Gary Lucas has spent decades fitting his guitar into surprising and varied contexts. In the early 1970s, he witnessed Captain Beefheart’s New York debut and was electrified. Eventually he began working with Beefheart, whose 10 commandments for playing guitar include the directive to “play like a drowning man, struggling to reach shore,” which Lucas does often on The Essential Gary Lucas, a two-album set out this week on Knitting Factory Records. Compiling rarities, unreleased material, live music, and collaborations with Lucas’ band Gods and Monsters, Jeff Buckley, Mary Margaret O’Hara, David Johansen, Alan Vega, Jerry Harrison of the Talking Heads, Nona Hendryx of Labelle, dub tinkerer Adrian Sherwood, and many more, it’s a good way to get a handle on his long history.
We spoke to Lucas early in 2020, but publication of this interview, like the release of the collection, was delayed, then delayed again, due to the pandemic. This gave us the chance to fit in a few more questions recently. Lucas was discursive and chatty, happy to riff about his work with various legends, methods of collaboration, and the time he and Arthur Russell tried to produce a rap for Vin Diesel. | j woodbury
Aquarium Drunkard: You’ve worked with a pretty incredible list of people, people like Nick Cave, Dr. John, Allen Ginsberg, John Zorn, and many more. The Essential Gary Lucas includes many more collaborations. Putting this compilation together, were you able to isolate any sort of through line connecting the people you work with?
Gary Lucas: I think that the main criteria was, “Did I like their work?” I’ve worked with a few heroes of mine, for sure. I think the musical route that aligns us is that there’s a blues feeling pretty much underneath everything I do, even if I’m doing arrangements of symphonic music.
There’s a performance I did before the General Assembly at the United Nations on Holocaust Remembrance Day from a couple of years ago on this collection. I took a piece I’d arranged by a Czech composer, one of my favorites, Leoš Janáček but I did it by ear. I can read music, but I prefer not to. If you listen to “On an Overgrown Path,” I bend those strings from time to time. To me, that’s the essence of the blues, this kind of wailing through microtonal slurs. I think it’s the instrument emulating a human voice, wailing either in ecstasy or suffering.
AD: You cite the poetry of Lorca as an inspiration. In In Search of Duende, he writes a lot about the guitar and the muse. At the risk of sounding too weird or abstract, listening to this collection, I feel like maybe for you, the guitar is the muse.
Gary Lucas: I would say that Jimi Hendrix was probably the ultimate blues guitarist in a way. In the liner notes of Electric Ladyland he talks about “acoustic and electric women.” The guitar’s got the whole resonance. You’re hugging this thing close to your body when you play, against your solar plexus. It seems like a lot of energy can be exchanged between part of your physical being with a guitar. It’s like channeling, you know, vibrations from everywhere.
AD: You worked with Captain Beefheart. You mentioned Hendrix as the ultimate blues guitarist. How do you think Don Van Vliet fits into the broader context and history of the blues?
Gary Lucas: I think he is a significant figure in the history of the blues in that he took the role of the traditional blues shaman like Howlin’ Wolf, Skip James, Muddy Waters, and exploded the form, marrying traditional blues music to radical free jazz, and traditional blues lyrics to Dadaist, Beat, and Surrealist poetry.
AD: When you began working with Jeff Buckley, first in your band Gods and Monsters, and then on his albums, did you recognize somebody who like you was interested in music that completely crossed over those boundary lines of genre?
Gary Lucas: We were certainly on a similar page. He also viewed music as a spiritual calling, one that doesn’t necessarily respect labels. He loved Beefheart and I come out of the Beefheart School. Lick My Decals Off, Baby. He said, “Get rid of the labels. I don’t want to labeled as one thing.” With Jeff, you could say he was a “rock singer/songwriter,” but his music is so rich with so many different influences. It’s hard to pigeon-hole. He certainly wasn’t writing with an eye for the hits at all, I don’t think ever, until they finally pressured him at the end.
AD: There’s this beautiful circular feel to “Life Kills” with Alan Vega, featured on The Essential Gary Lucas. You’re playing this riff. It’s not quite a drone, but it’s very repetitive. It almost seems like a mantra in the context of the song.
Gary Lucas: It’s like a mantra. Yeah. I mean, it’s hard to put a label on these things, but I like the progression. It gives me a feeling of tranquility. It grounds me. I guess you could call it an ostinato, using a musical term. This recurring motif. It’s funny, because often people would ask, “What went into making ‘Grace’ and ‘Mojo Pin’?” and I’ve done a lot of thinking about that. A hallmark of some of my songwriting is using major/minor keys within the same song. In both of those songs, musical questions are asked on the guitar and then answered off in the voice. It’s bittersweet, but sort of lifelike. I don’t want anything so one-way dark or so one-way sweet—and god knows I’ve done both. I like mixing as many colors as I can musically, within the limitations basically of a classic guitar band lineup.
