Italian Bluesman Mike Sponza talks about European scene, Roman literature, Bob Margolin and Louisiana Red

"I think it’s not important how you PLAY the music, but how you LIVE it."

Mike Sponza: Made In The Sixties

Blues, soul and rock’ n’ roll are the key words to describe Mike Sponza, guitarist, singer and composer, on the European blues panorama since early 90’s. A lifetime commitment to develop a personal style, contemporary and rich of different flavors. Original tunes and detailed arrangements are the main ingredients of Mike’s music. In the last years Mike Sponza established his name on the international scene with his discography projects and his performances, showing the great vitality of Italian blues from a new point of view. Since his debut in 1997, Mike did a long road, not only on the artistic side: international festivals, club gigs and cooperation catalyzed the attention of blues audiences on his vision of a contemporary European blues, which is not afraid of purists’ opinions as well as avoiding overseas stereotypes.

In 2005 Mike Sponza started the project “Kakanic Blues” the first Central European blues initiative: a cd and a dvd have been released under the name “Central Europe Blues Convention” with some of the most outstanding musicians of this area and guitar legend Carl Verheyen, as special guest. The project has been reviewed worldwide with a strong interest for the musical results as well as for the cultural, social and political background, where musicians find a common language and understanding in the blues. In 2008, “Kakanic Blues 2.0” has been released with the participation of 25 musicians from Italy, Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Hungary, Ireland, UK and USA. In 2011 the project becomes complete with the release of “Continental Shuffle”. 2016 is the year of ERGO SUM! For the first time blues music and classic latin culture meet in a new dimension. Mike has taken the ancient works of Catullus, Horatius, Martialis, and Juvenalis, and along with Dana Gillespie and Ian Siegal, recorded at Abbey Road Studios. MADE IN THE SIXTIES (out on June 22nd, 2018) is Mike Sponza's new album project. The album recorded at the Abbey Road Studios in London, UK. Like for the previous “Ergo Sum”, the producer is Rob Cass and all the songs are written by Mike Sponza and Pete Brown, the author of Cream!

Interview by Michael Limnios

Photos by Mike Sponza Archive / All rights reserved

When was your first desire to become involved in the blues and who were your first idols?

I guess it was around 1982, when I discovered that a lot af the music I was listening (mainly Elvis and Beatles) was linked to rock’n’roll and therefore blues artists. I discovered Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins, Muddy Waters, John Mayall... I was 13 years old.

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

I’ve been into music for more than 30 years now, 25 as professional… I’ve learnt that I can do only what I really feel… Not what I’d choose or like. I took some wrong directions, I’ve made mistakes, but now I’m happy of being who I am. Blues Music asks you to be simple, direct, and let your heart speak. No mental superstructures…

What characterize your philosophy about European blues scene?

I can’t speak about philosophy with Greek people!!! I can’t compete! Ahahhhhh.... I always loved the way British Blues «filtered» Afro-American music, and how musicians like Alexis Koerner, John Mayall, Georgie Fame developed a new sound. I think that some European blues artists have a very personal approach and they just don’t duplicate old clicheè... we all should be free from this and find our own style.

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from paths in music and poetry? Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences?

The first lesson is: never stop learning. There are so many great artists to study from (not only in music!), and each one can add something to your music. Open your ears, explore. Try to leave your comfort zone for a while. Then you can go back where you feel good, but with some new ideas and ingredients. Search for beauty. There’s never enough.

"...when Catullus speaks about jealousy for a woman who loves all the others but him, that’s BLUES!"

How do you describe Mike Sponza sound?

My sound is a development of what I’ve studied as teenager, what I wanted to play in my twenties and what I found in my soul during the last years... It’s contemporary blues, with some soul and jazz flavours and a rock’n’roll attitude.

What were the reasons that you started the literature researches? What touched (emotionally) you from the poetry?

As a high school student in the 80’s, I’ve studied a lot of Greek and Latin literature: after school, I’ve been always reading latin writers, and some poems are so powerful, straight to the heart of the reader. Like listening to blues greats… It’s a pity I can’t read anymore the Greek poets, I am sure that Homer, Euripides and Aeschylus would be also so ispirational… maybe more tragical than the Romans…!!!

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Catullus, Horatius, Juvenalis with Willie Dixon, Muddy and Dylan?

They write about the human condition, passions, sufferance and hopes with almost the same approach: when Catullus speaks about jealousy for a woman who loves all the others but him, that’s BLUES!

