Matt Lucas

In Love, Fighting, Music (interview)

Published in: 24. Shift of Instinct
PresentationReproduction of the Article

Matt Lucas

An old city by regional standards, Oakland, California, is nearly the peer of San Francisco, whose silhouette emerges clearly across the bay from its east-lying twin in good weather. Oakland bears ample traces of the architecture and life of the 19th century, the Gold Rush era. These elements, along with the city’s no less venerable status as not quite the birthplace yet the setting for Jack London’s literary coming of age and his key novel Martin Eden, profoundly inflect the city’s face, in marked contrast with many more impersonal modern neighbors.

On a sidewalk just off the waterfront of Oakland’s estuary stands a blue hinged signboard. Its emblem is eye-catching: the shadow of an octopus, emblazoned with a star. Deepening the enigma, further examination reveals that the creature serves as mascot for the following:


The wooden sign perches on the corner of Livingston Street — a couple of blocks historically flanked by industrial warehouses, now partly shifted from earlier designations and housing unconventional personalities and creative ventures. Rounding the corner and walking a short way farther, we near an irregular, elongated structure sided with white corrugated metal. The door at one end generally stands open, as do the adjacent garage-style doors, a carpet hospitably brightening the asphalt before them. And within is a world apart, an atmospheric suite adapted for the full range noted on the sign. An intimate concert hall with a stage adjoins on a foyer with cubbies for shoes and street clothes, contiguous with a tatami room for massage and therapy, as well as a soft-floored dojo, one wall lined by a mirror. The dojo holds the stuff of martial arts. From the ceiling dangle punching bags and ropes; along the walls stand Indian clubs and kettlebells…

The concert hall has an inviting ambience, with the spirits of musicians and audiences palpable even between performances. And for many hours a day in the dojo, varied and diversely driven aficionados cultivate personal ties with ancient knowledge, carried through the ages by seamless sequences of teachers and pupils. Here skilled champions may train in parallel with professionals whose work demands physical and ethical dexterity: police, special forces, security guards and bouncers, military veterans from myriad countries…

The architect, proprietor and sensei of this exceptional dimension is personable Matt Lucas. Versed in martial arts traditions from all corners of the globe, seasoned in a broad spectrum of modern musical styles, he pursues these spheres’ interaction at a single locus: human life, the main hero and resonator for all that finds covergence here.

Apraksin Blues met with Matt Lucas late at night after his return from training in San Francisco, where he prefers to journey by motorcycle. Winding up a long day of musical and athletic endeavors, preparing for the next, Matt engaged us in a lively conversation exploring his chief priorities, his philosophical perspective and its practical foundations.

AB – Matt, as a musician and simultaneously a martial artist, you lead a unique, many-sided life. How do you interweave the diverse threads of your existence: fighting, music, literary work, teaching, involvement in various projects?

M – Many people have been saying I have a unique life. I don’t! I punch things and then complain about it at night on my guitar. But over time I’m realizing maybe all this is more unique than I think.

You’re on the verge of releasing a new album. How does it feel?

Well, I’ve already written a new album! I do everything quickly. I write, hand the results over to someone else and finish up. Then I leave. This album feels really good. It’s my best. This was the first time I’ve felt comfortable in the studio. For the first time I’m giving people an album and actually don’t want to run away. Usually I’m not a big fan of mine. Each album has been more like practice to get better and better at something I love.

Did something change in your life or philosophy since your previous release?

I don’t think my philosophy has really changed.

I was in a rock band, then I went solo and then did more martial arts — constantly battling between martial arts and music. The last record attracted some attention. People I looked up to started asking me to music direct for them. I spent two years in other people’s music and heads, trying to see their visions and energy. I worked with guys who were really good composers but didn’t have the energy, or people with too much energy and not enough composition. I had to help them. Now I was finally able to do my songs again, come back to a comfort zone with more strength.

When I opened up this place, music started coming back into my life — not because of my going to parties but because I’m a musician. The music comes here on its own. And there’s a tone here. There won’t be a bunch of drugs. If we want, we can just go in the dojo and stretch or box.

Does this album better reflect your personality than your previous releases?

Yes, although my personality tends to be a little softer.

We’ve done the first five songs, and now I’ll be doing more groups of five. The first five were about pleasure and pain, and this next set is about killing romance. I want the death of the Hollywood idea of romance. I’m fairly romantic — I love poetry, lyrical songs and some folk music as well. I like it when music is a bit slower. This first part of the album has a sort of Southern rock sound. The next will also have a rock side, but in a more lyrical way. More songs about girls, honestly. I tend to get in a train of thought and write prolifically out of that. I’ll produce 10 or 15 songs and keep five.

