It’s the last Saturday in July, and The Cure’s Reeves Gabrels is standing onstage at The Family Wash playing his gold signature Reverend Spacehawk guitar. With his left hand, he unleashes a flurry of fretted notes; with his right, he flips a kill switch on and off to create a truly out-of-this-world sonic barrage.
After the show, a well-known East Nashville guitarist is talking about Gabrels, and how his guitar work differs from the playing of the many roots-based guitarists in the city. “Yeah, Reeves is more of an astronaut,” he says with a laugh.
It’s true: The New York City native’s enormous talent launched him into rock’s stratosphere. He worked just over a decade with David Bowie as a guitarist, cowriter and producer, beginning with the formation of Tin Machine in 1988. After he left Bowie’s band, Gabrels moved to Los Angeles, where he recorded with Ozzy and Mick — yes, that Ozzy and Mick — among others, including David Coverdale of Whitesnake and rap legends Public Enemy (the latter on a track for the Spike Lee film He Got Game).
Another memorable moment in L.A. involved a last-minute invitation to sit in with George Clinton and the P-Funk All- Stars. “They had me come up and play an encore, and I thought it would be three minutes or whatever. It ended up being like 45 minutes, and George kept giving me guitar solos,” Gabrels recalls with a chuckle.
In high school, he used to sneak into R&B and funk clubs. He remembers one guitarist who would go out to the parking lot after each set for a drink or two. Gabrels followed him outside one night and saw he was drinking blackberry brandy, so Gabrels went to the local liquor store where he could buy alcohol underage and bought a bottle of blackberry brandy. “I went back a couple of nights later and I waited for him to go outside,” he recalls. “I started asking him questions and he was kind of blowing me off. So I showed him I had a bottle of blackberry brandy and he said, ‘Well, come and sit in my car with me.’ I went and sat in his car with him, and drank blackberry brandy, and asked him how to do like these sliding ninth chords and stuff I didn’t know how to do at that point.”
Gabrels’ earliest influences included Neil Young, Eric Clapton, Stephen Stills, Leslie West and Jimi Hendrix. “Basically, it was a lot of guys who were in a blues-rock vein, but had that deep, iron-cello kind of guitar sound, almost like a saxophone,” he says.
“I remember seeing an interview with Clapton — I think it was on The Mike Douglas Show — and [Douglas] was asking him what he listened to, and he was talking about B.B. King and Freddy King. So I went and found B.B. King and Freddie King records.
“I got this sampler record — I guess it must have been in 1970 — that A&M Records put out that you could order for a dollar. On one side was rock stuff and the other side was folk stuff; but the rock side was The Move, Humble Pie, early Mott the Hoople, Free, and Long John Baldry. I think in a lot of ways, my taste hasn’t veered too much from that. Strangely enough, my roots are remarkably rootsy.”
That is remarkable, considering Gabrels is well-known for his sonic experimentation. His experimental side may have been nurtured by the cartoons he watched as a kid. “I loved Bugs Bunny,” he says. “So all those Carl Stalling and Winston Sharples scores for that certainly got in my head.”
Cartoon sound effects also made an impression on Gabrels. “The thing you try to do is find that crux note, that one note that makes people’s hair stand on end; but the other thing is one of the ways to bring people into music is to make a funny sound, to make an unusual noise,” he explains. “A really good example of it is King Crimson’s ‘Elephant Talk.’ It’s almost a novelty record in that he makes the elephant sound, but it’s a really complex piece of music at the same time — it’s inviting.”
In 2006, while in the midst of recovering from a bad case of Lyme disease, Gabrels moved from L.A. to East Nashville at the suggestion of Family Wash owner Jamie Rubin, an old friend and former bandmate from the days when they both lived in Boston. The illness had seriously weakened him.
“I had to switch to lighter strings on my guitar and I didn’t have the stamina to do gigs,” Gabrels says. “When I started getting better, that’s when I moved to Nashville. I kind of got my sea legs back playing on Lower Broadway, just laying low, and trying to get myself back in order.”
He also began playing regularly on the East Side — mostly at the Wash, with Rubin’s band and with his own group, Reeves Gabrels & His Imaginary Friends, but also at fooBAR with his blues-rock collective, The Blues Episode, which included Audley Freed.
In the spring of 2012, another old friend, Robert Smith of The Cure, asked him to join the band’s summer tour as a second guitarist, and that led to an invitation at the end of the tour to join the legendary group full-time.
“When everything happened with The Cure, it all happened so fast. The nature of the music business is not a straight line — at its best, it’s like a sine wave; it has peaks and valleys. To get back on the merry-go-round in my 50s was kind of a surprise, because I was just trying to find a way to gracefully ride out to my death,” he says, laughing.
“I joined one of the coolest bands ever, one of the most identifiable and idiosyncratic bands — they sound like nobody else. For them to welcome me into that, and to welcome whatever sonic variation I can bring to the band, is really nice.
“Whatever I brought to it, I’ve made a conscious effort to support the vocals, which I don’t think always happened in the band. I’m pretty comfortable in my own skin. I’m not trying to prove something, I’m just trying to do the right thing for the music. But it is nice to catch a smile from Robert onstage when I try something that I’m not sure if I’m getting too weird, or not weird enough, or just trying something out,” he adds. “It has been very welcoming.”
When he’s not busy with The Cure, Gabrels is immersed in other projects. Fantastic Guitars, a record he did with Bill Nelson of Bebop Deluxe fame, was released in July, and his fifth solo album, Reeves Gabrels & His Imaginary Friends, is scheduled to drop in October.
“I don’t do the solo thing because I’m not satisfied with what I’m doing with [The Cure],” Gabrels says. “I do the solo thing because I’ve always done my own thing.”