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Julian Lage: “I bought a stethoscope and taped it to the back of the Telecaster. I could only handle it for about a day and thought, ‘This is abusive!’“

Julian Lage
(Image credit: Alysse Gafkjen)

Listening to Julian Lage's latest album is a profoundly liberating experience. Squint, which sees the Julian Lage Trio make their debut on legendary jazz label Blue Note, takes an immersive tour through the history of American music, pursuing jazz as an art form while investigating its connections with rock 'n' roll and blues. 

Recorded at the Sound Emporium in Nashville, Squint has an improvisational energy that keeps the audience on its toes, leaning forward to listen in for the changes, for the pockets of virtuosity that wax and wane as the compositions find equilibrium, and for this magical connective tissue that holds Lage in perfect concert with bass player Jorge Roeder and drummer Dave King.

But that's not necessarily what makes it liberating. At least not for guitar players. What is liberating is hearing these protean arrangements coming together around Lage's guitar and knowing that it is entirely unachievable to replicate at home. We might try to climb inside these jams, we might glean an understanding of Lage's phrasing, and yet it will still be out of reach. 

I’ll practise on the bridge pickup through a computer DI with no effects, just to hear the worst case scenario… And if it sound good there, it really sounds good once you take a little treble off and add reverb

Who else would dare play jazz guitar with this much treble, to walk the high-wire between the conceptual and the playful with so much presence, revealing everything in the mix? It's dangerous and exhilarating. It is a risk that bears considerable reward.

When Lage was introducing his new Collings signature model, the 470 JL, he spoke of his love for old Dynasonic pickups and how early electric guitar tone influenced the pickups that Ron Ellis designed for his guitar. Slightly overwound, with abundant clarity, the Ellisonics seem to perfectly encapsulate Lage's tastes when it comes to tone. 

In this wide-ranging interview, Lage talks about the creative instincts behind the making of Squint, the dynamic that he, King and Roeder enjoy, and how the history of American music has guided his playing and sensibility. And all comes back to the bracing honesty of bright-sounding electric guitars, and how he came to record a Telecaster record without any Telecasters.

Listening to Squint, the suspicion grows that that you are a rock ’n’ roll guitar player playing jazz – or rather you are the most rock ’n’ roll of the jazz cats. Can you talk a little bit about that, because, really there is a liminal boundary between jazz, rock ’n’ roll and the blues, and they co-habit in your world.

“I do feel like there is a kinship between early electric guitar and the progression and evolution of jazz guitar. To me, they are not separate at all. You had all these wonderful players playing from the banjo tradition to the archtop acoustic guitar tradition, and then as those guitars became electric guitars, not to too far off in the distance – historically speaking – was Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry and all the early pioneers of rock ’n’ roll guitar.

“I actually feel that the electricity – not literally but figuratively – I associate with rock ’n’ roll holds hands with the electricity of improvised music, which is to say they both carry a certain sense of risk, and they both have a certain sense of adventure, and playfulness, and even for that matter volume. I think you hit the nail on the head. There is a correlation. For me it’s deliberate, but it’s also very organic.”

This record sounds quintessentially American, and it feels fitting that you finish it on the frontiers with Gene Autry on Call Of The Canyon. Was this a conscious choice? You also mention James Baldin and Nikki Giovanni as influences, too. 

“Oh my goodness, yeah. I am from here, and I have grown up here, and I have had the great privilege of leaving America to travel and be in other parts of the world, and it’s true that in this last year there has been an incredible shift in awareness, where people, everybody, is aware of the deep systemic racism and oppression and injustice that is baked into everything. Everything. 

“For me, it’s vital to say, ‘Okay, we are not going to go to sleep during this.’ We are going to wake up and bring awareness, and presence, and love to everything we do, because in the absence of those qualities, it spawns the bad stuff, the suffering. Music is this incredible, invisible phenomenon that can carry that message.“

On this record in particular, we wanted it to be clear that we stand for songwriting and improvisation, and a certain kind of musical transcendence that we are aiming for… At least that is what we are attempting

“Simultaneously, I have this connection to these American lineages of music, and when we talk about American we are talking about African American. With jazz, blues and gospel, soul and RnB, and all of these connections. When you talk about bluegrass, everything traces back to Africa. I just happened to have a really deep interest in the lineage of American music, all the way back.

