This interview has been edited for clarity purposes.
HASSLE: The self-titled track “Liberation Time” starts with piano-introduction. It was said that you haven’t been writing a piano-pieces since “Love Devotion Surrender.” What do you feel leaving the guitar aside, which has been the primary instrument of your songwriting for decades?
MCLAUGHLIN: Well, these two piano-pieces I recorded in 1980s, believe it or not! I recorded them before my limited piano-technique completely disappeared, because I started my musical life studying classical piano, until the guitar-playing. So I had kind of refugee-technique on piano around 1980s, because I had a piano at home. I recorded them in the midi but with the pedal and the velocity, the dynamics. They were in the archives, so I was looking for the archives when I started writing music for this album.
These two pieces I had in my archives as midi-files. So I spoke to Gary Husband who plays drums on the album. A very good drummer. He has this application from Vienna, which contains all the great pianos: Steinway, Bosendorfer, Yamaha – all I had to do is connect my files to his application. My performance was reproduced on a great piano. And the reason I put these two pieces is because I had them for decades and I’ve never used them. I think it’s safe to say that without the COVID pandemic this album would never have been made. Which sounds strange, but let me tell you, why!
The last time I played in public was January 11th, 2020. I had one concert in Calcutta, India and I had another concert in Singapore. It was my last concert. I had a very big European tour organized last year. Of course, it was cancelled, so we had Japanese tour in the Autumn – also cancelled. By the end of September, I started getting crazy, Dan, because no concerts, no travelling…This isn’t my life. All my life I’m travelling, I’m playing, I’m a touring musician, like every touring musician today (laughter). Yes, it’s very nice to be home with the family. At the same time, I can’t follow my profession. So, I started getting very frustrated. I have a lot crazier ideas coming at my head. But I can’t go out of the house. Here in Monaco and France we have a very strict lockdown and a very strict curfew. We’re just coming out of curfew. At this time, I, of course couldn’t go anywhere. At some point, I got so crazy so I said: “Okay! I have to get this craziness out of my head.” – and the music started coming out! In two weeks, everything was written, except these two piano pieces.
Of course, I’m blocked. What can I do with all of this music? In March last year, I started working with other musicians by sending them audio-files through the Internet. I can’t prepare keyboards. Preparing bass-players’ [parts] is not a problem. All the time, I was living in New York, I had a drum-kit. Because, I love to play the drums. I’m not the drummer. But I love to play. I know how to set up a musical situation – [doing] a demo. So, I prepared, I invited these musicians from America, these musician from Paris, this one from London, this one from Monaco. This one from Cairo, Egypt. I sent out the files. But I put my performance in.
The first performance was with fake drums, fake bass, fake piano. Everything is fake. But it’s the right part and they have the score. These musicians, they are fantastic. So, they play. And sometimes, the file comes back to me. And it’ so good, what they did. I had to re-do my part, because they evolved the piece in such lovely way. They inspire me to do better. Not all the pieces but some pieces. However, I will always try to find the way to have the drummer and the bass-player record together, because it’s very important in jazz-music. Actually, its important in any music, because the drums and bass have to be like one feeling. Just the beautiful groove. This is how it came out. All the files went across the world. To this country, that country. This is really amazing [that] with technology today we’re allowed to do this.
I’d finish with this little anecdote: when I have all the files ready I say, “What can I do?” My engineer, my real recording and mastering engineer is in London. My favorite studio is in London. I can’t go to London. I just can’t go. I’m not allowed, but there’s an application that studios have now. I have Zoom on my laptop and on my big computer. I can see the board and hear what the engineer is doing. With the maximum delay of 90 millisecond. So we work. I mix the album at home with the engineer in the studio in London. Amazing!
HASSLE: Do you feel like there’s a certain comfort zone within your playing or it’s always a search for you?
MCLAUGHLIN: Yes. In a way. But for me, Dan, every day is different. I’m different every day. I think, for everybody. We’re different from one moment to the next. Because, we’re alive and conscious beings. From one day to the next is just a little bit. It’s hardly noticeable, so, after six months, I’m thinking a little bit differently than I was six months ago. And I’m hearing music coming into my head – it’s not what I could hear six months ago. It’s not searching. Let me put it like this: I’m curious. I’m very curious about all kinds of music. Because, all music is beautiful. All music is good, but the difference is if it’s well-played or not well-played and is it deep or shallow. These are really the only differences. But in this sense, all the music is good. Because, it comes from the human-heart. As a human-being – I’m very curious. The fact is – it’s not that I’m searching to get the new sounds. The new sounds come into my head. Without me searching for them. Every day is different from yesterday. I like to live in the present moment. It all has to do with my attitude to life, Dan.
