February 2004
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Colin John interview by Ken Froehlich

Onstage, Colin John uses his voice and guitar to make his music come alive, forging his blues magic with a passion and singularity that seems natural to him. To witness Colin and his band perform is to see pure expression, the blues form taken to the highest level.
I had the opportunity to sit down recently with Colin to discuss his views on music, and to gain some insight into his latest release, the unplugged effort entitled Acousticland Lady. Colin proved to be a warm, intelligent, and gracious fellow. He was even a tad modest -- which is amazing when one considers the staggering talent he and his band can conjure up at will…

Rhythm Art Groove: How old were you when you first heard blues music, and what attracted you to it?
Colin John: I think I was about ten years old and the thing I really liked about it was that it just struck a chord within me. It was sort of the combination of the pureness and the rawness and the honesty that came out in it, that's what really struck me the most initially. It still does, actually.

RAG: Were you drawn to the improvisational side of it as well?
CJ: Yeah, I mean with traditional blues there's a structure, but I like the freedom that the music allows you to play within the form.

RAG: Who were some of your early influences?
CJ: My early influences were a lot of Chicago blues guys. Son Seals, Hound Dog Taylor. And then I went through all the Kings, Albert, B.B., and Freddie. Magic Sam, Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, Robert Junior Lockwood. And then on the acoustic side there were people like Skip James and Robert Johnson, Charlie Patton, Blind Willie Johnson.
Then on the R&B front there was Al Green, Otis Clay, all those southern soul singers, like Obie Wright. Also there were my Rock and Roll influences like Led Zeppelin, Cream, Hendrix, The Jeff Beck Group, Rod Stewart, all sorts of stuff.

RAG: I know that you have a storied past in that you've played with a lot of people, both with them and as a supporting act. Some of these people are considered to be Blues "icons". Who are some of the more notable ones?
CJ: I have played with a lot of blues guys, and it's an ongoing experience and an honor. I played with a band out of New York City called Little Mike and the Tornados and we used to back up Hubert Sumlin, Pinetop Perkins, Big Daddy Kincaid, Henry Gray on piano from the Wolf's Den, and I was also fortunate enough to meet and play with Albert Collins, B.B. King, Albert King. And then a very big influence for me stylistically was a friend of mine in Memphis called Teenie Hodges, who wrote a lot of songs for Al Green, he and his brothers were in the house band for Hi Records.

RAG: I was going to ask you if he contributed to the 70's sound that Al Green had.
CJ: Yeah, that definitive 70's Memphis soul, that was Teenie Hodges on guitar
and his brother Leroy on bass, Charles Hodges on organ, and Howard Grimes on drums after Al Jackson was shot.

RAG: That's interesting, your connection to that Memphis scene.
CJ: One thing about Teenie, I thought I was a pretty good lead guitar player, then I met him and he really taught me about rhythm and different chord structures and inversions, he was a very tasty guitar player.

RAG: I think that's something that many blues players overlook, the rhythm aspect of the music. Without a good rhythm driving a song, a guy can play leads all night long and it's not going to sound very interesting. I'm impressed by the scope of your music. Obviously you've had different influences, and I think it shows in your writing as well as your playing. You've got a wide scope of material that you draw from.
Do you have an idea what fosters this variety?

CJ: I think you are a product of your environment, whatever you absorb. I learned from Albert Collins and B.B. King, all my favorite guitar players, and a lot of people's favorite musicians, that to stand out you have to have your own identification. I learned from those guys that when you hear them play, you know within three notes who that is. But what I did, I couldn't deny my white middle class upbringing roots, listening to Rock and Roll. But at the same time, I loved the blues so much, and then the soul, and then the funk, so that was all learned in the states in Cleveland, and down in Memphis, Chicago, and New York City. You get exposed to all different kinds of sounds. I lived in England for twelve years and England is a very big pop culture. Actually blues music and all the great exponents of blues music these days in the U.K. are part of an underground scene. It's not mainstream at all. If you want to see blues you have to go to a " blues club" which isn't necessarily a venue but an organization of people who maybe one day a week or every couple of weeks put on a blues show. So in the meantime in England I was exposed to a lot of pop and funk music on the radio. I couldn't say I was a major fan of it but I couldn't help but be influenced by it, just because I heard it around me all the time. I think I put all of those influences together, ingredients in a stew, as it were, and it comes out like that.

