Gary Lucas’ New Album Inspired by ‘Trippy’ 1930s Fleischer Cartoons

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Joe Fiedler (left), Sarah Stiles and Gary Lucas appear on Lucas’ new album Fleischerei. (Photo collage: Caroline Conejero)

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Long before he grew into the eclectic guitarist who counts Captain Beefheart, Jeff Buckley, Lou Reed and Roswell Rudd among his collaborators, Gary Lucas was a kid in Syracuse, New York, avidly watching Salty Sam every evening. Among the nautically-themed kiddie show host’s regular offerings were Popeye cartoons, which became Lucas’ first introduction to the animation of the Fleischer Studios.

Founded by Polish immigrant brothers Max and Dave Fleischer, the studio was a grittier, rowdier alternative to the more clean-cut Disney cartoons of the 1930s. The Fleischer’s stars were the mischievous clown Koko, the frantic dog Bimbo, the playfully sultry Betty Boop and the rough-and-tumble sailor Popeye.

Lucas rediscovered their work while a student at Yale, when he’d project some of the Boop cartoons prior to screenings of the horror film society he co-founded with future “Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2” star Bill Moseley.

“The Fleischers have a real New York Jewish thing all their own,” Lucas says. “I’m Jewish and always was kind of a New York-centric guy, so it resonates in my soul. New York looks like a grim, fun but sinister place, with broken windows and torn-up sidewalks. Everything seems to be set on the Bowery, but this stuff is pretty psychedelic, too. Some of them are the trippiest things I’ve ever seen: Everything’s in motion, the flowers are talking, everything is rubbery and anthropomorphic. What were they smoking up there? That’s what I want to know.”

Along with the anarchic visuals, the Fleischer shorts also boasted more jazz-leaning soundtracks, including guest appearances by artists like Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, and Don Redman, which was another strong enticement for Lucas.

“The soundtracks are just so swinging and lively and engaging,” he says. “They’re pretty zany, mixing up Tin Pan Alley and Yiddish music and Broadway pop styles with jungle jazz from Harlem and orchestral quotes from classical music.”

On his 1998 release Busy Being Born, an often dark, Jewish-themed children’s album recorded for John Zorn’s Tzadik label, Lucas included a medley of the studio’s songs under the title “Fleischerei.” Nearly 20 years later, he’s made a long-overdue return to the repertoire with the new album, Fleischerei: Music From Max Fleischer Cartoons (Cuneiform), with a dozen selections including “Beware Of Barnacle Bill,” an audio recreation of a complete Popeye cartoon.

The album was instigated by trombonist Joe Fiedler, an ideal partner for the project given his day job as musical director for Sesame Street. He assembled a skilled jazz ensemble featuring saxophonist Jeff Lederer, bassist Michael Bates and drummer Rob Garcia.

To fill the role of Betty Boop and Olive Oyl, Lucas called in help from his wife, casting director Caroline Sinclair, who found Off-Broadway actress/singer Sarah Stiles. Tony-nominated for Hand To God and a cast member of Avenue Q—both of which prominently feature puppet characters—Stiles perfectly captures the winsome, street-smart sexiness of the characters.

While Lucas is probably best known for his work with one of rock’s most determined outsider iconoclasts, Captain Beefheart, the guitarist has a special fondness for traditional songs.

“I’m kind of an old school guy in terms of the history of pop music,” he insists. “I have enormous love and respect for the early stages of post-vaudeville American music, up to the big band era. I think that was such a sophisticated high-water mark of pop music.”

Fleischerei also incorporates Lucas’ lifelong love of film scores. He recalls hearing his parents playing the soundtracks to A Man and a Woman and Dr. Zhivago around the house while he was growing up, and in recent years has performed live soundtracks to a variety of movies, including Universal’s Spanish-language version of Dracula, Luis Buñuel’s surrealist masterwork The Exterminating Angel and the Brazilian horror oddity This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse.

The arrangements, begun by Lucas on his finger-picked 1946 Gibson J-45 and fleshed out by Lederer, hew fairly close to the originals. Played live, as they were on March 5 at the AFI Silver Theatre outside Washington, D.C., they take on a more adventurous character, according to Lucas.

“The band take it to places where it’s so hip, right on the edge of being even a little Ornettian. I try to keep it more inside, but it’s a post-modern take so it’s not going to be completely retro.”

—Shaun Brady



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July 2019
Anat Cohen
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