Interview and podcast: Jeff Lang on 12-Strings and a pulse

Jeff Lang

When trailblazing roots musician and songwriter par excellence Jeff Lang found himself stuck at home in Melbourne with nowhere to go, he soon started putting the time to good use with the aid of a locally made 12-string or two. Never content, to copy the styles of other players, he’s cooked up a unique and surprising collection of instrumental pieces that are full of mood and depth. He recently caught up with Unpaved to share how it all came to life. 


Hi! My name is Les Thomas. On this podcast for Unpaved, I have the pleasure of talking to Jeff Lang. Jeff Lang is a name that’s very well-known and highly regarded across this country and beyond for his incredible work as a guitar player and all-round musician and producer. I believe up to this stage he’s put out some seventeen studio albums. With a new one about to be released called Interstate Pulse, consisting of acoustic 12-string recordings. That’s in addition to seven live albums, one TV soundtrack, and multiple collaborations with other people over the years. I hope I’ve got those numbers right Jeff? Maybe you can correct me if I’ve missed anything?

Oh, mate, I ran out of fingers. Haven’t been keeping count.

If I’m not mistaken, Interstate Pulse is the eighteenth studio album. Maybe we can start by filling us in on how this all took shape?

This was very much a lockdown created thing. Because it was actually the second lockdown period here in Melbourne. Which people elsewhere might not realise; we got to have a few of them, we like them so much. So, yeah, we had the sort of 2020, a lot of that was in lockdown. And then the next couple years, you had a few periods. But in the second kind of wave of lockdown, extended lockdown stuff we had to go back into our holes again. I’d been keeping busy; my wife [Alison Ferrier] and I made an album together as the band High Ace. And that was the first year’s lockdown period. I did that, and an audiobook recording during the first year’s lockdown. And then after that I just started … I’d gone and picked up a couple of instruments that had been getting stored somewhere else. And one of them was this 12-string guitar that I had made for me by David Churchill in Ballarat years ago, like 1995 or something. It’s a wonderful sounding big bold instrument. And so I just had that out at home, and I would just be sitting around fiddling around with it on the couch, basically. And a couple of times I started, you know because I just had a lot of time for my mind to wander, just hit on sort of a motif that sounded kind of interesting. So after that had happened a couple of times I thought, “You know I’ve got the studio just next door, and set up in the garage space. I’ll just put a couple of microphones up, get the levels right on some preamps, had it kind of ready to go. And then if something like that happens, I can just sort of walk out from the lounge room, sit in front of microphones, turn the gear on, and be recording within a couple of minutes. And then just, you know, play whatever comes to mind.” So that’s what I did.

Any time that I got a bit of a motif happening that seemed interesting enough to explore, I’d walk out to the garage, turn on the gear, sit down, start recording, and just play around with that motif, and see where it led me. And just record for as long as I felt like it. So sometimes it might be for 20 minutes or something. And then the next day, I’d go turn it back on and have a listen and see what was there. Trim out some of the fat, you know? Just snip out some of the bits where it repeated things too many times. And just started accumulating stuff. Over the course of the next few months, kind of got maybe about 12-14 different pieces of music. Some of which I was kind of so-so on. But some of them I really liked. So, I just kinda put the ones that I really like into one folder, and then looked at it after a period of time. And it seemed to kind of stack up as a record. So, here it is, yeah. So it was kind of a really easy recording process, you know? Improvising, I basically, is just spontaneous composition when it’s done properly. It’s not just meant to be noodling, though. Just coming up with things on the spur of the minute like that and just going with it off the top of your head meant I didn’t have to sort of second guess or overthink things very much. Just record play for a bit and see what you get. And if you don’t like it, just put it out.

The impression that I get listening across the different tracks is a sense of travel. Obviously, you’ve got the Interstate Pulse main title. But you’ve also got Longboat Through Beaumont.And there’s this feeling of, I don’t know, some of the songs like Waltz After Curfew, it sounds like a lonesome train whistle to me, you know? You’ve got all of this sense of movement and, like, maybe in that lockdown situation this was your way of getting out of your confines and imaginative or exploring space or whatever.

