Interview with Roland Wilson and Christer Karjalainen of Detroit Rhythm & Blues Band from Finland

"I think humility is the word that springs to mind when describing the blues. The blues is a state of mind to me and reflects simple values."

Detroit Rhythm & Blues Band:

From Motor City to "Suomi" Land

Detroit Rhythm & Blues Band started in 1989, is an original and hot rhythm & blues band from Turku, Finland. There was a break for a few years when all of us pursued other stuff. The band was back again in 2008.

The members of Detroit at present are Teijo Saarinen (bass) and Judo Jalava (keyboards,vocals) as well as founding members Christer Karjalainen (percussion) and Detroit native Roland Wilson (singer, guitar player and once in a blue moon, harmonica)Detroit´s new album "Back To The Motor City" is now out. The album consists of a mixture of different rhythm & blues styles, and beyond that. 

Teijo plays a variety of styles. Christer has played many, many types of music and is the owner of KC Sound Studio in Turku where Detroit has recorded its published material. Judo plays a wide variety of Rhythm music and specializes in the use of the Hammond Organ. Roland brings to the group his influences from a childhood of living in Detroit, Michigan and is mainly responsible for the material used and the writing and composing of most of the songs.  

Interview by Michael Limnios

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

Roland: I think humility is the word that springs to mind when describing the blues. The blues is a state of mind to me and reflects simple values. Playing blues can be a way of dealing with everyday problems and joy. You see, the music is not only about misery, but often it can pick you up out of deep despair. It’s even allowed to use major chords from time to time! Playing and singing for me is a way to anchor intense emotions.

Christer: Blues is basically pretty simple, which of course makes it difficult. It´s a paradox, but it´s true. You are actually conveying feelings, and that´s what makes it harder than many other kinds of music. And the slow blues is of course the most difficult to play. So you become humble. Great technique is not the thing, it´s about digging into the song, and letting the song take over. The lyrics have to mean something to me, even though I am the drummer. Understand what you play and the blues teaches you honesty. There´s very much bad music around, made just for the sake of making money. Blues music does not fall into this category...

What's been their experience from the European Blues scene?What are the differences from American scene?

Roland: I think European Blues is more traditional and American Blues has absorbed other influences to make the music more marketable.  I could be wrong, though.

"Blues is basically pretty simple, which of course makes it difficult. It´s a paradox, but it´s true. You are actually conveying feelings, and that´s what makes it harder than many other kinds of music."

How do you describe your sound and progress, what characterize Detroit Rhythm & Blues Band’s philosophy?

Roland: My sound, my voice, has been decades in the making. There are always new songs and nuances to learn. By recognizing the need to absorb new influences, the door is opened to progress. Sometimes it seems like my phrasing is like that of a saxophone player’s. The philosophy behind our band surely stems mostly from my days as a youth spent in Detroit, MI. The idea when forming the band back in 89 was to create songs that reflected the musical influences of the Motor City sixties. I had a need to compose and write my own lyrics.

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

Roland: My crisis at mid-life pulled me away from music for quite a while, but at the same time deepened my ability to interpret on a different level. I guess you could say it was that dark night before the morning light.

Christer: The most interesting period in my life is now. I live now. Of course, I´ve had interesting periods before, but they are now gone, and they are now only nice memories. The other part of the question is hard to answer - but I think the best moments in my musical life (there are "best moments" outside music also) are those moments when a performance by everybody in the band is clicking, perfect, and you feel elevated to another level. It might be for just 5 minutes, but that´s what makes it worth playing music (not only blues, any kind of good music). The worst moments? It always feels extra bad when a good band is splitting up, like when Detroit split up many years ago, or the trio I had with my son Elmo Karjalainen and Masi Hukari (this trio has not published any recordings). It´s great to have Detroit back, and to be able to do stuff with Elmo. He says he can´t play the blues, but I think he´s wrong...

"Finland has top notch blues artists. The local circuit is nothing to smile at! The clubs of many years ago have almost vanished because live music has taken a back seat to other venues."

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

Roland: Blues, I think, like all “root” music is enjoyed by the common folk, the ones who like a good story with “no Frills” attached. It has a catchy backbeat which makes you tap your feet.

Christer: Fortunately there are still people who prefer honest music played by real musicians. I don´t mean only blues. 

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

Roland: We had a jam session just last Friday when the band released its latest CD (Back to the Motor City). Some of our musician friends joined in and it was a fun night. Rauma Blues Festival back in 94 was one of my favorite gigs. Teijo Saarinen had just joined us to play bass and we had little time to practice. The gig went very well indeed. This year in August we had a great gig at the Puutori Blues Festival in Turku. Judo Jalava had joined us and has become a permanent fixture in the band. He had played with us many years earlier and now I see how much I missed his Hammond playing.

Christer: I have a recording studio which can take a band and about 30 people as audience. I´ve sometimes arranged blues jams in the studio, with some of the local guys playing. Because I have been setting up the jams, I have not played so much, but let others play the drums. Still, last time was the best in a long time. That was when Detroit celebrated the new album "Back To The Motor City". And memorable gigs? Roland told you about some, and I totally agree with him, plus a couple of gigs here in Turku, where we set new attendance records in the clubs and pubs we played in. I still remember gigs at a place called Downtown, where the audience sang some of our songs even if we had not sold many records...And the gig at the oldest rock festival in Finland, the Ruisrock Festival in 1992, that was also a good gig. But sometimes the blues works better in clubs.

