"Blues just means every emotion you could feel in music. This is the magic of the blues, is how it makes you feel, whether it makes you feel sad and get out the sadness that comes with every-day life, but it also gives you the chance to rejoice all the good things in life. Blues is not just one kind of feeling, it’s all the feelings you can have, that’s what I do love about the blues."
Writing (The Blues) On The Wall
The self-taught, left-handed Montoya mastered his craft under Collins’ tutelage. Incorporating lessons learned from his mentors, the iconic Collins (for whom he originally drummed), and UK legend John Mayall, Montoya puts his own stamp onto every song he performs. Since his first solo album in 1995, Montoya’s endlessly inventive guitar work and passionate, hard-hitting vocals have kept him at the top of the blues world. With his new Alligator Records album, Writing On The Wall (2023) sixth for the label, Montoya delivers what he is already calling one of the best records he’s ever made. For the very first time on Alligator, he decided to bring his road-tested band—noted keyboardist and songwriter Jeff Paris, bassist Nathan Brown, and drummer Rena Beavers—into the studio with him. Between the camaraderie of the long-time bandmates and the sheer talent of all involved, the results have left Coco, in his words, “over the moon.” Produced by Grammy Award-winner Tony Braunagel and co-produced by Jeff Paris, Writing On The Wall is a tour-de-force of memorable, hook-filled songs, sung with passion and fueled by equally memorable, top shelf musicianship. The 13 tracks include five written or co-written by Montoya. (Coco Montoya / Photo © by Victoria Smith)
Henry “Coco” Montoya was born in Santa Monica, California, on October 2, 1951, and raised in a working-class family. Growing up, Coco immersed himself in his parents’ record collection. He listened to big band jazz, salsa, doo-wop and rock ‘n’ roll. His first love was drums; he acquired a kit at age 11. He got a guitar two years later. But guitar was his secondary instrument. Montoya turned his love of drumming into his profession, playing in a number of area rock bands while still in his teens and becoming an in-demand drummer. In 1969, Montoya saw Albert King opening a Creedence Clearwater Revival/Iron Butterfly concert at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. He was transformed. The next chapter of Montoya’s story was kick-started by a chance meeting in the mid-1970s with legendary bluesman Albert Collins. A short time later, Collins hired Montoya as his band’s drummer. With Albert mentoring Coco on the guitar during the band’s downtime, Coco soon became Collins’ second guitarist. Needing a more regular paycheck, Montoya left Collins’ band after two years and took a job tending bar, jamming on weekends at Los Angeles clubs. One day, legendary British musician John Mayall heard Coco playing Otis Rush’s All Your Love (I Miss Loving) onstage. Soon after, Mayall called on Montoya to join his famous Bluesbreakers. Filling the shoes of previous Bluesbreaker guitarists Eric Clapton, Peter Green and Mick Taylor would not be easy, but Montoya knew he could not pass up the opportunity to play with another legend. Still an indefatigable road warrior, Montoya continues to tour virtually nonstop, bringing audiences to their feet αcross the globe.
Interview by Michael Limnios / Transcription by Katherine Lefkidou
Special Thanks: Coco Montoya & Marc Lipkin / Alligator Records
Too many experiences in your life, too many experiences in music, what are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience?
Coco: Important lessons mainly come from the people that I played for, mainly Mr. John Mayall and Mr. Albert Collins, those are the basic yes and no’s about how to handle yourself out in the business of making music. Probably to be grateful and to be humble, on stage and off stage, let your music do the talking and let your music do the bragging. And to just be grateful that you get to do what you love. That’s probably the most important thing I’ve ever learned from doing this from almost 40 years now.
What do you miss most nowadays from the music and the feeling of the past?
Coco: Maybe my youth, I just miss my youth, I could do so much more. I miss the sincerity and feeling of the actual recording process, it’s become so pinpoint and sterile. Just like, the beauty of music back in the ‘50s and ‘60s and ‘70s was these little things that were not perfect. Made it more beautiful than all the overanalyzing and over scrutinizing everything, being so perfect you know? Perfection is sterile.
What does the blues mean to you?
