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Interview

Bob Meyer

Interview RickWebb. Photos Andy Hall

We've been big fans of Bob Meyer here at Bluesinlondon Towers since his Mailcious Damage Records debut 'All This is That' arrived out of the blue in 2006 (read our review of that CD here). Maybe his left handed playing of a right handed guitar accounts for his unusual style, or maybe it's just the way his brain works, but Bob's sound and songwriting unpicks everything you know about what this sort of thing should be like and then stitches it back together in way quite unlike anything you've heard before.

He plays a mixed up folk-blues style that's all it's own, following in the tradition of what eventually became 'blues' but which was originally just people adopting and adapting and a doing their own thing... He's an affable chap too, who likes a chat, so we met up for a pint and talked of many things, not all of which are recorded here...

Who were you listening to when you were growing up music-wise?  Did you start playing the guitar straight away?

No, I tinkered around when I was a kid, my brother had a guitar, still has, he’s a very good guitar builder but he’s right handed and I’m left handed so I played his right handed guitar left handed ... that was when I was about nine or ten. 

I didn’t touch a guitar again ‘til I was about thirty-one and I was round my mates house and just picked up his guitar and started playing around with it.  I went to Cash Converters the next day and bought one, a right handed guitar; because I just thought I’ll give it a go. I bought a book from the guitar shop, turned the book upside down and started learning upside down. After a while I just threw the book away and started playing and writing. Near enough about a month after buying the guitar I started writing songs and that was it.

So you didn't start playing a left handed guitar or re stringing them or anything?

I have done, as obviously as soon as you start playing an instrument you buy a few... and I would always by cheap ones - the most expensive guitar I bought was probably about a hundred and thirty quid! But I have re strung things and whatever. My brother built me a Stratocaster, it would cost a fortune if you were to buy it - a left handed body with a Buddy Guy right neck, so you know it’s a bit weird because you don’t get the high notes so much. I’ve got to get some left handed pick-ups on it...

But you mainly play 'normal' guitar?

Normal right handed guitar... mainly tuned to open G - I'm not a chord structured guitarist - I don’t know the name of any chords and I don’t know if I'm playing any!

Did your style of playing evolve over time or did you do other things and then settle on what you're doing now?

I think it evolves all the time... I don’t think I’ve ever played the same thing exactly the same twice.  I’ve just finished doing my second album for Malicious Damage and it’s much more folk orientated in a way. 

What were you listening to growing up in Streatham?

Definitely Bowie, my sisters a massive Bowie fan and I still am... ll the Bowie from the World of David Bowie right up probably  to Scary Monsters.  I know every single word and every single note of those albums... Probably some Hendrix and Zeppelin and stuff like that that I liked. But the first music I ever really got into as a kid of about thirteen was british dance band music of the 1930’s.

I was listening to a radio show that I can't even remember the name of and then Dennis Potter's 'Pennies From Heaven' came out - about 1978 - and I started listening to the music from there. A guy called Al Bowl - a phenomenal vocalist, he was killed in the second world war in Jermyn Street in London, a bomb fell on him and killed him... He made so many songs he was a phenomenon.  He even wrote a book about crooning “Learn to Croon”. Then Bing Crosby ripped his act off because he was dead.

I've had albums like that all my life.  Listened to them a lot. When I was thirteen I used to dress like someone out of the l930’s - black and white shoes with spats, suits, my hair all slicked back and trying to grow a moustache... When everyone was punk! That’s what I was listening to, that’s the reason I started getting  into the blues.

I remember listening to this radio programme one day and there was a Blind Gary Davis song being played, I think it was something about true religion and I’d never really heard the blues properly. I remember to this day, nearly thirty years later, him singing that song, haven’t heard it since, and I remember it blowing my mind and thinking 'what the hell is this?'.

And that's the first time you met the Blues?

