Interview with LA band of Hunter & The Dirty Jacks - Blues n' Rock with a vintage sound and modern edge

"The Blues stems from 'A Hard Life', so it mirrors human 'struggle'. Anyone can relate to the Blues; it's a universal model. Blues is a musical 'Center'."

Hunter & The Dirty: Blues House with Rock Foundation

Hunter & The Dirty Jacks are a very entertaining and versatile rock & roll band from Los Angeles, California. Blues and roots rock with a vintage sound and modern edge… originals, covers, full electric and rocked to the roof on Sunset Blvd., or all acoustic in a serene setting… both have been done to extreme success. Hunter & The Dirty Jacks comprise a virtual all-star cast of Los Angeles and Orange County-area musicians that have been playing locally and regionally for over ten years apiece. Fronted by lead singer and multi-instrumentalist Hunter Ackerman, and anchored by Jon Siembieda and Carmelo Bonaventura on guitar, Aaron Barnes on bass, Brian Lara on drums, and Moana Avvenenti on vocals, the Dirty Jacks put forth an extremely high energy, emotionally compelling performance coupled with a rare combination of soulful originals and tasty covers.

The sound is rock and roll with a bluesy core, ala the Black Keys, Rolling Stones, Black Crowes, and Jet. The band is very seasoned for all players being in the late 20s and early 30s. The Dirty Jacks debuted at House of Blues Sunset Strip on 9/29/12 to a resounding success and haven’t looked back since. The band played four tours of Northern California in 2013, has more in store for 2014, and also has established a critically-acclaimed weekly residency that started at the beginning of 2013 at Harvelle’s in Santa Monica (the oldest blues club in Southern California), where all of the admission proceeds and a portion of drink sales benefit feeding the hungry in Santa Monica, as well as teaching foster children music. The bandmates have collectively shared bills with bands of the likes of Tommy Castro, Eric Sardinas, Coco Montoya, Dave Mason, Walter Trout, Cinderella, Led Zepagain, Wayward Sons, Wild Child, War, and many others. 

Interview by Michael Limnios

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

Jon: The blues, to me, is the people’s music, and is about playing music from the heart for others that need it. It’s relatable. It’s got soul. I also have learned that blues musicians are some of the most generous and giving, as they have helped us a lot with our charity residency every Tuesday night at Harvelle’s Santa Monica. The best rock, to me, is an extension of the blues, but perhaps utilizing more melody lines, chord structures, etc. than blues to create more variety.

Hunter: Van Gogh said "Art is to console those who are broken by life." And that's the funny thing about blues. I've always maintained that I can play rock to make you feel good and blues to make you feel worse, but here it's not so clear.

Looking at a performer onstage and an audience listening to blues, it's not always obvious just who was broken and who is being put back together here. I think playing blues, in particular to a living audience, is a little like a hug.  It's not clear who is giving it and who is receiving it...  -But we're all experiencing it together.

Carmelo: Well, I would say that most of my life lessons for the past 20 years have been infused with music culture in general, which rock, and blues have always been the core. It's hard to weed them out or, see as separate. I would say "fortitude", and "integrity of self" would be a few spiritual muscles that have been worked out, and flexed. The Blues stems from "A Hard Life", so it mirrors human "struggle". Anyone can relate to the Blues; it's a universal model. Blues is a musical "Center". All of Jazz (Fusion), Rock, Funk, Soul, R and B, Rap, and even Punk Rock stem from the Blues.

Tell me about the beginning of The Dirty Jacks. How did you choose the name and where did it start?

Jon: The name came about as a drink that our bass player’s brother dubbed.  It is a Jack Daniel’s with Coke, and Chambord. We were in a previous band together playing a casino gig in Nevada, and it was dubbed late one night. We thought it was cool so it stuck with this band.

How do you describe you sound and progress, what characterize The Dirty Jacks philosophy?

Jon: The Dirty Jacks are a hardworking band that likes to have a lot of fun, but puts the work in to back it up. We have made a lot of progress in a year. I think our sound is rock and roll with a bluesy, vintage edge to it. Blues fans can relate to us. Rock and roll fans think we are throwbacks.

Hunter: The sound is a house of blues built upon a solid foundation of rock. 

I'd describe The Dirty Jacks philosophy in two words: Humanist Rock.   For those of us who have no religion, based upon logical grounds but who are possessed of a grand reverence for the physical Universe we find ourselves a living breathing part of the magic of reality. There are no supernatural motivations whereby we must do good to earn reward or to subvert punishment in an afterlife. What remains is simple and pure morality. Good for goodness' sake. This doesn't mean that nothing matters because no one is looking. YOU are looking and we must BE the change we want to see in the world.  To help each other live to whatever potential we may have.

