Interview with international band of The Elgins, traditional Blues of 40's & 50's from Chicago to Arkansas

"I think there are many great blues musicians and very few Bluesmen today."

The Elgins: The universal language of Blues

The Elgins take a no-nonsense approach to the traditional Blues styles of the late 40's to mid 50's found in Chicago and Arkansas. We believe in using small tube amplifiers that produce the classic warm tones found on the legendary recordings of musicians such as Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Jimmy Rogers, Sunnyland Slim, Baby Face Leroy, Robert Jr. Lockwood, Louis Myers, Fred Below, John Brim, Snooky Pryor, Moody Jones, Both Sonny Boy Williamson's, Robert Nighthawk, and Eddie Taylor, etc.

“Back To Chicago” was Elgins’ debut release. What began as a reunion album for Johnny Dyer and the L.A. Jukes became that and much more.  In addition to having three original members of the formidable band of the late 70’s and early 80’s, this session also introduces fresh, new talent. It took this international effort to recapture the soul of 40’s and 50’s post-war blues pioneers.

Small tube amps, vintage equipment and low tech arrangements help give these recordings the magical nuance that has vanished from so many contemporary blues tracks. With its reliance on restrained playing, in the pocket feel, leaving space and low volume dynamic phrasing, this album truly takes you “Back To Chicago.” The Elgins Vol.2 is the new album from the label of Devil’s Tale.

Øyvind Stølefjell (Norway) - Vocals / Piano, Mark Bukich (USA) - Vocals / Harp, Mark Mumea (USA) - Guitar, and Alberto Vigliarolo (Italy) - Harp, talks about the Elgins, Johnny Dyer, old days and the universal language of Blues.

Interview by Michael Limnios

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

Mark M.: Playing the blues has always been an outlet for me to go when I’m feeling anything from down and frustrated, to excited and creative, a whole range of emotions.  It is a constant reminder for me to keep things simple in life and to balance priorities; to try and take a negative experience, turn it around to use those emotions to create something positive, that people can relate to and gain something from.  That’s what the blues is to me and how I relate to it personally.  It’s a people’s form of music.  Many of the basic elements of the music also reflect daily life, that’s what brings us together and is what is so attractive about the blues for most people – there is something that everyone can relate to, if they’re open to it.

Øyvind: I’m not sure what I learn when I listen to the blues, I listen to a lot of different music, but blues is the music that I really connect with, it gives me a feeling that goes deeper than words. The blues is not just words and playing an instrument, it’s a feeling too. And as I have gotten older, I find the lyrics more appealing. There’s a lot of stories and good advice, makes you feel better if you’re having some trouble.

 Mark B.: I think the blues is a feeling everyone has at different times. It comes and goes and is part of life. You can be rich or poor sad or happy it is just there at times. I embrace the blues and the music that has derived it. It is real and the truth. The blues has been a major part of my life and everytime I play or hear good blues music I feel at home.

Alberto: I learned everything by myself about the blues…some books, internet and my blues vinyls most...

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

Mark M.: I learned a lot from working with Johnny Dyer.  We would be at shows together and he would point things out that other guys were doing that were or were not working well, same goes with listening to songs together in the car, he opened my ears to be able to absorb the music.  He would always stress that the blues was supposed to be spoken not screamed or yelled…that’s something that always stuck with me, I try to keep in mind when playing and arranging tunes.  The biggest secret, if there is such a thing, is to use your ears more than your fingers.  The Blues is an improvisational form of music, to learn the “language” requires a ton of listening.  I’ve have also learned a ton from working with all of the members of the Elgins.  Mark Bukich and I have spent hundreds of hours talking about this music, breaking it apart and discussing what makes it work and why it breaks down.  I feel that Fredrik and Oyvind were working out many of the same ideas that Mark and I had been talking about…when we came together it really didn’t require much effort, we meshed pretty quickly…same goes for working with Alberto on Vol. 2.  Low volume, small amps, dynamic playing, not over-reaching, leaving space, timing, phrasing, tone, attack, knowing when to play with restraint, knowing when to come forward and push it, holding and building tension vs. releasing tension, communication between instruments, layering of the instruments, working out intros, equipment choices, amp settings…are just a few of the important ingredients that give the music the magic.

