John McLaughlin Interview with Mark Towns

by Mark Towns
Sep 21st, 2003

Since emerging from the jazz-rock scene in England during the 1960's, John McLaughlin has been committed to reshaping the language of the guitar into a personal, powerful musical expression of his inner vision.

Early in his career, he embarked on a series of high-profile projects, including records and performances with drummer Tony Williams' Lifetime, a trio McLaughlin so enjoyed working with that he initially declined an offer to join Miles Davis' group. But after Lifetimeís members parted ways, McLaughlin took Miles up on his offer, and went on to contribute to many of Davis masterpieces, including Bitches Brew, Directions, A Tribute to Jack Johnson, In a Silent Way, and Live Evil. In 1970, he recorded My Goals Beyond, beginning a long and fruitful relationship with the acoustic guitar.

Throughout the 70's, McLaughlin continued to experiment with contexts: his legendary Mahavishnu Orchestra set commercial and artistic precedents for electric fusion with the classic The Inner Mounting Flame and Birds of Fire, albums which sold hundreds of thousands of records and led the band to perform to sellout crowds. At the height of its success, McLaughlin returned to acoustic guitar and formed the first edition Shakti, a pioneering Indian group that further demonstrated his eclecticism. He continued his acoustic and electric explorations for years to come, combining their best elements and always finding new grooves in the process. Lured back to electric music with solo recordings and a revamped Mahavishnu in the 80's, McLaughlin experimented with guitar synthesis, and wrote and performed The Mediterranean Concerto for classical orchestra.

On the eve of the fall 2003 release of his latest orchestral work, "Thieves and Poets," McLaughlin hits the road again with the latest version of Shakti, featuring tabla great Zakir Hussain, U. Shrinivas on mandolin, and V. Selvaganesh on kanjira, ghatam, and mridangam. The group makes their only Texas appearance on Sunday, September 28th, 5:00 p.m. at the Verizon Wireless Theatre.

I recently spoke with McLaughlin in Paris by phone from radio station KPFT 90.1 FM in Houston for the following interview, portions of which will be aired on the stationís "Border Crossings" show Thursday September 25, between 10:00 a.m. and 11:00 a.m.

Mark Towns: Tell me about the Shakti tour.

John McLaughlin: Iím leaving in just a few days. We begin in Colorado, then we go over to the West coast, up the West coast up to Vancouver, then start to move East, work through the Midwest and then weíll be down to see you in Houston.

MT: Are you rehearsing a lot for this show?

JM: Oh, yeah. We always like to rehearse. Weíll do this in Colorado.

MT: Are you doing many of your new compositions?

JM: Yeah, thereíll be some new compositions, yeah. And although I donít think that heíll be there with us in HoustonÖDo you know the singer Shankar Mahadevan?

MT: Yes.

JM: Yeah, well Shankar Mahadevan will be with us the first ten days. But I think heíll be leaving before we get down to Houston. Itís too bad he canít stay with us the whole tour. This guyís become a superstar in India in the last couple of years, so heís really busy. But, heís coming on the first ten days of the U.S. tour. And then we have about four or five weeks in the U.S. and then we come back to Europe. Then we do a European part, another month in Europe, and he comes back again to join us for another ten days. But if you know "Saturday Night in Bombay" [Shakti recording from December 2000], then you know the work that weíve already done together.

MT: Miles Davis was once quoted as saying the best bands are [racially] mixed bands.

JM: Ömixed bands, yeah!

MT: Why do you think that is? I mean, I agree with thatÖ

JM: Why? Because thatís the way it is! It has a cultural richness, I think. You have people from different cultures coming togetherÖthey input their culture, they input their ideas and I think the global result as a consequence is richer with that input.

MT: Are you still into exploring the relationship between the 12 astrological signs and the 12-tone scale?

