You should know that this is all pretty much Ted Drozdowski's fault. He was the inspiration for this whole writing about weird blues-based bands thing that I do.
See, what happened was see...I first read a review about Junior Kimbrough in '93-'94 via some other writer (Mike Nickles I think was his name...via Tower Magazine) but after that the only guy that it seemed was doing any writing about R.L. Burnside and T-Model Ford, Junior Kimbrough and the rest of them from the hillcountry/Fat Possum Records scene was this guy Ted Drozdowski in The Boston Phoenix weekly. He was always smart and spot on in his reviews of this new, yet ancient form of blues, this north Mississippi trance blues boogie thing that was slowly seeping out of the regions hill country. It seemed like this Ted knew the people that he was writing about.
It turns out that he did know them. And he knew Jesse Mae Hemphill, too, among others. Now, not to humble-brag, but I was blessed to see Junior Kimbrough one night in Seattle, and even got his autograph. My guitar playing friend Jim Friesz went with me and, he'd never heard any Kimbrough music, he said later that it changed his life in the way that he looked at guitar. Years later I went to his juke around Holly Springs, Mississippi...and I got to visit briefly on occasion with R.L. and T-Model over the years, but this guy has stories to tell, he had hang time with the heroes. And continues to do so via his writing gigs. Auerbach, Gibbons, Joe Perry, Honeyboy Edwards, Kid Congo Powers, and on and on...
Me want to write real good one day and Ted's work inspired me to try and do just that. So. Here I am over a couple thousand posts later, still tapping away. So thanks for that, Ted!
Ted is an award-winning
music journalist and a guitarist of prodigious talent, who plays with real depth, raw honesty, and originality. Drozdowski's guitar solos are often meditative and just as often savagely raw...sometimes at the same time.
He's an honest blues lyricist in that he writes and sings what he knows rather than throwing out my mama left me cliches. He's also a fellow who has one of those singing voices like Dylan, Neil, Hank, Morrissey et al that might take a listen or two to get into, but the payback is unique and often outstanding.
But it's live...live is where Drozdowski shines, because Ted is also a showman in the classic old headcuttin' (literally, in Ted's case) sense. He's bringing back that good old blues-psych-rock action and entertainment for the whole family. He shuffles and he slips, he's got a dip in his hip, he's got hard pointy stylish shoes (one pair became the name of a film made with the director of the documentary Deep Blues Robert Mugge called Big Shoes.)
I don't know if he's got an Ass Pocket of Whiskey, but Dude knows how to put on a show. He likes to get folks to hold his guitar while he rips a solo using anything handy for a slide, from whiskey bottle to a candle, to...well...anything, as you would see should see HERE: Blurt slide guitar challenge. He likes to roll in the soul, and get hip to this tiny tip: to make that human connection with the audience, letting them sit with him, and dangle a leg over the fourth wall, so to speak, to bring us in on it. Drozdowski's an inclusionist and wants everybody to dig the blues. That's what it's about. And it ain't braggin' if you can do it, as the man said, and Drozdowski and his band do it.
I saw Ted play in St. Paul for one of the Deep Blues Festival shows a few years back. He was wailing hell on a solo, sliding around that guitar while walking the length of the bar, but unfortunately he misjudged and managed to get ka-bonked in the forehead by the blade of an industrial ceiling fan that he'd somehow misjudged the height of. But he kept rocking, and he walked on down the hall and out the front door, still plugged in, to play solo on the sidewalk with blood streaming down his face. At last, some guys guided him to the bathroom and cleaned him up while he and his drummer kept playing. After the show, he went to the hospital. That is all.
Ted Drozdowski has played with the masters of north Mississippi. He's kind of a modern-day Brian Jones (without the issues) in that regard in that rather than go to Morocco to connect to the source, Ted went to Mississippi. He's a blues guitar adventurer with a craving for the deeper level, that deep blues thing, that blues/soul/gospel moment of beauty. He digs the cosmic blues, but he digs it with all the grit and the heaviness of the first '60s electric blues albums...with a literate stoniness/grooviness...a soulful sense of space and pocket. There at times this dub vibe to his blues, it's that psych thing. It gets trippy. He knows the right solo, the proper groove, how to hit that punctum and hold it. Catch and release, call and response, that thing that moves us to cry from sadness or dance from happiness...to feel like somebody else is feeling it, dammit! He's listening for something that'll take us out of this place. And he tends to find it.
