Pete Brown and Dick Heckstall-Smith
BLUES AND BEYOND INTERVIEW
Interviewer – Pete Grant
The time is early spring, on a nasty wet day in an otherwise pleasant London suburb.. The exact location is the kitchen of Pete Brown. He and Dick Heckstall-Smith are there to talk about Dick's new album, "Blues and Beyond". Pete has co-produced, written lyrics, and pushed very hard for the deal that made it all possible. Dick describes him as 'The man with the vision'.
And then there is Dick Himself, always looking as if he is ready to walk on-stage with his sax, somehow. A man to whom music seems to be a tangible living and breathing thing, not just a noise some people make. He and Pete go back 40 years or so. There is a familiarity and sense of enjoyment between the two of them that is infectious. Conversation flows easily, only halted by the incessant ringing of the telephone. At one point DHS asks if we are in a call centre of some description. Between interruptions though, the pair talk about the new release.
PG: The last album you released Dick, ‘Celtic Steppes’ was very different to ‘Blues and Beyond’. What was the thinking behind ‘Blues and Beyond’?
DHS: It’s because I have a long reputation as a blues musician, and a lot of my work really has been inside the blues. I mean ‘work’ in a very general sense, more than just a four-letter word. I think my reputation as a blues musician has probably reached more people than as a musician per se. Blues has always been big with me anyway. There are other kinds of music but it all boils down to how you play and how you think musically. If you use the blues as a fundamental source material, a lake from which you suck up liquids… I had never made a blues album before, even though I had done such a lot of work in it. I decided I would do a blues album, my first blues album ever, and try and do one very much from the standpoint from my being situated at the start of the third millennium, not that millenniums count for that much. Read Rab’s words on track two, “You can’t see far beyond it”. It is kind of a blank, the rubbish of the previous past two millennia is not visible anymore, and we don’t know what the heck is coming, end of statement!
PG: Fair enough. At what point did you become involved Pete? Was it a project you always wanted to do together?
PB: Yes I guess it was. Dick had been talking to me about it for a long time and I had been probing bits of the business to see how they responded. ( LAUGHS) Mostly they either responded blankly or with fairly derisory offers of money that wouldn’t really of let us get it done in the way that we wanted to do it. I.E, with certain names on it who were necessary for the thing. Eventually we got lucky because Blue Storm had just come into existence and liked the idea of it, we were in the right place at the right time for once and so they came up with a decent reasonable budget and we got it done. I was aware that Dick had been wanting to do a blues based record with singers and guitarists. The record is sort of about his love affair with guitarists and singers. Apart from wanting to make some definitive saxophone statements of his concept of the blues which he has definitely done. I always thought it was a good idea and we tend to do stuff together anyway, I did the hustling and eventually got the deal and then obviously co-produced it with Dave Moore. I think what I have also done is act like a bit of a conscience in the sense that I think it is true to say that some of the forms might have been a little bit simpler. Not in the way Dick writes the chords and stuff is very personal, and very much his own way of using hiown interpretation of blues harmony, but in terms of the shapes of things, once I got involved lyrically we pushed the boat out here and there, I didn’t want to settle for the more obvious shapes. In some cases I wanted to extend things and make them more odd, I thought that suited what was happening. I didn’t want to have a feeling of complacency about it, although harmonically it was by no means complacent at all.
DHS: There is actually one 12 bar in it!
PB: And one that is more or less 8 bars,
DHS: More or less, sometimes it has 9 bars in it (section 2 – the solos – in “Spooky But Nice”).
PB: Give or take the odd blurt. I am quite into that because there are a lot of very conventional blues records out there, and I thought that if this was really going to work it needed to push out little probes into other areas, and especially areas of form and not be the same as these other things, not even remotely like it.
PG: One thing that comes across on first hearing the album is how it has a very crisp almost live sound, it is very immediate. Was that deliberate, or did it just happen that way?
DHS: As far as I am concerned it just happened that way and is a result of the dynamic ness of the players. I think that the real reason for its live feel is the make-up of my production team, Munch and Brown together, that’s how they work. That suits me fine.
PB:<> I don’t like arid very studio sounding type things. If you are making exciting music you should try and have the sound of what it is doing as much as possible. Partly the fact that in order to get the feel of what you want you have to get as many instruments as you can down at the same time. It was only limited in that we were in a relatively small studio so there were some problems of separation. It being Dick’s record, having a guide saxophone, or even some saxophone parts we actually used, for instance playing tunes or playing some solos, went straight down and in fact that is a very good way to do it as everyone else gets turned on by it. Apart from the fact that everyone else uses it as a guide for their responses so there is a set of responses there ready for when you overdub, if you do.
DHS: ‘Hidden Agenda’ is a perfect example
PB: That’s right.
