The Groundhogs track Split Part 2
An hour or so south of Dallas-Fort Worth near Waco Texas lies Brian Konzelman’s Ranch Studios.
To quote the studios site:
Hidden deep in the woods along the quiet bank of Texas’ Brazos River, the relaxed and quiet rural atmosphere and rustic surroundings provide a pleasant change from the typical high-pressure recording environment of many other recording studios. A private world-class Neve, SSL, API, Manley, Mytek, Langevin, TC-M6000, Massenberg, Neumann equipped facility set in creative, friendly surroundings.
Sounds great, maybe one day…
“Strange Town” a track from the fabulous Groundhogs album “Thank Christ For The Bomb”
It was a great pleasure for me recently to interview The Groundhogs Tony McPhee via that wonderful medium “email”. They have been one of my all time favourite bands and along with Tony McPhee’s solo blues albums always a great listen.
With albums such as Thank Christ for the Bomband SplitThe Groundhogs tore through the early 70’s and Tony Mcphee still has a loyal fan base to this day.
The Groundhogs influenced many bands and of course there’s Who Will Save the World? The Mighty Groundhogsone which Tony McPhee has only recently started to like himself as you will read.
It’s a fascinating interview, I hope you like it.
In the liner notes of the 60/40 Split DVD it’s mentioned your mother bought you your first guitar at six years old, did you start attempting blues chords straight away or did you come to the blues later?
Actually I was 14 (a late starter!!) when I got a guitar for Xmas.
My Mum paid for lessons which was a waste of time as he tried to teach me to read music which might just as well been Russian! I was academically challenged!! I hated school!!!
Then my brother brought home albums one of which was’ the blues roll on’ recorded by Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress, at the time it was a little too primitive fo a 15-year-old used to instrumental bands like Torquays, Ventures & the home-grown Shadows, but there was a particular track ‘Write me a few short lines’ by Fred McDowellwhich was logged in the neurons for later thought!
When did you start playing in your first group?
We played at our accursed school’s 1959 Xmas concert, just our acoustic guitars & vocals (myself, my best friends Dave Wetton, John Wild & some others our version of ‘Worried Man Blues’ in Dave, John & I & a drummer John ‘Cakey’ weeks formed a band which was called the Seneschals (a word I found by opening a dictionary at a random page), it means ahead butler at a castle but it LOOKED good, so that was our name!
Me & John Wild played Futurama 1 guitars & Dave Wetton had a Fenton Weill Bass
You were in the band the Dollar Bills that then became from what I gather John Lee’s Groundhogs, this is the band that backed John Lee Hooker on his tour in 1964 and also went on to back Champion Jack Dupree that must have been an amazing time for you. How well did you get on with John Lee Hooker and what did you learn from him?
We actually backed Dupree first for just one gig but in a music paper he said we were “the best band he ever played with” so that was fun!
I’d seen Hooker being backed by John Mayall & he looked so stern, he wasn’t having fun, but I learnt from him when we backed him he really liked the way we played behind him & he didn’t use a pick & wore his guitar strap over his right shoulder so I learnt to play fingerstyle with my strap over my right shoulder.
I remember in an earlier interview were you mentioned that you didn’t have to rehearse with John Lee Hooker before the band played with him live did that cause any problems?
Not at all, he played every song in Key of E & we knew every one, even when he played the first number at the first gig ‘James Brown’s ‘I’ll go crazy’ John just started the riff & we joined in.
You certainly were a very proficient blues group which the album “John Lee Hooker with the Groundhogs” shows, how long did it take to record these tracks?
In an evening, maybe 6 hours.
You were in a band called Truth in 1966 who released a single “I Go To Sleep” it is totally different to your later music did you record many tracks with the band and are they available?
I didn’t record with them at all, only played live gigs but I love their version of Ray Davies’ ‘I go to sleep
In 1966 Champion Jack Dupree recorded an album From New Orleans To Chicagowhich Eric Clapton, John Mayall, yourself and others played on what are your memories of those sessions?
I was booked to play all the guitar parts but Eric, who had left Mayall to go on a world trip, got as far as Greece then came back turned up at the studio & I got the back seat, but I got to know Jack very well, which was great for our collaborations for the future…
“Dupree ‘N’ McPhee The 1967 Blue Horizon Session” album highlights how great a guitarist you were even back then. The session is so intimate and well recorded, do you recall where the recordings took place and who produced them?
They were recorded in a small studio just along from the Angel Underground station in Islington, London and Mike Vernon produced it.