I want the death of the Hollywood idea of romance. One of the songs’ first lines is, “I want to see romance put to death, bring me its head.” I need the head of romance on my plate. I want that kind of love to rot. Another tune, “Today We Send Our Love to Die,” is about the same thing. Our modern relationships often involve false pretenses or weird expectations that keep us from authentically connecting with each other. So what might sound like my negative take on love is about true connection as opposed to unsustainable Hollywood attitudes.

You sing a lot about the heart — “when the heart swallows your body and your head,” for instance. Is this distinct from love?

So much of love is in the head, when it should be in the heart. There’s this old martial arts thing, “Emperor, General.” The heart is the emperor, the head is the general. A large part of our behavior now comes from the head, from expectations. A set idea of romance creates limitations. In reality, two people together always create something new — a different attitude, a different feel. The best thing we can ask is to fit in each others’ lives. For that, we have to become better versions of ourselves.

So the martial arts practice also derives from the Emperor and General? The head and the heart?

Martial arts are about connecting and observing. They’re an exercise in nature and efficiency, so you really don’t want to overthink too much. Being in a fight is just an experience for the heart and feelings. I had a coach once who talked about some people being cats and others dogs. Dogs want to pin you and stop you and dominate you. I’m more the cat. I can play with a lizard for hours, experiencing and seeing what it will do, which way it will move.

On “The Open Matt” stage.

With love and sex and fighting, people need to experience each other. Martial arts ask whether you can exist in nature and heighten your awareness. In a fight, when things get chaotic, I stop the fight by imposing my will. I don’t think that works well in relationships. We need to communicate and experience each other, and then we become more sensitive to each other, sharing a flow. When things get crazy, open your eyes, open your vision and start feeling and experiencing. That’s different than being a fighter.

Higher-level martial arts are more efficient and sensitive and softer. Music is the same. Advanced musicians don’t solo all the time, don’t impose themselves on the space. They hold it. They’re there with the group, they flow together. Music, martial arts, being with someone, it’s all the same.

Defying expectations is also a part of the flow.

Flexibility blows the ceiling off what can really happen. A general container can still leave room for variations. It’s not good to get involved in anything without a fundamental understanding of what you’re doing. Just like with fighting. The basics are needed, but then you also need plenty of room for creativity. Totally controlling the outcome is impossible. After all, martial arts are an art.

How might you profile yourself in this art?

I’ve taught martial arts since I was sixteen. The teaching I’ve developed involves a form of yoga that turns martial arts into a healthy pastime, with a balance between strength and flexibility, between health and competition. We study some combative moves, like how to choke, but that’s not the focus. I don’t care whether a person learns to fight.

High-level athletes say that yoga humbles the big men. I’ve talked with five people in the last week alone who have had knee or hip replacements in the last month. All because of training too actively for a sport. When money and fame step in, they’re what we strive for, often sacrificing our own bodies.

In classes, working out and conditioning, I always say I’m not there to teach what’s right or wrong. Whatever we do, there’s a way to maintain our bodies.

A long time ago, if we lived in a village, we would compete constantly, but namely as a way to make each other strong, to understand each other. I wouldn’t train or fight anyone hard enough to blow their knees out, because then if we were attacked, I’d have to protect them, too.

Our bodies need to return to nature. Just two hundred or even a hundred years ago, life often physically required much more labor than now — chopping wood, carrying water, pulling, lifting… You could tell a hard-working person by the strength of his legs and back. In yoga practice, you bend forward to stretch out the hamstrings; you push to balance out all the pulling we do in nature. Yoga relates to alignment and posture — the stacking of bones to form the whole — while martial arts concerns the more ballistic interplay between two people, the conversation of movement. If as martial artists we are meant to adapt to the needs of our community, we need to take the essence of yoga and learn to sequence our bodies accordingly.

Is that also a motive for finding an organic synthesis of different martial arts traditions?

The way I see it, the apparent separateness of various traditions results from the interference of ego. The best martial art is the one you practice. Just like with any art. No instructor needs to tell you whether to play guitar or paint. You do what you enjoy as a practice. The main thing is that you still have to master your human form for continued practice. It’s always a body moving the brush, and the vessel needs care.

My approach is based on my interpretation of my Persian martial arts master, Marco Safakhoo, who was always talking about adaptation. When the body is a refined tool, you can steal in real time, all the time. My teacher would always tell me, “Look, we’ve got two hands and two feet. Our body can bend forward, backward, side to side or twist.” Knowing this and knowing that every culture around the world has a fighting art, I taught my body how to learn, went to other schools and learned from them. Great guitar players can steal from each other onstage, because they know the language. I realized that instead of just adhering to my own practice, I’d rather steal, in a framework of health.

I also realized I don’t need to fight any more. It hurts to get punched in the face, and it’s kind of sad to punch other people in the face.

What led you to found your own center — a zone of unexpected harmonies in martial arts and music?

