Interview with blues guitarist and a former executive at Microsoft, Jim Allchin: how to live life authentically

"Blues is foundational. I think the blues tells emotional stories in a context that lets players communicate freely with their voice or instrument."

Jim Allchin: Pallet of Colors & Sounds

Jim Allchin grew up in a one-room house on a dirt farm in the Deep South. After living the life of a starving musician, he left to earn Masters/Doctorate degrees from Stanford University and Georgia Institute of Technology. He went on to become a world recognized leader in Computer Science and software. Today he codes for fun and he plays guitar for love. American author F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote, “There are no second acts in American lives.” Had he met Jim Allchin, he might have re-thought the statement. The Seattle based musician has lived a self-made life, and no matter what the vocation, he has tackled everything with an unyielding passion. Jim grew up in Florida in the middle of an orange grove. Florida was much more rural then, and there was no town near the Allchins’ home.

It was Jimi Hendrix’s music that inspired Jim to pick up a guitar, and he followed the path set by bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers – white southern boys who took a left turn toward the blues and rock. Jim worked his way through school by touring with his band. Jim fell in love with computer science, and his newfound path led to degrees at Stanford and Georgia Tech and, in 1990, to Microsoft, where he rose through the ranks to become co-President of the Platforms & Services Division and a recognized leader in the world of computer science and software. In 2003, Jim faced a health issue, and the experience was life-changing. Jim’s contemporary blues-rock style has a uniquely modern feel with contemporary lyrics and explosive guitar lines, but it respectfully bows to the core soul that has been embodied in the blues throughout the ages. It is Jim’s dream to help foster the blues to a larger audience. Fret board aficionados, tone junkies and fans of hot stove blues guitar will be glad to hear the return of Seattle guitarist Jim Allchin, who is preaching to the choir on his third album “Decisions” (2017). New album titled “Prime Blues”, in spring of 2018 Jim returned to the vaunted Blackbird Studios in Nashville to collaborate again with Grammy-winning producer, songwriter and drummer Tom Hambridge and his team with special guests Mike Zito, Bobby Rush and The Memphis Horns. The result is a savory collection of 14 amazing new tracks that dig deeper into the blues and beyond.

Interview by Michael Limnios

How has the Blues and Rock Counterculture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

I love songs that have messages in them. And while a pop song sometimes has a message, I find folk, country music and blues to have more thoughtful and more insightful messages. The key thing about blues (whether traditional or contemporary) is the facade of simplicity that carries such deep complexity. A single note can be bent on guitar in seemingly endless ways and can convey almost endless different feelings. If I was to metaphorically extend that thinking to life, I would say that I have learned that simplicity can carry deep messages and great value.

When was your first desire to become involved in the music & who were your first idols?

I always loved music. I started playing when I was a teenager. Jimi Hendrix is the one that blew my mind. I also loved Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton.

What do you think is the main characteristic of your personality that made you a bluesman?

Blues is an art form that lets my pain, my feelings, my everything come out. I don’t know whether the blues needs me, but “I” need the blues.

What was the first gig you ever went to & what were the first songs you learned?

I played at a roller rink (outside) with all the guitars and one microphone plugged into a single small amp with an 8” speaker. We probably paid to play there for all I remember! We played things like Louie Louie, Pipeline, Wipeout, etc.

"I love songs that have messages in them. And while a pop song sometimes has a message, I find folk, country music and blues to have more thoughtful and more insightful messages. The key thing about blues (whether traditional or contemporary) is the facade of simplicity that carries such deep complexity." (Jim Allchin / Photo By KGV Studios)

What does the BLUES mean to you and how has the music changed your life?

Blues is a feeling. It is wonderful because the structure of the music is simple and that lets feeling and emotion be the central theme of a song. I have listened to the blues all my life growing up on a farm in the deep south.

Do you think that your music and songs comes from the heart, the brain or the soul?

I feel every note I play on guitar. This is especially true for some note bends. It is not uncommon for certain songs to bring tears to my eyes. So I believe you feel it deep within you. I also like to play some complex solos and that takes practice and therefore coordination of the brain. So, skill to play comes from the brain, but the music comes from somewhere deep inside you.

How/where do you get inspiration for your songs & who were your mentors in songwriting?

I get inspiration from all kinds of music – from gospel to pop. And songwriting comes from experience in the world.

What do you learn about yourself from the Blues people and culture? What touched (emotionally) you from the Blues?

Blues to me is about feeling. To me that’s where it came from: suffering as well as the joys of a good time. It’s not about playing the most notes or playing a technically complicated song. Often, less is more. It is about conveying the human condition – the ups and downs of life. I know many people think Blues needs to be about “bad things” happening, but it can also be uplifting.  It always cracks me up how clever some songwriters can be with their word choice in telling a story. I mean “dust my broom.” Really? So creative. It is also stunning how a slight variation in tone, pitch, intonation, or timing changes the feeling totally. I don’t have a fixed definition of the blues. I can tell when someone is playing it whether they are telling a story from their heart with their voice, words, or instrument and whether it is authentic or not.

