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.