with the brilliant Matt Schofield
but UK-born musican follows his heart
What a fine night of contemporary blues we had at Club Fox last Wednesday. Garth Webber and his band played like they were the main act, only to be eclipsed by the, uh, main act. Matt Schofield showed us how the Top Dog plays the blues, in a power trio of really big dogs.
Webber had the amazing D'Mar on drums. I've written about D'Mar before; he is the most entertaining drummer since Keith Moon, but with a less destructive toll on the hotel industry. Also, as far as I know, he hasn't driven any cars into swimming pools. Yet. But his resemblance to the Muppets' Animal is more than just a passing one. And the dynamics of his drumming, the ebb and flow, the heavy and the light, in lockstep with singer and bass, is a masterclass in blues drumming. Or any drumming, for that matter. Then there are his frog's legs jumps at the end of a song. No low ceilings please!
In an evening that dispensed with the usual jam session in favor of the two excellent bands, Webber treated us to a rocking take on Robben Ford's version of BB King's "Help The Poor." And a long version of Talking Heads' "Take Me To The River" had the audience in rapturous applause. Later on, singer Marina Crouse joined him on stage for a rousing rendition of "Hound Dog" and a couple of other numbers. Crouse has a powerful set of pipes.
By the time Matt Schofield took the stage, the audience was well warmed up. Schofield's voice is as smooth as butter, but his guitar playing is something else. He has the tone of David Gilmour, the jazz progressions of Robben Ford, and the blues dynamics of Stevie Ray Vaughan. Also vitally important the guitar faces of Robin Trower.
From the extended version of "The Day You Left" to the New Orleans funky "Livewire" from 2009's "Heads, Tales and Aces," Schofield's trio kept the audience riveted with his jazzy blues guitar mastery. Although we missed some of the variety of a keyboard, Schofield's band of Kevin Hayes on drums (from the Robert Cray band) and Rodrigo Zambrono on bass (multiple playing credits) more than made up for it. Webber sat in on the last tune of the evening.
I spoke with Schofield recently about the various configurations of the Matt Schofield band, his touring, his heroes, and a rather difficult gig in Estonia …
Although he was born in Manchester, England, Matt Schofield grew up from the age of 7 in Fairport in the Cotswolds, near Cirencester, England. But his father has lived in California since 1988, and this has had no small influence on his guitar playing. Matt now lives in Florida.
TLT: In the Matt Schofield Band it seems to be "all about that bass." The band has had different configurations, some with an organ and no bass, and some in the more traditional format. What's the thinking behind that?
MS: Nothing's really by design. Johnny, my original organ player and me went to school together, and we did our first gig together 20 years ago this month. When I stopped being a sideman and had my own band, it just felt like something I could make my own. And no one was doing anything like that in the UK thirteen years ago. I naively thought that different was good, but particularly in blues and jazz there's a lot of pushback. People in the UK said it was too jazzy, and I said "whatever, it's just music." It's just a different way of playing trio, it's very maneuverable and dynamic, and we all enjoy improvising. So we played with a number of different sounds, even a double bass player for a while, just to stay different. Then we brought Johnny back on piano and we had a four-piece band, but we couldn't afford a four-piece. It's one extra mouth to feed, plus the hotel rooms, and nothing's getting any cheaper! So then I did some more organ trio for a while. But Johnny's back in the UK with his family and I'm out here. So for California I'm playing with a standard power trio guitar, bass and drums and with another keyboard player out here on the East Coast. I wouldn't do an organ trio without Johnny. He's the only one who can play bass and anything else on the organ. I like to keep it all different.
The last 18 months I've been working with a bunch of young guys out of Miami, UM graduates. They came out of jazz, but they've been delving into the history of the blues with me. And they've been my main touring band for about 18 months, but as I'm coming to California, I'm reuniting with the great Kevin Hayes on drums, who was my main touring drummer for two or three years. Kevin was in the Robert Cray band for 20 years and played with BB King. He played with John Lee Hooker and Albert Collins and Etta James, everybody really. Any chance to play with Kevin again is great. So that's the plan coming up, a power trio.
It's a bit more of a challenge, because that organ fills in a lot of space. And it's been part of my sound. But the last few times we've done some trio stuff, I did some with Kevin and a great bass player from the Bay Area called Duane Pate. People seem to enjoy hearing me in that context because I have to play a bit more. It's a different flavor.
