Interview: Gary Lucas brings a State of Grace
Tim and Jeff Buckley’s legacy has inspired generations of musicians and listeners. The world premiere event “A State of Grace” celebrates their brilliant, complicated lives and music in a moving, definitive portrait. We speak to Gary Lucas, the legendary New York guitarist/composer who worked closely with Jeff, co-writing the immortal songs ‘Grace’ and ‘Mojo Pin’:
Hi Gary and thanks for taking the time out to speak with us at Something You Said. Australia will be honoured with the global premier of A State of Grace, was there a desire to start in Australia or quite simply a logistically sensible place to start the tour?
Well that’s a question you could ask the producers Gaynor Crawford and Kirsten Siddle, they initiated the idea. I have done many tributes to Jeff (Buckley) and I actually met Jeff on a tribute to Tim (Buckley) years ago but this was the first time someone proposed combining a tribute to both Tim and Jeff. As far as I know it is totally unique. I think it does make a bit of sense to start logistically in Australia but Australia could have per capita more Jeff Buckley fans than any other country in the world and I know Tim had a solid fan base there. I think because it originated with an Australian production team it made perfect sense to begin in Australia.
How did this project come to be, was it something you had on the back burner for some time or an appealing concept that was pitched to you just recently?
Kristen Siddle who was then with the Melbourne Recital Centre came to me in New York with this idea and proposed it over lunch. Her partner Gaynor Crawford who I knew from previous attempts at touring Gods and Monsters, provided the kind of text / narrative and the continuity of the music.
I have been doing Jeff tributes of sorts all around the globe on a small micro level and large macro level with orchestras and so on. I have done them in lots of shapes and forms but this really appealed to me when they first proposed it. I was really eager to run with it.
As musical director for the showcase, what creative insights do you bring to this project?
The insights that I am happy to communicate and share, really if anyone has listened closely to both Tim and Jeff would have noticed that Jeff who is certainly the better known of the pair, was profoundly influenced by the music of Tim Buckley in so many ways.
By doing the press and promotion for Grace, Jeff tried to put a distance there which is understandable. You could even say it is a classic father and son relationship in so far as the son is eager to make a mark as his own person, especially with artists. On the other hand as the old saying goes, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. There was a connection there for sure and I recognised it immediately, it was so obvious to me when I heard Jeff sing that probably his biggest influence, vocally, was Tim Buckley. There may have been lyrics that were directly inspired by his father but actually it is not so much the point of the show other than to celebrate beautiful music of these two genius artists. That is the overriding concept, so as far as creative insights, we are trying to do as respectful and beautifully framed setting for these songs. The songs are so alive and vibrant, they are classic and timeless songs that have a resonance far beyond most artists. If you look at the actual level of artistry, both Tim and Jeff were operating at ultra-high frequency and it may have stopped them getting mass acceptance because of it so it is not something to condemn but to celebrate.
To my own taste I never really go the pop/mainstream way. I love the Bee Gees, I love Led Zeppelin, I love The Beatles, I love many classic rock acts and current artists too. I can mention some mega iconic figures but I tend to look towards the more underground, more personal expression that may not capture the mass audiences taste. Now, Jeff probably crossed over, certainly in Australia as he is regarded as a superstar, in the United States, it’s another story, he had a struggle because it was music that didn’t get much play on MTV or FM radio despite the quality of it. Jeff wasn’t everybody’s taste given the taste of many American people. Anyway, all that is to say is the whole idea of mounting a tribute to the two of them is an awesome task and a lovely challenge. Many people coming maybe Jeff fans now and leave as Tim fans and vice versa.
You have been in an unusual situation of playing tributes with not only two artists over two generations but in particular father and son. Were there similarities that you witnessed in Jeff that you that could also hear in Tim’s work?
