Blues Magazine Interview
Blues Magazine, the premier French blues quarterly, published a beautiful four page feature on Rocky in their Octobre/Novembre/Decembre issue. The in-depth interview conducted by Dominique Boulay discusses Rocky's musical history including who he listened to, who he admired, his work with a Grammy Award winning producer on his solo albums, and his feelings today on being asked to put his signature on classics from the iconic Blues Breakers - John Mayall with Eric Clapton (Beano) album. A portion of the article has been translated below.
Blues Magazine: What could you say today about Lightning?
Rocky Athas: Lightning was and is my birthplace as a songwriter. It was a proving ground for me and a great foundation. Exploring everything on guitar that a young man would dream of was exhilarating. Playing every gig imaginable, opening shows for huge acts, and trying to impress rock stars who came to watch the show was the experience of a lifetime. I was happy to show them every guitar trick I knew. Fueled by the inspiration of making music and living my dream of life as a musician, my Lightning memories are terrific days and nights filled with music and friends. Lightning had many personnel changes over the years and each and every member was a friend.
BM: Why this name?
RA: Good Question. A name that represented the energy that I had for guitar was very important to me and Lightning seemed to fit my style. We were filled with energy for performing music and watching Lightning perform was a very intense experience for the audience.
BM: What is your best souvenir of your Black Oak Arkansas’ time?
RA: Jim Dandy gave me a Stratocaster during the Ready As Hell recording session. This was the first time anyone gave me a guitar and it was a very memorable day for me.
BM: And the worst?
RA: There are no bad memories with Black Oak Arkansas. Johnnie Bolin, Tommy Bolin's brother of Deep Purple and The James Gang fame, was BOA's drummer and we are as close as brothers today. I will be playing the Tommy Bolin Archives Festival in August with Johnnie and look forward to playing with Johnnie again.
BM: It is not too difficult to play in a group of Arkansas when you are native of Texas?
RA: Not at all, as we were all from the South so our lifestyles were very much the same and we had the same taste in music.
BM: Do you work on with The Rocky Athas Group?
RA: The MIRACLE and VOODOO MOON albums completed that project. I enjoyed that experience and those musicians immensely Today, I am extremely busy touring and recording with John Mayall and I have a new instrumental solo album featuring an exclusive John Mayall track not available anywhere else. I recorded the new tracks with my son, Rocky Athas II, on bass and Walter Watson on drums.
BM: Who is Larry Samford?
RA: Larry is a great friend and we grew up in Dallas in the same neighborhood of Oak Cliff as Stevie Ray Vaughan. Lots of excellent musicians came from that neighborhood. We played together for many years. I loved his smoky sounding style voice on record.
BM: How do you consider today Miracle, Voodoo Moon and Lightning Strikes Twice?
RA: I love those albums but I can't compare them together. Miracle and Voodoo Moon were produced by Jim Gaines for The Rocky Athas Group. Lightning Strikes Twice is a retrospective from my Lightning catalog from the 70's. I am very proud of all three albums, but for me, they represent very different time periods in my development as an artist and songwriter.
BM: How did you meet Jim Gaines?
RA: We met during the recording sessions for The Bluesberries album with Buddy Miles featuring me on guitar for Ruf Records. We hired SRV's rhythm section, Double Trouble. Jim understands guitar tones so well and it was natural to respect each other's work. He is amazing. We became very close friends and enjoy working together every chance we get. We also write songs together. On Voodoo Moon, Road Fever was co-written with Jim and his wife, Sandy Carroll, who is a songwriter in her own right.
BM: What do you prefer to play now, Southern Rock or Blues?
RA: I always prefer blues. If you listen to the last album I recorded with Black Oak Arkansas, Wild Bunch, I finally convinced Jim Dandy to record a really nice blues song that I wrote called Dark Purple Blues. This is my calling, rockin' the blues.
BM: And what do you prefer to listen?
RA: Freddie King. Just yesterday, I was listening to some old recordings from the 60's of him and he still moves me. He is tops in my opinion and his knowledge of the importance of song structure was very advanced. He is the pinnacle Texas guitarist for me. Buddy Miles and I wrote the TEXAS CANNONBALL, on The BluesBerries album, about him.
