1. First of all, how do you experience this totally surrealistic period punctuated by the virus? Can you perform and live from your music without too much difficulty and how is it in Mexico?
Everyone I know is upset right now. All of my family and close friends have been extremely depressed since Donald Trump took power. Things were bad before the pandemic, but now it feels like everyone’s at the end of their ropes. The stress caused by the gross incompetency of the Trump administration has been difficult to manage, but I’ve been lucky to have music to help me through this awful time. Writing songs can be extremely cathartic. Unfortunately, the songs never feel like enough… I still feel angry all of the time, even when I’m writing music. I don’t really sleep very well anymore and I feel like I’ve aged 20 years since 2016. At the same time, I know I’m one of the lucky ones. My wife and I have jobs we can do remotely, and I don’t need to make my living from music. We’re currently living in Mexico City, and the COVID infection rates here are as bad as they are in the U.S. The hospital system in U.S. is superior, but generally I think it’s better to be in Mexico right now. It’s a beautiful country and there aren’t any Trump supporters. I’d rather be around people with COVID than Trump supporters. You can get healthy again after having COVID, but most people who admire Trump are going to be sick for the rest of their lives.
2. Tell us about your childhood and especially how did you know that music would be your credo? How did you choose the instrument so you wanted to play, the style, etc ...?
I had an amazing childhood, and thanks to my parents I had a lot of exposure to the arts. I was surrounded by a lot of different music, books, films, plays… I didn’t always know that I wanted to focus on music, but I knew I wanted to write something. I’ve written plays, screenplays, musicals, fiction… but I’ve always enjoyed songwriting the best. It’s easy to know if a song works, and you don’t need to waste too much time on it if it doesn’t work. I spent four years in my early twenties trying to write a novel before I realized it wasn’t any good. In terms of my choice of instrument, I think I gravitated towards the guitar because they’re really portable and it’s easy to be alone with one. My mother wanted me to learn the piano but it didn’t catch. I also tried the trombone for a year, but everything that came out of it sounded awful, and I really didn’t like how you had to dump spit out of it after you practiced. I was nervous about practicing in front of people, and when you’re banging on a keyboard or a trombone the whole world can hear you. But you can take an acoustic guitar, find a quiet place, and learn how to use it without anyone hearing you. Also you can play songs after you learn just a few chords. I used to love to play that song Spoonful by Howlin’ Wolf because it was all one chord. I think I started writing songs on the guitar as soon as I learned how to play an E minor chord.
3. If I refer to your bio, you have traveled a lot, first in the USA and then in the world, so I would like to know what all these countries or states (for the States) have brought you to the cultural, musical level, etc ... Do you plan to move again where have you finally found the one where you feel good?
Our family travels a lot for work, and we’ve moved around a lot in the last decade. Listening to lyrics in foreign languages really helps me learn that language. When we move to a new country I always try to find music from there, and I usually look for the folk singers from the 70s. Inevitably, each country has a “Bob Dylan of that country”, and that’s where I start. Dylan had such a universal influence, and the international songwriters who emulate him tend to deal with interesting topics, things like class and political struggles. When we moved to Rome I fell in love with the music of Fabrizio De André. De Andre is like an Italian Leonard Cohen, and his lyrics can be read like poetry - they work without any music accompaniment. I also listened to a lot Francesco De Gregori, who has some incredible songs with great lyrics. When we moved to Mexico I needed to learn Spanish, so I listened a lot to the great Los Lobos album ‘La Pistola y El Corazón’. I also discovered the songs of Chilean singer Victor Jara. Jara wrote some amazing songs about farmers and working class people. He ended up getting tortured and killed by some of Pinochet’s thugs – I think they actually chopped off his hands. It makes me sick to think about how they did that to him; he really played the guitar so beautifully…I wrote a song about him that I hope I can record sometime. I actually don’t know where we’ll move next, or when we’ll stop moving around. We’ve lived out of the U.S. for almost 7 years now, and when you spend that much time out of it, you start to understand why the rest of the world views it like it’s still the wild west. The U.S. can be a pretty brutal place full of frontier justice. We could make everything a lot easier for ourselves if we just prioritized strong public education and healthcare, but we have this ingrained tough guy mentality in the American culture that says only the strong should survive. You the benefits of socialism a lot better in Europe. In the U.S. it’s a dirty word.
4. How did you start your career as a composer, as a musician and especially what are the styles of music that hooked you at the beginning? Who were the musicians that you listened to the most during this time and which have influenced the phenomenal composer and musician that you are now?
