Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Jimmy Sutton: Chicago's Vintage Revivalist!

If you happen to catch JD McPherson (read his interview HERE) on tour, you will no doubt pay attention to the stylish man playing the upright bass.  Jimmy Sutton is not only JD's musical collaborator, he also produced the Signs & Signifiers album that originally came out on his own Hi-Style Records before Rounder re-released it a couple of months back.  Growing up in Chicago allowed him to dig into the musical roots so firmly planted there.  I caught up with Jimmy while he, JD and the band were heading to their next high energy gig.

Are you travelling on the road right now?
We just did a radio sponsored show in Louisville yesterday.  It’s a radio station (WFPK) that has been playing us a whole bunch.  It’s really interesting to be our first time in a market to have a crowd there and know the words to the songs.  It’s something I’ve not really experienced before.

With all of the increased exposure, I imagine the shows are getting bigger.
One of the best instances of this was in Minnesota.  There’s a station up there called The Current (KCMP).  The first time we played this club called The Fine Line and there were 550 or so people there.  First time in the market and they knew all the words to the songs.  It was a great time.  It was amazing to see that.

That must give you guys some added energy!
Yeah, you know we were making some waves before we got released on Rounder.  But, the Rounder machine along with the PR machine is great to see that in motion.  Before the record was released, back in October we were invited to go in back in Iceland for Iceland Airwaves.  Iceland is a population of what...300,000 people?  Our single “North Side Gal” was #1 there for like 2 days.  We got knocked out by Adele (laughs).  Anyway, we played this Iceland Airwaves festival.  It was a club packed with 450-500 people.  There was not 1 Rockabilly guy in there.  It was just all young indie rock people who knew all the words to the songs.  They were just partying and having a good time.

I read that The Ramones were a big musical influence
on you.
Yeah, absolutely!  The Ramones and late 70’s punk rock, new wave and early 80’s music were definitely a big influence.  Count Basie!   My father used to listen to big band on old time radio shows around the house…didn’t really play records much, it was always the radio.  Maybe those 2 things influenced me heavily.

Doesn’t it seem like it’s not too hard to go from Punk to Rockabilly…or vice versa?
Yeah, they really go hand in hand don’t they?  It’s got that energy!

What got you interested in rockabilly and other vintage styles?
Going back to the punk rock thing, in the late 70’s and early 80’s all the cat bands were happening…Stray Cats, The Polecats…bands like The Blasters, Robert Gordon…that was the thing at that time.  I started a rockabilly band at 15.  The guitar player and singer was 13.  We were called The Rockin’ Blue Notes.  We played a lot of house parties and college parties.  I grew up around the University Of Chicago on the south side of Chicago.  We did what we could but then that kind of fizzled.  Fast forward a little bit, then I had a band called The Rebel Rousers that did all the rockabilly hits.  A lot of the guys that would check us out, I would ask them to make us mix cassette tapes.  This one guy John Park he put on a lot of Jump Blues on there too…stuff like Louis Prima, Big Joe Turner, Wynonie Harris, Smiley Lewis…and it would flip flop between hardcore rockabilly and rhythm and blues.  I noticed a difference and I gravitated towards jump blues and all that rhythm and blues stuff. I started digging some more.  At the same time, I had this band called the Moondogs who started getting into more Jump Blues stuff.  It was a little sexier to me.  Then I started a band called The Mighty Blue Kings.  That was my band I really wanted to have a heart for, a jump band and getting my ya-ya’s out.  It did really well.  We got pretty successful.  We ended up selling 100,000 copies of our own self-released CD.  We eventually got signed to Sony.  Too many internal problems kind of made that band fizzle too.  I always gravitated toward blues.  Even the blues side of rockabilly.  I really dig like Joe Clay, Sonny Fisher and even Elvis.  The early Elvis stuff is really heavily blues.  It’s real heavy
rhythm.  The high school bop stuff doesn’t quite move me as much (laughs).

Being in Chicago, did you feel inspired by the classic Chess stuff recorded there?
Well, maybe not so much Chess Records but I tell you what was an influence on me was going to the Checkerboard Lounge all the time because they wouldn’t card us.  I lived like a block from where Bronzeville started.  We would always pile into a Volkswagen Bug or something.  It was about 12 of us.  We would go to the Checkerboard Lounge and see Junior Wells or Lefty Dizz playing.  I really dug it but at the time I didn’t really know how much it was influencing me.  I guess it did.  The attitude and the style rubbed off on me.

