The band sports a sort of rugged authenticity, a sense of living and breathing for music that's more than a little reminiscent of Lukas' father. With loud, crunchy live shows and honest, emotive songwriting, Nelson and company make a powerful case for the raw intensity of a classic-style band in a time when the traditional rock act is starting to seem more and more antiquated.
Lukas Nelson: Sure. Would you rather me elaborate on the pressures or of writing the songs actually?
Songfacts: Maybe some of the specific songs.
Lukas: Yeah. Well, which one's your favorite? Which are some of your favorite songs out of the record and I'll just kind of hit on those.
Songfacts: Sure. I liked "Don't Take Me Back." That was one of my favorites.
Lukas: Okay. That one, I was drunk, sitting outside in Myrtle Beach by the bus. It was like 3 or 4 in the morning. I was just sitting around with my acoustic guitar and playing whatever kind of came to my head and kind of freestyling. I also had my iPhone there; I had it recording so I wouldn't miss anything. The next morning or afternoon when I woke up, I listened back and I had that song and it was fully done. So I showed the band, they liked it, and then we recorded it.
Lukas: It's something my dad has taught me ever since I was a kid. And I just felt like as a record starter, it was a good message to start a record that's generally about wasting everything. I wanted to just start it off with a good note before I kind of delved into the dark parts of being around the music business.
Songfacts: Let's move on to a different song. I understand that "Wasted" was influenced by Keith Richards' book Life. Can you talk a little bit about that song and the influence that the Rolling Stones have you on as a musician?
Lukas: Yeah. That song was just trying to capture the vibe of the Stones, if you understand what I mean.
Songfacts: Yeah. Just sort of the shuffle and rockin' kind of vibe?
Lukas: Yeah. I was thinking about that kind of strut feel, you know?
Songfacts: Do you think that you carry the Stones' attitude when you get up there and play live, as well?
Lukas: Yeah, I do. You know, Keith and Mick are definitely influences performance-wise. I try and integrate a lot of different influences and not just keep one.
Songfacts: That song has a lot of soloing in it. Did you plan out those solos yourself before you recorded the track, or were those done on the fly?
Lukas: They were done on the fly.
Songfacts: Oh, wow. So you're a pretty good improviser. Was that something that your dad taught you? How to play different scales and soloing and things like that? Did he teach you music theory?
Lukas: No. Not at all. He doesn't know music theory. (Laughs)
Songfacts: Oh, no?
Lukas: No. He doesn't know music theory. I took music class. I went to music college for about a year and a half and failed all my classes. So that was the extent of my music career in terms of that kind of thing. But I really don't think that you need that to survive.
Songfacts: Do you think that the music industry is more based on the business side of things now?
Lukas: No, I don't think the music industry even matters. Basically, musicians who play music for the right reasons aren't thinking about the music industry at all. The music industry is thinking about them, how to make money off of them.
Songfacts: What would you suggest to, say, an aspiring musician who doesn't really have any contacts or anything? What would you tell them to do?
Lukas: To be themselves and not even think about what's going to be liked by other people. Just do what you like, listen to the music you like, even if it's old and outdated. Because when you start playing and you start writing your own stuff, it's going to create your own sound automatically. After a while, you'll start getting your own sound based on the influences that you love.
Songfacts: You guys have built a fan base by playing hundreds of shows a year. Do you get people still coming up to you after shows that are saying, "I've never heard of you before, but now I'm a fan"?
Lukas: Oh yeah, all the time.
Songfacts: And what does that feel like?
Lukas: Well, it feels like I'm doing my job right.
Songfacts: Your dad's Willie Nelson, he's a country legend. Do you ever feel pressure to live up to that at all or anything like that?
Lukas: No. Not really. I could die tomorrow, but I'd be happy because I play music for a living and have a lot of good friends and family.
Songfacts: I read that you played guitar on his new album.
Lukas: And I sang, too, and wrote a lot of the songs. I wrote three tracks on there and then I sang on ten out of the thirteen songs. I only played guitar on a few of them, actually.
Songfacts: Oh, I see. So what is it like working with your own dad in that situation?
