Reaching Higher Ground with Lukas Nelson
A new interview with Douglas Heselgrave
Lukas Nelson and I had been playing telephone tag for almost two weeks when I caught him on the line as he was preparing to go out on a short tour jaunt opening for his father’s band in Arizona and California. We had just started chatting when Lukas said, ‘I gotta do some laundry here. I’m loading the washer. No, shit, that was the dryer. I’ve just put detergent in the dryer. I’ve got to call you back in a minute.”
While I was waiting for the phone to ring again, I started to think about how busy life has been for Lukas over the last year or so. A glance at the tour page on his website indicates an artist who doesn’t take much time off of the road, and with a recording schedule that has included recent sessions with his father, Shooter Jennings and a planned session with Bob Weir along with regular recording stops with the increasingly impressive, Promise of the Real and it’s amazing to think that Lukas has time to do anything at all except play music and that his clothes ever get washed.
I’ve talked with Lukas both formally and informally around a dozen times in the past two years, and I’ve always found him to be a person blessed with a poise and humility that one usually discovers in someone much older than him. Our discussions have always been frank and heartfelt, so I’ve never been surprised when Lukas reveals intimate details of his life and all the twists and turns of growing up in public with me, but during this most recent conversation, I sensed a slight change in Lukas. After a year of constant touring, he seemed to have matured and looked beyond the temptations of the non-stop partying that are a part of life on the road to look ahead into creating a future and career that are sustainable and enduring. These changes are reflected in many of the songs on his upcoming CD ‘Wasted’ that will be released on April 3rd of this year.
DH: Hey Lukas! Did you get the laundry disaster sorted out!
LN: Yeah, it’s my day to get ready to go out on the road.
DH: Are you going out in support of your new album?
LN: This is a short tour with my dad starting in Arizona.
DH: Are you playing with him or with Promise of the Real?
LN: My band is opening up for his band.
DH: The way it’s evolved over the past couple of years, you’re playing a very different kind of music than he is. How does your music go over with his audience?
LN: They’re usually really positive. We always have a good time opening for him.
DH: So, I’ve been listening to some songs streaming from your new album. It’s called ‘Wasted’ and that’s a powerful title with a lot of connotations. Wasted can refer to anything from a missed opportunity to exhaustion to abuse of drugs and alcohol. What were you thinking of when you came up with that title?
LN:I was on the Country Throwdown tour last summer and I was drinking every day. Every night and every day. It was a hell of a time. I’ve always been good at holding my alcohol. I wasn’t getting fall down drunk every day, but I was drinking all day long and for the first time in my life, I blacked out from drinking. I woke up and realized that this wasn’t ‘my life’ so that was the last time I drank like that. It was both a turning point for me, and something I did for my health in the bigger picture. The main reason that I quit wasn’t the alcohol itself; it was the choices I started to make while I was drinking. For the first time in my life, I took some pills while I was drinking and that is not the kind of thing I’d ever do. So, I nearly died. I started vomiting and I nearly choked on my vomit which is a way that some people I really admire – heroes of mine – died, so I took that as a message. I was really scared by that, but I lived and figured I had that close call for a reason. I made some changes after that.
DH: I might be reading into the lyrics, but as I listen to the songs on ‘Wasted’, it seems as if there’s a kind of narrative or philosophical thread running through them. It sounds as if a lot of these experiences and lessons have found their way into the songs.
LN: Absolutely, and for better or worse, I think that together they’re a snapshot of the lessons I’ve learned.
DH: When I talked to you last year, you told me that you’d given up your apartment to live on the road, and that exposes you to a lot of temptations and a lot of rootlessness, turmoil… Recently, in an email, you wrote that you’ve learned to hold back a bit and save your energy. When I met you in Bellingham, Washington a year or so ago, I was amazed by your generosity with people in the audience. You made time to talk to everyone.
LN: That’s still me. I haven’t changed as a person. I still talk to everybody I can.
DH: You are a naturally, utterly frank and friendly guy.
LN: I am. That’s me. But, I quit drinking a while ago and I’ve quit smoking for the time being so even though I like to hang out with people, after the show on the bus it’s usually filled with people smoking joints and I just have to protect my voice. I’ve found that I get really hoarse and congested from too much exposure to smoke, so I’ll take a weed candy every now and then, but I just can’t take the smoke in the same way. I’m just trying to take care of myself better.
