Poetic Thievery
John McLaughlin
Talks Inspiration, Education, and Instrumentation
By Barry Cleveland

John McLaughlin’s guitar mastery spans so many traditions that historians 200 years hence may argue that the figure known by that name is actually a composite of several individuals—or perhaps even entirely mythological.

Born into a music-friendly home in a small village in Yorkshire in 1942, McLaughlin was surrounded by the classics and encouraged to play by his violinist mother and other family members. He studied piano at nine, and discovered the guitar a few years later—just as the British underground blues scene was beginning to heat up. The music of Muddy Waters and other Delta deities seduced him into what would become a life-long love affair with the instrument. After a fling with flamenco and the jazz stylings of Django Reinhardt and Tal Farlow, McLaughlin entered the gravitational pull of Miles Davis and John Coltrane—forces that permanently altered his aesthetic trajectory.

Stints with some of London’s best blues and jazz bands and a smattering of major-artist session work quickly led to gigs with the phenomenal American jazz drummer Tony Williams and Miles himself. During that period, McLaughlin also released three solo albums that would prove to be prophetic to his future work: the intricately bopping Extrapolation, the distortion-driven Devotion, and the transcendent My Goals Beyond, which combined soulful acoustic guitar duets with extended Indian-infused improvisations.

McLaughlin’s work with Miles is legendary (“The Man with the Horn” even named a song after him on the revolutionary Bitches Brew), but with the release of the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s debut album in 1971, the young guitarist ascended to the rarified echelons of instrumental accomplishment occupied by Davis and his other heroes. The fiery excursions into sonic hyperspace contained on The Inner Mounting Flame and the follow-up album Birds of Fire established a formidable benchmark for what would soon be labeled jazz-rock fusion. Then, just as the Orchestra was moving millions of records and packing mammoth venues, McLaughlin disbanded the group, switched to acoustic guitar, and began performing with three Indian musicians—a move that horrified his record company and left many fans scratching their heads.

Diehard fusion fanatics never forgave McLaughlin, but 30 years on, Shakti’s pan-cultural collaborations are viewed as bellwethers of the nascent world music movement, a perspective further validated by the
success of recordings and tours by Remember Shakti—the group’s most recent incarnation. And, as if mastering two of the world’s most demanding musical traditions were not impressive enough, McLaughlin has also composed several orchestral works, including Apocalypse (1974), Mediterranean Concerto (1988), and the newly released Thieves & Poets [Verve]—a work which he feels recapitulates his musical journey through life.

At the time of the interview, the guitarist was preparing to depart on the second leg of a Remember Shakti world tour, recording a series of instructional DVDs, planning a new Shakti Remembered studio album, and threatening to further alienate ’70s fusion fans with his take on electronica.

Why this music now?

Thieves & Poets exists primarily because my friend Jürgen Nimbler in Germany called me up one day on behalf of the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie—an orchestra of young players based in Cologne—and asked me to write a piece for myself and them. It involved about a year of writing, and once we got it all together, we toured all over Europe, and it was absolutely wonderful. Years later, in 1991, I re-orchestrated the work for symphony orchestra when I was invited to do a series of concerts with the Orchestra de Paris. It was during the time of the Gulf War, but there was also a war going on between the orchestra members and the conductor, and, because of that, there were all sorts of problems. It was a nightmare. It disgusted me, and I concluded that the whole classical world really sucked, and that I should never get involved with it again.

Then, about four years ago, the choreographer of the Monte Carlo Ballet asked me for a piece, and he insisted that it be symphonic. So, I pulled out the future Thieves & Poets once again, and at that time, I realized it wasn’t finished. I wrote more solos and supplemental music for the rest of the orchestra. I’m very happy with how it came out, but I think it was only by virtue of the fact that I was able to live with it for all those years. It kind of grew on its own—like a plant.

In your liner notes you say that the three movements correspond to the Old World, the transition to the New World, and the New World, with the finale being the joyful unification of both worlds. Was that something you’d planned, or that emerged in retrospect?

I only realized it upon listening to the completed version. But listen, even in the first movement, when [violinist] Viktoria Mullova comes in and we do this thing in unison—that’s right out of the Mahavishnu Orchestra. It’s unbelievable!

I hear so many references, not only to your own work ...

I know, but believe me, I didn’t consciously allude to Mahavishnu. But your past is always with you, and it’s expressing itself on a continual basis. The moment you try to do something, you see things—though not always right away. At the same time, there is also without a doubt a subconscious movement to update my past, and I have the distinct impression that sometimes I have to take two steps backwards to take one step forward. Things are happening both consciously and subconsciously. The violin part was absolutely unconscious, but at the same time, I’ve got this conscious intention of trying to recapitulate my past, so it’s a very ambiguous process. I’m sorry to be so vague about it, but that’s absolutely how it is.

