The Prog interview: John McLaughlin

a portrait of John McLaughlin

In the late 1960s, change was in the air. Jimi Hendrix had hinted at the possibilities of throwing jazz improvisation into rock music, James Brown amplified the R&B groove to create funk, and Miles Davis and Tony Williams were chomping at the bit to shake off the limits of acoustic jazz.

Originally from Yorkshire, John McLaughlin was a prodigiously gifted guitarist working on the London circuit when Williams brought him to New York to join his new band, Lifetime, for their groundbreaking, genre-defying album Emergency!.

Davis, impressed by the young Brit’s speed, fluency and invention, recruited McLaughlin to play on In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew. These three albums tore up the jazz rule book and made something new – jazz rock. It was loud, the critics loathed it, but it was unstoppable.

“It was a great period, the end of the 60s going into the 70s,” says McLaughlin. “I just happened to be in the middle of it all. It was just luck really.”

In 1971 McLaughlin founded Mahavishnu Orchestra to play their own fearless, ferocious brand of this new form. In the mid-70s, he switched direction to pursue Indian music with Shakti. Now leading John McLaughlin And The 4th Dimension, the guitar wizard remains a restless musical explorer, his lightning velocity on the guitar matched only by his boundless drive to expand and improve his craft. “I think music reminds us of our home where we all belong together,” he says. “It’s wonderful.”

What prompted you to record your recent gigs at Ronnie Scott’s in London?

We had two nights there and it gave us the opportunity to record, because Ronnie’s has got the facility built right into the club, which is really very handy. I asked specifically to play Ronnie’s. It’s very nice to play in the Barbican or the Royal Festival Hall, beautiful halls. Maybe it’s age and nostalgia, but I thought how wonderful it would be to be back in Ronnie’s after how many years. I was in one of the house bands at Ronnie’s in 1966/’67, about 50 years ago, called the Mike Carr Trio: very fine British musician, Hammond organ player.

That was the whole theme in the 60s, the Hammond organ, and of course I have such a huge debt to Ronnie personally. Actually, a lot of musicians have a very big debt to him. You’re probably too young to remember the Wardour Street club before he moved to Frith Street in the early 60s. The first one was a very small club but when he moved, he kept the small one open for the young musicians so we had a place to play. It was very sweet. Also, he was instrumental in getting me to America in ’68. He was just a super guy and a great player too, so it was personal for me. I asked to record, so maybe we’ll have a Live @ Ronnie Scott’s. How nice!

Mahavishnu Orchestra, L-R: Jerry Goodman, John McLaughlin, Billy Cobham, Rick Laird, Jan Hammer

Mahavishnu Orchestra, L-R: Jerry Goodman, John McLaughlin, Billy Cobham, Rick Laird, Jan Hammer

How is it different playing in a club versus a big hall?

I like the clubs; I grew up in the clubs. Even when I went to the US playing with Tony Williams and Larry Young, it was all clubs. No concerts at all really until a year later when Jack Bruce joined the band. Jack was already kind of a star in the four-piece Lifetime, but even Miles [Davis] was playing mainly clubs in America in the 60s and 70s too. There’s an intimate atmosphere in clubs that’s really hard to reproduce in a concert hall. The sound of a concert hall can be really great, but that intimate communication between the audience and the band, I like that, I really do. They can see the dirt under your fingernails.

You mentioned organ trios were in fashion in the 60s – the original incarnation of Lifetime was an organ trio.

Absolutely. I didn’t even know Larry would be in the band until I got to New York but I was thrilled. He was one of the new breed of Hammond organ players that stepped out of the genre of Jimmy Smith, this kind of funky R&B. Which I loved, but Larry brought this different chordal harmony that McCoy Tyner was doing with John Coltrane in the early 60s. He brought that to the Hammond organ and I thought that was marvellous. On the road, we were making $20 a night in those days. Not a lot, but it was a marvellous experience to play with Tony.

Miles Davis with Tony Williams, 1963

Miles Davis with Tony Williams, 1963

When you formed Mahavishnu Orchestra, did you consider the organ trio format?

I wanted a different sound. Don’t forget, I’d been playing for many years. We’re talking the early 60s, with people like Georgie Fame And The Blue Flames. I loved it but by the time I’d done two years with Tony and Lifetime with Larry Young, I was breaking out. Plus, I wanted a violin in my band and I always loved the Fender Rhodes.

It must have been the end of 1970, about a month or so after Miles had recommended that I form my own band. It’s all his fault really. One night in a club we were talking and he said, “It’s time to form your own band.” That was a real shock for me because he was a very honest man, the most honest man I ever met. In any event, within a month I was putting it together. I got Billy [Cobham], Billy and I were on [A Tribute To] Jack Johnson together and I loved the way Billy played.

