The Blasters on their new album
Phil Alvin - John Bazz - Keith Wyatt - Jerry Angel
The Blasters have released their first studio album in 19 years. The CD is currently only available in the UK and Europe on Evangeline Records. A US distribution deal is currently in the works for early 2005. The Blasters membership has changed quite a bit since 1985s Hardline LP was released. The quartet is led by founding members Phil Alvin on vocals and John Bazz on Bass. Jerry Angel on drums and Keith Wyatt on lead guitar have been in the band ten years and 8 years respectively. The new album titled 411-44 has been in the making for 5 years.
This interview was done in two separate sessions on the eve of the release of 4-11-44 by Evangeline Records on October 4, 2004. John Bazz, Jerry Angel, and Keith Wyatt sat down together in their tour bus while riding cross-country on tour in Sweden to discuss the making of the new album. Phil Alvin was interviewed in London, England on the final date of the Blasters 2004 European tour.
John: Lets see: When were the MIT sessions? Do you remember the year?
Keith: No. (laughs)
Jerry: I think 1999.
Keith: Was it that recent? (Laughs)
John: Keith had an offer come to him through the school (Musicians Institute) that he teaches at in Los Angeles, to have the Blasters participate in a recording class.
John: I remember there was a fourth day when Phil recorded all the vocals.
Keith: Yeah, later on. Then the mixing went on for some time.
John: We kind of stalled at that point and then went on to Bruce Witkins studio. We sent the tapes to him and had him transfer the tapes to a format we could work with. Then we re-cut a lot of stuff.
Keith: A lot of overdubs were done at Witkins - all the mixes were done there. I think it was about 50 / 50 in both studios.
AM: Was there an official producer?
Keith: TJ Helmrich engineered the sessions at MI and Bruce Witken at Witkins Garage Studios. Bruce also engineered all of the final mixes. The producer role was spread around between Phil, John and me. On a number of occasions, I started tracking parts with Bruce before Phil or John showed up, which we would play back for them to listen and comment. Phil had lots of ideas on arrangements. John made valuable suggestions and comments all along the way. Jerry didn't make it to most of the dubbing sessions, so his input was limited to rehearsals and basic tracking sessions. We cut everything live as a band and then I went back and replaced most of the guitar parts to get better sounds, but we used some of the live stuff because it just felt better. Phil sang and played live and then went back and overdubbed all of his vocals, guitar and harp.
AM: What happened with the song OKEE DOKEE STOMP that was supposed to have all the Blasters guitar players on it?
Keith: That was Johnnys idea. The plan was to have all of the Blasters guitar players play on that one in sequence- we took (Hollywood) Fats' intro off of his record and pasted it onto me, John and Jerry playing the first couple of choruses. Next Smokey, Dave, James, and Billy Zoom each take a chorus before I come back in and wrap it up.
John: We recorded it 5 years ago, got the basics down, and then finished it at Bruce Witkins. Keith got his guitar on there. The next guy to put his stuff on there was to be Smokey Hormel. We sent the tapes to him and it got stalled. He called, apologized, and said he just couldnt get it done. He is so hard to get a hold of and his schedule is always so busy. Because we were so close to getting the record out, there just wasnt time to finish it. Thats still something we can do in the future.
AM: How did the racecar artwork on the front cover come about?
Phil: Did you know that the longest word that can be spelled backwards the same as forwards is Racecar?
John: Howie Idelson came up with ideas. We looked at them and tweaked them. I thought the CD itself should be something cool like a hubcap or tire.
Jerry: Yeah, the CD is a tire. Instead of saying Goodyear or Firestone, it says Blasters.
AM: What is the significance of the salt flats photo on the inside of the CD?
Jerry: The salt flats are in Bonneville, Utah. Pre-World War II guys used to race hot rods out there until the war broke out and the government made that area off-limits because of an Air Force base out there. They started racing again after the war but it dissipated with time. In recent years they've had a few revivals out there with some of the original racers showing up.
AM: In the last Blasters newsletter we saw a cover for the album that is white and says Sonic Boom. What was that?
John: That was a prototype. When we couldnt decide on the title, I made a bunch of album covers on my computer to show at a band meeting. 4-11-44 was our first choice - its a song title and it's kind of mysterious. That was the one we all liked best. Other titles considered were Speed of Sound, Sound of Speed, Chop Suey, Blasters Gone Wild, and many others (laughs). I accumulated loads of names.
Keith: There were a lot of good names in there like Osama, Why I Outta. (Laughs)
Unused title ideas for the new Blasters album
The songs DADDY ROLLIN' STONE
AM: How did the groove change on that from the old versions the Blasters did live from 1996 - 99?
