(Gary Lucas, Spanish Dracula, Queen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank, November 21st 2010 at 6pm, of “Frankenstein versus Dracula.” Preview by Lisa Gee, Photo of Gary Lucas from Bluesalive.cz).
“This version of Dracula isn’t that well-known,” says Gary Lucas, “which attracted me to it.” Lucas – Captain Beefheart veteran and Jeff Buckley collaborator, dubbed “the thinking man’s guitar hero” by The New Yorker – is an avid film buff. “Especially horror films made before 1970. I kinda lost interest when they got overtly bloody.”
The Spanish Dracula was filmed, at night, on same the sets and sound stages that hosted the famous Bela Lugosi version during the day. Title performance aside, the Spanish film has a reputation for being the better of the two movies. “They took it a few steps further”, says Lucas, “the editing, the lighting, the costume design, are all superior. The Lugosi version is very static, like a photographed stage play. This one has more interesting camera work.”
Like the Lugosi film, the Spanish Dracula mostly lacks music. Lucas was inspired to write a score for it when he had the opportunity to develop something for the Havana Film Festival: this was particularly apposite, because missing footage from the film had been unearthed in the Havana Film Archive back in the 80s. Despite the official US prohibition of travel to Cuba, and without state approval, Lucas premiered his work in the La Rampa Cinema, downtown Havana in December 2009 to a packed house and critical acclaim.
It’s not the first film Lucas has scored for live performance. He also works with The Golem (1920) and Tod Browning’s thriller The Unholy Three (1925). “With a silent film,” he says, “you have to keep the balls juggling. If you leave too many silences, the audience becomes aware of the whirr of the projector. People like a continuing score. With a film with dialogue, you have to weave in and out and stay on your toes to avoid overplaying.”
Despite – or, perhaps, because of this – Lucas improvises far more when he’s playing with Dracula than with the silent movies. “I have my themes and I know the film pretty well,” he says.
I ask him if he ever works to the pitch of sound effects; spooky creaking doors, for instance?
“Yes I do. In the early performances I really underscored that. But I don’t have hard and fast rules, so last time I tried something different. There’s a magic that kinda occurs in improvisation… A confluence of currents of energy. I trance out. I stare into the screen and try to commune with the spirit of the original production. I sometimes really feel connected to these films and it’s like some other power’s guiding my hands. It sounds weird, but I can’t describe it any other way.”
In other words, Lucas approaches playing with film exactly as he approaches working with other musicians: it’s all about the interplay of energies. With collaborators “I try to take the energy and double it back”. With movies, “it’s jamming with the energy that’s intrinsic in the film. The film provides a reliable performance every time. I have to rise to the occasion.”
Overall, Lucas hopes others will feel the same reverence he feels for Dracula. “I’m still possessed of the sense of wonder that I felt when I first discovered horror films as a kid. So, each time I start to play, I feel like I’m embarking on a thrill ride. My aim is to give the audience the same kind of frisson I experience. It’s important,” he adds, “to try to preserve that sense of wonder. I think it gets beaten out of people…”
Gary Lucas is followed at the Queen Elizabeth Hall by Dave Douglas & Keystone playing their new music for Spark of Being, a re-imagining of the Frankenstein story by experimental film-maker Bill Morrison.
South Bank Website: Frankenstein versus Dracula