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Progressive Rock Interviews

John Lee

Interviewed by Gary Hill
Interview with John Lee from 2013

Can you catch the readers up on the history of your involvement in music – both individually and as a band?

I have been playing guitar since I was ten years old. I'm 33 now. I started playing when Guns and Roses were at their height with Appetite for Destruction. So that whole scene was what got me into playing originally. I later got into Yes, The Grateful Dead, and jazz. I studied jazz at the New School in New York City, and after that many styles and genres of music as a player and composer. I started a world avant-rock jam band Caveman in college and we toured around the US — primarily the east coast — and released two albums. From then on I have been playing in the US and around the world with many renowned world musicians such as Cyro Baptista, Baye Kouyate, and Hassan Hakmoun. I lead my own band the John Lee Experience here in Washington DC. Now we are a quartet of guitar, sax, bass, and drums and I am really happy with the group.


If you weren't involved in music what do you think you'd be doing?

I can't imagine living without doing something really creative.  I’d be making movies, cooking food, creating art, acting, or being a clown. I’d be everything but a writer as you can see.


 Who would you see as your musical influences?

I have so many influences I could fill up this whole magazine. My most recent influences are Frank Zappa, Andrew White, Hermeto Pascoal, Stereolab, Flying Lotus, Ennio Morricone, and Tony Rice. That is always changing every few months. I’m all about discovering new composers, players, and genres.


What's ahead for you?

The future is going to be a great. I will be playing many more shows and festivals in the area with JLE and touring with the international musicians that I listed before. I also write a ton of music. I have so many compositions that I really need to find an economical way to record all this material. I think I wrote 20 or 30 songs in the past month. I have some works for orchestra which hopefully one day down the road I will have funding to finance. Writing and recording for larger ensembles is a big goal of mine.


I know artists hate to have their music pigeonholed or labeled, but how would you describe your music?

The new EP is a mix of surf, post rock, spaghetti western, classical, electronic, and jazz. I definitely have this spiritual space rock thing which is the common vibe that melds everything together or is the common thing I keep going back to. That is the whole Coltrane/Garcia spiritual vibe that is roaming around the cosmos.


Are there musicians with whom you would like to play with in the future?

Yes, there’s this bass player who played with Dizzy Gillespie named John Lee. Then there's a jazz drummer in Canada named John Lee. I'd love to do a trio gig and it truly be called the John Lee Trio.

Do you think that illegal downloading of music is a help or hindrance to the careers of musicians?

It can help musicians get discovered and gain fans. However, will the fans buy the records if it’s out there for free? I don’t think so. So, no financial gain. But hey, fans are priceless.  The solution seems to be Spotify, where the other day 300 people listened to a track by my old band Caveman and I made $1. There’s also the question of the value of art. If a Britney Spears record sells for $15, shouldn't the price of a Coltrane CD be a million dollars?


In a related question, how do you feel about fans recording shows and trading them?

I'm totally into that. That's great, really great, for the fans, and probably helps some people get through the day and have a better quality of life. YouTube is a little different. I don't like it when I am tagged in some thing I would prefer not to be in. Now it’s out there forever. Especially if it’s just a random guitar gig, where I’m covering a song.


If you were a superhero, what music person would be your arch nemesis and why?

I can't stand the thought of people performing to a recording of themselves lip-syncing. Then their fans defend them, calling them great entertainers. It’s one of the things that really disgusts me about our society. 


If you were to put together your ultimate band (a band you'd like to hear or catch live), who would be in it and why?

Andrew White on sax, Hermeto Pascoal on piano, Red Norvo on vibes, maybe the drummer from the ZZ Top YouTube Video on drums, David Lee Roth on vocals, Cyro Baptista on percussion, and Bootsy on bass. ‘Cause they’re all Comedians. I love music that’s funny, and love musicians that have a sense of humor.


If you were in charge of assembling a music festival and wanted it to be the ultimate one from your point of view who would be playing?

The ultimate music festival for me would be one where I could bring together all of my musician friends and their bands — reunite all the bands I've started since the beginning. We’ll call it “Friend Fest.” Everybody can have their own.


What was the last CD you bought and/or what have you been listening to lately?

I just picked up Andrew White Gig Time volumes 2 and 4. He’s the guy that transcribed every Coltrane solo. I really love his music. He's a complete genius and virtuoso but there is so much humor in it. I love that. You can’t buy any of his music on the Internet. You have to order through his catalog of over 1000 musical products through the mail to order anything. It’s quite a unique way of doing business. Also I just discovered Mixcloud, and I've been listening to a lot of cloudcasts particularly SunRadio out of Zurich Switzerland. That's a great way for me to discover new artists and recordings.

MSJ: Have you read any good books lately?
I haven't. The last book I can remember reading was Frank Zappa's autobiography — a really easy read and highly entertaining. That's another genius. I read David Lynch's little meditation book Capturing the big fish. I'm not a big reader. I do love to sight-read classical guitar music though, if you call that reading.  I watch a ton of TV and movies.
MSJ: Do you have a musical “guilty pleasure?”
I love to play cheesy R&B slow jams. Even though its “not cool anymore.” I also love over-use of the whammy bar.
MSJ: What has been your biggest Spinal Tap moment?
I've had so many. A wasted drummer beating up his drum set. My keyboard player puking while he was soloing and the local paper capturing the picture. Someone slashing our brakes because they didn't like our music in Rome, Georgia. The police telling us there’s no such thing as attempted murder in Georgia.

If you could sit down to dinner with any three people, living or dead, for food and conversation, with whom would you be dining?

I'd really like to talk to an Alien, my Grandfather I'd never met, and the first human (no talking).

MSJ: What would be on the menu?

Cuban Food. I love the Cuban black beans and yellow rice, the plantains, the Cuban sandwiches and the roasted chicken. I don't know if Aliens eat Cuban food.

MSJ: This interview is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2013  Volume 3 at
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