"The blues is an expression of all the wonders of life."
John Idan: Motor City's Bluesbird
Originally hailing from Detroit, Michigan, John discovered his musical talent at an early age. Following his high school band, he soon started playing with his first professional band ‘The Natural Blues Band’ making himself a name around his hometown Detroit and southeast Michigan.
After the break-up of the Natural Blues Band John went on a holiday to London during which he met former Yardbirds’ guitarist Top Topham and drummer Jim McCarty and soon after moved to Britain to become the singer and lead guitarist of their blues band. Playing several nights a week in and around London, John soon became known as ‘Detroit’ John Idan on the blues scene. In 1992 he left the McCarty Band to pursue his own musical interest and founded his band ‘Realfire’.
Throughout the same time the Yardbirds were reforming and John was asked to become their lead vocalist and bassist, which meant for the premature break-up of Realfire after only a handful of live performances. Since then Idan has toured the world numerous times with them and has played sold out shows on a variety of world class stages such as The Royal Albert Hall in London; The Royal Festival Hall, The House of Blues in LA (guesting: Steve Vai), South by South West (guesting: Slash) the list goes on. He has recorded two main albums with the Yardbirds, the star-studded Birdland in 2003 and Live at B.B. King’s in 2006. In 2008 he released his debut solo album ‘The Folly’ on which he plays all the instruments with exception of a string quartet. In the same year he formed his own outfit ‘The John Idan Group’. He has since been recording for his 2nd album and worked on various musical projects playing in the UK, Europe and the USA.
When was your first desire to become involved in the blues & what does Blues
I grew up with music playing all the time. In the car, on the Hi Fi and even in our back garden as we had an all weather speaker system my Grandfather devised. So, Unknowingly I was taking a lot in. Growing up in the early ‘70’s, I knew little of the social or political environment that music was addressing at time. All I really knew was that I loved music! I started seriously playing at the age of 8 and by the time I was 14 or so I started to grow away from Pop and Rock music. I’d had already discovered the British blues groups and that really pointed the way to delving into American “black” blues music. My first group in high school still pursued more pop convention but the blues was an expression that really enlivened me. It was probably, something to do with my own inner turmoil at the time. It was a healthy escape and a real healing force.
What experiences in your life make you a GOOD BLUESMAN?
Like Albert King said, “Everybody has the blues. Some call ‘em the reds, the pinks……..etc”. Everyone has suffering in their lives though the blues is not necessarily just an expression of sorrow. The blues is an expression of all the wonders of life. My own experiences are like a lot of people from my generation. Family problems, divorce, drug use, people passing away too early…heartaches...I could go on...Finding a good way to deal with all this madness for me was playing guitar and being in a band. To be good, took time and patience and it kept me out of a lot of trouble. I also had a pretty good understanding of black Americans as I grew up in a very interesting and integrated part of the city of Detroit. I speak about all of these matters in the opening track on my solo album. It’s funny, In many respects I don’t even consider myself a Bluesman but no doubt it is very deeply instilled in me.
Where did you pick up your guitar style & what were your favorite guitars? What characterize the
sound of John Idan?
I listen to all the great players and learned whatever took my fancy at the time. I stole so many guitar licks off records it’s not even funny. I still do this to expand and refresh my playing. To this day I’m still trying to master a Chet Atkins piece that I discovered in my step mothers record collection some 30 years ago! When it comes to putting all this into playing that’s when some other unconscious understanding comes into play. Certainly there are standard things that we all play and are scripted, the rest just happens by the grace of God, when you open that place that can only be you. This is where every player finds their own magic. Sometimes it’s not available, others, your setting the world on fire. As far as guitars go, I’ve been a Gibson player pretty much from day one. The Les Paul has been my main guitar since my teens and I’ve been fortunate enough to have had some really fantastic ones over the years. I sometimes have trouble holding a pick, especially if my hands get sweaty, so I adopted a finger style approach, sometimes with a thumb pick and a banjo one on my index finger. This gives an incredible attack and metallicy sound which can be really quite pleasing. For amps I’m a big fan of old Vox AC30 though, lately I’ve been using a new Fender Deluxe Reverb reissue.
From whom have you have learned the most secrets about blues music?
I’ve had a couple of great blues mentors, Frank Dumont and Top Topham. Both are incredible players with firsthand experience with some of the original true blues masters. Frank introduced me personally to Albert King when I was all of 17 or 18. He and I used play together for days and days, 40’s and 50’s R n B, Rock n Roll and Blues. Top knew just about everyone in the UK blues scene as he was right there making it happen back in 1963 in the Yardbirds. To hear stories of Eric Clapton coming around to his house when they were all still in their teens trying to get inside this music was very enlightening. It reminded me of my friends just 20 odd years later!
What's been their experience from “studies” with the Yardbirds?
Back in my early teens I learned every lick I could find off Yardbird records. My High school group performed a lot of their music in our set. I collected rare Yardbird records and figured out some interesting arrangements and we incorporated these into the group. They like John Mayall pointed me toward their influences. So when I eventually started to play with Top and Jim McCarty I had a pretty solid knowledge of their music and the kind of blues that we would play together.
How did you first meet Top Topham and Jim McCarty , what kind of guys are Topham and Jim McCarty
I came to London in April 1988 for a holiday. I’d run out of cash and went down to Denmark Street and sold a Silvertone guitar I’d brought with me. The salesman was no other than Top Topham! We made friends right off the bat and by the end of my trip I was having dinner with he and Jim discussing the possibility of coming back and joining their new blues band. Needless to say I was thrilled, and this really was the connection that started it all for me!
What advice has given Top Topham and Jim McCarty & which memory from those makes you
Top played in the group for about 2 years and when he left he urged me to stay on with Jim. For another good 2/3 more years I played in Jim’s band which made me stronger as a player and eventually led on to the reformation of The Yardbirds in 1994. Both Top and Jim have very spiritual natures and they also embraced mine. There humor was wonderful and there were moments that words could never….come close to explain!
Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?
In The Yardbirds we played so many high energy shows that I sometimes wonder how we did it. Playing the Albert Hall was a real high for everyone. We were doing a across country tour of the U.K. with Spencer Davis and The Troggs and this was the final show. The last time The Yardbirds played there was in ‘66 with the Stones and Ike and Tina Turner. The whole tour pretty much sold out with great reactions from the audiences. I was a powerful experience! The worst, well that might take up too much space!
Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us. Why do think that is? Give one wish
for the BLUES
The blues is inside all forms of good music. Music that stands up to the test of time comes from all genres but yes there are moments when you think music has lost it root. I turned my back on the corporate style rock that was coming out in the 80’s and didn’t feel any real connection with the new age of guitar gods. All the heavy wailing and tapping did nothing for me so I just continued to listen to all this out of date blues and rock music that, by this time was starting to be considered oldies music. I remember hearing Stevie Ray’s “Pride and Joy” for the first time on a Detroit radio station and goin’ Fuckin’ fantastic! The Blues and solid music are Back! If I had one wish for the blues and its other root based music would be for more young black Americans to embrace it and not look at as so much of a negative part of their history. Black people inherently have wonderful singing voices. From people like Jerry Butler to Elmore the list goes on and on. I’d just like to hear a little less rap and a bit more soul and blues coming through black American music. That said it probably is there but not getting the kind of exposure, just like a lot of good music.
What advice would you give to aspiring musicians thinking of pursuing a career in the craft?
