Q&A with Aussie harp blaster/singer Phil Coyne, echoing the ghosts of ‘50s Chicago blues, with new attitude

"I think blues just one of those things where if I didn’t have it, I would feel there was something missing. Somehow like a hole in the spirit somewhere, and I'd be a lot sadder. Blues is such a part of me, and has been for such a long time and it’s given me so many experiences, so many friends, I'd be a shell of myself."

Phil Coyne: The Aces Play The Blues

Strap in for some serious rambling through the tone and fury of mid 50's Chicago. It's bluesharp, guitar and rhythm taking no prisoners. High energy, huge fun and sharp tunes, with a full throttle show honed through sweaty gigs in the heartland of Melbourne's live music scene and festivals including Beneath Driver Lane, The Blues Train, Bruthen Blues and Mitchell Creek Rocking Blues Festivals. Phil Coyne's the dirty, powerful and passionate blues harp blaster and singer. Oscar LaDell brings deep tone and guitar mastery and Will Harris' Jazz influence propels the Wayward Aces' backbeat and swing. Phil Coyne & The Wayward Aces come out of the gate firing on all cylinders on their debut album, Sound And Fury (2023). Echoing the ghosts of mid-‘50s Chicago blues, but with an amped up dose of 21st Century attitude, Coyne (vocals, harp), Oscar LaDell (guitar) and Will Harris (drums) channel true blues badassery across six blistering tracks. Recorded in beautiful mono, unapologetically raw and dripping with justified bravado, Coyne’s skills as a frontman and natural-born performer leap out of the speakers as LaDell and Harris churn out riffs and grooves that push all the meters firmly into the red.                      (Photo: Phil Coyne, powerful blues harp blaster and singer)

The songs smolder with an overdriven, almost punk-like intensity, as if Michigan Ave circa 1954 was plugged in to London circa 1977; it’s powerful, but tempered in just the right places for maximum effect. Phil says: “The way we record is the most true to the way we play onstage; in one room, all at once. I always wanted to be in the band I wanted to see, and I always want to see a band having a good time. Its live music, that means we’ll do our best but, as an audience, you’ve gotta do your best; the more you enjoy, the more we’ll get amped and carry on.” Sound and Fury isn’t just a more than apt title, it’s what Phil Coyne & The Wayward Aces deliver with precision and ease.

Interview by Michael Limnios

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

Well, that's a great question. The blues has been an integral part of my life since I was given a mix tape by a friend with Little Walter, Howling Wolf, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson II and Johnny Winter on it. I was into punk music in those days and the discovery opened my eyes to a similar energy and outsider world. I've learned that there's a lot in common across cultures. I find it astounding that I am halfway across the world, and I have a connection with this amazing and exotic world that stretches across the globe. When I've met other players and enthusiasts from other countries we've bonded over our mutual love of blues.

What is blues mean to me? I think blues just one of those things where if I didn’t have it, I would feel there was something missing. Somehow like a hole in the spirit somewhere, and I'd be a lot sadder. Blues is such a part of me, and has been for such a long time and it’s given me so many experiences, so many friends, I'd be a shell of myself. It’s more than just music, it’s a way of being and it’s the way of looking at the world and it’s a complete honour to be involved, part of an ocean of human spirit. Music is animating and it brings us together and it helps it helps articulate things that we can feel, but we can’t say, or we don’t know how to put in words, and it means that we can commune and share and rise above whatever the shit that we’re dealing with is right now.

How do you describe your sound and songbook? Where does your creative drive come from?                                            (Photo: Phil Coyne & The Wayward Aces)

We describe ourselves as chasing "the sound and fury of mid 50's Chicago blues... concentrating on tone, timing, passion and potency. Not suitable for polite society, this is loud, brash Juke joint dancing blues". It’s a dirty sound and it’s live and it’s got vibe. Our song book is a bit of a grab bag. A huge part of our sound is derived from the Chess sound and our blues influences will be fairly obvious. But then again, you'll hear a lot of feels and beats from rockabilly, garage rock, punk and surf. We're not going for a particular sound so much as chasing vibe and looking for feels that evoke emotion. I write most of the lyrics and generally have a feel in mind for new tunes, but a whole heap of our creative drive comes from the band. And then again a significant amount of what you hear is shaped by Oscar’s guitar and musical sense. I tend to get a bee in my bonnet for a feel and then come up with a vibe and words. When we get together, I have a sense of what I like, what I'm after and then the musicality of Oscar and Will gives it shape and form. Oscar has a very strong influence, he’s got a very deep well of knowledge spread across blues, jazz and soul. He's old beyond his years. Will has this beautiful sensibility for beat; his influences include rock, funk, fusion, Hip Hop, Klezmer and jazz. These infuse the music with a real energy. We'll frequently find ourselves playing something that sounds different to what we started, and that’s awesome because then it feels more like a band and not limited by one person's imagination.