First of all, thank you very much for the kind words about my songs… as I mentioned before, I started writing music as soon as I learned a few chords on the guitar. I wouldn’t really call my early songwriting attempts “songs” … they were more like “unlistenable outbursts of idiotic words accompanied by a badly tuned G Chord”. In any case, I started writing my own stuff early, and somehow I found other people to play it with me. I’ve only really been in bands that played my own songs. In high school I played bass in a band that did covers, but the rest of the guys all wanted to play Grateful Dead songs and I wanted to play Velvet Underground songs, so we only had one gig before breaking up. The songwriters I loved when I was young are still the ones I love now - Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, John Prine, Neil Young, Lou Reed – they were all there for me right from the beginning. Mississippi John Hurt has been my favorite guitar player since I was a kid. When I say “favorite” I just mean that when I pick up a guitar, he’s the guy I wish I could play like. Hurt always sounded like three people playing guitar at once; he sounded like a whole band. His acoustic sound was so complete and natural, and I have a very clear memory of hearing his music for the first time. I can’t play at all like Hurt, but if I had a decade to practice it’d be fun to try to work on some of his songs. A lot of guitar players want to sound like Hendrix or Clapton, but I’ve never been interested in playing lead guitar. I was always more interested in what Keith Richards was doing, and I loved how Roger McGuinn got that big sound with a 12 string…but there are so many good players and songwriters, it’s would be impossible to list all of my influences. Generally, I will like it if the music’s got soul, and the songwriting is strong, and the production doesn’t suck. I guess I have pretty high standards for what I consider “good” music. My wife says I’m a music snob, but the truth of the matter is that I just listen to the good shit and stay away from the weak shit. I don’t have that much time to actually listen to music, and life’s too short to listen to garbage. Luckily, there’s so much great music out there. On the blues side I’ve always loved Muddy, Little Milton, Howlin’ Wolf, Blind Willie Johnston, Reverend Gary Davis, Robert Johnson, Son House, Lead Belly. On the soul side there’s Otis, The Staple Singers, Sam Cooke, everything on Stax Records. I don’t know where you’d put Nina Simone – I guess she’s jazzy blues. On the rock and roll side I’ve always loved the generation that was directly influenced by the early blues guys: The Stones, The Kinks, The Faces, The Band… And I love older country like Cash, Willie, Hank, Merle, George Jones. I could keep going, but you get the point…
5. Can you tell us about your first band, The Blue Eighty-Eights? How would you define their style, what I heard made me think of alternative country (kind of like Blue Mountain or Tommy Woomack), do you think so?
We were only together for a couple years, but I’m still great friends with everyone in The Blue Eighty-Eights. Our music was certainly all over the place, and it’s hard for me to define our sound, especially since we hadn’t really defined it ourselves by the time we stopped playing together. At our shows I sometimes used to tell the audience that we played a style of music called “Ranch Core”, which was a total bullshit term I made up. Nobody could accurately describe our sound, so I just thought the easiest thing to do would be to invent a genre. It really wasn’t that complicated, we played a mix of blues rock and country. I think we were moving towards a more streamlined blues sound by the time we stopped playing. It was a pretty interesting group of people - two Israelis, a Swiss German, myself. We also had Allison Langerak singing vocals, and if you look at photos of us she looks like our Nico – she’s a blond beauty with an amazing country voice. Allison has been on almost every project I’ve done in the last 20 years, and it’s hard to imagine making a record without her; her lead vocals and harmony work are perfect. Everyone in that band were serious musicians. Our guitarist Roy Gurel is one of the best guitarists I’ve ever seen. After we’d play everybody would always come up to him and tell him how good he was. Marc Ribot, Tom Waits’ guitarist, told him one time how much he loved his style. G.E. Smith, Dylan’s guitarist, did the same thing. Everybody in NYC loved his playing. Roy produced my new album, and he plays like a monster on it. Derek Neivergelt was our bass player, and he had already had a hell of a career before he played with us. He toured around the world with Herbie Hancock when he was 21. He was on a lot of Spike Lee soundtracks, and he played with Terrance Blanchard and Cassandra Wilson. Derek wrote an amazing track for Sharon Jones called ‘Window Shopping’. Derek is one of my favorite people in the world, and he just put out a great album called ‘The Jewels’ which you should definitely check out. We also had two amazing drummers, the incredible Tzafrir Lichtenstein, and my great friend Aaron Thurston. Aaron is now with the vocalist Kat Edmonson, and their new record Dreamers Do will hopefully pick up a few Grammy awards this year. I’m really not a great musician myself, but I’m a pretty good songwriter and lyricist. I was always just shocked and honored that these talented people wanted to play my songs. The flip side of working with good people is that everybody wanted them and they were always in demand. I was always worried Roy would be snatched by someone like Lenny Kravitz – I think Lenny’s drummer was pushing him to get Roy in the band for a while. And Derek would get these sessions with people like Coldplay, and I couldn’t compete with that kind of thing financially. We never made any money, and the guys played with me when they could because they liked my songs. But if any paid gigs came along they had to take those. I worked my ass off for a few years just trying to get us all in one room for a rehearsal or a show. After a while I realized I had to be able to play the whole show by myself as an acoustic set. I just started booking shows that way, and if any of the other members of the band could sit in it would just be gravy.
