Interview with Joe Mazzari & Dixie Deadwood of 61 Ghosts - primal Rock n' Roll with Blues at the roots

"The simplicity of playing music without the added fluff. If you feel you have to be a graduate of Berkeley to play blues so you can wow the audience with your skills of subdividing. Perhaps jazz would be better suited for you."

61 Ghosts: To The Edge ... and Furthur

Like the highway it’s named after, the musicians of 61 Ghosts, have collectively done their time on the road. 61 Ghosts is Badlands-Rock Americana. A three-piece band, combining the talents of singer-songwriter Joe Mazzari, bass player J.D. Sipe and drummer Dixie Deadwood. JD Sipe packed up his bass in New Mexico, Dixie brought her bare knuckle style of drumming, and Joe Mazzari brought his gutter rock guitar and gritty vocals that have a New York bite, to create 61 Ghosts. But the gravity that attracted this unlikely trio, that are based out of Clarksdale, is music that blends Rock, Americana and Mississippi hill country blues. 61 Ghosts draw upon their own personal musical influences. Each had already honed a sound through years on the road. Joe played with Johnny Thunders (post New York Dolls), fronted a handful of his own original rock bands, and recorded with Jimmy Miller who’d produced the Stones, Motorhead and Traffic.

Dixie traveled the world with legendary bluesman Leo ‘Bud’ Welch for three years performing festivals worldwide. JD honed his swamp blues bass touring for five decades throughout the Southwest. Sharing the stage at times with Homesick James and Joe Houston among countless other blues greats. In addition to performing at dozens of festivals. 61 Ghosts felt the need to create their own unique style of music drawing upon Joe’s poignant lyrics and melodies. JD and Dixie together create steamy-driving grooves, razor sharp dynamics, and high energy to create what all three refer to as Badlands-Rock Americana. Their combined passion and need to create a style of music all their own brings the Southwest desert, the streets from the City of Sin, and the restless spirits of the Mississippi Hills that conjures up 61 Ghosts. In 2017, the band released their debut album, titled "To The Edge" is like being dragged behind an old Harley through the Americana Badlands. Just what Johnny Thunders always wanted.

Interview by Michael Limnios

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

Joe: What I try to take from the Blues is to strip the music and my life down as close to the marrow as possible. By doing that it shows what I should value and what's potentially going to take too much effort and energy, when both those things are in short supply in a pretty hectic life. A suppose it's a way of trying to stay focused. In music, my thought is, if you can say it in a few chords or notes, less words, there's more chance of it hitting the mark and making an impact. Same in life, trying to not get caught up in too many distractions. 1a, Blues means to me, Trying to achieve the most feeling and emotion possible, whether it's in telling a story with the words, painting a verbal image, the tempo, dynamics,... Sometimes at least for me, it can be the sound of a hit on a snare drum, the tone of the guitar, a note or two or a particular chord of a song, the phrasing of a word, literally one word, the absence of sound between the notes or chords, the squeak of the performers chair while recording or the sound of a guitar players hand on the fretboard. Sometimes the most minuscule sound can make the song, often completely by accident.

Dixie: I love the older recordings of blues like JD Hutto & Hound Dog Taylor playing with such intensity and a style of all their own. Mistakes and all. Doesn’t matter...it’s the feeling you get listening to musicians who played with such honesty and passion. Blues to me is playing with passion and abandonment. When I sit behind the drums and Joe and I are about to perform-I quiet myself and think of the blues drummers who have inspired me and then take a deep breath & settle into the groove of the song. To tell the story through my playing. Playing our music keeps me authentic.

What is the story behind the duo project “61 Ghosts”? What characterize your music philosophy?

Dixie: Joe & I met about 16 years ago and we had always said to each other...one day we’ll play in a band together. Finally, that day came in September 2016. At that time, I was touring extensively with Leo Bud Welch 84-year-old as his drummer since 2014. Playing as Leo’s drummer with no bass player. Hence. No safety net either. Never knew what he would play or do. Always a surprise. No set-list. No rehearsals. Just play and hope I didn’t fall off the wire. Ha Ha! My philosophy about music and from playing in the trenches with Leo gave me “to play as if my life depends on it” and gave me the confidence to play drums behind Joe - an experienced guitar player and performer! He’s fun to watch as he tells his stories through songs with such honesty. It’s like watching an actor playing out a scene with such conviction! Playing as a duo there’s no room to hide. We both play from the heart, in the moment and each show is never the same.

How do you describe 61 Ghosts sound and songbook? What characterize your music philosophy?

Joe: We aspire to have the rawness of Howlin’ Wolf, Mississippi Fred McDowell, the emotion of Rory Gallagher, the swagger and confidence of Link Wray, the depth of Dylan, and or Cohen in songwriting, the pure joy and freedom of early Rock and Roll. A lot to aspire to, but why not aim high? To play music that inspires me, that pushes me. If I can do that, then I can move other people with the music I play. That's the goal, to make others feel something deeply, any kind of emotion, as long as they're moved.