I have taught music over the years at elementary and college levels as well as teaching guitar. I always try to expose my students to the true greatness of real Rock n Roll and its root, the blues. In order to expand, you have to come from somewhere and these are the foundations of today’s music. In one lecture, I remember my co lecture stating that when British music needed to be re thought, they always went back to 1966! I thought this was a good point and I then mentioned the Stray Cats as an American example and how the root possibly goes deeper in the States. Young players need to have some knowledge and abilities to play the root of the music that is commonly called Rock n Roll.
As far as the business goes I don’t think many are in a position these days to give much advice, as things have changed so dramatically. I you have a deep down feeling about your abilities and aspirations then one must follow that path and hold the road with both hands on the wheel because it’s a pretty crazy road!
What’s the best jam you ever played in? What are some of the most memorable gigs you've
I used to occasionally host a Monday night blues jam in Camden Town and there were a few nights and jams that were very inspiring. Also every Sunday lunchtime at the Station Tavern in Ladbroke Grove there was a session with a fantastic host of the best players around. Paul Lamb, John Whitehill, Rod Demick, Sam Kelly and myself, got together most weeks for 5 years, and it was fantastic. Musician and blues lovers from all over came to those gigs and I must say we played probably the best spontaneous blues maybe anywhere!
Would you mind telling me your most vivid memory from Steve Vai & Slash?
Firstly, both Steve and Slash are really nice guys. I had the pleasure to play with them both on the same stage at South by South West in 2003 just before the Birdland album was released. Steve also guested with us at a concert in L.A. at the House of Blues. I remember our rehearsals for the SxSW show. Slash wasn’t seemingly happy about the way he was playing and asked his guitar tech to make sure his guitar was taken to the hotel so he could practice for awhile. He was between bands at the time and he really wanted to be good that evening and man I must say, he certainly was! I remember at the show, singing away during Over,Under, Sideways, Down not really paying much attention to anything but the crowd, next thing I know, there’s Slash in full Slash pose with his Top hat and long hanging hair, blasting this incredible flurry of notes and bends right at my feet! I was a real R n R moment. The crowd loved it!
Steve Via is an extremely intelligent and tuned in guy. We signed a two record deal to his label Favored Nations in 2002. Steve was very clear with us about what the deal entailed and really helped us devise a plan as to how to achieve the best results. He was very instrumental in rounding up the guest players that appeared on Birdland. Steve’s solo on “Shapes of Things” from that album is beautifully constructed. And despite my usual lack of enthusiasm ( as I stated before) for some of this kind of guitaring, Steve plays a wonderfully melodic and truly lyrical solo. Definitely one of the best on that album.
Are there any memories from “THE ROAD FOR THE BLUES”, which you’d like to share with
I have been to so many interesting and wonderful places and met an incredible array of cool people while doing what I like doing best. It’s kinda hard to call this the blues, but like anything you do it has its down sides. Traveling can be really hard on you physically and mentally. Many times we would travel really early in the morning to catch a flight, get our things together when we arrived, possibly have a little nap and then soundcheck, eat then perhaps play at 10 pm or midnight. Wind down after the show and before you know it the suns up and you’re soon off to the next town. We had several extremely close calls as well whilst in vans and tour buses. All this and missing your nearest and dearest certainly can give you the blues.
How you would spend a day with Sly, Beatles, Ray Charles and Robert Johnson at the
It’s interesting that you ask a question like this. I have been influenced by so much music that I really don’t feel any separation between the genres that these artists (and myself) may be stereo typed into. My mother was so deep into Brother Ray and his music affects me very deeply. But if I could spend the day with him, I’d ask him for a proper piano lesson! The Beatles were my main influence as a youngster and spending the day with them would be impossible to dream about. Though I would have loved to have been at some of their recording sessions and hear the playback as a tune was coming together. That would be a real gas! Sly, as he is still with us, I like to take out for a meal and try and find out what really went wrong for him. I don’t know too much about his situation but I understand it’s not so good at the moment. I think I’d ask if we could sing “Stand” and “Everybody is a Star” until the real meaning and power filled us with the hope that these songs were meant to provide. Robert Johnson, well I never thought about it. I think I’d ask him to show me some of them special chords he has up his sleeve! Cause not everything he played was in open tuning. I don’t believe in that Devil tuned his guitar stuff, though he probably got to him in other ways. Robert’s music and lyrics perfectly state the situations of what we people call the blues.
Of all the people you’ve
meeting with, who do you admire the most?
Just awhile ago I was thinking about all the incredible people that I have met and worked with. I started to make a list, and it is truly amazing! To think I’ve been in the company of people like Pete Seeger, Alan Ginsberg, Albert King, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton…. the list goes on and on! This of course is not to lessen the importance of some extremely talented and wonderful souls who just happen to not be household names. Of the really famous people Jeff Beck does stand out, not simply because of his guitar genius but his generosity and practical approach to maintaining his everyday life. I visited his house on a few occasions and he explained its history and the work that he had put into restoring the place. Jeff also loves his cars and maintains them himself. He is very hands on and enjoys life’s simple things and loves a good laugh!
How has the music business changed over the years since you first started in music with The Natural Blues
In the early 1980’s the blues was in the doldrums ‘til Stevie Ray really came on the scene. That’s not to say there was nothing happening, as all who will read this, know, the blues never goes away it just takes some new fire to stir up the public’s interest again. When I arrived in London the blues was certainly picking up there and the Topham/McCarty band was an important contributor. It was extremely exciting time in my life. As far as the business goes, we all know just how much the industry has changed since the digital age has taken hold. It has never been an easy one or for that matter a good industry. I think of how many famous musicians never received royalties The Small Faces, Tommy James, Muddy Waters, The Yardbirds, the list goes on forever.
There was a golden age of popular music when every idea was actually new and the world was energized by this. That not to say there hasn’t been a lot of great meaningful music since say the mid to late 70’s, but I think it can be said that music to the wider world may not be as important as it once was. I could be wrong but I think the facts bear this out. It is possible that there may be no record stores and possibly no large record labels, or perhaps, 2 huge ones with no real vision. I have heard some wonderful self produced albums and a lot of poor ones. The problem with modern recording is a lot of it sounds the same. I mean sonically, no real individual identity. What people don’t realize is that, it’s not just a band that makes a recording. Great engineers and producer’s, who thoroughly understand acoustics, dynamics and the tools to achieve magical sounds are simply not in the budget of up and coming groups of today. Bands made audition tapes for labels in the 60’s and on the strength of their performance they may or may not get signed. Nowadays, only the big groups get the kind of support and budgets to achieve new musical thresholds.
From the musical point of
view is there any difference and similarities between your projects and “session” works?
In 2008 I self recorded my first solo album The Folly. It was a huge task, performing all the instrumentation, producing, and a lot of the engineering etc..I was fortunate to have met producer/engineer Robin Black. He did some great things with my basic analogue tapes. I did manage to record things pretty effectively but he really knows how to mix. His expertise and experience with Cat Stevens, Jethro Tull and so many more really helped put the icing on the cake. As far as actually working on a song, I try to let each song speak its own voice and then try to experiment with sounds and instruments that the song tells me it needs. When I’m doing other session work I try to do the same thing only and hopefully with the blessing of the artist that I’m working with. Recently a single has come out under the title “The Beehive” called “I Can’t Hold On”. It’s a song written by Keith Johnson and I was at first intended to play guitar on it. Time went on and I found myself doing pretty much what I had done on The Folly, playing all the instruments only here with Keith adding some interesting weaving guitars between mine. I think it’s turned out really well .The difference here is you are interpreting someone else’s musical vision and getting that right can be a delicate task.
