Prog Noir And Beyond: Conversations With Tony Levin, Cactus' Carmine Appice, Jim McCarty, And Jake Shimabukuro

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Tony Levin
Tony Levin
photo credit: Michele Russotto

A Conversation with Tony Levin

Mike Ragogna: Tony, beyond your very associations with '80s King Crimson and Peter Gabriel, you played on albums and tours by almost all the iconic artists ranging from John Lennon, Pink Floyd, and David Bowie to James Taylor, Lou Reed, and Cher. Beyond The Wrecking Crew, it seems you’ve racked up more musician credits than any living bassist. Do you have any thoughts about that or maybe how you were able to even achieve the physics of that?

Tony Levin: Thanks, Mike. I have, indeed, been very lucky as to the great artists I got to play with. In fact, any musician who's been able to support themselves and be part of good quality music has reason to be grateful!

MR: Beyond supplying the basics for what’s needed, when recording on others’ recordings or backing them up live, do you consciously try to innovate or are producers and acts hiring you mainly to bring your "Tony Levin" sound/approach/patches? All of the above?

TL: It varies a lot. Sometimes I'm asked to play a specific part, sometimes it's left completely to me, and all the increments between those. I'm comfortable with any way it's done, but probably most special things come out when I'm collaborating with the songwriter to come up with a bass part that'll be just right for that song. As for trying to innovate, for me, it completely depends on the song or composition. Sometimes it seems to require something out of the ordinary from the bass, but if it feels like a very simple part is what'll work best. I'm very happy to do that.

MR: You were one of the first bassists to popularized the Chapman Stick. How profoundly did its application affect your art?

TL: In the late ‘70s, I came across that wonderful instrument and started using it for the more progressive musical things I was doing, especially King Crimson. Though it has bass and guitar strings, I stayed with just the bass “side” of the instrument—it has 6 of those strings!—for the first few years. Eventually tackling the guitar sounds I could get from the other strings, I formed the band Stick Men to further explore what could happen with two touch style guitars in one band.

Stick Men / Prog Noir
Stick Men / Prog Noir
Stick Men's Prog Noir album cover

MR: On to your new album, Prog Noir, you recorded as “Stick Men,” playing with Markus Reuter and reuniting with King Crimson drummer Pat Mastelotto. How has your playing together evolved over the years?

TL: Pat and I are very tight musically, as you'd expect after 20 years touring and recording as a rhythm section. What he brings to our Stick Men trio is the unusual approach to drumming that he's featured in King Crimson—electronics mixed with acoustic drumming, in a very creative way. So that's the perfect complement to our double touch guitar-ing, and I feel we have a pretty unique sound and approach.

MR: Is Prog Noir's music mostly based on ideas that each musician brought in to sessions or was it a full group approach with everyone improvising until something stuck? How were the lyrics conjured? Basically, what was the creative process?

TL: The compositions began with me or Markus Reuter, who plays his self-designed U8 touch guitar, and then passed around to the other players. Sometimes there are major changes made from doing that, but in quite a few of these new pieces there are song forms and lyrics, so they didn't change in form so much. Speaking about the lyrics I wrote, there's a tongue in cheek song, “Plutonium,” about what's become of our dear planet Pluto, downsized now to a dwarf. Another, “Never the Same,” is about the experience about being back in King Crimson. One, “The Tempest,” about the cathartic 9/11 experience, and the title track is somewhat about, well, being a progressive band on the road!

MR: Were there any challenges in creating the material or recording the album?

TL: Usually, we bang out our albums of whatever material we've got on the burner. This album, though, I wanted to take an extra year tweaking it, being sure all the parts and lyrics are as refined as we can get them. So with our busy touring schedules, that was the main challenge of the album. Musically, it was a pleasure from start to finish.

MR: This project took a “song” versus “jam” direction, including having vocals on many tracks. When you played the final mixes and sequence top to bottom, what were your first impressions?

TL: Good question. The fact is, by the time it's recorded, mixed and mastered, you're usually so familiar with every detail about the music it's not easy to re-experience a sense of the whole thing. So I spend most of my effort on sequencing well before that, when the songs have been written but not fully recorded. Sometimes a last minute change comes up in that order, and with an equal band like ours, each player's opinion is valued, so there's no rule as to how it always works, at least in our band.

Stick Men
Stick Men
photo credit: Kai R. Joachim

MR: Are there a couple of tracks on the project that went beyond expectations for you and/or the group?

TL: Quite a few, for me. You know, when you leave the finished album for a week then play it for somebody and experience it in their presence, and it moves you emotionally… You know, in that case, that you've accomplished what you set out to do with the music. That's the feeling I had with the tracks “Never the Same,” “Leonardo,” “Trey's Continuum,” and “Prog Noir.”

MR: How does Prog Noir ultimately satisfy you as an artist, writer, and player?

TL: Ah, that's a big question—not sure I have the wisdom to do it justice. You create your music the best you can, then you let it out into the world where it'll have a life of it's own. The music may one day, in some far flung place, touch one person and effect his or her inner life in some small way. And that is what justifies it all. More is just a bonus.

MR: These days, how do you balance playing and recording music with your other great talent, photography? And are there any other passions you’ve been keeping below radar, like supreme culinary skills?

TL: Hah! I see you've done your research, and thanks for the compliment. I do take photos a lot on the road, where it doesn't interfere with my playing schedule, and it's a joy to share them on the web with the fans of the music. I discovered long ago with my website that people who come to concerts really like seeing what it's like from our perspective onstage, and I try to share with them how the energy they give us is a part of what makes a concert special. As to other things I do when not on the road, there are usually musical projects I want to catch up on from home. And the last few years, I've been lucky to have quite a few tours with different bands—Stick Men, King Crimson, Peter Gabriel, Levin Brothers. Also I'm slowly preparing a photo exhibition of my road shots through the years, and I've just released a book of my poetry titled Fragile as a Song.

MR: Tony, what advice do you have for new artists?

