Playing the Blues: Interview with John Long

Jan 2, 2013 by

Draft beers are 1.75 and there’s only one draft beer, Budweiser.  I started off like I usually do with a beer and a shot of tequila (house tequila, no lime no salt – expensive tequila and training wheels are for the people who don’t really like tequila and who don’t really drink), made a little small talk with the bartender then angled my way through the smoke filled room to a booth by the stage.  This is a bar with both feet planted firmly in the past.  The spacious rooms are broken up by the occasional booth and plenty of pool tables.  The clientele is predominantly male.   Most of the men are old white guys – mostly bikers, but probably 30% are young black men – mostly thugs.  You can imagine there is a fair amount of tension between two such disparate groups, and some nights there are, but mostly everyone is there to play some pool, listen to some tunes and drink and smoke in peace.

This is what I always thought of bars before I was old enough to drink: rough places where rough people went to get away from their lives.  Times have of course changed.  Smoking is a thing of the past, even here in the heart of the tobacco south. Hipsters have invaded everything, recreating safe sanitary versions of times past.  You can’t just get a mixed drink, if you’re bartender adds bitters to it, its suddenly hand crafted and will set you back 10.00.  The guy who makes your drinks spends more time on his hair than your girlfriend does.   Everything is ironic, god forbid you do something because you actually like it.

While you’re sipping on your 15.00 authentic Manhattan and enjoying your smoke free environment, you’ll probably enjoy a few indie music tunes from the kids today and their genre bending sounds.  Hooked into both technology and a nostalgic appreciation for things their parents’ older siblings were into, the Millennials have created one of the more diverse music scenes of the past 50 years.  Great music is being pumped out at a furious pace as machination has finally caught up with creativity allowing almost any musical idea to become reality.  Unfortunately much of it suffers from the same problem the douchebag pretty boy serving up the overpriced drinks does – a serious lack of soul.  Its gadgets and imitations, sound files and auto corrections, production and pomp.  It’s often so perfect it forgets what it’s supposed to be doing.  It’s art not music.

Matt made it to the bar and slides into the booth next to Doug across from me.  The Bluez Junkiez play tonight as they do most Thursdays.  They’re why we’re here… well, them and the cheap beer.  The band is Johnny Long on guitar and vocals, Ben Beddick on harmonica and vocals, Dana Alexander on drums and Dennis Belt on bass.  They play what you would expect, blues driven guitar rock.  The first thing you notice is the age difference between the front of the band and rythym section.  Johnny and Ben are each 23 and Dennis and Dana are somewhere north of 30 years older.

How do a couple of kids in today’s music scene end up playing blues with guys thirty years their seniors?  The answer to that lies with the guy standing next to me drinking a beer, Johnny’s dad Steve.  He’s a friend of mine and owned a blues bar around town.  His house is filled with rock n’ roll memorabilia, and was a fitting place for Matt and I to sit down with Johnny and ask him a bunch of questions about playing guitar.

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Johnny was born in Florida and had a guitar in his hands as soon as he was big enough to hold onto it; he was going to blues fests shortly thereafter.  He remembers the blues festivals as “just a fun place for kids, even if you weren’t appreciating the music, there was tons of stuff for kids to do, it’s a fun time.”  As he grew to appreciate the music, the blues still sticks with him as the “best live show, so intense with the band fucking with the crowd”.  He loves Buddy Guy’s stage presence and all the other bands you would think – Jimi, Stevie, Derek Trucks, Johnny Lang, and Gary Clark Jr.

Johnny is a quiet kid, sitting on the couch with an acoustic guitar in his hands, playing little licks as he politely answers our questions.  At one point Matt asked him if he ever got nervous before a show and he replied “Nah, I’m more nervous sittin’ here talkin’ to you all than I am playing for 7 or 800 people. I don’t have a lick of shakes, or nothing, I don’t know why, I’m just like that.”

This is pretty clear watching him play.  The bar wasn’t packed that night, but he’s in his element with a guitar in his hands.  He chatters freely with the audience and interacts loosely with his band.  The chemistry he shares with his friend Ben is tangible and together they really seem to like what they’re doing.

When we asked what kind of music he listened to growing up, it was “a lot of funk rap, NWA, Biggie, 2pac, Jay Z.  When I write I start with a rhythm, and in my head it usually has a hip hop feel, usually with heavy blues and a Derek Trucks style positive groove – major scale stuff.”  I’d wondered if he listened to hip hop, not because you can hear it in his music but because he’s the right age for it.  Now knowing that he did, and with the obvious age difference in the band I wanted to know how ended up playing covers with guys his dad’s age in biker bars.  “We’ve always been around the biker crowd; they’ve always been more than supportive.  Sherry’s, that’s home base, that’s where my first big show was – for the Hell’s Angels.  It was a great night; a guy named Joe Smith gave me a hundred dollars and told me to keep going.  That pretty much sealed the deal.  They’re friends but they don’t really care about the blues.  They’re more into the southern rock thing, which is cool, I’m just glad they let me come in and fuck off.”

“My dad would be happy if I played this stuff forever, but that’s just not something I can do as artist.”

It’s fun to watch the band play.  There’s no pretension or over-indulgence.  Ben wanders back to Dana and Dennis and they laugh and talk as Johnny rips off a quick lead.  I’ve always loved to watch a band play the blues jubilantly, and they really do.  But watching them play covers makes me want to hear something original, to see what they can do with their own chops.