Drozdowski knows his Televisions from his Zappas, his Kings- Albert, B.B. and otherwise, and of course he reveres the Queens- Jessie, Minnie, Sister Rosetta, Big Mama, etc etc. By the way, he's got a cool ebook out now called Obsessions of a Music Geek, Volume I: Blues Guitar Giants . This book will kick off a series of ebooks on Ted's favorite guitarists. Ted the writer and Ted the guitarist are both great talents, but I'm pretty sure he writes so he can play guitar.
Love & Life is an amazing sounding recording. It breathes space and fire, rolls with sheets of sound and/or howling wolves across the downtown Mississipi hills like he's "backed by the river, and fronted by the grave." to paraphrase Mississippi juke owner Red Paden.
The Scissormen have a psyched-out and heavy, yet nimble sound, that rocks hard (but isn't hard rock) while still remaining blues, still highly-melodious while kicking hard. To see them play together is like watching a game of musical tag. Guitar and bass grooving off each other, pushing each other, pulling each other, as the drummer keeps one hand on the brake and one foot on the gas. They are each a great counterweight to the other.
Ted Dreozdowski's Scissormen drag the blues' stinkin' carcass to the stage and transform it, hot rod it into a sharp dressed sixty-dollar man...a back-door man...dipping its big ol' feet into seventies fuzzed-out psych-rock platinum shoes, and taking a walk through early electric blues grooves, rolling a tussle in the membrane with some early ZZ Top mud vs some early Capt Beefheart soul, some Stooges sonics, and Junior Kimbrough trance. Mr. Drozdowski throws an audio free-love party/knife fight with Bobby Dylan, Muddy, Lightnin', Fred and R.L. with Ron Ashton in tow. Like an evolving, prodding, throbbing, teetering, shining alien beast, like paper and fire, like lightning and smoke, Drozdowski and friends mix up and kick up the history of Chicago blues and on down along the river past Cairo to New Orleans, or London, or Boston, to the sea and out to deep space. In other words, you ain't never heard nothing like this in a long time.
RS:: Rick Saunders - Ted Drozdowski!
You grew up in Boston? How'd you learn to play guitar? Was your family musical? What'd your folks do? Did they support your young rock desires?
TD:: Ted Drozdowski - Alright, let's get some basics out of the way.
I grew up in the industrial armpit of Connecticut, a town called Meriden, but my folks and family are from the anthracite region of eastern Pennsylvania, an hour south of Scranton, and are basically coal miners and hillbillies, with chickens and cars on blocks in the yard. My mom and dad are first generation American and grew up during the Depression, which took a real toll on my dad. My mom was the artistic one, who got me interested in country music and reading early on.
Amnesia.” That was basic chords and standard tuning, but then I started going deep on my own.
RS:: Were you ever a record store dude? You've got the taste for it. Tell me about influences. Did you always dig the blues or did it take you awhile?
TD:: I never worked in a record store but I was a frequent flyer. I bought my first album with my first allowance money when I was about 10. I saved 50-cents a week for six weeks and then bought The Sounds of Johnny Cash at Star’s department store. Awesome album, and I still have it. For about $2.97 including tax. But as soon as I turned 16 I got a job at McDonald’s and saved enough money to buy a car a.s.a.p.
After that my friends and I hit at least three record stores every weekend, buying up all the used punk rock, prog rock and roots music albums I could find. Watching shows like The Midnight Special and In Concert and being an avid radio listener — to major FM rock, country and college stations — and reading NME and Musician magazine, gave me eclectic tastes.
RS:: Who was the first blues artist to kinda flip your lid and make you think you wanted to play this stuff?
TD:: As far as playing the music goes, I’d have to say it was Clapton, as un-hip as that might sound today. I got a two LP Polydor compilation of tracks from his early solo albums and “Bell Bottom Blues,” with those exquisite pinch harmonics, and “Let It Rain” really touched me — but not any more than Richie Blackmore on Deep Purple’s Machine Head. That was also a really inspiring album, “Smoke On the Water” and all…
From Clapton solo I backtracked to Cream and read about Robert Johnson, and then the hunt for all kinds of regional blues — Chicago, Mississippi, Texas and West Coast — was on. I started playing in a punk rock band a couple years after I got a guitar …also loved the Clash, Ramones, X, Gun Club — especially that first Gun Club album, which is a blues record. I always considered my bands before Scissormen to be “secret blues bands,” because blues was the foundation of my playing no matter the genre. The sound of blues just seems to reach deeper into my head than any other sound — although I loved it all. Gimme Fred Frith and a cheeseburger and I’m happy as a pig in a spa.
