Headed to town for a Black Wednesday set in Evanston at SPACE, I spoke with former Black Crowes guitarist Marc Ford about the analog makings of his latest solo effort The Vulture, discovering the Chicago blues via Chess Records and the recent announcement of his participation in a new group called The Magpie Salute with former Crowes colleague Rich Robinson...
It was the early influence of Jimi Hendrix's blues influenced guitar playing that would eventually lead Marc Ford to Chicago's Chess Records and the music of Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Little Milton, Willie Dixon and more.
I spoke with Ford about that influence on his latest solo effort The Vulture on October 20th. Only two days before our interview, Phil Chess, co-founder of Chess Records, passed away at 95. It was an eerie coincidence as one of Chess' most famous alums, Chuck Berry, was celebrating his 90th birthday that same day.
We spoke about the involvement of Willie Dixon's family in the Chess Records building. Still standing at 2120 South Michigan Avenue, in the city's South Loop, Dixon's family members offer guided tours of the former recording studio - one of the most influential in music history. The tours are only part of the mission of the Blues Heaven Foundation which was founded in 1984 by Dixon's widow Marie.
Marie Dixon passed away two days ago at the age of 79.
Conversation with Ford moved to The Magpie Salute - a recently announced project by guitarist, and founding Black Crowes member, Rich Robinson which was set to feature Crowes alums Robinson, Ford, Sven Pipien and Eddie Harsch.
"The bottom line for me is that we love playing together; we have a respect for what we've done together and for all of the people that want to hear it" said Robinson in a statement posted on his website. "As I get older I realize what a gift it is to play with people with whom you share that language of music.”
Two weeks after my interview with Ford, former Black Crowes/Magpie Salute keyboard player Eddie Harsch passed away unexpectedly at the age of 59.
It's a trend that continues to characterize a 2016 marred by a spade of unexpected celebrity and musician deaths. "You don’t realize what you got till it’s gone" observed Ford - shortly before Thanksgiving.
I spoke with Marc Ford about the analog recording method that sparkles on his sixth solo effort The Vulture, the work with backing band The Neptune Blues Club which fuels it, the influence of Chess Records and the Chicago blues on his playing and what lies ahead as The Magpie Salute puts a contemporary spin on the music of The Black Crowes and more...
Q. In a press release, you describe your new album The Vulture as “...if Jimi Hendrix was signed to Sun Records but the album was cut at Chess in Chicago.” When did you first start to latch onto the Chicago blues?
Marc Ford: Well, it’s kind of a progression right after you find out that Jimi Hendrix was a real thing.
Jimi Hendrix just exploded in my head and, as you get older, you want to know, “Well, where did they get it from?” So over the years you end up with a big history lesson.
I had Howlin' Wolf records and all that Chess stuff pretty early on.
Q. We just loss Phil Chess in October at 95 and, with Chuck Berry celebrating his 90th birthday, I’ve been listening to a lot of Chess stuff. What’s some of the Chess stuff you’ve found most inspiring over the years?
MF: Howlin' Wolf and Muddy [Waters]. The Willie Dixon tunes. You can spend a lifetime just listening to Willie Dixon songs.
You can pick any one of them because the older I get the more I understand that music. It’s really an older man’s music. They were forty years old when they were cutting those records. I didn’t get it until now. I keep discovering it – just how incredible it really is.
I could list off a bunch. Little Milton. It just keeps going and going.
I don’t know the history of the place but I’ve got the nine disc box set!
Q. Have you ever been to the Chess Records building? It's still there at 2120 South Michigan and I believe it’s Willie Dixon’s grandson that gives guided tours…
MF: I actually know him. We were trying to put a band together for a minute. Alex [Dixon], right?
I went to Chess when I was on the Holy Ghost tour a couple of years ago and we all stopped and got a band picture in front of the plaque because it was closed.
Q. Let’s talk about the new album… I was listening to The Vulture thinking, “This has to have been done on analog.” Sure enough it was. Obviously, it’s more time consuming so what’s the benefit of analog recording to you and what kind of a difference did it make on The Vulture?
MF: Well, the outcome is just a more realistic… I don’t know. It has feel to it. And it has depth. So the 3D-ness of it seems to be richer.
I’ve made so many records digitally too and it’s awesome. It’s great. But it’s more the process, I think, that I like – that you have to make decisions. You’re limited with space and you can’t just throw it on the wall and peel stuff away until it works. You have to think about it. You have to craft it. And then you’ve got to play it. And then there’s gotta be the guy that knows how to run that machine and punch in. It feels like there’s an extra member of the band.
And the end result is just so good. And of course then they mastered it again for digital, for the CD, and that sounds great too. But the vinyl just sounds… It’s like film. When you see film, the lines tend to blur just nicely like in real life. It’s just a softer, richer – it’s worth it, I think.
It’s a bitchin’ record. I’m very happy with it. There are very few records I’ve been involved with – like Ryan Bingham’s Mescalito [which I produced] – even though I worked on it and I was involved, I can see it immediately from a different perspective and just love it and listen to it – without me being in it.
This is a record that, to me, I sit and listen to it over and over just to hear [drummer] Anthony Arvizu and [bassist] John Bazz play together. It’s such a fun record.
And the [live] show is twice that. It’s just more.
