An Interview with J.J. Vicars, one of the hottest Blues & Rock 'n' Roll singer/guitarist around today

"Blues will always be with us because it's at the heart of human experience. Listen to the rhythms, those are the rhythms of the Earth."

J.J. Vicars: Smokin Blues 'n' Roll

J.J. Vicars is the hottest Rock 'n' Roll singer/guitarist around today. You haven't lived until you've seen his full-throttle, rockin' show. Driven by his snarling guitar and gruff vocals and propelled by a driving backbeat, his live show will rock your world, leaving you satisfied and exhausted. Since 2001 when he recorded his first CD as a solo artist has been leading his own trio and doing things his way. Rooted in early Rhythm & Blues, R 'n' R, Rockabilly, and Texas and Chicago Blues, with shades of Jazz and Western Swing, he's taken his act across the U.S. before heading to Japan. Prior to becoming a solo artist, J.J. honed his craft for over a decade with such groups as the Ron Brewer band, The Roadkings, his father's Jump Blues outfit Jerry & the Hipswingers, C. Rex; and The Hillbilly Resistance. With both the Ron Brewer band and the Hipswingers he played bass, his second instrument, and learned how to arrange the rhythm section as well as keep a working band on the road.

For his debut SCI-FI DINER (2005) he captured the music that first inspired him to take up guitar and follow the Rock 'n' Roll path. HI-TECH HILLBILLY (2006) followed with some of his earliest songwriting that showcases the second phase of his musical development. HEARTLAND (2007) was written during his time with the Ron Brewer band and like that album it's both hard rocking and songwriter oriented. LONGHAIRED LEFTOVERS (2009) is a collection of home studio tracks done for fun that accumulated over the years. LONG WAY FROM HOME was begun in 2008 with Mark Schwarz on bass, a regular on Tokyo gigs who appears in many of the live videos and built the ModBird guitar. Guitar-slinger J.J. Vicars returns home figuratively and literally on his 6th album, Irreverent Dissident (2018). His first release since returning to the U.S. after a decade abroad features his signature hard-driving blues, boogie & rock ‘n’ roll complemented by smoky after-hours vibes and irreverent humor, all tied together by his trademark snarling guitar and gruff vocals. The album flows with the ease and experience of a man who has journeyed far and back, the wisdom of age has J.J. sounding as fresh and hungry as ever.

Interview by Michael Limnios

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

My life has been quite different from the average person, including my musical peers, so for me it wasn't a matter of being influenced so much as it was finding others of like mind. Growing up I was the Jewish kid who hung out with the Mexican kids listening to black music. To say I was the odd man out is an understatement. Every kid of my pale complexion that I grew up with was either into Metal of something trendy. I didn't get any musical substance from the other kids my age. Once I discovered that other were into the stuff I was into it was a revelation. To find out that many of them shared similar views to mine regarding our societal woes was a relief.

What do you learn about yourself from the blues, what does the blues mean to you?

The kind of music I like and what I respond to musically; the rhythms, melodies and harmonies that strike a chord with me.

What is the best advice a bluesman ever gave you? 

Keep your shit together.

What experiences in your life make you a GOOD BLUESMAN and SONGWRITER?

First, I don't consider myself "a Bluesman". That's a term from an earlier time, those old black guys who lived in a world far removed from mine. The only label I wear is "musician". I PLAY Blues because I simply like the music. As for being a songwriter, you tend to write from what you know. Whatever you experience in life and how you respond to it is a large part of who you are. If you're authentic then you have no competition. Rory Gallagher is a good example of both; he didn't tried to come off as "a Bluesman", he came across as what he was, a talented and versatile Irish guitarist who was steeped in Blues and early Rock 'n' Roll and played to the audience of his time. He was authentic and his work lives on, just like the work of those he took from lives on.

How do you describe J.J. Vicars sound and progress, what characterize your music philosophy?

The main ingredient is the relentless, driving rhythm. I took tap dancing in elementary school and from there rhythm became a bodily thing for me. Most of the music I like, from Louis Jordan and Chuck Berry on up to Bob Wills and Humble Pie, all has that driving rhythm. "The Big Beat" is what makes it Rock 'n' Roll and that Big Beat came from Blues, R&B and to an extent Jazz. It's music for the body. I've dabbled in various styles over the course of nine albums and that's what ties them all together. As for progress, now I'm looking more at the other side- melody and harmony and putting on a show.

