Q&A with bassist Billy T Troiani, a veteran New York musician who disseminates the Blues fever in Europe

"I learned that money isn’t everything, because your probably not gonna make much playing the blues. You gotta love it, and I do."

Billy T: Hot Blues from Arctic Circle

Billy T was born and raised in New York City, and played and recorded with Eddie ”Bluesman” Kirkland for 12 years, and the Tom Russell Band for 10 years. Along the way , he worked with such diverse artists as Lightning Hopkins and Nancy Griffith. After moving to Oslo Norway in 1997, Billy T ran the house band at the ”Muddy Waters” blues club for 7 years, helping to launch the young Norwegian talents Amund Maarud and Kid Andersen (Rick Estrin & the Nightcats). At ”Muddy Waters” they had the opportunity to backup a respectable number of famous blues musicians, including Homesick James, Nappy Brown, Willie ”Big Eyes” Smith, Bill Sims and Tad Robinson, to name a few.                     Photo by Thor Lønning Aarrestad 2010

”Muddy’s” has closed, but the band plays on. As well as William (Bill) Troiani on the bass and vocals, the BILLY T BAND packs a lot of talent in Ian Fredrick Johannessen and Haakon Hoeye on guitars, and drummer Robert Alexander Pettersen. Years of ”gigs” has earned the band friends and fans from as far away as Moscow and NYC, with Oslo in the middle. Billy T Band's "Mo'-Billy-T" following the success of their second, "L.O.V.E.", (winner of the 2010 Norwegian Grammy - Spellemannprisen), their new recording has taken the better part of a year to complete and includes five new original songs as well as some obscure covers. The rather dubious pun, "Mo-Billy-T", was culled from the pack of title candidates by the very undubious James Harman with the words, "that's a winner" - or something to that effect - so you can blame him. Billy T Band’s 4th album «Reckoning» released in 2016. It’s filled with more of Billy T’s blues drenched rock ‘n’ soul. According to Billy T himself it’s the band’s best effort yet!

Interview by Michael Limnios

When was your first desire to become involved in the blues and especially with the bass?

I started on the upright bass at school in 1961 when I was offered a place in the school's Chamber Orchestra. My stepfather had played sax in Big Bands in the 30s and 40s, and he told me to "take the bass".  The conductor had to take me downstairs to the instrument storage to make sure my hand could reach around the neck of the bass. I was 11 years old and I didn't do very well, but I was listening to my stepfather's jazz records, especially Ray Brown playing with Oscar Petterson, and falling in love with the idea and the sound of the bass. By 1963-64 I was in a band - The Post War Baby Boom Blues Band. Stanley Eisen, aka Paul Stanley, played guitar. We played original songs and covers of the Everly Brothers, Bob Dylan, Paul Butterfield - even the Bobby Fuller Four, (I Fought The Law). I could borrow LPs from the Donnell Library on 53rd street in Manhattan, and there my Blues education began. The Alan Lomax recordings were my favorites, particularly the "Field Hollars". I learned that art comes from everywhere and that simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.

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

I learned that money isn’t everything, because your probably not gonna make much playing the blues. You gotta love it, and I do.

"I miss the great voices; the actual quality of their voices."

What experiences in life make you "Bluesman" and what does the Blues offered you?

The Blues offered me a chance to grow up, to mature as a musician.

How do you describe Bill T sound and progress and what characterize your music philosophy?

What you might call the "Billy T Sound" is just an amalgamation of all I've taken (stolen) from other sources, as is most music. I started learning by copying recordings as faithfully as I could. Blues, R&B, Country, Jazz, Rock & Roll, Folk Music and even "Top Forty". Each genre added something to my so called "sound", and usually confirmed in my mind that The Blues was at the root of most popular music from the late 19th Century on. Eddie Kirkland told me he grew up on country music? Uncle Dave Macon. I love listening to A.P. Carter sing "My Dixie Darling"! In our band, everyone plays to their strengths, what their good at and what they love, and that really decides our sound? Personally, the music of the late 40s, when the Big Bands were breaking up, is a big inspiration. I think it was Duke Ellington who said, "If it sounds good, it is". That's as close to a Philosophy as I can get.

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

Lloyd Price, Sam Cook, Jackie Wilson, among so many others, took me out of my myopic world of peer pressure, insecurities, and teenage angst, to a place where I felt I could be "cool". Then I heard Barbara Mason sing "I'm Ready" and I fell in love. When I began to play music I looked for the source of that beauty and of course found it in the Blues. My wonder and admiration for this music has made me thoughtful and tolerant towards people and circumstances I might otherwise fear. I've become a history buff as well!

