Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Seeing It Through : An Exclusive Interview With Guitarist Matt Schofield

Born in Manchester, England in 1977, raised on a steady diet of his father's Muddy Waters and B.B. King records, it perhaps should not come as no surprise that Matt Schofield would grow up to become a world class blues guitarist.

 It was after seeing a video at the age of 16 of blues legends Albert King, Albert Collins and Stevie Ray Vaughan that the fledgling musician chose a path which during the course of four studio and two live albums has seen him garner many prestigious awards. Not least of which has been his being voted as the "Best British Blues Guitarist" at the inaugural 2010 British Blues Awards.

Now Schofield is back with what is being hailed as his most polished and accomplished effort yet with the release of 'Anything But Time'. Produced by the legendary John Porter, whose resume resembles a veritable who's who of rock and blues, having produced such legends as Buddy Guy, B.B. King, John Lee Hooker among many others - it showcases the guitarist's quite impressive blues and jazz influenced guitar work framed by extremely strong songwriting, which very well may see him picking up even more awards by the time next year rolls around.

Recently we had the wonderful opportunity to sit down with Matt in California during a break in the tour by the Matt Schofield Trio to talk about the new album, his influences and inspiration, what he envisions for his future and much, much more. Come join us as we have an exclusive conversation with one of the leading purveyors of modern blues rock guitar, Mr. Matt Schofield.....

Interview and text by Nightwatcher for Nightwatcher's House Of Rock

Nightwatcher's House Of Rock : First off I'd like to talk about the new album 'Anything But Time' which was released in June via Nugene Records. Now that it's come out, how satisfied are you with the results this time around?

Matt Schofield : It's always hard for me to say, because as soon as I've done one I'm already thinking about the next. That's the way it goes with these things. But what I can tell you is it's certainly the most enjoyable experience I've had making a record. In retrospect, I always look back at my records as towards how did it feel. Having John Porter produce this album this time was a huge difference for me, having produced all of my own before. That was really a great experience and made it a lot of fun. It took a lot of stress away. So in that regard it's certainly my happiest of records. (Laughs)

NHOR : The album, as you mentioned was produced by John Porter, who has worked with so many incredible blues and rock artists in the past such as Buddy Guy, B.B. King, John Lee Hooker, John Mayall, Keb Mo'... Los Lonely Boys and so many more. How did you get hooked up with John, and what do you feel that he brought to this album which you hadn't previously had before in the studio?

MS : I got hooked up with John actually a long time ago. I was in a band with a singer from the U.K by the name of Dana Gillespie. She's known John since the late 60's. When I was in her band she would say, "Oh, you should work with John Porter one day". Of course I knew him from getting Buddy Guy's 'Damn Right I've Got The Blues', which was one of the first records I got for myself. Because it came out around the time I started playing. He gave me his phone number, but at the time I wasn't in a position to really make use of that for a very long time.

Then last year we were out at the NAMM show in Los Angeles, and went out to lunch with John. We hit it off. We had all the same reference points musically, even though we're a generation apart. He said, "I think we'd have a lot of fun making a record". That stayed with me. So when it came time to make the next one, it was, "Yeah, let's give John a call". It's the right time and we're in a situation where we can".

What John brings to it...Well, first of all some producers have a real sonic stamp that they put on everything. You can hear it. Like T Bone Burnette, who is the real go to guy for a lot of people. All the the records sound like T Bone Burnette records. John is the opposite of that. He makes you sound as much like you as he can. He doesn't insert himself on top of it, he's just there guiding it, so he's great. We worked on a lot of arrangements, trimming the fat really, going, "Well you don't need that really". He's also got a really great feel for knowing when you've got the right take.

Of course he's made something like 120 records. He's not even sure how many he's made. (Laughs) So I was just going to leave it to him this time. It was the most hands off I've ever been. My thought was if we were doing this, I was just playing guitar, singing and writing the songs. It was great. It was a lot of fun, with a lot of great conversations while making the record. It was all pleasure.

NHOR : So you felt it very liberating to be able to let go of the reigns a bit on this album.....

