Q&A with MonkeyJunk's Steve Marriner


DSC_0787American Blues Scene’s “Mr. Charlie” Frazier recently sat down with Monkeyjunk’s Steve Marriner to talk shop while he waited to jump into the pool before a gig at The Mount Tremblant International Blues Festival. We shoulda both gone in; would an aquatic interview have been a first?

ABS: You’ve won the Blues Music Award for Best New Artist (2010), and multiple Maple Blues Awards in Canada. Do any of them mean more than another, or is it not about the awards, but the thrill and joy of playing?

SM: Awards are great; it’s nice to get recognition because we work really hard on our recordings and live show, and are really committed to what we do; so to get such a favorable response gives us validation and shows we’re on the right track. If we didn’t get them, it wouldn’t matter, ’cause we all love playing in the band and the music comes first. The BMA was a big deal because it was the States, and at that time we were the only living Canadian artists to win one. Jeff Healey had won, but it was post humously.

The Juno is like Canada’s Grammys. The year we won it, the awards were in our home town of Ottawa, so we got all the local spotlight of the national stage for being home town boys. It was presented in front of 2 million people on a national broadcast, where we got to rub shoulders with Canadian rock stars. Drummer Matt Sobb and I also got asked to play in a no contact, charity hockey game, with ex-NHL players and Canadian musicians. We’ve been playing together since we were kids, so that was FUN!!

You’ve only been together for 6 years. How’d the wild ride start?

Well, our guitarist, Tony D, had been the king fish of the music scene for quite awhile. He was one of the first guys to get me on stage when I was like 12, so we’ve been friends a long time. I met Matt around the same time, and we played hockey together for 10 years, being Canadian boys. So skipping ahead to ’08, I had put out a solo album in ’07, and was playing a weekly solo gig. I was getting bored with that, and was jamming with Tony on my baritone guitar. Matt had drummed for the Tony D Band for 8 years, so we called him up and said “Be at Irene’s next sunday”. We had no grand plan other than some fun on a sunday night. But the response from the locals was really positive, and it started to be packed every time, so we decided to record “Tiger In Your Tank”, started going on the road, and one thing led to another.

You play a million instruments: baritone and 6 string guitar, harmonica, organ… Was there a conscientious decision to leave the bass out to try and be unique, or did you feel you could cover it without actually having one?

A bit of both. It always helps to be a little bit different to set yourself apart from the pack. There are lots of great bands, and it’s hard to get people to pay attention to you no matter what you do. But it’s not a novelty. I found when I play baritone guitar with a bass player, we’d often be walking all over each other sonically. So without the bass, the baritone guitar has much more room. I like making the groove and thinking like a bass player. So it was by design, and happily, there aren’t a lot of people doing it.

How did you guys come to the blues? From Muddy Waters or the British invasion?

We all came from different places. Tony is 22 years older than I am, and Matt 12. Tony would hear his brother playing Led Zeppelin, which led to him researching Chicago blues and Delta blues, Robert Johnson, etc. I saw the Blues Brothers movie when I was 10, and started learning about Chicago blues by looking at the soundtrack: Muddy, James Cotton, Sonny Boy, Jr. Wells. So I really got into harp as my first instrument, playing to the Chicago stuff. But I’ve also been a big fan of Aerosmith, and got into music in the first place because of Chuck Berry.

People seem to be sick of the phrase “Keeping The Blues Alive”, saying it’s not dead, and doesn’t need to be revived. But the fact is, that not only are older blues musicians passing, but so are older fans. How can we indoctrinate kids in their 20’s into the blues, or does the blues grow on you and nobody’e into it until they’re in their 50″s?

That’s a BIG question. We talk about this a lot when we’re in the van traveling around. Ultimately I think it’s a matter of audience perception. I’ve never been a fan of labeling music or trying to put it in a box, especially since I have so many influences. I love country: Merle Haggard, George Jones and honky tonk; soul: Al Green, Stax, Otis Redding; and I love Chicago blues. So what we do with Monkeyjunk is we don’t really call it anything.

