Interview: Guitar Great John McLaughlin

A voyage through the legendary axeman’s long career.

Hailed as one of fusion’s most accomplished guitarists, John McLaughlin’s combination of dazzling technique and restless spirituality has kept his inquisitive musical nature as fresh as it ever was. Growing up in Yorkshire, the Englishman’s natural exuberance came to the fore early, playing with many pioneering UK artists such as Graham Bond, Johnny Dankworth, Brian Auger, and Ginger Baker. Soon he had formed his own band, recorded his first solo album, and moved to New York, where he joined Tony Williams’ trailblazing fusion group Lifetime.

After leaving his mark on several of Miles Davis’ landmark recordings, including In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew, McLaughlin emerged as leader of the seminal fusion band Mahavishnu Orchestra, which wasted no time in exploring several paths between psych rock and jazz with a spate of fiery albums full of combustible chemistry, including Birds of Fire, Between Nothingness and Eternity, and Visions of the Emerald Beyond. Never one to rest on his laurels, McLaughlin formed the band Shakti, to explore more spiritual leanings with Indian classical music, and continued to dive into new projects, including several trio excursions and also albums on his beloved acoustic. In this condensed and edited excerpt from his recent interview with RBMA Radio, McLaughlin talks about his continued quest to go deeper into harmony, rhythm, and spirit.

Let’s just talk briefly about your childhood in Doncaster.

I wasn’t born in Doncaster. Doncaster would be the clone to Las Vegas compared to the village where I was born, population 110 people. It was wonderful because it was a tiny village in Emily Brontë country in the Yorkshire Dales. I used to leave my house and walk into the countryside. It was wonderful.

The great thing about my family was my mother, who was a violinist. She really was the moving force in my life and the reason why I became a musician. In the village, there was no culture. They’ve got a pub and a factory and some houses and that’s it. They had woods and vales and forests, and it was fantastic and I loved that. I left when I was very young, unfortunately. We moved up north to Northumberland when I was 7.

What was the music scene like in London in the ‘60s?

It was fantastic. By 1960 or ‘61, I was in London and started to play with rhythm and blues bands because that was the big thing in those days. That was really the only way I could make money. I was 19 or 20 maybe, and not accomplished enough to make any kind of living as a jazz player, but I’d been playing guitar since I was 11 so I knew my way around. Anyway, to play rhythm and blues was great by me. If you take the rhythm and blues out of jazz, you don’t have much jazz left anyway.

Probably the most notable group I was with was Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames, around 1962 I guess. That was before he became a star; he had a hit with “Yeah, Yeah” in 1964 or ‘65, by which time I’d left that band. I joined a band run by an organist, Graham Bond. In the band was Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker. That was a great band because it was more demanding musically.

Tony Williams Lifetime - Something Spiritual, Live 1969

Can you tell me a bit about meeting Tony Williams and your time in his band, Lifetime?

By 1967, I’d become what they call a studio shark. In those days, all the records were made together. The pop star was there. The orchestra was there. The brass section was there. The backup vocals were there. Everybody was in the studio together. The record scene was fantastic. It was really starting to explode. I was playing more and more with jazz groups and I had some stints with Johnny Dankworth’s big band and Gordon Beck and his quartet. By 1967, I was working with a guy called Mike Carr; we were part of one of the house bands in Ronnie Scott’s club. I was also sharing a flat with bassist Dave Holland, who subsequently got called by Miles Davis. He was in my band. I must have had about four gigs with it total. It was very difficult to get gigs as a jazz musician.

Without Miles, I don’t think I would have made it.

I was much more of a side man in those days. Jack DeJohnette, the drummer, was playing with the Bill Evans Trio at Ronnie Scott’s. Jack really liked to jam. Dave and I saw him and he said, “Well, let’s jam the next day.” We went down to Ronnie Scott’s in the afternoon and jammed. Jack had one of these Mission: Impossible tape recorders with the wheels going round. He recorded it (but I didn’t know that) and he went back to America. At one point, the drummer Tony Williams was talking to Jack about leaving Miles; he wanted to form a trio and he was looking for a guitar player. Jack said, “Listen, I just played with a guy in London.” He played the tape to Tony and Tony called me.

