Analogue Music | Julian Lage

Julian Lage

By Matt Petrie

I’ve cried four times in the last five years: when my dad died, when my dog died, during a heavy episode of Radiolab that caught me off guard, and during a live Julian Lage performance.

I caught Lage in person on the tour for Arclight, his 2016 release and first electric trio record. The wide-eyed joy and wonder I felt while attempting to reconcile the lightness of touch I was seeing with the intensity of sound I was hearing was damn near a spiritual experience.

Turns out, a 30-year-old gentle soul of a man with a 64-year-old electric guitar, and a five-watt practice amp holds the key to my emotions. 

Modern Lore, Lage’s latest record, and second with his trio, continues to build on the sonic foundation Arclight introduced us to, delivering fresh, new music that is uniquely his own, while offering a bridge back to late-fifties "country jazz" greats like George Barnes and Jimmy Bryant. Lage clearly shares their attraction to an instrument with a rawness in tone that perfectly complements the simple authenticity of the music.

Now over 20 years into his career, Lage is playing with a clarity of voice and deftness of expression that is so much more like singing than shredding—building and releasing tension with masterful application evident in every track of Modern Lore. His keen ability to flex and bend simple musical ideas with color and dynamics, and then gracefully fall back into a hook, gives you that tingly satisfaction I can only compare to a massive bass drop in an EDM track.

Whether he’s playing bluegrass with Chris Eldridge, avant-garde jazz duets with Nels Cline, backing Chris Thile in the house band of Live from Here, or sitting in with Steely Dan for a few gigs, Lage can be found pairing his unrivaled technical facility and effortless playing style with his gifted ear and exceptional feel. Modern Lore is no exception.

Analogue: Modern Lore, your second electric trio album in a row, proves that Arclight wasn't just a one-off experiment, but is a whole new path to explore. Do you feel that way?

Julian: Yeah, that's right. Well, a diverse collection of recordings can be confusing. When I think about it, there was such a long period where everything I did was a different project on purpose. I felt like each area warranted its own project. And then certain projects seemed to really warrant a follow-up in terms of development, and the trio felt like that really from right as we made Arclight

Actually, as soon as we finished that record, we said, "Okay, let's make another," not because I wasn't satisfied, but because there was so much you can do. It wasn't a collaborative project, like the duos with Nels Cline or Fred Hersch; where both parties have to be able to dive in equally to do a follow-up. But with the trio, I felt a little more like I was driving the car. So I said, “Let’s do another one” and tackle a different side of it, or maybe zoom in on one of the aspects of Arclight that I was most intrigued by. So yeah, it was purposeful.

It was definitely a record of limitations. It wasn’t about, “Look, I can do everything!” It was more like, “I want to try one thing, and try to make it strong and clear.”

There is a true record in between those two called Live in Los Angeles, which is a live EP of Arclight music. For me, I’d love to release Modern Lore as a live record, too. It would be fun. But anyway, yeah, Arclight felt very deserving of a follow-up record.

Analogue: Does this “follow-up” record feel like it’s pulling you even further in this direction? Do you see even more possibility here? Or is jumping around to a variety of projects what really excites you?

Julian: I'm easy. I think there's a model or dimension in which each record, in being different, is really exciting, but I also don't feel like it has to be that way. I don't feel like I have to be just one thing all the time. It's kind of the conundrum of any modern-day musician. There is just so much cool stuff you can do, and such cool people in the world doing it. I would definitely not, not do something if it came up. But I do think that the trio is a great foundation, so that if someone were to say, "what's Julian up to?” they could go to the trio as a starting point. From there, they could go on to records with fewer instruments or records with more. But I do like trying to build it as a foundation of my aesthetic and language, because, as an ensemble, it can kind of go anywhere and do anything in a really agile way. 

I like that it expresses the primary interest right now, but can offshoot to solos, or duos, or bigger groups, or collaborations. I think that is more my dream, to focus in on one thing and do it really, really well and evolve with it.

Analogue: Last time we spoke, you mentioned that part of the motivation behind Arclight was to tackle an electric guitar project in order to make you a better player. Now that you've done Arclight and Modern Lore, do you feel like that’s happened? How is it changing your playing?    