MS : Yeah. In a weird way having less control was more liberating. Exactly .Plus we were down in New Orleans. That was a real thrill. I'd never been there before. We love so much of the music from there. Just being there was a big part of it.

NHOR : What was it about the city of New Orleans that led you to want to record there, and how do you feel recording there contributed to the overall feel and vibe of the album?

MS : It's just its own place, New Orleans. It's not really like anywhere else in the U.S. Or like anywhere in Europe. It's its own thing. It's so, for a lack of a better term, a very soulful place. There's music everywhere. When you land at the airport there's a guy playing blues piano in the airport bar. It's so ingrained there. You walk down the street and there's music coming out of different places. The food is great, the people are really nice. It's just a very soulful place. We've always loved so much of the music that has come from there. I think the overall vibe of being there contributed to the relaxed feel that I had doing this record. I think that's reflected on it.

NHOR : Previously you have mentioned that coming into this record you had envisioned making an album somewhat along the lines of Albert King's late 60's albums which were on Stax Records. What was it about those albums which inspired you to feel you wanted to make a recording that way?

MS : In my mind it was. Of course it doesn't sound like that. (Laughs) What inspired me was because first of all, they're some of my most favorite recordings ever. There's a real strong sense of groove from the band, the MG's. Then Albert just kind of works his magic on top with his incredibly strong, unique sound of his guitar and great vocals. They're really groove based records. They aren't doing a lot of shuffles like a lot of blues bands do. They're well constructed grooves. They've got a certain feel that I find is different. I love so much other stuff just as much, but it's just very unique.

I had that in mind, plus with Kevin Hayes on drums, who has been with us for a year, who has always reminded me of coming from that Al Jackson school anyway...I used to go see Kevin all the time when he was playing with Robert all came together in that way. It doesn't sound anything like that, but in my mind I was doing my version of it. 

NHOR : Kinda funny how things can end up totally different than what you originally envisioned....

MS : Yeah. As a matter of fact, that's not what I even wanted it to sound like, but it was what I kept in mind. As a matter of fact, we did record the Albert King track "Wrapped Up In Love Again" from his 'As The Years Go Passing By' album that had those players on it. Also the title track, "Anything But Time" is very much an MG's type groove. The groove is stripping out any unnecessary notes, and kind of making strength out of simplicity. It's a big thing that those guys did back then. Each guy picked one note to play and they got rid of all the others. Stripped down like that makes it very strong.

NHOR : Do you feel that the longer you are a musician that you are increasingly subscribing to the "Less is More" theory in regards to your music?

MS : Absolutely. For me, getting better as a guitarist now is about getting rid of stuff, not learning more stuff. Not that I want to be a different kind of player than I am, but now it's about refining it down to the essence of sounding like me. That's the goal these days.That usually involves getting rid of things, unnecessary stuff, like Albert King, B.B. or any of those guys. It's so distilled, so strong. We always say, "When I grow up I want to play like those guys". (Laughs)

NHOR : Do you feel like you're getting closer to having your own definitive style or sound as a guitarist?

MS : I do actually. It's a hard thing to hear in yourself actually. But I hear it in other people now. Younger guys that I know come up to me, and mention that they've listened and learned. And you go, "Wow, that sounds like me!" It's easier to hear from afar. So that's about the coolest thing for me. Obviously I'll always have my influences in there. That's something I'm proud of, and want to share with people. If we do an Albert King number, I want people to know about Albert King. Particularly on "Wrapped Up In Love Again", it was like how much can I filter through Albert and still put myself into it.

The other side of that is more and more I can't play like someone else. Twenty years ago, when I was a teenager, trying to learn stuff, I never learned everything note for note. I'd always jam along with the guys and pick up the essence of it. Now I can only pretty much do what I feel if you see what I mean.

NHOR : How satisfied are you of your playing at this point?

MS : I am satisfied with it. I can play what I want to hear, really. So if it pleases me...I mean, obviously every night I'm reaching for something else. This whole band, when we go out to play, every night we reach for something more. It's the way all three of us are. So usually we're not satisfied. But if we loved every note that we played there'd be no point in keeping on doing it. Every night is always reaching for more. But at the same time I'm pretty much at the point where I play how I want to play. Just getting rid of stuff now, whittling it down to the bare essence.