Do you think that only real blues is something gloomy, played by old grey-haired men with harps and
battered guitars in some smoky, dark and little shabby clubs?
By no means! But some of the best gigs I’ve seen or played have been in just this sort of environment! Some older players have a closer approach to the blues, a less is more approach. Blues has gotten muddled up into Rock. Not that I dislike heavy blues rock just not so much when it’s the other way around! I know there are many younger players out there that have a good handle on how to stay true to the form yet still let it move forward in time. As long as people walk the earth there will be the blues.
What is your “secret” music DREAM? What turns you on? Happiness is……
Well I would like to play more Hammond organ! There is something that it expresses that just thrills me. I also know there are heights that I still have yet to achieve as a guitarist and singer. I also want to get back to the states and play as it’s been awhile now. I also have a new project with some special friends over there that I’ll wait to tell you about when things really start to fall into place!
The new single by BEEHIVE...
"I Can't Hold On"
A refreshingly modern twist on '60s retro style – and we're talking Yardbirds style here, with classic guitar playing, strong vocals and riveting performances.
From beginning to end, Beehive's "I Can't Hold On" touches on all the elements that made The Yardbirds relevant in the '60s and just as meaningful today.
Most of the instruments on "I Can't Hold On" are played by John Idan, whose lead vocals and bass brilliantly guided The Yardbirds for nearly two decades after their Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame induction in 1992. John's tenure included the critically acclaimed "Birdland" album in 2003. "Birdland" sported new takes on Yardbirds classics with special guests like Slash, Brian May and Steve Vai along with the band's first new road-tested material since 1968.
"I Can't Hold On" also features the classic backing vocals of original Yardbirds drummer Jim McCarty. Quite the accomplished songwriter, McCarty is responsible for many of the group's hits as well as its distinctive vocal blend.
Chris Dreja, long revered by Yardbirds fans for his unique rhythm guitar and maracas stylings, plays maracas here and provides spoken parts on "I Can't Hold On" that echo The Yardbirds' "Happenings Ten Years Time Ago." What are those Bees saying?
Lord Dome (aka Keith Johnson), songwriter and executive producer of "I Can't Hold On," sprinkles the track with guitar fills that nicely complement John Idan's rich acoustic guitar and stinging '59 Les Paul electric guitar leads weaving and swarming from start to finish!
The studio Bee is Pat Keogh, who composes and works his producing/engineering magic for many biggies in TV, advertising, videos, and Hollywood films. Pat's no-nonsense style is matched by a keen ear for sound.
So, for the next three plus minutes, lock your door, put the cell phone on vibrate and get ready to enjoy "I Can't Hold On" and find out what the entire buzz is about ...
Author, "Yardbirds: The Ultimate Rave-Up"
Hello John, how are you today?
I’m doing pretty good.
Did you always want to become a musician?
I was pretty young actually, I guess I would have been about 1969/70 the height of all that stuff in America, well, all over rock music and all that. It was on television a lot and just seemed like a thing that you wanna try and do.
So how did you actually start? Did you get a guitar or did you start singing?
My family listened to a lot of records and music was real important, not that anyone played an instrument, but music on the radio and on the stereo was very important in our house. I think the key moment was when my brother and I were allowed to stay up late one night, really late for our ages, and we watched “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Help!”. I think, I could have been 6 or something and I thought: “Oh gosh, this is what you’ve got to do!”. Not for the adulation or anything, just literally because the music was so cool.
Did you start singing Beatles songs?
I guess I started singing Beatles songs. I was always interested in any kind of music that I thought was good and there was an incredible amount of good music in those days.
I can remember Sly and the Family Stone on the radio and going that’s really good. The list goes on, I mean I could carry on and on and on about all the music that was intriguing me in those days.
What was the first instrument that you played?
I had a cheap little plastic guitar that I got for Christmas, I guess, I would have been about 5 going on 6. That guitar didn’t really do anything and it eventually just sat in a corner. Until I was 7, about Christmas time, I would have just perching being 8. I got an electric bass guitar and started to have lessons. So bass was my first instrument.
When did you convert to guitar?
Well that’s the typical sort of story that comes about in all young men’s lives. I mean, when I say this, you might not understand what I’m saying immediately.
I played bass with some friends that lived down the street from me and they were my brother’s age, about 3 years older than me. We were all comparatively about the same grade of musician, you know, we were beginners, maybe getting into intermediate stages of playing. Anyway, we were playing songs out of songbooks. These guys eventually found their way into high school and being 3 years younger, the last thing they wanted in their band was some guy who was still in elementary school. (laughs) So I was playing bass and quite enjoying it, but I was also playing guitar and I could pick up most of the things that my friends were playing and we used to have competitions playing certain pieces of music.
So when they chucked me out of the band, I was like, well I show you! (smiles) I’m gonna get my own guitar and I don’t need you, if you don’t need me, well I don’t need you! So it was one of those sort of things.
But it was all to do with chicks really. You know, they had sort of girlfriends or something like that. They didn’t want a 10 year-old around.
And that’s how I started playing guitar, I thought, playing bass is fun, but it’s single notes or walking lines which isn’t a lot to entertain yourself. So at 10 I changed over to guitar.
How did your guitar playing change your relationship to girls then?
Well, immediately it didn’t do a whole lot. (laughs) Though, I think every young guy who is interested in guitars or music, there is certainly that element of it. Every man, every woman, and this is just human nature, is trying to do something to please the opposite sex. Some string in their bow, that is going to be their key.
How is it today?
It’s, (pause) you know, it’s hard. (laughs)
Ok, well let’s leave it with that. What do you most love about music?
What I like the most about music is when a record, or a bunch of musicians are connecting , when you’re playing on stage and things click and when a song is melodically and rhythmically interesting it does something to you inside. Everyone has those feelings about it, putting them into words is really difficult.
When you hear a song that is so fresh to you, even though it might be an old song, or something you heard a long, long time ago and you haven’t heard it in so long and you go ”My goodness, what a fantastic feeling!”. Who can explain that?
What do you hate most about music?
The thing that I dislike the most about it, this probably goes for life in general, is people’s politics. Inside music, musicians, maybe the industry itself. You know it’s not easy being a musician, it’s a hard road. Travelling is difficult, not always wanting to be where you are, when you’re there, you know, being here now, can be quite hard if it’s not where you want to be, (laughs) but it’s where you have to be. Sometimes musicians find themselves in that position and that can be the biggest drag.
Who is your favourite artist?
Hmm, I don’t have favourite artists, just like I don’t have favourite colours or favourite foods. (smiles)
The lists of artists that I’d probably mention, these artists that I would probably talk about, some of them are geniuses. People who influence you and their genius just blows your mind, be it Ray Charles or Pete Townshend. Or much more minor sort of geniuses, artists that people wouldn’t even necessarily think of, Gene Clark from the Byrds, for instance, I listen to his stuff and go, wow this guy invented country rock and nobody cares. He invented it and everyone gives credit to Graham Parsons, but I think Gene Clark’s the man. I mean I love Graham Parsons, don’t get me wrong.
So, those artists are pretty heavy weight and when you come across that power and they start to influence you, you can feel pretty insignificant by comparison to them.
What was the best album you ever bought?
The best album I ever bought, or the one that I wore out the most on the record player?
Well I used to listen to records all the time and that’s where I learned how to play guitar, from those records. And my old record collection, which still exists somewhere in America, is just totally trashed from jumping the needle around to figure out fine details of guitar chops.