Keith: We were just jamming on it and you (John) came up with that bass line.
John: Yeah. It was 5 years ago and we were only three Blasters strong trying to lay down tracks without Phil. We ran through everything we knew really well that we didnt need him on. We just played around with this song. When Phil came in subsequently to put the vocals on, it was a completely different song for him. It was fun to check out the expression on his face.
Keith: I cant even remember the old version now. I originally learned it off a live tape of James Intveld with the band.
John: When we originally recorded that at MI, it came time to record the solo section and I remember Jerry made a comment to Keith. He said Play menacingly.
Jerry: Right! Right!
John: He said Its a menacing song. Play a menacing solo!
Jerry: Keith came back and nailed it! It changed in that theme. It became a totally different flavor after I said that.
John: At one point we took a little piece of Keiths solo off because we thought it was too long. I complained bitterly to the guys that I thought Keiths solo should have been left intact. So the last thing we did on this record, was we found the missing section of Keiths solo to complete the song. All this was all over a five-year process.
Phil: I dont see this version as very different from the one on my solo record Unsung Stories (Slash records, 1986). There is a bass line difference and there is the attitudinal difference of the Blasters that are playing it. On the solo record it was Dave Carroll, Gary Masi, and Mike Roach.
AM: What is the origin of this song?
Phil: I bought the Otis Blackwell record on the JD label. Its a very early record like 51 or 52. When I heard that thing, I said: Damn! I never heard anybody else doing it, but now my friend Drac from Finland gave me a copy of Jimmy Ricks doing it. Damn! In fact thats the one I wanted to put on my top ten list the father of doo wop. Cie la vie (Laughs). (Ed note. Phil just got off the phone with a major UK music magazine writer telling his 10 essential important records.)
Keith: We heavy-ed that up.
John: We had been playing that for 10 years.
Keith: I learned that off the live tape starting with Jamess guitar parts. I played it like him. Phil listened one day and said, How come youre playing it like that? I said, I thought that was how it went. Phil said, No. so, we changed it some.
AM: What influenced you to write this song?
Phil: I had the Charlie Rich record on Phillips. I always thought the song was too short so I added the bridge twice. Charlie Rich also put out LONELY WEEKENDS at about the same time, and I thought that was Charlie Richs biggest contribution to his body of music. He was great the way he held melodies. The songs he recorded for Sam Phillips were meant as demos so Elvis or Jerry Lee could hear them to record as hits. Charlie Rich was a piano player. I heard the song done more with a guitar flail instead of piano rapid fire.
ITS ALL YOUR FAULT
AM: Did you do any thing different than the original version?
Phil: There were a few things, anachronisms that I brought up to date in the lyrics of my version.
Keith: That arrangement came from scratch. Phil describes it as a prisoner's letter to his girlfriend.
John: We were rehearsing at the school. And Keith and Phil started working out an arrangement on that.
Keith: Phil had given us a CD of him playing it by himself sort of a demo of it. I still have that. It should be a bonus track. Some of Phil's early demos were pretty wild.
Keith: Oh yeah.
John: It was a solid year before we went back to MI and finished it up.
Keith: Then I made a demo of it on my 4-track (recorder) just to try out different parts and choruses. The guitar solo is inspired by Albert Collins. - I did a combination of riffs inspired by Bo Diddley's guitar on ROLLER COASTER by Little Walter, and then I added the second finger picked part over that.
We added more chords, but then later threw all the chords out and went back to the three-chord version. Phil had to write another verse. The song wound up cooler and tighter than anyone had anticipated.
Phil: I wrote this with a guy who is dead now. He was a murderous killing jail hound who had very good musical sensibilities. Named Tony Gerkoupolis, we called him Drac (not the Drac from Finland). He was a 6 foot 7 monster. He spent most of his life in jail, but had played slide for Leon Redbone. I was over at my friend White Boy James house and this guy Tony was there. He had just gotten out of Pelican Bay (Penitentiary).
So thats how I met him. Two weeks later, I was over at his house and he was playing Beatles songs. I complained and was ready to leave. He started playing this song that sounded familiar. I slapped down my hand and said: Now thats a song! It was called MONEY SLIPS THROUGH MY FINGERS; it was a local hit in LA when I was in high school. When I found out he was the writer of the song, then I completely changed my opinion of his taste in music. We became friends.
I was recording County Fair 2000 about the time we sat down and wrote that song. He had some parts of the song and I added to it. So thats how we wrote JULIE. Drac asked me who I thought Julie was. I thought hard and said: I dont know. He said: Ah, I made her up.
