Q&A with Lucas Field of Low Vs. Diamond
Lucas Field, the frontman for Low Vs. Diamond (the subject of a profile in Westword's November 27 edition), is a Seattle native -- but he spent his college years at the University of Colorado-Boulder, where he played in a jam band whose music has little in common with the tunes he's making with his current band. That could change, however, as he reveals in the following Q&A.
The chat begins at the beginning -- Field's Washington-state boyhood, which coincided with the explosion of the so-called grunge scene. He discusses seeing Pearl Jam at its peak; the differences between Pearl Jam and Nirvana fans; his past as a pre-pubescent Eddie Vedder impressionist; the process by which he became a Grateful Dead aficionado, and that group's influence on his decision to attend CU; jamming at Boulder house parties, originally using the name Aurora; subsequent musical discoveries that led him to tighten up his songwriting; his move to Los Angeles with a couple of his CU-era bandmates; the inspiration of British rock as filtered through his American-music background; and his response to sell-out accusations.
Bottom line: He's happy with the band's present sound -- but his interest in Jerry Garcia and company isn't dead yet.
Westword (Michael Roberts): You're originally from Seattle?
Lucas Field: Yeah, I was born and raised in Seattle.
WW: If my math is correct, you were in elementary school when the Seattle music scene was exploding nationally. Is that right?
LF: Exactly. I was probably in sixth grade, and luckily, I had a sister who was nine years older than me. Having someone who was that much older than me, she let me know about Pearl Jam and Nirvana pretty early on and was taking me to shows at the Moore Theater when I was little. I was pretty lucky.
WW: Did you realize that something special was happening musically back then? Or were you too young to have a sense of it?
LF: It felt like it was the center of the universe. You know? Looking back, it was weird that Seattle was such a big deal. But at the time, you just felt proud. You felt excited about it. You knew that everybody was looking in, but it seemed normal, because that was right when I got into music. It was exciting, just exciting.
WW: Were those Seattle bands your favorites?
LF: Oh, yeah. It was like you picked camps. You were either in the Nirvana camp, where you liked Nirvana and Mudhoney, or you were in the more melodic Pearl Jam side. And I ended up picking up the more melodic side.
WW: Was there tension between the camps? Or was it a good-natured rivalry?
LF: No, it was like my friends who were into Nirvana put fake blue dye in their hair, and I was just learning how to play all the songs and sing them. It was just a different thing.
WW: So was that the motivation when you began playing - to learn how to play "Jeremy" and songs like that?
LF: Yeah, and I didn't even learn to play the music. I just got people in my middle school that could play, and I would sing the songs over them. I'd perform live and all of that stuff. WW: Did you play talent shows and things like that?
LF: Exactly. Our middle school had a high school attached to it, and we'd do talent shows. I'd try to do my best Eddie Vedder impersonation.
WW: How good was it?
LF: I thought it was pretty good, but looking back on it, I don't think I'd gone through puberty yet. It was probably like chipmunk Vedder (laughs).
WW: It'd be hard to do an Eddie Vedder impression if your voice hadn't changed yet.
LF: I thought I did it, though! I don't know. I felt pretty good about it (laughs).
WW: Did you start writing your own material in high school?
LF: I probably started in my junior year. I started to learn how to play guitar... I played bass first, because it was simple to play the bass notes underneath somebody else. I didn't want to spend a lot of time learning how to technically play anything. So I started with bass, moved to guitar in high school, learned chord progressions. But my songwriting really started happening when I started to switch the chords I learned on guitar to piano. That was when I was in college.
WW: What was the appeal for you of going to the University of Colorado?
LF: First of all, it looked like the most beautiful place in the world. That was one good thing. Secondly, it seemed like it had a big music scene, and I was listening to a lot of Grateful Dead in high school - so obviously there was a big draw from that.
WW: How did you go from Pearl Jam to the Grateful Dead?
