Q&A with Corey Lueck & Mike Stubbs of Smoke Wagon Blues Band - The Canadian boogie blues smokin' gun

"Blues can never be a fad, as it speaks to basic human conditions and emotions that never change."

The Smoke Wagon Blues Band

Featuring funky blues harmonica, whisky stained vocals; slick guitar work and a solid rhythm section Corey Lueck and The Smoke Wagon Blues Band have been performing in clubs and on festival stages across Southern Ontario, gaining momentum and new fans with every high energy performance. Formed in 1997, The Smoke Wagon Blues Band became crowd favourites in Hamilton, Ontario's famous Hess Village music scene, performing classic Chicago blues, New Orleans swing and original material. "Cigar Store" is The Smoke Wagon Blues Bands long awaited 2016 studio release featuring 50 minutes of new blues classics with tales of the Yukon, New Orleans, voodoo, The Underground Railroad, Lost loves, and even Moonshining. Classic R&B, Stomping Swamp Boogies, and New Edge Barn Burners that will get you on your feet and remind you of a time when storytelling and music were at the forefront of history.

Recorded and Produced by Steve Sherman Productions and mastered by the Legendary Nick Blagona your going want this gem at the top of your blues wish list. Various independent CD releases, international radio play and a large, local fan base led the band to release their first National album in 2006, titled The Smoke Wagon Blues Band and Friends. Produced by James Anthony and featuring some of Canada's top blues musicians, nominated for Blues Album of the Year at the Hamilton Music awards and nominated for New Artist of the Year by Toronto Blues Society. The band are: Corey Lueck/ Vocals, Harp; Mike Stubbs/ Guitar; Brandon Bruce/ Piano, Organ; Gordon Aeichele/ Sax; Jason Colavecchia/ Bass; and Tibor Lukacs/ Drums.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn from your self from the blues, what does the blues mean to you.

Corey: One thing I’ve learned from playing the blues is I’ll always be poor! All kidding aside the only thing I can say for sure is I can’t survive with out it. My life could be crashing down around me but the blues would always be there to pick me up whether I realised it or not and that’s something incredibly comforting. It feels like it’s the only thing that can’t be taken from me.

Mike: The blues is all about being authentic and real – to yourself, to your song and to your performance.  The blues is about expressing yourself and telling stories.  At its best, the blues creates and resolves the tension between seemingly irreconcilable opposites: pain and pleasure, sadness and joy, achievement and loss, freedom and dependence. I’ve learned that I’m not alone – the blues speak truth in a universal way many of us can understand, express and relate to.

How has blues music and culture influenced your views of the world on the journey you’ve taken?

Corey: I believe blues music and the culture surrounding it teaches us how to let loose and express our anger, pain, and joy while excepting our own humility as artists through our own songs and the songs and hardship that came before us. Nothing changes when it comes to repression; everyone has a need and a right to be heard; the blues has a continued role to play in expressing that truth. Like all blues artists, that journey starts with wanting your stories to be heard while searching for possible fame and fortune, however, somewhere along the journey it becomes a way of life, the life of a bluesman, and I believe a blues man views the world as a story that must be told. I certainly view it that way! 

"The great artists were not thinking; they were feeling!" (Photo: Corey Lueck and Mike Stubbs) 

What experiences in life make a good blues musician?

Mike: Blues musicians themselves frequently talk about the need for challenging or painful life experiences in order to inspire and provoke. I’ve often heard of the necessity to "live the blues" before you can "play the blues". Unfortunately, I think it’s largely true! It’s certainly true for all the greats.

How do you describe Corey Lueck and The Smoke Wagon sound and what characterize band philosophy? 

