JOHN McLAUGHLIN – without doubt the doyen of jazz-rock guitarists, now 73 – is in a deeply philosophical mood. “I don’t have ambitions like I used to when I was a young man,” he reveals. “The older I get the more aware of my mortality I become, especially when you hit the biblical age of seventy. Every day over that is a present, a gift, and every concert that I do might be the last one I ever do. I think I might as well give 100% just in case. Know what I mean?” He follows his rhetorical question with a laugh that suggests that he appreciates the bittersweet ironies in life. It’s the carefree chuckle of a man who is seemingly in the twilight of his career but who seems benignly at peace with himself and his past.
Born in Yorkshire, McLaughlin was drawn to the guitar at the age of eleven and became a London-based session guitarist-for-hire in the swinging ’60s. His ability to read music as well as his stylistic versatility (he could switch from jazz, pop, classical, flamenco and blues at the drop of a plectrum) meant that he was always busy. As a result, he played on countless records by a variety of well-known hit-making British artists – everyone from Georgie Fame and Tom Jones to Engelbert Humperdinck and Petula Clark. He was making good money but wanted something more, something deeper. His big break came in 1969 when Miles Davis’s then drummer, Tony Williams, heard a jam tape that McLaughlin had played on and immediately recruited him for his new jazz-rock group Lifetime. That opportunity in turn led to McLaughlin meeting Miles Davis and playing on the trumpeter’s game-changing fusion records ‘In A Silent Way’ and ‘Bitches Brew.’
In ’71, McLaughlin put his own band together, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, a phenomenally powerful and influential quintet that originally featured drummer Billy Cobham and keyboardist Jan Hammer, and became a trailblazers in the nascent field of jazz-rock. He made a spiritual jazz album with Carlos Santana called ‘Love, Devotion, Surrender’ in 1974 and a little later in the same decade, McLaughlin’s interest in Indian music prompted him to form Shakti, whose exotic acoustic sound was a sublime fusion of western and eastern idioms.
Interestingly, there’s a perceptible eastern tinge to the guitarist’s latest album, ‘Black Light,’ which was recorded with his band, the 4th Dimension (Gary Husband, Etienne M’Bape, and Ranjit Barot) and follows in the wake of last year’s incendiary live recording, ‘The Boston Record.’ In a candid interview, the venerable fretboard master talks to SJF’s Charles Waring about the inspiration and intent behind his latest project…
Let’s begin by talking about your new album, ‘Black Light.’
I’m very pleased with it but who would know what I’m doing, Charles? Nobody. (Laughs). Well, it’s true – there are no record companies anymore. What a state of affairs that is.
Yes, it’s all changed since you started out in the ’60s.
Oh, it’s a brave new world. What did George Bush call it? The New World Order. Well, he can keep it. But it’s the way things are. It’s silly how it’s turned out, isn’t it? Not just silly but it’s very hard for younger musicians. For old fogeys like me, Charles, I’ve still got my career but I know a lot of young musicians and it’s very difficult for them. But we all have to deal with what is, don’t we?
Yes, I suppose we have to deal with the new technology, which is changing everything beyond recognition…
It’s not just the technology it’s education. If people knew that they were stealing (music)but they haven’t been educated to it, have they? The governments aren’t doing anything about it either, are they? Well, no, they’re trying with the films, at least, because the film industry’s getting really hit too. Anyway, we’re not here to talk about the ups and downs of the record industry (laughs), but, listen, people are saying now ‘why are you still making records?’ I say because it’s the only thing I know how to do (laughs). It’s what I’ve done my whole life – make records.
Well I’m really enjoying the new one, ‘Black Light.’
Oh, I’m glad. I really like this new one too. I’m very happy with it.
One of your previous albums, 2010’s ‘To the One,’ had come to you via a dream so how did ‘Black Light’ come into being?
This one’s more down to earth in the sense that I can’t write anything anyway until I hear it. So I have to wait for ideas to come. It’s a studio recording and this particular way of recording, I actually started experimenting with it with the ‘Industrial Zen’ album. That’s going back about ten years now. It’s amazing how time flies, isn’t it? I was trying to integrate what I did on ‘Industrial Zen’ and ‘The Promise’ too. That one’s twenty years old, my goodness. It’s enough to make you feel old (laughs). I introduced voices and poetry on ‘The Promise’ and sound effects and there was a bit more on ‘Industrial Zen’ and here I am ten years later – I suppose it’s something that I’m going to do every ten years, I didn’t think of it that way – anyway, I really like fooling around with sound design, a bit like a painter messes around with colours. So the idea of this album already started a long time ago. The concept of integrating these… not exactly pauses but they are kind of more like portals where in a way it reminds me of the old Beatles’ song, ‘Fixing A Hole’ (John starts singing the chorus). What a lovely song! And it’s kind of like that, where I’m listening to the music and then a little portal arises and my mind can go in there. It’s music and yet it’s not: it’s a different part of the painting. That’s the only way I can say because a studio album is a bit like a painting to me, not like the live album, is it? Not like ‘The Boston Record.’ I thought the band played fantastically on that record. But all kinds of things are possible in the studio which you can never do on stage and you can test things.
