Interview with guitarist Bruce Stringkiller of Dr. Pickup - an original blues, boogie & swing French blues band

"The blues is timeless when you hear a classic it's as fresh as the first time you heard it – it still is a feeling, an experience. It's also an expression of the moment through improvisation."

Bruce Stringkiller: Monsieur Feelgood 

Bruce Stringkiller is the founder member of Dr. Pickup. An original blues, boogie and swing, three piece Toulouse, France, based blues band, that has been entertaining for the last twenty four years. Started in the 90’s doing classic blues covers and since the mid-90’s have been adding in their compositions. Dr. Pickup is Bruce Stringkiller on guitar and vocals, Pascal Curto on the keyboards and vocals and Jeango on the drums and vocals. Their latest CD is 'Live In The South' which is 13 original songs performed live. Why this name? Pickup: guitar microphones, girls, girls, backing band, trucks and bars. Born and bred under the various influences of Otis Rush, Hubert Sumlin, Buddy Guy, Magic Sam, Howling Wolf, Luther Tucker, Muddy Waters, T-Bone Walker, Clarence Gatemouth Brown, Little Walter, Robert Johnson, Freddie & Albert King, BB King, Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Mick Taylor, Jimi Hendrix, Allman Brothers, ZZ Top, Snooks Eaglin, Ronnie Earl... The Dr Pickup group can provide a solid groove for 2h to 6h. Feeling, atmosphere, taste and dynamics are assured.

Bruce Stringkiller’s biggest regret was when Robert Jackson, a GIT graduate, who had come in on bass but ended up doing a nightly set on guitar because he's so good asked to leave the band as on Sunday mornings he was conducting choirs and orchestras in cathedrals and that did not fit in with leaving clubs at three or four in the morning after some blistering blues sets. Band has some great players, like Fred Yonnet, who is now rightly rated as one of the best harmonica players in the world. He just wanted to play the blues on top of his TV and session work. What an attitude and what a gentleman on top of the most fantastic musicianship and team spirit. What goes round comes round - Papy Jack (aka Jack Vodka) was an original founding member on bass rejoined the band in 2004-2012 on the drums and is doing a great job with The Albert Rose band in Normandy. Also the departure of  Michel Parizet who produced, performed and co wrote songs on the Georgia Skyline CD, which is our biggest seller in the USA, due to his wife being reassigned to another city.

Interview by Michael Limnios

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

The blues is a very close and faithful friend; it'll keep you in check when life is beautiful and pick you up when you're down on your knees. The blues is consistent, when you hear any of the wonderful blues songs from the last century they always connect. So the blues is life, all that's good and it's a friend walking by you when life's a bitch. The blues is timeless when you hear a classic it's as fresh as the first time you heard it – it still is a feeling, an experience. It's also an expression of the moment through improvisation.

How do you describe Dr Pickup sound and songbook? What characterizes your music philosophy?

As a composer I want to take many diverse influences – African, New Orleans, Chicago, Saint Louis, Kansas City, London, LA , Piedmont, Nashville, Arabic and Qawwali input  and produce original music so that people who listen to it can connect, feel it, enjoy it and that it brings a little sunshine into their lives.

Song writers are troubadours, commentators, a dying race in these politically correct Pro Tool times. People ask me why do you put extracts of all your concerts up on YouTube –My music is for other people, it's for sharing, it's to reach out to people, not to be kept in a box.

So I can listen to that particular performance, some of the best comes when you're playing and interacting with the audience, I don't want to miss that. Some songs need to walk around the block a few times to get the right beat, arrangements, instrumentation and lyrics.  Music is live. Ok there are some great studio albums that have taken months and years to produce but most of my blues heroes and mentors did not work that way.

Share, enjoy and grow would be my mainstays.

