With a new band and a new album soon to be released, it seemed only
fitting to start the interview at that point. I asked John if the album's
personnel is the same as the new Mahavishnu Orchestra.
McLaughlin: Part of it, yes. There are eight people on the album, and the
other three arrived after we recorded it, and we've been rehearsing ever
since with all 11. I hope people enjoy it as much as I do. I think they
will. I think it's really the beginning of a new era.
A few of us have vocals on the new album. I like voices, and I've wanted
to use them for a long time; I wanted to use voices in the old Orchestra.
I've been singing spiritual songs with my wife. Not that I have a good
voice, but everyone has a voice; everyone can sing, really. God's given us
all a voice to sing, so we might as well use it. The voice, in fact, is the
Schaffer: Do you think the new Orchestra will be more classical?
McLaughlin: Well, there's more composition, but for me, it's definitely
Schaffer: In the voicing aspect?
McLaughlin: Just between composition and improvisation. Like on the new
album, you'll hear the London Symphony Orchestra with Michael Tilson
Thomas, who is an ace conductor. There's a guy I'm really happy to work
with because he's had a total classical background, but he likes Martha and
The Vandellas as much as he likes any of the principal Western composers.
That is to say, he doesn't see any barriers in music, basically, which I
don't either. The barriers in music only exist due to the musicians having
the barriers within themselves, having been dragged into the definition
game. But when they feel that this definition problem isn't really what
music is about, then what happens is you get just Music, and it's
all-embracing. And that's what I feel this album will reflect, as well as
the group. It's an expansion. With the old Orchestra, there were set
limitations; we could only go so far.
Schaffer: This was because of the limitations of the people, or the number
McLaughlin: Well, for example, I wanted to get into symphonic things last
year. For some time, actually; I've thought about this for several years.
But to do that, you need complete cooperation, and it wasn't there.
Actually, I myself need to expand and be more embracing with different
people, different musicians. And I'm really happy that now I can do this.
As I said, it's like the birth of a new era. But before a new era can be
born, the old one's got to fall away. Otherwise there's no room for the new
to emerge and grow. I think definitely this form will give way to a better,
more perfect form, and more universal, too, I hope.
Schaffer: It's like expanding the stretched-out energies of the old Orchestra.
McLaughlin: We're all stretch bands. The flower has to grow; the universe
has to expand. We all obey the same incredible law: either you grow or you
die, actually. You cannot be static. There's nothing static in the
universe; it's evolving, so you might as well harmonize with this process,
with this law. And I'm really glad it's like it is, because it continually
opens up greater possibilities and opportunities.
Schaffer: Did you approach Michael Tilson Thomas about conducting the symphony?
McLaughlin: The idea was thrown around quite a few months ago, and I liked
the idea very much. In fact, it was at the Masterworks department of
Columbia Records that we spoke and then I went to Boston, where he is the
secondary conductor. (He's the principal conductor in Buffalo.) We had a
nice talk, and it was set from there.
What happened was that a few months later he had a benefit concert with
the Buffalo Symphony planned. The guest artist was Isaac Stern. A few days
before, Isaac pulled out for one reason or another, so Michael said, "Why
don't we play one selection with the group and the Buffalo Symphony?" Of
course this really appealed to me. It was amazing how we just got this
piece together; it was quite a long piece. It's on the the album and it's
called "Hymn To Him."
Anyway, the whole thing was a great experience. We learned a great deal,
and then we went over to London in the first week of March and I had George
Martin produce the album; we had the same engineer who did Sergeant Pepper
for the Beatles and stuff like that. So we have a beautiful sound on the
album, and finally got this thing done with the London Synphony, and
altogether it was an amazing experience: very enlightening, invaluable in
many ways. Michael and I plan to do some more work together, possibly with
other orchestras throughout the world, because we have the scores now for
the group and for the symphony. And I'll be starting work on some new
pieces. I want to do a live concert at the end of this year with Michael
and, hopefully, the New York Philharmonic. There's an enormous amount of
possibilities opening up.
Schaffer: Do you think the audiences are becoming more aware?
McLaughlin: I think that's inevitable.
Schaffer: You mean, bringing the audiences along with you.
McLaughlin: I never underestimate audiences. I actually feel the audiences
have got the capacity to appeciate anything that's good, whatever the promo
men say. It's my sole conviction that the listening audience is totally
underrated and patronized by music business people who project their own
limitations on the general listening public. Let's just say the music
business could be more adventurous with young musicians who have got
something to offer in a new way; let's notice that.
And I think it's changing because ultimately, talent will win out, and if
you have something to say, sooner or later you are going to get the
opportunity. Only it's still tough. It's like the old band, when people
said, "You'll never make it. No vocals," and all this nonsense. But people
are ready for anything that's real. If the musician feels and believes in
what he's doing, then the audience is going to respond. This is an
unshakable faith that I have. And I feel that it's my duty to the listeners
to perfect myself and expand and grow as much as possible so they can have
a better experience when they listen.
