XXL interview: JOHN MAYALL - The Blues Service Provider

27. February 2019

John Mayall XXL-Interview

JOHN MAYALL - Der Bluesdienstleister

Blues! The British resident of Los Angeles has never been interested in anything else. For 56 years, he has cultivated this musical variety according to all the rules of art, is regarded as either a luminary, an institution or a guardian of the Grail, was a springboard for many famous colleagues - and fortunately he doesn't even think about doing anything else in his old days. Marcel Anders spoke to the old master about the release of his 36th album.

eclipsed: John Mayall, "Nobody Told Me" was created in Dave Grohl's 606 studio.

John Mayall: That's right.

eclipsed: Since he often hangs out there and likes to jam with other artists: Did you meet him in person?

Mayall: No, he wasn't there. And he wasn't the reason I was recording there. To be honest, it wasn't my choice, it was Eric Cornes, the producer's. He thought 606 was a good place, and I trusted him. I do not deal with such things myself - because they are not important. As long as I can find the necessary equipment, i.e. a piano and some good amplifiers, and get started right away, everything is okay. We also recorded this album in just three days. It's the most time I've ever taken.

eclipsed: This sounds like a very old-fashioned, but also economic approach ..

Mayall: Definitely. I mean, we know what we're doing, after all. We don't try around for long, but everything stands before we go into the studio - we just have to hold on to it. And we do that every few years. Whenever we have the feeling that people might want a new album.

eclipsed: Some illustrious guests are involved in the new songs. Did you send your parts by e-mail or accompany them in the studio?

Mayall: The only one who visited us during the recordings was Joe Bonamassa - because he lives in Los Angeles and had time to drop by. For the others, who are spread all over the country, it was more like we sent them the recordings and they contributed their part.

eclipsed: How did you choose the guests - have you known Alex Lifeson, Todd Rundgren and Steven Van Zandt for some time?

Mayall: No, none of them. But after word got around that I was looking for guest guitarists for a new album, they contacted me - and not the other way around. So I didn't have to worry too much about finding some volunteers. Which is a nice compliment - and the result speaks for itself.

eclipsed: According to which key did you distribute the pieces, who takes which one?

Mayall: There was no plan. They simply chose the pieces they liked best. That's all, then. I mean, they're based on the blues. And every one of the guys knows me and my work. So they knew how to react - and they did. In a positive way. There's no science behind this. And no calculation either.

eclipsed: But you have already made sure that Joe Bonamassa does not play a piece for which he himself is responsible.

Mayall: That was something I deliberately avoided. Because that would be stupid. In the sense of: It wouldn't have anything new. I took very good care that Joe didn't play with something that he had already released himself.

eclipsed: And why did you choose cover songs by Gary Moore, Jeff Healey or Magic Sam?

Mayall: Very simple: When I compose an album, I take some of my own songs - the best I have right now - and place them next to those of other artists I like and to whom I feel a connection.

eclipsed: May I ask how you came up with "The Moon Is Full" by Gwendolyn Collins? There is no information about them on the net ..

Mayall: I have no idea. For me it was never important who wrote a song, only how it sounds.

eclipsed: What do you mean, you're not researching?

Mayall: Researching? Why should I?

eclipsed: To know who these artists were and what they stood for.

Mayall: I don't care. If I like a song, I don't care who recorded it. It just has to fit into my own style and I have to feel that I can make something out of it. That's all, then.

eclipsed: Whereby you don't limit yourself to one kind of Blues, but give yourself facet-rich and versatile. What's the matter with you?

Mayall: That has always been my goal. Simply because I think that no song should sound like the other. I think that's pretty boring, so I want to make sure that there are all kinds of styles and tempos at the start. To make an album as interesting as possible. That's what I've always wanted.

eclipsed: The new plays are mainly about women and trains - how come?

Mayall: I don't know. It's a coincidence - I didn't pick them after that, anyway. I'm more interested in the beat and the energy of a piece. And the texts tell a story that I then present as well as I can - in my own way. That's through the music. So it is nothing complicated and certainly nothing intellectual.

eclipsed: Still, you obviously couldn't resist It´s So Tough. "We´re running out of ideas/crazy guy´s in charge/makes you wonder how the problems got so large."

Mayall: Well, look around you: That's what's happening in the world. And it's a good theme - good enough to make a song out of.

eclipsed: At the same time, you present a solution to the current global misery: tackling problems on a small scale rather than on a large scale, starting in the immediate neighborhood before trying to save the world.

Mayall: Of course I try to provide food for thought. And the blues is a good vehicle for it, because it tells stories - and gives you the opportunity to express your opinion about certain things. That's the best way I can explain this.

eclipsed: What's keeping you as a native Briton in the USA anyway?