DH: Well, you’re in it for the long run. It’s easy to burn out early if you don’t watch it.
LN: Exactly! I try to play every day and there are certain things I have to do to protect myself that may come off as anti-social, but I really want to give the best I can every night. For example, I move away from the smoke because of my chest, but I also don’t come out to the front of the bar anymore after I’m done playing to sit and do shots with people. I mean, they’re drunk already and they won’t remember if they did a shot with me or not.
DH: True, and the way I see it, this is your job. You have to do it every day, but for the people in your audience, it’s their night to party and it can’t always be your night to cut loose.
LN: Yeah. I’m providing the party. I used to drink and all of that every night, but you can’t realistically keep it up. I still enjoy a glass of wine, but I haven’t had any hard alcohol or more than a glass or two since last July. And, that came gradually. For the first three or four months since I woke up in my own vomit, I put nothing into my system. I quit everything. I felt like I had a religious experience. I had this vision of this woman in a dimly lit room that I was leaving with a friend. She was standing by this half closed doorway and I had my arms around my friend. It could have been real. I’m still not sure. But, I thought my friend represented the partying side of myself and this woman said to me, ‘Are you sure you want to go?’ and I said ‘Yeah, I’ll be fine.’ I was laughing and jovial, and then she put both of her hands spread flat on top of my head before she spread them over my body and then I left. But, a feeling grew that she hadn’t just touched me, it wasn’t just New Age crap, but it was like she had put a bubble of protection over me. It felt real, and I’ve come to think that maybe an angel was protecting me. After that, I woke up in my own vomit and when I had a chance to recover, I realized that someone was looking out for me. I felt that I was alive for a reason. But, look, I still love to have fun. I was never a drinker before that Throwdown tour anyway. I started to drink way more than I ever had in my life on that tour. I never liked beer before. I only drank a bit of wine, and now I’m back to that again. Just the way I was. Quitting drinking was mainly symbolic, respecting the lesson. It’s really easy for me to say ‘no’ because I’m really focused on what I’m doing. Also, a weird thing is that for some reason alcohol makes me lose my voice, and I can’t lose my voice! I don’t worry about the weed. I can smoke weed or not smoke weed. That doesn’t make a difference. It’s the alcohol really, but I am taking a break from smoking at least until 420 I think. But, I still have a lot of fun and that’s been a great, great lesson for me.
DH: A lot of people don’t put these things into perspective until much later in life.
LN: Yeah, and I have to emphasize that I do have a lot of fun, and I truly love talking to people. I might take some personal space if there are too many joints, too much smoke, around me, but that doesn’t have anything to do with the people. It’s me protecting myself. Once I notice that something isn’t working for me, I try not to do it. It’s not a judgment of anyone else. You have to listen to yourself.
DH: It reminds me of a conversation I had with an old reggae musician who doesn’t smoke marijuana very much anymore. He likens it to when you first try and find a place, you need a map, but after you’ve been there lots of times, you can find your way without the map. So, after a while the marijuana won’t show you anything new. Whatever insights you give credit to the marijuana for originate from yourself. There’s no software inside the pot that’s being downloaded into you that gives you instant wisdom. It’s all in you.
LN: That makes a lot of sense to me. It’s like there are these synapses in your brain that fire and once they fire, you know what it feels like for them to fire and your brain chemistry knows how to find them. Your brain chemistry can actually change so that you can fire at will. Or, it’s like wiggling your ears. I can’t wiggle my ears, but if I could, I’d know which muscles were involved and I could do it again and again once I’d figured it out the first time.
DH: That’s funny. Well, I’ve heard you playing since you stopped drinking and smoking, and I don’t hear you having any difficulty getting into the heart of your music. You seem to jump right in with no problem.
LN: Definitely. No problem there.
DH: Let’s talk about the sound of your new record. To my ears, it sounds a lot denser, heavier and more ‘jammy’ than your last record.
LN: I just think that it’s a natural progression. We’re all playing better as time goes by. You haven’t heard all of the songs on the album yet, but when you do, I think you’ll agree that every song is a good song. We write so much material that by the time we record, we have a lot to choose from. We had some great musicians in the studio and I’m really proud of it. Yeah, I took some risks, but I don’t think of musical risks. I think of getting a song to sound the way I hear it in my head. I’m getting better at performing what I hear.