When you’re meditating, when you’re looking for the great questions of existence, you can only find them in the present moment. I can’t find the answer tomorrow, I can’t find the answer yesterday. I can’t find anything except now. In this moment, that’s what we really have. I’m talking to you right now, in this moment. You’re in Russia, I’m in Monaco – this is amazing. And this moment, is the most…I can’t even put it into words…It’s like Einstein said: “Life is very simple” – he said: “Or, there are no miracles in life or everything is a miracle…”. And to me, everything is a miracle. I’m alive, this moment – it’s a miracle. I’m open to anything that comes into me. That’s why I don’t go and look to how I can make an album, how I can do this. I just work on my instrument and…the music comes.
HASSLE: How much having this spiritual dimension integrated in what you’re doing affected your approach? In particular, I’m asking about improvisation vs. meditative practices.
MCLAUGHLIN: You know, the most important aspect of life to me is to know who I really am. To know what I really am and the rest it secondary. What’s important is my inner-awareness and my inner-perception. This is fundamental to my existence. Whatever comes after – whether I’m cooking a meal, whether I’m sweeping the floor, whether I’m playing the guitar, everything is affected by my interior awareness. This is the first thing. So, of course, my existence is completely affected by my interior development. You can call it spirituality [though] I’m not happy with this word – it’s been kind of abused. But the development of inner-awareness is in the end of the development of the spirit, in which we all are connected.
We can’t help but be connected. This is of course my conviction. Not everybody would agree with me, but I can’t give you a kind, qualitative answer to your question. I’d say – if it had affected, it affected me 100%. But it affects the way I am 100%. It affects the way I cook a meal 100%. Because, I want to do it beautifully, I want to do it well and make myself happy and make everybody around myself happy. In a way, it’s 100%. Otherwise – it’s not that at all. You can’t be 25% or 40%. It does not work like that.
HASSLE: Describing your work from the 60’s-early 70’s to these days, there is the epithet “radical” that usually comes with this. Even with “Liberation Time” we can use it. But when you started Mahavishnu Orchestra, what affected this type of mentality you, as artist and composer had at that point?
MCLAUGHLIN: First of all, it wasn’t radical to me ( laughs ). It was absolutely normal for me. That’s how I want to play. Of course, you have to understand that 60’s was a very-very important decade from a point of view of consciousness. Because, of course, from the middle of the 60s I was dropping LSD like everybody. [Back in] those days it was completely legal. It was only in the 1972 when Richard Nixon and the other countries started realizing: “Oh, that might be dangerous. People might drop-out and not be working human beings. Not good for society! Not good for business!”
All the musicians, the Beatles, the Stones – everybody, we were all dropping LSD. At the same time, for the most of 1960s, I was surviving, playing rhythm and blues, or even funk. But at the same time, I was absorbing all the music all the music from John Coltrane and Miles Davis, Bo Diddley, Sonny Rollins, the great jazz-musicians of the 60’s. And then, on January 69, I arrive in New York to join Tony Williams’ Lifetime. This was radical, Dan! We were all crazy! We wanted to breakout. We all grew with rock-n-roll, R’n’B and funk – all these influences coming into jazz.
I was very lucky. I arrived in New York to play with Tony Williams – he was leaving Miles Davis and forming Lifetime. At the same time, Miles invited me to start recording with him and play concerts. The years of 1969-1970 were incredible years for me. Every time I’m working with Tony, I’m working with Miles and in two different ways, because Miles wanted all the things I was using in the 60s with rhythm and blues. He was moving out of classical jazz, which is why you hear albums like “Bitches Brew” and “A Tribute To Jack Johnson.” He wanted the guitar. I was very lucky to be there. On the other hand, Tony Williams – he was very interested in how I write music. He encouraged me constantly to write for Lifetime. A lot of that crazy music you hear in Lifetime is from me (laughs).
By October 1970, I was with Miles Davis one night and he said: “It’s time for you to form your band.” I couldn’t believe he’d say such a thing, but I believe this was how I start to form Mahavishnu Orchestra. This is the one side of where I got the order. If Miles says “You do this…” – he’s still my hero. And he’d always be my hero. He’s kind of guru to me. Like Coltrane. They’re real teachers. They taught me so much!
By the end of 1970, I became a disciple of my meditation guru – Sri Chinmoy. By July/August he gave me the spiritual name of “Mahavishnu” which means “Great Vishnu”.
I knew, I wanted a violin. Because, it was my mothers’ instrument. And I love violin. But I didn’t want a jazz-player. I wanted a rhythm and blues player. So I have to look around. I found this guy, Jerry Goodman in Chicago, playing with the band called “The Flock.” So I invited him. At the same time, you must know Miroslav Vitouš.
HASSLE: A big fan of him!
