Eric Lindell: Rich In Other Things

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For Eric Lindell, music is the only thing he’s ever known.  While growing up in Northern California in the 1970s, he was fronting a 10-piece funk band by the age of 15.  He soon discovered Junior Wells, and studied and practiced the blues in both musical form and in life.  In 1999 he moved to New Orleans and carved a niche for himself in one of the toughest but most welcoming musical environments anywhere.

 

In 2006, Lindell was signed to famed blues label Alligator Records.  The label compiled a series of EP recordings for the CD Change In The Weather, which received substantial critical acclaim and radio play.

Now Lindell seems more focused than ever.  He’s three years sober (except for his "herb"), has a crackerjack touring band that he shares a carefully calibrated collaboration with, and has released his first proper full-length album, Low On Cash, Rich In Love, on Alligator.  Lindell spoke with us just before embarking on a monster east coast tour.

Honest Tune: I know that your previous Alligator record [Change In The Weather] was pieced together from a lot of different recording sessions.  They did a good job of mastering, because it doesn’t sound like it.  But on this one I assume that you did it all more or less as a concerted effort.  Where and when did you record this record?

Eric Lindell: Yeah, they just kind of went through and picked the best songs that they wanted…We did it at Piety Street where I recorded probably my last three [EPs].  Like you said, what’s cool about it is that it is one cohesive body of music that was done at the same time.  We went in with my band and we knocked out 18 songs in one day.  We recorded everything live.  That’s how I always record.  Then we went back and put some sax and piano and organ on it.  But everything else we cut live on the spot, always trying to get that live feel to it.

It was also nice because my bandmates and I collaborated on some real nice arrangements together.  It was a fun record to make.

HT: Who are the guests?

EL: Mark Adams from New Orleans, who is a buddy of ours that we’ve been playing with for years around town.  And then a young kid named Blake Nolte from Alabama.  He’s 19 years old and it was kind of cool – this was his first recording that he’s ever done and to be on a national label was cool.

HT: How did you hook up with him?

EL: He’d just always come out and sit in with us when we’d play this little club in Alabama.  He’s this young kid but he fucking wails on saxophone.  I just thought it would be cool on this record to not have any big name guests, just let the music speak for itself.  And to give somebody a shot that hadn’t really done anything.  It came out great. 

It was really fun because I got to do the horn arrangements and just tell him what I wanted.  What was also cool is that I had him do both sax parts.  It was a real cool tonality having alto and tenor instead of trumpet and trombone.  It added such a warm sound having two saxes.

Then one song Jimmy Carpenter played on.  He’s an amazing player who plays with Walter “Wolfman” [Washington].  Jimmy is actually going out [on tour] with us, we’re leaving today and Derek Houston from The Iguanas is joining us too.

HT: For this record, you’ve also had a solid band lineup for a while prior to going in the studio, right?  On the last record it was a lot of different folks.

EL: Yeah, same guys for a few years now.  Again, that first record was over a span of…some of those songs were literally 12 years old.  All that stuff came off of probably five different records so there was quite a cast of characters on there.

HT: So this one, I see that you wrote most of the songs but Aaron and Chris wrote some of them with you.  Are those tunes things y’all worked up live and played for a while or was any of it stuff you came up for specifically for the studio?

EL: Mostly the stuff was pretty well road-tested.  There were about three songs that, the week before we went into the studio we put them together.  When we got in the studio we knocked ‘em out and did the horn arrangements on the spot.  But most of it we’d been kind of pounding out for a good couple of years on the road.  So that material gets old but you get comfortable with it and the cool thing about playing them for a while is that obviously songs evolve, so I think that’s a good way to go about it.

Every time you record something that you make up right there—I’ve never really done it too much except for those three particular songs on this record—I notice how now we recorded this record a year ago and they’ve changed over that time.

HT: Which tunes are those?

