Mahavishnu John McLaughlin

by Vic Trigger

(Reprinted from Guitar Player, December 19, 1972)

Arranging an interviw with the great guitarist, Mahavishnu John McLaughlin, is no easy task. For a year and a half GP was after him to sit down with us and discuss his life with the guitar. At one point in 1971 McLaughlin even offered to write an article himself. Then he entered a period of serious self-introspection, a time which would not allow him to permit interviews, one in which he was to establish a negative position toward discussing things like tunings, strings, scales and such.
But McLaughlin finally agreed to meet with our writer during an afternoon sound check prior to the night's concert with his Mahavishnu Orchestra. He had been opening up more to the press during the previous few months, and was more outgoing. Still, he was not interested in talking about certain technical aspects of his guitaring, things that regular readers of GP have become accustomed to finding in our interviews. It was to be left to the writer to uncover, on his own, whatever could be learned about equipment and the like.
- Ed.

I was to meet Mahavishnu, whom I first addressed as John, at 3p.m., but since he hadn't as yet arrived I began looking over his equipment which had just been set up. He would be playing through 100-watt Marshall Super Lead amp and three Marshall bottoms, all through the PA system. On the floor was a DeArmond 602 volume pedal, the only pedal he would later use.
Violinist Jerry Goodman was the only musician to arrive on time. McLaughlin was next, though, and proceeded to sit down and play drums. He said he was quite happy to do the interview, but wasn't interested in discussing technical matters. But as the time grew later, Mahavishnu grew more and more concerned over the whereabouts of the rest of his band, so we agreed to meet after the evening's show.
At 9 p.m. the musicians were in place and McLaughlin walked on stage with his double-necked Gibson. The group mostly played tunes from the Inner Mounting Flame album, sounding amazingly like the record (natural fuzz on the guitar). Mahavishnu played most of his leads on the 6-string neck, and most of the arpeggiated chords on the 12-string neck. He played one duet with the drums that sounded amazingly full, because he was playing in the same key to which the double bass drums were tuned (two roots).
Following the five minutes of standing ovation and a final encore, I met McLaughlin in the dressing room where he was relaxing, eating fruit.

* * * *

How long did it take to put this band together?
It took me about two months to find all the musicians. I knew the drummer and the violinist, and I'd heard of the others through friends. Like Miroslav Vituous (bass) told me about Jan Hammer (piano).

Wasn't Vitous on Spaces, your first album after you broke with Miles Davis?
I haven't broken with Miles, in fact we've done other sessions together. I was never with him in the sense most people think. And I wasn't with Larry Coryell on that Spaces album. It and Devotion were both studio recordings.

With all your playing experience, what do you find yourself falling back on the most?
Everything! I grew to where I am, and I use everything in balance. As I grow more, my playing wil change as my being changes. I draw on all present things, and on what is beyond me.

When you solo, is it total self-concentration or is it open concentration on the entire band?
Open. You open yourself to the things around you. Of course, it depends on the state of consciousness you're in, how deep and how high. I've been in states of consciousness where I'm not the creator. Then I just play, that's all.

What do you think of your solos on Jack Johnson and earlier albums?
Those were a long time ago. That was me then, but what I'm doing now is what best represents me. Of course, my development is well represented by those albums, because music is the only language I speak. I am learning the language of silence and meditation, the highest of languages.

Is communication what you want to do?
Yes! I want to move people. When I play I want people to feel what is inside them. Those people tonight were clapping for what they feel inside themselves. And that's what I want to do, only deeper - purer and purer.

Many people consider you a rock guitarist. Do you?
I don't care what people call me. I don't care what they call the music. We just get up there and play. It's like, people ask me what kind of music we play, and I say, "You listen, then you can call it anything you want." There are people who consider themselves Mahavishnu Rock and Roll Freaks, and that's great. I'd rather play for rock and roll audiences than jazz audiences anyway. Jazz listeners are too narrow, too purist for us. Rock audiences are more open.

How do you approach your improvisation?
When there is a desire to express something, there is a need. And out of that need it is born. Like, when you're carving and you say, "That's not right!" You take away some, you add some. The total sound is the concern. But sometimes you don't carve out the right amount, because you can't always have great performances. Like meditating, you don't always have an incredible meditation every time. It would be like having a sumptuous feast every time you ate. You have to eat a little bread and water, be a little frugal. Frugal soup.

Is the desire to utilize this approach of yours born out of a need to?
It is born out of your dissatisfaction with your lot, your dissatisfaction with what you're doing and your lack of fulfillment. Most people don't fulfill their desires, let alone their aspirations. But they can if they want.

But what if you feel your desires are being hampered by the musicians you're playing with?
If you feel you're being dragged down by them, then your attitude is too passive, for a start, with negative overtones. It's your duty to inspire your fellow musicians. It's especially your duty to inspire your fellow maninspire you have to aspire.

Did your spiritual involvement begin after Jack Johnson?
I think I had just become a disciple in New York when that was recorded. You might say I was just born.

Would you explain "Mahavishnu?"
When you become a disciple you have a master. Mine is Sri Chinmoy. At some point he gives you a name, and that name has a very strong spiritual significance. It relates directly to the soul, and defines your existence and your whole body. Like you have certain qualities in your personality that are dominant, another person has other ones. These qualities must manifest themselves in your Being. The name embodies these qualities, and the more you are called the name the more you use the name, and the more the name helps you. Mahavishnu is an Indian god; Maha the Creator, and Vishnu the Preserver.

Do you feel more satisfaction from your playing now than before?
I have been evolving, growing all the time. As I evolve more, my music evolves more, and I feel more fulfillment. It's a constant process.

Does meditation help eliminate distractions while playing?
It helps my entire life. But, to eliminate distractions you have to live for something else, God ideally. By doing that you don't become self-oriented, but you become selflessly-oriented. Once you rid yourself of the false ego, you lose your self in the music. And the moment you lose your self in the music is the moment you are getting somewhere, and the moment you start getting somewhere is the moment you begin to find your self. Losing your self

On a good night, when you lose your self, do you perform unconsciously, listening to your fingers play?
Sure. Of course. Music is way beyond the mind. You're conscious of what you're doing, but you're being moved by something greater. When I'm completely lost is when the music is the most incredible.

To what can a person listen to hear musicians like yourself?
Indian musicians! I am more and more influenced by Indian culture. I surround myself with their music and ideas.

What can a guitarist study to better understand and appreciate your music?
I'm not a musician for musicians. I'm a musician for non-musicians. That's what I want to be, and that's what I'll always want to be. What is a musician for if he isn't for the non-musician? I'm a musician, I'm the ears of humanity. I listen on behalf of humanity. Most people's roles in this divine drama on earth is to do something else, but they can love music so I am here for them. Musicians are here for people who can't hear, and painters are here for people who can't see - so they can learn to hear and see.