John McLaughlin: The Rolling Stone Interview
By Bobin James
Ustad Zakir Hussain calls guitarist John McLaughlin “one of the greatest and most important musicians of our times.” Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew album features a track named after him. He has made music with everyone from Jan Hammer to Jean-Luc Ponty to Billy Cobham. He was in Mumbai for the release of his new album, Floating Point, and Rolling Stone caught up with him.
How did it all start for you, John, this journey in music?
Well, I had the good fortune to be born in a semi-musical household. My mother was a violinist – amateur violinst, not professional – but generally speaking amateur musician parents are very passionate about what they are doing. She loved music so there was always music in the house. But invariably it was classical music.
When you are a kid, a baby growing up, music is music, you don’t know what different music is. You only know later in life. I remember I had a very strong musical experience. I must have been about five and she was playing the ‘9th Symphony’ of Beethoven and at the very end, there’s a vocal quartet singing and I will never forget because my hair went like this… [indicating goosebumps] It was something I didn’t understand but it was a great feeling. And I realised this is music.
Music has the capacity to change people. It certainly changed me. Shortly after that, I asked my mother if I could take piano lessons because we had an old piano in the house. So, I took piano lessons. At the very beginning of the 1950s there was what they called the blues boom in the UK. My eldest brother was studying in college and he was coming back with these blues recordings - Mississippi blues, Chicago blues, everything that was blues… I was exposed to this music when I was about eleven. At about the same time, the rest of us brothers and one sister, we all contributed to buy a guitar for the eldest brother, since he was a student and he was into the music. It was a three dollar guitar really. I didn’t really pay attention. I was playing piano and I was taking my lessons. And then once my eldest brother became bored with the guitar, he gave it to the second brother and then because the third brother wasn’t interested, it came to me. At the same time, this music [blues] came into the house. So it was a very big confluence of cultures. The very first moment I had the guitar in my arms, I fell in love with it. In fact I went to bed with the guitar that night [laughs].
So did you start off playing the blues on the guitar?
Yeah, I was trying to. But you know, I had been doing Mozart and Haydn and Beethoven on the piano and it was different. This music was radical to me. Really radical. And there was not much pop music in those days. That would be 1953. By 1955, Elvis was already around. Bill Haley and the Comets. Jerry Lee Lewis. The whole rock thing that began in America. So that in itself was a big influence.
Then at what point in time did you realise that ‘Hey, this is what I’m going to be doing for the rest of my life?’
From this point. When I was eleven years old. And I discovered the guitar. There was no other option for me.
Then you started doing sessions.
Oh no, this came later. I was very lucky because I was terrible at school. Except that the music class had a very enlightened teacher. We had two groups at school – two different jazz groups – and every time he’d say, ‘That’s great, you have to come up and play for the class,’ which by itself is worth a hundred rehearsals, when you have to play for people. So by the time I was sixteen, I had been hired by a group and I was touring. I quit school. I didn’t even go to college or anything. I was on the road at sixteen. And I’ve been on the road ever since. Actually, no, I had a lot of different jobs. I was living in a town north of England, just south of Scotland and by the time I arrived in London, I must have been seventeen and it was very difficult to survive. So I had many different kind of jobs over the next few years… I was a truck driver, I was a salesman, I was an instrument repairer…
You were a salesman for?
What did I sell? Caviar [grins]. But then, I was repairing instruments, selling instruments. I was involved in working in different musical environments. At least, it was nice to be amongst instruments.
Then how did the move to the US happen?
By 1965, I had come out one of the most difficult bands in the world, called the Ray Ellington Quartet. It was a great little band. The guitar book – the music was all written – was one of the most difficult in the world, and I held this job down for about 18 months. And then I left. But by that time, I could basically read anything on guitar. And if you can do that well, then you get hired very quickly for sessions. So I became a sessions man and for the first time in my life, I had more than five dollars in my pocket. But I couldn’t take it. I did it for 18 months. And did a lot of recordings. But most of it was rubbish. You know, ‘Tie A Yellow Ribbon,’ Engelbert Humperdinck, Sandie Shaw… And we used to get French artists in. But occasionally, we used to get the American artists in, like Burt Bacharach. In the Sixties, he wrote some great songs. He came to see me, when I did the premiere of ‘Mediterranean Concerto,’ which was commissioned by the LA Philharmonic because he was living next to Miles [Davis] in Malibu. So they both came to the concert.