And then half a decade later, here comes R.L. Burnside, and then he almost single-handed changed my life.
Do you use much in the way of pedals? How about amps? You have a diverse guitar sound, yet it has a kind of thick, heavyness to it. How did you develop your sound...or would you say you are still a process you are developing?
TD:: Gear is a deep swamp for me, and I’m happy to wallow in it all day! And I do not travel light to gigs. I typically bring two amps, two round-neck guitars and two one-strings, and if I had my way I’d bring a third round neck, but you can only fit som much gear in the van.
I am by nature a Les Paul guy. Their depth and fullness is a good foundation for the low, fat tones I like, which are more mysterious, to me, than the tones from most single-coil guitars.
That said, after playing my Pauls for about three years straight on stage, I’m back with my workhorse Fender Esquire reissue. I dropped two vintage Les Paul pickups into it and refitted the neck with jumbo frets. It’s a really versatile guitar and the thin neck feels perfect to me, as do the ’60s profile necks on my Les Pauls. On a whim, I took the Esquire and a Flying V out to a gig early this year. The V went down and I had to use the Esquire for the rest of the night, and it reminded me how much I love it. I call it my “signature model,” because it’s covered with autographs from friends and influences. But it’s mostly the Les Pauls on the album, along with a ’70s Stratocaster, a Les Paul Special, an ES-345 and an ES-150. I used the Esquire for the solo on “Watermelon Kid” and “The River,” which is a live first take.
In general, I like low tones, heavy on midrange. Bright breaks the hallucinogenic bubble for me, and I like things weird. I hope to keep developing my sound until the day I die. The chase is too much fun to give up, and there’s always a new sound in my head I want to track down.
To that end, I have reduced my pedalboard for the road to the essentials: tuner, a MXR Micro-Amp for boost, an Archer pedal (which is a superb Klon Centaur clone at a fraction of the cost), a Phase 90 phase shifter, a vintage VB-2 vibrato pedal, a Digitech PDS-1000 vintage digital delay and a Supernatural reverb, which lets you paste trails on the ends of notes, almost like a B-3, without needing to change your picking approach. Sometimes my MW Fuzzytone pedal also makes the scene, and can be heard on the solos of “Black Lung Fever.” I probably have about another 40 pedals that wait at home for the right day in the studio or the right gig.
The crawfish pot diddley bow Mike made for me is a ridiculous amount of fun to play, and when I added the Mexican Strat pickup, it started to really bark. You can hear the galvanized steel of the pot. It’s unique. I play it with a slide bar, like a lap steel.
My other one-string is a ’60s Epiphone hollowbody that I saved from the Tremo-Verb head, a Big Muff pedal and a 1x12 Eminence speaker, on “Can’t Be Satisfied” on Love & Life.
boneyard. It’s headstock was sheared off so badly it couldn’t intonate correctly, so I stuck it on with the kind of glue they repair boats with, pulled out the frets and gave it a new life. You can hear it, running to a Mesa Boogie
For amps, I used a bunch of things for Love & Life: a 1972 Marshall Super Lead head, my Mesa Dual Rectifier Tremo-Verb, a 1963 Supro Lightning Bolt, an Epiphone Valve Standard with an Eminence speaker, a 1966 Fender Twin Reverb and even a Roland Cube 30, for the immediacy that transistors give — required for the backwards solo in “R.L. Burnside (Sleight Return).” And often I paired or tripled them up in the studio to get unique sounds for the heavier tracks.
RS:: Tell me about how you got started writing. You've been doing it on a professional level for a long time. You recently wrote an e-book titled Obsessions of a Music Geek, Volume I: Blues Guitar Giants covering John Lee Hooker, Otis Rush, Johnny Winter, Freddie King, Michael Bloomfield, Z.Z. Top's Billy Gibbons and Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, which I understand will be a series of books. How'd you get started, what writers influence or inspire you?