"The blues is a never ending journey which will take you to places and feelings you would never have known about." (Photo: Bruce Stringkiller (ctr) with Pascal Curto (L) and Jeango (R))

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

The blues is the truth, it doesn't lie. It doesn't need a marketing segmentation /publicity trip, it needs to be heard. It needs to be experienced. It is a continuation from the shuffle of the peoples enslaved in West Africa and brought to the Caribbean and Americas. It's the oral history of a great displacement of people who weren't literate or 'educated' but who could use the music as a language, a common bond, a hope. Check out all the double entendre on blues from the 20s and 30s that radio used to play. The various developments in the different areas of the US, the amazing variety from Skip James, Charlie Patton to Charlie Mingus, Duke Ellington, James Blood Ulmer, means if people come into contact with it and listen they get and stay with it.

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

Keep it simple. Life is hard and then you die.

Silence is the most important, it's not what you play it's what you don't play.

Know where the beat is or shut up. Be on time, listen and learn. 

Present yourself as an Entertainer not a mechanic.

The blues is a never ending journey which will take you to places and feelings you would never have known about. Don't prejudge, be aware of your prejudices, let your ears be your guides, you can't listen with your eyes. Don't be afraid of the truth, of the magic of your own feelings.

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

Lstening to the Wolf singing 'I asked her for water she gave me gasoline', now you knew that something was going on.

Hearing any of the three Kings, Buddy Guy, Otis Rush for the first time and having chills run through your body. Ray Charles, Snooks Eaglin, Charles Brown, Louis Jordan, Nat King Cole and Louis Armstrong were particular favourites on my parents turntables in Africa.

Playing with Wanda Johnson and Shrimp City Slim just before James Cotton at the Savannah Jazz Festival, playing with Eddie C Campbell and the King Bees at the Camden blues Festival. Touring in various formats with Shrimp City Slim in the US and in France. Playing with my musicians, Jeango and Pascal and connecting with the audience.

Having Peter Nathanson as a surprise guest at the France Blues AGM in Versailles playing on my own songs.  Being the Pickup band at the Charleston Blues Bash to Beverly Guitar Watkins of  "Dr. Feelgood",  the group was also known as Piano Red & The Interns whose Mean Mr Moolight was recorded by the Beatles. Beverly was a great learning experience as interacting with musicians should be.

Working for the Beatles and seeing George recording and mixing All things must pass. All the American Blues Festivals albums of the early 60 and mid-60s. Living in London 15 minutes away from the Marque Club and seeing all the 60s bands live – Anysley Dunbar, Free, John Mayall, Peter Green Fleetwood Mac first concerts, Jeff Beck's Band fighting on stage at the Marquee, Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Led Zepellin, Jethro Tull, The Pink Floyd first concerts, sitting in with Champion Jack Dupree. Seeing American bands like the Doors and Jefferson Airplane, Sly and the Family Stone at the Roundhouse and the Lyceum ball room with full sound systems for the first time. Then getting to the US and seeing how blues concerts were more of a give and take with the audience rather than the more passive European audiences, reminding me of clubs in Kenya.

From age 14 I was working in Central London's guitar stores during my school holidays – Saint Giles Music Centre, Ivor Mairants which was also an eye opener, great fun and a great learning experience.

Meeting and hearing many amazing and talented musicians who could never get known for a variety of reasons. The first festivals in UK, Windsor, Bath, Isle of Wight etc...

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

The past is part of you don't cry about but keep to enjoy in your heart and then look ahead.  At school in England they told me “These are the best days of your life” - That's bullshit.

I don't miss the past as I see and hear young musicians going back through history to find out that Sweet Home Chigago wasn't the Blues Brothers or all the 50 Chicago guys but lifted out of Kokomo blues by Scrapper Blackwell, Madlyn Davis, Jabo Williams, Kokomo Arnold and all those other cats. With Concert Vault, Sugarmegs and You tube there so many concerts you can hear again or get to hear for the first time. Ry Cooder at 16 years old at Ash Grove with Jackie DeShannon and all those acoustic concerts there. Wow.