It sounds like you had a fun night going by your notes on the Hogs in Wolf’s Clothingalbum with Howling Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson and others back at the hotel in Russell Square. Did you play music or was it a night of chatting about the blues, what are your memories of the evening?
Sonny Boy wasn’t there, Hubert Sumlin told me that he & Wolf hated each other & all hell MAY have broken out, instead it was a great evening, there was an acoustic guitar there that the Wolf was playing, I remember he played ‘Down in the bottom’ he was a great acoustic player as well.
If only there was such a thing as video cameras in 1964!
You were also in a band called Herbal Mixture with John Dummer are there any recordings from this band?
Herbal Mixture was a band I formed with Pete Cruickshank & a drummer called Mick Meekham. At the same time I was playing in the John Dummer Band, we recorded 2 singles as Herbal Mixture ‘Love that’s died’& ‘Machines’ those tracks & others even demo tracks are on Distortion records vinyl & CD ‘Please leave my mind’
You were invited to join John Mayalls band, but being such an explosive guitarist you seem to be able to make the instrument squeal and scream as well as having the ability to play sweet gentle melodies plus the great acoustic blues do you think it would have been confining for you being in John Mayalls band?
The ‘Hogs were supporting John Mayall’s Band at the Rikki-Tik club in Windsor UK & Clapton came up to me & told me he was leaving Mayall as he’d made enough money to go on a world trip, he also said Mayall was a Megalomaniac, so when John asked me to join his band I remembered Eric’s words so I rejected John’s offer.
He was main producer for Liberty records, but he didn’t have a clue about Blues and all he said was “next” after each take!! But I got on with him OK.
Blues Obituarywas The Groundhogs first foray into the world of major rock releases and a change of style from the tight blues group (Scratching The Surface) into that individual sounding three piece power trio that became so successful. Was it a natural easy progression or something you had to work through as a band?
Blues was hard to get gigs after a while so our manager came up with the idea of the title & I started thinking about writing songs other than Blues.
The very first Groundhogs song I heard was “Mistreated” and for me it is the very beginning of that individual sound that you created. It has those marvellous short sharp riffs and a tightness that years of playing had brought to the band. How long did it take to write the whole “Blues Obituary” album?
‘Mistreated’ was a blues song but I added a few chords, in BDD I wrote new lyrics, ‘Light was the day’ was based on ‘Dark was the night’ Willie Johnson’s great track which he hummed.
So I just had to adapt, add & write a few words so all in all maybe 3 months??
I read previously that John Peel played the Groundhogs track “Soldier” from the “Thank Christ For The Bomb” album, it is such a great album and as fresh today as it was when released. Do you think it would have been as successful without his airplay or do you feel that because of the albums quality it would have broken through regardless?
Did you get to know John Peel very well?
John had a must-hear Sunday afternoon show, he had played Love sculpture’s ‘Sabre dance’ the week before which went in the charts almost immediately thus making Dave Edwards career certain, he played ‘Soldier’ mainly because he liked the “y’knows” at the end of every line, I got that idea from the Beatles!!
He definitely helped get TCFTB in the charts he was THAT important , but I think it would have charted.
When we got together in ’68 we needed a PA & JoAnn Kelly asked him to lend us money for one so I went to see him & he lent us £100 which we used for a PA then paid him back from gig money, but I didn’t know him well.
In 1971 you toured with the Rolling Stones and from this came Live at Leeds 71
I read Mick Jagger chose the band personally, that must have been a real encouragement for you all at the time?
Truth is Mick had gone to see another band which they thought might be suitable but he didn’t like them but we were on the same ‘bill’ & he liked us, so we got a phone call the morning after, that was a shock, but it was encouraging for the most popular R’n’B band in the world to ask us to support them!
Split” is an amazing album, there’s not much quite like it really, it sounds chaotic and psychy but comes together wonderfully and then at the end there’s the tip of the hat to the earlier days of the bands blues roots with “Groundhog Blues”. Did you write and rehearse this album before you recorded it or did it come together in the studio?
We had most of the ‘Split ‘ tracks rehearsed before it came to record apart from the lyrics which occurred to me after we recorded the backing tracks, I realised that I’d written instrumentally the mental aberration I’d had the year before but we were 10 minutes short so I remembered a track I’d written in Germany in 1969 which we’d played live many times ‘that was ‘Cherry Red’ so that took 2 takes + overdubs to record & I’d been playing ‘Groundhog Blues’ for many years so again just 2 takes.
