Featured Interview – Pierre Lacocque

imageWith their 30th anniversary coming up soon, there is no question that Mississippi Heat deserves continuing recognition for bringing new and inventive twists on the Chicago blues tradition. Over the years, some of the city’s finest musicians have been a part of the band’s legacy, including Carl Weathersby, Billy Flynn, and the late James Wheeler on guitar, Bob Stroger and Calvin “Fuzz” Jones on bass, and the late Barrelhouse Chuck Goering on piano. While the line-up has been fluid, it has never affected the band’s devotion to the music that grew out of the Mississippi Delta, then moved north and got electrified in the ’50s decade in clubs throughout Chicago.

The one constant for the band is the leader and harmonica player, Pierre Lacocque. He has dealt with all of the issues – finding musicians who can work together, booking shows to keep the band gainfully employed, handling all of the details for tours, arranging for recording sessions and, more importantly, securing financing for each of the twelve albums in Mississippi Heat’s catalog. As he will readily tell you, some things have not changed over time. “Inetta Visor, our lead singer for eighteen years, almost died. It left us shocked and very shaken. Out of necessity, I started looking for another vocalist. We tried a number of people, with Carla Denise Stinson being one of them. She is a wonderful singer that had a lot of promise. But her time and availability became a factor, picking and choosing dates, that it became too difficult. I was hoping we could work it out. While we are on fantastic terms, it got hard because she didn’t want to travel by van, wanted to fly in for shows”.

“We had other people “apply” who were strong singers. But they came with long lists of conditions as well. We are very democratic in the band. As a bandleader for thirty years, I can say that is the truth. I put the band first, in more ways than one, including financially. The spirit of Mississippi Heat is that we are a team, a family. I literally try to let the members know that they come first. If we get a gig offer that includes doubling up for hotel rooms, I will certainly take the offer, but I won’t do double in the rooms. I will take funds from my “Mississippi Heat savings account,” money that I set aside, to provide comfort for the band. People can say whatever they want about me. But no one can say that I don’t bend, lovingly and respectfully, towards my band members”. The validity of that approach is reflected in the length of tenure for the current band members. Guitarist Michael Dotson, bass player Brian Quinn, and drummer Terrence Williams are all in their eighth year, while Visor had reached eighteen years as a member.

The search for a new singer may have finally come to an end. “My dear friend, Jon McDonald, who played guitar with Magic Slim & the Teardrops, helped me co-found Mississippi Heat thirty years ago. He recommended Erica RicaJean Korak, who is very interested in the band. She will be featured on some tracks on our new album. We are giving it a shot to see where it leads us. With her, it is beyond the tryout stage, and everyone is hoping that it will work. Things are looking good, but we have not made the final decision”.

The new album, the thirteenth in the band’s history, will take the band with in new directions. “The record was done in Chicago at VSOP Studios, a state-of-the-art facility. My co-producer, Michael Freeman, took me around to several studios, then told me this is the one, if you can make it work. Michael has co-produced five or six of the band’s previous projects. We have known each other for a long time. He has a great ear, which is why he has such an amazing recording history. I trust him completely and we work extremely well as a team”.

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“There will also be latin percussion in spots, plus a couple of songs with a New Orleans feel. I also wrote a reggae tune. My wife, Vickie, is from Cuba. Before President Trump took over, we were able to visit the country. It was the first time for me. I was moved, moved, moved by the people, by what I saw, the kindness of the Cuban people. We traveled the whole country. There was something blues related going on in Havana, but I was unable to connect with anyone involved. I wrote a song about her people called “Havana”. I am very attracted to rumbas and other Latin rhythms for the edge they have. For whatever reason, reggae came to me. So I am going to bring in Ruben Alvarez, who has worked with artists like John Mayall and Ramsey Lewis, to add percussion. He has been on several of our previous recordings”.