Yeah, there was certainly that. I’d play. And then when I’m listening to it something would occur to me, it reminded me of a feeling. The track Interstate Pulse, it had a feeling, it reminded me of a feeling of a few times in the lockdown period I’d be thinking “Oh, man! I wouldn’t mind just driving somewhere.” Because you weren’t even allowed to leave more than 5km from our house. And I’ve done a lot of driving. And that was something that I found myself strangely missing. Coz you don’t usually think about on tour “Goody! I get to do a long drive today!”. It’s usually the bane of your life having to do some of the long driving on tour. But to not be able to do it for an extended period of time, I found myself missing it, which is kind of funny. So I think there was a bit of a sense of missing the travelling side. So I’m missing a bit of momentum that comes in, you know, your mind can wander when you’re driving on your own for a long distance. It can be a good space to get reflective. And to write. A lot of songs have been written for me when I’m in transit between places, particularly on my own. If there’s other people in the car, your mind can’t wander as much. But driving on my own, I’ve done a lot of that. Get a lot of stuff done.Though I was pining for that in a way. Longboat Through Beaumont was more, like it kind of reminded me something. So I kind of conjured up a dream in my head to go with that one.

I like the sense of build and movement. The way that, you know, rhythms come in to just give each piece a shape, and so forth. So yeah, it definitely has the feeling of movement. And can you talk maybe about your relationship to the 12–string guitar as an instrument? Obviously you’re not new to it. But it is the feature here.

Yeah. Pretty early on in the piece, because I was recording all these things with the 12-string guitar. I was just getting into the sound of it and being inspired by playing it. I thought “Well, I should go with that,”. And I ended up getting another 12-string guitar and customising it to make it be a lap steel 12-string which I haven’t heard much of. And that was something I thought it’d be good to get some slide, and we could actually get a lap steel 12 going and seeing what you can do with that. So I decided to kind of hinge it around the sound of a 12 string. And there’s certain things that a 12-string does naturally very well. It’s a really good rhythmic driving instrument. So it’s fun to try and explore some of the things that it doesn’t naturally occur to you to do with it. Like introspection. And moodiness. And playing with harmony. They’re the sort of things, because there’s so many overtones, it feels like it can get into a mess playing around with too much harmonic movement with the 12. And so yeah, I just was looking at exploring that. There is a certain pianistic quality to it that you don’t get from a 6-string guitar. When you’ve got the doubles of the notes.It’s not exactly like a piano but it’s tended to push my thinking in that way. And some of the pieces on the record are at least as much inspired by players like pianists like Chris Abraham’s with The Necks, or Thelonious Monk. You know,they’re inspired by some of those piano playing styles. Particularly Chris Abrahams with The Necks, that’s certain things I can hear the influence of him in the pieces even though it’s not that obvious because it’s on a guitar, so it doesn’t sound like a piano. But I was kind of playing on the low strings of the 12 string and having certain tunings and playing close notes, notes that are close together. That was where I was messing around with the sort of the harmonic content that a 12-string normally doesn’t get used for. You tend to go for wide spaced chords because otherwise all the doubling and the octaves start to mount up on each other and you get a lot of harmonic beating. So I wanted to actually lean into that a little bit. Just because I was doing it and it sounded interesting to me, rather than an exercise intellectually. But I would find myself gravitating towards these things where I was playing notes that were close to each other on adjacent strings and letting them ring into each other a fair bit. That became a real part of the sound of the record in a way.

I think anybody sort of listening without necessarily direct technical guitar insight would probably appreciate the fullness of an unaccompanied, you know, solo 12-string. Like it it gives off so much rich sound and space sonically.

