Friday, May 28, 2010

The Rolling Stones: Charlie Watts Interview

With Keith Richards’ nod, I was hired to put together a one-shot magazine, Inside the Voodoo Lounge, to be sold at venues and newsstands during the Rolling Stones’ 1994-1995 World Tour. The first part of my assignment was to fly to Toronto, where the Stones had taken over a boys' prep school for their rehearsals, and interview each member of the band. I was thrilled to be talking to Charlie Watts, a favorite drummer ever since "Satisfaction" and “Get Off Of My Cloud” hit the airwaves.

My first glimpse of Charlie was in a van shuttling crew members and musicians from the Four Seasons Hotel to the rehearsal. On the way over, he amused us with an anecdote about a tall Stetson hat his wife had just dissuaded him from buying. When we pulled up, Watts got out first, turned, and offered a helping hand to each of the passengers. As I disembarked, he politely introduced himself. Our interview began shortly afterward in the school’s large cafeteria. Forewarned that Charlie’s modesty makes him a tough interview, I thought it best to begin by asking about musical heroes.

(As with all of my blogs, this new and complete transcription was made from the original tapes. The interview took place on July 14, 1994.)


If you could somehow visit any musical period or see any artists, where would you go first?

Good Lord! God, there’s loads of them, isn’t there? I’d like to have gone to the Savoy Ballroom – Chick Webb, I think. I’d loved to have seen Ellington at Cotton Club and have dressed up for the occasion. I’d love to have seen Charlie Parker at the Royal Roost or something like that. Louis Armstrong, probably at the Roseland Ballroom in Chicago.

Which era?

1930, with a big band behind him. I like Armstrong with a big band. I mean, I like the Hot Seven and all those, but I like him with a big band.

Were you a fan of Jo Jones?

Yes. I just bought a record of Jo Jones, “Shoe Shine Boy,” Jo Jones Special. Yes, I saw him play quite a few times – Papa Jo Jones, you mean, the Count Basie Jo Jones.

Have you looked up any of the historic jazz drummers, such as Roy Haynes?
I know Roy Haynes. I know Micky Roker. I mean, I’ve met them. I think Roy Haynes is a wonderful player. One of my favorite drummers is Davie Tough – nobody knows anything about him, really. He’s one of the Austin High School Gang, out of Chicago in the ’30s. Played with all the big bands, and he played with the famous first Herd, Woody Herman’s. He’s the drummer on “Caldonia” and “Northwest Passage” and all that. He’s a legend. Every band leader wanted him in the ’30s. Skinny guy. And another guy I’d love to have seen play – this is drummers we’re talking about – was Big Sid Catlett, who was around for the same era. They were the two drummers that were famous – Big Sid and Davie Tough. Davie Tough was a skinny white man, really skinny, and was a really loud player, apparently, from what I’ve gathered asking people like Mel Lewis about him. And Big Sid was a huge black man, but very light. So they were totally contrary in their stature to the way they played, which is very strange. Ahmet Ertegun is the only one I actually asked a lot about this. Ahmet is very interesting, and his brother was.

What can a young drummer today gain from listening to these players you’ve just mentioned?

That there’s nothing really new. Georgie Wettling is one of the great Chicago drummers, a great, great, great Chicago drummer. In fact, Georgie Wettling is better documented than lots of people. He used to play with Eddie Condon. He’s a fantastic drummer, and he is so subtle – it’s like Freddy Below is a great subtle drummer, really, although he’s feet-first and it’s noisy. But it’s actually very subtle, the pick-ups he does. I mean, the thing with blues bands, like records, is you never quite know who’s on ’em, really. It’s all up to whether [Chess engineer] Ron Malo wrote the name down directly on the day. If you go further back you don’t know who’s on ’em. So if Freddy Below is the player on “Smokestack Lightnin’” by Howlin’ Wolf, that’s really clever drumming. That isn’t just straight-ahead. He plays lovely things with his feet.

What did you think of Odie Payne, the other house drummer at Chess Records?

I don’t know who that is. You’d have to play a record for me to know him. Below, I know of and have seen. But there are a lot of guys unheard of, really, who play wonderfully. I mean, I personally like band drummers. All the drummers that I’ve mentioned or I admire – all the records I have of Roy Haynes, for example – are all rhythm records. You know, the Coltrane thing, A Different Drummer, and he did some wonderful records with Roland Kirk – Out of the Afternoon and all those. It’s not the drum solos I like, it’s the rhythm section drumming. Max Roach is another one like that, who’s a phenomenal player.

Who was your favorite drummer with Miles Davis?

Miles? Don’t know a favorite. He had a way of putting bands together so you never heard of them.

My favorite drummer, I suppose, on record would be Philly Jo Jones, and to see play live, Tony Williams – by a long way. And Tony’s more important, really, because he turned drumming around. Nobody played like Tony Williams did when he was 18. When I first saw him he was 18. Nobody played like that. You didn’t drop time. Philly Jo would ride, you know, and it would be straight through. Tony would drop. Have you got the [Miles Davis] album Four and More? That’s a classic example of Tony Williams’ way of playing the drums. The way I play and the way most guys played until he arrived would be to play straight through – you know, one, two, one, two, one, two. Foot, foot. Left foot, right foot, left foot, you know. But Tony would go tt-tt, tt-tt, tt-tt, tt-tt with his left foot, and nobody ever did that sort of thing. They didn’t play time like that. He would drop time, he would halve it. And him and Run Carter invented this way of playing. Important. You know a guy called Scott LaFaro, the bass player? Him and Paul Motian used to do it with Bill Evans. They’d play a time inside the time, and nothing would be keeping time, except one note on the bass would be the anchor.

During the ARMS Concert, it was telling to see Kenney Jones' gigantic drum setup alongside yours, which is a case-study in simplicity.
That’s how I’ve always played. I have a hard enough job playing them; I don’t really want to play more.

Have you always admired the elegance in simplicity?

Yeah. I mean, Micky Roker is a beautiful-looking drummer. He just is wonderful. Philly Joe is. Elvin’s like that. When Elvin Jones gets going, it rolls. It’s like thunder and everything, but to watch him, it just rolls ’round. The arms go. When I was young, my favorite drummer was a guy called Joe Morello. And Joe Morello was all taste and elegance in his playing – superb ears and technique. You know, it’s very hard to play with just a piano. Piano, bass, and drums is one of the hardest things for a drummer to play, to support, because of all the textures you have to use.

Do you play styles your fans might be unaware of?

I’m not aware of it.

Do you play every day when you’re not working?
No. I used to practice every day. I don’t anymore.

Do you collect historic drums?

Yeah. But, see, I collect anything, not only drums. I do. I collect anything. And there’s lovely old drums. I collect snare – most drummers collect snare drums. I have quite a lot of them, and they go back to 1926.

Have you used an old set on record?

No. I’ve got an old 1926 drum kit, you know, that contracts, with things on the top. I’ve got one of those. I don’t really like those. I like the ’40s type.

What’s your all-time favorite setup?

The make is Gretsh. The one I’ve got behind the curtain downstairs is also very good. It’s a 1960 black Gretsch, a Tony Williams one, 18" bass drum. I bought it about a year ago, and I’ve been playing it here. I’ve been messing about with it myself, with the band. But the one I’ve got now is about my favorite. I’ve used it on my jazz record things that I do, the Stones stuff. A guy from S.I.R. [Studio] brought it along to Ronnie Wood’s when we were making – Ronnie will tell you what album it was, I’ve forgotten – in Los Angeles. And I fell in love with it. It’s a ’58, I think, Gretsch. So I have a few. For snares drums, I’ve got mixtures of Leedys and all that, but most of my kits are Gretsch. I have a green-glitter and gold-plated Gretsch kit from about 1958. I had that done because I saw Mel Lewis with Stan Kenton when I was a kid. Some guy offered me a green glitter – they’re fantastic – and so I had it gold-plated. Lovely thing, but don’t think I’ll ever use it, but it’s a lovely looking thing.

Keith mentioned that you took a more active role in the making of Voodoo Lounge than on past projects.
Where did he say that?

In the pink section of the San Francisco Chronicle.

Oh. I don’t know.

He mentioned you’d recorded in a stairwell and were more involved with the mix.

Oh, yeah. Well, I don’t know. I wasn’t that involved with the mixing. I was probably just talking to Don Was or Don Smith.

What’s the monster drum sound on “Thru and Thru”?

That is the stairwell. I think it’s on four or five songs on the album. “You Got Me Rocking.” [Glances at the Voodoo Lounge CD booklet.] Oh, and I play a trash can in the stairwell on “Moon Is Up.” It’s a four-flight stairwell, and I started off at the top, which is “Moon Is Up,” and I landed up at the bottom playing “You Got Me Rocking” and “Thru and Thru.”


Yeah. The studio’s at the top. It’s like going down, then? So it’s open all the way down. So we started off out by the door there, and then Don Smith said, “Would you go to the bottom and try it?" It was a bit small down there, but it was all right. The problem is you can’t hear anything down there except drums – such tremendous sound.

What are your observations on playing with Darryl Jones?
Very easy. And I don’t mean that comfortably easy; I mean, he’s very comfortable to play with. He’s a rhythm section player. Well, the role he plays with us, he’s doing that. I don’t know how he would play if he were in a different type of band. Someone as talented as Darryl could play anything. That’s what being a professional musician is about – one side of it is being able to do these things. With us, he’s very quick to pick things up, very much a rhythm section within a rhythm section. He doesn’t play on top of the rhythm; he’s underneath it, which is what we need, really. Foundation. You can’t have someone playing over the top, because there’s no room then. There is nothing at the bottom and no room for anybody else. So I actually find him very comfortable to play with. He’s a very nice man as well, which is half of it. When we did the auditions, I’d never auditioned people before, for anything – I haven’t. We auditioned them, and there were lots of guys, you know. We landed with three or four, and really it was a question . . . You know, there is a certain caliber of musician that could do the job. It’s then a question of, do you think – and then you hope – that you can get on with this guy. For the next two years, you’ve got to be together. And he seems very nice. Well, he is very nice.

Bill Wyman has said that the difference between the Rolling Stones and other rock bands is that the Stones follow the rhythm guitarist, who is Keith Richards.
Yeah. Yeah, I always do. I don’t need to hear the rest of the band if Keith is there. I mean, now it’s different because you have PAs that are so good, but at one time that’s all I could ever hear. I used to have the amplifier right next to me. I still do, but it was essential at one time, when you didn’t have any monitors or they were really not very good.

Keith’s sometimes been accused of turning the beat around.