It was very tough to get into America at that point, to get a six month visa. Ronnie Scott helped me a great deal – he helped me find the necessary documentation. So that’s how I arrived in America right after my 27th birthday, in the middle of a huge snowstorm. I couldn’t have been luckier because I arrived in New York in January 1969, and Tony was still playing with Miles at the Club Barron up in Harlem. Miles knew Tony was leaving and he wasn’t happy. Miles loved Tony. Tony was probably the greatest drummer of the latter part of the 20th Century. Miles knew I was this guitar player from Europe that Tony had hired. The next day, I saw him and he said, “Bring your guitar to the studio tomorrow.” Miles was my guru since I was 15. How lucky can you get?

Did you learn a lot from Miles?

A debt I will never be able to repay. Miles gave me more than I can really account for. He could see right away how much I revered him. Every time I saw him, he’d invite me round to his house and every time he’d say, “Are you eating? Are you eating?” He’d stuff a hundred dollar bill in my pocket, just to make sure that I ate and that I could get by. Without Miles, I don’t think I would have made it. If I was making $20 a night, I was really lucky. Miles really helped, more than I can ever say.

The Mahavishnu Orchestra - Live in Munich 1972

How did it happen that you started Mahavishnu Orchestra?

I got an offer to make a couple of solo records in 1969 or ‘70, but I’d already made a record for Marmalade Records in Britain with John Surman and Tony Oxley. It must have been 1970 – at least 20 months after I arrived in the US. I was playing gigs with Miles when I wasn’t playing with Tony so I had the best of both worlds. After one gig, there was just Miles and I, and out of the blue he said, “It’s time you formed your own band.” Since he was the most honest person I’ve ever met, I took it very seriously. He was my teacher. That was when I formed Mahavishnu Orchestra. Of course, by that time, I’d had a lot of lessons in seeing how Miles led his band. He was a master at that.

John McLaughlin - Peace One

Can you talk a bit about your solo records like My Goal’s Beyond and Devotion?

I always loved the acoustic guitar. I made one recording which ended up being hacked to pieces by this guy, Alan Douglas, who was not the nicest person on the planet. I had two records to do for $2,000. He took my publishing on top of it. He sold the records about 20 times after and I never got paid. In any event, I was very angry with the way he hacked up the first record, Devotion. I said, “I’ll do the second one, but if you come to the studio, I’m just going to walk out,” so he left me alone.

I wanted to show the beauty of the acoustic guitar so I did My Goal’s Beyond. That was partly solo guitar and partly ensemble with Dave Leidman, Butter Roy; Billy Cobham was on that. I was already planning Mahavishnu by that time. In any event, you know, I’m an old hippie that’s why I wrote music like “Peace One” and “Peace Two,” hoping that something inside the music brings something. By this time, I was so involved in the creation of Mahavishnu, which was almost diametrically opposed to My Goal’s Beyond because it was very strong electric jazz with the R&B and rock influences that I grew up with.

Mahavishnu Orchestra - Full ABC Concert

So what was the concept of Mahavishnu Orchestra?

Mahavishnu is from Sanskrit. Maha just means “great.” Mahatma Gandhi. Mahat mixed with atma means “great soul.” Mahavishnu is “great vishnu.” Vishnu is part of the Hindu pantheon. You’ve got the creator of the universe, the sustainer of the universe, and then you have the Shiva, who transforms the universe because we’re all evolving and growing and moving. Nothing is standing still. Vishnu is the sustainer. My meditation guru decided to give me the name Mahavishnu which then I tagged onto the first band that I had.

I wanted violin in it, because my mother was a violinist. I hadn’t heard any jazz bands with a violin in them. I didn’t want a specifically jazz violinist; I wanted someone who had more of the blues thing and the R&B thing. I found Jerry Goodman in a band called The Flock, based in Chicago and I got a hold of him and invited him in.