Keith: That one went through an evolution of a couple of arrangements before we settled on the recorded version.
AM: Did this come from the Dave Alvin version or The Blasters with Smokey Hormel live version?
John: This has very little similarity to the Smokey Hormel version. We pretty much started from scratch.
Keith: We listened to Daves version once to rough out the structure. I remember because Phil was questioning Greg Leiszs placing of the slide guitar. To this day, I have never heard the Smokey Hormel version. Essentially, Phil said that he wanted a Stax Records type feel, showed me his idea for the intro, and we all pieced it together from there. In rehearsals we tried out some different chord arrangements before finalizing it.
The middle break was originally Phil doing a horn-section type lick on the harp, but we felt that it was too out of keeping with the rest of the song and I came up with the guitar lick in its place, which is also pretty different. It sounds like an Otis Redding song - The sort of arrangement where the guitar plays the fills creating the illusion of horn parts. We kept playing with the middle part and changing the beat. A different guitar even comes in there. We cut that when Phil wasnt there. When he heard that, he thought we were kidding him. He thought it was a joke.
John: Its a strong departure from Daves version. It was sparse a lot of air - so we added something to it. That delayed the song a month or two.
Phil: Ill never diss my brother. I always make sure to listen to every record that David makes, even though I dont listen to my own records. I listen to check in and see where my brother is at. When I heard DRY RIVER I thought he was doing a Blind Willie McTell sound. He had the guy on steel guitar.
The riverbed in our neighborhood runs from Telegraph Ave to Firestone Blvd. To this day that section is not paved. They tried to pave it and they finally gave up. There are trees, and a pond. You can even catch fish there. That was Davids riverbed too.
A more beautiful song cant be written and a more meaningful song cant be written because most of the peoples riverbeds in Los Angeles are paved. One of Davids skills is to see the important images in a set of images that arent linked yet. He gathers a perception into a delineation of words - but then you're left with a single perception. Thats why the words are easy to remember. David writes good chorus parts too, that are anthemic like an anthem.
I dont BS when I say that I have nothing but respect for my brother and what makes him, him. I can tell you what hes doing and he knows what Im doing.
When I heard David sing the end of the first line, I imagined that David must have considered it as an R&B song. The first line is like the Sam Cooke song IT'S BEEN A LONG TIME COMING. Dave did a country version of his own experience.
I rearranged the song when Greg Smokey Hormel was still in the band. I had a harmonica solo on it for a while, but then Keith put a great guitar part on there. The stuff that Keith is doing on the guitar is phenomenal - in fact on every song he does on this record. He is such a good guitar player and musician. The school he works at hasnt tainted his soul. He focuses so well. When we talk music, I dont have any trouble with him at all, and I dont think him with me either. I talk in generalities and he knows exactly what I mean. His capability is just the highest I have nothing but the greatest respect for him as a man, too he is a remarkable character.
YOUR KIND OF LOVE
Phil: Thats a very early Duke record by Earl Forrest. The guitar player may be Pat Hare. BAREFOOT ROCK was a Duke record also. The style of Duke records has always been prevalent in the Blasters repertoire. We did a lot of those songs over the years like YOU GOT ME WHERE YOU WANT ME by Bobby Blue Bland - which is related stylistically to this one.
AM: Didnt Lee Allen play on the Blasters early 90s live versions of this song?
Phil: Thats right. Keith and I play that sax lick on the new record. You may not hear my guitar on the record, or any record (laughs), but its there. The important thing is to have a full chord on that.
The Jimmy Reed theory of the wall of guitars says that the musician doesnt want you to know what is played - the guitars should blend and one leads into the other. Thats not by studio tricks, but by arrangement. It has to happen live too. Its a blending of rhythm.
LOVE IS MY BUSINESS
Keith: I fooled a lot around with the solos. I originally cut it with a real rockabilly thing in there. When Phil heard it and said: When I get to that part of the solo I feel like I gotta to help the band like Im trying to mentally push that solo because it doesnt go where it needs to go. So I re-cut it with different stuff and it helped a lot.
Phil: That song was from a time when David (Alvin) was in the Blasters. It was a sun record, but we heard it on a Charly records compilation. It was sung by Cliff Gleaves. It sounded exactly like Gene Taylor to me - a very prevalent piano - rockabilly song. He sings it just like Gene Taylor. I played it for Gene, but he didnt hear himself in it. Its essentially a very light-hearted song, but the juxtaposition of love and business is strong enough to be a little saltier than bland. Music, love, and business was an issue with me at the time. And now its just music, love, and business (laughs).