TL: I'll repeat what I mentioned before, we're pretty lucky to be able to create music or art for a life's work. Perhaps those fields are only meant for those who are devoted to it and will persist no matter what the hurdles are. If you're one of those, enjoy the ride—it's worth it.

MR: Is it possible you’re as in-demand as you are because of your acting stint in Paul Simon’s film, One Trick Pony?

TL: Oh yes, the demand will be high for sure--those producers are just waiting a few decades to let my acting prowess mature.

MR: [laughs] Your career seems pretty intertwined with Peter Gabriel’s, your having appeared on most of his recordings and on many tours. What is it about his music and the artist himself that resonates with you and what do you think you bring to his works? I ask about him in particular because to me, it seems there’s something almost spiritual there.

TL: Peter is a great artist, a great person, and, luckily for me, a great friend. From when I met him in '76, he's been consistently kind and humble with all who are around him, while forging a unique musical career. His musical style has changed a great deal through the years, but always with intensity, with a conscious approach to the music and with a depth of meaning to it all. And, of course, he's used his fame to advance the cause of human rights, in ways that have resonated though the world of rock artists. He also makes a good cup of tea.

MR: You also record with your brother as Levin Brothers. What are the dynamics of making music with your brother?

TL: Well, to begin with Pete and I always get along great, both musically and personally. A few years ago, we decided to do an album of the king of music we grew up listening to and loving—the 'cool jazz' of the '50s. We wrote new material, but very much in that style, with short melodic pieces and short solos. I play bass and some lead cello in that band, and Pete's playing organ and piano. So it's been a wonderful return to our first musical experience together. The album—Levin Brothers—was fun, and when we can find a slot to tour some, it's even better. We're scheduled to tour South America and U.S. East Coast next Spring.

MR: And when will work on Prog Noir II begin?

TL: Hah, that thought hadn't entered my head. Thanks, now it's stuck there!

MR: So I heard you like to play bass. There’s this new album I’ve been working on…

TL: Sure, I'm your guy, send me a demo, I could play on it in Summer '17. No, '18...

Cactus / Black Dawn
Cactus / Black Dawn
Cactus Black Dawn album artwork

A Conversation with Carmine Appice

Mike Ragogna: You love Cactus, don't you, Carmine.

Carmine Appice: Cactus, man! It's a kick ass band, I love it! Back with The Allman Brothers, we were one of the original jam bands, you know? Every night is different, all the songs we play, still, today, we play whatever we want to play and we jam it. It's still high energy, and it really kicks but.

MR: You're compared to Led Zeppelin often, but I think that's a strange comparison. Why does the comparison exist?

CA: In 1970 when Cactus came out, Led Zeppelin was only a year old, and because we had the same lineup and we were doing what they called “blues rock,” Atlantic used that phrase, "The American Led Zeppelin" and it's been carried through the years with us, unbeknownst to us at the time how big Led Zeppelin was going to become. At the time, it was just Atlantic's trick.

MR: Your new album Black Dawn includes a couple of tracks from that early era, "Another Way Or Another" and "C-70 Blues." What gave you the idea to put them on this package? How did you treat those recordings relative to the new material?

CA: First of all, the predecessor to "One Way Or Another," "Another Way Or Another” had the riff from "One Way..." in a totally different context. The way we used to write songs in those days, we would put the track down and then Rusty [Day] would come in and add vocals to it, just like all the other bands of the day. Rusty never did vocals on this one, so it was really an interesting track. I always personally loved it. When we were doing this album, we had probably fourteen tracks down but we had only finished eight of them. For some reason, it took a bit of a time for our singer to get the lyrics and the melodies together. Sometimes it comes to you and sometimes it don't. It's taken longer, so we said, "We want to get this album out but we can't release eight tracks. Maybe we should find something in the past that connects." I brought that one up and I also found the blues that I had on my computer in WAV form. We decided to put those two on the album, and then when we mastered it all, we used them at the end of the album so they'd gel together and make it sort of a couple of bonus tracks.

MR: It’s kind of like Cactus going full circle.

CA: As [Jim] McCarty pointed out to me a couple of times, when you listen to the records--which I've done many, many times in the car and wherever--you don't lose any energy going from the new stuff right into the old stuff. The energy stays there. I said, "Yeah, I know." It's pretty cool.

MR: What is it about Cactus that made you guys keep coming back? It could've been Vanilla Fudge.

CA: Well Vanilla Fudge is still going. We've had it going since 1999, with the original band with Tim [Bogert] from 2005 to about 2010 when Tim retired and we got Pete Bremy who's in Cactus. It's only right for Vanilla Fudge's bass player to be in Cactus. Vanilla Fudge is still going and playing, but what happened with Cactus was, in 2005, Randy [Pratt], our harmonica player, had a good amount of money. His father was a big CEO and when he died, he left him a lot of money. Randy's favorite band was Cactus, so he decided to fly Jimmy in and fly me and Tim in when I lived in LA and put us in his private studio where we'd done two albums already. He said, "Let's just play some stuff. Let's see if we can put something together." That ended up being Cactus V in 2006. Also in 2006, we got a call from the Sweden Rock Festival, who love to put reunions together. We put together a band with me, Tim and Jim, and Rusty couldn't because he'd died. We got Jimmy Kunes to sing on the Cactus V album and Randy played harmonica, because he's a bass player and a harmonica player. That started it off. We were working on tracks when that gig came up and then we decided to try and do some other gigs, so we played a couple of nights before the Sweden Rock gig. We played B.B. King's and we sold it out and the band kicked ass. It was great. So that started it all off, and then we did Sweden Rock and released the album, then we did some more gigs. We've been doing gigs since 2006 and then in 2010 or 2011 when Tim decided to retire, we got Pete and continued doing it.

MR: I imagine you all had to assemble in some way to write the material. How did it come together for this album versus the old days?

