Q&A with GravelRoad (Stefan Zillioux & Martin Reinsel) pushing the musical boundaries into new territories

"Music is an art. It is culture. It is life evoked through a tune. It has social implications. Social implications mean political implications in our current world. Everything is intertwined in some way."

GravelRoad: Crooked Nation Blues

GravelRoad has been pushing the musical boundaries for over a decade and a half, forging a distinct sound that brings together Hill County Blues and Heavy Rock n Roll into new territories. GravelRoad is the sound of new and old – heavy fuzz and more introspective moods – combining to ask the larger questions of existence along with a rallying cry for a good time. GravelRoad (Stefan Zillioux, Martin Reinsel, Joe Johnson and Kirby Newman) released their eighth studio album CROOKED NATION (2019 / Knick Knack Records), recorded, mixed and mastered by Seattle’s own Jack Endino.

GravelRoad: Stefan Zillioux, Joe Johnson, Kirby Newman, and Martin Reinsel / Photo by Peter Lee 

CROOKED NATION continues where the band’s most recent releases – including MISSISSIPPI TIME (2017) and CAPITOL HILL COUNTRY BLUES (2016) – left off. The new album, the band’s third endeavor with Endino goes further with an array of tracks that magically weave multiple open-tuned guitars with a rhythm section that swings and sways with undeniable grooves. Easier than walking and chewing gum, these 10 songs will have the listener shaking their asses, banging their heads and pumping their fists in the air, begging to be cranked for the world to hear. GravelRoad doesn’t play for any other reason than pure love for the music and a joy that is evident in every show. Look for CROOKED NATION on Knick Knack Records and all the usual interwebs places.

Interview by Michael Limnios

How do you describe "Crooked Nation" songbook and sound? Where does your creative drive come from? What is the story behind GravelRoad name's story?

Stefan: I wish we had a better story about our name! We started out as a 2 piece – me on guitar and Marty on drums. We’d gone through a couple of other names before we settled on GravelRoad. In fact, we were playing our very first show out of town, and it was our first show also with Kirby on Bass (which he played for a few years before switching to guitar, his main instrument) and we happened to be listening to Fred McDowell and his song Gravel Road Blues sounded so good in that moment that we chose it. We’ve since learned that there were quite a few other Gravel Road’s out there – mostly country or bluegrass. We joke about having a Gravel Road Off where the winning band keeps the name – it’d be like a bomb went off. Banjos and matching cowboy shirts would be all that was left. Ha ha! So, we combined the words to form GravelRoad to try to avoid confusion.

As to our sound, I like to think that with all of the music we have created so far, we have a unique sound that sounds like nothing else. Sure, there are easily definable elements – blues, rock, grunge, punk, psychedelic, stoner, heavy – but people tell us that they don’t hear many other bands fusing these elements together in an always predictable way, which is nice to hear – seems people “get it”. We are always pushing forward – our sound, our songwriting, our art. We make music we want to listen to and are so very glad that there are people all over the world who can connect to our music and are touched by it.

Martin: We all do our own ideas and inspirations that we bring to the band in terms of sounds and songs. Stefan often does a lot of the “core” work (namely, bringing lyrics and/or arrangement ideas to the band and we add in our parts). All of us have commonalities and all of us have differences - - hopefully that adds to the dynamism of the band. We can all bring ideas to the band. This is encouraged. Realistically, someone usually needs to take a lead on a song to drive the direction. I feel like Stefan does this the most, but all of us add something. I’ll be hearing a beat or a song structure. Or I’ll quickly hear some lyrics or vocal style to put with a guitar riff brought by Stefan or Kirby. 

When I am writing lyrics, I am drawn to emotions: suffering, joy, even silliness & confusion   I simple want to share experiences and emotions that we all share but do not always talk about ... or perhaps we do not always completely talk about ... namely the really hard stuff in life or the really bizarre things we think about and feel.

(Photo: GravelRoad & T-Model Ford)

Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences? What touched (emotionally) you from T-Model Ford?

