Interview with blues-rock band of Balkun Brothers (Nick & Steve Balkun) -- one of New England’s premier acts

"The blues has come to me not necessarily just in a musical sense but just through life and experiencing the highs and lows of being a human being."

Balkun Brothers: Expand The Limits

Balkun Brothers is an American blues-rock band hailing from Hartford, CT. Originally formed in 2010 by brothers Nick and Steve Balkun. Mixing traditional styles of delta and electric blues, with heavy modern rock and funk grooves, the Balkun Brothers are crafting a unique sound and style all their own. The trio is fusing the past with the present and pushing the sonic bounds of blues into the future. Though the band’s sound is deeply rooted in blues tradition, Balkun Brothers draw from a vast range of influences. The band’s live shows and in-studio recordings seamlessly transition between blues, rock, funk, jam, psychedelia and everything in-between. Currently, the band consists of founding members Steve Balkun (guitar), Nick “The Hammer” Balkun (drums) and Caleb “Dr. Jiggles” Battersby (bass).

Gaining followers with their gritty hard-rockin’ swagger, Balkun Brothers are becoming known for their explosive live shows and are quickly evolving into one of New England’s premier blues-rock acts. Balkun Brothers was voted the ‘Best Blues Band In Connecticut’ in 2013 and 2014, by and the Connecticut Music Awards. The band was nominated in three categories in 2013 and five categories in 2014 at the Connecticut Music Awards (a CTMA record). The group also won the 2014 Connecticut Blues Society Band Challenge and the 2013 Massachusetts Blues Society Solo/Duo Competition. As a solo act, Steve Balkun was named the winner of the 2012 Connecticut Blues Society Solo/Suo Competition, as well as being a grand finalist at the 2013 International Blues Challenge in Memphis, TN. Steve, was also hand selected by blues-rock great, Joe Bonamassa, as a top ten finalist in the 2013 Guitar Center Bluesmasters Competition and played with Joe Bonamassa and his band in L.A. They have also been a featured act alongside well-know artists such as Johnny Winter, Joe Bonamassa, James Cotton, Popa Chubby, Eric Sardinas, Dopapod, Melvin Seals and JGB, The Mike Dillon Band and many more. The band released their first full-length studio album, “ReDrova”, in January of 2015 and will continue to perform extensively throughout the U.S. and beyond.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the blues and what does the blues mean to you?

Steve: The Blues is my life, it’s a way of life, a life style. It’s something that describes a state of being, emotion and truth. I think you learn about the blues through life experience and in turn the blues helps you process all those experiences and learn from them. So it is really something that is always with me and always there to learn from, take a lesson from. It to me transcends any sort of musical genre or style, the blues is feeling, it starts with that, if you have it inside of you, you can connect with it. And I think most people, if they live on this earth long enough, are sure to run into the blues is some form or another, so I think if you play music from that feeling and truth, and tell it from your own experience and express the emotion from your soul, then most everybody can recognize that as the blues.

Nick: The blues has come to me not necessarily just in a musical sense but just through life and experiencing the highs and lows of being a human being. Life is very unexpected and can be very painful at times and that is generally thought of as “the blues”, but I also feel as though the blues come from the good experiences and life changing events that combat the harsher times. The blues has taught me to be a more patient and relaxed individual. To not be uptight and stressed about things that will be insignificant in a week or two or even a few years from now. Learning to cope with all times of physical and emotional ups and downs is what the blues means to me. To grow as a person and learn to feel what is real and important in the present, rather than dwelling on the past or on things that you cannot change.

"My hope is to always be growing and learning about music and creating fresh new ideas that people dig, get more of a youth movement going in the blues and rock n roll, I think it could create a very powerful scene in today's culture, as it has in the past." (Photo by Katrina Kelly/Kat’s Eye Photography) 

How do you describe Balkun Brothers sound and songbook? What characterize your music philosophy?