LF: It's always siblings. My sister got me into Pearl Jam, but my older brother was a big Deadhead. And in high school, learning how to play bass, improvisation is a good way to not know exactly what you're playing and still have a good time doing it? (Laughs.) You know what I mean? To actually learn Pearl Jam songs, it'd take a little bit more discipline than learning Dead jams. It was a perfect transition. You got into high school and it was something to talk about and do. When you really get into the Grateful Dead, it's like getting into a sports franchise. You learn the players, there are so many songs. It was a scene. It was fun.
WW: Did you have a sense of how popular that sound was at CU before you went there?
LF: Yeah, I definitely knew. My brother went to Santa Barbara, and I saw that it was pretty big there. And then I visited Boulder, and it was so prevalent. I thought, "Oh, this would be a good place.
WW: You majored in journalism at CU?
LF: Yeah, that was my major.
WW: Were you really focused on journalism as a career? Or was it more like, "I have to major in something, so it might as well be journalism"?
LF: When I got the application... Boulder sends you a big application, and there's like sixty majors listed there, and you can check the box. And I remember sitting in Seattle with my dad and I said, "Hey, what about journalism?" And he said, "Sure. Yeah. Check it." And I checked the box. And for some reason, once I got to school, I stuck with it. And by sticking with it, I was able to graduate early. Because some of the guys in the band I was in at the time were a little older than me. So I stuck with the major, and I enjoyed it - and if you stick with something, you get out a little earlier. So I finished in, like, three and a half years.
WW: What did you think of the program?
LF: I thought the program was great. The only downside for me was about halfway through my senior year, I realized, "This is a pretty specific major." They train you to do exactly what they say they're going to train you to do, and then you have to be ready to go to South Dakota or wherever, and start in a small market; I was doing broadcast. But I started to realize that I really wanted to do music. So in retrospective, I probably should have done history or English or something like that. A little broader of a program.
WW: So you got right near the end and realized, "I don't want to work in this profession"?
LF: Yeah, I realized, "I don't want to be in journalism." If I did, it'd be a great program to prepare me for that, which I did. And you know what? When I started using Pro Tools and started cutting my demos and stuff like that, I realized that I'd learned a lot of Final Cut Pro at the journalism school. And we worked with audio and film. So it actually did have some use. I think I was able to pick up on those things pretty fast because of it.
WW: How early on in your years at CU did you meet Howie and Tad and start jamming?
LF: The first guy I met was Diamond. He was in a film class I was taking - this was in the end of my sophomore year - and I heard him talking about music with someone. And I just came up to him afterward - I'd already met him at a party - and I said, "I want to be in a band." It was like straight out of a bad movie. He was like, "I play drums," and I was like, "I'll do whatever. I play guitar." And he was like, "All right." So we started playing, and then we put out feelers and found other kids who wanted to play. And that was basically how we did it.
WW: Tad being one of those other kids?
LF: Yeah, Tad came in at the very end. And there was another guy, and another guy, and we'd play these three-hour house parties. We'd cover Dead songs and play our own original songs and just jam for a good three hours at a time.
WW: What was the name of the band?
LF: Aurora, after Aurora, Colorado.
WW: Did you change it after a while?
LF: Yeah. We went through, like, 45 different band names (laughs). None of them worth mentioning. It's probably funnier, just the fact that we'd constantly change them. People would be like, "I thought you were this," and we'd be like, "Nah, now we're this."
WW: What was the breakdown between originals and covers?
LF: I'd say six originals to about ten covers.
WW: And if you're going three hours, that averages out to every one being pretty long.
LF: Exactly. It's so funny, because our sets now are between thirty and fifty minutes. And I remember those sets being, like, "All right, we'll do our intro" - which was seven-and-a-half minutes - "into our first song, and then into our second song. And that'll take up forty minutes!" (Laughs.)
WW: In Boulder, there's a bottomless market for that kind of stuff.
LF: It totally worked! We were playing these house parties and people would be dancing the whole time. It was just great (laughs). But it was a good transition to go from grunge to jam, and then to go backwards and try to write tighter songs. It was like relearning songwriting. I started listening to the Beatles again, and I thought, man, writing these shorter songs is a lot harder than writing these 25-minute songs...
WW: That seems counter-intuitive. But it's like that Mark Twain quote: Sorry I wrote you such a long letter; I didn't have time to write a shorter one...