Stefan: We have been so very fortunate throughout our journey to have met people who have touched us in many ways, some of whom have become life-long friends. Some are deeply rooted in the Deep Blues culture, by virtue of having shared stages with us, while some have been either behind the scenes, putting on shows and festivals, creating art with and for us, or are simply so invested in this non-conformist blues as fans, that we all make easy connections. These people become like family ya know? You know those people you don’t see, possibly for years even, and when you see them again, it’s like no time has passed. I’ll hold off on naming names as there are simply too many over the years, and certainly more to come. Well okay, one name: Chris Johnson, who created the Deep Blues festival (with significant input from our close knit community of people, Rick Saunders in particular – guess that’s 2 names really!), and who was instrumental in connecting us with T-Model, asked us to drive T up to the festival we had both been booked to play.

As for T-Model, well, that answer is simple. Here’s a much older African American man, from the Deep South, who lived in Jim Crow era and grew up having experienced some truly tough things, not to mention the legacy of slavery. You can read his story in articles, interviews and profiles on the internet, and I really encourage your readers to read up on T and his story, not to mention the history of slavery in America.

Anyway, all that being said, one thing that never ceased to touch me emotionally about T-Model was his trust of us. He gets white people from all over the world talking to him, wanting things from him, and there’s that distrust that was completely understandable and in many ways, completely justified. So, here come 3 white boys who are setting out to drive T to the Deep Blues Festival in Minnesota in 2008, and we ended up making a tour out of that. He’d met a couple of us before, Marty and myself, as we’d seen him play as far back as 1999, and Marty spent some time down in Mississippi and became acquainted with T and some of the other musicians down there. So, we at least had that, and we are all pretty down to earth people and obviously respectful. We were clearly there to support T-Model, not to get famous off the back of an old bluesman, which was pretty obvious to our larger community of musicians and friends. Hell, I am a Social Worker by profession – my day job – and I work in an involuntary psychiatric hospital, and Marty is a health care educator, so we were made for this – haha!

So, what gives me pause to this day is that T-Model trusted us. That may not seem like a huge deal, but it most certainly was. He trusted us to protect him, have his back, make sure he had what he needed and perhaps most of all, to hold his money. That may not seem like a huge deal, but given where he came from, and all that he lived through, both personally and culturally, it was everything. That was the biggest sign of trust he could have afforded us. He knew it was Team T, as we liked to call our gang.

One year after our first tour, and several tours and an album later (Ladies Man), we were playing Deep Blues festival in 2009, and after our set with T, he stayed up on stage, signing autographs. I was also on stage chatting with folks when T called my name and I turned around to see him clearly upset as a drunken fan staggered over to my guitars and was obviously about to grab one. He said he wanted to play the guitar for T but T was pissed because he was messing with one of “his people’s” guitars, which one does not do! T was seriously pissed and told the guy to never touch a man’s guitar and I escorted this guy off stage and went back to T who said he would have kicked that guy’s ass for messing with my things. That was another sign of the trust and friendship.

Martin: Growing up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the USA during a time when the city was depressed (steel mills closing, jobs deteriorating etc.), Growing up, I found a lot of inspiration from older folks around me of all types. I was (and still am) drawn to people with three qualities: 1) enthusiastic energy, 2) resilient character, 3) musicians & dancers. Many amazing influences and mentoring has occurred over the years from people with that traits … people that may not be known to others but were dear to me.

Of note, members of the families of Junior Kimbrough and RL Burnside were very important to me. I had multiple interactions with the families over the last two decades, with life changing experiences occurring in the summer 2001 and a portion of 2005 when I was living in Mississippi. People like Cedric Burnside, his father Calvin Jackson, Kinnie Kimbrough, David Kimbrough, - and by extension, the rest of the Kimborugh/Malone/Holloway clan - all were very welcoming. Their kindness really invited me to be comfortable with them. That comfort was relaxing.  As a musician, that comfort & relaxation helped my performances and also allowed me to take more chances. Since the families of some of my favorite musicians were encouraging me, I felt emboldened to keep playing.

3a: As for T-Model Ford, he is his own story to me. T Model played with raw emotion. Hell, he lived with raw emotion. It is what he knew. I heard it in his first album Pee Wee Get My Gun when I heard it in the late 1990’s.  I could hear then that he’d had a hard life, yet - like his song says - nobody (nothing) got him down.  He always kept going. He was a strong person... Not necessarily the greatest person ever. He fathered a lot of children, but it’s up to them to say whether or not he was a good father. That said, he was an endearing character. And he could rock the shit out of the guitar. He voice sounded great nearly up until his final months alive. 

