Julian Lage: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

During a recent set with the Nels Cline 4 at the Musical Instrument Museum, guitarist Julian Lage couldn’t stop smiling. It was a repeated sight. Whether aggressively dueling with Cline or offering supportive chords, Lage appeared to be having the most fun. That joyful spirit is also audible on his latest record as a bandleader, Love Hurts. Working with drummer Dave King (of the Bad Plus) and bassist Jorge Roeder, the set was cut mostly off-the-cuff at the Wilco Loft, and it’s a beautiful, layered testament to spontaneity.

While selections range in tone and style, from the manic reading of Ornette Coleman’s “Tomorrow Is the Question,” to the swooning quality of “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You,” to a dizzying version of Keith Jarrett’s “The Windup,” Lage and his co-conspirators unite the sounds with a uniform enthusiasm. It’s a record never short on surprises: Lage brings Red Room noir to Peter Scott Ivers’ Eraserhead ballad, ping pongs from sharp fusion to country sweetness on his own “In Circles,” and taps into majestic romanticism with a take on Roy Orbison’s “Crying.”

Lage recently joined Aquarium Drunkard to discuss his process and reflect on his personal canon and developing a sense of artistic self-esteem.

Aquarium Drunkard: You’ve worked with a lot of different configurations: solo, duo projects, in larger bands. But your most recent albums as a leader have found you working with trios. What does the trio format allow you to do that other formats don’t?

Julian Lage: It’s mostly the fluidity of orchestration. In other words, it can be tremendously intimate and conversational. With bass, drums, and guitar, especially with Dave [King] and Jorge [Roeder] or any of the wonderful rhythm sections I’ve been working with over the past few years, it can feel like a chamber group, where everyone’s voice is considered. You kind of all speak in a way musically that adds up to a bigger whole. On the other side of the coin, it can also be this really driving, righteous, rocking kind of sound force. I think it’s the most honest vehicle for the kinds of things I’ve been into for the past few years.

AD: You have described Arclight, Modern Lore, and Love Hurts as somewhat of a trilogy.  

Julian Lage: Absolutely. It was kind of designed for each record to feature a different discovery. With Arclight, it was like, “Holy cow, I’m playing electric guitar with a trio! This is really cool.” With that out of my system, it was [onto] pieces that would show the timbral side of the trio that I like, specifically shorter songs and more succinct musical statements. With both those under our belt, it was time to do a record that was in many ways kind of wild and woolly. Like going in for a day and a half and saying, “Okay, we’re gonna use the gear at the Wilco Loft, and play the tunes we love, and not really belabor it.” They do feel of a mind, and God willing, they feel like an appropriate foundation to move forward as a writer and a player and a bandleader.

AD: What was the Loft like?

Julian Lage: The environment’s really cool because it’s unorthodox. It’s a wide open space filled with instruments and everything is ready to go to record at any second. But there’s not a lot in terms of isolation. It’s communal as far as the set up is concerned. It has a distinct feeling that people make a lot of music in that room, nothing is too precious. I think studios are kind of famous for being clinical, and that’s what you need to make a record, but they can also be the whatever the opposite of relaxing is. At the Loft, it’s just you pick a guitar up, you play it, you recorded that, let’s use it. The temperament suited the nature of the music, I think. 

AD: I think you can hear that in this record. Does it feel like a fairly rock & roll-influenced record to you?

Julian Lage: I think the rock & roll guitar/early American music/jazz Venn diagram is pretty loosey-goosey with me. We hope it’s sensually pleasing and it’s melodic and it’s dynamic and it’s interactive. It’s one of the many things I love about instrumental music: at the end of the day, it’s abstract art. You can kind of make whatever you want of it. I feel that way about any instrumental music, whether you call it jazz or rock. Instead of words, we’re going to use this sound of a guitar. You’re just going to have to replace that in your imagination and see what you feel. I think it’s fair to say it bridges that gap.

AD: You take on some truly recognizable melodies on this record. “Love Hurts” and “Crying” of course, made famous by Roy Orbison. These songs have extremely pronounced melodies. Does approaching a melody like “Crying” require a little bit of calculation, about how you can honor the original song while not painting-by-numbers?

Julian Lage: The truth is I don’t really know how that comes together. I think you’re dealing with different layers of abstraction. On one level, if you just play the melody to “Crying” on piano with one finger, I think the combination of the architecture of the music combined with having heard it and felt something before adds up to an emotional experience. You don’t have to sell it or knock it out of the park to be good, because it’s really a masterful piece of music. There are other tunes that do require a little more deliberation so as to be not completely void of our collective band personality. Especially [something] like “Tomorrow’s the Question”. That’s probably the track I’ve listened to the most constantly for years. It’s always on repeat. That’s a song where I’m so enamored with the performance and just doing my best to hang on for dear life to play it, that in practicing it, there was a period of saying “Okay, cool. You can do it. But are you forgetting to add the other thing to it?” Maybe that’s not always represented in the head, [it’s] maybe more in the solo-istic approach. I’m not Ornette [Coleman], and I love him so dearly and I’d kill to be able to play like him, yet the phrase structures are from a totally different vocabulary. All that’s to say that I think part of that self-discovery with these songs is really about accepting what it sounds like when you play and never wishing it was different.

AD: There’s a level of artistic self-acceptance and recognition maybe?

Julian Lage: Exactly. And self-esteem. It’s gonna sound different because we’re different people, but there are these little nooks and crannies. On “Crying” for example, we recorded that and I had the lyrics sheet out next to the sheet music because the melody is so simplistic in terms of its range. It’s not jumping around; it’s very singable and comfortable. But some of the words would be two syllables on the same note. I’d want to try and reference that so I wasn’t just doing a generalized instrumental rendition of the piece. There’s that syllabic kind of thing you think about with lyrical music that helps it move forward.

