Interview with Steve Gardner, Bill Steber & Brandon Armstrong

Vienna, Stadthalle F, March 20th, 2009

Steve Gardner, Bill Steber, Brandon Armstrong


bf: Steve, you were born in Clinton?


Steve: Near Clinton, Mississippi, that’s right.


bf: And do you have any brothers and sisters?


Steve: I have one younger sister.


bf: Is it correct you already played with Jack Owens, Jessie Mae Hemphill, James Son Thomas and Booba Barnes?


Steve: Yes, that's right!


bf: Any others?


Steve: Yeah – Sam Chatmon! Yes, there is a picture of Sam on the CD.


bf: Can you all answer one question: what did you push into the Blues? You don’t wake up in the morning and say: Now I gonna play the Blues!


Steve: Ah, ok, I think for me, for example, if you are growing up in the south you thought everybody had the Blues around, right? And if you don’t mind me saying this as we got really serious about meeting the Blues men and women we found out: first we became friends and then they treated us like family! And by growing up around there it was something you never thought about, you didn' think you couldn’t do it! Not that you had to do it – it was just there, you didn’t even think it would not matter you couldn’t do that – you had to do it (shouts this and laughs)! Now Bill, how about you?


Bill: Oh well, I always loved Blues! When I was a young child I discovered some records that my father hid under my pants, Jimmy Reed, and John Lee Hooker, and I put it on and it was just transforming. I never heard anything like that, so it became a huge expand. But in the early ‘90s I started travelling through Mississippi meeting a lot of people down there, doing field recordings, interviews – it became my life’s work. I always played the music but I never gave myself permission to do it in public, it was something - a respect for the ritual artists that created this music. But over the years especially after I met this guy (points at Steve) he said: You’ve got to get up and do it yourself! So he‘s really encouraging me along to go out there and, you know, share a lot of I’ve learned from all these people over all here in all these years.


bf: I think somebody said the same to you!


Steve: Exactly! I can‘t take any real good this guy was doing. He just needed somebody like this push him on the edge. And he’s got that somebody actually right there by him, that little blue lady (Pat).


Pat: In Friars Point, Mississippi...


Bill: (interrupting her) Yeah, the first time we ever played together was actually on the front porch of Hirsberg's drugstore in Friars Point, Mississippi, and we had to go there because that’s where Robert Johnson used to play, at the Hirsberg's.


bf: Are there still juke joints in Mississippi?


Bill: Oh sure, oh yeah, very few where live music is played, only a handful. Much of these have recorded music that’s been coming on since the 1940s but there’s still live music, great stuff playing in small places.


bf: There are many Mississippi musicians called blind, like Blind Willie, Blind Joe; is that all from bootleggin‘?

(All laughing out loud.)


Steve: I’m not sure how it was for Bill growing up, but one thing happened that folks with a disability, particularly blind, that was now the opener for a job for them; and music seemed to be the only way that they could be self-supporting! And to help allow a certain edge for the music you attached “Blind such-and-such“, so the people would take notice of the fact that you are working. For example: if you had “Blind Steve Gardner“ instead of “Steve Gardner“ all would say: Oh that Steve can do something really constructive when he’s playin‘ the Blues! That was one of the things people looked at!


Bill: One thing you can always say about especially the pre-war-guys that were blind there almost two men were the best; I mean Blind Blake,who’s just a phenomenon. And Blind Willie Johnson was probably the greatest acoustic slide player and singer.


bf: Blind Blake played Hawaiian songs first, as I can remember. I do have a record – I think it is on the Art label - and it’s called “Blind Blake Plays Bahamian Songs“.


Bill: Oh, there’s two Blind Blakes! There is a Blind Blake from South Carolina and there is another Blind Blake, he’s from the – West Indies! There’s two Blind Blakes, this used to be Blind Arthur Blake from South Carolina.


Yeah, yeah, I was shocked to find a 78 and cried: Blind Blake! And they said: This is a Carribean kind of, you know – music. And I said: Oh, there is another Blind Blake, there are two Blind Blakes! It’s also two Sonny Boy Williamsons…


Steve: Even in our band – two Bills! Now – youtube found out how this guy got in the Blues, all that way from England, can you imagine?


bf: It’s not that difficult to play the Blues in England!


Bill: No, everyone’s miserabely enough there to transmit that misery to music (laughter). No, I grew up listening to the Beatles and the Stones and all the other singers coming up in the Sixties, the Liverpool bands, the R&B explosion. I played guitar because I bought a Beatles songbook.


bf: Even this book (Blues Odyssey) is written by a British musician (Bill Wyman).


Steve: You have to tell him the story: we all played with him when he came to Mississippi. Someone stole his bass in Memphis. He has small hands and it took wild to get him a new one.


Brandon: We were hangin‘ down with a friend, at Sherman Cooper’s place in Como, Mississippi.


Steve: Now you don’t wanted this guy got the Blues, the band was so good, tell him what happened. The place was so crowded…


Bill: Oh yeah, I was playing with this Blues band in a pub in London run by a former professional wrestler.


bf: Do you remember the name?


