Interview with Australian Hammond organ trio Lazy Eye Band -- Soul touch drenched in the Blues feeling

"The wonderful thing about the blues is it transcends race, gender, age and other social barriers. It brings people together."

Lazy Eye Band: Midnight Crossroads 

Lazy Eye is an Australian band full of Soul drenched blues. Think B.B. King sharing a scotch with Booker T at the crossroads after midnight. Enamouring crowds across the country since 2013, their debut album Move Me was awarded “Album Of The Year” at the South Australian Blues & Roots Awards. On the back of being awarded “Most Outstanding Group” at the same awards a year later, and “Blues Artist of the Year” at the Fowlers Live Music Awards, Lazy Eye has been named “Group Of The Year” at the 2015 National Blues Awards. Named the “Chain” awards after the legendary band, it is the highest accolade awarded to blues musicians in Australia. Winning the Adelaide Roots & Blues Association’s inaugural Memphis Blues Challenge in June will now see the trio performing in Memphis U.S.A. early 2016 at the International Blues Challenge.

Photos by Greg Fisher-Blues Illustrated, Sam Tilders, and Lazy Eye's archive / All rights reserved

Performing at festivals across the country, the Hammond organ trio features singer songwriter Evan Whetter on organ and harmonica, Erica Graf on guitar and Mario Marino on drums. With album "Single Malt Blues" (2015) debuting at number 1 on the Australian Blues & Roots Airplay Charts, the Adelaide based band have many more miles planned for their well travelled van. In October 2015 relesead an acoustic EP titled "Running Blind". Lazy Eye kicked 2016 off with a whirlwind trip across the South Pacific to the land where the Blues began. Upon reaching the quarter finals, the Hammond Organ Trio became the inaugural band to represent South Australia at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis, Tennessee. Following the competition, the band played one show only at the legendary B.B. King’s Blues Club on Beal Street, a highlight of the trip, before heading home thoroughly grounded in the blues. Returning from the United States, and finding themselves in a climate where crowd funding has become the method du jour, Lazy Eye opted for a different route when planning their fourth album, Pocket The Black (2016). An album that harmonises the energy of a live show with exquisite clarity, highlighting all the grits and gravy of a great blues performance.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the Blues/Soul culture and what does the blues mean to you?

Evan: To me the blues is life. The blues is primarily a folk music, which to me means its music about people, for the people. It’s a deep expression across the spectrum of the human condition.

Erica: To me, Blues is about life. It’s a way to express heart ache, it’s away to enjoy life and have a good time also. The blues sings about what really happens in relationships and can sometimes teach you about it. If I’m recalling correctly I think it was Buddy Guy and Junior Wells version of “Love her with a Feeling” the lyric says “You’ve got to love her with a feeling, or some other joker will……”

Mario: The Blues heals all my ailments. If I've had the worst day when I go to a gig by the end of the 1st set I've got a smile from ear to ear. The Blues is about life and its all around us. I've learnt to mean what I say and say what I mean and keep it simple. Be honest and true to yourself and you can't go wrong.

What were the reasons that the band started the Roots researches and what characterize band’s sound/songbook? What is the story behind the band’s name?

Evan: Initially I was exposed to the blues through artists like Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin but the great thing about those artists is they all pointed back to the source. We describe our sound as B.B. King sharing a scotch with Booker T at the crossroads after midnight.

Mario: The came from and song a friend wrote called Lazy Eye. We were quickly looking for a name and came up with it.

"The band's sound is centered around the Hammond B3 Organ. It is the classic Hammond organ trio sound that we have all, or at least I have loved for quite some time now. The bands' sound has its roots in tight arrangements with solid grooves that vary within the blues genre."

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

Evan: That’s a great question. It’s certainly had a massive impact on my life journey. I have a really deep respect for the pioneers of the blues on both a musical and personal level. Given a lot of what they had to endure from a social perspective, their legacy in the art they created has certainly shaped my worldview and helped give me empathy for people. It’s ironic that through their music and their suffering they’ve been able to make so many people feel so good. I love that about the blues.

Erica: Life happens, and life happens to everyone…and that’s ok.

Mario: When I think of blues music, the musicians and culture, it is a feeling of strength, courage, hope, honesty and triumph. From my perspective it is a vehicle for me to express my feelings with no filters and heals my soul, heart and mind as I pour it out on the stage. I feel that audiences can identify with the language and authenticity of my expression.

