Q&A with Dutch blues harp player & singer Machiel Meijers of Stackhouse - swingin' blues with deep roots

"I think blues and roots music were a kind of freedom of expression to people who didn’t have a whole lot of freedom. In later years (60s) the music probably helped spread a political message too, but to what extent is not up to me to say!"

Machiel Meijers: Tailgatin'

Stackhouse is a swinging harp-led band from the Netherlands and plays traditional blues in the classic Chicago tradition. The inspiration for the band’s name came from bluesman Houston Stackhouse who influenced many blues players that later moved on to Chicago. Despite a pretty big age difference between band members, their seemingly effortless ensemble performance does not suggest any age gap. Their 2016 album “Tailgatin’“ picks up where the band’s debut album ”Big Fish Boogie” left off, and delves ever deeper into the blues this time around. Machiel Meijers (vocals/harmonica) and Willem van Dullemen (guitars/vocals) are the creative force behind the band and together have written the lion’s share of original material for the band. Front man Meijers is a showman with vocals that are energetic and gritty, and his main harmonica influences Big Walter, Little Walter and both Sonny Boys, feature heavily in his originals. Quoting, rather than copying he is rapidly developing his own style. The rhythm section features Bert Post on drums and Fred van Unen on bass. Together they lay a solid foundation for the band.

Experienced musicians van Dullemen and Post go back as far as the 1981 North Sea Jazz festival, but instead of diminishing their abilities, the years have only added to the depth of their playing. Willem van Dullemen is still one of the most tasteful blues guitar players in the country and weaves his guitar lines nicely around those of the talented Emiel van Pelt (guitar) who flaunts virtuoso solos on many songs. On its release in 2010 the self-titled EP was picked up by both regional and national radio stations through both the Netherlands and Belgium. The 2013 debut album "Big Fish Boogie" has been given an excellent reception by "people in the know": great reviews in Belgian and Dutch magazines, extensive airplay, including major national and regional radio shows and addition to US specialists catalogue "Bluebeat Music". Recent years have also been good for Stackhouse, featuring on such festivals as Kwadendamme bluesfestival, Belgian Rythm and Blues, Brielle blues, Big Rivers Dordrecht and Liberation festival Wageningen. Stackhouse throws a contagious bluesparty that makes it very hard to keep still!

Interview by Michael Limnios

What did you learn about yourself from the blues music and culture?

Well for one thing, that it’s a world apart from the one I grew up in and am still living in today. I come from a very stable family, have a steady income and am happily married… These are things most blues artists between the 1920s and 50s/60s sorely lacked! So first of all, it has made me realize that I am a very lucky guy.

But the other thing it made me realize, is that this also means that there are things about the blues that I will never understand - because my life is so different from the people who started it all. We have so many certainties in life we just take for granted, which a black person in, say, 1940s US did not have. So to some extent I do believe that the originators had a kind of claim to the music they created, even though the African-American community has now largely abandoned it.

So why does a white boy from The Netherlands, feel like he has a right to play this music? Blues is an art form which, first and foremost, is all about emotions. Even though I come from a different place, I can certainly FEEL the blues. This I think, is my common ground with heroes from the past.

What does the blues mean to you?

I think it is something that has always resonated with me. Even before I knew what blues music was, there were songs that I really liked. In retrospect these were often very much blues inspired. So, it’s always been there, and this love for the music has always kept growing in the years since. It’s really a big part of my life and I’m just really happy that I get to play this music on a regular basis with people that feel the same way about it!

How do you describe Stackhouse sound and songbook?

I’d say that we use the ‘40s and ‘50s Chicago blues sound as our base and from there take trips to about every style from the classic blues period. We do our best to give credit and pay homage to the originators in our music while still being creative and original with it. This quote by Mark Hummel is a pretty accurate description of our sound: “When I was asked to provide a quote for Stackhouse's new cd "Tailgatin' ", I wasn't expecting the level of depth these guys provide on this fabulous disc! A COMPLETELY well-rounded blues tour is this record - twenties & thirties country blues, Memphis & Chicago blues, jump & guitar stylings, harp boogies, Murder ballads, originals & rare covers, they have it all here!”      (Stackhouse / Photo by Stephan Creutzburg)

What characterizes your music philosophy?

Respect for the tradition of a music that has been passed on for almost a century and has adapted to so many circumstances. Also, a deep respect for the people that invented and reinvented this music between the 1920s and 50s/60s.

Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences?

I’m a young guy (32) and am still learning a lot about the blues, but two guys have been instrumental in my development as a blues musician. My former harmonica teacher Carlo Reijs (he has lots of blues and the bluesharp knowledge and has a very specific philosophy on the bluesharp) and bandmate Willem van Dullemen (former bandmate of Carlo’s someone who has been studying blues for at least 50 years). These guys were and are my mentors really, and have been passing on their knowledge of the blues to me, which I am now trying to make my own.

