The swing/blues guitarist Chris "Big Papa" Thayer talks about Robert Cray, Johnny Winter, T-Birds, Rod Piazza and his band TCB

"The blues has given me a lot of experiences I wouldn’t have had otherwise."

Chris "Big Papa" Thayer: Cool Jump

BIG PAPA AND THE TCB was born in the back alleys and seedy after hours parties in juke joints. It's the rough part of town, where the bad folks live. It's your inner child finally kicking that bully's teeth in - Takin' Care of Bizness, pure and simple.

Their song, "GO BIG PAPA!" has been used in the national television ad campaign by Papa John's Pizza for the past two years and has been licensed for a third. It even appeared during the Superbowl! They have also recently had two songs appear in the hit A&E TV series, BREAKOUT KINGS.

BIG PAPA AND THE TCB has also garnered several awards. They won "Best Song" and "Best Blues Album" at the 2008 Inland Empire Music Awards for their second CD, 12 GAUGE INSURANCE PLAN. Their first disc, NICE 'N' GREAZY, won three 2007 Inland Empire Music Awards, including “Best Live Band,” “Best Blues Album” and “Best Song." Likewise, they were nominated for Best Swing in the 2008 Orange County Music Awards.
Leading this rag-tag bunch of ruffians is CHRIS "BIG PAPA" THAYER, working the mic and cuttin’ heads on the six string with a ferocious blend of styles, including Louis Jordan, Albert Collins, and Robert Cray. Layin’ down the low stuff, nice ‘n’ cool, is blues veteran STEVE "ICE CREAM MAN" BROWN on bass.  RAY "MR. PITTZ" WILSON is the glue that holds it all together on the skins with immense power and boyish good looks, keeping the ladies comin‘ back for a closer look.
Formed in 2006, BIG PAPA AND THE TCB have taken audiences by storm, “Resurrecting Cool” all across the Western US with their mixture of jump blues, rock and swing. They have shared the stage with blues legends like Robert Cray, Johnny Winter, Tommy Castro, Coco Montoya, Fabulous Thunderbirds, James Hunter and Rod Piazza & the Mighty Flyers.
DANCE WITH THE DEVIL, mastered by Grammy Award winning mastering engineer, Robert Hadley of the Mastering Labs. The new disc, SIX PACK OF COOL, have gone back to jump blues roots of band with 13 house rockin' tracks. BIG PAPA AND THE TCB is the music you hear echoing off the brick walls of the alley as two tough guys begin acquainting your knee caps with "Mr. Lead Pipe."

Interview by Michael Limnios

When was your first desire to become involved in the blues, who were your first idols & what does Blues offered?

My dad gave me my first blues/rock records. Jimi Hendrix’ Smash Hits and Led Zeppelin II were my first two records. But when I graduated from high school my pops took me to see Rod Piazza and the Mighty Flyers at a small club in Riverside . That was it! After that, I was hooked. They were so incredible that I knew that was what I wanted to do. Luckily, I have had the chance to become friends with Rod and Honey. I continue to learn a lot from them. Around that time I first heard Robert Cray. Stevie Ray Vaughan, ZZ Top and the Fabulous Thunderbirds, too, but Cray was my hero. He was, and still is, unlike anyone out there. He took the blues and made it something entirely new. I’m still working to make that kind of leap.

Where did you pick up your guitar style & what were the first songs you learned? What were your favorite guitars?
I am like a sponge. I pick up bits and pieces from everyone I listen to. Obviously Robert Cray has been really influential on my playing, as was Stevie Ray Vaughan early on. Albert Collins has been big, too. He played so ferociously. Not a ton of notes, but just with such power. I love that. Lately, though, I’ve been listening to horn players. Their phrasing is different from a guitarist’s approach and that’s transformed my playing. On slide guitar, I really dig Derek Trucks. That guy is incredible. Scary good. Listening to him let me back to the Allman Bros., then back to the O.G. slide players like Robert Johnson and Elmore James. For most people, the modern players are the gateway to the originators of the sound and the style. On slide, I’ve started copying the harp players, Little Walter and Piazza. Slide was a huge focus on the last records and I’ve been really working on the craft, trying to find my own voice on the instrument.
The first songs I learned all had three chords. No surprise I fell into the blues. However, the song that opened it all up for me, which wasn’t a blues song, was Zeppelin’s “Over the Hills and Far Away.” Something about that tune took the blinders off and made me see that there’s more to guitar than just power chords.
Right now, my favorite guitars are my Ibanez Artcore hollowbodies, my Robert Cray model stratocasters, and my John 5 telecaster. I played a lot more slide on the last disc, so I spent a lot of time with the John 5 in my hands. Whenever I go to a jam, I always bring the J5. However, we are going back to our jump blues roots on the next disc, so I see a lot more Artcore action in my near future. That said, I never feel as comfortable as I do when I’m playing my Cray Strats. I have always been a strat guy. I’ve been looking into Gretsch lately. I feel like I’ve been chasing that Gretsch sound, and maybe it’s time to just take the plunge and pick one up.