So is that how you met Miles the first time?
Oh no, I met Miles before that. Anyway, I left the studio work because I felt I was gonna die. Musically and physically. So I became poor as a pauper, but happy because I was playing my music again. And I was playing with a lot of different people on the London scene and playing with a number of American musicians who would visit Europe. And finally I did a jam session with Jack DeJohnette, the drummer who was playing with Bill Evans, the pianist. This would be in the summer of ’68. He recorded the jam session but I didn’t know that. And he went back to the US and was talking to Tony Williams, the drummer who was playing with Miles. And Tony just mentioned that he was looking for a guitar player to make a trio with, because he was leaving Miles. And Jack said, ‘Well, listen to this tape. I just played with this guy in London.’ So Tony heard the tape and I got called. So I didn’t go over to New York to play with Miles Davis – I went there to play with Tony Williams, with Lifetime which was a great band.
So anyway, I ended up in New York and the same day I met Miles. And I met him also the day after. He had never heard me play but he knew that I was there to play with Tony because Tony had to finish the week’s work in a club in Harlem. In those days, Miles would be playing mainly clubs in America. He was a superstar in Europe but in America, he was still playing clubs. So anyway, he knew who I was. And he just said right out of the blue, ‘Well, tomorrow, we’re in the studio. So bring your guitar and we will play.’ And that was In A Silent Way. So I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Very lucky.
Shakti was completely different from what you were doing so far in that you had this Indian sound that was intrinsic to the music. So how did that connect with India happen?
It began again in the Sixties. Because I am a longhaired hippie freak. At least I was. [Laughs] Like everybody coming out of the acid days, we were all asking ourselves these existential questions, like, ‘Who are we? And what are we? And what is God if God exists?’ The minute you start asking these questions, you want to do something about it and you want to find out which people have asked these kind of questions. In the West, they haven’t really asked the questions like they have for thousands of years in the East, in India, in China, in Japan. By the end of the Sixties, I was trying to alter my state of consciousness by yoga and by meditation and was trying to figure out what is going on, what the universe is and what I’m doing here, etc. So you quickly become aware of India if you started to ask this kind of questions, because India has been addressing these questions for a long time and it’s been coming up with wonderful solutions to these questions. So I became very much attracted to the Indian culture, which was inevitable.
By 1967, I was aware of people like Ramana Maharishi, following and trying to understand his way and trying to adapt it to my lifestyle. So to discover the music was really just a question of time. Because Indian music is totally inclusive, in the sense that it incorporates every aspect of human dimension as opposed to the Western world where for example, the only spiritual aspect of music for a long time, for hundreds of years, were the masses that were written by the composers. And it took someone like John Coltrane to bring in this spiritual aspect of the human being in the West into music. To integrate it, to make it a music inclusive of this aspect of the human soul, heart, psyche, whatever you want to call it. Whereas in India, the music has been inclusive for hundreds, if not thousands of years.
The second aspect was that you have some fantastic players here. And they play in a way that’s not like jazz, but nevertheless, we share a great deal of common ground because we employ rhythm to a very strong extent. Which is what jazz is about too. Jazz is really rhythm and blues. You can’t take the rhythm and blues out of jazz. The difference between us, is that we employ our Western traditions of harmony – this is really the essential difference. But by 1969, I’d taken a teacher at New York, and he was trying to teach me North Indian Hindustani flute. What I really wanted to learn was the music. I’m not a flute player, so it didn’t last long. But I began to learn about the traditions. And then in 1971, I became a student of Dr Ramanathan at the Wesleyan University in Connecticut as a student of the South Indian veena. I began to study seriously, again, more the theory. Because it became apparent to me quickly that I couldn’t really play guitar and veena. I am not that gifted. I continued with the theory.
