Gary Lucas likes to think of himself as a restorer of treasures asmuch as a musician. The New York guitarist, horror film fan andformer collaborator of Captain Beefheart and JeffBuckley is on the road playing his live soundtrack to Universal’shardly-seen 1931 Spanish-language version of Dracula. Lucas’s scoremade its debut in Havana in 2009; it gets its UKpremiere at Queen Elizabeth Hall as part of the 2010 London JazzFestival.
The project stems from a deep-rooted impulse to bring obscure gemsto a wider audience. “I’m always on the side of the underdog,” hesays. “Hey look, I went to Cuba!” This same impulse has him preachingthe good word of Beefheart in seminars, and curating tribute shows toBuckley. “People should know there were giants that walked the earth,you know?” It’s a refreshingly unselfish approach given that Lucashimself remains a largely unsung guitar hero.
The seeds of the Dracula project were sown when Lucas wasplaying his score to silent movie The Golem in South Korea, andwas approached by filmmaker Sebastian Doggart about using his music inDoggart’s documentary about Condoleezza Rice, American Faust.In exchange Doggart recommended Lucas to the organisers of an artsfestival in Havana. Lucas went in search of a project with a Latinangle and found the Spanish Dracula, made for the Hispanicmarket, and shot at night after the crew for the famous TodBrowning/Bela Lugosi version had gone home. Neither film has a musicscore as such. “There’s just a snatch of a theme from SwanLake in the credits, but other than that it was a very openplaying field for me. So I thought, OK, this’ll work.”
The piece premiered in a cinema in downtown Havana. “It got anamazing full house and it was really gratifying to me because it wasnot typical cineastes, you know, film festival specialists. It waslike common folk from the neighbourhood, from round the way.” Sincethen Lucas has played the piece outside a crumbling Transylvaniancastle, in New York and Sevilla. For his London appearance, he issharing the bill with a Frankenstein-inspired multimedia workfeaturing trumpeter Dave Douglas.
” The Spanish Dracula should be much better known. Ithink it’s clearly superior to the Bela Lugosi Dracula in somany aspects.” – Gary Lucas
“For me, the Spanish Dracula should be much better known. Ithink it’s clearly superior to the Bela Lugosi Dracula in somany aspects. You know, that film – while it’s got some greatperformances, it’s very much a static photographed stage play. Andthe Spanish Dracula has really fluid camera movements, and somebeautiful composition, lighting, the costumes are superior… It hasthat Latin thing: it’s a hot-blooded excursion into the macabre.Universal horror films, they were able to do so much with atmosphere,something that’s so lacking in, you know, Saw 4 or Hostel3D. I got really disinterested in the genre in about 1970, Igotta say. As soon as they got into overt displays of gore, they lostme.”
Lucas’s love of the golden age of Universal horror is evident withGods & Monsters, his long running band whose alumni include a certainJeff Buckley. The band’s name is a nod to Bride of Frankenstein.
“You see, I’ve had that horror movie bug since I was a little boy.I used to show them in my basement, you know, I had edited 8mmversions of Bride of Frankenstein, Dracula, TheMummy. And when I put Gods & Monsters together, I thought,’that’s a cool name for a band’.” The female singer, Buckley’spredecessor whose name Lucas won’t reveal, wasn’t so keen. “Shethought it sounded too male-dominated, and I was like, ‘what, do youwant to call it Goddesses & Monsters?’ She didn’t have a sense ofhumour.
“So it wasn’t going very well with her at the time I met Jeff, andit was frustrating to me, and I was thinking, ‘Boy, I’d really like toget a male vocalist.’ You know, I was listening to a lot of LedZeppelin and The Doors – classic rock bands that had aguitar hero and a great lead singer.” When Buckley first introducedhimself to Lucas, it was as an awestruck fan. “He was way respectful,I mean he came up to me and said ‘You’re Gary Lucas, I love yourstuff, man, I read about you in Guitar Player.’ When we got to playtogether we had so much love of similar styles of guitar music.”
