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Owen Houlston - The Red 8
Owen Houlston has been a much-respected figure on the London blues scene for a while now, in various bands and at some of the better jams. He’s something of a guitarist’s guitarist, subtle when it suits but just as adept at giving it large when the force is with him. Mostly to be found wielding an electric, he also plays acoustic, and he’s got a very distinctive vocal style to go with his playing too. Now he’s started his own band, and Owen is a man with a plan...
So Owen, why the name? There aren’t eight of you and hopefully you’re not all in some kind of red band uniform .....
Its from an interview with Tom Waits, apparently the name of his favourite Chinese restaurant in Los Angeles. Other than being a big fan of Tom I just liked the sound of it. Anyone who’s ever been in a band knows how painful coming up with a name is, but this time was very easy.
How long has the band been going and what’s been the progress so far?
It’s been around a while – though confined to my own head and a few false starts until last October. So far the biggest achievement is getting three musicians of the calibre of Ivan, Charles and Phil onboard, then we recorded a four track EP, we’ve got our sound together, rehearsed 3 hours worth of music and got the first few gigs under our belt. World domination is starting to seem like an historical inevitability.
Now am I right in thinking that the aim here is to take pre-war acoustic blues songs of varying degrees of obscurity and do your own take on them?
That’s certainly a big part of it. The idea behind me starting to sing was noticing that there are some great songs which just aren’t played on the blues circuit. If you’re going to cover one of the blues warhorses its easier to compare against the original or definitive – which seemed a hiding to nothing. I’m more interested in taking something which isn’t well known and changing the rhythm, arrangement, melody – the words are the thing for me – without tidying it up or smoothing it out though. But we do some Chicago, some British Blues, garage rock, outlaw country, even some surf – surprisingly it all seems to knit together as a coherent sound.
What drew you to the pre-war blues as an inspiration?
Son House. Bukka White. I heard those guys and that was it. The lyrical side is so strong there. Plenty of guys get the blues cause their baby left them, Son House has the blues because his girl’s “lying on a cooling board”. That’s just a whole other level– and the performance side of things too – after being into the whole guitar hero thing as a kid and getting bored by it, seeing some old black guy beat all hell out of a National just blew me away. I suddenly felt that this was what I had been looking for – I mean those guys, that’s really heavy, it makes Metallica look like the women’s institute. There’s no posing there, no foot on the monitor, no wind machine, its much more visceral watching a guy thrashing his hands against an unyielding piece of metal because its the only way to get volume.
What would you say you’re bringing to the songs? I mean, you’re not doing them as ‘covers’ as such, you’re not trying to replicate the originals in any way .....
I suppose what we’re doing is a re-imagining of roots blues – I have really very little interest in trying to duplicate what has gone before down to the last ghost note or exact tremolo in the voice. That just doesn’t seem to be the right way to me – there are people who do that and its cool, but I kinda think its a shame – by the time you’ve learnt a piece note for note you’ve lost the spontaneity – so we’re not working as a preservation society. The resonator was state of the art technology at the time, so if Robert Johnson or whoever was around now they’d be using modern gear – so I don’t know how treating old tunes as a classical canon really captures the spirit of those recordings. So mainly we’re doing it our way, though some arrangements are pretty close to the original because they have to be, but the sound has to change. It depends on the song – I don’t think we have an interest in changing it up for the sake of it - we’re changing things because we have to make them ours – we’re often going from a solo performance to a full band thing, so most of the time you have to re-arrange. And its not the 1930’s anymore, so we try and make things work for my voice, and for the band, and for the times. What might be a great guitar arrangement for a solo piece doesn’t make it work for a three or four piece. And once I bring something to the guys it just takes on a different vibe altogether – I do Nobody’s Fault But Mine as a solo thing and its a dirge, with Ivan putting a N’Orleans beat in it becomes like a celebration of godlessness. Which is kinda nice.
Another tune on the EP is Rosie, which is from a 1930s field recording at Parchman Farm in Mississippi – its maybe 30 guys singing call and response while on a chain gang – so we had to do a lot of work to get it to a band performance. The tempo changed, the meter changed, the harmony obviously changed, so the melody had to change – suddenly you have a very different animal. In that case it became a full-force garage rock out – not for the sake of it, but how can a band get the aggression of 30 convicts? Enter the fuzz pedal. So it’s the vibe that we’re after above all else – getting that feel that some of the old stuff has that modern records so rarely have. Recording live is certainly a big part of that, it meant we cut and mixed the EP in one day and it gets that kind of freshness, that excitement you feel as you’re playing live. There are too many perfect performances with no life in them. Like we finished the arrangement to Rosie seconds before we cut it – it ain’t perfect by a long shot but I think it’s got something we would have lost if we’d worked it to death.
