On the Back Porch with Chicago Blues Giant Nick Moss

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We recently sat down to talk with Chicago blues artist Nick Moss, who has had a phenomenal year in the blues! Nick is one of the hottest things in the blues world right now, with a chart topping, wonderfully received new album Privileged, interviews, a blossoming record label, and a recent stint on the cover of Blues Revue Magazine. Nick was a blast to talk to, and a straight up good guy. He has a lot to say about Chicago Blues, his classic rock influences, his new CD, and plenty else!

You grew up in Chicago, and I understand that you grew up around some seriously legendary Chicago blues kind of guys. Can you tell me about that.

Nick MossYeah, I started out playing around guys like Buddy Scott and the Rib tips. Buddy was a kind of a guy on the south side of Chicago that never really got a lot of attention. These guys taught me their craft, taught me their business, taught me the true way to play Chicago style blues, and you know…  I spent a lot of years learning it, and getting good at it and so me recording 7 CDs doing traditional stuff, like I said, it was more of…  not always that I loved the music, and I was honored to be with the guys I played with, and have them teach me how to play, right? It was, you know, like I said that was my way of paying respect to these guys & the music and the style. But that’s one of the things that I’ve never done, that people hadn’t really realized that it had to come from somewhere. And it came from, basically, my world of early rock music as a kid, because growing up, I didn’t really listen to Muddy Waters and B.B. King and Bill Roberts and stuff. It was in my house — my mom had it– but it wasn’t stuff we were seeking out. Like my brother and myself were seeking out, like “Oh we’ve got to find that B.B. King record mom has in her collection!”

It was because my uncle was buying my brother and I records by Led Zeppelin and Cream and Jimi Hendrix and Traffic and bands like that… and in turn all these British invasion bands, and that turned us on to the Allman Brothers and stuff like that. Then we started reading about these guys and reading in magazines, (and unfortunately the magazines that are no longer good “rock” magazines like Rolling Stone). It was a Rock N’ Roll magazine, man! They didn’t have the Jonas Bros on the cover, let’s put it that way.

So all these guys that we loved, Jimmy Page and Jimi Hendrix; and all they’re talking about is Buddy Guy and B.B. King and Muddy Waters! We’re like “didn’t mom have these records in her collection? Didn’t dad have Jimmy Reed live at Carnege Hall?” You know? So we started digging through my parents collection and finding these records with names that guys that we love were talking about. Then we come to find out that half of these guys, well more than half these guys are all from our own back yard – Chicago, you know? So then it was just like, “wow how come we don’t know about this stuff? And these guys type of music

So how old were you?

Oh man, you know, my brother’s three and a half years older than me, so it was kind of like watching him dig through the thing and I would just be behind him catching the stuff he’d be throwing behind him! You know, the one that really influenced me a lot in my younger days was my older brother because he was  you know, older, better at it… My parents bought us old guitars one year for Christmas, and he was like a natural. He was that kid on the block that could play a song by the end of the week after first picking up the guitar, and by the end of the month could play the whole album. And then by the summertime he was already in a rock band playing rock parties and basement parties and stuff. And so I followed my brother around, man. And he was, you know, “Oh man this guys talking about B.B. King! Here, let’s go find this record; moms got it downstairs!” And so I’d follow him and look through mom’s records and find the B.B. King record and bring it up to our room (because we shared a room) and it was like “wow! This is cool! What is this!?” You know, it was an evolution by the mere fact that my parents had good taste in music. And apparently the guys that we really enjoyed listening to had good taste in music.

Now, I’ve seen a few places around, articles and such, that you were concerned that certain blues folks might not embrace the album because it’s kind of geared more towards Rock, but you’ve been popping up everywhere since the release of your album. You’ve been on the cover of Blues Revue Magazine, I’ve heard your music on House of Blues, XM Radio… I even caught you a few times on the all-blues music channel on my TV. It seems like it’s been doing pretty good. That said, how has the CD been received so far?
Nick Moss on the cover of Blues Revue Magazine
Nick Moss on the cover of Blues Revue Magazine

Well I was pretty surprised in how well it was received. I wasn’t really too concerned with the fact that I was going to hear from traditionalists. You know; me selling out or jumping ship or anything. That didn’t bother me too much. But I honestly wans’t prepared for the response that it got, which is the fact that most everyone gave it a good response; most everyone’s given it a good review and it’s gotten tons of airplay, not only blues radio stations but also AAA stations, college stations, ham radio stations, and radio shows and DJs that would normally never have played my straight up blues stuff. So in that case it was cool.