TD:: The writers who first inspired me were Dr. Seuss and Stan Lee — my on-ramp was Seuss books followed by comics, as a reader. And I was one of those withdrawn kids who writes fiction and poetry. But when I was in my teens I started reading music magazines, and while I was studying journalism in college in dawned on me that at some point I might be able to make a living writing about music. By then I was reading Lester Bangs in The Village Voice and Robert Palmer in The New York Times religiously, and I enjoyed the Rev. Charles M. Young in Musician (magazine) and Rolling Stone.
While I loved the wildness of Lester and Charles, I really enjoyed Robert’s focus, depth and ability to explain what music sounds like, and his tremendous insight. Later, when I discovered his book Deep Blues and we became friends, he opened up my perspective more directly — although I was pretty wide-open by the time we connected, which, I think, is why we connected. He sought other musical freethinkers. And he was my original deep Mississippi connection.
After graduating with a print journalism degree and working on a newspaper and an industrial trade magazine, I got a job at Musician, which was a bucket-list item, but the magazine had peaked at that point, in terms of scope, imagination and leadership. The days of Vic Garbarini, another free thinker, were over. Nonetheless, it was a great experience. I’d never been encouraged to smoke pot at work before… And when I began writing for Rolling Stone as well, Anthony DeCurtis became my editor there and was a significant mentor and remains a friend. I already loved his writing and was so delighted that we hit it off as well. That was even before meeting Palmer. So, short version: Bangs, Young, DeCurtis, Palmer… and by then my ideas and style were fully formed, I think. Now it’s just a matter of lifelong refinement, like songwriting, guitar and mindfulness.
I’ve been a musician and freelance writer since leaving the Boston
Phoenix, where I was music editor and then associate arts editor, in 1998. So that’s a long time to avoid an office or an assembly line. I’m proud of that. Today I’m writing mostly for guitar publications, which suits me fine because it keeps my nose down in the instrument.
Folks have been urging me to do books on various topics for years, but the money’s so short I figure it’s not worth the time it would take away from making music — which is a much bigger rush and an amazing experience, always. I finally decided that since I had accumulated a body of work that’s many thousands of pieces deep, I should revisit my own back pages, revise and improve upon certain key pieces, and share them with folks. Doing an ebook lets me stay indie, which I like, and also makes it easy to publish a series on my own schedule. Since I have a new psychedelic blues based album coming out, a book on blues guitar heroes seemed like a good starting point. Next up, I think it’ll be a volume of inspirational pieces for beginning guitar players. And for volume three I’m considering a collection of pieces on musical innovators — maybe guitar, maybe broader.
RS:: I'm wondering if you'd be interested in talking about the process of releasing this album...the timeline...what it's like trying to hype yourself when everbody with GarageBand and Bandcamp can slap up an album on the interwebs, and does. I'm also interested in how you recorded it. Studio? Rehearsal space recordings? Hell you can make amazing stuff these days with a laptop that back in the olden days we'd have to walk thru the snow backwards uphill both ways and barefoot to record. What were your thoughts about how this album would sound...sonically?
TD:: This is an album I’ve wanted to do for five years. I have an exact blueprint demo of “R.L. Burnside (Sleight Return),” the song that really set the tone for the album as I was writing tunes, going back that far. But figuring out how to get it done was a dilemma. I didn’t really have the right players available and didn’t know how to begin the recording without the funds to pay for the sessions and, then, to get the album out.
While I could conceivably have made the album using GarageBand, which is the best recording capability I have at my house, the results would not have been able to cast a net as wide as I want. I’d like as many people in as wide a population as I can reach to hear Love & Life, because I think this deeply rooted music is important and has something to offer to the modern world.
Over the course of about seven years, from 2008 to 20014, I’ve appeared on the Mando Blues Show (https://www.facebook.com/MandoBlues) on Radio Free Nashville more frequently than any other guest. I’ve always loved the quality of the live recordings, and had become good friends with the show’s host, Whit Hubner, and the owner of Omega Lab Studio, Robert McClain, Jr., where it’s taped for rebroadcast and the podcast.
The studio is in three military surplus tents on top of a mountain down a dirt road in the woods behind the Loveless Café, just outside of Nashville.
