There is no guitar player that sounds like Lionel Loueke. Leaving aside his immediately recognizable vocalizations and complex compositions, we’re still left with his phrasing, which is both lyrical and virtuosic, his inimitable rhythmic feel, which takes on new life as his tone and tunes change, and the thing that probably holds all these things together: his playful and exploratory spirit. His newest record Gaïa, released by Blue Note, was all recorded live in studio, and the resulting energy and interaction is unbelievable. In addition to being Loueke’s most electric guitar driven album to date, Gaïa features some of his most rhythmically adventurous compositions as well. As Loueke himself put it, “There’s nothing in four on the recording.” We recently had the chance to talk to Loueke about what inspired Gaïa, his longtime trio and his evolving sound. Scroll down to check out the interview.
Revive: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us today.
Lionel Loueke: Thank you, for having me.
R: You formed this trio a long time ago. When was the first time you played with them?
LL: The first time we played as a trio was at Berklee in Boston, in 2000.
R: Fifteen years, wow. What drew you to these players in particular?
LL: From the beginning it was the fact that they had their own sound, their own voice. From the beginning they didn’t sound like anybody I knew, and later by playing together we developed a very strong language, our own language. The reason it is strong is because we are from different places; none of us are originally from the United States. Massimo Biolcati is half Swedish, half Italian and Ferenc Nemeth is from Hungary. I think we influenced each other because we listened to music from our countries, and that really shows up in the way we play until today.
R: It’s a very unique sound, but very cohesive. You play beautifully together.
LL: Thank you.
R: The sound of the new record, Gaïa, is different than the last, Heritage, and both of these are different than your earlier records. You’ve been moving towards a much more electric sound. Can you talk about why you made that decision, or what inspired it?
LL: I think it’s a natural process. I have just felt in the last few years that I wanted to try something different, different than what I had been doing. Actually I’ve never stopped playing electric, in the last 10 years I’ve been playing electric. In my own music, it’s true that I was playing mostly nylon guitar, so it was more acoustic. The reason I used electric was that’s the music I was writing. The other songs I wrote on acoustic, at least that’s what I was hearing. Also, on Heritage, you don’t hear that much singing, because what I’m playing, I’m singing all the time, whatever I’m playing, but I decided to turn off that mic. I did the same thing for Gaïa, you don’t hear me sing because I feel like the electric guitar naturally covers that part of what I was using with the nylon string. It’s just a different way of playing, a different way of approaching the music. Don’t get me wrong, I will go back to my nylon at some point. I love both.
: I wanted to talk about what you just mentioned about the singing a little bit. On Heritage you do hear your voice, sometimes, but you don’t sing at all, not even once, on Gaïa.
LL: [laughs] Yes.
R: Throughout the entire record you don’t hear your voice. Did you go out of your way to do that?
LL: Yes, yes, because on all my CDs you always hear my voice. Like you said, in Heritage you hear less of my voice, but you can still hear it, mostly on the heads, but you don’t hear it during the solos, when I’m improvising. That’s the only different between Heritage and this one. The way I wrote the music, I didn’t hear my voice at all. There was no need to add my voice. I wanted to do something pure instrumental.
R: Yeah, it’s very rhythmically driven, I could see why it would be more instrumentally focused. I also wanted to talk about the inspiration for Gaïa, of the title and of the different songs. What moved you to title it Gaïa and what was the inspiration behind the songs?
LL: Yeah. Gaia is the mother of earth in Greek Mythology. You know, it’s basically Gaia being mad at the way we’ve been treating the earth, the way we’ve been treating her baby, basically. Mostly all the songs are related to the title. It’s either “Forgiveness”, which is asking Gaia for forgiveness for the way we’ve been treating the earth, or “Broken”, which could be anything. It could be the system, it could be politically, it could be anything. “Sleepless Night” is the same concept as Gaia. “Sources Of Love”, Gaia gave us the earth from love. “Aziza Dance”, Aziza is a little creature in Benin mythology which pretty much represents the god of creation. “Rain Wash”, is basically trying to clean up the earth so it can be a better place for all of us. That’s all related to Gaia. “Veuve Malienne” is a French word for Malian widow, crying for the loss of her husband. Most of the songs, I could write lyrics, but I didn’t hear my voice. It’s all related to Gaia.
R: Is it something that’s been on your mind, that inspired the whole record?
LL: Yes, you know it basically started from one tune, one title, that brought another second title that related, and slowly, after we recorded, I looked at all the titles and Gaïa was the one that had the answer of the whole album.
R: Who has inspired you instrumentally? You said it has been a natural evolution, a natural change, and this record is much more rock influenced than Heritage. It sounded a lot different, probably because of working with Robert Glasper, so it had its own sound and this one has a very different sound than the other records. One thing I heard was a lot of Jimi Hendrix influence, inspiration.
LL: [Laughs] Yeah, you know many people don’t know this about me, this is a different side of me that not many people know, the rock and distortion side. I love it. I used to play Jimi when I started playing back in Africa. Jimi. B.B. King was another big influence on me. You know, all the other jazz guys or classical, but definitely the sound of this record was more rock. You know, I don’t play like Jimi man, I never can, but I definitely try to do some things I was doing back in the day, and they’re coming back to me strongly.
R: Well, you’re very much in the spirit.
LL: Thank you very much.
R: Were some more influenced by that kind of sound than others? That song “Wacko Loco” has a very live Jimi vibe.
LL: [Laughs] Yeah. Yeah, yeah that’s definitely…rock, from the beginning to the end. As you said, everything on the record is kind of tricky rhythmically, there’s nothing in 4 on the recording. Pretty much everything is double digits, you know? 17, 13, 35/8, 15, you know everything is double digits. The way we wanted to do it, based on all the work we’ve done for more than 15 years, is there. It’s like playing odd meters in those songs almost like 4/4. You hear some differences but the idea is you stick to the groove. It’s almost like the CD sounds like it’s skipping sometimes, but the whole idea is to make it sound natural, organic and smooth. It’s hard music, it’s quite challenging. I like that side of it. (laughs) And everything is live. The way we play there’s not even one person who could go back and say “OK, I want to fix my part.” We play in the same room with an open mic, so there’s no way to fix anything.
R: That’s what makes it so special and gives it the unique sound, the energy. My last question is, when you were in Benin, what musical experiences had the biggest impact on you growing up?
LL: I have to say mostly music from the central part of Africa, music from the Congo. People like Franco (Luambo Makiadi), and music from Nigeria, you know, Fela (Kuti), King Sonny Ade. Those were my biggest influences besides of course the traditional music of Benin.
R: Well congratulations, the record is beautiful.
LL: Thank you.
R: Is there anything that you’d like to add?
LL: Um, no, but I hope that people like it as much as we do (laughs). I’m happy with the results and I’m happy to not stay in a comfort zone and do what I’ve already done before. I like to challenge myself to go in a different direction, and I didn’t just want to do it because it’s different. I was feeling it. I’ve been feeling it. We’re going to tour with the CD for quite a while, so I’m really excited to play that music.