CA: Pretty much the same way. We got together with all the band members this time at Randy's house and McCarty would come in with some chords and riff ideas and then we would just put the ideas together. We'd rehearse and say, "Okay, how about we do that for eight bars, that can be the verse. Jim, what do you think?" talking to Jimmy Kunes. He'd say, "Yeah, that sounds good. How about we go up tempo?" The title song, "Black Dawn," I actually did the key, the chords, the arrangement on my iPad, on Garage Band. I showed it to the guys and they liked it so McCarty learned what I did; he plays it a lot better. Then we rehearsed it. Once we got like four or five songs, we put them down on tape. We ended up on either twelve or thirteen tracks, but we didn't do it all at once. We'd do the first four or five and then McCarty would go back to Detroit and then a couple of months later, he'd come back and do more. It's always over a period of time. This album, over a period of time, probably took a year and a half at least.

MR: You all also worked on the album’s first video "Headed For A Fall."

CA: Yeah, we did, and that came out awesome! I love that track. I think some of the songs are really, really good. They're all really good. It's hard to pick which one I like the most or least.

MR: That's normally a question to ask, but I think a better question would be what do you think has evolved most from the early days of Cactus to now?

CA: It's a little more tame. Just a little. Not a lot. Tim Bogert was pretty wild with his bass playing. Pete Bremy is a great player whose number one influence is Tim, so whenever he plays, he does sound like a tame Tim Bogert on this album with a little more groove. I think the band has a little more groove than we've had in the old days.

MR: You individually have been making music for many years though your chemistry with Tim Bogert created a certain kind of musical vibe. When you listen to this album, does Tim’s presence seem to be missing?

CA: Not really, because Tim has calmed down a lot in his old days. Pete really does a great job of being Tim-like. In the song "Headed For A Fall" there's that middle section where he's headed all over the bass. It sounds very much like something Tim would do. I miss having Tim around because we go back forever, and I love the guy like a brother, but... McCarty had a problem in the old days, just like Jeff Beck. They both had a problem after a while with Tim because he doesn't play groove. When the solo comes, there's a guitar solo and there's also a bass solo, where Pete doesn't do that. When there's a guitar solo, he's still there laying the bottom end with me, which really makes it a little bit more of a groove. I'm about groove too. When the solo would come and Tim would take off, then I'm playing by myself. There was a brilliance to Tim's playing like that, but after a couple of years of playing like that, Jeff Beck got fed up with it, and so did McCarty. That's why McCarty left originally.

MR: I can remember the classic Cactus albums, but then Son Of Cactus came out. What was that story?

CA: Son of Cactus was not us. The 'Ot And Sweaty album was us. That's because... Are you going to ask me why it went in such a unique direction?

MR: With my very next breath!

CA: The original Cactus did forty or fifty shows with Rod Stewart at the time, and being framed with Rod & The Faces, we were having giant hits. They were an awesome band and they got the audience going. It just seemed like the natural fit for a group like Cactus but McCarty left and Atlantic said, "Look, we never liked Rusty Day," even though we all loved Rusty because he had great lyrics and good melodies and he was a great front man. But they wanted us to get rid of him or they would not get behind us. We had to do it, so we got rid of Rusty and got Pete French who was an English guy, similar to Rod Stewart, and we brought in Duane Hitchings, my buddy, playing keyboard. He's a great songwriter and a great keyboard player. We changed the sound of the band to be a little bit more in the direction of what Rod & The Faces were. Then we went out and toured in it and we did more shows with The Faces. Rod actually came up to me when we said we were going to break Cactus up and go with Jeff Beck. He told us not to do it. He said, "This is a great band, this band will happen, you should stick together. The thing with Jeff will only last an album or so and then it will be done."

MR: Well, he was right. But you wanted to do a project with Jeff—Beck, Bogert & Appice—and that's a legendary project itself.

CA: It was a legendary project and we really helped each other build careers. His career benefited more than me and Tim's because he had a manger that still kept him in a major record deal. Then went on to do Blow By Blow, which I was involved in. I thought it was going to be a Beck/Appice album and at the last minute, they told me it wasn't. While we were on the road with Jeff, I used to listen to stuff he never even heard of. Then when BBA broke up and I went to England, I hung out with Jeff for three months and we were writing and arranging what ended up being Blow By Blow, but my managers recommended to not stay on it if they decided to make it a Jeff Beck solo album. They said, "They've never had a Jeff Beck solo album, it's always been a Jeff Beck Group," and this was it. It was really mine and Jeff's record. We put all the energy into putting it together, especially me. So when they said, "It's going to be a Jeff Beck album," my manager and my lawyer said, "You can't be a sideman to Jeff, you were just equal billed to him." They made me get off it and I never got paid for it anyway.

MR: The foreshadowing for Jeff’s Blow By Blow album is all over the Beck, Bogert & Appice album, so purely from a musically historical perspective, the lineage seems clear.

CA: There's even more of a line on Beckology. There's a song called "Jizz Whizz," which is an instrumental song that I say is the song that bridged the gap from BBA to Blow By Blow. There are all these weird time signatures, it's all instrumental, it was very jazz-rocky. Actually, it's more like rock-jazz. We did a live version of it, which I still have--a lot of legalities and B.S. went down with Tim and Jeff and everything else. We were supposed to do it in '73 and still never came out. Sold out two shows, six thousand people. The audience response was amazing. We did this stuff but we can never get it out. I have versions of it which are tremendous.

MR: After all the drama, did you basically say, "To hell with that, I'm doing my own music."

CA: Well, yeah, and I did. After I joined Rod Stewart, initially right after the DBA thing, me and Tim Bogert looked at Tommy Bolin as a replacement, but at the time, Tommy didn't have a name yet. He wasn't in Deep Purple yet. After that, I went to L.A. and I joined a band called KGB with Mike Bloomfield and I took Ric Grech with me from Blind Faith. KGB had big management but it didn't really work out, so that's when I joined Rod Stewart. The Rod Stewart thing was the biggest bump in my career I've ever had.

MR: That's an amazing period and Rod wasn't dumb for bringing you in.