NHOR : Is there any area of your playing that you'd like to improve upon?

MS : You know what? I don't hardly think of things in terms of guitar playing at all anymore. That takes care of itself. For me, it's all about the songwriting and singing. The guitar...And I don't mean this in a great kind of way, but it's just been easy for me, since I started playing. It always was. I was gigging within six months of picking it up. I was out playing and improvising solos. The rest of it ,and what is most important now is finding a context in which to put your guitar work into. What music I want out around it, so it's not just guitar playing for the sake of it. I want great guitar playing, in a great song, played by a great band, and sung well. (Laughs)

NHOR : So it's more a means to an end rather than the end itself...

MS : Absolutely. These days it's the whole package. That's my concern. Again, going back to my heroes, if you look at B.B. or Albert King, or even later guys that I listen to, they're the whole package. Where B.B.'s vocals and guitar playing end there's no difference. He sings, then he plays a line on Lucille, and it's all coming from the same place. That's really where it's at now, trying to build the complete package. I think that goes for all of us in the band as well.

NHOR : What would you say are your favorite tracks on the album, and why?

MS :
I'm very fond of, and my very favorite thing to play is a slow blues. Certainly "See Me Through", the slow blues that's on this record, is kinda cool because it's the night John Cleary came down to play piano. We just showed him the chord changes, because it has some slightly different chord changes in it. That's the first thing for me. Every time we go in to make a record, we try to write a slow blues that isn't a straight one. Like a new way to do a slow blues, with it still being a slow blues.So that was kind of the idea with that song. We showed John the changes, he's playing a real grand piano, in the room with my amps blaring. We did two takes. I can't remember which one we used, but we just played it twice. A lot of the record's like that actually. Straight off the floor just how we played it. I'm very proud of it.

The other slow blues on the record, "Where Do I Have To Stand", all of the elements of what we do are in that. It's a blues, but it's not a 12 bar shuffle. It's got a slightly extended harmony. The changes are a bit different than what you'd normally find in blues. It's also a song in its own right, it's not just a blues. The dynamics on that are as close as you can get to when you see us live. There's a big dynamic range with this band, and that's hard to get in the studio the same way. But I think we've got some of it on there, and the feeling is there as well. I'm pretty pleased with that one as well.

NHOR : What was your inspiration for beginning to play guitar?

MS : The real moment...I'd been listening to my dad's records for as far back as I can remember...So there was always a lot of Muddy Waters and B.B. King being played around the house as a kid...He moved out to California 22 years ago, so I'd spend my summers here from the time when I was 11. So I'd been getting into B.B. a little bit, and other stuff on a serious level. He showed me a video that he'd recorded off tv, back when MTV played music stuff. (Laughs) It was B.B. King, Albert Collins, and Stevie Ray Vaughan jamming together in New Orleans at a festival. That was it for me, when I saw that. I just wanted to be up there with them. The fourth guy sitting in. They all had such distinctive sounds, such unique approaches, but they sounded amazing together. It was like three guys conversing with each other via the guitar. That was it for me.

So within six months of that I was doing gigs. I went back home to the U.K after that summer and started a band with friends from school. That's been it ever since. That was the real catalyst. Of course from there I went on to listen to all the blues greats. When I was a teenager I heard guys like Robben Ford and John Scofield, who kind of brought more of a jazz element into it. That was an important point, because I thought, where are they getting this stuff from? I'm not familiar with this, because up til that point I'd been a pretty steady blues guy. Then it was checking out jazz and saxophone players and figuring out some of that on guitar as well.

NHOR : In terms of your development as a player and an overall artist, which albums do you feel have made the biggest impact on you?

MS : That's a tough question, because there were so many. Still, that video I mentioned, I have it on DVD, and you can watch it on YouTube now, has got so much of what I love about Albert, B.B. and Stevie's playing in it. I used to listen to that track over and over. (Laughs)

NHOR : Kind of abusing the replay button there....

