Interview with Danish blues musicians Morten Lunn and Thomas Foldberg of The Fried Okra Band

"I hope people will play good music and I hope people in the future will still be able to relate to the blues." 

The Fried Okra Band: Simple The Blues

The Copenhagen based Fried Okra Band was formed as a electric/acoustic duo by Morten Lunn and Thomas Foldberg in 2003. Together they soon developed a love for the raw and stripped down sounds of RL Burnside, Jr. Kimbrough, Kenny Brown, Asie Payton, T-Model Ford and Robert Belfour! The duo started as a warm up act for bigger Danish Blues names. Under a year later they turned into a quartet (adding bass and drums) and during a trip to Chicago Morten gave the band its name while sitting in a south-side restaurant (that was eventually closed)... The Fried Okra Band.

Most of the material was borrowed from the giants of the North Mississippi Hills and reworked blues-classics. The "new" band played several gigs around Denmark, Norway and Sweden - from small clubs to festivals. With that approach they released their first album "This is Your Chance, France Baby." Gradually the band´s repertoire changed from covers to mostly original stuff developing a very personal style. A style that was captured on the second album: "Black Cherry." With this new constellation the band moves into the next phase with their 3rd release "There´s a World Outside My Door." The Fried Okra Band is: Morten Lunn (vocals and guitar), Thomas Foldberg (guitar and harmonica), Thomas Crawfurd (drums, mandolin, percussion) and Henrik Silver - the occasional fourth member (sousaphone). Morten Lunn and Thomas Foldberg talks about the band, local scene and the Blues.

Interview by Michael Limnios

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

Morten: The blues means a lot to me. It’s the music form that I have digged into for the last many years and that immediately related to when I first heard it. I guess I learned about myself that I could absorb in to something – to some kind of music.

Thomas: That some things are just meant to be. They can´t be denied, you can try, but sooner or later it will be that way. Like I fell in love with the tonality of the Blues very early. Starting with my parents listening to Stones, Presley and a lot of Stax Soul. It just triggered me, and I just knew that all this music was connected. Suddenly I found out and BOOM! What it means to me is a lot and on many levels. It´s simply a sound that´s with me even if I don´t listen to any music. A sound for good and bad times, and now it´s a job too. It´s great and a constant source of inspiration!

How do you describe your sound and progress, How did you choose the name and what characterize Fried Okra’s philosophy?

Morten: We have changed a lot over the years. Making a record with our own songs was a major step on the second record. Of course also playing as a trio without bas was a change and adding a sousaphone was too.

I think we try to make the sound simple and not too sophisticated.

The name is something that I came up with when I was in Chicago for the Chicago Blues festival. I wanted to get some fried okra but couldn’t find any restaurant that would serve that and when we talked about a name for the band I thought of that. Now, perhaps it wasn’t so smart, since nobody here can pronounce it.

Thomas: I´ll be bold and describe our sound as totally our own. We started out playing covers of the Hill Country legends, but very fast a lot of our own stuff came sneakin in! We have worked a lot with the sound and instrumentation. For an example deciding to play without a bass on 9 out of 10 gigs. Then using a Sousaphone on the 10th. That really made me and Morten think about what to play and what not to play! Then Thomas Crawfurd, our drummer, started playing Mandolin a few years ago, and that now has quite a big role in our sound as well. 

"Actually I think that what´s going on for the moment on the Danish Blues scene is quite extraordinary. A lot of great acts do fantastic original stuff."

Why did you think that the Blues music continues to generate such a devoted following?

Morten: I think there’s a great amount of good performers and instrumentalists that has done something essential the development of music and instrument playing. That means a lot of people who want to get in to music or maybe play themselves they would want check out the blues men and women. So when a young guy wants to play guitar he might be stunned by the guitar work of Albert King as so many before him did.

Thomas: Music that communicates with the heart and the pelvis area will always attract people, that´s just how it is.. period!

What’s the best jam you ever played in? What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?

Morten: Well, we have played many good gigs at our hang out place at Mojo in Copenhagen. Last summer we played at the Copenhagen Jazz Festival and I remember it being a perfect warm night with a friendly atmosphere. Now we’ve also just played a lot of fine gigs in the late summer and autumn, especially in Finland, and with Chicago Blues man Jimmy Burns we played some fine gigs in September.

About the jam, I’ve been to Chicago a couple of times and the few times I got to jam there was quite exciting. But, well, I must admit that I just read your interview with our friends from The Blues Overdrive and they were kind to mention a gig with me and them on New Year’s Eve. So I think I’d better say it back that I enjoyed playing with them – I mean I really did. Well, that was actually both a jam and gig since we don’t usually play together.