Carmelo: I am the neophyte of the Dirty Jacks, so we'll see how I contribute to the songwriting aspect of the band in it's future. I think my personal sound has brought a little harder edge, and maybe psychedelic aspect, as in contrast from Sean Soto's more organic, and beautiful guitar work. As far as progress; This is the hardest working band I have ever played with, or met for that matter. Progress is in the DNA of these guys. "Service Your Soul" at Harvelle's says it in one phrase. The band helps feed the homeless, and teaches foster children how to play music. That is philosophy in ACTION. The Dirty Jack's philosophy is broad in scope. We run the gamut Spiritually, Intellectually, and politically. It's a microcosm of the American Melting Pot. It's open. We talk, and debate with pretty open minds.

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

Jon: I’m not sure that it is in Los Angeles, actually. Blues seems to have more of presence when we travel up north to San Francisco and beyond. In Los Angeles, it is not as popular as it was 13-14 years ago. It seems to flourish in Europe still, from what our friends tell us that tour over there. I think it’s because the music speaks to people and is relatable.

Hunter: Some things are just wired into your brain, like facial expressions.  We don't learn to smile when we're happy, and Stevie Wonder cries with the same expressions as an ancient Chinese Emperor, never having seen each other and separated by a thousand years of culture. Similarly, the Pentatonic scale presents itself in almost every culture, be they Native American, Celtic, Hungarian… -and it's in The Blues. It is a scale that is wired into us on a fundamental level. It lights the fire to something primal we feel possessed by. Blues isn't just for those who can.  Blues is for those who must.

Carmelo: The Blues is central and Universal as I said before. It's spawned countless forms of modern music, and with the added aspect of improvisation, which is key to blues performance, allows for spontaneous Spiritual/Human expression, which is cathartic for band members and audience alike (is that a run on sentence? I call it avant garde!). Blues is "The" Archetypal modern music form in my opinion.

Do you remember anything funny from recording and show time with the band?

Jon: Plenty! We have some funny fans that do funny things off-stage. We have a great time in the recording studio, joking around and playing. Some of the special guests that have jammed with us that are famous musicians have incredible senses of humor, Eric Sardinas and Jeff Dale come to mind right away. Hilarious things always happen when we go on tours out of Los Angeles.

Hunter: We've got this roadie who, for whatever reason sports fans do, has a really strong aversion to a particular LA team. Jon Austin also has a sense of loyalty never diminished by the demonstrably low value placed upon sobriety. When the occasion arose that a local club owner had accrued both a strong affinity for our the band and a pair of tickets for the upcoming USC game, he naturally offered them to us as token of a show well played.

This was met with a reaction from our roadie Austin not entirely unlike being handed the severed head of a family pet, though it afforded the opportunity to offer the one sports joke carried in my pocket:

"John Austin wouldn't support a Trojan to avoid contracting syphilis."

Carmelo: The funniest thing from recording was "me" sitting down in a chair that had ceased to exist. I fell on my ass like a drunken wench. I guarantee no one in the band can beat that!!

Photo: Hunter & The Dirty with Eric Sardinas

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

Jon: There are so many. Jamming with Eric Sardinas and Jimmy Vivino together was outrageous. Jamming with Coco Montoya and Phil Gates together was also amazing. Joey Delgado is a tremendous player. Playing in San Francisco always goes well and has a great crowd.

Hunter: One of the best jams I ever played in was as a young teenager, probably about 14. I was at a university summer program for young percussionists; let's call it "Drum Camp," and one evening there was a huge presentation on Brazilian Samba in an auditorium hosted by the latin percussionist Ruben Alverez. Hundreds of us with drums, like cardioid cells, pulsing together in a rhythm that emerges to be an entity greater than the sum of it's parts. That was one of the first times I felt like EVERYBODY there added something valuable to the sound and the feel is the same I get now when The Dirty Jacks are utterly destroying a venue.  Everybody feels it.  Everybody remembers.

Carmelo: The Best jam I have ever been in the middle of was being sandwiched between Jimmy Vivino and Eric Sardinas going balls out!! It was a musical Vietnam. It was pure enjoyment form the perspective of a music "fan". I just happened to have the BEST seat in the house! They even let me play....

As far as a memorable gig, I would say Hunter and the Dirty Jacks playing with Roy Gaines, and having 10 people or so on stage was an epic and novel situation. We had 4 guitars, 2 backup singers, bass, drums, keys and harp. I would also ad opening (in my previous band everywhere aka 3000 Realms) for Velvet Revolver, and Berlin at The Canyon Club with full backstage access and a refrigerator filled with beer!!!

