Interview with Graeme Wheatley & Yoka aka The Dutch Diva of Little Devils - new shoots from old roots

"I think blues music is honest – it is a pure method of communication, heart to heart. You learn about your inner self through the blues – but it takes time."

Little Devils: 21st Century Blues

Little Devils formed in 2010 and in a short space of time have built a solid reputation on the live circuit. In 2010, their first CD "This is how it Starts...” received excellent reviews in the music press. In 2011, Little Devils were voted Best Live Band by PlayMusic Magazine. In 2012, Little Devils were finalists in New Brunswick Battle of the Bands. Their album “Diamonds & Poison” was released and they played over 100 gigs in the UK & mainland Europe (including playing with Matt Schofield, Alabama 3 & The Pogues among others). The efforts paid off with great live reviews & “Diamonds & Poison” getting lots of air-play (including Black Diamond being featured on BBC TV). This allowed them to continue to build their fanbase & reputation. In 2013 they completed the EP “About Time” (yet to be promoted) and they have lined up festivals, tours & many more gigs in the UK & Europe.

Little Devils have been building their rep for the last few years and manage the marriage of Blues, punk and rock n roll with great life and verve. Little Devils are: Joke Yoka Qureshi-Kuiper aka “The Dutch Diva” on lead vocalist from the Netherlands, a pro singer with experiences in jazz, blues and rock; Graeme Wheatley on bass played with Tenpole Tudor, Lena Lovitch and has written songs for Blue Bishops and others, Graeme is also the band’s main songwriter;  Sara Leigh Shaw on drums is the newest Devil, she's played with Ebony Bones around the world and is a sought after drummer for sessions and tours by major artists; and Big Ray on guitar, after travelling through Europe with his guitar on his back he is now Little Devils newest addition. Little Devils released their third CD “About Time” (2014). It's 21st Century Blues; busy, energetic songs - instantly catchy, yet with plenty of depth and scope to reward repeat playings. Graeme & Yoka talks about the band, British 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? 

Yoka: I have played and sang many different styles of music until I found the blues. Blues to me feels like the most honest way of expressing yourself, no frills just pure emotion, which suits me.

Graeme: I think blues music is honest – it is a pure method of communication, heart to heart. You learn about your inner self through the blues – but it takes time. You just have to look at people like Buddy Guy, Robert Cray, Eric Clapton – they are now at the height of their powers – because over time they have become channels from deep within able to express the soul of blues better than ever. This is what we walk towards. 

 

How do you describe Little Devils sound and progress, what characterize your music philosophy? 

Yoka: Although we are a blues band, we don’t always play standard twelve bars; we try to keep the music and the lyrics fresh and current. Our songs are about life as it is now, not a hundred years ago. We keep writing new songs and are always trying to get better, tighter and more honest, using the classic blues as a tool to create something new.

Graeme: We describe Little Devils sound as 21st Century Blues, new shoots from old roots. The philosophy is that the music should evolve and reflect both what is happening here and now, remember what has happened in the past and keep a weather eye for what’s coming down the road up ahead.

"Blues to me feels like the most honest way of expressing yourself, no frills just pure emotion, which suits me."

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

Yoka: You don’t have to understand the Blues, you just feel it. It doesn’t matter how old you are, where you come from or if you are a man or a woman, we all feel the same. It’s life! Life is a pain sometimes, let’s dance.

Graeme: Because it is pure heart to heart communication. Music played by people for people. It’s always been about “live” music. That’s where it started and if all the venues close, the blues is dead. We can’t exist on You Tube and itunes! Sure, it’s great to have these tools to get your music out to people – but without playing live, there is no blues. All the audiences know this – they come to see Little Devils to party, laugh, drink, dance, unwind and forget the stresses of the working week. Then we play a really sad and sorry song! And they like that too – because we have all had pain in our life and the blues eases some of it. Then, we’re off again!

 

What are some of the most memorable gigs and jams you've had? Which memory makes you smile?

Yoka: I sing the blues but I smile a lot! I smile when everything comes together, the music flows and the band and the audience come together to create something electric! That is the best feeling ever.

Graeme: Hardest question! Usually the most memorable gig is the last one! But, I think the Great British Rock & Blues Festival we played in January 2014 stands out – a great audience reaction. It was our first time at the festival and we were on in-between two of the regular bands, both with big followings – and we got such a great reception and played two encores. We were buzzing afterwards and then Jefferson Starship came over and said they thought we were brilliant – cloud 9!!

"I think it is great how devoted the blues lovers are, once they have found you and like you, they always make a big effort to come and support the band. It becomes a community. One big Blues family."

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

Yoka: My mum has given me the best advice I still use now. When I was a young girl, I worked hard to sing a 4 part harmony with my friends. It sounded great I thought. We performed it in our living room for my mum. She listened and said: that was beautiful but what is it about? That’s when I learned that lyrics have a meaning, you need to tell the story, always. 

Graeme: Years ago, I was having a lot of difficulty learning something (which I’ve probably forgotten now!). I think I was studying for a pretty major exam. I remember grumbling to my Dad about it, and he said “it will be a long time over”. He said a lot of other things to me over the years – all of them wise, considered and insightful.  My Dad’s advice has always been the best. I wish I’d listened more.

 

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

Yoka: A few months ago we played a blues venue in the North of England, traffic was horrible, there were lots of accidents and roads were closed off.  We were on the road for hours. We arrived very late, we have never set up the equipment as fast as we did then, within 15 minutes we were on stage, tired and stressed but the atmosphere was so fantastic that the horrible journey was soon forgotten. It was magical, one our best gigs.