MCLAUGHLIN: Me too! It goes back to 1969, when he arrived in London with Stan Getz, the saxophone player. We became friends. When I arrived in New York I was forming Mahavishnu Orchestra. I got a call from Miroslav. He said that he was working on a band with Wayne Shorter and Joe Zawinul and wanted me in the band. And I said, “Fantastic! But.. I’m on the orders to make my own band! Miles gave me orders. ” He understood and asked if I had a piano-player. “No! I’m looking for a piano-player.” And he said that he had a friend who was playing with Sarah Vaughan. I said: “If he’s playing with Sarah Vaughan – I want him!” –if you’re accompanying Sarah Vaughan, you’re a good musician! She was a fantastic musician. I called him. He was another jazz-musician waiting to break-out. A new thing. More rhythm and blues, rock…whatever – into improvisation.
The bass-player, Rick Laird, who I’m afraid is not well. Poor fellow. We’re gonna lose him. He has cancer…
HASSLE: Oh my God…
MCLAUGHLIN: Yes. [With] him and I, it goes back to 1965, when we were playing with The Brian Auger Band.
HASSLE: Who was the first from the Mahavishnu Orchestra lineup you got first?
MCLAUGHLIN: The drummer came first. Billy Cobham.
HASSLE: Where did you meet Billy ?
MCLAUGHLIN: On, the Jack Johnson album. Normally, Miles would come with some pieces of paper, some chords. This session – he didn’t come with anything. So, he’s in control. We were waiting, talking to Teo Macero, the producer. There was Herbie [Hancock] on the organ, Michael Henderson on bass, Steve Grossman, the sax-player, Billy on drums and I’ve never met Billy before! After 15 minutes I’m very bored in the studio. I’ve been thinking about the chord progression that eventually became “Dance Of Maya” on Mahavishnu [Orchestra] album. So, I start to play this, but I started as R’n’B, just for fun. I start playing and Billy picks it up. And Michael Henderson start playing. We hit the groove. Beautiful. We just hit it. Magical. The door opens. Miles is running into the studio with his trumpet. In front of the microphone for the 15 minutes, he plays like a god. I’ve never heard him playing so fantastic. Just listen to this album – how he plays on this album! From this point, Billy and I got together after the session. We started hanging out. We became very dear friends.
He was the first person I asked to join Mahavishnu Orchestra. This was the band. But I have to tell you about Billy and I. We started playing this music before even Jerry arrived, before Jan arrived, before Rick arrived. We were playing just guitar and drums in [our] rehearsal studio in New York.
But fast-forward from the early 1971 to about 6-7 years ago…I’m in Montreux with my family. Claude Nobs, the founder, whom we unfortunately lost…What a dear friend…We’re on our bikes, riding around Lake Geneva. The beautiful [lake] – in the forest. Sunshine…Marvelous! And Claude said, “Listen, John! Can you play tonight ?” – I said: “I’m on holiday here! I don’t even play a guitar!” He replied, “I have many guitars!” – Billy actually lives in Switzerland. So Claude said, “I called Billy and he’s ready to come! Because I have this band…” It was kind of big English pop-band. But they’re stuck in Montreux. The plane is broken down and they can’t play. He said: “I don’t have anyone to play tonight with another band…” – Billy and I went to the stage that night. We haven’t played in years. Decades. And we played the music from Mahavishnu only from the head (laughs). Can you imagine? Just the two of us. It was amazing. It was beautiful.
Everybody says it was very radical. To me, it wasn’t radical. Because of this experience of the 60s and the two years I spent playing with Miles Davis and Tony Williams. This is the kind of music that was coming out from me and I love this kind of music (laughter). Fortunately, everybody like it too!…Not everybody, but a lot of people like it. (laughs)
HASSLE: Working with Miles and Tony, you still were a collaborator. How much has your mentality changed when you became the band-leader – with Mahavishnu Orchestra and later on, over the years of your career? Like, Miles and Tony have been pushing you, to a degree. So what did you feel when you took their position?
MCLAUGHLIN: Well, I have to say I learnt more than you can possibly imagine from Miles. Just being with him. When I arrived in New York, he was already in the studio. He invited me for “In A Silent Way”. Already in that session I leant amazing things. But he put me on a test too. He had a way of talking to musicians that was unique. I’m not Miles Davis. I’m myself with the musicians, but it was fantastic to see him work with musicians.