On the negative side you have mainstream media which has narrowed the number of artists and songs down from 5000 to 250, all the labelling of music. What I find appalling is Deezer and ITunes telling me what I'm going to like and how they miss the mark. I miss the radio stations with mixed playlists: Mingus, Memphis Slim then Guitar Slim, then the Cream then James Brown or Booker T, I miss that mix and diversity. But I can create it myself or tune in to lots of 'little' independent Internet radios and You tube lists where people have really taken time to put together a marvellous collection of great music.

"The blues is a very close and faithful friend; it'll keep you in check when life is beautiful and pick you up when you're down on your knees. The blues is consistent, when you hear any of the wonderful blues songs from the last century they always connect."

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

Let people listen – point them down the right road. Cut the glitter, the media merchandising, the segmentation of music like products, the hype, the ITunes mindless “people you should be listening to”.

More live music, some kids think live music is the Superbowl or just stadium Rock and have never seen a performer or band playing. Bring back some decent TV programs or maybe it's already done through the Internet. All those music programmes Ready Steady Go (even with mime at the time), The Old Grey Whistle test, Jools Holland (UK) The American Bandstand, Soultrain, PBS (USA) Taratata and the INA archives (France) as opposed to the TV idol rubbish 'competitions' that are served up today by the owner of the TV station who is also a shareholder in the record company.

On the other hand one can hear concerts you went to as a kid on Concert Vault and Sugarmegs. You tube can let you listen to out of print records (remember 33s and 45s ) so the bottle is more full than empty but we need to educate the up and coming generations how to discriminate, how to be open to listening to lots of different types of music. Remember those radio stations where you would hear Ray Charles followed by the Temptations followed by Roy Buchanan, The Shadows, Glen Miller, The Beach boys and Little Richard etc...

Today you can read a blues mag, hear that Tab Benoit has got a new album out and hear straight away on the Internet, that's cool for the people who want to do that.

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

Through the visits of people like Big Bill Broonzy, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee in the 50s, and the American Folk Blues Festivals in the early 60s with the royalty of US Electric blues coming over, Europe gave the Blues back to the US with a second life and internationalised it.

The English guys like the Stones, John Mayall, Chris Barber, Alexis Korner all cited their inspirations. I remember buying the R&B of BB King or Sleepy John Estes records in a shop in Charing Cross for a guinea and you came back in 4 weeks. The others guys in the queue were Jeff Beck, Paul Kossof,  John Moreshead, Kim Simmonds etc..

So the 60s blues explosion alongside Rock Music happened all over Europe. I bet in Greece too. I've played with some great French singers who could do Otis Rush, Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Elvis really well. They didn’t speak a word of English but they could sing the song. So the blues is here to stay.

Then like everywhere in the world you meet the Purists – the self proclaimed keepers of the (their) flame – with their negative comments - it's not twelve bar, he's doing that song in a different key from the original, etc.... I wonder if that kind of a restrictve approach is the best way to bring converts into the fold. But there again the blues is all encompassing. One man's blues is another's Rock and Roll.

Though the growth of the Internet in France some special interest groups started up but frankly they never developed what should have been a lot of interest and their eventual growth potential. This has been a disappointment.

La Chaine du Blues – I was the 4th member, it was a moment of hope but over ten years later the membership is still less than 1000 members out of 66 million people. Then 3 to 4 years ago I thought The France Blues Association would develop but there again there are not even close to 500 members.  These associations have different interests, priorities and motivations which sometimes end up being counterproductive.  But again this isn't just a French problem. Then you have the 'Festivals' which in today's economy are dwindling:  is it a lack of state aid, of public interest, of poor programming, bad management, buddy buddy swap shops, I'd be interested to hear of what's going on in Greece. Is live music growing or shrinking (is the bottle half full?)

So the world is changing and so should we.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues from Africa to United States and continue to France?

Read Aldous Huxley's definition of slavery in Brave New world – the blues affects everyone whether they know it or not.

