Lukas Nelson ‘Keeps It Real’ With Band Promise Of The Real

Wendy Geller
Maximum Performance (NEW)

Lukas Nelson sounds like just any average kid out there who decided to start a band. One night while in college, he met some guys at a Los Angeles Neil Young concert, and that's how things got rolling.

"Me and [drummer] Anthony [LoGerfo] were the most hardcore fans there--we were headbanging the whole time," he explains. "That night we went on a midnight surf at the pier and I got stung by a stingray. And I was having so much fun I kept on surfing. And we kept playing music together and that's when I knew it was gonna be fun.

"I quit school a few months later and I was kinda living out of my car, and living on people's couches. We got regular gigs and that's kinda how the band started."

Surfing, touring, crashing at friends' pads, fun--all par for a young musician's course, right? Well, what makes Nelson and his band Promise of the Real different is that he's actually played with Neil Young.

And Bob Dylan. And B.B. King. He's never played with Kris Kristofferson, but counts him as a fan and supporter. And of course, he's shared the stage with none other than the great Willie Nelson.

Oh yeah--Willie just happens to be his dad. Can't forget to mention that, although it doesn't really seem to be that important in the POTR big picture. This is a band that is determined to forge its own identity.

However, that doesn't mean Nelson is bent on ignoring his heritage, either. He speaks of his famous father with a bit of respectful awe that somehow manages to not come across as disingenuous. When asked what's been the most exciting musical collaboration or experience in his life, he cites the "collective mindblowingness" of playing with his father over the years.

It's not hard to recognize Lukas Nelson as Willie's kid. To state the most obvious parallel, the two sound eerily alike--both in speaking and singing voice. They both also share an appealing "approachable outlaw" personality, with a frank and straightforward way of sharing views.

Having such a famous (and identifiable) pedigree is often a bit of a hurdle for the offspring of legends, but Nelson is charmingly--and believably--matter-of-fact about his family ties. "I don't really think about that often unless someone asks me," he says. "I've had to come up with a bunch of answers and haven't really figured out what the best answer to that question is. I love my dad; I'm very proud of him and I love his music. I listen to it all the time. And I'm really stoked because I'm able to play my own music."

Promise of the Real is indeed Nelson's own music, as he puts it. The band's on its second full-length album (the self-titled debut came out in 2010), has hit the road on a few touring treks--including one with B.B. King--and have been guests on both Jay Leno and David Letterman's shows. Fans of Willie who are expecting a country release from his son will definitely be surprised. The band's sound defies classification, with its latest album, Wasted, best described as a sort of hodgepodge of rock styles. A variety of guitar sounds (including, yes, some steel guitar) anchor the melodies, while Nelson's high-pitched, familiar voice buoys things up.

Nelson--who can play guitar, bass, drums, and "hacks around" on harmonica--isn't interested in identifying a genre for his songwriting. "The labeling just comes from people who are trying to internalize it for themselves," he says. "I say you can call it whatever you want. I'm just going to call it music. I'm more focused on the making of the music, not what people are saying about it.

"I appreciate if someone gives me a good review and is stoked about it--and when someone has criticism too. I try not to take either to heart."

For those who are disappointed he's not following in Dad's country footsteps? "I do sometimes have a country sound. I can sing country if I want to, and I love country music. But people are always going to have opinions of what I should be. Honestly, I can't please everybody--I can only do what feels right in my heart, and that's the bottom line."

Remarks such as these shouldn't be construed as a deliberate way of setting himself apart from his father. Despite following in his dad's career path, Nelson naturally seems to march to his own beat. This may not seem so surprising considering the fact that, unlike most teenagers (even--perhaps especially--those with famous parents), he never felt the need to rebel against his father. "I never wanted to rebel against him--just 'cause I'm in awe of him," he says frankly. "He was gone a lot, you know. So whenever I was with him, the dynamics were different."

Nelson's overall goal with POTR is--as the band's name suggests--keeping the integrity in his music. "I feel there's a common thread in bands like Pearl Jam, and Neil and Crazy Horse, and my dad, and Johnny Cash...people who are doing it because they really love the music and for no other reason," he says. "When I named the band Promise of the Real, it was a promise to myself and to the other band members--every time we look at our band name we're reminded to keep our integrity.

"It's like a mantra for us to see that in our band name. This is what we stand for, this is what we're trying to be--not just do a gig because it has a lot of money, we're gonna give back as much as we take in. We're gonna recycle our energy back into the world. Like how it works in nature. I feel 'real' is just trying to do that."

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