Let me tell you [about] “In A Silent Way” – that’s the title track and that’s the title of the album. I’m very nervous. He’s been my hero since I was 15 years old. And I’m all of a sudden in the studio with him. We have this tune, a piece by Joe Zawinul, but there’s no guitar-part because Joe doesn’t know I was invited to come to the studio only the night before. So there’s no guitar-part. He gave me a photo-copy of the piano-part. We started. I’m playing from the piano-part. We play a couple of times [but] Miles doesn’t like it. He looks at me and says “You play on the guitar.” I say “Oh, you want me to play everything with the chords and melody ?” You know, he didn’t have a voice. “John, play everything!” “It’s a piano part, not a guitar-part!” I reply. “It that affects ?” (laughs). Ironic! I’m sitting there and I don’t know what to do! He’s looking at me, all the musicians, they’re looking at me. What I’m gonna do ? Because I have a piano-part, I can’t do what he wants. I don’t know the score. All of a sudden he says, “Play it like you don’t know how to play the guitar!” Can you imagine, to say something like this? And the musicians hadn’t heard that before. I say, “What does he mean?!” I’m already sweating. But it’s okay.
I close the score and say: “No chords, no rhythm – nothing! I’d play the melody and whatever happens happens!” We do it like this and the red light was on. Immediately! We play it, we listen back and Miles loves it. He loves it so it was a miracle, Dan! From this session and the following sessions, I saw how he works. And how systematically…For example, in “Bitches Brew” he didn’t know what he wanted, but he knew what he didn’t want. He didn’t want what he’d already done. He wanted something new. One he once said: “We’d play blues-enough. But I don’t want to hear any “F”-notes”. This is a typical Miles-statement! He’s like a Zen-master.
After all these recordings, I see how he works and what he wants. He doesn’t want musicians to play what they think he wants, he wants them to completely be themselves. But in the context of the direction he’s going in. Sometimes, he start. He set up a groove. Like: “Dum-dum-dum-dum…Ba-pa, mba, mba-mba-ah!…” and he say to the bass-player: “Less! Less notes!” – and then he goes to the drummer and: “M-pa! Pa-pa!…Ok ?” it blew their minds. Because, they don’t know what to think. But when your mind is blown, you start playing from a different place, Dan. And he was a master at this. He wanted everybody to be themselves. He loved all of his musicians. He really did. He was not even a hard-leader. He just wanted everyone to be on their toes, to be ready and among his notices – to be themselves.
Of course, I got to work with other people – I did albums with Wayne Shorter. So I saw how he worked. I saw how Joe [Zawinul] worked. Playing with the great musicians, I had fantastic opportunities in these two years – 1969-1970. By the time I got the order to form the band, I knew what I had to do. I had the blessing in a way. I had the experience. I knew how to talk to other musicians, to get them to be themselves and play the part I want. You can’t be a bully as a musician. Music is only about love, in the end, isn’t it? It’s only about love. Without love, music doesn’t work. You can’t be angry and play music. It’s silly. It doesn’t work, does it? If you’re angry and start playing music – in 20 seconds you’d forget that you’re angry. And you’d be happy. Amazing! This is the power of music. It makes people happy. It was not a problem.
Of course, you always run into problems. In the end, Mahavishnu Orchestra is a classic example. You ask me about this. We had so much success. In a way, I regret that we had so much success. Because, there’s one thing I learnt from one person already in the 1960’s. He told me and I respected it, he was actually my lawyer, he said: “John, failure is easy to deal with. Success is much more difficult.” – you can understand that. I never forgot that. In the end, I had a problem. But I can understand this problem. You have to remember that we had this band with a lot of success – big audiences, playing big tours and everything.
I was into my meditation trip; I was into my yoga. After big concerts, I got home to the hotel, I had a salad, and I went to sleep. The guys went drinking, have girls or have a good time. That’s what musicians normally do on the road, I know, but I was into my trip. In a way, you could say I was a little antisocial, because, I didn’t go drinking with them, smoking dope, hanging out with girls, etc, but I didn’t ask them to meditate or to do what I wanted to do. That was my life. I know, perhaps being the leader and having my own trip going and you can understand [everything]. At the end, it became very difficult with Jan Hammer and Jerry Goodman. Very difficult. To the point when they didn’t want to speak to me anymore (laughs).
HASSLE: At the same time, as you said – there are always problems. To a point, I think you coped with everything just incredibly. Even with “Liberation Time.”
MCLAUGHLIN: Yeah. It’s very sweet for you to say! But in the end, Dan, music is really the power. Music is everything. It’s so much more than my trip, his trip. Music is from the universe. It connects us all in such a beautiful way, but it was actually the cause behind the breakup of the first Mahavishnu. I regret it to this day. Afterwards, Jerry and I became good friends again, but Jan Hammer never spoke to me again. I still don’t know why (laughs). Can you imagine? But that’s life. I went on, there was the second Mahavishnu. In the end, there was the third version. But the music goes on. My life is music. Music comes into my head. Here I am – all these years later. I’m so grateful. I’m full of gratitude to still have musical life today. Here I am talking to you, my friend – who loves music, just like me. And it connects us! We’re connected by the great spirit, I know this. We’re really connected through the music.
Liberation Time is out on July the 16th. Pre-order the record – here.