It’s a difficult thing to talk about.

Well, as a musician you understand that you go into a certain state of mind while writing music—a very special place where you hear music, only there’s no sound—which itself is a big mystery—and this place doesn’t correspond to any time zone. It’s as if your past exists there as much as your present. In fact, there’s no real present, there’s only the past [laughs]. But it’s brought up-to-date by your being aware of it now. It’s very tricky, very abstract, but you know what it is, and you have to go there to understand it—to feel it. And in that place, you also pass stuff coming back at you, but you see it with different eyes or hear it with different ears. As a musician, you understand that, but sometimes it’s difficult to explain to non-musicians.

Some aspects of Thieves & Poets, though, are obviously very conscious—such as the deconstruction of “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat.” What is the compositional process like for you? Do you write outlines of the parts on the guitar and then give them to the orchestrator?

No. On this particular piece, I wrote everything using either a keyboard or a MIDI guitar. For example, I would write the string parts using two-part piano notation, which I would then give to the orchestrator. He would have all the notes, and basically just arrange the distribution. I did the same thing with the brass, woodwinds, tuned percussion, etc.

Did you use notational software to create the documents, or do it by hand?

Both. Sometimes I’d be away, and just have my guitar. You know, you get an idea in a hotel room, and you just write it out longhand. Although recently I’ve been traveling with a computer. I’m actually using a laptop on stage.

With Remember Shakti?

Yes. I’m bringing kind of a whole new Western dimension into Shakti this time, and it’s pretty amazing. On the tour two years ago, I used a ’72 Gibson ES-345 with a scalloped neck [pictured on page 55], but currently I’m using a Godin LGXT with Synth Access. I began using the Godin while recording my DVD, which we’ll get to, and I was so happy with its MIDI capabilities that I had to try it with Shakti. It’s the best MIDI controller I’ve ever used. Routing it into the laptop through a Roland GI10 MIDI interface there are no glitches, and only about 1.5 milliseconds of latency. It’s unbelievable!

What software are you using?

On the road, I’m running Logic Platinum 5 with Spectrasonics Atmosphere and Emagic ES2 synthesizer and EXS-24 sampler plug-ins on a Mac Titanium PowerBook. It’s a very powerful combination that allows me to emulate many of the sounds I’d gotten previously using hardware, while also providing the architectural flexibility to create lots of fantastic new sounds.

Was one of the things that inspired you to create an instructional DVD your dissatisfaction with conventional music education?

You’ve seen the videos out there. Come on, they suck! Another reason I decided to do it, though, is that I turn 61 this year, and I’ve got a lot of stuff in my pumpkin that might be useful to somebody. Not that I’ve done millions of master classes in my life, but I’ve done a few, and I have personal students, so I know the problems confronting aspiring guitar players.

What’s on the DVD?

There are actually three DVDs, with a total of 12 chapters, and the instruction is in six languages because there are a lot of guitar players in the world who don’t speak English. For example, there are people in Southeast Asia who are crazy about guitar, and all they’ve got are these five-year-old copies of Guitar Player. I’m serious. They are hardcore, passionate guitar players and they want to learn. You do have to be able to read music, though, otherwise the DVD will be useless. I believe that if music is your basic language you have to read and write it. That’s how you communicate—at least in the West.

Each chapter opens with me discussing a particular scale and its modes, and the chords you can create by playing specific notes of the scale simultaneously. Then there are exercises to develop fluency skills, with concentration on both the left and the right hands—particularly rhythmical articulation. In jazz music, if your rhythm is off, you’re off—and you don’t have the right to articulate bad rhythm [laughs]. All of these areas are addressed, and the entire time you can see both of my hands and the score as I’m playing.

Then come chord exercises, and two demonstrations of improvisation [accompanied by a virtual band] and the harmonic structure is explained in a way that relates directly to the exercises in that chapter. The second demonstration uses the same musical material as the first but it’s more advanced. Finally, the score of the advanced demonstration is displayed on the full screen, and I analyze it while the music is playing. Each chapter is about 15 minutes long, and, taken together, they cover quite a lot of ground—from relatively simple to very advanced. In fact, the last chapter is called “Tough Tunes,” and it contains material in complex time signatures at fast tempos that really is tough [laughs].

Complementing all this is a huge library of phrasings that are part of my own vocabulary, which can be applied to your improvisations. There’s really no big mystery to improvisation, is there? You’ve got your licks, or clichés, or whatever you want to call them, and you’ve got your material. You apply those ideas as a way of getting to that special state where you discover new things. The only way to the unknown is through the known, and that’s my philosophy throughout the entire DVD. I’m not able to teach you to play guitar your way. What I am able to do is show you with as much lucidity and clarity as possible what I do and how I do it. Then you can appropriate what I do and find your own way, because, in the end, we can only play our own way.