That’s because we all . . . I mean, the thing with me and Keith is that we just have a go at things, and sometimes they work. I mean, analyzing it all after is another thing, and that’s for somebody else to do. We just enjoy playing, and I just follow what he’s doing.

What do you have to do to get ready to tour?
There’s no way you can practice doing this. You have to get your hands used to going, but you never really reach that until you’ve done two or three shows. You’re just trying to condition yourself so that your arms don’t ache. It’s not really the aching, it’s actually the cramp that you get. [Rubs edge of hand]

In your hand?

Anywhere, anywhere. Your body, you know. You’re not doing anything, and all of a sudden you’re doing this for two hours, constantly, very hard. And it causes certain reactions. So I, personally, spend at least six weeks practicing. Most of the time it’s physically getting conditioned so that you get through a two-hour show. You know, sometimes we rehearse eight, ten hours a day – for that reason. I do – I don’t know how the others look at it, got no idea. The problems aren’t the same with a guitar player. Drumming is a very physical thing. Well, I stretch, but see, I do that anyway. I really don’t do anything special, except practice when we are rehearsing. I never practice with drums at home when I’m not doing anything.

If you had a child . . .
I do!

Who wanted to become a professional rock drummer, would you suggest . . .

No. I would say be a drummer, not a rock drummer. What the fuck’s a rock drummer? I mean, I don’t know what a rock drummer is.

Bonham, for one.
Well, that’s John Bonham playing with Led Zeppelin. Is that rock and roll?

It’s part of it, sure.
What would I say to him? I wouldn’t say anything.

Would you suggest a course of study, people he or she should hear?
Yeah. I would say learn to read music and listen to other people other than John Bonham. Now you’ve got totally the wrong impression about what I just said – I can see it in your face. [Leans forward and speaks carefully.] John Bonham is the best at being John Bonham and doing what he does. Or did – unfortunately, he’s dead. He was the best. There wasn’t anyone better than John like that, and thank goodness we’ve got some records so that you can hear it. But there are a lot of other people.
Ginger Baker was a much better drummer than John Bonham, if you really want to know about drumming. Ginger Baker is the best drummer to emigrate out of England. Really, Ginger is. And the guy who Ginger idolized – whatever the word was – we all did – was a guy called Phil Seaman. And Ginger learned everything off Phil. But Ginger can read, you know. Ginger’s not a foal. He can read music, he has wonderful chops, he has rudiments down. Having said all that, I don’t. So I would say to anyone – not only my offspring, but anyone – that’s what you should do, really. Otherwise, you’re locked into doing what I do. Which is fine. It worked for me.

The most important thing of all of it is to be you. There’s a load of people who play brilliant drums, but there’s only one Billy Higgins. There is only one Elvin Jones. There’s only one . . . And the reason there’s only one of them is their personality. Elvin is a huge black dynamo, you know. Naturally when you listen to him go, that’s what he sounds like. And it doesn’t have to be fast. It is this machine going. It’s not a machine that’s clicking regular; it’s what Miles used to call “between the beats.” It’s African. It’s what he is, man. Ginger is the same. Ginger is this skinny, huge white man who plays monstrous. But Ginger played like that when he was 20. I used to see him play.

Before Cream.

Yeah! God, he took over for me with a band in England, Alexis [Korner’s Blues Incorporated], but I used to know him before that – 1960. I first heard Ginger playin’ in 59, I think. And he was bloody good then. Don’t mean good – I mean bloody good. Him and Jack Bruce used to play in one of the best – well, the most exciting, if it wasn’t the best – jazz groups in London. And you don’t get in those bands by being half good. They were very good. ’Cause there’s a lot of guys who are very good.

Did you hear Ginger on the Masters of Reality record?

No. I kind of lost track of Ginger’s recording career because he disappeared to Italy at one time. I wanted him to play in an orchestra I had, but I could never track him down.
I speak to Jack Bruce quite a bit.

Are you a fan of African drummers?
Yeah! Any drummer should be a fan of African drummers. It’s like saying, “Do you like Brazilian music?"

Could you recommend records for the uninitiated?

Not really. They’re unpronounceable, lots of the names, and I just know the record, you know. Mustapha Tettey is one. There’s loads of them. I don’t really know, but nearly everyone in Africa can play something like that. When you get into the realm of good and very good, they are so incredible. It’s like in Brazil. Those guys play a tambourine like nobody else. If you stand next to a Brazilian at Carnival playing a tambourine, it’s like Count Basle going. It is! It’s incredible. I’ve seen them, and there’ll be twenty of ’em doing it and it’s amazing sound. They walk like that, you know. Africans walk different than what I do, and that’s how they play.

Imagine what New Orleans’ Congo Square ring dances must have been like a hundred years ago, with a hundred people pounding out rhythm.
That’s the second line. Yeah! Entertainment was like that then. In Brazil they start rehearsing for the Carnival nine months before the Carnival. They all submit songs and play them – each little society – and they’re fantastic. It’s like a huge great band of musicians just playing all these songs that everybody else has submit, and you have to choose the winner. And that winner goes on and on and on, and they rehearse it all with the dancers, and they land up at the Carnival, trying to win the Carnival. They do it in Trinidad as well.

When you were young, did you share Mick and Keith’s enthusiasm for blues music?

No. I learned the blues through a man called Cyril Davies, and Alexis Korner. From them two I met Mick and Keith. Brian [Jones] first, then Mick and Keith. I used to play in this band with Jack Bruce, and Keith and Mick used to sit in sometimes. Brian would come down. I used to play with a lot of other bands as well. When I joined the Rolling Stones I used to sit around, and Keith and Brian taught me Jimmy Reed. Well, they used to play it all the time; we used to do a lot of those numbers. So I learned it through them. They also taught me to enjoy Elvis Presley, through D.J. Fontana, who I think is a wonderful player. But before that, I never used to listen to him. There was only one record I ever liked of Elvis’ before. The blues, to me, before that was “Now’s the Time” by Charlie Parker – that was the blues for me – or “West End Blues” by Louis Armstrong. That was the blues. If you’re talking about sort of rural blues, Chicago blues, no, I didn’t know any of them, really. Cyril was the first one to play me Muddy Waters.

You went on to record with Howlin’ Wolf.
The London Sessions. We’d met before that. We’d done Shindig with him. He was good then.

Keith remembered Wolf as being gentle.
Oh, yeah. He was great. But the guy with him was a guy called Hubert Sumlin, and Hubert is a dream of a guy – wonderful guy. I had a great time. I did a whole album with him. Well, Ringo did one thing, and I did the rest of the album, me and Bill. Eric’s on there.

That’s where Howlin’ Wolf is teaching Clapton to play “Little Red Rooster” on slide?
Yeah, yeah. He was great. The only drawback was the silly ass of a producer. He was a stupid college kid.

Did you have many encounters with Muddy?

Keith has mentioned that the first time you went into Chess Records, Muddy was painting the ceiling?

I don’t remember that. We played with him a few times. He was lovely. For me, one of the greats. If you asked me to choose one of my favorite blues records, it would be the one that’s either called “Louisiana Blues” or “Louisiana Calling.” “I’m going down to Louisiana and get me a mojo hand.” It’s that slow one with the slide. He was a real country player. And the great album he did – the only time, I think, that a cover of an old blues record was done better than the original – was Hard Again with Johnny Winter. I think his version of “Mannish Boy” is better than the original. Oh, yeah.

With Willie “Big Eyes” Smith on drums.

Yeah, he was great, he was great.

Given your broad taste for jazz, has being in the Rolling Stones ever seemed restricting?

Or frustrating?

No. Rock and roll is restricting. It’s on the whole time. There’s no budging. If you budge, it’s wrong. It doesn’t work. But jazz breathes, you know – or improvised music breathes. It’s got an elasticity to it, which is very, very hard to do well. But it does have this air about it. All of it – even Louis Armstrong does. And there’s different volumes you play. Most rock and roll, especially now, is totally on top, especially now with machines and monitors like they are. Volume the whole time.

Have you used drum programs?

I’m not sure. Probably. Not properly. Not like Prince would use it.

I can’t help but feel that the sound of drum machines will probably cause some of today's music to sound dated.
Probably. Well, there’s a whole other side to music, which is the emotion of when you hear it – what you’re doing, who you are, whatever. It applies to me. Micky Roker, to me, is seeing him one night, him and my wife, at Ronnie Scott’s. I’d seen him before; I would sit talking to him. But that’s not how I remember him playing, that’s how I remember him. Mel Lewis is the same. I’ve gotten so many records that I think he’s wonderful on, but my memories of Mel are of talking to him the few times I met him and how nice a guy he was.

Were you ever nervous meeting musicians you admire?
Oh, yeah. I’ll never forget the first time I met Tony Williams. I was frightened to say hello. He actually came up to me and said hello. It was at the Village Vanguard. I’d been to see him play before with Mick Taylor, and he was with a band called Lifetime, with Larry Young and John McLaughlin. And he left immediately afterward, so I didn’t get to see him then. And I’d seen him with Miles before he’d left to form this band, which was fantastic. And then I saw him at the Vanguard soon afterward with a piano player called Hank Jones – Elvin’s older brother, actually, fantastic piano player. I think Ron Carter was with them. I was standing there, and I thought, “Should I go and say hello? Should I go and say . . .” And he actually came and said hello to me, and I was so thrilled!

But what I’m saying about music is that it can do that to you. So you might say, “Oh, ‘1991’ [Prince’s “1999”] is just gonna disappear into the blue yonder.” But it won’t for a lot of people who remember it from their first date, it might have been the first time they got drunk, it might have been whatever. But to them, it’s more than Prince singing “1991.” By the way, I happen to think Prince is probably the best of all the newer people.

The Minneapolis Mozart.
I think he is. Yeah! In that world. There are people outside that world that are just as good – you know, they’re worried about the relationship of one note against the other, with the harmonic. In other words, for their composition. Yeah, there are. But other than that, in his position, doing what he does with what he does, he’s by far and away the best, I think. Most exciting, Prince is. I like Spin Doctors, actually. I’m sure they’d be great to go and see. I wouldn’t want to see a [drums] machine going. But I don’t think Prince does that live, does he? I mean, he has a band. I’m sure he’s a good player, as well. When you’re that good, you don’t start nowhere. You can’t be half of these guys unless you’re grounded and, on top of that, have very good natural ability.

Have you heard Virgin’s reissues of the older Rolling Stones records?

No. Oh, no. I never play our records. I hear them when Keith plays them. I haven’t played this one [points to Voodoo Lounge]. I’m sure they sound good. They’re probably a lot cleaner, I suppose. Are they remixed?