"I think European Blues is more traditional and American Blues has absorbed other influences to make the music more marketable.  I could be wrong, though."

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

Roland: The positive and negative feedback from audiences and other players are essential. My first meeting with Christer back in 85 was also essential to the eventual founding of the Detroit Rhythm and Blues Band later on. Best advice: keep it simple!

Christer: Meeting some of the masters, like the harmonica player William Clarke, who we opened for on a gig, or Mike Keneally (not a blues player, but good at other stuff, with Steve Vai, Frank Zappa, Joe Satriani, etc.) who played during a jam session in my studio. Oh, there´s been many more during the years in all kinds of music. The best advice, I don´t really know about that. For a drummer, it´s always: keep time, understand the song, and let the song dictate what you play. The drummer is not the star, it´s the song, and the performance by the whole band.

Are there any memories from recording and show time which you’d like to share with us?

Roland: The event that springs to mind now is a gig we played back in the 90’s. It was up in the middle of Finland in a small village. It was a small club completely packed with blues diggers. The crowd was so enthusiastic about the music that at one point people started breaking their beer glasses on the floor. The club owner looked perturbed for a while, but then he also threw his glass to the floor. It was wild and surreal. After much applause, we made a noisy exit across the glassy floor.

Christer: There are some fine memories from the studio, like when we recorded Detroit´s album "IV". It was done mostly live, with some overdubs, and all the vocals overdubbed. It worked so smoothly, as if we were one, even though we are different personalities. Sometimes it´s not that good, like the gig at the Järvenpää Blues Festival many years ago. It was pretty cold for a Finnish summer day, we had to wait a long time before going on stage, I could not really hear what the other guys were playing, I played too loud, and think it was a bummer. Finnish blues drummer Matti Oiling said the gig was good but that I played too loud. Don´t play louder than the music requires. And remember that the drums choke up and lose their sound if you play too loud.

"Blues, I think, like all 'root' music is enjoyed by the common folk, the ones who like a good story with 'no Frills' attached. It has a catchy backbeat which makes you tap your feet."

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

Roland: The great compositions and lyrics are what I miss.  My hopes are that the old blues won’t be just copied as tradition but that artists would bring their own experiences to the music. 

Christer: I don´t think there is much to miss. The good stuff is still here with us. I still like to listen to some old masters doing some very old stuff. But some of the old stuff is also still here. I don´t like some stuff, which some bands regularly play without any understanding, without a personal look on the music, just going through the same thing as always. It bores me. Fortunately, some writers and musicians come up with new and interesting angles every now and then. It gives us hope for the future. What is problematic is the fact that so many have lost contact with real music, by listening to hit radio stations, mp3´s in their headphones, etc. The club owners have also missed out on live music. So, who is going to buy records and go to smaller, less well known band gigs in the future?

Make an account of the case of the blues in Finland.  Which memory from the local circuit makes you smile?

Roland: Finland has top notch blues artists. The local circuit is nothing to smile at! The clubs of many years ago have almost vanished because live music has taken a back seat to other venues. It’s a shame because people, in my view, still enjoy immensely “root” music.

Christer: I agree with Roland, that there are many top notch blues players in Finland. But there are not clubs enough for these top players to make a living, or for people to go and enjoy good, live, roots music. There is not much reason to smile at moment.

Why are Europeans so enamored with the blues? Do you think the younger generations are interested in the blues?

Christer: We can all thank the Europeans for reviving the blues in the 60´s. And many of the old blues masters have recognized this, and thanked bands like the Rolling Stones and other British bands. American blues was not well known all over the USA until the British brought the music back to its birthplace. This is also how I discovered the blues, through the albums "Raw Blues", and suchlike, made in England.

But I don´t know why the Europeans are enamored with the blues. Maybe it´s because the European culture is more broad and diversified than for instance the American. Europeans cannot avoid hearing many different kinds of music, and that is always good. And of course, the blues is more honest than many other kinds of music. As for the younger generations, it´s hard to tell. Fortunately, I have seen quite a few converts to blues (and jazz) among younger players who have earlier played only heavy music...I think that the audience will partly follow, as long as we keep making good music, whatever that is.

Do you believe that someone can make a living just by playing the blues in Finland? What mistakes would you wish to correct?

Christer: Only a few artists can make living playing the blues in Finland. Matti Oiling´s band Oiling Bloiling could do it, but he´s gone now. Miss Erja Lyytinen (singer and guitar player) is perhaps able to do it at the moment. Maybe a few others, but I´m not sure. What mistakes to avoid? Quitting you day job.

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..?

Roland: Since my family is from Tennessee and one of my favorite musical influences in Stax Records, a gig with our band in Memphis would be quite nice!

Christer: In 24 hours we would not be able to go to Memphis and play a gig, I think...Sorry, Roland. Otherwise, with just a little more time it would be great to go and do a tour of the US, as I remember Bruce Iglauer suggested to us many years ago. From the back of a van...Jokes aside, I think it would be more realistic to wish to be able to play the main concert at the Järvenpää Puisto Blues Festival. Fine audiences, some of them have heard us, most of them not. I think we could win their hearts.

Detroit Rhythm & Blues Band @ KC Sound's Home

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