AD: You named your band Gods and Monsters after a quote from The Bride of Frankenstein. You’ve written scores to be played alongside films like The Golem and Frankenstein. What do horror films mean to you?
Gary Lucas: I can’t really say I like direction of the horror genre in the last 20 years. I’m very old-fashioned. As soon as it descended into gore fests, blood baths, maiming, and graphic violence—I don’t care for any of this. I like suggestion and use of the imagination to depict these things more than overt displays. The projects I choose to work on, content wise, some of the subject matter, it’s not like it needs to be footnoted, but [I like the idea that it] might turn people back toward investigation. I cover lesser known composers and even animators—like Max Fleischer. I’m a champion of underdogs in a lot of ways, culturally. I’m trying to add this educational element without being pedantic.
AD: You’ve worked with a truly diverse array of people, you’ve been a part of a lot of daring collaborations, but here’s a one from deep in the catalog: How did you get Vin Diesel, who’s returned to music recently, to rap over an Arthur Russel beat?
Gary Lucas: [Laughs] Vin’s real name is Mark Sinclair. My wife and I, we’ve lived in the West Village forever. I moved here in ’77. [I met Mark in] ’85 or so. There was an ice cream store right on the corner called Minters and one of the kids who worked in there was this really funny skinny kid named Mark Sinclair. He was amusing and entertaining. I saw star quality there, I gotta say. He would do little breakdances in front of the store. He was just a character, this funny, cocky kid that could do all sorts of voices. He’d do English accents, put on goofy voices, but he had this really low, macho voice, which he we know from the films he eventually made.
One day I remember we were hanging out on ecstasy. It was maybe the one and only time we took ecstasy. Quite experimental. We called up Minters to see if we could get Mark to bring us some ice cream. He ran over with hot fudge sundaes and espresso. I loved this kid. This was the period of Run DMC and the Beastie Boys. Rap was exploding. I was working as a copywriter and had a role in this indie label that a friend of mine set up, Upside Records, which released some very good records by the Woodentops and Mark Stewart + Maffia. I was producing Arthur Russell’s friend Peter Gordon. So Arthur came to a session that Peter was doing and I really gravitated towards his music and his personality. He had some underground dance hits and played cello as a minimalist composer.
Mark had said, “I wanna make a rap record. I have a great rap.” By now  he’d started working out at David Barton Gym. He was muscle bound, wearing fake fur coats. Women were swooning. I was working with Geoff Travis at Rough Trade and he said, “Well, why don’t we put Arthur with him? Won’t that be an interesting combination?” They really liked each other. They bonded. So I remember arranging the session and going down with my guitar. I was gonna play it and then the whole thing just fell apart. Arthur was being a little being diabolical. He hadn’t liked something Mark did.
You can hear it on the tape! He was starting and stopping the tape, which had his patented staggered beats and he was doing funny offbeat accents. They weren’t like regular rap beats. They were tricky. He’d start rapping and it was fine, then the beat would drop out from under him and he was not really a freestyle rapper at all. He did composed raps. We couldn’t get anything done. He kept saying, “It’s the white part of me that keeps fucking it up.” [Laugh] After about an hour of this, I called the session. What a waste of time. Arthur was pissed at him. I was the monkey in the middle there.
AD: And that was it?
Gary Lucas: I tried one more attempt. I brought Mark to the loft where the Tackhead guys lived—Keith LeBlanc, Skip McDonald and Doug Wimbish. They worked with Sugar Hill and later On-U Sound, with Adrian Sherwood. They had this loft on 14th St, I brought them up there and within about five minutes Keith said, “You gotta leave. This is not gonna work.” [Laughs]
AD: What was hanging out with Arthur Russell like?
Gary Lucas: Usually it was delightful. He generally was exceedingly nice. Charming, polite, whimsical and funny. Occasionally he would get sidetracked with a certain sense of paranoia and bitterness, insofar as he had been through the mill several times over creating very unique and original recordings that were quite influential—some of them actual hits in clubs—but essentially were recordings that he never really got paid for royalty-wise, given the nature of the indie music business.
AD: You’ve done a lot of livestreams and connected with fans over the internet as the pandemic has dragged on. What has being off the road and off the stage revealed to you about your relationship with music?
Gary Lucas: That I still love and enjoy making music and playing for people at this stage of the game 40 years out—even live-streaming to an invisible audience out there. It’s part of my DNA. Music is a calling for me. They say that “Many are called, but few get up.” Well, I heard the call, and I got up! To get the kind of encouraging feedback my fans leave on my livesteam posts makes the whole thing worthwhile to me because I feel like I gave something of value to folks in a positive way, if only to cheer them up during this horrible pandemic. It means a lot to them—and it certainly means a lot to me.