Coco: Blues just means every emotion you could feel in music. This is the magic of the blues, is how it makes you feel, whether it makes you feel sad and get out the sadness that comes with every-day life, but it also gives you the chance to rejoice all the good things in life. Blues is not just one kind of feeling, it’s all the feelings you can have, that’s what I do love about the blues.
"I miss the sincerity and feeling of the actual recording process, it’s become so pinpoint and sterile. Just like, the beauty of music back in the ‘50s and ‘60s and ‘70s was these little things that were not perfect. Made it more beautiful than all the overanalyzing and over scrutinizing everything, being so perfect you know? Perfection is sterile." (Coco Montoya / Photo © by Victoria Smith)
How do you describe your music philosophy, where does your creative drive come from?
Coco: My music philosophy is once again just to feel things and that’s the only way I’ve learned. Some top musicians know any formal training of any kind which has its good merits as well, I wish I would have learned more, but definitely I still believe that playing from you heart, playing what you feel as opposed to what you think is correct is probably more important to me, to feel the music as opposed to going at it from a cerebral place.
What is the balance in music between technical skills and sole emotions?
Coco: It’s a pretty even balance I think, if I were to tell young people, up and coming people learning how to play, I think I’d just tell them a good balance between the two is very important. I come from a very self-taught situation, so I could see the holes in my education, as a guitar player, there’s a lot of things I should basically know, but don’t, because I never learned about that. I never learned about technical knowledge in that level. So, I think it’s really important to have a good balance of studying, and learn all the different ways to read music, see music and coming at it from a mathematical point of view, a very cerebral point of view and the other side is just to play what you feel and don’t over analyze.
You were born in California, you grew up in California. What characterizes the sound of the local music scene, what were the reasons that made California to be one of the centers of blues, rock, jazz, swing research and experiments?
Coco: I think a lot of the musicians they came here from other places, I think Albert Collins was from Huston, Texas, he came here in California and that boosted his career a lot in the blues. Players like "Shakey Jake" Harris and people like that had come here from other places, they had a very healthy blues scene here quite early. Of course, with the help of Johnny Otis and those kind of people. It was just a great mixture of black blues, soul artists, the soul of Latino music, a lot of Chicano bands out of East L.A. and the like, Venice, California were around, just a mixture of soul and whatever they could get their hands on, and also the soul of Latino, and all combined to make all these wonderful bands like the Midnighters and people like that who were also a big influence to me as well.
You talk about the Latinos and Mexicans, you are also of Mexican heritage. Do you find any similarities between the Mexican folk music and the blues?
Coco: Of course, Mexican music from Mexico has got a lot of emotion involved in it, which another thing that draws you in, that’s why I love Mexican music as well, it’s because it’s a very soulful music, it definitely draws from that, it’s not a technical music, they just sing straight from the heart.
"I think the most important thing is to have people to be able to feel their emotions and I think music has always done that, I just think it can do it even more now. Yeah, when you see somebody out in the audience and they’re feeling the music, it charges you up, you’re with them, you guys have made a connection. You can’t really play that well the music, if people aren’t enjoying what they’re hearing, it will reflect back on you and you can’t play that well." (Coco Montoya / Photo © by Victoria Smith)
1995, “Gotta Mind To Travel”, last one “Writing on the Wall”. What is the progress of Coco Montoya? What are the differences and similarities between your solo beginning and the last one?
Coco: I think the last one I did, “Coming in Hot” was a wonderful experience to do that album, because I got to once again work with some great friends of mine that I respect in the business, the base-player of that album Mr. Bob Glaub , played with everybody, he’s played with John Lenon to Bob Dylan and we went to the same school together, so that’s kind of a closeness that I really enjoy having, he’s such a wonderful musician. The great Mike Finiggan, who’s no longer with us, so I’m really grateful that I had time with my friend Mike, being there in the studio and listen to the incredible talent that he was and just a great experience as a disposition. This album here, we went and decided to use the road band, the band that’s been on the road playing with me all these shows, we thought it was the right time and the right place for us to show their talents in the studio, give them an opportunity and it was really a good call for us. Nate Brown is just one of the finest base-players you’ll ever here, I’m comfortable around him and he works so well with Rena Beavers, he’s just a great drummer, just a pocket drummer, exactly what I’ve been looking for and a great singer as well and rounding it off with Jeff Paris on keyboards. Jeff Paris has a great history of his own with Keb Mo, Bill Withers and the like, just an amazing amount of people that he’s worked with and brings a lot to the table. And he’s an incredible guitar player, keyboard player, incredible singer, you name it he’s incredible at it. So, taking everything to the road band was a great opportunity, we hadn’t done that in quite a while, so we were very very happy with the results.
