Q&A with Milwaukee based, Altered Five Blues Band - bringing all the blues power they could generate in their new album

"Blues doesn’t have many boundaries. There are common forms but also other ways to express the sound and feeling.  The irony is that most blue music make people happy when they hear it. The music is always evolving but the roots of the sound are simplicity and emotion."

Altered Five Blues Band: Blues Power!

Altered Five Blues Band makes music with a swaggering stomp of bruising, barrelhouse grit. According to Downbeat magazine, frontman Jeff Taylor “sings powerfully” and “Jeff Schroedl’s live-wire guitar reaches the high bar of mixed invention and fluidity.” A 2018 Blues Music Award nominee, the Milwaukee-based quintet will release its new album, Holler If You Hear Me, September 3, 2021 on Blind Pig Records. Recorded over five days in Nashville, TN and produced by three-time Grammy winner Tom Hambridge, the 13 original tracks showcase the band’s deft songwriting, Taylor’s mighty baritone voice, and the intuitive musical interplay of the longtime bandmates. Harmonica ace Jason Ricci also joins the group on five tracks.

Altered Five Blues Band / Photo by CJ Foeckler

Altered Five Blues Band now have five studio albums to their name, including Gotta Earn It (2012) and Bluesified (2008), both on Cold Wind Records. The group has performed at many renowned festivals and venues such as: Lucerne Blues Fest (Switzerland), Grolsch Blues Fest (Germany), W.C. Handy Blues Fest (Kentucky), Ann Arbor Blues Fest, King Biscuit Blues Fest, Baltic Blues Fest (Germany), Milwaukee Summerfest, Magic City Blues Fest (Montana), Fargo Blues Fest, B.B. King’s Blues Club (Memphis), and Buddy Guy’s Legends (Chicago). Bassist Mark Solveson anchors the rock-solid rhythm section with drummer Alan Arber, who joined the band in 2017, and Raymond Tevich melds his crafty keyboard work to top off the group’s signature sound. It’s been said that “the blues is a feeling,” so when the Minneapolis Star Tribune states that the band is a “righteous blast,” you know they play it right.

Interview by Michael Limnios           Photos by CJ Foeckler & Neu Photography

What were the reasons that you started the Blues n' Soul researches and experiments? What is the story behind the band's name?

Jeff Taylor (JT): I've always had an interest in the blues from an early age. Blues records were always being played in my house as a child. I feel it was a natural progression for our band to go from playing cover tunes to original songs. After only a few years the band just seemed ready for that challenge. I'm surprised at how much the band had grown in the area of songwriting. It was important for us to find our own voice and our own sound. Our strength lies with the arrangements of the songs and the overall improvement in our ability to write songs.

Jeff Schroedl (JS): We like a lot of musical styles but the blues is the basis for everything we do. We all relate to the lyrics, grooves, and overall vibe of the music. There’s power, improvisation, and dynamics—it all feels good to us. Our band name goes back to us just trying to build our own sound. There are five of us in the band, and we’ve always tried to bring something new to a familiar style of music.

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

JT: Music is an eloquent equalizer. No matter your life story, it can be told through the blues. Everyone has a story for the blues. Hearing and telling other people’s stories and feeling their blues makes you realize life is hard in a lot of different ways for a lot of different folks.

JS: I think the music has a natural tendency to bring people together. The grooves and rhythms generally make people feel good, and the lyrics are often easy to relate to, whether it's stories of struggle, bad love, good love, clever play on words, or whatever might be the case. We've met so many great people at shows in different cities and countries, and the music is the bond. It's a common ground. Travelling a meeting people in different walks of life gives a unique perspective.

How do you describe "Holler If You Hear Me" songbook? Do you have any stories about the making of the new album?

JT: Holler if you Hear Me is the next journey in our blues. We are developing a more defined blues sound as a band. We actually went down to Nashville in a snow storm and got the album down in five days. This is a testament to the A5 team approach, our process of recording with Tom and Mike and the comfort we have developed as a creative group.