Schaffer: That sounds like the only way to go.
McLaughlin: For me it is, Jim. I cannot see any other way. It's either
regression or progression. You can't stay in the middle.
Schaffer: Have you related your new sound to what the Orchestra was doing
before? With Jan (Hammer), Billy (Cobham), Rick (Laird) and Jerry
(Goodman)? Is the sound similar?
McLaughlin: No, I wouldn't say it is. It's different because even if we had
the same lineup with different people, we'd be bound to have a different
sound, different concept. It comes from people, really. We had a concept,
and it was developed almost to the ultimate point, a point from where it
couldn't go any further.
But besides that, we have different instrumentation, too. It's different,
but because it's so personal to me, it's hard to make comparisons. You'd be
able to make a much more objective comparison, really.
Schaffer: Are you doing all of the writing for the new band?
McLaughlin: I have done it all for the first album, but I expect there will
be writing coming from our drummer, Michael Walden, who is a very talented
Schaffer: How about Jean-Luc?
McLaughlin: Possibly. Jean-Luc is currently involved in his own thing at
the same time as he is in my band, but I have invited him to author any
piece that he wants to for consideration. He's making his own album, so
it's quite possible that he himself is using the material he's written for
You see, this new band is actually more flexible; the old band was too
rigid, in a way, in that it was a static group. For example, let's take the
Beatles. They were a group, but they recorded with other musicians, all
kinds of musicians. Now, last year I wanted to record a symphonic album,
but it was completely denied me by the group. I thought this was a pity
because we could have done something really significant. Now the situation
is much looser. For me, it's necessary to be loose, to allow different
influences to come in because we can all benefit from them. And this is
exactly what's happening now. I'm really happy about the way it's
Schaffer: Some of my guitar-playing friends have seen you live and heard
your albums and are wondering how you got that fast.
McLaughlin: If you hear it clearly, then surely it's going to come out. In
fact, that's really what it is necessary for musicians to do. Music is born
out of the inner sounds within a soul; all the music that was ever heard
came from the inner silence in every musician. The musician has to hear it
first, and if you cultivate the art of listening, then sooner or later
you're bound to be able to execute it. Playing fast is just relative. There
are feelings that I need to articulate accurately. There are all kinds of
techniques. But the technical competence is only to accurately express
these things that you have inside.
Schaffer: What type of technical things have you practiced?
McLaughlin: For any instrument, scales are the key to unlocking the
instrument- modes, ragas, whatever-your knowledge and execution of them.
That is the key. From there on, it's up to your imagination, your feeling,
your concepts, your taste. We're painters of sound in the fourth dimension,
which is time also. In music, you have all these colors. You have
dissonance, consonance, soft dissonance, hard dissonance, soft consonance,
hard consonance. You've got different tempos. You've got intervallic
tension. You've got so many things, and these are, in a way, colors. It's
like a painter's palette that every musician uses according to the way he
feels at that moment, according to his taste and discretion, in the sense
of aesthetics, beauty and harmony, and all the rest of it.
The difference between a painter and a musician is that the musician has
to learn to translate the feelings into sound colors. The musician has an
arsenal of colors. The musician has his aspiration, which will take him
beyond colors to the realm of the pure spirit. That's what's really
wonderful about music, which is like a synthesis of all the colors. It's
just like the pure spirit, and obviously my ideal in music is to reach
that. But to do that, you need to understand music in relation to feelings,
art and aesthetics and stuff like that.
Schaffer: How does a young musician attain that?
McLaughlin: Work-with a capital "W."
Schaffer: Going to school?
McLaughlin: Sure, that's part of it. It's learning from teachers, from
different cultures. There's so much music on earth, and yet there's so much
music that people aren't aware of. And that's something that I hope to be
actively involved with in the near future. Bringing some of this music that
people aren't aware of to their notice, music which is really, in my
opinion, some of the most sublime, supreme music. But they should be aware
of the music of different cultures and aware of great artists in their own
country, great classical musicians, be aware of the folk musician in
Bulgaria as much as they are aware of the rock musician in Chicago. It's
all equally valid. A young musician has to be completely open to the high
impulses of the greater musicians. It's just through aspiring and desire.
Schaffer: That would stop the creative juices.
McLaughlin: That's when you start regressing, I think.
Schaffer: That's when you put down your axe.
McLaughlin: If you don't, then your music starts going downhill fast. The
thing to realize is that it's actually only the beginning. There is always
so much to learn. For me, this is daily truth. I've always so far to go,
but I'm delighted that it's like that, because it's by living truth that
life constantly expands and grows as the music does and as the spirit does.
We've always got an opportunity to grow and become better, and I think this
is incredibly beautiful. But to the young musician: Work and Practice.
Schaffer: Do you think certain types of breathing help your playing?
