Scottie Blinn is a long time San Diego favorite. An articulate and many faceted man with a lot on his plate: performer, songwriter, masterful musician, producer, engineer, teacher, artist, owner-operator of a recording studio, and a record label.
Scottie is known for being the riveting guitar man for the popular Mississippi Mudsharks in the 90s, a band that gained much success touring and topping the Blues Charts in Europe. He has shared the stage with many notable performers over the years. His knowledge of American root music and his commitment to its preservation is evident in his starting and operating Double Barrel Records and creating The Rock Academy of San Diego a school and life training program for grade school kids.
Thank you for agreeing to the interview. I lived in Chicago, years ago, I love da blues and good American root music – and I couldn’t think of a better guy to have a chat with about this great American music than with San Diego’s Rockin’ Blues Mage, Scottie Blinn.
You have been at this awhile, can you tell us a little of your journey?
I made a decision when I was 16 years old that I wanted to see the world and make a living playing music. I was playing in local bars by 17 with my second band, Bare Bones, having to actually leave the building when not on stage! I started playing with local Blues legend Tomcat Courtney shortly after that, learning the REAL Blues. At 21 or 22 I decided to form my own band. This was when the Mississippi Mudsharks came into being (1992). We hit fast and strong, and were playing 7 nights a week within our first 2 years as a band. That lasted for 4 straight years, and led to recording our first 2 CD’s, 3 San Diego Music Awards, opening for a lot of big name acts, regional U.S. touring, charting in Europe, and touring Europe…which we still do today! I’ve had other great projects and played with some awesome musicians in between–The Tiki Torchers (Tim Butler on bass from Hot Rod Lincoln, and Dave Uosikkinen on drums from the Hooters), Mississippi Mud (Eric Von Herzen on harmonica from Social Distortion and Walter Trout, and Greg Willis on bass from Iron Butterfly and Candye Kane), Zombo’s Punk Rods (Sinister Surf with Kip Dabbs on drums from James Intveld’s band), and now Black Market Baby (with Roxy Coverdale on bass and Haley Allen on drums).
What led you to write, play, and perform Root Music – blues, rockabilly, blue grass?
When I was 6 years old, I loved the theme song from “Happy Days”, when it was “Rock Around The Clock” by Bill Haley and the Comets. By 6th grade I was listening to Pink Floyd and AC/DC…which of course had solid Blues roots. My Pop introduced me to James Brown, early Santana, early Stones, and a huge box full of his original 45′s from the ’50′s and ’60′s as well. By 8th grade it was all about ZZ Top and Stevie Ray Vaughan, but I also loved a lot of Punk like the Clash and the Ramones (among many others), and Heavy Metal like Black Sabbath and Judas Priest. The Stray Cats hit it big at that time too. From there, I discovered the lineage backward to where it all came from, and started putting 2 and 2 together. I’m sure I was the only 8th grader into Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf! I identified strongly with the Blues roots in most of the Rock music I liked at the time. Of course that led into a love of all American Roots styles.
I mowed lawns and washed cars, and saved up enough money to buy my first electric guitar at 13 years old. First two songs I learned to play were “Iron Man” and “Tush”. I was hooked! As much as I loved a lot of music and different styles, the rhythm of the Blues just seemed to be already etched on my soul. All the other music I absorbed has helped shape my sound and approach to this day, but the Blues is my deepest root.
Songwriting in these genres have a tradition, form, structure, and to some extent specific subjects. Tell us about songwriting in these genres. How far can you go in breaking the rules before it no longer fits? Is that important now days?
Personally, I don’t like to follow the rules. What I mean is, that can lead to a regurgitation of what’s already been done. Sure there are a lot of elements that make Roots styles identifiable, such as instrument tones, chord structures and progressions, and lyrical content, but I’m always looking at the ‘outside’ ways of approaching the music and trying to be honest to ‘me’…not copying someone else. Influences will always be evident, but I don’t see the point in taking a standard structure or someone else’s musical ideas and writing new words over it.