If you really knew Tim’s work, to hear Jeff was to hear virtuoustic singing. I mean look at the vocal range of the two of them, it’s astonishing. The have an incredible ability to leave octaves and just do breathtaking things with their voices. Concerning the songwriting, both of them were out there pushing boundaries throughout their careers and they weren’t typical pop songs. With Tim in some sense could have been very popular. One of them was kind of popular, we are doing Morning Glory, a beautiful sound from Tim’s set. It’s like a spiritual anthem, so gorgeous and harmonious. This was covered on Blood, Sweat & Tears, and his very first album which came out in America. I don’t know how many people actually know this is a Tim Buckley song. That record did very well, I think it was in the number two slot on that record. To me, Tim actually had some songs that in an ideal world should have been hits. Jeff had a hit in terms of the overall album selling, I mean Grace I believe is now up to two million sales worldwide. I don’t want to get ghoulish but maybe he got more fans after he died which is terrible but nonetheless, in trying to market sales from that album Sony was not able to really get anything going internationally. I am not sure about Australia but I tend to think it was more Jeff in Australia with the strength of his live show than the overall album package that made him tremendously popular. Jeff and Tim were not really ‘singles’ kind of artists but they could have been if they got the radio play and were promoted but I don’t think either of them were really seeking that honestly. If you read interviews with both Tim and Jeff they are disparate with being pop ideals, at least that’s the idea you get from the press. It’s a wonderful chance anyway to lay out all this work to people and let’s hear what all you writers have to say when you hear the show because it is possible that people get turned on to Tim Buckley and he gets a renaissance, ala Nick Drake. The difference is that Tim got a chance to release eight full albums and Jeff only one album and the Sin-e EP when he was alive so with Jeff, he didn’t really have enough time on earth unfortunately to achieve his full potential but what he did do was staggering anyway. What can I say, it’s an embarrassment of riches, the song catalogues of both artists and if we had three or four hours to do the show we probably would have done more songs from Tim’s full career but we had to make some choices ultimately so it’s not like every album gets represented.
The musical pairing of yourself and Jeff reminds me of great duo’s like Morrissey and Johnny Marr where ones musical ability compliments the other to produce timeless classics known the world over. Do you feel that in anyone else’s hands Grace and Mojo Pin simply would not have been the memorable pieces they are?
Thank you!! Well they were heroes of mine and Jeff’s I can tell you that. We agreed on our very first get together to play. The first thing I heard him say was lets go get some lunch and it was right around the corner from where I am now here in the west village (New York) and we started to play that game of who is your favourite artist and it became clear that we both loved Led Zeppelin, The Doors and The Smiths, especially being the most recent iteration of classic guitar hero and lead singer. I had seen The Smiths, I think Jeff had seen them and they had a huge effect on me and I love their records. In fact, I sent Jeff the music for Grace and he sent me a back a tape and I think it was him doing a version of a Smiths song and it is something we talked about and is great that you recognise that.
I think there was a real chemistry, alchemy when we got together and I think Jeff knew it too. After I recorded on his Grace album I didn’t really hear from him until the record came out and I was really pleased with what he did with the riffs and am glad that people still like it and when I hear nice compliments like that I am glad people who are listening can pick that up.
How does it feel to revisit songs that you helped create such as Grace and Mojo Pin, being some 21 years after the fact?
Well I have never got tired of playing them, not those songs and lucky for us we are also doing a couple of other of his songs that are really strong and powerful. I just have total joy playing this stuff, I always have. I just love it and the fact that I get a chance to honour Jeff and Tim in the process is a wonderful thing. It’s a joy and I can’t wait to hit the stage with the band and I can tell you it is a really good band. I really pushed to get Gods and Monsters as the house band, I would have like to play with some Australia musicians because they are as good as anyone I know but I thought if we can work out of New York first, it will be a little more organic. One of the motifs that run throughout the band since I formed this band in 1989 is a slight element of improvisation so we will not play these songs the same way twice with the six shows. They are not going to be that radically different either but their forms, their soloing will change a little bit because we like to do that. Some people try to label my groups. My second record which was titled Gods and Monsters, Tower records in New York didn’t know where to file it. I found it once in the jazz section, somebody once said they found it in country. To me it was rock but that has always been the case with me and my music because it really crosses a lot of boundaries. To me it is not a stretch to play across all sorts of music within one set. I don’t like to stick with one genre or formula.
There is obviously a limited amount of Jeff’s material that you can draw upon but Tim’s work was more extensive, will there be a focus on any of his work in particular?
Well I would say the focus is basically on three albums and most of the songs come from his second album Goodbye and Hello which to me was like the Sgt Pepper in the US of that summer and also the next album which was entitled Happy Sad. I love these opposite titles. Some of it comes from another less well known album of his Blue Afternoon. With Jeff it is mainly Grace but some of it comes from an album with some of my earlier work entitled Songs to No One and that is missing five great anthems I wrote with Jeff and be that as it may I think it is great stuff so we will do a couple of songs off that. Those five songs I did with Jeff never saw the light of day and to me are as great as Grace and Mojo Pin. It’s kind of frustrating but that’s the music business. I can only hope that this music will one day surface officially.
It is often a collaboration of personalities that can make or break the success of the project. Would this venture not have been possible had it not be a case of working with individuals you admire such as Martha Wainwright?