Corey: It’s hard to characterize our own sound. In the early years, our music revolved around a real jam band atmosphere; we became known as the Grateful Dead of the blues scene because we’d just go off some place in the middle of a song and somehow bring it back. Our set lists would shrink because we’d be playing songs that would last over a half hour. Sometimes it would get so crazy we’d forget what song we were playing, and the dance floor would just groove and folks really got a kick out of it. There were so many more technically talented musicians around the scene then us at the time but the thing that made us unique was our dynamics; the way we could bring a song up till it’s going through the roof and then just let the bottom fall out but keep on the boogie. You can only do that for so long though, as it never seems to resonate in the studio. The cool thing about our albums is that you can really pick out our influences, and as we became more serious about song writing it became more evident on the recordings, and I’m really proud of that. I love when you can see musician’s influences shine through their music. When Mike and I started writing “It Ain’t Easy” we almost drew a line in the sand and said this album is all about the songs and nothing else. We spent the winter putting them together acoustically in Tottenham Ontario and never veered from the plan.  Idealistically, we like to use the music to sell the song, as opposed to the other way around. The blues for us has always been about feeling.  No time for ego’s and gun slinging!

How did the name "Smoke Wagon" come about?

Corey: The name Smoke Wagon has followed me around from my first bands out of high school. We first heard it in an old John Wayne movie when he referred to his gun as such; however, later we used it more in the concept of what we thought the pioneers and natives might have thought the first time they saw a steam train barrelling down the tracks!

"Blues can never be a fad, as it speaks to basic human conditions and emotions that never change. The simplicity of form never gets in the way of the message and allows the musician to communicate directly with the listener."

What are the reasons that you started the blues researches and what experience in life makes a blues musician?

Corey: Like many musicians of my generation I found the blues through rock and roll and the way it made me feel. I grew up with young parents in a 70s culture of sex, drugs, and rock and roll; I soaked it all up and found I had a much different feel for music then my top 40 following peers. When everyone else was listening to Michael Jackson and hair bands for instance I was discovering Muddy Waters for the first time. It sure didn’t make me cool at the time but one just seemed more real and authentic then the other. The more I researched and learned about the blues the more I realised it would be a never-ending journey. What experiences in life makes as blues man? I think just that: “experience in life”! I don’t believe you can fully become a blues man unless you’ve lived, loved, traveled, experienced loss, joy and held nothing back. How can you tell a story if you’ve never experienced it? The blues isn’t about how many notes you can play on a guitar or how much money you can spend on surrounding your self with good musicians, and it’s not a gimmick that can be measured by success.  Unfortunately, blues music has digressed a little to the crave of a guitar wanking generation.  Let’s face it, there was only one Johnny Winter haha dressing up the next child prodigy in a fedora and surrounding him with seasoned musicians, which is not a bluesman. A bluesman is a story teller, a rambler, and someone who never had something to fall back on or well err they’d fall back.

How do you describe your contact to people when you are on stage?

Corey: I believe whether I’m singing in front of 500 people or the wood family (tables and chairs) I leave it all out on the stage. Sometimes for the sake of my vocals, I wish I didn’t do that but it’s just not in me to go through the motions without feeling. You learn to have a keen sense of what your audience wants to hear and how you connect with them when you’re the singer of a band. Sometimes you may have to go against the grain of the band no matter how much they crave self indulgence over feeling. Connecting with the audience comes above all for me and there’s a time and a place for each message you want to convey. After all, the blues is about feeling and if I can’t feel it, either will they.

Mike: We’re always in direct contact with the audience – a blues gig isn’t a recital! The mood and personality of the audience always influences how, we play, what we emphasize in a song, or even what songs we play. We’re always changing up the set-list depending on the feelings we get from the crowd. ESP? Not quite, but there’s always some kind of emotional connection going on...We always like to hear that someone “gets” a song, or that a song has a special meaning to someone.

"I believe blues music and the culture surrounding it teaches us how to let loose and express our anger, pain, and joy while excepting our own humility as artists through our own songs and the songs and hardship that came before us."

How do you describe “Cigar Store” sound and song book, what touched (emotionally) form studio sessions?

