An Interview with West Coast guitarist Rick "L.A. Holmes" Holmstrom: Blues is a feeling

"I don’t believe in any kind of «blues philosophy» other than playing with feeling."

Rick "L.A. Holmes" Holmstrom: The blues innovator

Rick Holmstrom is an American electric blues and rhythm and blues guitarist, singer and songwriter. Holmstrom has released five albums since 1996, and previously worked with William Clarke and Rod Piazza. With a penchant for the unexpected, Rick Holmstrom has managed to become the antidote for the often creatively depleted blues and roots scene.

Holmstrom’s background as one of the most traditional of traditional blues guitarists landed him in the spotlight world playing and/or recording with legends and luminaries such as Jimmy Rogers, R.L. Burnside, Smokey Wilson, Johnny Dyer, William Clarke and Rod Piazza. But his steady rise through the blues world hardly prepared anyone for the shot across the bow that he was about to deliver when he released his groundbreaking record Hydraulic Groove. A juxtaposed hip hop style record with break beats and samples with Holmstrom’s greasy 40s/50s styles blues guitar and vocals. Holmstrom switched record label to M.C. Records, and in 2007 issued Late in the Night. In the spring of 2012 he is out touring as the guitarist in the backing band for Mavis Staples. M.C. Records is thrilled to announce the signing of remarkable guitarist and songwriter Rick Holmstrom. “Cruel Sunrise” is his first solo recording in five years and features Mavis Staples on two tracks.  All 12 songs on “Cruel Sunrise” were written or co-written by Rick Holmstrom and will be released on August 28.

Interview by Michael Limnios


Rick, when was your first desire to become involved in the blues & from whom have you have learned the most secrets about blues music?
I first really got into blues around 1986-87 while in at school in Redlands, CA. I was in a band that played mostly roots music, but we also played a few Jimmy Reed songs and we listened to a lot of blues. After that I started buying as many records as I could find or afford. After graduating I moved to LA and started hitting the clubs with my fake ID so I could sit at the feet of people like Smokey Wilson, Junior Watson, James Harman, William Clarke, Steve Samuels, Dave MacKenzie and Johnny Dyer. I probably learned the most from Smokey, Junior, Bill and Johnny since they were the ones I played with most. Later on I learned a lot from Rod Piazza and Al Blake too.


What characterize Rick Holmstrom’s blues philosophy and how do you describe your long-time band-mates Jeff Turmes and Stephen Hodges?
I don’t believe in any kind of «blues philosophy» other than playing with feeling. I think that’s what makes this music, as it usually only has a few chords, or even one, so moving. How else can you explain it? Everyone’s got their way of doing it, but in the end, it either moves people or it doesn’t. I think the guys that I play with, Jeff and Hodges, have a lot to do with our music moving people. They’re just very musical people. And maybe that shouldn’t be limited to musical, they’re very creative people. These guys can’t even sign their names without it looking cool. They don’t just send birthday cards, they make ‘em, and I swear they could go into business selling ‘em. When Jeff and Hodges direct their attention to making music they bring that same sort of creative imagination to every note they play.


What was the first gig you ever went to & what were the first songs you learned?
First show I remember was Chuck Berry at Patty Gymnasium in Fairbanks, Alaska when I was fairly young, maybe 11-12. The sound of Chuck’s guitar reverberating in that gym became stamped in my brain for life. The first songs I remember learning were folk songs in the 3rd grade. I had a teached named Joni Rorro who taught me all the first position «cowboy chords» and I still use ‘em today!


Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?
Best moment...there have been so many...maybe I should narrow it to the few that I can recall. One was my first professional gig with William Clarke, opening for Albert King.