I think that singers who we are honoured to be working with are just top notch and Martha is just a dream. I have so much respect for her as an artist, I don’t know how to describe her, she is haunting, like she is from another planet and Jeff had this element as well. When I first heard the playback of Grace, the demo which you can hear on the Songs to No One album, I was astounded at Jeff’s voices and he created this elven, super natural voice and Martha can pull the same sort of thing, she goes to the same places. These are the places I love, the zone in-between the light and the dark. So is Camille O’Sullivan, an Irish singer who is coming and Casper Clausen. This guy is awesome, I get shivers when I hear his stuff. Willy Mason and Steve Kilbey are blood and guts, rootsy musicians who have a very spiritual thing going on. Cold Specks to me is going to be the wild card of the show, I really love her vocal style and I have it on good authority that she has a wonderful stage presence. I think we have some of the greatest artists of our time contributing here.
How do you go about selecting the set list for the show and the process of choosing the right performer for the right song?
Well it wasn’t easy and we are still going through the final selection of who is going to sing what. Some things may get modified when we get together with these people and we will make a final decision. Some of it was driven by time constraints. Right now we have twenty songs, ten Tim and ten Jeff. A bunch of multimedia video clips and photos. We are trying to strike a balance and we will know more after rehearsals.
Aside from an amazing collection of artists performing Jeff and Tim’s work, there will be a collection of images and stories to accompany the performance, is that correct?
Oh yes, this is a mega multimedia tribute and I have contributed some rare footage I have of me and Jeff. I don’t want to give it all away, you’ll just have to come to the show.
I remember speaking with (Joan Wasser) Joan as Policewomen who was dating Jeff at the time of his passing and when I asked if she would be playing any tribute songs on her tour as it coincided with the 20 year anniversary of Grace, she said that she did not need to because she celebrates Jeff every day in her daily life. Music aside, what personal moments or exchanges did you share with Jeff that still resonate with you today?
Well I shared some great moments in the creation of these songs. There were moments where I just lit up because it was just so overwhelmingly great. I once wrote him a note saying that the songs were probably well beyond our own individual efforts and that’s the beauty of a great collaboration. What endures is the music and it resonates for all time. We hit a celestial tuning fork, particularly on these songs Grace and Mojo Pin and the vibrations that were set off are still ringing today.
You are a tireless musician working on many diverse projects, including your memoir. By trying your hand at other creative pursuits, does it help give you a renewed sense of vigour when coming back to musical projects?
Well first and foremost, the music became my life. I do enjoy writing to a degree and before I devoted myself to music I did more of it but I find writing to be a lonely and soloistic pursuit. When I am fully engaged in music, especially when I am in front of audiences I think it is like the greatest feeling on earth. It is music that renews me every time, it lifts me up out of the worst moments. It has the power and I respect it for that.
When I was younger I might have gone into film as I was making films before Super 8 and I thought that may have been the path I took but once I started to really apply myself to music, I thought this is what I am really meant to be doing.
I ask this question often but with someone of your calibre I am very curious to hear your response. What does music give you that nothing else does?
Unfulfilled joy. It is the most personal form of expression as like an intimate relationship with somebody, except that it is with an audience. So when it is really working and you feel this feedback and love coming back from the audience, it just builds and builds and it is the best. Zappa said, “music is the best” so I would have to agree. Other things can come close but it is just so profoundly satisfying when you are in the moment of making music, it’s addictive.
You have written as a music critic, does being on the other side of the coin give you a different perspective when approaching a musical task as opposed to being strictly a musician who normally pays no mind to how one would be reviewed and what musical achievements make a good review?
Well I can tell you as a former music critic, if I could go back and rewrite some of the reviews I wrote in my youth which I think were just snotty and hurtful to some musicians who I should have respected, I would do it. There was a period with a lot of people who were critics, that to make their mark they dismissed it without giving it a fair appraisal and at this stage in my life I can tell you that I honour and respect anyone trying to do anything creative in any form of media because I know how difficult it is. There is the creation and then there is finding the audience or selling it in the market place. It can be staggeringly difficult. I just try and do the best I can with the materials at hand. Lou Reed said “you do what you do, you do what you can”, I used to agonise over my work but I am not that precious anymore, you have to keep a healthy perspective.
You can see A State Of Grace at the following venues. Tickets from the usual places:
Wednesday 23 September 2015 – Melbourne Recital Centre, Melbourne Victoria
Friday 25 and Saturday 26 September 2015 – QPAC Concert Hall, Brisbane Queensland
Sunday 27 September 2015 – Enmore Theatre, Sydney New South Wales
Tuesday 29 September 2015 – Melbourne Recital Centre, Melbourne Victoria
Wednesday September 30 2015 – Canberra Theatre Centre, Canberra ACT
Interview by Courtney Dabb.