What were the reasons that you started the 1960s researches and experiments? How do you describe new album's songbook and sound?

I am on the last “products” of the Sixties, and that decade has influenced me since I was a child: records, movies, guitars, cars, culture. So, I’ve thought it would have been interesting to pay a tribute to those fabulous years and I started some researches - you can’t believe what I’ve learned... The new album is like a “rockumentary”: each song is about a year (so there are 10 songs) There’s no musical nostalgia, but you can feel a certain “old school” flavour in the used instruments, the arrangements, the production. The album is produced by Rob Cass (as for Ergo Sum), who produced albums of Jack Bruce, Bernie Marsden in the last years. Rob introduced me to Pete Brown, the legendary author of songs like “Sunshine of your love”, “White Room”, “I Feel Free”… Pete liked my idea, and we wrote all the songs in a four day writing session in Trieste, where I live. I wanted to have 10 different music “soundscapes”, where I could develop all my musical influences, not only from my blues background. This is not a “classic blues” album, although the blues roots are always there.

My sound is a development of what I’ve studied as teenager, what I wanted to play in my twenties and what I found in my soul during the last years... It’s contemporary blues, with some soul and jazz flavours and a rock’n’roll attitude." (Photo: Mike Sponza in Abbey Road Studios, London, UK)

What touched (emotionally) you from the Abbey Road Studios in London? Are there any memories from albums' sessions which you’d like to share with us?

My previous album “Ergo Sum” has been produced at Abbey Road Studios, and the new one too! It’s so inspiring to work there! Not only if you’re a Beatles fan. So many legendary albums have been produced there, and you can breathe some magic in the rooms. The whole environment helps you to give the best. You can use legendary instruments, the “Let it be” Hammond organ, or the Beatles’ piano... they are there, to be used. The spirit in the house is powerful, it’s impossible not to feel touched by it when you’re recording. Once you’re recording there, you know that your album will sound great. And the new album sounds exceptional!!

What are your hopes and fears for the future of music? If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

I have no particular fears or hopes, music is an ever-changing world and I like to find new ways of living it. But if you’re talking about the music business, well… I’d like to see less “talent shows” and more “great shows”, less “tribute bands” and more original music. If you play music and you don’t have nothing original to say, well, maybe you’d better find another job. Also, I don’t think music should be a result of algorithms and so easy to “use” - when something costs zero, people tend to valuate it zero. But I still see a lot of young’s playing with energy and great ideas, and this is a great inspiration for me too.

How has the Blues and Rock counterculture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken? Where does your creative drive come from?

I like to have a direct approach, naked, straight to the matter. Creativity comes from the need of expression - I need to say something, so I write a song. Some other would paint, or write a book. I take the guitar.  For me, being creative, it means also seeing the daily world around us as a work of art, analyzing the reality and translate it in music.

"My sound is a development of what I’ve studied as teenager, what I wanted to play in my twenties and what I found in my soul during the last years.... It’s contemporary blues, with some soul and jazz flavours and a rock’n’roll attitude." (Photo by Mike Sponza Archive / All rights reserved)

Are there any memories from the late great Louisiana Red and Bob Margolin which you’d like to share with us?

Louisiana Red has been the first “real” bluesman I’ve ever met. I was 17, and in my little hometown on the Adriatic Sea, I went to see this duo “Louisiana Red & Carey Bell”. I understood a lot that evening, and after the show I sat with him for a drink, and it’s been magic. We met a lot of times during the years, we made music together, and every time it was something special.

I started this important collaboration with Bob Margolin in 2011. We got in touch through Facebook, and we started planning a tour in Europe. After the first tour, Bob asked to make an album together. We did it! It’s been released in March 2012 by Vizztone Records worlwide, and it’s doing really well, as it hitted position # 15 on the Living Blues charts in USA. In one year we did 3 tours and other two are planned for 2012 and 2013. Bob has been always an important artist to me, and I’m proud and happy that he decided to share his music with me and my bandmates, the drummer Moreno Buttinar and the bass player Mauro Tolot.

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

Frankly... I don’t remember bad moments... If I had them, I forgot them! I’ve lived special moments on the stage with Louisiana Red, Bob Margolin, touring with my band in some special nights...countless moments. I try to have a wonderful concert everytime I perform!