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

I read the crowd, make a mental note of what connects with them and what doesn't, and constantly refine my act according to that.

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

Some of the most important stuff I ever learned was from my guitarist father. When I was starting out he showed me Bill Doggett's "Honky Tonk" and Lonnie Mack's "Memphis" and some other instrumentals. Right away I was thinking of the guitar as a complete instrument, not just wailing solos. Guitar trios were popular then (SRV, Stray Cats, et al.) and now are something of an economic necessity, so this compact playing style has proven invaluable. Also he explained to me the difference between the old black guys and some of the white guys who never quite 'got it'; the hot players would accent the last note of every phrase whereas the 'vanilla' players always accent the first note. When you accent the last note it strengthens your phrasing and when you accent the first note your solos tend to meander. Later on I played bass with his Cincinnati-based Jump Blues outfit Jerry & the Hipswingers and that's where I learned to keep a working band on the road.

                            Jerry & the Hipswingers, J.J. Vicars with his father Jerry

What were the reasons that you started the Blues, Country Swing and and Rock n' Roll researches?

That was the music I grew up around before I started paying attention the popular music of the time. I always like that sound, that swinging driving rhythm with a pounding backbeat. It's the reason I get out of bed in the morning. As far as I'm concerned it's the reason the world exists. All of history leads up to that driving backbeat in my eyes!

How do you describe "Irreverent Dissident" songbook and sound? What has made you laugh from the studio sessions?

When I make an album I make an ALBUM, a complete work where each song is like a chapter in a book flowing from start to finish. Those songs all fit together in that order, same as my other albums. In the case of this particular album recording location and techniques defined the sound. We recorded in an old building built in 1928 and utilized the room acoustics. The rhythm section and I set up in a circle facing each other and played together live. My guitar went through several different amps and we blended them when we mixed the album. "Los Vatos in A" was only slightly different. I ran direct and we copied the track five times adding different preamps on each one bringing them in and out in the mix as the piece dictated. Different guitars were used as each song demanded. After the basic tracks were nailed and we had a rough mix then we overdubbed keys and horns.

The laugh inducers from the session were the sound effects. When we cut backing vocals for "Things I Need" Danny (piano) started goofing around making weird noises in between verses and Hugh (dobro) joined in. I about fell out of my chair! Fighting back tears of laughter I told them we're doing that on the record. We rolled a couple more takes and it was done. Same thing with the bonus track "Three-toed Midget". One night during the wee hours of the morning in a very intoxicated state the young lady on ukulele made a joke about writing a song about a three-toed midget. Of course none of us have ever seen a three-toed midget but the imagery is hilarious. We banged it out on the backporch while continuing our party. She tells me the demo clips she recorded on her phone are even funnier than what's on the album. Since I was in the middle of cutting an album I decided we should record it and include it as a bonus track with them on it. We cut it in a single night and the engineer who is also a close friend of ours played banjo. In fact that's a "neighborhood" song, I only wanted this very close group of friends playing on it. While mixing the engineer, Ritchie Kindler, started throwing the animal noises on there. He had this huge library of sound effects and some of the stuff we just threw in at random. That tie-fighter has nothing to do with anything. The background noises on "Outskirts of Town" were fun too but I can't divulge any of that. However, if you listen close you can probably catch a few things.

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

Albert Collins. I got to know him when I was a teenager and wherever he was playing was THE place to be. He was just so much fun to be around. That's what I miss, the fun. Everybody's so damn serious anymore. These so-called Blues "authorities" seem to have forgotten some important history; black people had a lousy time of it in this country and still do, playing Blues was a release from the inhumane conditions they lived under. As a result the music was transcendent and most of all FUN! Besides the release from Jim Crow conditions they didn't have that "will it play in Peoria" attitude that's prevalent in white culture, that need to sanitize everything and make it 'safe'. They let loose! That was what attracted me to the music in the first place, the sheer abandon of it. My hope is that the fun will return, the musicianship will rise back up again, it will be recognized as the fundamental part of American culture that it is, the originators will be recognized and revered, and it will move forward and evolve as a LIVING art form. My fear is that it will continue to degenerate into guitar and vocal histrionics devoid of melody and hooks and younger players and audiences will be completely unaware of where it all came from. Collectively we've got one foot in that mud pile already.

