Interview with Belgian singer/harp player Steven Troch - embraces the blues sound with different influences

"The pleasure lies not only in finding it but in the journey, meeting kindred spirits and searching for all the pieces of the puzzle. The same with blues, the deeper you dig the more you realize that you’ll never be able to really fully understand it."

Steven Troch: Belgian Blues Torch

Steven Troch is singer and harp player for the highly appreciated Belgian band "FRIED BOURBON". He draws inspiration from harp masters Big Walter Horton, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson II and Gary Primich, William Clarke, Steve Baker & Joe Filisko. Steven embraces the exciting blues sounds of Chicago and combines that with different influences, always adding his own personal touch. In 2012 he was the winner of David Barrett’s “King of Swing Contest” and had the honor to share the stage with Mark Hummel, Charlie Musselwhite, Billy Boy Arnold, Sugar Ray Norcia, Curtis Salgado and David Barrett during “Mark Hummel’s Harmonica Blowout” at Yoshi’s Jazzclub in Oakland, USA.

After seeing the movie “Crossroads” which features Ry Cooder’s music with Sonny Terry on blues harp, Steven became interested in different forms of American roots music. Ry’s slide had send shivers up and down his spine and Sonny Terry’s howling harp sound haunted him late at night. Instead of going to the crossroads to sell his soul to the devil he went to the local music shop to buy a harmonica. In 1993 Steven bought his first harmonica, a Hohner Special 20 in G, and soon the instrument would play an important role in his future live. 2 years later he was fronting his first band and after winning a local talent show Steven was playing 30 shows a year. In 2001 he joined forces with guitar player and kindred spirit Tim Ielegems to form blues and boogie band “Fried bourbon”. Soon the band impressed critics and audiences alike with its straight-ahead blues and boogie music and it's been noted for its own interpretations of blues material. They've played in Belgium, The Netherlands, Luxembourg, France and Germany and backed up several international blues artists.

Troch had the pleasure to share the stage with the great James Harman, New York Skaband The Slackers, bluespianist Gene Taylor, Atlanta bluesman Bill Sheffield, Bill Abel, Tim Lothar, John Primer, Joe Buddy, John Németh, Hugh Pool, David Hillyard & the Rocksteady 7, Joe Filisko & Eric Noden,  Bluesguru Roland Van Campenhout, Mandy Gaines, New Jersey beatnik  Vic Ruggiero, Bill Barrett and Ryan Donohue, Rene Trossman Little Victor, Nublues and others.  Steven has recorded for and at the Belgian national television & radio, and appeared as a guest musician on recordings by others. He gives harmonica workshops on a regular base and is cofounder of the “Belgian Harmonica Fanatics” meet up group.

Interview by Michael Limnios

Photos by Steven Troch's archive / Hohner, All rights reserved

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

It’s like searching for the Holy Grail. The pleasure lies not only in finding it but in the journey, meeting kindred spirits and searching for all the pieces of the puzzle. The same with blues, the deeper you dig the more you realize that you’ll never be able to really fully understand it. The bluesmen and songs that I discovered when I was 17 struck me like lightning and more than 20 years later they still have a strong emotional meaning.

 

"I can easily tell when I hear somebody playing that he learned the music from the originaters or from some “How to play the Blues in 10 lessons” handbook. For me many bluesrockers really killed the genre because blues is not about long or fast solos."

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

I don’t really consider myself a bluesman but someone who uses the blues tradition to write songs with. It’s a strange phenomenon that a white middle-aged middle class European is uses elements from a totally different culture and era in his songs. Fortunately I’m not the only one doing it and blues has influenced songwriters and musicians all over the globe.  

How do you describe Steven Troch sound and progress, what characterize your music philosophy?

I have very different influences and listened to many styles of music. Some of my favorite (non blues) musicians/bands are Tom Waits, Louis Jordan, Jimi Hendrix, Southern Culture on the Skids, Sam Cooke, Paul Weller, Nick Lowe, The Slackers etc. I’m not a 100% Chicago blues or 100% West Coast harp player although I listened and studied those styles, I’m also a big reggae, soul and country lover. And as much as I love Little Walter as a harmonica player, I’m not a big fan of all his lyrics and as much as I like Dylan as a songwriter, I hate most of his harmonica playing. My music philosophy: Mix different influences together and maybe you’ll come up with something interesting.

Which is the most interesting period in your life? Which was the best and worst moment of your career?

All periods have been interesting in different ways. I remember playing my first paid live shows in 1995. The first TV show I did with my band in 1996. The 2 year period I played with “Dirty Dogs” was great, but the 14 years I played with and fronted “Fried Bourbon was by far the most determining in my entire music career. Fried Bourbon holds many of my best and my worst moments and it was very hard to give up the band after many years of hard work but it turned out to be a necessary evil. On the other hand working on my upcoming solo album has also been very interesting and liberating. But becoming an endorsee of Hohner Harmonicas for me was one of the greatest honors that I could achive as a harmonica player and probably the best moment in my career.

"Today a lot of music which is labeled as blues has little or nothing to do with the original traditional blues. I think that a lot of so called blues musicians hardly ever listen/listened to the real deal."

Why did you think that the Blues music continues to generate such a devoted following?

In Belgium there was a big blues boom in the mid nineties, there were many bands but the last 5 years the situation has changed. Nowadays the scene is smaller and it has become more like one big family where everybody knows each other. There’s still a vibrant blues scene in Belgium/Holland with cool bands and in other countries in Europe blues is becoming more popular which is great. I think it always will have its ups and downs.

Do you remember anything funny from recording or during show time?

