Canadian-Greek bluesman Steve Sainas talks about Sun studios, Dobros, Eric Clapton, & Rock in School

"The blues genre, unfortunately, tends to have a purest ideology that focuses too much on past artists and compositions"

Steve "Mud Dog" Sainas: Blues Crusader

Steve has been a guitarist/singer/songwriter in Vancouver's cabarets and pubs for the past thirty years. During this time, he has developed a powerful blues guitar and singing style that is instantly recognized by his steadily growing audience. In 1997, Steve began to lay the groundwork for forming his powerful blues band Mud Dog.

His vision was to pay tribute to blues masters such as Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and John Lee Hooker with a fiery contemporary blues sound. However, Sainas has evolved into an inspired songwriter and producer testifying his own life experiences through his songs that echo the sounds of the Mississippi Delta. In March 2003, Mud Dog released its debut CD "Devil's Ride" at the Terry Fox Theatre to a house full of excited fans. "Devil's Ride" features eleven original songs written and produced by Sainas, as well as two traditional arrangements. The CD is receiving regular airplay coast to coast. Five years later, Mud Dog released their second CD “River of My Soul” that features eleven new original acoustic songs written and produced by Sainas. Fans and reviewers describe “River of My Soul” as Mud Dog’s best CD so far. During the day, Steve is busy teaching Rock School and Recording Arts at Terry Fox Secondary School in Port Coquitlam, BC.  He established these programs in 2000/2001 and has developed them into one of the most successful music programs in public education.

Interview by Michael Limnios

Steve, when was your first desire to become involved in the blues & from whom have you have learned the most secrets about blues music?
When I was in my early teens, 13 or 14 years old, I was listening to Led Zeppelin and Cream. Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton heavily influenced my guitar style as I took my first steps into unraveling the mysteries of learning how to play guitar. “Stairway to Heaven” was the first song that I learned to play from beginning to end, and in doing so, I learned all the fundamental skills for playing a wide variety of chords, finger-picking, and soloing using the minor-pentatonic scale. Jamming to songs by Led Zeppelin, Clapton, ZZ Top, and AC/DC taught me how to improvise.

What was the first gig you ever went to & what were the first songs you learned?
The very first guitar riff that I learned was “Smoke on the Water”. The very first gig that I performed was with a new wave band called the A-16s (later renamed, The Novels). I was just 17 years old when I performed my very first gig at The UBC Pit Pub playing my brand new 1978 Les Paul Deluxe. I still own this beautiful Les Paul. A few months later, the band fired me because I wanted to play Led Zeppelin songs that did not fit in with the band’s style of New Wave tunes by artists such as Gary Newman and The Cars. At the time, I thought that I would never again perform in a band. Three years later, I joined a top 40 band named, “Guilty”, and started to perform professionally in Vancouver’s rock cabaret scene. I was performing 4-6 night gigs, a couple weeks per month, while during the day, I was going to university to earn my teaching degree.

How/where do you get inspiration for your songs & what are some of your favorite blues standards?
I get my inspiration from my family, love, loss, and our society’s struggles with political corruption. I usually write alone and need a stretch of time away from work in order to reflect and get creative. Some of my favorite blues standards are “Statesboro Blues” by the Allman Brothers, “Highway 61” by Johnny Winter, and “Cold Shot” by Stevie Ray Vaughan. However, I also really enjoy playing traditional acoustic tunes on my acoustic guitar and Dobro such as “Hey Hey” by Big Bill Broonzy, and Robert Johnson’s “Stones in My Passway” and “Come on in My Kitchen”. We recorded “Come on in My Kitchen” on our first CD, “Devil’s Ride”.

What does the BLUES mean to you & what does Blues offered you?
The Blues offers me an outlet for my frustration or emotional angst, but it also gives me a way to celebrate life and friendship when we perform at shows. The most rewarding moments occur when friends come up at the end of a show and express that a song or performance helped lift their spirits after a bad day.

What experiences in your life make you a GOOD bluesman?
I live a fairly simple life that is centered around my family, friends and students, so I tend to write about life experiences to which most people can instantly relate.

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?
Definitely the best moment of my career was traveling to Memphis, Tennessee last year to represent my province at the International Blues Challenge. While we were in Memphis, we recorded a new CD live off the floor at legendary Sun Studio and performed at the historic New Daisy Theatre on Beale Street.
My worst moment occurred several years ago when we performed our first featured Saturday night at the legendary Yale Hotel. We had worked very hard to earn a weekend show at this very prestigious venue, but a couple of days before the show, I got sick with laryngitis. My speaking voice returned to me the morning of the show and we decided to perform the show. I struggled all night with my singing and only got through the night by tuning our instruments a whole step down. Fortunately, the audience and staff loved our show and the booking manager began to regularly book us on weekends!

