Q&A with California-based band of Detroit Disciples -- blend of Soul-Blues-Rock, Americana and lyrical mojo

"John Lee Hooker said that the Blues is the Healer. It's healing properties come from its themes of the human condition. It is a music accessible by everyone that is defined by an indigenous origin and morphed by its surroundings."

Detroit Disciples: Urban Roots Music

The soundman for the now sadly missed venue, New George's in San Rafael, arrived for his nightly gig. As he began to power up the house system, he asked who was playing that night. A voice from the stage replied, "The Detroit Disciples". "Oh", he replied approvingly, "the band that plays songs". Founded in 1985, the Detroit Disciples have indeed staked a reputation as a band with a keen ear for songwriting. Baptized in the same roots rock river that began with Mitch Ryder and flows through such artists as Los Lobos, Steve Earle, the Mystix and A Band of Heathens, the Disciples have caught the attention of many a discerning fan - such as Chuck Eddy of the Village Voice, who added the band to his Eddytor's Dozen in 2006. Their song Bordertown from their first CD, Stare Down the Dog, received impressive rotation play on Santa Rosa's radio station, KRSH. I Won't Complain, Heartbreak Station and Cinderella Shoes, all from their 2005 release Saving Grace, have been heard on internet stations as far away as ZRO in Belgium. Based in Sonoma County, California, the Detroit Disciples have a strong following garnered from years of shows in the San Francisco North Bay.

Current members include: Ian McMurray (songwriter, guitar, mando-guitar, vocals); Paul 'Boom' Burke  (drums, vocals); Tom Miller (bass, vocals); Marke 'Jellyroll' Burgstahler (guitar, pedal steel guitar, vocals); Rich Smith (keyboards); and Cynde Burgstahler (songwriter, vocals, percussion). This team represents years of dues paying. Members of the Detroit Disciples have played with the likes of Gregg Allman, Eddie Money, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Jimmy Hall, Leslie West and It's a Beautiful Day. Together they share the same vision of a well-honed tune, recognizing that blazing lead guitars and soaring vocals amount to very little if there is no substance to the material. Disciples fans have their favorites; neophytes ask where they can get a CD. Perhaps their friend Rebel Fagen captured it best when he wrote in their first CD's liner notes: "On the surface, rock appears terribly simplistic unless it has soul. Then it becomes church music that can touch you where you live. If you can't bleed for it, you don't mean it - then it means nothing."

Interview by Michael Limnios

What characterize Detroit Disciples music philosophy and songbook?

Ian: First and foremost it is the will to continue for the love of music; to understand that fame and financial rewards are mercurial abstracts and can undermine the purity of the art. While it's great to be paid for what you do, it's important to keep it on your own terms.

The songbook reflects good songwriting and good songs, whether it is our own work or that of a respected songwriter. To me, it is not the popularity of the song or writer that matters but more the content and intent. Did the writer succeed with his theme? Does the song evoke something beyond the theme? How successful was the combined effort of the conscious and subconscious? A song on its own can be a very powerful thing and I believe that the Disciples honor that notion.

Cynde: I’d have to say passion, song variety and a driving rhythm. As an ensemble band, we realize the importance of a song’s message, and each contribute in a way that helps deliver that message. There’s a powerhouse of talent in this band, yet the egos are left at the door. We write and play music that speaks to us. It’s an interesting song mix of emotion, grit, storytelling, playfulness and blues.

What is the story behind the band’s name?

Ian: Initially it was to honor Mitch Ryder. Most people are only aware of his 60's hits but his work goes far deeper. His artistic output since that time has been varied, passionate but largely ignored by the mainstream. Yet, he carried on. Gradually the Detroit Disciples name took on more meaning as the fading of the American Dream. The once great Detroit automobile industry that gave freedom to so many people through the great open roads gave way to better innovations from overseas, a lack of concern for the maintenance of our roadways and the state of denial regarding the complexities and limitations of the petroleum based energy industry.

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

Ian: Recording the second album “Saving Grace” with Harry Gale at Route 44 studios.  Harry had done work with Charlie Musselwhite and I learned so much about producing and mixing during those sessions. It was a hard project to finish but the rewards still sound good today!

Marke: I had the wonderful opportunity to work with Gregg Allman for a good part of the 1990’s. This led to a lot of great shows in some great venues. I really enjoyed playing with Gregg each New Year’s Eve at the Ventura Theater in Ventura, CA. I had the chance to do studio sessions with Eddie Cramer and Jim Gaines – both of them are very talented people. I also had a lot of fun doing some gigs with Eddie Money. Playing with Brian Auger and Denny Laine at the 40th Anniversary of the Summer Of Love in Golden Gate Park was also a gig I’ll never forget. The best memories I have as of late are the opportunity to play our own original music with the Detroit Disciples.