MS : Yeah. (Laughs) So then it was getting stuff, back in the day on was like, okay if you like Stevie Ray, you've got to listen to Albert King. So my dad sent me cassettes from his vinyl versions of Albert King, all that Stax stuff. I was like, "Wow, this is all the raw essence of where Stevie's coming from". I got way into that, and it's still the stuff that I listen to now, actually. (Laughs)

Albert Collins' live album 'Live 92-93', that they released after he died, that's one of my favorites. Hendrix is very important to me. Then there's one song by Robben Ford that when I heard the guitar solo in it, it was kind of a life changing moment. Because I'd never heard anybody play like that over a blues before. That's the song "Misdirected Blues" from the album 'Mystic Mile'. The guitar solo in that was just like, "What is he doing there?!".(Laughs) It was unlike anything I'd heard before but it was still blues.

NHOR : Huge tone on the solo....

MS : Massive tone, exactly. Which is pretty much the first thing that draws me to anyone anymore is the tone for me. That's always been a big part of my thing as well. Even though it's not my favorite Robben record, hearing that particular solo was like, "There's something else here". All the Hendrix records, I still go back to those. There's so much stuff though.

NHOR : I didn't meant to put you on the spot... (Laughs)

MS : No, no, I could be here all day just thinking of different records. There's other stuff, like Oscar Peterson's records. There's an album called 'The Trio Live' with Joe Pass, and Niels Pederson, on bass. That was life changing as well hearing that because I'd never heard anyone play piano like that before. The Donnie Hathaway live album, everybody in the band would probably put that in their Top 5 "Desert Island Discs". There's hardly any guitar playing on that at all, but it's still one of my go to records. The Meters albums as well.

NHOR : You are as of this interview, the reigning British Blues Guitarist of the year, having been voted that in the first British Blues Awards. You were also tabbed as being one of the 'Top 10 British Blues Guitarists Of All Time' in 2007 by Guitar & Bass Magazine. You're being hailed as one of the top up and coming blues rock guitar players in the world. How do you manage to remain being humble under those circumstances?

MS : Because I don't believe it. (Laughs) Like I say, we're never satisfied. The first thing that's important is that none of us got into the band got into it for those reasons. That stuff is great, especially the British Blues Awards, where it's voted for by the fans and listeners. It really means that you're getting across to people, and they're appreciating what you do. We also won the 'Blues Album Of The Year' award. That one meant more to me than the guitarist award, at this point as we talked about earlier. The guitar playing thing is great, and I'm kinda known as a guitar player, but the fact that people are loving the album as a whole that much as well meant the most to me.

NHOR : Because you're not just playing a whole album of just guitar solos....

MS : No, there's nine original tunes on that one. There's a whole band and songs. Most of that's great, but I'm never satisfied. We're always reaching, and it's almost making your own inspiration as well for yourself. Just to be better for yourself.  If I can get it to where it sounds good to me in some way, hopefully it will sound good to other people as well. All that stuff is great, and very cool, but it's not why we do it, to win awards. We do it to make the music sound as good as we can and really reach people I suppose.

That stuff that we talked about when I first saw when I was a kid changed my life. I'm here now talking to you because that stuff moved me so deeply that I wanted to do it. It dictated the entire path that I've taken in the twenty years since then. In some ways it's trying to do a little bit of that, to contribute as well. That's what keeps us trying hard.

NHOR : You've been playing professionally for over a decade and a half, since you first came to London when you were 18. What changes have you seen in the blues rock scene during that time, for good or bad? How has it changed since you first arrived?

MS : In London, it's a lot weaker than it used to be. There was a pretty strong scene when I first went down there. I ended up in a band who were in a Monday night jam session, a pro jam, and all the touring artists who were in town would come to it. It was a great house band, great musicians. That kind of disintegrated after awhile. Unfortunately as people went off into different things there wasn't a central type of scene. It's kind of difficult there now. I think it's probably similar to a lot of the world, really.

