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Thursday, October 6, 2016

Chicago harmonica player Matthew Skoller takes listeners on journey on latest album, "Blues Immigrant"

Photo by Al Brandtner
By ERIC SCHELKOPF

There are many musicians who carry the Chicago blues torch as proudly as harmonica player/songwriter/singer Matthew Skoller.

Skoller collaborated with his brother Larry on the Grammy nominated historical project "Chicago Blues: A Living History" and co-produced and played on Volume Two, "The (R)evolution Continues," which won "Traditional Album of the Year" at the Blues Awards in 2012.

His latest album, "Blues Immigrant," was released in September. To celebrate the release of the album, Skoller will perform Oct. 19 at Buddy Guy's Legends, http://buddyguy.com 700 S. Wabash Ave., Chicago.

The show starts at 10:30 p.m. and tickets are $10, available at the door.

I had the chance to talk to Skoller about the new album.



Q - Great talking to you. Of course, your latest album, "Blues Immigrant" was released on Sept. 23. In sitting down to make the album, what were your goals and do you think you accomplished them? 

My approach to making an album is one of discovery. The album is already in me and I have to find it and listen to its assertions and follow the program. 

First, songs appear and some are harder to dig out than others and then (hopefully) a concept or theme organically takes shape and it’s my job to steer it and arrange it a bit, but I think the best work is a product of the artists’ subconscious.

http://matthewskoller.com/discography/as-a-bandleader-and-producer/blues-immigrant/ 

That said, I did want a kick ass, very personal and original blues album (redundant phrase: blues should always be very personal and original or else it is simply not blues), with sonic qualities that embraced new technology and old beautiful room sounds. 

I wanted a CD that reflected decades of collaboration with most of the musicians on it and think we accomplished all of that. 

Q - The title track talks about how you came to embrace the blues. Despite everything that you have done and the fact that you worked with the likes of such legendary blues musicians as Big Daddy Kinsey and Big Time Sarah, it seems like you are still worried that you haven't paid your dues. Do you think that there are too many blues purists out there who won't take a musician seriously unless they have Mississippi roots? 

I will assume “Mississippi roots” is a euphemism for being “black.” To me, my 35 years of playing blues music with black artists doesn’t get me any closer to really knowing what it is like to be a black person in this country. 

Or what it is like to be a descendant of American slavery. That is where the blues comes from: American slavery. 

You state that it seems I am “still worried” that I haven’t paid enough dues. I assume because I ask the rhetorical question “have I paid enough dues…?” 

Remember the resolution: “…I need a green card…to play the blues.” Now there is more than a bit of humor there, no? 

I have come across recent songs by white and black artists that talk about all the great blues legends they played with in an apparent effort to authenticate themselves. One’s work is the only real authentication there is. 

What I am doing in this song is calling attention to the proverbial “elephant in the room.” Something that all non-African American blues artists should do from time to time whether it is in their work or in their own inner dialogue.


Because the history of this music is so important to its evolution and that that history is one of the most brutal, enduring and heinous stories in all of recorded human history, it is important to study it and know what you are entering into. 

Am I worried that I have not paid enough dues? No. Do I feel a closeness to this music due to all of the apprenticeship I was generously afforded by wonderful blues artists and all the hard work I put in learning the dialogue? Yes but that doesn’t change my relationship to the music which will always be different than that of an African American blues artist, whether they are from L.A. or Mississippi.

Sterling Plumpp, the great poet, wrote in a poem written for this project (that is printed on the back of the CD booklet): "For there is no need for credentials. Anywhere if you inherit agonized radio. Stations of the cross, ties of blood.”

It’s a beautiful poem, I encourage your readers to get the CD and read it in full!

Yes, there is a purposeful self-consciousness in these lyrics as well as humor. It opens a dialogue and looks the elephant in the eye. 

Q - Of course, you also worked with Jimmy Rogers, a well-known Chicago blues singer, guitarist and harp player. What was that experience like and what did you learn from the experience? 

It was short, deep and sweet. After his harp player Little Joe Berson died in 1988, I got a call one evening a couple of weeks later from Jimmy asking if I would come down to Lily’s to play with him and his band.

It was around 7 p.m. and I had fallen asleep in my Ukrainian Village apartment and I heard the phone ringing, I jumped up (like all hungry musicians do at that time of night when the phone rings!) and I said, “Hello” the voice on the other line said, “Hi, can I speak with Matthew?” “This is Matthew who is this?” “This is Jimmy Rogers and I need a harp player for tonight.” “Yeah and I’m Muddy Waters, quit fucking with me, who is this?”

There was a long pause and he said “Jimmy Rogers.” Without a chuckle, I said, “excuse me sir, and, “Yes, it would be an honor to play with you.” So I went down to Lily’s and I passed the audition and did several gigs with him.


