A member of the British Blues Awards Hall of Fame, Matt Schofield is widely respected as one of the UK’s top contemporary blues guitarists, and has released seven records, with an eighth, Far As I Can See, set to release this month. We caught up with Matt to talk about his own musical story, as well as the new record.
Talk a little bit about your first exposure to music. Who did you listen to and why? When did you start playing guitar? Did you experiment with any other instruments?
My dad was a big music fan, and had a large record collection, especially with the blues, so I always knew who Muddy Waters was, and BB King, and listened to a lot of acoustic groups as well. I listened to BB King quite a bit, but BB was too majestic. It was unattainable; it was special. I actually got a bass for a minute, because I liked the bass player in BB’s band, so I didn’t really get going on the guitar until one summer when I was 12 and I saw a video of BB jamming with Albert Collins and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Seeing Stevie up there with BB somehow just made the connection, it made it possible that I could be up there…that was it for me, really: seeing them all play together, seeing them communicate via their instruments, and having such a good time. I had a band within a month when I got back to school, and I’ve been playing ever since. I was lucky to have my dad always taking me back to the roots of the music. He would say, “OK, if you listen to Stevie, then you have to listen to Albert King,” or, because the rock craze was popular at the time, “you have to listen to Buddy Guy.”
I had a steady diet of that stuff and then, a little later, by pure chance, I bought a Robben Ford album in a local record shop. The way he was holding the guitar on the album cover…it looked like he could really play it, it looked like he had an intimacy with the instrument. It looked like it was going to be good, and luckily I was right. That was another big step for me; this guy had a background that nobody else I’d listed so far had. It still felt like blues to me, but it got me into jazz, which I really didn’t know much about, because nobody had really directed me towards jazz.
I never really got into jazz guitar, because I didn’t really like their tone the way that I liked the blues guys’. I started listening to saxophone players, and also Oscar Peterson; I’m a big Oscar Peterson fan. So all of that gets mashed up with New Orleans music, The Meters, Dr. John, that kind of funky New Orleans vibe. Of course Hendrix was important as well, and Eric Clapton. I listen to a lot of stuff, and after all these years, I hope some of it comes out.
You began playing music at age 18 as a sideman. Briefly describe that experience and how it shaped you as a musician. What, in your experience, is the biggest difference between leading a band and being a sideman?
To answer the second question first, the difference is almost indescribable, to the point where, if you’ve only been a sideman, you can have no concept of what it’s like to lead a band. It’s a shock when you start trying to do it.
Backing up a bit, I left school when I was 18. I was actually going to go to California originally, but I went to a jam session in London and immediately got offered a gig with a great British harmonica player, a guy called Lee Sankey. So he put me in his band, and I moved to London instead because the first gig was at the 100 Club on Oxford Street in London, which is a legendary venue; everybody’s played there. Then we were making his record around Christmas, and I just fell into the scene. I was happy to be just playing. I wasn’t ever going off to be a star, I just wanted to play good music, and if I was able to get by playing exactly what I wanted, then that was fine.
For the next five or six years, I was only in other people’s bands, doing different tours in Europe, and then eventually just kind of fell into doing my own thing. Playing in other people’s bands, I think everyone should do it. I see a lot of young guitar kids now, and they open up for me at shows. They’re good players, but there’s a difference between being a good guitarist and a good musician. Five years of playing in other people’s bands, having to play the right thing or get fired, I think everyone should do it. It’s an apprenticeship, so that when you finally do lead your own band, you can know how to treat your sidemen because you’ve been on the other side, and so that you can have experience touring.
There’s so much more to touring than just the music. I’ve toured with many guys where I sat there and thought, “I don’t want to be that guy that everybody’s avoiding,” or is making an idiot of himself, or isn’t in a good enough state to play music. At this point, when I moved to London as a kid, I was there to play music, and I found out that there were so many guys who were there to party, and the music was an excuse to live a party lifestyle. That kind of bothered me.
Once you get to lead your own band, you’re the last one to get paid. As a sideman all you have to do is show up on time, play well, and go home, and do it again. It’s as simple as that. I often say, “I used to play guitar once.” I’m a travel agent, a logistics coordinator, despite having people to help me, everything is on me. All that is to have your name on it. The difference just to have your name on something and not is enormous, and you’re the last person to get paid.