TLT: You're spending most of your time out here in the US, what's the blues scene like back in the UK?
MS: Well I think the first part of your question answers it really. There's just not enough work for me in the UK. I've felt more embraced for my brand of blues by North America, being Canada and the USA, than I was in the UK. You can stay in the UK and go over to Europe, and we just did seven gigs in seven days in Holland, which is amazing for such a small country that you can do a week's worth of gigs. But it works better for me being in the US. People get what I do more. In the UK, if you're jazz-influenced, then people tend to think you're a bit snobby, which is strange because one of my all-time heroes is BB King, who played the most sophisticated kind of blues, with influences from Django Reinhart and Lonny Johnson and Charlie Christian. So it was always strange to me that blues became this sort of rough child compared to jazz – they're all the same to me. All the great blues players are very sophisticated. In the US there's always been a championing of exceptionalism, whereas they're more suspicious in the UK. In the UK they'd say "why don't you get a proper bass player," and in the US they'd say "wow that guy on keys is amazing!" It's always felt more at home for me here.
TLT: Let's talk about your heroes. You were born in 1977, and Stevie Ray Vaughan left us in 1990.
MS: I decided to do this about two weeks before he died. So it was quite a pivotal summer for me, because I'd only just discovered him. I would come out here to visit my Dad and tape his records onto cassette tapes. I listened to BB King and Eric Clapton. He sent me Clapton's "Journeyman" album, which is still my favorite Clapton album. I think he's best when he's doing bluesy pop stuff. And along with that he sent me a track by Stevie Ray, and I thought "what the hell is this? Eric's good but I've never heard guitar like this before!" When I came out to visit my Dad that year, he had taped off MTV a concert with BB King, Albert Collins and Stevie Ray Vaughan. It was just amazing to see them all sounding so amazing and yet all sounding so different. They were all playing the blues but they were all so different. It was like they were having a conversation. And I decided I wanted to be like them. I was into BB and Albert, and I just discovered Stevie before he died so I said, "I gotta do it now."
So I went back to school in the UK that September and I said "I'm starting a blues band," and someone said "I'm playing bass," and "I'm playing drums," and I did my first gig 6 months later, and here we are 25 years on.
TLT: But you didn't learn your jazz influences from Stevie?
MS: No, a lot of that came from BB. He always played the changes, which is basically what jazz is. And then when I was about 16 I randomly bought a record in a record shop by Robben Ford. And I thought "OK, this guy is playing more notes, different notes than anyone else." And, pre-internet and YouTube, you had to know someone to find out what was going on. So I read an interview with Robben Ford and he's talking about Miles Davis and Wayne Shorter, so I start checking them out. I'm a huge Oscar Peterson fan, and I started checking out New Orleans music. It's blues and it's jazz and it's funk and it's gospel and it's everything all at once.
TLT: It's amazing how blues comes in so many different flavors.
MS: Yes, it's a language, like everyone has a different accent or a story to tell. Everyone has their own voice. It's very personal, and it needs to sound like someone is speaking, more than just being a 12-bar or a shuffle or a technical element. I want to hear someone saying something.
TLT: Are you completely self-taught, just from listening to records?
MS: Yes, I never had any lessons, though you learn from being around other guitarists. But I don't read, though I understand the theory of chords and notes. Johnny, my keyboard player, was classically trained and I picked up some stuff from him. I've never had a regular practice schedule, I've always just tried to pick up the guitar and play, which may be a slower road to take. But it's a more organic path, and I like to enjoy playing rather than having a goal in mind of becoming a great guitarist. I just want to find a way to say how I'm feeling. The technical side has always been secondary to having something to say with my playing.
TLT: Do you have any kind of practice regime?
MS: When I'm on tour I don't even pick up the guitar between gigs! I'm either driving or eating or sleeping. I'm doing everything out there. That's the reality of being a blues guitarist in 2016. We just got back from the last leg of the tour and we did 6,500 miles in two weeks, including the last epic drive from Canada all the way back to Miami. So practicing is just something I do in my head all the time. After a while you don't need the guitar in your hands all the time to examine new ideas. Which is a shame in a way, because there comes a time when you have to say "time to make a new record." But we love to play, so when we get somewhere early enough and there's a sound check, that tends to be when new ideas get tried or something like that. You've got a nice relaxed sound check and you jam through some things.