I remember buying a John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers album, a live album, which had one side with Eric Clapton on it from a gig in North London 1965/66 and the other Mick Taylor from about 68. And I just sat and played the shit out of this record because Eric Clapton’s and Mick Taylor’s playing was so friggin’ good. I was like, I’ve got to learn these chops note for note. I did that with a lot of other blues records as well. I had Otis Rush records, man, I can remember listening to “I Can’t Quit You Babe” for the first time and I thought I was gonna have a heart attack. (laughs) I mean, I was like 15, you know, his howl of his voice just made my blood run cold.
So I graduated from pop records into blues and more serious music at a pretty young age.
So a favourite record, I don’t know, maybe as pop record, maybe, probably something like “Revolver” was one of my favourite pop records.
So you’re originally from Detroit and you’ve now lived in England for almost 20 years. Are you homesick?
Yeah! Yeah, I sure am.
I’ve been home only a handful of times and just last summer I there with my fiancée.
We did a gig, we flew in, oh, we didn’t fly in, we drove in for one day and it was hardly even a day. We got in from Milwaukee, we drove through Chicago all the way through the State of Michigan just to get to Detroit at about 7.30 at night, missed our sound check and were just down the street from where I grew up, in both respects, both from the hotel and where the gig was.
So I was very close to home but very far away which made me feel extremely weird. Yeah, I miss it, Detroit’s a rockin’ town, there are a lot of great people there and there is definitely the feeling of those old Motown tracks that everybody loves. It exists in the pavement and in the Air and in the trees and in the leaves and just all around that city, it’s a great place.
Sounds really nice...
Yeah it’s a lovely place. Detroit gets a bad rap because of its crime, but Detroit has got soul like nobody can possibly imagine and a great sort of Rock ‘n’ Roll attitude. People in Detroit and generally in the Midwest in particular, these people work, they work their jobs, their normal nine to five jobs in various different places, working for the car companies and things related to that, other industries and they worked from nine to five and they’re working for the weekend. They work for their paycheque and I did that, I had that kind of existence in Detroit. And when the weekend comes down you wanna rock and roll. And you don’t want to settle for second best and you want these people to kick out the jams. And that’s what they do. And if you can’t kick them out, you better try again or go back into your bedroom and work it out until you can kick out the jams. (smiles)
How was it to grow up there?
Hmm, well we first live in the extreme outer suburbs, which is where we stayed on that particular day and it’s very, very, oh, it’s white upper class, it’s where the auto executives live and it’s very, very opulent. Detroit was built on motor money, as everyone can imagine, and I think a lot of people don’t understand how much money actually was generated in those early days. Right through the 1930s to the early 1970s automobiles just sold and Detroit, which was the only town in the America that produced automobiles. All the companies were there, so the wealth was unbelievable. And Detroit, the inner city, has got beautiful lush neighbourhoods as well as its ghettos and its slums and its worn down bits, but it’s got some of the most beautiful neighbourhoods, I think, that you’ll find anywhere. I was lucky to grow up in a really lovely inner city place once we finally moved into the City of Detroit properly, a place called Palmer Park. And it had great influence on me because the architecture there was so grand and I got to know what looked nice, you know, high standard, oh that’s a really nice house! And you look at another house and you go, well, that’s not an ugly house but it’s not so nice. (laughs)
You know what I’m saying? So Detroit was like that. You had really, really incredible neighbourhoods, where millionaire’s lived and then you had neighbourhoods where the workers lived and there was nothing wrong with those areas particularly how they looked, they just weren’t as nice. That’s kind of a general outlook of I think how America’s class system works. People kind of get on with one another and try not too much aesthetically judge one another.
We’re all just working. Without the worker down there you would not have the millionaires. As long as everyone gets their piece of American Pie everyone is happy. (laughs)
But that’s all changing now...
You seem to be quite proud of your hometown?
Oh yeah, there is a lot to be proud of.
Why did you leave?
Well I was in a situation where I knew I had some talent, I had been in a couple of bands around the city, I was making a little bit of a name and we had problems like all bands do and the band folded. And I was going, ok you’ve got to find some new guys to play with and that’s no fun, especially if you been in a group and you thought something was gonna come of it. We were just a blues band, but we were a good blues band, we were more than a good blues band. We were trying to emulate all the real players. So when that folded I had the fortune, I guess, to have enough money that I decided to go on a holiday or vacation, a 2 week vacation, to London and onwards on to Europe, Paris and Amsterdam. And I come to London, being a bit of an anglophile right from the getgo because of all the British groups that I admired. London was fantastic, so I didn’t go on to Paris and Amsterdam and stayed in London. And somehow or other I managed to meet a guitar player who was working at a guitar shop in London’s Denmark Street by the name of Tony Topham, Top Topham. He was the salesman that I sold a junk guitar to because I couldn’t pay a hotel bill. So I had to pay (smiles), when I say I couldn’t pay the hotel bill, I didn’t have enough cash to pay it, so I sold this guitar to this guitar shop and the salesman was Anthony Topham. And I went, Anthony Topham, that’s Top Topham from the Yardbirds.
Most people don’t know Top as a Yardbirds guitar player, they might not know who Top is at all, but I knew who Top was because he was in the first paragraph of the first Yardbirds album I ever got, on the back liner notes. So I went Top Topham, wow! So I thought I’ve got to be cool here, I don’t want to immediately ask him questions because I had read things about the reason why he left the Yardbirds, somewhat unceremonious, his leaving of the band. So I didn’t wanna put any pressure on him and sure enough the phone rang and it was for Top, at that time I still thought he was Anthony or Tony. And the Phone rang at this music shop and they said “Top telephone!” and that clinched it, yeah Top Topham.
So we got on, I sold him the guitar and they had lots of really cool old guitars there and I was playing something, some Freddy King thing or something. Top said “Hey Freddy King man! You’re playing Freddy King” and I said “Yeah, Freddy King is great!”. So Top and I struck up a blues interest with one another without me going on about his Yardbirds stuff. We just talked about blues, went out and had a cup of coffee after we did the guitar deal, talked about stuff and I said “you were in the Yardbirds” and he said “yeah” and bla bla bla, we talked and said why don’t you come back tomorrow and we go out and have lunch. So I went back, I had nothing else to do, I paid my hotel bill (laughs) and went and had lunch with Top and as it turned out he said that he and another former Yardbird, Jim McCarty, had a little blues band together in London and they were gonna do shows and do gigs and they were looking for somebody to do the singing and play. I had no obligations in Detroit and I put it forward that if it could be worked out I’d come and play and see what happened and you know, now it’s 20 years later.
How exactly did your move to England influence your career?
Oh dramatically. At the beginning we of course weren’t the Yardbirds it was the Top Topham Jim McCarty Band, but we played around London at least 4 nights a week. In Detroit that was a really hard thing to be able to do, you had to be a top bar band in order to play 4 or 5 nights a week and get good gigs on the weekend. Most bands, including my band were weekend bands and you’d be lucky to get a little residency for three nights, Friday, Saturday and Sunday at some bar in downtown Detroit or maybe in Ann Arbor or Ypsilanti or somewhere like that. And those gigs were hard, if you had to travel to Ypsilanti from Detroit and do three nights, we used to sleep at the keyboard player’s house, all of us. (laughs) You know there wasn’t hotels or shit like that.
But around London you could play a pub or a little club and we go quite a name for ourselves and to be able to play four nights a week and with great musicians, I mean, it did my guitar playing and my singing a world of good.
So how did the Yardbirds reunite?