"The pushing the boundaries of it. At least my perspective, is so many Blues musicians play it safe, same old retread of what they think is the Blues." (Photo: Joe Mazzari, J.D. Sipe & Dixie)

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

Joe: I think I can best answer this by examples and a little back history, my 20's were spent playing music in bands, traveling and living hand to mouth in many cases. Long hair, earring, different clothing and life style that brings with it questions and comments from others, not always complimentary. My 20's-30's were also in bands but I was also involved on a certain level with a motorcycle club. That brings on its own counterculture effect from people. Also in my earlier days of playing I was in bands with people who had the misfortune of being addicted to substances. That gives a window to looking at society from a different perspective. And people's reactions to individuals involved with that. My whole adult life has been playing music in bands, and to varying degrees from the company I've kept, looking at life from a different view than most perhaps. It can wear a person down at times, mainly when I was younger. Guilt by association with friends, or the clothes you wear, or the career/passion you've chosen. On and on. But honestly, I wouldn't change a thing. I wished I'd had a more carefree attitude about it as a younger man, and some of the things a more stable life can bring, but overall, I have incredible memories and experiences. There's been a lot of color in my life I'm not sure I'd have seen under many other circumstances.

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

Joe: Outside of music, my uncle, Joe Mazzari, Survivor of POW camps in WW2, escaped a few times and captured, finally escaped to freedom. Through his very tough situations his concerns were always about others. As he was in his overall life as well. Always there to assist other people, strength of character, could be relied on to take care of problems for those that needed it. Definitely my father, brother, family and friends too, but my mother’s grace and strength as well. Tough childhood and yet showed nothing but compassion and humor with those that needed it she came across. Incredibly strong in many ways. In music, many folks but two come to mind immediately, B.B. King, I met him briefly after a show, myself and a couple close friends wormed our way into his dressing room after a gig he did in Orlando Florida. We thought it was his birthday, and showed up with a cake at the back door. Dopey kids with a birthday cake standing with a handful of very "mature black woman" who I'm sure we're thinking what the hell are these kids up to. His manager heard about us and let us in, watched BB do the last couple songs from behind the curtain a few feet away. Drenched with sweat and singing and playing with such force to this theatre crowd. It was awe inspiring to witness as a young person not even able to play guitar at that point myself. He gets off the stage and his manager tells him about us, standing there with our melting birthday cake, tells us it's not his birthday, but continues to talk to us and answer questions as if we mattered. Literally pools of sweat at his feet being on stage moments before now engaging these kids. That meeting and his attention will always stay with me. A perfect night.  Best musical advice came from Johnny Thunders, Johnny played in the New York Dolls and Heartbreakers originally. I had the good luck to play and record with him for a few years in the early 80's. Many lessons from Johnny, a lot of what not to do more in the lifestyle area, he'd be the first to agree with that, and a lot of what to do in the music direction. Johnny could also be a very giving person, incredible cutting sense of humor, and behind the problems drug addiction brings with it, a really fun person to hang with. You always had to stay on your toes with Johnny whether it was playing in his band or simply being involved in his life on a daily basis. His advice came when I met up with him to learn what songs he wanted to play and show me a few things on bass he wanted to hear. I was playing the songs with him before a show in his apt in NY. Sitting there across from Johnny Thunders, one of the main reasons I choose music as a life path a few years previously after being impressed with his style and his playing. Fairly intimidating but I was young and clueless enough to do it, though I'd never played bass. I'm playing something he doesn't like, takes the bass from me, plays the same exact notes with a completely different feel and attitude, and it amazed me the difference. He told me, in a few different ways, it's not about hitting the notes perfectly, or perfect intonation, or the exact this or that,.. play it like you mean it. When you hit a bad note or chord, make it yours. Play everything with conviction. Those words and watching him play taught me a lot. It's got to have feel, and emotion behind it. And confidence.

Dixie: I’ve met so many people that have shaped how I approach playing & thinking about music. Here’s a few that really stuck with me. Leo said to me in a response to my question “How do you feel about being discovered at 81?” He said, “You have to believe it to receive it!” I love that!  And, at 81, he definitely believed and we traveled around the world together. So now, I give gratitude on things that aren’t here yet. Another friend advised “to just play me-don’t try to play like someone else. What you have is good. Be and play who you are. Just play you.” Dale Wise owner of Dale’s Drum Shop in Harrisburg, PA. Great mentor for me!   Morgan Freeman visits Clarksdale & who owns a night club Ground Zero Blues Club, I overheard him say to an aspiring actor when asked his advice on how to be an full time actor. I love this...“Don’t have a backup plan. Otherwise, you won’t fully give 100% to your craft.”

