“The angels have schedules to keep, so I won’t keep them waiting.”
“Running Away,” Lukas Nelson
It’s one o’clock in the afternoon. Lukas Nelson and his band Promise of the Real just pulled into the Nelson family’s ranch in Luck, Texas. With its western saloon, jail, and opera house, Luck was built for his dad’s film The Redheaded Stranger. The Nelson family owns it and uses it for their collection of rescued horses, for concerts, and their home: the family ranch. He’s here for a quick rest and the Heartbreaker Banquet that is happening smack in the middle of the South by Southwest indie music conference though not affiliated. Nikki Lane, Shovels and Rope, Willie Nelson, Lukas Nelson with Promise of the Real, and many others play this now-annual one-day festival, partially a benefit for the Sims Foundation, which provides mental health services for Austin musicians.
The San Diego Troubadour recently had a chance to catch up with Lukas in a phone interview.
Promise of the Real is Lukas Nelson (vocals/guitar), Anthony Logerfo (drums), Corey McCormick (bass) and Tato Melgar (Percussion). Lukas and Anthony met at a Neil Young concert and started hanging out together. “Playing at the beach.” In October of 2008 Lukas called Anthony to form POTR. Tato “…was our landscaper. We became friends and I would sometimes go out with him on other landscaping jobs. Originally from Argentina, Tato has a passion for African drumming and had played in several bands. The original bassist was Merlyn Kelly, who left the band in 2009. They started playing shows that same fall and recorded an EP Live Beginnings at the Belly Up Tavern just up the coast in Solana Beach.
In the first three months of 2009 they toured with Willie, and opened up concerts for B.B. King in Colorado and Nevada and sold out of their stock of Live Beginnings. That spring they recorded and released another EP called Brando’s Paradise Sessions. Lukas’s brother Micha, a multi-instrumentalist and artist who often plays and paints with the band on stage created the cover art and their unique peace sign logo. Brando’s Paradise has sold over 10,000 copies.
They followed that in 2010 with a full length self-titled album Promise of the Real. One of the songs was co-written by his dad and his sister Amy Niccore. Willie sings backup on two songs and his aunt, Bobbie Nelson, plays piano on one. Two of his sisters play and record, plus a brother and a niece. It is doubtful there has ever been a family that’s recorded more than the Nelsons. Willie alone has recorded more than 200 albums. When asked if the reason so many members of the family were musicians was from being around so much music or does he think it’s due to genetics, Lukas answers “Probably both.” The band performed over 200 shows in 2011, appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Jimmy Kimmel Live!, and The Late Show with David Letterman.
He says growing up with a dad who was often touring wasn’t bad at all. “I used to go out with him a lot.” In fact, he’s been touring with his dad since he was three years old. His earliest memories include traveling with the Highwaymen: Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson. His dad made him learn standards, including Willie’s own “Stardust,” so Lukas would have a solid music base to build from.
“I’ve learned everything from my dad: how to be a person, a musician, everything.”
Lukas was heavily influenced by Jimi Hendrix, Neil Young, and Bob Dylan, but adds “… the Beatles, Arcade Fire, and Pearl Jam. But mostly my dad, Neil, and Bob.” On the road he listens almost exclusively to “…Neil, Bob, and Dad.” He has said he is still discovering Bob Dylan records.
He calls a few days later. Did Neil Young show up for the Heartbreaker Banquet? “No. I met up with him at South by Southwest for a documentary that was premiering. I was there when the word came in that Pono made it’s funding. Very exciting.” Neil is one of Lukas’ closet mentors and advisors. Pono is Neil’s project to restore quality to recorded music. It’s a portable digital music player that will contain all of the music data the artist actually recorded, instead of the “…5% of the music you hear in an MP3”, says Neil in his NPR recorded talk at SXSW (see the article about SXSW, beginning on page 4). Neil used Kickstarter, the website for crowd funding, to raise $800,000. Donations surpassed two million dollars in the first 24 hours. As of this writing there have been 4.3 million dollars pledged all in the first five days.
Lukas and POTR’s second studio album, Wasted, was released in 2012. The 17 songs are all over the place: country, reggae, hard rock, and African-inspired beats driven by Tato’s percussion. The vocals are superb: Lukas sometimes sounds like his father, but on this release both his guitar playing, which is stellar, and his vocals are morphing into his own, unique sound. Background singers and the bands’ harmonies are confident and spot on. There’s not a discordant note on the album or a wasted instrumental.
“And the funny thing is I laugh all the time.” “Frame of Mind,” Lukas Nelson
As for the inevitable comparisons people make between him and his dad, he says: “No, it’s fine. I can just resist and resist the comparisons but that’s just the way it is. I can’t change it. Now I accept it.”
Lukas and POTR often open Willie’s concerts, and then Lukas plays with his dad. In one of the many remarkable videos of their performances together they trade off leads and, as the song ends, the two of them exchange wide smiles. “There are lots of moments like that,” Lukas says. “Lots.”
On a typical touring day he gets up and goes “…to sound check because it’s already four in the afternoon. I do the show, stay up all night, and watch movies on my phone or whatever as we drive to the next place.”
“I’m always writing,” Lukas said. “I get a melody in my head, or some notes or a phrase. Then some words come. Up until this new recording I wrote most of them by myself and then would bring them to the band and we’d change some. I write everything on my iPhone. At least technology is good for something,” he laughs. “I write it all in Notepad, an Apple application. “I wrote a poem on it yesterday: want to hear it?” He reads it to me. It sounds like a song, and contains several lines that could be titles to songs all by themselves. It’s hard to believe he’s 25 years old when he writes lines like “The lines on his face are like cracks in the dream.” What lines on his face? What dreams has he lost? He laughs again. He’s easy to talk to and easy to like. The guy you meet at a coffee shop and feel like you’ve been friends for years.
He feels the band has become a songwriting team. “This time we had ideas for songs and we all went in [the whole band] and wrote them tighter. Some of them turned out to be nothing about what we [originally] thought.” They recorded Love Yourself, their third full length studio recording at Camp Wildwood in Topanga Canyon.
“We rented the camp for six weeks and lived there. It was a magical time to be there and be with the band, removing all obstacles and what we were going through at the time.”
He describes the previous CD, Wasted, as “dark and kind of heavy.” Love Yourself is “…an upbeat mix of rock and ballads.”
Lukas spent the majority of his childhood and young adulthood living and surfing in Maui, Hawaii. The band is going back there “…for a bit in April. We play Fleetwood’s and Charlie’s Saloon, a little dive bar that used to be owned by Jim Fuller, a friend of dad’s.” Will he surf while in San Diego? His voice suddenly sounds very young: “I sure hope to!”
Love Yourself will be released in the next few months. Lukas and POTR will be opening for Willie Nelson concert at Humphrey’s.
See the Nelson family live at Humphrey’s Concerts by the Bay, Shelter Island, on April 4, 7:30pm.