Thomas: Well, I´m not that fond of jams. But I remember one amazing evening with James Harman. He played in a trio with himself on vocals and was backed by the fantastic guitarist Ronni Boysen and a guy called Andreas Andersen (whom I had a band with once, a really great guitarist too and a wonderful guy). James invited me to sit in to close the set, and it was magic. I have been sitting in quite a few times with James, and every time It´s really special to blow the harp next to this harmonica giant - he´s such a great player and a really great guy that I have learned a lot from. That night, we were all hitting a special spot, I´ll never forget it!

"Music that communicates with the heart and the pelvis area will always attract people, that´s just how it is.. period!"                                                Photo: The Fried Okra Band and Jimmy Burns

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

Morten: Well the meeting with the music and the whole southern atmosphere in New Orleans, Mississippi, Memphis and the city vibe of Chicago was very important to me when I was there for the first time in the year 2000.

The best advice, hard to say – I think must be one the things my old guitar teacher and mentor Javier from Chile told me.

Thomas: Getting to know James Harman has been really important to me. He produced an album for a band I had some years ago. It was great to be taught some truth by him. Through him I got to learn Nathan James as well, he´s one of the most inspiring musicians I have ever heard. On our first Okra album we had the grand old man of Danish Blues with us. He´s called Troels Jensen, it has been really interesting getting to know him as well. Then recently we have backed the great Jimmy Burns from Chicago. It was a blast to play with this truly original singer and guitarist! Last but not least, the most important meeting has been meeting Morten Lunn and Theomas Crawfurd! I feel so privileged to play with literally some of my best friends ever! We have a lot of fun, and a lot of understanding for each other. And that weird kind of telepathy that comes from playing together for many years - as well as hanging out together for even more. Advice, actually the best I have heard was an old interview with Jimmie Vaughan. He said, imaging you are sitting in a jam with your biggest idols. Everyone plays their signature stuff, and then it´s your turn... what are you gonna play? Who are you gonna sound like..? The answer should be pretty obvious right?

The name is something that I came up with when I was in Chicago for the Chicago Blues festival. I wanted to get some fried okra but couldn’t find any restaurant that would serve that and when we talked about a name for the band I thought of that."

Are there any memories from recording and show time which you’d like to share with us?

Morten: Well, not one single episode but the experience of recording in a old, small military airport was special. If there’s one thing it might be that we recorded One string Love on a terrace outside the airport personnel kitchen, and while we afraid that it would start raining, we tried to get it right and got to record some birds singing which you can actually hear in the beginning of the song, if you listen closely.

Thomas: Actually I don´t really like recording that much, I find it kind of frustrating in a way. Always eager to get started, and then I can´t wait till it´s done - strange. But again, some of the best stuff I have played has been in the “studio” under great stress or filled up with frustration.. .so... I guess I like it, ha, ha... It´s complicated.  On stage I´ve had a lot of great experiences, but one thing that really blows me away each time is when I look down on the audience and see happy faces. I see couples in love out on the town having a good time to what we´re playing - that´s the real kick. After all that´s what it´s all about. The connection to the audience!

Make an account of the case of the blues in Denmark. Which is the most interesting period in local blues scene and why?

Morten: There are a lot of good blues players in Denmark now. We’ve just had the Copenhagen Blues festival and there to Awards were given, one to Thorbjørn Risager, who is playing European Festivals all over the continent and one to Ronnie Boysen who is an amazing guitarist who tours with his band The Kokomo Kings and Muddy Waters son, Mud Morganfield. There are a lot more good bands than those two and I hope that the blues scene will stay in shape and people will get recognition.

Also, when I host the jam at Mojo the teen guys come up and play me the hell off of the stage.

Thomas: Actually I think that what´s going on for the moment on the Danish Blues scene is quite extraordinary. A lot of great acts do fantastic original stuff. Our friends from The Blues Overdrive really rocks and Mike Andersen is one bad ass “blue eyed soul” singer and guitarist. And then there´s guitar extraordinaire and internationally known Ronni Busack Boysen whom I´m very proud of knowing. Great stuff and a great scene here a lot is going on! And then there´s The Fried Okra Band, ha, ha, I´m just so proud of being a part of our little band that sounds completely like... well, ourselves!

"It´s simply a sound that´s with me even if I don´t listen to any music. A sound for good and bad times, and now it´s a job too. It´s great and a constant source of inspiration!"

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

Morten: I’m not sure what I miss, but of course I would have loved to have seen John Lee hooker play and all the others too. The future: I hope people will play good music and I hope people in the future will still be able to relate to the blues. In the near future I fear that musicians will have to work a lot because they won’t be paid for their records.