Johnny Henderson, my organ player, got that right away. He’s not driven to have his own thing, he’s very happy with his role in the band, he gets almost as much freedom to do whatever he wants as I do in my band, and he’s always played great single every night, and consequently he gets all the work from me, and I’ll work his gig forever; it’s kind of a mutual commitment.
Speaking of Johnny Henderson, talk a little about him, where you met him, and what you like about his playing.
He’s my right hand man, really. And left hand man. We went to the same school, so we’ve known each other a long time. We played our first gig in 1996. He’s been on all my solo projects. I like his playing because he has no ego; he does his best for the music as a whole. He doesn’t want to show off or be the star, and consequently, he gets plenty of space to do that, because he’s respectful to the music that I’m trying to create, so he gets space to do whatever he wants. It’s a mutual respect kind of thing. He can follow me like no one else can follow me; there’s very little that I could play that would surprise him after that many years together. It’s a kind of musical telepathy that can’t be quickly created, so a lot of it is history at this point. He’s also just the most laid-back guy. I once heard BB King say that half of it is the man. Half is how they play, half is the man.
For at least the last 10 or 11 years, we’ve never had an argument; I’ve never had to, as the band-leader, pick him up or reprimand. I’m sure we’ve both gone to our hotel rooms at some point and cursed under our breath about something the other one’s done, but I can’t really remember that happening.
His playing is extremely sensitive to mine, and he’s part of the entire music at this point. Of course, he played bass on half of the albums I’ve done. It’s quite incredible; I haven’t found any bass line he can’t play on the organ. The organ trio normally restricts you to a certain, more traditional kind of sound, but we quickly figured out he could do just about anything a string bass player could do, which is great because I still like to travel with the organ trio. Johnny can cover it all.
When you started with the organ trio, why did you choose that format, and why did you choose to change the instrumentation for this record?
It wasn’t really by design. We just had a gig, way back before the first record, that was a little regular gig under my own name, while I was still playing in other peoples’ bands, when we didn’t have a bass player, and I knew that Johnny could play the bass on the organ in the traditional organ trio sense, so we did it. I thought, “this I can make my own.” It’s different from what most people were doing, especially in the UK, there are a lot of power trios, just guitar, bass and drums. I never really enjoyed being the only soloist in the band; I like having someone else to play behind, I enjoy backing up another soloist.
This record is something different because it does change the format. I knew I was using a different drummer, because the album kind of started with having some time to do something with Jordan John who’s playing drums and singing some of the backing vocals. He’s got his own band where he plays guitar and sings, and is just an incredible multi-instrumentalist. There was a chance to get him on drums, which was his first instrument, so that’s how the lineup on the album came to be. I like to keep the trio just the trio with either Kevin Hayes on drums or Evan Jenkins, my original drummer. I didn’t want to just change the drummer on the record and have another trio record with a different drummer; I wanted to do a whole different project. Jordan was involved in this one, so I called an old friend of mine from my London sideman days, Carl Stranbridge. We’d all worked together with each other in various capacities, but never as a band. There was a sense of familiarity, but also a fresh feeling as well. That’s how it all ended up.
Let’s talk a little about As Far as I Can See. It is a very polished and produced album, but it doesn’t lose any of the earthiness or grittiness that a more “live” album might have. Talk a little bit about the production of the record.
The main goal was to try and get the same groove, and energy, and feeling that you get in a live show, but you always take it a little further in terms of production in the studio. We played very much live for most of the record, there are a few tracks that are first takes of the four of us playing live, and this captures that moment in time. A gig is a moment in time, and there is a beauty in that, and then it goes off. It’s supposed to be experienced in the moment, not on YouTube or the screen on your phone, shared, and then gone. I have to be there in the moment to do what I do. You can’t think ahead about what you’re going to play, otherwise you’re finished.