Well the Topham McCarty Band lasted with Top for about 2 years and we had kind of thought that maybe we could do a Yardbirds thing with Top. But that didn’t really materialise and eventually Top left the group and we became a trio for a period of time, about another almost 2 years and eventually I left that group. Upon the arrival on my son being born by that time I left Jims band and I started doing things on my own. But just before that time the end of the Jim McCarty Band that I was in, Chris Dreja used to pop around as well as some of the other old members of the Yardbirds, original members like Paul Samwell-Smith and Jeff Beck used to come and see us and oh, you know just people from that whole scene.
We used to play a gig every week called The Station Tavern near Sheppard’s Bush. It was the most fantastic gig and it would just be packed, week after week after week and we played it for five years.
We had enough of a following around London that we thought, maybe we didn’t need to be the Yardbirds. This is of course without Chris and we tried to do records and stuff and we did recordings but nothing really came of it. The industry was changing, the Yardbird name was still strong in people’s minds as far as our identity, the McCarty Band’s identity. Yardbirds fans from far and wide would come and see us. And of course we played some Yardbirds stuff and we played blues rock. That’s what we were about. So Chris augmented us and we did a couple of concerts or performances, we did one at the 100 Club, we did one at a place called St. John’s Tavern up in North London and they were really good gigs. Chris hadn’t played in a long time, I don’t think he hadn’t played guitar since the Box of Frogs, since 83, so he was kind of out of it, I mean not to put him down, but I used to go and rehearse with him. Chris is such a lovely guy and it was good fun to play all those songs with him.
I played the lead guitar on those gigs and sang, which was a heavy job actually, pulling off all those solos and sing the Yardbird hits.
I can remember it being a real buzz and we had a lot of people come to those gigs. They were great gigs.
Though after that, even though that wasn’t really the Yardbirds, it was kind of the Jim McCarty Band with Chris Dreja augmenting us that was the seed that sowed the reforming of the Yardbirds.
You play bass in the Yardbirds, but you’re actually more a lead guitarist. How did it come about that you finally play bass there?
Well that was a politics issue you see. Around the time of Chris Dreja joining the McCarty Band for those gigs we were also performing in the McCarty Band with another guitarist, named Ray Majors. Ray was in Mott, the band that followed Mott the Hoople, Ian Hunters band.
And Ray is a great guitar player, so it was he and I and he sort of took over, as I said we were a trio for close to 3 years and then Ray came on the scene. I maybe played with Ray in Jim’s band for about 8 month and then my son was born and I wasn’t into the idea of having, I guess it was the Jeff/Jimmy thing, another guy standing on my turf, as a guitar player.
It was one thing with Top, Top and I played very harmoniously with one another, it wasn’t so much that way with Ray and I do believe I can be credited for. One night we’d done that guitar thing, where it was just like a free-for-all between the two of us, like a guitar war on stage and I said “that was like a meltdown, that was like a nuclear meltdown on stage”. You couldn’t hear what either guitar player was really doing, it was just like crap as far as I was concerned (laughs).
It was like trying to outgun one another and it just turned into noise. So I said it was like a “meltdown” but that turned out to be the name that Jim and Ray used after I left. They changed the name from the Jim McCarty Band to the Meltdown. (laughs)
And they carried on without me and it was fine, I had no problem with that. So I was outside the band and I was writing and I was doing things with some other friends, which didn’t really come to a lot, but some good songs were written. We did a few gigs and they were fun. It was refreshing to play some new material, especially my own material.
I got a call from Jim and he had said, I think Jim was disappointed I left his band and I was disappointed I left his band to a degree, anyway. So he said to me would I like to come on board because there is an agent that wants to get the Yardbirds gigs and can get us gigs around the world and we can make good money.
Now, I say this, I am a Yardbirds fan and a Yardbirds aficionado, there isn’t really anything musically that I don’t know about, there is not a single tune or even bootlegged performance that I haven’t heard. So to be immodest, but maybe to be truthful, I am a good candidate for knowing what the music should sound like. And Jim being the gentlemen that he is in actual fact, he basically, well Ray was still in his band, he thought of people that were friends of his, many musicians would rather play with their friends than maybe the best guitar player in the world or the best singer or whatever because quite often you get the best singer in the world and he turns out to be the biggest prick you ever came across and the biggest pain in the ass on the road. So it’s better sometimes to have you friends around, people that you trust and people that you know, who know the music and of course Jim and I were very, very close around that time.
So he said to me, he said look Ray is still in the band and Ray’s great guitar player, so he said if I don’t ask Ray he’ll be hurt, cause he is in my band right now. Chris is gonna play rhythm guitar, so we need a bass player, how would you feel about playing bass? And I said “yeah as long as it’s good I’ll play”. So I banged up my bass skills, which I never really, I say I never really stop playing bass, I did stop playing bass. I hadn’t played bass since I was 10 or 11 but I still appreciated bass throughout that other time. I always played with really good bass players in Detroit and of course we were all learning so you’d sit down and you’d work out maybe what the bass player was doing, helping him out on a particular track, say “oh no it goes like this man”. Maybe you’d have a go on the bass and get it together with him, that’s how young musicians learn.
So to come back to playing bass took a little while on the fingers but not on the musicality and playing the Yardbirds stuff on bass is much like playing lead guitar anyway, it’s all riffs.
Sorry I went on there.
Now you’ve been the singer for what? Twelve years?
Twelve years now. Yeah.
Twelve years. Why do you think that now the time for you has come to go your own ways and record a solo album?
Well 12 years is a long time to do anything. And especially because there was really only about nine month or a year at the most that I was away from Jim’s band, you see. And those guys, you know, the Yardbirds as a thing, all those people that are involved, you know it can be quite intimidating. I can remember playing guitar in front of people like Jeff Beck in little clubs and you’re going “shi-it I’ve got to play guitar in front of Jeff Beck all night” that’s not easy, or Bill Wyman, Mick Ronson from David Bowie’s band in the audience when you’re young, I mean I’m talking about being 25/26 years old.
Now I realise Eric Clapton was 22 or 24 or something when he was in the Bluesbreakers but it was a whole different world back then. He wasn’t having to sit there and playing in front of BB King, you know, if he was he would have been pissing himself.
Anyway, it took me a good while to start feeling confident and about 5 years ago, I started writing songs in much more productive way and also felt that maybe, the Yardbirds, we recorded an album called “Birdland”, which took a hell of a lot of energy to do and I think it was quite a feat for a band to come back after 35 years and record a studio album with some great guests on it. We spent a lot of time and we had really high hopes for it. Not that it hasn’t done anything, it’s been quite a good little slow cooker all along but, artistically there is not a lot of room in the Yardbirds. The Yardbirds have got to write music that fits within its own little Yardbirds bubble. (smiles)
Or it’s so outside the box that people wouldn’t think that it’s the Yardbirds. So when you got so many other influences inside you, what do you do? You start writing your own projects just like Jim has done over the years. Jim’s very much into new age music and healing music and things and to some extend Jim’s music, his outside music of the Yardbirds has actually influenced me quite a lot. And his ability to do something outside of the group has influenced me to do just the same.
I think it’s also an inner need something you just have to do, or I have to do.
In the last year you spent quite a lot of time to record your new album “The Folly”. How would you describe it?
Well, kind of like I was saying there are so many different influences, that if I’m writing a song or I’m recording a song and I think it’s go a particular motivation or maybe it’s in a particular kind of bag, I just let the song run with that, which means that one song is gonna be a lot different than the next because there is not a formula for writing them, other than each song has its own life. A lot of artists they’re able to, not that each song sounds so different that it sounds necessarily like another group, but the actual styles are diverse and hopefully I achieve the result that I’m after.
