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The Rolling Stone Interview: John McLaughlin

The Rolling Stone Interview

Bobin James Jul 11, 2008

Shakti was completely different from what you were doing so far in that you had this Indian sound that was intrinsic to the music. So how did that connect with India happen?

It began again in the Sixties. Because I am a longhaired hippie freak. At least I was. [Laughs] Like everybody coming out of the acid days, we were all asking ourselves these existential questions, like, ”˜Who are we? And what are we? And what is God if God exists?’ The minute you start asking these questions, you want to do something about it and you want to find out which people have asked these kind of questions. In the West, they haven’t really asked the questions like they have for thousands of years in the East, in India, in China, in Japan. By the end of the Sixties, I was trying to alter my state of consciousness by yoga and by meditation and was trying to figure out what is going on, what the universe is and what I’m doing here, etc. So you quickly become aware of India if you started to ask this kind of questions, because India has been addressing these questions for a long time and it’s been coming up with wonderful solutions to these questions. So I became very much attracted to the Indian culture, which was inevitable.

By 1967, I was aware of people like Ramana Maharishi, following and trying to understand his way and trying to adapt it to my lifestyle. So to discover the music was really just a question of time. Because Indian music is totally inclusive, in the sense that it incorporates every aspect of human dimension as opposed to the Western world where for example, the only spiritual aspect of music for a long time, for hundreds of years, were the masses that were written by the composers. And it took someone like John Coltrane to bring in this spiritual aspect of the human being in the West into music. To integrate it, to make it a music inclusive of this aspect of the human soul, heart, psyche, whatever you want to call it. Whereas in India, the music has been inclusive for hundreds, if not thousands of years.

The second aspect was that you have some fantastic players here. And they play in a way that’s not like jazz, but nevertheless, we share a great deal of common ground because we employ rhythm to a very strong extent. Which is what jazz is about too. Jazz is really rhythm and blues. You can’t take the rhythm and blues out of jazz. The difference between us, is that we employ our Western traditions of harmony ”“ this is really the essential difference. But by 1969, I’d taken a teacher at New York, and he was trying to teach me North Indian Hindustani flute. What I really wanted to learn was the music. I’m not a flute player, so it didn’t last long. But I began to learn about the traditions. And then in 1971, I became a student of Dr Ramanathan at the Wesleyan University in Connecticut as a student of the South Indian veena. I began to study seriously, again, more the theory. Because it became apparent to me quickly that I couldn’t really play guitar and veena. I am not that gifted. I continued with the theory.

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By 1973, I had already played with Zakir [Hussain], independently of Shakti ”“ Shakti wasn’t formed yet. And L Shankar. It was from jamming with these two guys independently ”“ Zakir in California, and Shankar on the East Coast ”“ that I had the idea for Shakti. So finally I got Zakir and SHankar together and I took N Raghavan, who was the mridangam player for my teacher, Dr Ramanathan, and there we had the first Shakti group. So we started to do concerts in 1973-74, parallel to Mahavishnu Orchestra concerts. So I was basically running two careers at the same time ”“ not two careers, but two forms. Over time, by the summer of ’75, I wanted to end Mahavishnu Orchestra and play exclusively with Shakti, which is what we did. And I came to India end of ’75, because Raghavan was not able to be part of Shakti permanently and this is where I found TH Vikku Vinayakram, and he replaced Raghavan as the second percussionist with Zakir.

You have produced one track on Miles From India. How was that experience, considering you have played with Miles?

Miles From India – this came from Yusuf Gandhi who was the producer of this recording. Yusuf, I have known for over twenty years. He’s a very fine person and a very strong supporter of real music. When he had the idea for Miles From India, I was already in India, in Chennai last year. And he called me up one day and he said, ”˜I am doing this recording. I’ve heard about your recording, Floating Point, and I don’t want to barge in on your project, but I would be really really thrilled if you could do one piece, the title track piece.’ So I said, ”˜Whoa, I would be delighted to. But I don’t know; you’ve already done a lot of Miles tunes on the recording.’ He said, ”˜No, I want you to write a piece that should be called ”˜Miles From India.’ ’ I said, ”˜Okay Yusuf, you are a friend, I’ll do it.’ He said, ”˜Not only that, I would like you to use Louiz Banks and U Shrinivas.’ I said, ”˜Well, is there any other restrictions you want to put on me?’ He said, ”˜No, other than that, you can do what you want.’ [Laughs] Very kind of you. [Laughs] So finally, I got an idea for a piece. Quite a haunting piece, there was no percussion involved. And then a friend of mine brought me a recording of a young singer called Sikkil Gurucharan, that he did with a pianist, Anil Srinivasan. I was really moved by Gurucharan’s voice and I said to Yusuf, ”˜I want to bring Gurucharan in on this recording.’ And he said, ”˜You do what you want.’ Anyway, I am going to do what I want [laughs], but I have to let you know. So that’s how we did it, in Shrinivas’s studio, in Chennai.

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About your new album, Floating Point, you’ve said it’s probably the most powerful record that you have done”¦

Well, probably every artist thinks his last work is the best work he ever did. I am really happy with it. For me, this is the culmination of these 35 years of association with India and with Indian music and Indian musicians. I don’t think this could have been made 20 years ago, or maybe even 15 years ago. For the first time, I was able to make a recording of my music which is not me coming over to the Shakti way, the Indian way ”“ which I loved, don’t misunderstand me. Whether it’s North or South, I am an eternal fan of Indian music and Indian musicians ”“ but they were able to come over to my world in their way. And this was more difficult for them because I made them play with drums and keyboards in a jazz fusion way, but using their instruments. With [drummer] Ranjit [Barot] and [keyboardist] Louiz Banks, it is very easy. But with someone like [flautists] Shashank Subramanium or Naveen Kumar or [sitarist] Niladri Kumar, they are less accustomed to this way of playing. I really put them on the spot. But they rose to the occasion. They saw it as a challenge and they rose to it. The music is very special, it’s from an atmosphere that is at the same time really Western – it’s really kind of jazz – but it’s got this wonderful integrated atmosphere of India because of the Indian musicians. But it’s not like phoney fusion”¦ you know when you hear something like that. I heard it in the hotel this morning – you got a drummer, you have a sitar playing and he’s trying to play the blues and it’s just silly. [Real] music is very deep and you can listen to it and listen to it again and get true human feelings from different cultures but really together.

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