Tom: Touring with Greg Allman was a very high point in my career. Also touring Europe with Alvin Youngblood Hart.

Cynde: I was fortunate to participate in a benefit for a close friend at Slim’s Club in San Francisco a few years back. Several talented musicians performed that night, including Joe Satriani. The evening closed with some fifteen musicians all up on stage, all performing “Little Help from my Friends”. It was an amazing evening, and all for a wonderful cause.

Paul: We were the opening act for blues guitarist Criss Duarte. Criss was a brilliant guitarist and one of the nicest most honest cat's you'd ever want to meet! The show was sold out and we in our band were loose and relaxed that night, more so than most shows we do. We hit the stage and just tore it up. The crowd loved us and all we heard on the radio the next day was, wow, who is this band the Detroit Disciples and where did they come from? We had been together for 10 years at that point and were playing in our own backyard. You never know! Opening for the legendary Mitch Ryder was also an honor for the band.

Richard: In The “biz” sometimes you work behind the stage & not on it such as keyboard rentals for other acts. I did quite a few. You meet great people you normally don’t get a chance too. You watch other acts & see some great talent that you would die for to play with. That is what happened with me & the Disciples. I saw Tommy Miller & Jellyroll during those times & wished I had a chance to play with such fantastic musicians. Later Paul Burke saw me sitting in with a band for the first time & asked if I was interested in Being a Disciple. I said sure & he gave me some CD”S to bone up on and saw the line up in the band & low & behold there was a few of said names, Scared That I’d might not pass the test but passed & life is good. I will always be grateful to Paul for that.

The Detroit Disciples are: Ian McMurray (guitar, mando-guitar, vocals); Paul 'Boom' Burke  (drums, vocals); Tom Miller (bass, vocals); Marke 'Jellyroll' Burgstahler (guitar, pedal steel, vocals); Rich Smith (keyboards); and Cynde Burgstahler (vocals, percussion). 

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

Ian: It seems hard to find heartfelt music where success is not measured with bright lights and money. I see many young people drawing their influence from the reality/competition TV shows. The music from that field sounds homogeneous to me with no reflection of the real world. At the same time I do come across young folks who are following the trails through the music of their parents and beyond.  And every now and then a Stevie Ray Vaughn or a Gary Clark Jr. will come along and remind us of where we've been and where we are going.

Marke: I miss how the record business used to offer unique opportunities for creative artists to make interesting music. Sometimes these days it seems that the “suits” in the business have watered everything down to mindless formulas and sucked all of the life and creativity out of the music business. I look forward to the day when a good songwriter will be promoted instead of synthesized music and Autotuned vocals.

Tom: A sense of honesty. I fear machines will create our music.

Cynde: Probably good songwriting. While pop and technically altered music is relevant to today’s music, I hate to see meaningful lyrics and thoughtful arrangements ever be considered ‘underground’.

Paul: I have to say the sheer naked honesty. If you go back and listen to the early recordings of blues, the artist was in most part was telling a story of life and struggle that surrounded him accompanied by whatever instrument he had in his possession at that time. The recordings were pretty much as raw as one could be also. What you got was pure honesty, stripped of any sugar or honey coating staring you in the face and making you look at things not so pretty in your world. It was music that made you feel, not get lost in.

Being 60, I have no idea who's who or on top in the music world today. It's a mystery to me, and frankly I really don't care anymore. There are so many spin offs and different styles of popular music these days, who is to say what's good or bad? It all comes from the same root. I sure don't see the excitement and creativity I witnessed growing up in the 50's, 60's, and 70's. I only hope the tree keeps growing and the masses can find great joy and enlightenment from music, whatever form in the future to come.

Richard: The club scene is not what it used to be. To have my health to carry on & to play till I’m pushing daisies.

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?            

Ian: To allow and provide for music education and all arts in our schools and communities.

Tom: Bringing back music education to public schools.

Cynde: The ability for today’s youth to have access to musical instruments and mentors.

Paul: This is a tough question. When I was growing up and really getting interested in music, the radio was the conduit for my inspiration. It was free and 24 hours a day. When you found an artist you really liked, unless you had the money to go out and buy their record, you had to wait until the disc jockey would play it on the station you were tuned to. In the meantime you were subjected to many other artist and that broadened your interests. Later, if you got real deep into say blues music, you had to dig pretty hard to find some of the more obscure artists. It was kind of a treasure hunt in a way, and when you found what you were searching for, there was a real excitement in the find. Now you have satellite radio, You Tube, online file sharing and on and on! In a matter of seconds you can find any artist's, videos, recordings, pictures information, you name it, whatever your mind can conjure up. If I could change anything I would be tempted to say Instant gratification.

