At Home with Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real
photo by Joey Martinez
This article originally appears as the cover story in the July/August issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here.
Relix Publisher Peter Shapiro and Editor-in-Chief Dean Budnick sit down with Promise of the Real on the eve of their much-anticipated new record.
“I ’m basically traveling the high seas out here,” Lukas Nelson explains, while seated comfortably in the rear lounge of his tour bus. The vehicle is parked around the corner from a sold-out Webster Hall in Manhattan, two days prior to the release of Turn Off the News (Build a Garden), Nelson’s new album with Promise of the Real. “That’s why I like to move all the time, so I can keep myself engaged; I can do something I believe in. Music is a win-win. It’s a giving and receiving at the same time.”
Nelson has been on this journey from an early age. While he grew up in Hawaii and maintains a residence in Austin, his peripatetic lifestyle began at five weeks old when he accompanied his father Willie on the road with The Highwaymen (the celebrated group that also featured Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson).
A tour bus now serves as home base for much of the year, not only for Nelson, but also for his bandmates in Promise of the Real: drummer Anthony LoGerfo, bassist Corey McCormick, multi-instrumentalist Logan Metz and percussionist Tato Melgar, with Nelson supplying lead vocals and guitar. In addition to their own active itinerary, they make regular appearances alongside Willie Nelson at events such as the Outlaw Music Festival and, since 2015, have served as Neil Young’s primary band. They recently gained further renown for their work in A Star Is Born, backing Bradley Cooper’s Jackson Maine character, while Nelson co-wrote and co-produced much of the film’s soundtrack.
This is the moment for Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real to shine in their own right. The band co-produced the effulgent, engaging Turn Off the News (Build a Garden) with John Alagia (the second time they’ve worked with him, following their self-titled debut record). It features guest stints from the band’s friends and extended family, including: Sheryl Crow, Margo Price, Lucius, Kesha, Shooter Jennings, Willie Nelson, Micah Nelson and Young. The album, which evokes a loose, live vibe, deftly presents the group’s range—it debuted at No. 19 on Billboard’s Top Country Chart, No. 4 on the Americana/Folk Chart and No. 151 on the Top 200 Sales Chart.
A few hours before showtime, Nelson, who is wearing a Bob Weir STFU shirt, has returned to the bus after making a bookstore run. His haul includes a number of works on spirituality, including writings by David Deida and Ram Dass. Nelson places Be Here Now—Dass’ blend of autobiography, aphorism and advice—on a shelf which serves as something of a lending library, noting, “I read this when I was young but I saw it in this bookstore and I had to get it again because it’s a good one to have lying around.”
I was listening to your song “Turn Off the News (Build a Garden)” this morning, and I wish there were more songs with the same positive energy. The music our kids listen to today is very different from what was written in the ‘60s, during a similar time of cultural dissonance and change.
Thanks. I’m still a believer in the counterculture being the new culture. I don’t think it died back then; the thread is still there. Maybe it subsided a little bit as things do, but it’s going to flower again in a serious way. “Turn off the news and build a garden” means put the device down and cultivate the community garden. Connect with people all around you so you can actually make a difference.
If you slow down and turn off the stimuli for a second, you might see that you can do a lot in your immediate area to help. Things can seem overwhelming but that’s just the way they’re presented. The whole system is designed to keep us in separation. It’s unbalanced and there’s not enough good news to counterbalance the bad news because it’s designed to sell, and fear sells. But imagine if you were hip to galactic news. If we got galactic news, then we’d be concerned about so many things that are happening in the entire galaxy that we can’t do a damn thing about on planet earth.
We have to live as much as we can according to our beliefs; that’s the thing. We are all living in a prison of the system as it is. But we can choose things to support within the system that are more resonant with the way we believe and the way we think. Luckily, there are others like us out there. This may be a darker view, maybe not—but at times it can remind me of Fahrenheit 451. In the end, he finds his tribe, but it’s outside of the city where there are no books—everyone has memorized them and passed them down orally. That’s kind of what we’re doing here with our songwriter traditions, remembering these songs and passing them down.
The first time I heard “Turn Off the News (Build a Garden)” was when you sang it [at Port Chester, N.Y.’s Capitol Theatre] last year during a Neil show. Where, specifically, did that song come from?
My dad and my mom have the news on constantly and so, any time I go home, it’s 24/7 either CNN or MSNBC—or sometimes Fox News to look at the other side. I’m already anxious because I’m home seeing my parents and then they are glued to the TV and it’s 98% bullshit—nothing I couldn’t get if I briefly glanced at the headlines to understand what’s going on. At this point, I think that I am a little more informed as to where the system is now, as to who pays for what, who bought whom. I have less faith that it’s not designed to keep us in this machine.
