Lukas Nelson and Promise Of The Real Take Cowboy Hippie Surf Rock To Next Level On ‘Something Real’ LP (Lukas Nelson INTERVIEW)

“Music is like color,” explained Lukas Nelson recently. “When I listen to the musicians who affected me when I was growing you, I take from the primary colors to find my foundation. Then I apply secondary colors and the music becomes more and more complex.” For Nelson, music is a whole palette of colors, each readily available to be dipped into, blended, experimented with and crazily contoured into vibrant new works of art. He may have been born into a country music household but that house was never a one trick pony.

One of Willie Nelson’s youngest offspring, Lukas took to music like it was the most natural thing to do. He had a love for guitar players like Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimi Hendrix and started writing songs around the age of eleven. In fact, that earliest song, “You Were It,” impressed his father enough that he put it on one of his albums. “I always recognized what a good song was,” the younger Nelson said not long ago. “I’ve had a lot of inspiration in that regard, being the son of one of the greatest songwriters ever.”

For Nelson, the pursuit of his own path has kept him open to anything and everything. He can pen a mean country song but he usually sprinkles it with some of that rocky-blues he grew up on. His expansion continues with the March 11th release of Something Real by his band Promise Of The Real, where the incense of the San Francisco sound infiltrates through nine songs, culminating in a cover of Scott McKenzie’s “If You’re Going To San Francisco.” To Nelson, “San Francisco has always been home to incredible bursts of creativity and illumination followed by a complete overhaul of existing systems and subsequent revolution. It’s kind of like a rotating magnetic pole.” From the go-go boot, mini skirt shimmying of JJ Cale’s “I’ll Make Love To You Any Ol’ Time” to the frenetic title track to the hymnal-like “Set Me Down On A Cloud,” Nelson and his band have captured something very magical about a city that has given flight to such diverse bands as Jefferson Airplane, Journey, Faith No More and Night Ranger, and managed to put his own Austin, Texas-rooted spin on what came out.

“Sometimes I’ll walk into a room and a new song just pops into my head, like a thought,” Nelson explained about his songwriting. “That makes total sense to me because, really, songs are frequencies. Your brain is an antenna that picks up thoughts and energies. We receive this input from everywhere. Every place has its own sound imprint. If you’re a musician, it’s your job to write down what you hear when that happens.” And what he has heard, makes for some very interesting, thought-provoking and fun capsules of music, including the tracks on his latest album.

Although Promise Of The Real has been together less than ten years, the band has made an impression with a wide audience. Country music fans like them, rock music fans like them, Americana music fans like them. It’s clear that Nelson, bass player Corey McCormick, percussionist Tato Melgar and drummer Anthony LoGerfo have their fingers on the pulse of what music fans really want to hear and that’s not having their favorite artists doing the same song ten times on one album. “There’s an emotional complexity in simplicity,” Nelson explained. “Simplicity is never as simple as it seems. Sometimes, if you can hide the complexity inside the simplicity, you get a result that covers a lot of the spiritual spectrum.”

Neil Young certainly saw that in the band. A few years ago he invited them to play on his record The Monsanto Years and then join him on the tour supporting it. It was a perfect match that continues into 2016. “Playing with these guys was a gift,” Young praised through his social media following the tour. “Such positivity, pure energy and no fear.” Nelson’s youngest brother Micah, who was also part of the band, told Rolling Stone that playing with Young was “like apprenticing with a Jedi Master.”

Glide had the opportunity to speak with Nelson last week as he was headed from San Francisco down to LA to play some shows with Shooter Jennings. When I mentioned to him that I had spoken with Jennings about him only a few hours prior to our talk, Nelson joked, “Nothing is true!” After telling him that Jennings had said he was one of the nicest people you could ever meet, Nelson got quiet for a few seconds before deadpanning, “I don’t know why he’s giving me that endorsement. I wonder what he wants!” (laughs)

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You’ve mentioned that the new album has a lot of the flavor of San Francisco.