Julian: Absolutely! Well okay, there are a lot of answers here, so I’ll try to focus in. Basically, yes! It’s kicked my ass so hard! And the way in which it has done it is two-fold. One way is that I’ve spent my life playing a lot of acoustic guitar, and a lot of archtop electric and archtop acoustic. There are things that really work well on each of those instruments, that when applied to the electric guitar, don’t always stand up. The way you play or generate a sound on an acoustic guitar, or drive an acoustic guitar through picking techniques, is not rewarded in the same way with an electric guitar.

So one of the things is just learning about the sensual relationship you can have with an electric guitar through an amplifier. In other words, the louder it is, the lighter you play. But it doesn't mean you sacrifice aggressive, exciting, activated playing style. It just means you get at it a different way. So out of necessity, I've definitely recalibrated my touch. It's not like if I want it louder and faster, I play harder and quicker. It doesn't actually work that way on the electric. Sometimes it’s the opposite. If you want it louder, you turn up and play lighter. And if you want it faster, you slow down and play a little bit more efficiently. So that’s one recalibration. 

The other way it's changed is that I think there's a tremendous honesty to the frequency range represented on a solid body electric guitar. Honesty is subjective, but what I mean by it is that the high strings are high and bright and thin because they have thinner strings, and the low ones, especially when an amp is set up perfectly, are low and thunderous! You know what I mean? It's kind of out of control. And I think there's a thing with acoustic guitar where the high notes and strings feel very warm and bell-like and buttery; same with an archtop guitar. In reality, the low ends on a lot of archtops are often too boomy to use effectively. 

So I feel like a big change in my playing has been to not just live on the high strings, because they are just so piercing. They can be so cutting that I can't calibrate to that being the center of my guitar playing the way I could on an archtop, where I would just live on the high strings. But in reality, I'm always thinking about this. Those strings are just so high! I mean, if you sang in the register that a lot of guitar playing happens in jazz, like above the fifth fret on the high two strings, you'd be so high! Anyway, a big part of it is getting to know myself and my register and what feels comfortable on an instrument that honestly reflects it.

Analogue: I think that Modern Lore feels like your most approachable record. Do you agree?   

Julian: Oh yeah! I think so too. It's kind of designed that way, isn't it? I guess you don't ever know what other people think of you. Even if they tell you, there is a lot of room for error in understanding what is going through other people's heads. 

But Modern Lore was deliberately designed to be just that, and I’m so glad that you're receiving it the way I intended. But I’d understand if people didn't. It was definitely a record of limitations. It wasn’t about, “Look, I can do everything!” It was more like, “I want to try one thing, and try to make it strong and clear.” I’m glad it feels that way.

Credit: Nathan West
Credit: Nathan West

Analogue: It seems like your last few records have been trending towards simplicity, but I noticed that Modern Lore also does a little of the opposite and builds up from simpler to more complex tunes. How did you go about ordering this collection of songs?

Julian: With this record in particular, I wrote a lot of songs. What's on the record is far less than what I wrote. I don't remember how many, but the point was to write a bunch of things, try them all out, and then sit down with Jesse Harris, who produced it, and figure out what would make the best record. 

There were a handful of songs that kind of got vetoed because they had certain implications like: we would want another musician, or a second melody part, or they were cool but in a more abstract language. And then there were the things that were clearly in a certain style, which are the main songs you are hearing on the record.

But then there were these ones in the middle that were kind of caught in the crosshairs, like “Earth Science” or “Pantheon”, that were arguably not at all the same style as the others, but somehow offer a release or a balance to their counterparts earlier in the record. So we were able to pull from three categories of songs, and that’s the way this one turned out to be assembled. 

It started out being kind of a different record in some ways. I thought it would be a lot more abstract, a lot more free-improvisation, but then it just didn't seem to assist that message. So we let a lot of things go. But I think the way it introduces you is very deliberate, and then by the end, it hopefully leaves a question unanswered like, “Well, what else?” That’s the point, that you don’t feel like, “Okay, I know everything.” You want to feel complete and satisfied, but also like it is what it actually is, which is, God willing, a continuum of these things. We are working on the next one now. And that's the whole deal.