6. "Let’s Make A King" is a real manifesto against all the bad sides of the US and not only in the US, it's packed with punch, totally raw and direct in terms of lyrics and musically punchy without forgetting to remain poetic. What motivated you to write this completely committed album?
Thank you again. The starting point of the project was when I learned about the tragic death of a young Guatemalan girl named Jakelin Caal Maquin. Jakelin died in 2018 after crossing the Mexican border into the U.S. She traveled with her father from their farm in Guatemala, but as soon as they crossed into the U.S. they were picked up and held by border control. She was sick from the journey, and Jakelin died after a day in a hospital in Texas. Jakelin’s death really shook me up, and ‘Let’s Make a King’ is dedicated to her memory. She was such a presence during the making of the record, and I even had a small photo of her in front of me when I was recording my vocals. Her face was just in my head all of the time, and I wanted to get revenge on her killers. I believe the Trump Administration is culpable in her death, and my anger towards them just boiled over into these songs. I wrote U.S. Custody about her, and then I just kept writing more and more angry songs. I’ve probably written about 20 blues songs in the last year. I didn’t think about making a complete album, the lyrics just came out and we started recording them. I wish we’d had the time and money to record the other songs for the album because it would have felt like a more complete project to me.
7. You refer to the blues, but your music goes beyond and encompasses a multitude of styles, it is, for me, difficult to define, so how do you define it yourself? Do I have the feeling that you like to take risks and navigate against the tide, away from fashions and the establishment?
I sent one of my screenplays to an agent in Hollywood one time and received a postcard back with just three words: “Near impossible sell”. I was thinking about that when I was sending out the publicity materials for ‘Let’s Make a King’. 95% of the responses essentially said that my vocals would be impossible to sell to a mainstream audience. If I ever have any mainstream success, it will be from someone else singing one of my songs. The reviews for this last album have been really enthusiastic, but there will never be a big audience for my voice. I love writing songs and playing music with other people. That really is enough for me. And I don’t really care too much how my music is defined, I just want the lyrics to be truthful and my voice to sound convincing.
8. Besides, what is the blues to you? And what do you get out of it?
I think the blues has the same honesty as punk or hardcore. You say what you need to say without any fancy shit or fireworks. When you’re done speaking you shut up. I love how the blues can be recorded on one microphone by one person playing one instrument. You can’t really fake the blues, and when you start getting fancy you start moving away from the truth. I’ve always loved acoustic blues more than electric blues because I like music that sounds like it was recorded on a porch. The Stones got that amazing porch sound with the Beggars Banquet album. Tom Waits is great at getting that sound. But the guys who really understand are the old blues guys: Reverend Gary Davis, Blind Willie Johnson, Son House, Lead Belly. I love the sound Alan Lomax always got when he recorded people. When I was growing up I spent a lot of time with my stepfather’s record collection. He had all of that great blues stuff. It’s a beautiful record collection. The best part was I could just go through it alone and listen to whenever I wanted, so it felt like I was discovering everything by myself. One of the first records I remember finding was the Robert Johnson recordings. You don’t get much better than those recordings. They sound simple - it’s just a guy playing and singing in a room, but they’re mysterious and haunting, like messages transmitted from another planet…I’ll sound like an idiot if I try to explain what makes those Robert Johnson records sound so powerful, but they hit me hard. A lot of those records triggered something in my soul. Reverend Gary Davis’ song ‘Death Don’t Have No Mercy’ hit me that way. Son House’s song ‘Grinnin’ In Your Face’ always sounded meaner to me than any punk song. I always loved Blind Willie Johnson’s ‘I can’t keep From Crying Sometimes’. It’s hard to say what exactly these songs meant to me, but I knew instinctively that they were pure music performed by people who sounded mean. They sounded mean as hell, and they made it all seem so easy.
9. The messages conveyed by the texts are unequivocal, incredibly honest and relevant, don't you think you have problems with those you are talking about?
I think I understand the question… I certainly have a lot of problems with the people I’m talking about. What bothers me the most is the hypocrisy of some of my fellow countrymen. They say they’re Americans who love their freedom, but then they follow a man who openly quotes Mussolini. They say they’re practicing Christians, but they act like they don’t have the slightest idea what that means. I’ll never understand someone who calls themselves “prolife” but supports the death penalty. My song ‘Teach the Christians’ was played on a few radio stations, and afterwards I started getting these invites to join these atheist groups, or write some stuff for these groups that just wanted to talk about how religion is the opiate of the masses. I’m not against organized religion at all, and many of my closest friends are religious. That’s not an anti-religious song at all. At first the hook of it was ‘Who’s gonna teach the Christian Right the Teachings of Jesus Christ?’ and for a while it was ‘Who’s gonna teach Mike Pence the Teachings of Jesus Christ?’ ‘Teach the Christians” just worked the best, but it made it seem like I was against religion when I was really against the hypocrisy of the American Christian Right.