An album is a moment in time in a different way, but you’re always shooting for the perfect feeling. Hendrix had a way of using the studio as an instrument as well, so on top of the core thing that is performed at the moment, sometimes you hear other stuff and you can overdub or add it, but we play everything as a take, there’s no piecing things together or using a click track. It is all for real, exactly how it was played. So, for example, the backing vocals that Jordan’s doing, sort of the Stevie Wonder meets Blind Boys of Alabama thing, we just said, “hey, do you want to try something on top of this,” and he went in and that’s what came out. We didn’t come up with that, that’s just what came out of him. You really don’t know what it’s going to be until it gets there. If it feels good, then it is good, we even try to mix like that.
When I did the final vocal – which is really the only thing I definitely do separately in order to get the sound and do a good job singing – then we would just put the mix down, because we’ve been working and feeling it all the way, instead of coming back later and second guessing it.
To your ears, what stands out most about the album and what are some of your favorite tracks?
They’re all kind of something to me. I suppose I am proud of certain things; I felt that I took a couple of the songs up a notch in terms of writing. That’s something that I really work on. Guitar playing came very easily to me, but right now singing is something that I have to work on, and that’s what I dedicate my time to now. So on the opening track, “Far Away,” I’m very pleased with the way the song came out, and “The Day You Left,” which is a slow blues in the middle, I tried to find a fresh way to reharmonize a slow blues, but still keep it very much a traditional slow blues, and I think we did a good job of getting the feel of that one right. The last track, “Red Dragon,” I’m very pleased with, and it’s a bit of a departure for me because it’s very much in the style of Hendrix, which the organ trio doesn’t necessarily lend itself to, but we wanted to get that late-night Hendrix vibe, and I feel like we got that. You can’t create something like that; it just has to happen, but I don’t listen to it myself after I finish it; it gets put to bed for me and I start thinking about moving on.
Were there any specific musical ideas you were going for with this record, and do you think they were accomplished?
Again, it really goes back to capturing that kind of feel as much as possible. Everybody would say at the gigs, “Man, I really like the new album, but at the gig, you can just feel it,” so we really went for broke with the feel and the guitar tones. We tried to capture the guitar tones as close as you can to how it is live as well, and it’s tough to get that out of tiny little speakers if you know what I mean, compared to standing in front of a raging amplifier. So Simon Law, my long-time tour manager and front house mixer live, engineered the record. That made a huge difference because he knows my sound better than anybody; he also knows my guitars, fixes my amps, etcetera, etcetera. So he is a very important part of the overall live process, so why don’t we just get him in the studio as well. I think we got pretty close on the guitar sounds by approaching it like a live show, but it still sounds very much like a record.
Talking about tone, how do you get your sound?
Well, it’s not the gear. Crap in, crap out, you know? Bad playing is going to sound bad. It’s kind of as simple as that. There’s a famous Chet Atkins story where he sits down and plays, and someone says, “Man, that guitar sounds great,” and he puts it on the table and asks, “well, how does it sound now?” So, nothings going to sound good without somebody making it sound good. The most important thing is time for me, and that includes all kinds of things: phrasing, groove, and so on, and then tone. The notes you play are almost the last thing.
I like my gear, but that’s more like a formula one driver needs a good car, but he’s the one driving it. That’s why the obsession with gear is kind of strange to me, it’s a means to an end to play music. I play guitar to play music, and I use gear to play guitar to play music.
What I use is the same on my records, it’s my Signature Two-Rock Amp and my ’64 Fender Super-Reverb, my original ’61 Strat, and a couple others, I have some overdrive boxes and pedals, but all the different sounds on the record are how I approach the instrument, and not tweaking gear, it’s playing.
Could you talk about the physical feeling of playing your instrument?
I don’t know how to describe the feeling, but I come to life when I’m in the right context; I can’t really describe it, it’s just my favorite thing to do. I don’t know what it is, but I’m lucky to have it; I feel privileged to be able to express myself with the instrument, and I’d probably be a complete lunatic without it.
What does the future hold for you? What goals do you have?
My music is not that far from where I want it to be; I like how I play guitar, so I’m not that concerned with being some arbitrary idea of a “better” guitar player, I’m just playing what I hear and what I feel, and I’m happy with that. I always keep working on writing and singing. One day, when I grow up, I hope to be able to sing at the same level at which I play guitar, but mainly I want consistency, so that when you go out it’s the same quality, outside of what I can do, so that it is on the platform that I feel the music deserves.
Interview by Nik Rodewald