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

That's difficult to answer because there have been so many enjoyable experiences while all the bad experiences have been educational. No peak without valleys, as the old saying goes. One of the more interesting ones was doing an Internet search of myself and finding out that a lot of musicians who used to play with my group, including some I fired, were using me on their resume. A real high point for me came one day when I stepped back from everything I was working on and realized just how large and diverse a catalog I had amassed. Usually I deep into a project and busting my ass to make sure it's done right. Rarely do I reflect on it. But this time, for whatever reason, I was able to observe it all in a detached way and realized just about all of the things I set out to do musically. Of course I want to sell lots of records like any other musician but even if I sell nothing I have a good size catalog that I'm proud of. I find personal contentment in that.

Which is the most interesting period in your life and why?

Right now because I'm doing lots of things that I've wanted to do for a long time and are still somewhat new to me. I have a history now so when I say I want to branch out into some other area the idea is taken more seriously than it was several years ago. There was a low point about three years ago where some big plans fell through. I had a lot riding on them and when they fell through I was devastated. Quit playing for a year. But eventually the urge to make music overcame that. Since I was giving in to that urge and not making any big career moves I abandoned all thoughts of categorization, marketing, etc. and just did what I wanted to do because I wanted to do it. That was when I really discovered myself, musically and personally. I made three videos because I grew up during the MTV era so video always interested me. Then there was "Meltdown", the Surf instrumental single we released to raise money for survivors of the 3/11 earthquake & tsunami in Tohoku, Japan. Along the way I played some gigs at some interesting venues with a young crowd who didn't know much about the kind of music I play. Instead of analyzing the music they just boogied to whatever moved them. All of that was a slow comeback that led to what I'm doing now. The new album LONG WAY FROM HOME was half done and shelved back in '09 and this year we finished and released it. There are two videos and the first one is already up on YouTube. It stars Tara Tinsley who is a singer/ songwriter friend based in Nashville and for whom I'm currently in the middle of producing a 5-song EP. Producing other artists is another thing I've wanted to do for years and this EP is some of the best stuff either of us have done.

"My 'music dream' is to play in Europe. Been wanting to go there for years and still working on it! Happiness is seeing an idea fully realized."

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

The public's standards for good and bad music. More and more it seems that lowest common denominator is winning out. Country music is a perfect example. That "new Country" garbage is just that, manufactured garbage appealing to the lowest common denominator, to the worst aspects of our society. A lot of people who listen to that garbage don't like Hank Williams and I happily inform them that if they don't like Hank Williams they don't like Country, period! Pop music is another one. I never thought I'd live to see the day when a Pop song didn't have a hook. "Uptown Funk" a couple years ago and that new one from Portugal The Man, the one with the "Please, Mr. Postman" melody, tell me there's still hope. More than anything I'd like to see artists get the respect they deserve for creating something of cultural/social value. In a nation that thrives on instant gratification that often seems like a lot to ask.

How has the music business changed over the years since you first started in music?

Clubs don't hire entertainment as much as they used to, unless you're playing really cheesy covers. Used to be if you had a good Blues band or a good Rock 'n' Roll band there were gigs out there. Now it's more about playing Rock Star from the ground up, everything's gone the way of L.A. Hair Metal in the 80's. On the other hand, recording and releasing product has never been easier as has self-promotion. It's a trade-off and you just have to roll with the times and make the most of it.

What advice would you give to aspiring musicians thinking of pursuing a career in the craft?

Work. Play anywhere and everywhere you can. Be an all around musician. Play different styles of music. You don't have to excel at all of them but it's amazing how much you can learn other styles. I came to understand Miles Davis' famous line "play the spaces" when I was playing bass in an AC/DC-type Hard Rock band. Woodshed, learn music and learn your instrument inside and out. Hit the books. There's an overload of instructional material out there so take it one piece at a time with whatever resonates with you most at the moment. Learn stuff off records by ear. This is MUSIC, you have to train your ear. Go see the hot local players as much as possible. There's a lot to be learned firsthand there. And forget about being an artist, be an entertainer. If you have an identity and something to say it'll come through on its own. All the Blues greats were entertainers, they entertained the audience. And a lot of Jazz horn players started out walking the bar just like the R&B honkers.

Are there any memories from the late Albert Collins, which you’d like to share with us?

The overall lasting impression he made on me was that wherever he was playing that night was the coolest place in the world to be. When you got that you got it made. And he was a true gentleman. He taught by example and the people who knew him revere him to this day. 

Tell me about your meet with Albert Collins. What do you miss most nowadays from him?