There’s lots of blues in our flavor palate, but we find when we present blues music to a younger audience, if you don’t call it anything, they’re more receptive. If you give them the notion it’s something their parents or grandparents listened to, they might have an aversion to it, based on preconceived notions. The Black Keys and White Stripes have huge blues roots. “Howlin’ For You” is a blues song through and through with modern production. And millions of kids, including me, love it. Are the Stones a blues band? They started out as one, but are arguably the greatest Rock & Roll band the world has ever seen. It’s a very polarizing question. We try to be original, and take elements of music that has moved us and incorporate it into something new.

I don’t know if some people are carrying a torch, or playing what’s in their soul, but it doesn’t matter. “Keeping the blues alive” makes it sound like a doomed mission. For one reason or another, the cream will always rise to the top. If you want to make it and you’re good at what you do, you’ll probably make it. We’re not on a quest to keep something going; we’re trying to write our own music, play it, and hopefully people like it.

When you guys are writing songs, is it an individual or collaborative effort?

Mostly collaborative. Everyone writes differently. We get together in a rehearsal space and just play music, which gives us riffs, chord progressions and grooves. Music usually comes together fast. The lyrics are usually left to me, since I sing them. We’ll discuss topics driving in the van, as it’s always been collaborative, “All for one and one for all”. Each of us has an input. For “All Frequencies” we enlisted Paul Reddick for a few songs, and an old buddy of ours, Matt Chaffee, who has a soul band “The Split”. Lyrics are the hardest part, so there’s no problem getting a little help.

Who would you say are some of the important mentors the band has had? It’s a huge learning curve, and the guys that have been through it can make it so much easier.

I’ve had a lot of mentors in a lot of different areas of my life. Musically, George Pendergrast, who was in his 40’s, would make me mixtapes of old Chicago blues. I was 13 or 14. Tony D would get me on stage. Johnny Sansone would come to Ottawa, and the band I was in would back him up. I would watch and soak it all in. Also other New Orleans musicians Tony D would back up when they came through town.

Later on, Kim Wilson was a really big influence and helpful. Rick Estrin; I’d call him for hours when I was like 16, and even stayed at his place in California, he’s been supremely helpful. And especially my dad on just how to deal with life, how to be respectful and conduct myself. Harry Manx; I spent a lot of time on the road with him in my formative years. I got to see a lot of the world. He taught me about music, and most importantly, the music business. He is an incredible businessman: how to present yourself to the audience and how to get what you want out of the music business.

When you’re writing songs, do you like to take things from the news or your life? Do you try to write first person, or maybe isolate yourself to not expose too much of your own life?

I’m an open book, I’ll tell anybody anything! (Laughs). I like to joke around. ( I remind him of an earlier solo show where he told the crowd he had a career as a porn star. Not true it turns out.) I like to share experiences; I may not have lived it, but I witnessed it, read about or thought about it. The oil spill in Louisiana a few years ago was the impetus for our song “Mother’s Crying”. “Once Had Wings” off our latest cd was about a guy reflecting on his life near the end. It sounds mournful, but it’s really joyful.

On our first record, “Pay The Cost” was about a guitarist friend of ours from Toronto-Big Daddy G-who had passed way too early. I was thinking about how death is indiscriminate, we all pay the price for being born, we’re all going to the same place. “You Want What I Got To Give” was about the game of love. I wrote it on a napkin in a bar, drinking whiskey and getting angry, and wound up not changing a thing in the whole song. You never know what’s going to inspire you. I just got a line from overhearing a couple bicker that I’m sure will find its way into a song.

How about the internet? Has it hurt record companies and their artists?

Another polarizing issue. I don’t think I’m the greatest judge, because by the time I started playing music, Napster had happened. I don’t know what music was like in its sales heyday. I can’t really cry that Madonna is selling a few million less records, but I sympathize with the intern that lost his/her job. There’s a connection between the internet and how easy it is to circulate your music, but it’s really clogged up the pathways. It’s so easy to make a recording and put it out there; there’s too much information and you really have a lot to sift through to find something good.