How am I affect by the Blues? Take a song like “I’d rather go blind.” This song just slays me. I feel it deep within me.  Blues just speaks to me.

How do you describe "Prime Blues" songbook and sound? Where does your creative drive come from?

Prime Blues was a fun album to do. Lots of simple stories about life whether about how our phones seem to possess us these days (“Tech Blues”) or how it’s hard to stick to a self-improvement plan like losing weight (“Devil Don’t Sleep”).  So, Prime Blues is just some vignettes about life. I hope people enjoy the songs and the musicianship. It was a blast to do. As to my creative drive? I can’t tell you where it comes from other than life. There are stories everywhere. And there is ALWAYS another cool riff or perhaps an old riff played in a new way. It’s easy to create if you just let your mind wander.

"For me music is critical to my soul. It always has been; it always will be. In terms of lessons? I would suggest that giving artists encouragement is super important.  Find something you LOVE about their playing, singing, or songwriting and tell them. Being critical doesn’t help anyone." (Photo: Jim Allchin, John Heithaus & Tom Hambridge in Blackbird Studios, Nashville / Spring 2018)

Are there any memories from "Prime Blues" studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

Well, I will tell you one embarrassing thing that happened. We recorded something like 17 songs in 4 ½ days so we were really moving. At the end of the first day I realized I was getting a cold. And it turned out to be an awful one.  So, as the days went on, I kept getting worse. We got to the acoustic songs near the end of the week and I went into the soundproof booth with a few microphones pointed at the acoustic guitar. I told Tom (the producer) and Ernesto (the tracking engineer) that I was worried they were going to hear sniffing when I was playing because my nose from running so bad. They said “don’t worry about it.” So when we finished the session, I thought it was going to be ok. Then I started listening back to the acoustic guitar track soloed and every once in a while when the acoustic guitar part was silent you could hear me sniffing away. It sounded so loud to me. So, we ended up having to clip those sections out! I don’t think other people could hear it, but I sure could!

Do you consider the Blues a specific music genre and artistic movement or do you think it’s a state of mind?

I think the world is trying to figure this question out. Personally, I do think it is a genre, but I also think it is also a state of mind. I have heard people play the 1,4,5 chord progression which people often associate with Blues, but I might not feel the song is authentic. It takes more than the “standard” chords or structure. And by authentic I mean telling the story from their heart. It’s not about some facial expression either when performing. When I close my eyes and listen to a song I can either feel the heart of the artist talking to me or I don’t. We all have some bad days and sometimes the notes just don’t speak the truth the same way as other days. My perspective about blues is fairly broad, but a song has to touch my heart to be really remembered.

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your paths on the music roads and circuits?

For me music is critical to my soul. It always has been; it always will be. In terms of lessons? I would suggest that giving artists encouragement is super important.  Find something you LOVE about their playing, singing, or songwriting and tell them. Being critical doesn’t help anyone. For me, an important lesson in life is that everyone has a very meaningful story and you can learn something from everyone. In some cases, it is what you don’t want to do, but in most cases there is something good you can learn.

How do you describe your previous album DECISIONS sound and songbook? What characterize Jim Allchin’s music philosophy?

Decisions is quite a pallet of colors and sounds. It has traditional acoustic blues, ethereal instrumentals, fast boogies, and hard driving blues rock. I like all kinds of music and I think that comes through via the diverse nature of the songs on the album. I do believe that the concept of “Decisions” and decision-making flows through all the songs in terms of message or feeling.

"Blues is a feeling. It is wonderful because the structure of the music is simple and that lets feeling and emotion be the central theme of a song. I have listened to the blues all my life growing up on a farm in the deep south." (Photo: Jim Allchin in studio)

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

My first “gig” was at an outside roller rink when I was probably in middle school. I think we all plugged into one tiny amp. It wouldn’t even surprise me that we had to pay to play there. Even though I was scared out of my mind (cause the girls would roller by laughing at us), it was such an important step for me.

What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

One thing I miss is the LONG jam songs (a la The Allman Brothers) as well as more audience participation songs. I listen to some of the songs from Etta live and I think wow, I SO wish I could have been there.

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

Musicians should be paid more for their work. You can say that I am a troglodyte, but I believe artists are not being paid sufficiently for their music.  And they are working SO hard. I know pop stars are filthy rich, but most musicians are worse off now than 20 or 30 years ago. And that is not right. Living costs continue to increase, but the price paid for music has declined in general. Just because something is digital doesn’t mean it is worth less!

Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

Clearly, my parents had a great influence on me. They taught me to work hard, be honest, and respect others. I have many phrases that have influenced me through my life. Here are just a few (I have so many!):

Persistence. If you just don’t give up and you learn from your mistakes, you WILL succeed.