CA: Matter of fact, when he hired me, he said, "Just play like you did in Cactus and I'll give you a solo every night. I know you have fans.” He trusted me in a solo to work the audience and not have everybody go out for a beer when he changed clothes and all that stuff. It was a great relationship and he's been a friend ever since. I went to his birthday party last year. My autobiography came out this year and he wrote the introduction. He was a great guy to work with. I won't even say "work for" because we worked as a band. He loved Cactus, and he loves Fudge too.

MR: If you had your fantasy future for Cactus, what would your plans be?

CA: I would just like Cactus to be able to play theaters around the world and be able to go out and play what we do. What I don't understand about some of the bands, especially Vanilla Fudge and Cactus, is we had big audiences when we broke up. When we got back together, they weren't there anymore. We still have audiences, but they're not big like they were. Other bands, especially English bands, can come back and they have big audiences. I would love to have Cactus play like 2,500-seat theaters around the country, big casinos, do what we do, and have a good time doing it. The band is awesome. Jimmy Kunes as a singer, he's a great singer. Listen to him on an album; what a set of pipes. And he never goes hoarse.

MR: Carmine, you modernized Cactus’ sound. If someone was a fan of, let’s say, 'Ot & Sweaty, they’re likely to hear the band’s musical evolution, right?

CA: Yeah. This Cactus Album is a Cactus album with evolution, for sure. We're all more mature, we're better songwriters. Since I started with Cactus, I've written a lot outside the group, I wrote a lot with Pat Travers and those songs were very Cactus-oriented. I co-wrote "Do You Think I'm Sexy" and “Young Turks.” I learned a lot more about songwriting myself and producing, and how to get the drum sounds. Now McCarty's got some great ears. He was working this thing up to the very edge, to the last minute we delivered it, mastering. He was like anal about it, but it sounds great.

MR: It seems Rod Stewart became comfortable in a more mature setting. But during the time you were with him, you helped give that body of music the kick it needed.

CA: He's a rocker but he's not doing that at all. I had a dream once that Rod put the old band together and we went out and did shows and it was kicking. That was a great rock band. I just saw Paul McCartney; he's got a great band. If you've got a great band with you, a band that is a band and not just a bunch of sidemen. Rod hand-picked everybody in the band. It was a great band.

MR: Maybe nobody's encouraged him to return to his roots. Maybe you should plant a bug in his ear!

CA: I have this show called "The Rod Experience," where I have three members of The Rod Stewart Band. Anyway, it all started with Rod saying, "Play like you did in Cactus."

MR: Carmine, what advice do you have for new artists?

CA: This business is so changed now, I really don't know. I would say don't depend on being a rock star, try and make a living in music. Put a cover band together, go out playing. You could do cruisers, put a wedding band together and make ten grand a night, go to school and become a teacher at a college... There are a lot of different ways to make a living in music. As far as making it in the record business, I don't really have a clue. Do you?

MR: Ha! What advice would you have given yourself?

CA: The first thing you've got to do is learn your instrument. Practice your instrument, get the passion, work at it and push and network and do whatever you can to get ahead. Back in the day, for me, it was doing just that—playing at clubs and going to clubs and meeting other musicians. I guess that's all still the same but how do you get from that scene onto records and become successful? I don't really know how that's done today because it's all done on the internet and somehow has a story. I'm reading The Village Voice, this group sold out Madison Square Garden on their second night. I'm reading down... "Who's this group?” They're called, “The Black Keys." Now everyone goes, "Right, oh yeah, The Black Keys!" I go, "Give me their hit song." When I played two nights at The Garden with Rod or Ozzy, we had lots of hit songs. BBA played Madison Square Garden at the theater—five thousand people. Vanilla Fudge, same theater. We had hit songs that people knew. How does anyone know their songs? I don't know. Of course, I went and picked [The Black Keys’ music] up and found out they were a two-piece band when they started, now they're a four-piece band. They sell out big arenas and I don't know why. I don't have a clue who they are but they're out there playing in front of five thousand, ten thousand people.

MR: It's a different era.

CA: I get asked that question a lot, "What do you recommend for musicians to do?" I just recommend you learn your instrument, learn your craft, push it as far as you can go with it. If you're trying to make it as a rock star, I don't really know what to do or how to do that today. I took a band I produced into Atlantic Records. Great band. They're a two piece band, two twin brothers. Their material is good. I worked on their material. It's like Police meets Metallica. Cool band. Atlantic liked the material but said, "We can't do anything unless they have five thousand views on YouTube or like three hundred thousand Facebook members." I said, "If they have that, what do they need you for?" Somehow these bands know how to do that. I've been working Twitter for a couple years, I've got almost fourteen thousand [followers]. I'm working with an intern who's a drummer; this kid's got sixteen thousand Twitter followers and he's unknown. Now I've got him working my Twitter. He got me two thousand in a quarter of the time it took me. This is how they find each other. They know all these bands and I don't have a clue who they are. I feel like my parents did when they were my age. Hey, I'm a senior citizen by rank.

MR: Don't talk like that!

CA: [laughs] So is Paul McCartney. So is Jimmy Page. So is Jeff Beck. So is everybody who's still doing it after all this time.

MR: Your place in music history--it may be weird to hear it put like that, but you do have one.

CA: I know, I do.

MR: What do you think about it?

CA: I don't know. I've often wondered if I'd gotten drafted, I wouldn't have been in Vanilla Fudge. John Bonham listened to me a lot and took a lot of my style. I'm not being egotistical about it—other people have been saying it and writing it. I'm wondering if he would've ended up being the same way he was. I brought the power to Rod's drumming, which is still going on. If you look at the players drumming around me, like Keith Moon, Ginger Baker, Mitch Mitchell, Dino Danelli, none of them were hard hitters. I brought this hard-hitting, loud-pounding technical drumming that we call “power drumming.” One time, I got an award from Sabian for being the best rock drummer. I said, "What about Ringo?" They said, "Ringo's like a pop drummer. You were the first power rock drummer." I never really thought of it like that, so I think that's my mark. In my press release, it says I helped legitimize the art of rock drumming through my books and my clinics. I helped develop the art of rock drumming. I hear a lot of my influence, I see a lot of my influences in the drum sets, and I hear a lot of influences in all the drummers who are coming out today. Vanilla Fudge influenced so many bands; we did so many firsts. Vanilla Fudge was the first to be on The Ed Sullivan Show without a smash single. We did so many firsts like that back in the day because everything was virgin. Are we recognized in the Rock 'N' Roll Hall of Fame? No.