LF: It's exactly like that. When you're able to just spit it all out, sometimes it comes out easily. But doing something tight and concise is hard. And that's what a good song is. They trim off all the excess and they leave you with the best of what was there in the first place.
WW: At what point did your musical tastes change and you began to write more concise songs?
LF: I started listening to that French band Air. They sort of jammed, but they had a tighter sound. And then I got into Beck, and then I got reintroduced to the Stones and the Beatles. It was something new and exciting to do. And it really happened when I learned to play the piano. Because when you sit down to play the piano, you can construct a whole idea right there. You're not with anybody else. You're not experimenting and jamming. You're coming up with your own idea right there. I think in my junior and senior years of college, I started to move back in that direction.
WW: Did your gigs at the house parties change as a result of that?
LF: Yeah. It was less Dead songs and more Talking Heads songs.
WW: Did the Trustafarians rebel?
LF: I think they sort of liked it. By senior year in Boulder, I think a lot of kids in Boulder end up going through that same kind of thing. Like, "Oh, I did my Dead phase. What else is there now?" Like, it felt like a lot of kids were on our Talking Heads train.
WW: So they were evolving at the same pace you were?
LF: It felt like it. What was that jam band that always played in Boulder that sort of had electronica in it?
WW: Sound Tribe Sector 9?
LF: Yeah! Sound Tribe Sector 9. That was coming out then, so there was sort of a transition going on anyway.
WW: After graduation, did you ever think about trying to launch your music career from Colorado?
LF: Not really. Right after we graduated, we said, "All right, where do we want to move? Let's get out of Colorado for a little bit." We were either going to go to New York or L.A. And we thought Los Angeles would be cheaper, and it would be a kind of different world for them, because they were from the Midwest. So we went out there and lived in L.A.
WW: Now, as you know, some bands are making it pretty big from Colorado - like the Fray...
LF: Yeah! We should've just stayed. Honestly, I think about that all the time. Everybody moves to these big cities to do it. But if you're doing something pretty good and you're in a smaller place, things cling better there - and there's more pride in those smaller cities.
WW: At the same time, there weren't a lot of role models - not a lot of bands that had made it from Colorado. It had been quite a few years since something like that had happened.
LF: That's true. And now, the Internet and MySpace and that stuff allows smaller cities to get their stuff out.
WW: Given that you were from Seattle originally, I imagine that moving to L.A. wasn't that much of a culture shock...
LF: Not really - although moving from Boulder to L.A. is a culture shock. But I was kind of excited about it. It felt like I was in a big, urban location. It was an exciting time to be there. You're 21 and it's a huge city. You're going to Venice Beach for a day and then you're going to Los Feliz on the east side, and then you're in Hollywood. It felt like there was endless things to do, so that was exciting.
WW: What part of the city did you settle in?
LF: Just south of Hollywood. It's kind of called the Fairfax District... It's sort of like in its own little thing.
WW: You went through some band names in L.A., too - 1984, Colored Shadows...
LF: Yeah, and that was sort of good, because the music was still changing. The first band was a little bit more proggy. So basically when I was finally writing the kind of songs that was a combination of everything I'd been into from sixth grade until right now, that's when Low Vs. Diamond because Low Vs. Diamond. It was like, I remembered Pearl Jam, I remembered the Dead, and now I'm going to combine everything and make the songs that I and the rest of the guys really like.
WW: I don't hear a lot of Grateful Dead on the new album...
LF: No, you won't. I definitely was in a non-Grateful Dead phase with these songs. But on the next record, I think you'll start to hear more traces of it. But I would a hundred percent agree with you that the album doesn't remind me of the Dead at all. But at some point, you're going to hear it.
WW: All of those influences are in there, and it just depends on what surfaces at any given time...
LF: Exactly. If you listen to the first Grateful Dead record, it doesn't sound anything like the eighth one. I think our records are probably going to keep evolving into our own sound that combines all those other elements. I think I pushed the Dead away for a while because the rock I got into right when I got to L.A. was overpowering it. But now I think we're all bringing it back. Look for that in some of the newer songs.
