By: Justin Beckner
Recently we had the opportunity chat with a very prolific guitarist named Gary Lucas. Gary has collaborated with other musicians, including Captain Beefheart, Jeff Buckley, Iggy Pop, Chris Cornell, Lou Reed, John Cale, Nick Cave, Dr. John, to name just a few. He has collaborated on several occasions recently with an equally prolific vocalist named Jann Klose. Jann has worked with Renaissance's Annie Haslam, Yardbirds' Jim McCarty and Ann Hampton Callaway to name a few. Their most recent album together was titled Stereopticon and has been very well received by critics and fans alike.
One cool thing that I was happy to hear about was that you recorded Stereopticon using 2” tape.
Gary: I prefer using two inch tape whenever possible, but there aren’t a lot of opportunities to do that in most studios these days. I had worked here previously in this great room called ‘The Maid’s Room’ which is kind of like a home studio. It’s a very cozy setup run by a great guy, Jack McKeever, and I knew of it for a few years because my late partner, Jeff Buckley, was a friend of this guy’s. Rufus Wainwright used to hang out and record there as well. A lot of people are hip to it, but it’s kind of still a secret. We’re not allowed to say too much about it. But when the possibility of recording this came up I definitely spoke up in favor of working there, principally because of that capability. Stuff sounds, to my ears, so much warmer on analog tape. I’m old school that way.
Jann: I agree with Gary on the sound of two inch tape. A lot of people will say that anything else sounds better or just as good now. And it’s true. Recording technology has come a long, long way in just the last few years. It really depends on what you’re doing. What we were trying to achieve was to record two musicians live. So two inch tape was available to us and it made a lot of sense to do that way because it created an immediacy that I think really served the material and us as artists very well. The studio itself is basically Jack’s apartment. It’s a lot of drilling through walls and a lot of cable going everywhere.
Gary: It’s got a huge board, too, that is really amazing. It’s just so cozy with tons of vintage stuff everywhere. It’s a great place.
Sometimes when you get to record in great spaces like that you get some vintage stuff to work with. What sort of vintage gems did you get to use on this album that helped bring out that vintage feel?
Jann: Yeah we used what was there, so he had a lot of vintage mics that he set up, and then of course the vintage board. I think that’s why we got the sound we got.
Gary: I brought my favorite guitar which is an old Gibson J-45 Acoustic from 1946. This is the guitar I’ve played nearly every day of my life since I got it in ’88 or ’89. I used it with Jeff Buckley. It’s my workhorse acoustic. It’s my only acoustic, actually… I mean I have a National steel from the ‘20s, but I got rid of all my modern acoustic guitars. I’m not a big guitar collector, but the ones I do own are gems; they’re vintage for sure. I prefer vintage models. I like to use the equipment at hand. I don’t have a lot of space to collect stuff just for it to sit around. So that was the main guitar on the record. His setup, you’d really like it if you saw it, everything is integrated in a space saving kind of way, and yet you don’t feel like you’re in too constrictive of a place… it’s very congenial.
What is it about that vintage gear that makes it sound better than anything that’s made today?
Jann: I don’t know about “better”... I don’t know if that’s the right word. I think you can get all of those sounds now digitally and it’s really hard to tell the difference for the general public. But for me, I am an audiophile, I prefer putting on an album on a record player. I didn’t grow up with records, I grew up with tapes and CDs. So for me, going back to vinyl is much more enjoyable and I do think it sounds better. I don’t think there’s a question. I just don’t know if most people can tell. It’s so much cheaper to record without vintage gear, and you have so many people who are recording at home by themselves with digital gear that almost anyone has access to. We just had another legendary New York recording studio called The Magic Shop close because there just isn’t enough business for these great sounding rooms. David Bowie’s Blackstar was recorded there. It’s an amazing record, it sounds incredible. I just don’t think you can get that kind of a sound just anywhere. It’s unfortunate that it’s changing, but it is what it is. It’s a sign of the times.