Well, I blew up my Silvertone amp while we were recording “Turn your damper down”, It happened in the last 15 seconds you could hear the amp struggle the last minute and then PUFF, gone. Almost an indescribable experience was getting dressed up before a show with Little Victor. Little Victor acted as my stylist, hairdresser and cosmetologist and was giving me personal tips. “The do’s and don’ts of stage presence” by Little Victor. Victor should write a book or at least start a blog.

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

The jam I did at the end of Mark Hummel’s Harmonica Blow Out was mind blowing. I shared the stage with Charlie Musselwhite, Billy Boy Arnold, Sugar Ray Norcia, Curtis Salgado, David Barrett, Mark Hummel, Rusty Zinn, Billy Flin, RW Grisby, June Core & Little Charlie Baty. I also have fine memories jamming with The Nightcats: Lorenzo Farrell, Kid Andersen and J. Hansen in Germany. One time, during a festival in Holland, I walked on stage to get my microphone stand and ended up jamming with a completely wasted Ian Siegal who fell asleep during the song. I confess I was a bit drunk too.

"My music philosophy: Mix different influences together and maybe you’ll come up with something interesting." (Photo: Steven Troch & Rod Piazza, jammin' on stage)

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice ever given you?

Going to Steve Baker’s Masterclass in Trossingen and meeting so many great and wonderful harp players from around the globe was important to me. Belgian blues guru Roland once told me: “Don’t try to rush things, one day you’ll be where you want to be now, but you’ll have to give it time”. 

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

Today a lot of music which is labeled as blues has little or nothing to do with the original traditional blues. I think that a lot of so called blues musicians hardly ever listen/listened to the real deal. Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, Little Walter, Patton, Son House, Roosevelt Sykes, Victoria Spivey, Fred McDowell, Alberta Hunter, Magic Sam, Buddy Guy and so on, these are the people were the original thing comes from. I can easily tell when I hear somebody playing that he learned the music from the originaters or from some “How to play the Blues in 10 lessons” handbook. For me many bluesrockers really killed the genre because blues is not about long or fast solos.

Which memory from Joe Filisko and Bill Barrett makes you smile?

Joe (Filisko) is such a great lovable guy. Always takes his time to listen, compliment, guide and help harmonica players. When I think of Joe, I get a smile on my face. Bill Barrett, he’s a character, very intelligent, very musically and very funny guy. He’s always searching for that moment between “a shot and a beer”.

Do you know why the sound of harmonica is connected to the blues? What are the secrets of?

The first harmonicas were sold in Vienna, Austria in the early 19th century and they were more considered to be a novelty instruments. The German company Hohner is probably the first who started exporting them to the USA en masse were it quickly became much more popular than in Europe. Thanks to the pre-blues players later on the harmonica became a prominent instrument in the blues. Also because it was cheap and you could imitate vocal styles and other instruments on the harmonica. Especially the “Marine Band” harmonica has been the favorite harp, to this day, to many great players. In the early 20th century the black harmonica player Deford bailey became a big country star in the Grand Ole Opry. In the 50’ties Little Walter revolutionized the instrument by playing through an amp and made it sound like a saxophone.  There always have been players who took the instrument and did something new and/or exciting in the blues (Wilson, Clarke, Delay, Primich, Filisko, Ricci, Gruenling).

Yes, I’ve unraveled some off his secrets but it still holds a lot of secrets to me.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of USA blues culture with European blues scene?

Since the early 1940’s a handful Belgians, who were very passionate about the music, have tried to capture the magic of the blues. When Bill Broonzy first arrived in Europe on July 18, 1951, in Brussels, Belgium, he met Belgian jazz critic and blues enthusiast Yannick Bruynoghe and began participating in one of the most important musical exchanges in twentieth century American history. In the late forties Bruynoghe had already participated in blues pilgrimages to the United States’ famous blues cities to uncover the origins of both genres. Another Belgian blues enthusiast was photographer George Adins. Adins stayed sometime in Chicago at Muddy Waters. Muddy took the Belgian blues fan George Adins to see James play in Chicago in 1959, Adins recalled, Elmore will always remain the most exciting, dramatic blues singer and guitarist that I've ever had a chance to see perform in the flesh. His singing was... fed, reinforced by his own guitar accompaniment which was as rough, violent and expressive as was his voice. You just couldn't sit still! You had to move... George Adins made some famous pictures of Elmore James, Rice Miller and Sleepy John Estes and recordings in the clubs of Chicago.

The first blues lovers interest was very real but also very academic. The British blues boom with bands like The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, The Animals and the American Folk Blues festivals reached a much bigger audience. One of the first electric blues bands in Belgium was “Roland and The Blues workshop”.

"In Belgium there was a big blues boom in the mid nineties, there were many bands but the last 5 years the situation has changed. Nowadays the scene is smaller and it has become more like one big family where everybody knows each other." 

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

The period that bands like Mambo Chillum, The Electric Kings, The Seatsniffers and Elfish were part of the scene was very interesting. These four Roots/Blues bands had their own thing going and they all had their own personal strengths. Most of them were young guys in their twenties and the music was rooted in the music from the fifties and sixties. I learned a lot from these guys and they influenced many roots influenced bands from my generation.

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

12 May 1952: Universal Recorders studio at 111 E. Ontario St. near the north side of Chicago:  Jimmy Rogers is tuning his guitar; Elga Edmunds is listening to Little Walter who’s blowing deep-toned saxophone-like phrases. Muddy Waters is outside smoking a cigarette not knowing that today he and his band are going to make harmonica history. That day Little Walter is going to record as a bandleader for Chess’s subsidiary label Checker Records. The first completed take of the first song attempted at his debut session became his first hit, spending eight weeks in the number-one position on the Billboard R&B chart. The song was called “Juke”, and it introduced a new soaring, chilling harmonica sound to the public’s ear. The “amplified” harmonica was born. 

Steven Troch - Official website

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