Q&A with legendary producer and singer Mike Vernon, presents his new project CAT SQUIRREL, totally ‘Old School’ blues

"I guess I am hoping that the music we all so much can survive for awhile yet! Why would it not? The Blues will never die…even if it does get slightly twisted and bent out of shape!"

Mike Vernon: Keeping the BLUES Alive!

Without producer and label boss Mike Vernon, the history of British blues would look very different. British blues would be far poorer without Mike Vernon. As both a major-label producer and founder of Blue Horizon, the country’s leading blues label of the 60s, he helped shape the careers of such luminaries as Eric Clapton, John Mayall, Ten Years After, Savoy Brown and Chicken Shack, though perhaps his most crucial alliance was with Fleetwood Mac, led by the inimitable Peter Green. Under Vernon’s tutelage, the band graduated from blues boom heroes to million- selling superstars. Following the moment when Mike Vernon was more or less forced to instigate the demise of his band The Mighty Combo back in March 2020 – mainly due to Brexit kicking in; the Covid pandemic and the small matter of working as a unit ‘on the road’ no longer being economically viable – Mike tooks time out to reflect. He was determined to build on the progress already made with that band during the previous five years and particularly to do so on the excellent working relationship between himself and Spanish guitarist Kid Carlos. During the last eight months both him and Carlos have been writing and demoing a lot of new material.

(Photo: Mike Vernon)

It gradually became very obvious that they would be best served to find a third musician to add a further musical dynamic for their potential plans to form a new band. He asked Carlos if he thought that Mingo Balaguer might be interested. ‘Why not?’ was his response. Mingo was extremely excited about the possibility of joining them in this new venture – and so it came about. Mike presented the name CAT SQUIRREL and without question that became the band name. Mingo offered the names of two very knowledgeable and solid musicians to handle the bass and drum chores. Early in May 2022 they booked time at Sevilla’s Sputnik studio and came out of there with fifteen tracks. Mike says: “We are all looking forward to getting out there to present our brand of TOTALLY ‘Old School’ BLUES with loads of ATTITUDE!”. Their upcoming debut CD entitled 'BLUES WHAT AM' to be released on Dixie Frog Records in October 6th, 2023. CAT SQUIRREL are Mike Vernon on vocals, Kid Carlos on guitar, Mingo Balaguer on harmonica, Oriol Fontanals on bass, and Pascual Monge on drums.

Interview by Michael Limnios

Special Thanks: Mike Vernon, Andrzej Matysik, Erick Diard, Boris Hrepić Hrepa

When and how did the idea of new project come about? What is the story behind band's name: Cat Squirell? 

I took the decision toward the end of 2021 to disband The Mighty Combo. Musically everything was working well but we were struggling to get gigs and it became quite apparent that Touring with a six-piece band was proving to be a major financial burden on the pocket! Despite some excellent reviews – both for the CD ‘Beyond the Blue Horizon’ and for our live appearances – sales were not good and costs were spiralling out of control  I really didn’t have much choice but to call it a day.

To fill the musical void in my life I began to rekindle my song-writing activities with guitarist Kid Carlos… that period proved to be very productive. So much so that I asked Carlos if we should look at the possibility of forming a new Spanish based band. He was very gung-ho about the idea although we could not agree about who to use on bass and drums. I guess I had a particular ‘sound picture’ in my mind and that definitely include a harmonica. Only one man to go to – Mingo Balaguer. His reputation as one of the best Blues harmonicist on the Iberian Peninsula goes before him. But I was not totally sure that he would be interested as he always appeared to be very busy with his regular band The Blues Intruders. Anyway, I took the ‘toro’ by the horns and asked him. He got very animated and excited – “Yes, yes – wonderful – great idea!” 

As to the naming of the unit – that was to be my task. I did have some ideas but nothing that really got my juices flowing.  Now my initial plan was to put together enough material to go into a studio and come out with a finished CD; mostly original songs with, maybe, five or six ‘covers’. Perhaps I could find a suitable band name amongst the lyrics of the new material – but that idea was not productive. Maybe searching through my archives for suitable ‘covers’ would throw up something?  And low and behold – up popped Doctor Isaiah Ross’ gem “Cat Squirrel”! Immediately I was online checking who had already covered the song – other than those I already knew about (The Cream, Jethro Tull and Mick Abrahams). There were a few others but what surprised me was that the song title – other than the Doctor’s – appeared as “Cat’s Squirrel”. Why I asked myself – that doesn’t make sense and the more I looked at “Cat Squirrel” the more I began to think – that’s it!  That’s the name for the band!  Done and dusted.

