Armed with a ’54 Tele and a Fender Champ, Lage leads his Arclight group, bassist Scott Colley and drummer Kenny Wollesen, through a spirited set at Rockwood Music Hall in New York City. “When it sounds good and everything clicks in, you don’t feel like you’re a pretender,” says Lage. Photo by Scott Friedlander
More than two decades ago, guitarist Julian Lage became enamored with the simple curves of the late, great Leo Fender’s Telecaster. “When I was about 4 I asked my dad for a guitar,” says Lage, now 28. Even as uniquely talented as Lage was at a young age, it was understandably difficult to take a preschooler’s request too seriously. Lage’s father, who was working as a waiter at the time, was given a full-size poster of Bruce Springsteen with his iconic Esquire. “My dad was a visual artist, so he traced the poster onto a piece of plywood and made two copies. One for me and one for my brother.” Each night Lage would sleep with the faux-caster until an unfortunate spill from his bunk bed damaged it. “I still have it. Aesthetically, the Tele was always my kind of guitar.”
After dabbling in duo projects with Wilco’s Nels Cline and the Punch Brothers’ Chris “Critter” Eldridge, Lage looked inward for 2015’s World’s Fair, his first solo guitar album. “That was probably the most comprehensive look at what I liked at the time,” says Lage. Arclight, his latest release, has led Lage to re-embrace the ideals and concepts he first grew to love while holding that plywood Tele from his childhood. Joining Lage is bassist Scott Colley and drummer Kenny Wollesen, both well-established veterans of the jazz and improv scene in New York.
“The first time I saw Jim Hall, his band was Kenny and Scott,” recalls Lage. “That was imprinted on my memory of what a band could be.” Hall was one of Lage’s biggest fans and his spirit is felt throughout Arclight, especially on the classic jazz standard “I’ll Be Seeing You.” Even though it could be easy to place Lage’s vernacular squarely in the jazz realm, his age and influences combine to put a new spin on some old vocabulary. “I definitely felt like I let my guard down. To that extent, it’s the most honest representation of how I behave as a guitar player.”
That honesty shines through when Lage interprets such pre-bebop tunes as W.C. Handy’s “Harlem Blues,” which lopes along at a jaunty pace, thanks to Wollesen’s perfectly placed pulse and Colley’s bouncy lines. And it’s apparent in Lage’s own compositions: In “Ryland” (which also appears on World’s Fair in a different form), he pays tribute to one of his heroes with beautifully woven counterpoint that evokes some of Ry Cooder’s most melodic and dynamic work.
As Lage was preparing to take Arclight on the road, he took time to discuss his disciplined approach to composition, surrendering to the Tele, and Jim Hall’s everlasting influence.
Admittedly, it’s a bit weird to call Arclight your first electric guitar album.
Totally. It’s funny when you play an archtop and people think it’s not electric. This is my first trio record and it’s the most traditional because for [2009’s] Sounding Point and [2011’s] Gladwell I didn’t want any ride cymbal, snare, or bass drum. A lot of that came from wanting to do something different, but this time I just said fuck it—I want to try my hand at a very traditional model. So, it’s like a debut album in that way. The jazz community probably thinks of this as my “twang” record, yet this is me trying to do jazz. It’s great that you can appropriate improvisation to so many styles.
When did you first get your hands on a Tele?
When I was about 6 or 7, my dad bought a Tele and put a humbucker in it. Since he was a very visually minded person he was relic-ing the guitar way before it became popular. I used to do these projects with my dad where he would take nail polish remover and put it on some of the frets where he wanted it to look worn, or he’d bang the guitar on the sidewalk. So the Tele was like a cool Jeep or Land Rover and was always in the conversation.
What prompted you to move back to the Tele at this stage of your career?
Musically speaking, I got to the point where I was playing a lot of archtop electric and always being disappointed. Five or six years ago I was thinking, “Man, I hear myself on records and that’s not what my guitar sounds like.” Mainly because I’d practice at home without an amp and always looked at the amp as a burden. It’s taking a small part of the frequency spectrum and making it louder. You just aren’t hearing everything.
Then about four years ago I bought a Nash T-style guitar. Every so often I’d play it on a gig but I felt like a klutz—like I didn’t know what I was doing. Sometimes I’d feel like I’d be playing too hard or my intonation was bad because I was bending strings when I didn’t mean to. I decided that within the next five years I’d find a way to commit to this. It all really shifted a few years ago when I bought a Danocaster. It was like the convergence of my childhood. It looked like my dad’s guitar, it was worn out, and it felt great. I thought it was a very honest instrument. I’m tired of feeling like I have to apologize for the fact that what’s coming through the amp isn’t what I meant. I wanted to find a guitar and an amp, treat them as one integrated instrument, and learn how to play it.
In the documentary Jules at Eight, you can see Lage’s first encounter with a “Tele.” Here he’s shown holding a plywood outline that his father created based on a life-size poster of Bruce Springsteen wielding his iconic Esquire. Courtesy of Mark Becker / Meteor Films
In a way you had to surrender.
Exactly. I’m done shoving my thing into the guitar. I had to give up. It coincided with this wave of, I don’t know, excitement or humility, and I thought now’s the time. So I started playing gigs on it and sometimes they went well and on others I felt it was so bright and tinny with no warmth. If I spend time playing a Telecaster and then go play an acoustic project or something with another instrument I feel like I’ve just been to the gym. It’s like playing basketball with a shooter ring. Right now, my touring rig is a 1954 Fender blackguard Tele and a ’58 tweed Champ—no reverb and only five watts. When it sounds good and everything clicks in, you don’t feel like you’re a pretender.
Do you feel that particular setup has changed or improved your technique?
It has helped my touch. It’s luring me into this world of sensuality on the guitar, which is maybe different from some of the traditions I grew up with that were a bit more didactic, as far as playing lines. I’m exploring the more gestural things that come out of a Tele. And again, full circle, it comes back around to my first encounter with the guitar. In a weird way I’m thinking, “What took me so long?” It’s so typical of me to look everywhere but right in front of me.
Did your compositional process change at all knowing this would be an electric trio album?
It did change, but one thing that stayed consistent was the use of timers. I’m obsessed with them. I’ll preface it this way: The goal for writing wasn’t so much to conceive of this one thing. I had to do some digging. What if I wrote for a trio? What would it sound like? I didn’t know. Maybe I would write something that was really a solo guitar piece and just stick bass and drums on it, and then looking back I’d realize it should have been a solo guitar piece after all. I had to survey the land for a while. For about six months to a year I’d have these marathon writing sessions where I’d say, “Okay, I’m going to write 20 songs in two days.” My girlfriend was out of town and I’d do 16 the first day and four the next, and most of them sucked. But I used a timer—sometimes it was set to 13 or 11 minutes. Rarely was it 10 or 15.