Yeah. recording it on its own like this means you don’t have to make room for anything else. Twelve string can take up so much sonic room, so having it on its own means you can kind of give full voice to that. You don’t have to cordon off any of the frequencies to make room for bass and drums and stuff; it’s the whole picture. So, yeah that was fun. I didn’t want it to be too “guitary” either. I didn’t want it to be too much of “here’s some real flash guitar playing thing”. Some of the pieces on there, technique wise, they’re pretty simple. They’re very sparse and very slow moving. It was more about the sonority of the sound of the instrument, and the types of harmony and the types of chord movement. And trying to go for that pianistic kind of approach and draw that out of the instrument. That was what a lot of it was about, rather than like it’s a guitar record so therefore it’s going to be a bunch of Wizbang playing.

I think you definitely managed to instil a huge amount of mood.

Thanks, that’s what I was going for. A mood.

Also, it sounds like a soundtrack to a yet to be made Australian film, to my ears. There’s a lot of that sense of space about it, and yeah, there’s sort of drama (laughs) and tension. So, I think you really are kind of telling stories without words, you know? That’s the feeling.

Oh good. I like that. Thanks, man! That’s what you’d hope for, that you could do that. So I’m glad that comes across.

It doesn’t get any more intense than the piece Desert Full of Turtles. Can you talk about that one? Where was that coming from?

The title of that…I’d got to the point where I’d played all these pieces on the Churchill 12 string guitar. And recorded quite a few of them.And there was a few that I like quite a bit. So I put those into the keepers folder. And now I was starting to think about it as “Oh, maybe I’ll get a record out of this stuff. It feels like there’s the basis of an album amongst these four pieces of music I’ve done here. These [other] ones not so much. These four hang together and I’m liking them. OK, it’s going to be all 12-string guitar. Maybe I should get a different sounding 12-string guitar to sort of play some other stuff on.” And I knew that my friend Shannon Bourne had an old Stella made by Harmony.

Oh Wow!

Not exactly like the old Leadbelly one, but pretty close. And, you know, usually the 12-string that I had been playing is a cross brace. And this one had an X-brace and it’s a very rich full sounding, you know, instrument. The Stella is more-

Has it got that bluesy kind of signature tone?

Yeah. So it’s the ladder brace guitar. So it’s more cheaply made. It’s just got a tail piece. So it’s just quite a different construction. And it had much more of a tart kind of sound. A boxier kind of sound. And so I recorded a whole bunch of stuff with that one. And in the end only one of those pieces was Desert Full of Turtles that made it onto the album. And at first because I was playing it all with just bare fingers up to this point. So I did a whole lot of stuff with that 12-string of Shannon’s with bare fingers. And I started feeling like a few of those pieces were sounding too much to my ears like a poor man’s Leo Kottke. Because Kottke is the most famous 12 string solo guitarist. And I grew up hearing him live and so when I listen to certain things back I’ll be like “Ah, that sounds like it’s a derivative of Kottke’s approach. Nah, nah,nah. Not using that,”. And so I started thinking about “What could I do to eke out a different approach on this guitar?” Because I like the sound of it. But I wasn’t getting anything that I was wanting to use. And so I decided that I’ll put the finger picks and thumb pick on. But instead of using them to play kind of more brash and hard, I would use them to then play really gently on it, and just see what comes out of that. Because again I was playing it on the couch I started experimenting with the sound of it with these pics on, playing really quietly. And I was like “Ooh, this guitar is really good like that. OK I’ll go out and sit down and try that.” And that piece sort of came straight out of the guitar, then. And the title was because I was listening to it back and it reminded me of a mixture of I mean maybe I’m the only one that will hear this, but it reminded me a bit of Ali Farka Touré’s playing, and it reminded me a little bit of John Fahey’s playing, kinda mixed together. And I like both of those players a lot. So John Fahey was someone who really loves turtles and was kind of used a lot in his album cover artwork everything, and so it’s part of his self mythology. And then Ali Farka Touré’s from Mali, so it’s real desert music. And it’s like Ali and Fahey together; it’s a desert full of turtles. And that just kind of stuck. It was an amusing kind of title to me, because it sounded quite dumb. But I knew what I was getting at.