Then Miroslav [Vitouš] called me and he said, “John, we’re forming a band with Wayne [Shorter] and Joe [Zawinul] called Weather Report and we want you in on guitar.” Oh man! “Sorry Miroslav, but I’m under orders. I’ve got to put my own band together.” He said, “Listen, have you heard Jan Hammer? He’s a great piano player.”

He was playing with Sarah Vaughan at the time and that’s as good a credential as you can get. So I called him and he was up for it, he wanted to break out. It was in the air. People wanted to break out of the mould, to create new forms and, in a sense, you’ve got to break some of the old ones and he was up for that. Of course, he was playing Fender Rhodes, so it was perfect for me.

How did the jazz rock sound develop?

In a way, you could say my discipline is a jazz discipline but I like that distortion thing. It reminds me of Coltrane. You listen to some of the recordings of Coltrane, even on A Love Supreme, ’64/’65, sometimes he hits two or three notes on one note. You hear these harmonics coming out. That’s what I loved about Jimi [Hendrix], he was finding a way to get a new sound and already by this time, we’re talking mid-60s, I was a little bored with the kind of jazz tone of the guitar – this pure, almost nylon string sound on an electric guitar.

I was cutting my teeth on Coltrane, whether A Love Supreme or Interstellar Space or Om – that music is just total passion and Miles of course always played with such a passion. Jimi really opened the door to electric guitar players in how to achieve this kind of getting more than one note out of one note. It’s difficult to say, but Jimi had a very strong impact on me in terms of the tone of the guitar, and I think he affected an entire generation. In fact, more than one generation.

Shakti with McLaughlin, circa 1970

Shakti with McLaughlin, circa 1970

How much was your approach influenced by Lifetime?

When Lifetime started, Tony was already radical. I loved Tony because he was free, he was a real free spirit and he had new concepts of how to play drums. I loved that.

When we started playing, within a couple of months I had to get a big amp and trade in my hollow body for a solid body, otherwise the hollow body guitar freaks out with high volume. Tony was always loud and strong because he loved rock’n’roll. There’s good rock’n’roll and bad rock’n’roll, like there’s good jazz and there’s bad jazz. There’s good and bad everywhere.

Is it true that Mahavishnu Orchestra were hated by critics?

We got really slagged off big time by a lot of the jazz players. The purists, they’ve always been around and they’ve always believed that they know what the real jazz is, but it happens every time. It happened with Shakti.

When I started playing with Zakir [Hussain], the tabla player in Shakti, he got berated violently in the press for playing with people like me – it was making the music impure. I mean, it’s so silly. Paco [De Lucia], when we started to play the flamenco, purists said, “It’s over, now the pure flamenco is dead.”

What can you say? These purists, they’re the bane of music. They think they know what music is and all they do is have certain fixations about what they like, and they want everybody to like what they like. They have problems accepting new concepts and innovation. It happened with Coltrane, even from A Love Supreme. Within a year he started to make albums like Interstellar Space, bringing Pharaoh Sanders in there, just screaming saxophones like screaming guitars, but wonderful. Well, I like it, but the critics were saying, “What is he doing? He’s got such an ugly sound!” They don’t know how to deal with it.

When you start to break the mould of whatever they have a particular affection for, they get very nervous and anxious: “This is not the real thing, it’s wrong.” [Laughs] But it’s everywhere. Who worries about that? There’s no point. As Oscar Wilde said, “They love you, they hate you, as long as they don’t ignore you.”

John McLaughlin shot in London, January 6, 1972

John McLaughlin shot in London, January 6, 1972

When you played with Zakir Hussain in Shakti, was it like learning a new musical language?

It’s another culture, isn’t it? Musically, there is common ground between jazz and Indian music. I think they’re the only two cultural expressions that have common ground and that is rhythm and improvisation. Coming out of the whole psychedelic period in the mid to late 60s, many of us were looking to the East for answers to the great existential questions, and once you start looking East – India in particular has been addressing these questions for thousands of years – at some point you come across the music.

Zakir and I go back to ’69 when we both arrived in the US. We had a mutual friend who had a music store and I asked this guy, “Listen, if you get an Indian musician walk in and he wants to give a lesson, call me.”

It happened to be Zakir Hussain and he [the store owner] called me. I said, “What does he play?” He said, “He plays tabla.” I said, “Well, I don’t study tabla, can he give me a vocal lesson?”

I went down right away and I don’t sing well at all. Zakir really doesn’t sing much better than me, but he gave me a vocal lesson, we had a good laugh afterwards and we became friends. By 1972 I’d studied North Indian. In ’72 I was studying South Indian, so I was getting the best of both worlds. By 1973 I’d met L Shankar, the first violin player in the Shakti band, and I took the percussion player of my teacher, my guru Ramanathan, and that was the first Shakti group.

By this time, I’d been studying theory for several years so I knew about the rhythmical structures, to some extent about the raga system of India, and I was relating it to my own Western harmonic knowledge because Western music is based all on different scales, because harmony is just a bunch of notes from a particular scale playing together. It’s a vertical view of harmony – of a scale rather, a chord.