I think you can push the envelope pretty far with sounds and tones as well, touching on traditional approaches in an original way, all the way to making huge, mean, unique sounds. But there definitely comes a point when it crosses over completely into Rock or other genres. I think these days there isn’t a whole lot of territory left undiscovered in the Roots genres, so crossing over with other styles is where originality comes from. I’ve always looked at the Blues and Rockabilly players from the past as the “Punks” of their day…rebels! They were also innovators, and the great ones had a sound and style all their own. Likewise, I always try to keep an edge to what I write and see how far I can take it, without losing touch with the solid roots of where the music came from.
As for lyrical content, it’s all about the story telling for me. Songs that can take you somewhere else in your mind, or put you right in the middle of the story. I could make a list pages-long with my favorites, but Lightnin’ Hopkins, Son House, Robert Johnson, Tom Waits, Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen, and Mike Ness are at the top. Locally I love Nena Anderson, Tomcat Courtney, Joey Harris, and Robin Henkel, and was just turned on to another killer local songwriter named Roy Ruiz Clayton. Billy Watson is another who can make up classic stuff on the spot! Story and vocals first, rhythmic foundation close second, then all the cool lead stuff on top to make it shine.
In the 90s the The Mississippi Mudsharks rocked – introduce us to the players and give us an inside look at the making and working that band.
The first solid line-up of the band was Tom Essa on drums, Mike ‘Sandalwood Haze’ on bass, Donny Forsyth on guitar, and myself on guitar and vocal. (Bill Ray was actually the first drummer, but left before we really started hitting it hard, and started touring with Ike Turner.) We just flat out rocked the Blues from traditional styles ala T-Bone Walker and Lightnin’ Hopkins, to more modern guys like Albert Collins and Stevie Ray Vaughan. We had Tom Mahon on piano after Donny left. He’s still one of the best bogie piano players around! We also went through quite a few bass player changes, but always remained a trio at heart. Guys like Jonny Viau on sax and Billy Watson on harp were included and brought great playing and sound to the band, but it always built around that trio sound. A lot of our material was forged from really hashing it out in rehearsals, and having no fear of performing and taking chances at the shows. Playing as much as we did helped us develop an almost sixth sense about what we were each doing on stage.
In ’99 we decided to pack the band on ice for a bit (6 1/2 years!). Lots of musical differences at that time. I used the time to dig deep, to develop and define how I wanted my music to be presented. After recording a CD and touring as the Tiki Torchers, which was a harder edged version of the Mudsharks, I got together with my friend Eric Von Herzen. We actually recorded an all acoustic CD with some very interesting and original American Roots inspired songs we wrote. We then got the electrified band together and called it Mississippi Mud, and started pioneering a new sound we coined “Grease Punk”. Again, keeping the roots intact, but playing with a lot of gut wrenching attitude. I likened it to my ’52 Chevy, flat black and stock on the outside, but with a souped up 350 under the hood! Through all this, I kept recording and touring an important aspect of keeping myself and the music out there.
When Tom and I decided to reform with our good friend Mike Lars on bass in 2006, it was a whole new sound and really crossed over with Rock and even Punk attitudes. But the Traditional Blues root was even deeper! We recorded a great CD called “Train Rolls On”, and toured Europe with a lot of excitement and success. In 2008, Eric rejoined and added that freight train harp to our CD, “Voodoo Doll”. He also brought Johnny “Two Bags” Wickersham of Social Distortion along to record on several of the cuts, helping solidify the cross over of Blues and Punk. We toured Europe a couple more times on that, and widened our territory.
When we tour, it can be a traditional Blues venue one night, and a straight up Punk club the next! That was a lot of work from 2006-2009. We decided to take a hiatus, but it has turned out to be a bit longer than anticipated. It is hard to top previous efforts, and we don’t want to repeat ourselves on CD or tour the same stuff over and over. When the time feels right, we’ll write, record, and tour again.
