Tuesday, May 20, 2008
Talkin' The Blues : An Interview With Eric Sardinas
Born in Fort Lauderdale, Florida in 1970, then moving to the Los Angeles, California area in 1990, guitarist Eric Sardinas burst forth on the blues scene with the stellar 1999 debut release 'Treat Me Right'. One of the elements differentiating the musician from the rest of the throng of talented players was his choice of instrument. Instead of the regulation Stratocaster or Les Paul he chose a Gibson Dobro®, an axe more commonly used by early blues guitarists such as Tampa Red, Son House and Blind Lemon Jefferson, and on acoustic recordings by such legendary rock players as Johnny Winter and Rory Gallagher, both of whom were big inspirations to the young musician growing up. The twist is that, unlike the aforementioned who used the instrument acoustically, this is pure amplified rock power in a blues setting. The results culminate in a unique sound which makes him stand out.
One of the most hard working artists in the business, Sardinas amasses over 300 live shows in the course of any given year, a fact that has given his performances a tightness rarely matched in any genre. While there are times when this mercurial, flamboyant performer stands stock still in a live show, when inspiration strikes he's liable to play slide with a Budweiser bottle, go roam the crowd, or even set his instrument on fire. Incorporate this with the electrifying music being put forth and it makes one of his appearances one of the most exciting to witness, and will leave you craving more.
Now, after a recording hiatus of 5 years, Sardinas is back with a brand new album on Steve Vai's Favored Nations label,'Eric Sardinas & Big Motor', a collection which showcases his prodigious abilities not only as a musician but as a songwriter to full extent. Expanding the sound palette this time around to include flourishes of Hammond organ and gospel styled female background vocals, this is the work of an artist at the peak of his game.
Recently I was fortunate to catch up with Eric in California between dates of his current U.S. tour, where we discussed the new album, his influences, what his philosophy regarding making music is, and much, much more. Read on as we have an exclusive conversation of one of the hottest slide blues players of the present day, Mr. Eric Sardinas....
Special thanks to Jason Feinberg of On Target Media for coordinating, and a VERY special thanks to Eric Sardinas for doing this interview for Nightwatcher's House Of Rock!
Interview and text by Nightwatcher for Nightwatcher's House Of Rock
May 16, 2008
Nightwatcher's House Of Rock : You have a brand new album, 'Eric Sardinas & Big Motor' out on Favored Nations, which is your first album since 2003's 'Black Pearls'. Why did it take 5 years between albums, and are you happy with the response the album has been getting so far?
Eric Sardinas : The reason that there was that amount of time between releases was the fact that we had an incredibly strong tour schedule. For the last 12 years I've been on the road, 300 nights a year. The opportunities to record were scheduled, then things would happen that would make those opportunities not work out. Time passes pretty quick that way. There were a lot of songs and a lot of things which were envisioned for the record, but to make a long story short, the songs which ended up being on this album developed through that time. 'Black Pearls' was kind of a skin shedder for me, and I really wanted to raise the bar within myself for this new album. I think I'd have to say that I'm happy with the outcome of the record.
NHOR : Wheras 'Black Pearls' had more of a metallic, heavy blues sound, the songs on this album , although they're certainly rock based, have a more organic feel to the compositions. Was there a conscious effort on your part towards bringing things back a bit more down home so to speak with this release?
ES : I think the goal was that I had a similar vision for both albums. With both albums I wanted to accomplish...when you listen to Zeppelin, or you listen to Hendrix, the songs take you somewhere. Having that connection, and not losing the human element, being able to communicate, my emphasis has been recording, not using any bullshit and being really honest. Which is the way we record our songs. With what you can do on computers these days, sometimes with the sterilization the human element disappears. In the treatment of the songs, basically, the vision was to have them live up to what I hoped that they'd be, lyrically and musically.
NHOR : If you had to choose, what are your favorite songs from the album, and why?
ES : They're all pieces of me, and I have a romance with each song that I write. I guess something like "Ride" would be one that I'm proud of. As a body of work, I like the movement the album has throughout. It takes you somewhere and it goes somewhere. "As The Crow Flies", the Elvis cover, "Gone To Memphis"...I like all of those as well.
NHOR : You've also added a bit more coloring to the sound this time around, with the addition of female gospel styled background vocals and Hammond organ. Were you feeling at all constrained by the power trio format?
