MUSIC: Interview with John Mayall: "You don't need to be loud to get your music across"

Photo by Terry Bert. 

Father figures hold the dogmatic and almost bewitching power of being both fear and awe inspiring. Still, and in spite of the devotional nature of their influence, their numeral range is programmed, by the laws of biological anthropology, to be rather limited, no matter how big of a Mormon or a pussy killer your father claims he was at the tender age of 23; not only on pollination subsists the man.

With blues father figures, however, the potency reach is unlimited and its potential danger skyrockets consequently. Unless one is John Mayall, of course, unmovable father (together with Alexis Korner, Cyril Davis and two or three other cool cats) of the unfairly disdained British blues. In that particular case, not one single fuck is given about popularity, record success or actually answering what the interviewer is asking. On the occasion of his forthcoming Iberian tour, we talked to the walking guitar legend to try and decode the mystique of the blues. Spoiler alert: we failed miserably. We didn’t even get close to it. Cool your jets, people, don’t get too disappointed. There was no chance. We’re sorry.

They say that people stop discovering or caring about new music as soon as they reach the age of 30, statement that obviously wouldn’t apply to somebody who never really cared about “new music” in the first place. Are you contented with being regarded as, undoubtedly, one of the most crucial and productive blues revivalists of the past century or do you actually see yourself as a rather misunderstood innovator in some less evident way?

I certainly never feel that I’m being misunderstood because there are enough people out there who follow my music and it makes me feel very proud of my achievements. I also feel lucky that throughout my career I’ve seldom had issues with the various record companies, and now that I have great contact with Eric Corne of Forty Below Records, who owns and engineers sessions with his artists, I’m in really a good place.

As a larger-than-life figure who literally has been instrumental and fundamental in giving shape to the blues during its most popular and mainstream historical period, the 1950s and 1960s, do you see any future for the genre in this contemporary age of computerized music?

The blues will always be with us, as in every generation there are always new artistes coming up who keep the music alive.

Having been a pivotal participant in the British blues movement during the 1960s that, from quite a far geographical and chronological distance, revitalized a form of black American art which had been neglected by its originators for decades, do you have any clues on why the blues has historically appealed to British kids more than to coetaneous generations in the US? What was it that made you relate and connect with something so apparently remote as a child and teenager?

I started collecting and revering blues and jazz records at the age of ten, and the main reason that American blues artists never had the same acceptance in their own country is because, up until the 1960s, black people had to live a separate life from white people. Racial division in US history meant that their music wasn’t heard by people in general.  However, they were idolized in Europe for what they did.

You backed Sonny Boy Williamson II when he first arrived in the UK with his inseparable bowler hat and umbrella, amongst other greats like John Lee Hooker or Champion Jack Dupree. How did the experience of meeting, seeing and playing with those who really knew what the blues was about, who had it running through their veins, change your perception and style of approach to the music? Did it intimidate you or legitimate you more in your dedication to it?

I certainly wasn’t intimidated by working and playing with them on their club tours, but I did learn one thing and that was that you didn’t need to be loud to get your music across.

Having met the man himself, do you see any amount of truth or are you able to empathize with the late Sonny Boy Williamson II when he famously declared that “those British boys want to play the blues real bad, and they do”? Do you think British blues isn’t given enough credit as a genre of its own, just as a movement that paid homage and helped to revitalize another?

I know for a fact that Sonny Boy was referring to the Yardbirds when he made that famous quote, but that was part of Sonny Boy’s alcohol fuelled wit. I never had any trouble working with him.

For years, you were the mentor behind the scenes for some young and ambitious blues lovers who would later grow to become the biggest rock & roll stars on the planet. Was talent that easy to find during those days or do you have a particularly infallible eye to recognize it? What do you think was the combination of circumstances that made so many brilliant artists gravitate around you?

If I choose someone to work with me, it is always because I admire and am excited by their playing, and when they work with me they are allowed to express themselves and soon develop as a result of that musical freedom.

Talk About That will be the 66th album of your career, and that’s a milestone that not many can take pride in! What’s left to say for a musician who has his 80th Anniversary Tour already behind him and is still going strong? What percentage of it is just the pure pleasure of playing the music and what other intends to send a message, to say something out loud?

I have always enjoyed being on the road performing for the people wherever they may be, and without hit record success I’ve always had freedom to play as I feel.

I’ve read that you have a tour with around 130 dates ahead of you this year. Would you say the blues makes more sense with the rawness and spontaneity that a live performance offers, and not so much around the production and premeditated atmosphere of the recording studio? Is this a sort of unique trait of the genre? Or do you recognize that the blues can also be as thought-out and intricate as progressive rock, for example?

Studio work and live work are very different in that with a live show, you explore the medium regardless of whatever sound system is involved, whereas in the studio you get to shape the music into something permanent.  In the studio, however, I always try and capture the same spirit as live performance.

There’s something about the music you do that, across generations and continents, still makes people fall head over heels for it. What is it that separates the blues from any other art form that has ever existed? What’s that universal human struggle that it manages to capture so uniquely well? Would you dare saying you’ve succeeded in pinpointing its incomparable mystique after so many years? 

The blues is the historical base of most popular music in that it speaks of the situations in life that we all go through.

And last but not least, and as Nardwuar the Human Serviette (great contemporary Canadian music journalist) always asks at the end of his interviews, why should people care about John Mayall?

Because it is true to our ways we deal with life.

Whatever that means. Ladies and gents, that was a legend talking.

Lee aquí la entrevista en español con John Mayall para Muzikalia.