John McLaughlin and the Elevation of the Musical Spirit

John McLaughlin, who both Pat Metheny and Jeff Beck have deemed the greatest guitarist we have, has released his latest album, Live at Ronnie Scott’s with his band, The 4th Dimension, and is preparing for a November US tour with guitarist Jimmy Herring and his band, The Invisible Whip. Each band will perform separately and then together in an event called “Meeting of the Spirits,” echoing McLaughlin’s jazz fusion roots with the legendary Mahavishnu Orchestra.

But it might be a misnomer to call jazz-rock his roots, for McLaughlin began with R&B and rock and has widened the boundaries of classical Indian, flamenco, psychedelia and of course, the new direction jazz took when he performed with Miles Davis, including such musical paradigm shifts as Bitches Brew and Jack Johnson.

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Brad Schreiber: Can you take me back to when you were thirteen and you heard Indian music on a London radio? Do you remember that?

John McLaughlin: Oh, yeah, do I ever.

BS: Tell me the details of hearing that, because hearing music that profoundly moves you for the first time sometimes stays in your memory.

JM: It happened twice…When I was five, I heard the end of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with my mother, and I got goosebumps all over my body. My mom was really happy about it. (Laughs.) She said, that’s what good music does to you.

BS: Right.

JM: I must have been 12 or 13 when I heard it.

BS: Well, where were you?

JM: I was at home [in Northern England]. There was an American called Alan Lomax who was a musicologist.

BS: Yeah, he did field recordings.

JM: He had a series on BBC radio. And he was going around the world and bringing music to his program. And this is where I heard Indian music for the first time. South Indian, temple music…Don’t forget, I was like 12 or 13. I didn’t even know where India was.

BS: (Laughs.) So, no interview with John McLaughlin would be complete without talking about Miles. I’d like to go in a different direction, hopefully, so it’s not too boring for you.

JM: He means more for me than anybody.

BS: Yes, for so many people who worked with him. I believe you did an interview with Robert Fripp, an excellent interview. And you talked about how Miles taught you how to direct a band, that he might not know what he always wanted but he always knew what he didn’t want. How did this help you compositionally with Mahavishnu?

JM: …He was a phenomenon. And he had this gift to bring out in musicians what they didn’t even know they were capable of. This to me was the greatest thing I could possibly have learned from Miles. And this I tried to emulate every time. He taught me that we have to let all musicians be themselves. In fact, by necessity, they have to be who they are. But they have to be who they are in the context of the direction that the leader wants to go. You understand what I’m saying. You have to let them be. You have to give them a leash. You have to let them be who they are and be free. You have to find a way with the music to attract the musicians’ ear so they want to go in that direction.

BS: Jimi [Hendrix] who I know a bit about from writing that book [Becoming Jimi Hendrix], used to go into sessions and say, “Okay, right here, I want you to do something that’s green.” Or, “Play something that’s the wind.”

JM: Yeah, yeah.

BS: He didn’t notate so that’s the way he gave instructions to his players and amazingly, he got things from them that, as you say, they might not normally give.

JM: I understand that perfectly. Music is closer to poetry than anything. So, if you come to a musician and say, “So, there’s a cloud in the sky and the sun is kind of red and it’s warming,” the musician, his mind goes to a different place, not the kind of normal everyday consciousness...I understand that and I use that myself. This is a way to communicate but you don’t communicate in a logistical way. You communicate in a poetic way that is much closer to music.

BS: You also had an interview that moved me because you decried the state of the music business and you said, “I know a lot of great players who can’t get record deals.” So, do you think that when Mahavishnu Orchestra’s Inner Mounting Flame came out that the record industry was more open to experimentation? Do you think things like Spotify make people less inclined to buy music? What do you think’s going on that hurts experimentation in music?

JM: It’s lamentable, the situation, actually. At the time we came out, you’re talking 1971, I mean the music industry was exploding. It was fantastic. It was wonderful but society has changed. The kind of musical listening habits have changed. This is why you have the advent of smooth jazz, cool jazz or funky jazz. It doesn’t demand much from you, does it? It just kind of caresses your little arm, you know.

BS: (Laughs.)

JM: But you can talk over it if you want, and people do. But 30, 40 years ago, people were listening to music. They were into it big time, wherever it was. And the promoters, they knew that because they never put two similar bands together. It was always like opposite. We’d go out with Arrowsmith or with James Taylor or with George Carlin. And it was marvelous. It was totally different because the promoters in those days said, “People are going to dig it. Some people are going to dig it and they’re going to learn more about music.” The attitude today is completely opposite. It’s like you’re a rock band, you’ve got to go with a rock band. If you’re rap, you’ve got to be with rap. But the difficulty today, it’s young musicians…How do you get a deal? You don’t. These are the rats of the recording industry. What they pay the artist is so pitiful. I know there’s an English band, they did a million streams on Spotify. You know how much they made? One thousand two hundred pounds. About 1500 bucks. A million streams?

BS: No, that’s not fair.

JM: But they are millionaires. People running Spotify are multi-millionaires even. The government didn’t support the music industry. They just said, okay, the capitalist way, the market will sort itself out and they just let it go. Unfortunately, the market imploded. And so today it’s very difficult for the young musician. That’s what I was speaking about.

BS: I was in college when I heard My Goals Beyond and I would lapse into a reverie when I heard “Peace One” and “Peace Two” and I thought, I’m lucky to be alive during a time when people can not only stretch their wings in terms of what they can do but can even mix and match on one album what they do.

JM: The sixties in a sense was a radical decade. I mean socially, intellectually, spiritually, musically, I mean particularly in America, you the civil rights movement just exploded, the whole psychedelic, the hippie movement and then of course, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, the [Vietnam] war and then the 70s came out of that, with all those powerful emotions, but with an audience that was ready to listen and observe and accept and enjoy what was going on. Today, we’re in a very conservative world, socially, politically, even intellectually and to a degree I would even say spiritually...I think in 10, 15, 20 years, there will be another radical kind of society coming out. All this nonsense about barriers. You know, we’re all on the planet. I wrote a chart. I was just transcribing it today. I’m going to do it in November. It’s called “Earthship.” It comes from Buckminster Fuller. It’s our ship. If we don’t take care of it, there will be no other ship left.

BS: That’s right. “Spaceship Earth,” he called it.

JM: “Earthship,” yeah. Just the name inspired me….You look at your president. Yeah, we’re going to dig more coal and burn more fossil fuel, to dabble with the ecology. We’re in a kind of Caligula mode. But I believe, I actually believe. I have faith in humanity and that we will reject these values and another kind of hippie revolution will be much more powerful next time. I might not be around to see it, Brad, but I’m sure it will come. I’m sure it will.

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