JS: It's a contemporary blues album. We put most of our effort into creating the songs themselves, and hope listeners enjoy the tracks. It starts with the lyrics, melodies, and vocals. We try to keep things simple but still put a new twist on the music. The song "Where My Money?" was originally written for our last album but it was completely different. We liked the concept but re-did the lyrics and music entirely. It took a while for that one to come together but it might be my favorite track on the album now!

"Don't take anything for granted. You only get out what you put in, you have to be open to learning something new and doing something out of your comfort zone." (Jeff Taylor / Photo by CJ Foeckler)

Who are some of your very favorite artists or rather, what musicians have continued to inspire you and your music?

JT: I think coming up B.B. King, Bobby Blue Bland, Buddy Guy, Joe Simon and Koko Taylor were big influences in my early days. I still go back and study the work of Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, Elmore James and Tampa Red to listen to the stories, how the music is put together and the truth of the human conditions that continue to inspire and create relatable new songs.

JS: There are dozens of artists from a variety of genres and eras. My musical influences are a melting pot of blues, jazz, rock and more. But to name a few, I'd say Freddie King, Buddy Guy, B.B. King, Luther Allison, Eric Clapton, Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Howlin' Wolf. There are so many great contemporary artists, too, that inspire us. Blues music is alive and growing.

What musicians would you absolutely love to work with in the future?

JT: I would like to continue to collaborate with Jason Ricci, it would be really cool to work with Shemekia Copeland, Ruthie Foster and of course Buddy Guy would be a true gift to be able to connect with yet. 

JS: Wow, so many great ones: Keb Mo, Beth Hart, Shemekia Copeland, Tedeschi Trucks, Billy Gibbons, Robert Cray and of course Buddy Guy!

How do you think that you have grown as an artist since you first started making music?

JT: It’s really a vast story. There is so much to the music business that just being able to sing or play. I have learned that there is so much beyond just the music. Knowing the difference in how to prepare to record, how to sing live, how to write a decent song, how to work with different artists, how to take feedback and critique in the studio, how to maintain energy when traveling and doing gigs in different states and countries. I am constantly learning how to be better at my craft and how to be better in the business.

JS: Gradually, over time, I think I've found my "voice" as a writer and guitarist, although we're always learning and trying to get better. I've grown to accept my strengths and weaknesses, and try to build from my strengths. We've come in contact with so many great musicians over the years, and you pickup little things along the way, whether it's something to do with studio recording, guitar tones, songwriting or whatever.

"I think the music has a natural tendency to bring people together. The grooves and rhythms generally make people feel good, and the lyrics are often easy to relate to, whether it's stories of struggle, bad love, good love, clever play on words, or whatever might be the case. We've met so many great people at shows in different cities and countries, and the music is the bond. It's a common ground. Travelling a meeting people in different walks of life gives a unique perspective." (Photo by Neu Photography)

What has remained the same about your music-making process?

JT: The collaboration has remained strong and has been the thing we value and protect. As a band of five, listening to what everybody has to offer and coming to consensus on what the best solution is very effective.

JS: We value the "song" above all else. People remember songs more than solos or other production elements. We often ask ourselves, "Will this song work live?" If the answer is "yes," we know it's a good one.

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

JT: Don't take anything for granted. You only get out what you put in, you have to be open to learning something new and doing something out of your comfort zone.

JS: If you do what you've always done, you'll get what you've always gotten. Keep pushing yourself and don't be afraid to try new things. You might be surprised where they take you!

How do you describe previous album 'Ten Thousand Watts' songbook and sound? What characterizes new album in comparison to previous?

JT: Ten Thousand Watts has a big bold feel that is unique to our sound. This is just a continuation of the work up to this point. We also took a little more time to play the songs at shows to get an idea of how the public would like them. The reactions to the songs during shows have been very positive. We know we have something special when we play a song for the first time and people are up dancing. It's always a rush to see people dancing to new music. It's very exciting.

JS: Our new album picks up where our last album, Charmed & Dangerous, left off. It’s our own brand of contemporary blues. The music can be powerful at times but also expressive in other ways. We try to write songs that both we enjoy and other people can relate to. The biggest difference with this album is that we recorded all the tracks in Nashville over four days. It has more of a live feel to it, and a lot of energy.

