Reeves Gabrels was so assured in the wisdom of journeying down rock ‘n’ roll roads less traveled that he had no qualms in bluntly expressing his exuberance to a one time boss. For over a decade, the pioneering guitarist worked as a band member and high level musical lieutenant to David Bowie, from the latter’s elemental but experimental guitar rock troupe Tin Machine to the comparatively streamlined 1999 solo record ‘hours.’
“It kind of goes back to a conversation I had with David when we started Tin Machine,” said Gabrels, who performs Saturday at the Green Lantern with his Imaginary Friends power trio. “He had music he wanted to make and then there was the music he was making. I asked him, ‘You have full creative control. Does the record label have to put out whatever you give them?’ He said, ‘Well, yeah. They do.’ So I said, ‘Then the real problem here is not the record company, it’s your fear of rejection and your concern that people won’t like what you put out.’
“If you really have a conviction to do this kind of music and you really want to do this kind of music, then the only person in your way is you.”
In that sense, Gabrels has been fearless in his sense of guitar exploration. He can create torrents of coarse sonic dissonance one minute, open up into a spacious yet playful groove the next and also simply rock away with the loose support of youthful cohorts. From his Bowie days to his current stint as principal guitarist for The Cure (which he joined in 2012) to an adjoining solo career that is now two decades old, Gabrels has forged a potent, versed and adventurous reputation as a guitar stylist and songwriter.
“The first solo record I did was in ’95 at Bowie’s insistence,” Gabrels said. “He was like, ‘You’re always doing this stuff but you never put it out, so why don’t you put a record together and I’ll put it out on my label.’ Then I put a record together and he decided not to start the label. So I looked around and found someone to release it.
“My point is at other times in my life, I was very, like, ‘You’ve got to be this way.’ I was really obsessive about my music. I don’t think of myself as controlling, really, but I know I can be obsessive. With the new record (the self-titled Reeves Gabrels and his Imaginary Friends), I just really took my hands off the wheel a bit and let the project find its own level.”
A prolific guitar stylist and solo artist, Gabrels also thrives on collaboration, as witnessed by his work with Bowie and The Cure. A particular highlight among his catalogue is a 2014 instrumental work with fellow guitar titan and one time Be Bop Deluxe chieftain Bill Nelson called Fantastic Guitars.
“That was fun to do,” Gabrels said. “I was always a huge Bill Nelson fan. I bought Presence by Led Zeppelin and Be Bop Deluxe’s Sunburst Finish on the same day. I think I was 17 or 18. I listened to Presence and then put Sunburst Finish on and kept it on the turntable for the next three weeks.
“I met Bill during the first Tin Machine tour, so I was over the moon about that. But we stayed in touch. When I played at Leeds with The Cure in 2012, we just got together and said, ‘Maybe we should do a record.’ So this was about 20 years in the making. It involved a lot of very old school recording that we did in his house over the course of a year and a half. It’s a nice little sonic romp, that record.”
While performances alongside Bowie and The Cure have placed Gabrels in front of audiences that have sometimes exceeded 200,000 on a single night, the guitarist is more than eager to engage in a current swing of small club concerts with the Imaginary Friends that will, in the case of tonight’s show at The Green Lantern, place a modest sized crowd right in his lap.
“That feedback that you get from playing in a sweaty, small place… that’s really at the core of why I do this. I welcome the heckles. I like when people yell things at me while I’m playing. We’re truly looking forward to it.”
Reeves Gabrels and his Imaginary Friends perform at 10 p.m. July 25 at the Green Lantern, 497 W. Third. Cover charge is $7. Call (859) 252-9539.