Yes, the first time I remember listening to the blues... But then I got into so much different stuff.  On the way down here I was listening to the Groundhogs - 'Split' by the Groundhogs... I’d say he is the best electric guitarist - him and Jimmy Page - probably in this country. I used to stand in the speaker in pubs in North London, just absolutely immersed... he’d do the whole Split album all in one go! He was a massive influence on me. That last track on Split - i've never heard anyone play electric blues as good as that in this country.

So right from the start you were listening to a pretty eclectic set of stuff?

Yeah... Georgie Fame a lot, I think because of the mod thing... I remember buying the Who’s first album, the My Generation album, which for some reason didn’t come out on CD until a couple of years ago but I had a vinyl copy of that from the ‘60’s  and that has some great blues on it, real early British blues.

Was it that mod thing that got you working your way through to the more rootsy stuff?

Yes definitely. My brother, who is older than me, and had more money than me, started buying things like Bull City Blues albums and things like that, just compilations of stuff from the early twenties and thirties and it stuck with me. I’ve been thinking about it because I knew you were going to ask me, but it's down to three people - Blind Willie Johnson who I think is an absolute genius, Leadbelly and Son House.

But that’s just from the blues world, and it isn’t just blues with you is it?

No, I mean I am into Crass! I had Christmas dinner with a member of Crass last year which is bizarre, he’s in Crass now.  It was very jolly... he’s a nice guy! I like Miles Davies... Love... bands like that. 

Would you call what you do 'Blues'?

Well, I hate musical labels - they were only invented by records shops - but... I dunno... I get picked up by people like you, and Joe Cushley (Resonance FM) and Mike at Malicious Damage, and other people and they say "you're playing the blues", so I guess I am, but I think more that I play folk music... folk country blues... not necessarily in that order! The only blues music I listen to is pre-war - one man and a guitar... occasionally Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry...

So was there anybody that you heard and thought "Right I'm gonna unpick that and work out how to play it"?


No. When I started playing guitar I was listening to a lot of Nick Drake, which is beautiful music and it makes you cry... It's some of the most perfect music you're going to hear... It's got a simplicity to it... people try and complicate things too much, and I try and get that kind of simplicity. When I started playing, at open mic type things, I'd play on like two strings and three notes and some people would be going "oh.. he's not even playing chords", but other people would be "I wish I had the balls to do that".

Where does your songwriting come from? Sounds to me like you're a reader... maybe the beat poets and stuff like that?

Yeah definitely... Jack Kerouac and all that... and Kurt Vonnegut. But I'm quite dyslexic - I couldn't read and write at all until I was about 20, but I've read a lot since then. But as far a song writing goes, well, once you realise there are no rules, that's when it gets good... So I just use things I hear - I nick a few things from books occasionally but taking "Shoemaker Levee No. 9" for example, that's about I bloke I used to work with called Ernie Turner (and that's taken from the song 'Joe Turner's been here and gone' by Big Bill Bronzy and I changed it to Ernie Turner), who lived in a squat in Tooting and the council wanted to knock it down and build a car park, so Ernie locked himself in the house, boarded it up, and left pots of paint everywhere, so when the police raided it they all got covered in red paint...

...but then again that track is probably three songs... Really I'd like to be able to just play everything all together, which is kind of what I do live really - just play right through without stopping.

What made you start doing that?

Well nerves really... If I'd wanted to talk to an audience I would have become and actor, so I'd rather just play... But I can only do about 45mins because after a while it starts to hurt!

So what's your ambition with music?

Well obviously I'd love someone to give me loads of money so I could stop having to do physical work, which is what I do, but I don't think it's gonna happen, and maybe that's a good thing... I actually believe good music comes from poverty - it might be a cliche but there you go. I grew up shit poor, I'm in debt and poor now... I drive pickup truck for living! I'm a blues cliche!

I'd like to be getting out there and playing more though, but it's getting your foot in the door - I've tried all sorts of people but they don't even bother to acknowledge... and I'm too old to lick anyone's arse now, so I guess people either like what I'm doing or they don't!

More info: www.myspace.com/thebobmeyer