BM: Do you remember how many guitarists have played with John Mayall?
RA: I am not sure but I do know one thing, they are all great players.
BM: Is it difficult to follow artists as Mick Taylor, Peter Green or Walter Trout?
RA: Not at all. John made it very clear that he didn't want me to imitate anyone no matter how classic Eric Clapton may have played Hideaway. John said he had listened to my solo albums before making the decision to call me and he was hiring me for me and he wanted me to put my signature on it. So, that made me feel comfortable right from the beginning.
BM: Did you meet some of them before? Coco Montoya or Harvey Mandel?
RA: I have enjoyed meeting and jamming with many of them, especially Mick Taylor, Coco Montoya and Walter Trout.
BM: Two CDs in 5 years, Tough and A Special Life and how many shows between?
RA: And a LIVE in LONDON CD and DVD set! Wow, I guess approximately 700 shows and definitely thousands of miles! John loves the road so we do play a lot!
BM: Among them, who do you admire more?
RA: Eric Clapton is my favorite not only for his playing but his songwriting skill as well. He has evolved over his career and I respect that ability tremendously. He is always ERIC.
BM: The fact of having been chosen is a recognition of your particular style. Are you happy and proud about this responsibility?
RA: Absolument! I am very proud of my gig with John Mayall and every night I put everything I have into the show. I hold nothing back. John deserves my very best. I love getting to share the stage with John.
BM: It is going to increase your audience all over the world?
RA: Since John loves touring so much, reaching a larger international audience is definitely an extension of working with John. We travel extensively in Europe and the US and Canada. One year, John toured Australia and I was lucky enough to cross paths with Jeff Beck and Joe Bonamassa during the shows.
BM: You chose to pursue your career as sideman. Does that mean that you put your own activities aside. Either do you consider possible to lead both activities at the same time?
RA: That is a very interesting question to answer. I never chose to pursue a career as a sideman. John called and I answered and my solo career has taken a beautiful detour. I don't consider myself a sideman and John didn't hire me to be a sideman. He said he wanted to pursue something new when he disbanded the Bluesbreakers. John never treats me like a sideman and I never perform like one. Since I was an established solo artist when John contacted me for TOUGH, he encouraged me to continue my solo activities from the very beginning and since he usually books approximately 100 dates a year, there are plenty of days to fill with other work. He is so supportive of my solo career that he recorded three tracks with me for my next solo album. He is very kind and generous when it comes to making music together.
BM: Do you work personally with sidemen?
RA: I never consider musicians that I work with on my solo career as sidemen. I started playing music with the idea of enjoying the camaraderie of friends. I like the team effort on stage where everybody is equal in musicianship and professionalism. Stevie Ray Vaughan shared the same work ethic. He never treated Tommy Shannon or Chris Layton (his rhythm section) as less important than himself. Tommy and Chris knew that they weren't the center of attention and understood that their foundation and stability elevated Stevie and Stevie understood his position. Each of them were secure in their ability. Every musician I choose to work with knows I value their contribution and want to include them in my musical family. I enjoy the chemistry and company of good friends on stage making music with me.
BM: Because John Mayall said : “The Band I have now is the best band I have ever had. I think it would be impossible to do better than that.” What could you do in a next future to be better than yet?
RA: I always strive to be better and better and continue to evolve as an artist. So whatever the next chapter in my musical career is...it will be awesome!
BM: Why do certain people speak about a “further testament to John Mayall’s boundless talent….” He is still alive, him and his music. But can we think on the other hand that bluesbreakers died since your appearance in 2009?
RA: That is an excellent question. You should ask John exactly what he feels about that. I am not certain but I think John just wanted to try something new and fresh and different and innovative. While we continue to respect the blues and John's history, John is always encouraging me to bring my own voice to the creation. This is how he approached me and explained his vision for the future.
Editor's Note: This interview was conducted before Larry Samford's tragic accident. A tribute to Larry Samford by Rocky Athas is attached.