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
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
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
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
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
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
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.