In a July 1 radio interview (broadcast July 11, 2014), Javier Mas, who plays 12 string acoustic guitar, bandurria, laud and archilaud in Leonard Cohen’s band, talks about how he came to be hired for the tour, his freedom as a performer, his relationship with and assessment of Leonard Cohen, and more. While many points are intriguing (e.g., the role Anjani Thomas played in recommending Mas to Cohen for the Tour and the problems with the American musicians’ union), my two favorite specific anecdotes follow:
1. When Leonard Cohen first called him to ask about the arrangements he had done for the 2007 tribute album, Javier Mas tried to defer the discussion because he mistook the Canadian singer-songwriter for “an African friend who also has a deep voice.”
2. Javier Mas admits to initially feeling embarrassed when Leonard Cohen, who, as Mas notes “is older than me,” would kneel to sing to him. Mas first made a face to signal “do not do this.”Then, at intermission,
I said I was embarrassed and told him to do it no more. Leonard told me he was excited to do it … and since [then he] does every concert.
Now, Cohen kneeling before him has become an inspiration with Mas replying to Cohen’s singing with the guitar.
The interview was originally broadcast on Spanish radio and is also available as a transcript. Both the broadcast and the text (both in Spanish) can be found at El músico español que puso a Cohen de rodillas by Alfonso Cardenal. Cadena Ser: July 1, 2014. The entire interview has been translated into English by Helen Ketcham.
The Spanish musician who brought Cohen to his knees
July 11, 2014 | by Alfonso Cardenal
Photos by Dustin Rabin
The life of Javier Mas (1952) changed forever after a phone call at Christmas in 2007. Leonard Cohen was on the other end of the line with his tattered, deliberate voice. The Canadian poet was coming to Mas for help with his return to the stage after more than a decade away. That call came after a series of coincidences, those things in life that wind up causing tremendous rewrites to the script of our existence. The first of these coincidences was a tribute album to Jackson Browne, coordinated by poet Alberto Manzano, a translator and friend of Cohen. Alberto and Javier became friends and when Manzano, years later, decided to organize a tribute album to Leonard Cohen with Spanish and international artists, he thought of Javier for the artistic direction for the album. Anjani Thomas, Cohen’s girlfriend at the time, and the son of the Canadian singer also took part in this heartfelt tribute. When Anjani returned home she decided to play that album for Cohen. The poet listened attentively and was amazed by the evocative arrangements Mas had done for songs he had been listening to for decades. “When I returned to the United States I told Leonard that Javier would be a great choice for his return,” says Anjani Thomas in ‘Time 25′. “I played some songs from that album and he looked for more things by Javier, liked them and decided to call him to become part of his tour,” adds the singer. That album—and even the Jackson Browne one– was the starting point for the fascinating story of Javier Mas, a fabulous multi-instrumentalist capable of traveling from the Maghreb to Africa by way of Andalusia, the gypsy sounds or the flavor of the Mediterranean.
On ‘Hour 25′ we wanted to tell this story and talk to the characters– with Alberto, Anjani and Javier- in an effort to capture the great adventure of this guitarist who as a teenager played the Canadian’s songs and who for more than five years has shared travel, hotels, meals and stages with one of the most relevant musical artists, a man who kneels before Javier at each concert, enthralled by the sounds Javier has created for his music.
The story we want to tell starts with a call from Leonard Cohen. What was that conversation like?
It was a pretty casual thing. He had sent me an email earlier saying he had really liked the arrangements I had done for the 2007 tribute album. He said he’d liked them a lot, and could I send them to him? Then he called me, it must have been around Christmas of that year. It was nighttime and I was about to go to bed. I was surprised, and in fact I mistook him for an African friend who also has a deep voice. I said it was a bit late and he told me who he was. We started talking and he told me he wanted to perform again, and asked me if I would be willing to accompany him. He had to fix some problems with managers and prepare the tour. A year later he called me and we settled the details, but the first call totally caught me by surprise.
Cohen has given you a lot of freedom onstage. What did he ask you to do? How did he want you to help?
Leonard told me he hadn’t played guitar for fifteen years and he was concerned. He wanted me to help him return to the guitar and rehearse without time pressures. When we decided on the instruments that I would play, the bandurria, the laúd, and the archilaúd, we started rehearsing and he gave me absolute freedom, told me to be inspired, not to worry about anything and just play. From there we started playing. I was pulling out the arrangements I had made for his tribute album and we were working based on those, adapting everything to his tonality and voice. I was taking notes at the hotel and we were building my part. He let me express myself and it was very nice, a very free feeling. Whenever we saw something that didn’t fit, we would change it.