Mayall: At my age - I'm over 80 - I don't think I'll make any big changes anymore. I've decided where I'm staying. And I've been living in America longer than I've ever done in Europe, over half my life. Besides, the political events don't affect me so much - I live my life no matter what happens in the world. Quite apart from that, all the negative reports we are confronted with every day also have a positive side effect: they provide enough material for new songs. Otherwise, I'm very comfortable in California. It's my home.

eclipsed: You moved to Los Angeles in the late '60s, why?

Mayall: Because the climate here is wonderful. That's the main reason. And when the opportunity arose, I struck.

eclipsed: First you lived in the legendary Laurel Canyon ..

Mayall: That was just a coincidence, it just happened. When we first played at the Whisky A Go Go in Los Angeles, I met the owner of the club, Elmer Valentine. We got along great and became good friends. He lived in Laurel Canyon and at some point said that there was a house available - right next to his. That's where I moved in.

eclipsed: What about the mysticism of this place you read so much about? Does it really exist?

Mayall: I never found it particularly mystical ..

eclipsed: Then your house burned down - is that why you left the area?

Mayall: I stayed there for quite a while. But after all the houses were newly built and most of the people moved in, it was not the same as before the fire. So it seemed time to move. It's been 15 or 20 years, and I don't know who else lives there. I'm not following that.

eclipsed: Last year you turned 85 - how did you celebrate your birthday?

Mayall: I'm not 85 yet!

eclipsed: You can read that everywhere!

Mayall: (long break) So mentally I'm not yet. And age means nothing to me either - as long as I'm healthy and can do what I want. I just enjoy life and try to make the most of it every day. For me, a birthday like this isn't something to celebrate. I think when you turn ten, that's what you should do. And maybe for his 21st birthday. But I'm way past the point.

eclipsed: Does that also apply to the pension? Have you already passed the point where you could have retired?

Mayall: You could say that. Although I've never given it much thought. I will only do this when I am no longer able to deliver a truly energetic performance. So far this is not the case - fortunately. And: I am a musician. It means I'll play as long as I have the strength.

eclipsed: Like those old blues boys they sent home in that famous box?

Mayall: That's not really my philosophy. So I never found it exciting to experience these old bluesers who still go on stage although they don't have the necessary energy anymore. I don't want this to happen to me.

eclipsed: Would that be the point at which you stop: When you are no longer satisfied with your performance?

Mayall: As long as I'm healthy, I'll manage. I can't answer that question any better than that. As long as I manage to inspire people with my performance, I will continue.

eclipsed: You grew up in Macclesfield, near Manchester. How did you discover the blues for yourself?

Mayall: Very simple: My father, who was a guitarist himself, had a huge collection of jazz records. So I grew up in a house where there was music all the time. And when I was ten or eleven I found my own direction: I discovered the boogie-woogie pianists, and after that everything developed by itself. No matter if jazz or blues - for me it's all part of one thing. Good music.

eclipsed: Have you seen your heroes live?

Mayall: Not only that, I've also worked with many of them. The only one I never experienced on stage and with whom I never did anything was probably Howlin´ Wolf. But I had contact with all the others - and the pleasure of performing with them. What I'm madly proud of.

eclipsed: How did they behave towards you? Did they even take the young white boy seriously?

Mayall: Well, I wasn't a child anymore. I didn't start until I was 30, so they took me seriously. You saw that I was serious about what I was doing. That I feel the same as her and speak her language.

eclipsed: Why were you such a late bloomer anyway? Why did you first join the army and then study graphic design before devoting yourself to music?

Mayall: As far as the army was concerned, I simply had no other choice. That was something you were simply committed to, whether you wanted to or not. At that time I was 18, and then I went to university because I wanted to learn something and graduate. Something I could always fall back on. Because let's be honest: At that time there was no audience for blues music from which one could have made a living. Basically I played for myself for years - as a hobby and for pure pleasure. Until Alexis Korner and Cyril Davies set the proverbial stone rolling. That was in the early '60s.

eclipsed: How important was Alexis Korner to you? Was he really your mentor, as they say?

Mayall: Basically, I just used the connection to him to get a foothold in London. Because he lived there, knew all the club owners and was very helpful in introducing me to the right people. So I could bring my band to London and start giving concerts myself.

eclipsed: Remember the first time you met Eric Clapton?

Mayall: I really don't remember that. It's just been too long. But it must have been during his time with the Yardbirds. Because when he left and was available, I signed him up. He was a guitarist to my taste.

eclipsed: He was followed by Peter Green and Mick Taylor. What did you see in them - what made them guitarists to your taste?

Mayall: I'm always looking for musicians with whom I can build a relationship. Whose game I can do something with. And who have their own style that distinguishes them from others. It doesn't matter which instrument they play - they just have to have their own note.

eclipsed: All three - Clapton, Green, Taylor - had problems with their popularity. Which went so far that Green and Taylor were literally broken up by it. How come you obviously never had any problems like this? That you never got hooked on alcohol and drugs?