ES : You know, actually I feel a lot of freedom in that. It pushes me as a musician, and I like it stripped down. The element of having background singers and the romance of the sound of the B-3, these are elements that I really enjoy. I like to keep it stripped down, and I felt that some of the songs really deserved to have what I heard in my head. When we perform those songs live, if we don't have the keys, and with the way we have the harmonies within the band, it's in check. But some songs deserve to have that constriction within the trio, while with others I thought it would actually be nice to have some songs blossom with what I wanted to give those songs, and I feel the extra instrumentation really contributed to the songs.
NHOR : Despite the expansion in the sound, you've managed to still make this a very "live" sounding album. How were the songs thought out? What is the usual process when you record?
ES : When we record, we record in very tight quarters. We have isolation. We're basically playing live, but we have all the elements isolated. Because if we were doing separate tracks, one at a time, it'd be building a house out of blocks, and you wouldn't know what you would get at the end. That kind of keeps that sugar dust energy that we have alive, and have it communicate in the finished product.
NHOR : So when you're recording you don't do a lot of takes...
ES : We basically just jam, we get comfortable, and we just play. We hit the songs a few times, until we get the best take out of us. If I've got the best take from the drums, and it wasn't the best take from me, I can work on the guitars over that. We go for what feels right, for that magic take. If I feel guitar harmonies are going to contribute, then I add to that. You have to start with a great foundation.
NHOR : Do you bring in compositions already fully formed, or do you build things up from jamming?
ES : The compositions are pretty much there. They're pretty much written, the bass parts and drums, I work on everything. I have a pretty thorough piece written, but the contributions that the guys make, and what ends up happening within the confines of the studio, with what comes out as a suggestion, this and that, great things happen. I take it there, then the boys click it out and park.
NHOR : You just mentioned this... On the album you have a couple of covers, the first of which is of Elvis Presley's "Burning Love". You've said that this song is special to you. What makes it special to you, and what led to your decision to record it?
ES : I've always been a big fan of Elvis Presley. He was part of my life since before I was born. My mother LOVED Elvis. I grew up with gospel and Motown, and anything from Ray Charles. Elvis was my first concert when I was 6 years old. I just felt that was a song that I really liked the words to. I thought it really encompassed that side of Elvis. It's just one of those songs that's always been out there. I just wanted to do it my way, but keep it pretty much true to form. No one's ever going to sound, or be like Elvis ever again, but I wanted to give a nod to him.
NHOR : Did you find it at all difficult tackling something like that, seeing as it is that well known?
ES : The thing is, when Stevie Ray did "Little Wing", he did it his way, and he did it influenced by something that's such a magical piece. But he did it his way. I'm not comparing the two, I'm just saying that when you have something to contribute to something that means a lot to you...I wouldn't have done it if it didn't feel right to me, because as you said it's a big deal. You'll never cop it. It was more saying, "Hey, this is part of me". (Laughs)
NHOR : Seeing Elvis at 6...what was that like for you?
ES : As you can imagine it was one of the biggest things I've seen. I was lucky enough to have a family that loved music and surrounded me with it. That's a hell of a first concert for a little one. It was great. It left a lasting impression on me. Whatever brought me to this point, I'm sure a lot of it blossomed from that.
NHOR : Also on this album you've recorded an incredible version of Tony Joe White's "As The Crow Flies". That song was made popular by the late great Rory Gallagher from Rory covering it on his live 'Irish Tour '74' album. Was that where you first heard the song, and if so, what influence did Rory have on your music?
ES : That's how I heard it. I actually heard Rory....He was playing acoustic...man, he was playing that thing sideways. It was just such a romantic piece. If you actually open up 'Black Pearls', on the inside, where there's a backstage photo, there's a picture of Rory on the wall. I put that up there as a tribute to him. He was just such an incredible, one of a kind player, and everything he did was just so real. Again, like the Elvis thing, he contributed his way. I just saw the Resonator up there, and the words just spoke to me. It's a great energy. In my roots of Delta blues, it's all about one person and their connection with the instrument, of the song communicating and being magical. The performance on 'Irish Tour '74' was something which really shone a light on me, and I just fell in love with it instantly. I definitely made it my own but kept it in check with where it came from.
