"It basically comes from love": John McLaughlin in conversation with Robert Fripp, 1982

Recently came across this piece, originally published in Musician No. 45, July, 1982…


Coffee and Chocolates for Two Guitars
by Robert Fripp

Weather shut England and delayed the jammed flight to Paris by three hours, so I landed at 1:30 pm. A mad taxi driver helped to make up the lost time by driving like a mad taxi driver (the only madder ones than Paris’ are in Milan). This guy only hit one car but we nearly collected a second-a young Parisian jumped the light so we took it kinda personal, sped up and aimed. He backed down when he sized the opposition. Then we drove through the No Entry sign to John’s street; his number was inconveniently at the wrong end. I got out at the front door of the quintessentially French apartment building, in what looked suspiciously like a pedestrian zone, a small back lane of one of my two favorite cities in the world.

John McLaughlin should need no introduction, but I suppose editorial etiquette necessitates an exposition of the highlights of his extraordinary career. John probably would be equally admired had there been no Mahavishnu Orchestra—his turn-of-the-decade work with Tony Williams’ LifetimeTony Williams’ Lifetime and his contributions to Miles Davis’ epochal Bitches Brew (known forever as the first fusion album) and A Tribute to Jack Johnson would have ensured that—but it is unquestionably the Mahavishnu Orchestra, with its jagged explosions of cosmic fire and odd-metered funkiness that remains McLaughlin’s best loved and most celebrated band. The Orchestra’s cheerful acceptance of rock ‘n’ roll and other non-jazz idioms never diluted the pyrotechnical excellence of its musicians, Billy Cobham, Jan Hammer, Jerry Goodman, and Rick Laird.

Both before and after Mahavishnu, McLaughlin quietly established his jazz credentials as a band leader in a more subdued but more personally expressive medium with such brilliant albums as Extrapolation, My Goals Beyond (recently rereleased), the underrated Johnny McLaughlin – Electric Guitarist, his collaboration-meditation with Carlos Santana Love Devotion Surrender and his latest, Belo Horizonte. McLaughlin is one of the very few guitarists who have consistently held my respect. Not all his music is my bag of bananas, but I’ve learned from all of it. And he’s still moving. The traditional arguments about technique—no feel, no music—don’t work with this man. My hunch is that the streams of notes don’t even come close to the tearing, ripping spray of what is trying to get out. Except sometimes.

I am warmly greeted by John and his attractive roommate (and the keyboard player in Belo Horizonte), Katia LeBeque. Katia and her sister are a classical music duo with a four-hands piano rendition of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue selling modestly in Europe. John is a dapper dresser; today he’s in grey: flannels and pullover, shirt and tie not quite matching and just enough so that either you knew that he knew, or maybe he knew you didn’t. This subtlety of stressing the discontinuities, some exquisite Basque confectionery placed between us, the charm of the apartment—in mellowed pink, the ceiling veeing into the roof, spiral stairs—hinted at an intermezzo between the acts of flying. John is straightforward, friendly, and a gentleman. He speaks softly in a curious mix of Scottish, Indian, and French accents. We discussed the several occasions we had previously met for a time, and then I assumed a more journalistic role.

Fripp: Why do you think you became a musician?

McLaughlin: Happily, my mother was an amateur musician; she was a violinist and there was always music going on in the house. We got a gramophone one day, and someone had Beethoven’s Ninth, and on the last record, which is at the end of the symphony, there’s a vocal quartet in which the writing is extraordinary…the voices and the harmonies. I must have been about six or seven when I distinctly remember hearing it for the first time. I suppose that’s when I started to listen. Because when you’re young, you’re not paying attention. What do you know when you’re a kid? It was unbelievable, what it was doing to me was tremendous. I began to listen consciously to music and I started taking piano lessons when I was nine and went on to guitar at eleven…

Fripp: Did anything trigger the guitar in particular?

McLaughlin: Yeah, it was the D major chord. My brother showed it to me on the guitar, and I had this feeling of the guitar against my whole body…

Fripp: Did you have the F# on the bottom string?

McLaughlin: No, no. I was playing full-note chords. Eleven years old…what are you going to do? You have a small hand and, you know…What about you? Did you have a similar experience?