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

Jon: Eric Sardinas told us to keep doing what we are doing, that we are on the right track. Just work hard and be true to ourselves, and blaze our own path. Gregg Wright told us that he plays the blues for those that need it. Jeff Dale told us many war stories from the road about meeting with Albert King, playing with Honeyboy Edwards, and also Lowell Fulson. There are many more examples.

Hunter: We go to the largest homeless shelter in Santa Monica and cook.  I just met a man who struck me as an absolute example of how to be.  His mother died in childbirth and so his peasant grandmother took it upon herself to raise him in their native Laos. When his grandmother couldn't afford to feed him any longer, she took him to live with Monks at a Shaolin Temple, where he studied Kung-Fu for a decade. In '73, at the age of 19, guerrilla soldiers came to conscript him into the military with the Vietnam conflict going at full burn.   Not wanting to fight in the war, he escaped Laos only to be kidnapped by human traffickers and sold into slavery where he spent the next 40 years working the bellies of different ships as he was traded and sold. Not long before we met, he was released in Canada with no papers, identification, money or resources of any kind.  Somehow, he got connected to a human trafficking aid organization who got him to Los Angeles and into our shelter, where he will taken care of until he can get out on his own and into a job.  Currently, he volunteers teaching Tai Chi at the shelter and is appreciated by a grateful staff for it's effect on those with mental illnesses.

He smiles with pure joy.  He is not angry.  He is just simply grateful.  He is alive, healthy and I can't wait to go back to the shelter and learn more from him.

So the best advice?  Today is a gift.  If you wake up grateful that you opened your eyes this morning and live each moment happy to have clean running water, enough food and music, it will be a day very well lived.

Carmelo: Well... All these cats are top notch. Vivino was my virgin experience; the first guest I played with when I first joined the Dirty Jacks. He kicked my ass!!!!! I quit music after that. You learn from all of them. I feel Roy Gaines to be a mentor to the band, since we've played with him in another musical incarnation. What a blessing... The best advice a musician can get; LISTEN!

Photo: Hunter & The Dirty with Roy Gaines

Are there any memories from Roy Gaines, Eric Sardinas and Coco Montoya which you’d like to share with us?

Jon: Coco Montoya is one of the most humble, generous people I’ve ever met, and he’s an unbelievable musician. He’s told us many great stories about Albert King, Albert Collins, Muddy Waters, etc. Eric Sardinas coming down to the homeless shelter to cook with us is a great memory. The guy is all in for helping people and giving back, and jamming with him is fantastic fun. Roy Gaines has perhaps the most impressive collection of people someone has worked with that I’ve ever seen – Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Ray Charles, Billie Holliday, Bobby Blue Bland, Chuck Willis, The Supremes, Gladys Knight, there are tons more. The knowledge that he has given us by just having those experiences is something I’ll never forget.

Hunter: Eric actually came down to the shelter with us and helped cook. Not only did he volunteer with us, he made a huge vat of mashed potatoes at home before hand and brought them to serve with the meal!

Roy also reminds me about gratitude. He and I were in his car once on our way to a rehearsal for our second show together and in the left lane is this huge tour bus. As it passes us, he points and tells me "Hey, they's our bus. That's what we going to tour in! See, THAT'S how you make it work," he explained. "You gots to think of it as here.  Ours now.  And just be grateful." 

And I'm grateful for all these reminders lately.

Coco is just such a great human being.  I've never gotten a handshake from the man, it's always a hug.  I mean, he's just genuinely warm… -like you'd expect the Buddha to be.

Carmelo: I started to tear up hearing Mr. Roy Gaines at a soundcheck. It was so pure, so existential... I saw into the "soul" of music, and it was exhilarating. Oh, and Coco Montoya telling me jokes as were on stage in the middle of playing. He's just playing the most amazing guitar, and making me laugh. Coco is that good people!

From the musical point of view what are the differences between Californian and the other local scenes?

Jon: Los Angeles is hard to impress people. Everything is so spread out and there is so much to do for entertainment, it’s hard to get people’s attention. San Francisco and Northern California is much more blues/roots driven with its music still. Same with Philadelphia, where I’m from.

Hunter: Actually, I'd say the biggest differences aren't California and the rest of the world, but LA and the other scenes. It's just a different animal playing out here. There are SO many people struggling to make a living and trying to get bands off the ground we've seen something strange. A large supply usually means lower prices, or a ton of people looking for jobs means lower pay can be offered and SOMEONE will be happy to take it. In LA, there are so many bands trying to do something that venues don't just pay less, they don't even have to pay '0',  they manage to go below '0' with an economic model we call "pay to play," where they ask the band to cover the cost of the first pile of tickets (the band is re-compensated if enough people show up) and so the venue doesn't take the risk if no one shows up and this way, the venue doesn't even have to promote.