Albert’s contract stipulated an early start and it was obvious that he wanted to get the show over with, so he went on before us. I was terrified going on after him, but luckily I could hide behind Bill and concentrate on playing rhythm. I remember he had a pickup band and he said to his keyboard player: «...where’d we get you, Sears & Roebuck? »  So cold.
I also remember being on fire one night a few years later, once I finally figured out how to play a little, and unbeknownst to me Rod Piazza was watching, which eventually led to a seven year run with the Mighty Flyers.
Another great moment was playing at the NAACP Image Awards with Mavis Staples before we were actually working together full time. Bill Cosby was sitting right in front of me, it was on national TV, and it felt like every single eye in the house was looking right at me, which of course was all in my head, but still I was really nervous. In the end it went really well. Afterwards Mavis said: «...alright Rick, you ready to go out and make some noise with me? » It was a great feeling calling Jeff, Hodges and Donny Gerrard to ask if they wanted to start working with Mavis. We’ve been doing it now for over 5 years.


What does the BLUES mean to you & what experiences in your life make you a GOOD blues musician and songwriter?
It’s a feeling. I get the same sort of feeling from listening to the best of any kind of music. It can range from Louis Armstrong to Hank Williams, Swan Silvertones, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Gatemouth Brown, T-Bone Walker, Bob Dylan, Jimmy Clif, Jimmy Reed, Jimmy Rogers (both of ‘em!), Gene Ammons, The Staple Singers, Richard «Groove» Holmes, Sam Cooke, Mose Allison, Johnny Cash, Little Walter, Ray Charles, the Soul Stirrers, Otis Redding, Johnny Horton, The Meters, Merle Haggard, Booker T & the MG’s, Johnny Guitar Watson, JJ Cale, Jo’ Buddy, Ahmad Jamal, Junior Watson, Miles Davis, Hollywood Fats, Ry Cooder, Duke Levine, Sonny Rollins, Daniel Lanois, Bill Frissell, Marvin Gaye, Magic Sam and Ben just goes on and on...none of these artists sound like each other and that’s what is so cool about music. If it moves me and has a thing of it’s own, then I’m down with it.
As for what makes me a «GOOD blues musician and songwriter»
I’d have to look at the list above and say I’ve still got a lot to learn, but maybe, just maybe, that’s why you’re even interviewing me today...I’m definitley evolving with each show and each record I make, so maybe that’s what makes it worth checking out? I don’t know, I just go with whatever inspires me that day.


Do you remember anything funny or interesting from William Clarke and Rod Piazza?
Both of those guys were very intense in their own ways. Bill used to practice in the bathroom of his hotel room with a styrofoam cup over his harp so he wouldn’t bother anyone. He listened to tons of jazz saxophone players for ideas and didn’t feel satisfied going to a gig without a whole bucket full of new ideas. He would actually solo and solo and solo for days on certain gigs just organizing and practicing his ideas, which on one hand was incredibly dedicated of him but on the other hand really annoying for a certain percentage of the audience that just wanted to hear a balanced show that included more input from the other players. But for me, especially as a young player, it was inspiring to be around someone so focused.
Rod is the complete opposite of Bill, and by that I mean, sure, he practice his instrument, and yes, he values and has a ton of ideas, but he’s much more focused on the whole presentation. He wants to put on a great show and really entertain people. He’s like a modern version of Louis Jordan or Louis Prima, except that amplified harmonica, piano and guitar take the place of the saxophones. Each of these guys has their fans, but to me they’re both great. Rod’s a really funny guy too. Most people don’t see that side of him, but we had a lot of fun together. He’d leave these notes on my amp asking me to « some Hendrix tonight, love, so and so» pretending to be some girl in the audience, and Rod actually took me out into the water and taught me how to surf. That’s not to say that I’m any good at surfing, but Rod taught me how to do it. I loved my seven years with the Flyers.