I miss the feeling of that era. For me it was special beyond words. Discovering all that music for the first time, then seeing a lot of the original cats first hand, because a lot of them were still alive back then. Then meeting a lot of those guys, the majority of whom were really cool and such gentlemen despite all the stuff they had seen and endured during their lifetime. I was fortunate to experience all that during my formative years but the downside is that once that era passed a lot of stuff since then pales in comparison. And Albert had some really cool musicians in The Icebreakers; Johnny B. Gayden on bass who was also the house bassist for Alligator Records at the time, Soko Richardson on drums who played with Ike & Tina Turner, Eddie Hersch who went on to The Black Crowes and their best albums, Debbie Davies who's been touring and recording as a solo artist since, plus the horn section of Sam Franklin and Chuck Smith.

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

It will always be with us because it's at the heart of human experience. Listen to the rhythms, those are the rhythms of the Earth. Any art form has to be a LIVING art form or it's a dusty museum piece, so my wish is that it remains a living relevant art form. That's largely up to the musicians. I'm doing my part.

Tell me a few things about your meet with Big Jay McNeely, which memory from him makes you smile?

My dad played with him in the early 70's and when he came through town recently my dad just had to go and take me with him. He also had to take me with him. The show itself was smokin'. Big Jay came out from the back of the room and walked through the crowd to the stage while the band was playing. Walked through the crowd again at the end. He sits down now during the bulk of the show but, hey, he's 85 years old and still WAILING on that sax! I see guys nowadays in their 20's who can't keep up with him. He was doing a private after-tour gig at a small club and we were seated right to the side of the stage. He called me up to sing one line on one song, an audience participation thing. When he called me up to sing one with him I was elated. Living history, one of the real cats! I feel sorry for non-musicians, how many of them get to do something like this with someone they look up to?

                                                                            J.J. and Big Jay McNeely

What’s the best jam you ever played in? What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?

The best jam was when I drove up to Chicago from Indianapolis many years ago, not long after Albert Collins died, and sat in at an open jam hosted by the band Johnny B. Gayden was playing with at the time. I had known Johnny B. for several years but had never jammed with him. There were some heavyweight musicians up there and nobody ran me off, told me I sucked or threw tomatoes at me. I guess that means I did OK. One of the best gigs I did was at an after-hours club. This really hot chick was pouring her beer down my throat while we were playing. Since it was an after-hours place and we alternated sets with a DJ we partied with the audience. There's a video on Facebook from the third set where we're so loaded we can barely stand up and she jumps on stage mid-song and hangs all over me. Very proud of the fact that I didn't miss a beat!

Would you mind telling me most vivid memory from LONG WAY FROM HOME recording time?

The album LONG WAY FROM HOME was started during the summer of 2008. By February of 2009 it was half done and there was enough ongoing personnel problems that I had to pull the plug. It sat there until the beginning of 2012 when I decided I was finishing it once and for all come hell or high water. I took my board out to a show and recorded our set. First time I did engineering and I wound up engineering the rest of the sessions. While finishing my album I was also getting a hand on lesson in recording engineering. Fortunately I had knowledgeable friends to guide me. There was a studio session that yielded patchy results, two of the songs had to be rerecorded. It was a difficult album to make but it was educational and I realized my vision. Not too shabby. There was a 'soft release' in November, digital download. In February there will be a 'hard release', physical CDs with two bonus tracks not available for download. And we're looking at a live DVD/CD release in the future as well. Two songs from the first show made the album and the rest of the show is pretty good, plus we filmed it and the footage is really good. The DVD will be that show plus the two videos; the CD will be the audio from the show plus outtakes from the recording sessions.

What's been their experience from your shows in Japan? Why did you think that the Blues continues to generate such a devoted following in Asia?

Japan is a weird place for Blues and for music in general. Music is not the reason I came here but it's the reason I'm leaving. A lot of the venues have the attitude that they're doing you a favor by *allowing* you to play, to which I politely tell them to kiss my ass. I've burned a few bridges here and make no apologies for it. Playing in Beijing was much more fun.

You have played with many musicians and style. It must be hard, but which meets have been the biggest experiences for you? 