Why do you think that Aussie Blues Scene continues to generate such a devoted following?

We're really lucky in that we have a lot of really good players and there’s a real appreciation for what they're doing. Community radio is really strong. We have a solid network of radio stations with blues shows across the country, but Melbourne in particular has really strong local stations. Our public broadcasters are a really prominent part of our community. Community radio stations are just awesome in supporting live music, playing Australian music, and supporting events. The presenters are really sharp. They know their stuff; they’re part of the music scene and they're really interested in what’s going on. And we have venues that put-on gigs. We've lost lots in the last 20 or so years, but still there's some ballsy people running bars taking a punt on getting a return from live gigs and thank god for them. In Melbourne most nights of the week you can go and see a blues band not to mention all the other music that's on. 

Ultimately though, we’re really lucky that there’s a strong audience. I think the blues audience really appreciate honest, soulful music that isn’t pretentious and has feeling. They get behind the artists they like and do all they can do to support them. So, there’s an audience that out there and wants to hear good music, there’s a bunch of players that are pushing the benchmarks for quality, there are venues hosting music and then there's radio inspiring us all to get together.  I think blues in Australia is pretty strong and it’s not going anywhere but up.

"What I miss most are the players who have passed on. Their experiences and lives hopefully live on through the memories and recordings they've shared, but I'd love to have seen Little Walter, Howling Wolf and Muddy Waters fronting their powerhouse bands. My hopes for the future are all about traveling, playing, meeting new people and learning about cultures." (Photo: Phil Coyne & The Wayward Aces)

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

I play sober, and it's all because of one time, playing a jam night at a local bar.  I'd had a real thirst, put a few drinks and other substances away and I was on FIRE - the band was really cooking, and I was having a ball. I turned to my guitar mate in absolute bliss "How good is this!" to which he replied, "I've no idea - I'm off my head". At that moment, my world crumbled, I had a crisis of confidence, totally lost my timing and groove and basically shambled on until the finish. I went from having a great night and playing up a storm to a complete train wreck. I swore I'd never lose command again. I love a drink, but I try and enjoy the moment AFTER the gig now.

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

What I miss most are the players who have passed on. Their experiences and lives hopefully live on through the memories and recordings they've shared, but I'd love to have seen Little Walter, Howling Wolf and Muddy Waters fronting their powerhouse bands. My hopes for the future are all about traveling, playing, meeting new people and learning about cultures.

What touched you from the sound of harmonica? What's the balance in music between technique and soul?

I love the sound of the amplified harp. It's not called the Mississippi Saxophone for nothing. When it's played with tone, timing and feeling it's just mighty - fat, heavy, warm and honking. It’s a really vocal, emotive instrument and because it’s so physical, I find the head and body just merge and breathing and sound become one. I always felt like when the harp's playing then it should be making a statement. The way I like to play harp is out the front. I like to play themes more than intricate runs, and I like it driving. That's probably a bit of a caveman mentality, but I like it heavy, pushing the song. I want my harp to be saying something and having a presence otherwise it should be quiet. It's got to be a combination of both technique and soul. You need command of technique to express what you're trying to say, but as Rick Estrin says - you gotta groove. There's got to be enough soul to have something to be worth hearing.

"Music is best when it's collaborative and really boring when you're just waiting for the other guy to finish so you can shine. Find people that you enjoy spending time with. Character is more important than how well they play."

(Photo: Phil Coyne)

What is the impact of music on the socio-cultural implications? How do you want the music to affect people?

When I'm going out to see a band I want to be moved and that's what I'm hoping with the Wayward Aces. We put on a show. We're frequently cajoling people to get into it and enjoy themselves. We'll tell people to dance, to have a drink and have a good time because that's what we're doing, and we're putting on a show, because people want to be entertained, taken out of the ordinary. If I'm going to see a band, I want to feel something. I want magic; to be uplifted, transfixed, transported. As far as I'm concerned Phil Coyne and the Wayward Aces will always be the band I'd want to see.

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in the music paths?

I don't have any great insights - I've learned don't' take yourself too seriously and don't be a jerk. Music is best when it's collaborative and really boring when you're just waiting for the other guy to finish so you can shine. Find people that you enjoy spending time with. Character is more important than how well they play.

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