RAG: Didn't you tell me in Cambridge that the blues scene in England was like a cult following?
CJ: It really is, even with the big names. I did some gigs with Gary Brooker of Procol Harum, in a band called No Stiletto Shoes, that was with Andy Fairweather Low who is now in Eric's band (Eric Clapton), and myself, Dave Bronze on bass, Henry Spinetti on drums, and Frank Meade on sax. There would always be guest musicians sitting in. Man that was great, because these were British guys who might be known for different styles, like Gary with Procol Harum, who's very progressive and classically oriented, but he's actually in that Stevie Winwood vein, where he does a great Ray Charles.

RAG: Like he's a great blue-eyed soul singer.
CJ: It's the same thing with Paul Young. I did a few shows with him in Europe where we were on the bill together. He's a great white soul singer. There's just a million of them, there's Chris Farlow, who is fantastic, he had a band called the Thunderbirds in the U.K. Then there's the Pretty Things, who have been going just as long as the Stones, and they're still doing that circuit. Yeah there's all kinds of guys, but like you say it is more of an underground thing. Most of those guys work on the continent as well. In Germany the English R&B is very good. There is another band I've got to mention called Dr. Feelgood. They're sort of the equivalent over here of maybe early J. Geils.

RAG: Like a heavy R&B sound?
CJ: Yeah, a very heavy R&B, four on the floor kinda thing, a really cool band, they've been going for ages and they're real good too. And then, of course, there's Rory Gallagher and Gary Moore. I think they're bigger over there than they are here. Gary Moore is a superstar in Europe, and Rory is just completely revered, especially in Ireland.

RAG: It's interesting how the British rediscovered the blues and helped America rediscover the blues with the 60's British blues scene.
CJ: I think what happened was there were the trad jazz guys who played what we would consider Dixieland jazz stuff. And they had brought over Muddy Waters and Sister Rosetta Thorpe, and Big Bill Broonzy, in the early days, sort of the early fifties. They were actually older than Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, and Keith Richards, but those guys looked up to it. And there were also a lot of American GIs who brought over their blues and R&B records. So, many British youths discovered blues and R&B through those channels.

RAG: I'd like to ask you about Michael Hill. I heard the great work you did together on your latest cd "Acousticland Lady", and I know his background with the Blues Mob. What was it like working with that cat?
CJ: He's great. Michael is just an incredible human being; he's a very dear friend. He's just a really talented, original, musician who writes songs about contemporary life as seen through his eyes. And he never uses any clichés; he's a very inventive guitar player as well as a great lyricist. He's totally original, yeah, I love him. But he's a real humble cat, he's really lovely. And, he'll be playing with us at the end of February. We're going to showcase the Acousticland Lady album.

RAG: I notice that Michael is a very topical writer, and I'd like to ask you about one song in particular on Acousticland Lady; the song is entitled O.I.L. What influenced you guys to do that song?
CJ: Well, unless you're living in a cave you got bombarded with everything on the news. And this whole b.s. about the war in Iraq being about weapons of mass destruction is a load of nonsense, it's about the oil. The Middle East is involved with the U.S., it's about oil, and I think Michael picked up on that fairly quickly. We just wanted to put our perspective on it. We're not really a political band, but you've got to tell the truth sometimes.

RAG: I think that fits into the blues tradition. There have always been blues artists who would sing about current issues and events; going back to artists like Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, and Jimmy Rodgers, who all sang about the "big picture" around them. They wrote songs about the depression and World War One, topics of that nature. On a different note, what inspired you to do an acoustic album, how exactly did Acousticland Lady come about?
CJ: I like to keep the music fresh, so acoustic blues gives it a good shot coming from a different angle. Also, I wanted to respect the past while looking to the future, because a lot of blues albums are maybe one guy going solo, or maybe an acoustic combo, so my idea was to utilize acoustic instruments, but play them with an electric intensity. The rhythm section still sounds pretty heavy, but because we're using acoustic instruments it's more organic sounding. The music gets closer to the roots that way. Michael and I used several different acoustics, Michael used his Gibson Jumbo,which was a beautiful guitar, we also used a Regal resonator and a National resonator, and a couple Washburn guitars.

RAG: Did you guys use a twelve string also?
CJ: Yeah, there is a twelve string on the song "Acousticland Lady". I just like using all those different instruments because they all give different textures and sounds. Like the resonator, I love it, it sounds like a garbage can with strings on it. Compare that with like a Breedlove or a Martin, which we also used on the album, that's a very high-end acoustic sound that's very sweet. You have a real contrast there, and I think it works.

RAG: How about the resonator, is it featured on any tracks?
CJ: It's on "11 Months and 29 days", and also "Down in Mississippi". And I wanted to pay tribute to the older blues guys, so I used it on a track called "Son's House".