What is the “feel” you miss most nowadays from 80s Los Angeles blues scene with Smokey Wilson, William Clarke, Johnny Dyer, Rod Piazza and Hollywood Fats?
Well, it’s still here in LA. Sure, there aren’t as many clubs featuring deep blues, but most of the players are still around. Smokey Wilson had a stroke so I haven’t seen him in years, and of course Fats and Bill died, but Johnny, Rod and the rest of the Fats band are all still here. Same with Junior Watson and James Harman. Still here and making great music. I played for about a year or two with the old Hollywood Fats Band (now called the Hollywood Blue Flames) before I started touring too much with Mavis to make it work. I really enjoyed that time, learned a ton from Al Blake, Fred Kaplan, Larry Taylor and Richard Innes. As for the feel, it’s really about learning from the old records and as many of the real deal players as you can, then getting on the bandstand and doing something that makes it your own. Learn the rules and then break them. But at least that way the feeling of the old blues is in your playing. It’s like Magic Sam. You could hear the Robert Johnson, Jimmy Rogers, Ray Charles, John Lee Hooker and JB Lenoir in his playing but by the time he put it into his personal blender it came out all Magic Sam. That’s what turns me on, when someone has their own style, but at the same time you can feel the tradition in there too. All of the players I came up with had that going on.


What are some of the most memorable gigs and jams you've had? When did you last laughing in gigs and why?
I remember when I was really young playing a gig with William Clarke and Junior Watson where afterwards Junior and I went out for a bite to eat. I asked Junior how I had done and he just laid into me, all over me to go for it, quit holding back, play something, fall on your face, don’t take a back seat to him (Junior) or anyone else. I wasn’t expecting that, but he was right, I was being way too deferential. I look back at it now and laugh, but at the time it was a bitter pill. But Junior gave me the confidence to do my thing.
Every night with Mavis is funny. Sometimes it’s just the makeup of the audience that will get her looking at me like «these folks don’t hear me», and then we laugh. Like they don’t really understand what she’s singing about. It’s only by laughing about it that we can get through the rougher gigs where maybe it’s a room full of conservatives who don’t want to hear her sing about injustice and inequality. Sort of a musician’s version of gallows humor.


Are there any memories from studio with Johnny Dyer, which you’d like to share with us?
I strated playing with Johnny around 1992, after quitting William Clarke’s band. Johnny’s a really dear friend. We recorded two records (Listen Up, 1994 and Shake It, 1995) for Black Top Records, both of which I produced. Up until then Johnny was driving a truck, but he retired when we got signed and we went on the road for a few years, until I joined Piazza’s group in 1995. I think Johnny figured it was going to be glamorous out on the road. He had visions of whisky, card games and «fried bird», all of which were around, but in order to get to them we had to cover a lot of miles in my beat up old van. After a couple of years he started losing his enthusiasm for the road, which with a tempermental back made total sense, but I was gung-ho to play as much as possible. The offer from Rod, even though I was really tight with Johnny, was too much to pass up. But Johnny and I always stayed tight. He always cracks me up because he looks right at you when he’s soloing. His eyes get kind of bugged out and he looks right at you, almost thruogh you. At first it was unnerving, but then I relaizewd that he’s just like a kid having fun. He loves the give and take, call and response, of good blues. I love Johnny’s playing so much for the tone and the holes he leaves for the rest of the band. It’s a conversation at all times, not a lecture. People ask me how I was able to fall into playing with Mavis so quickly, and I tell ‘em that it’s a lot like playing with Johnny. It’s that Mississippi thing that’s at the core of both of their music and soul. It’s just like that big ol’ river flowing past, you just float along on the river with them.


If you go back to the past what things you would do better and what things you would a void to do again?
If I could do it over again I would make Hydraulic Groove even more whacked out. I was stuck between two worlds, so unfortunately I made one half of the record more like my past and one half imagining my future. I should’ve gone full on future. Oh well, can’t do it again. I’m proud of that record. It was inspired and risky, and it has its flaws, but it was what was happening at that time for me and it signaled that I wasn’t afraid to take risks. I just wish I’d taken even more. But at that time there were people who thought I’d been snatched up by aliens and then dropped back to earth. Oh well, one thing I’ve done a pretty good job of is making each of my records different but still retaining a core sound in my playing and singing, so from that standpoint, Hydraulic Groove was a success. And it definitely opened a lot of doors for me later with songs being used in soundtracks and TV, as well as influencing other artists. I’m sure it even eventually helped get me my gig with Mavis Staples.