Graeme: You know, it’s hard to remember incidents and events when you are always looking forward to the next one! We never really talk about a gig or a recording session when it’s over – we are usually thinking about the next one. I do remember a previous guitarist thinking it would be a good idea to leap off the stage at a festival we were playing in Amsterdam. We were on a barge in one of the canals. He leapt from the stage to play his big solo – and all was wonderful – until he realized he was too small to climb back up onto the stage after his solo! A real Spinal Tap moment. Needless to say, we didn’t help him up – we just looked and laughed.

"My hopes and fears for the future are pretty scary – never mind the blues! We seem to be pretty intent on trashing the place."

What do you miss most nowadays from the old days of British blues boom?

Graeme: My youth! I was only 5 when it happened. By the time I was really aware of music and into it, Jimi was dead, Cream had split up and it seemed that the best of it was over. Then I discovered Rory Gallagher! I first saw Rory when I was 15 in Newcastle. It changed my life. At that moment in time, music was the most important thing in the whole world. No video games, no internet, no distractions. And it was actually hard to get your hands on music – it wasn’t being pushed down our throats and poked into our eyes 24/7. You had to seek it out. That was why it was all important. It mattered.

 

Make an account of the case of the blues in UK. What are the lines that connect the legacy of 60s with today?

Graeme: There are still guys doing it! Miller Anderson played Woodstock with Savoy Brown and a couple of weeks ago, he played my local pub. Still a great guitarist and a fine singer. You go out to a little pub in South London and hear someone play a song he played to half a million people almost 50 years ago!  That’s a weird connection! But, I have to be honest, a lot of the young gun slingers out there in their SRV tribute bands have probably never heard of Miller Anderson. They might not have heard of Rory Gallagher. Sometimes it seems that no-one is going back further than Stevie & Joe Bonamassa and that’s a pity. When I was young, I used to read the covers of albums looking for names of the writers – to see if I could find out more about where the music came from. You look at some of the names, McKinley Morganfield or maybe Chester Burnett – and I knew those guys weren’t in Cream. But who were they? Turns out they were pretty bloody important!! I hope all the young dudes take the time to work their ways back to Robert Johnson, Muddy, Wolf, Charlie Patton, Elmore James, Mississippi John Hurt and all the others – there’s a priceless reward for making that trip. 

"I think blues will never really go away, it might go in and out of fashion but when people hit a certain age and have lived a little, they will always be drawn to the blues. Is there such a thing as unreal Blues? Blues can only be real…"

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

Yoka: A few weeks ago, our drummer kept breaking her sticks, (she really hits the drums hard!) the first one came flying over my head into the audience, when I looked around Sara was still drumming with one hand in the air and a big smile on her face.

I think it is great how devoted the blues lovers are, once they have found you and like you, they always make a big effort to come and support the band. It becomes a community. One big Blues family.  Sometimes a song can touch someone personally, we have had people cry at the song “Hang my Head” which is a big thing to happen, and beautiful at the same time, that is what music is for.

 

What does to be a woman in a “Man World” as James Brown says? What is the status of women in Blues Rock?

Yoka: Is it a men’s world? I think women are doing really well on the blues scene at the moment, we have Beth Hart, Joanne Shaw Taylor, Chantel McGregor, Jo Harman, Connie Lush and many many more. I have just been nominated for instrumentalist of the year by the British Blues Awards. In this category alone, out of the 6 nominees, 5 are female. So I think women are a valid part of the blues world.

"The philosophy is that the music should evolve and reflect both what is happening here and now, remember what has happened in the past and keep a weather eye for what’s coming down the road up ahead."

What are your hopes and fears for the future of blues? Do you believe in the existence of real blues nowadays?

Yoka: I think blues will never really go away, it might go in and out of fashion but when people hit a certain age and have lived a little, they will always be drawn to the blues. Is there such a thing as unreal Blues? Blues can only be real…

Graeme: My hopes and fears for the future are pretty scary – never mind the blues! We seem to be pretty intent on trashing the place. But to answer the question, so long as there are people who want to hear music played by real people as opposed to machines, so long as there are people who don’t want to be force fed a bland and tedious diet of junk music spewed out by the corporate machine, so long as there are people who can feel their souls lightened and hearts lifted by the beat, swing and swagger of a tight little band of devils kicking up a storm – the future will be ok.

Do I believe in the existence of real blues nowadays? Yes, cos I’ve seen Little Devils. However, there isn’t and there never has been a God.

 

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

Yoka: Oh there are so many places but if I had to pick one, then I would love to go an old juke joint, somewhere in America in the 1930’s hang out with Billy Holiday or Bessie Smith. I would love to see them at work and after the gig we all sit around the piano, sing and jam with a big brass section making music until the sun comes up, drinking wine and whiskey.

Graeme: OK. This is pure indulgence. But that’s the great thing about Time Machines – you really can indulge yourself. I wish I still had mine – but that’s Time Out of Mind…

Let’s go to 20th November, 1975 – Harvard Square Theatre, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Bob Dylan leads out The Rolling Thunder Revue for a performance that some people have said was quite simply the most perfect moment of magical music ever seen and heard. Bob’s wearing “white face paint”, Mick Ronson is on guitar, T-Bone Burnett is on guitar and piano, Scarlett Riviera is on violin – and Bob sings “Tonight, I’ll be staying here with you” and we’re off into the electric night – down mystical streets hot with summer rain – to Durango, for one more cup of coffee before the hurricane blows us all away.

Put the CD on; close your eyes – one Time Machine, to go!

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