Richard: For my music to pay the bills so I don’t have to have a day job would be great!!!

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues with Folk and continue to Rock and Urban Roots music?

Ian: John Lee Hooker said that the Blues is the Healer. It's healing properties come from its themes of the human condition. It is a music accessible by everyone that is defined by an indigenous origin and morphed by its surroundings. Folk shares a similar origin and purpose. Rock and Urban Roots are results of that morphing.

Marke: The bottom line is always emotion. When you sing and play music from the heart and people can relate to the things you are singing about as they relate to their own lives, that’s a constant connection between the blues and rock and roll and Americana music.

Tom: They are the music of a culture. This culture has grown to not only include the originating populations but like-minded people throughout the world.

Paul: The relationship of these forms of music in my opinion is, they all talk about aspects of hard life and the struggle of living, loving and surviving in a segregated society. When you're on the lower rung of the ladder you have to dig hard to find some light in all the darkness. I think it's getting things off your chest and in part helping others in similar situations do the same through the music. It's the honesty that makes it relatable.

Richard: As far as I’m concerned the blues is the root of most modern music and I’ve been lucky enough to work with some great bands such as Ed Earley who came from Albert King and works now with Elvin Bishop.

"I have to say the sheer naked honesty. If you go back and listen to the early recordings of blues, the artist was in most part was telling a story of life and struggle that surrounded him accompanied by whatever instrument he had in his possession at that time." 

What does to be a female artist in a “Man’s World” as James Brown says? What is the status of women in Rock?

Cynde: While I cannot speak for all women in rock today, I will say that my own experience has been quite rewarding. It helps to play with a great group of guys like the Disciples, who encourage my songwriting and contributions. Bringing in a woman’s voice and perspective to this band has added another texture to an already fantastic group of musicians. When we perform, I often see women watching me in particular, and when I’m approached later and am told that “I spoke to them”, I get an overwhelming feeling of connection and sisterhood.

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

Ian: I find escape and discovery within the blues. I most love it when I'm just playing my guitar and jamming along with a groove. When I meet fellow musicians there is a joy when we are able to talk to each other through our instruments using the blues as a common language.

Marke: The blues has always been an avenue to express my emotions. I try to sing thru my guitar. When I am able to connect with people in the audience and they are feeling what I’m feeling, there is nothing like that in the world. Anyone can play a lot of notes, but what are you saying??

Tom: A great way to communicate with other musicians and audiences without having to say a thing.

Paul: The blues explains itself in it's name. When I've been broke, without a girlfriend, and my car is close to being out of gas, I would turn on the radio and Freddy King would be wailing out that 8' speaker! All of a sudden my problems are sitting in the back seat for a few minutes while my soul is being lifted up by a voice who knows I'm going down, but it sure as hell is lifting me up if only for a moment!

Richard: The “blues” makes me smile and there’s nothing better than smiling the day away!

"I miss how the record business used to offer unique opportunities for creative artists to make interesting music. Sometimes these days it seems that the 'suits' in the business have watered everything down to mindless formulas and sucked all of the life and creativity out of the music business."

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

Ian: To someone's house for a barbeque. Someone like B.B. King or Buddy Guy back in the late 60's, a gathering of players and sideman just hangin' out and jammin' while the ribs were simmerin'. Even if I didn't get asked up to play, I would just be in heaven sittin' under a shady tree on a hot, lazy afternoon soaking it all in.

Tom: When I was pre-teen, maybe eleven years old, I remember being at a family friend's house when I got stung by a wasp. To take my mind off the pain one of my parents' friends took me into his room where he gave a bass guitar to mess around with. That was the beginning of my long love affair with bass and music that continues to this day. I would like to go back and say thank you to that person.

Cynde: I think it’d be a kick being a kid again, performing skits and songs with my younger brother in our family living room. We’d entertain for hours! Our parents were an enthusiastic and appreciate audience, always encouraging us to explore whatever creative passion moved us. Though our parents are both long gone, my brother and I still very much enjoy getting together for living room music with family and friends.

Paul: Winterland, San Francisco. March 10th, 1968. The Cream recorded Spoonful for the Wheels Of Fire album that night. Look, I'm like most white kids of that era. It took a trio of white guys from England to wake this yank up to my own heritage. That song did more to get me started digging into Howlin Wolf and BB King and all the other great blues artist of the day. I would love to feel the energy of that performance live!

Richard: That a tuff one. I’m having so much fun & enjoying the time playing with the people I do now The is no reason to “go” somewhere. I’m living my fantasy now.

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