JM: No, not so much as I was in the past. It was a consideration for me. But, Iím more concerned with the quality of the relationship between intervals, which gives the impact. And Iím speaking about harmony here, because this is essentially about harmonies and the notes, and the relationships between notes. They are governed by, like everything else, the laws of harmony, whether they are dissonant or whether they are hard dissonant, or whether they are soft dissonant, whether they are consonant or whether theyíre hard consonant; There are a number of qualifying levels that govern the relationship between notes. But, I much more concerned now with the way they hit my inner ear, as it were, and how they correspond to what I hear in my imagination.

So, I have less consideration about the astrological implications and harmony. It was very interesting in the early days, when I would write pieces for that personís particular sign, and the combination of different astrological influences translated into music. I mean, it was kind of interesting. But, at this point Iím much more interested in the exploration of the quality of the tensions and relationships between notes.

MT: What about the way the space between notes is perceivedÖ the way the notes reflect the space between them?

JM: The space between the notes?

MT: Yes.

JM: Yeah, well, what about it? (laughs)

MT: Is that something that youíve contemplated?

JM: Yeah, Iíve contemplated it my whole life. My whole life has been dedicated to music. And of course, Iíve been accused a million times of playing too fast or too many notes, and Iím sure justifiably sometimes. But, you know, Iím the way I am and as we grow old, we learn and Iím still learning about space. But Iíll be learning about space until I die.

One of the great masters of space was Mahalingam. I donít know if you know himÖflute player? [T.R. Mahalingam] He passed away quite a few years ago. He was a master of space and tension. Unbelievable. If you could find any recording by him, itís definitely worth a listen.

MT: You've said Jimi Hendrix had a powerful effect on you.

JM: Oh, yeah! Him and many others, tooÖnot the least of which was Miles and that whole gang from the late Ď50s that were in Milesí band. But, Jimi had an influence on me, like he had on, I think, every guitar player. He was kind of a revolutionary. And, whereas we were all experimenting in the Ď60s with feedback and these big amps and just looking for new ways of playing the electric guitar, Jimi really put it all together with the Stratocaster and the Marshall. I mean, he justÖ he turned the world on its ear. He had the most profound effect, and lasting effect, because the effect of Jimi Hendrix on guitar players is with us still today. And he changed the course of rock music, and blues, and pop music. He had a very direct effect on guitar players in these genres, yíknow.

MT: Where do you see yourself as fitting in the history of guitarists?

JM: I donít look at myself like that all. I think thatís your job, Mark! (laughs) I donít care where you put me! (laughs)

MT: You seem to be a great fan of music and you seem to be a person who has successfully synthesized all of his influences into something really unique. How do you feel about that? A lot of people like a lot of different things, but not many people can put Ďem together like you have -- into something really different.

JM: First of all, my entire life has been dedicated to music, Mark. Iím 61 years old now, and I will die with my life dedicated to music. Thatís the way itís always been and thatís the way it will be. Iíll stop when I die. But, in addition to that, I have this very profound fascination with different cultures and the music from different cultures, be it India, or be it Spanish, or particularly Flamenco, or even classical.

My new CD ["Thieves and Poets" on Verve Records] is with a symphony orchestra. This is a piece thatís been kind of like cookiní away for a few years now on the back burner, then worked here a little, put back on the back burner again, and finally Iíve recorded it. Iím very, very happy with the recording. And youíll hear all kinds of diverse influences in this orchestral piece.

Originally I was a piano player. And I was playing classical music until 11 years old then the guitar came in and the blues came in -- that is, the Mississippi Delta Blues. And between the ages of 11 and 15, I heard all my major musical influences that would affect me throughout my life. At 11 years old I heard Mississippi Blues, at 13 I heard Flamenco music, and then I heard jazz music -- Django Reinhardt. And then I heard Indian music at that time. I didnít know what it was, but it had a very profound effect on me. And then at 15 or 16 years old, I heard Miles Davisí band for the first time and that really knocked me out. That was the way I wanted to go. But, these influences marked me, you know, they had a very profound effect on me, all of them. And they still do today. Theyíve had an effect on me throughout my entire musical life. And my personal life, too.

Especially India -- Indiaís had a very direct effect on the way I perceive things because of its culture and my fascination and love, basically, for that culture and the people of India.