“I’m writing new songs, but I’ve never led a band through this process before, so I’m having a hard time with the communication, working through the changes.  That’s what I like, all the different elements.  You could just do verse/chorus/verse, but you could put in stops and different licks, key changes, ya know?  I think music, at least I hope it is, is coming back to a classical kinda thing.  It’s like a journey, you know?  So we’re trying to mimic that, and then also enlarge it.”

“It’s beauty out of chaos.  That’s the music, the element of playing music I love.  The live show is getting into the tide, picking a fight with the guitar.  People think the money is the reward, it’s not; it’s how you surprise yourself.  It’s the energy – to throw it at one person and maybe it loses itself a little bit as it filters through them and if it comes back to you, it loses a little something, but it also makes it more real.  To know that you did it.  The different reactions to it, what you throw out is the same, but for some people it made their day, for someone else it makes their day tomorrow better.  That’s why I want to get to my own stuff, I live for the day someone says, “Your lyrics changed my life.”

I like listening to Johnny talk about his music and how he wants to affect people, he is 100% sincere.  He really wants to change someone’s life with his guitar.  It’s not about creating the perfect song, or being eccentric, or getting famous – from the bottom of his heart he wants to give you part of his soul and see what you can do with it.

Matt – Is there anything you’re working on now?

“We have three going on right now that we’re really trying to drill with the band.  We’re struggling a little, but we’re gonna try to bust them in the beginning of the year.  We’re just practicing now, trying to figure them out.  December is for practicing them and starting in January we’ll start playing all our same places, but we’ll start playing these originals in with the covers.”

Alan – do you write on an Acoustic or Electric guitar? I always heard Bob Mould wrote all his songs on acoustic.

“Most of the time, yeah.  It’s on the acoustic. I like acoustic because its portable, it’s easy, it’s simple it’s pure, you can’t fake shit on the acoustic.

Matt – that’s going to be our title for this, “You can’t fake shit on the acoustic.”

“That’s why I like to get the essence of the song with that, but lots of times I like to play the electric and fiddle with the effects and mess with sound of it.  I can come up with intros for songs and go from there, but most of the time it starts on the acoustic.  I’d like to have a nice Martin.

Matt   – Seems like a good time to start talking about gear, what do you play?  What do you prefer?

“My guitar is a Strat, 1989 fender, Japanese made with rosewood, maple slides too much.  Um, I play heavy strings, Stevie Ray played 13 gauge, I play 12 gauge, and it actually fits perfectly with my guitar.  I can’t get any bigger. It can’t be any other increment in size; I use the big strings to have something to hold onto. We’ve redone the electronics; I have Lindy Fralen pick-ups in it, which are really hot and really heavy.  I like them, because my sound I try to go for is a lot of base, deep base but still clarity.  I don’t like muffle unless I up the distortion, but for my clean sound it needs to be punchy but still clean.  It’s hard to get with a lot of amps. I want them (the audience) to feel it in their chest not their ears.”

“When it comes to amps a lot of them can’t handle it, so of course its tubes all the sway, tube amps, I was using a 72 music man, you know Leo Fender left Fender, then made Music Man. Fender bought ‘em out now, and they’re both garbage, but when Leo was in it they made good amps and that was the best one.  Well I blew that one up so we got to fix it, and I’m actually using an old fender now, it was a buddy’s of ours, a Peavey Heritage, both amps have two 12 in speakers in them and 4 power tubes.  Basically it’s just punchy tubes; big fat tubes and can allow that kind of sound to travel through them.

“What I’d like to have?  Oh, and as far as pedals, analog all the way.  Like I do digital stuff here for recording and finding other sounds, but when out there its old ass Pro Co rat, an old ass Vox wah wah, and these are the original manufactures, I have a Danelectro analog delay, that’s the newest thing I have, you run that through the effects loop and that’s good, you know, the delay is always good, I use the amp reverb to get that punchy sound.  Like I like it clean and then a little bit of drive, like that kind of Stevie Ray clean, and then I like that all out distortion which is when I use the Rat.  So for the punch I just use the channel switch on the amp to get a little bit of punch.  The rat is the same wiring as any other tube driver.  What I’d like to have is a different kind of Rat, like a newer, slightly newer made, maybe not brand new, but just to have, you know, the good electronics, see what they’re like you know American made. “

I’d like to have a Telecaster, because you know, they scream like a mother fucker, you can make those things you know… but honestly what I’ve been thinking about lately, since watching Out Loud is going pawn shop surfin’ and buying shitty 50 dollar guitars, you know sears type guitars and wearing them out and setting tem on fire and shit, you know.  It just adds to the struggle – how to make it work, like Jack White is talking about.  He likes the guitars with bent necks that, you know, can’t stay in tune.”

As I listen to him inspired to play shitty guitars, I can’t help but contrast it to the long rambling facebook post by a local alt darling (spin story and all), lamenting the delay of their most recent album.  Months in the studio and it’s just not ready, every sound yet to fall in place.   Bands like this are lost, they’ve forgotten rock and roll is primal, it isn’t safe, and it isn’t sanitary.  You can play in your nice safe college town bars and coffee shops and “Performance Spaces”.  You can invest in equipment and production and convince yourself you’re playing something passionate and real.

At some point someone has to take us back to the basics and stop the madness.    Is Johnny Long the one to lead the way? I’m not ready to say that, and I’m sure he’d be the first to tell you no.  I do know if it’s going to happen, if the backlash against today’s overproduced and underperformed music is going to start, it won’t start with a bunch of hipsters sipping gin and homemade tonic. The revolution will start in a dingy bar with cheap beer and too much smoke.

As Johnny and the Bluez Junkiez find their own voice they have as good a chance as any to set us free.  I gotta tell you, I can hardly wait…

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