I think your sense of humour comes across in the title alone, but also the sense of musical adventure and, yeah, the whole West African thing is really potent. It rips! I really loved it.

Yeah. I could hear that song almost working with drums too, it had this kind of, even though I was playing it really gently, I can almost in my head hear someone playing this
slamming John Bonham-ish drum feel with it. So in my head I’m almost playing to that even though I’m playing it quietly and it’s a solo guitar piece. In my head I kind of had this Led Zeppelin-ish vibe going as well. But I thought “don’t want to include too many images in the title”. Don’t want to have a desert full of Welsh Tolkien Turtles or something.”

Save that one for volume two. There is a more plaintive track earlier on in the recording: Blues for Matthew? I’m not sure who Matthew is, but it sounds like a tribute.

Yeah, it was a childhood friend of mine. Best friend growing up. And he’s no longer here. I wasn’t thinking about him when I was recording it. But when I was listening to it back it just bought up a lot of feelings around this sort of stuff. I mean I’ve been thinking about him I guess. You know he wasn’t consciously in my mind but, yeah that piece very much is a mood piece dedicated to memory of my late friend, yeah,yeah. And it’s not a blues in terms of its musical structure, but it comes from a kind of blue mood. Yeah. Yeah. It’s a sad story for me and for him. I wanted to do a remembrance in a mood piece for him with that one. That was one of the first ones I played where I went, “yeah, I really like that piece.”

Fittingly, really beautiful. And I think, you know, the whole recording, I just really appreciate how stripped back and you do get a lot of emotion as well as variety. Like yeah you’ve got one instrument, but there’s so much going on there that I think would be rewarded by repeat listens and so on. Would you say that like, you know, to me you’ve always been somebody who I think, I don’t know, is like an explorer of sound. You’re uncompromisingly doing your thing in a very brave, singular way. What is what would you say is your kind of musical, I don’t know, raison d’etre? If you could put it down to something maybe? Or does it sort of vary over time? I’m just interested in the whole philosophy; an overall approach.

It probably does vary depending on what it is. The specifics might change. it is an overarching thing I have to sort of think it through. I mean, I definitely feel like the reason I got into playing music is just wasn’t even just necessarily falling in love with music. But it was also falling in love with sound. Like the sound that music instruments make. The combination of instruments recorded in certain ways. The sound of certain instruments in combination and how that combination works in performance and on recordings. It’s like falling in love with sound. But as sound applies itself to music. And it’s funny cos there are certain things where, areas where, incidental sound can be musical. Or non-musical sounds can be like music. There’s a point,actually, in Blues to Matthew early on that if you listen to it in headphones you can hear sort of, off on one side, a bunch of birds that are outside. Because I’m just recording with the garage door between me and the outside world and it’s a very sparse piece.So any sound from outside could have wrecked it. But there’s just this one spot where I hit this chord and let it ring for a while, and then this bunch of birds just did a bit of noise outside. And then I started playing again and they didn’t do anything else after that. it was almost like that non-musical sound became part of the music. I could have you know chopped that bit out and taken the birds from outside out of it, but it seems very musical to me in that space.I do think that there is a love of sound at the bottom of most of it. and if there’s some kind of overarching goal to the way I write songs and try and put them across. I tried to, probably I guess, go deep inside the mood of each piece. Like because, I mean, lyrics matter a lot to me. But I’m not sure how lyrics matter to the average person. I think really if you can put across a really strong mood and dig really deeply into the mood of the piece, then that mood will actually carry people into it. They then check out the lyrics, then I’ll get more out of it. But I like my attention to be rewarded if I check out lyrics for the song I’m listening to, but I don’t think it’s necessarily imperative that everyone must really focus on the words to the song. I feel like they should repay your attention if you give it to them. But I like a lot of music where I don’t even speak the language that it’s sung in. So I don’t know what they’re talking about. And there’s a lot of songs where I like the song a lot, but I can’t catch all of the words you know? maybe it’s Howlin’ Wolf or maybe it’s Tom Waits, you know? There’s one year I did a performance of the entire Bone Machine album at this record store in St Kilda, Pure Pop Records. And I thought “I’ll do Bone Machine. I know all those songs. I’ve listened to that album so many times.Love it.” On the week of the show I decided to just focus in and make sure that I was across all the lyrics and I realised to my horror there where about three songs where I had never really understood what he was singing. I just felt like I thought it was. But then when I actually focused on it, I went like, “I’ve got no idea what he’s singing in this”. Luckily there was a booklet with lyrics in it and I was like “Oh! That’s what he says! Right. I had no idea,”. So even me who loves lyrics, I don’t always pay that close attention even when I really like the music. So I think that if there was one overarching thing, I think it would be to try and pay attention to the mood that you’re creating with the sounds that you’re making. and make that all working towards putting the song across you know? Something like Dylan. Obviously a great lyricist but I think mostly what makes Bob Dylan’s music work is the sound of his voice singing it. That’s what pulls you in.”

