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When we first interviewed James back in 2005 (read it here) 'People Gonna Talk' was about to be officially released. Since then the album's been nominated for a Grammy and come 8th in Mojo Magazine's '50 Best Albums of 2006'. There's been tours in the US and UK and TV appearances on both sides of the Atlantic, including Later with Jools Holland and the Tonight Show with Jay Leno in the US. With a new album in the pipeline Sharnalee Foster caught up with him before the recent 100 Club Gig...
An unnatural silence greeted me as I entered the 100 Club for my meeting with James Hunter. Only the sound man quietly busied himself with the stage set for the evening’s performance. As soon as James walked in, however, the atmosphere changed, and the air was filled with his amiable bluster. The man was in desperate need of a cigarette and clearly finding the new no smoking regulations hard to handle. He was tactfully guided through a back door, where he gamely allowed me to proceed with my questions while he had a relaxed smoke...
We’re excited to hear you’ve been recording again. Will we see any notable changes?
Hunter: I would say so... it’s kind of posher and rougher at the same time – not within the single track, of course. Some of the tracks have got a bit more sophisticated, with some of the little tricks we’ve put in.
How is it rougher?
Hunter: Rougher in that some of the other stuff’s a bit more earthy - what I call “retrogressive rock”. It’s kind of a bit more rough and ready. There’s a few more real Butlins ravers in there!
It’s been another busy year for you and the band. Was there a particular highlight for you?
Hunter: I’d say the one off the top of my head was the Hollywood Bowl. We supported B.B. King there. We did have a bit of a fight. I wanted to swap places with Damian and stand where Lennon had been rather than where McCartney was, but I’ve got to go in the middle, so…! That was great. Our drummer told us that he knew somebody who’d played there, and if you’re not the top turn, you get short shrift off the audience. I was really gearing myself up for a confrontation. It must have made us play better, because we went down really well. I had all these sarcastic one-liners ready... When we’re not going down well, which is, if I may say, not that often, I usually say things like “May I humbly say how much we’ve enjoyed playing to each other!”
What’s prompted you to do the Delbert McClinton Cruise next month?
Hunter: Oh, we were offered money!
It’s as straightforward as that?
Hunter: Yes, that’s a thing that just came up. Delbert played harmonica on “Hey Baby”…
I’ve been told it’s a cool cruise to do, and perhaps not the dodgy career move I first thought it might be.
Hunter : Yes, that’s right. We done a really dodgy one in Norway, years ago, and it was absolutely horrible. It was laughingly called a “Blues Cruise”. There was a whole realm of entertainment on before us, and there was this extremely camp dance troupe. We were laughing at how bad they were - even at the style of dancing they were doing - until we got up there and we found out that it was because of the rocking of the boat. It was horrible! I put them down a bit unfairly…
Is all the touring in the US paying off?
Hunter: I think so, yeah. We recently did a tour of the West Coast, which wasn’t really our territory, so we decided to try and carve out a bit of a niche there. It worked out really well, because there’s a very, very laid back vibe out there. We used to assume that people on that side might be a bit divvy, you know? As it turned out, they weren’t – they were just a bit chilled out. We really enjoyed ourselves. We did the Strawberry Festival, which I don’t know if people over here have heard about, but it’s in the Yosemite, California. It was a beautiful place. We went down really well.
Do you still feel that England is your home?
Hunter: Yeah it is, because the American government can’t tolerate me for too long! The officials don’t like me as much as the punters do, so I don’t think they’ll have me staying over there for long... The nearest to home for me in the States, if I really was desperate to move over there, which I’m not, would be Philadelphia. That’s my favourite place over there.
Are there any plans for an extensive UK tour in 2008?
Hunter: I hope so, yeah. Very probably. We’re getting a chance that we didn’t get all that time ago, before I went to the States. We’re picking up some good audiences. Word has filtered back from what’s been happening there. Yeah, it’s marvelous.
To many UK fans, you will always be Wilf. What was the impetus for the change from Howlin’ Wilf to James Hunter back in 1996?
Hunter: Well, it started off obviously as a joke – you know, a pun – and people didn’t get the pun, and thought I was mispronouncing it. Like most jokes that you have to explain, it takes all of the humour out of it, so I decided to call it quits.