Why did you call it “The Folly”?
Well for a couple of reasons, one, one of the things of it is that we were taking some pictures of tentative ideas for artwork and I knew of a place not far from where I used to live in Surrey, that had a cute little folly at the bottom of a hill, we took some photographs there. And then I thought of the connection of folly as like semi foolish or whimsical as a notion that’s an English term or just a general term in English. (laughs)
And I thought, you know, here I am, I’m doing an album in which I’m playing all the instruments myself, basically engineering the thing myself and you know it’s taking for fuckin’ ever, excuse my language, but because it’s taken more than a year to record. The song have sort of been slowly evolving over a period of about 4 years, where I was recording them here at home and working on them as I saw fit. I might work on a backing track and just get it up to a certain degree with a guide vocal or something like that and leave it like that for 6 months and then write another song and get it up to that point and leave it for another year before I maybe finished it. And before I knew it I was having close to 30 songs in all sort of similar states of disrepair.
So yeah, it’s been in the last year that I’ve actually gone and totally finished them and fine-tuned everything.
Was it fun to play everything yourself?
Yeah it’s great fun actually. The reasoning for playing all the instruments myself was, for one. I was doing things on no budget at all, recording at home with kind of old analogue equipment that I didn’t have to spend a huge fortune on and the time that it takes to do things and the practicality of if you’re sitting around at 11 o’clock at night and you wanna do something and you think a track like that really needs some maracas and claves or something like that, I’m not gonna call up any of my friends and say “hey can you come over at 11pm out in the middle of the countryside and lay down some percussion for me on my track”. (laughs) I’m thinking, shit, I can play the maracas, I can play the tambourine and I can play the drums, you know, so I thought I just sharpen up my skills on all the instruments that I can play, particularly on the drums, I just drummed as many of the songs in a row, I’d say, well I’m doing drumming now on 8 songs so that my drumming got better and better. And I’d say, well now I’m gonna work on the Hammond organ parts or something like that and I’d just play the Hammond organ for 3 weeks, so that my playing got better and better and better on each instrument. And then I could swap and change between each instrument and work on particular tracks, you know.
So it did take a long time because I was going I’m learning this song on the Hammond organ and I’m not really a Hammond organ player, but if I practise you might not know that I’m not a Hammond organ player, if I really practise and maybe I am. (smiles)
I love it as an instrument and anything that you really love it’s like I love drumming, drumming is a great release, it’s a great physical challenge, I’d sit in the studio and just sweat, you know and drum a song 30 times until I got a take.
From all the instruments that you played for the album, which was your favourite instrument? Did you have one?
Maybe not a favourite instrument in general, but maybe a favourite instrument on each track. There are certain tunes where you just go, oh yeah that’s the drum tune or that’s the tune where the Hammond organ was really pleasing, the guitaring throughout, it’s funny because the album is not really what I would call a guitarist’s album at all. It’s got guitar solos on it, it’s got guitar parts but it’s not the sort of album, I intentionally haven’t written songs that are like “oh I’m a guitar player and I’ve got to do an album that’s gonna have the greatest guitar solos ever heard on it. (smiles) You won’t hear anything like that on this record. I don’t know if I’m capable of doing that anyway, but the album’s got nice guitar on it, it’s not anything flash, it shows some of the things I’m capable of, but it’s not a guitarist’s album, it’s not about the guitar, it’s about the songs. And each song, as I said, lives in its own space.
Your song “We All Belong” has a pretty strong message, as I see you wearing the message embroidered onto your jacket. Are you planning to start a new hippie-gypsy –revolution?
I hope so. Yeah that song, I guess it is a bit of a motto really, it is like a slogan. There are a lot sort of slogans throughout the record, sort of catchphrases, titles and things and when I was sitting there, writing “We All Belong “ it was one of those good songs that kind of wrote itself in about 20 minutes. Words and music, and the more it progressed, the more fun it was, although the line about religion took me over a year to finish, because I thought this is dangerous ground, I got to be really careful what I say here and not that I think this song is gonna necessarily have some huge impact, although as an ideal the song paints a picture of the world in an idealistic sort of fashion and maybe that’s stupid because we know how troublesome the world is.
So, hopefully it will do whatever it’s gonna do.
Which is your favourite song on the album?
Hmm, well yet again, there is probably not a favourite. There are some that kind of make me, you know some of them are serious songs, I mean, “We All Belong” is quite a serious song, but yet it’s got a fairly happy sort of approach to being serious. Songs like “The Kali Yuga’s Gettin’ Hot” is quite funny to me actually, it’s very much like an imposing type of tune but there are bits in it where I think of how I did it and everything else and I have a good laugh. “Banging My Head on the Wall”, the first single, is very humorous in its approach to life and it’s a good laugh.
Don’t you think that songs like that could have a bigger influence on people? I mean songs like “Banging My Head on the Wall”, don’t you think that people could injure themselves? (laugh)
Well I think people are constantly injuring and banging their heads against the wall, like every day of their lives and that’s just it. I mean everyone is being walked down the street, down the same old place, down to Nowhereland, where they really think they’re having a ball. Those comments are the lighter side of the comments that are made in “We All Belong” in actual fact or “The Kali Yuga”. It’s an observation of how screwed up we all are.
What would you say is the best song that you’ve written?
The best song that I’ve written? That’s hard, especially when you’re always kind of trying to raise your game or placing your musical ideas against or comparing them to things that you defiantly know are great.
Come on! Stop being modest!
No I’m being real, I don’t think I’ve written a great song yet. I mean there is a lot or rubbish out there right now, in the music world. So good songs are kind of hard to come by, really a truly good song. As far as a song that I think actually works as a whole piece, that has sections to it, different movements and stuff, I’m actually working on one right now, that I actually think is the best thing I’ve done and it’s not on the album, still yet to be finished. It’s finished as a song but it’s not finished recording yet. So will come out in its own good time.
Unless you wanna ask me about “Ramblin’ Woman”...(laughs)
“Ramblin’ Woman”? Do you want to talk about a rambling woman?
Well, tell me everything you want!
Well you see, she’s that woman, you see, that can have any man that she wants. Well you know, I think she’s the most beautiful girl God ever created.
Did you meet her?
I’ve met her, yeah definitely! (smiles)
Is she your ramblin’ woman?
Well the first ramblin’ woman, right.
So you had more than one?
Yeah, there is more than one, you know. I think every man has got his own ramblin’ woman. Some might have a couple. (laughs)
In “The Ballad of Myself” you tell the whole story of your life, how is it to know that the rest of the world now knows something that is actually quite intimate for you?
Well everyone has got their story to tell and I had that just as a musical idea, sort of banging around for a while. I mean just the chords on the guitar and I thought that it sounded kind of like the ballad of Jesse James and I had a lyric that went along with it, something to the effect of “no one’s gonna ever stop me or beat my best” I had an idea of this person that had lots of confidence, “no one’s gonna ever stop me or beat my best”, you know. And I thought there was a certain sort of arrogance to that and I was thinking of the type of persona, the person that would have that kind of arrogance to say a lyric like that. I knew certainly that, that person wasn’t me. So I was thinking about writing a fictional sort of ballad of somebody and one day I just picked up the guitar and I started playing those chords, years later, maybe 4 years later, and I thought oh yeah, because I used to go back listen to little demo tapes that I recorded on various tape recorders and I’d go oh yeah, I remember that idea that was “no one’s gonna ever stop me or beat my best”. And I just came up with a thing and I just said the lyrics at the very beginning of the tune just came out of my mouth.