You have met so many great musicians and personalities, Albert Collins, John Mayall, BB King and many many others. What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?
Coco: Albert Collins telling me to take my time, slow down. He always said take your time son, you’re going too fast, relax. That was a great great thing that stuck with me all these years and from B.B. King, as I said before he was the one that told me that the most important thing you do is stay humble, especially when you leave the stage, leave any ego on the stage, it will always be there when you get back. Always come off the stage humble. Because you wanna know why? I said “Why B?” He said cause what you played and what you did in that evening will be multiplied a thousand-fold, because you didn’t come off the stage arrogant, you came off the stage grateful and humble.
"I want it to affect the people in happiness, that’s what I want to bring to them, you’re probably not going to hear much political or that kind of stuff out of me, I really know why I’m going out on the road, why I’m going out in the studio, for me it’s to share what I love to do, if I make it good and the people like it and I can go to work and make the money and take care of my wife, you know, that’s all I really want. Making the people happy and entertaining them, especially in the crazy world we’re living in, I want to give them something to get away from that, just for a minute." (Coco Montoya mastered his craft under Albert Collins’ tutelage / Photo Courtesy by Coco Montoya Archive)
What is happiness for Coco, what do you think is the key to a life well-lived?
Coco: Being able to get out of a chair and not fall (Laughing). I’m sorry I went off-script here. For me, to still be at 71 playing music, I’m grateful that I’m doing that, that’s an amazing thing some people already are either dead and gone or they had to give it up. I’m just not ready to give it up and it’s simple happiness, I got a wonderful wife that treats me well and has got my back all the time. So, I’ve got all the ingredients for happiness, playing the music I love and loving the woman I love. That’s it for me.
What are your hopes and what are your fears for the future of music and especially of blues?
Coco: My concerns and fears, we talked about a few minutes ago, it’s people feeling what they feel, they lose the ability to grasp on what their emotions are saying as opposed to what their brains is saying. We’ve got some great musicians out there, you wanna talk about guitar players, there’s so many rights now that are incredibly talented. Their facility for the instrument is way beyond me, I couldn’t play as fast, or as accurate or as many notes as far than few of them. And I think the difference between the ones that can play all those notes and feel it is the key, there’s ones out there who just don’t feel it. They’re playing all these notes but it’s like talking and saying nothing. I think the fear I have is dig down and feel it, go ahead and cry, go ahead and let your emotions out, you know? Somebody sings with their emotion, you feel it, you understand, it makes you go back to a story in your life and go, yeah that’s what happened to me and when you just sing it because this is the proper notes on the music sheet and don’t deviate any way by emotion... that to me is boring and I think that’s a fear for music as it is being interpreted you know? I would rather come from a very heartfelt meaningful place and have less chops.
Six albums in Alligator Records. Why do you think that Alligator Records continues to generate such a devoted following?
Coco: Well, I think its’s an amazing place, in my experience and my history with Bruce Iglauer and everybody at Alligator Records has always let me quite satisfied no matter how my album sold or didn’t sell, because I watched them work and I have a lot of respect for the people at Alligator. When they get behind a record, they get behind it they work hard, they’re one of the few that do, they have the power to really promote what they do, is they’re excellent at it and I always found a lot of happiness and nothing bad to say about that at all. Me and Bruce Iglauer may had our differences, but you know what? At the end of the day, he just wants to do all he can to make a good record. And that’s what I have to say about him, he’s an opinionated man, he’ll tell you what he thinks which isn’t a bad thing; that’s a very good thing. So, my experience with Bruce has been very satisfying over the years and especially, I must say on this album, we had such a great time making this and the company is really way behind it which I’m grateful for.
