Q&A: Lukas Nelson Talks About Why He Learned to Play the Guitar, Road Dogs, and Performing with Music Icons

Posted on Wednesday May 25th in

(Photo: Jim Eckenrode)

(Photo: Jim Eckenrode)

Touring behind their excellent third album, Something Real, Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real close out their tour in style on Friday night at Brooklyn Bowl. And the frontman called up Knockdown Alley from Cambridge, Mass., to discuss music icons — like B.B. King, Neil Young, and his father, Willie Nelson — the power of protest, and appreciating his fans.
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Growing up, were you always going to be a musician? Were you ever considering something else? Or was it always like, “This is the life for me”? I was actually an athlete. My first real dream was I wanted to be a pro skateboarder. And then I wanted to be a pro swimmer. I was on the swim team, and I was really inspired by the Olympics. And I was pretty good. And I played soccer, and I thought maybe I could do that. Soccer didn’t really have an option back then. I was a great soccer player, but the MLS had just been started. There was no future in it at all, and I didn’t love it enough to go to Europe and do that whole thing. I was on the golf team, too. I love playing golf. I always figured that my greatest challenge was myself. Rather than competing against other people, I felt like competing against myself was gonna be more beneficial because then it could be a constant cycle of self-improvement. So I moved toward music because with music, it’s just you and the guitar. But I did that bring mentality to it, like, I wanted to be the best at it. I wanted to be an Olympian in the music world. And also, my dad, I remember, had a birthday coming up, and I asked him what he wanted. And he said, “I wish you’d learn how to play guitar.” And I said, “OK.” So that was something that I could do to get closer to him. How old were you? Do you remember? Yeah, like 11 or 12. I had already been into music and singing at that point. And I’d played with him on his tours. It’s always been a family thing: music. It’s been our church.

For a lot of young musicians, it might be overwhelming to work with icons like your father, B.B. King or Neil Young. But you’ve embraced it. Was that a conscious decision? Or were you just going with the flow? Both. I’ve more than embraced it. I’ve cherished the time I’ve had with these incredible people. I respect these guys so much. B.B. was the first one to ever take us out besides my dad. I love B.B., I really do. These are people who remind me of my dad — especially B.B. and Neil and Bob Dylan and those guys. Dad and those guys are very much in the same kind of category. They’re just road dogs, too. They love being on the road and playing. And they just know how to do that. They’re constantly moving.

Road dogs, is that something that you take with you, being a road warrior yourself? Yeah! It’s everything I’ve grown up with my whole life. It’s not even that I had to learn it from one specific person. I was thrown into the road life at a young age. I had to learn.
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So there’s some irony in play that the seeds of Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real were sewn at a Neil Young show several years back, and now you’ve recorded with him and are his current backing band. How did that happen? Farm Aid two years ago, Neil came on the bus and said, “Hey, you wanna come jam? I know we’re gonna be at the Nebraska pipeline protest coming up in a couple weeks. And I’m wondering if you guys wanna come jam. I’ll bring my electric guitar.” And I said, “Hell, yeah, sure!” [Laughing] So we ended up being the only band there for Dad and Neil. So we backed up Dad and then we backed up Neil. And that protest was successful. And that’s another thing that I’m proud of, that we were part of that. I’m sure it’s up again for votes, but they shot it, the Keystone XL, down. It was a huge triumph for the environment and our future, really, because that gets people to start looking for alternatives for fuel. Anyway, I could get on that forever. But the point is that was a big moment when the band played with Neil. We didn’t practice at all. We just got there. We went up on his bus and he’s like, “Let’s play this song.” And he showed us five or six songs, and we all knew them by heart pretty much. So it was like we’d been playing together forever.

And from there, what happened next? Was there an invitation to record or to jam again? A few months later, he e-mailed me and said, “Let’s get in the studio with the guys and do a record.” And after that, we went on tour.

Recording with and performing with Neil must have affected your work, right? Does it lead to more varied live performances? Or influence the writing and recording of Something Real? Well, Something Real was written right after the Nebraska show. We went in the studio right after that, so we were superpumped. But then right after we recorded Something Real, we went into the studio with Neil and did his record, and then we went on the road. Something Real, though, was still very inspired by all of this. We were energized just from jamming with Neil. It was like a shot in the arm we needed. We eventually released the record two years later. Was that because you were busy touring with Neil that it was pushed back? Yeah, and also we needed to find out how to put it out. What we should’ve done was put it out on our own. We tried to get a label, and we got one later, but it just took a long time.

As someone who’s toured all over, what does performing in New York City mean to you? To finish in New York — I have a lot of friends in New York — I think this is gonna be really cool. And we’re also gonna go into the studio right after that and do some more recording, so we’ll be fresh. Right there in Brooklyn actually. I think New York’s gonna be a special show. We’re gonna be as tight as we possibly can be, from just having toured and been on the road. The dynamics of the show are really cool because it starts acoustic and then it kind of builds with the band, just like the Neil shows do. And the reception’s just been incredible. People have been moved by it, and I’m moved by the way the band’s working together and how close we’ve gotten. So it’s gonna be something special.

What can we expect on Friday? Will you be playing exclusively from the new album? Playing older stuff? No, I’ll start off acoustic. I’ll play some of my old favorites and maybe a new one, brand new. And then the band comes up and they’ll play with me, acoustic style, a couple more new songs. And then we’ll go into the electric part of it. And then we culminate. And the show kind of builds and builds and builds into a finale. It really keeps everybody there.

And for someone who hasn’t yet seen Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, how would you describe your live show? The only way I can describe it is from a musical point of view. And there’s a transference of energy that happens between me and the audience. There’s a connection, and the audience is as much a part of the show as we are. It becomes an experience, and now we’ve got enough of our fans out there that come to each show and know all the words. It’s cool to see the people who really love the music come to multiple shows and follow us around. It’s an interesting thing that people like our music that much that they’ll come see us over and over again. I appreciate that.
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