As guitar maverick Gary Lucas prepares to perform a live movie soundtrack at the Glasgow Film Festival, he opens up to Rob Garratt about his love of horror – and his relationship with iconic singer-songwriter Jeff Buckley.
The first thing I noticed about Gary Lucas, as he bustled through the door into our meeting room – early – was the sheer amount of stuff he was carrying.
Clutching a guitar case large enough for a cello, dragging an oversized suitcase and held upright by a ragged sports satchel, the pork pie hat atop his head completed the picture of an exotic, exhausted touring musician.
Below the pointed dark hat sprouted a mane of unkempt, brown curls, his wiry frame suspended in an un-ironed pink shirt, velvet jacket, skinny black jeans and shiny trainers.
The next thing I noticed about Lucas was his strong, enthusiastic – American even – handshake, and the third thing his voice. A cutting, nasal tone imbued with an unstoppable enthusiasm. Ask him a question and he’s off, barely stopping for breath, let alone thought; a veritable interviewers’ dream.
Which is convenient, given the sheer depth of material there is to cover – from his early work backing Captain Beefheart, from a decision in his mid-30s to ditch a comfy career in advertising to pursue a solo career, to working with Jeff Buckley, and going on to make records of everything from world music to acoustic blues to electronica. An interviewer’s dream, but a biographer’s nightmare.
Conveniently, we start in reverse with his latest project; providing a live soundtrack to a 1931 Spanish film of Dracula. Receiving its UK premiere as part of the London Jazz Festival in November, the role sees Lucas silhouetted beneath the screen, coaxing strange sounds from acoustic and electric guitars, adding smatterings of tension to heighten the film’s unnerving mood. Having seen the picture “around 100” times since picking it up on VHS for $1.98 in the late-90s, the lines between composition and improvisation have been blurred considerably, but Lucas maintains at least half of his work on the night is spontaneous, as he reacts to the moving pictures towering over him.
“I’m a double Gemini,” explains Lucas. “I can see not only two sides to everything but dozens of sides, and I can see all the angles and all the corners. My whole career is throwing light on dark corners, on things that would have been left to the trash of history. Dracula is a forgotten film – but it’s better than the Hollywood version. It’s shameful.”
It is that visionary thinking which has informed some of Lucas’ other idiosyncratic choices – such as recording an album of 1930s Shanghai pop songs. Originally conceived as a wedding present to a friend who was marrying a “Chinese sweetheart”, 2001’s The Edge of Heaven turned out to be one of his best success stories to date.
Elsewhere, alongside collaborations with talents as diverse as Leonard Bernstein, Lou Reed, John Cale and Nick Cave, Lucas’ own work includes electro duo Wild Rumpus, Beefheart tribute Fast n’ Bulbous, and a collaboration with Indian singer Najma Akhtar.
The Dracula project is not Lucas’ first horror film project, having performed a similar soundtrack concept to 1920s classic The Golem in more than 20 countries over the past decade.
His interest in the genre borders on an obsession. Growing up in Syracuse, New York state, Lucas collected 8mm copies of classic flicks and screened them in his basement for neighbourhood youths, charging a “nickel a time”, while in Yale University he founded a horror film society.
“Tuesdays at midnight would become a freakshow,” remembers Gary “People would come up, students fed up with studying, we’d have a mass catharsis, everyone was stoned, tripping and yelling at the screen.”
Later, it was Lucas’ passion for terror that lead to him calling his psychedelic rock outift Gods and Monsters.
While still going strong, celebrating a 20th anniversary last June and with a new LP pencilled for next year, the band will always be remembered for one of its earlier alumni – a little known lead singer called Jeff Buckley.
The very mention of the late star’s name makes Lucas’ eyes light up, Jeff the God to Dracula’s Monster. Today, it seems, the garrulous guitarist is happy to open up and share the intimate memories of his work with the awkward icon.
Lucas met Buckley in 1992, when he was tasked with helping to put together a tribute to Jeff’s troubadour father Tim Buckley, and the long lost son came forward to pay tribute. At the time Lucas was at a crossroads; having quit his lucrative advertising job with Sony a few years earlier, a record deal for Gods and Monsters first LP had just fallen through and he was feuding bitterly with the band’s first lead singer.
“I went down to rehearse and Jeff snuck into the rehearsal room and watched, unbeknownst to me,” remembers Lucas.
“I’m packing up my guitar and this kid comes up to me, right away I can tell it must be the son. He looked like Tim, he was on fire.
“He says ‘you’re Gary Lucas, I love your playing, I’ve seen you with Beefheart, I’ve read about you in a guitar magazine, I want to work with you.’
“He came round the next day and started to sing… I said ‘how incredible, you’re a fucking star’ – and he was like ‘really?’
“He was shy. And he was coming from this place where all these people were telling him ‘you suck, you’re terrible, people are only interested in you because of your dad – that junkie who died.’ Very heavy peer pressure. He wasn’t getting anywhere on his own.”
Once the tribute was out of the way Jeff returned to LA, but it was an unannounced cassette from Lucas in New York which gifted the singer two of his best-loved songs.
Lucas continues: “In one week I finished writing two instrumentals which I sent to Jeff. One was called Rise Up to Be – which is what I wanted to say to him; ‘move to New York and be a rock star.’
“He came up to my apartment and pulls out a book of poetry – a journal with unlined pages like poets use, he wrote his lyrics and drawings and dreams in this book.
“He said ‘this one is called Grace’ and he started singing. And it was all there. The only thing he changed was doubling one part for another verse. He left my music intact. I provided all the music.”
A few days later, Lucas booked a studio to make some demos – which later surfaced on the posthumous duets album Songs to No One.
In Gary’s words: “Jeff came down about five in the afternoon. I will never forget, I sat in the booth and he goes out there and sings Mojo Pin and Grace, it was just unbelievable, and he walks in and says ‘was that any good?’
“I walked out of the studio feeling like I had the atom bomb in my pocket. I thought this was going to shake the world, this music, it was so fresh and powerful.”
But after just a handful of incredible gigs Jeff quit Gods and Monsters and signed a solo record deal – a blow from which Lucas never quite recovered, despite agreeing to play the guitar parts of his two compositions on Jeff’s own record.
“At the time I was really heart broken,” says Lucas. “It was painful. You do the best you can with people… knowing Jeff and looking at him with the perspective of 16 years from that period, he clearly wanted to do his own thing. He had his fathers’ example.
“He was scared to commit to a thing. He wanted to be the whole show.”
While Jeff may have wanted it to be his name on the record sleeve, Lucas’ legacy is firmly imprinted on the singer’s finite body of work. The opening two tracks on Jeff’s only LP, Mojo Pin and Grace, will always occupy a treasured space to millions of music fans. This fact is not lost on Lucas – whatever weird and wonderful music he has recorded on his own and with others, he is quick to call those two songs his proudest moments.
“People are constantly telling me those songs changed their lives,” Lucas adds. “That to me, to get that kind of feedback, I feel I’m actually doing something positive in the world. If someone says that really helped me, it feels like there’s a reason for me to exist.”
* Gary Lucas performs his Dracula project at the 7th Glasgow Film Festival on February 21st.