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LukasNelson main

Mama Don’t Let Your Surfers Grow Up To Be Babies

“I’ve never really been anywhere in my life for more than three months at a time,” says Lukas Nelson.

Post-soundcheck, with a few minutes to kill chatting, we’re backstage at a Native American casino in the San Diego high desert.

“We’ve always been traveling here or there, for one thing or another. It’s just kind of the lifestyle.”

Which makes sense. His father’s the man that penned “On The Road Again.”

Son of country music legend Willie Nelson, Lukas spent his formative years on Maui, picking guitar, surfing Hookipa and wandering the Valley Isle’s hills with good friend, Matt Meola. They met in Montessori school and have been thick as thieves ever since.

The families have grown tight over the years. The Nelsons have helped in launching the music career of Matt’s sister, Lily, who has the voice of an angel, and appears on a duet with Willie on a recent album.

 

“I spent considerably more time on Maui than Texas,” says Lukas, his voice a blend of Texas cool and Island casual. “I’ve been going back and forth since I was a baby.”

Photography Nick Ricca

When asked if he calls his haunts around Paia home, Lukas notes, “Maui feels like the most relaxing place I can go. I can really find my breath again. If I feel like I’ve lost something along the way, or gotten so caught up in the mental stuff, with all of the business and music things—you’re kind of forced to be lost in it to a point—it’s nice to be able to go somewhere like Maui, where you can just kind of slowly let it go.”

That sentiment is echoed a lot by Hawaii’s most accomplished surfers. From the Irons brothers when they were at the zenith of their careers, to John John Florence, Carissa Moore, Ian Walsh, Kai Lenny, you name it. Over the years they’ve all noted that life on the road is great and hugely rewarding, but ain’t no place like the aina.

One of the allures, especially for the talent found on the outer islands, is that places like Paia and Princeville offer refuge where one can really hone their craft. Andy and Bruce were just rural, almost sheltered outer-island kids…until they took on the world and won. On Maui, guys like Kai, Ian, Albee Layer, Clay Marzo and the recently wounded Dusty Payne all had the freedom to explore their surfing without a million cameras around all the time.

“Matt and I surfed a lot,” Lukas tells me. “I’ve always been able to hold my own surfing, but I think he chose surfing as his passion and I fell in love with the music. We both have been successful with what we do, in our own ways, and I think that’s a testament to Maui’s energetic vortex and creativity. You have a lot of room to really learn and work—work on yourself—and grow. It’s easier to work on your skills when there’s nobody watching.”

And work on his skills he has. When he was 11 years old, he wrote his first song, “You Were It.” His dad reckoned it was so good, he recorded it and put it on his next album.

Kris Kristofferson (the singer songwriter behind “Me and Bobby Mcgee”) told Lukas he should write more songs. So he did.

As a kid, the experience traveling with luminaries such as Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings left indelible prints on his soul.

“I was just around them, and I guess I absorbed their energy in my own way,” he says, his eyes watering up from honey-sweet memories. “I didn’t understand really how important they were until much later. I guess it was just normal for me. But now I realize I was pretty blessed to be around some amazing people. I’m lucky.”

Lucky indeed. Their collective spirits are clearly infused in his music. In 2009, Lukas formed his band, Promise of the Real, and promptly became the backing sound for Neil Young. This year, they will be hitting the road with Neil for select dates, while Lukas and The Promise of the Real have a self-titled album that’s sitting atop the Americana Radio Chart.

 

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“To me, finding music as a way of life is like finding God,” he says, serious as a preacher. “It’s like a religion or a spiritual way of life. It’s a way of taking your pain and changing it into something productive and good and artistic and creative and beautiful. If you get exposed to it at a young age, and you’re open, and you want to be happy—music is kind of the easiest avenue to happiness. If you can find a way to make a living playing music, I mean, you’re a lucky person.”

Photography Nick Ricca

He just finished a movie project with Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper. And, of course, there’s the 20 or 30 shows a year he does with “Dad.” All of this on top of playing an upwards of 250 live shows a year.

“It’s just a constant,” he says. “There’s a lot of everything. We just finished the movie, with Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, and we’re in it. It’s called ‘A Star Is Born.’ It’s a remake. I wrote a lot of the music and produced a lot of the music with Gaga. Our band is the backing band in the movie. That’s coming out in October.”

It’s not hard to get lost in the spotlight, or tripped up kicking out the footlights, but Lukas is grounded, grateful and gracious. He knows he’s been dealt a good hand. 

“To me, finding music as a way of life is like finding God,” he says, serious as a preacher. “It’s like a religion or a spiritual way of life. It’s a way of taking your pain and changing it into something productive and good and artistic and creative and beautiful. If you get exposed to it at a young age, and you’re open, and you want to be happy—music is kind of the easiest avenue to happiness. If you can find a way to make a living playing music, I mean, you’re a lucky person.”

He’s acknowledges that surfing serves a similar function, although admittedly he’s been playing a lot more golf lately. Dad got him into the game and he’s been hitting the links hard.

“I have an extreme passion for golfing,” confides Lukas, as if it’s a dirty secret. “I’m working on becoming a scratch golfer. I’ll surf any chance I can get, but in this last six months, if I have free time I’m golfing.”

The comparison to Kelly Slater hangs in the air. Both Lukas and Kelly possess freakish talent in their chosen fields, comparable talent in each other’s (Kelly, guitar; Lukas; surfing) and both retreat to golf as soon as the opportunity allows.

“I’m a huge fan of golf as a meditation,” Lukas says. “Kelly and I have a lot in common in that way. For me, it’s a way of slowing down. Surfing is that same thing for me. They both occupy a similar space in my mind. I love surfing. Every time I go surfing I’m happy I did.”

Lukas’s drummer, Anthony LoGerfo, is a Southern California native that keeps a condo in San Clemente, above Trestles, and just recently moved to Ventura to be closer to the area’s myriad hollow beachbreaks. He’s a “big surfer,” Lukas says proudly of his bandmate.

“I love Trestles,” he adds. “I’ll surf Hookipa on Maui. Any break on Maui is fine with me, unless it’s 20 or 30 feet. I love to surf anywhere I can. Malibu. I’ll go up there sometimes. I’m going to record a new record up there soon, so I imagine there will be a lot of surfing coming up. Rincon’s so close too. We’ll go surf everywhere together.”

We’re winding down the conversation, and Lukas pauses as his phone lights up. “Hold on,” he apologizes. “ Somebody’s blowing me up.”

“Hey Dad,” he answers.

They’re quickly lost in conversation. They talk bending strings, splitting fairways.

“Can’t wait to play tonight, love ya, Dad,” he says, hanging up the phone and heading for the tour bus.

As it’s been said, the road goes on forever and the party never ends.

 

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