Q&A with Norwegian blues guitarist/singer Eric Slim Zahl - 50s swingin´ rock´n roll, boogie and blues-a-billy

"Historically, the blues is the working man´s music, rebellious and true. Through blues lyrics, you often hear the writer’s pain and agony described. Still, for me the blues is also about friendship and erasing borders between people."

Eric Slim Zahl: Scandinavian Swing

Norwegian blues guitarist Eric Slim Zahl, started his ecclectic musical career playing irish folk music and writing funky hip-hop. Influenced and inspired by guitar greats as Brian Setzer, Vidar Busk and Kid Andersen and songwriters like Julie Miller and Townes Van Zandt. Eric feels he found his "tone" and his own style of guitar playing through The South West Swingers. As a songwriter, Eric simply digs the bouncy and happy-go-lucky feel of The South West Swingers - his palette of expression and playing field.

2016 European Blues Challenge winners Eric Slim Zahl & the South West Swingers are a swingin’ experience with authentic jump blues, rock’n roll and rockabilly played with full force! The band's ambition is to continue the fine traditions and perform music influenced by the sounds from the 50's - in their own rockin' style. Dressed up with a tie, suspenders and shiny shoes, Eric Slim Zahl & The Southwest Swingers performs the band's music with humor, musical skill and impact. And it´s always entertaining! Since the band started in 2006, the band has logged an impressive amount of club gigs and festival appearances in Norway, Europe and the US, and are known to be a formidable live band.

Eric Slim Zahl & the South West Swingers write their own music, and released their debut album "Daddy'O" in 2011. The album was nominated for a Norwegian Grammy in the Best Blues Album Category. In 2013 the sequel "Chances Are Slim" was released, and also this album received very good reviews in the press. A third album is now in the making. In addition to winning the European Blues Challenge in 2016, the band made it to the semi-finals in the 2016 International Blues Challenge in Memphis, TN, US – a historic result for any international act. The band’s fan-base is steadily growing, and according to audiences all over – we are ALL South West Swingers!

Interview by Michael Limnios             Photos © by Aigars Lapsa

What do you learn about yourself from the blues people and culture?

I´ve learned that lazy gets you nowhere.
I´ve learned that kindness gets you far.
I´ve seen grown men crying, laughing, fighting and dancing.
I´ve seen women flash their eyes and romancing.  
I´ve learned how to play guitar.

What does the blues mean to you?

Musically, the blues is a framework for my music, not always the definitive blueprint. Historically, the blues is the working man´s music, rebellious and true. Through blues lyrics, you often hear the writer’s pain and agony described. Still, for me the blues is also about friendship and erasing borders between people. Today, I find the blues as a portal for me to make new acquaintances, since I meet so many people diggin´ the same type of shit I do.

How do you describe Eric Slim Zahl sound and songbook?

We define our sound as “50s swingin´ rock´n roll, boogie and blues-a-billy”. That basically means traditional music, with one or two extra chords in the chord sheet, with the guitar cranked up a little louder than necessary – and letting the keyboard player fly on his own.

With Eric Slim Zahl & the South West Swingers, we always try to let every member “shine” as a musician. That basically means that if the bass player wants to play rockabilly bass on one song and jazzier bass on another, we let him do just that. If the piano player feels a New Orleans-groove fits a rocking song best, we let him play that New Orleans-groove. Making music together as a band means trying to bring the best out of every musician, and let everyone have their saying and let everyone play the way they play. Oftentimes this makes the best music and the best end result. On the “Daddy´O”-album (2011) and the “Chances Are Slim”-album (2013), I wrote about a few shady characters, whores, riders and henchmen. And a Norwegian journalist labelled our music “mafia blues”. I think that is a cool description, a bit of big band, a bit of yesteryears´ crooning legacy. In our upcoming album “Bada-Bing!” (working title), I´m going to let all these characters die a horrible death, screaming in agony and bury them six feet under. And who knows what our music will be labelled for the next album? Normally, I write the lyrics, the music and the melody – and normally, the rest of the band improves that same song and makes that same idea so much better than I´d imagined!

"Without exception. I wouldn´t say I miss a lot from the blues of the past - to the point I would start crying over it, because I think there are so many of today´s blues artists and bands that are really alive and kicking, but we will never have another song like “Mannish Boy” or another “Hoochie Coochie Man” written and released today, let´s be honest." (Photo © by Aigars Lapsa)

What characterize the South West Swingers philosophy?

