Featured Interview – Nick Moss

When you’ve got a band that’s been nominated for Band of the Year five straight times at the Blues Foundation’s Blues Music Awards (BMAs), you know you’ve got one heck of a band.

So much so, that with nominations in that category in 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010 and this year, one might think that Nick Moss and the Flip Tops have their names written in permanent ink on the ballots.

So what does Mr. Moss have up his sleeve to earn a sixth consecutive nomination next spring?

Business as usual, maybe?

Just show up, plug in and play, right?

Not hardly.

Never one to take the path of least resistance over the course of his 20-plus years of playing the blues, Nick Moss has shaken things up by recruiting a whole new batch of musicians – first hitting the studio with his new guys, then taking them on a lengthy trek across the United States and beyond to showcase his explosive new mates.

“It’s been a year of change. This band is really something else. After the tour’s first show in Phoenix, people were coming up and saying they loved the new material and the new band,” said Moss. “When our new record comes out, I think it’s going to turn some heads with this group of guys that are playing with me now.”

Moss’ new band-mates include Patrick Seals, drums; Travis Reed, keyboards; Matthew Wilson, bass; and Michael Ledbetter, guitar and vocals. If the last name ‘Ledbetter’ rings a bell, it should. Michael Ledbetter is a distant relative of the King of the 12-Strig Guitar, the late, great Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter.

Not only has Moss had to get used to the idea of looking around on stage and seeing a different group of guys surrounding him, he’s also had to become accustomed to leading a cast of considerably younger musicians for the first time in his career.

“Yeah, I could be their daddy. That makes me the elder statesmen in the band, which is kinda weird for me, especially since I’m still 12-years-old in my head,” he laughed. “It’s pretty funny to watch these guys, because I know how I was when I was their age. It’s kind of entertaining in its own way. I say, ‘wow! Is that the stuff I did and the way that I acted?’ But musically speaking, this is probably one of the most exciting groups that I’ve been a part of in a long time.”

Moss and his new road warriors have been testing a batch of fresh new songs off his up-coming release, Here I Am, currently scheduled for a Nov. 22 release date.

“It follows along the lines and the style of the last CD I did, Privileged,” said Moss. “Whereas Privileged was a nod to the guys in the world of rock that I grew up listening to – guys that turned me on to the blues – this album has more of a focus on me, but still with a modern, rock-edged feel to the blues. This album sounds a little more like ‘me.’ Luckily, Privileged was pretty well received, so that really encouraged me to do this new one. I’m really happy with the way this new CD turned out.”

The first single off the album, “It’ll Turn Around,” has received a slew of favorable reviews, even though it might take Moss’ diehard fans a bit by surprise.

“It’s got a really positive message, with a gospel-kind of flavor to it,” he said. “It’s something that I’ve never really done before. It’s even got backup singers on it.”

Another break with tradition occurred when Moss left the friendly confines of his own home studio – where the bulk of his other discs were recorded – for Evolution Recording Studios in Elgin, Illinois.

“This gave me a chance to get out of my environment, my comfort zone,” said Moss. “Sometimes that can actually help with motivation. I think at times in the past, I’ve gotten complacent just because I’ve got a studio right below my feet. And this (recording at Evolution) helped shake that up a bit.”

Though his first seven albums could be comfortably labeled as traditional Chicago-styled blues, the truth is, Nick Moss has always been as equally inspired by the rock bands that he grew up listening to in the 1970s, as he has been by the forefathers of the blues.

“I never really set out to go in any certain direction. I just try and play what I feel like playing. But before my last album, I felt like I had been at a bit of a standstill and was getting stale. I love traditional Chicago blues. That stuff is in my heart and I still play it,” he said. “But I just kind of felt stuck in the mud a little bit. So Privileged and my new record are even larger steps to try and get new fans that maybe wouldn’t have bought my other records, because they were ‘too blues sounding’ to come aboard. And that really worked with Privileged. I managed to maintain the fans that I already had – they enjoyed it – and I also picked up a whole new section of fans, too. It got a bunch of AAA and college-radio jamband play, which none of my other CDs had managed to do. ”

While it’s not something he’s spent a lot of time dwelling on, Moss has had to shake free of the same burden that a lot of entertainers, musicians and actors alike, are shackled with – having a certain label slapped on you, thus automatically narrowing the scope of your work.

“Over the years, I seemed to have acquired this tag of being just a Chicago blues player. And that really didn’t bother me. But what bothered me was that I knew that I had a lot more influences than just the straight Chicago blues – influences that have made me the singer, songwriter and guitar player that I am today. And this new CD, I hope, goes to showing people that,” Moss said. “The title track has a line that goes, ‘what you see is what you get, don’t make a mistake and place the wrong bet.’ But it still makes me feel good and I do appreciate it when someone says, ‘oh, man. He’s a Chicago blues guitar player.’ I really appreciate it when someone thinks that highly of me to give me that tag, because that puts me in a class with all the guys I love. Guys like Buddy Guy, Magic Sam and Earl Hooker and all those guys. And even those guys had a hard time at what they were labeled as sometimes. I mean, they all played different things. Earl Hooker … that guy could play any style of music you threw at him.”

As evidenced by his nominations in the Best Instrumentalist – Guitar category at the BMAs, Moss knows his way around the fret-board.

But as he found out early in his solo career, just because you have unlimited potential and a world of talent to draw from, the path to making a name for yourself in the music business can still be a long and sometimes cruel one to embark on.