Thing is, I got a lot of recognition and as far as the traditionalist blues fans, I’m actually pretty surprised that they seemed to accept it too. Because you know, here’s the thing: I’m not a rock-blues guy that put out ten rock-blues records and then just decided to put out one traditional blues record. I’m a guy that studied blues and am a blues …. I’m not going to say I’m a blues “scholar”, well maybe I guess I am! But I studied this stuff and I know how to play it. And I’m certainly not going to say I’m the best guy out there playing traditional blues, but I studied this. I put my time in. I went to blues college. I was taught by these professors. If you really want to know, I was taught by the guys that actually wrote the book. I mean, so me going out and doing a rock record later, you know, Im thinking I earned that right to be able to do it. And I think some of the traditional blues fans that I thought maybe might not get it, did get it. And realized that you know what, here’s a guy that already knows what blues is; him doing this and putting this stuff out. I guess maybe they gave me their blessing or whatever. Because you know I actually have a lot of traditional stuff and I feel like I’ve done it the right way and I’ve gotten enough accolades, not just from reviewers but from the guys that I’ve played with over the years have told me “yeah, man you know what your’e doing”.

I thought it was an awesome record. I was surprised myself all over the place. I thoguht it was cool, not only for the blues, but you did a lot to bring in those kinds of people that didn’t konw what blues was, and hear you all of the sudden and think “this guy is cool! As far as your more trad. blues stuff, in your other albums, you guys really seem to have a contemporary sound even though you play the trad. chicago blues. an you tellme a little about that?

Yeah, man. I think throughout the years, one thing that I always strived for was to be able to bring traditional blues to fans who really maybe weren’t as schooled or versed in traditional blues. If myself or even some of our more hardcore traditional blues fans (bad spot in the recorder). And it’s really kind of hard to do when you take the 78 album out of the wrapper and put it in the record player, and you hear those little scratches and pops. Some of these folks, man, they don’t get that vibe. It doesn’t do much for them. Like for me, I love it, man. I love that it was only recorded, the way it was recorded was; two tracks… or in some cases in one night back in the 30s. I love that fact. I love the fact that those guys are playing on your old instruments and old amplifiers and stuff. Most people don’t get that. And there’s a lot of blues artists out there, retro blues artists, that try to record their records like the old guys on two inch tapes and two-track and mono, and they try to get this old vibe. And honestly? I think that’s cool. I really do think that’s cool that they can do that and can recreate that vibe. But realistically, and I’m a realist, there’s not enough people out there that get what you’re doing and are going to spend the money on those records for you to make your money back to record that way in the first place. It’s expensive to record that way, especially on two inch tape now-days, for you to even make your money back on the record… And the whole point of playing music is to get people to listen to you, and to make fans, and to make new fans! At least it is for me! I love bringing music to people. I love bringing music to people that have never heard it before! I love the fact- I love comin’ off the stage and having someone say “I’ve never heard of you before man! You guys were great! We really enjoyed ourselves!” I like that more, I love having my fans and I have a really good legion of fans that have followed me over the years, but I really honestly love coming off the stage and hearing somebody say “I loved hearing you man! I gotta find out more about you!” Man, that tickles the shit out of me!

That’s gotta be a cool feeling

Yeah! And to me, that’s what making music is all about! And so, you know, my whole thing, ever since I first started recording was that I wanted to be able to take the elements of very traditional recording, traditional blues music, but I also wanted to take elements of modern recording style and modern sound, and be able to mend them some way and blur the line so that, you know, I could please the fans that are more traditional, and I could please fans that don’t give a shit that it was two inch tape or that it was recorded on vinyl or that you can play it on a 1953 fender pro. Because more or less, more often than not, the people buying your CD don’t care. They have no idea what that stuff is.