He and I got as close as I thought we might ever get. That came from doing so many shows with him over the 4 years I got to play with him regularly. Driving long stretches in the van, flying places, waking up and having breakfast in some random town was a treat. I feel like he often told some of his best stories in the mornings over coffee when we were not rushing to get somewheres. He’d sip his cup of coffee and then start to tell stories of working on a saw mill, or life with one of his ex-wives, or - most chillingly - working on a chain gang (he’d show us the marks on his ankle). It is some of these times that I’ll most remember. Of course I will remember the shows - I had the best seat in the house on my drum throne, watching people watch him and respond to him. However, I truly believe that the “in between times” (those mornings, the rides in the van, the times we were “hanging like an apple on the tree” while we waited for something) were some of the most memorable for me personally.

GravelRoad on stage: Stefan Zillioux and Martin Reinsel / Photo by Josannevan der Heijden

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

Stefan: We’ve been pretty fortunate with the caliber of friends and people we have in our lives, and some of the people we’ve worked with to make our music. Personally, I love that we now have a history with Jack Endino. Before I knew that the blues was so much more than some cheesy white guy biting his lower lip while playing the obligatory Stevie Ray Vaughn solo (no disrespect to SRV!), I listened to heavier and mostly edgier music. I grew up with the Stones, the Beatles, Pink Floyd, Peter Tosh, Classical music and so much more (thanks Dad!), all of which I still enjoy to this day. But I then got into Metal, Punk, Industrial, Hip Hop, and everything in between. In the late ‘80’s, I had a friend in college who turned me onto Mudhoney and Screaming Trees and the first Nirvana album. This was what I had been missing – a mix of so many things I loved and I never looked back. Jack Endino was the common factor in that he recorded all these bands, and the sound was heavy, and dark, and raw. So, when we had an opportunity to work with Jack, we jumped at it. He mixed our album El Scuerpo, then ended up recording and mixing Capitol Hill Country Blues and most recently, recorded, mixed and mastered our latest album Crooked Nation. Hell, I got to use one of his old amps, a Fender Twin from 1968 that he modded himself and used in Skin Yard. Also happens that Kurt Cobain used this very same amp while recording Bleach with Jack – he used it on every song. This amp sounds amazing and it can be heard on half of the songs on Crooked Nation. In fact, I cranked that fucker almost all the way up!

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

Stefan: I don’t believe that I miss a single thing from the music of the past. It’s all still there to listen to. It has influenced the music of today, and will influence the music of tomorrow. It’s floating through space on the Voyager, having recently breached the edge of our known galaxy. Every few years, people claim that rock and roll is dead, but is that really accurate? Maybe it takes a nap from time to time, but someone always comes along and tries to resuscitate it, but it never died. I don’t think it ever will. It keeps morphing and growing and evolving. Personally, I dislike 99.9% of the music that makes it into the Top 10, whatever that really is. The interesting stuff can be found in basements, practice spaces, dive bars, and the like. The underground, where people make music they want to hear, and that is what makes it interesting. Man, there’s so much music that has been made, that I keep finding new/old bands to fall in love with. Right now, I’m digging the heavy sounds of 1000mods, who are from Greece, right? See, I also love how people all over the world put their own stamp on rock and roll and the blues alike. Listen to Tinariwen to hear how the blues meets music from Mali/Northern Africa, or dig up psychedelic rock music from different parts of the world from the 1960’s and 70’s. Great stuff to be found!

Martin: Nothing really… I simply hope that people continue to play music Imperfectly. What I mean by that is that, to me, music is supposed to be emotional. Emotions can be messy & are not perfect. Yes, a musical note can be named and yes music can basically be broken down into a mathematical equation. That, however, is boring to me (and likely to others too).  My hope for music’s future is to keep the imperfect, the ugly, and the rough edges around.

(Photo: GravelRoad & T-Model Ford)

How has the Blues and Rock counterculture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken? What is the impact of Blues n' Rock music and culture to the racial, political, and socio-cultural implications?