And what is Leonard Cohen like?
Well, he’s a dear man, very charming. He’s a very intelligent person and a great poet. I’ve been working with him for six years and he is a very pleasant person, a good person and a good boss. He’s very understanding but also very strict. It’s been a very interesting experience.
Onstage Cohen is one of those musicians who communicates the most, he creates a special sense of closeness with the audience, and we’re talking about the audience in a large arena…
It’s like that, he’s just the same offstage. He interprets the song but he is not acting. We’ve traveled a lot and he is a great brother. We have spent a lot of time together and he is a gentleman. I meet him in the morning, we’ll drink coffee and he’s the same, he even wears the same hat and almost always wears a suit.
When you joined the band Cohen had problems with American musicians union …
Yes, it was the first thing that happened. I spoke with him in 2008 and he told me to go to the USA as soon as possible. That surprised me. He said he would call his lawyer to deal with the paperwork and that’s when the problem arose with the union. It’s a very closed union and letters had to be written explaining that the instruments I played had to be played live, by me, and that there were no musicians in the US who played what I play. I also had to go to the embassy and ask for a visa. It was two months of a lot of paperwork.. All January and February of 2009. I had to explain my résumé but eventually got a very good visa with which I can play worldwide.
When you started playing you used to do songs by Leonard…
Well, I started before that. I started at age 9 with the bandurria, playing popular music and when the rock boom came, I switched to drums with a group that imitated the Kinks. Then the singer-songwriters reached us, thanks to the radio program by Angel Alvarez, who played Dylan albums, Cohen, The Band. I really liked that music and started playing those songs and translating them to understand the lyrics. That’s how I learned English. Among those records was Cohen’s “Songs From a Room,” which I loved. I knew many songs from that album and then when I played with him I was very excited because I was 15 when he made his songs.
And what did you feel when Cohen knelt for the first time while you played…
Well, embarrassed, very embarrassed. That caught my attention. Remember, he’s older than I am … When he knelt to sing to me, I looked at him with a “don’t do this to me” expression on my face. Then at intermission I told him, I said I was embarrassed and told him not to do it anymore. Leonard told me he was excited to do it. He did that at the first concert in Canada, when we started the tour. I’d already told him not to do it anymore but he made a rascally face at me and told me no, he liked doing it and since then he does it at every concert. I’m used to it now and it inspires me, now I reply with the guitar when he sings me a verse. It’s all right.
Now that you’ve been on the road with Cohen for six years, what is it that has caught your attention most in all this time?
Many things. The nicest thing is playing for so many people. We began with small gigs in Canada, but the thing started growing and we were playing for more than 15,000 people. I think what strikes me most is the welcome he gets worldwide. He had retired and suddenly his songs are still playing and he has been welcomed in a way that even he did not expect, all around the world as well, including the USA, where he said that his music had not been very successful. I also like the way the performances are laid out; they’re more than three hours long and they are very emotional performances. Also, he has put me in an important position in front of everything, where I can hear the band very well and I have the audience right in front of me.
What do you think is special about Cohen’s career?
Well, his work; the great singers have 6 or 7 fantastic songs and the others are okay. Cohen, like Dylan and a few others, has 30 or 50 songs that are awesome besides being a brilliant writer. Many people come to the concerts for his poetry, many college students studying his poetry.
What Cohen song would you choose as a spectator?
When I was little I liked “You Know Who I Am” or “Bird on the Wire;” after touring with him I have several, but I’m crazy about “Sisters of mercy.” There are many songs.
And to play?
Where I can express myself most is on “The Gypsy’s Wife,” where I do a bandurria version I am very happy with, and with the violin it adds up to a sort-of-gypsy arrangement that is very good, I like it a lot. Cohen has many songs with lots of variety. I really like almost all the repertoire. But for an album I stay with “New Skin for the Old Ceremony.”
You also participated on “Old Ideas,” Cohen’s last album.
Yes, it was a brilliant experience.
I also really like your solo album “Tamiz.”
Thank you very much. I try to combine the world of accompaniment, I have worked many years with Maria del Mar Bonet, Manolo García, Raimundo or Kiko, with my instrumental music. It’s not very commercial music but I’m doing my thing. On tours I get exhausted and I have to take advantage of holidays. We do stretches of four months of travel that are pretty intense and I end up just exhausted. Here in Spain we do tours but we go home every week, but there, since the market is the whole world, the tours are from January to May and you have to pack clothes of all kinds. They are used to it and you have to learn to rest. Jackson Browne gave me some advice because if you go out at night you won’t last. I’ve gone out very little since Christmas and I’m exhausted.