In what age did you play your first gig and how was it like (where, with whom etc.)?
I played my first gig when I was a senior in high school. It was at a Pizza restaurant, in their banquet room. It was packed, too, because there were only a couple bands in the area. We were terrible, squeakin’ out cheesy ‘70’s and ‘80’s cover songs, but it gave me a taste of what it was like to play in front of a crowd and have them listen. It became an obsession after that first gig, and I just don’t feel right unless I’m playing music. When I have any length of time when I'm not playing, I get irritable.

Which is the most interesting period in your life and why?

Right now, baby. I lived hard when I was younger, and tasted a whole lot of what the world has to offer, and had some really rough patches, but my life right now is the best it’s ever been. I have an amazing wife, three beautiful daughters, and the best bunch of cats I’ve ever had a chance to play with. I truly feel blessed.

                                                                                                                Photo by Mike Ingram

Tell me about the beginning of the TCB, where did it start? Cool band name “Big Papa & the TCB”. How did you come up with it?

BPTCB started out as just a side project to make a little extra money playing blues covers on the side. I have played in various bands with Steve "Ice Cream Man" Brown for more than 20 years now. I met Ray when I was doing my solo project. I was pursuing my singer/songwriter music at the time, playing for small crowds in coffee houses and clubs. All of a sudden, the TCB just took off. The crowds got bigger and we started getting press and it just went crazy. I abandoned my “solo” project and focused on making BPTCB all that it could be. Then we landed the Papa John’s Pizza commercial and our music was suddenly playing on just about every television in America . And they ran that commercial, like, every 5 minutes, it seemed. That was an amazing break for us.
As for the band name, there are two stories. The “family-friendly” version is that I went from being a bachelor to a married father of three within a couple years and a friend started calling me “Big Papa.” The “adult version”, well, I’ll leave that one to the imagination.

What are you thinking when you guys are on stage?
Honestly, I try not to think about much when I’m onstage. I try to keep my head out of the way so I can really just let my heart take over. I know it sounds a little sappy. It’s hard to get out of your head. You may be focusing on the lyrics or the notes or what song needs to come next as you gauge the crowd, but the real magic happens when you just give in to the music and let it come from that place way inside. I guess if there is anything I think about it’s to make sure that I connect with every single person in the place. I want everyone in the joint to leave feeling like they were part of the show.

Tell me a few things about your meet with T-birds, how do you characterize them?
We played with the T-birds early on. It was actually one of the first big shows we did as a band. Kim Wilson was really good. I got to meet him outside the club before they went on. He was really mellow. Just an incredibly laid back cat. The band was great, too.

Are there any memories from recording time with Robert Hadley of the Mastering Labs, which you’d like to share with us?
Ah, what can I say about Robert? He and Doug Sax are audio geniuses. Robert has mastered all of our discs. At this point, I don’t even feel like I need to be there. I just go to hang out with him. He is a mastering wizard, It’s a beautiful thing to watch him work. He starts turning knobs and I have no idea what he’s doing, but when he is done, it sounds like a million buck. Robert loves his BBQ, and I look forward to tossin’ back some ribs with him each year.

What’s the best jam you ever played in? What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?
Damn, that’s a tough one. There have been some incredible shows over the past 6 years. Some of the best gigs have been the ones that are in some tiny place, packed to the roof with people, everyone dancin’ and singin’ and sweatin’. I guess one of my favorite gigs was when we played our first big show together at the Coach House. We were on the bill with Rod Piazza and the Mighty Flyers, and we just rocked the shit out the place. We were sloppy and nervous and the crowd just loved us all the more for it. We have a couple clips on youtube of that show. You can see how involved the crowd was and hear how loud they were singing along. That was a blast. And I felt a little like Moses leading the guys in the band to the “promised land.” It felt good to be up there with my guys in front of the kind of crowd we knew we were supposed to play for.