Fripp: I was ten. Definitely no sense of rhythm, and I spent a long time wonderting why it was that such an unlikely candidate would become a professional musician. But I knew right away that I was going to earn a living from it. Thinking about it over the years, I think music has a desire to be heard, such a kind of compulsion to be heard that it picks on unlikely candidates to give it voice.

McLaughlin: Yeah, I think that it basically comes from love. I mean, the kind of attraction that you have when you listen to it when you’re young. It’s inexplicable in a way.

Fripp: It’s a direct vocabulary…

McLaughlin: Exactly. Perhaps what you say is truth insofar as the music itself chooses, but it’s not a one-way street from music’s point of view. In a sense, you know, we fall in love with the muse and the muse falls in love with its prospective voices.

Fripp: The sentence I would add is that the music needed me to give it a voice, but in a feeble way. I needed music more, far more than music needed me.

McLaughlin: The most difficult thing, I think, in being a musician is to get out of the way.

Fripp: How do you get out of the way? Do you have specific techniques or regimens that you use? Can you just get yourself out of the way without thinking about it?

McLaughlin: If I’m thinking about it, I’m in the way. You have to forget, to forget everything. The minute we forget everything is when we’re finally found.

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“Most High”: How—and why—Om builds its minimalist, contemplative metal (Arthur, 2006)

Page from article. Photograph by Lars Knudson, design by W.T. Nelson. Bassist/vocalist Al Cisneros on left. Drummer Chris Hakius, pictured right. Note Black Sabbath altar.

“Most High”: How—and why—Om builds its minimalist, contemplative metal
Text by Jay Babcock

Photos by Lars Knudson

Art direction by W.T. Nelson
Originally published in Arthur No. 22 (May 02006)

Sleep were a tightly focused, intensely dedicated super-heavy riff band from the San Francisco Bay Area who gained a small but devoted following during their time. Even if, like me, you never listened to a note of their music or saw them perform, you probably heard about these guys somewhere: they were the monastic goners who delivered an hour-long narrative song (about caravans of marijuanauts and weedians crossing riff-filled desert lands on an epic drug run) to their record label as their big-label debut (and third overall album)—and then disappeared in the proverbial cloud of smoke… The song/album “Jerusalem” was never released by London/Polygram, the band split up, years passed. Eventually, in 1999, “Jerusalem” was released under still-mysterious circumstances (a better version, entitled “Dopesmoker,” is now available) and the Whispers With Smiles From Those Who Know were proven right: this was a breakthrough masterpiece—deceptively repetitive minimalist heavy metal of such single-minded all-vision that every ridiculous element of the project was rendered sublime by minute three.

When ex-Sleep guitarist Matt Pike’s new band High On Fire debuted in late ’99, it was easy to think this would be the closest you’d ever get to witnessing the now-legendary Sleep: the music heavy yet progressive, the songs endless, the lyrics suitably Old Testament. It was not a repeat of Sleep—there was more emphasis on high velocity—but it was innovative and staggering in its own right.

A closer (which is not to say superior) continuation of “Jerusalem”-era Sleep surfaced in 2004, with the release of Om’s debut album, “Variations on a Theme.” Om was ex-Sleep bassist/vocalist Al Cisneros and ex-Sleep drummer Chris Hakius: a power duo without need of a guitar. “Variations”’ three songs clocked in at 21:16, 11:56 and 11:52. Cisneros’ lyrics—sung (“bravely,” as one friend put it) in an affectless drone-chant—echoed “Jerusalem” but had lost their weed-centricity and become even more hallucinatory; “Approach the grid substrate the sunglows beam to freedom/Winds grieve the codex shine and walks toward the grey” is a typical couplet. A new kind of purity—thinner but deeper, maybe?—had been achieved.

Om’s second album, “Conference of Birds,” is released this month. It has two songs, each over 15 minutes in length. The first, “At Giza,” takes Cisneros and Hakius’ music to an even sparer place of un-distorted bass, drums and vocals. As with these guys’ previous work in Sleep and Om, “Giza” points out new horizons even as the duo hone their own gaze ever sharper.

I spoke with Al Cisneros by telephone from his Bay Area home in late March. Here’s some of our conversation.

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