Austrian multi-instrumentalist Christian Dozzler talks about his versatile & respected career on the blues

"The Blues is real, it’s life. Everybody who is sensitive enough feels the powerful, basic, savage force behind it."

Christian Dozzler: Two Meters of Blues

Christian Dozzler from Vienna, Austria is regarded as one of the most versatile and respected European blues musicians. The multi-instrumentalist (vocals, piano, harmonica, organ, accordion), a.k.a. "Two Meters of Blues" because of his 6’7" height, has been performing all over the world for over 30 years, can be heard on some 40 blues CDs, and has made the US his home in 2000.
It all began, when he heard boogie woogie on the radio for the first time at age 13. He immediately quit his classical piano lessons and dove head-on into the world of blues and boogie woogie. In his first band a few years later, he also played guitar and harmonica besides piano and vocals. Later, he added the accordion in the cajun/zydeco style.
For nearly 10 years, Christian was the co-frontman of Austria's highly reputed Mojo Blues Band. Working with a long list of US-blues artists on their European tours has widened his musical horizon and made him an experienced player in several different styles of blues music. From 1993 till 2000 he took his own band Blues Wave on the road all over Europe, and released 4 CDs that received international critical acclaim.
In the year 2000, Christian moved to the US to further his career. For 2 years he toured the world with Louisiana based blues man Larry Garner, before settling in the Dallas/Ft. Worth, TX area. Here he has continued his solo career and released his fifth CD "All Alone And Blue" in 2003, going back to his personal roots in solo piano blues and boogie woogie, followed in 2008 by “The Blues And A Half” with all original songs, and accompanied by some of the finest Texas blues guitar players: Anson Funderburgh, Mike Morgan, Jim Suhler, and Hash Brown.
In the Blues Critic Awards 2008, Christian Dozzler was nominated for “Best Blues Keyboardist”. And 2009 found him recording the highly acclaimed duo CD “Livin’ Life” with Canadian singer Robin Banks. These days, Christian Dozzler performs mostly solo on both sides of the Atlantic, but also frequently works with Texas bluesmen like Anson Funderburg or Mike Morgan.


Interview by Michael Limnios

 

What do you learn about yourself from the music, what experiences in your life make you a good musician?
Maybe it takes a certain mindset, a sensibility and vulnerability to make your music interesting for other people? I am by nature a shy person and music is the way I can express myself best.  If it wasn’t for music, I probably would have a hard time doing anything in front of a lot of people. But as long as I have an instrument with me I feel safe and have something to say.
Also, I like to listen and observe, in every life situation. And that is very important in a band context as well. You have to listen to what everybody in the band is doing and intuitively react to it or even anticipate it. How you accompany a singer or soloist is just as –if not more- important than what you do on your own solo. That’s the biggest problem with a lot of “wannabe” musicians, they don’t listen to what’s going on stage, and they just concentrate on themselves. Most of the greatest musicians, at least the ones that I respect, are also good accompanists. Because they do whatever the song needs, not what boosts their ego.

How do you describe Christian Dozzler sound and progress, what characterize your music philosophy?
I come from a rather puristic blues attitude, but my taste has opened up to a much wider spectrum over the years. While many blues musicians of my generation, especially here in the US, have started with rock music and then went back to the roots, I actually started with 1930s piano blues and boogie woogie and then chronologically went up in the blues history with the styles I listened to and tried to play. I still don’t like rock blues very much, though, especially when I have the feeling that the musician has not studied the roots enough. But I myself try to play a wide variety of different styles within the blues framework, write much of my own material and avoid overplayed standards that everybody else plays too. In my choice of songs that I cover, I look for the hidden gems: great songs that are not so well known.

 

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about the blues music?
I can’t really point out one particular influence. I was lucky enough to meet and play with many blues legends early on in my career. Everybody had his own stories, advice and wisdom, and everybody may have influenced me in their own way.
As far as musical influences: some were obvious, I sat down and tried to copy what somebody played, that’s just a part of the normal learning process in the beginning of your career that will eventually shape your own style. You mix up the phrases and styles you have studied and develop something new and personal out of it. Then there are subconscious influences. Sometimes when I hear a record that I have not listened to in many years, I might hear somebody play a phrase that I also use. And I go, aha! THAT’S where I got that from, and I thought I had invented that!

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?
Probably both would apply to me leaving the Mojo Blues Band in 1993. It was quite a turning point in my life. I left one of the most successful blues bands in Europe at the time, that I had helped build. And I basically had to start again from almost zero. But I just had to do it for my own sanity and happiness, so I never regretted it. I would not be where and who I am today otherwise.