Øyvind: Well the stuff I know, I had to learn it off records. First one I got I think, was Muddy at Newport in 1960. And I didn’t buy it because of Muddy, but because Otis Spann was playing with him. I had seen Spann on a blues documentary and wanted to find out more about him. That was when I was starting to play the blues on piano. Before that I played rock and roll stuff and country songs. I must have been around 17-18 when I got that record. From then I went to Rice Miller, Howling Wolf, and a lot of the guys that was on Chess. And I spent a lot of time playing open tunings on the guitar, and I listened to Muddy, Son House, Charley Patton, Skip James, Robert Johnson, and I listened to a little Tampa Red that time. Then I started to play piano again and I went back to Sunnyland Slim, and people like that. I like to listen to Blind John Davis, Big Maceo Merriweather, and even Little Brother Montgomery and Roosevelt Sykes. So I believe those people are some that I learned from through their records. And when it comes to playing with other guys, nobody has learned me more than Fredrik Marken. Not in the sense of do-this and that, but in the sense of adapting to another player that’s listened to the same music, and work together.

Mark B.: I don't know if there are real secrets to the blues. I feel that blues should not be rushed. There has to be a certain amount of patience and ability to let the music flow properly. It is all about timing and placing the notes where they should be. It is not about how many notes you can play but where your placing the notes on your instrument.  Some of the best blues I’ve heard was the most simply played. Some people think the more you play the better. I think it’s just the opposite. Also like any music listen to what is going on around you with whats being played by other musicians. I had the fortunate opportunity of hearing Shakey Jake Harris play live several times and he was a prime example of a bluesman who sang and played with beautiful timing and sound and kept it simple yet so effective.

Alberto: Sometimes watchin’ live gigs or VHS video tape and from vinyls is the best way for me. No advices from bluesmen about the blues..

How do you describe your sound and what characterize the music of Elgins?

Mark M.: I try and stay true to the sounds that were coming out of Chicago from say the early 40’s to the early 50’s, with emphasis on the years ’47-’52.  In my mind, the things that separated the sound of that period vs. later years is that the music then was played with greater dynamics, at lower volume, using smaller amps…It was more about the whole sound of the band rather than one star player with a “back up band”.  The rhythm sections were subtle, with greater feel – still driving, but in a more loose, abstract, and creative way, not so hard hitting and direct like in later years.  The recording process we use has also been quite unique by today’s standards.  On Volume 2, we used a portable reel to reel recorder with a single recording mic.  It takes some set up to get the balance right, essentially the amps/instruments are layered by proximity to the recording mic, we also play very dynamic and at a low volume.  In Volume 2, we elected to leave out bass and drums to over emphasize what we are trying to do.  We are very pleased with the open sound that is achieved by recording small, mostly with 2 or 3 piece arrangements.

Øyvind: I don’t know how to describe my singing; I’m still trying to find my way. And when I play the piano, it probably sound a lot like Sunnyland Slim, which is probably my all time favorite singer and piano player. Mixed up with some different ideas of my own and other things I have picked up.

Mark B.: On the first CD I think we were focused on capturing the early 50’s Chicago sound. That of Muddy Waters, Little Walter and John Brim. Let me say that we did not record this genre of music because it is the hip thing to do with some so called new blues musicians. I personally have been playing this blues form for about 35 years. Combined on this Back to Chicago CD there is over 100 years of blues musicianship. People that love and breathe the Chicago Blues. I feel that needs to be said. I think it is a good interpretation of that era of blues. Unfortunately I was unable to do much on the second CD. It is even a rawer and earlier sound of Chicago that captures the era nicely.

Alberto: The sound I like is the Little Walter sound on some tracks She Moves Me for example..I like my harp sound with no bass and a little bit of crunch, I love when my amp when it breaks up at low volume. The music of Elgins is originally and awesome 'cause none play like that today...Everybody plays a kind of modern blues that I not agree so much. The 40's and 50's Chicago blues is the best in my opinion.

Which memory from Johnny Dyers makes you smile?

Mark M.: When Johnny and I were on the same gig, we would ride together and after the gig we would usually end up playing and listening to music for hours in the cab of my truck.  I’d pick up the guitar and start in with a Jimmy Rogers intro and he was like an 18 year old again, he’d get so excited and would sing all night.  The stuff he sang, with just the 2 of us, was incredible.  Many of the guys he plays with are too loud and he has to yell to get over.  When he lays back and does his thing, nobody can touch him.