It does. We recorded it in a Victorian mansion on Fulton and Scott. It’s got a lot of history there. I think the first radio signal [on the West coast] was actually created there. There’s a lot of interesting tidbits about the Westerfeld House if you want to look it up. But we shipped in some recording equipment from Austin, Texas, got our friend Steve Chadie to come out and engineer the record. But this was almost two years ago now so it’s an interesting snapshot. I’ve already got another record recorded and ready to release. That’s just the way the business goes, you know. It takes a while to get something together to put it out and sell it right.

Are you going to wait for this one to take off before you let loose on another one?

I’m hoping that we give this one a good run, and yeah, I’m going to promote the heck out of it and we’re going to have some fun. I know we’re doing Conan on March 9th. Then we’ve got Colbert in May and then we’re going to go out and sell it on the Neil Young tour. So we got a lot of push for it. I love the record. It’s got a lot of great songs on it and there’s definitely an actual San Francisco lyrical theme going on within the record. We even covered Scott McKenzie’s “If You Go To San Francisco,” which I think is a great version of that song and Neil Young is singing background on it.

Did you pick that specifically because of the theme or was that already in the works to be on there?

You know, I really wanted to record a cover of that song, even before we started recording the record, so I made it a plan to do that version and then Neil wanted to sing on it so that was good.

The song “I’ll Make Love To You Any Ol’ Time” has a fun, psychedelic feel to it.

Yeah, all the songs kind of have that vibe. That’s a JJ Cale song that we did a cover of and we just kind of made it a little more rocking. But we tried to keep like a psychedelic vibe through the album.

Which song on the record changed the most from it’s original composition to it’s final recorded version?

Oh, the first song on the record, “Surprise.” I wrote that acoustically and the band, when we got in there and worked through it, the music just evolved and became a kind of rock thing that took it’s own life. So that is probably the one that changed the most.

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Which song would you say almost didn’t make it onto the record?

You know, we actually cut out a bunch so everything that is there was what we absolutely couldn’t lose, you know what I mean. We cut out like three or four songs that we had recorded. I think we recorded like fifteen or so and there’s only nine there.

I love how you describe a bad day as an ugly color

Well, that wasn’t me. That was a homeless guy that I heard screaming that out when I was walking down through the Tenderloin in San Francisco. He was saying, “Today is an ugly color,” and I thought that was kind of profound in a sad way and I had to write that into a song.

How long did it take for it to BE a song?

I wrote the song the night that I heard that phrase. I went back to my hotel room and wrote it down.

What about the song “Set Me Down On A Cloud.”

I wrote that song and it’s actually a really sad story. Somebody came to my show one time and wrote me a letter afterwards saying it was the first time they were able to really feel good after they’d had a terrible, horrible accident where they accidentally ran over and killed their child. She wrote me this very long letter, I kept the letter, and asked me to write a song for her situation, so to speak, and so I did. I sat and wrote it and “Set Me Down On A Cloud” was kind of inspired by that story. It was a lot more stripped down. There is a version on YouTube actually of that song that was recorded pretty much right when I wrote that song. That one’s changed a bit, production-wise, but hopefully it still carries a weight to it.

How do you get through a song like that, especially when you’re writing it?

You know, I try and honor the art of it. I try and do my best to channel that energy into something positive, which is art. What’s done is done, the situation is there, and she wanted it somewhat immortalized in music and in art so I try and hold my head high and perform it without breaking down. And nowadays I can. When it first happened it was a teary-eyed thing. But I’ve always been able to lose myself in the music, so to speak, when I’m playing or singing, to the point where whatever I’m singing about doesn’t really bring me down. It’s just a matter of performing it well and singing it well and bringing the emotion into it and having a balance there too.

There was the song that Dad and I did, “Just Breathe.” I was asked to play that at one of my friend’s funeral and I had to get up there. A lot of his friends and my friends were there and the guy who wrote it, Eddie Vedder, was sitting there too and I had to get through it up there on the podium, you know, to all his family and everybody and sing this song that Eddie had written that our friend was really enamored by and that I did with my dad. And it was just a moment where if I can do that and get through it without crying, I can really do anything. I felt like crying and I had to look away. I couldn’t look at anybody. I had to just close my eyes and sing the song and I guess that’s the way I do it all the time.