"Milwaukee is a Blue Collar city. People work very hard for their money and want to support live music. It would be nice to have more blues clubs in the city. This was the case many years ago. It would be very difficult to make a living playing blues in the city right now. Those times have come and gone. I think basic economics had a lot to do with that." (Altered Five Blues Band / Photo by Neu Photography)

Are there any memories from 'Ten Thousand Watts' sessions which you’d like to share? What touched (emotionally) you from Tom Hambridge?

JT: Tom has never tried to make to changes to our music. He just worked with what was already there. That's what makes him so unique. He's really interested in what you are really trying to say musically. We were a lot more prepared to record this CD. I think we all learned a lot more about the process of recording this time around. This is the first time recording in a big studio. There was a lot of excitement and anticipation leading up to going to Nashville and working with Tom in a new environment. It's always exciting to watch Tom work. He has so many great ideas and is never critical. He has a way of getting the best out of you.

JS: This is our third album with Tom so the process was really comfortable for us. We were more prepared for the sessions than ever before, which allowed time to consider subtle ideas and changes. We tracked at Ocean Way Studios. The band had never before recorded in a really big studio like that, so we were a little nervous at the beginning. The first song we tracked was “Ten Thousand Watts.” It sounded great right from the start which helped us relax and play our best.

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your paths in music circuits?

JT: Stay humble! Stay hungry! Don't just settle. If you have something to say musically, then say it. Do what you have to do to get that musical message out there. Stay true to yourself and never let anyone get way of what you are trying to accomplish as a musician. Tell your own story! Blues is the musical interpretation of the human condition. The stories that are being told through blues music is universal. Blues is the truth!

JS: There are many talented musicians writing, recording, and performing blues music these days. Everyone has their own sound and approach. The biggest lesson is to be ourselves, and keep doing our own thing. Don’t try to emulate anyone else; stay focused on doing what feels natural. That’s what makes our music distinctive.

"For 17 years, Altered Five Blues Band has been winning audiences with a swaggering stomp of bruising, barrelhouse grit. From day one, Altered Five dared to be different. The quintet formed in 2002 and earned a reputation for its inventive arrangements and distinctive sound." (Photo by CJ Foeckler)

Do you consider the Blues a specific music genre and artistic movement or do you think it’s a state of mind?

JT: Bonnie Raitt said it best. " As long as people get together romantically, there will always be blues music." Blues has changed over the years but the stories and situations between people will always be universal. Everyone experiences heartache, joy, and pain. Blues allows the musician to explore those emotions with quite a bit of room for creativity. This is what makes writing blues songs so interesting.

JS: I’ve never really thought about it. Blues doesn’t have many boundaries. There are common forms but also other ways to express the sound and feeling. The irony is that most blue music make people happy when they hear it. The music is always evolving but the roots of the sound are simplicity and emotion.

Make an account of the case of the blues in Milwaukee. What characterize the sound of local blues scene?

JT: Milwaukee is a Blue Collar city. People work very hard for their money and want to support live music. It would be nice to have more blues clubs in the city. This was the case many years ago. It would be very difficult to make a living playing blues in the city right now. Those times have come and gone. I think basic economics had a lot to do with that. Blues festivals are very popular right now. Many blues bands have an opportunity to showcase their talent by just playing the festivals. Social media is the new frontier and this is where many bands can get recognition. There are many fine blues musicians in Milwaukee and we are fortunate to part of that special community.

JS: We have many exceptional blues musicians here in Milwaukee. Lots of blues jams and outdoor festivals feature blues music. There’s also a lot of history here with Paramount Records being located about 20 miles north of the city. Our sound is melting pot of music from Milwaukee and the surround area, including Chicago which is 90 miles to the south. Our new album once again features Milwaukeean Steve Cohen playing harmonica on a couple songs.

Altered Five Blues Band - Home

(Altered Five Blues Band / Photo by Neu Photography)

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