Interview with Mandy Lemons & Sturgis Nikides of Low Society - new trails on the stomping grounds of Blues

"No matter how I’m feeling physically, mentally or otherwise, the instant I begin to play I immediately feel better. The blues is my drug of choice and I’m hopelessly addicted to it."

Low Society: Rebellious Blues & Roll

Mandy Lemons and Low Society are blazing new trails on the stomping grounds of Blues and Americana music. Texas Blues, Memphis Rock 'N Soul and a healthy dose of New York attitude help define the sound and spirit of their latest album, 'You Can't Keep A Good Woman Down', on Icehouse Records. It's a diverse collection of original songs that inject new life into, while remaining firmly rooted in, the traditional music that they live and breathe. Among the albums guest appearances are two of Memphis' best known musicians, B.B. King and Lionel Hampton alumni Dr Herman Green on the saxophone and Lucero's Rick Steff on keys and accordion. The album was recorded at the historic Memphis landmark, American Recording Studio, and mastered by Stax legend, Larry Nix. Low Society is the brainchild of blues belter Mandy Lemons, and her partner in crime, guitarist and producer Sturgis Nikides, former guitarist for John Cale (The Velvet Underground).

The pair has codified their shared love of Texas and Delta Blues, soul music and rock 'n roll into their own subconscious language. Mandy sings the blues with an emotionally charged powerhouse voice that mixes original southern fried soul and northern attitude. Woven together with Sturgis Nikides blistering slide guitar they blaze their way through a veritable map of the South. Holding down the rock solid rhythm section are Memphis native sons, Mike "Drummerlife" Munn and Nick Dodson on the bass guitar. The band has traveled extensively, playing hundreds of shows on festival, juke joint and club stages everywhere from Eastern Europe to NYC, from Mississippi to Texas, to Memphis, to Arkansas and Missouri, to Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Connecticut, Montana, Florida and points beyond. They have appeared at Clarksdale Mississippi's Juke Joint Festival for the last 4 consecutive years, the 2012 Bluesalive Festival in the Czech Republic and Poland, as well as NYC's Howl Festival for 3 consecutive years. They also participated in the 30th International Blues Challenge. Their first album, 2011's 'High Time' received critical praise for it's raw "neo-delta" roots and blues sound.

Interview by Michael Limnios

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

Mandy: The blues is a feeling, it's a way of life, and it’s a history. Everyone knows the blues, even if they've never heard blues music. I learned very young that blues music made me feel good. Like the musicians knew my pain, and I was not alone.  There's happy blues and sad blues, but the shared pain is my favorite part. What I’ve learned about myself through the blues is that I am made of much stronger stuff than I ever knew!

Sturgis: Blues is ingrained in my DNA. I’m of Greek American heritage, so there was definitely some very bluesy bouzouki music bouncing around my infant head. I was born and raised in New York City and my dad was a huge jazz and blues fan who also grew up in NY during the 40’s and 50’s. He got to see all of the greats live and up close, in fact he even met Charlie Parker. His record collection included everything from the soundtrack to Zorba the Greek, to Dizzy Gillespie, to Muddy Waters, to the Rolling Stones. One of the musical memories that really stands out was the first time I heard Muddy’s electrifying slide guitar intro to “Long Distance Call”. It was one of my dad’s favorites, and it didn’t take me long to figure out how to play it. And that same ‘slide’ sound was on the Rolling Stones records too, so I made the connection fairly quickly.

Someone once sang “the blues ain’t nothing but a good man feeling bad” (Leroy 'Lasses' White – 1912). I don’t subscribe to the theory that blues is “down” music.  Music, especially blues, has the extraordinary power to make you feel GOOD! No matter how I’m feeling physically, mentally or otherwise, the instant I begin to play I immediately feel better. The blues is my drug of choice and I’m hopelessly addicted to it.

"The blues is a feeling, it's a way of life, and it’s a history. Everyone knows the blues, even if they've never heard blues music. I learned very young that blues music made me feel good. Like the musicians knew my pain, and I was not alone."  

