You have played in a number of different venues throughout North America. How do fans vary from New York City to Toronto and Issaquah?
In New York City the live music scene is intensely crowded and competitive. It’s very hard to get people out to shows. Personal individual invitations are the most effective. As a result, in my hometown I play 90% for people who are long-term fans. Recent out-of-town gigs like Westerly RI, Issaquah, Toronto, Clifton NJ and Mount Vernon have an audience that mostly had no prior knowledge of my music so therefore they reacted very differently than the New York fans. But on the other hand they’re enthusiastic and not jaded at all. The Toronto audience in particular was fantastic – really keyed in.
You have an enormous array of traveling musicians with you at any point, all with their own influences and styles. How does the energy and spirit of your music change when you have different combinations of performers?
I look for players who have strong personalities, deep experience and the ability to bring their own flavors to the kitchen. This is one of my favorite things about playing in ensembles. Some players will drive the danceability of the songs – that happened with Eric Eagle and Keith Lowe in Issaquah. Other players will drive the improvisation, spontaneity and jamming – that happens a lot with bassist Trevor Bridgewater who was on the last three NY/NJ gigs. Other players will grab the spotlight with their solo virtuosity and fire up the room every time they blow – every wind instrument player I work with is like that. It leads to a lot of loose spontaneity which is a good thing with musicians of this caliber.
What artists have influenced you most as a musician?
As a songwriter most predominantly Robert Johnson, Willie Dixon, Bob Dylan, Son House and recently Steve Earle, who I have been studying with at Camp Copperhead for two Summers in a row (along with 100 others!) As a guitarist I studied with Howard Morgen, Ronny lee, Jack Baker and Woody Mann and so they and the people they were interpreting (variously Rev Gary Davis, Chet Atkins, Elizabeth Cotten, John Hurt, Jim Hall) have had a huge influence on my guitar technique. As a bandleader, probably BB King is my most important influence. As a soloist I try to stay away from influences now because unfortunately electric blues guitar soloing in general has become so full of regurgitated licks from history’s greatest players that very few contemporary guitarists have an individual voice – they’re playing it safe and of course they sound great because they’re copying greatness. But that just doesn’t work for me. Love it or hate it, at least my guitar solos are mostly me, which isn’t true of what I’m hearing most of the time in the blues world these days.
The Story of Ike Dupree is your latest album. The most obvious question has to be: who is Ike and what is his story? In a related vein, how does the music and lyrical content provide listeners with this narrative?
I am not alone in voicing my alarm at the ever-increasing abuse of police powers in the USA. It’s been intensifying since 9/11 for obvious reasons but unfortunately been turned against ordinary citizens (mostly – though not all – with brown skin) rather than foreign terrorists. When I read Zeitoun and watched “When the Levees Broke” and “Treme,” I became so outraged by their factual reporting on the heinous abuse of police powers in New Orleans post-Katrina that the theme entered my creative process. So Ike is a trope – a character who is based on actual people who have been through a Kafka-esque hell of malignant government neglect, brutal law enforcement abuses and racist, classist vigilante injustice. By the end of the song, the Slide Trombone – probably the most New Orleans of all instruments – stands alone as a symbol the common peoples’ survival against everything nature and a corrupt government can throw their way.
There’s a lot more going on in this song that supports the narrative – call-and-response story-telling influence from West Africa; musical influences from Louis Jordan, Bo Diddley, Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and also from Senegalese and New Orleans drumming. Despite all those influences, the song has an uneven, unpredictable and non-repeating form that is all me – created to capture the feeling of someone telling a story in an unplanned way so that the stanzas and the pauses are not all even with each other the way they usually would be in a song. It was a risky technique that broke every songwriting rule that I know of but it paid off.
The character Ike Dupree actually showed up first in “That Lil’ Fice,” a song which begged for an explanation of why he’s so tightly wound.
You are active on websites like Bandcamp and ReverbNation; how have these social media sites connected people to your music?
Bandcamp is very effective for selling music. That has been my primary sales tool, more effective than Itunes, Amazon, my own website and even shows. Reverbnation has a platform for listing shows, which Bandcamp doesn’t, so that keeps me using it. To promote shows I also use Facebook, Twitter, Number 1 Music, and my own site as well as ancillary sites like Taxi and No Depression. In terms of booking platforms on the web, Sonicbids has been successful for me, so I like that site as well. Ultimately, though, I have to go out and grab my fans, media contacts and bookers one at a time. I am still building my network – it takes time but each success is rewarding.
Blues music has a tremendous pedigree, with its roots being traced back well into the American slave culture. What unique qualities do you contribute to the style?
The blues musicians who inspire me the most as a songwriter – Robert Johnson, Son House, Willie Dixon, Leadbelly, Muddy Waters – were each broadly poetic in their lyricism and tirelessly innovative in terms of their song structures. I work on creating songs that have as much structural variation as those cats achieved while also striving for a lyrical palette that is as richly artistic as I can make it. In a nutshell those gents were all serious songwriters (though alcoholism cut Son House’s creativity off after an initially impressive burst). So the answer to your question is that I aim to be as seriously creative a blues songwriter as they were, which is not something many other blues musicians or songwriters are doing these days because there’s no financial reward for it.
Authenticity has no more meaning for me than it did for Picasso and in fact my music relates to the Southern African-American culture you refer to the way his paintings related to African masks. Some will rail against me for appropriation, theft, etc but they’re entitled to their opinion and I can certainly defend myself in that conversation. There’s no doubt that I’m swimming upstream with this endeavor but ultimately anything artistic has to build its own following and I’m doing this because I feel called to communicate, not because I’m expecting riches.
What are the best methods of getting in contact with you, hearing your music, and purchasing your own copy of The Story of Ike Dupree?
The best way to stay up to date is ether the Whelan Facebook page or Twitter. Also my band website has an email contact button. Purchasing the music is easiest on Bandcamp but can be done through CD Baby, Amazon, ITunes and my site. The album is available on CD or for download, as is my previoud disc “Flood Waters Rising.” At the moment I am self-managed, so bookings can be done through my site
Finally, do you have any thoughts for us at NeuFutur?
I actually consider myself an Americana artist more than a blues artist. I call my style Dark Blue Americana and I have as much respect and admiration for people like Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Steve Earle & Lucinda Williams as I do for the blues greats of yore. Americana is a table that stands on four legs: Blues, Folk, Country and Rock. I lean heavily on the blues leg but still my table is standing on all four and I’m also serving up other dishes on the table such as funk, soul and jazz. The Americana movement is dominated at the moment by authentic country music refugees from Nashville’s maddening shift to Bro Country but that doesn’t change our core identity, which includes the rough, raw & rootsy sounds I make.
Thank you so much for your time.
You are very welcome – it’s my pleasure.