But again back to Horst Lippmann and the American Folk Blues Festival tours of Europe, The Rock acts like The Beatles doing Mean Mr Moolight from Beverly Guitar Watkins band to the Stones doing Chuck Berry, Willie Dixon songs, BoDiddley beats and asking for Howling Wolf or Muddy Waters on prime time TV and the US programmers not even knowing who they were.

John Mayall, Led Zep, Jeff Beck, Free, Aysnley Dumbar, Rory Gallager all incorporating songs from Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, the three Kings  into their concerts and records and pointing the finger to go down that road. Nowadays do performers still have 'influence' do they honour and recognise and speak about them?

Finding out about the Kings, and all the other blues performers and STILL finding out has got to be one of the greatest learning curves in the world. Nowadays you can get a decent electric or acoustic guitar and amp quite cheaply (Squier Classic Vibe models, PRS Se, Epiphones etc)– listen and learn on the Internet, get the lyrics and the licks from the Internet without scratching the record. I'm really happy to see lots of young kids – boys and girls – coming to concerts, to blues jams and getting it and wanting to learn, and learning fast.

So the blues passes onto the next generations and is here to stay, as it is a foundation block of so many other types of music.

"My Blues dream is that music should be an even more unifying force – I thought with the summer of peace and love and the hippy 60s that wars would be over." (Photo: Dr. Pickup with Shrimp City Slim & James Cotton) 

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

There are many shades of blue! Now can you sing Irish Folk Songs in French, can you do Gregorian Chant in English? There are very many French blues performers who perform both in English and French as I imagine you would have the same in Greece.  So that's a subject to explore but not right now!

Introducing songs like, here's a Stevie Ray Vaughan Song Mary had little lamb, here's an Eric Clapton song It hurts me too,  The Blues Brothers …... Ok Joke over.

I work a lot so I don't go to as many concerts as I'd like.  There are some great young performers out there now will they just stay French or will they be able to make it internationally, back to the language question.

There are quite a few Blues internet radio stations with some very funky and good programming but again they don't seem to be able to grow or go mainstream. Very little major media coverage which again means there's a challenge and an opportunity waiting.

I'm always amazed at the lack of camaraderie in the world and working together to be stronger.  So people miss out on this, including musicians. This applies to many other people and occupations on the planet!

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

Bessie Smith, Tampa Red, Charlie Christian, Louis Armstrong, Charles Brown, T-Bone Walker, Louis Jordan, Freddie, Albert or BB King, Otis Rush, Pine Top Perkins, Professor Longhair, The Mississippi Sheiks, Ray Charles, Ike Turner  in the 50s.

The Delta in the 20s, Memphis in the 30s, the New Orleans in 40s, Chicago in the 50s, I was in London in the 60s, and New York in the 70s and that was great.

Is it easier to write and play the blues as you get older? Happiness is…

... a warm gun. Seriously! It's easier or harder, it's a reflection of your life, your relationships and your reactions to events around you and around the world. Less is more. I was very lucky that in my early days in London the people I played with taught me that one note can do the trick. BB King’s version of the Willie Nelson’s Nightlife on Blues is King illustrates that to a tee and also happens to be a classic great album. Do you “feel” more or less as you get older?

"The blues is the truth, it doesn't lie. It doesn't need a marketing segmentation /publicity trip, it needs to be heard. It needs to be experienced."

What is your BLUES DREAM?

My Blues dream is that music should be an even more unifying force – I thought with the summer of peace and love and the hippy 60s that wars would be over. We're on the brink of one in Europe, have several going on in the Middle East and the lower Sahara doesn't look very stable, and even in Asia and South America there seem to be on going disputes.

Now when we look at this little planet of 7 billion people going onto 8 billion and the current and worsening basic problems of food, water and pollution, my blues dream is that music is a way for people to communicate and to work together for a better life. The blues has a long life in front of it. But I often say if everything was perfect in life we wouldn't have any blues singers.

Dr. Pickup - official website

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