Q&A with Greek musician John Skyllas, collaborated and recorded with some of the best Greek blues artists

"I firmly believe that without music (and art in general), nothing substantial exists; no culture, no society, no true love and in the final analysis… no humanity!"

John Skyllas: The Keys of Music Language

John Skyllas born and raised in Athens Greece. He studied music at the Apollonium Conservatory, with a diploma in classical accordion and a degree in music theory. His occupation with mainly blues but also jazz music began in the 90s as a member of JamMasters and Blues Cargo. He was the house band’s keyboardist at “Stavros Tou Notou club” from 1998  to 2001. During the season 2000-2001 he was also the conductor and orchestrator of the band. That is where he met Vicky Bee, one of the best soul singers in Greece, and they successfully work together ever since, with over of 2.500 concerts both domestically and abroad. He collaborated and recorded with some of the best Greek blues artists (Simos Kokavesis, Theo & The Boogie Sinners etc.)

(John Skyllas / Photo by Nick Manitsas Stefanakis)

He has been the art director of Vinyl Café and Barrel House Beer Restaurant since 2015 and Sons Café in Glyfada since 2019. He also is the Artistic Programming Director of  Hydra Jazz Festival, which takes place in Hydra island at the end of every May since 2016. Vicky Bee & Plastic People released the album titled “Groove On” (2022) with rooted in funk and soul tunes! John says: "Our philosophy is very simple: Love of music, copious preparation and non-stop rehearsals paired with great collaborators sharing our passion and philosophy let alone the type of music we play!"

Interview by Michael Limnios

How has the Blues, Jazz and Rock Counterculture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

Generally speaking, music was part of my upbringing (specifically via my mother who had since the 60s albums by Louis Armstrong and Modern Jazz Quartet among many others) and growing up in the late 70s this era’s music played a very role in shaping  who I was to become. Music as a whole is my lens to the world, life and people, and maybe that makes me a bit happier than other people. Blues to me is the “personification” of my world view as it was shaped by music so it really wasn’t an influence in how I view the world but rather a validation. It was however a tremendous influence in my career choices as a professional musician as it’s where I feel the most comfortable at.

How do you describe your sound and music philosophy? What was the hardest part to be artistic director of Hydra Jazz Fest?

I am always a blues pianist and organ player at heart although I do love many genres. My sound therefore could be categorized as a primordial analog blues sound. In my view music needs to express the soul; the pieces need to speak to the soul as much as the groove needs to speak to the body! The hardest part of being the artistic director of any jazz festival in Greece is having  to step out of your strictly musical duties and deal with the red tape of the government which although Hydra Jazz Fest is a private sector endeavor, make life immensely difficult. An equal-level challenge is that there is basically no infrastructure in the island of Hydra; a wonderful small island in the Saronic gulf, but one without access to large ships, no paved roads or automobiles. These obviously make organizing the festival quite hard, as even moving backline equipment can become quite the feat! Finally, it’s relatively problematic at times, to synchronize all musicians and groups in order to finalize the festival’s program; at least with these, being a musician is an asset as we speak the same “language”.

"I would want to be in Chicago, IL on December 30th, 1969 during the live recording of the South Side blues jam with Junior Wells, Otis Spann and Buddy Guy!! Spann together with Memphis Slim are my favorite blues pianists and Buddy Guy is my favorite guitarist. As for Junior Wells words aren't enough! Awesome artist!!" (John Skyllas on stage / Photo by Sissy Morfi)

How do you think that you have grown as an artist since you first started making music? What has remained the same about your music-making process?

I’ve experienced personal growth as a person as well as a musician mainly since I started writing my own music. One of the songs in our new album is the first song I’ve ever written, something that allowed me an insight to how I was back then versus to how I am now. That also allowed me to add to the song’s youthful spontaneity and -dare I say- craziness the deep knowledge of soul which I’ve acquired over my life as a professional musician which resulted in a very rounded result that satisfied me immensely. Since it’s difficult to separate myself from music; I would say that I’ve managed to add knowledge and depth to me as a person while retaining my spontaneity for the most part. Regarding the question’s second part; most things have changed in my workflow apart from the base; me sitting at home on my piano. This has remained unchanged. Techniques and technology have improved but in my core music making everything starts with the ivories!

What's the balance in music between technique and soul? What do you think is key to a life well lived?

For me these two are inseparable; technique allows you to draw out your soul’s content in an easier fashion. Without soul however nothing worth mentioning exists in life; not only in music!

If given the choice between a virtuoso bound by their technique and a raw musician that gives it their all, I’d choose the latter without second thoughts! Music is life, it’s passion and love! And that, to me is also the key to a life not only well lived but really happy too!

"I would want to be in Chicago, IL on December 30th, 1969 during the live recording of the South Side blues jam with Junior Wells, Otis Spann and Buddy Guy!! Spann together with Memphis Slim are my favorite blues pianists and Buddy Guy is my favorite guitarist. As for Junior Wells words aren't enough! Awesome artist!!" (Photo: John Skyllas)

Currently you’ve one release with Vicky Bee Band. When and how did the idea of band come about?

