Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real Don’t Fake It
With nearly 270 shows lined up this year, Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real are taking the world by storm with their debut release, ‘Promise of the Real.’ After a jaw-dropping ‘Late Show With David Letterman’ performance last month and stints opening for Willie Nelson [Lukas’ dad], B.B. King and Dave Matthews, as well as sharing the stage with Steven Tyler, Neil Young and Bob Dylan, the band have already made a name for themselves.
Made up of singer/songwriter/guitarist Lukas Nelson, drummer Anthony LoGerfo, percussionist Tato Melgar, and bassist Corey McCormick, the band sat down with The Boot to talk about their live show (including Lukas’ playful homage to Jimi Hendrix), their advocacy and just what it was like growing up with the Redheaded Stranger as your father.
I love the band name. So, just what is this ‘real’ you’re promising?
Anthony: Promise of the Real came from just wanting to be real with our music. You look at a lot of music today and they have all these special effects, smoke-and-mirrors. We’re just trying to keep it like the old-school guys did.
Lukas: It means that we promise to stay true to who we are. We aren’t going to be perfect, and we aren’t going to try and make it so that every show is the same. It means that we’re going to do the best we can, but we’re not going to Auto-Tune our voices. We’re not going to make sacrifices to our integrity as a band because we don’t have to. We want to support ourselves so we can be able to support a family and then after that, we want to give it all back.
Any specific causes you’d like to give it all back to?
Lukas: We have a bunch of charities we all work with. Free the Slaves, Farm Aid, Parkinson’s Foundation, AIDS Foundation, Surfers Healing. There’s deforestation in Peru we’re trying to stop. I don’t have to worry about spreading myself too thin, because we can never do enough to help in that way. We’re going to start, eventually, an umbrella foundation. Most of what we do is so we can give back to the world. I don’t think any of us really care about being famous. I know what fame is, I grew up with my dad. It’s cool, but what’s more cool is what he can do because of his fame.
You’ve toured with B.B. King, Dave Matthews, Willie. What advice have they given you?
Anthony: The main thing they taught us is that they’re hard-working people. We’re going to do this no matter what, whether we’re playing on the street or we’re playing Madison Square Garden, it doesn’t matter, we’re going to play the same. I went to all the guys in B.B.’s band, Luke’s dad’s band and Dave Matthews and I asked them to give me one word of advice, and they all said the same thing: “have fun.” If you’re not having fun, don’t do this. So that’s what we try to do. We just try to have a good time out there.
Tato: That’s the cool thing about this job. We can do the stuff that we love, express ourselves, be connected with people, send a message through [Lukas’] lyrics and put all the rhythms and melodies together.
What about Willie’s advice for succeeding in the music business?
Lukas: He’s always taught me to surround myself with family and friends and people that you trust and care about. Know yourself so that you can know other people. Know who you are, so when you’re seeing other people, you’re seeing from your own eyes. That allows you to really see who they are.
Anthony: The great thing about Luke’s dad is that he’ll say something and he doesn’t have to say much. He says a few things and if you listen, you will get what he’s saying. One thing he told us about the record was, “I think you guys should go in there, record one song and record it three times and keep the best version.” It was just a few words. Just that little bit. It’s like a wise man, that’s all he needed to say. And that’s all we did. We recorded every song three times, we picked the best version and it usually was the first take.
Lukas: A lot of people might think that financially they’ve helped us out a lot, but it’s not the case. We’ve done it on our own.
Anthony: When Lukas left school, they said, “OK, you have to support yourself now. If you leave school, you have to do it on your own.” Granted, they have helped us in certain ways, but they’ve done a really good job in letting us figure it out on our own.
Lukas: We got an advance to print CDs and we paid it off in the first pre-sale. This would apply if it were my parents or anybody else, any investors. We’re trying to do this on our own because we don’t want to sacrifice the integrity of the music. It’s an art. If you have somebody breathing down your throat because they have a lot of money invested in you and they feel like they have a say because it’s their money, it takes away from the art.
What’s your songwriting process?
Lukas: It changes every time I write a song. Sometimes it’s a hook or chorus, or then it’s a riff and then it’s like chiseling wood. When I was a young kid, I read something that [Bob] Dylan said. He treats his lyrics as if every line could be the title of a song. I thought that was pretty cool. I looked at all his lyrics and took that to heart. I listen to people like Bob and Neil and my dad and Kris Kristofferson and the Beatles, Ray Charles. Those are my heroes, and they influence me, writing-wise.
Anthony: As a band backing up Lukas, when he brings his songs to the table, we try to keep them as pure as we can. Lukas will either write on the road or at home, and we arrange everything the same way — basically on the road. In the back of the bus, we’re arranging music and then we do it in sound check.
Lukas, you’ve adapted Jimi Hendrix’s technique of playing guitar with his teeth. How did that come about?