Corey: I feel that “Cigar Store” is a continuation of our last studio album “It Ain’t Easy” in that we wanted to create an album that tells individual stories close to our heart that would speak our truth and share our emotional attachment to the music.  We tell tales of the Yukon, New Orleans, Voodoo, the underground railroad, lost loves, and even moonshining. Classic R&B stomping swamp boogies and new edge barn burners that will get you on your feet will remind you of a time when story telling and music where at the forefront of history. Like “It Ain’t Easy”, and “Live in Hamilton”, we wanted to stick with what we feel is a winning formula for us and that’s recording with Steve Sherman and Nick Blagona.  We have a lot of fun in the studio and our emotional attachment to the songs really came out in the final product. Each album feels like we left nothing on the table and I believe that’s the way it’s suppose to be. “No B sides” like the great albums we grew up on, we wanted each track to feel fresh to the ears like your favorite mix tape, and foremost, we want everyone to have a good ol rambling whisky talking time.

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?

Corey: Personally the best moment of my career I think was when I was playing at Sarah’s Kitchen in Clarksdale Mississippi. This was well before the Morgan Freeman “Ground Zero Club” was there, so at that time it wasn’t such a touristy area and could be quite dangerous at night.  I was arranged to sit in with the house band that evening but it wasn’t a really warm welcome. My brother came with me and when we walked in the door it was like the scene out of a movie, as the music stopped and everyone turned around and stared at us. It was strongly suggested that we get out before something happened to us but to my brothers dismay I wasn’t taking no for answer that evening. When I got on stage everything slowly started to change and it turned into the most amazing evening of my life. It was the middle of Aug so the women were dancing in their bare feet and long sundresses where everyone was drenched in sweat and just getting down on the dance floor. A really whiskey stained southern juke joint experience! It was the coolest thing, and they fell in love with my brother and I and wouldn’t let us leave. Talk about the blues bringing people together. We drank and played till the wee hours of the morning; I’ll never forget it that. The worst moments in my career would possibly be small moments when I’m not busy. Like most musicians, I always need something to look forward to like a show, a new project, or something to keep them creative juices flowing.

"One thing I’ve learned from playing the blues is I’ll always be poor! All kidding aside the only thing I can say for sure is I can’t survive with out it."

Any story with the band from the road to share with us?

Corey: I believe one of most bizarre stories for us was we were playing at this ski resort outside of Collingwood Ontario when a guy hired us on the spot to play a party at his cottage on the weekend. We never thought much of it as folks are always asking us to play their summer BBQ’s. Turns out this guy was a multi millionaire and his cottage was a mansion on a private island. This was no jamming around the campfire kind of affair, as it was a totally catered ball with gowns and tuxes with 1920 Muskoka boats taxing the rich around the lake; water  planes landing at the dock, a full kitchen staff including butlers and maids. They brought our equipment over on barges and had us held up in the nicest boathouse I had ever seen. Let me tell you I could happily live out my days in this boathouse. We were given strict instructions on how we were not to mingle with the guests and our itinerary for the evening. We were playing on this beautiful stone terrace and between sets we were to head directly back to the boat house but were welcome to help our selves to Creemore on-tap. That was a mistake - offering The Smoke Wagon Blues Band an open tap! After a few pints our itinerary went out the window along with our neck ties and off to the party we went! It was one crazy gig but to make a long story short we ended up turning that stuffy shirt affair into a regular Hamilton kitchen party. What a laugh that evening turned out to be watching these elite let their hair down and boogie!

 

From whom have you learned the most secrets about blues music?

Mike: Charley Patton, King Biscuit Boy, Muddy Waters...

Corey: From the local clubs to my favourite blues recording artists, I’ve been learning and picking up blues secrets as far back as a young kid. The Journey never ends, from my first concert, “Ray Charles” to last Sunday catching Harrison Kennedy singing down town.

"Ronnie was great and very gracious, as he let my mom and some friends come back stage with us to meet him after the show, and let me tell you I think all those wild stories about Ronnie are true from the party we had going in his trailer!" (Photo: The Smoke Wagon & Ronnie Hawkins)

What are some of the most memorable tales from opening for Ronnie Hawkins and the Down Child Blues Band?