So, I think in the end, Mark, love is the key. I think if you "love" a particular music, not only will you be influenced by it, but it will tend to come out in your own music. Itís kind of inevitable, you know what Iím sayiní?

MT: It is if you have a clear channel to work with -- a clear mind with which to be able to channel the influences.

JM: Well, donít forget that I started studying, I mean, seriously 30 years ago, Indian music, more than 30 years ago. I began studying Indian music theory. And I became, for example, an extra curricular student at Western University in Connecticut. I was studying carnatic music [the music of south India] on the vina with Dr. Ramanathan, and this was a wonderful experience. And I became a kind of extra curricular student with the great Ravi Shankarji, who helped me so much with my theory, whether south or north Raviji is the master of both north and south Indian music, and he was wonderful to me. You know Zakir Hussain [Shaktiís tabla player]?

MT: Oh, yes.

JM: Yeah, I mean, we go way back to, we met in í69. We started to play, the first time we played together was í71, thatís 32 years ago, so, you know, here we are still going strongÖ

MT: Is it because of the improvisational angle -- is that whatís interested you about Indian music, the fact that itís based on improvisation?

JM: Of course, of course. Thatís one aspect. But itís funky, too. I find Indian music very funky. I mean itís very soulful, with their own kind of blues. But itís the only other school on the planet that develops improvisation to the high degree that you find in jazz music. So we have a lot of common ground. And Iím not the first to explore this; Coltrane did to a very powerful degree. His sonís name is not Ravi for nothing. Coltrane himself was a student of Ravi Shankar.

MT: Right, right.

JM: And Iím just following in the great manís footsteps, thatís all. And Iím very fortunate to have had a chance to study with these people. But, with Zakir, heís unbelievable. His is, without a doubt, the greatest tabla player in the world today. And heís a master improviser.

MT: I think heís the greatest percussionist in the world today -- on any percussion instrumentÖ

JM: Yeah, I mean, heís a tabla player essentially, and he makes the tabla sing. I mean thereís some great percussion players, yíknow, just look at the Santana Band, for example withÖuhÖwith uhÖ

MT: Raul Rekow and Carl PerazzoÖ

JM: Raul and CarlÖyeah, and then especially when they are playing with Dennis [Chambers], my old comrade in arms, I mean that is some infernal machine they got going there. Unbelievable. I know -- we had a jam together last year with Santanaís band. And this is another kind of percussion, but as a tabla player, Zakir is absolutely supreme. But whatís wonderful is over the years, I mean, yíknow, when you play together with somebody for 30 years, you develop this very strong complicity. So we have kind of communication thatís wonderful, itís just wonderful. But, of course, I play with Selvaganesh, the son of Vikku [Vinayakram, one of the original members of Shakti], and Shrinivas, the electric mandolin player. These guys are something -- these guys are prodigies.

MT: Do you think all improvisation and composition has a spiritual basis?

JM: No, I donít think about that in music. If you want to develop yourself in a spiritual way then I can highly recommend it. I began that many, many years ago and I will continue that. But, I donít really consider music in those terms. Because the way I see it, my life comes first. My interior life comes first. And the development of my interior life will take care of this because music follows life. Thatís the way I see it. Itís not the other way around. I donít have any message in the music. Music will be fine as long as you take care of yourself. Of course you have to work at the music. I mean, your life has to be dedicated to music, to the mastery of your instrument, otherwise the instrument will master you in the end. I donít try to make this analogy between, "I follow a spiritual path and so I want to play spiritual music." Music is already a spiritual language! You donít have to think about music being a spiritual language or not; it already is, yíknow what Iím sayiní?

MT: Yeah. You said you tried free jazz and you said it was not for youÖ

JM: Absolutely not for me!

MT: Why not?

JM: Itís chaotic. Itís like every man for himselfÖnot exactly. Iím being a little exaggerated here. But, I like to feel the rhythm, yíknow, and the pulse of the rhythm. And frequently in free jazz, the pulse, itís hard to even feel it, yíknow. Because music has a certain sensuality about it, and this is where the rhythm comes in. Itís everybody playing together that gives it that certain sensuality that I really like in music.