Lukas: I don’t play all the time with my teeth, but, yeah, it’s a tribute to him and it’s fun to do. It was fun to learn that I could do it. I just tried it one day and I was like, “OK, that’s not too bad. I know where all the strings are and I can pluck them.” I chipped my tooth a couple months ago. People get weird about teeth. They cringe when I do it sometimes. It’s fun to be able to put on a show and not have to rely on special effects. We have enough energy on our own where we don’t need all that stuff.
How do you prepare for a show like Farm Aid when thousands of people are watching?
Anthony: We really try to get in the mode. Right before we go on, we huddle and pump each other up. We throw everything out that happened; it’s over with. We’re all onstage and we’re going to do it. On top of that, with Farm Aid, it was such an interesting day. We come off the stage and Neil Young was standing right there watching us and he loved it. He was really into it.
Lukas: He and my dad were there. It was emotional. It was heavy. [Growing up], I saw Neil every year at Farm Aid. I don’t know how I had the courage when I was 14 to go up to him and say, “Hey Neil, I wrote this song for Farm Aid.” I started playing it for him and he said, “That’s cool, man.” From that moment until now, he’s been super supportive of what we’re doing.
You pretty much grew up on tour. Was there a specific moment you realized you wanted to be a musician?
Lukas: I always knew I wanted to be a musician when I was a kid. I was a singer first, and I hated my voice. I didn’t start playing music until I was 11 or 12. I thought I was going to be a professional skateboarder until I started getting into music. I grew up around Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson; they were my uncles. There were other influential people but those guys were around all the time because [they were] the Highwaymen and they were my dad’s best friends. I absorbed all that as a kid. I definitely felt like I wanted to do that.
How did you get over stage fright?
Lukas: When I was a really young kid, I had a dream that I was playing in front of this huge crowd [and] I was singing. Most conscious people associate themselves from their heads because they’re looking from their eyes. Well, I was looking out from my heart. My head was up here singing, but I was seeing the people from my chest, like I was hiding from my chest. So, I wasn’t afraid. I could hide in my heart and be cool and check it out while I was playing the show. I never had stage fright after that. The crowd went wild in my dream and I was like, “I want to do this!” I hadn’t been playing anything at that point, but that was the point I realized I really wanted to do it.
You’ve worked with Bob Dylan, and he’s even invited you to tour with him.
Lukas: Bob Dylan is a big influence on me and so supportive. He’s let me sit in with him a few times. I will testify to how awesome of a guy he is. He has to deal with a lot because he has crazy, crazy fans. Bob gets death threats. Some people got really pissed off when he didn’t use his influence. Everybody’s got their own feeling on what Bob Dylan should do or should be. They feel like they understand him and they know Bob and they want to sit down and have this whole philosophical conversation with the dude and treat him like he’s a god of some sort. People would pop out of his trash cans. Imagine if you’re living with your family and you have people at your house staking you out, so that every time you walk out the door you have to answer some sort of question. You have to retreat and create barriers and create that wall so you can be complete within yourself. Bob has had to deal with a lot.
Have you had any moments like that growing up?
Lukas: There are instances like that and there are more and more now. I can’t go out as much as I used to be able to. People treat celebrities like they own them sometimes. I’m not saying I’m necessarily a celebrity in that way. For some reason, people think they have the right to be less than human to some people.
Have you ever been starstruck by anyone you’ve played with?
Lukas: I’ve never believed that people were more super-human than us. We have the potential when we get to their age and have their experience to be that to someone else. Starstruckness is an insecurity, in a way, because it’s believing you are less than somebody else. I don’t believe that. I believe there are people who have more experience that you learn from and that doesn’t make you any less cool than they are. That just means that they’ve accomplished so much and it’s inspiring … and you better get on your s— and do something on your own!
What are the pros and cons of having an iconic father?
Lukas: That’s an incredible thing to think about because I don’t think about it very often in that way. I get exposed to a lot of love for him and that’s really cool. There are only pros, there are no cons. I’m so lucky to have a house and a roof over my head and be able to play music. You could say that a con would be [the fanatics]. Sometimes people will be around me and I won’t know what their motivation is. I don’t know why they want to be around me. Maybe it’s that they want to get close to my dad in some sense. I’m not going to waste my time feeling weird about things I can’t change because then I feel like I’m doing an injustice to people who have way less than I do. The poorest people in America are still rich compared to the poorest people in Africa and in Senegal and all those places. I try to look at my life in perspective to that. In that case, I can’t say there are any cons.
What’s the key in stepping out of your dad’s shadow?
Lukas: His shadow is not something that I want to escape. It’s not like I want to run away from my dad. I love him. I’m proud of him. I’m just an extension of him — literally. I’ve got his DNA. He’s part of me, I’m part of him; we’re family. I’m not going to try and run away from who I am. I would hate that. I would hate to try and step out of his shadow. I make my own music, but I sound like him sometimes. I love his songs. I’m not trying to get out of his shadow. There is no shadow. I’m bright enough to where I cast my own shadow and I create my own light.