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

Evan: It’s been fantastic as we tour to become friends with so many wonderful artists and people in the industry around the world. I think some of the best advice came from Blues Hall of Famer and fellow South Australian Chris Finnen. “Never play a note you don’t believe in”.

Erica: There has been many but one stands out to me. When I was 15 or 16 years old I used to have guitar lessons at school and get a report at the end of a semester. I always liked reading my guitar lessons report the best because it was usually the one where they’d have a lot of good things to say about me, unlike other subjects. I turned to that page looking forward to reading a couple of paragraphs of feel good comments that would give my ego a boost only to find two words. “Keep going.” Initially I thought “Is that all!”, but then I thought, “He’s right” that’s all that needs to be said. I felt he believed in me but he was politely saying you’ve got a long way to go, you can do it, keep working on it. It made me pick up my game….and I’m still working on it.

Mario: I feel that all the people we meet and acquaintances that are made are important especially the ones have helped along the way. Relationships are at the heart of what we do. People and the experiences we share are priceless.  I was told to “value my time and Health is everything”. In musical terms – “always play for the feel first and foremost!”

"The blues has no boundaries and brings people together no matter what color or creed." (Photo by Greg Fisher - Blues Illustrated/All rights reserved - Evan Whetter, Erica Graf & Mario Marino)

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

Evan: Too many! The first blues jam I went to, I actually lugged my L100 Hammond organ and Leslie into. I was devastated when I was only able to play 3 songs. Looking back I can completely understand but it was also a lesson in humility… I had a lot to learn!

Erica: Yes. When we recorded Blue Tongue Blues on our recent album Single Malt Blues it was magic! This song was written only a couple of weeks before we went into the studio so we weren’t sure if it was even going to make it on the album. We brought in a good friend of ours and beautiful harmonica player Roger Smith to play on a couple of tracks. It was the morning of the recording and had just finished setting up. To tell you the truth I still wasn’t even ready and I think Mario was still adjusting things on his kit. Never the less, and as he often does, Evan just starting playing stuff! He creating an awesome gurgling, growling rumble. The type of sound you’d only ever hear coming from a Hammond Organ running through a couple of rotating Leslie speakers. Roger jumped on it, holding long notes with beautiful slow vibrato. The sound was so good I got goose bumps. There was a real cool energy in the room. Mario and I followed suit, with a press roll we kicked into a real ‘traveling on the open highway’ groove. It was totally spontaneous with no rehearsal. We’ve only ever recorded that song once with the four of us and that’s what you hear on Single Malt Blues. Thank goodness we had the brilliant Gabriel Agostino at the sound desk otherwise the moment may have never been recorded. It was the first song for the session and he had no warning that we were about to play something. Gabs was on the ball and captured it beautifully and had it sounding great after the first take. I still get goose bumps every time I hear the opening few seconds of Blue Tongue Blues.

Mario: I have so many memories of lots of gigs, jams and recording sessions and they are all special in their own way. The reaction of the crowd sticks out in my mind. There was one time we played at the Seal Bay music Festival on Kangaroo Island and the reaction of one audience member was over the top and we often refer to that and have a laugh amongst ourselves.

How do you describe Pocket The Black sound and songbook? What characterize album’s philosophy?

Evan: Although all of our recordings have been live in the studio, this was the first time we had an audience. Pocket The Black is definitely the closest we’ve come to capturing what we do on stage on a recording. Other than setting out to create the best blues album we could, the conversation between artist and audience is what this record is all about.

Erica: One of the main philosophy’s behind Lazy Eye’s songwriting is to always write original material that is authentic to us while using the blues vernacular. It’s an art to write a great blues tune and we love exploring it. A quote by German philosopher, Goethe, I feel sums up our approach and the blues in general “It is within limitations that mastery reveals itself.”

What are the lines that connect Lazy Eye band’s sound from "Single Malt Blues" (2015) to “Pocket The Black”?

Mario: The band's sound is centered around the Hammond B3 Organ. It is the classic Hammond organ trio sound that we have all, or at least I have loved for quite some time now. The bands' sound has its roots in tight arrangements with solid grooves that vary within the blues genre.

"When I think of blues music, the musicians and culture, it is a feeling of strength, courage, hope, honesty and triumph. From my perspective it is a vehicle for me to express my feelings with no filters and heals my soul, heart and mind as I pour it out on the stage. I feel that audiences can identify with the language and authenticity of my expression."