"My music philosophy is once again just to feel things and that’s the only way I’ve learned. Some top musicians know any formal training of any kind which has its good merits as well, I wish I would have learned more, but definitely I still believe that playing from you heart, playing what you feel as opposed to what you think is correct is probably more important to me, to feel the music as opposed to going at it from a cerebral place." (Coco Montoya / Photo © by Victoria Smith)
How do you want your music, when you're on stage, or your albums, to affect the people?
Coco: I want it to affect the people in happiness, that’s what I want to bring to them, you’re probably not going to hear much political or that kind of stuff out of me, I really know why I’m going out on the road, why I’m going out in the studio, for me it’s to share what I love to do, if I make it good and the people like it and I can go to work and make the money and take care of my wife, you know, that’s all I really want. Making the people happy and entertaining them, especially in the crazy world we’re living in, I want to give them something to get away from that, just for a minute.
What moment changed your music life the most? Which have been the highlights in your career?
Coco: The moment that changed everything from me, I have to say was seeing Albert King opening up for Creedence Clearwater Revival and Iron Butterfly I think was on the show as well, here in Los Angeles. At that point of time before I walked in that building, I thought that Cream wrote Born Under A Bad Sign, I didn’t know about Albert King, I didn't know anything of that, I thought everything Eric Clapton did, I thought it was his. And to his credit he would always say don’t point at me, look behind you this where I got it. That was one of those moments, I walked in, here’s hippies with long hair and beads, had patchouli oil on. You know I walked in, and I was all jazzed about seeing Iron Butterfly and Creedence Clearwater and in the middle of those shows they put this guy Albert King, this black man with suit on and had leather shoes and he came out there and he just blew me away. I just had no, I don’t even know how to describe this emotion, my eyes filled with water, I had tears in my eyes cause it was affecting me so much emotionally. And here’s the source, you know, the original source, the extra strength, you know?
That was probably the most unbelievable moment of my life, all of a sudden seeing, so this is it, this is where I wanna go, this is what I wanna hear, this is what I wanna play. I could play this all night, I love this. So that was the most amazing thing that happened to me, the other two are obvious, it’s chance meeting with Albert Collins, him needing a drummer so desperately and going on the road when I was a kid, it was like late ‘71, ‘72, I was on the road, with Albert Collins playing his music. That unbelievable moment happening in my life, I will never forget that and later in life leaving the music business and working as a bartender, I figured I’ve done my thing, I’m just going to jam sessions and play guitar, I’ve been learning guitar since I was 13 and just thought I would never be in the business ever again. And well, here’s John Mayall, here’s me and I get a call from John Mayall, we all end up spending 10 years as a Bluesbreaker, I mean how lucky is that, you know?
"Of course, Mexican music from Mexico has got a lot of emotion involved in it, which another thing that draws you in, that’s why I love Mexican music as well, it’s because it’s a very soulful music, it definitely draws from that, it’s not a technical music, they just sing straight from the heart." (Coco Montoya, Charlie Musselwhite, B.B. King, John Mayall, Deacon Jones, Walter Trout, 1985 / Photo © by Lisa Seifert)
Coco on the stage, Coco in studio session, what is the difference, what do you prefer?
Coco: Well, up until this album I could tell you that definitely playing live for people is the reward for me, it’s my favorite thing to do and it is, it still is. Getting out in front of people is the best thing, I don’t really care about statuettes, or award plaques, who’s best and who’s not, I don’t even think about those things. I’m just grateful to play, there’s my reward, my reward is playing. Studio, I must say on this album, besides all the technical things, the worries of what could happen, we had so much fun writing, we had so much fun recording and demoing everything and in finally doing all, getting the help from Jeff Paris was unbelievable, he really helped me through with vocals and helped me get everything together. We had such a good time, we laughed a lot. This is the best time I’ve had in the studio in a long time.
Let’s take a trip with a time machine. Where and why would you really want to go with a time machine?
Coco: Oh my. I’d have to premise that with if I were to have a time machine and go visit and could come back, I would probably visit my youth and knowing what I know now, it’s like anybody says, knowing what you know now, you might’ve taken some different roads. Might have done something different. I would have gone back to the past and given myself some more confidence as a child, probably what I would have done.
Drums or guitar, how do you change from drummer to guitarist?