This is important: the audience is going to concerts to be entertained! So that is what we try to do – entertain people! We always have fun on stage, and we always try to make the audience have a good time with us! We want them to smile (or shed a tear) and dance and forget about life for a while!

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

Well, I don´t think blues and rock as (counter)culture and art form has changed my views of the world dramatically either way, I must admit that. BUT the people I have met touring and/or travelling have all changed me as a person, that´s for sure. The different (blues) music lovers and rockers I´ve met are exclusively genuine nice people! And passionately devoted to this kind of music and culture. It´s the same all over Europe! Wealth and making money is never the drive for organising a festival, running a blues club or arranging a (blues) concert.

In the U.S. I found they are more protective of keeping blues as a “pure” style of music, not messing with the traditional 12-bar blues. So when playing the B.B. King´s Blues Club in Beale St. in Memphis, for instance, we had this in mind, and felt we needed to honour the American blues tradition and be more conservative than we feel we need to be in Belgium, France or some other European country. In Europe, I feel blues musicians are more free to implement jazz, swing and other styles (i.e. beatboxing) – and for an eclectic spirit like myself, I really like the European way better. Musically, I enjoy being surprised at a concert! 

Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences?

There are of course many! But recently I met this guy working in the check-in area for EasyJet. The band were flying from Paris to London, we had never flown with this airline before, and we were pretty nervous about their policy for carrying guitars on board the airplane. Not all airlines are very welcoming on this thing. We asked him for the possibility of buying speed boarding, to get them guitars fastest possible into the overhead compartment, something we weren’t able to do. Still, he flicked out three stickers with “speed boarding approved” anyway! And he said that – “What the world needs now are musicians! The world is getting more and more polarized, and you get a feeling of “us against them”. Black against White. Christians against Muslims. Red against Blue. Conservative against Innovative. Rich against Poor. Music erases these borders and boundaries and you get to be “you” when listening to a band at a concert!”. I found this to be really inspiring, and this guy really lit the spark for me getting my head around writing new songs. Amazing dude!

What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

Be nice. Always. (And: you have to be a little crazy, or else you´ll go mad).

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

There are many, I tell you that. Still, what first comes to mind, is playing in the Basque Country, and a festival called Hondarribia Blues Festival. A fantastic festival right down there on the beach. To be able to dip your toes and hang with the coolest and nicest people all night after the gig is priceless. A really nice experience that I´ll never forget. It was also cool to arrange a mini-tour in the UK more than ten years ago, where we played a few London clubs. I remember this so well, because it was in the beginning of Eric Slim Zahl & the South West Swingers´ career as a band and our first real tour outside Norway. We were enthusiastic about finding out how the British audience would react to our music? Thankfully, they enjoyed it! Winning the European Blues Challenge in Italy was of course also a highlight. We did NOT expect that! So much fun playing Torrita di Siena! Combined with the time the piano player was chased down by a snake, playing for an enthusiastic audience in Memphis, writing songs in New York City, getting nominated for a Norwegian Grammy Best Blues Album for our debut CD and sharing festival stages and backstage areas with great performers as Brian Setzer, Joe Bonamassa, Buddy Guy, ZZ Top and so many others - are all great experiences and memories.

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

Well, to be honest, I am not the most clean-cut “listening-to-the-old-blues-masters” kind of guy. I respect the traditional way of playing the blues and I respect the pioneer work the older blues masters did. Musically, I think it´s important to grace the old licks and old, classic turnaround the older masters wrote, but in my own music, the blues of the past is more a reference point rather than “the only way to do it”. But those cats were cool as Hell! Without exception. I wouldn´t say I miss a lot from the blues of the past - to the point I would start crying over it, because I think there are so many of today´s blues artists and bands that are really alive and kicking, but we will never have another song like “Mannish Boy” or another “Hoochie Coochie Man” written and released today, let´s be honest.