Yeah, its more for musicians sometimes.
Yeah, and I think a lot of guys record more for the peer aspect of it. Like “Hey my record sounds more retro than your record!” Or “mine’s got more vintage amps on my record. Listen to the vintage sounds that I have!” And again, I’m not trying to put these guys down, and believe me, man, I went through a long period of damn time in my younger days of collecting all kinds of crazy vintage amps and guitars and trying to get all that sound too man. But you know, for the most part, like I said, doing my own records, I came to the conclusion that I wanted more people to hear my records and more people to be able to accept what they heard. And that’s how I’ve always gone about recording.
Cool! Now on Privileged, your latest CD,  you did this rockin’ cover of Cream’s “Politician”, and I’ve noticed that’s on par with the rest of the album. It seems to have these poignant stories of the human condition… can you tell me about the tracks that you did on the album?
Yeah! The whole CD itself has a pretty definite political feel to it. And then it was written and recorded mostly right around the time of the huge presidential election, and right around the time that everyone was finally realizing that the shit was hitting the fan and the economy was sucking and people were losing jobs and people were losing homes. So the whole record was written during that time, and you know, I’ve never really been known as the guy to write a political statement song or whatever they call it. I’ve never gotten to writing a song with a “statement”. The first political statement song was on Play It ‘Til Tomorrow, the double CD that I did two years before, and I did that song “Mistakes From The Past”, and that was right during when we started going into Afghanistan and Iraq, and I started to see some of my friends brothers and sisters going over there, and even some of the older friends that I had who’s kids were going over there. And I ended up writing that song, and that one seemed to be like the song that, out of all the songs that I had written in the past ten years, that was the song that people kept coming up and requesting. And I figured, well maybe I can write a song that has some kind of statement to it. And I don’t claim to be Bob Dylan or one of these kinds of “has to have a statement every time he writes a song” guys, but I believe that everyone has their own beliefs and that everyone should be heard. And so when I started doing this record, I was feeling nervous, like everone was at the time, and disillusioned and scared and everything above. And I’ve got a wife, I’ve got a daughter and shit! I’ve got one of the most unsettling jobs there is; a musician. Hey, man, with people out of work, you think they’re gonna be coming to see me in some bar?
Great point.
Yeah, and I wrote this record and it just seemed to write itself. The first song that I wrote was born leader, and it was just, I was writing it as they were doing all the primaries and then they were doing the debates and stuff. And it’s not about any one person in particular. It was, for me, about all of them! You’ll see when I do this song live, I’ll always preference it with “I don’t care what side of the fence you climb. but remember, when you get to the top of the fence and you look down, ain’t gonna be too many on either side of the fence that’s gonna be there to catch you when you fall!” None of them will help any of us. That’s what happens. And I wrote this song that’s pretty much about that. Like that line “you were born to be a leader someday, you just need to learn what to say.” Basically, that’s it. Because all these exit polls from the politicians… You get one guy who reads an exit poll about Chicago, and Chicago is this tough windy city and the city with big shoulders, and he comes and starts talking tough. Then he moves to Connecticut or New Hampshire, and they’re very green and politically correct over there, and he talks a completely different way over there than he does over here.
“The lambs will follow you”. Sure.
Nick Moss - Priviledged album cover
Nick Moss - Priviledged album cover

That’s what that song’s about. The next song that pretty much wrote itself was “Tear ‘Em Down”. When I wrote that song, I was watching the summer Olympics, and another story I like to tell before I do this one is that, as a musician, you come home- I mean come back to a hotel after a gig, there’s not much on TV but infomercials and reruns of the golden girls, or the highlights on ESPN of all the games I had to miss because I was playing. So for me to be able to watch the Olympics that year because it was in China was awesome. None of the competitions were actually starting until 2 in the morning. When I came home from a gig, I actually got to watch something. So I got to see that kid Michael Phelps win every one of his gold medals and stuff. And then, that fall after the Olympics, the kid got caught when they put that picture of him smoking on a bong. Then the news went nuts showing this for months and weeks, talking about this. And I’m thinking “just two months ago, all you do is just raise this kid as the best thing in America since the Zippo lighter… and now because someone showed a picture of him smoking on a bong, they’re tearing him to shreds. And I’m thinking “that’s hilarious!” And I remember hearing that comedian that just died, Neil Geraldo – no, Greg Giraldo. He said something that cracked me up! Parents were outraged that this guy Michael Phelps got caught smoking weed, and he says, “see what he’s teaching our children is that it’s ok to smoke weed and win 8 gold medals!”

And so I kind of ended up writing this song, because it seems like in the last 5 years, (it’s been goin on longer than this,) but in at least the last 5 years that Britney Spears and her going nuts and tabloids, and the Michael Jackson fiasco… Man, I remember when these people were the greatest people since sliced bread and “don’t you want your kids to be like them?! They’re so wholesome!” Then two months later they’re disgraced, they’re terrible. “Don’t  let your children listen to this!” And I ended up writing that song, that’s what this is about. How the media and the news they build them up and tear them down for their own purposes. And either way, the newspaper is going to sell more ad space.

So there’s that song, and I think the next song I wrote was “Privileged”, the title track. And that was pretty easy to pen, just because, man, I’m watching the news every night and seeing how all these guys are losing their jobs and their homes. And I think the one thing that really got me is that I remember reading stories about how a lot of the states were allowing people to drop their kids off at hospitals, and I was like “are you kidding me, man?! We’re that deep in this shit that we gotta dump our kids?!” And I ended up writing that song “Privileged”, and you’re reading about all these people losing their jobs, then their homes, then their kids are being taken away from them and then you start hearing about these guys like Bernie Madoff and A.I.G., and all these guys screwing people with these ponzi schemes, and you know… that song wrote itself in about 2 minutes.

God, if I could write like that… I understand you started playng bass, then switched to guitar? How many instruments do you play?
I play bass, guitar, and harmonica, primarily, but I can play some drums and a little mandolin and… I dunno. I can whistle a tune here and there…
Somebody told me your band knew a ridiculous amount of instruments.

