Interview with The Hound Kings, a blues trio with Alabama Mike, Anthony Paule and Scot Brenton

"The blues will always generate a following because its real music that comes from the soul to the hearts of human beings and that moves people." 

The Hound Kings: The Blues of Bay

The Hound Kings are the San Francisco Bay Area’s acoustic blues trio with Alabama Mike, Anthony Paule and Scot Brenton. This group of musicians came together to record and performs acoustic blues music with an emphasis on original material. With their debut "Unleashed", they are poised to become favorites among blues fans everywhere.

Michael A. Benjamin aka. Alabama Mike was born in Talladega Alabama. Influenced by the gospel singing of his father, he was encouraged along with his five siblings to begin singing in church at a very early age. Several years down the road as he soaked up what he could learn from blues records and local blues acts, he started performing the blues professionally in 1999. He has shared the stage with such blues greats as the Fabulous Thunderbirds, John Primer, Lurrie Bell, Steve Freund, Bobby Rush, Johnny Rawls, Willie “Big Eyes Smith” and many others.

Photo by Bruce Fram

Anthony Paule, has spent the major part of his career in the supporting role. Since 1987, he’s recorded and toured with the likes of Earl King, Brownie McGhee, Charlie Musselwhite, Bo Diddley, Jody Williams, Johnny Adams, Maria Muldaur, Johnny Nocturne, Boz Scaggs, Doug Jay, Phil Guy, Faye Carol, Johnnie Johnson, Big Jay McNeely, and Louisiana Red.

Scot Brenton is a multi-insturmentalist, producer, recording engineer and record label owner. An original member of the Rusty Zinn Band, he has been fortunate to have worked with some of the blues greats, including Pinetop Perkins and Willie”Big Eyes” Smith.  He has also backed numerous blues legends including Hubert Sumlin, Snooky Pryor and Nappy Brown. In 2007 founded 9 Below Productions, a production company, record label and recording studio. In addition to recording credits with Steve Freund, Elvin Bishop, Rick Estrin & The Nightcats, Paul Oscher, and Maria Muldaur. 

Interview by Michael Limnios

How started the thought of The Hound Kings? What are the lines that connect the legacy of acoustic with electric Blues?

Mike: We started The Hound Kings kind of by happenstance we were actually an electric blues group Alabama Mike & 3rd Degree and a guy approached us about doing a documentary Americana Blues Roots Music and we agreed to take part in the production but it was at a time when most of the fellas were already committed to something or other and couldn't make it so Anthony, Scot and myself thought it would be cool to do a trio acoustic version of the blues. Well lo and behold it turned out really well and at that time we decided we should start putting together some material and start a project thus The Hound Kings.

Anthony: When you listen to Son House and then to Muddy Waters or Robert Johnson and Elmore James it becomes clear that Chicago blues is an amplified version of what was being played in Mississippi a decade earlier. There are many more examples but there is often very little difference between acoustic/country blues and electric/urban blues other than the use of amplifiers.

How do you describe you sound and progress, what characterize The Hound Kings philosophy?

Mike: I think that when the blues is spoken of or thought of it should start at the roots which is acoustic blues although it has given birth, rebirth and even some of it you can call afterbirth to many different expressions of itself but still it remains the foundation of the blues music.

The Hound Kings sound is very unique I feel because each member has to perform from a naked or honest position causing us to reach deeper into the real knowledge and feelings and expressions of the music we perform and present an acoustic version of the blues that sounds good and is very entertaining.

Anthony: We formed The Hound Kings in order to perform in an acoustic setting with an emphasis on original material. We all enjoy the quieter stripped down setting of the acoustic trio and it provides a great vehicle for writing new blues which is pertinent to the times we are living in.

Scot: I started out playing some country blues guitar and harmonica when I was a teenager. I took a few lessons from great delta style guitarist named Rory Block. She exposed me to the music of artists like Furry Lewis, Willie Brown, Robert Johnson, Elizabeth Cotton, Son House, Brownie McGee and Sonny Terry. When I got older I became obsessed with the Electric Chicago Sound and until the Hound Kings project, I performed electric blues almost exclusively. The Hound Kings represents a return to my roots in acoustic music. Our philosophy is to get back to the essential sound of Blues as it would have been played at people's homes or house parties...To move back in time to when playing and listening to music was a more important part of daily life when singing, dancing and storytelling was the primary form of entertainment. What I think makes the Hound Kings different is that we try to express the challenges of our modern lives in the context of the rural blues. We want the message to be stripped down and "essential". 

Which is the most interesting period in your life? Which was the best and worst moment of your career?

Mike: The most interesting period in my life is when I left Talladega, Alabama fresh out of high school as a teenager and moved Milwaukee, Wisconsin to finally be grown and on my own was the most invigorating time in my life and from there joining the Navy and then coming to California.