McLaughlin: Yes, if you're talking about Talli Yama, Hatha Yoga. If
musicians care to start developing themselves as well as their musical
faculty, bringing their body in tune, then that can do nothing but good,
nothing but bring more harmony into their music. This is because when you
start bringing harmony into your life-Talli Yama is a form of order-just
doing this will automatically, whether you notice it or not, start imposing
more and more order in your outer life and consequently the inner life, the
deeper life, which is total harmony. The two will start growing closer
together. It is a long process but if you start talking about the goal of
Hatha Yoga, that's spiritual perfection.
Hatha Yoga is only a goal insofar as it perfects the body to the extent
where one can meditate, or sit in one position, or be in a particular pose
and transcend the human consciousness. This is the ideal of Hatha Yoga. And
the spiritual ideal, for me, is to transcend the human consciousness and
become aware of the divine consciousness. That's my goal: to become aware
of what I am and who I am and then ultimately to reveal this in music. When
this happens, the musicians who do this will give the listener a better
experience because it will be deeper. You get to the point where, at its
deepest, the listener will experience his own divinity.
This is my ideal. As a matter of fact, it's my duty. What am I a musician
for? I am not a musician for musicians. I am a musician for people who are
not musicians, just as painters allow people to see through different eyes,
their eyes. Likewise, musicians allow others to experience what the
musician experiences, and consequently, we both grow. After all, what is my
music worth with no one to listen to it? It's worthless. It's essential
that people listen. Hopefully, their experience can be improved by
listening to it.
Schaffer: That's definitely what I've picked up from audiences getting into
the Orchestra, and also the couple of concerts you did with Santana, using
acoustic instruments. You've worked up a very genuine approach to the
McLaughlin: This has made me very happy because people have responded to
it. One never knows. You go on faith; that's all there is, just faith. We
go out there and we start playing acoustic guitars, and the audience is
used to big amps, electric guitars, drums. But it's beautiful. That's why
I've got so much faith in people. They are ready for anything that is real.
Whether you're expressing joy and delight on acoustic or electric guitar
doesn't matter to them.
I'm really convinced that all music is magnetic, but what people need to
feel is what's inside the music, what the music embodies. And people
responded in Chicago, in San Francisco, in New York; there was just a
phenomenal response. This consolidates my faith, my feeling that it's the
music, but it's also the content, that people actually come to the concerts
Schaffer: Does that mean that hearing is only part of it?
McLaughlin: Right! Whatever is going on on-stage, they feel that, and
they'll be more or less fulfilled by it.
Schaffer: A lot of your image is the calm that you project, and I think
that even with the high energy of the old Mahavishnu Orchestra, that calm
was always there, and it was really a nice thing to pick up on.
McLaughlin: I hope so. Hopefully, in the translation of experiences, there
is this overriding calm and peace, and love, too. I hope we can see through
it and beyond it. It's just an incredible, fantastic play, this whole
world, and we're all playing in it. Every one of us is acting. We have to
act because we're in the body and we've got to function in the world.
There's no avoiding it; it's just an incredible play, and music can reflect
this play, and beyond the play itself.
And that's really good, because then you feel the unity behind
everything. Life is one harmony; there is one harmony behind all of this
incredible world, the millions of people in cities, cars, the whole
mish-mash. Behind it all there's one incredible, divine, loving Will.
That's what I aspire to realize and reveal and manifest.
Music is spiritual language, so if musicians start cultivating the
spirit, they can do nothing but enhance and develop and understand the
mystery of music and be able to express themselves in it more accurately.
And if they start meditating, they can do nothing but good. How many
politicians meditate? Do you think they'd be like they are? Meditation's
the most beautiful, most natural thing.
Schaffer: It's like you're not looking at things; you're seeing things.
McLaughlin: Right, exactly. Right on the nail, Jim. It's not just
musicians. You have to harmonize with other people. We're all playing, and
if we can play more beautifully, more harmonically, it makes life so much
Schaffer: Is there anything else you'd like to rap about?
McLaughlin: I think we've just about covered it really. I'd like to talk to
you in maybe a few months about some other aspects I'm involved in that are
still in the nebulous stage, so I can't really say anything at this moment.
Schaffer: That's what it's all about-communication and making sure that it
gets out to the people. The magazine's role is to allow people to see you
in print, outside of what they see in a concert atmosphere.
McLaughlin: Right. For me, the playing doesn't stop just because I put my
guitar down. And if we sang this interview to each other, or started doing
it in poetry, that's where it's really at. When we talk to each other, we
talk from the heart or from the soul, from that beauty. I like to do it in
words, too. It's all music. I'm talking to you. It's all sound. But what
drives the sound? What forms the sound in the first place? What transforms
these sounds into something coherent, cogent and intelligent? It's the
spirit itself; it's your spirit, whether it's sound, or whether you're
walking across the room, which is dancing. It just depends on whether
you're conscious of the beauty. It's the art of being, the art of playing,
the art of reciting; that's basically what it comes down to.