“When you combine the message with the historical curiosity that I have, I do think that you get at something that is kind of distinctly American. Well, not ‘kind of,’ it is distinctly American. And I don’t mean that to say it is not music of the world, I just mean that, through the lens of the guitar, which is such an international instrument, 

“I think that is the beauty of hearing guitar players from different countries because each guitar player has their own interpretations of the instrument and the lineage. I happen to be more of the swing band, rock ’n’ roll, jazz tradition, and I think that comes across.”

I can’t think of another creative sphere that is not touched by improvisation – even the notion that there is such a thing as the opposite of it makes me laugh. Show me anything that is not borne out of some sense of freedom

For sure. And then when we say something is quintessentially American, it is inherently international, as the US is a nation of immigrants. It is the melting pot.

“Seriously, yeah! Yeah, it’s true. I love that you say that because it is such a funny thing to me when I think about jazz guitar. There is a narrative that jazz guitar is this very narrow discipline and it is not. It is something that even in the birth of early jazz guitar, way back, you are looking at the interaction of the Spanish influence with Hawaiian guitar, and the lyricism of lap steel and pedal steel. 

“There is no such thing as a puritanical viewpoint on this, and thank God. Thank God! [Laughs] And I think our music is to celebrate those attributes through the lens of improvisation. Dave King and Jorge Roeder are master improvisers. On this record in particular, we wanted it to be clear that we stand for songwriting and improvisation, and a certain kind of musical transcendence… At least that is what we are attempting.”

That jazz sensibility has an emulsifying quality taking tones, progressions or whatever that might be like oil and water but you make them work.

“That’s what we learned from Luis Armstrong, and Monk, and all the masters.”

You have spoken before about improvisational vocabularies. How important are they to, not only a jazz player, but to a musician? It’s almost like a byword for freedom.

“I think you are absolutely right. Improvisation is funny, and I love your question because I think that is the answer. Improvisation is a sense of freedom. It is implicit in the human experience. To rule it out means you are probably going to have to work extra to keep improvisation out! [Laughs] I can’t think of another creative sphere that is not touched by improvisation – even the notion that there is such a thing as the opposite of it makes me laugh. Show me anything that is not borne out of some sense of freedom.

Not only is improvisation about freedom, it is also about tremendous energy and consideration, just like any conceptual art

“But I will say this. There is another element to it that is baked into the Blue Note catalogue, which is that not only is improvisation about freedom, it is also about tremendous energy and consideration, just like any conceptual art. If you look at Salvador Dali, and say, ‘Oh, it’s just free!’ Well, you could, but there is also architecture and consideration on very particular levels that distinguish one artist from another.

“I think that is the other importance of improvisation: knowing not to just jump off the cliff without the parachute. It is building the parachute. We have fun with that as a band. You look at people like Ornette Coleman, Dewey Redman, Keith Garrett or Paul Bley, or Jim Hall, Lester Young and all the greatest people, when we study them, we go, ‘Wow! They are so deliberate about how they handled this, and how they leveraged freedom.’ You know what I mean? It’s a two-way street; it’s not a hall pass.”

Julian Lage

(Image credit: Alysse Gafkjen)

Sure, you’ve got the freedom of improvisation but that doesn’t exempt you the physical laws of making music. You’ve still got the benign tyranny of the beat, the key. These are the forces of musical gravity that improv must work with as a form of composition as performance.

“It’s true! You have to confront things and then decide how you are going to deal with them, right? And the tyranny of the beat is one of those funny things. If you have a narrow view of it, it seems like a limitation, and if you have a broader view of it, it is a catalyst. Exactly, like you said, I think we are left with spontaneous composition. 

“There’s premeditated composition and then there’s the spontaneous composition, and I suppose, as a band, our interest lies in blurring the line between premeditated and spontaneous composition. In other words, our hope is that our vocabularies are sympathetic that we can compose and improvise, and that the sonic world is nurturing and makes you want to listen to it. It is one big invitation into our world. That is what we are chipping away at. That’s what we are working on.”

Can you talk about the creative chemistry you have in this trio?, Your name might be on the ticket but it’s very much a trio, and when Jorge digs into his trick bag – as on the title track – it’s exhilarating.