What’s the best jam you ever played in? What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?
We were playing an acoustic show at The Yale and during our break we started chatting with a couple of guys who had been shooting pool all night at the back of the room. They were visiting from New York and we asked them what they were doing in Vancouver. They told us they were in town with Levon Helm’s band to perform a show the following night. Then they asked if they could sit in during our next set. It was a blast performing “The Weight” by The Band with members of Levon Helm’s band!

Which of historical blues personalities would you like to meet? What is your “secret” music DREAM?
I would love to meet Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page. I consider Page to be a very inspirational blues player, as well as an amazingly creative multi-genre musician. I’d be thrilled to jam with Eric Clapton! Of course, ultimately, my dream would be to do a world tour with my acoustic duo, but that will have to wait until I retire from teaching my high school rock and recording arts program that I love so much!

Who are your favorite blues artists, both old and new? What was the last record you bought?
Some of my favorite blues artists are Robert Johnson, Big Bill Broonzy, Bob Brozman, Kelly Joe Phelps, Harry Manx, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eric Clapton, Keb’ Mo’, Derek Trucks, The Allman Brothers, and Colin Linden, with whom I’ve had the pleasure to chat with at several shows. The last CD that I bought was The Derek Trucks Band, “Already Free” which is an excellent listen from beginning to end!

Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us.  Why do think that is?
The blues will always live on because its form is timeless, as it resonates in the purest, most primal form, the sadness and joy of everyday life that common people experience.

Tell me about the beginning of Mud Dog. How did you choose the name and where did it start?
During the beginning of my teaching career, the nickname “Dog” was given to me by a student who was soon after tragically killed in an industrial work place accident. His death was one of the saddest events in my life. The nickname evolved into “Mud Dog” when I formed this blues band. The image “Mud” came from watching, Otis, my 4-month-old Black Lab/Border Collie puppy trip on a muddy river trail near my home. When I saw him covered in mud from nose to tail, I said to him come here, “Mud Dog” and I immediately realized that this was the name for my new blues band!

Where did you pick up your guitar style? What characterizes the sound of Steve "Mud Dog" Sainas?
The characteristics of my guitar style depend on whether I’m playing electric guitar, acoustic guitar, or Dobro. My electric style is thick and aggressive in the style of Eric Clapton or Stevie Ray Vaughan. My acoustic sound reflects the finger-style playing of Colin Linden, Keb’ Mo’, and Eric Clapton. My Dobro style is thick and melodic, influenced by Colin Linden and Colin James. Vocally, I strive for a big warm tone that is complemented nicely by Christopher Allen’s beautiful vocal harmonies and soaring harmonica playing.

Do you have any amusing tales to tell of your recording at legendary Sun Studio?
When we first walked into Sun Studio on Monday, January 31st, it was so surreal. As we were setting up, we found ourselves continuously looking around the room at all the iconic photographs on the wall: Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, and Howlin’ Wolf, just to name a few of the historic musicians who were pioneers in shaping the future sounds of blues and rock ‘n’ roll. Needless to say, we were pretty nervous, as we had publically announced that we were going to try to record a whole 10 song CD in just 4 hours of recording time.  We chose to start with, “Three Good Reasons”, a song that I had written and that we had performed for years. We did two takes that we thought were perfect and then went into the control room to listen to the playback, and to say hello to a couple of friends who had just arrived from the airport. One of those friends was Suzanne Swanson who had come to photograph our recording session. Because we were so busy saying hello to our friends, we neglected to accurately listen to the playback, and as a result, we missed a huge mistake that we had made on both takes due to our initial jitters and awe of recording on rock ‘n’ roll’s ground zero. After we recorded all ten original songs in just three hours of actual tracking time, we spent the last half hour making a safety copy of the tracks to take home for mixing and mastering. We then took a couple of photos for the album cover, dropped the instruments at the motel, and hit Beale Street to celebrate our success! We told everyone at the bar that we had just finished recording a whole album at Sun Studio… all the musicians we told, especially the Norwegian Band with whom we drank all night, said that they would try to book time as well. When we got back to the motel at four in the morning, I began to listen to the rough mixes…  I had a big grin on my face until I heard the mistake on both takes of our first song…. I couldn’t believe it! I immediately emailed the engineer at Sun begging for one more hour of studio time in order to record one more take of this song. In the morning, the engineer, Matt Ross-Spang, called me to see what was wrong. When I told him, he laughed and said he had suddenly got numerous calls for bookings and that there was only a slim possibility he could get us in on Wednesday night.  He told me that he had a Norwegian Band tentatively booked for this week’s last available two hour time slot and I said, “Yeah, I told the Norwegians about recording at Sun.”  Fortunately, the Norwegians didn’t confirm their recording time and we got a second chance to get a great take of “Three Good Reasons”.  We released our new CD, “SUN”, last July and it climbed to #24 on the Canadian Roots Music Charts in November.