Let me correct a small misunderstanding here. Vicky Bee Band is not the band that created the album but rather it’s the smaller, blues-oriented brother of Vicky Bee & Plastic People which is the actual band that created “Groove On” and it’s a mostly rooted in funk and soul band! This is also the first band I put together back in 1998. Until then I was a member of several bands (StreetBand, Jammasters, Blues Cargo etc.) mostly dealing with blues music. With the arrival of our singer (Vicky Bee) in 2005 our direction changed, and we became more professional in an organizational sense and not only that but it allowed us to actually live FROM music exclusively. That in itself is very difficult to achieve in the scene we’re active! Vicky Bee has got to do a lot with that because apart from her being one of the best singers in Greece, she’s also a perfectionist which played perfect foil to my relentless spontaneity!

What characterize band's music philosophy and songbook? Do you have any stories about the making of the new album "Groove On"?

Our philosophy is very simple: Love of music, copious preparation and non-stop rehearsals paired with great collaborators sharing our passion and philosophy let alone the type of music we play! A lot of people have joined and left our ranks over the years and due to our philosophy we maintain excellent relations with all of them regardless of where they are now in their professional musical development! Sometimes conditions in our scene do not favor the cooperation between a certain member and the band, but our bonds remain! There’s no better proof than this that the album itself. All participants are former members that jumped right into the opportunity to record with us. And it’s not just a numbered few! Over 25 musicians participated when all was said and done!

While recording “GrooveOn” we experienced a lot of funny (to say the list) happenings which will create enduringness dotes for years to come! The album was made during the pandemic quarantine and for example we had to …ermmm… Mislead a bit Civil Protection measures by claiming we were shooting a movie while the only cameras involved where our phones! Rehearsals we had with several people that were new to the project also gifted us with new friendships and collaborations signaling once again the positive message that music unites! This is one of the most important things that I shall keep for years to come from the entire process of recording and mixing!

"For me these two are inseparable; technique allows you to draw out your soul’s content in an easier fashion. Without soul however nothing worth mentioning exists in life; not only in music! If given the choice between a virtuoso bound by their technique and a raw musician that gives it their all, I’d choose the latter without second thoughts! Music is life, it’s passion and love! And that, to me is also the key to a life not only well lived but really happy too!" (Photo: John Skyllas with Plastic People, 2019)

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

Ι have met a number of important people (in music and outside of it) in my life and every single one imparted a bit in me. The two best pieces of advice however I’ve received –and kept- are from Greek multi-instrumentalist and actor, Yiannis Zouganelis who told me to “only do things that fit myself, never try to emulate someone else so that I can be likeable" and the other from my own mother who told me “Better to have remorse for something you’ve done, than for something you haven’t”! Especially the last piece of advice has been my guiding principle!

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

There are a number of memories which are fantastic, however most fondly I remember the first time I’ve performed with Blues Cargo, as a back up band  for blues great Guitar Shorty, as well as my first performance with Plastic People with Vicky Bee as the lead singer, which ushered a new era in the band!

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

What I miss the most is the innocence; Music of the past had its own unique way of always touching you, to make you dream, fall in love, make you sad or happy!!! This happens so rarely today with the “canned”, over processed “hit machines” with nonsense lyrics made for a generation of people with very little time to “feel”. I really hope that progressively in the future this will finally stop and technology instead of a means for flattening the quality of the musical product will be used in flattening  the curve against the abuse of art and protect the expression of artists!

"Music as a whole is my lens to the world, life and people, and maybe that makes me a bit happier than other people. Blues to me is the “personification” of my world view as it was shaped by music so it really wasn’t an influence in how I view the world but rather a validation. It was however a tremendous influence in my career choices as a professional musician as it’s where I feel the most comfortable at." (Musical Director/Pianist/Organist John Skyllas & Vicky Bee in studio, Athens Greece 2020)

Are there any memories from the late great Guitar Shorty which you’d like to share with us?

A few things remember vividly is how demanding he was on the accompaniment of the second guitar, how approachable and sweet he was and of course what a great frontman!!! A funny story is that he had sent us 3 of his CDs so we can learn the songs. We wanted to do the pieces justice so we brought in an entire horn section to perform them properly. That being said how ever he started playing lots of blues standards as well as several Hendrix songs (who I believe was a distant relative) and ended up playing only 5 of his own songs we had learned!!! I was 22 years old at the time, rather low on experience and I saw him as something magical! That was the year he had received the W.C. Handy Award!

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

Sadly, the most important lesson I’ve learned in the local music scene is to watch my back! There’s no concord; no harmony between artists. I’ve put considerable effort into trying to bring artists (especially musicians) together without (sadly) great response. This discord has brought us today’s low point where given the specific Covid-19 situation and the continual lockdowns we are basically invisible to the state. We don’t exist and nobody supports us. And it all starts with us. Maybe if we were united, things could be a bit better! Artists (except in the few cases where stardom helps them) are left to borrow a colloquialism, up the creek without a paddle…

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

I firmly believe that without music (and art in general), nothing substantial exists; no culture, no society, no true love and in the final analysis… no humanity!

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

I would want to be in Chicago, IL on December 30th, 1969 during the live recording of the South Side blues jam with Junior Wells, Otis Spann and Buddy Guy!! Spann together with Memphis Slim are my favorite blues pianists and Buddy Guy is my favorite guitarist. As for Junior Wells words aren't enough! Awesome artist!!

(Photo: John Skyllas)

Views: 291

Comments are closed for this blog post

social media

Members

© 2023   Created by Michael Limnios Blues Network.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service