It’s a challenge to describe San Francisco-based Jeffrey Luck Lucas’ music without waxing a bit poetic. It’s full of melancholy, sometimes outright sadness, but magical as well. Transformative, moody, mesmerizing. I think when I’ve tried to shorthand it, I’ve described him a bit like Nick Cave meets Tom Waits to be a little more conventional, but his influences are many and the power of his music is in voice, the elegance of the music, and the vibrancy of his lyrics.
With two solo albums already to his name, HELL THEN DIVINE (2004) and WHAT WE WHISPER (2006), Mr. Lucas is about to release his third studio album, THE LION’S JAW, coming out in February 2010.
I spoke with Mr. Lucas about his music, his process, and his background.
Osmosis Online: When and where were you born?
Jeff: Gary, Indiana 1962, St. Mary’s Hospital (now demolished)
OO: When someone who’s never heard your music before asks you to describe it, what do you tell them?
Jeff: That it’s hard to describe. Somewhere between Lou Reed and Leonard Cohen, Townes Van Zandt and Nick Cave. Or: I try to put into words and music what I feel at 4 a.m., during those strange, lonely hours.
OO: It’s a very personal music, very moody. It’s been described as “cinematic” at one point, isn’t that correct? Do you see it that way?
Jeff: I do. Honestly, what I try to do (basically) is capture moments in time; every aspect, every facet and perspective. So there are shifting perspectives, blurred boundaries, etc. There is a sense of hyper-reality and surreality coupled with the intimacy of the subject matter that definitely correlates with how we experience cinema. And the music itself, because of the scope, depth, and use of the arrangements, can take on a ‘soundtrack’ quality.
OO: Are you writing new material all the time or does it come in bursts of creativity? I know you have a new album due out in a month or so. How long did it take to develop that material?
Jeff: I write continually. It’s my favorite thing to do. Usually after something is written I can tell if it belongs with this song or that song. Eventually they clump into families, stylistically or thematically. These are proto-albums. We’ll record the songs and the ones that work become the record. All I can say is that it becomes apparent when a song belongs. I think it took me several months to write the material on THE LION’S JAW, but there was a lot of material that didn’t make the final cut. And there were songs written in between WHAT WE WHISPER and THE LION’S JAW that made other stories that will be better told on other albums. It’s a continual process and sometimes not linear at all. In fact, it’s a big part of both my conscious and unconscious thought; always trying to find/see the connections. “Between thought and expression lies a lifetime”, as Lou Reed said.
OO: You play several different instruments that I know of, what did you start out with?
Jeff: I received an electric organ as a Christmas present when I was 9 or so. I taught myself the songs in the book that came with it. When I was 10 I began studying the cello in school which eventually led to me getting a degree in the instrument.
OO: So when did you learn the guitar? How young were you when you were in your first “band”?
Jeff: I started playing bass guitar when I was 16 or 17. I was approached by someone when I was practicing my cello at a junior college in San Diego who asked if I could do it. I thought I could and I did. The band was called The Cardiac Kidz and they were one of San Diego’s first generation of punk bands. These were pre-hardcore days, so the music had more in common with the mid-70s New York scene than with, say, Black Flag or The Circle Jerks, who got very popular a couple years afterwards.
I taught myself how to play guitar around 1980 when I was living in LA. I taught myself playing along with a Velvet Underground album. The song I learned specifically was “What Goes On.” I learned mainly as a way to be able to write songs, so it took me quite awhile to become really proficient. And, even now, I’m learning every day.
OO: When did you turn to solo performing, the music that you’ve been doing for the past five years or so? Was it a distinct break from the music that you performed in bands?
Jeff: Yes. I found my vision did not lend itself to democracy. I had been through that. It can be and had been fun, but my music was becoming too personal and therapeutic (for myself) to give any control up. I wanted to approach songwriting like a composer and make records that were extremely personal visions, not haphazard collections of communal strife. That is all saved for live performances–where the songs actually take on a (communal) life all their own. That is where you can find spontaneity and impulse because I, and hopefully the performers, are living and breathing the song. We’re inside of it and the song has its own demands; emotionally, technically. We have to convey its essence; we have to live it. And like any living thing, a song has its moods, its good days, bad days, days of love, and days of hate. On a record, we’ve done all we can do and a certain amount of work is required by the listener. Live, we create a theater of possibilities for the song and the audience, very symbiotic and fluid. One has the opportunity to drive points home, or off a cliff. I started flying solo around late 2002 or 2003.
OO: I recall you once listening to a Motorhead song and pining for a chance to “rock out” or something. Your roots were in punk and rock with your bands, right? Do you ever think of doing something really different from the bulk of your work, just for a spurt of change?
