TROY — To say Reeves Gabrels plays guitar is akin to saying Antonio Stradivari made violins. As true as each statement may be, it grossly understates the man’s impact on his respective instrument. Gabrels earned the respect of David Bowie more than 20 years ago. The late rocker who shared the stage with him as members of the group Tin Machine once called his guitarist “absolutely extraordinary.”
Dozens of videos of Bowie and Gabrels playing together reside on YouTube. One specifically is of a 1997 performance of Bowie’s “Scary Monsters.” The guitarist immediately lays down a sonic wall that nearly diminishes the stage presence of the Thin White Duke. One unwittingly identifies him as Eric Johnson. A few others share their amazement, despite not knowing who he is. “Whoever this guitarist is, he was made to play this,” types one. The original poster clears the air like a virtual Jeff Healy in a smoked-filled Double Deuce: “No. That’s Reeves Gabrels.”
Gabrels is associated with musicians who have defined music over the last several decades — Bowie, Robert Smith (The Cure), Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails) and more. Trendsetting musicians who stepped away from contemporary norms. The common denominator shared by them all, Gabrels said, is that they are all “weirdos.”
“I’m drawn to weirdos and weirdos are drawn to me,” said Gabrels. “And, I don’t find them weird. Actually, I think people who are doing the most interesting stuff are thought of as oddballs when, in fact, they are so far down in it that they just come across that way to the casual observer. … I guess they found me to be a kindred spirit, in some way.”
Gabrels career took off thanks in part to the Los Angeles earthquake of 1994. A string of circumstances that initially prevented him from touring with Bowie fell aside. Guitarist Steve Lukather, who was to tour with the band, was forced to return to L.A. after the quake. Gabrels was asked to take his place. One piece of advice he received from friend and longtime collaborator Paul Rodgers was, “A thousand people can do what you do. So what it all comes down to is, who’s a good hang?”
That tour would later lead to meetings with Smith, who Gabrels would ultimately join up with as the present-day guitarist for The Cure. Over the years, Rodgers advice would continue to ring true. Today, he continues to be sought after for collaborative work across all genres and mediums. His reputation for experimenting has drawn a comparison to Jimi Hendrix.
“I remember the day that [Hendrix] died, my mom was driving me to school,” said Gabrels. “It was the September of my first year of high school… and it came over the radio. I had picked up the guitar six months after that.”
Gabrels started playing guitar at 13. It was something his father gave him to do besides school work. His first lessons were from a friend of his father’s, a man named Turk Van Lake who, it turned out, had played guitar with Benny Goodman, among others. Reeves practiced more on his own once the family moved from Staten Island to Sullivan County while he was in high school. He picked up spots with local bands. Sometimes he’d venture back to Staten Island to join up with bands there. He’d seek a college education, receive more lessons from John Scofield, and later attend Berklee College of Music in Boston. He chased after his career six months into his Berklee education.
Gabrels is apparently humbled by the comparison to Hendrix. It makes him chuckle when it’s brought up, and allows him the segue the attention to his bandmates.
“That’s a very flattering thing for somebody to say,” said Gabrels. “It’s nice when people say things like that, but it’s great if it makes people come out to see the Imaginary Friends.”
Reeves Gabrels & His Imaginary Friends came together in 2007, five years before joining The Cure. With bassist Kevin Hornback and drummer/vocalist Marc Pisapia, the trio released a live album on Oct. 1, for which they are currently touring to support. The band plays at the Hangar on the Hudson on Saturday, Oct. 14.
“The Imaginary Friends is fun, and it’s heartfelt, and it goes places that I can’t go with other people I know,” said Gabrels. “We have a certain internal chemistry that makes it fun and interesting.”
From the man whose primary strategy is to play his “ass off and not be a jerk,” he’s comfortable with riding this wave with his friends.
“It’s funny,” said Gabrels, when asked to project where his Imaginary Friends will be in five years. “I’ve never had a plan and if not having a plan has worked so far, no point in starting now.”