Gary Lucas has had an extraordinary career whose best-known moments perhaps relate to his time with Captain Beefheart, Jeff Buckley, and his own band, Gods and Monsters.
This interview was originally conducted by Paul Rigg for Planet Guitar.
However, he has also had a lifetime relationship with Italy, which is much less known. Today Gearnews explores this facet of Lucas’s life, starting with his birth on 20 June 1952 in the town of Syracuse, New York.
Gary Lucas Interview: La Dolce Vita
Gearnews: Syracuse was named after its namesake in Sicily. Have you ever been there?
Gary Lucas: No; I have played in Palermo and Capo D’Orlando, but never made it to Syracuse. It’s on the agenda! One of my favourite foods is rice balls with Ragu, Arancini. I’m pretty much teetotal but I do love Limoncello and Amaretto after dinner…
GN: You started playing guitar at nine. Some of your best-known include a 1920s National Steel, a Firebird, a Mexican Strat, and a vintage Tele – but you also use Italian Dophix overdrive pedals…
GL: Yes, my favourite is The Lussurria…it’s got a warmth and the sweetest tone of any distortion pedal. Plus, it is lit underneath, which enables me to see what I’m doing in the dark!
GN: Your first big impetus in music was with Don Van Vliet, better known as Captain Beefheart. He played the Rome Pop Festival in 1968, but not in Italy after that – did he prefer the US?
GL: No, I think he was just at the whim of the booking agents. He would have loved to play in Italy; he appreciated the culture.
GN: After Beefheart retired, you continued with the Magic Band; was that a happy time for you?
GL: Yes. Our mission was to play as close to the original recordings as possible. We did a lot of work with Frank Zappa’s Denny Walley, John French, and Mark Boston. Robert Williams played drums on the tours; they were a lot of fun.
GN: Then in 2012 you played in Sardinia at the Santa Arresi Jazz Festival …
GL: Yes, that was great! A very warm audience – and I especially remember the fantastic sea food!
GN: You also worked with Italian vocalist Alessio Franchini…
GL: That came about because the president of the Italian Jeff Buckley fan club, Annarita Mancini, based in Rimini, put together a tribute, and it was then that Alessio and I bonded. He was a huge Buckley fan, and we did a lot of shows together. I got a lifetime achievement award where we played together and did the “Moon in June Festival” – named after a Robert Wyatt Soft Machine song- in Umbria.
Gary’s achievements as a writer
GN: Your trip in September 2012 coincided with the publication of your book, ‘Touched by Grace—La Mia Musica con Jeff Buckley’; how was that received?
GL: Very well! It came out in Italian first, and got super write-ups. It is a thing of beauty, but weighs a ton!
GN: People might not be aware that you write a lot…
GL: I won a National Council of English Teachers Award as a writer, which helped me get to Yale University where I studied English literature. I penned an article for Italian Rolling Stone entitled “La Via Mia in 10 Canzoni” [Gary Lucas: My Life in 10 Songs], which was well-received…
GN: In 2013 you performed a Buckley tribute at the Barezzi Festival in Parma, Italy, with Vinicio Caposella. How was that received?
GL: It was a dream gig; I love Vinicio. I played for about 2-3 hours in a trance and then had a spectacular meal in a restaurant where I discovered the music of an amazing singer, Lhasa de Sela. I highly recommend her album The Living Road.
Tales from Touring
GN: Later, you worked with Mari Conti, of Zero 7, with whom you wrote an unreleased song ‘You will see my flame again’; is that right?
GL: Yes. It was based on an instrumental that I sent to Jeff just before he died. He had asked me to send him music in the last year of his life. I would write all the riffs and harmonic structure on guitar, and he would come back with perfect lyrics and a melody every time. So, I gave this instrumental to Mari, and we performed it in Northern Italy; when we are together we always play that song.
GN: From all your touring do you have any fan anecdotes?
GL: In Sydney I met a lovely lady named Natalie Bambi who asked me to use a sharpie to autograph her arm, and she went and got a tattoo of it. That only happened once before, with an Italian fan named Gigi who had the first bars of “Mojo Pin”, which I co-wrote with Jeff, tattooed on his forearm.
Life After Lockdown
GN: To close, could you tell us about how you dealt with lockdown and the projects you’ve been involved in since?
GL: Like everybody I was in denial at the start. Right away I wanted to do live-streaming to keep visible. I put around 100 up on YouTube and my webpage, and I got an amazing response. In fact, one of my regular viewers in Sydney arranged my recent tour of Australia after watching it!
I recorded a duo album ‘Double Dare’ with an Award-winning young Dutch bassist Peter Willems, which we hope to take out on the road in the fall, plus an EP with the French singer Yass Body, which we recorded in Normandie, France.
Also a free jazz duo album with the composer/percussionist Lukas Ligeti; an album with vocalist Dorothy Moskowitz, of the 60’s psychedelic group The United States of America; a solo acoustic album entitled ‘Cool Hand Luke’ recorded in Prague; and Vol, 2 and 3 of my Chinese pop project ‘The Edge of Heaven’ featuring Feifei Yang on vocals and Jason Candler on sax. You can hear Feifei and I on our version of the Dylan classic “All Along the Watchtower“.
So yes, I’ve been busy! I intend to keep going until death, as they say!
More about Gary Lucas:
*Note: This article blends Gary Lucas’ text responses with his answers from the Zoom interview of 17 April 2023, it also contains promotional links that help us fund our site. Don’t worry: the price for you always stays the same! We will receive a small commission if you buy something through these links. We appreciate your support!
- Gary Lucas at Villa Ada Rome Italy 07/21/19: Paolo Soriani
- Gary Lucas in Rome, 07/21/2019: Paolo Soriani
- Gary Lucas in Bologna, 03/22/2015: Andrea Bernardi