EL: “Josephine”, “What I Got” and “Mind Your Business” are the ones we kind of cranked out there.  They haven’t changed too much.  But you kind of approach them with a little different energy each time.

HT: Sure.  With the energy of the crowd I assume.  Is the touring band still the same group that’s on this album?

EL: Yeah. We’ve got a new drummer from Baton Rouge, Chris DeJohn.

HT: Who has he played with?

EL: He’s played with everybody—from Juice to Righteous Buddha….he’s a Baton Rouge guy.  And Then Jimmy Carpenter who played on the record and Derek from the Iguanas who did not play on the record, but it’s just really cool having two saxes.

HT: Are [bassist] Aaron [Wilkinson] and [guitarist] Chris [Mulé] still playing with you?

EL: Yep.

HT: You have one track on here that’s a Gil Scott Heron tune.  Is that something that you’ve done live, or how did that come about?

elindell2.jpg EL: That was something that I always did live.  It’s just a 12 bar blues but I just really love that song.  I don’t know if you’ve heard the original, but it’s quite a bit different.

What I like to do—one of my favorites is Junior Wells, he’s one of my all time favorites.  When I was a kid, one thing that I picked up was what he did when he approached a cover song, he really was so spontaneous on the spot, the feel and the song.  Nothing about it would really be the same.  He would just sing the lyrics his own way and just kind of own it. 

That’s always been my take on cover songs.  I would never try to do a cover or a record where I was trying to make it sounds just like [the original].  I think you’ve got to bastardize it a little bit.  Put your own stamp on it.

HT: Would you consider Junior your biggest influence?

EL: When I was younger when I first started playing I played a lot of harmonica and I really just loved blues.  I’m talking like in my early 20s.  When I first got started I thought he was one of the most awesome singers.  I still do.

I like so much different shit—from Donny Hathaway to Stevie Wonder being one of my favorites since I was a kid.  So many people, so many great singers.

But Junior I just liked his …his whole thing.  Always talking about what it is to be a man, he just had this tough voice.

HT: Do you remember the first record you ever bought or obtained?

EL: I was into records.  When I was in high school, I had a 10 piece…I played bass for like seven years…I had a 10 piece funk outfit, young guys with all these horns and everything.  I think about when that was going down we were way ahead of our time for then. 

But my first record that I remember getting when I first got into blues was a Jimmy Reed record.  It never had a cover; I don’t know what record it was. But all the songs sounded exactly the same.  But they were all great. 

I’ve always loved the simplicity of it.  It doesn’t take too much to get a true song across.  That’s something that’s always stuck with me as a writer.  Or about blues for that matter.

HT: Do you think that you can be as simple as you want…but it’s just in the way you deliver it?

EL: Exactly. It’s like, with blues, we don’t need to hear that you got the Something- Something Blues.  That’s one of my biggest pet peeves. Whatever!  I just like the simplicity of it.  Like you said, the delivery, that’s where its at.

HT: There’s one track…”All Night Long”…that has a little country feel to it.  Did you ever listen to any country music growing up?

EL: Quite a bit actually.  My mom was a country music fanatic and my sister too.  So always growing up, they loved Waylon and Willie and Hank and everybody.  When I was younger, I wasn’t hip to it just because they liked it so much.  But actually over the last couple of years in the van, we’ve really tapped into some cool stuff.

Mulé  turned us on to this early Delbert & Glenn…you familiar with that record?  Delbert McClinton and Glenn Clark put out a record in like 1970.  It was the predecessor to The Band and all this stuff.  When we heard this record…Chris dug it up, he bought it somewhere…we were listening to it in the van and it so much reminded me of what we were doing—just  funky, bluesy, harmonica in there too.  But then it had this country thing going on at the same time.  We listened to the shit out of that.  Then we went on a whole country trip.  Hank Williams, Waylon & Willie and we just have an assload of truck stop country cassettes that we bought.  That particular song was very influenced by Hank Williams Jr.  We were on a big Hank kick at the time. But with the saxophone on there, it takes a bit of a New Orleans twist too.