Which of historical blues personalities would you like to meet? Of all the people you’ve meeting with, who do you admire the most?
Oh man, it’d be a trip to hang with Little Walter. I’m such a huge fan still. I mean, I learned all the Walter stuff while I was playing with Clarke, Piazza and Dyer, but it was always as a fan, not as a chore. And now I love him more than ever because he was all feeling and had such a unique sound. Other than that, I’d love to meet Lightnin’ Hopkins. I never tire of listening to Lightnin’ Hopkins. I had a opened for Gatemouth Brown before he died, and even though I’d heard he was a terrible curmuggeon, I never saw that. I admired him for carving out his own niche and sound, plus for insisting that he wasn’t really a «blues» artist, but rather that he was a «musician» who played all sorts of music. I loved Gate. Mose Allison is still playing great, I’d love to see him play for many many more years. Ahmad Jamal too. I love them both. I saw Mose on a night off from recording in Chicago and it was so soulful and real in comparison to so much crap that’s out there today. And then Jeff, Hodge and I went to see Ahmad Jamal on a night off in Cambridge a few years back and he blew our minds. The dynamics in his trio, with Idris Muhammad on drums, was a HUGE inspiration on the three of us and how we play in RHB and with Mavis too. Oh, and I can’t forget Pops Staples!!! I’d love to have met him. Only saw him play once, and it was great, but it’d be fun to talk with him now that I’m playing with his daughters. I’d pick his brain big time. Yeah, that’d be cool.


What do you think is the main characteristic of you personality that made you a bluesman?
Maybe my inability to maintain sufficient funds in my checkbook! Or my lack of sanity.


Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us.  Why do think that is? Give one wish for the BLUES
True, all of that, but I wish today’s blues music would concentrate on better songs. It’s a different time. Blind Willie Johnson, Charlie Patton, Robert Johnson, Tampa Red, Charles Brown, Willie Dixon and Percy Mayfield and others wrote amazingly great songs that will always ring true, but most of what passes for new blues just doesn’t move me. I mean, Chuck Berry took Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell and mixed it with T-Bone Walker and Muddy Waters to make something completely his own, regardless of whether you call it r 'n' b, blues or roots rock n roll. But if the only thing people can dream up is some sort of insert-your-own-lyrics version of classic blues songs, then the art form will die. There are artists in other forms of music who work incredibly hard on writing great new songs. Today’s blues needs that fire and appreciation for great new songs.


Would you mind telling me your most vivid memory from your college era in Redlands and the local blues band?
Free beer, basically. Oh, and girls were there too. Basically, I studied business and political science and played four years of basketball at the University of Redlands. During my senior year I hooked up with some friends to play music. I remember the first gig felt like hitting a last second, game winning shot on a Saturday night basketball game in a packed gym, and all I did all night was play rhythm. In fact, that’s all I really did the first few years I played. Rhythm guitar was my thing and that’s what got me into bands. In fact, when I toured with Booker T, I’m sure that’s what made it work. I’m happy playing rhythm. Sure, I can solo and have made my name early on as a fiery blues guitarist, but it’s really all about rhythm.