Stefan: Historically speaking, blues music has long been intimately connected to racial, political and socio-cultural issues. The blues is directly connected to (mostly) West African musical and cultural traditions as brought to American through the abhorrent practice of slavery. This was also the basis for jazz and ultimately, rock and roll. Because it is so vital and tied to culture, politics and race, it is important to continue to share knowledge of this music and life with younger generations. It is possible to do that without simply mimicking the past, rather bringing the music forward, while at the same time, acknowledging the past and teaching about history and how it connects to the moment we are currently living in; connecting the past to the future really.

Martin: Music is an art. It is culture. It is life evoked through a tune.

It has social implications.

Social implications mean political implications in our current world.

Everything is intertwined in some way.

To me, this is both “cultural” and “counter-cultural” in the way that Yin and Yang go together. That are similar and yet starkly different and opposite. I invite you (and all of us) to see that the “opposite” qualities are actually a lot more similar than many will think.

When I was a kid, I thought “politics” was separate from social and culture endeavors. They are not separate. As we saw during the last American Presidential election (and we will see it again in 2020) they are connected. The “popularity contest” element is apparent. I saw this in my childhood America where an actor (Reagan) became president not based upon intelligence or exceptionally skilled policies (financially, domestically, globally) but based upon familiarity. 

I have a master’s degree in Psychology. I have been a clinical therapist. I still do work providing education on therapeutic and safety principle for people who work with marginalized populations (this includes hospital & health care workers, educators, social service professionals and law enforcement). I appreciate having a wide scope of people with whom to talk about important issues to help change and improve our societies to be more just and fair for all involved. I typically get to speak to 3000-5000 people a year doing this sort of Clinical Education work.  It is my other way of “taking the stage” and I hope it leaves our world a better place.

Similarly, I hope the music evokes a response from people and leaves the world a better place. Sometimes we must talk about & sing about difficult subject matter to evoke a response. I’m ok with that, as long as we can keep moving forward with reasonable dialogue and humane interactions among people to help foster social & life improvements. If we continue to put in the work to improve our worlds socially, then I think we are more likely to see more economic equality, social justice, and political change (hopefully for the better-  but it is a delicate balance). Music is a vehicle to help bring us together: To dance, to sing, to laugh, to yell … but mainly to gather and to have something in-common.

I believe that GravelRoad, although around for over a decade and a half, is just getting started. I plan on keeping this journey going for a few more decades. Look at the old bluesmen - like T Model, for example - things didn’t really get going for them until the latter portion of their life. I’m getting there. We are getting there!

(Photo: GravelRoad - Stefan Zillioux, Joe Johnson and Kirby Newman)

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

Stefan: Oh man, this is a loaded question and certainly one in which the answers could easily change depending on the day and mood. Well, I would have to say that I would have loved to have been at Junior’s Juke Joint (Junior Kimbrough that is – if you haven’t heard his music, stop reading this right now and go listen, and then keep on listening) before it burned down. Being on a porch listening to Fred McDowell play. Seeing Led Zeppelin during their first tour. Being in Berlin when the wall came down. Marching with Dr. Martin Luther King. Witnessing the moon landing from the control room. Man, I could go on...too many important events in history that would have been amazing to witness first hand.

One last thought though, and perhaps the best of all – I would love to be present and witness the birth of my son all over again, with knowledge of the person he has grown into and knowing he has a long journey ahead. What an amazing moment.

Martin: This is a fun question. Can I give you a few places where I’d like to be for a whole day in a time machine:

Tacoma, WA. April 1971. Live performance of Mississippi Fred McDowell. He was about a year away from his death in 1972. I’ve listened to this recording dozens (hundreds?) of times. I feel like I was there. I’d have love to have seen in 1971 in Tacoma (a city about 30 miles from my current home in Seattle).  

I’d have loved to been on Chicago’s south side during the 1960’s and hear Hound Dog Taylor playing boogie blues.

There’s a few other situations that I’d love to have seen, notably some recording sessions I’d have love to see play out (including any of Led Zeppelin’s recordings at Headley Grange and some of the Rolling Stones’ session for their early-70’s albums, especially Exile on Main St.

There are some non-musical experiences too ...

August 1963, Washington DC. I’d have like to have been present for Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” speech at the March On Washington.

Also, I’d have loved to been on some of the ships that voyaged to the “new world” back in the day … Captain Cook’s exploration of the Pacific would be an era that I’d love to have spent a day experiencing what they saw.

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