Johnny Azari: The Mean Reds

BG: Hello, Mr. Azari

Johnny Azari: Hey brother, how you doin?

BG: Doin’ well man, where are you driving through?

JA: I’m driving through Austin, Texas to Fort Worth.

BG: Are you touring right now?

JA: Yeah. I was supposed to chill in Austin but I didn’t, so I was just spending a couple of days in Austin fuckin’ around. I have a show tonight in Fort Worth.

BG: I’m curious, is this the Tropic of Entropy Tour? Or I know you have a project you’re working on.

JA: Tropic of Entropy I dropped more or less. It is kind of like a production house. When I make films, it’s produced by Tropic of Entropy, or like, it’s just my name at this point. It was just confusing people, so I put it all under my own name.

BG: I was going to ask you about the videos. It seems like compared to most musicians who are generally just recording a performance and putting up a clip, you’re doing some actually produced videos for all of your stuff. How did you get into doing it that way?

JA: Well, my family are visual artists and film makers. Coming up as a musician I was always in that world. Even though they were trying to pull me into it, I shied away from it though. When I quit my rock and roll band in 2011, I had also decided to quit music in general and just go into visual arts, photography and filmmaking. I spent about 6 to 8 months doing that and learning the skill set and getting the equipment, until music came and bit me in the ass again. So that’s how I learned how to do that, I have a good camera, I know how to edit, I know how to direct and produce still. So it just became a tool for me to use, and so I make my own videos. Generally with the help of one other person and nobody else, but I usually do it all myself.

BG: Why do you think that is important? Not that you do it all yourself, but that you produce the videos in this way, or that they are represented this way?

johnnyAzari2At the end of the day I’ve done maybe 4 or 5 short films, scored 2 features, scored some shorts, made like 7 or 8 music videos.It’s just another thing, medium to fuck with.

 

JA: What do you mean represented this way?

BG: You put a lot of time and effort into it. A lot of people just record something and it’s “here I am, playing a song.” Do you think that doing the more intensive videos is communicating something important about your music?

JA: Well, in all honesty they do. There’s a lot of production and time put into them but actually, I don’t- I put more than somebody with iMovie who recorded it in the living room, but I don’t really spend that much time on them to be honest. I’m fast with it. I also like making films and shooting video, I like telling narrative stories. It is an art that I enjoy, and I’d like to at some point make a feature film. It’s another outlet of expression for me creatively and I still think that nowadays we live in a totally visual culture. People want to look at something, they want to listen to music, but music videos engage the audience more. I know when I put videos up they get circulated and bunch of views, as where I put a Soundcloud of a song it’ll get about 10% of the shares and views and whatever. At the end of the day I’ve done maybe 4 or 5 short films, scored 2 features, scored some shorts, made like 7 or 8 music videos. It’s just another thing, medium to fuck with.

131119-yellow-dogs-memorial-Johnny-azari-1

Azari plays at the Yellow Dogs Memorial a memorial/fundraiser for 2 members of Yellow Dog who were tragically taken.

BG: Where did the blues connection come from? Were you always into the blues or was that something that you discovered or worked your way back to?

JA: I started with the blues. I remember when I was 16 years old, my mother’s boyfriend at the time taught me how to play guitar. He put on Stevie Ray Vaughan and I was floored and was like, “that’s what a guitar is for.” So I started with Stevie, and then somebody put on Hendrix for me and I was like, “Oh, that’s what a guitar is for.” And then just tracing the music that they were doing backwards, and of course they sound like Son House and Mississippi Fred McDowell and Robert Johnson. To me that was really where it was at, this really old, old, old, old. I always just loved that idea of one man and a guitar telling a story, and if you could make that sound like a full self-accompanying total package. I remember once when I was on the first tour out in California, Valencia my girlfriend and I had broke up on the road, and it had been a week or so and I felt lost and not sure what I was doing. I was sitting under an oak tree playing my guitar, and it hit me. Why I love blues so much- basically, I realized the blues is the sound of existentialism. You know, if you were to take existentialism and give it an acoustic quality, it is the blues, it’s that loneliness that you’re here by yourself and leave by yourself. I guess I’m an existentialist in my own deeper philosophy, at my core.