Even if you have a couple of impressive names like Jimmy Rogers and Jimmy Dawkins penciled onto your resume.

“Well, I was just fresh off the sideman thing and thought it would be easy (a solo career),” he said. “I had just got done playing with Jimmy Rogers and thought that everyone in the world should know me. But when I tried to sign with record labels, it was like, ‘you’re just a sideman. Nobody knows you.’ That was the first thing that people told me – I was an unknown, even though I’d spent four years with the legendary Jimmy Rogers and a few years with Jimmy Dawkins. I was just a sideman.”

Undaunted, Moss just did what any aspiring artist would do.

He created his own venue to get his music out to the public.

Thus, Blue Bella Records, named after an aqua-blue 1971 Lincoln Mk III that Moss owned while living in California (“I still miss that damned car,” he said), was born.

“It’s just as simple as being able to put out a product. I couldn’t get anyone (record labels) interested in putting my stuff out, so I decided to do it myself,” he said. “To be honest, I was so naïve, and had no idea what the business was about. But that same naivety also drove me to do a solo thing to begin with, so really it was just another dumb move on my part that happened to pan out. I just didn’t know any better.”

Even though Blue Bella Records has been around since 1998 and has issued discs by favorites like the Cash Box Kings, Kilborn Alley Blues Band and Bill Lupkin, Moss is still grappling with the learning curve associated with being a label owner and business executive.

“After 11 or 12 years of doing this, it is still a learning experience,” he said. “But fortunately for me, I have my wife Kate who has grabbed the reigns tightly by herself. She’s the one that makes things run smooth for the label.”

It’s not just as a label owner, but also as an in-demand producer, that keeps Moss’ phone ringing off the hook these days.

And as one might think, Nick Moss the producer is influenced by Nick Moss the musician when it comes to helming the project of another band.

“I do tend to put myself in their shoes a lot and be another member of the band, even if I’m not playing an instrument,” he said. “I think it really helps to know the band you’re producing. I really want to hear a bunch of the band’s records and see them play live before signing on to produce them. I want to grasp what the band is about. When I produce, I want the person listening to the CD feel like they’re setting in a club watching the band play. I really try and get the most live performance (in the studio) out of a band that I can. And I think a lot of that comes from being a musician myself.”

Though Moss’ sound was no doubt shaped from tours of duty with Jimmy Rogers, Jimmy Dawkins and The Legendary Blues Band, his very first influence – the spark that started the fire – was found a lot closer to home. Matter of fact, it was found just down the hallway of his childhood home.

“My first influence on the guitar was my brother Joe. My parents bought us both guitars for Christmas one year and he was the one that first really took to the instrument,” Moss said. “He (Joe) was a natural. Right away, he could play a song. By the end of the week, he could play a handful of songs. By the end of the month, he was playing a whole record’s worth of songs and by the end of the summer, he was in a band. And my uncle Randy, who was my dad’s younger brother, was kind of like an older brother to me and Joe. He turned us on to so many cool records and bands – like Free, Traffic, Blind Faith, Hendrix and Zeppelin – so those were the bands we grew up with listening to in the 70s.”

Though his first exposure in the wild world of gigging came as a bass player, even laying down the low-end in Jimmy Dawkins’ group, Moss was particularly drawn to the unique sound of a guitar player that certainly did not get his due, at least during his too-brief time on earth.

“Paul Kossoff from Free. Now more than ever, I really appreciate that dude’s tone and style and phrasing. He was just a blues player; I don’t care what anyone says. He had the most wicked vibrato. And guys like Page and Hendrix were next. And Stevie Winwood, as a guitar player, is hugely underrated. As great a keyboard and organ player as he is, I think he’s just as killer of a guitar player. Those guys were my first real influences. And then reading Cream and Circus, magazines like we used to read before there was Guitar World, you’d see Page or one of those guys say, ‘oh, I just love Otis Rush or Willie Dixon.’ And my brother figured out that our mom had some of those guy’s records, along with some B.B. King records, so we went through her records and figured out who Page and those guys were talking about. And then, come to find out, half those guys were Chicago dudes, living right in our own backyard. So we’d go look for those guys and things just snowballed from there. We just could not get enough of those guys.”

Once he was turned on to the music, Moss was so hungry to keep digging through the blues that he likened his musical archeology hunt to “an addiction” and he couldn’t stop from finding out who inspired the cats that he was beginning to love.

“That was the thing that I really liked about exploring the blues – after you got into one guy, you wanted to know who his influences where, so you started chasing down those records,” Moss said. “So it was like a thing where the rock guys led me to the blues guys and then the blues guys led me to more blues guys and eventually, here I am at age 41 and the blues guys have led me back to the rock guys. The whole idea is to soak up as much of this stuff as you can and then hopefully, a little bit of you comes out. If you’re lucky, you take everything that you know and have been taught, give it the respect it’s due, play it the best that you can and put a little bit of yourself in there. And then if you’re even luckier, someone will go, ‘wow, you’ve got a really nice style. I hear this guy and that guy in your style, but you’ve still got your own thing going.’ That’s a really cool thing to hear.”

So how has Nick Moss managed to forge a decade-plus solo career, become a label owner and turn into a grizzled-old bandleader?

The way he explains it, it might be simpler than you think.

“If you don’t have respect for what you do, you can’t love it. And I respect the music so much, that I love what I do – playing music,” he said. “And to have longevity in this business, you have to be able to put your blinders on and just hack away, man. Just see if you can find that light at the end of the tunnel.”

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