DHS: When I was doing it never actually occurred to me that I was going to use this guide as a solo on the thing, but when you get down to it, it was already done, so we used it, and the more and more I hear it, the more I like that song.
PB: We do work on the principle that if it ain’t broke; don’t fix it. If you can get stuff sown and you can see that it works with whatever else is going on, you just leave it. It may sound slightly rougher but on the other hand it will have the spontaneity that you don’t get after four thousand takes. I have hrd some recent blues records, particularly your digital blues records that sound appallingly antiseptic, and I don’t really think that is what the blues we were doing anyway is all about. There were textures that have to be employed, …textures that have to be employed…the dirt that does the trick. There are some blues that are smooth and slick and that works fine as well, but if you are using saxophones and guitars then you really have to get that live texture, almost what you would do on a gig. Obviously you use a studio a bit more but it is the kind of expression you are trying to get out of a good gig in some ways…
DHS: When it is a performance, it is a performance, and if you are used to playing on stage there is no way you can get away from that. Once you have started to play a piece of music out there, you’ve got to serve it, even in the studio.
PB: Dick has made a living essentially from being a live performing musician, rather than an in the studio all the time musician and although he has done hundreds of records and stuff the basis of his musical life is live performance and so that’s what you are recording, you are recording his concept of recording. It is not the same as having a studio musician doing a very very slick glib thing. Dick has all the technique in the world, he has as much technique as anybody else, but at the same time other people use technique in a different way, much more glib sort of w, without the dirt. …It is the old story of making records. Instead of making a record as a piece of commerce to shove down people’s throats, then you are actually going and recording an artist that deserves to be recorded. That is the old John Hammond concept. This is important music; you have to capture this as it is happening because it is important.
PG: And did that kind of thinking inform the selection of musicians you used in the studio?
PB: It did up to a point. David (Hadley), the bass player, I have been working with him for years now. He is a black American and he has done quite a lot of blues gigs although he has also done a lot of soul and funk and hip-hop things as well. He is a good all rounder. He has now become obsessed with Charlie Parker and is trying to play millions of Charlie Parker tunes on bass. That’s his current thing. He has done bits of jazz… he was an obvious choice, Dick had heard him working with me, and we had done sessions together, things like that. And then we were lucky because one drummer couldn’t do the record, and then Clem (Clempson) suggested Gary (Husband) and Gary was the one who breathed percussive life into the record I think
PB: He really did make a big contribution in terms of feel, and he got very quickly a good take on what Dick was trying to do…
DHS: He saved my bacon, he was in there straight away! Fantastic.
PB/b> He’s not at all a complacent player, as David is, David will get on your case, if something doesn’t feel right he will get on anyone’s case. Gary was great, he wasn’t complacent, and he came up with some great ideas, and he did seem to understand very quickly without any prompting what Dick was up to musically.
DHS: And he’s strong.
PB: He has a great sound. Which he is very aware of…He comes with a personal sound which was very suitable for what we were doing.
DHS: I think Clem is singularly important. He has just about every advantage you could possibly ask for. He is too much.
Clem Clempson (pic Shu Tomioka)
PB: Clem is an incredible musician. Clem did help us in the pre production. We did work on some of the songs like ‘Millennium’ and ‘Hidden Agenda’, we demoed them at Clem’s place, and he came up with ideas for them, parts and such, so he made a big contribution to the record.
DHS: Clem has the right kind of approach for me. He doesn’t see it as some kind of ‘that will do’ commercial enterprise. He doesn’t work like that. It is music as far as he is concerned. It means he is a highly successful and much in demand session musician. That is a sort of by product of the fact that he is so musical.
PB: He can’t do any wrong really. The guy is an amazing musician, understands everything mediately. Obviously, he has worked with Dick a lot for a long time in different contexts, so that was very good, as there was an immediate understanding of most of the things that Dick was doing. ( Laughs) Every now and then Dick comes up with a few twists and turns that surprise everybody.
DHS: You mean fuck-ups?
PB: No. Part of his way of keeping people at it, keeping everyone on their toes you know.
DHS: Then there is the amazing Rab. (McCulloch)
PB: He does more vocals than anyone else. Rab is fantastic. I became aware of Rab through his son who manages him and who sent me some stuff. The result of that will be that I will eventually produce Rab’s first record, which Dick will play on as well. Rab I was absolutely knocked out by and Dick had been planning to use somebody else to do the bulk of the vocals who actually couldn’t do it, and so I played him Rab’s stuff and Dick fell in love with Rab immediately and realised that he would be the right person to do the songs that we had in mind really. We called him to do it, and he did a great job. He is a natural, he is just amazing really.