I was playing acoustic guitar and by the end of ’75 that was it for the Mahavishnu Orchestra. I told the guys, “Sorry, I’m going to have to let you all go because I just want to concentrate on the Shakti group.”

By the end of ’75 I’d gone to India and I found Vikku Vinayakram the ghatam player. I continued learning, playing with the great masters like Zakir. Zakir, he’s probably the greatest tabla player alive. I think the only guy who was better than him at that time was his dad, Alla Rakha.

McLaughlin live on stage in Milan, 2017

McLaughlin live on stage in Milan, 2017

How have those influences from India shaped your playing?

I’ve been going to India now for more years than I can remember. We’re not alone in the West in seeking inspiration elsewhere, in India or wherever for that matter. Because musicians, of which there are millions in India and they’re great players, they’re also seeking inspiration. They’ve been listening to and are influenced by Western music.

Floating Point, the album I made in India about 10 years ago, is an example of that. There’s a piece with two guitar players, one guitar, one is a zitar – it’s an electric sitar – with Niladri Kumar. The way he plays that electric sitar, you can hear the Western influence with the Indian influence.It’s not contrived.

I have no desire to be an Indian musician. I’ve done that. I’ve realised after years of working on Indian instruments that I’m a guitar player. I’m not gifted enough to play more than one instrument, but the influences and the knowledge that I’ve searched for and studied in Indian music are really because I love that music and I want to understand it more. In fact, the more I understand it, the more I understand the musicians themselves.

It’s like speaking a language. I live in a French-speaking population and there’s no way you can enter into the French mind without the language – it’s impossible. To understand the mind and the culture, you need the language, so I needed the language of Indian music in order to communicate in a coherent way with my Indian brother musicians. Even though we’re thousands of kilometres apart, we’re growing up and discovering each other through music and through love really, because if you don’t love it then it’s not going to work.

There was a period in the 80s when it became New World Music and people were sampling the Shakuhachi flute from Japan with a 12-string guitar with a Peruvian flute – it was all sampling. They made records and actually became very successful, but it wasn’t playing. Nobody’s playing where you sweat and you can fall down and hit your nose on the ground, which is of course the only music that I want to play – real improvised music.

McLaughlin on stage with Mahavishnu Orchestra at Knebworth Festival, 1974

McLaughlin on stage with Mahavishnu Orchestra at Knebworth Festival, 1974

You’re revered by other guitarists. Are you ever tempted to start believing your own reputation?

Yes, but I don’t believe a word of it. That’s the problem: I am acutely aware of my incapacities and my ignorance. In fact, I was just thinking this morning, I should make a CD called Deaf, Dumb And Blind because that’s how I feel sometimes. It’s very sweet what people say and these accolades. It’s lovely, but it doesn’t mean anything. It’s pleasing to the ego but I’m also acutely aware that my ego is really a stupid fellow so I don’t want to pay any attention to it.

I’m not just trying to be humble here because humility can be turned into inverted vanity but what I say is what I truly feel. I know retrospectively I’ve had a great deal of success but in a way, that has stimulated me even more. My whole life has been dedicated to my instrument and to music. It hasn’t stopped.

I’m 75, I’m still learning every day, I still work every day because I know so little about everything. In my ignorance, since I’m aware of it, I have this insatiable desire to learn more.

Has Mahavishnu Orchestra cast a long shadow over your career?

I see it more as a bit of a shining light. For me, it’s a very positive thing that happened in my life. Even by that time, I was a very avid student of meditation and becoming increasingly aware of my own stupidity and this amazing outward success, which happened more or less instantly with Mahavishnu, I couldn’t believe it. It was just kind of a phenomenon, and phenomenons, they come and go just like the tides, like the night and the day.

I had no illusions about losing popularity. In fact, I almost did it intentionally because when I came out of Mahavishnu and said to my agent and my record company, “I’m going to do Shakti,” they said, “You’re out of your mind.” Literally, there was one guy from the record company, which was CBS at that time, he said, “Whatcha gonna do, sit down and play acoustic guitar with these Indians? What are you, crazy?” And I said, “Yes, but I assume the consequences.”

That’s really all it is. There were financial consequences, we didn’t sell many records and that’s why they were pissed at me. Mahavishnu was a real money-spinner for the record companies.

In India, Shakti is something like a cult band, truly getting a wonderful reception. Mahavishnu, it is a light to me because it’s part of my musical history. I wouldn’t be playing how I am, I wouldn’t be who I am, without the Mahavishnu, so I’m just very grateful for whatever that brought to me, musically, personally, spiritually, whatever you want to call it.

Live @ Ronnie Scott’s is out on September 15 via Abstract Logix Music. For more information, see www.johnmclaughlin.com.

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