Blues in Britain Magazine, Interview, Issue 195, March 2018

Zoë Schwarz Blue Commotion mark their sixth anniversary with their seventh album The Blues And I Should Have A Party. Zoë and husband Rob Koral spoke to us about challenges, changes and children.

For the new album the band chose to record at Superfly studios in Nottinghamshire,

[Rob] “I’ve heard several of Wayne Proctor’s productions and it’s always a very slick sound: it was a case of wanting to get a different slant, on the mixing particularly. We produced ourselves, chose the takes, performances and arrangements, there were no outside influences there, but Wayne and Steve Wright did a great job of the mixing: they’re very good at their job so that was a good move for us. Wayne went over to Steve’s Y Dream studios in North Wales and they spent a week there fine-tuning the mixes. That meant I could stay home and chill out! It was all good fun and it happened very quickly: we did six tracks just on the first day (including driving up from the South Coast, parking the car, getting the gear out and setting up!) then seven on the second. We normally nail a song in three takes maximum, so if the song is five minutes long that’s only fifteen minutes of studio time! Sometimes I make a big thing about this, but we do play live in the studio: there doesn’t seem to be so many that do it like that any more! If had to name someone who had a similar style and approach then I’d say Matt Schofield: the way he plays with his band, you can hear them playing together. Much of the album is the four of us playing and interacting: no dubs, no alterations. There is massive interaction between us, and you can’t overdub that! When the musicians are good enough, and you’ve got a flow in the studio, just let it roll: these guys are great musician! They all read music so we sketch out the musical DNA, the structures, and then just play them. There may be some discussion about the feel, ‘Do you want this section like this or like that?’ but if you’ve seen us play live, that’s what we do in the studio!”

In keeping with the ‘live’ feel, the album features no guests or sit-ins, just the four regular band members,

[R] “The additions we’ve had in the past, sax and things, were actually dubbed on later so it’s always been ‘us four’ in the studio, there is of course another part of that equation and that’s economics, if we have guest artists then i’d expect to pay them properly, so we didn’t have any horns this time, the guys we normally use live on the south coast so bussing them up to nottinghamshire, sorting a hotel, buying them a curry afterwards and paying them a few bob, we don’t really have the budget to do that! that’s something matt schofield too has spoken about, how he’d love to have horns but the budget doesn’t allow it. we’re all full time professionals: look at paul robinson, he’s had two stints with van morrison, played on countless hit singles, the proclaimers, the buggles, rod stewart, nina simone... these are class acts so we have a wage structure for the band, which is the right thing to do anyway. so we have to think carefully about what we do and what we accept, sometimes that does mean zoe and i possibly going out and not being paid to ensure that we can pay the guys at least a bare sensible minimum!”

The songs’ moods range from ecstatic to brooding, partly a result of shared songwriting duties,

[Zoë] “Recently Rob has contributed more lyrics: now, I don’t mean to say they’re ‘throwaway’ lyrics but he is much more ‘Right, I’m off to write some lyrics’, he sits in a room and comes up with a bunch of random things. Songs that are wholly ‘mine’ like ‘The Memory Of You’ about my mum, I take months over. If I feel passionate about the subject it takes me quite a long time. I’ll write a load of verses, then later come back, pick my favourites then maybe add more! So in the end probably only 25% of what I’ve written down originally becomes the song. The songs are always going to be about our lives, our struggles, because that is the meaning of the blues! The various emotions can be exhausting: it’s like actors having to go through all these emotions doing Shakespeare or whatever in the space of an hour or two, That’s the same for us. Doing gigs is exhausting: people say, ‘You’re so lucky what you do!’, and of course, bloody hell we are lucky to do this! But after the emotional energy of a gig I do feel quite drained. But that’s what it’s about: if you want to get the feeling across you’ve got to mean! When it’s totally flippant it perhaps means less to you. Having said that, the first song on the album ‘Please Don’t Cheat On Me’ is quite fun: the first verse was all Rob, I thought that was really funny ‘I don’t mind macaroni cheese, I don’t mind my cat’s got fleas...’ and it makes perfect sense for the song.” As well as being emotionally diverse the new album possibly ranges across more styles than even This Is The Life I Choose, “We don’t ever approach songs in a ‘I’ll write this one like this’ way, it only ever happens by mistake! Everyone is influenced by whatever music they’ve listened to over the years: when I listen back to some of our music I do think, ‘Gosh, that sounds a bit like x doesn’t it?’ Things come out of the organic way in which we write and play.” The band have again used a couple of lyrics by Pete Feenstra, “Rob’s lyric writing is off the wall, totally random and when I read them I think, ‘Really?! Try reading this out loud!’ but it does work really well with the music. With my lyrics I can’t help but want to make things rhyme, have the sentences similar lengths, the traditional kind of way of writing and Pete’s lyrics are like that, with traditional metre and rhyme, so that catchy poppy thing comes out more: we don’t really do pop! I prefer the punkier end of it, so that’s where that comes from.”