I mean literally the song on the recording is what came out of my mouth that evening when I was playing those chords again and it kind of threw me. I went “wow I’ve actually got a new title for this song and a whole new idea” that I could actually write something about my life.
So I started to lay it down and I laid it down in kind of a Dylan-esque type of fashion, a rambling tale of a human being going through what all human beings go through. But with all the special details that are intimate to me. So it was quite an eye opener. Certain things that came out and the way that they came out startled me. I make comments about people passing away, how music changed my life as a young boy, all the things in fact that we’ve talked about in this interview but in a different, more personal context.
It’s a 6 minute plus song, actually when you asked the question before what was my favourite tune to do, this is probably my favourite tune, because when it came to recording, it had to have variety within 6 minutes. Six minutes is a long time for somebody to listen to one song and keep their attention on it, especially a song that is actually just a loop of chord changes, there are 7 chords or something in that song, how do you make 7 chords that just go around and around and around interesting to somebody? You have to tell them a story that’s going to hopefully keep them riveted and make the music develop in such a way that they’ll want to continue to listen and I hope when people hear it as the first song on the album, that, that’s what they’ll do. I hope they’ll really listen. Because they might find out something even about themselves because we all go through the same things in our lives, maybe at different times, but all these things happen to people.
So all the songs on “The Folly” are really unique sounding and quite old fashioned to a degree and just a lot different from all of the songs that are out right now. Do you think that it’s going to change something on the music market, like what is considered pop right now?
Well if it has exposure then I think potentially that, yeah, there could be something in that. I mean, it’s all about exposure, if the music is heard in the right places then, and if it’s liked. Though exposure can turn a song or an artist, that really is, dare I say, into something that is far too over hyped for what it is. And we all know what hype is about.
As far as the recordings themselves, and you’re saying they sound old fashioned and that’s generally to do with the facts that one, everything is recorded on analogue tape and not digital and that I also engineered the album myself for most of the recording and I’m a musician, I’m not a recording engineer. That’s not to say it sounds like shit, people. (laughs) But at the same time it wasn’t recorded on 48 tracks or 148 tracks of digital quality type of stuff with Pro Tools and Antaries auto tuners and drum loops or 24 tracks of drums with billions of microphones on a drum kit.
It was recorded with 3 microphones on the drums at maximum, so I’ve got a 12 track tape machine. Old tape, so a lot of forethought had to go into the production side of a song and that was tricky, that was really tricky.
For instance on “We All Belong” there are hand claps throughout it and at the end there are 8 pairs of hands clapping. I’ve got a 12 track tape recorder and you cannot utilise 8 tracks hand claps if you want to get a song like “We All Belong” onto that tape machine. You have to do the hand claps first. So all the hands claps were done before a single acoustic guitar was done and the hand claps were all then transposed down to one track, freeing up all the rest for the drums, bass and organ, vocals etc.
And that sort of forethought is an old school approach to recording. Now no one is ever gonna go back to that realistically because now the technical side of things is just so much more advanced. But I think it has a certain charm to it, I’m not sure that if I had the facility, I would record this way again, although it is a challenge.
I’m kind of making records in the way they used to make records and that’s fun because it’s making me experience what I’ve read about particularly Beatles recordings, what they had to do in order to achieve such fantastic results on say songs like “Strawberry Fields Forever”. A record like that had never been made before and for them to make that at that time was like, well it really knocked people out. When the Beach Boys were making “Good Vibrations” they had an 8 track tape recorder, the Beatles had a 4 track tape recorder and they had 2 of them linked together to make “Strawberry Fields Forever”, that takes a lot of technical ingenuity and forethought to come up with something that is that extravagant.
Would you say you’re an analogue man in a digital world?
Probably yeah. I like the warmth that the tape has, as a lot of musicians do, the speed of digital is great, though sometimes a performer you’re not ready for it being so fast. Somebody can do take after take after take in no time because time is really quick, but sometimes you need that little bit of mental thought process, I mean you can treat a digital tape recorder the same way you can treat regular tape and I’m sure many producers are doing that now and I know with the results of the technology that’s coming out now you can make digital sound like analogue, so hats off to them. They can continue to produce really great sounding music. But I’m not sure that music in the digital realms so far has proven itself the way all the classic records of yesteryear, I’m not saying there isn’t good music out there, but I’m not sure that there is the abundance of great music that is in that medium throughout. If you listen to music say from 1962 across the board, everything from soul music or blues records, yeah they sound pretty ropy but not all of them do. Then you hear the things that came out of Britain at the time, or you listen to gospel or jazz records, everything was considered in the pop field at that time, I’m not sure that music nowadays is as creative, because it’s not as fresh and artful. I’m not just talking about catchy pop tunes, I’m talking about poplar music amongst peoples. Pop music now is some sort of, it’s a commercial, homogenized stuff, every record sounds the same, they all sound like Pro Tools, it all sounds like everyone’s in the same studio, using the same microphone, using the same thing with the same producer.
I’m not saying that, that is true across the board, but the stuff that they are trying to sell you on the radio is like that.
Sorry all you record producers out there that I’m insulting you. You’re talking to a guy here that’s just an upstart, you know, watch out! (smiles)
Are you planning to leave the Yardbirds now?
No I wouldn’t like to say that I’m leaving the Yardbirds. I do wanna get my own group together to support this music because I’m gonna need a group. I can’t perform all that stuff by myself and yeah I’m not Maha Vishnu, even Maha Vishnu, with four arms would have trouble, you know. (laughs) Excuse me Lord!
But I wanna go out and play these songs desperately because every artist who comes up with something wants to go out and he or she needs the reaction from what you do. Putting out an album and knowing that people are listening to it is great or to hear it on the radio but to go out and actually play the songs yourself, not from the point of adulation, but the actual buzz of actually physically doing it. That’s what it’s about, it’s like a runner, gonna run for 3 miles and all during those 3 miles that I’m gonna run, I’m gonna kick ass! That’s what you wanna do, that’s what you wanna do it for, not because somebody gonna clap at the end. You do it because running for the 3 miles is what it’s about. Just like a good gig, you do the gig because it’s something that’s got to come out of you, it has to come out.
What is the girls aspect of that thing? I mean going and perform, what about the girls?
Girls aspect? Well, you know, especially when you are a single man and maybe you don’t have any ties, emotionally and in the relationship department, you know, if there are girls at a gig, you always play better. And that’s just the sexuality inside you coming out in your playing . It’s like the male peacock displaying his feathers, it’s no different, it’s tribal man, it’s primal, what can you say? (smiles) That’s what it’s about, it’s primal.
Has your long time in the Yardbirds and being a Yardbirds fan for quite a while actually influenced any of the songs on you album or your idea or your style of writing and if, how?
Well I guess it’s a yes and a no answer in so much as that when we were doing “Birdland” we made pretty concerted efforts to trying to write Yardbirds songs. That was a difficult challenge because those songs are so unique, they were blessed by having Graham Gouldman writing them hit songs, “For Your Love” and “Heart Full of Soul” and there was one song that the Yardbirds made an attempt to record, a song by Graham Gouldman’s band The Mocking Birds, called “You stole my love” and the Yardbirds recorded an unfinished version in 67 with Pagey on guitar and it’s a great riff and we’d thought maybe we should do “You stole my love” on Birdland and we’d thought about doing it and I remember sort of semi learning it and I was thinking, this is a really yardbirdy type of tune. And then thinking, I could probably write a Yardbird type of riff, so I started writing a riff and a tune to go with it, I’ve got this song and we recorded it for Birdland but I never was able to finish the words, for some reason I wasn’t getting any help from anybody else and I had this title for the song and sort of the main hooks and to this day I have got the rhythm track and I don’t have the finished words, which I hope I will finish by the time the second album comes out and it’s very much like the Yardbirds. Now there is a tune on my album “The Folly” that is credited to all the members of the Yardbirds when Gypie Mayo was the guitar player and that came from a rehearsal that we’d done. We just came up with this idea and Gypie came up with the sort of chords and I helped him along with it at a sound check one day and we played it and we found out unknowingly to us when we were playing it, that it was in 7/8 time, which is peculiar time signature. It’s not in standard timing but you don’t notice it.