God, takin’ a chance. I don’t know if I’d know if it was . . . I’ll tell you what, a couple of times downstairs Keith said to put up a song, and it sounded remarkably good to what I thought it was gonna sound like. And they’re off the new CDs, because we have them all downstairs for reference, you know. If you call a song, it’ll be back there. It probably is. You’re right. I must have another listen, actually.

As far as your playing goes, have you got favorites among the tracks you’ve recorded with the Stones?

Not really.
Are you self-critical?
Yeah. I don’t really like much of what I’ve done.

What is your biggest musical limitation?
Can’t count, really. I must be one of the few drummers in the world who make a living at it who can’t take what’s called “fours and eights.” I have a quintet of fantastically talented musicians and to them taking choruses is nothing. And I mean going one [taps table], and 32 things later, you go [taps table] like that. But it’s never interested me. The alto player with us, who I think is the best, if not one of the best alto saxophonists alive today, says that the reason is I’ve never done it. It could be true. But I do go blank in the middle of it.

What keeps you grounded while countless people adulate . . .
I don’t listen to them, actually. I’m not that interested in it, and I don’t really listen to them. That is not to say that . . . The best thing about doing this is going on, people applauding you when you come off, and having people say how great they thought it was, whether it’s at the Blue Note or at the Shea or Giant Stadium. That is a fantastic reward. But outside of that, I wouldn’t sit and listen to any of the other stuff.

Could you have been happy in another profession?
Well, I wouldn’t know Mick and Keith, or Ronnie Wood, would I? I was happy in another profession. When I was in a [art] studio, I was perfectly happy there, but I always wanted to be a drummer. I always wanted to play with Charlie Parker. When I was 13 I wanted to do that.

Did you ever see him?
No. He wasn’t allowed to play in England.

Because of heroin?
No [laughs], because of the musicians union – a worse drawback! No Americans were playing there between ’31, something like that, and ’53. The last American officially billed on a tour in England was someone like Fats Waller. Duke Ellington did one before, in 1931, and then it was Fats Wailer. And then the first one to come over officially and play [in 1953] was Big Bill Broonzy. And then Lionel Hampton played a midnight concert. They got around it by slotting the thing at midnight, and he tore the place up. I didn’t go, though – I wasn’t a Lionel Hampton fan at that time, but I wish I had gone. A legendary concert now. In London. At that time Lionel Hampton was absolutely – he still is, actually – fantastic. But he was on top then.

When the British bands first started coming to America, did you sense a rivalry between you, Keith Moon, and Ringo Starr?
That had nothing to do with us. We played in bands. It was whether the band got booked there. I mean, Ringo wouldn’t have come here unless he was with the Beatles. I wouldn’t be here unless I was with the Stones, you know. But you can say, "Well, that’s stupid, because you are that.” But at the time, we never thought of it in that way, I don’t think. I don’t know. Keith’s not here to answer that, and Ringo is not either. I don’t know how Ringo feels. There was a paper rivalry between everybody, but that’s bullshit. I used to see Keith around. He was one of the nicest people – crazy nice, but nice, though. I loved Keith a lot, actually. Very sad. And Ringo I’ve always liked and have always gotten on with. We’ve spoken. I really like Ringo. In fact, of all the Beatles, him and John Lennon are the two that I know. I don’t know the other two. I mean, I’ve met them, I’ve had conversations with both of them, but Ringo the most, obviously, really, because drummers tend to do that anyway. [Suddenly Hank Williams’ “Hey, Good Looking" comes over a nearby stereo.] My song! I love this song.

This covers it. Thanks a lot.
Okay. Do you play?

Yes. I like country blues on acoustic guitar.

What happened to Leo Kottke?

He’s still very active. He recently played with Rickie Lee Jones.
Did he? Oh, yeah, he was a lovely man, he was. Really nice guy. It was great touring with him.

By the way, I have to say I was more excited about interviewing you than anyone else in the band.


I admire your musicianship and love your playing.
Have I broken it all now? Have I shattered it all now?

No. You were kind to the stranger in the back of the van.
Well, you never know. He might be your manager next year!


Help support this blog and independent music journalism by making a small donation via the Paypal button at the bottom of this page.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Ry Cooder – Talking Country Blues and Gospel

Sometimes the most memorable interviews happen unexpectedly. Researching Blind Willie Johnson, the sublime prewar gospel-blues slide guitarist from Texas, I was struck by how magnificently Ry Cooder had used Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night – Cold Was the Ground” in his Paris, Texas soundtrack. I sent Cooder a note asking if he’d give me a quote. A few days later, on February 25, 1990, the phone rang and it was the man himself. After talking about Blind Willie Johnson, Ry suddenly moved on to another Johnson – Robert – and unraveled one of the great myths surrounding the legendary Mississippi Delta bluesman. Read on.


You come closer to sounding like Blind Willie Johnson than anyone I’ve ever heard.
God almighty!

How do you think he physically played the instrument?
Well, I’m playing his music the way I know how to play bottleneck, which is to hold the guitar upright, wear a bottleneck on your finger, and fingerpick the thing, and play in the tuning that I’m certain that he used. But I have no idea how he played what he played. I mean, who knows? It’s so far back into the distant past that anything is possible. I’ve seen this guy, Rev. Leon Pinson – he’s a blind preacher from Mississippi – play holding a bar in his finger and thumb on his left hand, reaching around underneath like you would, and fingering the thing that way. And getting a very similar vibrato to Blind Willie Johnson. He has the quality of never quite coming up to the note and hitting it. In other words, that’s a very inexact technique that I just described, but it does give you the quarter tones and all of the strange nuances. When I’m playing, I’m so used to playing the very note. Look, it’s sad that no one ever thought to take a picture of the guy while he was playing, because he played in two styles. He played normal guitar, just strumming and rhythm, which you can hear him doing with his thumb. I don’t have any idea how he played, and I don’t know what he looked like when he played. You know, two seconds of observation would answer every question you could ever have.

People who saw him playing on the streets of Beaumont in the 1940s said that he played with the guitar on his lap and used a pocketknife.
Played flat?

Like a Hawaiian guitarist.
I can’t imagine how he could have played what he played doing that. There is one thing about when you play that way – the same with this guy Pinson, who’s playing not flat, but holding the thing, rather than wearing it – there’s something that happens when you wear it, and there’s something else that happens when you hold it. Now, Blind Willie Johnson had great dexterity. He could play all of these sparking little melody lines. There’s fabulous syncopation. He’d keep his thumb going real strong. But when I saw this guy Pinson down South last summer – even though he’s nowhere near the guitar player Johnson was – I had an ear to what he was doing that sounded like Johnson. I don’t know, it’s just a different sound, and I can’t quite say why. But I have a feeling when you play bottleneck and you’re wearing the thing, your hand is there on the strings, either damping them or not damping them. It’s more of a controlling sound when you hold the guitar and nothing but the bar or the knife blade, maybe, touches the string. The guitar tends to ring more. It tends to keep the strings released and open, see. And more sound is happening. Because Johnson’s sound is very active.

I never could figure out how in the world he got such a busy sound playing so little. I used to think, why are all the strings going all the time? Because the recording is so horrible – the quality of the recording is the worst in the world, on one of those horrendous little machines which is eliminating all but the most spikey sound that the guy is producing. You’re not hearing any of the real aural ambient effect at all. I’m sure that in person, this guy sounds a thousand percent different. All the recording is showing us is the lowest-common-denominator type of sound, the most direct thing. The struck notes are all that you’re hearing. But even through that, you can hear that the strings are moving all the time. And I used to think that he’s making a lot of work to move all these strings around. And I know that old, primitive players, street guys and blues players, do nothing to work too hard. It seems like, to me, when I met these guys, the few that I’ve met, they’re very efficient in the style. If it takes too much effort and physical work, then you’re doing something wrong. So when I was young, I didn’t know. I used to go to tremendous efforts to try to do this stuff, only to realize later that I was probably barking up the wrong tree.

Are you suggesting that he didn’t damp behind the slide?

Oh, I know he didn’t. Now, he could have used his picking hand. Because if you’re playing flat, you can, with the side of your hand in the manner of steel players, stop resonance just by approaching the strings, barely touching them. But you can do a lot that way. But I personally cannot see how . . . Of course, I don’t play flat.

Another account says he held his guitar normally and used a jackknife for his slide.
I don’t know, because I haven’t researched or read – I’m sure you’ve looked into this way further than I have – but I have a feeling that all of the primitive players who were not in Mississippi and who played slide played flat. Lead Belly played flat. Guys from Texas did play flat. Because when the Hawaiians came through in an early World’s Fair [1893’s Columbia Exposition], everybody saw these guys and everybody was influenced. There was tremendous impact. And they all played flat. So most people would have said, “Right, I play flat.” Now we know Blind Willie played regular, because there’s that one picture of him. And you know that that’s the way that the guitar was used. But then when you go to play the sliding style, why, then you’re playing flat. It’s just natural that everybody would have done what the Hawaiians did. It’s just human nature – except in Mississippi, where for some crazy reason they didn’t. In Mississippi they seemed to play regular, but with bottlenecks and bones and things. Some people held a jackknife between the fingers, as though it were another finger. But outside of Mississippi – and I don’t know about any scholarship or historical investigation that bears this out – but you can hear the difference. And you can hear when people are playing flat. It’s probably true that Blind Willie Johnson played all that stuff flat, and it is quite amazing, but it would account for how he gets around on the strings.

Of course, I’ve tried all my life -- worked very hard and every day of my life, practically – to play in that style. Not consciously saying, “Today is Tuesday, I will again try to play like Blind Willie Johnson,” but that sound is in my head. And really when you come right down to it, you can sit down and play some of his tunes, and the single-string melody thing that he did, which is so great. He’s so good – I mean, he’s just so good! Beyond a guitar player. I think the guy is one of these interplanetary world musicians, the kind of person they talk about in that Nada Brahma book, where the world is sound and everything is resonating. He’s one of those guys. There’s only a few. Being blind and all, maybe he asked what’s going on, maybe somebody described it to him.

I wish we had some notion what people thought of these Hawaiians – they must have looked like Martians coming through with their grass skirts and things. And God knows they’re good players. Because they were so good at what they were doing, why, Mexicans picked it up, and the South Americans picked it up. We know that they sold steel guitar from then on, and the stuff was made to be done that way. And along comes a guy like, say, Robert Johnson, whom I hope didn’t play flat!