You believe it.
He absolutely puts you inside of it. it’s like you feel it as a truth. It’s not even like an intellectual thing. It’s not like I’ve processed what he says and I’ve run it through my internal checks and balances and I think ‘he’s telling the truth’. I think it’s even beyond, more immediate than that. It’s just like the sound of his voice putting that across just makes me feel it viscerally as a truth. That’s creating a mood.

A lot of your work is dedicated to recording yourself. With recording other people. And I wonder about you comparing that recording art form with a performance art form. Obviously there’s this overlap but there are key differences. And I wonder how you might articulate those things?

Yeah, I mean certainly it does cause some people consternation when they’re recording if they’re used to playing live and then they go, “when I’m in the studio at I just don’t enjoy it like I do a gig.” And part that I think is if they’re trying to experience it like they would experience a gig. It’s a very different thing and you can’t expect it to be the same. And if you actually treat it like even if you’re recording it all live off the floor and not, you know, overdubbing anything or re-recording any parts, it’s just literally one pass at each song like you would at a gig, it still doesn’t feel like a gig would when you’ve got a spotlight of these microphones in front of you. And knowing that you’re just playing it on a recording device. It’s a different thing. It changes your perspective. you don’t have the immediate physical presence of an audience to feed off the energy of. You’re just looking at the walls and the microphones and someone behind some glass maybe you know, in the control room. I think that’s what causes problems for people with recording. They want to be like a gig. But if you actually don’t expect it to be like a gig it can be just as entertaining in its own way. That’s the main difference. When you’re recording, you’re playing to an audience, but you’re separated through distance and time from them. You hope that they’re out there somewhere later when it’s all finished and put out. You hope there’s an audience out there to listen to it. But they’re not here right now. When it’s a gig, you hope they turn up. and then when you’re performing for whoever’s there you play for them and you hope they enjoy it. And then if you think about it after the fact you might think “I hope they remember that fondly,”,But you know, in reality, people come to a gig. They might talk about it with their friends. And they might, down the track go, “oh that was a really great gig”. But chances are they’ll forget about it. So it’s more immediate, you know? You’re just in that moment and everyone just comes and tosses the experience over the shoulder and and and enjoys it for what it is. So they’re quite different but there is that common thing. You’re performing music for an audience, just they’re not in front of you now. they’re down the track somewhere. Hopefully.

Well you yourself are about to embark on a tour in support of Interstate Pulse. And maybe yeah just to wrap up today, if you can let us know the sort of things that you’re looking forward to on this tour and maybe even beyond.