How do you describe “Reckoning” sound and songbook? What characterize album’s philosophy?

We didn't start out to make an album with a unified philosophy, but in retrospect I can see how some of the songs are thematically connected. The title track, "Reckoning", is my first political song. I'm talking directly to the intolerant, greedy, smugly self-righteous segment of the population that believe they must impose their worldview on everybody else; (note the reference to the Rapture books "Left Behind"). "It Ain't Right" obviously continues this line of thought. "On Your Own" is a reworking of a wonderful old gospel song, perhaps a bit irreverent, but no disrespect intended. Just my point of view. We we're under the spell of "Across 110th Street" when we went for the string section, for better or for worse; ("Gone" is one of my favorite tracks). The more "stripped down" tunes are intended to be counterweight to the big "production" numbers. Aside from all that, you never finish an album, you just stop working on it.

"The Blues offered me a chance to grow up, to mature as a musician." (Photo: Billy & Kirkland)

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about the blues? What is the best advice ever given you?

Learning to follow Eddie Kirkland was quite an education! Secrets, I don't know, it's all there to hear if you want to listen. The best advice was "learn your scales and keep it simple".

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

I miss the great voices; the actual quality of their voices. Muddy Waters, Lightnin' Hopkins, I could go on and on. I don't hear that anywhere, myself included. And the recorded mistakes that were left on the tracks! Wonderful.

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

I think now is best moment in my career; Two Norwegian "Grammys" in two years, and the finest band I've ever had the honor to be part of. The worst time was trying to break into the "Club Date" gigs in NYC after my twin girls were born - I needed to make "Real" money. As far as the last question, I couldn't say. Life is always interesting.

Are there any memories from the late great Lightning Hopkins which you’d like to share?

I was worried about the gig with Lightnin'. People said he was hard to follow and he'd make fun of you on stage if you messed up. As a bass player I knew any misplaced note was gonna stand out like a sore thumb. I sat down and listened to as many tracks as I could find until a pattern emerged. Aside from dropped beats and the odd measure of 2/4, he had two ways of handling what I call the turnaround; the last two measures of a 12 bar blues. One was shorter than normal, and other was longer than normal. Once I realized that I was on firm ground and Lightnin' was happy.

"My wonder and admiration for this music has made me thoughtful and tolerant towards people and circumstances I might otherwise fear. I've become a history buff as well! (Photo by G. Knutsen)

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

Keep an open mind. I've met musicians who say that playing blues is boring - it all sounds the same. But take the "Shuffle" for example - some musicians don't realize there are many different types - one hand, two hand, double, the Black Polka, swing shuffle etc.- and that they are very hard to play properly. You can learn the technique, but if you don't have the "Feel" it won't sound right. You have to listen to everything, Charlie Poole to Little Milton. Even Hank Williams was a blues singer in my opinion, and if you can't dig him, you’re really missing out! Also, I'm basically self-taught. I wish now I had some formal musical training. On a more mundane point, not everyone can make a decent living playing music. Make sure you have a skill besides music that can carry you through the tough spots. I didn't stay in school, so I had to depend on physical labor when things got hard. That can really suck the joy out of life.

Are there any memories from Eddie Kirkland and Tom Russell which you’d like to share with us?

The Tom Russell Band played the Edmonton Folk Festival, and we were asked to play the Staff and Musician party afterward. We played for hours and Flaco Jimenez played with us the entire time. (He was at the festival with Doug Sahm) He stood to my left, next to the beer tap, drinking beer after beer and playing beautifully! Later Fats Kaplan asked him how far it was from San Antonio to Austin, he said - "about 4 beers"!

Eddie had Ford station wagon that the entire 4 piece band would travel in. We’d pack our suitcases and the whole backline in it as well guitars, guitar amps, drums, the P.A. and even my Ampeg SVT speaker. There were two top boxes on the roof held down with straps and old guitar cables. It was a real ordeal to load and unload it all. Once while traveling to Canada, (in the winter as usual), the border guard wanted to inspect our equipment. Eddie told me he’d handle it. He went to the back door of the Ford and pulled out his guitar, which was in a plastic case held closed with shoe laces. Eddie loved to customize his stuff. He had nailed two extra pickups to the guitar top, replaced the volume knob with a knob from an oven, (it went from Off to Broil), covered the cracked seams with gaffers tape, and glued the letters EKB, Eddie “Bluesman” Kirkland to the front. He showed it lovingly to the border guard. The guard asked if all our stuff looked like this. Eddie said yeah. The guard told us we were free to go!