With a studio album you’ve got time to embellish and polish the music…
Yes, it’s like a big canvas. There was a lot of pre-work done. Once I had ideas for the tunes and then I started to wait and think about where they could go in terms of…not a dimension – dimension sounds pretentious, doesn’t it? But these little doorways in the piece where my mind can go in and so probably about a good year’s work went into that. Not constantly, of course, I’m doing other things, but over a year I would say, where I would look for sounds, because there are millions of sounds available now on these databases. And then I just started fooling around with it basically (laughs). I know you generally fool around with girls but you can fool around with sounds too (laughs). And you can invert them and do all kinds of things with a computer these days until I find something that talks to me, speaks to me and evokes images of feelings or something that I can’t really say or express in words. I like that. It’s a real labour of love. Anyway, it’s all for love, Charles. We’re not going to make any money on this, are we? (laughs)
What about the title, ‘Black Light’? It’s almost like a contradiction in terms…
It is, it’s not logical, is it? It’s pretty irrational. I’ll tell you where it came from – meditation. In meditation all of a sudden things come in to your mind. It’s a musical thing too, because I get musical ideas sometimes when I’m meditating. Not always. It comes when it comes and I don’t always really have any control over it but, not just sounds but images, because when you look inside your head it’s all black, isn’t it? It’s all dark. But at the same time I can see things and I can hear music that I’ve never heard before. It’s all very mysterious really, isn’t it, but in a lovely way, and just the image of black light came to me and I thought that really sums it up really because it’s a contradiction in terms and completely irrational but as human beings we all have an irrational side, don’t we? We have that creative side where everything that we create or imagine comes from that special place. I’m just like everybody else, that’s all. I’m still mystified by it. I still find it very mysterious. Life is mysterious…
As well as the meaning of life itself…
For me, that’s one of the great secrets, because life is not very easy for anyone. But I really do believe if you can laugh your way through things it will save you basically. Especially on the road with musicians. Lost bags, lost instruments, bureaucracy that has to be seen to be believed, but if you can laugh about it, eventually, at some point, you’re all right. But I think the title ‘Black Light’ goes well with the album but I have to say it’s very personal in another way – well, all music is personal and the act of playing music is very intimate, and listening to music is intimate. But there’s quite a personal side, too, Charles, because there are three homages on the album. I’m sure you noticed the one about (Spanish guitarist) Paco (De Lucia), ‘El Hombre Que Sabia.’ It’s Spanish for “the man who knew.” It’s absolutely for Paco. I’ll tell you why, because in the latter part of 2013, we were chatting and talking about recording a duo album in 2014. We started to trade music and this was one of the pieces that I sent to him. It was a basic sketch of it and the structure. This was early January or February, just before he left for Central America and he really liked this particular piece. He was very fond of it. And when we lost him on the 25th of February last year it was pretty devastating for a lot of people. But then time passes and we learn to live with it and I felt that I should do something and this particular piece that he was so fond of, I thought let me see if we can do it with the 4th Dimension. I felt that they did a fantastic job, to tell you the truth, and I think Paco would have really been happy about it.
Are there any unissued recordings of you and Paco? (John pictured with Paco De Lucia)
Yes, and there will be a record of Paco and I coming out of a concert we did twenty-eight years ago in 1987 at the Montreux Jazz Festival, Switzerland. I finally persuaded these people to let me polish it. I couldn’t mix it because it was just stereo so we couldn’t change anything but we just used good sample frequencies and some polish on it and that will come out next year. So I’m very happy about that, Charles. I missed recording last year with Paco but we’ve got one coming out and it’s very nice, very crazy. It was a beautiful night with a fantastic audience and it’s just very joyful and I feel compensated. The second homage on ‘Black Light’ is the fourth track, ‘Panditji.’ Do you know the word ‘ji,’ the Indian word? When I’m in India, everybody calls me John Ji. It’s a term of respect. I studied with ‘Pandit’ Ravi Shankar (a famous Indian sitar player) in 1970 – I was very fortunate – and he taught me the theory of Indian music. ‘Pandit’ means maestro basically. It’s the Indian version of maestro but nobody ever called him ‘Pandit,’ everybody called him ‘Panditji’; it’s an expression of admiration, respect and reverence, but with lots of affection included in it. So I had to do something for him. It’s been a long time coming, but there you are.