“Who Will Save The World” is in my opinion a great Groundhogs album as well. “Earth is not room enough”, “Bog Roll Blues” and the fabulous “Death in the Sun” just to mention a few are such worthy songs. It does have a lighter feel than “Split” is this what you meant when you said that you were pushed into releasing an album that was wrong for the time, were you wanting to release another album similar to “Split”?
We had been touring constantly for months & UA records were pushing hard for another album & I wasn’t ready to write one at all, the fabulous De Lane Lea studios had moved from a somewhat dingy but great place in Hollborn underneath a block of offices to a smart but sterile new building in Wembley & that affected my writing & although Martin Birch was engineering, it wasn’t the same ‘vibe’ (sorry about using that word, but it fits!) I’ve learnt to like the album recently.
On your album notes for the Who Said Cherry Redalbum you say around the “Who Will Save The World” period that things were going wrong, are you able to say what was going wrong and what pressures the record company were putting on the band?
We had changed Drummers & Managers & we felt disregarded by a record company that we helped get on it’s feet, basically.
Why did the Groundhogs split up in 1975? You had some amazingly strong albums behind you.
It was the only way to get out of a situation where the music press had it in for us & even promoters who’ve made so much money through us were being arseholes’, it was time to say “Fuck’em”
The Two Sides of Tony (T.S.) McPheealbum, side 2 “The Hunt”, was quite a radical change what sort of reaction did you get at the time of its release?
By this time (1973) I’d long lost interest in press reaction, but the 10 day tour went very well & the audience reaction was very positive even though it was so different to what I’d done before.
There weren’t many people experimenting with synthesizers in those days within the blues / rock area, the Beatles used a moog on parts of Abbey Road, and prog acts dabbled with mellotrons but “The Hunt” was a full on synth track how did all that come about and what led you to the Arp 2600 and drum synthesisers?
I’d seen Edgar Winter using an Arp2600 when we toured with them in the US & was impressed by it also Stevie Wonder used them to great effect, at the time drum machines were thin on the ground & I used a Bentley Rhythm Ace which was tone generators as opposed to actual sampled drums as is the case later on.
In the past you’ve mentioned that your lyrics are dark and leaning towards the left politically “Thank Christ For The Bomb” is such a perfect album, the songs are so strong not just musically but lyrically. Are lyrics easy for you to write or do they take time and angst?
Once I have a theme for individual songs or whole albums it gets easier but there’s always angst!!!
You produced the Groundhogs and your own solo albums, given that you actually have produced many albums, three making the top ten in the UK, did you ever produce any other acts or think about doing that more?
One of the things I like about your album productions is the live feel you manage to get. The rhythm section and guitars especially when played loud feel as if they are in the room with you. Cymbals for example are so up front sonically. On the “Black Diamond” album the sound is more compressed was this a conscious decision? As a lot of recordings at that time were starting to use more compression and it’s used even more so now.
It’s mainly down to what ‘outboard’ gear is available. I just go with the flow, MP3’s are compressed to fuck!!
I noticed the Crosscut Saw/Black Diamondalbums were recorded at TS studios I’d imagine that was your studio. Do you still have a studio or a home recording set up and if so what equipment do you have?
I had a 16 track Analogue studio in Suffolk , Ampeg multi-track, Cadac desk etc. Now it’s all digital, Fostex Hard disk Mac computers m-audio interface. I have got an Otari MTR 90 Mk 2 to play my 2″ tapes & digitize them
Did it take a great deal of rehearsal to perfect The Groundhogs songs or was the band playing so much live it became second nature?
Never liked rehearsing so it was all down to gigging.
Your voice has an unusual warm almost honey tone to it that cuts through the tracks do you use a favourite microphone?
Recently I used an AKG c1000 condenser, not expensive but great for voice & acoustic.
What guitars do you currently have?
Acoustic — Harmony Sovereign, Yamaha APX-6 Yamaha FG180, 1960 Silvertone, 1939 Harmony Archtop
Electric — Godin, Tokai Goldstar , Ibanez Roadstar Zemaitis Metal front.
What guitar, amp and foot pedals do you use for Groundhogs gigs and secondly for the acoustic blues gigs?
For Band gigs-Engl 50 watt valve amp plus home-made distributed port cabinet wit 1×12″ Celestion, either
Zoom g7-1ut multi pedal or a board with Boss o/drive ,tuner, octaver, Akai head-rush & Crybaby WahWah.
Nothing on the acoustic gigs, straight in the PA.