In free jazz, I think itís possibleÖlet me put it this way, if you are totally self-disciplined and the fellow musicians youíre playing with are all totally disciplined, I think you could play some free jazz because you have such a high development of the personality. Then you would automatically kind of harmonize with each other. But generally what happens is this chaotic element. Itís not together in the way Iíd like it to be together, particularly in terms of rhythm. And this I found to be a problem for me. Thatís why I did it, and then I left becauseÖit justÖnot that Iím against it, donít misunderstand me, Iíve listened to free jazz and thereís some wonderful things out there, but itís just not for me personally.

MT: Youíre known for doing many things in complex time signatures. Do you think some people have trouble relating to anything thatís not in 4/4 time?

JM: Um, only because they havenít been exposed to it. But I have to tell you something; Iíve just finished work on a DVD that is for mastery of improvisation on guitar, and how to master harmony on the guitar, and how to really develop the sense of odd time signatures. And I think that itís just a question of time before youíll have more and more odd time signatures coming through. I mean look, even in pop music -- Sting had a pop tune in 5/4.

MT: Right.

JM: And thatís really cool, you know, because, generally the pop market is basically catering to the lowest common denominator, which is not wrong. Donít misunderstand me, Iím not into this elitist thing at all. Itís just that, if itís 4/4, and if itís swinginí and itís funky, itís great, because in the end, Mark, thereís two kinds of music: good and bad.

MT: Right.

JM: And whatever the genre, whether itís classical, whether itís Indian, whether itís from the North Pole, whether itís from the Moon, it doesnít matter. Itís good or itís bad. And 4/4 or 5/4, this is just something particularly for instrumentalists where you can develop the sense of rhythm, and you can enjoy the shape of the rhythm. Because when you hear something in 7/4, itís not like hearing something in 4/4 or 5/4 or 9/4, you know what Iím sayiní?

MT: Right. Even The Beatles did things in odd times, like "All You Need is Love."

JM: Yeah! It already started in the 60ísÖ

MT: Right.

JM: Yeah, The Beatles did a great advance work on this thing. It hasnít been continued because thereís been no group like The Beatles since The Beatles, of course. But I think itís just a matter of time. Because the level of musicianship in popular music continually rises, and there are some great things happening in pop music.

MT: Do you think the improvising musician will continue to survive?

JM: Continue to survive? Yeah.

MT: Things like acid jazz, jungle, drums and bass, hip-hop, and rap donít include much improvisationÖ

JM: Not yet. Not yet, but they will.

MT: (laughs)

JM: Itís just thatÖ Thereís been a big movement the last, say, 10 years with all of these movements -- with jungle, and drums and bass, acid jazz, hip-hop, which I love. I love all of this. In fact, I listen even more to underground music than I do to overground, because Iím a little disappointed, actually, with whatís going on in jazz. And Iím not alone. The young people, they hear this. Especially today, thereís a lot of this retro movement to play how they used to play in the 60ís. You know, I mean, this is pretty boring stuff.

MT: Well, do you think thatís whatís going on in jazz, or whatís going on in the marketing and sales of jazz?

JM: Thatís part of it. Yeah, thatís part of it. The record companies, they wanted musicians to play in this retro style. Donít ask me why. But in America particularly, itís very bad. Thereís not this stigma attached to fusion music outside of the US. They donít care about it anywhere else except in the US, the media, this thing about fusion, so thatís why itís really only a problem as far as the US is concerned. But the US is the major music market in the world.

But these developments, which have been started by, for the most part, young people experimenting with sampling and computers and sequencersÖI mean, theyíve done a great job. Theyíve done a great job, but, you know, while theyíve been bringing up these new ways of playing and new genres, the improvisers have been kind of staying 30 or 40 years back, you know what Iím saying?

MT: Yeah.

JM: And so, thereís a gap at the moment between these new innovators of form and the improvisers who are employing them. Because there are very few improvisers who employ these kind of forms.