How do you describe Cat Squirell sound and songbook? What characterize band's music philosophy?

CAT SQUIRREL is undeniably Blues orientated. Every member of the band has been steeped in the Blues; we totally understand the musical formats and we also understand each other – you might call it an amalgam made in Blues Heaven. We will honour the pioneers of this musical art form by re-working some of their most memorable recordings whilst delivering a host of new material written by ‘yours truly’ and Kid Carlos. We see ourselves as being Soldiers of The Blues. We will rock for sure as long as you define the verb ‘rock’ to mean ‘sway from side to side’ – but we do not see ourselves to be a Rock/Blues – or Blues/Rock – outfit. We shall remain true to the Blues Heroes that we all know and love and we will likewise remain true to those that have, all too often, slipped under the radar. This is a hard-hitting band that will entertain all audiences whether they be at a Festival or in a small Club environment. You will have a ‘good time’ – and so will we! CAT SQUIRREL will definitely be ‘Keeping the BLUES Alive!’

"The Blues have always been a major part of my life – plain and simple fact. From the moment I first discovered this musical art form I was hooked and once hooked, it’s tough to walk away. As a Producer I have always done my best to create a sonic picture for the artists that I worked with – whether Blues influenced or not. A picture that would be truthful and complementary to their own particular style." (Photo: CAT SQUIRREL - Mike Vernon, Kid Carlos, Mingo Balaguer, Oriol Fontanals, Pascual Monge)

Are there any specific memories about the making of the new album "Blues What Am" that you would like to tell us about?!

The making of the CD “BLUES WHAT AM” was a sheer pleasure – of that we are all agreed. May 2022 found us at Sevilla’s renowned Sputnik Studio with ‘ace’ engineer Jordi Gil at the controls.  The plan was to record everyone at the same time in the hope that we would get some great performances.  In fact, we succeeded in that respect – although I personally was suffering from the most dreadful cold at the time. Everyone played their part – first a run through of each song to be sure the routines were correct; then, one by one, the songs were recorded once and, on a few occasions, twice. Regrettably I had to accept that my ‘guide’ vocals would have to suffice – I would do them again at a later date when my voice would have recovered. Mingo remarked that he had never enjoyed his time in the Studio more than on these particular sessions. The atmosphere was electric and full of joyful banter and camaraderie. I feel certain that future listeners will catch the ‘vibes’ from those four days.

What touched you and choose to recorded Dr. Ross' Cat Squirrel, Melvin Lil’ Son Jackson's Rockin' And Rollin', and Big Bill Broonzy's I Feel So Good?

I had always planned to re-work a handful of ‘golden oldies’ for this debut CAT SQUIRREL CD. I can recall the first time I ever heard Big Bill Broonzy – a four track Extended Play 45rpm disc on the French Vogue label [EP7138].  I bought it from Doug Dobell’s Jazz and Folk Record Shop in Central London in the very early 1960s – great record – especially his “Guitar Shuffle” and “When Did You Leave Heaven”. Since that moment I have been a Big Bill fan – hence my choice to cover his “I Feel So Good”. That’s a great opener for the CD in my opinion – and I got to change one chorus line from the original that refers to ‘balling the jack’ [going at full speed] to ‘happiest man in town’. Our rendition of Doctor Ross’ 1961 recording of “Cat Squirrel” hits the spot for me. I remember when I first heard The Cream’s version on their debut album – I hated it with a vengeance!  Still do actually – and the Jethro Tull and subsequent Mick Abraham’s renditions are no better!  I’d like to think that we have landed exactly in the right ‘pocket’ with our re-working of the one-man band’s performance from back in 1961 for the Detroit based label Fortune. We also chose one of Jimmy Reed’s tunes – “You Got Me Dizzy” – one of my favourites and again, it works for us big time. The final choice was the obscure “What The Blues Will Do” written and recorded by singer/ guitarist Arbee Stidham for RCA Victor in 1949. He recorded during the 50s/60s in Chicago, mainly for Victor, but seemingly with little commercial success. He did seem to have a gift for writing good lyrics though – somewhat reminiscent of Willie Dixon. Oddly enough I stumbled upon this particular song online and took an instant liking to it – although listening to his vocals over and over again became rather trying. Vocal vibrato can be, at times, irritating. His was, regrettably, extremely so – only my opinion of course.