After moving to California, to this city, I spent about five years looking for somewhere to set up a space for practice. Traveling and touring made this all the harder. Once, during meditation, it dawned on me that if in childhood a person tries to take up the space that already exists, a maturing person needs to learn to create and hold an individual space, an individual vessel.

I had no reason to start by opening a grand martial arts school, clean and polished. I just needed to create my own container. So I found this abandoned warehouse and started adapting it for practice. I teach some classes, but mainly people come in just for practice. I have music in one room, healing art in another. There’s a separate space for meditation, and another for martial arts.

I love having music and martial arts around me. Why not? I like that it’s the worst business model in the world. It can’t succeed, but it can’t fail, either.

What was your greatest source of support in making this place a reality?

When this place opened, I sat in a meditation. And in the meditation I was told I needed to learn to ask for help. Not knowing how to do that, I reached out to an older woman, a dear friend who mentored me. I told her, “I’m a little afraid. I think I bit off more than I can chew.” She answered, “I’ve been waiting for you to ask. I’ve got a list a mile long of people waiting years for you to ask them for help.” So help started showing up: every resource I needed, people I needed and who needed me. That was the most inspiring.

The reason why help never came before was that I never stayed still. Help couldn’t find me, and I had no reason for it. What did I need help for? Cleaning my car?

Do you feel like part of a local community here?

No. It’s funny, but at the San Francisco school where I also teach, most of the students come from the East Bay, and a lot of the students over here come from San Francisco. But really, people come from all over. That’s one of the benefits of having the only model and method like this. It’s nice to know that I’ll always have people here. But I don’t feel I’m a part of any community. My business is its own little community.

Is your creative perspective somehow centered here, though?

I traveled too much as a kid. We were constantly moving from place to place. That teaches you how to not belong, and you accept that. If I’d held strong to a community, I doubt I’d have gotten good at anything. It’s my constitution not to fly a flag or have any geographical loyalty. I think patriotism is another way to isolate yourself from other people. I don’t have that gene, and I don’t want it. I always have to remember, though, that I never left a culture — I never had anything torn from me.

Indifference about belonging might make it easier to relate to diverse people.

It’s very important to be able to share your culture, and I believe I have enough share without also telling you about my area code. Everywhere I’ve gone, I’ve found a nice person and a jerk. Wherever I’ve wound up, I’ve found some musicians and I’ve found some martial artists, and I realize that although there are definite differences, we all want similar things.

So it sounds like you’re not aiming to write the quintessential song of the parking lot on Livingston Street…

I’ve lived here in the Bay Area for eleven years — longer than I’ve lived anywhere in my life — and I don’t even feel I’m remotely from this area. The landscape or something else makes you feel you won’t stay very long. I lived in Georgia for two or three years, and feel like I’m from there. Here no one’s from here. I have a lot of friends, but everyone is transitory. You just have to accept that.

Which part of the country do you see as the most creatively stimulating?

The South runs through all of American history. It’s hot, it has loads of mosquitoes, racial tension, but really good people. That’s where all the best things came from. Soul and gospel and rock and roll and blues all came out of the South. New York thinks it’s cool, but New York became cool, I feel, because a bunch of Southern people moved up there and became active.

When you’re in a beautiful tropical paradise, you’re never going to do anything cool. Or in the middle of a city, with tons of entertainment. But if you’re in a place with nothing to hang onto, and you’re shoved into a handicapped situation, whether it’s financially or emotionally — the neighbors are drunks, this dude over there is beating his kid — and then there are some inspiring musicians, you disappear into a world of creativity. Nothing creates like having nothing to do. That sums up much of the South, which has a lot of tension, whether it’s racial or the church or just conservative parents. There’s always enough to rebel against. It’s fantastic.

Just like with cold climates. A lot of great art comes out of really cold places. You just go inside with your friends there, and then you get sick of talking, so you start creating. Depressed or turbulent places are the alchemy of music. Poor and oppressed people’s music takes ugly situations and makes them into something beautiful.

It’s the same with martial arts. They take chaos and violence and turn them into the beauty of health. Art is the ultimate alchemy. It can take pain, joy, anything, and make beauty. The most beautiful songs come from some of the most painful places. That’s why you never hear anything good come out of Hawaii. No! Because just being there is gorgeous. It’s a huge playground, a wonderland.

I was in Florida and Georgia and Alabama, Louisiana… What else are you looking to do there? It’s horrible outside, so you want to go indoors and make music. It’s more of a tradition there, too.

Your life has an incredible rhythmic structure. On the one hand, it’s as if you have this place open all hours, and yet you always seem to be heading off to work somewhere else…

I started martial arts when I was a little kid. It’s funny to say that I didn’t get serious until I was about six. Sure, I work incredibly hard, but working is my joy, and I don’t feel like I’m working. My work is also my social time. I don’t know how I’d socialize with people if it weren’t for martial arts and music. I don’t take my work too seriously — that’s probably why I excel at it. There’s nothing sacred here, it’s all very attainable. This work is one of my best friends, and you’re allowed to poke fun at your best friends.

