The Rolling Stone Interview: John McLaughlin
The Rolling Stone Interview
Ustad Zakir Hussain calls guitarist John McLaughlin “one of the greatest and most important musicians of our times.” Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew album features a track named after him. He has made music with everyone from Jan Hammer to Jean-Luc Ponty to Billy Cobham. He was in Mumbai last month for the release of his new album, Floating Point, and Rolling Stone caught up with him.
How did it all start for you, John, this journey in music?
Well, I had the good fortune to be born in a semi-musical household. My mother was a violinist – amateur violinst, not professional – but generally speaking amateur musician parents are very passionate about what they are doing. She loved music so there was always music in the house. But invariably it was classical music.
When you are a kid, a baby growing up, music is music, you don’t know what different music is. You only know later in life. I remember I had a very strong musical experience. I must have been about five and she was playing the ‘9th Symphony’ of Beethoven and at the very end, there’s a vocal quartet singing and I will never forget because my hair went like this… [indicating goosebumps] It was something I didn’t understand but it was a great feeling. And I realised this is music.
Music has the capacity to change people. It certainly changed me. Shortly after that, I asked my mother if I could take piano lessons because we had an old piano in the house. So, I took piano lessons. At the very beginning of the 1950s there was what they called the blues boom in the UK. My eldest brother was studying in college and he was coming back with these blues recordings – Mississippi blues, Chicago blues, everything that was blues… I was exposed to this music when I was about eleven. At about the same time, the rest of us brothers and one sister, we all contributed to buy a guitar for the eldest brother, since he was a student and he was into the music. It was a three dollar guitar really. I didn’t really pay attention. I was playing piano and I was taking my lessons. And then once my eldest brother became bored with the guitar, he gave it to the second brother and then because the third brother wasn’t interested, it came to me. At the same time, this music [blues] came into the house. So it was a very big confluence of cultures. The very first moment I had the guitar in my arms, I fell in love with it. In fact I went to bed with the guitar that night [laughs].
So did you start off playing the blues on the guitar?
Yeah, I was trying to. But you know, I had been doing Mozart and Haydn and Beethoven on the piano and it was different. This music was radical to me. Really radical. And there was not much pop music in those days. That would be 1953. By 1955, Elvis was already around. Bill Haley and the Comets. Jerry Lee Lewis. The whole rock thing that began in America. So that in itself was a big influence.
Then at what point in time did you realise that ‘Hey, this is what I’m going to be doing for the rest of my life?’
From this point. When I was eleven years old. And I discovered the guitar. There was no other option for me.
Then you started doing sessions.
Oh no, this came later. I was very lucky because I was terrible at school. Except that the music class had a very enlightened teacher. We had two groups at school – two different jazz groups – and every time he’d say, ‘That’s great, you have to come up and play for the class,’ which by itself is worth a hundred rehearsals, when you have to play for people. So by the time I was sixteen, I had been hired by a group and I was touring. I quit school. I didn’t even go to college or anything. I was on the road at sixteen. And I’ve been on the road ever since. Actually, no, I had a lot of different jobs. I was living in a town north of England, just south of Scotland and by the time I arrived in London, I must have been seventeen and it was very difficult to survive. So I had many different kind of jobs over the next few years… I was a truck driver, I was a salesman, I was an instrument repairer…
You were a salesman for?
What did I sell? Caviar [grins]. But then, I was repairing instruments, selling instruments. I was involved in working in different musical environments. At least, it was nice to be amongst instruments.
Then how did the move to the US happen?
By 1965, I had come out one of the most difficult bands in the world, called the Ray Ellington Quartet. It was a great little band. The guitar book – the music was all written – was one of the most difficult in the world, and I held this job down for about 18 months. And then I left. But by that time, I could basically read anything on guitar. And if you can do that well, then you get hired very quickly for sessions. So I became a sessions man and for the first time in my life, I had more than five dollars in my pocket. But I couldn’t take it. I did it for 18 months. And did a lot of recordings. But most of it was rubbish. You know, ‘Tie A Yellow Ribbon,’ Engelbert Humperdinck, Sandie Shaw… And we used to get French artists in. But occasionally, we used to get the American artists in, like Burt Bacharach. In the Sixties, he wrote some great songs. He came to see me, when I did the premiere of ‘Mediterranean Concerto,’ which was commissioned by the LA Philharmonic because he was living next to Miles [Davis] in Malibu. So they both came to the concert.
So is that how you met Miles the first time?
Oh no, I met Miles before that. Anyway, I left the studio work because I felt I was gonna die. Musically and physically. So I became poor as a pauper, but happy because I was playing my music again. And I was playing with a lot of different people on the London scene and playing with a number of American musicians who would visit Europe. And finally I did a jam session with Jack DeJohnette, the drummer who was playing with Bill Evans, the pianist. This would be in the summer of ’68. He recorded the jam session but I didn’t know that. And he went back to the US and was talking to Tony Williams, the drummer who was playing with Miles. And Tony just mentioned that he was looking for a guitar player to make a trio with, because he was leaving Miles. And Jack said, ‘Well, listen to this tape. I just played with this guy in London.’ So Tony heard the tape and I got called. So I didn’t go over to New York to play with Miles Davis – I went there to play with Tony Williams, with Lifetime which was a great band.
So anyway, I ended up in New York and the same day I met Miles. And I met him also the day after. He had never heard me play but he knew that I was there to play with Tony because Tony had to finish the week’s work in a club in Harlem. In those days, Miles would be playing mainly clubs in America. He was a superstar in Europe but in America, he was still playing clubs. So anyway, he knew who I was. And he just said right out of the blue, ‘Well, tomorrow, we’re in the studio. So bring your guitar and we will play.’ And that was In A Silent Way. So I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Very lucky.