“This is the trio I have been working with for three or four years now and, taken one by one, Jorge is my oldest musical colleague in many respects. We have been playing together for about 15 years… He and I have done my own projects. We have been in John Zorn’s bands together. We have been in Nels Cline’s band together, Gary Burton’s band… You could say we grew up together and the music is not what it is without Jorge. Not only his mastery as a bass player but his sense of composition and arranging, and what he brings out in the songs. 

“Like you were saying, on the title track, that is critical. That is kinda the point of the record, right? His part is as critical as any other part. His superpowers combined with Dave’s superpowers – similar in some requests but it’s a much newer relationship – create a shared balance of the avant-garde with melodicism, and lyricism. We really do have a shared sense of those qualities. As a consequence, I think we all play differently to how we play in any other band. 

I am the leader of the band but it is with these musicians that the music comes to life entirely, and it is for these musicians that the music was written

“I am the leader of the band but it is with these musicians that the music comes to life entirely, and it is for these musicians that the music was written. I write the music. I show it to the band. But it’s almost like writing the record is the first step of many. The second is conversation. I cannot stress enough how deliberate it is. 

“And at the top of all that is having Margaret Glaspy as producer. Armand Hirsch and her worked together, Armand more on the technical side of us figuring out the instruments. Armand is a brilliant producer and guitarist himself and he knows how to manifest things on the record.

“Margaret was able to see it from a production point of view. ‘Okay, that takes sounds good, but it sounds like Julian plus a rhythm section. Let’s do it again where it sounds like Julian, Jorge and Dave.’ She was able to steward the session towards a lot of those qualities that you said stood out to you. It takes a village, y’know! [Laughs]”

It does. And it builds those conversational layers…

“It’s abstract art, y’know. That’s how I look at it. It’s a representation of humanity in sonic form. That’s all music is, right? And I would say maybe what is distinct about this record, compared with other records I did with the trio, is that there is a healthy amount of playfulness built into it – because there is not one way to do it, we are not going to do it one way! [Laughs] Everyone was so fired up to make music amidst the pandemic – the record was supposed to be made last year, I think in February, then it was March, April, June, July... And I don’t know, I think it captures a few days in the studio at a really special time in our lives. That’s for sure.”

As someone who loves the tradition, who loves the instrument, I think it allows me a certain amount of agency compositionally to move between different styles of music

This record is really playful. Twilight Surfer has a great Booker T./John Lee Hooker vibe that’s really a lot of fun.

“Totally! [Laughs] Yeah, that’s the guitar, too, man. At the risk of being totally cliched, we can’t talk about the guitar without talking about John Lee Hooker, and we can’t talk about the guitar without talking about Andres Segovia, and we can’t talk about the guitar without talking about Jim Hall. I mean, you can, but it’s a smaller conversation. 

“As someone who loves the tradition, who loves the instrument, I think it allows me a certain amount of agency compositionally to move between different styles of music, because there is a native place for guitar in surf rock. There’s a native place for the guitar in more avant-garde improvisation. There’s a native place for the guitar in classical performance, and in swing music. 

“I confess, I am lucky that I have this instrument because it facilitates those moves that you are hearing. I don’t know if ‘easier’ is the right word but it is certainly part of what we do as guitarists, and I think we just kind of exploit that.”

Can we talk about treble? You’ve got a lot of it in your tone and that is another complicating factor when we talk about risk – it makes for no hiding place. 

“Yeah, treble’s funny because there are times when treble feels like the last thing you want to hear. You think of it as, I don’t know, irritating, or making the guitar stand out more than it should, or it reveals poor intonation. When I say revealing, that’s on a bad day; on a good day, I think treble is really about revealing overtones, and overtones are everywhere but you can choose to reinforce or mute them. 

“Obviously, from a certain jazz tradition, you could say that jazz guitar has tended to be very dark, and those overtones are rolled off and the function, sonically, of the electric guitar is almost like a higher version of the double bass. You know what I mean? It’s got a muted, shorter tone, percussive, but not shiny in any sense of the word. That’s a particular tradition.