MR: Well, not yet.

CA: But I don't really care. I'm in the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame, I have the Rock Walk of Fame on Sunset Boulevard. It's nice to be in there. We're in the Long Island Hall of Fame. There are a couple other things like that. I have a lot of different awards. I really have achieved a lot. My boyhood dream was to be a famous drummer and I think I've gone beyond that.

MR: Even if you’re only credit was co-writing and playing on "Do You Think I'm Sexy," I think you'd be covered.

CA: [laughs] That was the biggest song I ever wrote!

MR: What does the future bring for you?

CA: Believe it or not, I want to start doing corporate speaking. I did drum clinics all the time and now that I'm an author, I believe that the corporate speaking thing is like clinics going to the next level, except this time, I'm going to talk about fifty years of my business, being successful in my business, how I'm successful, how that could transfer to young people that are trying to succeed in their business. Life Lessons By Revered Drummer Carmine Appice, that's what we're calling it. All the stuff I did to keep going and survive, I was persistent. I never gave up. I had moments like, "Ah-ha, that's a good idea! How do you do this idea?" All of that can be transferred to anything—corporation, marketing, if people have ideas for inventions, whatever. I'm mentoring with a guy now who does corporate speaking. We're at the point where we're making up the one sheet. We've got a program together. I'm looking at it as a show, not a speaking gig. There's going to be audience involvement, multimedia, and videos. I'm going to play some stuff like the "Hot Legs" video. I'll have a drum set there and play a solo. I'll get into talking about listening and watching a learning from not even talking. A lot of cool stuff. I'm making it fun. It's like I did with my instructional books and my clinics. I made it fun. I've done pretty much everything else I've wanted to do, but I always wanted to try and do that.

Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne

A Conversation with Jim McCarty

Mike Ragogna: Jim, you have a new Cactus album, Black Dawn. What was the production process like?

Jim McCarty: I spent about ten months on the phone with the engineer in New York. It was a very tedious affair, about ten months of fine-tuning it. He would send me a mix and then I would call him back and say, "The lead guitar's got to get fattened up a little bit around 1k, give me a couple dBs, a little reverb on the voice, bass drum's a pinch too loud." Then it would take him another week to send me a mix with those changes, back and forth, with that sort of thing. Doing it over the phone is a very slow, tedious process but we got what I feel is the best-sounding CD the band's ever done. Then I spent four months with Elliot, the guy mastering it, basically doing the same thing. The mastering initially was f**king everything up. But after about fifteen months all totaled, we got what I think is the first CD that actually captures the balls of the band, sound-wise. We had the reunion CD about ten years ago, which has some terrific playing. I'm really not sure if the playing on this one is actually any better, but the sound quality, the recording quality, and the mixing left a little bit to be desired. Here we've got a CD with things pretty much the way they're supposed to be. I can still hear some things here or there, but I think Quincy Jones summed it up the best: "Mixing is never done, you just run out of time." But I'm very happy with how the album turned out. Jimmy Kunes did a killer job and now we've got a CD where the sound matches the quality of the playing of the band.

MR: You went back to the old days with two of these songs.

JM: I don't know where Carmine dug those up...I don't even remember recording them, to tell you the truth! There’s one thing that is apparently a prelude to "One Way Or Another" from the second album and then there's a slow blues with Rusty singing. I don't know where he found those. Basically, the reason for that happening was that there were only seven songs that Jimmy had put vocals on at that point. There are actually thirteen tracks that were recorded over a period of two or three years. There are five or six tracks in the can right now without vocals on them and they're just as good as those things that are on the CD. Because we only had seven songs with vocals on them, I took one of the tracks and made it an instrumental. We still needed a couple more things to flesh out a decent CD, time-wise, so he came up with a couple things. It kind of worked out nice, having a couple of tracks to take you back to the old days with the original band. One of the things that I think is really, really cool and really actually important is that you can go from those old tracks—which you're talking, what, forty, forty five years ago—and go to the new stuff and there isn't much of an energy drop if any. I don't think there are a lot of guys Carmine's and my age who are doing the kind of stuff we're doing on the Black Dawn CD.

MR: When I interviewed Carmine, we talked about how when Cactus started, you were compared to Led Zeppelin.

JM: That embarrassed the hell out of me. I cringe every time I hear that, that's just ridiculous. I wouldn't mind you letting that fact be known in this particular interview. There's only one Led Zeppelin. Cactus is a good band. Cactus is an ass-kicking little band, but Cactus isn't Led Zeppelin.

MR: Done! Apparently, it was a marketing point.

JM: I guess. I know there were a few things in Europe where I noticed they were advertising the band like that. But like I said, it's something that I never cared for. It's funny because in the original band, back in 1970 and 1971, that band got butchered by the critics. It just got torn to shreds.

MR: What was the creative process like on this album?

JM: I had these ideas, I had these grooves that I would put down on my eight-track at my place, and then I'd bring the ideas to the band when we get together. These things were recorded at Randy's place. He's got a studio down in the lower levels of his house in Long Island. Randy's a harp player, he's kind of the guy who's actually responsible for Cactus getting back together ten or twelve years ago. In any case, I brought these ideas to the band and then the band what I call "Cactize"’d them. Then Jimmy would take the grooves and put these little stories on them. That's one of the things I really dig about them. He's not just a really good singer, but he writes really cool stories that fit just perfectly with the band's music. It's not just, "Oh baby I've got the blues, oh baby I lost my shoes." He tells these nice little stories and they go perfectly with the music of the band.

