“I feel like if you’re going to be a part of a music genre that comes from a very specific history and a very specific set of circumstances that you have to be very self-conscious about it, and you have to know that history really well, and that history in this case is American slavery. That’s what blues music comes out of, and you have to really work at staying away from hurtful traditions that come hand in hand. It’s a fine line.”
Matthew Skoller never forgets that he’s a white singer, songwriter, producer and harp player. But he’s also from Brooklyn, very bright, a bit arrogant, and a self-proclaimed subversive. As a “Blues Immigrant,” the title of his latest CD, he’s earned his green card. He sings about subjects that he knows about first hand. And he writes about them with bite, sarcasm, and humor that come from two decades in the trenches. He’s a veteran, and he walks that tightrope that all white blues artists have to balance in themselves. He knows he has to be wary of the “ugly affectations and mockery that sometimes are found in white blues artists’ works. In talking about Mick Jagger, for instance, he refers to the Stones’ vocalist’s “delicious affectation.”
He explains, “Part of why I think I can’t be accused of ugly affectations and mockery is because I write about things that only somebody from my background could write about.” In the chorus of “Blues Immigrant,” for instance he sings: “I need a green card to play the blues/I’m here for the duration/For better or for worse/My presence is no blessing/But it surely ain’t no curse/(y’all could do a whole lot worse)”
“It’s true that anybody that chooses to go down this road in this genre is going to be struggling their whole life,” he declares with stark candor, “and I don’t come from money. I don’t come from a well-to-do family at all. And you know, that’s part of what “Blues Immigrant” was about, too. My grandparents were immigrants, but that song really is about cultural exchange. It’s about exactly a white guy or a non-African American person playing this music.
“I’ve done symposiums, and I’ve delivered essays where I’ve used the metaphor of a visitor, a welcome visitor. I’d called myself a welcome visitor, and while I was putting this record together, I had all the tunes together, and I woke up at 4:30 in the morning. I was laying in bed thinking, ‘That’s bullshit. I’m not a f***ing visitor. I’ve been doing this for over 30 years.’ One of the definitions of a visitor is somebody who eventually leaves, so I’m not a visitor in this music. And I thought, ‘What am I? I’m much more of an immigrant, you know?”
On “Only in The Blues,” Skoller sings, “His girl friend is his manager/His brother books the gigs/Ex ol’ lady does the website/And supports his only kid/Thinks it’s only temporary/And he calls it ‘payin’ dues’/It’s a funky situation found only in the blues.”
He explains, “I feel like the infrastructure in general of blues music is inhabited by people that are fans and not totally professional at what they do, and when I see (journalists) cutting and pasting (my) biography, I just realize that they’re not really writers and that they don’t really have an opinion. That they’re just trying to put something out there. I see a glaring lack of critical thought when it comes to most of the blues reviews that I read.
“There’s no money and so a lot of the people that are truly professional managers and publicists can’t really afford to spend a whole lot of time working with blues people because there’s no money (in the genre). A lot of the blues industry is co-opted be fans, by people who love the music and are fanatical about it which is the roots of fans. They see a role that they could play, and suddenly they become blues professionals, you know? That’s one of the reasons I miss Susan Greenberg so much.”
Susan was Lurrie Bell’s wife and mother of his child. She died in 2007. Skoller has written for and played with Lurrie Bell for decades, and he produced two of Lurrie Bell’s CDs. “Susan was a true photographer. I mean she had a fucking incredible eye, and she was one of the few that were really, really true gifted artists that were on the blues set, and we miss that in this music, so I feel the same way about the writers.”
Skoller sees a huge gulf between the dedicated artists and not just journalists but their their entire support network often made up of rank amateurs. “Most really good artists when their instrument is in their hands – no matter where they are – they feel like their life is on the line and that they’re only as good as their last song or their last performance. So, I think that since we’ve all put our lives on the line and devoted our lives to this that we bring a very high level of intensity to every note hopefully.
“That said, there is a phenomenon that I heard Rick Bates, one of the few really professional managers in the blues world, refer to a syndrome that he calls bar-gig-itis. There are points for everybody playing three 60-minute sets or two 90-minute sets or three 70-minute sets where you’re exhausted. You’ve done it for the last six years in the same club, and you go to another club, and you’re eking out a living doing these journeyman gigs. And you have to do it. It’s inevitable that there are moments when that intensity is not there, and you’re phoning it in. I won’t say that, but you’re getting bored by the whole situation.