Of course this is a path trodden to some degree by Led Zeppelin and The Stones back in the late 60s/early 70s. Do you feel you’re doing something broadly similar to what they did?
Yeah, without question we’re doing something similar – and I think the aim is broadly the same as the Stones – to play some great songs which just don’t get played. We’re doing it a different way and taking different material as our starting point. But really we’re only doing what every band always does – you choose the types of music from the recent or distant past that inspires you and go from there. The comparison only appears closer because we’re taking from a wider form of music which has influenced a previous generation of bands – but I think there’s still a lot more water to be drawn from that well.
Would you say that, because of the origins of the material you’re doing, you’re very firmly in the ‘real blues’ rather than the rock-type area that much electric blues today is?
I’m not sure that it’s for us to say. I hope that we’ll be seen as having a different take on things to both trad and rock blues. There’s good and bad in both camps. I was reading on some forum the other day about how Mississippi Fred McDowell was such a disappointment when he switched to electric. I mean people still feel that way – it beggars belief. Those guys moved with the times, they had little interest in preserving a myth of the Deep South, they were moving on and up, moving to Chicago and Detroit, electrifying the blues, making it a reflection of their new urban situation – because they needed to gets paid. There’s the often repeated story of Muddy Waters first coming to Britain with an electric guitar, and nobody wanted to hear it, they wanted the old sharecropper vibe. The next time he came over he brought an acoustic, but by that time the Rolling Stones had broken and everyone wanted the electric – he just couldn’t win.
So I’m not sure what ‘real blues’ means – I’m not from the deep South so how can I play real blues? When I was over in Memphis all the bands on Beale St were playing Texas/SRV style blues – there was just one lone busker who played guitar like Robert Johnson and blew the harp like Sonny Boy but no-one except us paid him any mind. So if they’re playing Texas blues in Mississippi then is that now real blues?
Though I do know what you mean by rock blues – now that is a form of music I have some understanding of. What turns me off is when you get the feeling that a guy is really a rock guitarist who’s decided to give blues a go. But really that’s my background too, that’s what I am, I’m just hoping to fool people, to sound like we’re authentic. That’s the goal – if one person just for one moment forgets they’re in a bar in Soho, or wherever, and gets some of that old-time Mississippi juke-joint religion then our job is done.
Now you’ve got a pretty distinctive vocal style. How would you describe it and how did it develop?
Oh god.... Probably a chain-smoking, whisky addled, gravel gargling tramp gives a reasonable idea. I’ve just always been into those voices – for as long as I can remember. Always liked those incredibly deep voices on old horror movie adverts, you know those voice-overs: “What acts of hideousness will be carried out with this electric carving knife”. I was always trying to get that voice, later I heard a lot of metal and the music is bobbins but some of those voices were incredible to the 13 year old me – like Blackie Lawless from WASP – I remember practicing his voice over and over whilst headbanging round my bedroom. That was me – I’m not going to be ashamed about it! Then stuff like Louis Armstrong, Joe Cocker, Howling Wolf eventually leading to Tom Waits’ In The Neighbourhood – which was another one of those moments when everything just clicks into place. That’s when I first realised I wanted to sing. It took years to stop coughing when I sang that way – but it became natural – I don’t put it on, it’s just how I sing. I’ve had a few Americans really surprised to find I’m not actually from the Deep South – which is kinda nice.
Now there’s some sort of a ‘blues boom’ in London right now. What’s your view of the scene, and your part in it at the moment?
Yeah, we’ve got 4 blues venues in central London now, which is cool. I’m not wholly convinced that adds up to a blues boom – but there are more opportunities for gigs and that has to be a good thing. The main problem is that the audiences are not for the most part blues fans – some of those newer venues seem to be using the blues more for cosmetic reasons. That’s no bad thing, but I think we have some way to go before it’s a boom. Having said all that, it becomes hard to place us in the context of a scene which may or may not exist. All of us in The Red 8 are regularly gigging with other bands on the circuit as well – which has got to be healthy - so I think we’re in the right place if it does kick off.
And what’s your aim in the short and longer term?
The plan is to get more gigs, get some festivals, make a record, take over the world. That’ll do for starters.
Sum up for me what people can expect when they come to see you...
They’ll see me wearing a hat and shouting a lot, they’ll see Ivan grinning and hitting things with sticks, Charles slapping away at a double bass as if his life depended on it, and they’ll see the incredible Phil Hughes blowing up a storm on harp. What they’ll hear is some honest to god blues, roots, and gospel – done in a way they haven’t heard before, and hopefully they’ll wonder why no-one else does it quite like this.