Nick MossWell, at one point the band that I had traveling with me, the drummer played drums and piano, the piano player played piano, guitar, and bass, and the bass player played bass, guitar, piano, harmonica, and mandolin -and drums. And I can play bass, guitar, and harmonica and we could pretty much switch around with all of us playing different instruments. But that was a previous incarnation of the Flip Tops [Nick’s band]. The new lineup, we’re pretty much set in our spots. The guys are very talented; they can play some instruments, but we just pretty much try to bring a diverse show, as far as music goes, and concentrate on bringing really good music, and playing a diverse style of music that people will hopefully find interesting at the shows.

I do a bass solo with one hand and the bass off to the side. And slide the bas up and down with my hand, throw the bass in the air and catchin it with my finger on the right fret and stuff. And it’s really not as hard as it looks [laughs]. And people are like “woah did you see that!” and you know, I’ll take the bass frmmy bas player and give him my guitar, and I’ll just hold the bass with my left hand off to the side and play the bass solo that way. and people are like “wow did you see that bass solo!” and im like wow, man, peopel really think there’s something to this! [laughs].
Now you and Kate, your wife, ya’ll started Blue Bella Records a while back. Can you tell me a little about Blue Bella?

Well originally, it was just basically a vehicle for me to be able to put out my own music, because I couldn’t get picked up by anyone else. No one seemed to want to put out any of my music. I had played for many years with some great artists and sidemen and a lot of great accolades and sidemen, but when I decided to go out on my own , I couldn’t get any of the record labels interested in me, so I put out my very first CD on my own.

Blue Bella was named after a car of mine! I used to have a 1970 Lincoln Mark III, one of my favorite cars. I loved that damn car, man. And it was aqua blue with a white top and white leather interior… with white pinstripes and white gangster whitewalls, and it was bad! A previous girlfriend of mine had named the car Blue Bella, and you know, the name stuck for a long time, and when we were looking for a name for a record label, I said “how does blue bella sound?” and it just kinda stuck. And we did that and eventually, after a couple of records of mine started getting some recognition and I started getting some recognition, all of the sudden, people wanted to know “whats this Blue Bella Records label?” And they still didn’t know it was my label;  it might just be some independent label in Chicago, so I figured I had better start adding a couple people on this label to keep it going so people think it’s a real label! And it was just the sort of thing that I started looking for friends of mine that I felt were in the same boat as I was; maybe couldn’t get on anyone else’s label or weren’t getting enough recognition that they deserved. So I started putting out my friends; Killborn Alley and Bill Lupkin and Gerry Hundt.  And eventually it grew and we added a few more, and now we’ve got 7 acts that we put out!

As far as this album is kind of a blusey rock kind of a thing going on, and your other albums have been pretty traditional. So what can we expect in the future from you?
Oh probably a calliope album. [For those who don’t know what a Calliope is; here you go!]
[Laughs] Can you elaborate?
Oh, I don’t know man. You know what, I’m looking to record what I feel like recording! And if it ends up sounding more rock because I’m enjoying what I’m doing right now, then it’ll be a rock record. If I start recording and it starts sounding traditional again, it’s just because I’ve been playing traditional stuff. I’ve got in mind to do a lot of things! I want to do an organ trio record…
An organ trio? Like Hammonds or something?
Yeah! You know? Like an organ trio record. I do some stuff with a couple friends who’re a really killer Hammond B3 player and a killer Jazz drummer. And we go out and do a couple gigs every now and then, just the three of us, and play. I’ve always been a fan of that kind of stuff… You know, Kenny Burrell playing with like Jacqueline Dawson or George Benson playing with Jacqueline, and there’s so much cool music out there. I want to do do an old soul instrumental CD too, so I mean… I dunno, one of these days I might get around to doing them all! Who knows.
All the time in the world, right?
I wish.
So you’ve been in the blues scene for a while now. What’s your take on blues in the future?
I don’t know! I’m still trying to figure out what’s going on here! I’m here in the now, so as long as I can keep going on here in the now, I’ll have a future. That’s for sure! And as far as blues in the future, I don’t feel there’s a need for concern. There’s always going to be somebody like myself that will start out as a kid and go “what’s this cool stuff I’m listening to!?” and want to seek it out. There’s always going to be lulls and people wanting to know about it. Blues goes in cycles anyways. That’s one of those things I did learn playing with the older guys, man. And I can remember each and every one of them basically telling me the same thing; “you’ll have the times when you’re up and you’ll have the times when you’re down.” Basically, strap yourself in and ride it. You wanna get off, get off! It’s all up to you.
A big thanks to Nick and Kate for meeting with us!

Click here to pick up a copy of Nick Moss’s new album Privileged!


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