SLIP OF THE TONGUE
Phil: James Intveld wrote that when we were talking about making a new Blasters record. We got together to write songs for my solo County Fair record (HighTone 1995). The image of a slip of your tongue . . . (laughs)
Keith: I had played it live, but never felt it had the personality of what the song was supposed to be like a lounge vibe or a tiki lounge vibe. What? I dont know. So, it took a long time of playing it over and over again, until I found what direction to go.
I even recorded all the guitars acoustic, because I thought that would be the right balance, but in the end we went back to electric.
John: What is different on that song from the prior versions we played live with James Intveld was that Keith added a bunch of different chords on the chorus to help differentiate the verse from the chorus music.
Keith: That bass line is on a million songs. For instance; WALK DONT RUN. I just added a chord above it. On James version, he basically plays the bass line. James came up to jam with us at the House of Blues and we played that song. He asked me: What are those chords? I said: Sorry James. I cant tell you.
John, Jerry: (Laughs)
Keith: He thought I was serious and had this weird look like: Wow. (Laughs)
Phil: Thats a killer song. Its phenomenal because Johnny Paycheck was actually arrested. That chorus is a mixed metaphor a double entendre to raise hell. There are two songs on this album that Dave Carroll showed me by singing them by himself PRECIOUS MEMORIES and WINDOW UP ABOVE. Later I heard the originals and they werent as good.
Dave Carroll is one of the greatest musicians I ever knew. He was like my competitor. Every incarnation of the Blasters owes Dave Carroll a great deal in terms of stylistic elements he has contributed to arrangements of songs in every Blaster band and in me.
Dave Carrolls version was much smoother than the original.
Keith: That one gave me the most trouble. I just couldnt come up with a part to play. I cut 5 or 6 tracks at Witkins and it became jumbled, so I combined everything into a part that worked. I didnt want to do something that would only work in the studio, where it would sound empty live. We played it many different ways in the studio and now it feels very comfortable.
Jerry: I brought that in. I had a compilation of TV Themes from the 60s and 70s by the Ventures. On that album, they had the theme to the cartoon series of Dick Tracy. It was an instrumental tune that the Ventures wrote. I knew the Blasters never had an instrumental novelty tune, so suggested we do it.
Keith: We learned it right on the spot.
John: Jerry taught it to us. He had been playing it and knew the arrangement. Later we heard the CD to fine-tune it. This was when we had a lot of down time, so we were looking for new ideas.
Jerry: We followed the original arrangement but the original is so cartoony.
John: We definitely gave it the Blasters touch.
Jerry: Actually, we had learned it in the studio and on the last verse we were supposed to play the end once but we did it twice.
John: That was my mistake. After the bridge it supposed to go for a certain length. I gave Keith a nod and he just followed me. Its an inside joke with us. We talked about fixing it, but who cares.
WINDOW UP ABOVE
John: This ha two great guitar solos. Keith might not want to say this, but he spent a long time on the solos. Every song has the most time of overdubs put into the solos. Some have evolved over time. We had the luxury of time. We left no stone unturned we didnt make any mistakes or have any regrets because we had plenty of time. We are all happy with the record.
Phil: The original by George Jones was a standard Nashville arrangement - which took the balls out of the songs. Ours is the Fats Domino version. When Dave Carroll came into the band, I added the song to our set after he taught it to me.
JUST TO BE WITH YOU
Keith: That was taken right off the original Muddy Waters record.
John: We did that completely at Bruce Witkins studio. We didnt have any harmonica songs on the record and we all knew the song already. Its the only harp song on the record.
Phil: I like the version we had on the live radio show (KPFKs Folkscene 10/10/93). Marcus Johnson suggested the song to me, he was Muddy Waters Sax player, a friend of Lee Allen, and was the guy who really turned us into a band. Marcus said if there was ever a live powerful song that Muddy missed; it was JUST TO BE WITH YOU. There is a line that I dont sing, that Muddy sings about: Call your mother in law honey. I left that out. Im not dissing Muddy, but I thought it was a corny line. Marcus said: When they played it live, it was like IM A MAN just powerful. But, he said Muddy didnt get it right on record. Based on that I started doing the song.
FIRE OF LOVE
Phil: Shorty Bacon and the Rhythm Masters did that. Its on a crazy little label called Ozark, the only time Ive ever seen that label. It was between 55 and 62. I sung the song to myself and it was very immediate to me when I decided to make a record that this was an important song. It wasnt propagated much and like that.