The live, real-world thing is needed now more than ever. We’ve seen Friday and Saturday drink levels go up. People are leaving work at the end of the week and saying to themselves: “I really need a drink.” After the election of ‘16, so many more people are going out to shows.
There’s definitely an anxiety level that’s above normal across the country, or at least across the portions of the country that care about other countries, not just the United States. There’s a high anxiety level among people who care about people, not just countries. So I try and focus on the things I can do something about.
The way we’ve evolved as animals is that our psychology is designed to detect danger. So we look out and see if negativity is out there—if we sense danger, then we have to be aware of it. That’s why negativity sells, that’s why news sells, because our fight-or-flight mechanism is activated every time we see something in the news. That’s how the news is so successful and how there can be a 24-hour network. They pick up all the negative shit with a 5% sprinkle of what’s good. Maybe once every 20 items there’s something nice that happens and they sprinkle that in there, so you go, “Oh, that’s great” and then it’s, “Let’s get back to the fucking bullshit.”
When they talk about a shooting, they shouldn’t say the name of the shooter—they shouldn’t identify their color—they should say, “Here’s the person who died getting shot, if you wanna help the family, here’s the family. Here’s 13 kids that died getting shot; donations go here.” You don’t need to immortalize a shooting by sensationalizing it. If you consider the violence that takes place, then it’s still only a fraction of the loving acts that we’re creating every day. People are being born at an astronomical rate and the birth rate is higher than the death rate so it means that people are loving more than hating.
I’m not standing on the sidelines; I’m connecting to local farmers markets everywhere I go. As much as we can, we have pop-up farmers markets or we’ll tweet about local farmers markets in the area. We’ll send out a blast to all our fans who are coming to the show, saying, “Here’s where you can go to a local farmers market in your area, get your food sourced locally and not support the military industrial complex.”
So there’s that and there’s also the Good News Garden because I completely believe in technology. [The Good News Garden is a page on the band’s website and also a video series on YouTube that highlights farms, community gardens and emphasizes positivity.] I’m not against technology, I think it can be used for good and bad just like anything else. It’s all about balance.
So we’re trying to help people be more informed about what they can do in the area around them. If you can give back in your local area, certain things will seem less important. If, twice a week, you go to your local homeless shelter and feed people soup, that alone would be a medicine for yourself in a way that would help you sleep more at night because you’ll go to sleep knowing what you can do to help the people around you.
Speaking of that positive message, you wrote a song for My Little Pony: The Movie. I don’t think everyone would be willing to do that.
My Little Pony has been around since I was a little kid and I thought, “Fuck it, this is really cool and funny. I should do this; kids would like it.” So I wrote a song called “Neighsayer” but it’s spelled neigh like a horse’s neigh. I thought that was pretty clever.
I feel that that the whole era of people who like to take themselves so seriously and act so cool is ending. It seems really melodramatic. I won’t allow any more press photos of me out there if I’m not smiling and happy. I won’t allow it, I don’t like the posing. I don’t even like it when models do that. For me, it’s much more attractive when I see a beautiful girl smiling. I suppose that’s because I approach sexuality differently. There are studies that show when you’re not smiling, technically, you’re considered more attractive, but sexiness is also based on a standard of sexual preference that’s a cultural thing, not a human thing. And I happen to find—I suppose I consider myself different than that culture in a lot of ways—that happiness is sexual to me. I can’t really get angry and then have sex. I can’t do that angry-sex thing. I’m just a different human being. Other people can do that but I can’t.
I also find it a bit tiresome when a band is emphasizing all the bad shit that’s happening in the world. I’m not trying to perpetuate a culture that is angry; I’m trying to make people feel better about themselves so they can move on and let go of old pain and feelings because that’s what I’m trying to do myself.
The album also contains some more personal material. There are love songs on there. It really moves around in a beautiful way.
I don’t want to beat a message over anyone’s head. I want to make it about music and enjoyment, having fun, listening, grooving and the simple life. I should’ve called the record “The Simple Life.”
I like the title you have.
I like it too. But, generally, that’s the concept—come live the simple life. It’s easier that way.
Did you write any songs in character on the new record?
I’ve done that. There is a song, “Runnin’ Shine” on the old album [2017’s eponymous release] that was written in character. On the new record, let’s see…maybe not; maybe it is all me.
Was it a challenge to write from another perspective when you were working for A Star Is Born?
The character that I was writing for was based on me and people like me or people that came before me. So I was writing for myself, even when I was writing for Stefani [Germanotta, a.k.a. Lady Gaga].