TLT: What's your process for writing new material? Do you consciously sit down and say, "Right, time to write some new stuff," or do you just let stuff come to you on the road?
MS: All of the above really. I wish there was a process that worked all the time! Part of it is being open to new ideas that might pop into your head that you need to make a note of rather than it just drifting off. So it's finding a groove or a riff during a sound check, it's writing down something that comes to you, and it's sitting down to find that next bit in that progression that I've already got.
But I like the way I play guitar. There's very little that I wish I could do that I don't do already. So I don't concern myself with the guitar playing too much. I concentrate more on the singing, as I'm about 15 years behind my guitar playing in that respect. BB played and sang and everything was equally amazing, so that's my focus if anything writing and singing.
TLT: When you're on the road, what's playing on the radio or CD?
MS: A lot of the same stuff as always really. I've got 9,000 tracks on my iPhone, so it could be anything from Albert Collins or BB King, but not much contemporary stuff really, I go back to the source. New records tend to be jazz. The last two things I bought were Charlie Hunter's latest, the 7-string guitar player, a New Orleans bluesy kind of record. And before that was keyboard player John Cleary's record that just won a Grammy. He's a Brit that's been in New Orleans for 30 years. He was on one of my records. But if I'm listening to blues, it'll be Muddy Waters or BB King or Albert Collins, and of course Stevie and Hendrix. But the guys I've been playing with out here are somewhat younger than me, and they listen to stuff and I don't even know what it is. I was always the young guy in the band! They're playing Radiohead, and Snarky Puppy and stuff like that that isn't in my collection but I'm always happy to listen to new stuff.
TLT: How long did it take you to define your sound?
MS: That's an ongoing thing. It's a two-part thing. I like having the reference point. Part of the blues guitar thing is showing how deep you can go to the informed listener, and the rest of it is cutting the edges off and refining it, so that it's just down to what you do. And it's from playing my own music and my own band. At some point you cross over. If I get together with friends of mine, I always used to do straight up Chicago blues, but I find that increasingly hard to play and sound right to me. I start only being able to do what I do, so your versatility slips away from you and you emerge not as versatile but more focused in your own sound. I hear it these days on YouTube, teenagers trying to play my songs and my solos, and I think, "Yeah, that sounds like me!"
TLT: What about your guitar and amp?
MS: I'm using an SVL guitar which is a sort of tribute to the vintage Strats, made by a friend of mine in the UK. I have an original ‘61 Strat which was my guitar for over 10 years, but with travelling and flying more ... It got lost for 24 hours between Italy and Belgium, and I decided I couldn't do it anymore. So my friend and luthier Simon Law said we're going to crack the code and create something that sounds like that. So the one I'm playing at the moment is all made from reclaimed wood that's the same age they would have made the old Strats out of. So I play that all the time now. and I play that through a Two Rock amp from Petaluma, but they got bought by a parent company and the guys I knew moved on, and lately I've been playing through one of their new amps which is basically the same thing, so we might do a new signature amp with the new company. But it's basically like a Super Reverb sound, but refined and less blow-upable. It's all tubes and hand-wired, in fact everything I use, apart from one pedal, is analog. There's nothing about my sound that you couldn't have got in 1965. The newer stuff I use is just more reliable. Though I do miss the charm of the old stuff.
TLT: What about strings?
MS: I use strings from a guy in Colorado, Curt Mangan. I use 11-54 gauge, so I used to have to buy bits of sets and put them together to get the gauge I preferred, because nobody made the gauge that I liked. And I got to know Curt and he put together a signature set for me that anyone can buy now. And I don't want to tempt fate, but I've never broken one at a gig. They're just very well-made and I change them myself very night. But with tuning down like I am with the trio, Curt's actually knocked me up a custom gauge just for this two weeks in California, where we're playing without the keyboard, of 11½-56, taking everything up a half gauge because of the tension difference. Stevie started out with 13s but towards the end even he came down to 11s, because if you're playing nearly every night and carrying gear and driving the van, I feel it more than I used to! Doyle Bramhall asked Stevie why he wasn't using the 13s anymore, and he said, "Because I stopped doing cocaine!"
TLT: So a lot of touring over the years. What's your best road story?