 

You’re a multi-instrumentalist, what is the difference between to any instrument as to the feeling?
When I still lived in Europe and had my Blues Wave, and before that in the Mojo Blues Band, I used to switch between my instruments on equal parts during a show. It was interesting how my preference sometimes would change from one instrument to the other.  My favorite instrument would change from time to time; I’m not sure what the reason was for that. Ever since I moved to the States, the piano has become my main instrument. Probably 98% of what I play now is piano. The piano is very versatile; you can play melody, harmony and rhythm at the same time. It is therefore easier to lead a band from a piano than any other instrument. The harmonica is very expressive, it is almost like singing. You can have a lot of freedom playing the harmonica, if you have a band behind you that knows what they’re doing. The accordion is often misunderstood by people, because it appears in almost every folk music in the world. My influence, of course, is the Zydeco music. But I think it is a great instrument to solo on, I often use saxophone or organ phrases in my accordion solos, I think.

How has the music business changed over the years since you first started in music?
That’s hard to generalize, because it may be different in different places, and it probably depends on the style of music you play. The CD/album sales have gone down drastically over the last decade or so. It used to be that buying an album was the only way for you to listen to the music at home. Now you can download it, listen anytime on internet radio, watch it for free on YouTube, you don’t need to necessarily own a product anymore. And especially in a niche market like the Blues, this has the effect that it almost makes no sense anymore to produce a CD. In the 90s I used to break even with the production costs within 6-8 months, now it might take 2 years or more. The particular problem that Blues and also Jazz seems to have worldwide is also that our audience is growing too old –like we are. There are not enough young people coming up who are interested in our style of music to fill the gap.

 

What advice would you give to aspiring musicians thinking of pursuing a career in the craft?
As the saying goes: Τhe best way to become a millionaire with music is to start out with 2 millions. I would recommend not to set your mind on becoming a pro too early. You have to develop your skills and experience and your knowledge about the music thoroughly. And you have to find out for yourself if you are cut out for the job, because you will have to make a lot of sacrifices, financially, family life, etc. Enthusiasm alone will not get you any further, but it is an absolutely essential ingredient. Don’t do it to get rich, because you won’t. A very small percentage of people who play music, no matter how good they are, are actually able to make a living of it. It has a lot to do with luck, being in the right place at the right time and meeting the right people. So it helps to get out of your closet and move around a lot.

You have played with many bluesmen. It must be hard, but which meet have been the biggest experiences for you?
What will always have a big place in my memories was the “Stars Of Boogie Woogie” tour in early 1985. I was with the Mojo Blues Band part of a tour package consisting of Katie Webster, Little Willie Littlefield, Big Jay McNeely and Axel Zwingeberger. I had just recently joined the band and it was my first big international tour. We travelled in a big tour-bus through 7 or 8 European countries for 6 weeks. It was quite an experience to “live” with those legends on a daily basis. I heard a lot of great stories and learned a lot.

 

Are there any memories from the road with the blues, which you’d like to share with us?
There are, of course, many road stories after over 30 years of doing it. But most would take too long to tell, and some better remain untold.

 

From the musical point of view is there any difference and similarity between the local blues scenes in US?
I don’t know so many local scenes from the inside. But all I can say is that the music scenes everywhere in the US have got hit really hard by the declining economy over the last 10 years. It started going down after 9/11, people became careful with spending their money and a lot of clubs had to shut down. We all are playing more and more at restaurants now rather than Blues clubs, because they all disappeared. I have seen a lot of excellent musicians not being able to make a living anymore and having to get a day job. You would be surprised how many, even of the well known blues artists that you see touring in Europe, have to do that on their vacation time from their day job. Chicago may be an exception, because there are Blues fans from all over the world coming particularly to see live music. That keeps the scene alive. In other cities like Austin it is so bad that even though some of the most talented musicians live there, they cannot make any money locally anymore. Many clubs don’t pay the bands; they just play for tips a lot of times.

 

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’s because the Blues is real, it’s life. Everybody who is sensitive enough feels the powerful, basic, savage force behind it. I can only hope that more young people, in spite of all the distractions from the internet, cable TV and superficial pop culture, would get a chance to discover the heartbeat of the blues.