It's hard with blues. This isn't a criticism of anyone for doing it because they love it. But there's a lot of bad blues being played in bars all over the world. Of course people if they love doing it should go out and play, but it kind of gives a preconceived idea of what blues is to a lot of younger people who haven't experienced B.B. King live, and the phenomenon that is. Or was, because obviously B.B.'s not the same as he was when I first got to see him. The kind of massiveness of the event. So I think a lot of people feel that they don't like it. Because they haven't heard it other than at a bar band level. That's definitely a tricky thing. Getting people to listen to newer bands that are contributing strongly to it. Getting people to come out and hear that.

NHOR : Going on with that...There is currently a very burgeoning blues rock scene brewing in the U.K at the moment.with young players forming bands left and right.  Are there any players you're particularly impressed with?

MS : You know what? I've probably not heard anyone enough to comment correctly. We just did a show with Oli Brown, and he seems like he's a strong young player. But very rarely do I get to hear these people unless we do a festival together or something. Or I catch 10 minutes of their set. We're so busy doing our stuff. The young players, who are younger than me who I admire, are Derek Trucks, and guys like that. But I don't really know anyone enough.

But there are definitely some people coming through, and hope that it helps the whole thing. Maybe they can reach. I'm kind of in the middle area now in terms of age I suppose. You've got guys coming through now in their early 20's. So maybe they'll reach some younger kids. A lot of young folks I get at my shows, they're guys who have discovered guitar because they've heard John Mayer playing a pop song with a guitar solo in it, then discovered Stevie Ray and Hendrix, then somehow come upon me. That's kind of encouraging. There are guitar players who come out to the shows who are into real musicianship. So John Mayer's doing some good in getting guitar playing out in a public way.

NHOR : What's next on the horizon for you after this tour is finished? I know a lot of people are clamoring for a live DVD. Is that something which is in the works?

MS : We've been aiming for a live DVD for awhile. We've tried a couple of things, but the stars haven't aligned yet for that one. That would definitely be a big thing. I'd like to get one with the current lineup of the band. Because it's really strong at the moment. We're definitely shooting for that. Maybe we can work something out during the tour of U.K we have scheduled for November. That would be cool.

In the immediate future, we're just going to do a lot of sleeping. (Laughs) Not going anywhere every day. Because we've been out on the road since the middle of May. We did 5,000 miles in June, 5,000 miles in July with a trip to Europe in between. So yeah, it's probably been a bit too long in one go. (Laughs)

NHOR : Where would you like to take yourself musically? Where do you see yourself 5...10 years in the future in a musical sense?

MS : That's a good question. Because I still love playing occasionally straight down the line, traditional blues. I don't get to do that as often these days. I do it about twice a year with a good friend of mine in Holland, a great haromica player and singer. We just go out for 10 days out there and just do Buddy Guy and Junior Wells. (Laughs) But most of the time I've evolved away from that, which is good because I want my own thing. So there's going to be an element of me that's going to refine my own take on it. Just really trying to make it the most unique we can make it, yet keep it blues.

Also I'd like to do a straight up blues record. Just straight down the line, more for my own pleasure. Then there's the other side. I'd like to occasionally push it towards the jazzier side that I love as well. Maybe do an instrumental along those lines, kind of like what John Scofield does.

But those are kind of more on the wish list, rather than a priority. I think you have to get to the point in your career where you can pick and choose that kind of stuff. That might not be for 20 years for me. Which is fine. In the meantime it's just trying to get to a nice, stable point career-wise with what we do now. Refining that, and getting to the point where people are going to come out and enjoy it.

NHOR : What advice, if any would you have for a young player starting out in the business today?

MS : Listen deeply and long. Listen to stuff. Go all the way back, do your own studies. People seem to be so into guitar equipment today. On Internet forums and such. Yet that's all a distraction for me. I love nice guitars, amps, and such. I've got some very nice ones. I get folks coming out to gigs asking, "What kind of gear are you using?" It doesn't matter. It does matter, but what you're hearing is the music being played through it.

Listen to great music. Don't worry about what guitar you've got. Because if you can play it good, it'll sound good. That's the #1 thing these days. I love nice stuff, and of course if you can play well it'll sound even better through something nice, but your ears are your first instrument. That's the one for me. Listen to great music, listen to what you're playing, and try to make it sound good to your ears as opposed to tinkering about with guitars. (Laughs)

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