Johnny Shines told me recently that he did not.
It’s just unthinkable, because there’s too much going on. When you play flat, you can’t do so much. Well, that accounts for some of the simplicity and purity of Blind Willie’s thing, and I cannot do it. I cannot play flat to save my life. I can’t coordinate my body that way. It’s fine with me that he did. When I saw this guy Leon Pinson down in Mississippi, I went home and I found me a metal bar like he had and started trying to do it. It was awkward for me, but after a couple of days I started to see where you could play all this Blind Willie stuff that way. It didn’t occur to me to think, “Therefore he must have played flat.” It’s just what Pinson has gone and done. But if you did, you’d even be closer to that sound. I can see that it’s probably the case.

Was Pinson’s hand coming around the neck of the guitar the way you normally would?

Yes, because he plays regular too, like they all do. They all make a clear distinction between slide playing and regular playing. They don’t mix them together. Very few people did in those days, or do now. So he says, “I’m now gonna play slide,” and he takes out his bar, tunes the guitar down to a chord – same one as Johnson, same D tuning – and goes on doing this thing, not fretting at all. If you wear the slide, you can fret, but he’s not. He’s just playing the note and very few chords. Now, Blind Willie played hardly any chords. It was years before I realized that my brain was imagining the chords – he wasn’t playing them. He was just playing two or three notes and getting a suggestion of a chord once in a while. He was playing in that modal feel, not wanting to disturb that tonic drone. He didn’t need to. He was doing a different thing. And when you hear this old guy Pinson, you hear him strictly playing quarter notes and not playing the notes straight up and not wanting to create these stacked-up triads and regular harmonic intervals. It’s dissonant all the time. Now, that’s what these old recordings of Blind Willie Johnson don’t show us because you can’t hear anything. You don’t know to what extent this was dissonant or polytonal in that way.

Didn’t Johnson have a remarkable left-hand vibrato?

Oh, the best! The absolute best. Very light touch – real light and really fast. It’s just a thing that you can’t talk about, almost, because it’s just so perfect. But that vibrato, you can go and do it by wiggling that bar just right. I’m trying to do it these days. I hate doing it – it feels terrible – but I can see that you get a different sound, and that’s the only explanation that I can think of. I’d also like to know what kind of damn guitar he had. He probably used a little guitar. They didn’t have big guitars in those days. Hillbillies did, later in the ’30s when Gibson started making those big jumbos, but back in those days, all those players had smaller instruments.

What’s your attraction to “Dark Was the Ground – Cold Was the Night”?
That’s the most transcendent piece in all American music, the way he used his voice and the guitar. This other tune that I love so much is “God Moves on the Water.” Oh, that thing is like a roller coaster, man. He’s got an energy wave in there that he’s surfing across the face of that tune so mighty! He hits the chorus, and to me it’s like ice skating or downhill racing – it’s an awesome physical thing that happens. But “Dark Was the Night” is the cut – everybody knows that lick. You can throw that lick at anybody nowadays. I threw it up inside Paris, Texas, you know, and everybody relates. And now you play that lick, and everybody knows what it is. It’s like an unspoken word. It’s really amazing. [Legally download these tracks at]

I’ll really tell you, Blind Willie Johnson is in the ether somewhere. He’s up there in the zone somewhere. But if he played flat . . . And at this point, after talking with you, I’m starting to feel that really would account for it. Because I know that if it was regular, I could be doing it. I can do what he did – I can play those notes now. I mean, I have learned. My co-ordination and understanding have developed to the point where I am capable of executing those passages, but it sounds really different when you play flat.

Which of the first-generation bluesmen did you observe first hand?

Skip James I barely got to see, because he was sick all of a sudden. But I saw him, and I didn’t know what to make of him because his records really impressed me. When I saw him, he was having such physical trouble and he was so strange as a person that I recoiled from him. I didn’t know what to do. I was pretty young, and the vibe really killed me. But his records I listened to quite a lot. We used to see John Hurt, of course. And then, for me, the big deal was to see Sleepy John [Estes] because I liked his records so much. When I got mobile, I got a little older, I went down South to see him, and we used to sit with him. I’d go see him in his house up in Brownsville, Tennessee. Take him money and things. By that time I was kind of doing things. But as a teenager, I used to see him come through here.

Well, the whole thing about guys like that was you weren’t ready for them as citizens of the world. You know, for middle-class white kids in Santa Monica, sad to say, you don’t really know any people like that. Or Rev. Gary Davis – you just don’t know what’s going on. I had these records, although they weren’t easy to get in those days, but people had given me tapes or some 78s. I used to listen to these things and think, “Well, what could this all be about? Who are these people? What are they saying?” It’s a mysterious journey here, like Alice in Wonderland. And then, not understanding anything about the historical, social, economic conditions that produces music – there again, being pretty young and all – all of a sudden, in the folk boom, on the scene in Hollywood, in this folk music club, appears these guys. And they walk to the stage, walk through the audience. I was thunderstruck! I couldn’t breathe, you know. They got up onstage, sat down, and commenced to do whatever it was they were able to do. And of course that really killed me, because I thought, “This is beyond my understanding.”

After a while I began to gather up courage and go up and talk once in a while. You could sit down and say, “Can I understand this?” or “Can you show me this or that?” It was hard for me, but I did. And then I found out it was good, because they didn’t mind. They liked talking; it was not unpleasant for them. I didn’t bother anybody or badger them, like people do these days. But I was always curious and always trying to understand. Then it became obvious that it wasn’t so much the music as it was the people. If you could figure out where the people were and how they were as beings, why when the music was very clarified. Because what’s totally mysterious on record and inexplicable, why, in five minutes of watching a guy play, you got it. You understand body rhythm and how the instrument is approached, which is entirely different than how I’d seen it done. It was not linear, it was not patterns – they’d play out of patterns. They don’t play the horrible boom-chicka-boom thumb-finger, thumb-finger thing, you know. Everybody I knew did. That mad adherence to a mechanical thing that you set yourself up like a robot and play and think that’s what it is. I don’t know how that ever got started – banjo, maybe. But these guys didn’t play patterns, they didn’t play tuned. They were probably mostly out of tune. The whole thing was a revelation in what the instrument really could do in terms of personal expression. It’s a great gift to be able to have seen those people. Poor people today can’t see anybody.

Back in the earlier days, there wasn’t the attention to Western musical traditions of timing and tuning.
Not at all.

This is evident on the Bristol Sessions and other early country recordings – no studio sync-up here.
Oh, forget it. They’re coming from an entirely different way of life, an entirely different background. It’s just so radically different. If you go to Mississippi today, even, it’s a different place. You feel it’s a Third World country, a whole other scene. And back then, think of what it must have been like.

What impressed you about Sleepy John Estes on record?

Well, he had a great group – that piano player and the jug and the harmonica and him, all playing in different rhythmic emphasis. Everybody has a different take on what the rhythm is. Some of it’s half-time, some of it’s double-time. But the jug band idea, I think, is the greatest idea in terms of ensemble, applied in whatever way you want to apply it. In other words, primitive guys playing what they think is right and what they probably heard on somebody’s uptown record and trying to do it themselves. Or just what they hear music as sounding like, see, because they all listen to records too. Robert Johnson trying to sound like Lonnie Johnson makes perfect sense. And then saying, “Well, this is my version of Lonnie Johnson. This is what I think’s going on.”

Sleepy John Estes, of course, was a natural. He just put his hands on the instrument and opened his mouth. And then somebody would play piano and make it up out of nothing. I mean, out of nothing at all. Having no education, musically. It’s not like New Orleans, where everybody was schooled and there was a standard of reference. God almighty, down in the country, there is not standard of reference. You just did whatever your body would do. That’s the beauty of it. And Yank Rachel on mandolin – the whole thing is just fabulously interesting to me. From the sound point of view, I just used to bathe in those records. It’s like sit down and let it wash all through you. Pretty fascinating. Jesse Fuller – same thing with him. He used to come in, set that stuff up, and then sit down and play it and just wind it up. It would just unspool at you. It would take you away from your environment, that’s for sure.

Did Rev. Gary Davis ever give you playing tips?
Oh, I used to sit with him. He was a guy who gave lessons, actually. Now, how he got started and what made him turn to doing that in his age, I don’t know. But it was known that if you wanted to pick up from him, why, all you had to do was give him five or six dollars and go sit with him. So I used to go to where they put him up in some little house down here in L.A., someplace near Hollywood, when he’d come into town. And I’d sit there and say “I like this song” and name one of his tunes – because he had songs. He wasn’t just playing 12-bar blues, he was playing songs, and they had structure and all. Of course, he had this bizarre chordal sense and crazy right hand, and that was interesting. So we’d sit there for an hour or however long he wanted to stay – because when you’re in the company of a master, time is not a thing of the clock. The clock is not ticking, necessarily. If you want to stay all day, that’s okay. If you get tired, you leave. It’s kind of that sort of a thing. So we used to sit there. I never could play it back to him. A month later, it would come to me, what he had shown me or what he had done. He would just play, and then you would try to remember. I’d stare at his hands and try to figure it out. But I couldn’t make anything sound like that, and I never could play his way. I found that it was beyond my ability to do the thing that he was doing.

From a physical standpoint, what made it so difficult?

I don’t know. I mean, he had a bizarre technique. And you had to commit to it. It’s not a technique that flows into another person’s technique. In other words, Gary Davis is all by himself, in my experience, and if you committed to learning and being a student of his and a follower of his guitar mannerisms, you had to do that regardless, and everything else was secondary. I didn’t want to do that. I was really interested in something else at the time, and I felt that this was out of my range. I used to love to play his tunes, but I didn’t play them with any deep satisfaction because I realized it wasn’t working. This is not doing what he is doing. This is turning out like something else, and I’m not really crazy about it. Although he had some nice chord changes that used to thrill me, and I used to like to play the tunes just to hear those chord changes go down. But it was impossible.

In the prewar blues genre, do any other people stand out as being transcendental?

Gosh, sure. I mean, so many people. Blind Blake is a great player, a great musical figure. He’s another mysterious figure. In the years where he was on top of his thing, I think he was fabulous.

I think Lonnie Johnson has never been recognized as one of the transcendental people who influenced everybody. You can recognize Lonnie Johnson in just about anybody, with his voice and his elegant style. The stuff he did with Louis Armstrong was just incredible. So there he was. And he recorded with guys like Eddie Lang and all that. What he must have sounded like to country black people – they must have thought, “Well, this is somebody else!” You know, he’s up in town, getting this fabulous tone, and he’s real elegant and real top-hatted. It’s a whole other thing. It’s pop music, really. You can see people copying him right and left. Oh, it’s amazing. When I was very young, I heard some of that stuff, and it came through and really killed me. I used to sit and try to do that all the time. Still do. If I want to warm up, get my hands working and discipline my body, I will try to play some of his instrumentals. I can’t imagine what the hell he was doing, but I’m trying for it all the time. It’s just a way of using the instrument, right?

