We met James in his local, The Sir Richard Steele in Chalk
Farm. A couple of weeks previously I'd seen him play a solo gig here,
mic and guitar both going through the amp he was sitting on. It's a great
pub with a friendly North London local vibe with a fantastic eclectic
decor. James knew most of the people there
and it seemed that this was not so much a gig, more that he often brought
his guitar along and did a few numbers.
When I spoke to him that night he was reluctant to call himself a blues
player, and certainly much of his repertoire connects only loosely to
what some people might call the blues, but it comes from the same place
and that night, sitting in the corner and playing his style of R n' B,
the connection with a music tradition going all the way back to musicians
playing bars to entertain - the real roots of the blues - was clear.
The day we went to do the interview he was just back from playing at a
festival at Agen in the South of France. A bit bleary until he'd had his
first coffee of the day, we discussed the question of definition... So,
do you play 'Blues' music?
Hunter: No, not really. But it's the closest category
we can come under I suppose. We've been described as 'Soul', and maybe
that's a bit nearer the mark. Our whole vibe is a bit like a cross between
James Brown and Ray Charles' Atlantic stuff. That where the feel is based.
There's a bit of Caribbean vibe going on sometimes. But it's just a load
of pop songs really.
me it sounds like 'R n' B', but lots of people have different ideas about
what 'R n' B means...
Hunter: Well a lot of people use it now as a generic term for
black music, which is what it used to be - Curtis Mayfield and Jerry Butler,
R n' B... The way a lot of people have it now, its all 'B' and no 'R'!
was your route into this kind of music?
Hunter: Well I did have a preference for older stuff - the stuff
that was around at the time I was born. I inherited a load of old records
off my grandmother when I was about nine. We lived in a caravan in the
middle of an onion fields just outside of Colchester and there wasn't
much in the way of entertainment. So we used to listen to an old Dancette
record player and a load of 78's, and among them was a sprinkling of Jackie
Wilson and stuff like that. I was always into Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran
as well, and I just got more interested in the black side of things.
Were you part of the Rockabilly revival thing in the eighties?
Hunter: I was never mad on the Rockabilly thing - it was too
far along the white side of it, but there was a certain period where if
you had a band with a double bass in it people thought you were a rockabilly.
Charles Mingus would have been called Rockabilly if he'd sprung up in
82! But lot of my mates were in on that and you could say we got a following
among those people.
that was Howling Wilf and the Vejays?
Hunter: Yeah, I'd had a little trio in Colchester before but
then I came to London to pursue the music. I'd sent a demo to Ted Carroll
at Ace records who happened to play it to some musicians and they gave
me a call. I'd go along to their house every friday night night and we'd
rehearse some stuff and then go and busk it down at the lock in Camden
on Saturday. About January '86 this was... And then we started getting
invited indoors to do some gigs.
years the music stayed more or less the same, although maybe the emphasis
has altered a bit. When we started I was doing more Little Walter and
more straight blues, but when I changed the band I got a horn section
in and it felt more like a proper band along the lines of James Brown
and Ray Charles, although with a very small orchestra!
Now we've got guitar, double bass, drums, baritone and tenor and that's
pretty much the James Hunter Band. Now and again we augment it with a
bit of hammond or something like that, which does fill the sound out,
so we're hoping to turn it into a six piece when we can afford it!
On your new album you've got a few tracks with strings on them,
is that something you'd like to be able to do more?
Hunter: Totally, I mean I love the early Drifters stuff where
you get those lush string arrangements.
well known for having that voice, but your guitar playing is pretty interesting.
Where does that come from?
Hunter: I got a couple of favourite guitarists, there's Johnny
Guitar Watson, his early stuff, and guy called Lowman Pauling from The
5 Royales. He was a bass Singer, he wrote 'Dedicated to the One I love'
- The Shirelles did it, and the Mamas & Papas - but he's a great guitarist.
My playing comes from trying to fill out the rhythm section - there's
only one guitar so I'm trying to do a cross between rhythm and lead, trying
to make the rhythm as spare as possible so it doesn't leave a huge gap
when you do a lead break. I haven' quite mastered that yet!
You've been playing in London for a fairly long time, as a place
to play, how does it compare now to in the past?
Hunter: Quiet! It's difficult to get gigs for the full
band for the money we want to do them, so we have to go further afield.
In London there's a few clubs that only pay enough to do a trio, so I
do that - I call it that 'The Butlins Set'... I do the Johnny Burnett
and Ray Charles covers. But for venues that can afford it I give the full
five piece and we do our own set.
Back in the late eighties there were loads of pubs that were into our
kind of stuff... there was a bit of a blues / rootsy kind of thing going
on and I think we got swept along with that. It only lasted a few years
though. We used to play a lot at The Dublin Castle in Camden and they
stopped putting us on in the early nineties and instead they'd pull in
the same crowds by putting about ten bands on, so each band would have
about twenty of their mates. To be honest, these days I don't take much
notice of what it's like in London really. We just do the ones we do.
The 100 Club's still a regular one with us and we get
a good number of people in every couple of months. The festivals in Europe
seem to be coming in... so between the solo things, the little trio gigs
and the festival vibe we seem to be doing alright.
So what about this new album?
Hunter: Well we got it done with the backing of some friends
in America who set up a record company to put it out and now we're trying
to get distribution through working with some other record labels.
We recorded it with Liam
Watson at Toe Rag Studios (article about them here),
which was great.
Liam is notoriously cagey about his process, the closest he'll come to
giving away any secrets is to say "It's not what you do, it's what
you don't do"... When we set up to record, there was only one mike
for the two sax players, and one of them asked Liam if there was a reason
for that. "Yes, there is." replied Liam, and carried on doing
what he was doing.
This one I think is the closest we've come to sounding how we want. We
all play in the same room, which is important I think.
are about normal things that affect peoples lives. We're not trying to
re-create any kind of period or anything like that - that's not what people
were doing in the past. If people try and write stuff that's current then
it dates really quickly but if you write the stuff that can apply anytime
it gets a longer shelf life.