Tell me a few things about your meet & work with Jimmy Rogers, Billy Boy Arnold, and Jody Williams?
I backed Jimmy Rogers up while touring with William Clarke and later, Rod Piazza. I hung out with Jimmy a lot in both instances and then would always go say hi whenever he came to LA. I think Jimmy was lonely on the road and he enjoyed talking, so me and Zach Zunis, the other guitar player with Bill Clarke, ate it up. Jimmy was a very warm, kind-hearted man. He shared everything. Man, I wished I had a tape recorder going when he talked…stories about 40’s and 50’s Chicago, Little Walter, Muddy Waters, the Aces, Freddy Below…he just went on and on. I really miss Jimmy’s stately presence. It was like he was a big friendly smile looking over us all. I think he got a kick out of young guys like me, Zach and Nick Moss. I remember one night Rod came up to me on the break and said something like: “…Jimmy really likes your playing, but he wants you to play more, take over, don’t defer to him, just dig in and go for it.” It was a revelation similar to the one Junior Watson delivered to me years earlier to have the confidence to go for it while on stage with my heroes. Years later, I took that more aggressive attitude toward playing with Booker T and Mavis Staples, and I have folks like Junior Watson and Jimmy Rogers to thank for it.
Billy Boy Arnold walked in to Buddy Guy’s club one night when I was there with Bill Clarke on a night off, maybe 1990. We were all shocked. He hadn’t made his comeback record yet (which I played on) so our jaws were all on the ground seeing him walk in looking pretty much exactly like the photos from his late 50’s/early 60’s heyday, overcoat and same hairdo, I mean, it was eery. I think he came down to hang out with Junior Wells. Anyhow, one thing I discovered later was that no one could beat Billy Boy at “the dozen,” which is basically a really clever game of rap-like put downs that was popular decades before hip hop even existed. His version of “Dirty Mutha For Ya” could go on and on and just leave people rolling on the floor. I mean, Billy Boy is a real gentleman but he can cut anybody’s head. He can be ruthless. I get a big grin just thinking about Billy Boy!
Jody Williams I only recorded a few songs with, as a result of having backed up his old buddy Billy Boy Arnold. I never got to know Jody that well, but we had fun recording those couple of songs for a Delta Groove release. That’s me screaming in the background on “Groan My Blues Away”…his original version had a group screaming in the background but on our version it was just me…I just had to…the song didn’t seem right without some screaming.


It must be hard, but, which gigs and jams have been the biggest experiences for you?
Touring with Mavis has been huge for me. I mean, c’mon, with Mavis we’ve played pretty much every big festival (Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, Jazzfest and many others) as well as every big TV show (Letterman, Colbert, Leno, Conan and Austin City Limits), but the coolest thing is the diversity. One night it’s a historic old theater, next night it’s a huge rock festival, then a folk festival, jam festival, blues festival, jazz, bluegrass, world music, gospel...we play ‘em all and it makes sense, believe it or not, because Mavis’ music has inspired people in all of those fields. Mavis laughs because she doesn’t really understand why we play some of these events, she’ll say: «...I ain’t no blues singer, I sing for the Lord» and I’ll tell her that her music, even though it’s not a 3 chord blues form, has all the feeling of blues so it’s universal. The greatest thing for me is that I get to see all sorts of music that I never would’ve been aware of otherwise. It’s a great feeling to be sandwiched in between all of these esoteric artists and just stand there and play our music without doing backflips or blowing smoke out of our butts. We just do our thing and play with loads of dynamics, let the microphones do the work and everthing falls into place. Our mantra is: «embrace the space.» By that I mean, hey, we’re just a trio but if we listen to each other, interact and play relaxed, it’ll be fine. There’s a lot to be said for space, air and atmosphere in music. It’s not an athletic event.
The tour I did with Booker T (3 weeks in-between Mavis dates) was also a revelation. Booker's a great writer and arranger. He knows every nook and cranny of his music, and he's dedicated to presenting it the right way, but he also gives everyone in his band enough slack to do their thing. He's the epitome of that southern laid back exterior with a steely, determined inner fire. He's Mr. Cool. I think what I got from him was that if your songs are constructed right you can just stand there and play them with feeling and not worry about anything else. No need for excess volume and certainly no need for flash, in fact, avoid those things at all cost. Just play the songs. In fact, that's something that Mavis always credits Pops for as well, Pops telling her to just stand there and sing with feeling and everything will work out fine. Those might sound like obvious things to know, but I kind of needed to learn it on the bandstand from people like Mavis and Booker for it to be real. So much of blues today is lowest common denominator jive, trying to out-solo the person who came onstage before you, but with Mavis and Booker none of that matters. Don't get me wrong, they care deeply and they put on a great shows, but it about something deeper.


How did you get hooked up with Mavis Staples. How did you get together and where did it start? What advice has given to you?