By 1973, I had already played with Zakir [Hussain], independently of Shakti – Shakti wasn’t formed yet. And L Shankar. It was from jamming with these two guys independently – Zakir in California, and Shankar on the East Coast – that I had the idea for Shakti. So finally I got Zakir and SHankar together and I took N Raghavan, who was the mridangam player for my teacher, Dr Ramanathan, and there we had the first Shakti group. So we started to do concerts in 1973-74, parallel to Mahavishnu Orchestra concerts. So I was basically running two careers at the same time – not two careers, but two forms. Over time, by the summer of ’75, I wanted to end Mahavishnu Orchestra and play exclusively with Shakti, which is what we did. And I came to India end of ’75, because Raghavan was not able to be part of Shakti permanently and this is where I found TH Vikku Vinayakram, and he replaced Raghavan as the second percussionist with Zakir.
You have produced one track on Miles From India. How was that experience, considering you have played with Miles?
Miles From India - this came from Yusuf Gandhi who was the producer of this recording. Yusuf, I have known for over twenty years. He’s a very fine person and a very strong supporter of real music. When he had the idea for Miles From India, I was already in India, in Chennai last year. And he called me up one day and he said, ‘I am doing this recording. I’ve heard about your recording, Floating Point, and I don’t want to barge in on your project, but I would be really really thrilled if you could do one piece, the title track piece.’ So I said, ‘Whoa, I would be delighted to. But I don’t know; you’ve already done a lot of Miles tunes on the recording.’ He said, ‘No, I want you to write a piece that should be called ‘Miles From India.’ ’ I said, ‘Okay Yusuf, you are a friend, I’ll do it.’ He said, ‘Not only that, I would like you to use Louiz Banks and U Shrinivas.’ I said, ‘Well, is there any other restrictions you want to put on me?’ He said, ‘No, other than that, you can do what you want.’ [Laughs] Very kind of you. [Laughs] So finally, I got an idea for a piece. Quite a haunting piece, there was no percussion involved. And then a friend of mine brought me a recording of a young singer called Sikkil Gurucharan, that he did with a pianist, Anil Srinivasan. I was really moved by Gurucharan’s voice and I said to Yusuf, ‘I want to bring Gurucharan in on this recording.’ And he said, ‘You do what you want.’ Anyway, I am going to do what I want [laughs], but I have to let you know. So that’s how we did it, in Shrinivas’s studio, in Chennai.
About your new album, Floating Point, you’ve said it’s probably the most powerful record that you have done…
Well, probably every artist thinks his last work is the best work he ever did. I am really happy with it. For me, this is the culmination of these 35 years of association with India and with Indian music and Indian musicians. I don’t think this could have been made 20 years ago, or maybe even 15 years ago. For the first time, I was able to make a recording of my music which is not me coming over to the Shakti way, the Indian way – which I loved, don’t misunderstand me. Whether it’s North or South, I am an eternal fan of Indian music and Indian musicians – but they were able to come over to my world in their way. And this was more difficult for them because I made them play with drums and keyboards in a jazz fusion way, but using their instruments. With [drummer] Ranjit [Barot] and [keyboardist] Louiz Banks, it is very easy. But with someone like [flautists] Shashank Subramanium or Naveen Kumar or [sitarist] Niladri Kumar, they are less accustomed to this way of playing. I really put them on the spot. But they rose to the occasion. They saw it as a challenge and they rose to it. The music is very special, it’s from an atmosphere that is at the same time really Western - it’s really kind of jazz - but it’s got this wonderful integrated atmosphere of India because of the Indian musicians. But it’s not like phoney fusion… you know when you hear something like that. I heard it in the hotel this morning - you got a drummer, you have a sitar playing and he’s trying to play the blues and it’s just silly. [Real] music is very deep and you can listen to it and listen to it again and get true human feelings from different cultures but really together.
(Mumbai, June 21, 2008)
© Bobin James/Rolling Stone India, 2008