10. Under what conditions was the album produced? Who are the musicians who took part in the recording and can you introduce them to us?
I can’t believe actually came together. It only worked out because Roy Gurel was interested in making it. I recorded my vocals and guitar parts in Mexico City in a recording studio called La Bestia. La Bestia is a really interesting place because it was a landing spot for many Venezuelan alternative rock musicians who had to escape from Caracas. These guys were in really successful bands: La Vida Boheme, Viniloversus, Los Mesoneros… they had all won multiple Latin Grammys, but they were speaking out against Maduro and the situation got too dangerous for them. They all had guns pointed at them too many times and they had to leave. They moved to Mexico City, and a lot of them started working as session players and recording engineers at La Bestia. So there was some incredible talent there, and I think they appreciated the political songs I was doing because I was singing about life under a dictator. I was writing about Trump, but Trump is no different from Maduro or any other strongmen – dictators always have the same vindictive and petty personalities. So Juan Victor Bellesario, the bass player from the band Viniloversus, recorded all my vocals and guitars, and then we sent the Protools projects to Roy in Israel. Roy added guitar, bass, pianos and other things, and then sent the projects to our drummer Gilber Gilmore in New York. Gilber and Roy somehow made it feel like we were all in the same room at the same time. We then sent the files to Allison, and she and her husband Wyatt recorded her backing vocals. We also sent the files to my friend Peter Hess, and he added most of horn parts. Peter plays with the Phillip Glass Ensemble now, but he’s recorded and played with everybody… David Byrne, Wu Tang Clan…I’ve known Peter a long time, and we’ve done a few theater projects together before. His playing really added a depth to the record, and I feel so lucky that we were able to get him on the album. Casey Shea from the L.A band Grand Canyon also added harmonica to 100 Pills Per Person, and he played mouth trumpet on Teach the Christians. Dan Brantigan played the beautiful trumpet parts on Back Pocket Blues. It’s crazy, but I’ve never actually met Gilber, Casey, or Dan in person. Ideally we could have made the album all together in room with one microphone, but were all living in different countries and Roy was somehow able to pull it all together.
11. Are you a pessimist or a realistic optimist? And how do you see the evolution of all this shit?
It’s hard not to go insane with someone like Trump around, and it can be hard work just to keep your head above water. But it’s like Leonard Cohen says, “If you don't become the ocean, you'll be seasick every day.” I think I’m generally an optimist because I don’t understand how pessimists survive difficult times. I think that living without hope can be deadly. I’m also a realist. One of the worst things about the Trump years is that it’s just been a tremendous waste of everybody’s time – I guess it wasn’t a waste of time for the handful of billionaires who were able to make a few more billion dollars - but it was a waste of time for everyone else. We have so much real work to do, primarily with finding ways to combat climate change. But instead of dealing with any of these issues in any sort of realistic way, my country has just been going backwards for four years. I have to believe we’ll get through this election and start working again like adults. Climate change will still be here when Trump is gone. Racism will still be here. Cruel economic disparities will still be here. But first we need to undo the damage of the last four years.
12. Projects: another album, tours, another move? And why not concerts in France? In the past, You lived there and you master the language?
I’m currently doing something called ‘Never Trump Tuesdays’. Every Tuesday until election day I’m releasing outtakes from ‘Let’s Make a King’ on social media. There were about 10 other songs that could’ve gone onto the album if we’d had the time and money. I’m putting out rough videos of these tracks, but I’d love to record them all at some point. I think a few of them are stronger than the songs that made it onto the album. When we were making ‘King’ I also recorded around 12 demos for a folk/country album, but we put those songs away so we could focus on the blues songs – they felt more necessary and relevant for an election year release. But some of the folk songs are really good... I’ve got lots of projects, and if I had unlimited time and money I’d love to work on them all. I’d love to do a vinyl release of ‘Let’s Make a King’…everything costs money. We might have another move soon, and if we’re lucky we’ll be back in Europe. If we do I would love to play some shows in France.
13. A little word to our readers to encourage them to acquire your magnificent album? will it be distributed by a label, if not where and how to get it?
The best way to get it is through Bandcamp. I don’t have a label, and at this point I’m not really sure I would want to work with a label. They would want me to be out on the road all the time, and I don’t have much interest in spending time away from my family. I don’t even know what roads are out there right now for traveling musicians. I’m more of a songwriter than a performer anyway, so I’m pretty happy right where I am.