Did you hear many influences in the music of John Hurt?

That he had heard? Well, who knows? There’s a guy from Mississippi who’s playing in an un-Mississippi style. Very linear, melodic style. What did he hear? He must have heard Geechie music, maybe. Maybe he heard stuff from the Piedmont area. Maybe he thought it up all by himself.

Explain what you mean by Geechie music.
You know, the way the Sea Island people sound. That island thing all in the Piedmont area where Gary Davis, Sonny Terry, and a lot of those people sort of are from. It’s a very melodic style, syncopated in a different way. They play major chords and things, unlike a guy like Skip James, who plays crazy polymodal things and it’s a more open sound. Then Furry Lewis and John Hurt are far apart – maybe that’s Memphis. I don’t know what that is.

Now, Furry Lewis was in medicine shows. Medicine shows were interesting because they took music all around. They would leave regional areas, which were so distinct in those days. The musicians in the minstrel shows would travel to other areas and influence and be influenced. They were like a rock and roll tour is today, you might say. I mean, the fact that Joseph Spence travelled through the South in ’20s in medicine shows is mind boggling! I mean, that’s just absolutely amazing to me. And God knows what people thought of him, and yet if he went in the Piedmont area, there must have been places where he recognized music like his own. That’s a real interesting thing to think about, because guys like Furry Lewis were on medicine shows most of their early life. Jesse Fuller was travelling in medicine shows. That’s one of the things you could do to make money.

Were these shows designed to sell snake oil liniment?

Oh, yeah. You know, they would come into town on a truck, depending on how prosperous and how big they were. We’re talking about a countrified version of a minstrel show when minstrelsy had already either died out or was unknown in the countryside where there wasn’t a theater. Out in the countryside, in these little bitty towns – which was most of the Deep South – these damn guys, these quack doctors, would come in with a show and go ahead and do it. They would have a musical interlude, like Blind Peg Leg so-and-so would do his thing. Can you imagine what some of those shows must have been like?

Have you ever seen this film called Louis Bluie? There’s a little piece of footage about the jug band that’s in there, from like about 1910. That’s your medicine show. That’s hotter than fire. That one guy with the hat plays so much jug, he looks like he’s about ready to blow up! It’s awesome looking. That kind of thing just kills me, because I know they were out there and they were doing this, and it was hot. We think of the old men who could barely do it, but this was not so back in the ’20s and before. This stuff must have been cosmic! All we know is what we’ve got on records and a few still photographs. It’s really a shame. But I think to myself, “Well, that guy [director Terry Zwigoff] found that piece of film footage. I wonder what else is out there?” We’ll never know what it’s like. Or in the alleys off Beale Street. And just everywhere. I mean, music was all over the place. Country suppers and parties and picnics, and then there’s all that piano music, and then these guys get together. Blind Blake played all over the place with all kinds of people, including Johnny Dodds. It’s just really something. Or the zither player who played with Lead Belly.

But as far as old Blind Willie Johnson is concerned, he just missed the media, even when he died. If somebody would have been paying attention, but nobody thought about it much in those days, I guess.

It’s just like nobody thought about Robert Johnson. What happened was the engineer who made those records died, and no one ever asked him what kind of guitar did he play. And I’ll tell you something else about this. You know how they talk about how he was nervous and wouldn’t face the room [during his recording sessions]? I don’t believe that. You think that man is nervous? I’ll tell you what he was doing. They say he sat in the corner.

Well, find yourself a plaster corner sometime – all those hotel rooms [where early blues sessions were recorded] were plaster. And I don’t mean wallpaper or curtains. But you go and sit in a corner, with your guitar tight up against a corner. Face the corner and play, and see what it sounds like. Now, what you get there is a thing they call “corner loading.” This is an acoustic principal. What that does is it eliminates most of the top end and most of the bottom end and amplifies the middle. The same thing that a metal guitar does or an electric guitar – it mostly amplifies the midrange, which is where that metallic, kind of piercing sound is what’s left. Now, you take and record that way, and you’ll sound different. Because Robert Johnson sounds funny – let’s face it. It doesn’t sound like anybody playing an acoustic wooden guitar. But it’s not a metal guitar. But if you sit in a corner and stick your face up into the corner and listen, you’ll hear that sound. It ties the notes together. It compresses the sound too, and his sound is very compressed. See?

Look at Robert Johnson’s picture and listen to his singing and his forceful personality. This is a guy who was afraid of the audience?! Hell, no! This is chew-them-up-and-spit-them-out kind of a guy. I think he was sitting in the corner to achieve a certain sound that he liked. In other words, if you’d have said, “Robert, I’m gonna boost the midrange, take off . . .” – because it’s a dry sound, the acoustic guitar, finally. It’s a boring sound for Robert. He wants to hear wang! He wants to hear the electric. He wants to hear that boosted midrange. And I’ll bet you that if you could have done that for him with equalizing and headphones in the modern era, he’d have been very glad. I’ll bet you if you’d have given him a Marshall amp to play it through, he’d have been extremely glad! But sitting in the corner, he could achieve something like that.

And with the sound on those records, the voice and guitar is being mooshed together. It sounds like it’s being compressed – and early field recording did compress a lot. If you look at some of that primitive equipment, being tube and having a lot of headroom, it does tend to compress. I’ve never fiddled with that. I wanted to try it for the movie. We found the machine that they were gonna use to shoot the scene with – they got it out of a museum. I said, “Alright, let me take the machine into the room and load up the corner and see if we get that sound.” As interested as Walter Hill, the director, was in that idea historically, he didn’t have time to mess around. Someday I’m gonna try it, because I just know in my heart it will work. Because I have done it – I have sat in the corner, with earphones, and listened to the sound, and it sounds like that. And it’s a great thing, because all of a sudden the whole projection of the instrument is changed radically by a simple thing like that. [See the Epilogue at the end of this blog.]

I mean, these are the things that Don Law or whoever made those damn records could have answered in two seconds, for Christ’s sake. But nobody asked him. And if you weren’t there, you don’t know. How big was Robert Johnson’s guitar? Somebody said it was big, a Kalamazoo or Gibson – I’ve heard that said. Those are large-bodied guitars. They push some air around. And his hands look funny, bending at the top joint like that. I’m starting to believe that’s him in the photo.

Were you a fan of Tampa Red?
Oh, yeah! Love Tampa Red, of course. Now, if you were to say, “Do you think you sound like any of these people?” I would say it’s easier for me to sound like Tampa Red. I think I’ve got that wired. I don’t think I’m so good at these earlier guys, because they’re so idiosyncratic, but Tampa Red ironed out all the kinks and made it a little more accessible. He played it with a little more of a modern, big-band feeling, like a soloist, almost. Very linear and really, really good. He put it all together, as far as I’m concerned. He got the songs, he had the vocal styling, he had the beat. I really think that it’s a straight line from Tampa Red to Louis Jordan to Check Berry, without a shadow of a doubt – a straight line through those three guys. You really can feel it. And he wrote some songs – or assembled them in the manner of traditional music, where you don’t write so much as you assemble or reassemble – like “It’s Tight Like That” and “Sittin’ on Top of the World.” That’s a mind who sees how to refine and flesh-out, drawing from all sources. He’s drawing from sources like the Chatmon brothers and the Mississippi Sheiks, Papa Charley Jackson.

Tampa Red put it all together, he really did. He changed it from rural music to commercial music, and he was very popular as a result. Look how successful the guy was – he made hundreds of records, and they’re all good. Some of them are incredibly good, with Washboard Sam and whoever was on piano – that stuff is fabulous! You gotta say, “Okay, that’s where it starts to become almost pop.” It’s a very straight line – him, Louis Jordan, Chuck Berry. The development is clear in my mind when I listen to that stuff. It’s good. And he had a great guitar technique too, for sure. Ooh! Non-threatening. I mean, everything about him was fun-sounding. He wasn’t scaring anybody. He didn’t sound like he was gonna eat you alive. He just sounded like we’re all having fun here, like Jim Jackson’s Jamboree and all that stuff. I really love all that.

What did you think of Robert Wilkins?

Well, he’s a great player, a songwriter. That “Prodigal Son” song is a hell of a song. [In 1929, Wilkins recorded his first version as “That’s No Way to Get Along” and later renamed the song “Prodigal Son.” It's at under its original title.] When you get these guys who write from a spiritual reference or point of view, it’s really interesting – like Washington Phillips and all that. Washington Phillips played Doceola [a small keyboard instrument] – different bag, but he had some pretty scary tunes too. Oh, there’s so much. The list goes on and on – it’s amazing, isn’t it? It’s a one- or two-generational thing, coming from almost nowhere. There’s no background for the blues to even exist.

There’s no reference to real blues before 1900.

Yeah. And where would it have come from, unless it’s that cane-fife stuff, wherever that came from. You know, fife-and-drum bands down in Mississippi, like that guy Napoleon Strickland. That stuff seems pre-blues to me. And that seems to be the only thing that I can think of that is.

In parts of antebellum Mississippi, Black Codes forbade the playing of drums after they had been used to spread messages among slaves during a revolt. Maybe this helps account for the differences between the development of black music in New Orleans and Mississippi.

Sure. They had a whole schooled musical tradition in New Orleans. Up until a certain point, the kids all learned regular serious music. They learned how to read music. They also had country bands, like in the South Carolina area, those jump bands playing on broken Confederate horns they found in the field, playing hymns and things. That’s a whole other bag. Do you know The Music from the South series that Frederick Ramsey put together on Folkways? One of the volumes was called Country Brass Bands. He went down there and he recorded two country brass bands, which were kind of loose organizations of guys who knew each other and would play on the weekends or for dances.

Apparently, this started after the Civil War. The Confederate armies all had brass bands and marching bands as part of the morale building. And when they lost, these guys just laid their instruments down in the field and left them. Then after the war goes by and the black people return to the field or their homes, and they actually found these horns in the dirt or left in sheds or I don’t where. In time, they became handed down in families, broken, full of holes, tied together with tape. And they didn’t learn to play like the guys in New Orleans, with proper fingering. They knew only the bugle mouth and a little fingering, all wrong, but they liked these things and so they started playing in bands. You gotta get that record. He found two of these bands – there are about ten guys in each group, and they play some kind of hymns that they know in this style, on broken instruments. They have no chops, they’ve got no mouth embouchure at all. But they play this so it’s strictly from the guts. It’s the life vibration that they live in, a pure expression through a horn rather than, say, a guitar.

