Wasted: Lukas Nelson at Cannabis Culture
CANNABIS CULTURE - You might think that everything comes easily to twenty-three year old Lukas Nelson, being the son of Willie Nelson, one of the most recognizable musicians in the world. If you spend a little time with Lukas, it won't take you long to realize that like his father, he’s got his own road to travel and he’s enjoying getting there on his own. That doesn’t mean that he doesn’t appreciate the help he’s gotten on the way. Since he began playing the guitar around the age of eleven, Lukas has been exposed to the best singers and songwriters in the business. Over the years he’s had the chance to sit in and be mentored by not only his father, but also by Neil Young, Bob Dylan, BB King and many more.
Three years after quitting college he began to play music full time. Since then, Lukas’ career has gained a lot of momentum. He’s appeared on Letterman twice, Conan once, released an EP and two full-length albums (see the review of Wasted here) that demonstrate just how much his songwriting and guitar playing has improved while he’s been living on the road. ‘Heroes’ is his newest recording collaboration with his father and features several of Lukas’ own compositions as well as a wonderful cover of Pearl Jam’s ‘Just Breathe,’ that extends his reach beyond the hard rocking music favoured by his excellent touring band ‘Promise of the Real,’ and proves just how well-rounded a musician the younger Nelson has become.
For years, fans have called Bob Dylan’s punishing concert schedule ‘the never-ending tour.’ For Lukas, who took only five weeks off the road last year, that title might be more appropriate. I recently caught up with Lukas while he was ordering lunch at a tour stop in Wilmington, North Carolina.
Lukas: Hey buddy! It’s good to hear you. I’m just ordering lunch here. I hope that’s ok. We’re in Carolina. Willmington, I think it’s called. It’s a nice place.
DR: You must have been playing a lot if you had to think for a minute about where you are.
LN: Yeah, I always play a lot and I sometimes wonder just where I am.
DR: I’m not always sure where I am at any given moment either and I don’t often go that far from home.
LN: Shit! Yeah. It’s like that. Where am I? We have played so much recently, but we did have a week off and I went home to Maui and had a rest just a little while ago. But, I’m on the road almost all of the time.
DR: So, a lot of young people leave home to go to college and I know you’ve done that, but after trying that out, you’ve chosen the life of a musician instead. Has it been much of an adjustment for you to pack your things and play all over the country to make your living?
LN: No, I’ve always done this. When I was a kid, I was out on the road with my dad all the time. I was never anywhere for more than a few months at a time, so this feels natural.
DR: So, do you get itchy after you’ve been at home for a while?
LN: Yeah, it takes two to three weeks before I need to go somewhere. I think everybody in the band feels the same way. Everybody’s got home lives that are stressful and being out on the road is something we long for. We play music, we work and we don’t think. We just work. We blow off steam every night. We’re lucky that way.
DR: Well, you must be doing something right because whenever I read a review of your show – and it doesn’t matter how big or small the town or the venue – people always rave about the quality of the experience you’re offering to them.
LN: Well, we’ve been blessed with a good gift! I try every day to appreciate it.
DR: I think everybody reading this will know about your father, Willie Nelson’s music, but they may not have heard about you yet. You’ve been out working hard for the last couple of years on the road, but for people who haven’t heard your music, what would you like for them to know about what you do?
LN: Well, I’ve been influenced by a lot of the greats throughout the years, and I’ve been lucky enough to meet some of them and to have been mentored by some of them to this day. I’m influenced by everything I hear and I don’t limit myself in any way possible. I don’t like to categorize myself in any way at all, so I’m open to a lot of different music.
DR: When you were growing up, what kind of music would you hear at home?
LN: Well, my mother brought the rock and roll into the house. My father brought the country, so together it was a good mix.
DR: Can you remember music that you heard as a kid that has stuck with you? Or, music that gave you a kind of ‘aha’ moment. I know that as an adult, you’ve met and spent time with artists like Neil Young and Bob Dylan and had the chance to play with them.
LN: They were artists I heard as a kid. I still love Neil and have had a chance to hang out with him. Some of the first music I remember singing as a little, little kid was Creedence Clearwater Revival. I remember my parents sitting on the couch and listening to ‘Fortunate Son,’ and now we’re going to go out and tour with John Fogerty from that band. We’re going to do a month long tour with him through Canada in September.