But yes, between teaching here and having workshops off-site and making my own records and music-directing for other bands… It doesn’t seem like a lot until I start talking about it. But if it stays inspiring, stay inspired, and keep going. It’s like cardio: the more energy you give, the more you have. I see no reason to stop.

How does songwriting fit into all this?

I used to wake up in the morning and train — do my yoga, and then my meditation, and work out, and run, and so on. But now with the middle 14 hours of my day allotted for exercise, I can write in the morning. Before bedtime, too. I can usually hit a song. I’ve been writing more short stories lately, and a couple of little scripts. My next step will be getting into longer forms.

Do your songs tend to evolve a lot after composition?

Yes, especially now, with this record. The bass player from one of my all-time favorite bands, Facing New York, found time to come in and play with us, and I’m so happy — he brings an amazing energy. I’m about to change every song completely. Making a record and playing live, it’s fun to be able to switch things around while keeping an underlying structure. I will play a lot of these songs solo on the acoustic guitar, which slows them way down and lets them evolve differently. I try to restrain myself only because perpetual changes get in the way of a career.

Repetition is also a skill. I keep producing new music as another form of repetition, to grow stronger as an artist, only opposed to being an actualized artist who creates something strong and sticks to it. The more I throw away, the stronger I’ll be — the next thing will be even better!

I don’t think I know any songs from my prior album these days. A couple of months back, I played a show where I had to go to the back room to relearn a couple of my songs for audience requests. I’ve had to do that a lot.

So letting go of past creations isn’t hard for you!

Everything constantly evolves. Higher-energy venues require adaptation. Also, I play in places where people want to hear new songs. I’m known for how much I’m able to write, and that’s what many people are looking for. I did a show once on a Friday where I announced that I would only play songs composed that week. I remembered about seventy percent of the material, and the rest I just made up as I went along. I throw things out because my joy is making new ones. I’m lucky enough to have set an ethic such that people are always ready to hear new music from me.

Do your band’s musicians share these expectations?

Yes. I’ve been working with the drummer since 1997. If we get busy and don’t see each other for months, sometimes we’ll meet onstage for shows and play five or six new songs made up on the spot. The song “Pain” on the new album happened like that. He’d never heard it before, we just played it — and that was the take. I led him with my eyebrows.

Speaking of “Pain”… In the song, you call pain your “first love,” your “heavy-handed friend.” Have you always valued pain’s role in life?

We need pain. Pain teaches us far better. The old adage is that your opinion of pain determines how you suffer I’ve learned many valuable lessons through pain. Pain means you’re trying. It’s essential to remove our negative view of pain.

I liked the concept of writing a love song to pain. At this hippied-out event, where other musicians were performing songs about love and light, rainbows and sparkles, I decided I had to do something different — luckily I don’t have songs like that anyway. So I performed “Pain.” Afterward, people came up to talk with me about it. Pain is very real. A little pain can make you change your tune. In the martial arts world, pain is how you learn. We call the pain and bruises class notes. That’s all they are. Hopefully we can learn from pain. But if we run from it, it won’t serve us.

Avoiding pain is a huge issue in our culture now. Look at the number-one killer in America. Prescription painkillers. We’ve convinced ourselves that pain and discomfort are negatives. Yet people are still having babies. I hear that’s not too comfortable.

Basically, pain needed a love song.

Have you ever had times of feeling like an outsider?

I’ve never felt I don’t belong, because I’m not trying to belong. I just feel there’s either contact or there isn’t. I’ve come to realize a lot of people have no intention of believing in what I believe. That’s made me very accepting of others’ lives.

I love people and going out and playing music for them, but when the party starts, as someone who doesn’t drink or do any drugs, I know that come midnight, the conversations will change. When I’m playing music and there’s cocaine and drinking backstage, I don’t feel like an outsider. I’d just rather be somewhere else.

There was a time when I felt like an outsider in the martial arts world, because I practice a martial-arts system of yoga. All the yogis would talk to me about yoga having nothing to do with violence. And martial artists would insist they didn’t like yoga, although their art really originated in yoga. The sole difference is intention. I just wished all those people had read more. When people ask me about my martial art, I tell them, I do the one that doesn’t like getting kicked where it counts.

In your martial arts and music, how do the traditional and the new coexist?

Many people ask if I do traditional martial arts. I think it’s traditional to have open space and time to practice, with information flowing. That’s how traditionally we evolve our art: not through following someone and adhering to sitting in the same class and never getting out and expanding. As a martial arts instructor, I work with many young people, and that’s always turning me on to new things. We’re only as picky as our options, right?

So I’m honoring my teachers. The many things I gained from them are having this culmination.

“The Open Matt” dojo.

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