Although a few live albums have come out of there, there hadn’t been any studio productions — more layered and nuanced work — done in the tents. So it dawned on me that a full-blown studio album might be a cool project for Rob, and he agreed. And at about the same time, the line-up of players for the album came together.
We started working on the tracks for one afternoon and evening a week, taking our time but recording really efficiently, because I knew exactly how I wanted the album to sound and how almost all the parts of the arrangements would fit together. The bass and drums were cut in two sessions, and then it was pretty much me layering in guitars and vocals. And I traded Rob a really nice guitar and some other things along the way. So, really, the album was made on friendship and trades, with the hope that it’ll bring a little sunshine for all of us.
Love & Life is an evolutionary step to what — for the foreseeable future — I see as the band’s destination. I’d made five albums and a film with the duo line-up and really wanted to expand the sound live, with a trio, and on album with new sounds, like the B-3, and more nuanced, textural and diverse guitar. The songs I was writing were asking for that, too. Guitar-wise, Love & Life draws on a lot of aspects of my earlier playing that I’d put aside in the duo. Plus, all of the earlier Scissormen albums were cut live in the studio or on stage, including vocals, and I wanted to change that.
When I went into the studio, I was using the period of psychedelic recording between 1967 and 1972 as a guide. I didn’t have an exact blueprint, but for inspiration I was thinking of Axis: Bold As Love, Electric Ladyland and Then Play On. I would have liked to spend more time mixing, to make things even more psychedelic, but I think we got pretty close to the bone.
The album sounds essentially like I wanted it to before we recorded note one.
We finished recording in early 2014 and I spent a year looking for a label to partner with me, but struck out. I didn’t have the cash to even pay for the pressing. Most of the labels I’d approached, even those who I’d done work for in the past as a writer or consultant, or are part of the same music communities as me, couldn’t even be bothered to listen. Everybody’s busy, but that’s disrespectful. Let me leave it at that.
So my wife Laurie and I undertook an Indiegogo campaign to raise the money to manufacture the album and put it out, get it to radio and hire a publicity person. We hit our goal, with 166 donors from nine counties, which a great validation and really empowering. And the label name Dolly Sez Woof was inspired by my dog — who is also the label’s CEO, because she’s got a nose for good stuff, can sniff out opportunities and gets her business done every day.
RS:: Something that really sticks out on this album is the track you did with Mighty Sam Mclain. Tell about how that came about.
TD:: Sam and i had been friends for more than 20 years. I think he was truly the last of the great red clay soul voice in America, and I learned a lot from Sam about having a vision and being an artist. We were very close — he passed away shortly before the album came out, which was sad. I was looking forward to us sharing the life of the album together a bit. He was a great man and an amazing artist. Anyway, I'd been dreaming about some kind of musical collaboration with Sam for years, and when I wrote "Let's Go To Memphis" I knew his voice would be perfect for it. I ran it by him one day, and he instantly agreed. He and his guitarist and producer Pat Herlehy cut the vocal to tracks I mailed to them on CD. When we got the results back, everybody in the studio had goosebumps. Anyway, Sam was a dear friend and hero who I admired and his lost is major for me and, I think, the world of music.
RS:: I heard you did a project in a school in Nashville where you helped kids make a diddley-bow?
TD:: Well, Mike Windy who is a great artist and a teacher living here in Nashville, built the bows with his class and then had me in to lead the kids in playing them and to show them the ropes — or, at least, the string. What was exciting about it was the great energy of the kids and Mike, who really has a gift for opening to world wider for all people through art. Plus the chance to talk to a diverse group of elementary school kids about Muddy Waters, Son House, Charley Patton and Jessie.
RS:: Speaking of our friend MikeWindy, I asked him to come up with some questions for you.
RS:: Yo MikeWindy! Gimme some questions to ask Ted Drozdowski in an interview!
MW (MikeWindy) :: Why live in Nashville when he could've worked from anywhere? (Talk about) the connections between psychedelic music and blues music.
What was working with Robert Mugge like? Ask him about his backyard concerts!
Q: Why live in Nashville?