What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

A friend of mine recently bought a record player. And he started buying old fashioned vinyl LPs instead of CDs. He told me it completely changed the way he is now listening to music. With an album played on a record player, it more of a “process” listening to the music. You sit down, you put the record on, and you listen to the whole album from A to Z, preferably with a glass of wine, a cup of coffee and/or with some candle lights lit in the windowsill. For many, streaming music has led to a “skipping culture” when it comes to listening to songs. It´s like: - “Entertain me within 5 seconds, or I´ll skip to the next track!”.  And with today´s technology, it is so much easier to record, edit and release a track, so the traditional record deals and labels are unnecessary for many artists (including myself) – and this has a positive side and a negative side. On the plus side, there are so many more releases nowadays than before. No A&R manager that screens the artist and his or her music, no really expensive recording process and so on. Result is heaps of releases and discovering artists you didn´t know exist. Great! So using the available possibilities for streaming music, you might discover your next favourite artist.

But there is also a negative side to this. More releases in numbers also means more bad albums. To the point that you actually might miss the good old A&R manager that says: - “Stop! This is not going to cut it as an album! The sound is simply too bad, and the songs are just not there…”. I was visiting a school in Norway, a fairly modern school, with 6 practice rooms for music. Well-equipped and all. The teacher I talked to said that he hadn´t seen a guitar for two years at the school. All the students were carrying their Macs, midi-keyboards and sound cards, remixing like there was no tomorrow. So, one actual fear for the future would be every new musician growing up, buys their samples from Apple, with high hopes of quick, “easy-fix stardom as seen on TV”, forgetting that learning music takes effort and a whole lot of dedication.

Further on, to write songs, in my humble opinion - you have to have experienced something! For me, it´s so much more rewarding to listen to an (blues)artist that actually have something to say, rather than another SRV-copy or the next tribute to Rory Gallagher. Travel the world, observe, write down idioms and lyric snippets – tell your story!

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

Forever lasting guitar strings.

"This is important: the audience is going to concerts to be entertained! So that is what we try to do – entertain people! We always have fun on stage, and we always try to make the audience have a good time with us! We want them to smile (or shed a tear) and dance and forget about life for a while!" (Photo © by Aigars Lapsa)

Make an account of the case of the blues in Norway. What touched (emotionally) you from the local music circuits?

The blues in Norway is alive and kicking! The Norwegian Blues Union is working hard to bring the younger people into the blues, to prevent the whole musical genre to become a faint, distant memory. However, you cannot force the next generation of musicians into the blues, but you can support the young musicians that are interested in playing blues and blues related music. To do this, you give them a spot in your local blues club at an early stage of their careers, and salute them for working- and rocking hard.

Norway is also blessed with many fine (blues-)festivals, and to be able to play one of these should work as inspiration for the younger generation. The blues community in Norway is a small one, with few, but super enthusiastic key people. They are really working hard (for basically no money at all) to make it possible for different bands to strut their stuff. The community is really transparent, and oftentimes if you play in the south of Norway, somebody from the north of Norway will pick up on your band´s music and book you to a club or a festival in the north if they dig.
I live in Stavanger, which is a great city to live in if you are playing music. Basically, we have live music here every night. Bear in mind that Stavanger is a small town with around 130.000 people. I have a lot of musicians as friends, and everyone is helpful – musically and practically. When we started Eric Slim Zahl & the South West Swingers back in the day, it was as a direct result of being invited to play in the local blues club.

What touches me now, is the fact that the municipality is helping and pushing our band forward. I get encouraging pats on my back from random strangers on the street and even received a municipal scholarship. Truly inspirational. The people here care!

What are the lines that connect the legacy of music from Irish Folk music and Funky Hip-Hop to Blues and Rock?

Irish folk instrumentals are often fast and rhythmically challenging. Jigs and tunes have their concise and well-developed rhythm patterns that it is kind of important to follow - to back up the melody in the best possible way. Hip Hop often has this jazz influence, making the chords less obvious and possibly harder to grasp oftentimes. As in blues, you will find these call-and-response lines in the melody of a folk song. In folk there are often chords organised not unlike a twelve-bar blues. Hip Hop triggered me to write lyrics for the blues songs completely opposite of “normal” call-and-response lyric lines. The rhymes are almost “non-rhymes” and can best be described as “rap-rhymes” or “near-rhymes” rather.

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

There is a recording made by Sam Phillips (Sun Studio) of a Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis-after-party in Sam´s studio. I´d love to hang there for the night and the following day. Be a fly on the wall, so to speak.

Eric Slim Zahl & The South West Swingers- Home

Photo © by Aigars Lapsa

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