Everyone is influenced by someone or another when it comes to music. Who do you count as your main influences, be they alive or deceased?
There have been several people who have been an influence. Other than the obvious musical influences like Muddy, Wolf, Louis Jordan, I have been really lucky to have worked with lots of great bluesmen. Rod Piazza has been a great influence. I learned what it meant to rock a house from watching him. The times I’ve played with him, he forces me to dig into my traditional blues bag of tricks, and that’s been really good for me. For a while I was Jumpin’ Jack Benny’s side man. I like to say that JJB took me to “blues school.” If Rod showed what it means to rock a house, JJB showed me how. He is still the best front man I’ve ever worked with. Whenever one of us isn't gigging, we invite each other out to sit in, and the TCB has been lucky to have him blow harp on three of our CD’s. He’s been a good friend and a great mentor. Another good friend and mentor is Kelly McGuire, an R&B singer/guitarist and recording and sound guru. Working with him in the studio has opened up my eyes to the process and only because I’ve learned so much from him were we able to record our latest disc, DANCE WITH THE DEVIL, on our own, in our own studio.

What's been their experience from “studies” with Johnny Winter & which memory from makes you smile?
My “studies with Johnny Winter”? Ha, I think that got a little mixed up in translation. I only met him the once, but I definitely think I got “schooled” when I did. We went onstage and felt really good about ourselves. We really served up a solid set and sat back a little overconfident. When Johnny went onstage, he had to be helped up to his seat. He’s practically blind now. I thought to myself, “Wow, how is he going to follow the set we just played? He looks so frail.” Then he plugged in and just lit the place up. He was incredible, and completely buried us. I learned that you have to always respect the older players. They may look like they have lost a little something over the years, but they will definitely kick your ass, and you won’t even know what hit you.

What experiences in your life make you a GOOD BLUESMAN?

Everything, really. Sure, I draw a lot from the bad that happens, and really the blues is about using the music to shake off the bad in life, but it’s also about the good in life. Without the good, you truly can’t appreciate how bad the rough times were, and vice versa. My life is pretty amazing now. I really have little to be down about, but that wasn’t always the case. Like I wrote on “Saved by You,” "I’ve done more than my share of living." That’s truth, there. I have stock piled enough rough times to draw on for the rest of my career. I also pull a lot from what I see around me, both in the people close to me and in the world. I have always done that. It has made for some awkward moments in my personal life, especially in the past. Thankfully, I don’t have to deal with that stuff much anymore.

                                                                                                                Photo by Mike Ingram

Would you like to tell something about making new album?

There was so much about making SIX PACK OF COOL that was different than the previous discs. First, we recorded and mixed the album entirely ourselves in our own studio. Though DANCE WITH THE DEVIL was recorded in our studio, we took the tracks to someone else to mix. With SIX PACK we wanted to do it all on our own, which gave us the luxury of being comfortable in the studio, without worrying about money or time. We were able to take the time make the songs sound exactly how we envisioned them. That said, the initial tracks ended up only taking four days to get because we were able to relax. I spent the last four albums observing our producers and engineers so that we could get to the point where we can be totally self-sufficient, and I think it really paid off for us.

Next, this disc is the first in which we have incorporated a horn section. We've had saxophone on previous discs, but decided it was time to make it official on this one and highlight the horns. I particularly enjoy working on horn arrangements, the layering of sounds, and playing with melody lines. Add to that the fact the Mo and Marques are great players and it really brought the songs to life.

As far as the music itself, there are some firsts. We have our first actual duet on this disc, "Crazy 'Bout the Girl" with Gino Matteo. "Big Bad Blues" was another first for me because it was the first song I co-wrote with my daughter, Darrian. That was an amazing amount of fun, not just sharing that experience, but showing her how songwriting works. In addition, we recorded a cover of Rod Piazza and the Mighty Flyers' "Murder in the First Degree." That was one of the first blues songs I've ever loved, and it was a thrill to be able to capture even a little of the cool that Rod and the Flyers serve up.

Do you think that your sound and progress is as it started out all these years ago? Or has this changed and are you pointing in a new direction?

I think we are finally getting the sound we wanted when we started the band. We always intended to bring in a small horn section to capture that Louis Jordan dynamic. We started out doing a lot of jump blues in the beginning and strayed a bit over the years. We experimented on the last disc, and played a lot with slide guitar and the marriage of the delta blues and modern blues.  I don't regret any of the discs we've made. They were a snapshot of where we were creatively at the time. I'm just glad we've finally been able to get the sound on SIX PACK that we always wanted. I also feel that I've found my groove as a songwriter and a vocalist on the new disc. It just seemed effortless this time. In fact, toward the end of the recording process I decided we needed another jump tune and sat down and wrote "Crazy 'Bout the Girl" in about 30 minutes. It ended up being one of the favorites. I guess when you are comfortable and really have that vibe going with the guys you're playing with, it just happens on its own. Without a doubt, this is the best disc I've ever been a part of and I can't wait for people to hear it.

Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us.  Why do think that is? Give one wish for the BLUES

I think the blues is still strong for a couple reasons. It is universal. Everyone can relate to it and everyone can feel it on some level. It goes across all ages and cultures, because everyone has had the blues at one point or another. The other thing about the blues is that it is simple, straight forward, and raw. The simplicity of the music is what makes it possible for such deep expression. I don’t know that I have a wish for the blues. For me, it is more of a mission. My goal is to pick up the torch and make sure that it survives and finds its way into the hearts of the next generation. I think that is our biggest responsibility, to keep it alive and try to take it somewhere that the last generation of players didn’t. It needs to continue to evolve as we create our own version of blues.

Do you believe that there is “misuse”, that there is a trend to misappropriate the name of blues?

No, I don't actually. I have pretty strong feelings on this issue, and I know that some people don't agree. There are purists out there that feel we all should try to recapture the brilliant sounds of Muddy and Wolf and the various Kings (B.B., Albert, Freddy, etc). I couldn't disagree more, and here's why. No one will ever be a better Muddy Waters than Muddy Waters. No one will ever capture the magic that was Howlin' Wolf. So why on Earth would we try? Our task is to take the brilliance they created and make it new, add our own flavor to it. Where would be be if Muddy simply copied his heroes and never created his own unique sound? Blues music needs to progress and grow or it will die, as the older fans of the blues begin to die off. The worst that any of us could do is limit the blues to just "traditional" blues. It would be the end of it. It needs to continue to The core of the music is the same, whether you are listening to Son House or Jimi Hendrix or the Allman Bros. or Joe Bonamassa. If Derek Trucks only copied Duane Allman, he wouldn't be the incredible slide guitarist he is today. Of course we can all hear the influence that Duane's playing had on him, but he's not just a carbon copy. He took the style to a new high. When you really analyze it, what makes players like Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Robert Randolph, Robert Cray, Derek Trucks, etc, so great was that they DID take the music in new directions. The influence of our heroes should be obvious in us, but we have an OBLIGATION to take the blues somewhere new or we are just stealing from them. If we don't help the next generation connect with the blues by making it relevant to them, then it will die with this generation, and that is unacceptable to me. I've always tried to add a bit of my own edge to the classic sound. If an artist doesn't have something new to add, then why would I choose to listen to them instead of Muddy?

Are there any memories from Robert Cray, which you’d like to share with us?
Yes. Two, actually. The first time I met him was at the NAMM show in Anaheim, CA a few years ago. NAMM is a convention where all of the musical instrument companies show off their new products. He was playing a short set at the Fender guitar booth. The room was so small and I was so close to him that I could’ve reached out and touched him. When the set was done, we wandered over to the door to the backstage area. The guy guarding the door looked at our passes and saw that we were there as guests of the Fender company and let us in. We had no idea we would have backstage access. I kind of doubt we were supposed to, actually, but I wasn’t going question it. So I waited around for Robert to come out of the greenroom. When he finally did come out, he spent a few minutes talking with me. He was really nice and I’m sure I sounded like a total idiot. I was finally meeting the guy who was my musical hero. On the BPTCB website, there’s a picture of him and me and the expression on my face says it all. My wife sometimes jokes that I don’t even smile that wide for her.
The second was when we played with the RCB at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano , CA. We had a great set and, again, I felt really confident. Then Cray came on and just blew the roof off the joint, and half of his set was ballads! The level of control that guy has is just unbelievable. So after his set, I hung around to see if I could get him to autograph my Cray strat. Keep in mind, I’ve never asked for an autograph from any of the other acts we’ve played with. So eventually I'm taken to the dressing room and he’s sitting there with Coco Montoya, who we were playing with on another show later in the year. They were both really cool and humble.
On a side note, Coco Montoya still is one of the few artists who gives any recognition to the opening acts on the bill. He was really nice to us when we played the festival with him.

How you would spend a day with Albert Collins?
Hell, I wouldn’t know where to start. That’s one guy I really wish I could’ve met. I guess I would take him out for some Gut Busters Bar-B-Q, my personal favorite, and then set up some video cameras and have him tell me some stories from his life. I can only imagine the things he saw and did. Then I would set up a private jam with all my family, friends and favorite local players and just play till the sun came up.

