Q&A with Greek musician John Skyllas, collaborated and recorded with some of the best Greek blues artists

"I firmly believe that without music (and art in general), nothing substantial exists; no culture, no society, no true love and in the final analysis… no humanity!"

John Skyllas: The Keys of Music Language

John Skyllas born and raised in Athens Greece. He studied music at the Apollonium Conservatory, with a diploma in classical accordion and a degree in music theory. His occupation with mainly blues but also jazz music began in the 90s as a member of JamMasters and Blues Cargo. He was the house band’s keyboardist at “Stavros Tou Notou club” from 1998  to 2001. During the season 2000-2001 he was also the conductor and orchestrator of the band. That is where he met Vicky Bee, one of the best soul singers in Greece, and they successfully work together ever since, with over of 2.500 concerts both domestically and abroad. He collaborated and recorded with some of the best Greek blues artists (Simos Kokavesis, Theo & The Boogie Sinners etc.)

(John Skyllas / Photo by Nick Manitsas Stefanakis)

He has been the art director of Vinyl Café and Barrel House Beer Restaurant since 2015 and Sons Café in Glyfada since 2019. He also is the Artistic Programming Director of  Hydra Jazz Festival, which takes place in Hydra island at the end of every May since 2016. He is currently recording the first album of  Plastic People Group with Vicky Bee.

Interview by Michael Limnios

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

Generally speaking, music was part of my upbringing (specifically via my mother who had since the 60s albums by Louis Armstrong and Modern Jazz Quartet among many others) and growing up in the late 70s this era’s music played a very role in shaping  who I was to become. Music as a whole is my lens to the world, life and people, and maybe that makes me a bit happier than other people. Blues to me is the “personification” of my world view as it was shaped by music so it really wasn’t an influence in how I view the world but rather a validation. It was however a tremendous influence in my career choices as a professional musician as it’s where I feel the most comfortable at.

How do you describe your sound and music philosophy? What was the hardest part to be artistic director of Hydra Jazz Fest?

I am always a blues pianist and organ player at heart although I do love many genres. My sound therefore could be categorized as a primordial analog blues sound. In my view music needs to express the soul; the pieces need to speak to the soul as much as the groove needs to speak to the body! The hardest part of being the artistic director of any jazz festival in Greece is having  to step out of your strictly musical duties and deal with the red tape of the government which although Hydra Jazz Fest is a private sector endeavor, make life immensely difficult. An equal-level challenge is that there is basically no infrastructure in the island of Hydra; a wonderful small island in the Saronic gulf, but one without access to large ships, no paved roads or automobiles. These obviously make organizing the festival quite hard, as even moving backline equipment can become quite the feat! Finally, it’s relatively problematic at times, to synchronize all musicians and groups in order to finalize the festival’s program; at least with these, being a musician is an asset as we speak the same “language”.

"I would want to be in Chicago, IL on December 30th, 1969 during the live recording of the South Side blues jam with Junior Wells, Otis Spann and Buddy Guy!! Spann together with Memphis Slim are my favorite blues pianists and Buddy Guy is my favorite guitarist. As for Junior Wells words aren't enough! Awesome artist!!" (John Skyllas on stage / Photo by Sissy Morfi)

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

Ι have met a number of important people (in music and outside of it) in my life and every single one imparted a bit in me. The two best pieces of advice however I’ve received –and kept- are from Greek multi-instrumentalist and actor, Yiannis Zouganelis who told me to “only do things that fit myself, never try to emulate someone else so that I can be likeable" and the other from my own mother who told me “Better to have remorse for something you’ve done, than for something you haven’t”! Especially the last piece of advice has been my guiding principle!

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

There are a number of memories which are fantastic, however most fondly I remember the first time I’ve performed with Blues Cargo, as a back up band  for blues great Guitar Shorty, as well as my first performance with Plastic People with Vicky Bee as the lead singer, which ushered a new era in the band!

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

What I miss the most is the innocence; Music of the past had its own unique way of always touching you, to make you dream, fall in love, make you sad or happy!!! This happens so rarely today with the “canned”, over processed “hit machines” with nonsense lyrics made for a generation of people with very little time to “feel”. I really hope that progressively in the future this will finally stop and technology instead of a means for flattening the quality of the musical product will be used in flattening  the curve against the abuse of art and protect the expression of artists!

"Music as a whole is my lens to the world, life and people, and maybe that makes me a bit happier than other people. Blues to me is the “personification” of my world view as it was shaped by music so it really wasn’t an influence in how I view the world but rather a validation. It was however a tremendous influence in my career choices as a professional musician as it’s where I feel the most comfortable at." (Musical Director/Pianist/Organist John Skyllas & Vicky Bee in studio, Athens Greece 2020)

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in the local music scene?

Sadly, the most important lesson I’ve learned in the local music scene is to watch my back! There’s no concord; no harmony between artists. I’ve put considerable effort into trying to bring artists (especially musicians) together without (sadly) great response. This discord has brought us today’s low point where given the specific Covid-19 situation and the continual lockdowns we are basically invisible to the state. We don’t exist and nobody supports us. And it all starts with us. Maybe if we were united, things could be a bit better! Artists (except in the few cases where stardom helps them) are left to borrow a colloquialism, up the creek without a paddle…

What is the impact of music on the socio-cultural implications? How do you want it to affect people?

I firmly believe that without music (and art in general), nothing substantial exists; no culture, no society, no true love and in the final analysis… no humanity!

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

I would want to be in Chicago, IL on December 30th, 1969 during the live recording of the South Side blues jam with Junior Wells, Otis Spann and Buddy Guy!! Spann together with Memphis Slim are my favorite blues pianists and Buddy Guy is my favorite guitarist. As for Junior Wells words aren't enough! Awesome artist!!

(Photo: John Skyllas)

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