What have Pete Cruickshank and Ken Pustelnik been doing over the years (apart from The Groundhogs reunions) are they still involved in the music business? Is Dave Anderson picking up OK after his recent illness?
Pete & Ken called themselves ‘Groundhog’s Rhythm Section’ & backed blues guitarists like Dave Weld
Dave is over his heart attacks just using them to get out of humping gear!!
You also over the years have performed many times with your partner Joanna Deacon, do you write many songs together?
Jo’s written some lyrics, but we haven’t written much together.
What is Joanna’s musical background?
Singing in a local band.
What is ahead musically? Any chance of a new Groundhogs album? Or are you quite happy singing the blues that you obviously love?
There IS a new album to be called ‘At the Third Stroke’ I’m just waiting (& hoping) my voice comes back strong enough to do some vocals, Jo will be singing on some tracks, but I have to write the lyrics first so some things haven’t changed! The songs are different to what I’ve written before & we have some brass (Sax & Trumpet) on a couple of numbers, so it’s not Split Part 5!!
I JUST WISH I could sing ANYTHING at the moment without sounding like I was pissed!
Quite a few young bands have cited yourself and The Groundhogs as an influence. Is there any advice regarding the music business that you would like to pass onto them?
The same words I spoke to a blues band who came to my house in 1979
“I f you enjoy what you’re doing, keep doing it’ that band was the DTs & members Simon ‘Honeyboy’ Edwards who is a renowned Blues harp-player & Anthony Thistlethwaite (Spin Doctors) So keep at it!!
Joanna is now singing from what I gather in The Groundhogs. It seems to me that through all your musical experiences you keep on going and find a way, no more so than now after your recent illness. Joanna by the sounds of it has been a great friend and companion and you continue to be an inspiration for musicians as well as an encouragement also for people who are trying to overcome the enormous difficulties of a severe illness.
Thank you for granting this interview Tony it’s been an honour, may the health pick up and we all look forward to more music from you (and Joanna and The Groundhogs) in whatever form it takes.
Krystle Warrens acclaimed perfomance on Later with Jools Holland – 22nd of Sept 2009
For those of you who are not familiar with this concert, it has been put together as a tribute to Nick Drake and his work and has been touring the UK to rave reviews.
The performers included Scritti Politti front-man Green Gartside, Vashti Bunyan, Robyn Hitchcock, Irish vocalist Lisa Hannigan, US soul singer Krystle Warren and Scott Matthews who won an Ivor Novello award for his own music.
Underpinning the evening was bass player Danny Thompson who was there at the beginning of folk pioneers Pentangle, he also has played bass on Nick Drakes Five Leaves Left amongst playing on an amazing amount of recordings including John Martyn, Sandy Denny, Eric Clapton, John McLaughlin, Peter Gabriel, Ralph McTell, Elvis Costello, Kate Bush, Marc Bolan, Richard Thompson, Everything But the Girl, Robert Plant, Donovan, Tim Buckley, Loudon Wainwright III, Mark Knopfler, David Sylvian, Rod Stewart, and Roy Orbison.
The Musical director is Kate St John, and musicians are Neill MacColl, Zoe Rahman, Martyn Barker and Steve Jones plus an Australian six peice string section.
Added to the list are Australian performers Shane Nicholson from Brisbane with several acclaimed albums to his credit along with the work he has done with his wife Kasey Chambers and Melbourne folk duo Luluc singer Zoe Randell and Steve “Harmony” Hassett.
The music of Nick Drake has a timeless feel about it, ironic since at their release his albums sold very little (Five Leaves Left, only sold 2000 copies according to Joe Boyd) and it’s only been years later that his legacy has taken hold.
The concert “Way To Blue: The Songs Of Nick Drake” was held at the MELBOURNE RECITAL CENTRE on Monday 14 & Tuesday 15 November, I attended on a damp Tuesday night.
The concert was a night to remember, the performances were absolutely amazing and beautiful. The songs took on another life and were not exactly how Nick Drake himself would have performed them, these artists have their own particular styles and this is what they brought to the songs. In some ways their interpretation of Nick Drakes work brought a new life to them, one I hadn’t considered possible before.
The big irony with Nick Drake is that at the time of his recordings he was not successful at all, you would not have seen the numbers of people who attend the Way To Blue concerts go out of their way to see him, unlucky them. His mixture of folk and jazz didn’t cut it with people but he was releasing records at a particularily point when Britain was moving through prog rock, heavy metal and folky wonderment, hard for even these songs apparently to stand out.