Another great memory was when after a gig, Johnny and I stayed at Mark Bukich’s house in San Diego, so we didn’t have to make the long drive back up to L.A.  Luckily, I had a cassette recorder with me that night, we recorded a couple tunes, it was late, just the 3 of us.  We did Muddy’s Sad, Sad Day and it sounded so good, Johnny said it was the best recording he’d ever done.  We listen to it back for about 3 hours straight, then I crashed, I was beat, Johnny and Mark stayed up for another couple hours listening back….Johnny couldn’t get enough of it.  When you’re playing the stuff he likes, he’s like a kid again.  That makes me feel good and lets me know I’m on the right track.

Øyvind: I only met him once, at his house. We went there to visit, he wasn’t feeling well when we were there to record so he made his vocals at a later time. But he was really friendly and a really nice person. We played some of the tracks we had recorded and the tracks that were made for him. Fredrik even played a number there, requested by Mark Mumea, I think it was Playhouse, one of Floyd Jones songs.

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

Mark M.: The Blues, in my mind, has become an extremely broad and over-used term; most of the time I cringe at the association.  Most players that call themselves “blues” bands usually are playing very hard and aggressive versions which are more rock influenced.   I think the West Coast sound has become quite a fad over the past couple decades, although I’m starting to see more and more bands on YouTube from other countries who are getting into the REAL Chicago sound – That is exciting to me, I hope that trend continues and we can take the “Blues” back to the roots…and then slowly start the process over of where to go with it next.

Øyvind: Like they said in the sixties, it’s folk music. It’s going to stay with the people. It comes from the inside of you. And I think it will be like that in the time that comes.

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?

Mark M.: The thing I’m most proud of pertaining to music is bringing the musicians together to create The Elgins.  We share a common idea about the blues that is hard to find today.  For this group of guys to come together from literally all over the world, in order to play and record what we consider to be in-line with “real blues”;  not what is popular, not what will sell copies, or even make $, but just simply to create good music.  I’m very proud of bringing these guys together, and with VERY little playing time together, and extremely tight window of time, managed to record 2 albums.  It’s pretty amazing that we were able to do what we did really.  Personally, I have done my best to introduce up-coming musicians to the older and more obscure players who were the true pioneers of the music.  I’ve posted some free lessons on YouTube and I also have an instructional DVD available.  I get great satisfaction from teaching what I’ve learned from the music and doing my best to keep the music close to its roots.

Øyvind: I played at a festival in Norway a couple of years ago, and it was great because the people were interested in what was going on. They listened to all the acts, and enjoyed it. I don’t like it when people get noisy and talk loud. Which usually happen when they drink a lot of alcohol.

Alberto: I ain't got a best moment cause I ain't got a career...I loved the week I spent with these friend of mine (Elgins) to play the what is a part of my life..The true blues

What’s the difference between a good blues musician and a bluesman, who lives the experience through blues?

Mark M.: Today’s world is nowhere close to as hard as the lives lead by the guys who made the music, and that’s a good thing.  There are however, common struggles with humans that will always be present, and there will always be a need to express those feelings.  Blues is a great medium for that.  I think there are many great blues musicians and very few Bluesmen today.  I think many today try too hard to change the music with inadequate knowledge of the history. They approach it from a rock perspective which tells them that every song needs to be completely unique.  I get the feeling that most blues musicians today think they need to learn every blues lick ever recorded, plus come up with new ones.  I think it’s too much.  What’s left is a music that is more about the ego and less about the music and people, a common problem in today’s society, especially in the States.

The same way I spoke earlier of the common struggles of people, it is the simple structure of the music which holds the music together – it is the common thread, 3 simple chords.  It’s about learning the language and telling a story within those parameters that takes a lifetime.   I think embracing the simplicity of the music, the history, and learning the language, is what is most important.  Not until then, can you truly find your own “voice” in an authentic way.  When you are able to put all of those things together, to tell a believable story through the music, in your own voice, with the music’s history and study behind to guide you, that is the mark of a true “Blues-Man” in my eyes.

Today’s world moves too fast, everything we do, we want instant gratification, and that’s just not going to yield good results in anything really, and also holds true in blues.  How can someone take the music to a new place if they don’t know how it got to where it is to begin with?  There is too much rich history in this music form to bypass.  To listen to the master’s records only a couple times, or not at all, and say “I’ve got it, it’s close enough” - I’m ready to be a Bluesman and create music…I think it’s a huge injustice to the music and the originators.  This is why we are surrounded by rock musicians professing and advertising themselves as “bluesman”.

