Music Interviews

Interview: Gary Lucas

Gary Lucas likes to think of himself as a restorer of treasures as much as a musician. The New York guitarist, horror film fan and former collaborator of Captain Beefheart and Jeff Buckley is on the road playing his live soundtrack to Universal’s hardly-seen 1931 Spanish-language version of Dracula. Lucas’s scoremade its debut in Havana in 2009; it gets its UK premiere at Queen Elizabeth Hall as part of the 2010 London Jazz Festival.

The project stems from a deep-rooted impulse to bring obscure gems to a wider audience. “I’m always on the side of the underdog,” hesays. “Hey look, I went to Cuba!” This same impulse has him preaching the good word of Beefheart in seminars, and curating tribute shows to Buckley. “People should know there were giants that walked the earth, you know?” It’s a refreshingly unselfish approach given that Lucas himself 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, and was 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 arts festival in Havana. Lucas went in search of a project with a Latin angle and found the Spanish Dracula, made for the Hispanic market, and shot at night after the crew for the famous Tod Browning/Bela Lugosi version had gone home. Neither film has a music score as such. “There’s just a snatch of a theme from Swan Lake in the credits, but other than that it was a very open playing field for me. So I thought, OK, this’ll work.”

The piece premiered in a cinema in downtown Havana. “It got an amazing full house and it was really gratifying to me because it was not typical cineastes, you know, film festival specialists. It was like common folk from the neighbourhood, from round the way.” Since then Lucas has played the piece outside a crumbling Transylvanian castle, in New York and Sevilla. For his London appearance, he is sharing the bill with a Frankenstein-inspired multimedia work featuring 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 so many aspects. You know, that film – while it’s got some great performances, it’s very much a static photographed stage play. Andthe Spanish Dracula has really fluid camera movements, and some beautiful composition, lighting, the costumes are superior… It has that 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, I gotta say. As soon as they got into overt displays of gore, they lost me.”

Lucas’s love of the golden age of Universal horror is evident with Gods & Monsters, his long running band whose alumni include a certain Jeff 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 8mm versions of Bride of Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy. And when I put Gods & Monsters together, I thought,’that’s a cool name for a band’.” The female singer, Buckley’s predecessor whose name Lucas won’t reveal, wasn’t so keen. “She thought it sounded too male-dominated, and I was like, ‘what, do you want to call it Goddesses & Monsters?’ She didn’t have a sense of humour.

“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 Led Zeppelin and The Doors – classic rock bands that had aguitar hero and a great lead singer.” When Buckley first introduced himself 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 your stuff, man, I read about you in Guitar Player.’ When we got to play together 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 getting rave reviews. “I went back to the States, all excited, and the people at the label, the A&R guy was like, ‘We’ve decided to drop the whole project with the girl singer.’ And I was like ‘What?! We have a contract!’ And he said – I’ll never forget this – ‘You can’t afford to sue us.’ Yeah, really! Hard nuts, man. Amazing. And I’d left a day job, 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 just started to write, in a kind of trance. Which is how I compose these horror film soundtracks too – it’s like automatic writing or something, the spirit will move from wherever it comes if you turn off the conscious mind and just start passing your fingers over the strings – you’ll herd magic notes. And I had a great week, because in one week the music for both Grace and Mojo Pin got written as solo guitar instrumentals, and I sent them to Jeff.

“And then he came back in the summer of ’91, playing bass in a roadshow to promote the film The Commitments. He stops off in New York, and he comes over and says ‘OK, I’ve given titles to these things’. 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 star of 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 starts singing: ‘There’s the moon asking to stay…’ and it was uncanny, because it fit my guitar part like a glove. He had an absolute knack of finding an indelible melody, a really good lyric and interweaving it into the nature of these instrumentals. It was the best partnership of a collaborative nature that I’ve ever had.” The pair’s recordings together yielded the 2002 collection Songs To No One, and Lucas says that there remains a handful of yet-to-be-released demos which will “knock your socks off”.

So, back to Dracula…

“Look, I’ll tell you how it ties in, because it’s like another treasure, an unknown, lost treasure – more obscure than Jeff and Beefheart but still a treasure. And people oughta see it, because it’s a fucking great film.”

A great deal of Lucas’s score is improvised in the moment. “My approach is kind of the approach of an old-time silent movie accompanist. 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 it makes it more interesting every time I play it. So when I’m in the moment I really like to go back and forth from written-out themes that get reprised and modified to just pure, on-the-spot, daredevil kind ofthings.”

“He had an absolute knack of finding an indelible melody, a really good lyric and interweaving it into the nature of these instrumentals…”
– Gary Lucas on Jeff Buckley

This spontaneous approach has been in Lucas’s blood since his days of playing French horn in high school. “I was tossed out of my high school band for improvising on a march. I thought I was jazzing it up! With Beefheart I didn’t mind the non-improvisational element because the music was so challenging and forceful, but generally speaking, I’m an improviser. That’s why I guess I’m in a jazz festival.”

Lucas describes himself “a student of great film music”, and his favourite composers for celluloid include Florian FrickeFranz Waxman and Bernard Hermann. “They were all influenced by Romantic music: you can hear traces in Vertigo of Wagner, the Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde. I think that we have a similar impulse in putting music to picture, which is to enhance the picture, never to be louder – you know what I mean? – than the 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 is very mellifluous. You know, Dracula says “Soy Dracula!” – I am Dracula! – when Renfield comes to his castle. It’s a very dramatic moment, and I just stop. I couldn’t compete with that, you know? So I let certain lines ring out.”

The extracts of the score available on YouTube attest to the spooky magic of this particular marriage between film and music. Next Sunday, Londoners will have a chance to witness it first hand, while Lucas – a committed Anglophile – will have a chance to stock up on his favourite English snacks. “I have Marmite on a bagel, that’s what I like, 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.

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Interview: Gary Lucas