BG: I met you over at Martyrs. When you’re touring around are you playing venues that are blues oriented or are you playing places that are more full of independent music or that aren’t specifically focused on blues?

JA: Um, in all honesty I haven’t played very many blues specific venues at all. This is going to sound… maybe not shallow, but not amazing, but I honestly have to go with money and just survive on the road, so I tend to book based on the guarantee. I will do shows that are super cool for less money or no money a lot of the times, but you know my agent he sends me, where they are paying me is where I go.

BG: I’m curious about what that experience is like. From our perspective here at Legends, there is a certain kind of blues circuit that a lot of people are traveling, and it’s a thing that they do in a certain context. And on the one hand that’s great for people who are big blues fans, that’s kind of their thing. But it also contributes to this perception of blues as a niche market, like a historical artifact or curiosity. People don’t think of blues as being contemporary music. So I’m curious to know what your experience is like playing blues music for people who wouldn’t consider themselves blues fans or wouldn’t be going out looking for that?

JA: For people who are not looking for the blues?

BG: Yeah. There’s a lot of hype about the blues dying, and that people don’t make new blues anymore, that it doesn’t have any mainstream appeal to a younger audience. You’re playing outside of that standard blues circuit, to people who are just going out to listen to music without necessarily thinking of it being part of a specific category. How do they respond?

music_PluggedIn_JohnnyAzari copy

Photo by Jeff Forney

…it’s just that heart, and the feeling the song writer and the performer put into it.

JA: In all honesty, I think people do think that. In their heads the blues is like- it’s art that isn’t really relevant. It’s very true that it’s a popular opinion. Until it’s put in front of them, and then the power of the blues and how timeless it is as an art form will never die. When you watch somebody really, really nail a blues song it breaks your heart. And that phenomenon keeps it alive, because if he’s doing it onstage and he’s doing it well, they get drawn in. People love the blues. Like, you know this and I know this, but a lot of people- kind of civilians, who aren’t musicians or don’t know- popular and contemporary music came from the blues. It came from Clarksdale, Mississippi. That’s where it all started. There would be no Lady Gaga without Robert Johnson, you know. They’re still using the same harmonic structures and melodies.

The blues to me is- it depends on how you do it. There’s Chicago blues, and it’s also a lot of the reason people think that the blues is dead. Because more often than not, you see some 55 year old banker in Birkenstocks with a fuckin’ 3 thousand dollar Les Paul doing a Muddy Waters song and you’re going, oh god what happened to the art form?

That’s a lot of what you see out there. But when you see someone who is really connected to it, like your band [Anthony Moser & The Fat Tone Blues Band – Ed.]. You see them here and there; they’re not the majority, but you see somebody young who’s really studied it and lived it, it comes back alive. And you know it’s like the blues with that I-IV-V progression, I mean that’s the same shit that most artists are doing. Hey, Mozart is all I-IV-V and Mozart was 400 – 500 years ago or some shit? That progression and those modalities that’ll never die. As simple as it is, it’s just that heart, and the feeling the song writer and the performer put into it. I really believe the blues is something you have to live. You know if you’re not. Something I always say is that I don’t play the blues, I live the blues. I play the mean reds.

BG: How do you balance drawing on that tradition while still creating something new?

JA: I mean as corny as it’s going to sound and clichéd, I just write from my heart and the blues is the music that comes out of me naturally. No matter what instrument I touch or what I’m playing, it’s gonna have that blues feel to it. It’s what’s deepest inside of me. But at the same time, like I said, I’ve scored film, I can play about 7 instruments, and I am a composer. So I do have a lot of theory in my head, and I’ve worked with a lot of other groups that were more, I guess for lack of better word, were harmonically adventurous or experimental. And even in my own music, in the past I would think in a broader musical tapestry or palette. But you know, when you’re playing slide guitar in an open tuning, it’s very difficult to start getting into these more theoretical or jazzy chord structures.