Steve: Balkun Brothers sound takes the idea of the blues being feeling and expands it to the limits of musical and sonic reality. We take all our influence from the old masters of the past way back to the delta, all the way through the new electric sounds of today, roll it all up together and put our own twist on it, Balkun-ize it, and spit it back out as a heavy mash of down and dirty, funky, soulful, gritty type blues for the future. We try and keep the tradition of innovation within the blues alive, as well as pay tribute to our musical heroes that came before us. There are no limits to our blues.

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice ever given you?

Steve: We have had the honor or traveling to many great places to play music and along the way have gotten to meet and play with some amazing people. We love meeting the people we play for, talking to them, getting their reactions. We play music to bring people together and connect people of all ages and cultures, we love meeting them all. We have also been very fortunate to meet and spend time with some of our musical heroes, which is always a surreal experience. We had the chance to meet the great Buddy Guy one time in Chicago, we talked for a bit and then he shook my hand and said "You just keep it up now", so, with that advice, I went home and got right to work and wrote the tune "keep it up", it is all about that meeting with B.G.

Nick: I met the drummer for the for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Chad Smith, a couple years ago in a small jazz club in New York City and was fortunate enough to spend almost an hour with him one-on-one. He gave me one very important word of advice, which was to always get better. He explained to me that it is extremely vital to always improve and to do what you are doing better every time. This resonated with me to keep learning, whether it is learning my craft as a musician or a businessman or a person in general, I always feel that it is never good to be content and stagnant in anything you do. That is failure in itself.

"Balkun Brothers sound takes the idea of the blues being feeling and expands it to the limits of musical and sonic reality." (Steve & Nick Balkun on stage / Photo by Anita Gangi Balkun)

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, Johnny Winter, James Cotton and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

Steve: There's probably too many stories from gigs and jams to remember, and maybe some too crazy I cant share, but a recent highlight for me was getting to play to a packed house at B.B. King's Blues Club in New York City, with the great Popa Chubby. It was exciting just to play at this legendary club, but to top it all off Popa Chubby invited me onstage to close out the show with his band, we played a rockin version of "Rollin' and Tumblin'", what a night.

Nick: Unfortunately, we did not have much time to chat with either musician, but I do recall how impressive it was to see Johnny (Winter) come out and play songs at his age and still have a packed house surrounding him as if he was still young. These two musicians (Winter & Cotton) prove that time never should prevent you from playing music and doing what you love. That is really important to me in making my career choice as a musician.

What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

Steve: There's so much history and culture that comes with the blues that's almost everything that has happened before us is important to me and important to blues music. So there is much of it I’ve missed and wish I could have experienced, but that's is the plight of being a 20-something year old blues-man. I could name a million things I miss, Son House, Muddy Waters, Elmore James, real roadhouse juke joints in the delta, swingin' clubs in 50's many things I wish I could have experienced. But there’s nothing I can do about it now except study that stuff from the past and try and bring some of that vibe and energy to new audiences of my generation and make new exciting music that is relevant to today's culture that will turn on young people and maybe make them want to discover for themselves all the great blues artists and cultures from the past. My hope is to always be growing and learning about music and creating fresh new ideas that people dig, get more of a youth movement going in the blues and rock n roll, I think it could create a very powerful scene in today's culture, as it has in the past. I suppose a fear is that robots and computers will take over the world, and all human emotion and reality will be hopefully that don't happen!

Nick: I can’t necessarily say what I miss about the blues of the past because I am only 25 years old, but I will say that I know I wish I could’ve been around to witness people like BB King, Muddy Waters, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Jimi Hendrix, Buddy Guy, or even bands like The Doors, Black Sabbath, or Led Zeppelin in “their prime”. Blues and rock music used to be at the forefront of pop culture and were the most engrained musical styles in our world’s society for a long time and I wish I could’ve been a musician in those time periods. I truly feel that pop music today is so watered down and unhealthily fed to people that it causes people to miss out on other styles of art and creativity that is not being properly recognized. I hope that younger musicians can reinvent these styles of music and help big business music companies realize that there are still people listening to and playing music that isn’t just mass produced pop and pop-rock that has lost the heart and soul of real personal self-expression through musical creativity.