 

What is the best advice a bluesman ever gave you?
I can think of one that is as funny as it is true: You must wear nice shoes on stage if you’re playing the blues! Nobody can play good blues wearing tennis shoes. (Jerry Portnoy)

 

What’s the best jam you ever played in? What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?
That’s hard to answer. Generally, I try to avoid “open jams” where the music is often terrible, honestly.  It is a good way to meet other musicians, though, when you’re new in a town. But I like jamming with other musicians after a festival, or sitting in with other bands that I know and like. Those kinds of jams can have some great moments. But maybe the most fun I had was at an organized jam at the Salmon Arm Festival in Canada a few years ago. It was part of the program and they just sat 6 or 7 individual musicians on a stage in a half circle and watched what happened. We took turns leading songs and everybody sounded great. There was Terry Hanck, Paul Rishell, Kid Anderson, Hans Theessink and a few others in that jam band. But out of the probably 5.000 or more gigs that I’ve played in my life it is hard to pick out a special one. It is always an honor to play with a legend or somebody you have admired for many years, that’s for sure.

 

Make an account for current realities of the case of the blues in Austria. What is the “feel” you miss most nowadays from 70s & 80s Austrian blues scene?
I cannot speak for the Austrian blues scene anymore, really. I have been gone for 12 years now, and even though I’m there twice a year to tour, I don’t really have the insight into what is going on. From what I see, it’s the same problem as everywhere: not enough young audience or players, the money is still the same or even less than 15 or 20 years ago. Most of the key clubs that used to be the meeting points of the scene are gone. We musicians used to “live” in those clubs. We watched each other play, saw international acts coming through and learned from them. And in those long nights many new bands were formed and many a blues song was written or inspired. And, of course, we all were young!

 

Which is the most interesting period in your life and why?
Always the presence! I’m always curious how things will develop, how I will be able to solve a certain problem and where my journey will take me. I’ll have to say, I have been lucky so far in my life, though. There was always an UP after every DOWN, and every time one door closed a new one opened for me eventually. Moving to the US, of course, was a big step. I had planned to come here for 2-3 years, just for the experience. Now it is 12 years later, and I’m still here. Looks like I’m staying.

 

Do you know why the sound of piano is connected to the New Orleans blues?
I can imagine that it’s because there just were so many pianos around in New Orleans. Being a port town with a big entertainment district, every bar and whore-house that wanted to entertain their patrons had to have a piano. It was the cheapest form of entertainment to hire just a solo piano player. It is a versatile instrument and a guitar would not have been loud enough in a noisy bar. Also, there was a lot of European influence in New Orleans and for the families (white as well as Creole), who could afford it, it was like a status symbol to own a piano among other nice furniture. So, many kids grew up getting piano lessons. That’s why they started calling the piano players the “Professors”, because they often were the only members in a band, who had a formal musical education.

 

What are the secrets of blues harp?
I think the harmonica is a very personal instrument. Because of its size and practically being “in your mouth”, and you breathe through it, it sometimes becomes like a part of your body. It is probably closer to the human voice than any other instrument. And also the fact that you cannot show anybody things on a harmonica, like you can on a piano or guitar, makes it special. Everything actually happens inside your body and is also influenced by your personal anatomy. So, you can get some advice on how to play, but at the end you’ll have to figure everything out yourself.

 

How do you describe your contact to people when you are on stage?
That may be different everywhere I go. In Europe, generally people are more willing to listen. They pay a cover charge just to see you play and are ready to be taken on a musical journey. The blues is something “exotic” and special and the audience is often very knowledgeable about the blues. You can build up your show, tell stories or explain songs, and get people in a certain mood with your choice of songs. There is a respect for the artist on stage. In the US, the situation is different most of the time. There is free live music on every corner, blues is an every-day thing that everybody grew up with, and most people cannot even distinguish between good and mediocre musicians or real and fake. They want to be entertained, dance and have a good time, and often don’t even care who the person on the bandstand is. So that’s a completely different approach for the musician. You can guess which one I prefer.

 

What is your “secret” BLUES DREAM? Happiness is……
Wouldn’t it be nice if the blues would suddenly experience a big revival? Imagine teenagers getting pulled into the magic of the blues and flocking to blues concerts with open mouths and big eyes, like I did in 1972. I got to thinking recently: I am now rapidly approaching the age of some of the “really old blues guys” that I went to see back in the 70s. Of course, those were some of the inventors of the music we love; I don’t want to compare myself to them. But it would be nice to pass the music on to a new generation. To some 14 year old kid that sits out there, thinking: man, this guy could be my grandfather, but it sure gives me the goose-bumps when I hear him play. I want to do that too!


Christian Dozzler's official website

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