Interview by Gary Schwind, Photo by Carl Beust
Lukas Nelson – whether it’s due to his lineage or his band supporting Neil Young – has reached the point where he really needs no introduction. By phone he discussed his musical history, playing with Neil Young, and the new album Turn off the News (Build a Garden).
Americana Highways: You started playing music pretty young. Did you ever feel any pressure to be a musician because of your family?
Lukas Nelson: More than that I just felt like it was something I wanted to be a part of – the whole way of life. One of the luckiest things in the world is not that I am privileged with material wealth. Although I am compared to most of the rest of the world. I appreciate that. The luckiest thing that ever happened to me was to have a family that truly loved each other. I respect and admire my dad and the way he lives his life. I emulate my father. My mother – I’ve taken a great many lessons from her. I just have a profound respect for the way I grew up and the way that I can make a living playing music, which also makes other people happy. It brings people together. It seemed like the wisest path to go down in order to be happy.
AH: You’ve grown up around music your whole life, but what was your feeling the first time you got to play with Neil Young?
LN: It was literally a dream come true. I was into my writing and my music. We started in 2009 right after we’d been inspired by Neil. The name Promise of the Real is from a song “Walk On” from his record On the Beach. He says, “Some get stoned. Some get strange. Sooner or later it all gets real.” In 2008 I saw Neil and he played that song. I met my drummer at that concert. Seven years later we became his band. I always thought I wouldn’t stop my own thing for anybody but Neil. Lo and behold he called and said, “I want you guys to get in the studio with me. Let’s jam.” It was a really amazing moment. I gave my whole life being on that frequency. These guys gave their whole life to music. That’s what I wanted to do and I still do. In the same way you’d emulate an athlete. That’s how I trained. I want to be a world-class musician, so I had to train the way an Olympic athlete would train. It’s all competition with yourself. It’s all within you.
AH: How do you think this album compares to previous work you’ve done?
LN: It’s always a step above in terms of production. We learned things from previous efforts and say, “Let’s try this.” This record is a snapshot of where I’ve been in my life. All my songs are directed at me. They’re all just reflections. I’m pretty hip to the idea that the outer and inner worlds reflect each other. I realized at some point that I just have to get myself at peace. Maybe the rest of the world will follow. I read The Tao of Pooh. It helped me be at peace with myself. I come in the house and it’s news all the time. Things I can’t do anything about. Imagine if I got galactic news. How much bulls**t do you think is out there that I would have to worry about constantly if I wanted to pay attention to it? The fact that I don’t know about that stuff is actually a good thing. If 800,000 Andromedan warships were headed to earth right now, I sure as hell wouldn’t want to know about that. I can’t do a thing about that. If the sun’s about to go supernova and explode out to Jupiter and take us all with it, who’s to say? Right now I need to be the best person I can be. Every effort I make is a reflection of where I am at that point.
AH: That’s really all you can do is to write the songs that are a snapshot of your life at the time.
LN: Yeah. Right now I’m really into The Traveling Wilburys and Dylan, The Stones, The Byrds. Especially when I did that record, that’s what I was into. I wanted to make a record that was evocative of that feeling because I respect them. One thing I wish more younger artists did is to really talk about their influences. Talk about their influences and engage their audience in where they came from. There’s a lot of cool people out there and they’ve been influenced. I just think more respect should be given.
AH: You have a lot of guests on the new album. What did they bring to the album that you wouldn’t have had otherwise?
LN: Their energy and vibe. Margo Price is an amazing person. As is Sheryl Crow, Neil, Dad, Shooter Jennings, Randy Houser, and Ke$ha. They’re all great people with great energy and vibes. It felt natural to invite them to be a part of this. It’s going to change all the time. I’m trying to get better at expressing myself all the time. I’m studying a lot of Paul Simon right now. Rhythm of the Saints is one of my favorite albums of all time. I’m learning Vincent Nguini’s parts and trying to get better. Hopefully that spills into the creativity.
AH: You had 30 songs for this album. How did you decide which songs made it?
LN: We all got together and listened to them and asked our friends which ones resonated. Ultimately I write to relate. I like to know if people like the song or not. I test it out on people. Ultimately we have to make a decision. Often it’s not that we won’t put it out. It’s just that we won’t put it out right now. We have archived material now that we can put out at a later date. We have a backlog of a lot of stuff. Most of it is pretty close to releasable. We have plenty of back stock.
If you look at the album, it’s hard to argue with the general gist. It’s not something that was intended to polarize. It’s quite the opposite. What we’ve been doing is trying to support family farmers and local growers and artisans. We’ve even had pop-up farmers markets at our shows. We try to do that as much as we can just to connect with good people. What’s the point of being out there if you can’t do that? You have a big platform and people listen to what you have to say.
AH: The notion of shopping at a farmers market during one of your shows is pretty cool.
LN: There’s an incredible local growing market in Nashville. I can’t remember what it’s called. They have social gatherings there. People get this local food. We went down the aisle and the stuff was great. There are a lot of young people that are waking up to the fact that they can create the world they want to live in right around them.
AH: What would you be doing if you weren’t making music?
LN: Gardening. I’d probably be farming and writing. Also I play golf. It’s something where I put in time. I usually play barefoot and try to get as zen as possible on the course. It’s a rewarding game.
AH: And frustrating at times.
LN: Frustration is the enemy in golf. If you can learn not to get frustrated, you’ve got an edge on the game. Jimi Hendrix said something like “Your whole life should be an expression of your art.” Guys like David Bowie and Elton John are looking at their life like it’s a movie and they’re watching themselves and creating their favorite version of themselves as they live. It’s pretty cool to devote your life to being the best you can at being a human. It’s like that Tibetan mandala art where they rub the sand. They’ve got these two – they look like drumsticks – and one has a grid on it. They do the slightest rub and just a little bit of sand comes. It takes them months to do these incredibly complex pieces of art, and then they just blow it away. That’s what life should be.