"We play music to bring people together and connect people of all ages and cultures, we love meeting them all." (Balkun Brothers on stage / Photo by Anita Gangi Balkun)

Make an account of the case of the blues in Connecticut. If you could change one thing in local scene, what would that be?

Steve: Connecticut has a great blues community that has been incredibly supportive of what we do, and there is an incredibly community of top notch artists, historians, blues buffs, entertainers, bands, organizers and fans that's has been very important to our growth as a band and as young bluesmen. We have learned so much over the past few years from this community that I don't know where we would be now without that support. If I could change something I'd say I would love to see more young people getting into the blues and coming out to support live blues and rock n' roll. We have a great core or young fans, and older fans too, and we love playing for everyone, but as a young band I think we love to turn on young people to live blues and rock n roll, give them a break from all the mass manufactured pop radio nonsense that gets unwillingly blasted into their brains. That kind of music is ruining young people minds, we are trying to set them free.

Nick: Blues in CT is still very alive. I am proud to say that the CT blues scene is quite remarkable. We are so lucky to have a wonderful blues society that supports not only our band, but all of the blues music in the state. Ed Stack, the president of the CT Blues Society is extremely active in promoting all of the blues shows in the area and we happened to have the privilege of being part of such a great community. Venues such as Black Eyed Sally’s, in Hartford, has been a key to our success as young players. We have grown as musicians and people because of the support of the community and everyone in New England. We are very lucky. If I could change one thing, it’s that I wish there were more clubs that supported live music. It’s hard to listen to musicians of the early and mid 1900’s talk about how great the live music scenes were when they were coming up. I wish we still had tons of venues that promoted live shows and brought in acts to our cities on a more regular basis.

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from the local music circuits?

Steve: My friend Brandon usually makes me laugh at our local shows he goes pretty crazy, and our friend and local blues shaman Bill Shaka gets crazy on stage with us too sometimes, that's gives me a kick. There are many great characters that show up to our shows and rock out with us, I just love to see people having a good time and letting go of their worries, we like people to get crazy, go wild, let loose. That's what the blues is here for, just let go and give it up to the blues, it gonna make ya feel better, trust me. Its soul soothing music, it’s like a celebration for us. So I am always looking out into the crowd tryin to see what people are getting into, it makes me smile and laugh. And Nick and Caleb are usually pretty funny on stage too, I think Nick is laughing almost the entire show, we try to have as much fun as possible.

Nick: Something that has made me laugh is the fact that my band is starting to play with our heroes. We have been fortunate enough to have been recognized in our local music scene as an outstanding band to work with and that has led us to be asked by artists such as Eric Sardinas and Popa Chubby, to play on their gigs as openers. This is something so surreal to us that when I heard they wanted us to play with them, I couldn’t help but laugh. We used to joke around about opening up for them and now it actually is happening. Hard work and good relationships pay off and we are proof of that.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues with Funk and continue to Rock and Psychedelia?

Nick: BB King - Johnny Winter - Muddy Waters - Little Richard/James Brown - Jimi Hendrix - Red Hot Chili Peppers – Primus… There it is right there. They all were influenced by the other.

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

Steve: Time machine eh? This is a tough question, I think about this a lot. There's many places/times/people I would love to go visit. But, I've been pretty obsessed with dinosaurs since I was a kid, so I think I'd have to travel back and see some of that pre-historic action. I mean, it doesn't get too much more exciting than a T-Rex battling it out with a Triceratops. I'm sure many-a Dino-blues came about from tangles with ol' T-Rex...

Nick: I wish I could be myself as a preteen hanging out with my grandfather and my family. Our grandpa passed away a couple years back and it would be really awesome to spend some more time with him. I also would like to go back to this time and realize that I should’ve started playing music back then rather than 10 years later.

Balkun Brothers - official website

Photo by Katrina Kelly/Kat’s Eye Photography 

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