Yeah the Yardbirds are a great influence but I try to make a point of not allowing that music to hold a huge place on the album. It’s kind of something that I’ve already done and I think the music that you’ll hear on “The Folly” is maybe more me as I am in my own music taste, in what I actually listen to. I don’t listen to the Yardbirds any more, not that I don’t like them, but my music taste has changed and I listen to a lot more soul music than I ever used to, I listen to folk music more than I did, country music, so some of those influences are in there, equally as much as heavy rock or the Yardbirds.
In your songs “Five More Nights” and “A Long Time on This Road” you are obviously describing time that you spent out on the road, on tour, so are there any crazy stories that are unbelievable?
Oh there is lots of crazy stories, yes, there are many, many, many, many crazy stories and that’s another interview, that’s another book! (smiles)
It’s more than a chapter of life, 12 years on the road with a band like the Yardbirds is bound to, you know, 5 years on the road with a band is a book, this is an encyclopaedia of craziness and there is bound to be more!
But as far as those songs go, as far as attributing them to life on the road, to a degree they are, “Five More Nights” is definitely, but it’s a stab at attempting that. Yeah there are times when you’re missing somebody, especially if you’ve been away for a long period of time, a month or more and you ain’t seen your main squeezin’ five long weeks today and you know, you’ve got the blues, you know, as Albert King said. Can you dig it? (laughs)
What was your favourite or your most beautiful experience out on the road?
Oh, well I had some really great experiences. Each tour has some kind of thing attached to it. One tour we did I seem to remember that photographs were the thing that you were given by people. One tour it might be clothes, like somebody gives you a shirt or you bought a shirt and somebody else gave you a shirt and that was the “shirt tour”, the next one was the “photograph tour” where photographs of either of the last time when maybe they saw you play they’ve got a photograph of you and they’ve given it to you or somebody from the 60s with a Polaroid camera comes up and has go a whole album with pictures of the Yardbirds in 1966 in a dressing room or something like that, that nobody on earth has ever seen before. And you just go “wow these photographs are fantastic!” you know, they are totally unique and you just go these photographs are priceless in their sense of rock history. Oh yeah we had tours where it was like this is the “photographs tour” and this is the “shoes tour” (laughs) things like that “oh that was the tour where, oh I bought that guitar and then I got that mandolin and I got that or whatever” and all on the same tour.
But I’ve met an incredible array of musicians and other personalities. American tours are very dynamic for that. America is always buzzing with people, Americans. Not that Europeans are not like that, but I think Rock ‘n’ Roll, rock music or popular music being an American institution, something that’s been created there. It lives and breathes there, it’s alive there. It can be very, very interesting to be amongst it, in the thick of it, the people that you will come across. Every tour I’m dumfounded at who I meet.
I met Richie Havens one night at a gig in Texas, South by South-West in Austin. And he was phenomenal to meet because, not just because of his history, but because of the kind of person that he is. He used to do gigs with the Yardbirds when they’d play places like the Filmore East or the Filmore West, back in those heavy days. Richie always seemed to be a very spiritual kind of guy who gives you that impression, and when I met him, he was looking forward to seeing Jim and Chris of course, because you know, he was there on the bill with us and he was like hey the Yardbirds are gonna be here, some of my old friends. So I came through the door as the first person from the band to go to the dressing rooms and Richie may have thought I was somebody else, but he walked up to me like he knew I was in the Yardbirds and he put his arms around me like I was being blessed by some saint and said “Hey man, how are you doing?” and of course Jim and Chris were behind me, but he hugged me like I was an old lost soul that he hadn’t seen in all those years but of course he is not blind, he must have just wanted to meet me. He knew that I wasn’t Keith or Jeff or anybody else Meeting him was like holy shit, I mean this guy’s a fantastic performer, for one and he’s immortalised in Rock ‘n’ Roll history as the guy who opened up the Woodstock Festival. And his performance there were just like wow, (pause) he did things with one guitar and one voice or with his buddy accompanying him that very few people can do. Very few people can move 500000 people with one voice and one guitar. And he still does, he did it that night!
Would you say that was your favourite moment?
I’d have to say that it was pretty damn up there. I’ve met a lot of other people and very few of them are a letdown.
I’ve met heavy weights like Albert King when I was younger, I was about 20 or something when I met Albert King, I was still living in Detroit. Meeting Albert King is a bit like meeting a heavy weight boxer or somebody who is extremely intimidating, a very large man.
Did he knock you out then?
Well he did actually. He even dedicated a song to me and my friend, who happened to be the only white people in the whole building. (laughs)
We were at the Fox Theatre in Detroit and we’re banging on the backdoor of this place, though I wasn’t, I was scared shitless. We’re in an alleyway in the middle of the funky part of Detroit. My friend Frank, who knew Albert, and Albert had told him to come down to the gig and go down to the theatre door, the backstage door, and give a knock and somebody would let him in. But of course the music was playing and it was some line up, it was Bobby Bluebland, Albert King and Little Johnny Taylor and somebody else, Little Milton, the great Little Milton, anyway, we knock on the door, well not knock on it, because you can’t knock on it because it’s too loud. Frank’s kicking this door. (laughs) We were like two white punks in this alleyway, dressed up like hippies, like really long hair and tassel jackets and stuff (smiles) and this guy opens the door like “who the fuck is kicking the door?”. (laughs) He is this huge black man, security guy, that sort of eats white boys for breakfast. (laughs)
And he’s like “What you wa’?” (imitating the guy) like this and Frank says “We’re here to see Albert.” (laughs) and the guy turns around and says “Albert! You know two white boys that wanna see you?” and he says “Yeah, that’s Frank!”, “That be Frank” like this.
And they let us in and we meet Albert and his wife and his daughter. And his wife was all dressed in white to match the limousine they were driven in. And they had their little girl with them and she was dressed in white. I think it was around Easter time and it was still snowing and cold outside.
Anyway, then it was time to play, Albert’s turned to play and were, well we got to get out of his hair so. Albert was really nice, introduced me to his wife and his daughter, they were letting us have something to eat and then Albert said “I got to get ready for the show” and it was really dark in there, the backstage, it wasn’t really very nice at all.
And Albert played and I remember he did “The Sky is Crying” by Elmore James and he said “I wanna dedicate this song to my two friend who’ve come all this way to come and see us tonight” (laughs) and he made us come off the side of the stage, off the wings and we looked at the audience and it was like all these black people. (laughs) It was like the opposite of the old minstrel shows, it was like “we gonna bring out the white boys” (laughs), it was too funny.
But that was some memory. So I mean, yeah, I’ve met a lot of cool people.
What are your next plans?
Well the next plans are to have the album released, it’s just about to get into the mastering phase. But once it’s out and available through my own self, through iTunes or your local record store, I’m certainly hoping that I will be out there performing these songs with a group in concert halls, festivals and wherever the stage is set for us that’s where we will be playing...