I wonder if you could tell me a few things about your partners: Christopher Allen, Rodney Koke & Randy Adams
Christopher Allen and I have been performing and recording together for fifteen years. I connected with him through a local publication’s musicians wanted ad. When we finally played together, I knew immediately that I had found a very special talent that was a perfect fit for the Mud Dog sound. Christopher has a unique harmonica styling that places emphasis on melody and harmony. He’s a dynamic performer on stage and great friend. On stage, we seem to have an intuitive sense of each other’s performance. Christopher has had an extensive history having performed with many great performers such as Juno Award winner Kenny “Blues Boss” Wayne, Eubie Blake, renowned jazz singer Esther Phillips, and The Charlie Daniels Band just to name a few. He also recorded with producers Bob Rock and David Foster.
I met Rodney Koke and Randy Adams at a jam session in Port Moody in 2001. They were a great rhythm section. Unfortunately, Randy left the band approximately four years ago to pursue other interests. We now hire session players, Mark Rosen and Doug Mockford to fill the drummer’s seat. Both of these drummers are amazing players and have fit in very well. Rodney is a great five string bass player who is a long time veteran musician. In the early 1980s he had the incredible experience of opening for Stevie Ray Vaughan and ZZ Top.  It’s been a privilege to perform with these amazing musicians that have brought such dynamic chemistry to our performances over the years!

Which is the most interesting period in your life and why?
I think now is the most interesting period of my life because we are all standing at the crossroads. The world’s economy is crashing all around us as corrupt governments are violating the chartered rights and freedoms of citizens all over the world. It is disheartening that, as I write this response, these violations are occurring in my country, Canada, which is known throughout the world as a nation built on democratic freedom. Most recently our Federal Government is being questioned for alleged election tampering that may possibly bring into question the legitimacy of their majority election win earlier this year. Today, high school students are marching on the streets of Vancouver, demanding that their education system be funded properly by the provincial government who this week imposed an extremely unfair contract on teachers who are currently striking to improve funding to a severely under-funded education system. I believe the youth of this world are ready to rise up to demand constitutional respect and the creation of fair employment opportunities that are quickly disappearing under the corporate driven government agenda that is abusing the rights of our working poor. I personally find these protest movements interesting because as record companies fade away, musicians are able to harness the power of easily accessible media technology and free Internet to create and distribute music that is free of corporate control. As was the case in the ‘60s, musicians can once again make and widely distribute powerful socio-political musical statements that can influence world events. I believe a revolution is coming and music will play a prominent role in its development. The blues has always been about reflecting hardship and the human condition. I am personally finding inspiration in this growing political unrest and hope to create more music that reflects our society’s fight for securing improved rights and freedoms. On March 22nd, we will be performing at The Port Moody Inlet Theatre to participate in a fundraiser for our official opposition party in support of replacing our corrupt current provincial government. Given the political challenges Greece has had in recent years, I thought your readers might find it interesting to read about our politics as well. I believe art, politics, and social commentary all go hand in hand. My daughter, who is also a songwriter and a talented musician, was protesting with her grade 12 classmates today and managed to get the TV News to interview her regarding the unfair funding cuts to their education. The students also rallied outside the school board.... I'm very proud of them as they have organized all of this on their own. As I said, a revolution is coming and music/art will play a prominent role in how it unfolds.

Do you know why the sound of the reso-phonic guitar is connected to the blues?
The reso-phonic, or resonator guitar is connected to the blues because of its ability to produce a loud, sustained, singing, metallic tone that worked well for slide guitar playing. It was widely used by the early blues players of the late 1920s and 1930s because its unamplified sound could fill a room and it complimented the holler vocal style of the delta blues.