Are there any memories from Pocket The Black studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

Evan: One of my favorite memories from the sessions was from during the take that went on the album of “Treat Your Lover Right”. I love playing harmonica but would never call myself a harmonica player as such. My mentor Roger Smith, also a member of the Blues Hall Of Fame, was sitting about 4 feet away. I could tell he was really enjoying it but it didn’t stop me from feeling nervous. In the end I just shut my eyes and played.

Erica: To tell you the truth I think it was more the lesson I got from the experience rather than a specific memory. You really expose where you’re truly at as a musician when you commit to recording a live show that will be then heard by the rest of the world. There are no over dubs and no stopping and starting. What it is, it is.  It’s a life long journey playing music and I will never stop trying to get better. However, you have to know when you have to put into action what you already know. Sometimes it’s time to act and you have to step into your “role” just as you are right now. At these times it’s your attitude that can make the difference.

Mario: Definitely having a small live audience in the studio was different and added an energy to the recording that was captured on the album.

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

Evan: I don’t really miss anything, but I do go searching for the experience of seeing great artists in great venues. Of course we’ve lost so many amazing people that I would love to have had the opportunity of seeing but there’s no shortage of brilliant blues acts to catch, that’s for sure.

Erica: What I miss is that I didn’t get to experience firsthand B.B. Kings band in the 60’s or see Freddie King live, or see Buddy Guy and Junior Wells perform together.(just to name a few greats.) I don’t really have any fears for music of the future because I choose how I like to experience music and what music I listen to. I don’t waste my time with music I don’t like. My hope for the future is that we, as a band get better at playing and delivering this form of music called blues. In the process, I hope we find more and more people that connect with what we do and that we can help them feel good when they listen to our music.

Mario: I miss the mystique of the artist and the music. I have fears of where our culture and society as a whole is heading. Everything revolves around the mighty dollar and the result of that on life and music scares me.     (Photo by Sam Tilders, 2014 / All rights reserved)

"To me the blues is life. The blues is primarily a folk music, which to me means its music about people, for the people. It’s a deep expression across the spectrum of the human condition."

Make an account of the case of the blues in Australia. Which is the most interesting period in local blues scene?

Evan: I’d have to say the most interesting period for Australian Blues is now. We still have most of the pioneers of Australian blues living with us, plus a healthy blues scene around the country. We’re very exited to be a part of it!

Erica: I think the most interesting period in the local blues scene is happening right now! People now, more than ever have access to and are exposed to lots of music and footage of blues musicians as a result of the internet and you tube. Therefore, more people are being educated and becoming enthusiasts and other people are being inspired to play the blues. I believe we’re coming into a time where people want music and an experience that is authentic and organic. Perhaps it’s a rebelling against the over manufactured and contrived media we are constantly exposed to. Perhaps, it’s also the reason why vinyl records out sold DVD’s last year?

New people are discovering blues for the first time every day. In Australia currently, there is a steady stream of blues specific festivals happening all year round. There is a strong network of blues community radio stations that is growing here in Australia. There are new blues associations forming all over the country. The most recent ones that I’m aware of are in Adelaide and Wollongong. Adelaide had an overwhelming audience attendance to it’s first ever Memphis Challenge in June (2015) that was successfully run by the Adelaide Roots and Blues Association (ARBA). Longer established blues clubs are holding regular blues jams. One very successful one is run by the Melbourne Blues Appreciation Society (MBAS) in West Melbourne. They pack out the Royal Standard Hotel every Tuesday with a waiting list of people who want to get up and play. Aussies love their blues and I believe popularity for the tradition is growing.

Mario: Australian blues is Kicking Arse! There are so many awesome artists and the scene is growing bigger and better all the time. In Adelaide the 90"s were particularly great for the blues scene.             

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues/Soul from United States and UK to Australia?

Evan: The people that spring to mind are Dutch Tilders, The Foreday Riders & Chris Finnen.  But as I mentioned, a lot of the big rock acts of the 70’s did a great job of shining a torch on the great American artists.

Erica: I’m still a student of the blues so in no way do I pretend to be an expert. These are just my experiences. I believe rock music plays a big a part in connecting Australia to the UK and the US with blues music. I’ve had many conversations with people who discover blues through listening to bands such as Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones and Australian bands such as Chain (these are just some examples). Through these artists they discovered guys like Howling Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters and so the journey into the blues world starts.