DH-S: He jumped on some of the stuff that I had written and which wasn’t that easy. When I write it I think it is easy and I give it to other people and I discover that however good they are they don’t know what it is I am getting at which is a little frustrating. You know, “It doesn’t go quite likehis, it goes more like this, bla bla”. Clem is not like that, he always gets it immediately, and I wouldn’t have expected a stranger like Rab to have this Clem like ability to pick it up immediately. Difficult stuff. He sits there fooling around for an hour in rehearsal, and he’s got it. He knows what it is that I have written. That’s quite something. He is a hell of a bloke, Rab.
PG: Did he play guitar as well?
DHS: Oh Yes
PB: On some things yes. He plays some solos, like on ‘Watching Your Every Move’, he plays a solo on that, and he also does the rhythm on that, and on ‘Big Deal’.
DHS: He plays the solo on that too.
PB: The thing about him that is quite interesting is that you give him a song and he comes up with a take on it that you might not have thought of. He actually approaches it from quite a funky point of view, which is good I think. It suits me fine; I like that approach, very R&B.
DHS: It suits the fuck out of me. It means I can go in and stir something in in a slightly peculiar way and it will still be the blues and R&B.
PB: He drives like fuck. He is very intuitive and there is a tremendous rapport between him and Dick, it is one of those chemistry things, it just works, you know. That is one of the reasons why; even before he met Dick he began to understand what Dick was trying to do. We sent him some things to listen to, anhe came up with some nice ideas. The rhythm idea on ‘Watching Your Every Move’ was his idea. He came to the rehearsal and said “I think we ought to do it like this”, and started the groove, and everybody said, “That’s it, that’s how we should do it”. So that was really good.
DHS: The big thing about that is that he plays guitar and sings and the whole thing is coming from inside him, you don’t have to match ‘em, it’s all just once. The whole thing just happens once, the perfect set-up as far as I am concerned!
PB: He is a real find and he’ll get a name.
DHS: Have you spotted where he is singing his own lines on songs?
PB: Like on “Angie Baby”
DHS: And ‘Big Deal’ most of all
PG: I would like to ask about the choice of ‘Angie Baby’. It really works, but I would not have expected to find it in this particular project.
DHS: I have always been overawed by the lyric. It is one of the most peculiar, Brown …described it as sinister. It is one sinister lyric.
PG: And the sinister quality is brought out in this particular rendition…
PB: Oh yeah, we went for the slightly unsettling bits, didn’t we. You know the build up is quite unsettling.
PG: One thing I would like to ask about the album. We talked about some of the studio musicians, and there are also a number of guests on the album, one or two of which go back to early in your career, Dick.
DHS:Only fairly early. ( Laughs) I mean it is a real pity that we didn’t get Ginge… He is in South Africa and incapable for playing more than 10 or 15 minutes because of accidents on a horse, or horses, but I would have had Ginger (Baker) on it if it was possible to do so. But it wasn’t, so tough. Ginger is the onI have known the longest, since 1957, and even Jack’s (Bruce) enormous age is put into the shade by the time I have known Ginger. Jack is the other guy, I have known since ever. It was 1962 and he was 18 when I first met him. So you are right, it is a long way back, but let me think, 1962, I was 28, 27, I had had quite a bit of career before then, not that anyone would know it.
Jack Bruce (pic Shu Tomioka)
PB: We go back to 1960, so that’s quite a long way.
DHS: Refresh my memory, because I don’t have a good memory for stuff like that, so I don’t exactly remember when I first met you.
PB: Well, it was with the old jazz and poetry thing, really, but I had been seeing Jack play for quite a time before that. I had first seen Dick play with Sandy Brown at the St Martins Art School dance in ’56 or ’57 and then being a jazz fan, and there wasn’t that much jazz around, so you would try and get to as much of it as you could within reason and so I would go to gigs a lot with my friend Victor, so I had seen Dick play a lot. Now I am not sure whether I already knew you when you started the residency at the Café D’Artiste, I think I probably did. Probably ’61. Mike Horowitz, the leader of the ‘New Horizons’ group recruited Dick, and then I joined the group, and that’s how I got to know Dick really. In fact it was through Dick that met jack and Graham ( Bond) and then we did gigs together, and I went to his gigs, and we used to hang out together, and in fact at one point Dick actually lived at my place when his first marriage split up, when I had a place in the West End, so we even shared premises together. So we go back certainly to about 1960 anyway. So you wanted to talk about some of the others on the record.
DHS: So you are talking about John, your Uncle John. I met John (Mayall) back in 1963. I was on tour in Manchester with Alexis Korner, and Alexis has got this scene by which we can slope off and stay with a friend of his, and at the end of the gig we scoot through the night and arrive at this place in time to go to bed. I have very little recollection of the gig, or the scooting off or the going to bed. Anyway, I woke up the next morning, in a bed on the first floor, and the little room we were ion was right above the hall, and in the room next to the hall, there was the celestial sound of a pump organ and this voice which was extraordinary, waking up to this voice singing the blues. I didn’t have a clue what it was, what was going on. Well, eventually I found out what it was, we were staying in a house that was owned by John Mayall, it was the voice that had done it, plucked me out of dreamless sleep into this total music. It was blues, with John Mayall playing the pump organ; you could hear the feet creaking, and that voiceAnd I never forgot that, it was such a powerful experience, so that is how I met John. .