Corey: We opened for Ronnie at the Burlington Ontario sound of music festival and everyone came to see Ronnie that summer. There were 50,000 people there and here we are straight out of the tiny Hess Village clubs and on this gigantic stage. I remember walking out on stage and there were people for as far back as I could see and the whole Burlington Bay was jammed with people watching from the decks of their boats. It was a wee bit nerve wracking to say the least but we pulled together nicely. Ronnie was great and very gracious, as he let my mom and some friends come back stage with us to meet him after the show, and let me tell you I think all those wild stories about Ronnie are true from the party we had going in his trailer! Down Child, we played on the same bill with at Burlington’s famous Rib Festival the following summer, and what can you say about those cats? They’re probably the greatest and tightest Canadian blues band of our generation. They just make it seem so easy and look good doing it!

 

Which memories from Johnny Gordon make you smile?

Corey: The whole thing makes me smile. Johnny asked me to sit in with him at the black smith shop on Bourbon Street in New Orleans which I was told was one of the oldest watering holes in North America. It still had a partially stone/dirt floor. It was an honest to God piano bar and Johnny played on this old grand piano in the middle of the room. The audience could sit right up with him and put their drinks on the piano and sing along just like you see in the old movies. We had so much fun, as he kept asking me to return during the summer, and street musicians would just walk in off the street from time to time and join us in the jam. Johnny Gordon was a staple of the French quarter music scene; he’d play any request and his New Orleans repertoire was endless. I wish I could tell him now what an impact that time period had on my life.

"Blues musicians themselves frequently talk about the need for challenging or painful life experiences in order to inspire and provoke."

What is the difference between Hess Village and the other canadian music scenes? Which is the recipe for the sound of "maple blues"?

Corey: Recipe for maple blues hmmmm I don’t know: Shot of rye, warm fire, crowded dance floor and some boogie blues…

In my opinion, Hess Village was like the French Quarter of Canada on a smaller scale but no one outside of it realised it existed. It was like a musical treasure. It was a lot different than Toronto and other Canadian cities because of the proximity of the clubs and the intimacy of the musicians with the fans. Every club was like having a band jamming right in your living room. Unfortunately after the smoking-ban law, things slowly started to change and now most of the clubs have been converted into dance bars. It’s a real shame, as it was a live music mecca.

What are some of the most memorable jams and gigs?

Mike: Many years ago as a teenager, I had the opportunity to jam with King Biscuit Boy... wow! Unforgettable! I’ll also never forget the Christmas jam with Chuck Jackson a few years ago. He jumped up onstage during one of our gigs for a jam and we brought the house down. The most memorable gigs for me include opening for Ronnie Hawkins, playing at the main stage during the Toronto Jazz festival & a “house” warming gig on a private island in Muskoka (nice to see how the other half lives!)

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

Mike: Blues can never be a fad, as it speaks to basic human conditions and emotions that never change. The simplicity of form never gets in the way of the message and allows the musician to communicate directly with the listener. I hope more and more young people will be tuned on to the blues.

What is the best advice a blues man ever gave you?

Mike: Willie “Big Eyes” Smith once told me the secret is to play from your heart, not your head and to never, ever give up.

(Photo: Corey & Pinetop Perkins)

Do you know why the harp is connected to the blues and what are the secrets of the blues harp?

Corey: In my opinion, the harp became connected with the blues mostly because it was an easy instrument to carry with you when you were working in the fields and could keep up with the guitar’s natural amplification. For that same reason, I believe I started playing the harp because I could slip it right in my back pack at Scout camps when I was young. I have no secrets when it comes to the harp - I just kind of do what I do. Canada and especially southern Ontario is stinking rich when it comes to amazing harp players so even after all these years I still consider my self a novice next to a lot of the older players here; however I certainly love to play, and I feel naked on stage with out it.

Do you remember anything interesting or funny stories you have listen around the bar and clubs?