She is someone like me too, she’s a musician. I know that world; that world is real to me. Some people that I know in the industry couldn’t finish the film—it was too difficult for them to watch because it was too close to home. Maybe they knew someone who went through the same thing Jackson Maine went through. A lot of people have.
When you’re writing songs, do you treat it as a craft, where you keep at it steadily each day, or do you wait for that bolt of inspiration?
Both. I’ve probably written a thousand songs. I write all the time, every day. It’s all part of my expression on the planet. If I die tomorrow, I’ll know I was doing my best.
It is a craft but I also have to let it come when it comes to me; I can’t force it. So there will be a period—Dad likens it to a well—when you have to wait for it to rain and then the well fills up, and you’ve got months and months and months of material. But sometimes you’ve gotta wait for it to rain and then you’ll get your inspiration to write. I recently went through a period where there were a couple months where I hadn’t written much and then all of a sudden once March and April and May hit, boom! I started writing heavy. The well filled up for whatever reason, whatever I was going through in life.
What do you do when you have that moment? How and where do you write?
I have my notebook that I keep and sometimes I write songs in that. There is a guitar that hangs right there [points to wall] and I will write back here [on the tour bus]. I will also write on my phone if I get a big inspiration that comes right away.
How about live shows? You’ve been on the road so much the past few years and things really seem to be going well. What are a couple shows that stand out?
Desert Trip was a highlight. Opening for The Who in Nashville was a highlight.
At the Bridgestone [Arena]?
Yes, it was fantastic. It was also a great meeting of musicians. Pete and Roger and the whole band—Zak Starkey, everyone was into our band and we all saw eye to eye.
Did you grow up with those guys?
No, I grew up following dad around and whoever he knew, but he didn’t know everybody and he definitely did not know all of The Who. Pete Townshend is a great guy, and good friends with Eddie Vedder, so we had a conversation about surfing. He also sat on our bus and talked with the whole band, which is great because the band is really important, it’s what makes it. These are the same guys I’ve been with for 10-plus years.
Robert Plant is another awesome guy. Have you dealt with him at all?
We saw him at the Beacon when we did that Love Rocks [benefit]. He was really cool and I actually had a few words with him about the charity itself and he seemed to have the right state of mind.
How do you view your role when you’re opening for another act, playing to their core fan base? For instance, you’re playing a number of dates with Zac Brown Band this summer.
It’s a challenge for me, and I love a good challenge—to capture that audience—because Zac has such a dedicated fan base. And, I have a lot of respect for him because of it. So I want to go out there and let them know about what we’re doing and rock them, just like I want to rock our audience. We are like a sports team out here; we all play this role and try to do the best we can, and judge our success by how rocking a set is and how we do live. So it’s a game, and it’s a beautiful game. I love it.
Well said. To bring things around to where we started, people need that feeling—I still do. Neil is someone you had known for a while before you started playing with him. When you’re out with him, he doesn’t have a real setlist, he’s working from a big sheet.
We have over 250 songs.
The first few shows must not have been easy. Did he give you a feel for what was coming? I guess you picked up some of that by rehearsing.
There was no rehearsing.
That’s serious! Sometimes he’ll just call one from left field. You have to keep a lot in your brain.
It’s serious, but it’s fun. Damn fun because we’re confident that we can do it.
You recorded this new album the same way that you’ve recorded with Neil, going back to that first album?
Yes, The Monsansto Years. Now, I look back and really celebrate that after the big Monsanto verdict just came in. [On May 13, a jury delivered a $2 billion verdict in favor of a couple who claimed that their cancer was caused by long-term exposure to Roundup, Monsanto’s weed-killer product.]
But yeah, he uses a tape machine and we recorded this live to tape. We did it at Shangri-La in Malibu and at The Village [in Los Angeles]. We just knocked it out. We overdubbed a few things but nothing extensive. We did it that way so we would be able to recreate it live. It’s a fun record. “Where Does Love Go” is my favorite, I think.
What else have you taken from your experience touring and recording with Neil?
Neil is like an admiral and I’m a captain. Neil is a master, and we’re students. We’re out there learning from him and having as much fun as we possibly can because it’s fun—music is fun to play live. That’s why they call it playing. We have a great life and the dream continues. Being with Neil is a challenge and a great opportunity to be a sideman and support and connect even deeper with my band. I think Neil brought our band together in a way that nobody else could. And then when we go out and do our own thing, we take what we’ve learned from Neil and that stage presence, and what we’ve learned from dad and his stage presence, and Paul McCartney, The Who, The Stones, Paul Simon—all these folks we see. That becomes what we try and carry forward.
This article originally appears as the cover story in the July/August issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here.