Carmelo: I lived in Boston for a year or so in 1992-93. The scene was "open", and I think due to the 90's music (Alternative) taking off (blues also had a big surge with SRV, and Jeff Healey in the late 80's early 90's), added a lot of enthusiasm to the Rock music scene all over the country, and world for that matter. "I moved to Seattle in 1994 for 4 years or so with a bass player from Seattle living in Los Angeles because the scene up there was more vibrant, and more organic than Los Angeles. It was a great musical experience. I was in my early 20's, and there was a lot of Rock 'n Roll chaos and debauchery. That's where I first cut my teeth. Los Angeles is on an upswing in my opinion. It has been purifying itself with shitty pay to play bands, and now it's time to get back to "music"!!! The Rival Sons are a testament to that, and we are spreading our musical seed! A lot.

Which memory from Jimmy Vivino, Jeff Dale, and Phil Gates makes you smile?

Hunter: Talking to Jeff Dale in the parking lot behind Harvelle's about Ray Kurzwieler's books and the evolution of complexity in the Universe.  The guy has an appreciation for intellect and non-fiction I find endearing and he's fun to drink with!

Carmelo: When Jeff Dale announced my mother meeting him in the parking lot after the gig in a packed Harvelle's. That really warms my heart. I love that guy!

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

Jon: I hope blues makes a bit of a comeback in the Los Angeles area. I think its popularity has waned in recent years. A lot of blues clubs have closed, and not many remain. I hope music in the future focuses more on what’s real and what is coming from the soul than what sells best or what looks best. That’s not the best music.

Hunter: There is a meme floating around Facebook comparing a set of Beyonce lyrics to Bohemian Rhapsody, coupled with a punch line of how absurdly many writers AND producers it took to make her song VS one writer and one producer for Freddie Mercury's material.

Jim Morrison made a prediction of the future of music. This was probably around 1969.  He said there will come a day when a man can push buttons on a box and won't need any instruments. Turn on any Top 40 station and the veracity of this becomes plainly obvious.  Don't get me wrong, I'm not such a Luddite that I don't love how common Garage band is or that literally anyone has instant global distribution, but we loose something important to the world of promiscuously sampling DJ's. 

I'm not sure that people even try to find depth or meaning in music now. Where a couple of decades ago, you might sit in a room of friends with liner notes and listen to an album together, now it seems to be more about how good you can look as a repeating loop numbs the listener into a trance.

Carmelo: I do miss Rock 'n' Roll being in the forefront of the music scene. It's harder to be a musician in this day and age. Not to be too cynical, but technology and theft have hurt musicians. It will work itself out, and I am optimistic about that. We are just in the middle of it, and the paradigm is in flux. You have to make music for the sheer love of music. I think some of the more superficial "artist" types are falling to the wayside because it's not all million dollar deals anymore. They can join reality TV for the quick fix. You make music because you HAVE to make music.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues with Soul and continue to Rock and beyond?

Carmelo: The one thing they all have in common is that they were all born from the Blues. The Blues is the Perennial form of music. This fact cannot be overstated.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine for the next 24 hours, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?

Jon: I’d love to play in Europe; I think we would do really well.

Hunter: Assuming our going there won't change things and screw it all up, without hesitation there's only one time and place.

The moment of Biogenesis.  About 3.5 billion years ago, life started here.  We've got some good ideas how but nothing quite complete.    In 'Pale Blue Dot' Carl Sagan points out how the first photograph of the Earth as seen from the moon brought us together as a people. It gave us perspective. Showed us how connected we are. That ultimately, we're all on the same team. I think a better understanding that we, all of us, are an inseparable part of the material world; will be a truly unifying notion. Not put here by a creator to use the Earth however we see fit as our resource, but a living part of it with an inseparable fate. Recently, in the United States, we've had leaders in power who genuinely believe the Earth to be fated to a fiery judgment day as described by their holy books. We still have leaders who will not do anything about global warming based on religious grounds. If this is your perspective, nuclear disarmament and tempering environmental disasters will not be important. It's been too easy, particularly in our country's past, to be a part of a group we think of as better than the others, invaiably because we are the people chosen by a god as more deserving. The only long term survival strategy is a more accurate view. We belong to the Earth. The reality is magical on it's own.  So try to make it a better place for your having been here.

Carmelo:  Marilyn Monroe's panties!!!!! Since this is a hypothetical question, I would jaunt around in the time machine and see a few shows. T-Bone Walker and B.B. King (all the Kings for that matter), Miles Davis (Bitches Brew era) with John McLaughlin, Then Hendrix and The Who at Monterey Pop Festival, Led Zeppelin 1973, drop into Abbey Road Studios to watch The Beatles and Floyd record a little, and with just enough time left over I could go meet with Jesus and The Buddha! Why???

Hunter & The Dirty Jacks - official website

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