John McLaughlin: On The Road, Part 1: The Interview
With the challenges of travel costs, visas, heightened security and baggage restrictions, it's sometimes amazing that musicians go on tour at all. "About seven or eight years ago I began to slow down tour-wise," McLaughlin explains, "and with the situation in the US particularly. Canada is really less of a problem, but it's difficult to tour in the US. It's a hassle; you have to be at the airport two-and-a-half hours before [the flight]. I go back to the '70s, when we used to pull up five minutes before take-off with three tons of equipment, drive the truck right up onto the field next to the plane, having given the sky cab twenty bucks, load the instruments on the plane and there would be no delaywe'd run to the airport, run to the plane and take off.
"A lot of airlines only allow you one handbag, so we're learning to travel more lightly by necessity, in spite of the fact that the Musicians Union in the United States made an agreement with the airlines some years ago. The airlines, god bless them, they're going through their problems. We were in Chicago two weeks ago [July, 2007] for the Crossroads Festival with Eric [Clapton], and we were coming back to New York for a few days before returning to Europe and they just cancelled the flight. It was a five o'clock flight, we would have been in LaGuardia around 7:30 or 8:00, we arrived in Newark at 2:00 AM without our bagsit was a major upheaval at the airport. And they don't even talk to you anymore; they refuse to speak to you."
The rigors of the road, especially criss-crossing across multiple time zones, are something that can wear out even the most seasoned traveler. Still, McLaughlin says, "traveling is a habitwhen you've been doing it all your life, you don't think about time zones, you just think about when you can eat, when you can sleep and is it time to play, or can you grab another hour. I should point out, though, that being a musician is not quite the same as being a non-musician in the sense that when you play music, even if you're jet-lagged, something, some psycho-physical thing happens to your body and it's very, very benevolent. I've noticed it my whole life. One of the best anti-jet lag treatments there can be is playing music."
McLaughlin's known and/or worked with some of the members of the new group before, although this is the first time they've come together as a unit. "I've done gigs with Mark and Gary," explains McLaughlin, "and Mark's brother [Mike] was on bass, a great bassist, and we did gigs before I met Hadrien, before we recorded Industrial Zen. This is going back two or three years, and we did some quartet gigs which were wonderful because Mark goes way back with me to The Promise (Verve, 1995). And he's such a great drummerand Gary, of course, he's another great drummer. In fact Gary's going to have a little jungle kit on stage. We're going to have Mark and Gary together. They were together on Industrial Zen on two pieces, so I want them playing together. They love each other and have such admiration for each other that it's really special what they do, and I think with those two, me and Hadrien, we're going to be tearing it up on some music.
"A lot of people over there [North America] won't even know them, other than Gary, maybe, with Level 42 and Allan Holdsworth. I met Gary, it must have been the very early '90s'91 or '92and of course I'd been to see him and Allan whenever they were in town or when I was in their town. Allan, he's just an amazing guitarist, he's special. Every time I see him I tell him 'Allan, if I only knew what you were doing I would steal everything you do, but I haven't the faintest idea how you do what you do.'
"So I'd been listening to Gary on drums for some time, and then we started to hang here and there when I was with Dennis [Chambers], because they've been tight for a while. We were hanging out one day and Gary said, 'I want to send you a CD,' and he sent me a piano CD which was the one of Allan Holdsworth music, which is wonderful. [The Things I See: Interpretations Of The Music Of Allan Holdsworth (Angel Air, 2004)]. He's really an outstanding player. So we've done gigs with him on keyboards, and of course on Industrial Zen he was doing keyboards and drums. Gary's wonderful, so that's how I met him.
"Mark would go back even further because, before I knew Mark, I'd heard rumors. Mark was at a gig, and Tony [Williams] was there and Tony wouldn't stop for any drummer, but he stopped for Mark and he listened to him. Because I knew Tony very well, when I heard about that I said 'I've gotta hear this guy,' so I basically hunted him down until I got to hear him. It must be fifteen years ago or so that I heard him for the first time, playing with this French saxophonist from Martinique. A nice tenor player. So Mark was playing and I went to see him, and really liked it.
"The next chance I had was thirteen years ago, when I did The Promise and I called told him, 'Listen I'm doing a tune with Jeff [Beck], but you know with Jeff it's gonna be a little...,' and he said, 'Don't worry,' and I said, 'I'm not worried, I just want you to put it down,' and he said, 'I'll put it down!' And he did. And, in fact, from that recording he got the gig with Jeff for a while, he joined Jeff's band. That must have been 1995.
"In '97 I was finishing up with the Heart Of Things and just moving into Shakti mode again. With Shakti you don't need a drummerwith Zakir Hussain around and Selvaganesh, those two, what a couple of monsters. But in between times I organized these concerts, because this electric thing, it's in my blood. It's undeniable; it's like a compulsion that I have to play it. It's wonderful with Shakti, don't get me wrong, it's a fantastic group, but I'm a western musician, and I don't want to be an Indian musician and I'm not [an Indian musician] with Shakti; I'm bending rules. I know the Indian system, I know the Indian ragas, and I know how to bend the rulessimply because I know the rules, I know how to bend them. At the same time, I'm a western player and I want to express myself with my form, which has something to do with Shakti, because Shakti will be in it, there's no doubt about it. But from a harmonic point of view I'm a harmonic musician, a western musician and this is the element that I've been trying to incorporate in Shakti."
But perhaps the real find of The 4th Dimension is bassist Hadrien Feraud. Still only twenty-two, his playing on "For Jaco," the opening track on Industrial Zen, is nothing short of remarkable. "I heard Hadrien on a demo CD," McLaughlin says. "My manager, he's based in Paris, and I used to hang out there years and years ago. It's a nice city to hang out in, and since I grew up with French it's not a problem for me, because if you don't speak French [laughs] it's a real problem in Paris, believe me.
"So, anyway, my manager had heard about this kid and we were speaking one day and he said, 'You know I've heard this bassist,' and my antenna went up, and I said, 'Let me hear him, whatever he's got,' and he played me something that was just rough, a demo. I called him right away and said, 'Listen, come down here, I'm in the middle of recording, and there's this tune you have to play on.' I'd already written 'For Jaco,' and I didn't even know who was gonna play on it, I really didn't. But this tune was so much for Jaco and it couldn't have been more timely. I heard this kid play, I couldn't believe it, so I got him down, and we played and we recorded and, for me, he's the new Jaco [Pastorius]. He's twenty-two now, it's terrible! And he doesn't even read music, but he's got amazing ears. Harmonically, I say, 'Do you know this chord?' and he says, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah,' or 'Let me hear it,' and boom! he's got it. Amazing, like Wes Montgomery. Incredible.
"Then Industrial Zen came out and the next week Chick [Corea] called me and he said, 'Damn, this record is beautiful,' he loves Industrial Zen. And he said, 'This bassist, can I borrow this bassist?' [laughs]. I said 'Yeah, of course, we're going on tour in September but hey, he's a free agent,' and so he's toured with him already. I just saw Chick last week in New York, and we might do something together next year, we're talking about it. We'll see how that works out. But Hadrien is already buzzing around the planet."