DH: Let’s talk about a few of the songs on the record. I really like the demo version of ‘Running Away’ that you sent me.
LN: Yeah, that made it on the record, but it sounds totally different than the demo I sent you. (laughs) In the studio, we built it around an African rhythm. We explore a lot of different rhythms on this record. It was a lot of fun.
DH: Well, Tato and Anthony are great percussionists. With Tato, sometimes I think I can’t hear him, then I realize he’s driving the whole thing just one layer under the mix.
LN: Yeah, he’s amazing. He’s going through a rough time now though because his dad is sick. All our prayers are going out to him.
DH: ‘Frame of Mind’ is another song that sticks out for me.
LN: Thanks, I think it’ll be the second single. ‘Wasted’ will obviously be the first single. ‘Ain’t no Answer’ is another one we really like.
DH: ‘Don’t Take Me Back’ is a nine minute song. I hear a lot of Hendrix, a little bit of Crazy Horse.
LN: Yeah, that’s the electric version. It also started out as an acoustic song that I sent out to people on our mailing list a little while back. I wrote that song on my acoustic guitar and sat outside right after that and recorded it onto my computer. I just started playing and it came out. I didn’t write the lyrics down or anything – it was just free-styling.
DH: Do you do most of your writing using your acoustic?
LN: Yeah, I do. The electric version of ‘Don’t Take Me Back’ has the same chord progression, but we just got together in the studio and did it all in one take. It was really cool. I think once you’ve had the chance to hear the whole album in the right running order, you’ll hear all of the different nuances we were trying to achieve. I think it’s my favorite record. It was inspired a lot by the Rolling Stones. I feel like we’re on a similar path – not in terms of stardom – but in terms of instrumentation and musicianship. There’s a song called ‘Can You Hear Me Love You’ that I wrote and sing with my sister, Amy. There’s a lot of bluesy tracks. I think your favorite songs are still to be heard on this one, Doug.
.DH: When we were talking the other day, you’d just finished some recording with Shooter Jennings. Tell me a bit about that.
LN: Well, we spent the day recording. I don’t know if any of it was any good. He played drums and I played bass. We switched around on instruments and played for a long while. I ate a pot candy before doing it, so it felt really good, but I haven’t had a chance to listen back to what we did. It was great, though.
DH: Have you and Shooter known each other since you were kids?
LN: I have, but I don’t remember hanging with him very much. We were a lot younger. It’s kind of cool that we’re hanging now. It’s something we wanted to do. We’d been trying to find a date for a few weeks before we could lock down a time to get together.
DH: You told me that Bob Weir was going to drop by and join you onstage in San Francisco. Did that ever pan out?
LN: Oh yeah! Bob’s a great friend of mine. He’s kind of like my uncle in a way. We’re talking about – along with Neil Young – how to get the quality of music to sound better.
DH: Don’t get me started. MP3s are the death of music. We love things that are portable and can hold a lot of information, but I never listen to my ipod anymore. It sounds like shit.
LN: There’s a lot of stuff going on in that regard. Bob has his TRI studios down in Mill Valley and we’re going to do some work together. It’s going to be fun.
DH: Did he sit in with you during your regular set?
LN: He joined us for three songs. We did ‘Maggie’s Farm’, ‘Little Red Rooster’ and I sang on Dylan’s ‘I Shall Be Released’
DH: When I saw him with ‘Furthur’ in Eugene, Oregon last fall, I was amazed by how well he’s playing these days. I think he actually is sounding better than ever.
LN: Me, too.
DH: I should let you go deal with your laundry, Lukas.
LN: Yeah, well, I do appreciate talking with you. It’s always a pleasure.
DH: So, ‘Wasted’ comes out –
LN: It drops April 3rd and we’ll be on Letterman that night.
DH: For the second time.
LN: Yep, and then the album my dad and I recorded is coming out soon, too, on April 17th.
DH: Any talk of shows to support that?
LN: Most likely. Down the road. I really enjoyed talking to you, buddy. We’ll do it again soon.
DH: Lookin’ forward to it
This interview also appears at www.restlessandreal.blogspot.com
Sign up for free updates