I’ve found a lot of revitalization in my new project, Black Market Baby. Bands are like guitars…each one brings something new and different out of you. I’m opening up in a lot of creative ways because of the dynamics of this band. Also, there’s no previous ‘expectations’ on what the music should sound like by the band, or the fans. We’re doing whatever we want, and there’s a lot of freedom in that. We’ll talk more about it later in the interview, I’m sure!
I know you have had great success in Europe. Tell us about it. Why do you suppose that the reception there is as it is?
The Mississippi Mudsharks had the good fortune of being recognized by one of the biggest Blues distributors in Germany and one of the biggest Blues magazines there as well. We had two #1 selling CD’s for the label/distributor, and all the other projects had also charted in the top 4. It’s a trip to see ‘your’ CD (Tiki Torchers) just behind Stevie Ray Vaughan and Albert King, Rory Gallagher, and Luther Allison!! The last two Mudshark CD’s were met with a lot of excitement, anticipation, and success. It was a nice “comeback” of sorts. Our live shows have always drawn well, and the intense performances have always left the crowds wanting more.
The audience in Europe is more cultured and appreciative of good live music and performance. You won’t find TV’s on in small bars while a band is performing….hardly ever see a tv in a venue anyway! People are there to see and hear the band, and a lot of fans have become close friends over the years. Venues are generally packed, even on Monday and Tuesday nights. Word spreads fast too! We may play a small club the first year in a new city or country, and by the 2nd or 3rd trip be playing some good festivals. There is becoming a problem over there now with an over saturation of American bands…but I look at it like a challenge to keep pushing the envelope of better and more original performances.
What would you tell an Artist or a Band that was ready to tour outside the US? How should they begin to make it happen?
Much like here, do it right. Have a great professional product to sell (CD and live performance). Gather solid reviews and build a buzz before contacting venues. Beware of ‘booking agents’ and ‘promoters’ who are only out for themselves. DO NOT UNDERCUT. Invest in a GPS. Do business with dignity, respect for others, and respect for yourselves. Really, getting your name out there as much as possible with legit reviews in areas you wish to go is the start. Finding good representation at first is essential. Know all the ins and outs of travel within each country, your expenses (both up front and hidden), and just be prepared for anything. Finally, make sure everyone in the band is prepared and conditioned…touring is NOT easy and you’re a long way from home!
While attending the 2011 ‘San Diego Music Thing’ one of the more enjoyable speakers was Martin Atkins from Public Image Ltd. He made a clever and humorous point of showing us where we are on a map of the U.S. and music markets – he pointed out that we, in San Diego, were F**ked. Where do you think San Diego and San Diego talent fit in the musical scheme of things?
I think he was referring more to our geographical location. If you live in Texas, you can make a big circle and hit a lot of places. Here in San Diego, it’s only truly north and east. Plus, San Diego offers so much in the way of options for recreation and entertainment. The beach, the mountains, the desert, tons of clubs, tons of bands.
I will say, San Diego bands give a lot of support and have a lot of respect to each other, and there are some amazing talents right here in our town…world class. But it’s difficult sometimes for all the great ones to get their share of attention because of the over abundance of bands in town. It’s a hard proposition maintaining a top notch band when there’s so much competition from mediocre, amateur, and sometimes just plain bad bands that will play for nothing just to play.
You have a great passion and commitment for what you do. I read on line a reviewers tag line for your music ‘Greasy Rockabilly to wrench on your car by!’ He probably meant blues or rock? However it was meant it clearly speaks to an American culture that is slowly fading away. I remember seeing a Tom Waits performance where the stage prop was an old car and an antique Gas pump. It was iconic and I’m sure meant to be art for those too young to remember. The great Blues folk, Rockabilly and R&B folk are passing – Country, now, is 4/4 Rock and Roll with a southern drawl – what do you see is the future for American Roots Music?