Do what you love. Don’t keep doing things that make you unhappy – don’t stay around people or work at a job that makes you unhappy.

Your body is your temple. Your body does so much for you. Treat it right and honor it and it will serve you well.

"One thing I miss is the LONG jam songs (a la The Allman Brothers) as well as more audience participation songs. I listen to some of the songs from Etta live and I think wow, I SO wish I could have been there." (Photo: Jim Allchin in studio)

What experiences in your life make you a GOOD musician, songwriter and people?

I think there a number of things that make me who I am and that shape my playing and my music. They all sort of flow together to make me who I am. Here are such a few of them. First, I grew up poor in the Deep South, but I also grew up in a happy home. Second, I had the opportunity to be outside throughout most of my youth while working in the fields. And I grew up going to church and singing in the choir. Third, I had to make my own way in the world since my father died when I was pretty young. Fourth, I was diagnosed with cancer almost 10 years ago now and that was another life changing event. I have had an incredible life. I have been very fortunate. I have lived on food stamps not knowing if I would have enough to eat and later in life I ended up seeing the world being extremely fortunate. So, I think I can relate to things going bad in life, but I also know you control a lot of what happens to you – or certainly how to deal with it.

Describe the ideal sound of rhythm section to you? How do you characterize your sound and progress?

There is a feeling that happens when everything is just locked on a groove. Everyone is feeling everyone else and it just flows and drives ahead like magic. The power is huge. I especially love shuffles cause I love the rhythmic feeling of physically rocking back and forth when I’m playing.

What were your favorite guitars back then, what’s on your pedal board? From whom have you have learned the most secrets about blues music?

I play a Strat perhaps more than any other guitar, but I also love PRS and high-end Ibanez guitars. I used to have a 1953 Les Paul, but I sold it when I needed money when I was a lot younger. I don’t use a pedal board per se. I use a variety of amps (e.g., Dumble, Axe-fx, Line 6 X3, Marshall Silver, etc. I usually have a couple of amps that I can switch between easily when I play live.    
Whom have I learned the most from? Well that is a great question. I learn from everyone. Everyone has their own style and feel. Eric Clapton’s early blues work was awesome. Ditto for Gary Moore. But I have studied B.B. King’s playing in addition to tons of jazz players who play jazz blues. Etta James just blows me away.

What moment changed your life the most? What were the reasons that a scientist started the Blues experiments?

There are many moments that helped define who I am:

  • My father dying
  • Meeting my wife
  • Having children
  • Having cancer
  • My mother dying
  • Studying computer science
  • Playing in a jazz band
  • Hearing Jimi Hendrix’s Purple Haze

"I feel every note I play on guitar."

Would you like to tell something about making your previous album "Overclocked"? Do you remember any interesting from the recording time?

Well, I thought I was done with the album and then we listened to the mixes and I said it wasn’t good enough and I threw about 50% of the album away and started over with new songs. I still have the first set of songs so maybe one day they will get heard, but not right now. It was a key decision point in the record. I’m glad I stopped and made the change, but it was hard at the time. The result was a much better album.

What the difference between your working on composing, playing, singing, and producing blues rock? What is the “music philosophy” of Jim Allchin?

The emotion of the song counts more than anything else. It’s a simple philosophy.

What is the impact of Blues/Rock music on the racial, political and socio-cultural implications?

Wow. That’s a deep question. I think I’ll leave that question to a philosopher. I just know I play Blues because it speaks to me like no other music does.

In your opinion, what is the biggest revolution which can be realized today? What do you think the major changes will be in near or far future of the world?

Well in terms of revolution, I am a hard-core believer in AI being great for society assuming the necessary regulatory rules are put in place. Smart machines will dramatically remake the world we live in today for the better. And while jobs will be lost to machines, brand new jobs will be created at the same time. It is hard to imagine how many changes are going to take place over the next 50 years.

While I could list many issues and challenges we face in the world, perhaps the most important to solve is education of the world population. Education holds the key to preparing children for new innovative jobs, globalization, and frankly teaching the social values of equality and understanding.

Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us. Why do think that is? Give one wish for the BLUES

I so agree with you. Blues is foundational. I think the blues tells emotional stories in a context that lets players communicate freely with their voice or instrument. My wish for the Blues genre is that younger people get exposed to it. I hope we encourage new generations to appreciate the beauty of this art form.

"I get inspiration from all kinds of music – from gospel to pop. And songwriting comes from experience in the world."

Which of historical music personalities would you like to meet?

There are so many people who are gone that I wish I could have met. I would have REALLY loved to have met Albert King. I had thought just maybe I would have had a chance to meet Gary Moore, but now that is gone as well. The list is huge. There are a number of incredible guitarists that are still alive that I would love to meet. I have been fortunate to meet some of them, but there are so many people that I admire I am not sure who I would pick first.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

I would go to the future – maybe 100 years. I would like to meet with the best scientists from different disciplines and learn about the current state of the art in each of their fields.

Jim Allchin - official website

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