MT: So can we take this to mean that youíll soon be putting out some type of acid jazz or underground recording?

JM: I already started working on it a long time ago, Mark. Yeah, Iím definitely there. The critics are gonna crucify me over this one.

MT: Oh, not me. Bring me a copy!

JM: (laughs) Iíve done a lot of work on it. I donít think itís gonna be out before late next year, because Iíve been so busy with the orchestral work. Itís a great recording.

MT: Will much of Shaktiís show be improvised?

JM: You better believe it! I mean, yeah, weíve got a lot of great compositions, weíve got a lot of arrangements, but improvisation is the heart and soul of this band. Because thatís where you get spontaneous, Mark. You know, youíre a musician, right?

MT: Oh, yeah.

JM: Yeah. And you get spontaneous, youíre in your natural human state, and our natural human state should be continuous improvisation, even out of music, you know what Iím sayiní?

MT: Oh yeah.

JM: Weíre improvising all the time.

MT: Right. We donít wake up with a script in our hand for the day.

JM: No.

MT: Weíre always improvising.

JM: We wake up with a big list of conventions in our mind, you know what Iím sayiní?

MT: Yes.

JM: And we tend to follow the conventions. But, in music, we donít have these problems, and we can be as free as we wish to be, and believe me, we will be very free. But not free jazz! (laughs)

MT: So, do you ever just play the guitar just for your own amusement anymore? Or is it always just for gigs or a project?

JM: Naw, you know, are you kidding? I live with the guitar. I love guitar. I love guitar.

MT: Are you playing more acoustic guitar or electric now?

JM: The new CD is all acoustic. I mean, itís the first time Iíve made an all-acoustic record in a long time Ė about 10 years. But itís really a great recording. Iím very happy with it. But the next one wonít be acoustic. I mean, there may be some acoustic on it, but it will be more electric. MT: How do you want to be remembered?

JM: (pauses) Well, I donít care if you remember me or donít. Listen, Iím the most fortunate of people, Mark. My lifeís been dedicated to music. Iíve been able to do explorations and adventures inside myself to bring out and discover new forms in music, and just have a wonderful time doing it. I mean, Iím the most fortunate of people. I mean, if you donít remember me, then itís really fine. (laughing) Itís no problem! Will I care once Iím gone? Of course not.

MT: When are you gonna do a Latin Jazz CD?

JM: Latin Jazz? Well, I was supposed to see Santana in three days, but I wonít be able to do it. Heís playing in Paris, and he wants me to go up and play with him, but Iím leaving very early on Saturday morning from a place called Nice Airport, so Iím not gonna be able to go up there. But in the meantime, one of the pieces on this crazy record that Iím planning for sometime next year or so is a piece that I wrote for Carlos and me. And so, I wanna get those great percussionists, Karl (Perazzo) and Raul (Rekow) and Dennis (Chambers) on this recording. So I donít know if Iím gonna make an [entire Latin jazz] album, Ďcause Iíve got a lot of crazy things in my mind that I wanna do. But thereíll be some Latin Jazz on there for sure.

MT: Great. And this thing youíre doing thatís some type of acid jazz record Ė does it have a title yet?

JM: No. No, the title will come when it comes. But Iím very excited about it because I have all these strange ideas cominí out of my imagination, you know.

MT: Great.

JM: And the jazz critics will have a field day. Theyíll have a wonderful time (laughs).

MT: Youíd be surprised. The ones in their twenties will probably love it.

JM: Yeah, youíre probably right. Just the old fogies. I mean, a lot of people call me an old fogie. (laughs) But it doesnít matter.

MT: Right.

JM: Weíll see. Yeah, youíre probably right there, though.

MT: Right.

JM: Itís the younger generation, they know whatís goiní on.

MT: Yeah. Well, anything else you wanna add?

JM: Get a copy of the record! Youíll see where Iím coming from musically. I mean, you know, whatever words Iím saying will never equal what Iím able to say in music. Because I can talk to you about it, but itís like telling you, "Mmm, Iím eatiní this delicious cake," you know, the best thing you can do is eat it.