I don’t know where you saw that tag line…I never have considered myself “Rockabilly”. But I do love to wrench, and I do love great music within all styles. I love a show with great visuals as well. I see a trend back to traditions with a lot of young people here and abroad, but it all has a harder edge to it now. These things have peaks and valleys like everything else in life. Once people get tired of the over polished, generic crap that is shoved in their faces, they tend to reach out for music that is more raw and real. That’s why bands like the White Stripes and the Black Keys have struck a chord. (By the way, Tom Waits is one of my biggest musical heroes.)
You write and record your own music, you interpret covers, you are a Producer, you have a recording studio, and you have your own label, Double Barrel Records – I know there is a great connective and relevant story there. Tell us how and why Scottie Blinn had all of that came into being.
I’ve always believed in diversifying in order to stay viable. Writing and creating is very important in being recognized as an ‘artist’. Doing covers is fun when they are songs that have a lot of meaning for me and were songs I grew up wishing I had written. Doing some cool, fun, and interesting covers is a great way to get an audience to be more open to your original material as well. This is a really fine line statement, and there’s a big difference between ‘bar band’ approach and ‘performing a show’ approach.
As a producer, I’ve always enjoyed helping people strive to succeed and give their best performance. It’s a lot easier to do for others than it is for yourself. I was fortunate enough to have some great mentors and people giving me a hand in getting ahead. That was my model, and I enjoy passing it down.
The studio came about after a couple things. I used to ditch class in college sometimes to record on a 4 track in our band’s practice space. Even before that, I was always really into that part of making music. When we did our first CD in the Mudsharks, we went to a top notch studio. The CD sounds great, but I really dislike the guitar tones (not to mention the vocals….aye!). I was convinced by the engineer on “how things should be done” and then taken care of in “post production”. Well, lesson learned…lay the tones down to tape as close to how you sound live! Plus, in order to really get great tones there has to be a mix of close mics and room mics. When you hear a band live, is your ear right up against a speaker or drum? I could spend hours talking about recording techniques. Anyway, I made the decision a long time ago to really study recording and the recordings I love…and to do it myself. I get the best results this way. I’ll get the performance to the best I believe I can do, then have a couple people (Joey Harris and Roxy Coverdale) I really trust help me make it better.
The label, Double Barrel Records (DBR), came about as an effort to take some great local music to the world. It’s all part of my ‘pay it forward’ beliefs and trying to help others by sharing my good fortunes. A lot of musicians (and people in general) are very protective of what they’ve attained and connections they’ve made…and rightfully so. I am careful in selecting whom I want to share with and help out, but take a lot of joy in being able to that with them. Done with a lot of thought and care, and passing it on, I believe we will all benefit and create more opportunities for each other.
So many good young Artists and Bands don’t have a clue as to the best was to go about promoting and marketing themselves – and getting heard. You have done it yourself - is there any advice you could offer?
Work hard, smart, and efficient. Don’t ‘shotgun’ your stuff to everyone…do your research, make a plan, target, and execute. Be persistent (but not a total pain in the ass). Always be professional. Don’t pay to play…looks desperate. Be careful of “exposure” gigs…People die from exposure (and over exposure!). Exposure doesn’t pay the bills. Really make sure it is something you possibly could have a nicer gain from in the near future. Build respect for your band and act with self respect. DO NOT UNDERCUT other bands just to get a gig! Make friends with local DJ’s.
Okay! How did you get the nickname ‘Mad Dog’?
This was given to me by Eric Von Herzen. We had a reputation for being “the fighting band”. But, there were never any fights! Harp magazine said it was for “keeping drunk patrons in their place”. I do have a real problem when I see people acting disrespectfully, drunk or otherwise. I have to address it. Funny thing is, the more calm, focused, and direct I stay, the more the other person really starts to look and act foolish. Out of all the years (over 20!) of doing this, there’s been many confrontations…but never a fist fight. Except for the guy who knocked the microphone into my mouth after being asked to back off twice already…he got the butt-end of my Strat in his sternum. Younger days…doesn’t really happen much anymore. I call it ‘amateur hour’. I like to focus “Mad Dog’s” attention on attacking the guitar.
