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John McLaughlin: On The Road, Part 1: The Interview

By Published: September 3, 2007

What To Expect

While Industrial Zen is a heavily technological record—McLaughlin's most assured synthesis of live performance and programming to date, in fact—his tour is going to be considerably rawer, partly out of design and partly out of necessity. For the past seven years or so, McLaughlin has been touring with a Godin guitar and a laptop with all his processing software. "You may not see that in North America," says McLaughlin, "simply because we have these pressures about carrying things [on airplanes]. I am a little concerned about what I can carry.

John McLaughlin

"But in the last nine months I've been playing more with an amp. Not really in concert, although there were a couple where I did play with amps, and it made me very happy. I'm not able to schlep an amp around because of the horrific travel costs, but I think it's very likely that you'll see me with an amp this time. A small one, but nevertheless I will be doing that. However, that said, the last seven years have been spent really working very deeply with the new technology, audio and midi—though I think that part of this research and work began before that. I've been running a Mac since they first came out in '84, which was the death knell of the Synclavier [the first digital synthesizer] unfortunately. But I think Industrial Zen reflects the research that I've been doing in sound.

"On the road I think we'll be a little more rough and ready. Gary will be playing synths—another reason I'm not too crazy about playing synth guitar, because Gary's playing synthesizers, and I think just to have the contrast between electric guitar and the synth from him, it's enough, we don't need another synth.

"So more or less straight sound, an amp and a guitar, though that remains to be seen. I just got back from America [the Crossroads Festival] and played straight amp with the quartet with Vinnie [Colaiuta], Matt [Garrison] and Gary. I brought Gary over but to keep the costs down, I wanted to play with Vinnie, Vinnie is on the recording [Industrial Zen], so I wanted to jam with him again; and Matthew, of course, goes back to The Heart Of Things (Verve, 1997). So that was just straight in the amp, boom! Play. I'm working very hard right now, because we've got the DVD and the CD, so there's a lot on my plate in addition to getting ready for the tour. But at the same time, because of the demands of touring, particularly in the US, we're gonna have to think more light than heavy, so it means less technology. So we'll be more rough and ready, I think."

John McLaughlin / The 4th Dimension

Like most musicians who have been around for more than a few years, McLaughlin views hitting the road differently than in years past, where tours were very much about promoting a new album. "The days of making a record and touring are over," McLaughlin explains. "It's not just that Industrial Zen came out a year or more ago, which is a long time for me, I've done another record since then. But there will be pieces that go back thirty years. Basically music that I want to play. I think there'll even be a piece from Mahavishnu Orchestra. There are a lot of great tunes from that period.

"But at the same time, when you've been making music as long as I have you've got to start making some choices. Ninety or a hundred minutes to play and we've got to make a show, as they say. But I'm very excited to do this from a musical point of view as a quartet. Invariably I've been playing with another front line [instrument], whether it's Heart Of Things or with Shakti with Shrinivas, but I feel very happy that we're just a quartet; there's something very nice about that.

"There's certainly a lot of room for spontaneity, for this wonderful thing that happens live that is so unpredictable. And I've already let it be known to the musicians that they have to be ready to move in a very spontaneous manner during the concerts, and they're really going to have to be on their toes—as will I, because these are great players. So they know what concept I'm looking at in terms of the music.

"I think the set list will vary from night to night because of the amount of music we do have. There will probably be some standard pieces that we'll play every night. Some pieces lend themselves to continuous evolution, and some are meant to be played with more sobriety. And so, with the pieces with sobriety there will be less evolution in any kind of flamboyant way, they'll be more discrete, more interior. But then there are pieces, particularly where you have harmonic possibilities of extensions, rhythmic possibilities of extensions. These are ones that I'll really exploit to the maximum. So you might hear a piece that will be played in one particular rhythmical expression, it will be the same form, but it will be transformed into a different extension one night, and on another it may be entirely different.

"I think this is how it should be for me. I don't want to predict and say, 'We're going to do it like this.' Yes, the melodies and the basic structures we start with, but then it's not just playing notes, and trying to get in touch with your soul, getting to the level where you have true freedom. It's also the interaction between spirits you have in the band, because they're all aware, all alive, so how do we interact and which way do we interact? So it's not just the playing of the notes, it's the playing of the people; and the minute you start playing with the people on the stage you start playing with the people in the audience and with their minds also, which I think is a wonderful thing.

John McLaughlin

"Spontaneity is the key word here. Of course, to get to that point, it's hard work, which is why we spend our entire lives dedicated to music. To get to the unknown, which is where spontaneity exists, you have to go through the known. Sometimes you'll spend a whole night getting through the known and never getting to the unknown [laughs]. Them's the breaks."

Over his forty-year plus career McLaughlin has had plenty of opportunity to view where music is going from a macro perspective. "I would hesitate to say we're playing jazz music," McLaughlin explains, "because, as Miles said, 'Jazz is a white man's word,' and I don't know anybody who could tell me today what true jazz is. Because it's undergone such a mutation over the past thirty years.

"You cannot get more personal than with music. But I've a personal philosophy that the more personal you get the more universal it actually becomes."

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