He was just one of those players where nobody else was like him. They broke the mold. He's as individual as anyone else...Roy Buchanan, Johnny Winter, Hendrix, Page, Beck, these guys...Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley...the reason that we know these people is the fact that there's no one like them. They had their own thing and they moved it in another direction. The organic aspect, the looseness, the connection and the freedom. Watching Jimi, he never played the same song the same way twice. That's what it's all about for me. A song is about how it's going to be, right here, right now. I never want to sound like a record live.
NHOR : Songs do constantly evolve over time....
ES : Absolutely they do. I think that's one of the contributing factors of why these songs turned out to be the way they did. It's tough to perform them and hear them certain ways, and to be able to live with the final product, where you say, "This is the one that's going to live forever". I think the mileage that we put on those songs ended up paying off. The finished product is something that's a snapshot, a stepping stone. We play the songs that are on this record freely every night, and I can live with the way that they came out on the record.
NHOR : What are your expectations for this album sales wise, and what effect do you feel that downloading has upon an artist such as yourself?
ES : I don't think that it's going to be particularly long before physical product's going to be gone. Everybody's going to be getting their music strictly from downloading. Most of the record chains are gone. The big chains, a lot of them are gone. There's been a lot of changes in the music industry. I'm not making music for sales, I never have been. I haven't had any commercial success, I haven't had anything given to me. My expectations for the sales of this album are...the people who love music, explore music and know my music for the past 25 years...the people who have loved my music enough to purchase anything from me is a blessing for me. Believe me, my expectations are fulfilled. I'm proud to have this record. I'm lucky enough that what I've done has allowed me to have a life making music every day for the rest of my life. If I base my hopes on sales, hey, I don't have a $300,000 -$500,000 video on MTV...I don't have anything like that, I score it myself.
I'm lucky enough to have been able to make music for a label who've supported me and let me be the artist who I am. The creativity that I've had wasn't in any way altered, and I was allowed to be myself, and not deal with the commercial aspect. It's kind of scary that with this record there's nowhere for me to be on radio. There's no station that has a format for me. I'm not a classic rock guy, or a modern rock guy. Am I a blues artist? Well blues purists don't like me, but I'll go head to head with anyone who plays straight blues. But what I do with it is what I do, so therefore I blur all the lines. So being a nomad and not worrying about it, being nonchalant, that's the way it is. I think the bottom line is with all the changes in the music industry, I'm doing pretty good.
NHOR : How would you describe the state of the blues as being these days, and have you met a lot of resistance from the so called blues purists?
ES : Well, I'll kind of answer that question from the back to the front. As far as where I came from, what I did, what I do and how I do it...I've grown a lot. I've been playing slide since I was 11, drilling pickups into my Resonators when I was 14 years old, and I have almost 5,000 concerts under my belt. I'm proud to say that each album of mine has been a growing process. I recorded with Johnny Winter on the first record so people could see how different we are. If I had a nickel for...everybody wants to categorize. If you can hear something in my style that resonates something...you're probably right. (Laughs) Because everybody comes from something. If you love Stevie Ray, you should probably listen to Albert Collins and Freddie King. And Hendrix. Everybody's inspirations come from places. I've been lucky to have submerged myself in the depths of Delta Blues, Texas, Country and Chicago Blues. What you do with your inspirations is what makes you. You have to find that, and make it your own. I've been out for a long time, and I've earned my stripes. Nobody can take that away from me.
As far as the state of the blues today, I think it's incredible. It's always there, and it's always going to be. The thing is, when people think blues, they think somebody's dog's dying. That kind of thing. That's not the blues. The blues is about telling a story. It doesn't matter what kind of story it is. AC/DC is a blues band.
NHOR : True, if you slow down the majority of their songs, what you have is a 12 bar blues progression....
ES : Absolutely. Three chords is magic. It's what you do with your story that frames everything. The state of music today is, it's always been strong. Again, I've been blessed, because if it weren't for the blues circuit, festivals, clubs...because of where I've come from, I've had a canvas all over the world where I've been able to play, break the rules and have people either like or dislike me. I'm not on Sunset Strip with 30 minutes of music trying to get a record deal. Super Glue and duct tape hold my life together, and I'm lucky enough to be able to travel throughout the world. Whether you like me or not, I'm here. And I don't think I'm doing anything different than the people who have been there and blurred the lines.
NHOR : You started playing when you were 6 years old, and were influenced by Delta Bluesmen such as Charlie Patton, Elmore James, Big Bill Broozny and Muddy Waters. What was it about those artists which attracted you to their music, and how did you discover the blues?
