Q&A with Estonian slide guitarist/songwriter Andres Roots - combining pre-war blues and swing with 60's rock

"I really miss the variety. There's a lot more going on rhythmically, structurally and lyrically in pre-war blues and even in the electric blues of the 1950's than in the endless 12-bar shuffles and hard-rock soloing you hear today."

Andres Roots: Feel Good On Slide

Andres Roots is a slide guitarist, songwriter and bandleader based in Tartu, Estonia. Combining pre-war blues and swing with 1960's rock, his music has received airplay on five continents and featured in TV series and films, including the award-winning "Lonely Island" (2012), directed by the Berlinale-decorated Peeter Simm. Roots has toured in the UK, France, Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Sweden and Finland, played with Honeyboy Edwards and Tuomari Nurmio (FIN), and opened for the likes of Dr. Feelgood and Otis Grand. The 2015 Trad.alt.winter Tour saw the press in Finland, Sweden and Estonia greet the former Bullfrog Brown guitarist as the King of Estonian Blues.     Photo by Leif Laaksonen

In April 2016, Roots' released "Roots Music" entered the Estonian album chart at #1 - a rare feat for a semi-instrumental blues album, especially one that's only available on vinyl. Released to celebrate Roots' 40th birthday and 20 years on stage, "Roots Music" is a compilation LP of studio recordings made in 2010-2014. It is also the first-ever gramophone record manufactured in Estonia - while the first Estonian sound recording was released 115 years earlier, it wasn't until 2016 that the country got its own Vinyl Plant. Preferring a guitar-and-drums duo format that highlights his "excellent slide technique complimented by great chording and simultaneously executed skillful basslines" (Sirp), with "the sound made with just drums and one guitar filling the stage more powerfully than your average rock band" (IDeeJazz), Roots also performs solo and continues to collaborate with harpists Ismo Haavisto (FIN) and Steve Lury (UK) in a more traditional blues vein. One of Andres Roots latest project, The Sawmill Roots Orchestra was founded in 2017 and features Aveli Paide on clarinet, Aigor Post on trumpet, Raul Terep on drums, and Andres Roots on guitar. Their debut album "Sawmill Roots Orchestra" released in 2018.

Interview by Michael Limnios

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

I guess the main thing you learn from the old songs is that it's alright – and it's gonna be alright: whatever ails you, others have been there, done that and lived to sing about it with a big irreverent grin. The human condition!

What were the reasons that you started the Blues Roots researches? What characterize your music philosophy?

I guess it was a natural progression from my Dad's record collection – the Stones, Deep Purple, etc. From there, I went back to Chuck Berry, back to Muddy Waters, to Robert Johnson, to Charley Patton... Seeing John Hammond Jr. live in 1993 was a life-changing event for me. Music philosophy, me? If it feels good – play it!

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice has given you?        Photo by Siret Roots

I've been very lucky to meet and play with many wonderful people over the years... One was Ben, a German theology professor whose last name I don't even know – he was teaching at the University of Tartu in Estonia in the late 1990's and on his last night here, he played an acoustic blues gig at a local pub; I didn't know anything about him, but my friends dragged me there. He was great, and since I was the only person there who knew all the songs, we got to talking... I bought him a beer and he ended up giving me a guitar lesson at the theologists' house until the wee hours of the morning. He himself had learned from the North Carolina bluesman Big Boy Henry (1921-2004); by the time I woke up the next day, I'd forgotten half of what he showed me that night, but the other half still serves me well. Most of what I know about being a musician and taking care of business I've probably learned from the Scottish alt.bluesman Dave Arcari – and even more importantly, Dave taught me that it's OK to be yourself and to sound like yourself. And then there's the English harp great Steve Lury who's spent a lifetime studying the blues and the culture that surrounded it – talking to him and playing with him these past ten years has really been an education and a privilege. The best piece of advice, however, comes from my Dad: "There's work to be done here and now – there'll be time enough to get righteous later, should you be so lucky."

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

I am often reminded of what he said during the press conference when asked about younger players: "It's good for a musician to know all the chords, but you don't need to put them all in the same song, make it complicated. It only takes one chord to kill a man – understand? Take one chord, and kill 'em dead with that!"

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

I really miss the variety. There's a lot more going on rhythmically, structurally and lyrically in pre-war blues and even in the electric blues of the 1950's than in the endless 12-bar shuffles and hard-rock soloing you hear today. Of course, there's still interesting stuff out there, but most contemporary headliners sound the same to me. From their image to the songs, it's really getting very repetitive and "90's retro" – and if that's the only blues the kids hear, I honestly can't blame them for avoiding the genre. And of course for the future of the blues, that is the problem.

"I guess the main thing you learn from the old songs is that it's alright – and it's gonna be alright: whatever ails you, others have been there, done that and lived to sing about it with a big irreverent grin. The human condition!" (Photo by Leif Laaksonen)

Make an account of the case of the blues in Estonia. Which is the most interesting period in local blues scene?

I think the most interesting period is now, in fact – there have never been this many blues bands and blues events in the country. Yes, some of it may not be very good and some of it has little to do with the blues no matter what they call it, but there's more good stuff, too. What I find especially gratifying is that more and more performers are finding the real blues and are building on that – 15 years ago, the Estonian view of the blues seemed to be that it started with Led Zeppelin and ended with Stevie Ray Vaughan, and that was just plain embarrassing.

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from the local music circuits?

I'm still laughing at the fact that my vinyl-only half-instrumental blues LP "Roots Music" topped the Estonian album chart in April, outselling Iggy Pop and David Bowie – what are the odds of that...?! One new Estonian blues album that I found most refreshing but somewhat difficult to listen to was Ringhold's debut.