MR: Your lineup has changed over the years. What do new members bring into the mix?

JM: Tim retired. I don't think he plays much at all. Pete Bremy was the bassist Vanilla Fudge was using when Tim retired. Carmine still works with the Fudge. Pete is just terrific for me. Pete's the guy. He listens to you, he plays with you; there's a band concept going on. One of the reasons I left the band back in the early days was because it was like three guys playing their asses off, but all in different rooms. Here you have a band thing going on, people listening to each other. We're older, we're more mature now. When you listened to the early stuff, there was a lot of energy there, but a lot of times it was people banging into each other. Here you've got a maturity going on where there's much more playing in a group context.

MR: What other kinds of projects are you working on? Anything with the Detroit Wheels?

JM: No. I see Mitch maybe once every five or six years, we'll bump into each other. For the last twenty years now, I've had Jim McCarty & Mystery Train, which is my blues band in Detroit here. We've got three or four CDs out. I did the McCarty & Friends album about four years ago with Duke Robillard, Jimmy Thackery, the big band, these are people I jammed with down over at Callahan's through the years. I'm really tickled with Volume Two. It's similar to Cactus in regards that there isn't a weak track on the CD, but it's blues. There's a little rock 'n' roll on it but it's some of the best blues musicians in the world that I'm playing with. When you consider that it's just jamming, this thing came out absolutely super. They told me a couple weeks ago it was number two in international radio station downloads, and they were picking more than one track to download and play, which was cool.

MR: What do you feel you brought to Cactus from your years with Mitch Ryder?

JM: Well, it wasn't Mitch Ryder directly into Cactus. Mitch Ryder was 1965 or so. Up until "Devil With A Blue Dress," I still considered myself a drummer. My old man was a drummer back in the big band days and I started playing drums when I was about three. I studied jazz drums for about five or six years. After "Devil" was the number two record in the country, I kind of decided, "Well, I guess I'll be a guitar player." After Mitch Ryder & The Detroit Wheels, I joined Buddy Miles in 1969. I was with Buddy for about a year. We did the first two albums. Jimi Hendrix produced half of the second album, which was an interesting scenario, sitting in the studio doing guitar overdubs with Hendrix in the control room. A little nerve-wracking, you know? He was cool though because he loved Mitch Ryder & The Detroit Wheels, so it was very cool.

MR: While we’re on the subject, so you have a quick Jimi Hendrix story?

JM: Some of them you can't print, but there was one night where Buddy and Jimi and I went to see Jerry Lee Lewis in New York. That was a fun night, and Jimi loved to play all the time so we'd usually end up back over at the studio jamming until the sun came up. There's a thing actually that came out years ago, Nine To The Universe, one of those CDs they put out on him that should've never been released. It was all just jamming stuff. There's a thing on there called "Jimi/Jimmy Jam" with me and him playing.

MR: Apparently, Ted Nugent said there's Chuck Berry, Les Paul, Bo Diddley, and you.

JM: There's another embarrassment. Detroit Wheels is his all-time favorite band. He's always been a big promoter of me. He played that hollow-body Gibson for all those years because he saw me playing it. But when I heard that quote, I said, "Oh no, we're back to that Led Zeppelin thing again." [laughs]

MR: Are you being a little too modest? I don't know man... [laughs]

JM: I know what I can do on a guitar, but Chuck Berry's a whole other thing.

MR: There's a lot of love for you out there...

JM: I'm really tickled with this latest album. Like I said, for the first time, I think we've got a CD here that's going to open a few eyes and ears. Like I mentioned a little earlier, I don't believe there's anybody Carmine's and my age that's doing this kind of stuff anymore. Nobody I know of.

MR: And the energy level is high.

JM: Carmine's a physical phenomenon. The guy's beyond belief. He's like a freight train on the drums.

MR: Do you miss what Tim Bogert brought in to the mix?

JM: To tell you the truth, no. I'm very pleased with Pete. Tim's a great bass player, but like I said, you get into that thing sometimes when you've got guys playing their asses off all in different rooms. With Pete, it's always a band. For me, that's what it's all about. It's always a question of playing together as a band.

MR: You also had a little tenure with Bob Seger.

JM: He asked me to join his band about a year before he broke big and I told him, "Thanks, but no thanks. Why don't you join The Rockets?" I did the Seven album, two or three songs on that.

MR: Where is Cactus heading after this new album? You said there's some stuff in the can.

JM: I don't know. Cactus is a cult band. It's a band that never had a hit record. It's really an uphill battle. In this day and age, you've got so many acts. You get bands like Blue Oyster Cult or Foghat who'll all get together on the same bill so they can tour together. Without the hit record, it's really rough. We're just going to put the CD out and hope that as many people as possible can listen to it. We have a bunch of dates coming up in September. Carmine's got like two or three bands he plays with.

MR: However, there are bands whose cult following causes their legend to grow over the years. Sounds like Cactus to me!

JM: That surprised me. I left the band out of frustration after two years and I always viewed it as an experiment that never really worked. Every album we did had two or three things that were great and then a lot of head butting. But in the eighties, I started hearing various bands citing Cactus as an influence and it surprised me that all of a sudden, this mythology started to develop. Apparently, we have a cult following in Japan and an even bigger following in Europe than here in the States even. Through the years, various people like Eddie Van Halen cited the band as an influence, and that was a big surprise for me.

MR: Legend has it the band’s name “Cactus” was a reference to peyote. Is that right?

JM: The way I understand it, Carmine told me Vanilla Fudge was driving through Arizona going to a gig somewhere and he saw a Cactus Drive-In somewhere on the road. He said, "Man, that would be a cool name for a band," although there were Peyote buttons here and there too. [laughs]

MR: It seems I interviewed a certain Jim McCarty about a Yardbirds project...

JM: [laughs] That's Jim McCarty the drummer. We've been confused more than once. When the first McCarty & Friends came out, he sent me a nice little email telling me how much he enjoyed the album.

