Lukas Nelson & the Promise of the Real close out the S.B. Jazz Fest Redux on Saturday, March 4, at SOhO Restaurant & Music Club, coming into town fired up on the promise of new material. After recording and touring with Neil Young for their Monsanto Years project and releasing Something Real last year, Nelson says their new work will be their masterpiece. I spoke with him on the phone as he drove to Ojai, and we talked the new material, Neil Young, and the American South.
I hear you’re on your way to Ojai? What brings you? My friend Jessie lives up there; we’re rehearsing up at his little barn there. The band is adding a few members to the band to add some stuff to the live show, like maybe some keyboards and for sure some lap steel. Jessie’s a great musician, and my friend Alberto is a brilliant piano player, one of the best I’ve ever heard.
Have you spent much time in Ojai? You know, I have. We’ve played the Deer Lodge up there, and I’ve got some friends that live up there. I was looking at a place to rent up there a while back, but I think right now, my family and I, we got a place in Mar Vista, keeping it down south.
Are you guys working on new material? We’ve got 35 recorded, we’re almost completed with a new album. We’ve got basically the next three records recorded already and have narrowed it down to about 13-14 songs. I’m telling you, this is the masterpiece. This is truly the best songwriting I’ve ever been able to put out and the best sounds we’ve put out. We’ve been working with a guy named John Alagía, who worked with John Mayer, and a bunch of folks at the Village Studios in West L.A. Beautiful sound, the way they’ve got the vocals out front. I’ve matured as a singer, too. The music keeps getting better. These songs are really going to make an impact.
How has your songwriting grown lyrically and thematically? Well, I’m just introducing broader themes, even more personal themes. I think there’s that, but also there’s also the ability to say so much with a simple turn of phrase. That’s really important, and all of these songs sort of have that quality. It’s sort of like, I mean I’m really proud of the way these songs turned out. I almost can’t explain it; you just have to hear them. I just love them, and I’m really excited. We’re also reintroducing recordings of a couple older songs that spoke to people, like “Set Me Down on a Cloud.” This recording is just a mind-blowingly involved version of it. We’ve got the band Lucius: They’re two incredible singers and songwriters, and right now they’re on tour with Roger Waters. We met them when we did Desert Trip with Neil. They sound just angelic; they sound like angels. The production is just — it’s the best production I’ve ever been a part of. John Alagía and Jeff Greenberg at the Village are to be credited for that. It’s an amazing place they’ve got there, some really great music there. We’re also officially releasing a song called “Find Yourself,” which people have really loved. There’s a recording of it on YouTube that we did with Jam in the Van. There’s some really special guests on the record who are mega talented. I am really looking forward to showing people.
That must feel great, to feel like you are just now hitting your full powers as a band … Oh yeah, oh hell, I feel like we’re aging like wine. It’s just getting better, you know? We’ve been together as Promise of the Real now for about 10 years. We’re still recording with Neil, and we’ve learned so much from Neil about each other, about our musicianship, and we’ve grown so much playing those shows with him. Hopefully we’ll be able to continue that forever. His inspiration has just exploded the lurking genius in all of the musicians of this band. I kind of liken it in a way to — our career has followed a similar path to the Band, which is a huge influence. The Band were a great band already. Then when they went and joined Bob Dylan, he just kind of lifted them up. That’s what Neil’s done for us. He’s given the public a chance to hear what we’re doing and a chance to see how our songs also relate to the world. I can’t say enough how excited I am honestly; it’s great.
Since touring with Neil, does it feel like the band has changed? Yes, I feel like, we kind of all got little musical downloads, so to speak. It just feels like we really have grown, and Neil brought us closer together as a band. We were — I wouldn’t say we were floundering, but we — a lot of us — were wondering how long it was going to last. We weren’t making hardly any money, and I mean, I would have kept going always, you know? But it’s just the way we are. I think that Neil saw how good we were as a group — he could have asked for just me or Micah to come and record with him and come out on road with him. He saw how good the band was, and he lifted them up, too. I really feel grateful for him for. This band is something special. I got really lucky when I met this band, so I’m really excited. I feel like all of their talents are really showcased in this record even as opposed to Something Real. I loved it, but it was a little bit removed. It was kind of this rock ‘n’ roll thing, whereas this record is more intimate. There’s a lot more acoustic, a lot more just melodic lifts and lyrical melodies; even with the percussion and the drums and the bass, the way it all fits together is a lot more lyrical. I think it’s accessible to a larger audience, as well. The record speaks to my roots, where I came from, the Southern side you know? It’s more a country soul record. With this record, we’ve moved away from the “cowboy hippie surf rock,” so to speak; we’ve gone into, like, a country soul vibe. I feel like I’m going into where I really came from and bringing what I love about Southern culture into my music. There’s a lot of that happening, a lot of my Southern pride.
What are some things you most love about the South? True Southerners are the most loving and welcoming people you’ll ever meet, and very much nonjudgmental. There are so many folks in the South who, no matter what you look like, will take you into their home and make you a big pie and nice fried chicken. They will take care of you. The record is also a tribute to the kind of counter-culture in the South, too, like moonshiners. It’s a tribute to what I believe is the heart and soul of country. It’s not all that — there’s still that rock feel in some of the songs — but we’re very much focused on the lyrics and the soundscapes and the songs. It has a cinematic quality to it.
You’re closing out the S.B. Jazz Fest Redux … What does jazz mean to you personally? I’ll tell ya, jazz means a lot to me. I lived with a lot of jazz. I’m a big Coltrane fan. I love Duke Ellington, Miles Davis. I grew up listening to that. My dad’s manager Mark Rothbaum introduced me to jazz; he used to be Miles Davis’s manager before he managed my dad. I got exposed to some great jazz music when I was younger, and met some really good jazz guys coming up. All of my band is trained in jazz, too; they’re all jazz musicians, as well, and we try to bring a little jazz into the music we do.
Any crazy tour stories from last year? Oh, you know, one of my favorite parts of being on the road out there was going to this old meteor crater way up in Sweden that they turned into a limestone quarry and then a music venue. It’s called Dalhalla, and it’s the most incredible venue I’ve ever played. It’s so beautiful. It’s like Red Rocks times 1,000. Mind-blowing.
Lukas Nelson & the Promise of the Real play at SOhO Restaurant & Music Club on Saturday, March 4, at 9 p.m. For more info, visit sohosb.com.