DR: It’s great to see that Fogerty’s still around and out playing. He was sidelined for so long because of all those lawsuits about royalties and who owned the rights to the CCR songs. Have you kept up with his music over the years?
LN: I know that he’s playing all the Creedence stuff now and I bought one of his recent albums a few years back. He’s got a great band. Kenny Aaronoff is the drummer in his group now.
DR: He is a great drummer. I know him from when he played in Dylan’s band. How do you feel about travelling with and supporting a musician of Fogerty’s stature - somebody that you’ve been listening to for your whole life?
LN: We did a small tour with him last year. He liked us and we loved him and his band, so it’s going to be a really fun tour, I think.
DR: Did you have a chance to play together?
LN: No, we didn’t, but I never rule anything out. It was really nice to watch the show every night. He sounds as good if not better than he did with CCR.
DR: So, let’s go back a little bit Lukas for people who are just hearing about you for the first time here. Have you always wanted to be a musician.
LN: Yeah, I have. I didn’t know if I’d be able to do this for a career, but I’ve always wanted playing music to be a big part of my life. For sure! I probably picked up a guitar for the first time when I was about eleven. I’ve been singing since I was a little, little kid. My dad gave me some encouragement, but I think the reason I picked up the guitar was so that I’d have something to relate to him with. It was something we could do together –
DR: - and then it took on a life of its own.
LN: Exactly. I am not sure when my first professional gig was though. Isn’t that funny! I think it must have been with my dad somewhere playing in his band. I think my first professional gig was at Charlie’s in Maui. That was with a band I was with called ‘Harmonic Tribe.’ They were a reggae band. That was pretty cool. I played reggae a lot when I was a kid.
DR: So, your current band is called ‘Promise of the Real.’ Tell me a little bit about how you came together, and how you knew this was a band worth sticking with.
LN: We got together after I quit college. I had some friends that I was hanging out with and surfing with. I met Anthony (the drummer) at a Neil Young concert and we had a few other members. Tato was carried over from bands that I had been with forever. I’ve known him for the longest. Corey was the most recent addition and all of those guys – except for Tato who grew up in Maui with me – are from Southern California.
DR: I watched your most recent performance on Letterman and I noticed you had a keyboard player with you.
LN: Yeah, Moose was with us. He’s a great player and we have him with us as much as possible, but he doesn’t travel with us. He helped produce our record. He’s a good friend.
DR: You’ve got two records out now with ‘Promise of the Real.’ The first one had that great song ‘Sound of Your Memory’ on it. Your newest one ‘Wasted’ has a really different feel.
LN: I think the instrumentation has changed. The influences are different. I was listening to a lot of Rolling Stones during this record. I wanted there to be a lot of weight to it. I was listening to a lot of Neil. I’m always listening to Neil.
DR: It sounds different than ‘Tonight’s the Night’ but it has a lot of the same vibe of things unfolding, and you trying to work them out as you’re recording.
LN: I think ‘Tonight’s the Night’ is a little more raw than this is, but it’s one of my favourite records.
DR: I never get tired of hearing it. There’s some pretty dark stuff on your new record. I love how you wrote in the booklet that comes with the CD ‘these songs were written on the fly on my iPhone’ and to forgive any grammatical errors.
LN: Thanks. I have little pet peeves about grammar. I had good grammar beaten into me as a kid. I’m a writer, so it’s part of that. Well, I wanted to keep the freshness and energy of writing them on my iPhone at the moment. We recorded on the week of a full moon, we mixed and transferred on a full moon and we released on a full moon so it was a four month process. I talked to Neil about that, too, and you feel something. Every full moon, I feel very energized and there’s a higher vibration. The shows and recordings are always better, so it’s the magnetism of the moon pulling that does that I think.
DR: How do you think that music benefits from that kind of ‘in the moment’ energy as opposed to spending months in the studio perfecting things – like Pink Floyd and other bands did?
LN: Well, Floyd was very in the moment, but they spent years in the studio because they were busy discovering new shit. Their live stuff was always as good as their studio stuff – especially in the beginning when Syd Barrett was in the band. They were all about capturing the moment. But, I don’t want to be like Axl Rose who spent 15 years on a Guns’N’Roses record that was only really okay at best. It’s just too perfect. Rock and roll to me is about the moment, bringing people together, dancing, letting loose, having fun and getting your inner wild child out. That can only happen when you lose yourself to the moment.