Treble is my best friend and it is rewarding when I use it well, and it is also very revealing – for better or worse – at other times. Anything worth playing is worth playing bright

“Having said that, when you go back to George Barnes, and you go back to Charlie Christian – or if you listen to Eddie Lang for that matter, albeit on acoustic – the origins of the music included those overtones, and the jazz guitar was bright, and it was rockin’. It is! It was more that middle period, in the 50s, where the darkness became the new norm, but it wasn’t always that way.

“I feel like treble is my best friend, and it is rewarding when I use it well, and it is also very revealing – for better or worse – at other times. Anything worth playing is worth playing bright. [Laughs] And I don’t say that that’s for everyone! That’s very personal, but that’s how I look at it and I practise a lot that way. 

“I’ll practise on the bridge pickup through a computer DI with no effects, just to hear the worst case scenario… And if it sound good there, it really sounds good once you take a little treble off and add reverb. It’s part of my curiosity, I guess.”

It’s like having an MRI for your guitar playing.

“Totally! I bought a stethoscope once, many years ago. I was in Switzerland for a week, doing a thing, and I was alone so I had time to practise. I bought a stethoscope and I taped it to the back of the Telecaster and put the thing to my ear, and it was so fucking loud!

“I had to play really quiet because stethoscopes are designed to pick up your heartbeat through your muscles, tissue, blood and everything. But I wanted to hear what that under a microscope thing was like and it was so revealing. I could only handle it for about a day and then thought, ‘This is abusive!’

“But it was tonnes of treble. Tonnes of sibilance. Then you start to play with it and you think, ‘Oh I can refine it.’ Being the history nerd that I am about this stuff, George Harrison was utilising treble to make statements in short periods of time. You hear it everywhere. The great pedal steel players are using treble to get a voice-like quality.

“I remember hearing Derek Trucks in an interview talking about the importance of making treble your best friend. Turn it up to 10 on your Fender Twin, which we all know is very bright and loud, and study it. That’s all I am proposing, that we just look at it… Or I look at it. Everyone else is fine, but that is what I am working on.”

What did you use on the record? I presume you used your new Collings signature model?

“That’s on most of it. And then I use a ’55 Les Paul on some of it as well. They are similar in sound, which is crazy to me. Y’know, I went in with all of my Telecasters. I had a bunch of Teles. We made it during the major pandemic shutdown time so ended up being in a very big room in Nashville, very far apart, masks, and we weren’t wearing headphones but we were very far apart. 

Ironically, Squint, the guitar sound is more like a Tele in a small room than some of the records I have made with a Tele in a small room! [

“But the point being with the Telecaster is that the ones that I have are really low, low powered guitars, and it didn’t activate the giant room. I think if we had been in a smaller room, like in a normal time, the Tele would have been perfect. I ended up using the Collings and the Les Paul not just because they’ve got twice the power of those Teles but they also just excited the room beautifully.

“Ironically, Squint, the guitar sound is more like a Tele in a small room than some of the records I have made with a Tele in a small room! [Laughs] Like it sounds like my experience, warm, bright, and kind of overdriven. [It was] different guitars from the Tele, but the same sonic profile.”

With just a little bit of hair…

“Just a little bit. That’s best.”

Finally, before we let you go, what about amplifiers?

“A Vibro Deluxe by Mike Moody. It is a company called Magic Amplifiers. And, simultaneously, with the ’59 Tweed Champ. It is probably 80 per cent Vibro Deluxe and 20 per cent Champ. The Champ is one of the things giving it a little bit of hair. It’s like using the Champ as an overdrive pedal.”

The Champ is one of the things giving it a little bit of hair. It’s like using the Champ as an overdrive pedal

A Champ is always welcome in any studio.

“You’re so right. They make it sound instantly like a record. I love it. I am a sucker for them. Now I have to figure out how to travel with two amps.”

What about effects?

“I used a Strymon Flint reverb pedal. That’s on everything, and there’s tremolo on Saint Rose, from the same pedal. And then on the stuff with the Collings I used the B1G pedal, by Shin-ei, and it is on very lightly. I love that pedal because I think it is supposed to emulate an API preamp and boost that high-end in a very elegant way that’s not shrill, and it also affords me that sound at low volume. Because I think to get that sound you have turn up really, really, really loud,  which is louder than I am willing to turn up, especially as I was standing right next to the amp in the studio.”