“I tend to be faithful with people, as my friends tell me, sometimes to a fault. With Inetta, there have been some musical issues. The main one is that she was heading strongly towards music in a rhythm & blues vein, which has way less of an appeal for me. Not that it isn’t beautiful, as it is attractive musically and vocally, but it does not move me in the way the blue notes do. It is a matter of taste. So there was a split. I am more of a Chicago guy. The 1950s are my golden era. Little Walter and Big Walter Horton are my masters to this day. And other players like Kim Wilson and Dennis Gruenling are the top, the best in the world. They all inspire me. I invited Inetta to record four tracks, some of which she wrote. I plan to pull her in for a fifth track, an overdub on a song our guitarist, Michael Dotson, wrote. He is very creative, very smart, and writes beautiful songs”.

Another development involves the decision to self-release the new project. The band’s last six projects were issued by Delmark Records, one of the preeminent blues labels in the world. “Delmark is home. We have always felt welcome there. When Bob Koester sold the label to the new owners, Julia A. Miller and Elbio Barilari, I had a CD ready to go. With the transition after the sale, it was a bit hard to get my bearings. I have good relations with both of them, but the wait took so long that I ended up with two CDs ready to go. I have been saving and investing some of my money in advertising in addition to what Delmark did, and to compensate our special guests. Our relationship with Delmark was mutually beneficial, so I had no intention of doing anything without them. Out of necessity and timing, I decided to do this one on my own. It is not a divorce, as I may go back to Delmark in the future”.

When asked about other aspects of releasing an album on his own, the leader made it clear that he had thought through this decision at a time when the market is flooded with releases. “Artists like Charlie Musselwhite and John Mayall have been successful with this approach. I don’t think they do that by chance. The ownership of my songs is certainly important. If something positive happens to one of my songs, the rewards go straight to my family. How many albums can I do on my own – I don’t know. The blessing is that I have a strong support system beyond my family, doors I can knock on for help within the industry. I will mention in passing that something huge happened recently that could open up a path for me with our recordings”.

“The new album is a gift to my wife, to my children, and our grandchildren. So I own this album totally. This project may be a bridge to something bigger. Would I be less happy doing it through Delmark? No, because the songs are still my songs, I wrote them. I share the writing with Michael Dotson,. That is part of our democratic approach. What appeals to me about songwriter is the creative challenge of taking something from chaos to meaning, creating something from the amazing blues culture and history that we have at our disposal. What is always influential to me are artists like Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, and Jimmy Rogers. I try to build from that.

IMAGE“I am a melody guy, love melodies. My joy does not come from playing note for note what other people have done. I did that in the beginning, learning every note of a Big Walter solo, or learning Little Walter’s parts on “Walking By Myself”. That is the vocabulary, the alphabet. Many people I hear don’t have an alphabet. Three chords ain’t going to do it. You can’t avoid an understanding of the culture. In spite of all the headaches of being a band leader, the music gives me the drive, a passion that sustains me”.

In the early days of Mississippi Heat, Lacocque felt like a sideman in his own band. Working with musicians like Weathersby and Deitra Farr, it is easy to understand those feelings, surrounded by musicians who were band leaders in their own right. “Over the years, as I became more confident and experienced, I finally reached the point where I had to decide if it was worth it to me to have world-class musicians in the band who are difficult to get along with. And the answer is, no! When you combine the jaw-dropping highs of the music with difficult personalities, to me that evens out to average. I am very clear that it ain’t worth it. Being away from home a lot is the price to pay for this life, so I want to be with people I like, because morale can go south very quickly. It is a privilege to make a living playing music, if you can make it happen. There are many obstacles and the competition is very high. Try to get along the best you can because none of us need enemies. Who needs the poison of people talking against you? “

Lacocque values the spiritual nature of music, beyond the sex, heartache, and pain that form the basis of the music. “I am the son of a minister. My father is a theologian, and we were raised with a Judeo-Christian values. My grandfather founded the church in Belgium and I was born in Israel. The music is about life, and it is religious to me. But the price is high. It means a lot to me when Vickie is with me when people say hello or give me compliments. I want her to receive those, as she provides the balance in my life, allowing me to be gone all of those nights”.