"We aspire to have the rawness of Howlin’ Wolf, Mississippi Fred McDowell, the emotion of Rory Gallagher, the swagger and confidence of Link Wray, the depth of Dylan, and or Cohen in songwriting, the pure joy and freedom of early Rock and Roll. A lot to aspire to, but why not aim high?" (61 Ghosts on stage / Photo by Steve Stricker)

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

Joe: So many over the 30 odd years, but there's one that doesn't involve me but always stayed with me, watching an ok band in Rhode Island I believe, not being a jerk, but honestly the band was just ok, and seemed to be "going through the motions." A guy says between songs loud enough for the band to hear something about them not being very good. I generally think this shows no class to rip a band, especially while on stage, but to be honest it did feel like a waste of all of our time and the band didn't seem to care. So, the lead singer says to the guy who made the comment in the crowd, “if you can do better, prove it.” The guy proceeds to get up, not drunk, just wanting to prove a point, picks up the bass, and starts playing this rocking riff with 100 percent better and with more energy and feeling then the band that's standing there on stage. It was incredibly eye opening to me, a guy playing only a bass riff with conviction and believing in himself could be so much better than a lack luster band. The crowd was completely into it and the band got a lesson in "mailing it in." That was another lesson for me.

Dixie: When I played with The All NIght Blues Band before Leo, Sean Apple guitarist/singer. Great guitarist by the way. When we would go into the studio to record we would never know his new songs. He liked that we would all have to ‘wing it on the spot’. Talk about anxiety! It was just me on drums and a harmonica player Martin “Big Boy” Grant. Guess that was my start playing without a bass player. I got so used to playing without one that when Sean would hire one I’d make him follow me cause they would get out of the groove often. Needless to say, Sean finally realized that he didn’t need one. Happy about that for sure. In that band, I learned to play with fluidity and to watch the front man and block out everyone else. Most importantly, stay in the groove and ride the wave!

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

Joe: The pushing the boundaries of it. At least my perspective, is so many Blues musicians play it safe, same old retread of what they think is the Blues. My band plays a lot down South in the U.S. and it's so much of the same thing. Even many tourists from other countries want to hear the same standard blues riffs and words, and a lot of musicians stick to the same path. Believe me, I love the deep Blues immensely, I'd listen to Mississippi Fred, Bukka White, B.B., All the incredible men and woman blues players from the past, but I'm not going to try to copy or mimic them. I'll try to take their feel and message in some cases and put my stance on what they brought. My hope is more musicians figure out their path.

Dixie: The simplicity of playing music without the added fluff. If you feel you have to be a graduate of Berkeley to play blues so you can wow the audience with your skills of subdividing. Perhaps jazz would be better suited for you.  Just play what is necessary and not feel the need to fill up every space with stuff. Just cause you can doesn’t mean you should. Less is more. True. I have no fears. My hopes is that our fans will like what we play.

"Blues to me is playing with passion and abandonment. When I sit behind the drums and Joe and I are about to perform-I quiet myself and think of the blues drummers who have inspired me and then take a deep breath & settle into the groove of the song. To tell the story through my playing. Playing our music keeps me authentic." (Photo: Dixie Deadwood)

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

Joe: What comes to my mind playing the music I do, and being around Blues music, is the joy playing this music brings folks from every walk of life. You can walk into an empty venue for a sound check, everything about the atmosphere is sullen, very low key. Then in a few hours you add the element of music and feel how palpable the shift of positive energy can become. And by the end of the night, the release and back to calm. Wonderful to be part of that process.

Dixie: Tough question. I’m not sure how to answer this. I can’t say whether race or politics has anything to do with playing music you love. I just let the music flow through me to the audience. All that other stuff is on them. I just play.

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

Dixie: I was setting up my drums on stage and a man comes up to me and asks “when’s the drummer coming” or “You must be the singer” or “are you setting up the drums for the drummer?” Ugh!! Really?! When I play drums I play with conviction and I have a take no prisoners attitude on every show! As far as the status of women in music - I can’t t answer for all women only for myself. I work hard at my craft I’m finally getting equal pay for equal work!!! LOL!!! I am on Leo’s Blues Trail Marker in Bruce, Mississippi and listed as his drummer. I’d say that’s pretty damn good! I made my mark in history and it’ll never be erased!!

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

Joe: Nonmusical, lately this thought is in my head, though I'm sure there are many more insightful or historic answers, I'd like to be at NASA control the 12 hours before and 12 hours after the first manned landing on the moon. The anticipation, anxiety, tension with the world watching, the actually landing and seeing and feeling it from the command center, and the successful take off and safe trip back. To be part of that history would be amazing. Musically, to be at one of Rory Gallagher’s first gigs with Taste. Though I loved his other bands so much, too. Or being in the crowd the first time Link Wray came out at the local dance, and hit the chords to Rumble. To me that would-be jaw dropping.

Dixie: How about ancient Egypt to see how the pyramids were really built. Why not!?

61 Ghosts - Official website

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