A Friendly Note to Readers: As with any story where the subject being interviewed has an accent, I recommend reading the story with an accent. In this case, please use a British accent. After all, I am (in my head) typing this account with an accent, so it seems only fair that — to get the full effect — you should apply that accent yourself. OK. Ready?
A Short Interview with John Mayall, “The Godfather of British Blues”
by Anu Yagi
I can’t help but find it beautifully befitting that John Mayall is, at the heart of things, best known as frontman of the Bluesbreakers. Mayall has a crystal ball when it comes to musical intuition, in that since the late ’50s he has effectively been breaking the news about the best in blues. It seems to be that if you joined ranks with Mayall early on in your career, you went on to become very, very famous. Because tantamount to his own musicianship, Mayall is credited for launching the careers of Bluesbreakers bandmates, legends the likes of Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce of Cream; Peter Green, John McVie and (now-Mauian!) Mick Fleetwood of Fleetwood Mac; Mick Taylor of The Rolling Stones; and Harvey Mandel, Larry Taylor and Walter Trout of Canned Heat (to name just a few).
Where does this good juju (as his friend Fleetwood might call it) come from? “I don’t really have a secret,” Mayall tells me. “It’s sort of comes as second nature to me. As a band leader, you’re left up to your own devices in order to pick musicians who you think will best reflect your idea. So, it’s always been a rather simple thing, but to a lot of people it sounds rather mystifying.”
On the topic, he’s clear to remind me that “the Bluesbreakers disbanded two years ago — so I hope you got that right.” (I’ll now insert the aside that I was provided a call-time that did not account for Daylight Savings timewarp, so I am an hour late in phoning him for the interview.) Mayall also explains how his touring ensemble has been whittled down to a quartet — with keyboardist Tom Canning recently canning himself. “The latest album available is called Tough, and [from it] are the musicians you’ll be hearing on this tour, Rocky Athas, Greg Razb, Jay Davenport, and myself.”
If you’re wondering if his old-friend Fleetwood will make an appearance, Mayall says with a chuckle, “I think we’ll have to fight him off of sitting-in on the set. Last time we were on Maui, he sat in with us — of course, he couldn’t resist that. We’re hoping that’ll happen again the same this time around.”
CLICK HERE to read this September 2009 MauiTime story, where I talk to Mick Fleetwood about his “very, very old” wooden balls, and what it’s like to be an alien [or at least, play one on TV; with “the chap with the bald head” (i.e. Sir Patrick Stewart)].
Of what else Maui audiences can expect from the upcoming Castle Theater concert, Mayall says “We’re already working on the idea of a live album. We’re putting together a set that will include stuff that we’re considering for the live album later. As always, we have a mixture of songs that are connected with my earlier career — mixed and matched (with new work) — so hopefully there’s something in there for everyone. We usually don’t get any complaints.”
I can’t imagine that there ever would be any complaints filed against a man who’s earned the tag line “the Godfather of British Blues.” But when I ask if he remembers where that moniker first came from, he simply says, “I have no idea. It’s sort of been attached to my career, and it goes back several decades.” OK. Fair enough.
But of his other title, Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE), he has a bit more to say about. “It was quite a surprise to receive that. Jimmy Page has one, and Eric Clapton has a couple; so we’re in a small, select group,” Mayall says. “Growing up in England, looking up at Buckingham Palace from the outside, it was quite the event to actually go inside the palace and see what it was like. That curiosity was taken care of.”
Of my own curiosity, if I learned anything from interviewing Mr. Mayall, it was to never forget that information on the Internet is always suspect — even when said information is sourced from the artist’s own website. Turns out, all my questions were in some facet wrong.
For example, there’s a section on his official website titled “Mayall History,” part of which reads, “Mayall’s first brush with fame, however, was not for his music. As a teenager, he decided to move out of the house, and, showing the signature eccentricities and artistic qualities that have added to his legendary status, he moved into his backyard treehouse. This gained him notoriety enough to receive newspaper attention. Even more so, since, upon returning from a stint in Korea, he brought his first wife Pamela to live with him there.” I thought this was really interesting, so I asked something to the effect of “What’s the allure to living in a tree house?”
Mayall says, “In that particular area of the country, it wasn’t very unusual. I built a den. It just happened to be up a tree. You know, (it was) just one of those things.”
Continuing on this trainwreck, my follow up question was about the fire that destroyed his “hand-crafted and legendary Laurel Canyon home” in 1979, “a pivotal, transitional and climactic year for Mayall.” Worrying I’d come across as an asshole — though figuring it couldn’t be too sensitive of a topic, seeing as it’s described in his online “history” — I made an effort to preface how sorry I was to read about it, though was intrigued by the mention of losing his “scrupulously-kept diaries (and) his father’s diaries,” further asking if journaling is at all a part of his songwriting process.
“I suppose it (is). It’s just a form of self expression, like anything else,” he says, adding “and, I think it was my grandfather’s diaries that got lost.” Reminding me that an estate-destroying fire is indeed an asshole thing to bring up, he says, “It’s a sad thing to happen to anyone. That was a long time ago now, and I don’t really (journal) much anymore. Again, it was sporadic anyway. I haven’t journaled for a long, long time now. Any ideas that you get in the path of life, I tend to put them into song — as most musicians do.”
As for his song writing process, he says “It’s very simple, really. I don’t usually do any song writing until it’s come time to make an album. I roll around a couple ideas and get together with my piano or guitar or harmonica, and put it into place… They (each have) their musical uses. The mood of your idea of the song will suggest what instrument to play on it, and the keyboard is where I start (most) songs.”
On that note, I ask about his inspirations, he being a self-taught musician, again referencing his “history” which states he was a “skinny English lad (who) grew up listening to his guitarist father’s extensive jazz record collection and felt drawn to the blues.”
Mayall clarifies, “Well, my father had guitars around the house, so it was the first instrument I had access to. My main instrument has always been piano and keyboards and such. Harmonica came later, then guitar.”
So there you have it, kids. Want to feel like an idiot when you interview a famous person (never mind how gracious they might be)? Based on this experience, I’ve boiled it down into three easy steps:
1) Call an hour late, relegating your talk-time to 10 minutes.
2) With every question, get something wrong.
3) Cry profusely afterward.
But, reading it in a British accent was fun, wasn’t it?