Bill: Johnny Yearsley! And he said: Oh yeah, come along, I’ll pay you a 40 pounds.


bf: Which year was it?


Bill: About 1978, ’79. And we were telling as many people as we can and we packed the pub, everybody had a great time. After that he came up and said: I give you 30. I said: Why? And he said: You brought too many people! (great common laughter) We didn’t argue, what can you do; so, that can you give the Blues.


Steve: I tell you another thing: This guy, the youngest member, he’s a maniac. He must play 17 or 18 different instruments.


Bill: At the same time!


Steve: Almost – Brandon Armstrong – how did you get in this music?


bf: Where were you born?


Brandon: In Tennessee, Wartburg, Tennessee, like Wartburg (pronounces it German spoken). And I think it actually had a lot to do with being in Europe when I lived in Germany about five years ago and was listening to my CDs of music from home. And I missed it and went back from Germany to Tennessee and wanted to play Folk and Blues. So I didn’t wake up one morning and had the Blues or wake up and wanted to play the Blues but I woke up one morning and heard that this guy, Bill, playing in the backyard and I said: That’s what I wanna play. And I started playing bass, tuba, trombone to play this old music.


bf: What are your main influences?


Brandon: My main influences are playing with other people and to play whatever is not being played (laughs). Everything what’s filling in your spot.


Steve: He’s too shy to say but we are very proud of Brandon Armstrong, he is a Fulbright scholar, and he is studying, we don’t know what but something smart, he gotta be smart, in Berlin right now.


bf: How old are you, Brandon?


Brandon: 25.


Steve: Unbelievable, what a waste, youth is wasted, definitely wasted on young people.


bf: Bill and me were talking about the Blues music in Japan and Tokyo, so what about Blues in Japan?


Bill: Oh yes, there are good players, many good players.


bf: Are there many clubs to play there?


Steve: Actually are, it’s a different scene, it’s not bad, there all kinds of scenes. For the Walkin‘ the Dog tour this year I wanted play some of the largest clubs so the day before the CD was at the Nice Ice Club, about 300-350 people standing room only sell-out ground. We took him from there all the way down to a place there was like playing in a travel trailer. It held 23 people packed in and it was so crowded you couldn’t lower the neck of the guitar without hitting somebody, you had to play like this (shows) – that was completely different!


bf: But you didn’t confuse this to the Tokyo tube?


Steve (laughs): No, no,….


Steve: But one of the things that’s great is around the world this music people have a great romance for, it’s very interesting. What we always heard is, the old men tell us this: Look, you are not me and I am not you so you got to get on what you like! I think the Japanese get accused to being copiers all the time but when they get passed that they got some great musicians there. Just like here (Stadthalle, Vienna), this is a fabulous place and the folks here… wow! One thing for sure is that they seem to appreciate and expect a good show.


bf: But the Japanese don’t export their products to Europe?


Steve: It seems so.


bf: I am a bluesfan, maybe one of the bluesfans in Austria…


Steve: Yeah! One of the two or three! (all lol) I was on the road with B.B. King, we played at the same stadium, not playing together but he’s always asked: Oh B.B., why don’t you think the Blues is not going?

And he says: Where can people hear the Blues? It’s not on the radio, it’s not on TV, so you can’t blame the kids for the music they play. So one thing we feel our goal is - we have to grow the audience up! I mean, this here is a fairly older crowd. Last year when I was here I saw three generations : a father who wanted to come and the mother didn’t want to come, so he brought the son and the grandfather. The son kind of liked it a little bit, the grandfather kept chicking and said: Damned, too loud, too loud, the father can't like this. So if we get the chance to play for young people, even for free, we gonna do that because we think it is important for them to hear the music and get a chance to maybe get inspired; maybe not the backyard way but to pick up an instrument and play. We are in the middle of an instant time, instant everything, instant noodles, instant coffee, instant, instant! Music is not instant, you got to practice, you’ve got to live a little bit, that’s my opinion. What do you think?


Bill: Yeah, I mean, it doesn’t come even if you are a profession player. It doesn’t come straight out, you’ve got to listen and play with all that people. I mean the Blues is simple, you can listen to something and make a copy. But you have to get rid of so much of the nonsense that you play, to strip it down to what really should be there, and that’s the hard thing.


Brandon: If you think about it - I mean that’s what painters discovered, too. Look at Rembrandt and Matisse and anything like that! In their youth they tried to say everything and as they got older they boiled it down to just saying a few things, and that’s where the powerful stuff comes here. If you listen to lot of all those old like in the hill country, I was good friend of R.L. Burnside, I love R.L. Burnside. Listen to what he did, lot of his licks are very very simple, easy to copy the actual notes. But to make it sound like that, to make that song come a lot to live in that song, to make that song have power, it‘s almost impossible. So that’s the incredible thing, it’s not the notes, it’s not playin‘ the notes. It’s making those notes live and speak about the person who’s playing them! He had the incredible power with just a few things that he did. I could play the same things he played, I didn’t sound, I didn’t move anybody! Anyway, I mean, the Blues is very illusive.


