April 19, 2010 | Author: Greg Phillips
Jools Holland is jealous. He is speaking to me from his office above his recording studio in London where he is overlooking a bleak, cloudy sky at the beginning of a typically dreary UK winter’s day. I tell him it’s 10pm at night where I’m sitting and thirty degrees celsius. “Lucky bastard”, he tells me. However he’s comforted in the knowledge that he’ll soon be in Australia with his 20 piece Rhythm & Blues Orchestra to play the East Coast Blues Festival, as well a few selected side shows.
Those who are unaware of the joyous rhythms generated by Jools Holland’s Rhythm & Blues Orchestra, may be more familiar with him as host of the fantastic music TV show ‘Later … with Jools Holland’, which airs here occasionally on ABC2′. If not, then perhaps you know him as one-time keyboard player for 80s British pop band Squeeze (‘Cool for Cats’, ‘Tempted’). If you’re still struggling to place the face, then maybe you’re shopping in the wrong aisle altogether and need to fill your cart elsewhere. Here’s the complete transcriptions of Jools Holland chat with AM editor Greg Phillips.
GP: British acts have a history of taking the blues, rhythm and blues, and making it their own. In your case boogie woogie. What was your first introduction to black American music?
JH: I suppose when I was small, my mother played some boogie woogie piano and mum and dad loved old blues records like Jelly Roll Morton and people like that. My grandmother had a piano in her front room. It was a small street in South East London in Greenwich. back then, instead of having a flat screen TV or computer, they had a piano in their front room. During the war, her street was bombed. A lot of the houses at the end of the street were destroyed but her windows had all been blown in, when the piano had been there. So the piano was rather blackened and charred. Anyway, they had the room redecorated, this was in the sixties now when I was a little boy. I used to ask her about the bomb and she would open the lid of the piano and because the lid had been closed, inside was all nicely varnished. So she would show me that and you could twinkle the keys. It was pianola, which played piano rolls, She had piano rolls of Fats Waller and a lot of those jazz players. So I used to love that music. Also my uncle was in a blues group, as was every teenager in London at the time, and he used to play a bit of boogie woogie piano. That’s where I picked it all up from. So for me, at that age … I did have Beatles records, but I wanted records with piano on it, so I had Jerry Lee Lewis records and Count Basie records and to me they all came from the same place. I didn’t really differentiate the difference between black and white music. It was just the stuff that got me going. Later on, growing up I realised where all the stuff had come from.
Then by the time I grew up, a lot of it was second generation because people in Britain took to it very much in the 50s and 60s and made it their own. By the 60s it was being played more in pubs and people’s front rooms than that it was in America because it almost got side stepped over there. So that’s how I came into contact with it.
What was first album you ever bought when you had money of your own?
I got two at the same time. We had a 78, which was my mother’s of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, ‘Up Above My Head’ which had a boogie woogie guitar on it. It’s one of Bob Dylan’s favourite records and we had a 78 of this. But the first record I got … I used to really like hearing on the radio … ‘For Once in My Life’ by Stevie Wonder … so I bought an LP of that maybe around ’67. I played that to death. Then I had a Beach Boys record and then I started getting the Beatles records. They were the first things I had, but then I wanted to hear more piano music. That was a bit more difficult. It’s a bit like today. In the 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s there was quite a lot of instrumental music. By the 60s that had started to fade a little bit. Now it’s almost totally gone altogether. But I’d get Jerry Lee lewis records and The Rolling Stones because they were blues influenced and had a bit of blues piano in it and the Beatles had a little piano in their music too.
Researching for an interview you find out some surprising things. I see that you first recording session was with punk era cult figure, Wayne County… quite an introduction to recording. What do you remember about that session?
Yes, later to become Jane County. It was a great start really. There are lots of different genres of blues records and one of the key things about the blues, is the poetry of it, the feeling. Of course the language of the poetry is English. And then there’s the double entendre, the innuendo, which you’d get in the music hall, but also in the blues. There were records like “I Need A Little Sugar In My Bowl’ and there as the answer record to that which was ‘Get Up Off Your Knees Daddy, You Won’t Bring Me Back That Way’. There were a lot of saucy songs like that in the blues, not all of them but there was an element of that going on. So really Wayne County’s now legendary “Fuck Off’ was a great record for me to start on. I actually did one session for The Count Bishops and the the thing for Wayne. This was the beginning of the punk thing, so I was the punk pianist because most of them were playing guitars or drums very quickly. But it was great… very refreshing.