One of her managers, David Bartlett, used to work at Tone Cool Records. I released two CD’s with Tone Cool (Gonna Get Wild, 2000 and Hydraulic Groove, 2002), so Dave and I worked together a lot. When Mavis recorded I’ll Never Turn Back (Anti Records, 2007) with Ry Cooder she needed a band that could play in a similar rootsy, bluesy style on the road. Dave thought we’d be a good match. But before that, they asked us to open for Mavis on the Santa Monica Pier in 2006. As fate would have it, her band was late getting to the gig, so we ended up playing a few songs with her before they arrived. Ry and Mavis really liked the way we played, so that eventually led to us playing with Mavis full time. Oh, and before we got the gig they also had me play with her as a duo at the Handy Awards (Blues Music Awards) in Memphis and then later the NAACP Image Awards in LA. That’s where she hired me as her guitarist and bandleader.  Amazing to think back how her band was late to the Pier gig and how we got a shot at playing with her, and nailed it. It was just timing and being ready when the break comes along. That’s what luck is, I suppose, being prepared when the opportunity arises.
I had been a huge Staples Singers fan for years, especially the early Vee Jay stuff which I used to listen to driving home late at night after gigs, so once I started playing with her I gradually snuck as much of that Vee Jay era Staples sound into Mavis’ show, which then snuck its way onto her records (Live: Hope At The Hideout, Anti, 2008 which was Grammy nominated and You Are Not Alone, Anti, 2010, which won a Grammy).
I think the biggest thing I’ve learned from Mavis is that everyone has something to offer. I never thought I’d be singing onstage (or on records, for crying out loud) with Mavis, but one night we didn’t have our background singers, so Jeff  and I sang background, and now we’ve sang on every show since. Mavis has a way of bringing out the soul in everyone, whether it’s playing guitar, singing, or driving a truck, there’s a way to do it so that it’s real and heartfelt. She just draws that out of people. It’s like a fearlessness combined with vulnerability. It’s potent.


“Cruel Sunrise” first solo recording in five years. How did you come up with it? Would you like to tell your best memory from studio?
It’s been taking me longer to make records now that we have kids (Lusa is 9, Ellie 6). It also took five years from Hydraulic Groove to Late In The Night (M.C. Records, 2007).  When I’m home, I’m a full time, devoted dad, so it just takes more effort and planning to write, record and finish records. But I’m still at it.
Some of the songs on Cruel Sunrise were written about 10 years back, and then some are brand new, but they all came out of a difficult time where I was trying to figure out what to do with my life. I think it’s probably something that a lot of people struggle with, either as a result of the changing job market, or economic upheaval, or just the fast paced technological advances that sometimes leave us stranded. By the time we started having kids in 2003, I’d been a full time touring musician for 15 years, and then suddenly I was off the road, changing diapers. My wife, Toni, works in the schools so I spent the day with our girls, then either gigged or wrote songs at night, often going out into my van late at night to sing and play my new songs without waking the girls. So the recurring images for me were dreams, late nights, lost sleep, cruel sunrises, and then bright and cheerful young girls waking me up, jumping on the bed, over and over and over again. It was a great time to be home with my family, but it was brutal in some ways just trying to be a good dad as well as a creative musician.
Musically, the main thing I wanted was better songs. Plain and simple, I aspired to write better songs. Jeff Turmes, my buddy and bandmate, has developed into a great songwriter, and he would show up every week with another killer song, or three. So that raised the bar for me, just trying not to be left in the dust. Also, touring and/or recording with people like Mavis, Booker T, Jeff Tweedy, Levon Helm, Neko Case, Jolie Holland, Chuck Prophet and Billy Bragg; as well as crossing paths on the road with people like Ron Sexsmith, M Ward, Daniel Lanois, Dave Alvin, Lucinda Williams, Buddy Miller, David Hidalgo and Louie Perez of Los Lobos...if these people don’t inspire you to pick up a pen then you might as well curl up and die!

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