Matt Schofield chats with Kevin Cooper about his inspirations, playing at The Running Horse, winning the British Blues Guitarist of the Year for three consecutive years, the release of his new album, Far As I Can See and his forthcoming tour of the UK.
Matt Schofield is an English blues guitarist and singer. His band, The Matt Schofield Trio, play their own material; a blend of blues, funk and jazz, as well as covers of blues classics such as Albert Collins’, Lights Are On, But Nobody’s Home.
Schofield’s guitar playing is often likened to that of Robben Ford in its melodic and fluid style, and jazzy lines. He has also been influenced, by the likes of B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, Albert Collins, Jimi Hendrix, Billy Gibbons, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimmie Vaughan, and Tomo Fujita.
Taking time out from his current tour of the USA, Kevin Cooper caught up with him in New York prior to his opening gig of his UK tour at the Rescue Rooms, Nottingham on 13th November, and this is what he had to say.
Hi Matt how are you today?
I’m good thanks Kevin, how are you?
I’m very well thank you. Let me just thank you for taking the time to speak to me.
Thank you for taking the time out for me too, Kevin.
So how is life treating you?
Not bad; a little bit hectic at the moment. We are busy travelling up and down the East Coast of the United States at the moment. So I am spending lots of hours in the van (laughter). That’s what we do and then we get to play music for a couple of hours at some point in the day after doing all of the other stuff that we have to do. So lots of that at the moment.
On that point, how is America treating you?
Very well Kevin, very well. We have been here for most of the year as most of my shows over the past four years have been here. I have only played around eight European gigs this year and the rest of the time its America that is asking for us; which is just the way that these things work out sometimes. I will go wherever anybody wants to hear us so we are very busy over here, especially in the North-East where I am at the moment. It is really building very nicely.
You are playing at B.B. King’s in New York tonight aren’t you?
I am indeed.
Is this the first time that you have played there?
No we opened up for Leslie West of Mountain a couple of years ago. It was a really good night, and we went over really well. You never know when you open for someone if their crowd will embrace you, but they certainly did, so hopefully some of those people will come back and join us tonight.
Are you looking forward to getting back to playing at home in the UK once again?
Yes Kevin, I have to say that I am really looking forward to it. The forthcoming UK tour will be the biggest that I have ever done; the most dates in a row around the UK, and it will also be our furthest reaching. It will be nice after spending almost all of the year in the USA to play at home.
You have performed here in Nottingham many times over the years. You obviously like it here?
I have to say that I have been to Nottingham lots of times Kevin. Even before I had my own band I used to go up to Nottingham and play at The Running Horse. This is going back to the late 90’s with Ian Siegal and Lee Sankey. We used to come up to Nottingham to play and I suppose that was one of the first places that I played outside of the local places where I grew up. There was always a very vibrant music scene back then and it was great working with Ian Siegal, who had spent many years in Nottingham. He had just moved to London the same time as me, and after we met he used to take me up to Nottingham.
So over the years I have played at The Running Horse many, many times. I have played The Rescue Rooms a couple of times and I actually got to sit in with Robben Ford at The Rescue Rooms. That was the very first time that I actually got to play with Robben Ford who is very much an influence of mine. So lots of cool things have happened to me in Nottingham Kevin over the years.
I have to tell you that The Running Horse is really struggling at the moment.
Well Kevin that appears to be the case with lots of venues all around the world. Within the last week two iconic venues that I know of, the El Mocambo Tavern in Toronto, Canada where my girlfriend is from, and The Tobacco Road in downtown Miami, have both closed down. So it’s the same all over the world. These are places like The Running Horse that were once staples of the music community; that everybody on the circuit, whoever it may be, knew about. It is happening in the UK and it is happening everywhere. It’s sad and it is a concern Kevin, certainly from a touring perspective.
The problem is that the price of everything keeps on going up around the value of music, which stays the same. The bottom is falling out and it keeps getting harder and more expensive to tour. It keeps getting harder for the venues to pull in enough so it does feel rather bleak sometimes for my music Kevin. I’m not quite sure what the solution is, but it’s not just the Blues that is suffering, it’s all kinds of live music.
I love going out to see someone playing live music, whether it’s a band or a solo artist. But the sad thing from my point of view is that it appears that many people are content to have copious amounts of cheap drink and see a tribute band.
