Interview: Classic Rock The Blues Magazine - Issue 16, October 2014
First time I met the Blues: Rob Koral and Zoe Schwarz of Zoe Schwarz Blue Commotion on mixing jazz, punk and rock'n'roll to create "blues with something else".
Since playing their first gig in February 2012, Zoe Schwarz Blue Commotion have established a name for themselves thanks to their intoxicating blend of funky, jazzy blues. Their new album, Exposed, was crowd funded through PledgeMusic and looks set to build on the success of their last two releases, The Blues Don't Scare Me and Good Times. The Blues caught up with founder members Zoe Schwarz (vocals) and Rob Koral (guitar). and took them back to their roots.
Do you remember when you were first bitten by the blues bug? Rob: I was at school when I became exposed to Cream, which was Eric Clapton Ginger Baker and jack Bruce. There was a BBC documentary about their farewell concert at the Royal Albert Hall. As a result I bought my first LP - Disraeli Gears, Cream's second album.
Did you learn to play the album note for note? I don't know if I went that far, but I had a friend at school who had started to learn it, so I got him to show me things. I wanted to play some of this licks. Eric was God.
Did you go back and listen to Clapton's influences? I did. I even went back as far as pre-war acoustic blues, but it didn't stay with me for very long. I also found that people like Freddie King just didn't do it to the level that Eric did - he took it to another universe. But there's a distinction between Eric Clapton Mark 1, which was in the late 1960's, and Eric Clapton Mark 2, from the 1970's onwards. To me, that's a different person.
And Zoe, how did you get into the blues? Zoe: When I was about 16, I was given a Billie Holiday tape. I know she's not strictly blues, but to me who's as bluesy as anyone else. It's about the feel. It was like being struck by thunderbolts and lightning. From that moment onwards, it was all I wanted to do.
Who else has been an influence on you? Rob: At the time, there were people like Roy Buchanan and Jimi Hendrix, who was an innovator. Then I listened to people like Yan Akkerman. But now I've came back full circle to doing what we're doing now, which is strongly blues-influenced music, with some great players in the band and room for instrumental fireworks. We're not just a band with a diva up front. I came back to the blues more heavily armed, with extra tools for the job.
What classic blues albums do you own? Zoe: I can't pinpoint any one, apart from my 50 or 60 Billie Holiday albums. My thing has always been the blues with something else. Ray Charles introduced me to the tunes of Muddy Waters. I can't remember the name of the Ray Charles album though. It was probably a greatest hits compilation. The first album I bought was actually London Calling by The Clash, because it was so earthy and gritty.
Did you see many blues performers when you were growing up? Rob: I liked Rory Gallagher at the time and I saw him live a few times. But for me, his music doesn't stand the test of time in the same way. I was Led Zeppelin, who were great live. I was living in Bournemouth at the time and bands used to come down to the Pavilion every week and we would see whoever was on. Focus, Black Sabbath and Ginger Baker's Air Force all came down. Zoe: I was stuck in a boarding school. It was hard to get out. I had a tiny transistor radio and I would listen to John Peel late at night, at the risk of getting a detention. Occasionally he would play some blues. I went to quirky things in Camden when I first moved up to London. I would try to get into places like Ronnie Scott's when they were doing blues gigs.
Has the blues been maligned over the years? Rob: I think it's had its up and downs. I think people who want to put it down think of it as turgid, downtrodden, miserable music, but it doesn't have to be. That's just people who haven't bothered to explore it properly. There's a snobbish element, where some players might think of it as too simplistic to play, but to do it properly takes real ability, phrasing and style.
And what influences can we hear on Exposed? Zoe: Rob's into Led Zeppelin and The Who. If you love the music, it gets into you blood. Mostly my influences are male singers, like Robert Plant and Roger Daltrey, who really passionately sing. It's all about the words and telling a story. An equal mix of all these people is bound to be evident on our new album, but not particularly by design. Rob: I love Wes Montgomery, who was deeply steeped in blues, but played 32-bar tunes and played on changes. We have the ability to do that. It's a coming together of both our influences. It's a good match.
- Words by: Jamie Hailstone