"CAT SQUIRREL is undeniably Blues orientated.  Every member of the band has been steeped in the Blues; we totally understand the musical formats and we also understand each other – you might call it an amalgam made in Blues Heaven." (Photos: Mike Vernon with Kid Carlos; Rocky Sharpe & The Replays, c.1979; Mingo Balaguer; John Mayall; Al Green, c.1973; and Keef Hartley / Neil Slaven, c.1970)

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? What do you think is key to a music life well lived?

The Blues have always been a major part of my life – plain and simple fact. From the moment I first discovered this musical art form I was hooked and once hooked, it’s tough to walk away. As a Producer I have always done my best to create a sonic picture for the artists that I worked with – whether Blues influenced or not. A picture that would be truthful and complementary to their own particular style. I rarely worked with solo artists – almost all of my earlier productions were with bands – Fleetwood Mac, Savoy Brown, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Ten Years After, Focus and so on. When I did work with a solo singer I always put them together with a band unit – Dana Gillespie (with Savoy Brown); Martha Velez (with a host of top-notch Blues musicians who were part of well-known bands); Jimmy Witherspoon (with The Olympic Runners) and Freddie King (with Gonzales) are four good examples.  My thought pattern never really changed as the years flew past. Every new artist presented a new challenge and thankfully – with a couple of exceptions – I managed to make the correct decisions regarding song choices, studio options and employing the best musicians to do the job in hand.  Forward and careful planning was always a top priority for me – and still is! 

I don’t give much thought to my early escapades with recording my own voice under my own name. The solo Blue Horizon album “Bring It Back Home” [1971] was, in some ways, rather unnecessary.  It has its good moments but there are many that are not. The Blue Horizon label was going down hill at that time and the opportunity to record both Paul Kossoff and Rory Gallagher was an opportunity not to miss. I did not make any effort to promote this release – which I guess, says a lot. Thankfully not many people actually noticed its arrival – nor did they notice its departure. My second solo outing – “Moment Of Madness” [Sire 1973] – was a much better offering.  The sound quality was excellent and all the material was original and in the U.S. the Press response was quite positive. I recall seeing a review – I think in Cashbox – that mentioned a parallel with none other than The Beatles! Surely not? In any event, the record didn’t sell and as far as I was concerned that was to be the end of my career as a vocalist. Back to Production work only!

I did have a minor vocal flirtation though in the mid-70s with The Olympic Runners – a British Disco outfit that had a couple of minor Chart successes with “Keep It Up”, “Get It While You Can” and “Sir Dancealot” and “The Bitch” [from the Film starring Joan Collins].

Following that I got involved with producing Rock’n’Roll/Doo-Wop vocal group Rocky Sharpe & The Replays. We had quite a number of successful Chart releases – “Rama Lama Ding Dong” being the most well-known. I reinvented myself when I took over the baritone vocal chores and took the pseudonym of Eric Rondo. Those were fun days and to a very large degree cemented my feelings that I was not a bad singer – but then I wasn’t the main featured vocalist! Years later I was to discover that being the only vocalist in a touring band was a totally different experience. Now, with Cat Squirrel, I am totally responsible for the vocalist chores – and loving it! I am being true to myself and for me, that’s enough. My key to a musical life well lived? I’ve done it and I wouldn’t change a thing – well, maybe one or two events could be erased but otherwise – it’s been a tough but rewarding experience. Six decades of making music and I’m still here and going strong.

"We see ourselves as being Soldiers of The Blues. We will rock for sure as long as you define the verb ‘rock’ to mean ‘sway from side to side’ – but we do not see ourselves to be a Rock/Blues – or Blues/Rock – outfit. We shall remain true to the Blues Heroes that we all know and love and we will likewise remain true to those that have, all too often, slipped under the radar." (Mike Vernon, European Blues Union's Behind the Scenes Awards, 2017, Horsens Denmark / Photo by Christophe Losberger)

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

Currently I think there might be a major resurgence of interest in The Blues – whether it be ‘Old Time/The Real Deal’ Blues or Blues Rock or Rock Blues – as there are now more Blues Clubs popping up; more bands/artists; more magazines devoted to The Blues; more online radio stations playing all manor of Blues and more CD releases to check out. Exciting times!