RAG: I'd like to ask you about that cut. Within the sound montage, you added a voice over by Son House where he says, and I'm paraphrasing here, "Younger people, they take anything and make a blues out of it, and it's not. There ain't but one kind of blues and that consisted between males and females that's in love." What prompted you to use that quote by Son House?
CJ: I wanted to put that on there to show that I respect the past and I'm aware of it. Also, to keep someone like him fresh and in the public mind, because a few people may have forgotten who Son House was. He was really one of the great blues forefathers, I mean Muddy Waters learned from him, Robert Johnson learned from him, as did Robert Nighthawk. Son House was their granddaddy. And if you listen to him today or see one of his performances on video, he was very powerful.

RAG: Son House and also Charlie Patton have the reputation of giving these incredibly mesmerizing performances where they almost seem to be in a trance-like state. I'd like to ask you about another seminal artist that you mentioned earlier. Would you consider Robert Junior Lockwood to be a link to the early blues performers?
CJ: Oh yeah, absolutely. His mother was Robert Johnson's girlfriend. He gets really messed up when people ask him about Robert Johnson all the time, and understandably so, because Robert Junior Lockwood is a major talent. He came up from down south and he used to run with Robert Johnson. Also, he did the King Biscuit (flour hour) with Sonny Boy (Williamson). Once in Chicago, you know, he was on a lot of the old Chess recordings. And when you hear that very pretty jazz guitar, but done in a blues context…he's on stuff with Little Walter, Muddy, Otis Spann. He's pretty tasty as a guitar player, using things like sliding 7th, 11th, and 13th chords played against the rhythmic background of raw blues…

RAG: Chords with upper extensions?
CJ: He was a very sophisticated player for playing such raucous, raw music.

RAG: Speaking of sophistication, I noticed that Acousticland Lady had a couple tracks that leaned a little toward the jazz side. Are you a jazz fan, or what made you approach that style?
CJ: Yeah, I really like jazz, and it goes back to what I said earlier about being in London where you get on the radio the pop and the jazzy funk stuff. There is a station called Jazz FM and they play a lot of jazzy things. Obviously, the track that comes to mind on Acousticland Lady is "Your Personal Forecast". At first it was a goof on the weather channel. I'm a nerd, I watch the weather channel all the time. I don't know why, because the weather will be what will be. Anyway, they always have those songs like that. It started out with those two chords in the beginning…"and now your local on the eights", but I took those chords and it really came to fruition when we went into the studio with Michael (Hill), Steve (Calabria, bass), and Scott (Turner, drums), and we thought, "wow, this sounds pretty cool", so then I had the idea of changing the weather forecast to your personal forecast, but still leave the weather aspect of it in there as far as your forecast. It came out well, and yeah, I really like jazz.

RAG: When you play a jazzy tune like that, do you think about the theory aspect of it? Did you say to yourself, "I'm going to play in the Dorian mode", or approach the tune technically?
CJ: No, when I think like that, it's like asking a centipede when it's walking "which foot goes first?". I'll stumble over myself if I think like that. I think you learn theory, and you're always learning theory, but it's as if when you speak, you're not really thinking ok, here's the next word I'm going to say. It just flows, and hopefully, you can keep it flowing well.

RAG: I've noticed that you favor the Gibson 335 (guitar). What is it about the 335 that you like?
CJ: I find it to be a really versatile instrument, because, it's a solid body, kind of, and then it's got acoustic chambers in it, and coupled with the pickups, you can get a very clean sound, or a very dirty sound, a singing sound, or a very slinky, funky sound, but after all that, at the end of the day, it's got a very "woody" tone. It's like a baseball player hitting a home run, you get that "thwack" when the ball hits the wood, and to me, when you attack the 335, and you want it to sing, it's just a very warm and woody sound. I love all guitars. I love Telecasters, Strats, Les Pauls, Flying Vs, the old Nationals.

RAG: What about blues music in the future? Do you feel like you have a responsibility to take the music forward? Or, do you just make your own music?
CJ: Well, I'm not really a purist, so I don't feel like I fit exactly in that genre. What I like to do, I don't know if I'd really call it a responsibility, but as long as I'm going to play live and make records that people and my friends and fans are going to obtain, then I think I do have a responsibility to try and express the blues to as many people as possible, Colin John Band style.

RAG: Do you have any closing thoughts?
CJ: I'd just like to say thanks very much, and I'd like to thank my bandmates:
Steve Calabria on bass, and Scott Turner on drums. I'd like to thank my other half, Carolyn. And I'd like to thank Peg Lilly from Zanesville, who does a great job with our artwork, Tammy Chahonsky, who helps out with our P.R., and my good friend Paul Podnar, who is a close advisor to us in the band. And I'd like to thank everyone for reading and listening.
Keep the faith.

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