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Have you always written personal songs?

No, sometimes I put myself in other people’s shoes. There’s a new song I wrote called “Running Shine” that’s about moonshining and there’s songs that I’ve written where I’ve put myself in somebody else’s position. In fact, that song “Ugly Color” that you mentioned earlier, is sung from the point of view of a homeless man on the streets of San Francisco. So if you look at the lyrics, put yourself in somebody like that, his shoes, then the lyrics will make even more sense to you.

Your passion really comes through in your guitar playing. When you first started learning to play guitar what was the most difficult thing to get the hang of?

I don’t remember learning the guitar. I spent so many hours just shredding and listening to Stevie Ray Vaughan and Hendrix and all these people that I loved, that I don’t remember the period really that I wasn’t good at it. I remember the very beginning and I remember just flashes of just sitting up in my room for eight hours a day playing guitar. I don’t remember the transition, what was harder to learn or not. I just remember diving in head first and not looking back.

Do you remember your earliest composed songs?

I wrote a song when I was ten or eleven years old called “You Were It” and I thought it was a great song and Dad liked it so much he put it on his record It Always Will Be [2004] and that was when I knew I kind of had a gift for songwriting. So I kept at it from then on out, in addition to learning the guitar which I think was my saving grace because to be able to play guitar and sing and write and play other instruments as well, I think, really lends a certain credibility to what I do, especially being, you know, Dad’s son.

I feel like I can play a guitar out there with some of the best of them, you know. Maybe some people might disagree and I’m not trying to toot my own horn necessarily but I know I can hold my own with a lot of musicians out there and it has nothing to do with who my dad is, not that I’m trying to escape that in any way. I’m proud of who my dad is. I love him very much and he’s been the best father anybody could ever hope for. He’s guided me, he’s given me my space to grow, so I never try and run away from that like maybe somebody else would who is in the same situation. I always feel very blessed that he’s my dad. But learning another instrument and learning how to sing really well and learning how to play, that just keeps growing. This record that is coming out is two years old so the next stuff that comes out, it just keeps getting better, I think, as time goes by.

What is the biggest difference between playing with your dad and playing with Neil Young?

There’s no comparison. I played “Texas Flood” up there with Dad every night and I played rhythm guitar and I sat next to Mickey Raphael [Willie’s longtime harmonica player], who has been a mentor to me musically for my whole life. He’s great and I got the best learning there is and I got to be with my father onstage. With Neil, it’s rock & roll so I get to do what I’ve grown up loving as well besides country music. I love rock & roll so there is a little more energy freedom to get loud and do that, with Neil. They’re both two sides of the same coin, which is the most amazing experience of my life to be able to play with my father, who is my hero, with Neil, who is my hero, and with my band as well and keep my band at the same time. I don’t know how I got so lucky.

Yeah, your bass player kicks ass

I will tell him you said that (laughs). I’m glad to hear it.

You are playing Jazz Fest in New Orleans on May 1st with Neil. Are you going to do more shows with him or more headlining with your band?

We’ve got a full-on tour for the release of our record starting in May. We’ve got a show March 12th in LA to release the record and then we go out to Australia to Byron Bay playing the Blues Fest to help promote our record. Then we’re going with Neil in April. I think we’ve got two Promise Of The Real shows in April, then we go out with Neil and do San Antonio and a few shows down there and then we do Jazz Fest and then we go out in May with Promise Of The Real and do LA and San Francisco, Denver, San Diego and then we go to the East Coast. Then we get ready with Neil and go out to Europe. We’re doing a two month tour in Europe with Neil starting in June, going through July and into August. After that, hopefully this fall, maybe we can look at getting another record out at the end of the year, which would be really nice.

 

Live photograph by Dan DeSlover

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