The best and worst time in my career kinda happened in sequence first I was nominated for a Blues Music Award March 2011 and then contracted Valley Fever (cocccidiomicosis) a fungal infection in my lungs and was stricken down and confined to mostly to home for two years taking intravenous antibiotics. I think of it as a small setback but a big comeback.

Anthony: The most interesting time of my life is right now! I have two new music projects which I'm very excited about. In addition to The Hound Kings release, I have released 2 CDs with Frank Bey who is a terrific soul singer from Philadelphia. Although the two projects are quite different from one another, they both allow me to express creativity in guitar playing and song writing. I have had a number of highlights to my musical career, but I think of many trips to Europe as some of the best times. The worst part of playing music for a living has to take some gigs just for the money when my heart is not into the music. There are usually compromises when you make an art form into a living, and this is the worst. I have managed to limit these kinds of gigs down to an absolute minimum and I'm grateful for that.

Scot: I think my life now is more interesting than it has ever been.  It's more complicated to be sure.  I think that comes with age and responsibility, but I have never been more passionate about music, particularly American Roots Music. There is so much to learn and so much to explore it's never-ending.  I am constantly amazed at the way our music has evolved and how different cultures, events and people have influenced the art form.

The worst time in my musical career was when I was pretty young and I had an important showcase gig with a talented singer/ songwriter in Los Angeles. I went on stage and my equipment failed. I had no backup, no way to recover. I learned an important lesson that night regarding what it means to be a "professional". 

Among the best moments in my career were playing with Hubert Sumlin, Pinetop Perkins, Snooky Pryor and Willie Smith.  The feeling you get when a band is totally in the pocket and you are connecting with an audience is amazing. If that happens when you are playing with one of your musical heroes it is indescribable. 

Photo by Bruce Fram

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

Mike: The blues will always generate a following because its real music that comes from the soul to the hearts of human beings and that moves people. To experience music in this fashion is mesmerizing and tantalizing that alone will cause this music to always have a following.

Anthony: Good blues is a very soulful and effective type of communication. I think anyone who is exposed to it and takes the time to listen can't help getting sucked in. It's a universal language that anyone can understand.

Scot: Because it is REAL. It touches and explores the most basic of human emotions love, lust, and loss. It is also redemptive.  When I hear this music I feel less alone, less isolated and more connected to myself and others. I think of this music as both an acknowledgement and celebration of the pain and joy of the human experience.  People connect with this and that is why the Blues survive.

Do you remember anything funny from the recording and show time with The Hound Kings?

Mike: While we were recording the record at Scot's 9Below Studio he would have his puppy Abel sit in the session and when he liked a tune he would howl I thought it was hilarious.

Scot: Playing with Mike and Anthony is just fantastic. One of the things I love about Mike is his sense of humor. None of us take ourselves too seriously and we always try to have fun. One of the funniest moments during the production of UNLEASHED was the photo session… It was so cold in San Francisco we were just freezing the whole time but we had to do photos that day due to the schedule. If you look closely at the photos and the website you can see hour our faces and fingers are red with cold.   It was pretty funny. 

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

Mike: The best jam I ever played in was in Oakland California in 1999 at the A&C Club on 19th and San Pablo. Country Pete McGill ran the jam and everybody would come through on Sunday evenings and it was a great time. That's where I started getting serious about developing my craft (chops).

The most memorable gig I had to date was when I was able to take the whole band Alabama Mike & 3rd Degree the Poconos Blues Festival in Pennsylvania 2010 it was my first time performing in a nationally recognized blues venue.

Anthony: I've been fortunate to be able to back up some great artists including, Johnny Adams, Barbara Lynn, Big Jay McNeely, Earl King, Louisiana Red. These are the most memorable gigs.

Scot: The single most memorable gig I ever did was in 2001. I was working with Rusty Zinn at that time and we were the backing band at the Blues International Festival in Edmonton, Canada. In addition playing a set, we backed Hubert Sumlin and Nappy Brown. The band included the amazing Richard Innes on drums, Rob Douglas on Bass, Rusty and me on either guitar or harp. Hubert was really on fire that night. I played with him on a number of occasions, but this night was special. I'll never forget playing harp behind him while he tore up "Little Red Rooster." I could almost hear Wolf howl. It was a great night.

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

Mike: My most important meeting is when I met Jesus The Christ and my life has been changed forever I am a born again Christian. My Dad used to always tell me don't trust nobody but God and to always be a man.

Anthony: I was fortunate to play with Clyde Stubblefield (The Funky Drummer from James Brown) for several years. Working with him was a great experience and helped me develop my guitar playing in a very rhythmic way. He is perhaps the greatest musician I've had the chance to play with in an ongoing band situation.