Also, in those days when Ramsey was doing this work, in the ’50s, he did an early news magazine show on CBS called Omnibus. You must see this – it’s strictly important. Ramsey did one called something like, “They Took a Blue Note.” It was an hour show of jazz. They came to Ramsey, being the expert at the time, and he put it together for them. It shows him going down into Alabama. You see a little of New Orleans – that’s a really nice funeral there. Then you’re out there and there’s Horace Sprott, who was one of his discoveries, playing the harmonica and plowing the field – that’s kind of stagey and dumb. But all of a sudden, around the corner come five guys behind a barn, and they have these beat-up horns. They stand up and play this stuff, and you just fall on your knees. I’m telling you, you will have a transcendent experience, because it’s right in front of your face. It’s a thing that you can barely believe, but it’s one of the great documents of pure soul. These guys are field hands in the 1950s, they’re all middle-aged men, hard-working guys, and they play these horns in some crazy way. The sound that comes out is utterly mind-boggling. It’s just too good.

I had given up all hope of ever seeing this – I figured, well, that’s gone – but there are still some of these jump bands, as they’re now called, down in the South. I heard one at the Atlanta Blues Festival, called the Old Morrisville Brass Band, from South Carolina, and they play this way. They can’t finger these horns and they can’t change keys, but they’ll blow you right out of your seat. It is good.

Try to make the effort to get a hold of the CBS footage – you won’t be sorry. It belongs in everybody’s collection. It is something else to see. You’re talking deep country here, where some of these scenes were filmed – now it’s probably a mall. Man, that thing with the brass players is hot! It’s riveting. You need to see that, because that’s a pre-blues instrumental expression from the countryside, and that’s Civil War-vintage type of understanding on your instruments. [If any readers find or post this footage, please send a link.]

Besides the fife-and-drum tradition, do other pre-blues forms still survive in the country?

I think that the marching band music is one, because it’s all based on 19th-century music. I think the cane-fife thing is a voice there. And then, of course, we have Joseph Spence, who was a voice from the 19th century – he’s dead now. He was in medicine shows, and he was playing hymns. And have you heard this [1920s] group called the Norfolk Jubilee Quartette with Jimmy Bryant on bass? [Sample track:] Well, I believe they are Geechie, Piedmont-area guys. If they don’t sound like Joseph Spence, then I’ll eat my hat. He does the same thing with his voice. And I know in my heart he heard that group, because that group was hugely popular. And Jimmy Bryant on lead bass was a unique expression [Cooder sings one of Bryant’s deep bass parts] – that’s what Spence is doing all the time. He’s singing that part.

Apparently Jimmy Bryant used to make women fall out and they’d throw their handbags at him and the rest. And he got out in the audience and did the number. So I have a feeling that that minstrel-type gospel shout thing, which we now refer to as quartet style, is a 19th-century style as well. And it sort of survives in pockets down there. There are a few people who still relate to that, but it’s hard to hear anymore. It’s really died out since the era of the soloist kind of wiped it out. But that was a thing that you found in minstrel and church styles way early – I mean, some of those gospel quartet records are way, way early records. So I figure that sort of survives, because church things tend to change slower. People keep their church traditions. And if you went down in the Sea Islands today, where a lot of that music came from, and down around the Norfolk area, you’d hear some of that stuff. I just know you would. It isn’t blues, but there’s blues in it.

And the blues singers listened to church music too, because almost every black was raised up in church. I don’t care if they end up the meanest, nastiest blues singer, they were raised in church. So they were hearing this stuff as a youth, and it’s got to mean something, especially to country people. What else do they have to do but go to church? There’s a strong musical voice in all black music that comes from their experience in church, whatever that may have been. In the case of country people it’s the singing – they didn’t have anything else. That’s why a lot of early records were of preachers.

Around 1902, the Dinwiddie Colored Quartette made some of the first recordings of African-American spiritual music. Have you heard these?
Yes, I have. They sound like a quartet – it’s quartet style. It’s typical church music. [Sample track:] Look, it was the simplest thing for the recording scouts to say, “Well, we know there’s music in the church. We’ll go down the road to find the church, and we’ll ask who’s good and have them come in and sing.” They did that all the time.

Why do you think it took so long for record companies to seriously focus on black musicians?

Nobody thought of them as a market, because they didn’t have any money. They’re poor. You don’t count them. This is a technological thing, and technology is linked to affluence. And then somebody was smart. Ralph Peer was one smart guy who went into the hillbilly hills and figured that these people will but their own music. That’s really a leap of genius. First, you had to sell them the record player. What’s the point of having the records unless you’ve got the record player? So it became a product that furniture stores sold – that’s a known fact. And they actually used to make the records in the back of furniture stores. It was a very concentrated idea. Later on, you had centers of recording, and that’s a whole other story. But I don’t think it was until they began to realize if you can sell something to somebody, go and make it, go and do it. But naturally, technology on any level is linked to where they think they can make money off of it.

Do you think liquor was commonly supplied at country blues sessions?

Yeah, because first of all, you do take people into strange, problem-ridden situations, which is to say, “Mr. Charley says sing, I guess I better sing.” And there’s plenty of that that went on. I can only imagine that these records, on up into modern blues, were made under the most nervous, uncomfortable circumstances imaginable. Because these damn guys weren’t psychologists, they were businessmen. They said, “Boy, you sing.” “Oh, well, alright, sir.” And unless the guy was drunk, maybe he couldn’t. Maybe he was too god-damned scared of white people. Who wouldn’t be? “If I don’t sing, they’ll cut my hands off.” I could believe that, so I figure booze was a way of dealing with a primitive person – get him drunk. Not so much in the case of the church people, who have their religion to kind of shield them, but with blues singers it apparently was true. It’s a thing that’s puzzled me – you know, why liquor was such a deal. Is it because their life is oppressing and hard and they’re unhappy and they drink? I just don’t know why people drink like they do, because I don’t like it myself. So I have a hard time understanding that. But on the other hand, they sing about it and talk about it so much of the time that it must have been about the only fun thing that you could do. That’s why in the modern scene, when you go down to the ghetto, what do you got? You got liquor stores. So that’s obvious. So yeah, they probably used it freely, said “Here, drink this and play.”

I heard that they frequently put pillows under blues guitarists’ feet . . .
To have them stop stomping their foot, because that pushed so much air around. I’m sure they did. They went to lengths to kind of balance it out – that must have been hard too. But the genius of some of those records is beautiful. Some of them are terrible. It’s a question of the engineering capability – where they were, what kind of room.

Plus what kind of 78s survive.
Yeah, man. The 78 is a high-fidelity medium, in a way. It’s going around so fast that it does sound good, except that when they get scratched, they don’t sound not so good!

This interview has been a great help, Ry.
Well, good. Do what you want with it.


Epilogue: We ran the Blind Willie Johnson and Robert Johnson parts of this interview in the July 1990 issue of Guitar Player magazine. Then, in its April 1991 issue, Progressive Architecture magazine responded to Cooder’s theory about why Robert Johnson recorded facing a corner. After four full pages of charts, diagrams, and technological analysis, Technics Editor Kenneth Labs concluded: “Cooder is probably right.” The article’s lead graphic featured the cover of Robert Johnson: King of the Delta Blues Singers, Vol. 2, with its artist’s rendering of Johnson in the hotel room. I’ve also tried recording acoustic guitarists and spoken word artists this way, and it works.

Help support this blog and independent music journalism by making a small donation via the Paypal button at the bottom of this page.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

James Honeyman-Scott: The Pretenders Q/A

James Honeyman-Scott lived long enough to play on just three major releases with the group he co-founded – 1980’s The Pretenders, the Extended Play EP, and 1981’s Pretenders II – but he still holds his place among new wave’s most original guitarists.

In a 1999 Uncut interview, Chrissie Hynde called him her “musical right hand.” “He really was the Pretenders sound,” she explained. “I don’t sound like that. When I met him, I was this not-very-melodic punky angry guitar player and singer, and Jimmy was the melodic one. He brought out all the melody in me.”

After the 25-year-old guitarist died of cocaine-induced heart failure on June 16, 1982, Chrissie kept the Pretenders going in his honor: “One of the things that kept the band alive, ironically, was the death of Jimmy Scott. I felt I couldn’t let the music die when he did. We’d work too hard to get it where it was.” She dedicated “Back on the Chain Gang” to his memory.

I was lucky to have interviewed James Honeyman-Scott after the release of the Pretenders’ debut album. I found his charming, self-effacing personality as appealing as his approach to the guitar, which still sounds fresh today. He was an avid reader of Guitar Player magazine, and was thrilled at having just come in second for Best New Talent in the magazine’s annual Readers Poll. Our interview took place on January 29, 1981. At the time, he was living in Flat 1, Westside, 55 Priory Road, West Hampstead, London.

Here, for the first time ever, is our complete interview. I've kept the transcript true to his spoken words.


What do you prefer to be called?


Let’s start at the beginning. When and where were you born?

I was born in Hereford. Let’s see – 1956. November the 4th.

When did you start playing guitar?

My brother – he was in the Navy – brought one back from Africa when I was ten years old. That’s right. And then I graduated to a better model when I was 11. That was an f-hole guitar, and the neck fell off. And then when I went to high school, I got a guitar called a Rossetti Airstream. And the next guitar after that was a Gibson three-three-five [ES-335]. I got that when I was 16.

Which musicians were you listening to back then?

Eric Clapton with Cream and Derek & The Dominos. The Allman Brothers, and Yes. Those are main ones I was listening to at that time.

Did you take lessons?

No, never. I always wanted to play. There was a group in England called the Shadows, with Hank Marvin. He was the real one – that was it. I’ve met him a couple of time, but I’ve never seen them play live. I met him at TV studios and things.

What did you think was most important to learn?

Originally, I thought it was Eric Clapton guitar lines, guitar licks. But chords turned out to be the most important – chords and rhythm work, definitely.

Did certain records say a lot to you?

Oh, “Badge,” by Cream – Jesus! “Crossroads,” by Cream. Really, it was anything by Cream for important guitar work. And then came the Allman Brothers after that.

Like Live at Fillmore?

Yeah! “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” – that was really important.

When did you start playing keyboards?

I had piano lessons when I was seven, for only about for two years, at the most.

Do you know formal music?

