The Following Interview appeared on the January 2007 issue of the Washington Blues Society Bluesletter
Interview by: Derek Peace
Bill Majkut (pronounced My'kut) grew up in Seattle and is one of the Northwest's premier blues/rock bassists. Dating back to 1969, his bass work has been a driving component in a large number of bands ranging from David Brewer, Brian Butler, Tom McFarland, Nicole Fournier and Henry Cooper to Smokin' Gun, Whiskey Creek, The New Deal Rhythm Band, Tuxedo Junction, Grand Ma's Cookies and many others. A four-year veteran of Fred Radke's college big bands, Bill studied music at North Seattle Community College and at the Cornish Institute with jazz legend Gary Peacock. The first time I heard Bill was over twenty years ago. I was captivated by his hypnotic sense of meter, warm growling tone and the extremely deep pocket his bass playing obtains. His wit, humor and sincerity coupled with his rather broad knowledge of music; history and even theology make him one of the more interesting conversationalists I've ever come across. This Bluesletter interview is long over due. Bill's extensive contributions to the Northwest music scene are exemplary. He graciously accepted and we communicated over the phone and through email to discuss his roots, the blues, and the Pacific Northwest music scene both past and present.
DP: What first caused you to become interested in music?
Listening to the radio and my oldest brother's Elvis records. I wore out those early Elvis Rock-a-Billy recordings. Also, the girl next door constantly listened to nothing but Motown and Stax records with the volume cranked. The Supremes, Wilson Pickett, Sam & Dave, Booker T and all that stuff was the first music I really remember hearing.
DP: How old were you when you started playing bass?
I tried out a little folk guitar in fourth grade but it never caught on. I started playing bass when I was 15 years old. A friend of mine played bass and wanted to switch to guitar. His mother wouldn't let him get a guitar until he sold his bass. I had a job so he talked me into buying it by promising to teach me how to play it.
DP: Who were your first major bass influences?
There were a number of Seattle R&B bassists that inspired me to practice so I'd say that they were a definite influence. Dave Talbot, Tom Erak, Ron Foos, Tim Scott, Mike Cox, Doc Dolittle and Chuck Deardorf were all the Big-dog bass players at that time. All of them are 5-8 years older than I. To me they were the local benchmark to measure myself. I was fortunate enough to spend a year in the early-mid '70s with Dave Talbot at North Seattle Community College. I also met Mike Lynch there at that time and then a few years later Chris Carlson and Keith Lowe came through. With the exception of Ron Foos and Chuck Deardorf, I doubt any of the other bass players would even know who I am. I finally introduced myself to Tom Erak for the first time a few years back at the Sunbanks Blues Festival. He was playing with L.J. Porter. That man is still a fantastic bassist and was singing like an angel on top of it. People like him and Tim Scott blow my mind. I can't even talk and play bass at the same time. Those guys not only dig a groove like a backhoe but sing with the soul of Ray Charles while doing it! My first musical influences came from learning the bass parts in the music of Johnny Winter, The Allman Brothers, British blues-rockers Beck and Clapton and the Irishman, Rory Gallagher. I love power trios because of the improvisation that is required from everyone. Berry Oakley, Randy Joe Hobbs and Tim Bogart were probably my first major bass influences. Niels Henning Orstead Pederson and Gary Peacock were the ones that influenced my walking bass style. My slap-bass playing still isn't worth squat but what technique I have I got from Beaver Felton and Victor Wooten. It was in the early 1980's (through Mike Lynch again) that I started listening to all the original blues artists and I developed the appreciation for playing and keeping my bass lines germane to the character of the initial recordings.
DP: In your playing with Smokin' Gun, I definitely heard that combination of both rhythm and melody that is reminiscent of Berry Oakley in the early Allman Brothers band. How did that come about?
The Brothers played the Gold Creek Dome in Woodinville, WA in October of 1971. There were two shows scheduled but they didn't come out until about 1:00 AM and then played until 4:00 AM. I stood under Duane's feet the entire time and that impacted me for life. Duane died a few weeks later and Berry the following year. That band changed my entire musical reality. Berry became THE MAN!
DP: Would you elaborate a little on that style of blues-rock, jam-band bass playing and it's place in contemporary blues?
I'll tell you what I told the editor of Gritz Magazine when he asked me a similar question. I think an understanding either by feel and/or intellect of what is required in that genre is necessary. A bassist is primarily a timekeeper (like in a big band). They must play solid driving bass lines that define the chord changes and also give the percussionist the rhythmic freedom to slap the soloist around. Simultaneously, they need to play counter-melodies that support the soloist with ideas and inspiration to reach for more and better ways to express their self musically. There's always a balance between rhythm/groove and melody. You can't turn into a lead bass player. If done correctly this approach is directly applicable to contemporary blues playing because it terminates repetitious bass lines ad nauseam that make the music boring to you, the band and the audience. After nearly 30 years of transcribing and playing Berry Oakley's bass lines I think he was a melodic and rhythmic genius. There's a pot of gold to be found in studying him.
