Most people who know Gary Lucas’ musical background either think of his time riding shotgun and managing the late and legendary avant-garde rocker Captain Beefheart towards the end of the latter’s musical career. (Lucas played on the last two albums released by the man born Don Van Vliet, 1980’s Doc at the Radar Station and 1982’s Ice Cream for Crow. Van Vliet retired shortly after that to focus on painting and eventually passed away on Dec. 17, 2010.) Or Lucas’ Gods and Monsters project being the springboard for a young Jeff Buckley, who left the band the day after the group officially debuted in March 1992. Others know Lucas for his longtime affiliation with much-loved indie music club the Knitting Factory or being an internationally recognized in-demand guitarist whose talents have been tapped by a telephone book’s worth of artists including Joe Lovano, Bryan Ferry, Leonard Bernstein, Patti Smith, Matthew Sweet, Lou Reed, Warren Haynes and Iggy Pop. And that doesn’t even take into account the college lectures and music master classes he’s taught, film scores he’s composed or the book he penned, 2013’s Touched By Grace: My Time with Jeff Buckley.
So it’s rather surprising that his latest album, Stereopticon, is a return to basics where he’s joined forces with singer-songwriter Jann Klose to record an 11-song stripped-down affair driven by Klose’s vibrant vocals and Lucas’ fervent guitar playing. Despite having such a deep and eclectic canon, Lucas doesn’t find anything odd about his deciding to record a folk-pop-flavored project with Klose.
“My roots are listening to Top 40 radio as a little boy before pre-school, sitting in the basement rocking away in a rocking chair to hit radio of the day,” Lucas admitted. “I think the record has an edge over 99 percent of the product out there, although I can’t really pretend to be an expert on what’s going on, because I don’t really pay attention to what’s going on in contemporary music. I like a produced record as much as the next guy. But I just thought we should keep it rootsy and from the heart. A good song is a good song. The contours of a good song win out, which is why we love Stereopticon. A few viewpoints come out to make a 3-D image. To me, something that really works in a hooky and lyrical sense—you can achieve it with very simple means.”
In choosing a musical partner for this project, Lucas found Jann Klose, whose creative background is a close second to the guitarist’s in terms of how circuitous it’s been. Born in Mannheim, Germany, Klose has called Kenya, South Africa and Cleveland home before putting down roots in New York City for the past 15 years. Along the way, he’s made his name as a singer-songwriter whose travels and vocal training have landed him on Broadway in Jekyll & Hyde and as part of the cast in European productions of Tommy and Jesus Christ Superstar. As a college student, this international musician found a muse in Buckley, and it was here that he spotted the name G. Lucas in the songwriting credits of Buckley’s 1994 debut Grace.
“I remember discovering [Grace] in 1997, when I was going to college in Cleveland. I couldn’t get enough of that record,” he recalled. “I read the credits for everything because I needed to know where it came from, who was involved and who produced and engineered it. I was always interested in the technological and design aspects of whatever albums I was listening to. The credits for the first two songs were J. Buckley and G. Lucas. So I wondered who this Lucas guy was.”
Klose would find out later when the two met at a Buckley tribute show that Lucas was the MC and curator for at the Knitting Factory. At that point, Klose had been singing and playing guitar in a trio with upright bassist/kora player Chris Marolf and accordionist Lars Potteiger when he wasn’t performing his own Buckley homages at Uncommon Ground, a Chicago venue the late artist used to perform at. Lucas liked what he heard and it wasn’t long before the duo started writing together when schedules allowed.
As the two started compiling material, Lucas suggested bringing in Dan Beck to help flesh things out lyrically. It turned out Beck, a storied music product manager with Epic Records who worked with Michael Jackson and The Clash and who the guitarist knew from his own time writing ad copy at Columbia Records, also knew Klose, who was happy to have him join in the creative process. The union of the three resulted in songs that bounce between the acoustic jangle of Led Zeppelin III on “Jewel Julia” and Beck adding a bit of topicality to “Mary Magdelene,” a gem of finger-picking and lyrical imagery that captures the enormity of Super Storm Sandy with mentions of water rising in Jamaica Bay, fires in Breezy Point and having to “board up the windows/Hunker down to pray.” Equally effective is “Let No One Come Between Us,” which isn’t about the relationship between lovers and more about the connection between artist and fan. And while Lucas is quick to point to Beck as being the X factor in the creation of this album, the Rockville Centre native is far more modest.
“I should say they were doing fine without me. They had already nailed four songs, so I think it was that little extra energy coming into it. They were doing a great job. Gary came up with a title, Jann would have some lyrics and sometimes it would be me playing off what they were already doing,” Beck said. “It was really supplementing them and trying to think in their terms, because they were totally on the right path.”
The union of the three makes Stereopticon a sublimely melodic delight whose strength lies in simple arrangements carried by intricate fingerpicking, soulful singing and songs that paint vivid imagery in the theater of the mind. It’s a sentiment Beck wholeheartedly agrees with, having done his time in the music industry trenches.
“When it comes to lyrics, I think hit songs are all about the music first. It’s about rhythm, groove and a melody. You can have a lousy lyric and be successful, but if you don’t have those two things, it doesn’t matter how good the lyric is because it’s not going to happen,” he explained. “A great lyric can really benefit a great melody and a great music track. So that’s what you strive for—you try to support what they’re already doing. They’re doing the 80 to 90 percent of the work and you just try to give it a little finish. It really is about Jann’s great voice and Gary’s phenomenal guitar playing.”
Gary Lucas and Jann Klose will be appearing on April 30 at Stephen Talkhouse, 61 Main St., Amagansett. For more information, visit www.stephentalkhouse.com or call 631-267-3117. Lucas and Klose will also be appearing on May 2 at the Cutting Room, 44 E. 32nd St., NYC. For more information, visit www.cuttingroomnyc.com or call 212-691-1900.