No, I don’t read a thing, man. I forgot it all. Everything I do now is done by ear. I could never follow the theory of it. I always found it very distant. I used to pretend I could read it, but in fact I’d learned this little number by ear, you know, to fool the piano teacher [laughs].

When did you join your first band?

I used to play youth clubs, when I was 11. I turned out to be a bass player for a while. I borrowed this Hofner bass, and we were playing “Sunshine of Your Love,” “Hey Joe,” “Sabre Dance” by Love Sculpture. So I was 11 when I had my first band. But it had no name, from what I can remember. It was probably something blues band [laughs]. It turned out to be a blues band – this was 1968.

Was Mott the Hoople happening yet?

Yeah! Mott the Hoople were just taking big then. They came from a group called Silence that were around the Hereford scene for quite a while. Yeah, Mott happened in the early part of ’69.

Were you into their music?

No, not at first. What happened was me and Martin, the drummer of the Pretenders, joined up with Mott the Hoople’s keyboard player, Verden Allen, in 1974. That was with a band called the Cheeks. Then I got into Mott the Hoople. It’s a very weird process, but I love Mott the Hoople. I really started to understand them and thought they were a great group then. But at first I don’t think anybody in the Hereford really dug Mott the Hoople.

What about another of your hometown bands, Bad Company?

Bad Company! Yeah, I love them. They were great.

Did you know the guitarist for Mott and Bad Company, Mick Ralphs?

Yeah, yeah. Mick leant me a guitar for over a year, a little Les Paul Junior, when I ended up not having a guitar for a while with the Cheeks. He came to the rescue and let me use his 1957 Junior. It was beautiful, a beautiful guitar. And Mick Ralphs became a hell of a fucking big influence, because I started to steal a lot of his lead lines and things. I always liked the way he did finger vibrato. So I stole a lot from Mick like that.

Did other guitar players back then teach you specific things?

No. I don’t think so. The ones I’ve started to pick up on have been recently. In the past year or two, I’ve learned a lot from playing with people like Chris Spedding, and Billy Bremner showed me a few things. Billy’s from Rockpile. And Nils Lofgren. I was jamming for a while with Nils at his house, and he did a few dates with the Pretenders, joining us onstage. He showed me a lot of little tricks.

What bands you were in between the Cheeks and the Pretenders?

There were only two other groups in Hereford. One was called the Hawks, and the other was named after Emmylou Harris’ band, The Hot Band. And we were called the something “Hot Band” – after some village in Herefordshire. It was like 10 or 12 guys, accordion and all manner of guitars and things. This is pretty sweet, because I’ve met up with [Emmylou Harris’ pedal steeler] Hank DeVito, and we’ve become real good friends, man. But I’ve never told him that. I must tell him I named a group after his group.

What were you doing prior to co-founding the Pretenders?

I was selling guitars for a living, for a shop in the Hereford. I did gardening too – that was great! And it was during that time – I was out in the garden, you see, digging away, and the radio was on. Nick Lowe came on with [sings] “and so it goes, so it goes,” that number – Elvis Costello’s “Red Shoes.” And they had this big, jangly guitar sound, which is what I’d been wanting to get into for a long while. All of a sudden the radio’s on and there’s this huge guitar sound coming out, like sending out a big Rickenbacker 12-string or something. And I thought, “Ah, my time is here.” So that’s what happened. And then I hooked up with the Pretenders.

What did you use to get that sound?

At that time I was using an Ibanez Explorer that was fantastic – it was stolen. It was incredible. That went through a Marshall. And to get that sound, I was using the Clone Theory pedal made by Electro Harmonix. That’s how I go the sound. And I’m now using the old Boss pedals.

We'll get your whole equipment setup later on.

Oh, Christ! There’s tons.

With the Pretenders, how much does Chrissie play?

She plays quite a bit because her rhythm guitar – I don’t know anybody who plays rhythm guitar like that. So what happens is, because I can’t hear beats half the time – because I can’t count the rhythm – instead I’ll just put a little guitar line over it. Do you know “Tattooed Love Boys,” that little lick on that? I put that because I couldn’t count the timing. I just happened to know that those notes in that order fitted rather well, so I if I kept doing that, I wouldn’t go out of time. Because her time is so weird – that number is something crazy, like 7/13 or something.

What kind of demands do the strange meters put on you?

[Laughs.] Oh, quite a lot! I bluff a lot of it, and I’ve never told the rest of the group. When they read this, they’ll be amused, because I’ve never told them that I can’t work out those fucking times at all. I just do it my own way. If I come in a bar too late, they are used to me coming in a bar too late, and they think that’s how I play. But it’s because I’ve missed where she’s come in. That’s happened on the new album that’s coming out in April. We’ve done a track called “The Adultress” where I come in a beat too late because I cannot count the timing, and they think it’s great: “Oh, that’s Jimmy’s style.” And the fact is, I don’t know where she comes in with it. So I just bluff it and hope for the best.

On “Up the Neck,” who’s strumming and who’s picking?

Chrissie is doing the strumming, and I’m doing the single-note stuff.

Did she use a Telecaster on most of the tracks?

Yeah. The only cut she didn’t was on “Kid.” She borrowed my 335.

Did you use her Tele for the solo?

Yeah, I used her Tele for the solo. Very observant! Christ, you got that well. She’s got two Telecasters – a little white one and a metallic green one. And the white one is just one of the most fantastic guitars ever made. I love using that. I use it as much in the studio as possible.

The end of that tune almost sounds like a harpsichord.

Oh, yeah. That was done with a Gibson Dove guitar, and the bottom three strings were replaced with top three strings again – a real high tuning, you know? It was high strung. We laid all the picking down like that. Then we did it at half speed and doubled that to get the top notes again. That’s why it sounds like a harpsichord. It’s really difficult to do that, when you’re playing half-speed on a number. It’s done very slow and you have to get each note right on. It’s very difficult, but it turned out great.

Before you recorded the album, how did the band work out the material?

Well, we’d been rehearsing for quite a while – about a year, I’d imagine. Chrissie had had the material for a long while, and we just did lots and lots of rehearsing, seven days a week, all hours of the day and night. At first a lot of the licks were very heavy – like “Up the Neck” started off as a reggae song. I said, “Let’s speed it up,” and I put in that little guitar run, and that’s how it all really started to come together, by me putting in these little melodic runs that I like doing. Because my main influence is the Beach Boys. That’s how the melodic parts of numbers came about. And then Chrissie really started to like pop music. That’s why she started writing things like “Kid.” I love playing “Kid”! There’s a number we did called “Talk of the Town,” and that’s great to play as well. Pop songs like that – I love ’em.

Chrissie is an American singer, and yet the band sounds English.

Yes! I think that is because she’s been living in England since 1973, and all of her favorite musicians of all time are English. Her favorite guitar player is Jeff Beck, and her favorite songwriters are John Lennon and Ray Davies. She has written that songwriting-wise, the English were always the best musicians.

How different was your style before you got into the Pretenders?

Oh, very different! I wanted to use the style I was using in the Pretenders, but I couldn’t, because we had the band I was in, if you get what I mean. I was more towards Keith Richards sort of stuff then. And then when I joined the band, I was able to start doing nicer guitar work, more melodic stuff. So yeah, it did change quite a bit. Dave Edmunds had a lot to do with that – I started listening to him and Nick Lowe a hell of a lot, and I liked what they were doing. They always seem to like to do nice little guitar sounds that you can sing along to. That’s what I started trying to do.

What’s your approach to soloing?

I hate soloing, really. I like to do something that you’d end up whistling. Something short. There’s a solo on the reggae track – “Private Life.” And I really didn’t like doing that, because it’s a long solo, and I think long solos are a pain in the ass, unless you can play them. I can’t play them, but I like watching Albert Lee and people like that play them. I went to see Albert the other week at the Palamino. I like watching people like that because they can do it. I simply cannot do it, but they can play for a long period of time and not get boring, as far as soloing goes. I like to play short solos. There’s a track, “Lovers of Today,” where there’s a big run in there, like a real long run, and that was influenced by [George] Harrison, if anybody – probably pinched off of the Beatles albums! But the solo is just three notes or something that I got from Neil Young.

“Lovers of Today” has that full, massive sound.

Oh, yeah! Now, that was the Les Paul through a 100-watt Marshall. And when it came to that solo, I hit the wrong chord in the beginning! That opening chord is a big mistake. But we kept it because it sounded good, and I just tracked that once, that little lick, loud, very loud, and just slightly distorted. And then we tracked it again and again and again and again. And then I did it up at the top of the guitar. And then we did it again and I think we slowed the machine down and used a Harmonizer, so there must be something like eight guitars playing that – all very loud!

Is there a fuzz effect in the little solo in the beginning of “Private Life”?

No, no. That would have just been the amp.

During “The Wait,” what are the strange chords that come right before the solo?

That’s Chrissie. I don’t know what it is. Chris Thomas, the producer, asked me to do a solo over that – no, Chrissie played it, that’s right, and it sounded really scruffy. He said, “Jimmy, you do it, but make it cleaner,” but I simply couldn’t, because Chrissie plays that way and I don’t. So I tried playing like she did, and I just couldn’t. So I said, “Look, leave her to do it,” so we did. So that’s Chrissie’s baby, that one. The second part of the solo is mine.

Does Chrissie play any solos on the album?

Um, I don’t think so.

Who came up with the “Space Invader” lick?

Oh, Pete wrote the bass lick, and I wrote what people call the “Day Tripper” part of it and the chord run-ups, the major sevenths.

At the end of it you have that descending growl.

Oh! [Laughs.] Now that was done . . . I hit the bottom E string, and put it right out of tune. Tuned it right down with the tuning peg. I remember I was really drunk when I did this. I said, “I’ve got this idea – just follow it!” And they go, “Yeah, yeah, sure.” And I said, “No, you must listen to me! Play that back and take this.” They played it back and I hit the G string and I tuned the G string up at the same time. So you have one guitar going down and one coming up.

What is the effect on “Precious”?

That would be the Clone Theory through a Harmonizer. I didn’t use a MuTron then.

How did you get the siren?

Oh, that is by playing – what key is it in, “Precious”? A. It’ll be an F# and a C, just hitting those notes like that.

At the end of the “Tattooed Love Boys” solo, did you start flipping your pickup selector switch?

That’s it, yeah, and putting the guitar out of tune at the same time as well.

One last question about guitar parts. On “Mystery Achievement,” how many tracks did you use for the solo bridge?

I used the 335 on that. I tracked it twice, and then I did a half-speed guitar. That gets the high notes.