PG: Earlier Pete mentioned how in part this album was a response to you’re attitude to guitarists and singers. One of the guitarists who guests on the album is Mick Taylor, and he plays a particularly fine slide part on one of the tracks.
DHS: Absolutely. In retrospect what Mick does on the album is superb. There is a quality in the way he plays which is so strong. Very simple but very strong. And that was what he was doing when he was 16, 17, when I first met him.
PG: And he was the guitarist in the Bluesbreakers when you were in them?
DHS: When I joined, he was already the guitar player.
PG: And the man he replaced as guitarist in the Bluesbreakers, (Peter Green) is also on this album, on ‘Cruel Contradictions’. I wondered if you would like to say a little about his contribution.
DHS: I am a bit too overwhelmed by the strength of it to say anything too powerfully analytical. My own reaction to it is emotion, and so is everybody else’s, I am glad to note. When I played it to my girlfriend she sort of almost clapsed, she sort of melted as soon as the voice appeared…there was something in the voice that was so direct. I can understand why so many diehard old American blues musicians all seem to say that Peter Green is the only one who is up to it as far as they are concerned. Can you understand that?
PG: I can, there is a depth and feeling to his voice, especially in this song. I was also interested in the lyrics… I wondered if you could talk a little about the story of that song, Pete.
PB: Well, it is just a typical human interest story, a contradictory thing about a relationship where you have busted up with somebody and then they phone you up, and say that was really good what we had, wasn’t it, I think about it all the time, I happen to be with someone else, and I never really want to be with you again, but wasn’t it great. And it is that kind of contradictory thing that you get in relationships, I locked into a way of portraying it. Peter and I talked about it a little before we did it, and he understood it pretty well, and he understood the thing instinctively before we talked about it. I sent him the thing, and then we talked about it. He really liked it, I knew he liked it and wanted to do it. The amazing thing about his performances, being a singer myself, and listening to what he does, he gets nuances that no one else gets, I mean he finds little things, a way of expressing a note, that no one else can fuing get. I don’t know anyone else that can do that. Not here anyway.
DHS: No one else could in a sense that no one else feels that.
PG: I think that is something he has had throughout his career, this ability to be able to fly off at tangents.
PB: It’s like he sees into the heart of a phrase. He finds something there, a way of expressing it, a way of putting it down. I just find that some of the things he gets to, they are just frightening. How his mind gets to that place, its quite extraordinary. Some people work hard to try those things, some jazz singers work hard to get it, not many do, but he somehow does. I think he gets inside the thing in a way most other people don’t get inside. You can take a phrase he is singing, for instance I did the guide vocals for the original songs, and I wrote the lyric, but as soon as he started to sing it, I thought he could see six more layers of depth than I could see in there. I mean the depth just keeps going back. There are layers of depth there, and he just sees it, and feels it and hits it. It is quite extraordinary. The more I listen to it, the more I think, “how did he do that?” It is not like anyone else at all. It is not even like the Americans he likes. It is something different. He just gets deep inside the musical idea and then he finds these angles of hitting it. Just instinctively, it is just the way he does it, and it sends shivers down my spine, I can see how he gets it. I mean it is just not like anything. Listen carefully; there is some stuff in there man! No one can sing like that, nobody, some of the greatest jazz singers…they can think like that. Betty Carter can maybe approach something that deep inside.
DHS: There is only one person who is remotely anywhere in the same world…ok, I am thinking Billie Holiday, but I can’t think of another interpreter of lyrics who does something remotely like what Peter does. Automatically…. It is spooky. Yes…when you first hear him you think maybe he can’t sing, but he does every thing right.
PG: I think one of the qualities of the album is the singing, and we have spoken about Rab, now we have spoken about Peter, and you sang a song too, Pete.
PB: Yeah, I had to get my toe in the door.
DHS: And didn’t he do well. I mean now I have heard a lyric well and truly interpreted. It is the first time I have heard Pete take the lyric and express it as a singer. The lyric has got a bog world that inhabits, and not too many singers can get inside that lyric and make it live for you. Well that’s what Pete’s’ done with that particular ng.
Soon afterwards, someone arrives to see Pete, a relatively new performer, who is seeking Dick's production skills. Dick himself will be flying off soon to fulfill a couple of dates with 'The Hamburg Blues Band'. These are busy people, as much immersed in music as they were when they first met. All power to them.
Pete Grant April 2001