"The cliché is true: Blues is a feeling."
Altered Five: Rockin’ rhythm ’n’ blues
From day one, Altered Five dared to be different. The quintet formed in 2002 and quickly gained a reputation for its inventive arrangements and distinctive sound. Within a few years, Altered Five caught the ear of Cold Wind Records and, in 2008, signed a recording contract with the Minneapolis blues label. The debut album featured the band’s penchant for putting an earthy spin on numbers; the aptly titled Bluesified included roadhouse versions of songs by the Rolling Stones, Prince, Sting, and six others. The group performed live on three television morning shows and honed its sound playing regular club, festival, and concert dates.
Photo by Mitchell Miller
Altered Five soon turned its attention to being more than just a cure for the common cover band. After nearly a decade of molding the music of others into their own image, the group began to apply its sound to original songs and other lesser known blues and soul tunes.
The new album, entitled Gotta Earn It, puts an exclamation mark on Altered Five’s steadfast determination. The self-produced release stays true to the band’s soul-rockin’ signature yet takes a major step forward in forging a new musical frontier. “JT” Taylor’s powerful voice anchors the sound and drives home the message in songs like the brooding ballad “Three Wishes,” the wistful, burning blues of “Older, Wiser, Richer,” and the yearning “Mona Lisa.” The rhythm section of drummer Scott Schroedl and bassist Mark Solveson grooves hard and enjoys telepathic interaction with keyboardist Ray Tevich and guitarist Jeff Schroedl. Guitar World raves that Schroedl has “hi-tech chops” and contributes “superlative solo work.” The group also puts its stamp on three covers: a driving, bluesified take on the early Marvin Gaye hit “Ain’t That Peculiar”; a revved-up reading of Buddy Guy’s 1961 Chess recording “Watch Yourself”; and the cool, sassy groove of another Motown original, “You’ve Got to Earn It.”
What do you learn about yourself from the blues and what does the blues mean to you?
JS: The cliché is true: Blues is a feeling. Rhythmically and lyrically it hits you smack dab in the middle. It’s a form of music that can seem very simple and uniform, yet it’s deceptively complex with layers and layers of nuance. For us, the blues is a common ground. The music feels good, blues fans are genuine and the whole scene is pure.
Photo by Mitchell Miller
When was your first desire to become involved in the blues and what does the music offer?
JT: We all came into it at different times for different reasons. For me, it was going to a popular club in Milwaukee called the Up & Under Pub. I was in my late teens when guys like Willie Higgins and Harvey Scales played there often. A few of us backpedaled into the blues from rock, and a couple segued from jazz to blues but the path doesn’t matter so much. It’s been said that you don’t choose the blues, the blues chooses you and you have to embrace it. It’s a universal understanding of the human condition.
Tell me about the beginning of Altered Five. How did you choose the name and where did it start?
MS: We formed in 2002. A few of us had played together beforehand in different musical situations. We wanted to find something unique that played to our strengths and, after connecting with JT, naturally built our sound around his voice. The name Altered Five sprang from a few different tracks. The sound is a blend of the five of us, and we aimed to leverage our individual styles to develop our own thing. Early on, we also often enjoyed arranging well-known songs in a blusey style, so the name also fit that approach. Of course, the name is also a play on words with the musical term for altering the fifth of a chord--but that's pretty inside! We’re sometimes referred to as simply “A5” for short, as well.
How do you describe Altered Five's sound and philosophy?
SS: Soul-rockin’ blues. Rockin’ rhythm ’n’ blues. Those phrases sum up the basics. The rhythm section is grounded in the sounds of Stax and Motown, but the vocals and solos have more of a blues edge. There’s no formula; individually, over time, we’ve each identified our “style” and we play like ourselves. When it all comes together, it just seems to work. We try to mix things up quite a bit, too, in the sense that we keep the grooves and chord changes fresh. Last but not least, the music has to fit the lyric. You can’t sell a song if the parts don’t connect.
Photo by Mitchell Miller
From whom have you have learned the most secrets about the blues music?
JT: It’s not about how gifted someone is musically but how you portray what’s inside. We certainly take pride in our musicianship but, at times, you have to think less and just feel more. That interaction, even if it’s a spark the lasts just a few seconds, is the magic that makes blues and soul fun.
Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?
RT: We’ve been playing the sixth track, “Mona Lisa,” from our latest album in clubs for quite a while. Realizing that people can hear one of our original songs and immediately connect with it is a very rewarding part of playing music. As for the worst moment… we’ve played some strange places for sure, but nothing too bad.
Are there any memories from the road with the band and blues, which you’d like to share with us?
MS: As most blues fans know, some of the most interesting people you can meet are usually found at local establishments looking for good music and libations. We never fail to run into enthusiastic blues fans and colorful people willing to talk about anything from an awesome guitar riff they heard last week to their ex not paying child support. We’ve driven through snow storms and encountered all sorts of things, but the interesting people and conversations are most memorable.
What are some of the most memorable tales from recording time?
MS: Recording is always more challenging and time consuming than you think going into the sessions. To help lighten mood, our recording engineer would secretly record JT when he starts telling stories and then insert the spoken clips into the song during playback—who knows what is still buried in the masters. A few clips even made it into the song “You’ve Got to Earn It.”
Do you have any amusing tales to tell from the open acts for Walter Trout, Junior Brown, Popa Chubby and others?
RT: Blues headliners have always been good to us. I’m not sure the same can be said for others genres, but there are rarely any negative vibes. At one festival, the one headlined by Popa Chubby, we played after Bryan Lee which was awkward considering his place in the national blues community. He had another gig later that day, so he had to play an earlier than normal slot at this particular festival. Still, he didn’t care. He did his thing and that was that. Hopefully we were able to maintain his momentum that day!
What is the best advice a bluesman ever gave you?
JS: It wasn’t directly from Willie Dixon himself, but his quote saying, “It’s not the meat, it’s the motion” really sticks. For things to groove, that’s really key. Bass, drums, keys, guitar and vocals have to play off one another in order for the music to go forward.
What’s the best jam you ever played in? What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?
SS: Summerfest in Milwaukee is the largest outdoor music festival in the world. They have 12 massive stages and national acts of all styles. You can find Jeff Beck or Buddy Guy headlining the side stages. It’s amazing. We’ve played at the festival eight years, and it’s always a great time. I think we’ve played on six different stages.
Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us. Why do think that is? Give one wish for the BLUES
JT: Bonnie Raitt once said that blues will be around as long as men and women get together, and ain’t that the truth! I think the blues is always growing, and that’s important. We have to accept that blues will evolve. The themes and basics will remain but I hope - or wish as you say - the blues keeps growing.
Make an account of the case Beats & Milwaukee, WI and what characterize the sound of local scene?
JS: We have a lot of great musicians here in Milwaukee and the surrounding area. Steve Cohen is a terrific blues harmonica player, and he’s jammed onstage with us in the past. Saxophonist Warren Wiegratz has also jumped onstage with us a couple times. Guitarists like Greg Koch and Jack Grassel. Billy Flynn lives a little north of the city. A few older blues guys like Milwaukee Slim and Lee Gates still play from time to time. We have a lot of cover bands doing their thing, which is fine, but there’s plenty of talent if you look around. From fingerstyle guitarists and folk groups to blues and more. It’s hard to distinguish any particular trend, but if anything, there’s more of an R&B leaning when it comes to blues. We’re only 90 minutes north of Chicago, but the sound here is definitely different.
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