[R] “Pete’s lyrics are very often like poems that repeated kind of hypnotic groove, and that does kind of tell us how the music should be arranged, we never put constrictions on the music at all. On the last album there’s ‘No Money In My Pocket’, the almost punky one, and then ‘Call Of The Night’ with the acoustic guitar, which you wouldn’t think of as being our sound: two sets of Pete’s lyrics and two wildly different approaches. Likewise on this one ‘Time Waits For No-one’ also has that semi-folky thing. So we don’t work to a formula, we don’t manipulate our sound or tell anyone how to play in the studio, it’s just how we four play together.” The band’s recognisably distinct sound owes much to Rob’s guitar and Pete Whittaker’s organ, “Basically we play on the changes, and we use chord sequences where you have to address the sound of the chord, instead of just forcing a pentatonic scale on the top of it. So many rock and blues guitarists can’t play with the changes, so whether it’s a minor or major key their approach barely changes, which is pretty crap really! That always grates with me when I hear that. I think there’s a sophistication in what we do: there’s an understanding of harmony and how the chords relate to each other, which is rare in this genre. It’s stock in trade for jazz and fusion guitarists: you can get more colours, more note choices... and they’re the right ones as opposed to quite often the wrong ones! When I first heard Matt Schofield I thought, ‘Wow, there’s an English guy playing blues, but with a level of sophistication. His playing stands out a mile and a half from the crowd: the elegance of the touch, the beauty of the sound and the deepness of the style... that’s what I think of as ‘quality blues’. Pete is another player who can play bebop, with the intricate changes, fast tempo, doing all the bass lines himself: it’s awesome. So we have that sound in the equation too: on ‘Way Down In The Caves’ that short organ solo is fantastic, it makes me think of The Nice, that really British Hammond playing.”

The final element of the band’s sound is Zoë’s vocal style, although we hear a newer flavour on ‘You Don’t Live Here Anymore’,

[Z] “The pitch of that song was right in the middle of my voice: the way its placed does sound different. I normally like it either quite edgy, right up in the top of my chest voice, or otherwise soft and down low: it isn’t often I pitch something in the middle.” And there are unexpected lush harmonies too, “that was fun! The engineer Andy Banfield (God, he was good! One of those engineers who does just the right amount of contributing, I thank Wayne so much for introducing us!) was going, ‘What about a harmony here? And one there?’ That was us collectively in the studio adding things on: when I was writing it, it wasn’t originally going that way at all!”

[R] I actually told Wayne it almost sounded like King King! The big power chorus at the end has that feel they have. So I think this album is quite diverse. we’re known for being quite diverse and surprising people with our set lists in terms of tempos and feels. I’m proud that with our music you can recognise our sound pretty instantly: thats what people strive for really, to have their own style or sound. And that’s not planned, you can’t plan it, that’s just our thing!”

