Blues Blast: How did you get into guitar playing and blues music – in particular in the early days?
Popa Chubby: I started off as a drummer when I was a boy, and then my parents decided the drums were too loud so I got into electric guitar. (laughs). And then — when I was a little kid — my dad took me to see Chuck Berry. And I was like, wow, that looks good. I think I’ll try that. And I did. (laughs). Then when I was a teenager I got into Led Zeppelin, and Jimmy Hendrix, and Jeff Beck and all that stuff and it kinda just rocked my word from there, you know.
BB: You were already playing guitar by then I guess?
PC: I was starting yea. I was trying to figure out Rolling Stones songs on my acoustic guitar.
BB: Did you ever have any lesson or are you entirely self taught?
PC: No, I never had any lessons. Man, I was a poor kid. My guitar lessons were getting a really crappy acoustic guitar that you could barely play and fixing the strings by hand and then putting “Brown Sugar” on my little record player and slowing it down to try to figure out what was going on. I had no idea that Keith was playing in open tuning, so I learned it all with regular chords, and kinda faked my way through it. When I was a teenager the big thing was to learn the “Heartbreaker” solo by Jimmy Page, which I think I’m still working on. (laughs)
BB: When did you first start working with a band then?
PC: I started playing with bands by the time I was 15. I got turned on to the likes B.B. King and Freddy King and Albert King… Otis Rush… and started to see the connection between those guys and blues rock guys. I started the Popa Chubby Band in 1990. Before that I had been just playing guitar and bass as a sideman with various people in New York and with varying degrees of success. I became the house band in New York City at a club called Maddy’s Car Wash — a very famous blues club –in the 90’s. That started my journey if you will.
BB: Is that the way you got your nickname of Popa Chubby?
PC: One day in a jam session with Bernie Worrell from P-Funk. He was singing a song, “Popa Chubby, Popa Chubby” and as I’m working, I’m thinking that’s a great name for a band I think I’ll take that. The one thing I want people to do when they hear my music is to get to a new level of excitement. One that they didn’t have before they heard my music.
BB: One of the things that I think you’ve said is that you think that music should be dangerous, like the Ramones and the Sex Pistols and so on. Do you still feel like that?
PC: Elements of it, yea, definitely. Music should be everything. It should encompass everything. But I think that, you know, I like to see a band that makes me think, wow man, these guys are bad ass, you know? And you know all great rock bands on some level from Elvis Presley. Man, you know, when Elvis got onstage and shook his hips people were threatened.
BB: And yet you sit onstage and play things like “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” How does that fit together?
PC: Because there’s beauty too man. I like to offer everybody the full experience.
BB: And do you have a favorite blues, rock musician that you regularly listen to.
PC: It’s Jimmy Hendrix man, for me, all the time, Jimmy. Nobody, I mean nobody, has even come close. And on a compositional level no one has even come close to what Jimmy did. I still wind up listening to Jimmy I mean a lot of the time and I consider Freddie King to be the true link between blues and rock if you will.
BB: Tell me something about the making of the new CD [Back To New York City] .. a lot of tracks are songs that you have written yourself.
PC: I’m a songwriter as well as being a guitar player, on this record, man. I felt that the bar had been raised, and I needed to step up and show everybody what I could really do. And I think we really hit it. Everything from like from like straight out Texas blues on “She Loves Everybody But Me” to the quintessential power ballad on “A Love That Will Never Die”. I played some Spanish guitar on a song called “A Pound of Flesh”. We did a great cover of a Leonard Cohen song, “The Future”. The reviews that are coming in right now are saying that it’s my best record ever.
BB: In the later stages of this up-coming tour of yours, you’re working with Walter Trout. Have you played with Walter before?
PC: I have. We worked together in the past with great success. There’s a lot of mutual respect there. I think Walter and I have a similar sensibility and that we are coming from a similar place with music in general. We’re doing several gigs in Europe and than in London [and elsewhere in the UK]. And I think it’s going to be a really fantastic tour. It’s going to offer people more of what people used to get in the old school, man, when they used to go see a show and there would be like two or three great bands on the bill. You don’t get that so much anymore. And I want to be a proponent of bringing that back. What it really takes is for artists to lose their egos for a little while and I think Walter and I will be able to do that and put on a great show.
BB: Are you plan to do some cutting contest stuff with Walter?
PC: I never go onstage to cut anybody, man. I’m a big Tai chi guy. I believe that when you play with someone else you should challenge them to play better, not try to play better than them.