DP: Tell us about how Smokin' Gun was formed and why are they are no longer playing gigs?
Smokin' Gun was a format to play from my roots. I started it because I love the music. The idea came about in the early to mid '80s when I was with David Brewer and also the house bass player for the Blue Monday jams down at the old Freemont Tavern. That was a great band. It was Brewer & Dan Abernethy on guitars with K.T. Tuttle on drums and myself on bass. Isaac Scott would come in nearly every week and both he and David would get into it. I mean REALLY get into it! We'd do 45 minute shuffles and slow blues with the two of them soloing back and forth. They would harmonize their parts to build up certain sections and then one or the other would just take off into another shredding lead. It would absolutely decimate the audience. It was there that I was inspired with the idea to put a band together to play the blues with that approach and keep it alive. The Allman Brothers were no more nor was Skynyrd, or anyone else that had been associated with that duel guitar sound. No one in a blues band was approaching the music with that concept. So I took up the idea and went after it. It was David Brewer who introduced me to Jack Johnston in 1987. It took a few years to find the right players. Smokin' Gun got off the ground in 1992 with Billy Appleton, Brad Spear and Bill Brammer then Jack Johnston and Jamie Phalen came on board. I think after twelve years, a number of CDs, what seemed like a gazillion gigs and all of us having families, it was just time. Everything runs its course and eventually has to end. We quit performing in April of 2004.
DP: Do you still practice or have you reached the point where you're good enough?
I don't think I'll ever be "good enough". I still practice and try to get in as much time as I can. Practicing relaxes me. I really enjoy learning to play in the styles of different bassists. I spent four years in music school where I learned transcription and music analysis. When I learned Victor Wooten's double-thump slap-bass technique, it was like starting all over. My last big endeavor was learning Rocco Prestia's bass parts note-for-note in probably three dozen Tower of Power tunes. That inspired me to dig deeper into his roots. Lately I've been working through the "Standing in the Shadows of Motown" book of James Jamerson's bass lines and "What Duck Done" a book of Duck Dunn's bass lines. I also got "The Funkmasters" a book on James Brown's rhythm section and "Afro Cuban Grooves for Bass and Drums" waiting in the pile. So as you can see, there's still plenty for me to work on. In the last few years I've gotten calls to play in a number of tribute bands. For whatever reason, they've become real popular. This was cause to learn note-for-note bass parts and then play in the bass styles for Stevie Ray Vaughan, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Three Dog Night, Elvis Presley, Pat Travers, Tower of Power and the Allman Brothers Band. If I don't have a project going, stagnation sets in and that kills inspiration. To me, music without inspiration really isn't music.
DP: From a bass player/band member's point of view, tell us about some of the regional musicians that you've worked with.
Dave Jette has been the biggest inspiration I have encountered in years. I met him a little over a year ago when Henry Cooper called me to play some gigs. When Dave speaks, I just listen (and then ask questions). I call him Yoda. He's not only one of the best drummers I've ever worked with, but he has been blessed with the talent of teaching. He can dissect and then communicate the very essence of what it takes to make something work both musically and rhythmically. He's the one that told me about "Afro Cuban Grooves for Bass and Drums". Neither of us ever won a WBS Best of the Blues Award but Dave is probably the most under acknowledged player in town.
Henry Cooper has won best slide guitarist more times than I know of and he deserves every one of them. But what many people may not know, is how great a human being Henry is. He has a wonderful personality and a magnanimous heart. The other two guys in his band: Ed Vance and Dave Jette are kindred spirits. Playing with them is all about the groove and is totally improvisational. Henry might have one of the only true blues-jam-bands left in existence. He's got kind of a Ry Cooder meets Little Feat thing going on. Their music is a reflection of what's in their hearts. So, needless to say, what comes out of them is a beautiful thing.
Nicole Fournier is probably the best female blues/rock guitarist alive - period!!! She is a blistering soloist, fantastic songwriter and superb entertainer. I love working with her because it requires total concentration. She never plays it the same way once. You strap in, tune up and hold on! Her energy is addictive.
David Brewer is the real deal. He is no poser and doesn't think much of those who are. Though we hardly see much of each other these days, we'll always be brothers. His late wife Betty, was my wife's closest friend. Making music with David was always invigorating and motivating. He's an inspiration and introduced me to an entirely new energy. He's a very unique character, a great songwriter, blues guitarist and singer.
Bill Brammer is probably the most solid human being I've ever known. Yes, he's an outstanding blues-rock drummer and soloist but he's also the best friend anyone could ever hope to be. He's the icon for staying the course when stormed with catastrophe. He also has this incredible ability of responding to the most complex issues with an insightfully profound and dirt simple answer.
Brian Butler was the first blues band that I worked with. He's an original and goes way back to the very beginning of the Seattle blues scene. He did his time with Isaac and McFarland before starting his own band in the late '70s that went on to back up Elvin Bishop. Brian was an inspiration as a shredding blues guitarist and showman. Back in those days he'd dance along the bar with the waitresses while playing his wireless Strat. That was in the very early days of wireless technology. He was at the forefront of all that.