I just look at the melody and the riffs and the chord progressions and the lyrics. Am I telling the story that I want to tell? And if I feel that the story comes across, I don’t really give a damn if I put a flat second in there or if I didn’t even bother changing chords at all. Does the song work? Does it hold? Is it interesting? And no matter what it’s going to come out bluesy, because I’m playing slide, for one thing, and I’m finger picking. And then on top of that it’s just the blues is what’s in me, you know, most inherently.

BG: So I saw also that you had a viral video, the Occupy Wall Street post.

JA: Yeah, I’ve had 2 actually, that one and Freedom Glory Be Our Name which is more of a country song. Uhm but yeah, yeah, that went viral that video did.

BG: What happened there?

JA: Crazy story. When Occupy broke out I got, I was in New York. It was just before I left New York City for good, but I got heavily involved in it in the beginning. And it was a really intense period. When we were at Zuccotti Park those first couple weeks it was very visceral, very real experience that this might actually work, because it wasn’t just a bunch of privileged kids sitting there. Like you’d have like mothers and bus drivers, everybody was coming down, and that is what really inspired me. So the story of that is, the second week we shut down the Brooklyn Bridge. And what the NYPD did was they brought us to the middle of the bridge and kettled and arrested 700 people, me being one of them. Everyone was taking still photography. I was the only person there who shot video, I don’t know why, but I was.

And when I got out of jail 14 hours later, I ran home at 4 in the morning and started transcoding the footage, while opening up an old song I had but I had never released but had tracked. Rewriting the lyrics, re-cutting the vocals, and I remixed the song and printed it, and the footage was done. I edited it together as quickly as I could, slapped the song on it and I think basically by 3 or 4 o’clock in the afternoon I had the finished video. I sent it over to the Occupy people and they liked it, and they put it on the website. It had like 80,000 hits that day, and it was a really beautiful experience for me. Being a musician and a filmmaker and all that, to get out of jail and to be able to produce something that quickly is like so… it made me really love our generation. That a thing could just get done, in 12 hours you can tell this story and boom, have it out there. I’m very proud of that piece.

BG: You’re touring right now in support of The God Damn Blues right?

JA: Yeah.

johnnyAzari2This record I cut in 2 weeks and I just went into
my studio and did 80% of the songs live,
so it was incredibly raw and it’s not
perfect but it’s me.

 

BG: And you just put that out earlier this year?

JA: Yeah I think I released that in uh, March or April.

BG: What characterizes this album for you?

JA: The first album was really when I had quit all my rock and roll bands and went to the mountains in upstate New York. It took me 9 months to really learn the style of music I’m doing now. I always played electric guitar with a pick and was a Hendrix-y type of player- not that I was that good, but that style. So you know I had to learn to finger pick, how to play slide. So the first record I had just learned how to do that and was very song oriented. The second was really polished, where I wanted to make a more produced record with drums, bass, harmonies. And both of those records took like 3 or 4 months to make.

This record I cut in 2 weeks and I just went into my studio and did 80% of the songs live, so it was incredibly raw and it’s not perfect but it’s me. It’s me just playing my songs. There’s a couple things, overdubs and the harmonies stuff, but most of the songs is just me and a guitar in a room doing what I do. I had a sense of urgency, like I’m just going to cut this record in 2 weeks and get back out on the road. Especially since nobody buys fucking records anymore. I was tired of spending 3 months making a record that nobody was going to buy or even possibly listen to. I think it’s probably my best record yet but it’s not polished by any regard.

BG: That fits right in though; it’s very much in the context of that kind of music. All the classic acoustic recordings- they’re many things but not polished. There would be mistakes, there would be stuff that got in there and they didn’t have the technology to do a lot of extra takes or overdubbing. What you got was what you got, and I think that’s part of what gives old school blues its own kind of honesty. I think that’s one of the things that people connect to in those old recordings.