For as long as I can remember Europeans have supported and helped to promote The Blues. French music fans back in the 1950s helped Big Bill Broonzy and Memphis Slim to find their way to the Paris nightclub scene. Champion Jack Dupree and Curtis Jones followed in their footsteps. In the early 1960s German Promoters Horst Lippman and Fritz Rau, along with Jazz publicist Joachim-Ernst Berendt, were active in bringing many major Blues Artists to Europe under the banner of the ‘American Folk Blues Festivals’ – Muddy Waters, Otis Spann, John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf, Otis Rush, Sonny Boy Williamson, Lonnie Johnson and countless others were given the opportunity to perform in front of thousands of excited European Blues fans. Karl Emil Knudsen, head of the Danish record label Storyville, was to give many of those artists the chance to record again – and Knudsen was not alone. Eddie Boyd moved permanently to Finland and recorded frequently for local Love Records.  Memphis Slim recorded for Barclay in Paris along with Roosevelt Sykes, Buddy Guy and Junior Wells. There were many others too – I cannot remember of them!

Of course, we should not forget the major involvement of the British Blues fanatics when it comes to promoting and supporting The Blues. They are still there and still growing in numbers too. The Pandemic slowed everyone down and, sadly, many venues closed and have not re-opened. But those who have weathered the storm are thriving. The punters have not been put off – they still make their way to their local venue to support the musicians that they like. I can see no reason why this support might wain – once a Blues fan always a Blues Fan!  Polish, Greek, Italian, Norwegian, Belgian, Croatian – makes no difference as we are all part of the ever-growing Blues Family.

"With the passing of so many of the ‘old school’ blues musicians I do have concerns about  where the genre is heading.  The ever-growing plethora of Rock Blues and Blues Rock musicians also causes me to lose sleep at night – they seem to appear from nowhere and in general, I would have to say, offer little of interest to the diehard Blues fans." (Mike Vernon with Cat Squirell and Sputnik Recording Studio's staff, Sevilla Spain, May 2022 / Photo by Fernando Moreno Fotografía Emocional)

Cat Squirell members (Pascu Monge, Oriol Fontanals, Kid Carlos, Mingo Balaguer) are Spanish. What would you say characterizes Spanish blues scene in comparison to other European scenes?

I have been living in Spain now for twenty years and have met many Blues musicians here – some have become very close friends. There is an abundance of Blues Societies dotted all over the country and all are very active in promoting their local bands and, in conjunction with their local Town Hall, Tourist Office and local sponsors, often offer a ‘free entry’ annual Blues Festival. There are, of course, many other Festivals where you have to pay to enter – usually featuring some major non-Spanish acts. There are also a number of smaller venues in all the major cities – Madrid, Barcelona, Sevilla, Bilbao, Valencia for instance – that have fairly regular Blues nights at all-week music venues. Spain is a very large country with a comparatively small population. Much of the country is rural dotted with small towns and villages. The coastal strips are made up of Tourist destinations and large towns with small and large ports – boasting many music venues but few that feature the Blues.  Occasionally though, you might get lucky and find a small unlikely looking bar that advertises Blues on a regular basis – Spain is always full of surprises! 

