Ted Drozdowski's Unconventional Blues

The blues of Ted Drozdowski’s Scissormen owes as much to the psychedelic, rave-up sounds of the Yardbirds as it does to the hypnotic North Mississippi drone of Junior Kimbrough.
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The blues of Ted Drozdowski’s Scissormen owes as much to the psychedelic, rave-up sounds of the Yardbirds as it does to the hypnotic North Mississippi drone of Junior Kimbrough. The band’s new record, Love & Life [Dolly Sez Woof Recordings] has three things current blues records often lack: great songs, a sense of mystery, and the concept of a record as a work of art in and of itself, and not just as a recorded bar performance.

If Drozdowski’s name seems familiar, it may be because you’ve read his music journalism. He’s done time as an editor at Musician and the Boston Phoenix, as well as writing about a variety of genres for a host of magazines including Rolling Stone.

Drozdowski doesn’t just play the blues, he has studied it enough to author the 5,500 word essay in the award-winning John Lee Hooker boxed set, consult for PBS’ Martin Scorsese Presents: The Blues, and co-author Billboard’s Jazz & Blues Encyclopedia. He also just released a book of interviews with legends, Obsessions of a Music Geek, Volume 1: Blues Guitar Giants.

The guitarist and his Scissormen put on take-no-prisoners shows that might include walking the bar, playing slide with everything from a beer bottle to a pistol, and dragooning someone to hold his instrument while he plays it lap-steel style. As interviewee, rather than interviewer, Drozdowski the musician takes us through the making of his latest record in a tent, while Drozdowski the scholar offers pointed opinions about the state of current blues. When a man who is awarded a Keeping the Blues Alive statue from the Blues Foundation speaks, it is time to listen.

Were you a writer or a musician first?

I was a journalist first. I started writing about music when I was in college.

Were you playing guitar at that time?

I was hacking away on guitar, but calling it playing would be overestimating what I was doing.

Weren’t you playing experimental stuff at first?

I got into that in college. I felt Henry Cow, Fred Frith, and punk rock were closely related. I got to see Lydia Lunch, the Ramones, and Television. I thought they were very experimental bands.

When did you start playing blues?

I started playing in punk bands in the ’80s, but I was always a covert blues player. Eventually I was in a psychedelic blues-rock band called the Devil Gods. I started playing slide more aggressively in that band because by then I had been traveling to North Mississippi for almost a decade. Seeing R.L. Burnside made me re-attune my hearing of slide. R.L. was nasty and explosive. In North Mississippi slide playing there is no muting, because you want as much noise as possible to fill up a room of loud drunks.

Playing with R.L., Kenny Brown, and those guys made me get my open tunings together. I had been playing with a pick in standard tuning until then. I would go to the beach where I would spend hours playing slide in opening tuning with my fingers until I had five-finger independence in my right hand.

When did you actually put a blues band together?

I put this band together about ten years ago. Going to Mississippi put me on the path of wanting to have an overt instead of covert blues band. Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside played stuff that was extremely hypnotic, so I immediately connected it with Captain Beefheart, Pink Floyd, and Coltrane—other hallucinogenic music I really enjoyed.

What made you decide to record the new record in a tent?

I heard a radio show called the Mando Blues Show that was recorded in that tent and was struck by the quality of the recordings. They have a Pro Tools system with an old Mackie board, and some outboard gear. It’s a “brown” studio: Robert E. McClain, Jr., who owns it, has one line of power coming in from his dad’s cabin down the road. He stores the electricity in car batteries and he can have a six-piece electric band play for six hours.

This is the sixth Scissormen album. Up until now, I wanted to be a juke joint torchbearer and emulate the sounds I had heard in North Mississippi, which is just one or two guitars and drums. But it had gotten to the point where I needed to step out of that. I started writing songs that called for bass, keyboard, and guitar overdubs. I didn’t have much of a budget, but I pitched the idea and they let me make the record in the tent in exchange for a guitar and some traded services.

Did the band play together, or did you lay down basic tracks first?

We recorded the basics first. And then, one afternoon a week, I would come in for six hours to cut guitar parts and vocals. I would take those tracks home, where I might hear something missing or get an idea for additional guitar tracks. We only cut one track completely live, which is the solo track, “Dreaming on the Road.” We put a mic on a Dean Resonator, a mic on my ’66 Fender Twin, and used two vocal mics. Rob is so good at positioning things that we had everything going at once with no bleed.

You made some interesting production decisions for a blues a record, like drums panned to the right, or moving from left to right. What made you go in that direction?

Are You Experienced, Electric Ladyland, and Fleetwood Mac’s Then Play On are all great blues albums. I had them in mind in terms of mixing. I wanted to make a record rooted in blues and other American roots forms, but that was also psychedelic. There were three rules: The record would have textural guitar sounds, most of the songs would be stories— and at least a some would be true—and I would take my time and carefully layer lots of guitars. Even the simple sounding “Let’s Go to Memphis” has four guitars on it, played on a 1970s Fender Stratocaster and a 1967 Gibson ES-345. I thought it was time to let people know I am a more developed guitar player than just a juke joint basher—though I like being a juke joint basher.

What was the fuzz sound on the “Watermelon Kid” solo?

I had a Mesa/Boogie Dual Rectifier with some distortion on it, and a dimed-out 1963 Supro Lightning Bolt. As if that was not enough, I put an MW Fuzzytone on it.

Is there a wah at the end of “Live to Tell”?

There is a wah, a phase shifter, and a pitch shifter. I cocked the wah, put an MXR Phase 90 on it—because the phasing works well with the fingerpicking—and used the Digitech Whammy II pitch shifter to get a whine going. I think those are essential elements of the blues [laughs].

What other gear did you use?

For guitars, 1968, 1990, and 2012 Les Pauls, a 1960s Epiphone hollowbody onestring, a 1983 Fender Esquire reissue with Gibson humbuckers, a Jeff “Skunk” Baxter Epiphone acoustic, and a 1958 Les Paul Special. I string the electrics with GHS Boomers .010-.046 sets. Other amps were a 1972 Marshall 50-watt Super Lead through a 1x12 cabinet with an Eminence Private Jack, and a Roland Cube 30. I used ZVex Fuzz Factory, Line 6 Digital Delay, Digitech PDS1000, EBow, Big Muff Sovtek Pi, Boss VB-2, and Ibanez Tube Screamer effects. My slides are Seymour Duncan Pinky Slides—no longer available—and Rocky Mountain Slides: the Columbine and Salidin models

Where would you like to see people take the blues?

I would like them to realize they are living in 2015, not 1960. The resonator guitar came out in the ’20s and the blues guys grabbed it because it was this hot new thing that could help the cut through the noise of the juke joints. When amplifiers and the DeArmond pickups came out, they used them so they could get even louder. When Muddy Waters was playing in Chicago, he turned that little Gibson amp all the way up until it started to rumble—so now you have distortion. The younger guys—like Buddy Guy and Otis Rush—came along, heard the sounds of the city, and that went into the music. It just stopped evolving at that point, with prominent exceptions: Santana, of course, put his thing in there and ZZ Top experimented with electronics.

I would like to see the blues become the inventive, growing, all-encompassing medium I think it is. Most people playing the blues today do not see it as this timeless, evolutionary foundation. They see it as a museum piece. I am actually offended by that. When I get in front of a traditional blues audience, they love our music. People ask me, “Are you in an avant-garde blues band?” I say, “No, I’m in a traditional blues band. It’s just not a conventional blues band.”