You were a working musician during the punk rock era. Was that an enjoyable time for you, I would have thought it would have been very uncool to be a boogie woogie fan wouldn’t it?
No the funny thing was that it fitted in. The boogie woogie was a bit like the punk of its day. There were some rather serious and earnest jazzers that were dismissive of boogie woogie … a bit too light and sexy and rhythm heavy. It’s complex music but has a certain naivety like rock and roll. I was just talking to Charlie Watts about this yesterday and there’s no question, the beginning of rock and roll was boogie woogie. That’s it. There is nothing else. Boogie woogie came out of the church and logging camps and all that but anyway, but going back to Wayne County for a minute if I may, or Jane County as he became after the sex change, he was one of the real punks. There was Sex Pistols, Generation X. There were loads of them. Wayne had come from New York and got me to play on the session. I went into the studio, but he hadn’t put the vocal on it. He just said to me, ‘could you play something really burlesque for me?’ I was quite impressed that he’d asked me because he was from America and I hadn’t really met anyone from America. I was only 18 or 19. So I played piano on it and I said to him, look because this is the first record I have really played on, the big thing for me was getting a copy of the record. So I asked him to make sure he posted the record to me when it is done. It’s a big thing to get a physical copy of a record with my name credited on it. But at the time I didn’t know what the title was because they hadn’t put the vocal on. At home a few months later … I was still living with my mum and dad at the time … it came in the post and said ‘hey, this is the record I played on’. So my mother grabbed my aunt who was there at the time and my dad and I think was a nice old lady from next door. It was great and mum was saying ‘it’s his first record and we’re all going to gather around and have a listen. Isn’t it marvellous’. There’s a piano introduction first and they all smile at each other, you know, well done son. But then the first line of the song is ‘If you don’t want to fuck me, fuck off’. It got to the end of the song and mum was like well done. Isn’t it marvellous. Isn’t he clever’. But is was actually a great record and I was very pleased with it.
So the things that were allowed into punk were things like Dr Feelgood and Nine Below Zero. They were blues groups but fitted in to a similar ethos. That couldn’t-care-less, filthy, attitude. Also the punks didn’t mind old people that sang in pubs. What they didn’t approve was the more pompous bouffanted stadium rock. That’s what they thought was a bit daft. But that was the punk thing. For me it was all music.
Fast forward to now, you have this massive 20 piece orchestra. With such a large band, how much rehearsal and preparation is involved as opposed to a regular 4 or 5 piece band?
Whether you’re playing in a duo or a big orchestra like this, the key is to play together all the time. That’s why The Beatles were great, because they had been playing in that club in Hamburg for four hours a night, every night. So they knew how each other thought. Because my big band plays together a lot, and although it is a big band, we know what the others are all thinking. That allows us to play with feel as well as with written arrangements. Sometimes we don’t even use written arrangements we just play off our heads, so to speak! The thing about a big band is that nothing beats the dynamic of it. I think the reason our band is different to any other that have gone before is that the rhythm section is like a rock and roll rhythm section. We’ve bolted this dynamic of having five saxophones, four trombones, three trumpets and in organ player on top of that. It’s like a big band bolted onto a rock band. And also some of the elements are slightly punky because that’s where I came from and that’s partly where my drummer Gilson comes from and Rico too who used to be with The Specials, one of the legends of ska. So it has all of those elements that perhaps a jazz orientated big band wouldn’t have.
When I saw you play at the Point Nepean Music Festival a few years ago, the music was quite contageous and very soulful. I’m wondering if there are certain chord combinations or certain keys or type of arrangements that have more of an effect on our aural senses and get to the heart more than others?
It’s more I think the attitude of it than the actual changes because you can get the same chord changes, like a blues structure, and get one person to play it and nothing happens. You get another person to play the same thing and you want to dance. That’s the difference a great drummer makes. One drummer will play the beat and you’ll find yourself skipping around to it. I think it comes from the attitude and the feeling. On the other hand you have to have a certain amount of technique, but you don’t want too much technique either. So you don’t want to be a virtuoso but you don’t want to have not enough that you can’t express what you are trying to do. First of all you have to love what you are playing and play what you love. The second thing is you have to mean what you play and play what you mean. Those are some of the elements we have. Also it is an expression of joy, with a lot of the music we play.
I guess it helps to have vocalists like Ruby Turner and Louise Marshall too!