Why do you think that the Blues music continues to generate such a devoted following in Estonia?

I didn't know that it was, but I do hope you're right! People's definitions of the blues tend to vary, but in a live situation, most people can still recognize good music, regardless of the label.

Are there any similarities between the blues and the genres of local folk music and traditional forms?

Well, it's all mostly three-chord stuff, isn't it? Other than that, not much – as in most areas with long, dark winter nights, the traditional local music tends to be rather depressive, all doom and gloom. I'm depressive enough as it is, so I can't stand to listen to music that brings you down – I prefer stuff that makes me smile inside: blues, jazz, rock...

"I think the most interesting period is now, in fact – there have never been this many blues bands and blues events in the country." (Photo: Andres Roots & Anneli Kadakas)

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues from pre-war blues to urban and from swing to 1960's rock?

Most of all, it's the joy, the freedom and the general spirit of it – but there's also a clear musical connection. The blues have never existed in a vacuum: Lonnie Johnson worked with Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, the Muddy Waters band used to open with jazz great Jimmy Smith's "Back At The Chicken Shack" and Smith in turn recorded a brilliant version of "Got My Mojo Working", John Lee Hooker and Miles Davis collaborated on a film soundtrack, etc. And then there's the attitude – it doesn't matter whether it's Armstrong's "I'll be glad when you're dead," Carl Perkins' "Don't step on my blue suede shoes," the Stones' "Get off of my cloud" or the Sex Pistols' "I am an anti-Christ", it's never "Let's all dress alike and salute the empire"! I guess I just find that easy to relate to – it's all protest music, just on a more personal level.

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

I don't know how to answer that – I mean, the culture where the blues was born is all gone now, even the environment that led to the British Blues Boom of the 1960's has long since disappeared...Perhaps you could argue that Seasick Steve is making long beards and overalls fashionable again, but even that seems a bit far-fetched.

Are there any memories from EBU 2018 in Hell Norway which you’d like to share with us?

I was very pleased with the fact that the winning band was neither a trad.blues combo nor a classic rock group – there's still hope for the genre! My personal favourites were Don Leone from Italy and and the Amaury Faivre Duo from Switzerland, so I hope everyone reading this will go and check them out!

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

Well it would have to be America in the 1930's: Mississippi, Chicago... Or London in the mid-1960's. Just to get a taste of what it was like!

The Sawmill Roots Orchestra was founded in 2017 and features Aveli Paide on clarinet, Aigor Post on trumpet, Raul Terep on drums, and Andres Roots on guitar. Their debut album "Sawmill Roots Orchestra" released in 2018. (Sawmill_Roots_Orchestra_2018_/ Photo by_Leif_Laaksonen)

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

I guess it's like Bob Dylan said: it's the songs that I believe in, that is my religion. And those songs span many decades and several continents, so there are quite a few different truths and points of view in there.  Growing up in the Soviet Union, pretty much all Western culture was "counterculture", the blues most of all, because compared to jazz or rock or folk, there was so little of it around... There weren't many people here that were even aware of the real blues – everybody knew Led Zeppelin, but that ain't it, is it? The popular music of the 1980's and early 1990's didn't appeal to me much, so I gravitated towards the Woodstock era and started digging backwards from there: to Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters and Jack Kerouac...  

Mezz Mezzrow's 1946 autobiography "Really the Blues" which I stumbled upon some 20-odd years ago was a huge influence, spiritually maybe even more than musically – an inspiration to stick with it, no matter what. Of course, Mezzrow's story is all about counterculture, too, but it's the jazz counterculture of the 1920's and 1930's! The formation of the Sawmill Roots Orchestra last year finally gave me the chance to try out some of the musical ideas I picked up from there...

How do you describe Sawmill Roots Orchestra sound and songbook? What characterize band's philosophy?

The songbook is much easier to describe than the sound – if there is another group out there with the line-up of clarinet, trumpet, electric guitar and drums then I'm yet to hear it. Other people have described our sound as a combination of New Orleans Jazz and Mississippi Delta Blues, and even as PsycheDelta Dixieland, and there's some truth to all of that. The concerts can get pretty "out there", so I guess the psychedelic vibe is stronger live than on the album – several people have mentioned late 60's Miles Davis, and you know that Dennis Hopper film soundtrack Miles recorded with John Lee Hooker, "The Hot Spot"...? It's not that kind of music at all, but I get what they mean. 

What the orchestra started from was me wanting to hear some of my older, Bullfrog Brown-era tunes with horns, the way I'd originally envisioned them, so that's the "traditionalist" backbone of the songbook. Then there are the crazier numbers I wrote for this particular line-up once we'd started rehearsing, and then there are a couple of classics thrown in, such as Tampa Red's "Boogie Woogie Dance"... One of our first gigs was to provide live accompaniment to two Buster Keaton silent films at an international literature festival, so some of the psychedelia can be traced back to that – just trying to keep up with the madness on screen! The band's philosophy... Well, we did have to make one choice early on: do we want to do this as authentically as possible and try to keep the arrangements and the sounds as close to pre-war blues and jazz as we can, or not? And we decided that we don't really want to do that – that music's already been played and we couldn't possibly hope to improve on that, so we'll just do our own thing and see where it takes us.

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

Well... I suppose I would get rid of radio playlists and give the DJ's back the right to choose what records they spin. People who grow up with all radio stations repeating the same boring tunes over and over will inevitably go on to make more boring music, simply because that's all they've ever been exposed to, and music will start to matter less and less – unfortunately, that process has already started... Yes, everything is now available on the Internet, but if you don't know what you're looking for, you'll never find it – I believe there ought to be an educational aspect to broadcasting, a desire to expand the listeners' horizon. 

Andres Roots - Official website

Photo by Leif Laaksonen

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