AD: This album opens with “In Heaven”, obviously the first thing I think of is Eraserhead. Is that where you first heard the song?

Julian Lage: Oh yeah, I’ve been obsessed with that film for years. That song is very distinct to the movie. If you’ve seen it, you know [it represents] this seismic shift in an already unusual narrative. It always stuck with me.

AD: Your records have been a lot of things; very fiery sometimes, lovely, and challenging. Creepy is not always a word I would associate with your solo records, but that song captures it. It’s creepy.

Julian Lage: [Laughs] Aesthetically speaking, that’s what I’m a fan of in music and in movies, art that I’m a nerd for. Not necessarily [a sense of the] sinister, but something weird and unsettling. Increasingly, I feel like that’s a very essential quality to invest in, especially if we’re going to have very beautiful melody-driven music. Let’s have a full emotional palette. For a long time, I felt like the opposite of beautiful writing was intensity. I don’t think that it isn’t all the time, but I think “creepy” is more accurate. Something that isn’t quite what you think it is, in a surprising way.

AD: Sound is essential to what David Lynch does, both with Angelo Badalamenti and beyond. Balancing unease and other-worldliness, that’s what he excels at. What I love about his films is how they earn every beautiful moment by contrasting them with so many horrifying or bewildering moments. This record heads in that direction with that song.

Julian Lage: I owe that to Margaret [Glaspy], she was the one that said, “I think you’ve gotta open the record with it.”

AD: You obviously pull from a vast lineage of musical forms. You’ve got jazz, country, blues, bluegrass. When you look at a set of songs, like you did for Love Hurts, is there a connecting thread that sort of unites the sounds that you’re most interested in exploring?

Julian Lage: In simplistic terms, I would say the strongest thread I always feel is, as dorky as this sounds, is just the guitar. Literally just the sound of the guitar being a mouthpiece for a 45-minute musical narrative. That alone will sew it together, I often feel. [Beyond that] I think any deliberation is about getting rid of things that seem ironic. I don’t get too excited over my music when it leans that way. So you just think, “Oh, this is a cool song, and this is a cool song, and this is another cool song.” Later, you can look back and go, “Oh, that was Ornette, Keith Jarrett, and Roy Orbison. What do they have in common?” The truth is they have so much. They are musicians coming out of American music and American politics and American culture. I think if you wanted to streamline the vision of this record, you’d be looking at a lot of composers who very seriously and consistently use music as a means to transcend boundaries. Whether it be Keith’s European quartet or American quartet, that spiritual kind of ascension is at the forefront of his music. Roy Orbison, same thing. Ornette, same thing. It’s about the people, the heritage, and the guitar. That’s usually the trifecta.

AD: Yeah. You and Nels Cline have been playing together for a while now. How has he informed your work?

Julian Lage: I have in the past said Nels liberated something in me that was kind of there growing up in California, but [that I] never did professionally. I grew up in the Bay Area, and there’s a wonderful contingent of improvising musicians. George Marsh the drummer, my teacher Randy Vincent, just a whole host of people. I remember playing sessions with these people, and we would improvise—we’d have these dialogues. I did it constantly, and I loved it. As a teenager I started working so much more with Gary Burton, and in that field, the way the shows operated, I found myself playing songs with solos and forms and maybe a more traditional sense.

Connecting with Nels when we first played together at his house, there was a feeling of, “Oh my God, right, I used to do this!” Nels being Nels, an amazing advocate and spokesperson for free music and creative music, so generously bought me into that community at large with that music. He said, “Let’s make a record, let’s do shows, let’s do a tour.” This thing that I thought was something you only did in your bedroom and private circles, not for any other reason other than that’s the only way I had experienced it, was now on this wider platform. Through Nels, that lead me to be more in touch with the New York community at large, from [John] Zorn, to Kris Davis, to Mary Halvorson, these people I realized are in many ways like-minded.

AD: You’ve been playing music for most of your life. At this point, how do you focus on finding new things in your music? It’s so easy when you get good at something, and when it is your trade, to find patterns and to utilize them. There’s some benefit to that, some of those patterns are very good. But is there a practice to not getting stuck?

Julian Lage: The most honest answer is that I have no idea. I long to practice that kind of disposition where you show up daily and you chip away at something. Some days you get it, some days you don’t. More often than not, I feel aware that there’s no one way. The pursuit of something that’s responsive and fresh and present, as far as expression goes, I think is ubiquitous. I think that’s just a part of how artists at large understand the job. You’ve gotta be trying stuff. In my experience, I’m always humbled.

[Initially] Love Hurts was a record where I said, “I’m gonna write all this music,” and then really quickly I said, “What am I doing writing? I’m not gonna out-write ‘Crying.’ If you wanna play ‘Crying’, just play ‘Crying.'” There are other times where I’m like, “Okay, well I’ve gotta envision something big,” and then I think, “Actually, I just need a song by Tuesday, and even if it sucks, it’ll be something.”

AD: That’s its own practice in a way: to make the road by walking.

Julian Lage: Totally. I see people who seemingly have it together, composers and players who create a sacred space for things to happen consistently, [and they leave] the tape running. They get stuff and move forward. Frankly, I’m moving towards that. I’ve been touring a lot the last two years, so there are parameters. That’s probably been the best thing for me, to say, “Well, I’ve got two weeks before I leave again, then the record date’s a month from now, so I’m gonna throw it against the wall and see what sticks.” words/j woodbury

Aquarium Drunkard has launched a Patreon page, which will allow readers and listeners to directly support our online magazine as it expands its scope while receiving access to our secret stash, including bonus audio, exclusive podcasts, printed ephemera, and vinyl records. Your support will help keep an independent cultural resource alive and healthy in 2019 and beyond.