I love being in Nashville now. It reminds me of being part of the alternative rock scene in Boston during the ’90s, when music helped start bonfires all across the creative arts scene. It was an amazing time and I can’t believe I’m experience this kind of artistic eruption again! Boston was getting more expensive and less fun, and we needed to go somewhere. I’d been coming down south with the band regularly, and we’d often use Nashville as a hub for doing shows out to GA, AL, AR, MS… And we knew a lot of people here who’s already moved to Nashville. Laurie came down and took a look around, and we decided to take the leap. Then-low housing prices helped, too And, of course, we wanted to be in a music town. Pretty clearly, we’re now in THE music town.
A: To me, they’re deep and plentiful, starting with Son House’s approach to resonator guitar — intoxicating — and moving right up to Muddy and Wolf — who had a psychedelic voice — to Captain Beefheart, Jimi Hendrix and Junior Kimbrough. I think there’s something very unusual and spiritual about the world that the blues comes from, which immediately lends itself to psychedelic song interpretation and creates a beautiful aura of timelessness.
Q: Robert Mugge…
A: Working with Bob was a gas. It cemented our friendship, which was a big deal to me considering how much I’d loved and enjoyed his work. I also learned that he’s a real taskmaster!!!! But he gets results and I still can’t believe I’m the focus of a Robert Mugge film. It’s crazy. It almost seemed surreal until I saw myself on a huge screen on a Dolby 7.1 theater at a Florida festival. Then it was clear that it was surreal!!
Q: House concerts?
A: A few years ago Laurie and I decided we wanted to do something fun in the summertime with our home, and I was also really wanting to play more and do something with other musicians that didn’t involve hitting the road. We decided to do a back porch concert series — we’d hosted a series in our loft just before we left Boston — and tour amazement, we’d ask somebody we thought was a really serious artist and nearly all of them said yes: Webb Wilder, Amelia White, our friend Dave Arcari from Scotland, Nick Loss Eaton from NYC’s Leland Sundries, Eric Brace & Peter Cooper, Kristi Rose & Fats Kaplin… It was an amazing experience. But this year we can’t do it because I’m so busy with the release of Love & Life.
Q: My dream line-up?
A: Honestly, I feel like I’m already playing with my favorite bass player, Sean Zywick. He’s a great creative mind and a top-notch human, so I’d hang onto him while he got Elvin Jones and John Bonham on drums; Jimi and Sonny Sharrock to help out of guitars; Otis Spann on piano, Jon Lord on keys and Coltrane on sax. It’s good to play with people who are better than you, so you can learn. I’d learn a lot. Oh yeah — the utility player would be Tom Waits!
RS:: Thanks MikeWindy for the Q's!
band members. What's
Were they who you had in mind when you decided to expand your bands palette?
TD:: Although the band’s not a trio on the album, there are four band members overall including me. It’s Sean Zywick, my main musical compadre and creative foil, on bass; Pete Pulkrabek on drums, and a second drummer, Chip Clarke.
When the money and circumstances are right, we expand from a trio to a four-piece with two full-kit drummers — and we do most hometown gigs that way. On the road, we can literally only fit three or us on the van, so usually it’s Pete or Chip.
I met all of them here in Nashville, although they’re from Michigan, upstate New York and Maine respectively. And they’re veteran players. Although Chips is only 22, they’ve had a lot of experience. What they haven’t had is a lot of experience playing “blues.” I need players who are going to attack the music with a rock edge and attitude, even if they are playing a shuffle. I need musicians who can play the music and create on the spot, not play, as some blues drummers have told me, “all the forms.” I don’t play forms. I play songs and original music.
They weren’t exactly who I had in mind when I decided top open up the band’s sound five years ago — but after playing with them for the better part of two years, as it turns out they are exactly who I had in mind.
For me, this album is a leap I've been longing to make for a while, as I've tried to find ways to transcend limitations of $ and personnel. It turns out pretty much as I'd conceived of it in advance, and lived up to the three goals I'd set: more texture accomplished via multiple guitars on most songs; my signature slide playing as a thread throughout the album; songs that told stories.
I think it's the best work I've done as a songwriter and player, and it draws on every element of all the music I love while still, essentially, being the work of a juke joint blues band with ties to the earliest forms of the music, from it's first few decades.
It's amazing fun to play these tunes live, and I hope to be able to continue to do so for many years to come.
RS:: I hope you do, too. It's been a pleasure to get to know you more, Ted, Good luck with the new recordings.