The band pay tribute to the fans who make it all possible with the heartfelt ‘Thank You’,

[Z] The seed of that song came when we played a duo gig at some bloody shopping mall! Lots of people just walked past, but occasionally someone would stop, look and smile and it was like, ‘Yay, we’ve engaged with someone!’ In the car on the way back home we said, ‘Well thanks those people who did pay attention’ hence the song. It’s absolutely about people who just. Come. To. The. Gigs! Everybody (even the biggest, most successful acts) is trying to get bums on seats, so it’s a huge thank you to everyone who comes out. It’s so stressful when there’s no one there, that really does age me! When you get there and it’s a full house we get so excited!” The band were honoured to be selected as one of five to compete in last years blues challenge, “I’m just not into competitions, but how nice to play at The Cavern for a start! The camaraderie among the musicians was just great, and the people who put us forward are people who are passionate and knowledgable about the genre, so it was not to be sneezed at. I hope I’m not speaking out of turn when I say I know the result was close (and I think it was nearly us!) There were a lot of other women there, competing, judging and everything: Connie Lush was on the board, Kyla Brox was there, Kat from Kat & Co as well as the lovely Elles Bailey, so when the challenge was finished we were all just milling about drinking and it was just really fun!” And Zoë (and guest lyricist Pete) were both recently nominated in the new UKBF awards, “When I saw that list I thought, ‘Thank f***!’ Of course, it’s not the be all and end all, but it is really helpful. You think, ‘Wow, lots of people must have put us down as their choice’ and that is a really nice compliment. Pete is just so passionate about every single thing about music, he’s a walking encyclopaedia, a proper authority on it all.”

Having played the Czech Republic last year, they’ll be heading back East this spring,

[R] This May we go to Russia as part of The British Blues Invasion: just five nights but that’ll be good. And now Cassie is eleven we are working on other dates in Europe: although nothing’s confirmed yet there will be more!” As parents of a youngish child sorting gigs hasn’t always been easy, “It was very awkward, and the wheels have come off occasionally, trying to be in two places at the same time! We’ve managed quite successfully so far, but it’s been frantic! Cassie has had a very interesting upbringing: she’s been to so many live gigs! Her mum was singing gigs when she was in the womb, right up to three weeks before giving birth, so she’s been on the scene a long time, inside and out. I hope she does go down the music route herself, she has a great ear for music, so lets see!”

[Z] “Cassie, is always going, ‘Mum, your songs...! Why don’t you do this one?’ and it’ll be some chart teenybopper she listens to! But that’s just young tastes: young tastes need to mature, I think the blues is something people get drawn to as they mature and discover the richness and the honesty of it, it’s not something eighteen year olds necessarily get. Having said that, my other daughter Bonnie is a musician, she plays the cello and has her own group so there are always going to be exceptions to the rule.”

While there are plenty of male ‘teenage sensations’ on the scene, female ones are rarer, “I think a lot of younger female artists go the singer songwriter route: if you’re strumming campfire chords it is harder to be ‘bluesy’: that is something comes with just being able to play, as well as having the experience of hardships and all that life can throw at you.”

As well as their overseas dates ZSBC will also be making a rare visit to the capital this year, for a double header this month at the Half Moon in Putney one of a declining number of blues venues left in London,

[R] “I used to go down to the Half Moon to see Alan Holdsworth, Barbara Thompson all those kinds of players. The whole scene now is under a lot of pressure, largely due to regulation: how much does it cost to drive into Central London? It’s not just the Congestion Charge now, if you’ve got a diesel beyond a certain age there’s another £30 on top: with NCP charges you’re down £50-60 before you’ve even played a note! The Half Moon has loads of great history, though: it’s got a proper stage and a proper space, proper PA and lighting. We’re there with Catfish which should be an interesting night! I think for our gig which is on a Sunday we’ll be looking at an earlier start as of course public transport closes early on a Sunday! I think bands have to be more organised these days about how they go about their business, but that’s OK: if that’s what we need to do that’s what we’ll do, we’re reasonably well organised and we will make it work!”

 

  • Link to Blues In Britain website outlining this issue.
    • Words by: Moray Stuart

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