What characterize the sound of Dobro guitar? What are the secrets of all-steel resonator guitar?
The sound of the Dobro guitar is characterized by a sustained metallic singing quality. This unique sound is created through a spun aluminum speaker cone that mechanically resonates and amplifies the vibration of the strings within the body of the resonator guitar that is also known as a National Steel Guitar, or Dobro. These resonator guitars can have bodies made of steel, brass, or wood. Each kind of body produces its own very distinctive sound. I own both steel and nickel-plated brass Dobros. My favorite is my brown painted steel Dobro named “Brownie” that you can hear on all my Dobro recordings. I find that steel bodied Dobros have a very warm punchy

Are you Greek? What is your opinion about Do you have a message for the Greek fans?
Yes, I am a first generation Canadian-Greek. Both my parents were born in Agrilovouno, Messinias where I have visited three times in my life and hope to visit again soon. I think is a fantastic online magazine that is doing an amazing job of bringing international blues to Greek fans. I’d like to thank our Greek fans for listening to our music and we hope to one-day tour Greece!

You had pretty interesting project Rock School and Recording Arts at Terry Fox Secondary School. Where did you get that idea?
In 2000/2001, I started my Rock School and Recording Arts program at Terry Fox Secondary School in Port Coquitlam, British Columbia. From 1987 until 2000, I had been mostly teaching special education, but government funding cuts to special education motivated me to look for a new teaching assignment. The idea for Rock School and Recording Arts came to me while I was recording tracks for our first CD, “Devil’s Ride”. In 1998, I had been invited by my good friend, Donn Tarris, to record tracks in his home digital studio. At the time, digital recording was fairly new technology and at first, I was skeptical that one could get good quality recordings using computer software. Donn quickly convinced me that digital recordings could sound great and soon I was learning how to use this amazing technology. I quickly realized that digital recording techniques would be a very valuable discipline to teach high school music students. I was also aware that my colleague, Gord Hembruff, had been teaching a high school Recording Arts program at Port Moody Secondary.  He was also preparing to introduce a new program called Rock School. I thought that with my professional experience as a rock musician and recording artist, I would be able to establish a Rock School and Recording Arts program at my school, so I pitched the idea to my administration and eventually managed to secure the funding to begin the program. I started with one class of Rock School and one class of Recording Arts. With in three years, the program grew to a full teaching position with five Rock School classes and two Recording Arts classes. In Rock School, each class of 30 students forms 10 – 12 bands. Each band learns four songs and performs them at our year-end full production rock concert in our 336-seat theatre. The ticket sales from these concerts are the main source of funding for my programs. You can view some of our Rock School concerts on YouTube.  In Recording Arts, thirty students form ten production groups and learn digital recording techniques using Macs and Logic 9. The students learn how to digitally record a song using techniques in preproduction, tracking, mixing and mastering. In 2008/2009, our music program was recognized by CARAS/MusiCounts and was awarded a $10,000.00 BandAid Grant. Recently, it has been very rewarding to see my program’s alumni begin to build their professional music careers. Last week I was invited by two of my former students to watch their band, Stars of Boulevard, as they opened for Deep Purple at The Queen Elizabeth Theatre.

Are there any BLUES memories from THE ROAD, which you’d like to share with us?
I think the best blues memory has to be gathering with all of the musicians at the New Daisy Theatre for the International Blues Showcase in Memphis last year. There was such a strong feeling of camaraderie in the room amongst all the musicians.  Performing in front of international musicians of such amazing talent was an incredible rush!

Give one wish for the blues
The blues genre, unfortunately, tends to have a purest ideology that focuses too much on past artists and compositions. Although I acknowledge that it is important to pay tribute to the masters, it is also important to recognize that, as a result of these purest attitudes, it is very difficult for new blues artists with new blues compositions to be heard and acknowledged. In Memphis, I was told by an IBC judge, “There are no cover tunes in the blues… we want you to pay tribute to the masters… we don’t want to hear crappy original tunes.”  This attitude chokes and stagnates the blues, as it does not allow the genre to evolve and grow. In order to keep the blues alive as an interesting and current music genre, new blues compositions need to be encouraged and supported. When most radio primarily plays classic blues, competitions insist that you perform traditional blues, and most magazines primarily report on the history of the blues, they do not give new blues artists the platform they need to develop new and exciting blues music. My wish for the blues is that all blues radio and media give priority to supporting new blues compositions. I’d like to very much thank Blues.Gr for promoting original contemporary blues artists throughout the world and truly keeping the blues alive!
Our music and live videos can be enjoyed on our official website:

Steve "Mud Dog" Sainas

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