Corey: A good friend of mine said you should take at least one picture at every single gig you play whether it is in front of hundreds of people or the wood family cause something funny or memorable will happen every night. How true this is with so many funny stories, and too many to list! The whole club taking their hats off and singing a drunken “Oh Canada” at 3 in the morning in Brantford, being grabbed off stage and kissed in Hamilton! A piano player plays with mittens on in St. Johns; a piano player playing with shish kabobs in Burlington, a harp player waking up on a diner floor in Port Hope; the band playing in a hurricane in Niagara, the band playing on a bill with circus acts in Toronto; ok I better stop there…. Good times...

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

Corey: Well now that’s a loaded question and I could give you a different answer each time you ask me. On this particular day I’m longing for some real New Orleans barrel house/rag time blues. So how about being transported to the turn of the 1900s with a cigar in one hand, a whisky in the other, and women dancing away on a wooden dance floor to the likes of Jelly Roll Morton and the Red Hot Peppers?

"Willie 'Big Eyes' Smith once told me the secret is to play from your heart, not your head and to never, ever give up."

Would you mind telling me the most vivid memory of recording with James Anthony?

Corey: Recording with James Anthony on the “And Friends” album was a huge cornerstone for us. Mike and I had just started to break away from the traditional Smoke Wagon blues jams and boogies that we were known for after being influenced by such artists like “Little Willie John” and “Bobby Bland” We had written some great songs that focused more on powerful vocals and melodies but we didn’t realise how to craft them in the studio. James, being a sot after session player in his younger years, made a healthy living doing tedious cord timings around town because he was the only one that could do it. There’s kind of a formula to classic R&B especially concerning the rhythm, so we learned a great deal from James during those sessions. James’s wife, Kim and father-in- law, Ernie Varga, a popular Canadian Country and Rockabilly guitarist, were nice distractions around the studio; there were lots of great stories and laughs. Every time an album is done we go through studio withdrawals because we have such a good time creating and making new friends. We are going through those withdrawals right now after working with Steve Sherman on “It Ain’t Easy”.

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

Corey: For me, I think it would be to turn back time on the technical advances of music or should I say regression of music for example; programmed beats or music made on a computer. I believe music loses its integrity when it’s not recorded and performed with real musicians as apposed to a computer.

Mike: I’d immunize the general public from the effects of “big music” marketing. There’s a reason “big music” spends billions of marketing every year – it works!  Fans could then give their attention to music and performers that actually appeal to them personally – without all the buzz of big-time advertising.

"Music and blues especially is about projecting the human condition through feeling and soul and we’ve really lost that;  it feels like we’ve lost the honesty in our music which is one of the reason’s we decided to do a live album."

Make an account for the current realities for the blues in Canada. Who is the grandfather of the blues in Ontario?

Corey: Playing the blues in the clubs in Canada is not always easy as live music has taken a hit over the years competing with dance dj, karaoke, and techno clubs. Not all club owners can afford to pay for large blues bands but the summer blues festivals couldn’t be more booming, as there are incredible festivals in every town and great opportunities for fans to see international and local players. There was always great traditional roots music in Canada throughout the countryside, including, harmonica, fiddle guitar and jug music in all shapes and forums, and a lot of old time blues made its way into Canada via the underground railroad but the Chicago, Texas electric style blues that we all know and love didn’t really make a huge impact on Canada until the blues revival in the 60’s. The grandfather of the blues after the revival in Ontario, was none other then Richard Newell A.K.A King Biscuit Boy. Richard grew up listening to blues on the airwaves broadcasted from upper state New York in the 50’s. He use to travel over the border buying up 78’s and bringing them back introducing the blues to his friends band mates. Many of his close friends and band mates still gigging around the Hamilton area always tell me their favourite thing about playing with Richard was going back to his place after the gig unwinding and listing to Richards album collection. His knowledge on the history of the blues was much better then most leading authorities and historians on the subject. Biscuit was one of the greatest singers and harp players in the world let alone Canada. We owe Richard a great deal for introducing the blues to the nation.