BB: You just mentioned Tai chi. I believe that you practice Tai chi and Chi Kung before you go on stage is that true?
PC: I practice it all the time, man, it’s been my saving grace beside music. It’s really been a revelation in every way. It’s been pervasive in my music. It’s made me a better player and a better human being. So I’m grateful for that.
BB: Anything big in the future for you?
PC: The CD and the tour’s pretty big. I plan to tour way into through 2012. I mean we already have dates booked so. The big thing was I spent two and a half years to make this record, man, and I made a record on a level I had never [achieved] before. I really suffered for this record.
BB: Did you now? Was that to do with the song writing? The emotionality of it or what?
PC: Everything, you know, the songs usually reflect my life. It’s been a difficult period in my life. The music’s gotten me through. And I think it’s reflected in the music. It’s a matter of [the tensions] between playing the blues and really feeling the blues and you can’t feel the blues until you really get in there and start to live. That was a big piece of me making that record. Now I’m going to be on the road for a long time, so after that I think – and this is just between me and you and whoever [is listening] –I would like to make a live CD-DVD combo.
BB: Tell me something about the band that you’ve got at the moment.
PC: A.J. Pappas is the bass player has been with me for about six years. And my drummer is just returned to the fold. Many years ago I played in a high school in Warwick, New York – we played for the student body. And then we answered questions about what it’s like to be a musician. None of the kids were like prepared except for one….this kid – he was about six foot eight tall, tattoos up and down his arms, spiky blond hair – came up to me and started talking to me. And his name was Chris Reading. Six months later he was on the road with me at 17. And he stayed on the road with me for five years. Then he had some family issues that he had to attend to so that he left the band for the last three years. But he’s just returned. Chris is by far the best drummer I’ve ever worked with. He’s now 25. You know, he’s mature well beyond his years. So it’s really, right now, we’re in the best place musically we’ve ever been.
BB: I noticed that in practically every picture of you, you have a rather battered old Strat that are holding playing.
PC: I do, that’s my number one. And that’s my baby …that’s the devil’s guitar.
BB: Do you have others besides that?
PC: I have 100 guitars. I have many old Strats, many old Les Pauls, I have a ’56 Les Paul, ’54 Les Paul, 335’s, Telecasters, you name it. There’s nothing that rocks like this one Strat. That is really the best guitar that I’ve ever owned. It just gets better with age. People say “you’re crazy. Why do you take it on the road?” And I’m like “you’re crazy ….why would I not take it on the road.”
BB: It would be terrible if you lost it though.
PC: Yea, but you know what it would be more terrible if I never played it.
BB: Popa one of the things that I like to do when I’m interviewing people is to ask them what is the very best thing that has ever happened to you as a professional musician.
PC: Many years ago I got a call from a woman saying “my fiancé is your biggest fan in the world and he’s gravely ill; his dying wish is to have a visit with you.” I was on the road, but I immediately said yes. That’s just my nature, I want to be there for people. And then I got a little scared. I mean it was like, wow! But I went and saw this guy ,and he was in such suffering and pain and turmoil. And I hung out with him, and I played him a song. I played “Same Old Blues” by Freddy King. And all his pain went away. I saw his pain vanish. It was really moving, man. And I realised it had very little to do with me. You know, I was just the vehicle.
BB: What’s the very worst thing that’s ever happened to you while you’ve been working in the profession?
PC: Oh man, you know…you don’t dwell on that, you know there’s always some crap that happens. There’s some bad sound or some crooked promoter or some missed flight or .. The worst thing was I was trying to travel to Europe to do a weekend of festivals. And right as I got on the highway the New York City blackout happened. I didn’t have enough gas to turn around so I drove to the airport. And wound up sleeping on the floor for the next 23 hours. So, you know, every once in a while you’re going to come across that too. But it’s not that bad really in the grand scheme of things.
BB: Thank you so very much for speaking to me, especially for revealing some of those little personal things.
PC: Great pleasure my friend. Great pleasure..
Interviewer Ian McKenzie lives in England. He is the editor of Blues In The South (www.bluesinthesouth.com) a monthly flier providing news, reviews, a gig guide and all kinds of other good stuff, for people living and going to gigs along the south coast of England. Ian is also a blues performer (seewww.myspace.com/ianmckenzieuk) and has two web-cast regular blues radio shows. One on www.phonic.FM in Exeter (Wednesdays: 1pm Eastern/ 12 noon Central), the second on KCOR – Kansas City Online Radio (on Fridays at 1pm Eastern/ 12 noon Central)www.kconlineradio.com.