HT: Sure. Everything has New Orleans on it. How much does where you live influence your music?

EL: When I first moved to New Orleans I started playing with a trio a lot. I didn’t know anybody, nobody knew me, so I was just trying to get out and play.  It was me, an upright bass player and a drummer. That was unknown territory for me.  I was used to playing with a group of guys and knowing what we sounded like, and a certain energy level.  When I started doing that, everything changed.  All of a sudden, the vocals were right out front.  And my guitar playing too….it kind of put me to the test with my guitar playing.

So I did that for a good year and it really changed everything.  My singing improved a lot because it put it out there and I had to re-approach everything.  And I also think playing with a lot of different musicians also kind of puts you in a place where you’ve got to make it work on the spot.  It’s really in the drummer’s hands.  If he’s gonna do something, you can’t sit there on stage trying to fight it or tell people what to do while you’re trying to do a show, so you just have to settle into the feel.  I think I improved as a vocalist and really learned how to improvise.

Also, playing with New Orleans drummers and New Orleans musicians in general, they’ve got a certain sound.  Aside from all of that, on just a personal life experience, I think most of my adult years were in New Orleans so I grew up a lot and matured.  Being around such good players is amazing.  I always say this about New Orleans: it’s like one big band.  You go the next night you’ll see the same guys on stage with a different name.

HT: You’ve probably been in New Orleans for about ten years now?

EL: Yeah. ’99 I moved there.  It’s a beautiful thing because in a lot of communities, people are in their little cliques and they are real territorial.  My group consists of all guys that have their own bands and do their own things.  That’s the healthiest for a musician.{mospagebreak}

HT: Some people think of music as an escape, but maybe it’s the essential communication that people need.  Would you agree?

EL: Absolutely.  You’ve got to have your big ears on.  Look at somebody like Johnny Vidacovich.  He can do anything.  He’s not just going to do some random shit that appeals to just him. He’s going to play what’s right for the song.  That’s the mark of a true musician.  Somebody who’s going to get in when they fit in, and not just jack off all over the song or try to do something in a place where it doesn’t go at all.

It’s all about communication.  That’s really the purest music is being able to get in there and just jive with people.  Chris Mulé is another example of somebody who is just a great accompanist.  Everybody I’ve seen him play with, he makes ‘em sound great. He never plays some outside weird shit that don’t work. He’s always right there for you.

HT: Do you remember the first time you wanted or decided to be a full time musician?

EL: Around 15 years old we started our first band.  The drummer’s mom was actually in a blues band, she was a guitar player.  So we used to go in their garage and use all their equipment and make all kinds of noise like you wouldn’t believe.  We started at that age at 15 years age putting on shows and doing it from a grass roots level.  We knew how to build up followings in different areas—doing the posters, go back and hit it but not play too much.  So I think it was cool to experience all that.

I’m freakin’ 40 years old now. I ’ve been playing forever it feels like.  But I’m glad I experienced it in that kind of way.  Because where I grew up when I was a kid it was an awesome musical community and it was just really happening.  We had some great venues and a lot of people went out and supported the music scene and there were a  lot of cool bands in that area.

lindell3906.jpgHT: What’s on tap for you and the band?

EL: We’re leaving today and playing Atlanta tonight and all up the East Coast, playing on the World Café , touring all over.

HT: Y’all need to come back to Oxford. It’s been about three years.

EL: I’ll be sober three years this coming July.

HT:  Wow. That would have been right after you came to Oxford.

EL: Yeah, man. I don’t drink or mess around with anything. I like to smoke my herb and that’s it.

HT: It’s probably a lot better for you.

EL: It’s been good. Quitting that drinking and partying has been good for me.

HT: Does that make it easier to travel? I would assume so.