Yes exactly and Rico too. With Ruby in particular… she is like a person from another age. It’s like she’s been transplanted from a different time. She’s not affected. She’s not putting it on. What you are hearing is them, an extension of them. Ruby really is THE great boogie woogie and also soul singer but she has this thing like a person from 80 years ago where she can also do gospel music as well.
Because you play a lot of gigs with a very large band, I imagine that could mean the chances of things going wrong could be increased?
Sort of but with so many people, if one gets it wrong, there are so many others to cover it. I suppose in travelling around you’d think it would be easy to lose someone. We always seem to get there one way or another. Plus there is a lot of love in the orchestra for one another so if someone is having some trouble, there’s always someone to help them out. I mean it is very strange having so many people in a band.
I guess what I am alluding to is … do you have a favourite road story with these guys?
There was one time we were doing a show with Eric Clapton and we had to rehearse with him. He hadn’t arrived. So we were setting up and the saxophone players were in a little circle practicing their parts. Trombones were discussing their parts and everyone was talking about the parts the would be playing with Eric. The instruments were tuning up so it was like a cacophony of noise. Then Eric did arrive and he plugged his guitar in behind the saxophones and started to tune his guitar. The fellow who arranges the saxophones was trying to practice the part they’d be playing with Eric. He didn’t know that it was Eric tuning up behind him. He thought it was our guitar player. So instead of saying, excuse me Eric, could you hang on a minute while we run this little bit we’ll be playing with you, he said, ‘will you just shut that fucking thing up. Why do you always have to be playing that rubbish guitar while we’re trying to rehearse!’ But then he turned around and saw him and of course was shocked and said oh sorry Eric, you alright? Then Eric said ‘alright I’ll stop immediately’, and it was all fine.
But ultimately once everyone starts playing it all comes together. Even if we start talking about an arrangement … the more we talk, the more confused it gets. Eighty percent of the time, once we start to play, it figures itself out. Everybody knows what they have to do, but if we start debating it before we do it, it gets really complicated.
Your drummer Gilson Lavis gets second billing on your tour press releases. Obviously you rate him very highly. Usually there’s a special musical bond between the bass player and a drummer in a band. Tell me about why you and Gilson work so well together musically.
Gilson is a very visual drummer. When people come to see us, they love it because by watching him they can understand what the whole group is. The thing about drummers is that no band can be a success unless their drummer is great. You can get away with an OK guitarists or an alright pianist, but a drummer can’t be just OK. He has to be great because he is the important link to everything. He is the man holding it all together and the man dictating the tempo, the feel and everything. It’s a much underrated job. people don’t realise how important it is. When Squeeze started recording we had a drummer who was a really good friend, but he couldn’t quite cut what we wanted to happen. This was back in ’78 or whenever it was. So we got Gilson in to play and he was fantastic. If you look at any band who has been a success, the last element they add is the drummer. It was Ringo with the Beatles. It was Charlie Watts with the Stones. But it’s always the last thing added. They know they are sounding good but realise that to get really good you have to get a great drummer. Then when Squeeze finished up, Gilson came with me. The original big band was just him! So I’d go on stage and introduce my big band and Gilson would come on. We’d play shows like that, just piano and drums. This whole big band is just an extension of what he and I are.
And you are a very percussive pianist as well which adds to the chemistry.
Yes that’s right. Part of the element of being a pianist is that you need to be part drummer too.
You’re playing the East Coast Blues festival as you did a few years back. Do you like playing festivals as opposed to your own theatre gigs. Do you get a chance to see other bands perform?
Both are great but a festival has a different atmosphere. It’s always about wanting to enjoy yourself but with festivals, you’re out in the open air … with theatres, people are sitting down and listening. The important thing that I have learnt from the slightly older people I have played with, is that you have to play to the room. If you are playing in a theatre, it’s more of a concert experience. You play different things perhaps than you’d play to people dancing outside throughout the afternoon. That’s one of the keys to music, you have to feel the place that you are playing.
You are a published author. How important is it to document music history?