I had Howlin' Wolf records and all that Chess stuff pretty early on
Q. This album was recorded quick, over the course of only four days, right? Which would seem to be in line with the way a Sun or Chess recording would’ve been cut. Was it important to work quick on an album like this?
MF: I work fast like that. I’ve never really been a guy that rehearsed much except for the early days. I mean, the Crowes never rehearsed. Grown men show up to do a grown man’s job and it gets done.
So I love that situation. Everyone has to be at their very best, and focused, and we just show up and play.
Q. You recorded The Vulture in San Francisco with John Vanderslice, who's worked with artists like Spoon and St. Vincent, as producer. What kind of an impact did he have on the proceedings?
MF: Well, first of all, he’s methodical. He has a way of doing things. You have to adapt to it which was exciting to me.
I didn’t know who he was and I didn’t know the records he made. I don’t keep that up on the new things – especially the last several years - but I got invited to play on a friend’s record and I loved working with him so much. I had such a great time. I just booked whatever time he had at the moment and then decided, “Ok, I’ve gotta figure out who I’m gonna make a record with” and just went for it.
He brought an economical timeliness. He doesn’t keep more than one take. So if you want to try another take, he backs it up and goes over it. So when he’d do that, we were like, “Hey, that felt pretty good! Yeah, we were into that take!” And it was just bam, bam, bam.
He kept me on my toes. Because I hadn’t finished the songs. I had to pretend that I did and do it right then. I’m riddled with ADD! I wait until the very last moment for homework. It takes too much energy to focus. But then I have laser, super hero abilities.
Q. I’ve heard you say that the flashy solo is all well and good but you prefer songs that tell a story. What’s the best example of that on The Vulture?
MF: “Deep Water” does for sure. “All We Need to do is Love” is pretty simple and straight forward.
They all tell stories to me. A lot of times, they’re not the ones that I started out writing. Music and lyrics a lot of times just show up. I think the hard job really is positioning ourselves in a place to listen and to explore and find those things that are unseen. That’s really the job of an artist: to be an absolute, total dropout from society so you can just daydream all day and create.
It’s such a sad, sad thing that… the only thing America has to offer - the only culture that we have - is the music that we have here. And that is our export that will forever be the crowning jewel of what we’ve done with what we’ve got. And they’re systematically – I mean, they’re yanking it out of schools because it doesn’t breed money making capitalists. I’m just bummed. It’s something that blows my mind.
So it’s changing. And it’s inevitable. It will change from telling stories to writing them down – and how we write them down has changed. Our stories will always be there and the great writers will write them. We’re just flooded with information. It’s a polluted, over saturated market now.
They’re used to be certain tests and levels you had to pass as a musician to earn your way into a twenty-four track studio. And not everybody cut it. There were great musicians who didn’t cut it. And I think that’s probably great. Because to quote unquote “make it” is harrowing. It kills people.
I’m sorry, stream of conscious.
They all tell stories to me. A lot of times, they’re not the ones that I started out writing
Q. Rich Robinson recently announced that you’d be joining with him and former Black Crowes Sven Pipien and Eddie Harsch in the new group The Magpie Salute for a show on January 19, 2017 at the Gramercy Theatre in New York. I know you did a few shows with Rich this past August so how did all of this come about?
(***Editor's note: Former Black Crowes keyboard player Eddie Harsch passed away on November 4, 2016 at the age of 59, two weeks after this interview was recorded. The debut Magpie Salute concert remains scheduled for January 19th in New York and tickets are available here)
MF: [Rich] just called me. It went through managers and then we exchanged numbers and talked. And probably talked longer than we ever talked. Ever. And we just had a wonderful conversation and agreed that whatever happens, or whatever people decide is happening, doesn’t matter. Because that is nothing compared to the music that we make when we play together. And we should be doing it.
We just both agreed right away and it was like, “Ok, that’s over with and done. Let’s move on. When do we want to do it?!”
We have a tour to take care of, and next year’s busy, but we figured, let’s do New York and see how it goes – just keep this thing fun and do it as long as everybody wants to. With no agenda. Just us getting together and having a blast and making the best music we can.
Q. Does approaching something like The Magpie Salute without a label, under something other than the more recognizable Black Crowes moniker, free you guys up to approach those songs in a more creative atmosphere with less expectations than that would usually entail?
MF: Yeah… But I only have the three [Woodstock shows we did this past August] to go by. There were no rehearsals or anything. So it kind of went by a little quick. But, yes, it did.
The first thing I noticed is that, “Oh, this feels different.” Obviously there’s a different drummer. [Former Black Crowes drummer] Steve [Gorman] was… Steve. But I get into it right away. Because [Magpie Salute drummer] Joe [Magistro] is incredible. The band is great.
And four of us have a brotherhood together musically that dominated everything and we felt it right away. And it was just like, “Man… That right there is why we do it.” That otherworldly communication.
Rich went out and tried to put other bands together and realized what we had. We all did that. You don’t realize what you got till it’s gone. So enough time has passed and he wants his friends around. He wants to make music that he loves – together.
And so do we.
- Jim Ryan ( @RadioJimRyan )
(Details on Marc Ford's Black Wednesday concert below)
Marc Ford & The Neptune Blues Club
Black Wednesday - November 23, 2016
1245 Chicago Ave.
Evanston, IL 60202
Also performing: Joe George
Tickets: $17 - $25
Click HERE to purchase tickets