How do you describe Low Society sound, songbook, and progress, what characterize Low Society philosophy?

Mandy: I think Low Society embodies "everyman's" blues, which includes rebellion, dissatisfaction and joy. Rock-n-roll, country, soul, gospel, it's all got the blues in it. I think our sound is raw and powerful, and inclusive of everything we have ever loved and been moved by. 

Sturgis: We take all of the best aspects of American roots music, everything we love and hold dear, put it in the ‘blender’ and what comes out is the sound of Low Society. Aspects of country blues, as characterized by Charlie Patton, Son House, Blind Blake, etc., are the essential elements and building blocks. I also listen closely and integrate Texas blues, as personified by Lightnin’ Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb, plus North Mississippi Hill Country Blues, as played by Mississippi Fred McDowell, Othar Turner and R.L. Burnside. There’s also early era country music and bluegrass in there, as well as so-called ‘hillbilly’ music – Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams - which, when mixed with blues gives us rockabilly. This is where it all comes together and begins to get interesting, in my personal opinion. All credit belongs to the very first productions by Sam Phillips, at the Memphis Recording Service (Sun Studio). Most people think of Elvis when I mention this, naturally, which is all well and good, but there’s so much more! Howlin’ Wolf, Ike Turner, Rufus Thomas, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison…. Sam Phillips was a genius, he was the first one who put it all together – he had the vision. Trying to imagine popular music today without Phillips and Sun is completely impossible. If you listen to the songs contained in the two Low Society albums so far, you’ll hear elements of all of these. 

There’s no set formula I use to write the songs that characterize the Low Society songbook. Some start with a fragment of a lyric, others start with a riff or a motif, and get developed later by both Mandy & myself. The unifying element is our shared enthusiasm for something I like to call the “lonesome” sound. It’s what makes the blues BLUE. I wouldn’t say that there’s a Low Society philosophy, per se, but it certainly IS a lifestyle!

"The world is a hurt and disturbing place, and I reflect that in my voice, from deep down within. Sometimes I wonder how we all sleep at night. I feel it’s important to express that. That makes some people uncomfortable." (Photo by Pavel Strážay)

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

Mandy: Best blues jam ever, right here in Memphis, Tennessee, with Sturgis Nikides, Herman Green, Joyce Henderson, Brian Hawkins and more! My most memorable gigs would definitely be the first time we went to Europe for the BluesAlive Festival 2012 (Czech Republic and Poland), and got to play alongside massive talents such as Shemekia Copeland and Lucky Peterson. The people were soo amazing, and the countryside gorgeous beyond description.  It had always been my dream, and I want to see more! Like, Greece for example!! Also, getting to open for the late great Johnny Winter was thrilling. Just being in the presence of such greatness was extremely inspiring!

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

Mandy: The most interesting time in my life and career so far has been living in New York City.  It opened my mind and world, and it felt like I had come home. Like I had finally arrived in a place I was MEANT to be. The best moment of my career and life would be - meeting Sturgis Nikides, obviously. And the worst moment of my career and life would be losing my best friend and mentor James Fox, who was also our manager (and so much more). He passed away in 2012.

Sturgis: I live in the moment, and the most interesting period in my life is NOW. In my opinion it goes by quickly, so you’d better be paying attention – you don’t want to miss a single second!

 One of the best ‘moments’ of my career (there have been many) was the honor of opening for Johnny Winter in Little Rock Arkansas in June of 2013. Johnny was one of my most important inspirations as a budding adolescent blues guitarist, especially his slide style. To this day, Johnny is still my absolute favorite modern electric slide guitar player. Just being in close proximity to him physically – and getting to handle his legendary Gibson Firebird was a thrill I will never forget!

 One of the worst moments was the heartbreaking loss of Low Society’s manager and benefactor, James ‘Foxy’ Fox, whose life was cut short by AIDS, in 2012. It’s difficult to talk about, even now, over 2 years later.