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

Because it’s a music that changes everyday, and it’s a mirror of our times, as long as blues artist are commited to develop it and not just to replicate the same old classic songs. I see a lot of young people to my concerts, and I want to speak to them with a modern approach. You can do that working on the lyrics, on the rhythm, on some sounds... Nobody wants to hear, again and again, that you woke up this morning and your baby was gone... Who cares about it?

What experiences in life make you GOOD bluesman & songwriter?

I don’t know what it takes to make a GOOD bluesman and songwriter... but I can tell you what it takes to be a honest one. At a point of your life you have to face the inner crossroads in your soul, your demons, and this music can help a lot. You can use it to analize yourself, to find answers, to express your feelings, fears, ideas...

"I'm from Italy, and blues music has always been considered purely as a musical language, quite far away from social, racial implications."

What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of past? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

Really, I’m not so much interested in looking at past times, but I’m trying to look ahead – how to play blues music for new audiences, how to take my blues language in new directions. The best advice I got, it came from a legendary European jazz legend, the late Bosko Petrovic, and during a break between sets… he just called me at his table to whisper in my ear “Put your ego in the toilet”. I keep it in mind everyday…

Which of historical blues personalities would you like to meet?

If I could... I’d like to speak with Willie Dixon, Alexis Koerner and Muddy Waters.

 When did you last laughing in gigs and why?

Ahahahah.... I always laugh during my gigs! It’s quite easy, since playing it’s what I like to do most. I have wonderful bandmates and we bring on the bandstand all the good spirit we have on the road.

 From whom have you have learned the most secrets about the blues music?

Well… if you speak about technical secrets, I have only to thank my old time guitar teacher. If you speak about the secret of music… I think that the biggest influence has been Bosko Petrovic, one of the most important European jazz artists of the last 50 years. By the way. I think it’s not important how you PLAY the music, but how you LIVE it.

"I guess the hardest obstacle is to face our limits, live peacefully with them and even learn how to use them as strengthens points… When you finally begin to understand who you are, you can do whatever you want without fears…" (Photo by Mike Sponza Archive / All rights reserved)

Make an account of the case of the blues in Italy. What are your hopes and fears for the future of local blues scene?

The Italian scene is very healthy: there’s a huge community of musicians. Fewer and fewer clubs during the winter… but I see that summer festivals are growing. I would love to see blues bands and artist with original songs and shows instead of the usual repertoire: new songs, new sounds…

I wonder if you could tell me a few things about the story of the projects “Kakanic Blues” & “Euro Blues Convention”.

Well, I had the idea of a transnational ensemble in 2004; I focused on Central European countries for the firts 2 cd’s and the live dvd. Then, in 2008 I started the pan-European project with 35 musicians, and in 2011 I released the double cd «Continental Shuffle».

Which is the most interesting period in European blues scene?

I think the 60’s have been a very prolific moment... the first wave... but now we are living a good period too. Lot of good bands, performers, a good exchange with USA... not only one-way...

What mistake of the  European blues business, would you wish to correct?

Festivals shouldn’t be afraid of booking European bands, it’s only a matter of good promotion. Also, I would like to see more open minded people around... Some promoters and organizers book European bands only if they sound very similar to American ones... Is there a difference between this approach and the so-called «tribute bands»?

How do you see the future of the European blues scene? Give one wish for the BLUES.

I hope musicians will stop to play «Hoochie Coochie Man» and start writing more and more... This is the only way to survive and reach new audiences. I’ve decided to play only original tunes with my band, let’s see what will happen!

"Blues Music asks you to be simple, direct, and let your heart speak. No mental superstructures..."

What advice would you give to aspiring musicians thinking of pursuing a career in the craft?

The only advice I can give, is this: be yourself. Dare to do your music. If you don’t believe in your music... who would?

What has been the hardest obstacle for you to overcome as a person and as artist and has this helped you become a better blues musician?

I guess the hardest obstacle is to face our limits, live peacefully with them and even learn how to use them as strengthens points… When you finally begin to understand who you are, you can do whatever you want without fears…

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

Oh, well… that’s a very complicated question… I am from Italy, and blues music has always been considered purely as a musical language, quite far away from social/racial implications. We had other musical forms for this purposes… I’m afraid I could give a wrong answer…

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

Uhhhh… give me a Delorean just to go back to the day when I’ve sold my ’68 Les Paul Goldtop, to say “no” to the buyer!!!

Mike Sponza's official website

(Photos by Mike Sponza Archive / All rights reserved)

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