Gary: As far as analog versus digital, I tend to favor analog only because I grew up with it and I know when CDs came in I could hear a tin ear sound coming through the speakers. It was clearer in many ways and certain parts popped out more graphically, but I just could tell it was not as rich an experience as the analog experience. Then my ears shifted from hearing it so much, and I even accept mp3s now because that’s what everybody sends each other now. I think whenever the choice is given, I will go back to analog for almost the same reason that I don’t like -in bigger productions with large ensembles- using click tracks. I love it when the time kind of is elastic and wanders a little bit. If you listen to the old Rolling Stones records, not only are they out of tune on a lot of them, but the groove just shifts. Like if you put a metronome to a track, you would be all over the place. But there was a swing to it and a natural breathing. It sounded so lifelike, you could tell that those guys were just really belting it out in a room and they’ve got the experience orally captured. I like that. I prefer older recordings for that reason.
Jann: Even on Stereopticon there are several mistakes. We shouldn’t print that, maybe, but honestly we decided to keep stuff in there because it has the immediate live feel. When I say mistakes I don’t mean anything crazy, but it’s not perfect and I don’t think it’s supposed to be.
Perfection seems kind of boring to me.
Gary: I agree. You said it.
Speaking of “not boring,” tell us about the new record, Fleischerei, based on old cartoons…
Gary: That was an opportunity that came along. I had always intended to do that record. I thought it was a worthy project because I love those old Betty Boop and Popeye cartoons. The soundtracks always cracked me up. I always loved that era of music from the early ‘30s Broadway and Tin Pan Alley. This project, I’ve got to say, out of all the projects I’ve been involved in, I think this one is the most direct, commercial, and easiest to get an audience and get people to listen to it. What’s not to like about it? It’s really excellent singing and great playing and catchy songs that make you want to go back and listen again and again. That was the goal. We kept everything really short, as if we were making singles, you know, about two minutes thirty seconds or three minute songs. It’s all hook driven and melodically engaging. We put a lot of craft and care into it. Some of these songs kind of wrote themselves, they weren’t labored over in any sense.
You’ve both been involved in so many projects that span so many facets of music, what project was the most challenging for you?
Jann: Oh boy, I would say that any time you want to put an album out, you’re always going against the current, it seems. I think that’s true at every level. There’s just so much out there now and so much of it is self-released and there’s just a lot less money to go around. It tends to make me a lot more focused. But I’ve never known the industry as anything but what it is now. I came up in it in the early 2000s when it was falling apart. I always felt like that forced me to focus and be detailed and pay attention to every little thing, because you really only have that one shot. So far we’re doing pretty well with this one. We’re planning to tour some this spring as well.
Gary: I agree with Jann. This record was so much fun to make and I think that’s why people respond to it so positively… because they can hear two individuals having a good time in writing and performing the songs. There was a real comradery that we felt in the studio that I think translates in these songs. But for me to answer your question as to what the most challenging project has been from a musical standpoint, well, a couple of years ago I was asked to arrange for solo electric guitar, a movement of the 8th symphony of Anton Bruckner, an Austrian classical composer who was prominent in the 19th century. This project was initiated by Professor Sandy Pearlman who you may know as the producer of Blue Oyster Cult and the second Clash album. Sandy was teaching at McGill University’s School of Music. The class was Bruckner’s Heavy Metal and I was his stooge, or his guinea pig, on this project to do a heavy metal guitar arrangement of Bruckner’s 4th Movement of the 8th Symphony. So I did it by ear. I do a lot of classical transcriptions my way in open tunings and using my ears. I did that with Beefheart’s music too, which was very difficult, but this was way difficult because it was a symphonic piece with a lot of moving parts. So I naturally had to reduce it to the limitations of the guitar, but they were all really thrilled with the piece I did eventually came up with. They filmed me playing it in front of his class on CBC. But it took a hell of a long time. I mean if I got five seconds of music after a few hours working on it, I was happy. I was doing it without a score in front of me, it was just all by ear. That was the most difficult thing I did. Plus, I memorized it because I didn’t score it out. But I reduced the 20 minute movement down to about 7 for the arrangement.
Do you ever use sheet music or any sort of formal scoring?
Gary: I can and I do from time to time. I took guitar lessons for two months when I was nine and I simultaneously took French horn lessons. That’s how I was introduced to it, elementary school band. I prefer not to use it because I prefer the immediacy of head arrangement if it’s more complex music with an ensemble, getting people to just come up with parts rather than writing out the parts for everybody. I respect people who do that, but to me it just seems like work. Beefheart used to say that sheet music was just black ants crawling across white paper. That’s how it looked to me. Zappa had a piece called “The Black Page” which was completely densely notated music with zillions of staffs and halfs and sharps and flats. So I think everything has its place… but for me, I prefer more of an improvisatory approach. I know Jann can read sheet music as well. I know the first time I sat in with his band he was doing charting stuff backstage.