At his death in 1974 he left us just three albums, Five Leaves Left, Bryter Layter and Pink Moon. All of them now held up as classics of their period. During the 80’s and 90’s he was seen as an influence on many artists as the new acoustic boom hit the music business and Nick Drakes own star began to shine.
The show has been put together by Nick Drakes original producer Joe Boyd and what a great job he has done. He has gathered a tremendous range of artists and musicians and they all do Nick Drake proud. There are times in the concert where you wish one of the performers coming on was actually Nick Drake, the night had a real element of emotion and sensitivity it all seemed as though Nick Drake was not far away at all, that he would appear the next time an artist entered the stage.
There could have been a little more audience conversation I felt from the artists, but as it was the songs were left to talk for themselves and of course Nick Drake, and this was probably the intention. Robyn Hitchcock who’s character and zaniness managed to come through just a bit, added a human component and was a nice break in the intensity of emotion that seemed to build with each performance.
Lisa Hannigan’s version of Black Eyed Dog was all foot stompin’, harmonium and memorable, almost making you wonder if it was a Nick Drake song.
The superb Krystle Warren put another aspect to Time Has Told Me. The song rose up and flew down with desire and passion, what beautiful songs Nick Drake wrote and how these varied interpretations show that.
Vashti Bunyan who made a comeback herself after giving the music business away added her own almost elf like interpretations. Her beautiful fragile voice hanging in the air as Nick Drakes poetic lyrics hung gently there with her.
Ex Scritti Politti front-man Green Gartside, who i wouldn’t have recognised looking nothing like his 80’s self was wonderful too, it was an absolute pleasure being in the same room as such magnificent performers.
Who sounded the most like Nick Drake? well for me Scott Mathews was uncannily Nick Drake, beautiful wispy interpretations. But this was not a copy Nick Drakes vocal style night, every artist brought something new to this wonderful night of magic.
One of the highlights of the show were the Australian performers LULUC (Zoë Randell and Steve Hassett) and Shane Nicholson whos interpretations were spot on, they easily held their own in such glorious professional company. They are world class and deserve all the success they can get.
Robert Kirby who died in 2009 was the original arranger on the orchestral parts for Nick Drakes albums and his original scores were used and beautifully played by the Australian string section.
The last song of the night was an ensemble version of Pink Moon done as all the other songs were with delicacy, feeling and empathy.
A fitting tribute and a show that held up wonderfully in it’s own right, marvelous performances that will last within me for years to come, exceptional.
Nick Drake would have been proud and had he lived I’m sure he would have been up there doing it all himself, as it is we have his legacy, one that will last forever.
For those who have come to Noah and The Whale through their first two albums Peaceful, the World Lays Me Down (2008) and The First Days of Spring (2009) Last Night on Earthwill be a different listening experience for you.
Gone are the indie folk almost dark sounds replaced with an upbeat shall I say, radio friendly bunch of tunes.
Charlie Fink’s vocals still have the same quality, although not as quirkily folky, the stripped down acoustic instrumentation of the first two albums is substituted by a more full, produced band sound.
The songs are catchy enough and lyrically the turns of phrase are still there, if not as left of centre. The band on
this album appear to be leaving the indie folk label behind for at least the time being.
I can see these songs fitting in well with material from the earlier albums in live performance, however as an album I would love to hear some of the more darker aspects that lay within that earlier material interspersed with some of these newer tracks.
It’s a hard thing matching the odd gloomy lyric with an up tempo tune but not impossible and to some extent the band pull this off. The song arrangements which have always been a strong point of this band are still prominently well done here.
An artist has to progress within themselves, there will be those who will embrace this new direction and others who will yearn for the sounds of the first two albums.
Either way Noah and The Whale have managed to hang on to their integrity even with this change in direction.
Clip from The Kinks “State Of Confusion” which shows the Neve room at Konk Studios.
Apart from The Kinks artists who have recorded there include The Kooks, Blur, Elvis Costello, Steve Winwood, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Tears for Fears, The Cure, Teardrop Explodes, The Bee Gees and many more.
Ray Davies thought about selling the studio in 2010 but in 2011 he said he had another album to do. We’ll find out I guess after the album is completed if the studio will be demolished or not.
Photos courtesy of the Konk Studio’s web site.
The Stone Roses Elephant Stone video clip
Noah And The Whale : L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N. video.
Listening to the new album Last Night On Earth. I will review this album soon.