DR: Beautiful. So, that makes me think about the difference between how you approach playing live – where everything is in the moment as you say – as opposed to recording in the studio. They’re related, but they must impose different demands on you as an artist.
LN: Going back to the idea of ‘the moment.’ You have to be able to create that moment in the studio in order to pull off the music in the way you want to. Some people smoke weed, some people get together and chant. Other people need a whole crowd of people in there drinking to turn the studio into a party scene while other people need to be solitary while they’re working. So, it depends on what you need to create the vibe that you want for your record. I think it depends on the song and it depends on the album. When you’re playing live and only two or three people show up for your gig, you’ve got to try really hard to make that moment. Sometimes it can be very nice, but it does make it harder. As a performer, I take energy from the crowd, so when only a few people show up, it makes it difficult for me. A big part of my show is how much I get into the music, so I really struggle when there are only a few people in the audience to interact with. I have to turn my band into the audience and we have to play for each other.
DR: One of the last times we spoke, you told me about a recording project with your father. It’s just come out and it’s called ‘Heroes.’ Can you tell us a little bit about how recording this CD came together?
LN: We are always talking about recording together, and we finally got into the studio. We booked in three days and I brought some songs into the mix and he brought some songs, too. I brought in the Pearl Jam tune.
DR: You guys did such a beautiful version of that song. Was it a favourite of yours?
LN: Yeah, it’s a recent Pearl Jam song, so it was really fresh to me. It was my favourite on that album. It got me into Pearl Jam. From that, I started delving into their stuff.
DR: To me that song demonstrates how in tune you and your dad are with each other musically. I read a review yesterday that said ‘you can’t even hear Lukas on the songs’ and to me, other than being completely wrong, it also demonstrated how intuitively you and your dad harmonize. At times you blend completely.
LN: A lot of people don’t realize that it’s me coming in on the same verse. It’s funny, but whatever. It’s kind of a natural thing, there’s not really much to say about it. So, when we recorded ‘Sound of Your Memory’ again, it was nice to mix it up, to reinterpret and see what kind of vibe a different set of musicians can establish. It was a lot of fun working on ‘Heroes.’
DR: So, Lukas, we’ve talked about a wide variety of subjects in the past. As you know, we’re talking here for Cannabis Culture and –
LN: I had a joint the other day! Hahaha.
DR: Do you find after not smoking for a while, that it’s a different experience?
LN: Honestly, no. I feel as if I’ve been smoking forever and it just picked up the story again. I played a show that night in Birmingham, Alabama.
DR: Looking at your new album, ‘Wasted’, there are lots of references to pot. There’s a song called ‘The Joint’ and another one called ‘Don’t Take Me Back’ that have a lot of imagery in them that references pot. But, they don’t sound like they’re put in there to shock anybody or give you ‘Rebel Cred’ or anything like that. They sound natural and like an extension of your storytelling and your honesty with your audience.
LN: That’s funny. Some reviews have criticized me for using pot for ‘marketing’ in my songs. They say I’m trying to find something that teenagers can get behind in my music, but I just write about my life and what I do.
DR: I know. All the references are natural and part of the song. You’re hardly writing pot anthems like Peter Tosh or Ben Harper have...
LN: Well, I did want to have a kind of anthem to weed because I’ve been smoking it my whole life, so the songs do reflect that part of my experience.
DR: I find when people are brought up with something and it’s not a taboo, then it’s not a big deal for the kids either. I imagine pot was just a natural part of life at home for you.
LN: Yeah, it was like someone pouring a glass of wine or making a pot of tea. No big deal.
DR: You don’t seem to have a lot of baggage or guilt around smoking pot. It must allow you to see it all more clearly – and you seem to decide to smoke or not smoke based on your own needs, not on the expectations of other people.
LN: Well, that’s exactly true. I don’t think about it. Really good to talk with you again, Doug. I can’t wait to see you out on the road somewhere.
DR: I’ll catch you with Fogerty in the fall.
LN: Looking forward to it brother.
Lukas Nelson and the Promise of the Real will be on tour across Canada with John Fogerty in September. Wasted is available on iTunes and CDs can be ordered from Amazon and Promise of the Real’s website.