Jeff: Yes, I played in several punk and garage punk bands from the late ’70s to 1986. I am not opposed to exploring other styles and formats within my own work or playing in other people’s projects. Every few months or so we put on tribute shows–everything from Paul McCartney to Lee Hazlewood to Fleetwood Mac. I’ve been getting my rock on. Don’t be surprised if it creeps in from time to time on my own records.
OO: Do you have a “day job”? What do you do?
Jeff: Not any longer. I was recently laid-off from my job of 10-1/5 years in a world musical instrument store. Now I work the door once in awhile at my local bar.
OO: Between working the door and music, are you getting to a point to be supporting yourself through your music career? Is that what you desire?
Jeff: It’s getting there and, yes, that’s my goal. The key is getting overseas (touring) … that and licensing are very important. I’m putting a lot of faith in my new label to facilitate these things and we seem to be on the same page.
OO: Where do you have your strongest following? Have you toured more than the West Coast?
Jeff: I’ve only toured the West Coast, Northwest, and Southwest. We plan on branching-out this year, East Coast and Northeast, Chicago and Austin, perhaps. Mainly I’m getting the records out in Europe, where I feel my strongest following is. I seem to have a conclave of like minds in Bosnia. I’d like to do England, Scotland, Ireland, Belgium, France, Holland, Germany, Italy, and the Czech Republic and Bosnia this coming year. We’ll see. I seem to have some good people working for me. I would love to have the chance to perform over there, where I’ve gotten support, and they’ve had no chance to see me live. I would like to develop an ongoing relationship with the Old World.
OO: Do you still have a passion for Arizona and the desert? Is there something that keeps you in San Francisco?
Jeff: I’ve lived in San Francisco for 25 years. THAT is what keeps me here. I was moved around a lot as a kid and didn’t have the time or ability to keep long term friendships. I am enjoying having an extended family and a neighborhood that I am a part of. This extends also, and maybe especially, into my musical family. I also seem to thrive on chaos and the energy of all that happens in the city. San Francisco is my home–I can’t imagine living anywhere else right now.
I do have a passion for the desert, especially Tucson, and head down there when I can. I don’t think I could live outside the big city for long, though. I’d go crazy.
OO: So do you think that San Francisco is a good place then for music, for musicians?
Jeff: There’s a lot of musicians in this town. A lot of brilliant musicians. I think it’s a great city to get your artistic shit together in. It’s a city rich in history, inspiration, and resources for creative people. I think, like anywhere else, San Franciscans probably don’t appreciate their local talent as much as they should. We’re a jaded lot, especially me. It seems like every other day a friend or colleague of mine is putting something wonderful together at a local music venue, and I miss it. Then again, I’m lauded by the BBC and I’m lucky sometimes to get 30 people at a show. I’m not bitter– I’ve seen it happen to heroes of mine from 3,000 miles away. It’s the nature of this and other cities, I guess. The nature of the business. As a culture we’re inundated with entertainment, and if your entertainment isn’t by nature “fun” you’re going to be hoeing a tough row–or however you say it. Sometimes people just want to hear a Neil Diamond cover band and not think so much. So, there’s something for everyone, especially here. You’ve got to carve a niche and be true to why the hell you’re making music in the first place. I see too many people desperate for attention that chase the flavor of the day in ever widening circles. One day, they’re just gone.
OO: I’ve been reading about this challenge to local music venues, that many of them are being threatened with shut-down or something. Is this something that you’ve encountered in the venues that you play?
Jeff: Venues come and go. Like I mentioned earlier, SF audiences can be fickle. It can be hard to bring people in and make money. So, you can bring a DJ in and have dance parties with a low overhead and make money instead of live music. It’s also a small compact city… there’s neighbors everywhere. Gentrification brings money into neighborhoods that might have had some lively music venues. These new comers have “property concerns”. They worry about the foot traffic and noise, potential crime. I hear a lot of excuses, the end result is the same: we lose another venue.
OO: I know that you are well-read and also a cineaste of sorts. Do you have other media in which you create?
Jeff: I write essays and poetry for my own satisfaction. I also dabble in graphic design and do computer art and web design. I used to paint and would like to start again. Of course, I’d like to write a novel someday as well. I just enjoy creating immensely. Music seems to tie it all up in one package for me.
OO: What is your greatest hope for 2010?
Jeff: To make it to Europe to play music. And to record the next album and get it out in a more timely fashion. To get my name in lights, put myself on the radar once again. It’s been a couple years since the last album. People have short memories sometimes.