Mayall: First of all: I have never been so famous. That is why I do not move in these circles or face such problems. I'm just a musician and I'm grateful that what I do obviously inspires enough people to make a living from it and still be active. The fans have accepted everything I have ever tried, and most of the fans have enjoyed it. I'm very grateful for that.

eclipsed: The Bluesbreakers were considered an institution. Why did you break up the band in 2008?

Mayall: It wasn't the first time I broke away from that name. For the simple reason that I prefer to perform under my own. And it is now established enough to be able to do that. Lucky for me. When I think about it, I have spent more than half of my career under my own name. It's just that people like to be nostalgic and always remember the British blues explosion from which so many well-known musicians have emerged. You just have to look at the guitarists from my band, like Eric Clapton, Peter Green or Mick Taylor: They all started with me in England.

eclipsed: So you really acted as a stepping stone?

Mayall: I guess as a bandleader I've always followed my own taste in music and hired people that I thought would suit me well. I seem to have had a good nose - so purely intuitively, without thinking much about it. When I liked someone's game and he was available, I offered him a job - like a band leader does.

eclipsed: And that's the approach you're still taking?

Mayall: Yes. But in recent years this has no longer been necessary. Greg Rzab on bass and Jay Davenport on drums have been with me for ten years now. The only new thing about the upcoming European tour is that I now have Carolyn Wonderland with me.

eclipsed: First guitar player you ever played with. How kommt´s?

Mayall: That could be already - at least for a longer time. Only: It's not as if I refused or had a problem with women on the guitar. On the contrary. It just never happened. As for Carolyn, I am very happy that I met her and that she wanted to play with me. Because she has her own style, and I like the way she does it. The fact that she's a woman makes no difference to me. If I like what someone does, it doesn't matter where they come from, who influenced them or whatever. I'm just judging a man by his game. That's all that matters. And there she is, quite outstanding.

eclipsed: Between Carolyn and you: How do you decide who plays what or who takes over which guitar parts?

Mayall: I don't really know how to explain this - because it's purely intuitive. When we go on stage, it makes no difference who plays what or which instrument they play. It all aims to communicate in a way that creates great music. That's all, then. In this respect, we improvise and lead the whole thing in a direction that feels good. First and foremost, it has to entertain the audience, and I never had a problem with that.

eclipsed: What awaits us on your March tour? How spontaneous will you be at the presentation of the repertoire?

Mayall: There is not really much spontaneity in what we do on tour. At the moment we have about 20 or 30 pieces that we play and that I rearrange every evening so that it's never the same. This is important to me. Just like a good mix of songs from all my albums. And of course I bring other versions of the things that everyone knows. That's just part of it. And it always goes down well with the audience. Especially in Germany, where visitors are much more enthusiastic than elsewhere. They are not afraid to get a little louder and underpin their presence. Fans in other countries are more reserved and restrained in their reactions. But we like that the Germans come to the concerts to have fun. Our task is to enable them to do just that.

eclipsed: Since you have already played with God and the world, is there still something like a wish list, musicians with whom you would like to work, if the opportunity arises?

Mayall: I can't think of any. That means I'm wishlessly happy. And most of all I'm happy that it was always like this that others came up to me because they wanted to play with me. I think that's the best premise.

eclipsed: What if the Stones call and invite you to another blues album à la "Blue And Lonesome"?

Mayall: I know the boys very well, but I can't imagine that they want to work with me. After all, I play in a completely different league from them.

eclipsed: What do you think of their blues trips?

Mayall: They're okay. They're a rock band, but they have blues roots. For me it was just another Stones album, just with blues songs, which I found nice of course.

eclipsed: Joe Bonamassa is generally regarded as the future of the blues - someone who carries the torch and inspires a young audience for this genre. Would you sign this?

Mayall: Not really. I think the future of the blues is in the hands of a new generation inspired by what others have done in the past. Therefore, the blues will always be present, always accompany us, and there will always be great musicians who dedicate themselves to it. They follow what's happening out there, what developments and trends there are, and incorporate them accordingly. That's why the blues will never end up on the sidetrack. It is constantly updated and revitalized.

eclipsed: So as long as there are enough teenagers cavorting at your concerts, there's no need to worry?

Mayall: Exactly, that's how I see it. It shows that this sound always appeals to new generations, and that is a reassuring thought.

eclipsed: You've been in this business 56 years. Would you change something about your career afterwards, and if so, what would that be?

Mayall: I wouldn't change anything at all, not a bit. I have always believed that you have to follow your instinct - no matter in which direction it leads you. And life is full of surprises. I've always appreciated that.

* * * Interview: Marcel Anders

Nobody Told Me

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