To do the half-speed guitar, you record the part at half speed and then play it back at normal speed.

Yeah, and of course it’s an octave higher.

When you recorded the first album, was that pretty much your stage show too?


It has the feel of a live set.

Yeah, yeah. A lot of people have said that.

Which songs were recorded first?

“Stop Your Sobbing” was the first, and we did that with Nick Lowe back in October of 1978 or ’79.

How did you set up in the studio?

What we did was we set up like a little stage setup. We set up a P.A. in there and everything, and we recorded the numbers live. We used speakers in the studio – big ambient – and we kind of recorded a lot live. That was with Chris Thomas. But with Nick Lowe on “Stop Your Sobbing,” there was loads of guitars. There was Rickenbackers, Ovations, everything, and it was just lay down track after track – “Track the guitar again,” and do different inversions, open tuning, everything. That’s how it works with Nick.

Did you overdub your solos?

Yeah. I would generally use two tracks. What Chris Thomas and I like to do is to lay down a solo and then track it again, note for note. So you lay down the guitar solo, okay, and then you do it again, exactly the same. That gives it a fuller sound. Sometimes we’ll slow the machine down, just slightly, so it sounds like a 12-string doing the solo.

Do you ever have trouble remembering your solos?

No, not really, because I like to have fixed-pattern solos. Something like “Tattooed Love Boys” was just straight off the wall – I couldn’t have done that again, because I just wanted to go turn nasty on that one, turn the amp up and not care. But in general I like to track the solos note-for-note and remember them.

Do you splice together parts of different takes of solos?

Oh, yeah. We do that sometimes.

Are any parts recorded directly into the board?

On “Kid,” one of the guitars on the guitar solo was, I think, because I love doing that. Because you can wind up and get a lot of compression at the board. You can just make it sound slightly like a pedal steel or something. This is one of Edmunds’ favorite tricks, because Dave Edmunds and the boys like to go straight to the board. I do as well. But Chris Thomas doesn’t like me to do it that way. He likes me out in the studio with the amp.

What’s the difference between your studio and live playing?

Live, I’m more wilder a whole lot. Because you play some of those songs . . . We did five tours this year. We did two American, two English, European. And because you play those numbers night after night, you start to get a bit pissed off at them and then you start to put little things in to keep yourself amused. You start to find new things as well. So probably a couple of those tracks off the album would sound a little different onstage. Or some of the things that we’ve put in, like different steps and stuff, something clever to keep everybody on their toes.

Do you enjoy being on the road?

Oh, I love it!

Is it what you’d imagined it to be?

Oh, yeah! Non-stop partying, yes. Yes, it was exactly as I imagined it – it all happened.

Do you warm-up before a show?

[Laughs.] We usually just drink a lot. No, not really.

Do you practice?

No. I haven’t picked up a guitar in a long while. I don’t. But when I do, I go overboard. I start to find new ideas and things.

Do you have a systematic way of doing it, or do you just play?

I guess I just play. There are new little things I’ve found. Like, some of the things Chris Spedding showed me – Chris has got a totally different style from everybody else – and I noticed it’s all built within two frets and using just two strings at one time. You can just play a complete solo like that, and it just never gets boring. Just play two strings within two frets, and you just elaborate over that.

So your fingers only land on four spaces?

That’s right! And it seems he’s built up a lot of his stuff from doing it like that. So I’ve been trying a lot of things like that lately, so I’m using the minimum amount of work possible.

Are you always learning?

Yeah! Definitely.

Do you do much jamming?

Yes, I do quite a bit. I’ve spent a lot of the past couple of weeks in Austin, in Texas, and they’ve got some of the best players in the world there. Oh, my God! And some of those guys have invited me up to play, and it’s been great. I’ve done a bit of recording here and there. I met Billy Gibbons there. Joe King Carrasco – I played with him there. He’s in L.A. at the moment, playing the Whiskey. But yeah, Joe King and the Austin All-Stars, and the Tennessee Hat Band – I played with those guys. I love it down there. It’s great.

Has success been hard to take?

Yeah, it was at first, but it’s fine now. It’s very weird at first, when it happens. What you imagine as a kid, when you’re like eight years old and you see the Beatles at Shea Stadium on TV or in the film A Hard Day’s Night, you think, “My God. That is the answer to everything.” You know, having #1 records and gold disks. But when you get the #1 records and gold disks, you kind of think, “Whoa. Is this it? What happens next?” I think you tend to think the skies are going to open or something.

What advice would you give musicians wanting to make it in rock and roll?

You just have to stick with it. It just happens. It just turns up. Yeah, you just have to keep fucking sticking with it. It didn’t take me that long. I mean, I thought after a while I would sod it. I just went and started selling guitars and not really caring, although I knew one way or other I was going to get it done. I think you have to be completely determined, though. And I was. I thought “sod it” and then settled back a bit, and then I thought, “No, no.” I was determined, and you’ve got to make a bit of a fight for it. But it just turns up, I think. It just happens. You’ve either got it or you haven’t – style, luck, or whatever’s needed.

What would you like to accomplish in the future?

Well, I haven’t played with Ron Wood yet. I’d like to play with Ronnie Wood. I don’t know. Make successful albums, and I guess a little studio. What every player would want, I suppose.

Have you been on albums other than with the Pretenders?

Yeah. Nothing really to speak of. Nothing that’s been released in America. In England, an album called Place Your Bets by a guy called Tommy Morrison, and that was produced by Paul Rodgers. One by a guy called Robert John Godfrey, when I was 16. And I forget the title of that. That’s it, I think.

What are your main guitars?

[Tony] Zemaitis. He builds them for me now. I’ve got three of his at the moment, and the fourth will be ready soon. I’ve got two metal-front Zemaitis, like Ronnie Wood’s guitars. They’re all engraved metal, and Gibson humbuckers on them and ebony fingerboards. Oh, they are just the greatest. One’s a 22-fret, one’s a 24. I’ve also got another 24-fret that he built for me, but all the front is crushed mother of pearl, and it’s got three Mighty Mite Stratocaster pickups, and they’re inlaid in big silver blocks. I mean, these guitars just have to be seen. The one that he’s building for me at the moment has got three humbuckers set in a big silver map of the world. Also, it’s inlaid with mother-of-pearl scorpions and things like that. Pretty much, Tony will build you what you want built. I don’t go for active electronics or any of that, so I just have the normal controls – two pickups, two volume, two tones, and a toggle switch. I like the action pretty low. I use Ernie Ball Slinkies that go from .009 to .042.

Why did you choose Zemaitis?

Because Ronnie Wood used to use them, and I thought they looked so beautiful. Ron Wood’s a big hero of mine. Oh, yeah.

Who are your other heroes?

People like Spedding. Keith Richard, I guess. Eric Clapton, still. Albert Lee, the guys in Rockpile.

Have you other guitars?

I’ve got a Gibson Les Paul – that’s a newish one, a Standard. A 1962 cherry 335 that’s beautiful. Here’s the real killer: I’ve got a ’63 single-pickup Firebird – that’s a beaut – a three-pickup pink Gibson Firebird, a Fender Stratocaster with an Alembic Stratoblaster fitted to it and everything is brass on it. I’ve got a Rickenbacker 12-string, three Hamer guitars, a Yamaha – I don’t know what model. My acoustic is a Martin D-28, and I’ve also got a Guild 12-string.

Did you collect these since forming the Pretenders?

Yeah. One of the great things about having the success, having a bit of cash, is I was able to pick up these guitars at various places. It was the one thing I always really wanted anyway.

Do you care for the guitars yourself?

No, I have a guy that looks after them for me. On the next American tour I’m taking Ted Newman Jones, who works for Keith Richards. He wants to come with me. He builds beautiful guitars, fantastic guitars. He made some 5-strings for Keith. He’s great.

Do you use the same instruments onstage as in the studio?

In the studio I tend just to use the Les Paul and the Telecaster. Onstage, I always use the Zemaitis. But sometimes I just feel like playing a completely off-the-wall different guitar, but I’ve got to yank it out of the case.

Do certain guitars inspire you to play differently?

Oh, yeah. Definitely! A Zemaitis definitely makes me play a bit more like Ron Wood, whereas the 335 would make me play a bit more like Dave Edmunds.

Are your guitars stock?

Yeah, yeah. When I get a guitar, I don’t like to fuck about with it, unless it’s a new one, where you can get another couple of million like it, like a new Stratocaster. I’ve had mine all re-sprayed black and the Alembic things put into it. But if it’s an old one, I wouldn’t touch it at all.

Trace your signal from the guitar to the amp.

It goes through three Boss pedals – the little ones that have got noiseless switches. They come in pretty colors. I’ve got a blue one, a green one [laughs]. I’ve got a chorus, an overdrive, and a compressor. I don’t have a harmonizer, but I think I’ll get one. I think I’ll try one onstage. Pete, the bass player, uses one. And then I go right to the amps. I’ve got three 100-watt Marshalls and three 4x12 cabs, but two of those are spare, I think. I just go through the one. They mike that, and what happens is, I always play with the guitar flat-out, and I set the level as it would be for a loud rhythm sound. And then if it comes to showing off and doing a solo, I just flip on an overdrive. That’s how I like to work it. I like a really loud rhythm sound.

What kind of picks do you use?

Uh, I think they’re Fender Heavy Medium. I hold them in between the thumb and the first finger, with the point sticking out, and I always tend to play down-strokes.

Do you have any unusual techniques?

[Laughs.] Only in bed. Let me think. I think there’s one thing that I do that’s unusual, but I can’t think of it at the bloody moment.

Do you rest your picking hand on the guitar?

Oh, yeah, on the bridge. Sometimes I use the edge of my hand to muffle the strings.

Do you use your left-hand little finger much?

Yeah, yeah. Probably not as much as I should, but I do.

Do you play slide?

Yeah, but I haven’t been able to do it on record. Yeah, I love playing slide. I’m very much into open tunings.

Did you use any on the album?

Yeah, I did. I used some of the strangest tunings. On “Kid,” there’s open tuning on one of the acoustic guitars. That would be tuned down to D, I think.

Do you play in any styles that aren’t on the LP?

Yeah, country. That’s why I spend a lot of time in Austin – I try to. The thing is, you’ve got to make a good fucking go for it down there, because everyone is a better country guitarist than you. So you have to make a real good go for it.

Have you finished the second album?

No, we’ll be finishing it [Pretenders II] over the next a couple of months, and the new album will be out in April. There’s an EP coming out in America very shortly. We’ll be back in America in June.


Help support this blog and independent music journalism by making a small donation via the Paypal button at the bottom of this page.