What about the title of the album’s opening song, ‘Here Come The Jiis’?
There’s that word ‘ji’ again, only in plural. ‘The Jiis’ refers to (mandolin player) Srinivas and V. Selvaganesh, both of whom were in Shakti. Selvaganesh is the son of Vikku Vinayakram, who was the ghatam player with the very first Shakti in the ’70s and Srinivas was the great prodigy. We’d be on tour and they always travelled together, those two. They came in from Chennai (also known as Madras) together and we’d be in the hotel and they say ‘oh, here come the jiis, here come the jiis.’ So I was always very happy to see them. They’re both in the song but it’s really for Srinivas, who I miss dearly. He was forty-five years old. What a tragedy. He died of liver failure so what can you do? Last year was difficult. It was a bad year. We lost a few of them. But I’m still around. I’m not dead yet, Charles. (Laughs).
I’m glad about that. What you did with Shakti was unique really, fusing Indian music with jazz.
Well, it’s still going, Charles, because Shakti is not gone. For the moment nobody’s got the heart to replace Srinivas and I’m going to have to wait and let some time go by. It was just a year ago, on the 19th September, that we lost him. But in the meantime I began a project with Shankar Mahadevan, the singer in Remember Shakti. A couple of years ago we started on a very interesting project that will come out as a CD next year, which I’m really, really excited about – so is he – because it’s a completely new approach to what you might call East-West collaborations. We’ve already got quite a bit of music for it. He’s a very talented fellow. Since he joined Shakti in 2000 he’s become the king of Bollywood. Do you know how many records he’s sold? 230 million! (Laughs). It’s unbelievable. It’s Bollywood but even so it’s astronomical. I can’t even comprehend that number. It’s amazing but he’s such a fantastic guy and singer. So we’re both very excited about that.
What about the song ‘Gaza City’ on ‘Black Light’ ? Was that inspired by a visit there?
Absolutely, it is. It’s fairly common knowledge that I’ve been going to Palestine over the last few years, not really doing any benefit concerts because nobody’s got any money over there. You do just a solidarity concert. There are some marvellous people. The reality on the ground we don’t see in the media but what really killed me was the invasion and the bombing of Gaza last summer. It was just awful really. Human beings can be so awful to each other. Beyond belief. And Gaza is ruined. I was there earlier this year in Ramala in Palestine on the West Bank and they asked us to go to Gaza to play. I said how long would it take to go to Gaza, do the concert and then get back out? They said can you give us a week? (Laughs). You never know how long it takes to get in and once you’re in it’s very difficult to get out. So I said I can’t ask the guys in the band to do that because they’ve got homes to go to and got families. Anyway, I’m hoping at one point that I’ll get to go to Gaza. So yes, it was inspired by Gaza. But it’s very sad really.
What’s happening in the world at the moment is disconcerting.
I’m an old hippie and in the ’60s and ’70s we all thought we could make a better world. How wrong can you get? We really blew it, didn’t we? Remember that old song, the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer? But it’s not just the poor. The middle classes are shrinking and we won’t even speak about the record industry (starts laughing). No, we won’t. I’m very happy with this recording. I’m just happy that I’m still able to record and have music to record because when the music stops, I’m up a gum tree, aren’t I, Charles? What am I going to record? Nothing.
Have you ever contemplated retirement?
I think it’s going to happen, maybe in the next few years because I inherited arthritis through my mum along with the music, but you’ve got to take the bad with the good and we’ll see how this develops. At the moment it’s okay but I see and feel it coming and we’ll just have to see how that goes because doctors say, there’s no real cure for arthritis, so you just have to find a way to deal with it, don’t you? But at some point I think the machine will be too old (laughs) and I’ll have to put the guitar under the bed and that’s it. It’s not that I haven’t thought about it because I’m very aware of it, but when it happens I’ll just say thank you very much, I’ve been the luckiest person I know and thank God. Know what I mean? And thank you people, and thank you music, because it’s been the story of my life really, hasn’t it?
Yes, you’ve had an amazing journey so far, haven’t you?
Yes, and it’s not over. I want to see that record with Paco come out and want to finish this record with Shankar Mahadevan and I want to go and play in Ronnie Scott’s next year. They kind of have an open invitation for me and if I want to come I’ll have to call in advance, of course. But I’d like to because I have so many memories of Ronnie’s and it’s my old stomping ground.
JOHN McLAUGHLIN’s NEW ALBUM ‘BLACK LIGHT’ IS OUT NOW VIA ABSTRACT LOGIX.