What do you miss most from late 60s and early 70s Blues Rock era?

My friend Denis Minervini always says, "We can never retire, because we had our retirement when we were young". I was living in New Paltz, a small college town in upstate New York. We had a real close knit community of musicians. We all played in each other's band. I rarely listened to the radio or watched TV. When Lead Zeppelin came along I thought they were young upstarts! (I don't feel that way anymore). I miss all that.

Which memories from Nappy Brown, Lazy Lester, and Bill Sims Jr. makes you smile?

Singing "Don't Be Angry" for Nappy. Staying up all night singing and drinking around the hotel piano with Lazy Lester after the Notodden Festival. Bill Sims is a good friend of mine from N.Y.C. and he always makes me smile.

And would you like to tell your best memory about Muddy Waters Blues Club's houseband?

It was pretty cool when Brian Setzer showed up unannounced and played with the band. Also when Walter Bros (The Seatsniffers) and his Drummer Piet walked in one night. I didn’t know who they were. He asked me what I wanted to sing, and as I was slightly intoxicated and feeling mischievous, I called "Honky Tonk Mind" by Johnny Horton. He proceeded to nail the Grady Martin intro perfectly! Not an easy thing to do. I still tell that story!

Make an account of the case of blues in Norway. What are the lines that connect the Blues from US to Norway?

Just look at what Kid Andersen doing. He and I had the house band at Oslo's premiere blues club until he left for California. He just received the "Keeping the Blues Alive" award. Notodden has one of the largest blues festivals in Europe.

How an American starts to play the blues in Europe? What are your experiences from Norwegian scene?

I moved here over 16 years ago to be near my daughters. When we started the House Band at Muddy Waters in Oslo, Kid Andersen copied all his blues Cds for me, and asked me to learn the original baselines, mistakes and all! That was an eye opener! Some of the musicians here take The Blues very seriously, I love that.

What the difference and similarity between the European and US Blues scene?

In NYC we had to play more popular tunes, "Sweet Home Chicago", "Everyday I Have The Blues" etc., to keep the gigs. In Norway we get to popularize more obscure tunes. At least that's my take.

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

Because it's good?

"Keep an open mind. I've met musicians who say that playing blues is boring - it all sounds the same." 

Do you remember anything funny or interesting from the road with Amund Maarud and Vidar Busk?

I remember Amund sliding across the stage in Vladimir, Russia, while kissing his guitar neck, and blowing a beautiful young girl's mind. With Vidar in Sweden, while he was playing an extended slow blues solo to an intently listening audience, the smoke machine went off next to my head, causing me to jump and the crowd to break out in laughter. Very embarrassing!

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

The best jam? I love it when someone really good walks in off the street. It has happened so many times I couldn't single one out. There is one special gig I loved. Tom Russell Band played the Edmonton Folk Festival and we were asked to play the Staff and Musician party afterward. We played for hours and Flaco Jimenez played with us the entire time. (He was at the festival with Doug Sahm) He stood to my left, next to the beer tap, drinking beer. Later Fats Kaplan asked him how far it was from San Antonio to Austin "about 4 beers" he said! Other memorable gigs: Tom Russell at the Cruise cafe in Oslo. Eddie Kirkland in Quebec.

Do you believe that there is misuse, that there is a trend to misappropriate the name of blues?

Probably... but you can say that about almost anything. If it sounds good, it is!

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

More variety on the radio. Most stations are owned by just a few large corporations and they all seem to play music from the same playlists.

"The music pulls you in and you're exposed to things you wouldn't otherwise seek out. It can pull down walls and increase tolerance. Even with the daily horrors of our "modern" world, this makes me optimistic about our future."

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

Everyone should read "Country, the Twisted Roots of Rock and Roll", by Nick Tosches. He writes that popular music goes back to the wandering minstrels in medieval Europe and beyond. "Higher" western music developed scales and styles over centuries that became the only educated way to perform. It took ordinary folk to add the flat 3rd and flat 5 to add that bluesy heartbreak. My wish for the Blues is that it gets the respect it deserves.

Do you believe in the existence of real blues nowadays? What is your music DREAM? Happiness is?

It will always exist. Happiness is my family and my dream is more gigs!

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

The music pulls you in and you're exposed to things you wouldn't otherwise seek out. It can pull down walls and increase tolerance. Even with the daily horrors of our "modern" world, this makes me optimistic about our future.

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

200 years into the future! (When I was a bartender in the 1960s, all we had for music were LPs.)

Billy T Band - Official website

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