Lukas: It's great. It's like anybody who works with their dad. It's a good feeling to be able to have your father be proud of you. Depending on your relationship with him, you know. Some people don't have a nice relationship.
Songfacts: For sure. Did you ever butt heads with him?
Lukas: No, I've never in my whole life ever butted heads with my dad. (sincere)
Songfacts: Okay. That's interesting. You two decided to cover a Pearl Jam song, "Breathe." Why did you decide to do that song specifically?
Lukas: Because I love the song and I think it's written very well. It turned out great.
Songfacts: And has Pearl Jam been pretty influential for you?
Lukas: Definitely. I love Eddie Vedder's writing and I love the whole band Pearl Jam. I grew up in the '90s, so that has been part of my upbringing. So yeah, it was great. It was just kind of natural. I learned about Pearl Jam a little later in life, so I got into them a little later.
Songfacts: But still a big influence on you?
Lukas: Yeah. (Laughs)
Songfacts: And is that something that influences your writing, as well?
Lukas: It's definitely something that I did and do quite a bit. I took about a six month hiatus.
Songfacts: What happened in that six months, and why did you go back to that?
Lukas: You know, it wasn't even a big deal too much. I needed to clear my head and think about things and get back on track in my own life and deal with some personal things. And I did, and I felt clear enough to handle them. When I got through the rough periods, I went back to it kind of naturally. I've been smoking again since May, since last month. It was just real mellow. I mean, weed is nothing, man. You can smoke weed or not smoke weed and you're the same guy, in my opinion.
Songfacts: I think a lot of people feel that way. There are movements all over the place where people are pressing to get it legalized because they don't really see any long term harm.
Lukas: Yeah. And I see that first hand, because my dad's been smoking it every day for 40 years and he's all right.
Songfacts: No kidding. (Laughs) There's a song on your album called "If I Were An Ocean." That one definitely sounds like you might have written when you were high. Can you talk about the time that you wrote that song?
Lukas: I don't know whether I was high or not, and that doesn't really matter when you're writing songs. To me, at least. But that song was written acoustically in open B tuning, and I was just riding on the back of the bus and it kind of came out.
Songfacts: I see. Do you think that writing when you're high or drunk is good for some artists, though, because it takes the sort of self-filter away? Do you know musicians that can't really write unless they do that, because they just throw away everything they write because they think it's terrible?
Lukas: Personally, no. I don't think that anybody I know is dependent on anything to write in terms of songwriting. They're all better than that.
Songfacts: Well, that's cool. So which songs on Wasted are you the most excited about playing live and which ones get the best response?
Lukas: "Don't Take Me Back" gets a real great response. "The Joint" always gets a good response. "Wasted" is a great one for live shows, and "Wasn't That Great" is always fun to play. I mean, they're all fun. Every one of them has their charm, you know.
Songfacts: And which songs were the most challenging to write and record from start to finish?
Lukas: None of them really stood out as being challenging to me.
Songfacts: Does it help having a good group of musicians around you?
Lukas: Well, yeah. I've got my band around me and we've been playing together for a while.
Songfacts: You've been together for about three years, is it?
Songfacts: And do you pick each other up when you're feeling low and maybe not feeling a song as much?
Lukas: Yeah. I mean, if we're all not feeling a song, then we'll just say, Okay, we won't do it. But most of the time everybody's got each other's back.
Songfacts: So from Wasted, where does it go from here? Are you writing another album already?
Lukas: I've got another three albums in the works right now.
Songfacts: Oh, wow.
Lukas: Yeah. So we'll have a lot of music coming out.
Songfacts: And that's all new material?
Songfacts: Have you ever put some thought into putting out a live album?
Lukas: We've got one recorded. Yeah. We haven't put it out. We put an EP out, live, a long, long time ago. But I don't even have a copy of that anymore.
Songfacts: Collector's item.
Lukas: That's a collector's item that I haven't even collected. But we've got another one recorded and it should be out in the next few months.
Songfacts: With the Wasted songs, are there any that change quite a bit from the recorded version to the live?
Lukas: Yeah. It changes to the live feel. I think that we're a live band, really. So it's something that comes across live better, I think, than in the recordings.
November 20, 2012. Get more at promiseofthereal.com.
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