Scot: There are not too many of the early Chicago bluesman still around. I got to play with a few and meet a few more and it let me touch a bit of history. That has been a gift. As for the best advice I was ever given musically…it is to really listen and try to make the other performers sound their best. I have been lucky to work with Steve Freud one of the very best bluesman of all. He really taught me how to listen and to play with dynamics and expression.    

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

Mike: What I miss most about the blues of the past is the fact that it is the past and we don't have many of the legends around anymore to learn from and enjoy. Thank God for YouTube! The future of the blues is certain it will make surge then fall back and come back again but it will never die!

Anthony: I miss seeing great artists such as Muddy Waters, Otis Rush, Joe Turner, J.B. Hutto and all the others I've seen who have now passed on. My fear is that music these great artists made is not being replaced with music of similar character and depth of feeling.

Scot: I really miss the raw blues, the emotion and passion that you can hear on the early acoustic and electric records. I am afraid that as more time passes young people will not get to hear the greats of the past or learn about their musical heritage. My hope is that if people like our music they will reach back and listen to the early recording and expose their children to the music so we don't lose that history.

Anthony, which memory from Charlie Musselwhite, Brownie McGhee, Norton Buffalo, and Frank Bey makes you smile?

Anthony: The first time I played with Charlie Musselwhite I was in Mark Hummel's band and we were doing a show where we had to back up Charlie. Mark was an early adopter of the wireless microphone, which he was very proud of. It had a tall antenna of about 2 or 3 feet which sat on top of his amp. Mark got off stage and it was Charlie's portion of the show. When Charlie got on stage, before he even played a note, for some reason he didn't like the look of the antenna on Mark's amp. With one smooth move of his hand he went to put them down but instead of sliding down telescopically they both bent at right angles. The look on Mark's face was priceless!

Which memory from Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, Pinetop Perkins, Hubert Sumlin, and Snooky Pryor makes you smile?

Mike: I remember Willie “Big Eyes” Smith and I were taking a photo at the BMAs in Memphis Tennessee and we were smiling and I made the remark "Look no missing teeth" and the Willie said sarcastically "You wanna bet" and took out his dentures. We fell out laughing!

Scot: Pinetop would often wear a captain's hat, the kind a yacht captain would wear. Thinking of him in that hat always makes me chuckle. Willie Smith loved to drive. He would drive hours without a break. Thinking of him at the wheel during a long trip is a good memory. Hubert just cracked me up. After a set he would say…"well I guess we showed 'em where we were from!" Snooky was kind to me. I remember driving with him to a show when he told me about amplifying the harmonica for the first time. He played it over the public address (PA) system while he was in the Army during W.W.II.  He always had this mischievous sparkle in his eyes.  The ladies loved him!!

Make an account of the case of the blues in San Francisco Bay Area. What are the differences from the other local scenes?

Mike: The blues scene is different on the east coast its split into north and south or regional the southeastern part of the United States the black people likes a totally different version of the blues called Soul Blues and the white people like Rock Fused Blues that's real popular and the rest God only knows.

Scot: San Francisco has a tremendous amount of great players.  We are really lucky. If I start naming names it will take forever and I will probably forget someone. I have lived here so long I don't know too much about other local scenes.

When we talk about Blues usually refer moments of the past. Do you believe in the existence of real blues nowadays?

Anthony: I believe it exists, but it's scarce and hard to find!

Scot: That is a controversial question. It brings up the issues of "authenticity", culture, and race. Heavy stuff. I asked most of the blues legends I spent time with the same question. They didn't all agree, but most acknowledged that the real blues is nothing more than an expression of strong feeling, period. Where I think people get hung up is on comparing circumstances to feelings. Everybody's circumstances are different. After some time in Chicago, Muddy didn't sing about the same circumstances as the county blues artists, but he did make music that expressed honest, pure and raw emotion. So yes, I believe that real blues exists today if the artist is expressing how they feel based on their own experience using the musical language of the genre. Seriously, you know when something is authentic and heartfelt when you hear it or see it. The highest compliment you can get when playing with one of the greats is for them to shout "I hear ya".

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

Mike: If I could go back in time I would love to go back to the 1930s spend the day with the Delta Blues King Robert Johnson to play gigs and hobo trains with him and learn more about the music I write.

Anthony: I'd like to go to Chicago in the early to mid 50s and see Howling Wolf, Little Walter, Magic Sam and all the blues artists I didn't have a chance to hear live.

Scot: That is a tough one… I would love to have spent a day at Chess Records when Muddy was recording with Little Walter on harp. It would have been cool to be at any of those great Chess sessions. That said, I guess I would want to spend the day in room 414 of the Gunther Hotel in San Antonio Texas on November 23rd 1936 - Robert Johnson's first recording session.

The Hound Kings - official website

Anthony's photo by Tina Abbaszadeh, Mike's photo by Christine Vitale, Scot 's photo by K. Edwards

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