His band had Big Moose Walker on piano, Ted Harvey on drums, Jimmy’s son, Jimmy Lane on second guitar, and Right Hand Frank Bandy on bass. During this time, I was being pursued by Big Daddy Kinsey, who had heard me play and he was out on the road with his son’s band, The Kinsey Report, and he wanted to hire me to be his harp player and record his next CD.

That was a $100 bucks a night (really good for 1988!) and a whole lot of really high profile gigs. The Kinseys were the hottest group around back then!

So I discussed it with Jimmy and he told me I should go with Big Daddy as he was not traveling with a band much at that time and they mostly would be local gigs. So I did, with Jimmy’s blessings.

What did I learn? I just soaked up that groove he laid down with Moose and Ted and let the music happen. I was doing a lot of driving the band with the harp and Jimmy really liked it, so I tried to be assertive without getting in anyone’s way. It was a great vibe.

I will never know exactly what I learned and it will be with me forever. 

Q - You talk about the blues music industry in the song "Only In The Blues." What kind of changes would you like to see in the blues music industry and the music industry in general? 

Uh oh…here’s where I need to be really careful, lol. Changes? I’d like to see musicians get paid a living wage for their work.

I’d like to see a more professional infrastructure in the industry. The fact is that blues Music has always been a niche and has always been marginalized, because of this it doesn’t attract very many truly professional folks in areas like management, publicity, photography, booking, graphic art and all the other ancillary professions and art forms that help inform and strengthen the infrastructure of the industry.

No money, so-o-o: “His girlfriend is his manager and his brother books the gigs/ex-ole lady does the website and supports his only kid…" 

Q -The album features a number of guest musicians, including Eddie Taylor Jr., the son of guitar legend Eddie Taylor. Did you handpick the musicians on the album and what do you think they bring to the table? 

Yes I hand picked them. We have all been working together for years and years.

The choice to bring Giles Corey in was the only choice that seemed to some who know my live shows as a little out of the norm. I chose Giles because he not only has a lot of blues knowledge, but he has knack for coming up with cool and original guitar parts that really serve the song.

His knowledge of roots rock and jazz-rock is formidable and it all came together to keep my songs fresh and original.

Equally as creative but deeply attached to the Chicago blues tradition by commitment and legacy is Eddie Taylor Jr., who kept the project firmly rooted in the music that inspired me to play music: Chicago blues.


In the tradition of his father, Eddie weaves shuffle rhythms and voicings seamlessly through the songs, keeping them grounded deep in the tradition without sounding “archival.” The balance between the two guitarists is just what we were looking for.

As for Felton Crews, I have worked more on than off with him for 20 years now and his amazing bass sound and his endless ideas that keep blues songs fresh and relevant is part of the foundation of many projects I have been involved in. He is a huge part of the team.

And his work with multiple blues legends combined with his jazz knowledge (three albums and two years on the road with Miles Davis!) make him one of the most accomplished members of the world blues scene.

Marc Wilson is simply one of the solidest and most creative drummers playing blues music today and his lush tones and sophisticated grooves really steal the show on this record! He is my favorite roots and blues music drummer anywhere.

Johnny Iguana and I have been working together since we met in the late '90s. He had just finished his tenure with the Junior Wells Band. I think he is easily the deepest and most creative young (er) blues keyboard man on the set. Actually a bit of a genius.

He channels Otis Spann in a totally unscripted manner and brings everything from jazz to punk rock sophistication to the table.

Special guest Carlos Johnson on guitar (on two songs) brings Chicago blues guitar royalty to this project. He is one of the most powerful contemporary blues guitarists alive.

The guest appearance of Brian Ritchie (Violent Femmes) on the Shakuhachi on the song “Story Of Greed” is masterful. He adds an epic quality to the song and his tones, note choice and soulfulness is spot on. 

Lastly, I had two of the most respected vocalists in Chicago supplying background vocals - Mike Avery and Stevie Robinson. Mike, who is the first cousin of blues legend Magic Sam, has been on all my CDs and has helped enormously in my development as a vocalist.

Q - You worked with your brother on "Chicago Blues: A Living History" and Volume Two, "The (R)evolution Continues." The project received much acclaim and Volume Two won "Traditional Album of the Year" at the Blues Awards in 2012. What were your goals for the project?

 First of all, Volume One was nominated for a Grammy award that we are all very proud of. The concept, which was the brainchild of my brother Larry Skoller (he has produced three Grammy nominated albums in the last six years), was to take songs from the Chicago blues songbook from 1940 to present day and have the greatest living bluesmen interpret them.


Firmly staying in the tradition by using their own voices and ideas in lieu of photocopying the original versions. I think that was accomplished beautifully. 

My other goal was to blow some solid and relevant harmonica on the songs I was on. It was a wonderful experience and we toured several times all over Europe with this huge ensemble. 

Q - Do you have any dream projects or collaborations? 

At this point in my career, I just want to focus on my writing, playing and singing, to tell my stories and have a creative flow. 

This is what is most rewarding to me as an artist.