You have shared the stage with several music legends in your time. Do you have a favourite?
Hunter: I hated them all equally! Oh, blimey... Well, the living legend that’s made the most impression is someone we ain’t actually shared the stage with – if that’s not cheating – Allen Toussaint. We’ve been recording, and we’ve got him on one... no, three... maybe four tracks. Allen Toussaint - who’s been a hero of ours since we kicked off - practically invented the stuff we’re doing. He came in the studio and did some tracks with us and he was fantastic! We were quite pleased with how they were anyway, but with his contribution, it just lifted everything we did to a whole other level. And he was quite a laugh to work with. He’s got a very formal, but not square, sort of demeanor, and he’s very dignified, but still loose enough you can have a giggle with him, and he was... oh, musically... Jesus!
Would you consider writing for another singer? And if so, who would you like to see performing your material?
Hunter: Funny thing is that some stuff I’ve written has been with other people in mind. For example, “I’ll Walk Away” – I wrote that song with Charlie Rich in mind, even though he was dead. “Watch and Chain” was my attempt at doing a Bobby Bland song. On a few instances that’s happened. I certainly would write for somebody else, but I can’t think of anyone specifically, because there’s a lot of people who might sound right on my stuff, but it might not be their cup of tea. We did try to get Van (Morrison) to sing a couple of mine, but I can see lyrically they’re not quite his sort of thing. I’m a bit Cro Magnum when it comes to lyrics in a way and I don’t really do obscurity. I think they’re probably a bit too simple for him.
Your sense of humour is well-known. Do you have any funny stories of life on the road that you’re happy to share?
Hunter (thoughtfully): Erm... not that one... Er, no, not that one... I was the only one who thought that one was funny... Come back to me on that one!
Ok, as another year draws to a close, what are your hopes for 2008?
Hunter: More money!
But you must be doing pretty well now?
Hunter: Well, I’m not on the dole anymore. That’s a start. I was, two years ago.
And now for that funny story…..
Hunter: We could cite the time at a festival in Germany, when we were halfway through a particularly sensitive rendition of “The Very Thought of You” and the stage was invaded by two men dressed as chickens. I waited until the saxophone solo and then applied my boot to their parsons noses, propelling them back into the audience, on the grounds that this particular song didn’t lend itself to a chicken-ambience……
When they eventually came onto the stage, James and the band were given an enthusiastic welcome. They launched straight into one of their “Butlins ravers”, to coin a Hunter phrase, “Talking ‘Bout My Love”. James looking very dapper in a deep red shirt and pinstriped waistcoat and the rest of the band taking their turn in the spotlight, exhibiting their technical skills to impressive effect; Damian Hand on tenor sax, Lee Badau on baritone sax, Jason Wilson on double bass, Carwyn Ellis on keyboards and Jonathan Lee on drums.
With a polished tightness the band worked through many of the songs that have now become favourites with the fans – “People Gonna Talk”, “No Smoke Without Fire”, “Riot in My Heart” and “Mollena”, for example, all written by Hunter himself. The popular 5 Royales covers, “Think” and “Baby Don’t Do It” received rapturous applause once again, as did the rockin’ version of Chuck Berry’s “Betty Jean”, which saw Hunter reaffirming his rock ‘n’ roll roots. By the same token, Ray Noble’s “The Very Thought of You” proved yet again Hunter’s versatility.
The most exciting part of the night for me was the introduction of so many new songs to the set. The Latin rhythm that Hunter so often puts to such good effect was evident in “Hand It Over”, while other great new songs included the beautiful Cooke-style “The Hard Way”, a groovin’ number called “She’s Got A Way” and the previously performed, but as yet unreleased, “Don’t Do Me No Favours” and “Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”. Clearly, Hunter’s new material, when released, will make as compulsive listening as the Grammy-nominated, perfection-on-a-disc, “People Gonna Talk”.
The band certainly gave us our money’s worth with two dynamic sets that encompassed the whole of James Hunter’s solo career and also looked towards an exciting future. The packed dance floor was a testament to the musicianship of these guys and the sheer drive and energy of their performance. As expected, Hunter’s sense of fun was evident throughout, as he engaged with both band and audience. He obviously enjoyed returning to his old haunt, and it was good to have him back.