ES : Like I said before, my mom had a lot of Soul, Motown, R&B, Ray Charles...Gospel...and I started discovering the Blues from there. When I was young I'd buy records with my allowance, go to the used record store...bought a John Lee Hooker record and was like, "Wow". Robert Johnson, "Wow", Barbecue Bob, "Wow". I would discover these artists one at a time. Pre-War Blues, that single voice, the emotional content, is pretty much the way I look at what I'm doing now. I'm playing the traditional acoustic instrument, but I've made it my own. Just like I've done with what I've taken in and made it my own.
NHOR : Do you remember the first record you bought?
ES : Gosh, I don't know. I also have a brother who's 8 years older than me, who was listening to Led Zeppelin, ZZ Top, Blue Oyster Cult and KISS. So I knew Rock & Roll. I was exposed to it, I wasn't in this Blues bubble. I was a normal kid in one way. I had a lot of exposure to music in both elements. I think those two fibers made the rope that I'm climbing.
NHOR : How did you come about picking the Dobro as your instrument of choice, versus say a Strat or a Les Paul, and what led you to come about amplifying it? It's a long standing instrument of the blues, but usually it's always been used acoustically. Was there a moment when you thought, "This would sound really good amplified"?
ES : My first guitar was a classical guitar. like a Hondo, a nylon string. But I had toy guitars before that. I'm a lefty, but I play right handed. I love Strats and Les Pauls, they're beautiful. But it doesn't look right on me, it never felt like my kind of guitar. I always liked the big hollow bodies, the Rockets, The Harmonys, The Gretsch guitars. I think that's because I always liked the acoustic vibe. I liked the big guitars, I liked the way it felt on me. Gravitating towards slide, the Resonator sound, I basically picked up that guitar for what it offered, sound-wise. But there was a time when I just wanted it to be my Les Paul or my Stratocaster. That's when I decided, "I can make this an electric guitar." That's how it became. It's not meant to do that. It's not meant to do the things that I'm doing with it. But, whatever the things are...the limitation, if it does this or does that, it's very organic, and it pushes me. It's hard on the fingers too. (Laughs)
NHOR : You obviously have a deep reverence regarding what's come before, the roots of music, that tradition. You even have a tattoo on your back that says "Respect Tradition". With that in mind, how important do you feel it is for a young musician to go back to the roots and form their own sound?
ES : It's great to know that knowledge as a guitarist, or a musician of any kind. It's always meant a lot to me to go back to the beginnings, and learn where everyone comes from. Because each generation of music from the beginning for me has had monumental things which are inspiring. I think it's a bottomless well of inspiration, and it does nothing but contribute to your depth of appreciation.
NHOR : What was it like for you coming up in the Los Angeles scene in the early '90's when you first started playing out at that time? At that time there were mostly a plethora of Stevie Ray Vaughan clones on the blues front. Did you find any resistance to your sound? You're definitely not a SRV clone by any means...
ES : Not necessarily resistance, you just wouldn't ever hear me play "Voodoo Child". I love Hendrix, but outside of the Hendrix festival in Holland, when someone yells out, "Play this" or "Play that", the bottom line is I'll play you how it's inspired me. I'll play you something where it comes from. But doing a cover for me...like "Tired Of Tryin'" by Johnny Winter, I did that WITH Johnny Winter, because it's important to me for people to understand that there's a handing down, it's coming from somewhere. There's a kinship and respect there. The same thing with "Gambling Man Blues". I mean Honeyboy Edwards was with Robert Johnson the night he died. He's one of the last blues titans alive. It's important that he recorded that in 1932. I'm lucky enough to be able to play it with him, with him on it with me. Obviously the Elvis cover's not, but that's one of those things where I show my appreciation. He was pretty much there with me anyway.
NHOR : You're quite an energetic showman...from playing slide with a beer bottle, jumping into the crowd while playing, even setting your guitar on fire on occasion...can you ever envision a time when you'd just stand on stage and play?
ES : I actually do that a lot. It's just those are the pictures that you see. I don't have many gimmicks. Every night is a new can of whoop ass.(Laughs) I'll stand sometimes in one spot and not move at all. It just depends on how I'm feeling then. I can play just as honestly with a beer bottle or with my guitar on fire. It's not because I'm trying to do any showmanship. It's just because it's ceremonial to me. It's the way I feel right there at that time. People sometimes don't understand that there's a freedom, a release of energy, a circular motion that's going on. You're not watching TV, you're in a live experience. When the edge of the stage blurs, and people forget that there's that line there, that makes me happy.