Willie Dixon was another influence of yours.
Yeah, his bass playing…just listening to his style.  Unfortunately, I never saw him once which is a shame.  He was right in my back yard.  I grew up in the same neighborhood.  It’s crazy I never saw him when I was younger.  He was and still is a big influence on my playing.

Tell me about how Hi-Style came about.
You know what Hi-Style was, it was a fanzine that my ex-wife had started with another Chicago couple back in ’94.  It was a fanzine but they did it legitimately under a company name.  They came up with Hi-Style as something to kind of describe furniture, architecture and music.  It was the whole culture.  The name of the company was Hi-Style Enterprises.  When it came time for my band, Jimmy
Sutton’s Four Charms to put out a CD, the entity was there.  Her fanzine was not around anymore but we owned the company.  We just said, “why don’t we just do it as Hi-Style”.  It wasn’t a serious thing.  It was just a name to release the CD under.  I did 2 of them.  I did another one with the Del Moroccos.  As soon as I started building a studio in my attic, it was always in my mind that I would put more emphasis in the label when I finished the studio.   It was kind of being inspired by a one man operation in the 50’s like Chess, Sun, Excello.  I wanted the studio almost as if it was 1960 or 1961 and I was going to build a studio in my garage and release 45’s.  It’s what the studio was modeled after.
 It was the type of equipment I had acquired back then.

The projects you’ve done really have a vintage warm sound similar to how those labels you mentioned had a uniform “feel” to them.
When I listen to them as a whole, I can definitely see a progression and learning what I wanted out of music and to produce and how to get certain things out of musicians, and how to articulate and put things into a package.  I think with JD McPherson, I finally reached it.  We’re still not satisfied but we’re pretty proud of that album.

I do radio promotions and one of my favorite things to do is just talk with programmers about music they love. It was programmer friend that emailed me about JD in the first place and I was hooked but a little bummed that was just NOW finding out about it.
It was still a bit underground.  The United States is a big country and not everybody is going to find out about it.  When the “North Side Gal” video came out October 18, 2010 that video flew around to a lot of desks in the industry.   A lot of people were sending it to each other saying “man, have you checked this out?”  That was a pretty big surprise and we’re pretty proud of that.

The response to the “North Side Gal” video has been huge!
Both JD and I wanted to create a record that was about everything we dig about old rhythm & blues and black rock & roll but we wanted to create something that was timeless.  We weren’t trying to hard especially lyrically too.  We just didn’t want to lie.  It’s why the video turned out the way it did.  It might have been Hubert Sumlin that said that to me…”just don’t lie”.  I don’t remember what it was in reference to but it stuck with me when he said that.

So you are a touring bass player, record producer and record label guy. Is it hard wearing all those hats?
I tell you the toughest part is the record label guy.  That’s a lot of work.  That’s why you’re not seeing too much on that end.  My eyes are floating around for a partner.  That’s a big hat to wear.  Playing and performing is my #1 love.  I have to be true to that.  I had to wear many hats.  I had to relinquish and gave away many of those which I was happy (laughs).  Now maybe I can get back into putting on those hats once and a while.   I would love to produce some more and put stuff out on Hi-Style.

Do you have any highlights of playing with other artists the past couple of years?
We’ve been asked to do many tours but unfortunately our schedules have never allowed us to.  We’ve been mostly headlining.  We’ve been at festivals with Los Lobos, The Black Crowes and Jimmy Vaughan.  We played right before Jimmy Vaughan in Belgium.  That was pretty fantastic.  Oh, we played right before the Paladins the spring before last at a blues festival in Belgium.  I had a head start there in the Benelux area…Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg.  When I put out the record, I only had so much of a budget.  I hired a promotions company to work it out there.  I also
released “North Side Gal” with a flip side of “Wolf Teeth” on a small German label on 45.  They’ve their teeth in deep with the rockabilly scene.  It’s kind of underground but it’s still very big and organized.  That was kind of my marketing plan (laughs).  It worked.
Jimmy and I outside of Nashville, TN's
3rd & Lindsley after the band played
to a sold out crowd!

What’s coming up?
We just gave Rounder a B-side that we just recorded and they’re going to put that on with “North Side Gal”.  They’re going to be releasing a 45 of it.  I think it will be an online thing.

Hi-Style studios

Jimmy Sutton's Four Charms- "Up Jumped The Devil"

Jimmy Sutton's Four Charms- "Red Hot Mama"

w/ JD McPherson- "Stutterin Cindy" (Charlie Feathers cover)