I think the more time goes past, you start to realise how important it is. People writing about music now … it probably really won’t be relevant for maybe another fifty years. Somebody handed me a very tatty copy of a book the other day called ‘Hear Me Talkin’ To Ya’ and it was by somebody who interviewed a lot of the old musicians who were in the their 70s and 80s, and they were interviewed in the 1950s about the early days in New Orleans. You hear the music, and this is a little bit like the punk thing I was talking about earlier. That needs to be recorded because you hear the records and it puts it into context what the place was like. So when you hear them talking about the first jazz music coming out, and how none of them read music, and that’s why it was different every time … they just played it after they finished work in a very beautiful way. And how New Orleans was just one huge brothel, the whole place and was closed down by the navy because it was thought to be too dangerous for the navy when they stopped there … all this stuff puts it all into context which when you hear the music it then makes more sense of the music. So in 50 years time when someone plays their crappy copy of ‘Fuck off’ by Wayne County, it will maybe be put into context if people have read about what was going on at the time. It’s interesting kicking ideas around now because there’s always something to learn about the way people approach music or listen to music or what their view of music is and that’s how we learn things by reading and writing about it.
Do you also see yourself as a bit of a torch bearer for the style of music you play?
Not really. I think all you can do is play the music the best you can and love the music you play and play the music that you love. That’s the great thing about it. You’re communicating. I am influenced by the old blues and that but I write my own music and the only thing you can do is play your own thing and the great joy is, for instance, when you are playing in Byron Bay and you see people up dancing and you know that they are feeling the same thing that I am. The pleasure that the music is giving me, you can see that physically it is having the same effect on them. Without using the blunt instruments that we call words, which I’m using now, I have got them to feel the same feeling as me and that’s fantastic and about as much as you can do really.
I thought I had best job in world because I get to talk music with musicians and get to meet my heroes. but with your TV shows, you not only get to talk to your fave musicians but you also get to play with them. Who is left on your wish list? There couldn’t be many more could there?
I’d like to raise a few people from the dead. I have been incredibly lucky to not only play my music but to also play with some of the greatest legends of popular music and it never ceases to amaze me. Sometimes you get very nervous when you play with people, but once the music starts, everything becomes OK. You all plug in and then become a servant of the song. We recently had Gladys Knight and I have been wanting to have on for years so that was great. We’d have more but we only have six weeks at the start of the year and six weeks at the end so it isn’t that many shows really.
You recently had the Australian singer Daniel Merriweather on your TV show, ‘Later … with Jools Holland’!
Oh he’s fantastic. I tell you what .. I have a radio show as well and he came on that and he was even better. He is great. He can sing. I didn’t realise till afterwards. I thought he was great on the TV but on the radio he did some other stuff, some blues things and he’s fantastic. He’s got this really great voice and an absolute commitment to what he is singing. I was just looking at his CD and put on the top of my pile to play again.
Do you have an interview philosophy? What’s the key to a good interview?
That’s a good question. I suppose when I first started, I used to ask too many questions. I once read this book by commander Burke of Scotland Yard and he was a 1950s man and the head of Special Branch. He had got all these confessions from spies or criminals and sometimes even sent people to the gallows. Someone asked him what his technique was for interviewing or interrogating. He said, look … I sit them in a room, offer them a cigarette and say something simple like how you going, then I wouldn’t really say anything at all. Nine times out of ten they would feel obligated to unburden themselves of all the guilty things they have done. Now I’m not saying it’s as easy as that but basically what he was saying was the less that he said, the more they would. I mean you can’t offer someone a cigarette on TV anymore, but you can say they have a nice tie or something and leave them to chat. I keep forgetting that’s what I should do. But that’s what I have learned, that if you don’t say anything, people will feel compelled to talk. The other thing I will say is .. what we are talking about now, the music, is a really interesting thing, but often in newspapers or on TV, if they get to talk with a great musician, they don’t talk about the music because they think they should be talking about something else. The one thing they are great at though, is the interesting thing.
Has anyone really surprised you, someone you may have had preconceived ideas about?
I think what does happen. On the show I have people who I have bought all their records and others that I am not that familiar with their work. You know, those who I don’t know much about but then you see them up close and realise they are really great. They have a power about them you weren’t expecting. You realise that most of the people who have been successful in music, it’s because they are talented. Not always, but mostly.
My brother wanted me to ask you whether there were plans to make any more ‘Walking to New Orleans’ style programs?
Well I’m so pleased he saw that. In some ways it’s … well not lost, but that’s Channel Four and I wish they’d show it again. In many ways it’s one of my favourite things I have done. I was very lucky in that all of the people were there in New Orleans when we did it and many are now dead. I didn’t really explain much about New Orleans music, but by just showing examples of it captured more about New Orleans than anything that had gone before it. So do thank him. I’m glad he saw it. There are no plans to do others in that style. I have thought about doing a musical map of Britain on all the different towns created various artists. I have thought about it.