I know exactly what you mean Kevin. It doesn’t feel as though people want to be invested in it from an artistic point of view and seeing the value of what you get out of that shared experience. It’s more like you say Kevin; a tribute band playing in the background; you know the songs and you do not have to be involved in experiencing it as much as if you go and see an original artist. I always see it as a form of communication; a great blues gig is not a one-way event, because the audience are in a way, part of the band. What the audience give to the band in terms of energy, we all feel part of. They are creating that something, and that is an amazing experience. I feel that a lot of people have not as yet experienced seeing a band in that way because they can be part of a moment. I do hope that people get to realise just how wonderful that experience is, and to get to experience music in that way.
All that I can say is God bless Mr Cowell.
(Hysterical laughter) yes God bless him (laughter).
It was refreshing hearing you say that there was lots of travelling around in the back of a van. That’s how it should be.
Well yes (hysterical laughter). Well that’s why we do it you know, to get out there and reach people.
I should tell you that I have been playing your latest album ‘Far As I Can See’ to death and I think that it is fantastic.
Thank you very much Kevin.
I have to be totally transparent with you Matt and tell you that I have listened to Soul and Motown all of my life but I have finally realised that there is so much more music out there that I have missed, so I am now playing catch up and you are helping me.
(Hysterical laughter) Ok good, glad that I can help.
I think that the whole album is brilliant but the two stand out tracks for me are ‘Oakville Shuffle’ and ‘The Day You Left’.
Well Kevin, the album follows a really broad selection of songs within the boundary of the blues. I have heard from a lot of people and its interesting hearing which specific songs they relate to. Something like ‘The Day You Left’ always seems to come up I guess, in some ways on every one of my albums’ in a kind of centre piece slower blues track. It is a trade mark of mine I suppose; my treatment of a slower blues track. I always try to put a little twist on them and so something like ‘The Day You Left’ will be a centre piece on the album.
Do you have a personal favourite on the album?
Not really, there are things that I am glad happened the way that they did, but I don’t think that I really have any favourites. You could say that I am proud of certain things; I’m proud of ‘From Far Away’ as a song, and am proud of the performance of the whole band on ‘Red Dragon’ which has really captured the feeling of being live off the studio floor. We can do five takes of something and they are all going to be different. But because of the way that we play, we are not constructing something; we are not aiming for constructing the perfect performance, we are just aiming to capture a moment in time and a feel on a record. You just have to embrace it like that. I see it more in that regard. We have got good moments captured if you know what I mean rather than having a favourite type of thing.
I’ve got a soft spot for the Hammond organ and it just sounds fantastic.
Well Kevin, Jonny Henderson has been a pretty enormous part of my entire solo career. We did our first gig together 18 years ago. We originally went to the same school together, Jonny and me. But unfortunately Kevin for the first time ever Johnny is not with us on the UK Tour. He is not here with me now either as he is about to become a father. After all of these years of playing and being my right-hand man; after playing every gig that this band has played since we started the band, I have to give him a bit of time off for the birth of his child (laughter). I have to tell you Kevin that it feels very strange not having him there you know. It’s a bit like a missing limb, but you have to embrace these things and accept that it is something different and try to be excited about the different flavour of not having Jonny there with me.
How did it feel winning the British Blues Guitarist Of The Year Award for three years running?
It was very nice, very nice indeed, especially as it was voted for by the fans. However, I try not to put too much stock in those things Kevin. It was lovely but I do what I do anyway and you can’t rest on your laurels. I just get on with it and tend not to think about it very much, but obviously it was very nice. The good thing is that now I have won it three times in a row I am now in the Hall Of Fame which means that I am no longer eligible to enter. I am out of the game (laughter) which is fine by me. The whole competition element is really weird to me because competition is not really music to me. So now that I am enshrined in the Hall Of Fame I am happy (laughter). That’s the end of that (hysterical laughter).
So let’s go all the way back from the Hall Of Fame to your beginnings. How did music start for you?
That has to be just by listening to my Dad’s record collection really. I don’t even know it was a start, it was just always there if you know what I mean. I used to see him in his little study at home with his headphones on really deeply listening, eyes shut, fully absorbed. That was fascinating to me, even before I actually knew what he was listening to.
Was it always going to be the Blues for you?
Yes Kevin it was, as I have always been interested in the Blues. With my Dad being a Blues lover, you could even say that he was an aficionado of the genre. Then I would hear stuff being played and so it has always been the Blues for me. I started playing the guitar so that I could play the Blues. I have probably got broader as I have got older, in terms of what I listen to but I was a right little Blues purist when I was younger (laughter).
So who were you listening to whilst growing up?