What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

“Don’t play like Little Walter, play like yourself” (Carlo/Willem). Unfortunately, a lot of people who try to play the blues nowadays think this means that one does not have to study it. They’ll just play whatever comes to mind. I believe it is still essential to study the roots of the blues to be authentic about it. It is very much a music of tradition, and abandoning that tradition means losing something integral to the blues.

At the same time, the process of finding yourself says a lot about your personality. I’m still finding out who I am in life, but I think that as I get older and get to know myself better it also gets easier to find my own voice. I think people with a very distinctive style of their own are also people that know themselves very well, or at least are able to stay very close to who they are. For some people this happens earlier in life than for others obviously.

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

Not really any particular show that comes to mind. A quote does come to mind, it goes something like this: “people don’t go out to see someone that is dressed just like them, they want to see something different”. So, I’ll try to act and dress more extraverted when on stage than at home. I just try to do my best to put up a good show and get people’s attention.

"Blues is an art form which, first and foremost, is all about emotions. Even though I come from a different place, I can certainly FEEL the blues. This I think, is my common ground with heroes from the past." (Machiel Meijers and Willem van Dullemen / Photo by Jan Van Aartrijk)

Do you know why the sound of harmonica is connected to the blues?

This connection is very deep and goes back to at least the 1920s and 1930s. The instrument is very direct so what you feel can translate directly into what you breathe, almost like singing. I think this directness in transferring emotions into music make the harmonica very adaptable to blues music.

What are the secrets of Mississippi Sax?

Ha! If I told ya, I’d have to kill ya!!

What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of past?

Since blues has largely become a music for white folks these days, the emphasis has increasingly fallen on the instruments. I think that for the originators of this music, blues mainly was a way to tell stories. This is rarely being done any more in contemporary blues music. It’s probably also a sign of these times that people want to be dazzled by a guitar solo, but don’t want to take the time to listen to a story. Everything has to be very here and now. I have to say that I’m not immune to this mindset myself. I can get bored if I don’t get instant gratification out of a song. But I found that really taking the time to listen to a story is very rewarding!

What are your hopes and fears for the future of the blues?

I’m constantly being told by guys who are in this business a lot longer than I am that blues travels in waves. Sometimes it’s on top of the wave, and sometimes it’ll seem like it’s under water. Right now, I feel that blues is not being appreciated for the musical heritage it is, let alone as something that a lot of people seem to like. My fear is that blues music may become music for a very select group of people, making it harder to play at a regular basis. I’m hoping I’m wrong!

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

That people would come out more and see live music. That way the clubs wouldn’t have such a hard time and musicians would get to play more!

"Respect for the tradition of a music that has been passed on for almost a century and has adapted to so many circumstances. Also, a deep respect for the people that invented and reinvented this music between the 1920s and 50s/60s."

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

I think blues in The Netherlands has largely followed international developments. I guess the British blues boom in the 1960s was what got things started for the main public over here. Most bands back then kinda followed in that track, but they did a lot to get people interested in blues music - even though they relied more on the British interpretation of the blues than traditional blues itself. The 1970s saw a lot of blues rock. In the 1980s blues was once again invigorated by bands like the Fabulous Thunderbirds. Bandmate Willem van Dullemen along with Carlo Reijs formed what was probably the first T-Birds inspired band here in Holland in the ‘80s called ‘Tip on In’. The late ‘80s and the 1990s saw a proliferation of blues bands all around the country playing many different styles.

Nowadays this trend has only continued, spawning a large variation in bands ranging between bluesrock, Chicago blues, rhythm & blues, westcoast, soulblues and more. I particularly like the development that younger people like me are showing a lot of interest in older styles and that the level of musicianship that is continually getting higher.

What are the lines that connect the Blues from US to the Netherlands?

Not much actually. Big Bill Broonzy lived here for a couple of years before he died, and he still has a kid running around here! Of course, there were the European tours that brought many bluesmen here. Other than that, there aren’t many direct lines that I know of.

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

I think blues and roots music were a kind of freedom of expression to people who didn’t have a whole lot of freedom. In later years (60s) the music probably helped spread a political message too, but to what extent is not up to me to say!

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 have a hard time choosing… I’d probably go to the start of 1948, to Maxwell street, Chicago. A lot of ‘50s blues guys were starting to make their mark (including guys such as Little Walter, Muddy Waters, Jimmy Rogers, and many unknown guys who were never recorded). And my harp hero Sonny Boy Williamson (John Lee, the first one) was still around. I would have loved to see that man play, he was a genius!! But I’d probably get stabbed or shot or shied away by people who thought I was an undercover cop, haha!

StackHouse - Home

Photo by Stephan Creutzburg Photography

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