We all believed we could make a better world. We really tried, but I don’t know how successful we were.

At the time, I was very close friends with Miroslav Vitouš, a great bass player. He called me right after Miles had spoken to me and said, “I’ve been talking to Joe [Zawinul] and Wayne [Shorter]. We’re going to form a band called Weather Report. We want you to be in it.” I said, “If you had called me like three weeks ago, I would have jumped at it but I just got the order. I’ve got to do my own band, so that’s what I’m doing.” So Miro said, “I’ve got a friend who’s playing piano with Sarah Vaughn, the singer, and is a great pianist. His name is Jan Hammer.” I called Jan in and then Billy Cobham, who I met through Miles, when we were recording music for the movie Jack Johnson. That was Miles’ favorite record. By the time we finished that session, I knew I wanted Billy in the band. Billy came in and that was the beginning of Mahavishnu Orchestra.

Against popular thinking – who could believe a band without a singer could make it? – we became very successful right away, from the word go. It was a great period to be in because all the concerts were the opposite of what they are today. George Carlin or Cheech and Chong would be the opening acts, or we’d be the opening act to James Taylor. We even toured with The Eagles. It was never like, “Well, if you got a fusion band, let’s book them with another fusion band.” It was the opposite. It’s was like “Let’s book another kind of band because maybe the people will be exposed to another kind of music and they’ll dig it.”

It was a fantastic time to be in. We were coming out of the Vietnam War and American society was coming to terms with Black Power, the Panthers. It was an intense period and the music reflected it. We all believed we could make a better world. We really tried, but I don’t know how successful we were.

John McLaughlin - Remember Shakti

Can you talk to me about Shakti, your Indian classical music group?

Shakti goes back to the ‘60’s. In the 1960’s, coming out of the psychedelic period, I wanted to alter my state of consciousness without the ingestion of certain chemicals so I began yoga and meditation. It was only a short while afterwards that I discovered Indian music, which is part of the philosophy of India. The great thing about Indian music is that it has a lot of common ground with jazz music. They are marvelous improvisers. They have marvelous drummers, percussionists. We have a lot of shared territory. It really was inevitable.

The other aspect of Indian music is that it was all inclusive, insofar as it integrated the spiritual dimension of the human being which, prior to 1965, hadn’t existed in jazz. It was Coltrane that successfully integrated that dimension into jazz music, which of course had a tremendous impact on me and has to this day.

I only have today, so let’s take care of today and the rest will take care of itself.

I put together Shakti in 1973 and we were doing parallel concerts and tours but in schools and churches. By 1975, I abandoned Mahavishnu to the great chagrin of my manager and my agent and my record company. They said, “You’re going to lose a lot of sales.” I said, “Yes, but you got to follow your heart. I’ll just assume the consequences.” Shakti was born and it was my main musical vehicle and has continued on and off until the end of last year. We were here in London at the end of last year with almost the last Shakti concert. You know six weeks ago, we lost U. Shrinivas, the mandolin player. 45 years old. He died of liver failure. Dreadful. In a way, that’s the end of Shakti.

What’s the secret to your continued enthusiasm and motivation?

Every day is a brand new day and this brand new day opens with the big mystery. What’s it all about? Who am I? What am I doing here? Why am I here? What is this fabulous universe and we’re all here unaware? The big questions. This comes to me every day I wake up, which is why I like to do my meditation. It’s part of my life.

In music, I address these burning questions ,and every day they’re new. What happened yesterday is gone. Tomorrow, I don’t know. I might not even be here. I only have today so let’s take care of today and the rest will take care of itself.

Either you have passion about something or you don’t. If you don’t have an passion, then you’ve got no gasoline in the car. What do you truly feel? In my personal philosophy, to see really clearly, you have to feel very deeply. This is where you really exist. We are full of profound and deep feelings, all of us, and we have to let them out.

By Red Bull Music Academy on February 19, 2015

On a different note