Jack Johnston and Brad Spear are in my opinion, two of the greatest guitarists out there. Their improvisational spontaneity and energy are unsurpassed both as individuals and as a team. I can hear some Johnny Winter and Dickey Betts in Jack and some Albert Collins and Robben Ford in Brad, but both of them are unreserved originals. They too never play it the same way once. True blues musicians in my opinion. Making music with them was one of the most exhilarating experiences in my 35+ years of playing.
I grew up in Seattle so I've played with Mike Lynch, Isaac Scott, Pat McFarland, Raven Humphres, Stan Eike, Kevin Wallace, Randy Oxford, Scotty Lind, Kate Hart, Greg Kepplinger, Michael Kinder and quite a number of others. I even backed up Charlie Musslewhite for three days at the old Jolly Roger Roadhouse. But, I was never really in their bands. All I can say is that every one of the people I've mentioned have been uniquely innovative. They worked through their influences, made the music their own and went on to take it to the next place. They did and do it with integrity. None of them are cover band type musicians. Truthfully, this can also be said of a lot of Northwest players that I've never worked with like Patti Allen, Kathi McDonald, L.J. Porter, Mark Riley, Nick Vigarino and Tim Sherman. Seattle has a lot to be grateful for.
DP: One final question. How has the local gig landscape changed over the last 30+ years and how do you see the current state of the Northwest blues scene?
I wasn't there early on when Ray Charles and other legends were playing the local black clubs. You might have to ask Little Bill, Sammy Carlson or someone like that to get that full history. What I've seen goes back to the mid/late '60s when Pat O'Day from KJR 950 AM promoted an entire circuit of clubs and bands that covered the entire Pacific Northwest - from Portland to Bellingham and Seattle to Coeur de Alene. In earlier years both KJR and KOL 1300 AM would play local music. I think they definitely had a heavy hand in making local bands successful such as The Wailers, The Sonics, The Bluenotes, Merillee Rush and maybe even Paul Revere. Bands could work, travel and have a fantastic time playing to packed houses while also making decent scratch. By the early '70s there was at least one club every three square miles that booked live music five to seven nights a week. People would come out and pay cover to hear and dance to jam-bands. In the mid '70s "Saturday Night Fever" came out and birthed the DJ Disco thing, we lost 30% to 40% of the clubs that booked live music. Unemployment was a major factor in me deciding to go to music school. In the early '80s contemporary music changed drastically with the New Wave scene but, SRV, Robert Cray, The Fabulous Thunderbirds and even ZZ-Top were also out there and kept blues roots music going commercially. In the early '90s the Alternative Music scene happened and totally captured the youth of that era, but locally the Pioneer Square Clubs supported a blues market. Since then, the baby boomers have grown older, home videos are even more popular, the D.U.I. laws are stricter and I think the blues-boomers are staying home. Recently the no smoking band went into effect and is taking a whack at what's left. We're lucky now to have even one sports bar every 20 square miles that books live music two nights a week. We currently have an entire generation that has grown up on D.J. Dance Hip-Hop completely ignorant of real R&B, blues or what instrumental jamming even is. I've watched these 20-something people at Blues & Classic Rock Festivals stand there with their jaws gaping open staring at guitarists like Walter Trout, Coco Montoya, Pat Travers, etc. They've never been exposed to improvisational blues roots music, let alone understand what it took to develop that type of talent. In our youth we spent thousands of hours in our bedrooms slowing down records to learn that stuff. Now there is an entire genre of music that sounds like the performers have been playing only a few days and then go out and record it - and it sells!
Blues roots music will never completely die, but I seriously doubt it will ever come around to even part of what it once was. I hope I'm wrong! We seem to be a society of immediate gratification. In general, having an interest in the blues and putting in the hours of discipline that it takes to be good player seem to be lacking in a large number of younger musicians. There are local exceptions like drummer Ben Johnston (Jack's son), Electric Shades of Blue, Ben Rice & the Youth of Blues, and nationally like Derek Trucks, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Johnny Lange and a small number of others, but there are far too few of them. I'm not sure where this music will be twenty years from now when our generation is gumming creamed spinach in the nursing home. Think about it: Who will be around to play it? Will there still be Blues Festivals? Will anyone even care?
DP: I'd like to close this interview with the excerpt below from Michael B. Smith (editor of Gritz Magazine). It appeared in the Fall 2005 issue of "Southbound Beat":
SB: Imagine you have the opportunity of starting the band of your dreams. Who would be part of that super band? Michael B Smith : Living souls, I imagine you are speaking of... Well. Guitars: Dickey Betts, Tommy Crain, Chris Hicks and, Me!....Bass: Bill Majkut of Smokin' Gun...Drums: Jakson Spires and Paul Riddle..Sax: Edgar Winter...Hammond Organ/Vocal: Gregg Allman, Piano/Keys: Johnny Neel, Fiddle: Charlie Daniels, Flute: Jerry Eubanks.
DP: It was a true pleasure doing this interview. Thank you Bill!
2007 Justahack Productions