“When you’re in these journeyman gigs that we all have to play to survive it can effect your playing, and you can’t expect everybody to always be able to attain the level of interest that they normally – that they weren’t kind of exhausted and burnt.”
“The Devil Ain’t Got No Music” appears on both Skoller’s Blues Immigrant CD and Lurrie’ Bell’s The Devil Ain’t Got No Music LP. It won the Prix Blues by L’Academie du Jazz in 2012 and was nominated for a Blues Foundation Blues Music Award: “The devil ain’t got no music/ The devil dried up the well/The devil ain’t got no music/That’s why his home is hell.”
“Things can take many different shapes, but they have the same function,” says Skoller, “and one person’s sanctified music can take place in a barroom, or it can take place in a church. On so many different levels the music is so connected that in some ways to separate them, especially by saying (blues) is the devil’s music, is just ludicrous. Mavis Staples (when an interviewer asked), ‘You got a lot of flak for playing the devil’s music’ said, ‘Baby, the devil ain’t got no music. Now I’ve also had people that I really respect tell me that the devil does have music (laugh) and that I’m wrong about that.’”
In this journalist’s interview with longtime Skoller collaborator Lurrie Bell that appeared in the February 16 issue of Blues Blast, I asked Lurrie about a quote in-house Delmark producer Steve Wagner made that blues musicians are divided into two categories: conscious competence and unconscious competence. Wagner said that Lurrie represented unconscious competence. I asked Lurrie what he thought Wagner meant, and he said, “Actually, he means that musicians that play by ear don’t read music. Unconscious competence meaning that you develop your own sound just by what you feel in your heart, I guess. I don’t know. That’s just my idea. Yeah, ’cause the way I play you can’t go to school to learn how to do that. It’s kinda feeling, you know what I mean?”
Albert Cummings always says simply if you’re thinking, you’re stinking. I think Skoller swings both ways.
“Uh-huh. I’m amazed that you took the words right out of my mouth. What I was going to say was you have to have both, and I think Lurrie Bell has both, too, or did, anyway, and still does. His playing has changed a lot over the years, obviously. I use the analogy of a basketball player who has a certain amount of conscious movement as he’s dribbling the ball to the (basket), and as he leaves the floor and gets into the air, something that I refer to as controlled abandon takes place. It sounds like an oxymoron, but I really think that it exists. I think the greatest players have controlled abandon.
“When you’re up in the air, you don’t know what you’re going to encounter, and you have to improvise, and it can’t be in your head. You just have to be physical, and in music I think an emotional thing is that I think both things need to be at its purest when you’re not thinking, when you are sort of unconscious. In fact, they talk about ball players. They use that term when ball players are really in the zone. They think, ‘He’s unconscious,’ and I think that really applies to this, and yeah, I think I’m a little bit of both.”
There is a huge gulf between white blues artists who merely mimic the African American roots of the genre and those who are inspired by the legacy. Matthew worked with his brother Larry Skoller on Chicago Blues: A Living History that wont the a Blues Blast Music award and was nominated for a Grammy. “Our main goal was to stay true to the most important part of the blues tradition which is to allow the artist to be an interpreter of the standard, and we very consciously wanted to stay away from archival renderings of any of those songs.
“We wanted them to be modern day, and I think that’s why that project was so successful because it had all of these elements of deep and traditional blues including the factor that I think is key to real fresh performances which is that the artists are totally free to be themselves and let their own voice, either vocally or on their instruments, come through in a really organized and personal way, and there was no copying solos. There was no imitating the vocals of the original artists. We really encouraged everybody to be themselves, and to do their things and quite honestly with the artists that we chose, that was not something we really had to impress upon then. That’s how they roll.”
Skoller explains why he chose Vincent Bucher as his co-producer of Blues Immigrant. “The producer role is very much that of the director for a movie, and the performer really needs that objective ear to inform the player. So, having Vincent in the studio while I’m playing, he really takes on the role of the producer at that point. I don’t go into a project with a concept. Ok, the album is going to be based on love. After Lurrie Bell started interpreting songs that we had chosen, I realized there was a love theme going on in Let’s Talk About Love, and it was all about Susan, his late wife.
“So, that was something I learned during that process. You don’t force it. So, that’s part of the production process, assembling the right musicians is a part of the production process, but once you’re in the studio and you’re performing, to have somebody who knows you’re playing really well, who knows your instrument really well, Vincent is an incredible harmonica player. He’s one of the greatest harmonica players alive, and that’s not hyperbole, That’s just – He’s just amazing,
“I trust him implicitly. He doesn’t push me as an aggressive hit-it-harder way. He pushes me towards what he thinks is appropriate. For instance, for a certain kind of solo like, ‘Hey, man, just try this. Try and play really super minimally on this part as a for instance.’ He’s there for all that stuff. And he’s so musically sophisticated that he really understands what a song means at a given moment, and so that really is very, very helpful in giving me direction as a director, and that’s really what a good producer is, a director.”