Thomas: It´s a long one to answer. But first of all I miss the idea of playing music, not playing “the Blues”. I mean, a lot (if not all) of the greats started just playing what came from their heart and soul - and that tonality was later boxed and labeled as “the Blues”. I think a lot of people now, starts to play the blues because they want an excuse to play their instrument without a particular reason to do it or because they want to play a lot of guitar. If you want to say something, then the music comes by itself - it´s all about music, it´s not a contest. If a tune needs a solo then do, if it doesn´t, then don´t do it. I have heard so many both pros and amateurs that does not listen. They play their own show within the act. It´s sad, cause you lose the audience and your integrity. You have to invite the audience in, be a part of the “party”. But it´s difficult stuff. I´m aware all time. Another thing I miss is originality. Honestly, all the guys from Robert Johnson, Muddy, the Walters, the Sonny Boy´s, Son House, the King´s, Lightnin´Hopkins, etc. they were all on the front edge! They were hip, and they were innovative! What I see today is a lot of players that want to sound like all the old cats. That´s fine with me, but with all respect, Muddy did it better than everybody will ever do. There will never be a harp player like Little Walter cause he invented the stuff and that goes on for all of them - so what´s the point in trying to sound like them. I can mention only a handful of artist that can actually pull that off making it sound their own and fresh that I admire. But generally I think we shall move forward. Learn the classic stuff, learn the chops, the feel of it, then throw it into the melting pot and cast a solid block of “you” - throw that out to the audience and see what comes back. Chances are that if you believe in it yourself. Then they will too. But if you’re a copycat with a lot of technique and nothing else then they´ll smell it pretty fast (especially the girls).

"Advice, actually the best I have heard was an old interview with Jimmie Vaughan. He said, imaging you are sitting in a jam with your biggest idols. Everyone plays their signature stuff, and then it´s your turn... what are you gonna play? Who are you gonna sound like..? The answer should be pretty obvious right?"

Do you know why the sound of harmonica is connected to the blues? What are the secrets of?

Thomas: I don´t think I have the knowledge to tell why that is. But my guess is that it´s a small and affordable instrument and therefor appealed to all those great men that needed a cheap instrument to carry with them when working in the fields etc. I guess you could say that the blues was more or less invented on a harmonica I guess...

Do you know why the sound of slide and resonator guitar is connected to the blues? What are the secrets of?

Morten: The story of both the blues and the slide goes back to the meeting of W.C Handy and a guitar player playing with a slide on the guitar – or maybe a knife – on the train station in Mississippi in 1903. As you probably know that year became known as the birth of the blues since Handy wrote later Memphis blues, published it and told the story of the strange meeting. I think some have suggested that the guitar players learned slide playing from a Hawaiian style of playing. But it might also be related to the diddley bow and the African inheritance.

What are the lines that connect the Acoustic Blues Duo with an Electric Blues Band and Hill Country with urban style?

Morten: Well, the modal sound of the one-chord blues could be in all of it. The Hill Country style is very rough and therefore it might suit and urban environment. The beat might be the connection. In the end it is just about good music.

Thomas: Real music straight from and straight to the heart!

"The story of both the blues and the slide goes back to the meeting of W.C Handy and a guitar player playing with a slide on the guitar – or maybe a knife – on the train station in Mississippi in 1903." 

From the musical point of view what are the differences between Scandinavian / European and American blues scene?

Morten: Oh, it sure is different. They have a whole different kind of approach because they have this tradition that have been a part of the culture since early 1900s and they are still connected to the tradition of when the old blues guys around the second world war came around. They play differently.

Thomas: I don´t know really. Obviously a lot of the American artists are really born into the tradition, they have a much deeper understanding than a European will ever get. We can come close, but we should never fool ourselves to believe we know a 100% what it´s all about. That´s why it´s so important to stay humble towards the genre, treat with respect and in the name of good music be yourself and “sing” with your own voice. When that is said, I must say that I have a feeling that the European blues scene actually thrives well and have a lot of support from the audience.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine for the next 24 hours, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?

Morten: To a Hill Country Picnic in the Mississippi Hill country in the 50’s listening to a fife and drum band.

Thomas: I would go to L.A. with my beloved. It’s a great place that I have visited sometimes now. We should drive around town, grab lunch at a taco stand, and hang out in the sun. In the evening we should see a Tom Waits concert at “The Greek Theatre” then go back to the hotel by the pacific and sail away on the sea of love! Can´t help it, I´m just a romantic guy playing the devils music as good as I can....

The Fried Okra Band - official website

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