From the musical point of view is there any difference and similarities between the “Muddy’s Blues” & the modern blues?
Of course there is. Muddy played his blues and it is the blueprint for what we do today. However, Muddy already did that. No one is going to do Muddy better than he did, so why would we try? We need to take what Muddy and Wolf and Albert Collins and Robert Johnson and all the cats who came before us did and put our own spin on it. The blues, like all music, should reflect the times in which it is created. Most blues musicians playing today never picked cotton. They didn’t work the plantations. They didn’t run moonshine. Most of the older cats now grew up in the 60’s. They were hippies. Their blues needs to be different than Muddy’s and Wolf’s because their lives are different. Just like my generation needs to find its own blues. Party of why the blues is so universal is because of its honesty. How can you maintain that honesty if you are singing someone else’s blues? I know there are a lot of purists out there that believe that if an artist doesn’t sound like Muddy or Wolf, then it just isn’t “real blues.” That’s just ridiculous to me. Muddy didn’t sound like Son House or Robert Johnson. Neither did Wolf. People need to understand that if the music doesn’t evolve, it dies. I think it evolves whether we want it to or not.

How has the blues music changed your life? Give one wish for the BLUES
The blues has given me a lot of experiences I wouldn’t have had otherwise. It also gives me a way to deal with life’s day to day grind, as well as the big obstacles and troubles. On a more personal level, it has helped to bring me and my pops closer. He gave that to me early on, and we constantly are sharing new music. It is a great feeling to have my family come out and see me on some big show. It makes me happy to know that I’m doing them proud, even if they don’t say so very often. I also love that my own kids, especially the youngest, think I’m some kind of rock star. Having my music play on television gives my kids a cool that none of their friends have. That’s pretty great. I want them to be proud of their old man.

What do you listen to for your own pleasure?
I love all kinds of music, but I find myself going back to Cray, Muddy, Wolf, Piazza, Louis Jordan, Albert Collins. I really like Lloyd Jones, too. There’s a guy who didn’t get near the attention he deserved. I’m thinking of going up to Portland just to hear him play. There are some great singer/songwriters that I listen to from time to time. Will Hoge is great. I’m a big Sister Hazel fan. I think that was where I first started taking notice of the slide guitar. Seeing Ryan Newell play slide live was life changing. He is great. Jim Croce will always be a favorite. He has an honestly that is a lot like the blues. There’s a kid named Ryan Montbleau who’s pretty good, too.

Any of blues standards have any real personal feelings for you & what are some of your favorite?
Yeah, there are definitely some songs we’ve played for years and years. Muddy’s “Hoochie Coochie Man” is one. We get a lot of requests for Albert Collins’ “Too Many Dirty Dishes.” We’ve never played it, but I love Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightning.” That tune is the essence of cool, as is Muddy’s “Mannish Boy.” We always play “Caldonia.” That’s become a staple in our show, especially with the horn section now on board.
There are some blues tunes that really speak to me that aren’t standards, though. “Need Somebody to Love” by Fabulous Thunderbirds is brilliant. I really dig Tommy Castro’s “Big Sister’s Radio.” Very cool tune.
“I’ve Slipped Her Mind” by Robert Cray is absolutely perfect. Oh, also “The Last Time (I Get Burned Like This)” by Cray is great, too. It doesn’t get any better than that. Period.  Same with Lloyd Jones’ “What Am I Living For.”
But I think the song that really grabs me and just kicks my ass is “Right Next Door (Because of Me)” by Robert Cray. From beginning to end, there isn’t a better song written in any genre. And live it’s even better! I was so happy when all the Cray live records started coming out.

What would be the ideal future for you, the band, and the Blues world?

I see us playing more festivals. I want to get to Europe, Asia, South America and Australia, etc. I know people overseas would really enjoy our high energy live show. It's just a matter of time before we make that happen. I'd love to do some of the festivals over there as well. I also can't wait to get started on the next disc! We had such a good time with this one, we are all excited to keep creating. I joked with Maurice the day after the disc was mastered and asked if he was ready to start writing horn parts for the next one, expecting a "Hell no!" Surprisingly, he was 100% ready, as were all of the guys. So it won't be long before we are back in the studio working on the follow up to SIX PACK. You just don't want to stop when the vibe is good. As for the blues world, I think the time is right for real music played by real musicians to become popular again. There has been such a void in modern music for so long that people are getting hungry for something honest, something real. I'm very optimistic for the future of the blues.

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