"Because the blues will never die. Everyone's got em', and they're continually evolving and growing and fusing with other genres, and influencing all music, forevermore." (Photo by Jimmy Hill)

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

Mandy: Without a doubt, meeting Sturgis Nikides (my soul-mate) has been the most important meeting of my life. Also, meeting the legendary Dr. Herman Green (photo), upon our arrival here in Memphis has been the single-most, musically transforming experience ever, for me personally. I feel that he’s been able to break down all the restrictive musical parameters I had constructed, and rebuild me with boundless limitations! (On top of him being a really beautiful, loving, kind-hearted soul.)
The best advice I have ever received was to “stick to my guns”. That people who are making original music encounter resistance, more-so than those who are playing it “safe” and “in the box”. But that it’s hugely important, as an artist, to stick to the vision coming from your heart. I have something to say, and am driven to do so! The world is a hurt and disturbing place, and I reflect that in my voice, from deep down within. Sometimes I wonder how we all sleep at night. I feel it’s important to express that. That makes some people uncomfortable. I feel it’s honesty, and I appreciate it when I encounter it. Other people, not so much. But even Son House said, “Don’t You Mind People Grinning In Your Face”!

Sturgis: I would have to say that meeting and getting to make music with Mandy Lemons has been the single most important event/experience in my musical life. We are two halves of a very complete and unified musical vision. Our shared migration from NYC to Memphis is the touchstone to the ‘new’ sound of Low Society, and the story is told thru the music on our latest album, ‘You Can’t Keep A Good Woman Down’. Of course I highly recommend everyone buy a copy and listen!

Second on the list would be meeting Herman Green. He’s a native Memphian, a jazz and blues musician, 84 years young. He’s played the saxophone with everyone from Rufus Thomas to Miles Davis & John Coltrane to Lionel Hampton, as well as being B.B. King’s former musical director. We met him the first week we came to Memphis and he literally took us under his protective wing. He found us a weekly gig at a venerable Memphis dive bar within a few short weeks of our arrival, and we played with him every Wednesday night for over a year. He has the singular honor of being the only musician in the world to have 2 brass notes on Beale Street. The Beale Street brass note is the musical equivalent to having a gold star on Hollywood Blvd. Robert Johnson, BB King, Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis only have one brass note each, so having 2 is a pretty big deal (as Herman will be very glad to point out!). You can hear Herman’s magnificent sax playing on our new album. I consider it a privilege to call him my friend and mentor.

"Blues is ingrained in my DNA. I’m of Greek American heritage, so there was definitely some very bluesy bouzouki music bouncing around my infant head."

Are there any memories from Nico, John Cale, and CBGB gigs which you’d like to share with us?

Sturgis: NYC in the 70’s & 80’s was a magical place. You couldn’t help but be inspired and drawn to it. I was fortunate to be born and raised in New York, so I didn’t have to travel far to get to CBGB. My first gig on the Bowery was in 1975, just when it was all beginning. I was barely 17 years old. By 1978 I was playing in multiple bands/projects and I was also in demand as a session player. One of the bands I played in was called the Joe Bidewell Group. Joe also played keyboards for John Cale. Before I even met John, I played a handful of shows with Joe backing up ex Velvet Underground chanteuse Nico at a venue down the street from NYC’s notoriously hip Chelsea Hotel called the Squat Theatre. Not too long after, there was a major shakeup in John Cale’s band, necessitating the hiring of a new lead guitarist. Joe thought I would be a good fit, and he brought John Cale to Max’s Kansas City to see me play. Needless to say, there was something about the 20 year old Sturgis that impressed John enough to ask me if I was up to performing and recording with him. I should note that he told me if I wasn’t up to it, Chris Spedding would be on call. I took this as a personal challenge, and two weeks later we were at Plaza Sound recording studio in New York’s RCA building laying down “Ready For War”(Spy Records), which was my official label debut. I subsequently had the distinct honor to share the stage and jam with Mr. Spedding, who is one of my all-time favorite guitarists, and is without a doubt one of the best kept secrets in rock ‘n roll history. I think the only guitarist who’s played more session dates is Tommy Tedesco. Chris has played on literally hundreds of records, picks a wicked slide guitar, and was also one of the original Wombles! Another significant memory of my time in John Cale’s band took place at the legendary Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin Texas. The original Velvet Underground lead guitarist, Sterling Morrison, lived in Austin (where he was a professor of English Literature at the University of Texas). John invited him to sit in with us, but he didn’t have a guitar, so I lent him my Gibson Firebird. We played the classic ‘Waiting For The Man’. When the show ended, he handed me back my guitar and apologized profusely for bleeding on it. He had stopped playing regularly at that point in his life, and one of his fingers split open from the sheer force of the song we played. It was an honor to play with him, and something I’ll never forget.