We had a wonderful chat earlier, wherein you lit up and told me about your ‘Rock Academy’ Programs for young people. Give us the run down on this incredible and much needed program. And good on you for doing it!
Rock Academy of San Diego (RASD) came about from my love of teaching, and the need for quality music programs in our local schools. It’s for all ages, beginner to pro, guitar and bass. I do after school programs with kids kindergarten through 8th grade in Coronado and Chula Vista, and weekly workshops in my home studio. As part of the workshops, I have some of the best players in town come in for special nights.
I also have one day workshops where I bring in well know national and international artists to share, teach, and jam with the students. Coco Montoya was the guest for the first one (Albert Collins/ John Mayall). Texas Guitar Legend Anson Funderburgh did the second one with one of the best boogie piano players in the world, Carl ‘Sonny’ Leyland. In the schools and workshops, there’s practical lessons, but we also have a lot of discussion about playing technique and philosophy. The young kids even get history lessons, and find their math grades improve! Ultimately, I’d like to see it build into more instruments, and include writing, recording, and business workshops as well.
Another aspect to all of this is the Summer Blues Camp I do through the Blues in the Schools (BITS) branch of Blues Lovers United of San Diego (BLUSD). I am the music director and work with some great Blues musicians from San Diego. We have had up to 17 kids ages 9-17 for one week in the summer. Some have never played an instrument, while others are already pretty advanced. By the end of the week we put on a BBQ and Blues Concert. The kids work HARD, and really step up for their hour long performance. I’ve also been able to include some of the artists from the RASD one day workshops to come and participate with the kids. This year Anson Funderburgh spent a whole day with us, and performed with Kim Wilson of the Fabulous Thunderbirds after the kid’s concert. Big Al Schneider (Everly Brothers/ Bel Airs/ current Chet and the Committee drummer) and I had the honor and pleasure of being the rhythm section.
Tell us about your new band ‘Black Market Baby’.
Black Market Baby at first was going to be a fun side project for my wife, Roxanne, and me. I’ve been teaching her bass for a while, and she’s already a good singer. My idea was to take two relative new comers, and build up a really cool band…not just “Scottie’s got a new Blues band”. We found Haley Allen, who at the time was 22 years old. She’s Brian “Nucci” Cantrell’s student and protégé, but already accomplished on the drums and has been playing since she was about 9 years old.
After our first rehearsal, it was obvious the band had a lot of potential. We had great material that no one else is doing, covers from Tom Waits, Wayne Walker, Jimmie Vaughan, Hank Senior, Dead Weather, Social Distortion, Shane MacGowan, old spirituals, obscure Blues, and hot roddin’ instumentals. Of course there’s a few of the songs I’ve written for the Mudsharks and Punk Rods, and most exciting, some brand new original material soon to be recorded. We rehearsed twice a week for several months, and got really solid before playing our first show. The thing I love about this band is that beyond the obvious marketing advantage, the integrity of the music and the intensity in which it is performed is as great as anything I’ve ever been a part of.
Our first shows have been fantastic and full of energy from the band and the crowds. I feel blessed for what is happening with and within this band, and I’m very proud of my bandmates. Half the first CD is recorded. We will be getting out of town starting in January 2012, and have half our European tour booked for Sept-Oct. 2012. I’m fired up on the buzz this band has going right now, and plan to push it hard.
I look forward to it. What’s new in the works for Scottie Blinn?
Keep pushing, growing, maturing, learning, teaching, and helping.
Here is one of those annoying questions interviewers ask – what do you need to tell your fans and future fans that they don’t now know?
There are no ‘overnight successes’. I’m just getting started!
Too true! I hope all those talented folks out there read that and let it in. Thanks Scottie for your lucidity, honesty, and for all you do. You are an inspiration my friend!
Thank you. And thanks for the opportunity to do this interview.
Scottie Blinn Links:
Double Barrel Records
Facebook/Scottie ‘Mad Dog’ Blinn
ReverbNation Blacemarket Baby
Facebook/Grease Punk Studio
Facebook/Rock Academy San Diego
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