MS: There are so many. I'm not sure which is the best story, but I know the worst one. We were flying from the UK to Estonia for a festival, and I had some breakfast in the airport lounge and it appears the scrambled eggs I had eaten had been sat there a bit long. So we got to Frankfurt to change planes and I wasn't feeling too good, then we got to Estonia and a four-hour van ride, and I am desperately ill and we get to the hotel and we call out the doctor and he puts me on a drip and the promoter says "are you going to be all right to play tonight?" And the doctor says I need to go to hospital. But I though, I've come this far to play, and I'm damn well going to get paid! So Simon, who makes my guitars, is a fine guitarist himself, and he started off the gig in the Matt Schofield Trio without Matt Schofield. And I lay there for as long as I could and they took me in an ambulance with the lights flashing to the festival. We were headlining the festival and I played four numbers, and said "I have to go back to hospital now." I think I lost about 20 pounds in four days. That's the story that I always remember. I had to play in between ambulance rides to the hospital. There's no sick days in this business. Kevin Hayes, who's playing drums for me on this tour was in Robert Cray's band for 19 years and he never missed a single show in 19 years, whatever condition he was in. The show must go on.
TLT: What are you views on digital music, Pandora, YouTube, Spotify etc?
MS: Well it's not like I was making a lot before, but I'm definitely not now. I've had a couple of royalty checks of 6 pounds! I guess the exposure's good, but you can die from exposure too. As far as providing any kind of income stream, forget about it, I get nothing from any of that. You may as well just be giving it away at this point. That doesn't bother me as much as YouTube and every man and his dog with their phone in your face all night recording every single thing. That's what bothers me the most. It changes how you play a gig, because we improvise when we play a gig and I want to go and look over the edge of the cliff and not worry about flipping off. Not everything we play is supposed to be preserved for ever, that's why we make a record. That's what's forever and I get to pick which version is forever. And now you can't tune up without someone filming us. And of course I get no income stream at all from those low-quality phone videos. That's my pet peeve. I'm sure we get exposure from YouTube, but there's just as many dreadful useless clips up there than there are good ones. It changes the feel of the gig and makes you question what to do. I haven't put out an album in two years because the music industry is on its knees and I have to wait for my turn to come up and someone to give me some money to make the next one. And everything's slowing down in terms of the money coming back because nobody's making any money from records, but I don't want to play any new songs at my gigs because someone will film them and put them on YouTube and then my new album will be more meaningless than ever because my songs will already be out there.
We have a YouTube channel, but you can't stop people doing it unless you have a team of people doing that for you. I just want to play music, writing music and making records. When I first saw BB King, when I was 14, I could hardly believe I was seeing him. Nowadays, no one has that experience, because we've seen everything already and talked with people on Facebook. A lot of the mystery, the magic of seeing them in the flesh for the first time has gone. I think it's a shame that people will never have that, because they've seen every video of their favorite artist on YouTube. I don't want to sound too negative, I get to play my guitar and these are first-world problems, but nonetheless it just changes the whole dynamic. Going to a gig, I never expected it to be just about me, to put videos on my Facebook page. Someone actually left my gig the other day because they said they were going to video my whole gig, and I told them politely not to forget to actually watch the gig with their own eyes, because there's a certain element of being at a live concert that you can never capture on film, it's an in-the-moment experience. In order for me to play how I play you have to be in the moment, that's how it works, and you need the audience to be there with you in the moment, that's what makes it special. And this guy says "This is what I do, I'm an artist too" and I said "What? With an iPhone?" This isn't about you, this is my gig, I'm not doing this for your art. And he got up and said well I'll probably just go then, and off he went on his bike. It's amazing how we've come to that level of narcissism.
TLT: So with your limited income from royalties you have to be on the road as much as possible.
MS: Yes, I'm on the road as much as I possibly can be. And of course that presents its own challenges. As a non-citizen on a visa, I was being charged 30 perent tax off the top of my gig fee, before any expenses. We seem to have fixed that, but we tried just traveling up and down Florida for a year or so, and there wasn't much difference in the income, but the trouble is then you just become a regional band and no one knows you anywhere else. It's tough times for performing artists, and for blues the audience is getting olde,r so they aren't going out as much, and they don't want to stay out as late. So there are moving goalposts. But I can't stop doing it now, it's too late for me!
Email Tony Lacy-Thompson at email@example.com