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

Mandy: Because the blues will never die.  Everyone's got em', and they're continually evolving and growing and fusing with other genres, and influencing all music, forevermore.

"I think Low Society embodies "everyman's" blues, which includes rebellion, dissatisfaction and joy. Rock-n-roll, country, soul, gospel, it's all got the blues in it."

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

Sturgis: The role of being a full time working musician/recording artist has changed dramatically over the last 20 years. Making a modest living as an independent artist is something we once took for granted. The “free music” revolution has put a permanent end to that. If you’re a working musician today, trust me – you got the blues!! My fear is that the younger generation will not pick up the torch when we’re ready to pass it along. As for the state of the BLUES, I feel confident that it’s in good shape. I see continued enthusiasm for roots music among the old and young generation. Something this good will never die!

What's been your experience from the Blues trial of 2012? Which memory makes you smile?

Sturgis: Michael, I can’t remember that far back!! I can tell you that 2014 has been a wild ride. We began the year recording the pre-production demos for our new album at a friend’s studio here in Memphis. Later that month (January) Low Society represented the Buffalo River Blues Society in the 2014 International Blues Challenge. The IBC is a great experience, and I highly recommend it to every blues band in the world. It’s a blues convention, and you not only have an opportunity to see the BEST players on the planet, you also get to network with record label owners, festival bookers, potential agents and managers, etc. As an added bonus, there’s also ample opportunity to jam at all of the different venues after each nights challenge is complete.

In March we began recording our new album “You Can’t Keep A Good Woman Down”, at Memphis’s historic American Recording Studio. So many great records made in this studio – by Elvis Presley, The Bar-Kays, Duck Dunn & Steve Cropper, Jeff Buckley, the White Stripes, Loretta Lynn…it’s a long list of greatness. The room is so “live” that we were able to capture some truly remarkable live performance tracks, which ultimately became finished takes with a bare minimum of overdubs. The finished product really exceeded all of our expectations. Then, we had the very good fortune to have the album mastered by Larry Nix, who did ALL of the mastering for Stax Records. Only in Memphis, folks!! 

This is our first release on Icehouse Records. The record label is owned and distributed by a company well known in Memphis, Select-O-Hits, which was founded by Sam Phillips and his brother in 1960; the company is now owned by Sam W. and Johnny Philips. It’s been an absolute honor to move to Memphis to soak up the blues, and end up signed to a label with a legacy you can trace all the way back to Sun Records. We released the new album on Oct. 7, threw a big party on Beale Street, and it’s been a roller coaster ride ever since. The record has been so well received that I have to pinch myself to make sure I’m not dreaming. It definitely puts a smile on my face!

"The secret to really effective slide guitar soloing is to listen to horn players. Great jazz trumpeters and sax players invoke an almost vocal like quality to their playing." (Photo by Jimmy Hill)

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues with Soul and continue to Rock n’ Roll and Americana?
Mandy: Blues, soul and Rock N’ Roll are forever entangled. Ike Turner, a blues musician from Clarksdale, Mississippi (the mecca of the Blues – Home of the Crossroads) travelled to Memphis, Tennessee to record with Sam Phillips. The record “Rocket 88’” is considered to be the FIRST rock n’ roll recording. The Ike and Tina Turner Review of the 60’s marked the beginning of the Soul era. All of the above could also be said about James Brown, not to mention the godfather of Funk, Rufus Thomas. To me - Americana is all of that, with some country-blues thrown on top.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues with Art Rock and continue to Avant-garde and Proto Punk?