What really frustrates me is people record in their basements with a few mikes and call it a cd, and it sounds like shit sonically. I’m gonna sound curmudgeonly, but there was a time a studio wouldn’t let you record if you weren’t ready. Not even gonna spend our time on this, even if you have the money. You need to go back to the woodshed. Now you take that blockage out, and the people that don’t have much to offer the music industry or people’s ears, are making bad recordings and putting them out. You may argue “what’s wrong with that, it’s not hurting anybody?”, but what it’s doing is dumbing down the public’s standards for audio quality. When mp3’s and horrible recordings are the norm, they get in the way of the good stuff. Yes, it’s expensive to make studio recordings, but if it’s worth a damn, you’ll make some money off it.

You want every record to be the best you’ve ever done.

Why bother then? If you don’t have something you believe is going to change the world, whether it does or not is not your problem, but if you believe it, you’ll record and play that way. There’s a reason engineers exist; to make recordings sound good. The musician’s job is to write and play music, and a couple very talented people can produce as well. You’re a radio guy. If you have a stack of 50 cd’s to preview, by the time you hit #27 you’re like “Help!!”.

It seems all the fees and regulations for crossing the border to play music are directed at the people least able to afford them. Should they be changed, or have an “amnesty proximity zone” or something, so you could drop over to Buffalo or Paul Deslauriers could go from Montreal to Burlington?

Unfortunately, I don’t think your proximity to the border will change anything. I don’t like that there are all these hoops you have to jump through, but I understand. We’ve seen the attitude of “Why are you coming to the States and taking a gig from an American band?”. That’s not fair because you’re putting everyone on a level playing field, and it’s not. You have a brand, and people want your brand, whether it’s jeans, music or cherry Coke. People want it, that’s why we’re there.

The fees imposed were not targeting musicians. they were caught in the crosshairs of trying to stop migrant workers in ALL industries from coming and taking jobs. They were making employers pay to bring in workers. Just like musicians, music venue owners don’t have money for that. You’d think Canada and the US could be neighborly. We pay $325 to the Department of Homeland Security just to process paperwork. You have to accept it as one of the costs of doing business. It hasn’t hurt us terribly, and it’s not worth the consequences of getting caught, which could prevent you for going back for 5 years.

When you had formed a band and had a cd ready to go, did you have to shop it around, or did they come to you?

“Tiger In Your Tank” we put out independently.

Which won you the Best New Artist Blues Music Award.

Here’s how it went. We went to do the International Blues Competition in 2009, before it was even out. We came in 3rd. So that gave us visibility and people were buzzin’. So Jay Sieleman (Blues Foundation director) told us to submit our cd when it came out, for that year’s Blues Music Awards. We did and got nominated. Then Richard Rosenblatt from Vizztone re-released it as a one record deal. When the second cd was done, we were at the Maple Blues awards, and Holger Peterson from Stony Plain said “Keep us in mind.” I had had discussions with Bruce Iglauer of Alligator, but they passed so we went with Holger’s deal, and it’s been great; they really have their act together.

Did winning that BMA change things?

Unfortunately, awards tend to be popularity contests. One block of voters can help the same people win over and over. Do they really need another trophy for their mantle? We’ve won 20 Maple Blues Awards here at home. I like winning “Album Of The Year” because that means they like what you’re putting out. We’ve won Electric Band of the Year 4 or 5 years in a row which is nice, ’cause we’re one of the hardest working bands around. I’ve won “Harmonica Player Of The Year” 5 times, so I say “Give it to someone else”.

I’ll get my name engraved on one if you don’t want it!!

(Laughs). I don’t want it to sound like it doesn’t mean anything to me, of course it does; but the point has been made, it’s someone’s else’s turn.

When you win as a band, do they give you 3, so you don’t fight over them?

(Laughs). Actually, the Maples only give us one, so we’ve given some to Irene’s, the bar we started at, and split up the rest. And the voting can raise the question of qualifications. If my fellow musicians tell me I’m the best harp player, that means more than people in a board room looking at sales figures, or people just randomly checking off a list. I think musicians should draw up the nomination lists, ’cause if you don’t play.

Some people forget it’s the last 12 months, not the fact you’re a big fan.

And you can’t say something’s “The Best”. To whom? You could maybe for a cd, but a guitar player? There’s no best, just lots of good ones. Matt Andersen said the best thing when he came running up to win his 2nd award of the night; “Two things I don’t normally do, win and run!”. To sum up Monkeyjunk, we are a band. It’s not about a million solos. Glad you all like it!!

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