The blues picked Matthew Skoller. He didn’t pick it. And if he gets a little gnarly around the edges, well, that just fits the genre like a silver slipper, doesn’t it? “(My blues mentors have) not just a grip on reality but a handle over language and poetry combined with a music form where the structure is so simple and interesting. These guys just have endless and brilliant amounts of phrasing and ability to instill such a basic structure with so much amazing control. So, it’s the hardest s*** in the world to play and make real and interesting. And plus, it’s a celebration of emotion.
“It’s not just within the catharsis that it becomes positive. I mean, boogie woogie is blues. There’s nothing happier than a boogie woogie bass line. It’s just a celebration of all emotion, and it’s a survival music. It’s also the first protest music, and sort of follows in that tradition as well as the tradition of what used to be referred to as folk music, and I think that Blues Immigrant brings that out a lot, and I don’t separate the topical from the love song. I think that’s shallow.
“I don’t think “Caress Me, Baby” by Jimmy Reed is any less of a subversive song than “A Story of Greed” that I wrote. I think that in some ways it’s more of a subversive song in the fact that in our political system one of the elements that is necessary for it to succeed and to flourish is for people to be devoid of empathy and of compassion and that a love song like “Caress Me, Baby” by Jimmy Reed is a purely subversive tune because it’s so transcendently compassionate and empathetic and full of what I think is a natural human emotion – as they say in blues poetry feeling someone else’s core – that putting that out, and having people experience that, that that’s truly a subversive song. That’s truly a protest song.”
Skoller thinks of subversion as a positive thing. “Yeah, I mean to subvert the given structure of our society. And, honestly, I’ll probably get in trouble for this. I’m talking about capitalism. Let me not beat around the bush here. One of the things that is completely necessary in a capitalist society is for people to be devoid of empathy for their community, for their fellow human beings, and that’s what exploitation is about, and that is why somebody could easily say, ‘No, I don’t want to pay more for my healthcare so that five million poor people can be insured. If they’re not strong enough to go out there and bootstrap it and make enough money to pay for their own health care then f*** ’em.’
“They call it socialist. ‘He’s a socialist.’ I don’t know what it is, but when Obamacare came through, I got f***ed. I make just enough money to not benefit from Obamacare. Do I want to see the Affordable Care Act eliminated? Hell, f***ing no! No! Would I like to see a single payer happen? Absolutely, I would, but we’re at least taking a step toward. I mean there was at least five million poor people who did not have health insurance and who were dying before this capitalistic sentiment, and so when I hear a love song, I think of it as something that helps subvert that element of this particular political structure that we find ourselves living in.
“I guess (being subversive) is really about something or someone who is seeking to subvert an established system or an institution or that system. It can be positive or negative, and so that’s sort of what I meant. I suppose a subversive person could be thought of as a renegade. Or in the world of politics from people who are revolutionaries it’s a compliment. Yeah, it’s a compliment.”
“I’ve been under the radar for a long time. I don’t sort of move in the same way as a lot of these guys that are better known in this business than I am. I think in spite of that, I’ve done a lot of work that’s gotten a lot of attention. So, people know who I am. I certainly have never had a record deal, and I haven’t really wanted one. I’ve wanted to make my own records, and I want to have control over them, but anyway, that’s the story.
“Before we had the music done for Blues Immigrant, I read the lyrics of the title song to a 75-year-old African American professor emeritus poet who when I was done said that was one of the most honest poems he’d ever heard. He really understood it. He really got it, and he in the same way you said to me you’re a veteran. You’re not some weekend warrior.
“Yeah, I also hope that the humor of that song doesn’t escape people. I mean ‘Have I paid enough dues/I need a green card to play the blues.” I mean, come on, man. That’s f***ing funny. And there something toward the end of that tune I say,’ I really have no problem as a citizen of the blues.’ At a certain point an immigrant becomes a citizen.”
Visit Matthew’s website at: http://matthewskoller.com/
Interviewer Don Wilcock has been writing about blues for nearly half a century. He wrote Damn Right I’ve Got The Blues, the biography that helped Buddy Guy jumpstart his career in 1991. He’s interviewed more than 5000 Blues artists and edited several music magazines including King Biscuit Time.