B.B. King was my first favourite whilst I was fooling around with the guitar, but what really got things going for me, was when my Dad showed me a video of B.B. King, Albert Collins and Stevie Ray Vaughan jamming together. Just seeing how much fun they were having, and the way that they all sounded completely different, and yet all amazing. When I first saw that video I thought that I had got to do this; this is what I want to do. That was in California in the summer and when I went back to school in the September I started a band (laughter) and I have now been in it for 25 years now, so there you go. We were doing gigs within six months and in a lot of ways I was playing pretty much the same stuff as I am playing now, plus of course my own material too.
So let me see if I can embarrass you (laughter). What was the first record that you ever bought?
The first record that I ever paid for with my own money and went into a record shop to buy would have been See The Light by Jeff Healey. And let me tell you Kevin I am not embarrassed by that one at all (laughter). Jeff was such an awesome player and in 1989 when I was starting to play he was getting really big; so yes, it was See The Light by Jeff Healey. But before that when I was a kid I had started getting into B.B. King. But I have to tell you Kevin that when I was about six years old I was a massive Shakin’ Stevens fan (laughter). The funny thing is that when I listen to Shakin’ Stevens now it is not a million miles away from the Blues. So I was kind of already there in a way as it is all old school Rock ‘N’ Roll really which is basically the Blues. So that would be the slightly less hip early records that I would have had (laughter), Shakin’ Stevens who I still think is pretty cool (laughter).
So who did you first see play live?
Well the very first band that I saw playing live was the first original Blues Brothers Band with Steve Cropper, Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn, and Eddie Floyd singing ‘Knock On Wood’ and all that kind of stuff. That was my first live gig but my first real Blues gig was shortly thereafter back in California, which was the following year after my Dad had shown me that video. B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Dr. John and The Fabulous Thunderbirds was the line-up. That was a completely mind blowing experience for me as a fourteen year old. That was a good one Kevin; a good intro (laughter).
Who has been your biggest musical inspiration?
I couldn’t really name any one in particular, because there has been a big combination of so many things. B.B. King is in some ways my ultimate hero, but much more than just because of the guitar. His whole life is an inspiration when you look at the life that he has lived. How different the world was when he first got into a van and started touring. He has lived through all of that so he is all kinds of different inspirations to me. As a kid Stevie Ray (Vaughan) was a huge inspiration, he made the Blues accessible to so many people of my generation. When B.B. King plays he makes it sound so majestic that you never feel that you could ever be that great, whereas Stevie had a way of putting it together and presenting it, so you thought that you may be able to do it as well. But as I have got older I listen to Oscar Peterson as much as I listen to anyone else. He is one of my heroes.
So to answer your question it is all kinds of stuff like that Kevin, just all mashed together. There have been so many guys; Jimi Hendrix, Albert Collins, and Robben Ford. Billy Gibbons on the old ZZ Top records has been a massive influence but no one would ever know as I don’t play like him or play the same kind of music. But in terms of the guitar tone, phrasing and things like that, the early ZZ Top records are incredible. There is some stuff that you are influenced by and it is very obvious, and there is other stuff that you are influenced by and it is incredibly important to your overall makeup as a musician, but it is not worn on your sleeve as much, if you know what I mean Kevin.
First and foremost I am a music fan. I meet other musicians and they don’t listen to music anymore and I think ‘how does that work’. We drive around in the van and we are constantly listening to music. Albert King is a very popular one in the van because it is just so good and classic.
I have to ask you, what was it like last year supporting Joe Satriani?
Fantastic. I really enjoyed that experience all together. We were playing very nice rooms of course. My first reaction was actually related to what we have already been speaking about, that is venues closing. It was very nice to see somebody being as successful as Joe, playing a very, very singular and focused type of music. It was Joe Satriani music; there was no singing, it was just two hours of ripping guitar and reaching a really nice broad large audience with that. So just from that perspective it was very inspiring. If you have a great product to give to people, then there is always an audience for it. He has kept his integrity and one of my first thoughts was, what a great career this man has carved for himself. I have nothing but full respect for the man.
The good thing was that the audiences seemed to enjoy us. We were different enough, I mean we were like the flipside of the coin. But there is enough guitar obviously involved in my music that his audience could also get on board with what I was doing. Often you are preaching to the choir I suppose, because many times you find yourself playing to people who are Blues fans already. So I think that we reached a lot of new people doing that, so I have nothing but great thoughts on that whole experience. It was fantastic. I really hope that I get the chance to do some more things like that which put me in a different context.
Matt, I’m sure that you will, but for now let me just thank you for taking the time to speak to me.
My pleasure Kevin, thank you for asking me.