Well, I’m doing just some select runs of shows. Doing a Melbourne launch on May 18th 2023. It’s at Birds Basement. And I’ll be doing at these shows a mixture of like about half instrumental 12-string material on the lap steel 12 and the regular 12. And then the other half of the show will be songs that I’ve done from through the years.Whatever comes to mind at the time. So, I’m not sure yet. I’m starting just the day after this interview, heading down to Tasmania and so it’ll work itself out whether I do actually literally the first half of instrumental stuff. And then the second half of the show after a break, you know, vocal songs. Or whether I’ll mix them together through the course of it. It will work itself out but one version of those two will happen. Then later on, I’m getting close to finishing another collaborative record but it’s a different type of one this time. I’m doing duets with all sorts of people. So the M.O. has been to write a song with each person, and then we sing it as some form of duet. either in harmony or singing different parts. So, I’ve been doing that with various people for the past year. it’s been sort of a slow process fitting it in around everyone’s schedules and everything. And it’s quite different to a normal record that I’ll do. If it’s just a song based record I’d write a bunch of songs and then when I feel like I’ve got enough that are going to work together then I’ll ,you know, book people to come and play and we’ll go and do it. Whereas with this one it’s always been like an album process for each song. You’ve got to actually do the backwards and forwards and getting together and writing the song. And then we work out when everyone can come together and do it. And so then each song gets kind of mixed as I go. It’s been really good fun and it’s gone to some interesting places. So yeah that’s something to come out maybe later in the year or early next year.It’s getting close to finished. Just a couple of songs that’s just in the process of getting a couple of people overseas to contribute their parts which has been fun too. It’s been mostly people from Australia that I’ve been doing it with but there’s been a few guests who’re from, you know, from different places. And so they’re the only ones that are just coming into place now. So yeah, close to the finish line.

And it hasn’t gone unnoticed that you’ve been lending some incredible guitar work to young William Crighton’s songs as well.
Yeah, William’s great. He’s really good fun to do work with. My wife had seen him play at a festival in Queensland and she said “I’ve just seen someone playing and I know you’ll like him. This guy William Crighton. I know you’ll like it. It’s all the stuff you like. Really great lyrics. Really intense,you know, quite dark and driven sort of stuff. It’s like you’ll like this guy,”. “OK”. So I saw him at Bluesfest in Byron Bay about two months later and I really liked his show. And then I bumped into him in one of the backstage, you know, the VIP bar or something. Just walked in and there he was, you can’t kind of miss him; he’s a massive dude, he’s like a bushranger. So I just walked up to him and started talking to him. He said, “I’m making a new record soon and would you be interested in playing some guitar in it?” I said “Sure I could hear what I could do fitting in with your sound,”. So the Water and Dust album has lots of my playing on it. And he was just really fun as far as doing a session guitar kind of job. He was very enjoyable to work with because he just basically, anytime I’d be sort of listening and thinking “I wonder what I should play here?”. His direction would always be something like, “just do something that’s very you. Just do whatever you like. Do anything to anything you’d like to do. Do something that naturally comes to you. Don’t worry about what I might or might not like. Just do something that’s very you,”. And so like I’m going, “OK, maybe I’ll have to find a little path through somewhere,”. And he was like, “No. You’ve got a complete open paddock. Run anywhere you like on it”. So it was. And the gigs have been like that too. Whenever I’m not doing one myself and William’s doing some shows, he pulls me into his band to play on that show. And that’s been really good fun as well because it’s the same sort of thing. His general state of play is, “ let’s try and go somewhere tonight in these songs we haven’t gone before,”. Which is very much what I like to do with my own gigs too. So it’s good fun. And he’s he’s very handy guitar player too. He doesn’t always let it be known, but he can play some really interesting, powerful stuff.”

Very much like an Aussie Neil Young guitar player.
Very much like a Neil Young vibe with his guitar playing. It’s really great fun to play with him. and the songs are really great.

Awesome. I’m really looking forward to hearing this new material performed live in May. and I’d encourage everybody else to really get their ears around it, and support this wonderful work. And so grateful that we could pull this interview together at late notice, Jeff. I think we’ve covered a lot of really good ground so thanks.

Good to yack with ya, Les.

Jeff Lang Tour Dates

About Les Thomas 106 Articles
Narrm/Melbourne singer-songwriter and Unpaved editor