EL: Shit yeah. I couldn’t get up for nothing or do interviews or do shit before.  I was missing gigs.  I was a mess, man.  I get up early every day and I feel great.  I never have a hangover.  That’s an amazing thing.  I never have to leave the club that night wondering if I’m gonna get a DUI.  It’s pretty good.

HT: Are you one of those kinds of people who just decided to do it and it worked?

EL: I did, man.  I just woke up one morning after a really rough one and I felt like hell.  I just, I’d been partying since…forever.  I loved to drink beer…just loved it.  Towards the end I was drinking a lot of hard stuff and doing a lot of blow and shit.  But I just got up…to describe it, I was just thinking to myself "I feel so heavy all the time.  I can’t carry this shit around with me all the time."  So I just said "fuck it" and that was it.  I didn’t go to rehab or AA or nothing like that.  My lady…we both did it together so that helps us out.

HT: I’m sure it did.  I was reading on your press kit something I didn’t realize is that you’ve done some TV licensing.  I think it was on some shows that I don’t watch. Is that something that being signed to Alligator records helped you with, and how else has being signed to an established label like that helped you career wise?

EL: They’ve helped out tremendously.  I just can’t say enough good things.  Of course, Bruce and I, the owner, have butted heads plenty of times.  But I can’t say enough about Marc and all the staff.  Everybody there does such a great job.  They really take pride in what they’re working on.  It’s just awesome to have a whole staff of people working with you.

But that film licensing, Alligator scared that stuff up.  And I think they got two of them last year.  Those are some pretty lucrative pay on those things.  One of them was on this show Boston Legal, and if it goes to DVD I’ll get paid on that sucker forever.

elindell3.jpgHT: That’s great. There’s been a lot of talk about how with downloads and everything that makes it harder to sell records, artists really have to look for different ways to make money, and that’s one of them.

 EL: It is. And another thing has been radio play.  I’ve never had radio play be a part of my equation but I get royalty checks all the time now and I just can’t even believe it.  I’m not expecting it, I’ll be broke-ass, got no money, then –boom!  I’ll get a check for $800 or whatever.  Radio has been huge.  Again, like with breaking new markets, when we first hit the East coast, we played Falls Church, Virginia in this theater, like 250 people on a Tuesday night.  We’d never even been to this town before.  All from radio play.

Or Baltimore is one of our best markets because we get a lot of radio play.  New York City.  We’ve got a show coming up in a couple of weeks that’s already almost sold out.  That’s all from radio play.  So that’s kind of cool.  Because we would tour before just like a shot in the dark.  We’d just be out there…no press, no radio play, nobody knows we’re coming.  So now, Alligator is on it, they’re keeping track of radio play and trying to route us to where we’re getting heavy spins.

HT: I’ve heard y’all on Satellite radio too.  I know on the Sirius Blues channel for one…and maybe on Disorder.

EL: Sirius and XM have been really awesome.  Sirius has one called The Spectrum that we went on live and played. That’s been huge.

HT: I guess y’all are playing Jazz Fest?

EL: I don’t think we’re playing the fairgrounds this year.  We’ve got this thing we’ve been doing the past few years playing One Eyed Jacks on the last Sunday.  I’ve got this other band I’m playing with called Dragonsmoke.  It’s me and [keyboardist] Ivan [Neville] and [Galactic drummer] Stanton [Moore] and [Galactic bassist] Robert Mercurio.

HT: Damn!

EL: We’ve been doing it for like five years now, but it’s just during Jazz Fest.  So we’ll be it then. But we’ll actually be doing it March 29th at Tips first.

HT: What’s the repertoire? A little bit of everybody’s stuff?

EL: Yeah. We do some of my songs, some of the stuff Ivan does. Then we do a bunch of really cool covers.  Random stuff—some Sly, some Curtis Mayfield, just a bunch of different shit. Ivan, that dude knows every song in the book.  I love playing with him.  He’s one of my favorite musicians.

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