For equipment, he is an endorsee of Sonny Jr. Harp amplifiers. “They are built by Gary Onofrio, boutique amps built for harmonica players. I use the Avenger model. Gary uses a variety of speakers within the same amp. There is a 12 inch, a ten inch, and two eight inch speakers, each with different tonalities, which he blends together. There is a line out connection that allows me to connect the amp to an external speaker or the PA system. That means that you can translate the warmth of the amp through the speakers. The amp doesn’t get real loud, so I have an external powered speaker that I carry with me to gigs. That gives me the sound I need to lead the band and I am not drowned out. It also means that I can get the sound that I want no matter what the sound person is doing with the mix. For the microphone, I use a Astatic shell with a Shure Controlled Magnetic element”.

“As far as harmonicas, I started out with the Hohner Marine Band. Now I use the Hohner Golden Melody model. But there is a history to that. Many years ago, I had very little luck with the Marine Bands. The manufacturing was off, the reeds did not respond. Now you buy one and it is ready to go. Years ago, a friend of mine, John Bruno, told me to try a Golden Melody. It took about three weeks to get adjusted to it. Now, I order one, they are very expensive, and it gets to my house in pristine shape, from hole #1 to hole #10. The Marine Band is a little dirtier, but I am a melody guy, so pristine is what I want. You pay a price soundwise, but playing through the Sonny Jr. allows me to still get that vintage sound. The response on the Golden Melody is ridiculous, at least for me. I can get to the high notes, to blow and draw a note. My playing improved by at least 40-50% after that”.

image“Part of my sound is inspired by Little Walter, the echo that he had on some recordings. Someone like Kim Wilson likes the purity of the harmonica’s sound. He doesn’t need any help because he is fantastic! I love reverb and echo together. That is where I differ from many other harp players. The sound I like is the harmony between the two, when the echo lifts the reverb. When I want more of an organ sound, I use a pedal. I play the harp like a horn. When I am playing in a supportive fashion, I can make chords, play octaves that have that horn sound. My joy is the harmony, especially when the band is playing as an ensemble, where everyone is heard for their contributions. I don’t like it when you stick the lead instrument out front and that is it. I’m not like that”.

“I happen to be highly attracted to what few people do harmonica-wise, which is the natural minor. In blues, you have the blue notes. You have major and minor scales. What makes me cry is the minor, the blue note. I have to be in it, to feel the music. The blue notes drives me off the wall, so I do a lot minor keys, which has what is referred to as the flattened third on the higher and lower range. That opens doors for me. Lee Oskar, formerly of War, is a very melodic harp player who plays in minor keys. Some people compare me with him, but there is no history where I have studied his style. One thing I will share with you is that this music is an art where the expression of it allows you to cry. I don’t have to hide it. I can cry my tears and be accepted”.

“The harmonica master, Toots Thielemans, who was from Belgium, had a famous quote that music is between the tear and the laughter. I couldn’t play music when I was younger the same way I do now. I had too many emotions to work on, leaving me overwhelmed, which is great if you have confidence that you can recover. At the time, I did not. I could not maneuver between the tear and the recovery. There was a long period where I did not play at all because it drove me to the dark emotions that I couldn’t get out of. It was not a matter of drinking too much. It was a more of an existential thing – who am I, what is the purpose of life. That lasted about eight years. When I came back to the harmonica, it was with a different perspective. I became more me, and things started working out better”.

Being a bandleader gives Lacocque a different perspective on the current state of the blues community. “I could go from zero to one hundred in terms of opposite comments to make. First, in Europe, Scandinavia, Japan, and other places I have heard a lot of bands that blow me away! They know the culture, have learned the alphabet, the respect for that, and the tonality, the creativity. Then I hear a lot of bands, that from my point of view, absolutely do not get it. Some people play all over the harp, filling every space with a flurry of notes. That can impress me on one level. But I want to be moved. Some people play the music without understanding the element of suffering. That is what attracts people like you and I, from different different countries and cultures, moved by the universal element in the music. You have to respect the roots. And the roots are not joyful. The soul comes from the African-American community, expressing things that they can’t do in words. Words can only go so far. Ultimately, the blues is an expression of the truth that truly speaks to me.”

Visit Mississippi Heat’s website at:https://mississippiheat.net

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