until this is hopefully sorted.

SC:  You’re kind of unusual among guitarist with your acumen on both acoustic and electric.  Tell us a little about your influences and how you have grown to do some pretty eclectic things like live music for the scores of classic films like The Golem and Spanish Dracula?

GL:  I grew up loving all sorts of music, from Top 40 radio to English progressive rock to free jazz and, of course, American folk and blues. I loved all the same guitarists back in the day that everyone else usually cites, but I especially I loved the crazier psychedelic players such as Syd Barrett, all the guitarists with Captain Beefheart over the years, and also the English folk-blues virtuosos like Bert Jansch. America country blues master Skip James is maybe my favorite all-time guitarist. I got into live scoring of films going back to my love of cinema, especially fantasy and horror cinema, from earliest childhood. I used to show 8mm silent horror films to my friends and neighbors in the basement of our house growing up on Syracuse (and charge a nickel for the privilege). It was a short step from that to accompanying films, which I began doing in 1989 on a commission from BAM and New Music America to do something different with my music and another art form. I brought in my childhood friend Walter Horn on keyboards and we jointly composed the score for “The Golem,” which we debuted at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria as a duo. I figured out a way to do the score solo after some initial and very well received performances, and toured in 20 countries with the film solo. Since then I’ve gone on to compose at least a dozen more live solo guitar scores and perform them at cinemas and music and film festivals all over the world. My last live gig before lockdown was up at Cornell University in Ithaca NY with “The Golem”, which was extremely well received.

SC:  You’re probably one of the busiest guy in guitardom, when it comes to recording? What are some the recent and forthcoming records you are most excited about? 

GL:  I love the recent release on Knitting Factory of The World of Captain Beefheart album, which I recorded with soul legend Nona Hendryx (Labelle) and Jesse Krakow, Jordan Shapiro and Richard Dworkin. Nona really brought something new to the proceedings in terms of being able to cover the more r&b side of the Van Vliet oeuvre, as well as very capably plunging into the Deep End of Beefheart’s most outré material. And I love the last album released before lockdown,  “The Complete Jeff Buckley and Gary Lucas Songbook” on the Italian Esordisco label, which I recorded with Italian vocalist The Niro (Davide Combusti) and producer/ multi-instrumentalist Francesco Arpino. The album contains new studio versions of all the 12 songs I co-wrote with Jeff, 5 songs of which never got any official release before. The album was voted Album of the Year in Classic Rock Italia. I have two more albums ready for release with my Chinese pop trio featuring Mainland Chinese singer and erhu virtuoso Feifei Yang and Jason Candler on sax—we do some covers of Dylan and Leonard Cohen in Mandarin, which sound really fresh. I also have a new acoustic EP recorded in France before Xmas with a young French -Moroccan singer, Yass Boud, which sounds amazing—there’s also an EP in the works with a young Dutch acoustic bassist and vocalist Peter Willems to be recorded in Holland this summer. Plus a second Pearly Clouds album is in the works to be recorded in Budapest—this is my for lack of a better description psychedelic Hungarian folk trio featuring Toni Dezso on sax and traditional Hungarian folk vocalist Eniko Szabo. And I’m currently working on finishing songs for a new Gods and Monsters album featuring my longtime band of Billy Ficca (Television) drums, Ernie Brooks (Modern Lovers) on bass, and Jason Candler (Hungry March Band) on sax. There’s other stuff being planned too. I try and stay busy always.

SC:  As for your retrospective, what was impact you wanted to make with this collection?  Was it hard to choose these tracks over a 40-year career?

GL:  I am very excited about this double CD retrospective of course. Besides containing what I consider the cream of my recorded output, it also contains some rare and unreleased tracks. Hopefully, it should provide a good overview of my work across the 30-plus albums I’ve released over the years for folks who might know my own work except for one thing only, for instance my work with Captain Beefheart, or with Jeff Buckley. It’s designed to be a good introduction to my music for folks who don’t know my work at all. Hopefully it will expand my fanbase, secure more live gigs if we ever get out of lockdown (I love to tour!), and win more appreciation for my own music in the world at large—isn’t that what most artist’s want? I’m not an Art for Art’s sake kind of guy.  My music was designed to be user-friendly without following the trends of the moment.  And I don’t look down on fans; I love and appreciate my fans. And, yes, it was damn hard to make the album’s selections. I kept switching and substituting tracks–until finally I said that’s it. Making that selection was like asking a mother with a very large brood of kids to choose her favorite children.

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