Alberto: There aren’t bluesmen today any more...just in the past...but a bluesman lived playing the blues, long time ago…

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

Øyvind: That would be with Fredrik, Mark Mumea, Bukich and Alberto. The gig I remember best was at the Corner Store in San Pedro, I did all the numbers I knew on guitar and harp. It was only Fredrik, Mark Mumea and me. And it was nine A.M. We must have played a couple of hours, maybe three.

Alberto: Every jam is the best when I play with people who really love the blues.

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

Alberto: The harmonica is the prince instrument of the blues in my opinion...no secrets and no tricks…just love and passion like guitar or bass or other instruments

From the musical point of view is there any difference and similarities between European and US blues scene?

Øyvind: We have a lot of funny bands in Europe, not taking it too seriously. And there are a lot of loud players in the US, probably taking it too serious, I don’t know. I don’t follow the modern blues scene at all. I can only think of a few exceptions.

When we talk about blues, we usually refer to memories and moments of the past. Apart from the old cats of blues, do you believe in the existence of real blues nowadays?

Mark M.: I feel that there is definitely room to create some new “real” blues; however, I think it is impossible to reach the level of the real masters of the blues.  For example, Muddy, Jimmy Rogers, Little Walter, Baby Face Leroy, Robert Nighthawk, John Brim, Snooky Pryor, Sunnyland Slim, Eddie Taylor, Walter Horton, Floyd Jones, Johnny Shines, etc. etc.  To even make a fair attempt, I feel we need to go backwards and redirect the path that lead us away from the music’s roots in say ’54 or so.  I do see a growing, although mostly still underground, base of upcoming blues musicians from Europe, South America etc. which are very interested in the older sounds and ways of playing.  I think we still have a long way to go, but this is encouraging for me.

Øyvind: I’m sure blues will still be here, but real blues, I don’t know. I think we have the real blues on records, and most of those guys are dead and gone. I’m talking about the old guys who was raised with the blues and lived it. It’s hard to be dedicated to the blues nowadays, with so much going on. The world is turning faster, but I believe that there are still some people that can save the old school blues, and keep it going.

Alberto: I don't believe that...We have lost in the last 30 years what the real meaning of the blues is...

Are there any memories from the road with the band, which you’d like to share with us?

Øyvind: I don’t know, we only had a few gigs. But I remember we had a hard time finding an electric piano for me back in 2011, to take with us on some gigs, and one of the first ones we did was at a house party, family of Mark Mumea’s wife, and I had a really  nice time, one of the first times playing together. The first time we played was at an elementary school in San Pedro. No rehearsal or anything, I went with Mark’s wife, Megan, to the school where she is teaching, and she had us play after a jazz group in the school auditorium. Fredrik and Mark came with their guitars and amps about half an hour later, and meanwhile I played some instrumentals and answered questions from the kids. It was a lot of fun, and they were really interested in the music, asking questions about which keys I play the most, black or white? And a funny memory is the time we played live on radio the first time. Mark Bukich’s harp jammed up in the middle of Juke. His harp went almost silent. Fredrik and Mumea played a couple of verses and ended the song.

Mark B.: I think my favorite and most memorable times playing blues and learning harmonica was when I was in my late teens. I had been listening to a lot of Paul Butterfield and Charlie Musselwhite albums and I loved that amplified harp sound. My favorite was the Father and Sons album live with Butterfield and Muddy Waters. During that time I met Rod Piazza at a club in Riverside, California and heard him and it was what really inspired me to want to learn that harp and get on stage and perform. He would tell me to learn a song and when I felt comfortable with it he would pull me on stage and let me do my thing. Pretty exciting, I believe I learned Walters juke and I did a pretty good job. I met Johnny Dyer and George Smith through Piazza and I ended up playing harp for Johnny Dyer in the LA jukes. We had a lot of good times. It was all fresh and exciting for me to be around that seen and learn from these guys at such as a teenager. No secrets to harp just lots of passion and practice.

Mark, when was your first desire to become involved in the painting?

Mark M.: I’ve always been a creative person from as early as I can remember.  I went on to study figure drawing in college and have always been interested in doing portraits to capture likeness and emotion.  I haven’t painted or done any serious drawing for several years now.  I started my own printing business and can channel my creativity through graphic art now to a certain extent.  I have 3 young boys so there is little extra time to go around these days.  With the little free time I have, I play guitar and ride my bike, mostly single speed mountain bike and occasionally I’ll do some road cycling.

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