Mario: US and UK music are the biggest influences on Australian musicians the connection lies in the music. Listening, learning it, feeling it and ultimately living it.

"My hope for the future is that we, as a band get better at playing and delivering this form of music called blues. In the process, I hope we find more and more people that connect with what we do and that we can help them feel good when they listen to our music." (Photo by Sam Tilders, 2014)

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from the local music circuits?

Evan: Just spending time on the road with a great group of people, we have a lot of laughs. I was particularly touched when a blind lady came up to us after a show at a festival and purchased everything we had to sell. She clearly didn’t have a lot of money but had been visibly moved by our performance. It was very humbling but that’s why we go out on the road. You remember things like that.

Erica: We have only just started touring the Australian blues circuit so we’ve only been on the scene for a couple of years. In that short time I’ve come to know and have been touched by the generosity and spirit of an Adelaide based musician called Chris Finnen. He is a very accomplished musician and great entertainer. If you ask Australians about South Aussie blues Chris Finnen’s name would be the first to come up. He lives in a humble and modest life yet is a huge giver. There is a story of a friend of ours, a fantastic blues guitarist from Melbourne named Gregg Dodd who runs a charity organisation called ‘Blues for Lost Souls’. ‘Doddy’ (as we call him) has selflessly helped a lot of homeless people. As a personal thank you from Chris, Greg unexpectedly received a large package on his doorstop one day. To Greg’s surprise he was excited to discover a brand new Fender Stratocaster! Something he’d been wanting for a long while. I don’t think Chris was going to tell Greg who it was from but Greg worked it out. I have no idea how he afforded it but I guess Chris felt it was important that Greg be recognised and rewarded for his efforts and big heart.

Mario: What touches me emotionally is the blues community. Their passion, love and devotion to the music the players and the punters.

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

Evan: That’s the toughest question yet. I’d have to say the one thing I would change would be me. There’s always that gap between where you want to be and where you actually are. That’s a part of what keeps us going. The best thing is we’re so fortunate to be able to do this thing we love, and I get to wake up everyday and do exactly that… work on changing me.

Erica: Anyone that has ever thought that they would liked to learn and instrument, and haven’t, or already do play but would like to write their own songs, and haven’t, to do it whole heartedly. I believe everyone has their own genius to offer but so often so many people never discover it because of fear of failure or rejection. Lack of persistence can sometimes be the case, perhaps they tried it once and they were bad at it (which is actually really normal) as a result they get discourage too easily and quit. How many times have you heard someone say, “If only I’d stuck at it, I’d probably be pretty good at it by now”. What great music has been literally taken to the grave that never had the chance to be realized.

Mario: Bring back the time when the best quality music created by the best musicians who played the best acoustic instruments was popular music.

"Blues is about life. It’s a way to express heart ache, it’s away to enjoy life and have a good time also. The blues sings about what really happens in relationships and can sometimes teach you about it." (Photo: Evan Whetter, Mario Marino & Erica Graf jammin acoustic on stage)

What does to be a female artist in a “Man’s World” as James Brown says? What is the status of women in Blues?

Erica: As a kid when I started learning guitar I just thought I was entering the ‘Music World’, which I was very excited about. It’s a good thing no-one told me it was a ‘Man’s World’ otherwise I may never have started.            

What is the impact of Blues & Soul music and culture to the racial and socio-cultural implications?

Evan: The wonderful thing about the blues is it transcends race, gender, age and other social barriers. It brings people together.

Erica: The impact of Blues & Soul music or any music for that matter is that it has the power bring people together. Done in the right way music can be a great vehicle to help empower people.

Mario: The blues has no boundaries and brings people together no matter what color or creed.

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

Evan: 1965 in Chicago. At one club I catch a set from Muddy Waters, then head across town to catch B.B. King at another joint. When B.B. finishes we head to a late show and see Junior Walker with Buddy Guy. After some late night greasy food I head down to a club to catch the dawn show with Howlin’ Wolf where he plays for all the guys coming of the night shift at the steel mill.

Erica: I would love to share a meal and have real long conversation with B.B. King, Howling Wolf and Freddie King, so that I could learn as much from them as I could. I’m hoping I will have an opportunity to do so with Buddy Guy.

Mario: The cross roads where it all began… What really did happen? USA in the 20's to the 70's the golden age for music. This is when magic happened musically. I would want to live through that era in the USA.

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