Steve: Yeah, what they say is: you know, all the great stories start in the middle. They don’t have much of a beginning and not the hell of an end. All the great songs are telling you a story and a conversation's about that. For example a song that has been copied often like “Love In Vain“ – it starts out with the word “and“. Because you know he went to the barber shop, all the boys go down to the station, with his girlfriend and they are talking and shooting there, “Oh Robert’s going down there with his girlfriend, oh“. And if you don’t hear when I said at the beginning a why - you don’t get the why! All you hear is “Yeah and I followed her down to the damned station“ (imitates Robert Johnson, all laugh). Yeah, I care the suitcase…“ You know what he had in the suitcase? He didn’t tell us what he had in the suitcase. And it felt long to me what that means – that means, he wanted a woman, he was blue and lonesome. So he was crying for himself because he had to get a new girlfriend. There are a lot of ways of looking at it. Lot of the stuff makes us sad and we feel: Oh what too bad. A lot of time they saying: Hello, you could go.


What we try to do on all this music, what we try is to interprete the song respectfully most of the time, not always, but interprete the music in such a way that it is true for us. We feel really lucky, I feel really lucky, to have a young fellow who plays so many things, and it’s a guiding hand that plays something different; I think the folks tonight heard a lot of strings and most bands have a lot of strings. And if you got a young fellow willin‘ to come up and play the tuba with you and put together a different sound on some very traditional songs and people may be diggin‘ on that that’s pretty good. And a saw? Where you gonna see a saw? That’s pretty low down. (laughs)


bf: Never before I did see a saw on stage!


Steve: Everybody’s seen a washboard – “Man, oh that old thing! You get a saw out, oh man!“


bf: All those things you did with this hand saw you usually want to avoid because a saw has to run soft (all lol).


Steve: If we would be an electric band you would have seen an electric saw, oh man… (all lol).


bf: You live in Berlin, so what do you think about the German Blues scene? Are you in contact with other German Blues bands?


Brandon: It’s very lively in Berlin, very international, lots of Americans, lots of Spaniards, some Scandinavian folks and a lot of Germans. It’s a good base for people, they like to live there, ‘cause it’s easy to get to all over Europe from Berlin.


bf: You mean, it’s a kind of melting pot?


Brandon: Exactly, yes.


bf: So what are your next plans?


Brandon: Oh wow, a good question. Maestro?


Steve: Well, we have it from here back to Berlin to play; and our basic goal on this new Walking The Dog record tour has been to try and explore the possibilities of playing in Europe. We are very open and would work with anybody who like to have us to play, we are willing to do whatever comes and takes us to play. This is a) and b) we like the idea of people who maybe never have seen this before and are open to it and for us, too. You know, we are tired and - at least for me speaking- I am really tired of folks who are trying to squeeze the world and make everybody afraid. Oh, you shouldn’t go there – don’t do that, don’t trust those people, I’m so tired of that. So we wanna go to these many places people are people, I mean and - as wild as we look not too many people got their thing on us.

They got a new record coming out pretty soon – and what’s it gonna be called?


Bill: Äh. Hm..


Steve: They’re still deciding, maybe.


Bill: We layed it down to a few titles! Brandon and I have a band back in the United States, called the Jake Leg Stompers. This is actually one we recorded in Como, Mississippi.


bf: Do you have a website?


Bill: Yes, Next will be playing with friends from Mississippi, travelling down the Mississippi to play with them. At the next record we are really really lucky to have some pretty story tellers on our record and if you saw the Martin Scorsese documentary about the Fife and drum, we have the Mississippi Fife and drum on our record, and a young fellow, a friend for a long time, who has a band - the North Mississippi All Stars. They are really big in the United States – Luther Dickinson, he’s an old friend of mine, he’s gonna be on our next record, doing acoustic music, he plays two songs on our next record. Robert Wilkins, the pre-war Blues guy, who wrote Prodigal Son, the Rolling Stones recorded it on Beggar’s Banquet. His son, John Wilkins, is our reverend and he's a great player and sings on one song and plays guitar and sings on another song. It’s a lot of people from Mississippi, it’s all our friends – oh also, Jimbo Mathus, he is a band member of the Squirrel Nut Zippers, who are really popular, a Jazz swing band from the 1990s. He produced the record, he lives in Mississippi, he is from Mississippi. So he produced the record, he sings on one song. It's a hill country, we recorded in Como, so it’s lot of hill country music, traditional, also with a lot of twisting terms, different instrumentation, we hope it’s gonna be really interesting. We like to come to Europe and could get that record out maybe some time.


Steve: We hope to get a couple of things, I mean whether we’ll have the finances to cut a new record this year but there are possibilities of combining some of the best songs off of these records compared to what people are writing and tell us, putting that with a few new ones we got left over from this summer. Maybe putting together a little bit of a DVD package, a “Best Hits“-DVD thing we are thinking over as well!


bf: Thanks to you all for your words.


Steve: Thank you very much, we all had such a pleasure!