Buzzing from their encounter, Lucas went on tour to Europe insupport of his debut album Skeleton at the Feast, which was gettingrave reviews. “I went back to the States, all excited, and the peopleat the label, the A&R guy was like, ‘We’ve decided to drop the wholeproject with the girl singer.’ And I was like ‘What?! We have acontract!’ And he said – I’ll never forget this – ‘You can’t afford tosue us.’ Yeah, really! Hard nuts, man. Amazing. And I’d left a dayjob, I’d put everything on the line.
“I’ve had that horror movie bug since I was a little boy.I used to show them in my basement…” – Gary Lucas
“So I’m way out on a limb, I don’t have health insurance any more…and I said, I gotta come up now with some music for Jeff. So I juststarted to write, in a kind of trance. Which is how I compose thesehorror film soundtracks too – it’s like automatic writing orsomething, the spirit will move from wherever it comes if you turn offthe conscious mind and just start passing your fingers over thestrings – you’ll herd magic notes. And I had a great week, because inone week the music for both Grace and Mojo Pin got written as sologuitar instrumentals, and I sent them to Jeff.
“And then he came back in the summer of ’91, playing bass in aroadshow to promote the film The Commitments. He stops off inNew York, and he comes over and says ‘OK, I’ve given titles to thesethings’. Grace was originally called Rise Up To Be – it was kind oftrying to give Jeff a message, you know, rise up to be the rock starof your dreams, move to New York, fulfil your potential. So he says,’OK, you know that one called Rise Up To Be? Now it’s called Grace.’And he pulls out a book of poetry, I start playing and he startssinging: ‘There’s the moon asking to stay…’ and it was uncanny,because it fit my guitar part like a glove. He had an absolute knackof finding an indelible melody, a really good lyric and interweavingit into the nature of these instrumentals. It was the bestpartnership of a collaborative nature that I’ve ever had.” The pair’srecordings together yielded the 2002 collection Songs To No One, andLucas says that there remains a handful of yet-to-be-released demoswhich will “knock your socks off”.
So, back to Dracula…
“Look, I’ll tell you how it ties in, because it’s like anothertreasure, an unknown, lost treasure – more obscure than Jeff andBeefheart but still a treasure. And people oughta see it, becauseit’s a fucking great film.”
A great deal of Lucas’s score is improvised in the moment. “Myapproach is kind of the approach of an old-time silent movieaccompanist. I have my themes and I know this film really intimately,I’ve looked at it hundreds of times, but I change it up because itmakes it more interesting every time I play it. So when I’m in themoment I really like to go back and forth from written-out themes thatget reprised and modified to just pure, on-the-spot, daredevil kind ofthings.”
“He had an absolute knackof finding an indelible melody, a really good lyric and interweavingit into the nature of these instrumentals…” – Gary Lucas on Jeff Buckley
This spontaneous approach has been in Lucas’s blood since his daysof playing French horn in high school. “I was tossed out of my highschool band for improvising on a march. I thought I was jazzing itup! With Beefheart I didn’t mind the non-improvisational elementbecause the music was so challenging and forceful, but generallyspeaking, I’m an improviser. That’s why I guess I’m in a jazzfestival.”
Lucas describes himself “a student of great film music”, and hisfavourite composers for celluloid include Florian Fricke,Franz Waxman and Bernard Hermann. “They were allinfluenced by Romantic music: you can hear traces in Vertigo ofWagner, the Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde. I think that wehave a similar impulse in putting music to picture, which is toenhance the picture, never to be louder – you know what I mean? – thanthe picture itself.”
In this project, unlike The Golem, Lucas has the challengeof dialogue to navigate around. “There’s more breathing going on.I’m inter-reacting with the music of the dialogue, which in Spanish isvery mellifluous. You know, Dracula says “Soy Drcula!” – I amDracula! – when Renfield comes to his castle. It’s a very dramaticmoment, and I just stop. I couldn’t compete with that, you know? SoI let certain lines ring out.”
The extracts of the score available on YouTube attest to the spookymagic of this particular marriage between film and music. NextSunday, Londoners will have a chance to witness it first hand, whileLucas – a committed Anglophile – will have a chance to stock up on hisfavourite English snacks. “I have Marmite on a bagel, that’s what Ilike, and I love chicken & mushroom pies, Walkers… yeah, man.”
Frankenstein v Dracula plays at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall as part of the 2010 London Jazz Festival on Sunday 21 November.