Mike: The blues has been in Canada for a long time. Most of the population lives within driving distance of the US border allowing many US blues artists to play in Canada, and for many Canadians to visit blues hot-beds like Chicago.  Starting in the 60’s, several Canadian artists gained international recognition including Richard Newell (King Biscuit Boy), Downchild Blues Band, Dutch Mason, Powder Blues Band, David Wilcox, Jeff Healey, Collin James, JW-Jones, etc… The most exciting period in the local blues scene is right now. The Smoke Wagon Blues Band is from Hamilton Ontario, which perhaps from its blue-collar origins, has long been a centre for the blues. This was officially recognized when Hamilton was named “The Blues Capital of Canada” in 2015.  Recently, several other local Hamilton artists have also won national and international accolades including Jack de Keyzer, Harrison Kennedy and Steve Strongman.

What is the impact of blues music and culture to the racial, political and socio-cultural implications?

Corey: I believe it’s huge! Let’s face it, the blues and its roots came from the American repression and enslavement of a whole race! Nothing could convey or express that pain but the songs and stories that came from the people of that generation. In fact, we pay homage to that atrocity and how proud we are as Canadians for the roll our ancestors played in the underground railroad with our song “Put the quilt out to dry”.  Though todays troubles could never compare, the blues still play a large part in speaking for todays repression. The blues will always be the voice of the little man; in a world fueled and run by corporate greed now just as much as ever, we have a message that needs to be heard.

Mike: Originally the blues allowed African-Americans to share their stories through song with people of different racial and cultural backgrounds. As an universal language, the music helped unite us regardless of race. Because the blues speak truth in a universal way many of us can understand, it can bridge gaps in social, political and socio-cultural status.  This is certainly proven at our performances.

"Canada and especially southern Ontario is stinking rich when it comes to amazing harp players so even after all these years I still consider my self a novice next to a lot of the older players here; however I certainly love to play, and I feel naked on stage with out it."

Are there any memories from Stonewalls Music Hall on May 4th 2013 which you’d like to share with us?

Corey: The whole show at Stonewalls was just a great time as you can hear from the energy of the album. We had been so busy promoting our previous album and playing festivals around Ontario that we hadn’t had a chance to have a proper home town release for the “It Ain’t easy” album so it was a home coming CD release Party/ live recording, which made the show that much more special.  A comical thing I should mention about that show was that just before we took the stage I mentioned to the guys not to worry about the fact that tape was rolling.  “It’s all digital these days, any mistake we make can be fixed up no problem”, I said haha. So we kind of convinced ourselves it was just another show and did our thing. Of course, we were only fooling ourselves because with a one off live recording like this, it’s virtually impossible to fix a mistake in mixing haha. When I think about it in hindsight, that little mind game we played with ourselves paid off large with our performance that day. No red light syndrome.

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

Corey: I think what I miss the most from the blues of the past is probably the musicianship. A lot of blues these days revolves around guitar wanking, as I like to call it. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with smoking hot guitar licks but the records of yesterday stand the test of time because of little things, the things understated were as important as the things stated. The great artists were not thinking; they were feeling! My fear for the future of blues and live music in general is that we’ve hit this giant wall! We are being bombarded with bubble gum pop music, computer generated music, techno, and reality TV. Music and blues especially is about projecting the human condition through feeling and soul and we’ve really lost that; it feels like we’ve lost the honesty in our music which is one of the reason’s we decided to do a live album. It may not be the popular thing to do but what could be more honest then a live recording?

My hopes for the future is that we can get out of this rut; let’s hope the next wacky trend is “live music” We certainly see it in our growing festival audiences and that’s encouraging!

Mike: Of course, I miss all the original recording artists – those who defined the blues genre – and all the great players I had the opportunity to see before they passed on. The founding mothers and fathers of blues will never be surpassed for their utterly authentic performances and for their sheer emotional impact on the listener. I’ll forever be in awe of their simple power. I hope more and more young listeners and artists are turned on to the blues. I fear the blues has a risk of becoming an ossified museum piece with a declining audience of older fans. “Blues in the Schools”, promoted by our The local blues societies, is an important step we all should support.

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