WW: What stuff were you getting into when you first moved to L.A.?
LF: A lot of Bowie, a lot of '70s stuff - older rock. I was listening to a lot of French pop, like Serge Gainsbourg. And a lot of '90s stuff, like Smashing Pumpkins and Pearl Jam. And a lot of the newer bands. There was no way not to hear the first Strokes record, and the White Stripes. But when I'm writing music, I'm not even thinking about those bands. That's another good thing about writing on a piano. You just sort of get into your own planet. The chords usually end up making me feel a certain way, and that's what dictates the rest of the song.
WW: The songs on the new album are mostly very big, with a lot of oversized emotions that most of us associate with British rock rather than American rock. Why do you think we don't usually connect those qualities to American rock?
LF: That's one of the things I think is interesting about the album - that it's got those kinds of sounds, but we're such an American band. I don't know. It's a tough thing to answer. I think Pearl Jam were kind of like that in their own way. They were pretty epic and big-sounding, and they were American. But you never know why you sound the way you do. Like, the lack of irony on the record. And all the stories are very personal... I never know the right answer about how to say why we sound the way we sound.
WW: Your comment about a lack of irony is interesting. It seems that there's a kind of cynicism in a lot of American music, and a certain distance. You're not supposed to come right out and say something. And it seems like you'd prefer to say things straight-forwardly.
LF: Exactly. That's something I was talking about with someone the other day. It seems to me that the people who are enjoying this album are self-confident people - people who are actually dealing with their lives. A lot of music coming out right now is supposed to make you forget everything. The lyrical content is filled with fantasy sort of things. And this record is really up-front and straight-forward. And if you want to think about the things I'm talking about on the record, you'll probably like the record.
WW: Is there a risk involved in being so forthright?
LF: I don't know. It feels like that's my best way to get out emotions that I might not be able to tell people about otherwise. I wouldn't say that the stories are the opposite of my personality, but I'd definitely say they're a part of my personality that I don't show when I'm hanging out with people. I end up writing all these minor chords all the time, and all of these melodramatic things - and I think it's an opportunity for me to say things I might not otherwise say without the help of the music. I like having that outlet.
WW: Do you have friends come to you after hearing a song and say, "Where did that come from?"
LF: No, I have more people that I write directly about, and they'll call me and say, "I didn't know you felt that way about me." Usually, people will know exactly who it's about.
WW: It's not a situation where you have ten people sure the same song is about them?
LF: A few of them. I've had a few where a lot of people think it's about something when it's not. Like, I'll have good friends call and say, "Is that about this?" And I'll be like, "No, it wasn't." And I don't always tell them what it is about. I think what our music can provide is the personal stuff. I think writing about personal things is interesting. It's the side of songwriting that a lot of '70s songwriters used. And opening up those sides of yourself is interesting, I think. I like it. I like doing it.
WW: Along with people who've really liked the new album, you've also gotten some criticism from reviewers who've suggested that you're just trying to be as commercial as you possibly can.
WW: I think some of that may go back to the early grunge scene we were talking about earlier - the idea that you're not supposed to be seen as trying to attract an audience. It's just supposed to come to you somehow...
LF: Yeah. I sort of feel like a lot of that depends on how you record your songs. And I don't really think about that. Ultimately, when you're making an album, you sit down with the guys in the band and you record an album. And when we finished the album, we listened to it one or two times, and I was like, "Wow. I really like it." And that's all I can really do. Whether certain people think it's this or that, I can't control that. The only time I think anyone is really selling out is when they're making songs they don't really like. If people think it's too commercial, maybe it is too commercial for them. Maybe it's not their cup of tea. But as long as me and the other guys in the band listen to it and like it, that's the best thing you can get out of it. You should just like what you're doing. And we do.
WW: And it doesn't seem that you feel the need to apologize for wanting to find a lot of other people who'll like it, too...
LF: Right. You write a song for yourself and you want other people to enjoy that song, too. If I just wanted to write songs for myself and you don't care if anyone else ever hears them, I probably wouldn't want to go out there and tour, and I wouldn't want to go out and do things. But these are songs about real people, real stories, and I want to share them.