I have had the pleasure of meeting with, and working with, some outstanding musicians in this country that I now call my home. Quique Bonal and Vicky Luna spring to mind immediately – leader/guitarist and vocalist, respectively, with a band called Q & The Moonstones.  And then I met Mingo Balaguer – leader of Mingo & The Blues Intruders. Working with both bands, on two separate CD projects, gave me an insight into the outstanding musicianship of Spanish Blues lovers. Whilst working on my third solo album “Just A Little Bit” [on Cambaya Records] I was introduced to a young man by the name of Kid Carlos. I instantly knew that here was a talent of a formidable nature.  He had it all and I was determined that I would work with him again.  Indeed, only a couple of years later Carlos was recording and working ‘on the road’ with me as featured guitarist with The Mighty Combo. My fourth solo album “Beyond The Blue Horizon” [Manhaton Records] featured mostly original songs – co-written my myself and Carlos. That album was very well received but sales were somewhat disappointing.  Regrettably, touring became non-viable as the costs soared – nothing left to do but call it a day!  Determined to not give up I began song-writing with Carlos with a view to forming a new band. I guess we must have spent close to eight months writing and demoing songs before I realised that we were short of a second featured instrument – harmonica. I feel very lucky and privileged to have both Kid Carlos and Mingo Balaguer as part of Cat Squirrel. As for Pascu Monge and Oriol Fontanals – drummer and bass player respectively – I could not have found anyone better than these two. They know the Blues – they know all the right things to play and where and when!  Hard working and such cool guys – the best. I say the best – the best in Spain for damn sure!

"To not always say ‘yes’ – stand back, take a deep breath and think for a moment or two." (Photo: Mike Vernon)

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

With the passing of so many of the ‘old school’ blues musicians I do have concerns about  where the genre is heading. The ever-growing plethora of Rock Blues and Blues Rock musicians also causes me to lose sleep at night – they seem to appear from nowhere and in general, I would have to say, offer little of interest to the diehard Blues fans.  Thankfully there are plenty of the latter still around! Also, there are a growing number of younger players who will, I feel certain, continue to champion the Real Blues as we know it. Rick Estrin and Kid Andersen are perfect examples. Bob Corritore, Monster Mike Welch, Jontavious Willis, Christone ‘Kingfish’ Ingram… all Blues musicians to watch out for; and there are plenty of others popping up all over the World. You just have to stay in touch to find out who is the ‘new’ and upcoming guitarist, vocalist, drummer, harp player, pianist – it can become a full-time occupation! I openly admit to steering clear of anything and anyone that has too much of a Rock influence in his or her styling – not my thing. At the same time though I have to admit to being a huge Z.Z. Top fan – right from the get-go. I guess I am hoping that the music we all so much can survive for awhile yet! Why would it not? The Blues will never die… even if it does get slightly twisted and bent out of shape!

How do you want the music to affect people? What's the balance in music between technique and soul?

I have always been a believer in entertaining your audience – that’s at the top of the list. For sure we succeeded on that score with The Mighty Combo so we hope that we will be able to achieve a similar level of excitement when finally Cat Squirrel hits the road! It goes without saying that the quality of music that we will be offering has to meet the expected high levels that will be set by our audiences. Our choice of material is quite varied although the boundaries start with Blues and ends with Blues – if you get my meaning. We stand in awe of the pioneers of this musical genre whether they be from the 1920s or be they from the current decade. We draw on the massive library of recorded material that is open for our collective access. The only boundaries are those that have been determined by the individual members of the band – so watch out!  I have the greatest respect for the other four members of Cat Squirrel. They know what they’re doing and they are masters at what they do – so, as I have already said, watch out! Technique plays its part here but everyone gives from the heart – and you cannot ask more of them than that!

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

As to what important lessons I have learned in my lengthy career in the music business? To not always say ‘yes’ – stand back, take a deep breath and think for a moment or two. I have often let my heart lead the way and most of the time I have made the correct decision – but not always. And when I have made a poor decision I have lived to regret it! Right now I am in a good place. Not too much pressure and a project that I can truly believe in. We will see in the fulness of time. Regrets? Of course there have been some – too late now though!  Missed opportunities – one or two but nothing monumental when I look back upon those early years. I was asked to produce Jethro Tull’s debut album but I declined the offer. I should have signed The Groundhogs but stepped back and missed out!  Took on a project with Edwin Starr that proved to be a mistake. So, have I lived a good life? Yes, I think so but then it’s not really for me to say, is it? I’ve certainly lived a full life – that’s for sure. Mixed success with marriages but lucky to have two beautiful daughters and four lovable grandchildren – not much to complain about really. As I have said – now I am in a good place and hoping that situation will continue for the foreseeable future.

Cat Squirrel - Home

(Photo: Mike Vernon on vocals, Kid Carlos on guitar, Mingo Balaguer on harmonica)

Views: 656

Comments are closed for this blog post

social media

Members

© 2024   Created by Michael Limnios Blues Network.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service