NHOR : Speaking of your live shows, they're some of the most electrifying in all the blues genre...A few years ago you discussed filming a DVD of your live show. What happened with that? Is that still something that's going to come out, and if so, when could we possibly see something like that seeing the light of day?
ES : Our live performances are one of the biggest things that people want, because that's an element of myself that's very, very strong. No matter how live an album is, in the studio enviornment it's not actually a real live performance. It's not the live performance that's on stage. You have that energy right in your face. It's a totally different thing. It's important for me to get that out, and we are working on that. We're just glad we got this record out, but that's definitely coming up. Either a live album or a live DVD.
NHOR : What has been your most memorable gig so far in your career?
ES : That's a rough one man. A really tough question to answer. I think I have too many to name. About 5 years ago though there was a festival in Europe, with B.B. King, Robert Plant and myself. Robert ended up flying out earlier than expected, so he ended up going on before me. We just sat in the back and talked for an hour and a half, drinking Budweisers, at around 10 in the morning. What a great morning that was. Seeing him watching me from the side of the stage before going to the airport, B.B. being there, being able to hang out...it was a misty morning, and that was really good, there was a good energy. You can't find that very often.
NHOR : Last month you appeared on WDR's Rockpalast in Germany, which is due to be broadcast all throughout Europe later on this month. What was that like and are there any plans for that to come out on DVD that you know of?
ES : You know what? I think that is just what it is. I think that performance, as far as it being something further, or something I'd want to release, that's to be seen. My vision for a DVD is probably multiple live performances from different tours, in Europe or on the road elsewhere, having a real organic experience with different things. As an isolated performance, the Rockpalast thing is just what it was that night. I'm still waiting to see it, so we'll wait and see.
NHOR : In terms of live performances, as you perform extensively throughout each continent, what do you see as being the main difference between European and American audiences for you?
ES : I don't think there's a big difference. There's an intensity that unifies everything. People who love live music love live music. As far as the festival scene, Europe has always embraced American music, jazz, blues and roots music. It's always been like that. There's a very strong musical flow throughout Europe. If people are there to see music it's pretty unified everywhere though. People sound different in Alabama than they do in California, but that doesn't mean that they don't like music.
NHOR : Concerning live performances, back in June 2001 you appeared with the legendary guitarist Les Paul at the House Of Blues in Hollywood. What do you recall about that night? What was it like playing with Les?
ES : It was great. It was a privilege and a pleasure. It was nice to play with some of my friends who were there. Dave Edmunds was there, Slash, myself...it was really nice. Les is such a legend and such a nice man. It's always nice to see him, and to be able to perform with him was one of those big, memorable experiences that I'll always have.
NHOR : Your last album 'Black Pearls' was produced by the legendary Eddie Kramer, who is most well known for producing Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin. What was it like recording with Eddie during the sessions for that album, and what did you pick up from him in terms of putting together an album that you weren't previously aware of before?
ES : I just think that I appreciated watching the master at work, working off the board, in that aspect. The ability to take something and say, "This is enough". And if it's not the best of the best of the best, it's not about making it perfect, it's about making it right and capturing something. I don't have the gift of making a bad note sound good like Jimi did. (Laughs) If he ever hit a bad note. The art of making a record gets forgotten about. I think that was the strongest thing, it was very clear that we're making an album, we're rolling tape, it's gonna be real and gonna be live.
NHOR : What advice would you give to a young player who's interested in playing the blues?
ES : To write songs, and to know that most of the things that they're going to discover isn't in any book. It's all between the lines. I can't read music. It comes out, there's magic. You just pick up the pieces and make it your own. Mileage, life and experiences are just some things that you can't speed up. It's just what it is. Being a great guitar player is just part of it. You need to dig within yourself emotionally and find that connection.
NHOR : Is there anything else you'd like to say to all your fans out there?
ES : Thank you for loving the music, and for having a life with music fulfilling it, and thank you for allowing me to be part of it.
For more information on Eric Sardinas, to purchase any of his albums, or for updated tour dates go to http://www.ericsardinas.com/ or http://www.myspace.com/ericsardinasband
Eric Sardinas Live At Rockpalast, April 2008 performing "Down In The Bottom"