Hard? Not at all, these types of music a very closely related. Playing with Ron Brewer I learned how to arrange a rhythm section. I was the bassist and he would rehearse us HARD. At one point he rehearsed us two at a time in every possible combination (bass & vocals, drums & vocal, bass & lead guitar, etc.) and that was a real eye opener. When I played bass with my dad a couple years later I got a firsthand history lesson delving into the precursor of Rock 'n' Roll (Louis Jordan, Earl Bostic, etc.) and learned how to keep a working band on the road. C. Rex was a group in Austin where I developed my "lead guitar" abilities. Todd Moore is a really good songwriter. I'm recording a Country/American arrangement of one of those songs for my next album. Big Jay I only sat in with the one time. I never played with Albert. Word on the grapevine was I could sit in if I asked but I was too intimidated at that young an age to ask someone like him to let me sit in. One of my favorite side projects was The Hillbilly Resistance, a Rockabilly trio I recorded with in Phoenix, AZ back in '02. Years later I found some Mike Klunk demos, he wrote all the songs, added parts to them and uploaded them to my website along with the original recordings we did. Now I'm producing that 5-song EP for Tara Tinsley and it's pretty different for both of us. It's all comes down to two things; first, knowing your music history; second, listening to the song and finding what it needs.

When we talk about blues, we usually refer to memories and moments of the past. Apart from the old cats of blues, do you believe in the existence of real blues nowadays?

It'll never be what it was again because that time has passed. We don't live in the same world; we don't have the same experiences. Why write about riding the blinds if you've ever hopped a freight train? If you're purposely writing fiction then fine, but otherwise it's just cheesy. The music has to grow and evolve, it has to connect with the audience of today otherwise it's a relic of the past and not a living art form. Howard Glazer and Patrick Sweany are doing a pretty good job! At the same time our digital lives have left us somewhat cold, we don't have the personal interactions we used to, and there's a need to connect with timeless human experience. That's where the potential lies for this music to grow and evolve.

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

What it was and what it is are two different things. During the 60's people were putting their necks on the line standing up to a corrupt system that would rather wage war in distant lands than take care of its own people because there's money to made from war. There was the Civil Rights Movement. There was a whole generation of people that rejected the bigoted attitudes of previous generations and did something about it. They had guts! The 60's Blues revival came from that. Black people were still under the thumb of Jim Crow but when they played for a white audience they were revered. Racism was reversed for musicians, you were judged by how black you sounded not by how white. Protest songs came from every direction from Bob Dylan's "Masters Of War" to Jimi Hendrix's rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner". I haven't seen that kind of guts in a long time though I do believe it's on the upswing again, especially after the latest school shooting. Maybe there's another generation coming of age that has the guts to put their foot down and make a change. I hope that more musicians embrace this in their writing.

"Work. Play anywhere and everywhere you can. Be an all around musician. Play different styles of music. You don't have to excel at all of them but it's amazing how much you can learn other styles."

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

Houston in the 1940's. When people slap the retro label on you the 50's is the era that immediately springs to mind but I was more influenced and inspired by the 40's both in the music as well as the clothes and cars and so forth. Possibly because the era I grew up in and the era I live in now bear a closer resemblance to the 40's than the 50's. The 50's saw unprecedented economic prosperity, more spending power by teenagers, and the explosion of the suburbs. I grew up in the 80's when the decline began, starting with Reagan busting up unions, the whole swing to the far Right. Now it's in full force. The 40's were coming out of the Great Depression and into Word War Two. I have a pessimism that my parents can't understand. They've enjoyed all the benefits of the New Deal and the post-war economic boom, from the time I was old enough to be aware of such things I've watched all that erode.

Besides my general relating to the 40's Houston had a lot of good music going on then. T-Bone Walker, Lightin' Hopkins, Mance Lipscomb, Gatemouth Brown, and that's just the Blues guys! Western Swing was still popular music then. There are other times and places I'd like to visit for various reasons but if I had only one time machine choice that would be it.

Which things do you prefer to do in your free time? 

Vacations are for people who don't enjoy their work. I enjoy every aspect of being a musician; writing, recording, rehearsing, performing. Even making videos and designing album jackets, which is a whole other area of creativity. I don't do much else because there's so many things that need to be done and I enjoy all of them. At this moment I'm working on the design for the LONG AY FROM HOME jacket, finishing up another album of mine to be released kind of like a side project, working on the Tara Tinsley EP, planning out the shoot for the next video and preparing for a New Year's Eve gig with my dad and I as a two guitar team with a rhythm section. First time we've ever done that.

What is your music DREAM? Happiness is……

My 'music dream' is to play in Europe. Been wanting to go there for years and still working on it! Happiness is seeing an idea fully realized.

J.J. Vicars - Official website

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