Hallelujah!: LEONARD COHEN SPECIAL
In the December issue of Uncut, we celebrate Leonard Cohen’s comeback by getting the inside story from his bandmates on their extraordinary year on the road. Here at uncut.co.uk over the next month, we’ll be posting the full, unedited transcripts of those interviews in a new, seven-part series.
Today we present Javier Mas.
The man Cohen reverently calls “shepherd of the strings” was born in Zaragoza, Spain and picked up the bandurria aged nine; by twelve, he’d added 12-string guitar, drums and laud to his repertoire. He learned rock and roll by paying along to Kinks records, and has worked as a composer and musician around the globe. His collaborative album with percussionist Jordi Rollo, *Tamiz*, a melange of Spanish, Asian, African and blues influences, appeared in 2002. He was musical director for major Cohen tribute concerts in Spain in 2006 and 2007.
Part three of seven, will be published online Friday (November 7)!
UNCUT: How did you get involved with Leonard, and the tour?
MAS: It’s because I was doing a tribute album in Spain two years ago, I was its musical director, doing arrangements for very good Spanish singers of Leonard’s songs. We made a record, a few concerts and a DVD, and we released the album here in Spain. Leonard had the album and he liked what I did very much, so he called me to tour with him. I went to LA in February and began rehearsals.
What were those early rehearsals like? Was Leonard rusty?
Because he was 16 years without playing concerts, he wanted to come back again. At the beginning, he had Bob Metzger, who was playing for him for many years, and Roscoe Beck. The rest of the band was new; he was trying to get a band together. And of course, he was trying to get the songs to sound like he wanted. He took a long time, two-and-a-half months, to make it good. Then we started in Canada, and it was good from the very beginning, because we had so much time for rehearsals. A very calm period, when we worked on each individual song.
Was it difficult for Leonard, having not played these songs for so long?
Yeah. He was a few months by himself at home, trying to remember all the songs, and playing the guitar again, and coming back to the music. But because these songs are made a long time ago, and they have a lot of history in his life, it was easy for him to come back to them. Also, it was like he’d had a holiday from them – you come back with new energy. And for him it was very good that we took so much time at the beginning, because he was getting into the songs very slowly. That was the time I found my position in the music too. So it was very good for everybody.
Were you a big fan of his..?
Yeah. When I was 15, 16, I was playing Spanish folk music, and then rock’n’roll, The Kinks and all these good bands from Britain. And then of course I heard Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Bob Dylan, and of course Leonard Cohen. So I started translating his lyrics with a book, trying to understand “You Know Who I Am”, “Bird on a Wire”, “Suzanne”, I was playing all these songs on the guitar when I was 15. So for me, now, it’s a privilege to play with him. But at the same time, it’s natural, because I know the songs. I don’t have to think of them. They’re part of my knowledge, since I was young.
What is Leonard like as a person?
This person has been living a lot. His life has been very interesting, so he’s a man that comes now with a lot of knowledge. He’s a maestro – one of the best poets in Canada, and the world. He’s a very humble man. He takes care of everybody. It’s really a pleasure to work with him, because he always thinks about others. He knows I am different, because I’m Spanish and the rest of the band are American. He makes sure I’m alright, you know.
What did you learn from being around him?
I learned how to make a song sound as good as it can with the people you have around you. And I learned how to treat other people in the music business. And it works, because the concerts are sold out. So with the agents and managers, the ambience is easy. Sting and Paul Simon and everybody goes to see him. He’s a maestro to everybody. He takes his time with everybody, and listens to you about your problems, and he’ll give you advice, or maybe not – if he doesn’t have anything to tell you. But always you have the possibility of speaking with him if you need it.
Do you all socialise together then – Leonard and the rest of the band?
Yeah. He’s like a big brother. We’ve been together for six months now, from 10 in the morning till maybe 1 at night. We’ve become very good friends. We need each other. We’re like a team, a football team.
And Leonard is part of that? Do you all go out after the show, drink some wine, talk?
Yeah, yeah. The only difference between him and us is the age. He’s 73, so he needs to rest at other times. He has a different day-time schedule, when he rests more than us. Because he’s older. And we play concerts for 3 hours, sometimes more. He’s on-stage singing for 2 ½ hours. He needs a lot of rest to make it good, and remember all the lyrics. But for the rest, he’s the same. We live together.
So is it physically hard for him, this tour? Is he tired after those 2 ½ hours?
It’s hard for everybody. I’m not accustomed to play that long.
Has he said why he wants the concerts to be so long?
He really wants to play for the audience. He’s so happy to come back, for the response he finds from the audience. Sometimes, the audience stand up and clap even before we start. He wants to give them everything, so that makes for a long concert. In Athens, people were clapping and screaming for one song, so we had to play it too. When you are up there, you forget about your age!
Does he have any backstage routines before he goes on-stage?
No. Every day is different. Sometimes at a festival, you just change clothes and go on.
What have been the best moments of the tour so far?
It was great that we started in Canada. We had four nights in a great big beautiful theatre in Toronto, and the second was maybe the best concert we’ve had. Manchester. Athens was very good, they like Leonard there – “Sisters of Mercy” and “So Long, Marianne” were inspired by there. And in Lisbon [going to re-check, Spanish pronunciation] it was amazing. The people were singing the songs outside the concert, and sometimes they sang better than we played! Those were very emotional nights. I think this music is made to be played in theatres, like our four nights in Manchester, not in festivals. But people want so much to seem him – we don’t even have tickets for family.
But because he keeps playing, most people will get a chance to see you in the end…
Yes, because so many people want to come. It depends on Leonard, and the band, of course. If we make it good, we can carry on. If we are not happy, we have to stop it. I think we’re now going to do Europe again, and then Australia and Japan after Christmas. And then we have to play in the United States. I would like to play in Spain. So we have some time to carry on, you know.
Are the set lists changing?
He’s got so many beautiful songs. We have to play “Hallelujah”, we have to play “Suzanne”, we have to play “Bird on the Wire” every night. We try to change other songs. And now in Los Angeles we’ve been rehearsing “The Partisan”. We’ve been rehearsing a few new songs we’re going to try to put into the new tour. But there are so many, that’s why it’s three hours!
I know you sit beside Leonard on stage. How does it feel to be almost serenaded by him every night?
That’s beautiful. When I played the first rehearsals and I heard the songs, I couldn’t believe I was there. And I had to play all of the time, so it was a lot of responsibility. But at the same time it was a real pleasure. I don’t have to tell you how great he is. So to be on the stage with him is amazing.
Leonard Cohen: Behind The Scenes, Part 2!
Today: Uncut presents musical director Javier Mas' view of Cohen on the road
Hallelujah!: LEONARD COHEN SPECIAL