JA: Yeah I love that about those old recordings, that you know there’s no trickery there. That’s whose playing the song, singing into a tin can, and uh, that’s what I was going for. Also I had been on the road for two and a half years so I had gotten a lot better. In the first two records I didn’t have the confidence to just cut it live like that, but at that point I had done so many shows and had been touring so long that I just put the fucking microphones up and do a couple takes of these and pick one, you know? Just go through it like that. And the other thing is the second disc. I made the second disc with Dylan Ebrahimian and what we did was, we locked ourselves in my studio with a bottle of whiskey and bunch of cigarettes and we didn’t even downloadmean to make an album. The whole record is 80 minutes uncut. There’s no tracks on it, it’s 80 minutes straight and we just threw up some mics and were fucking around and about 15 minutes into it we realized we were cutting a record. And you could hear us talking about how we’re not going to edit it, we’re not going to put tracks on it. Basically like a really deranged, kinda warped, nihilistic podcast. But it’s you know 6 or 7 songs that we were just jamming on; we never even played together. So there’s a lot of jokes and humor and talking about life on the road and just being a musician. I never heard a record like it before. And it’s not particularly good, it’s not- there’s one song we intentionally choose to play 2 different keys, we’re playing in the flat second of each other. I’m in like… he’s in D and I’m in C#, so it’s like as out of tune as it could be you know? We did it on purpose, just fuckin’ around. I like it though, I think it’s interesting. It’s a great record for a long drive or a flight, something you can put on in the background. You’d have to listen to what we’re talking about to really get the whole concept of it. It’s weird, but so am I.

BG: That’s cool man. So when you sat down when you fled up to the mountains and like changed your style and were deliberately pursuing uh, a different approach were there any artists that specifically influenced you there? Was there somebody you were like, “I gotta get those licks?” Or those tunnings or was it something where you just kind of listened to a bunch of it or where did you get it?

JA: Uhm, I never really was into taking peoples licks…I’ve always kind of been more into if I’m gonna imitate something, I’m going to imitate a mood or attitude you know, or a philosophy rather than actually musical phrases or such and I guess what I was listening to heavily up there cause I also have a lot of country in me though which I’ve lost in my live show since I stopped using a standard tuning guitar and went to just open tuning but uhm was Jimmy Rogers, I was listening to him relentlessly, him, Hank Williams, Son House, I was listening to a lot of Mississippi Fred McDowell, just that older country and old like, blues. Just a man with a guitar, you know, I’m not really band oriented stuff like Led Belly and Woody Gutherie just these dudes telling stories with their instruments and their poetry, and you know. To me music back then it captured what American society was going through so well, you know and out of it you got the folks movement and all of that which blew it up and I think that style of music is able to do that, to convey the struggle of a society and a people in a certain epoch but you know so my goal is to take lyrics and do the music the way I try to make the music my own too you know. But yeah those were the cats I was listening to mostly that old, old 30’s and 40’s folk blues and country stuff.

BG: Cool man, what’s next for you?

eyesJA: What’s next for me, I have another 3 months on the road, in October I’m doing my big New York City show, where I will be filming my first live DVD and live album special. I’ve started branching off into just straight stand up comedy cause I do a lot of talking, jokes and story telling in my live concerts so I wanna, just started doing stand up so that DVD special is going to be about an hour and 45 minutes and it’s going to be a mix of music, story telling, and comedy and it’s something I’m really excited to do so I’m gonna release that probably in the spring and I’m working on a treatment for a feature film about a blues musician touring the country by himself, real stretch for me to write. So I’m hoping to crowd fund that in the spring or the fall and try to raise like 30 -40 thousand dollars and shoot that during my 2016 tour, during which I’ll also be recording my quest studio album which is called “Songs From a Motel Room” uhm so I want to record the entire record exclusively in motel rooms and I was going to do that on this tour but I ran into some financial catastrophes two days before the tour started and lost all of the money I saved for it, so I couldn’t do it but it’s almost a blessing because now I can make that record while I make the movie so the movie making and it’ll all be tied together also be the comedy I’m doing so hopefully if all goes well, by 2016 I’ll have a live DVD and money to be making this movie and this record and it’ll come out in 2017 hopefully there’ll be a film to watch.

BG: Wow man, sounds like you’ve got a lot of big plans.

JA: Yeah I dream big. Hey, most of them fizzle out into nothing. I’ve been wanting to crowd fund my vasectomy for like 5 months and I haven’t gotten around to doing it.

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