MR: That's got to be a cosmic experience.

JM: Jim McCarty calling Jim McCarty, right?

MR: [laughs] So Jim McCarty the blues-rocker, what advice do you have for new artists?

JM: The business has changed so radically from when me and Carmine were coming up. It's an entirely different universe. There's a youngster here in town, Brendan, he just turned sixteen. He's an amazing blues guitar player--it's beyond belief what the kid can play at such a young age. I just tell him keep doing what you're doing. Stay on the straight and narrow, stay away from the drugs. You get a little older and all that stuff's going to come into play. I can tell anybody that has talent stay true to your talent. It's very easy to get sidetracked by, "What do we need to do to get a hit record?" As soon as you get that mindset, you're lost. Play what you feel. Then it's a question of whether you're good enough, and go from there.

MR: What would you have told you?

JM: When I first started, I was playing drums. I picked up the guitar when I was about fifteen or sixteen because I realized guitar players are the ones who get the girls. Don't tell Carmine I said that, though.

MR: [laughs] Carmine, don’t read that last line...

JM: When I grew up, I listened to more jazz than anything else. Today, I listen to more of the Blue Note stuff on a day-to-day basis than I do rock or blues. When I was coming up, I listened to Kenny Burrell, Wes Montgomery, Grant Green, and B.B. King. If I had to pick my biggest influence, it would be B.B. King. But like any art worth its salt, when you start out, you're playing your influences. Then a point is reached if you have something of your own to say, where all of these influences start to get molded into one thing that's called you. That takes time; that doesn't happen overnight.

MR: Jim, what's your camaraderie like with Carmine these days?

JM: It's great! We don't see each other that often, really. This is the first CD we've had out in a while. We had some live things out from Japan, but I was always kind of disappointed in the sound of live CDs, that's why I put so much time into this one. I wanted to see if sound-wise I could match what the band was doing playing-wise. I love Carmine. He's just a lot of fun to play with. When the guy's on his game, he's unbelievable and the thing you've got to remember is he's not just a great drummer, he's one of the guys who invented that school of drumming, what you call heavy hard rock drumming. He's an innovator and we're both seventy years old. I don't think there's anybody our age who is doing this kind of stuff. No one I could think of. Jimmy Paige could do it but he doesn't seem to be interested in putting a band together. Jeff Beck kind of plays that fusion thing, whatever it is. Clapton's a great musician but he certainly doesn't play with the fire of the old days.

MR: So you're not passing on the torch yet.

JM: Well, I don't know. One of the unfortunate things in rock 'n' roll is it's not a question of how good you are, it's a question of how many hit records you have. The general public almost needs to be told, "Hey, these guys are good." And what tells you that somebody's good? You've got to hear their record. If they don't have a hit record, "Well how good can they be?"

MR: Ah, the chicken-and-the-egg. By the way, what's your favorite track on the project?

JM: I bring these ideas to the band and the band will change things around. Most of the time I don't have a problem with the changes. There's a song called "Juggernaut," the fourth track on the CD. From a song point of view, it's the best thing on the CD. Jimmy just sings his ass off. Maybe the best vocals he's ever done on a Cactus song. When I first brought that groove to the band, it was a whole different thing. It was faster and it didn't have that bass pattern. Jimmy came up with that bass pattern. I was having a really difficult time with what the band turned it into. It was just going too slow for me. It was just not working. Then I heard it with the vocal on it and I went, "Oh, okay." Now it's the best thing on the CD for me. But it would be hard for me to truly pick a favorite because I dig all of them. Carmine's favorite is the boogie thing, "Headed For A Fall." I like the funk tune, "You Need Love." That's an interesting little track. When I came up with that, I waited a year to see what Carmine would do on that, and he didn't disappoint. I dig every track on this CD. I don't think there's a weak track on it.

MR: And the heavy rocker "Black Dawn" kicks off the album with a lot of energy.

JM: We said, "This should be the one to open the album just to let them know the guys can still get it up." I've got a friend in New York who's a huge Cactus fan, has been forever. I sent him a copy of the thing about four or five months ago. He called me and said he can't stand that opening track. "It sounds like metal!" I said, "Are you out of your friggin' mind? Cactus couldn't play metal if they tried." "It's too metal!" I said, "You're getting too old." Then I've got people here who say that's their favorite track. It is what it is. That was the one that we felt should kick the thing off to let people know that these guys can still get it up.

MR: Is there anything else you want to get to creatively?

JM: I'm pretty happy. I need both rock 'n' roll and blues in order to really satisfy myself musically, and I do both. The Rockets were together for about ten years, from '73 to '83, we had about six albums out on various labels. There was another that could never really get the big record, but Christ, we opened for everybody. You name the band and the Rockets opened for them. When the Rockets broke up I made a conscious decision to play blues at that point in my life. It's a music that's always been in me and at certain aspects it's more satisfying. Rock 'n' roll is kind of about the balls and the blues is about the soul.

MR: You also received a Grammy for your Les Paul track.

JM: That came out of left field years ago. Bob Cutarella called me and said, "You've got a Grammy certificate coming." There was this instrumental track that me and the bass player from Buddy Miles Express wrote called "The '69 Freedom Special." The band recorded it, but apparently the producer picked that track out of the blue to have Les Paul--they did these albums with Les Paul where they would bring in tons of guest artists to play. Apparently, that particular track got a Grammy for "Best Rock Instrumental." It's hilarious. It tells you how much the Grammys know. That wasn't even a rock song.

MR: And let’s not forget, you also were inducted into the Canada South Blues Society.

JM: Yeah, and we got the Lifetime Achievement award from the Blues Society here in Detroit. We've been doing it a while.

MR: Wait, let’s not forget The Hell Drivers.