Sturgis: Interesting question. The Yardbirds, David Bowie and the NY Dolls come to mind almost immediately. Bowies song Jean Genie contains the main riff from the Yardbirds version of Muddy Waters “I’m A Man”. The Dolls were definitely influenced by the whole glitter rock explosion kicked off by Bowie, and they in turn famously covered a number of classic blues tracks, such as Sonny Boy Williamson’s Don’t You Start Me Talking. All of these artists are direct influences on the punk rock uprising that began in 1975. I hardly think anyone can argue the point that ALL rock music is blues based, one way or another. What’s the saying? “The blues had a baby and they called it rock ‘n roll”.

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

Mandy: I hate to complain about it. There’s so many amazing female musicians who have come before me, been through much worse than anything I could imagine, and have paved the road for all women in music. I have definitely encountered resistance and some male musician’s immediate dismissal upon meeting me as – “Oh, the wife of the guitar player”. But, as soon as I take the stage and open my mouth, that usually changes. I will go toe-to-toe with ANY man who thinks I am less than, because I’m a female. James Brown himself said, “It wouldn’t be NOTHING without a woman”. I think that every year, the women in Blues gain more power and recognition than the year before, and that it’s the perfect time for the release of “You Can’t Keep A Good Woman Down”!

Do you know why the sound of slide and resonator guitar is connected to the blues? What are the secrets of?

Sturgis: The accepted explanation is the “Diddley Bow”, which is a piece of wire stretched between two nails or screws, typically attached to the side of the house and plucked with one hand. Since there aren’t any frets, a piece of metal or glass (typically a bottle) would be moved up and down the string to change the pitch. The use of this makeshift musical instrument dates back to West African one-stringed instruments, specifically something known as the monochord zither. I originally learned about the Diddley Bow when I read a biography of Bo Diddley as a teenager. My in depth knowledge came from a chance meeting in Clarksdale Mississippi in the late 80’s. It was my first visit to the area, a pilgrimage, really. I traveled the Blues Trail, visiting all of the markers, and the Delta Blues Museum. While walking around the downtown area, I wandered into a record store (Rooster Blues Records) and met Lonnie Pitchford who just happened to be working there. Lonnie learned to play guitar from Robert Jr. Lockwood, Robert Johnson’s step-son. I spent a few illuminating hours talking to him and he shared his passion for the Diddley Bow with me. Lonnie was destined for great things, but passed away too young, in 1998. Believe it or not, there’s a Diddley Bow attached to his gravestone.

The secret to really effective slide guitar soloing is to listen to horn players. Great jazz trumpeters and sax players invoke an almost vocal like quality to their playing. The single line phrasing and legato of Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane and Miles Davis would be a prime examples of this. I use a variety of open guitar tunings, including minor tunings, which are really conducive to harmolodic exploration. Keep your lines simple and elegant – that’s the key! 

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

Mandy: That it’s no longer a “popularity/ beauty” contest, and that it’s no longer the person with the most money to pay for opportunities, who wins the chance to share their music with the world. And I wish people would understand that music is NOT a competition. It’s ART!

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

Mandy: I would LOVE to have been in the audience watching Big Mama Thornton and Buddy Guy in the American Folk Blues Festival in England back in 1965.

Sturgis: Not too far from where I’m sitting right now….I’d be at the Memphis Recording Service (Sun Studios), 706 Union Ave. I would like to be a fly on the wall, on the sunny spring day in 1951 that Howlin’ Wolf came in and met Sam Phillips. Phillips said “Howlin' Wolf was the greatest artist I ever recorded–better than Jerry Lee, Elvis, and all the rest. When I heard Howlin’ Wolf, I said, ‘This is for me. This is where the soul of man never dies.’ ”

Low Society - official website

Photo by Jimmy Hill

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