Coco: Like most things in my life nothing was done with a lot of thought, I started out playing drums, like 9, 10 years old and was what I wanted to do, what I wanted to be. I remember listening to a band called the Young Rascals. I loved them, they were from Jersey. Drummer was Dino Danelli an incredible drummer, he just passed away recently, just one of my idols, still one of my idols even though I don’t do drums anymore. That was it for me to learn how to do that, then Ringo came out how wonderful that was, then Ginger Baker was another influence. It was just as a self-taught musician, I could only go so far, that’s why I tell young people, it’s important to learn the technical side of playing, get your education, learn how to read how to do all of those things to make you better and help you progress, a very important thing. This is important as feeling your music. But at that point my career was over, I had to get out and pay bills, get a real job, you know, you don’t get rich being a musician, there’s very few of us that get rich. But, I had acoustic guitar since I was 13, so I was playing guitar, just my own teaching again and as I just happened to go to the right jam session in Hollywood and John Mayall was there and had a guy make the board a tape of my playing and I all of a sudden I got a phone call from John Mayall saying “I wanted to see if you wanna be in my new version of the Bluesbrakers”, Taylor was leaving for Bob Dylan at the time. Yeah, the opportunity came, I said yes and I stayed for 10 years.
"Important lessons mainly come from the people that I played for, mainly Mr. John Mayall and Mr. Albert Collins, those are the basic yes and no’s about how to handle yourself out in the business of making music. Probably to be grateful and to be humble, on stage and off stage, let your music do the talking and let your music do the bragging. And to just be grateful that you get to do what you love. That’s probably the most important thing I’ve ever learned from doing this from almost 40 years now." (Photo: Coco Montoya with John Mayall's Bluesbrakers, 1985)
You have travelled across the globe, you have played coast to coast to U.S., Europe, Australia, what is the impact of the blues on the sociocultural implications around the globe?
Coco: The way I see it, the main important thing and it really doesn’t have anything to do with much else, in my opinion. True feelings, that’s what it is, watching people being emotional, watching people enjoy a song and feeling it, whether it’s funny and makes you laugh or whether it’s a heart-breaking song that makes you kind of tear up and cry. I think the most important thing is to have people to be able to feel their emotions and I think music has always done that, I just think it can do it even more now. Yeah, when you see somebody out in the audience and they’re feeling the music, it charges you up, you’re with them, you guys have made a connection. You can’t really play that well the music, if people aren’t enjoying what they’re hearing, it will reflect back on you and you can’t play that well. When everybody gets excited, we gotta get excited, we can excite each other on this thing. That’s the most important thing and no matter where you go in the world, I don’t care where you go, the people are the same, they want to feel, they want to feel good, if it’s rough, if they’re in a country that’s having a hard time, people are at war or whatever, for that moment they want to laugh, they want to dance around, that’s what I want to give them.
What of your songs characterizes Lenora (wife), Jasmine and Donna (Montoya’s daughters)?
Coco: I think there’s a few of them in there. “Good days, Bad days” is a really important song for me and my wife. At the time we weren’t together and actually thank God we connected again, and we haven’t been separated since. So that has a big connection for me. The other one, the “Mother and Daughter” that I wrote with Earl Cate from the Cate Brothers, just an instrumental was a feeling thing, I was describing how emotional I was when I saw Jasmine talking to my mom and they were head-to-head, they were just real close and talking. It was just really an emotional moment, so that song reminds me of my girls and how beautiful they are.
My last question, is it easier to write and play the blues as you get older?
Coco: Well, I don’t know if it’s easier, because writing’s never been my strongest point. I always co-write, I’ve written very few songs on my own. I need to have somebody to bounce the song off of. And over the years the writing I’ve done with Dave Steen. Dave Steen is an immense talent songwriter out of Lincoln, Nebraska and we’ve written many many songs together. And bringing him and Jeff together, Jeff Paris, wow, what minds going, I’m just trying to hang on with these guys. They are so good. I’m not sure it gets easier for me, but I guess it does in the sense I’m at peace, happy writing about simple things, as opposed to things that are just a little too complicated. At least that’s good enough for me. Sometimes simple things, simple ideas have the most immense effect on people.
(Coco Montoya / Photo © by Victoria Smith)
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