JM: That was like a Rockets reunion! That lasted a couple of years. It was recorded at Callahan's, the same place that the blues CDs are recorded. Are you familiar with Johnny "Bee" Badanjek? He was the drummer in The Detroit Wheels and he was the drummer in The Hell Drivers, which kind of morphed into The Rockets reunion for a couple of years. At the time this CD was recorded, the band was doing a history of Detroit rock 'n' roll set. Every song is a classic piece of Detroit rock 'n' roll. About half of them me and Badanjek played on originally. The CD is just ass-kicking from start to finish. One of the cool things that I'm proud of on this particular CD is it's just a trio. It's just guitar, bass and drums with Jimmy Edwards up front. It's just a trio, like Cactus, but where Cactus has all the tracking and overdubs. This is live and it just smokes from start to finish.

Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne

Jake Shimabukuro / Nashville Sessions
Jake Shimabukuro / Nashville Sessions
Jake Shimabukuro Nashville Sessions album cover

A Conversation with Jake Shimabukuro

Mike Ragogna: Jake, you are a world-renowned Ukulele player, which, of course, is an honor and your reward for mastering the instrument. But you also realize that many associate the ukulele with their drunken uncle’s or grandfather’s plucking a little at Independence Day parties. Why did you stick with the instrument and how did you become proficient with it?

Jake Shimabukuro: I started playing the ukulele at the age of four. My mother was my first teacher. In Hawaii, the ukulele is a well respected instrument and a big part of the culture. So growing up, you were considered pretty hip if you played the ukulele fairly well. In the 4th and 5th grade it was a requirement to learn the ukulele in the public school system. Due to budget cuts, those music programs are no longer available to the students.

MR: Just for a catch-up, what is the brief history of the ukulele?

JS: It was the Portuguese immigrants who first brought the Machete over to the islands in the late 1800s. The native Hawaiians were so impressed with the little guitar-like instruments, they asked the Portuguese immigrants how to build similar instruments. The Kamaka family was the first to start manufacturing ukuleles. This year is the 100th year anniversary. They are truly the inventors of the modern day ukulele.

MR: You have become a staple in Nashville, performing on various projects. What brought you to Nashville and what convinced you to stay?

JS: I love being in Nashville. It's an incredibly creative and inspiring environment. You are surrounded by so many musicians and have instant access to world class music everywhere. Most of my team is based out of Nashville which gives me a great excuse to visit often.

MR: Your new album, Nashville Sessions, comprises all original material and reunites you with bassist Nolan Verner and drummer Evan Hutchings. How did you all meet and how did you collaborate for this project?

JS: Nolan first introduced me to Evan when we were seeking out a drummer for the project. We basically rented a studio for six days and just jammed. It was such a different approach for me. I usually know ahead of time what I'm going to record and have time to work out parts. So going into the sessions completely unprepared was took me far out of my comfort zone. I was very pleased with the result because the tracks feel incredibly live and spontaneous. I love the energy of the recording.

MR: The track “6/8” seems the most adventurous, mixing fusion with your signature sound. Was it based on a jam or was it from something more structured?

JS: “6/8” was a very spontaneous jam session. We had a couple melodic ideas and just started jamming in the studio. If you listen closely to the end of the track, you can tell that none of us had any clue as to how we were going to end the song. It all just sort of fizzled out. We thought about fading it out, but it was more fun to keep it as is.

MR: On “Tritone," you borrow from Byron Yasui's “Campanella,” a concerto piece that you performed with the Hawaii Symphony Orchestra. Since you played on various recordings and have a multi-ethnic music appreciation, what stimulates your creativity and how do you approach composing and arranging?

JS: The concerto was truly the most difficult piece of music I ever tackled. Contemporary classical music is such a foreign genre for me. Atonal music is definitely not something I grew up with. I wanted to incorporate a sliver of that experience on the new album since it was such a rewarding experience for me. Whenever I compose or arrange a piece, I like to have a main point or concept and slowly build around it. It helps me to not stray all over the map.

MR: “Blue Haiku” seems the most atmospherically exotic of the batch. This was obviously a nod to your roots, right?

JS: Blue Haiku serves as the track that brings the listener back to the natural beauty of the ukulele. I especially love how the ukulele takes on an almost harp like effect. And the marriage of the bass and ukulele melody work so well together.

MR: “Man Of Mud” especially rocks. How did the track come together?

JS: This was the first time I played my baritone ukulele through my distortion pedals. I love how warm and aggressive the tone was through the amp. I felt like I was jamming with ZZ Top or something. The idea was to keep the playing simple and just let the song groove.

MR: The styles on this album vary widely. Do you view that as one of your album’s missions, to show how Ukulele fits into various musical genres?

JS: I don't think we ever decided on a direction for the album. We just wanted to let things happen naturally. The album is definitely more diverse than I expected it to be. A lot of things recorded on this record was uncharted territory for me. This is the first time that I incorporated many different ukuleles on the same project. I used three different tenor ukes, a baritone and two standard size ukuleles. I love how they all support each other on each track.

MR: Do you have any personal favorites among these Nashville Sessions, maybe because of their studio or musical challenges or how they evolved from concept to recording?

JS: I truly don't have any favorites. Each one was a unique experience and carries with it an interesting story. Kilauea was interesting because it was done in one take. We had absolutely no idea what we were going to play. This is the only track that was purely improvised and composed as we were recording it. You can definitely hear my guitar influences on this one. The first three that comes to mind are Hendrix, Jeff Beck and Van Halen. Kilauea is the active volcano in Hawaii that is currently erupting. The title was inspired by Eddie Van Halen's Eruption.

MR: What advice do you have for new artists?

JS: I think the most important thing for any new artist is to keep doing things that you truly believe in. Create and play passionately. And one thing that I'm very proud of is that I have been drug-free my entire life. I hope to encourage other new artists to do the same.

MR: Other than by using your own personal success as an example, how would you convince a young musician to pick up the ukulele?

JS: I believe the ukulele is the easiest instrument to learn for people of all ages. And you don't feel like you have to be a musician to play it. It's easy to travel with and affordable. I recommend the ukulele to anyone who has never played an instrument before.

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