Jann: I can’t chart, myself, but I can read ok. I did study voice for a couple of years when I lived in Cleveland, Ohio and sang with the Cleveland Opera Chorus. That really prepped me for a lot of stuff. Then I did Broadway when I first moved to New York. So I can’t chart, myself, but I can always find somebody who can help me out and do it.
You two seem to have a pretty special collaborative relationship. What is it about your relationship that makes you so prolific? What makes your relationship work?
Gary: I just liked Jann a lot as a person when I met him. That was important. So intuitively I thought, “This is a really nice guy” and he’s so good singing. I was doing a tribute to Jeff Buckley and he came on the bill under recommendation and I heard him sing and I was just blown away. So when we got the idea to work together, I had a feeling it was going to work. I didn’t know for sure, but I didn’t feel uncomfortable going in. I had a lot of anticipation, I was eager to work with him and it was really gratifying to see that it worked so smoothly. We seem to just be on the same page. It was easy. We pay more attention to slow the process down when it comes to lyrics and we brought in our friend Dan Beck who wrote lyrics professionally for Dion and Felix Cavaliere and a lot of people. We did that just to get another flavor in there. But musically, I could put a guitar piece in front of him and he would immediately come up with beautiful parts, just scatting the parts. The only person I could think of who was in the same ballpark was Jeff Buckley, who was very gifted, and I always just trusted Jeff. I knew that he knew what he had to do every time I would give him a piece and I didn’t have to worry. It’s the same with Jann. He has an uncanny way of coming up with musical parts with his voice that fit these instrumental pieces of mine like a glove.
Jann: Hashtag blush.
Gary: But it’s true. It isn’t easy. A lot of guys like Jerry Harrison, God bless him, who produced the last Gods and Mice album two years ago. He used to say, “Man, Gary your music is really difficult” and I’m like, “What are you talking about?” I don’t think it is. Here he is a pretty advanced musician with Talking Heads when they were around, and Jann didn’t have any problem with it. He knew exactly where to go. I didn’t have to show him. I’m lucky to have met this guy. A lot of time collaborations will come by chance or you just get thrown together with people. Other times I’ll try to get some sort of a process of an audition going… but I knew right away that it would work.
Jann: I think what makes our collaboration work is the hat and the sunglasses. Well look, when we were first starting to talk I was thinking like, “How did I end up here?” I grew up listening to Jeff in high school and college and I always remember seeing the name G. Lucas on the liner notes, because I always read the liner notes on every album that I liked; I would always look it up and research it, just because I was interested. So it was J. Buckley and G. Lucas on the Grace album and I never really went any further than that other than looking up who it was, but I never forgot it. This was in like 1997 because I discovered Grace a few years after it came out, but I was really into it. It was like a good book that I couldn’t put down. Then I started getting involved with the Buckley Tributes in Chicago, and then with the one in New York that Gary curated. At that point I had developed a lot on my own and I was confident, so when we met I was just able to be myself even though he was this person I was so impressed by. I remember one of the first things he ever said to me was like, “So you’re from Germany? Do you have an agent there? Hook me up!”
Gary: I’m always looking for opportunities to upgrade.
Jann: So then I knew he was just a regular guy who happened to be a great guitarist and songwriter and he’s looking for a gig, just like me. Even though there is some time between us, I always felt as though I was working with a contemporary and a friend.
You mentioned a tour this spring. Do you have details on that yet? Will you be going abroad or will it be confined to the US?
Jann: It’s going to be US, very select dates. We’ll be doing New York, Nashville, and maybe a couple other ones just to start out with. It’s starting to come together. That’s what we’re working on right now.
Maybe it’s too soon to ask this, but, is there anything else in the works? Is the writing process with you two pretty continuous?
Gary: Yeah, were planning to get together again pretty soon to start writing again; we had such good results. It was a long time coming, but every time we get together we’d come up with what we thought were really top shelf songs. It’s like ear candy to me. So we’re hoping that guys like you will spread the word because it’s tough these days to get heard among the din of all the competing stuff. Every day, hundreds of tracks go online, but we think our stuff could cut through it. We’re both very competitive people regarding our project. We trust that good music will out.
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