CR: Michael, let's start at the beginning by getting familiar with your particulars--birth date, family upbringing, and at what age you first found an interest in blues music.
MM: I was born in the South East of England in 1956. My earliest musical memories are of listening to 78 rpm records on my parents' gramophone. My mother was into music, and by the time I was three or four years old, I was very familiar with the sounds of rock 'n' roll. I have two brothers, Alan and David, who are both older than me. We had a band in the 70's playing all kinds of stuff, from old rock 'n' roll to Deep Purple. These days Alan is a well-known music photographer/designer who lives in Nashville, TN. As for his blues connection, he is most notable for the Stevie Ray Vaughan "In Step" album cover; the one with the National guitar on the front. David is the promoter at London's renowned music venue, Dingwalls. I also have a younger sister, Jane, although she played no role in my musical development.
I first became seriously interested in blues music in the mid 70's. I got to know a crowd of people who were about 10 years older than me who had been heavily influenced by the British Blues boom of the early 60's. They had all the classic blues albums and singles from that time and to cut a long story short...I became obsessed with listening to original blues music. At that time I was heavily into 50's Chicago blues and the old Mississippi Delta style. Being about 20 years old at the time, I was also listening to the current hip sounds of the time...and still do. So back in my 20's, I was turning on to Robert Johnson, Son House, Elmore James, Bo Diddley, Ian Dury and the Blockheads, Stevie Wonder, Bootsy Collins, Chick Corea, Creedence Clearwater Revival...a real melting pot.
CR: Who were some of the first blues musicians you gravitated towards and why?
MM: The Mississippi Delta based players were the ones that really caught my attention in those early days; Mississippi Fred McDowell, Bukka White, Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, Son House, Muddy Waters, Elmore James. Not from the Delta, but a big influence was Blind Willie McTell, his music rocks like no other... and what a voice! Johnny Winter has also been a major influence on my music. Those early albums, "The Progressive Blues Experiment" and "Nothin' But the Blues" are great. I love all the Johnny Winter and Muddy albums; they are very cool. During those early years of discovery I listened to a whole cross section of American blues and country music--Hank Williams, Bill Monroe, Johnny Cash, Roy Acuff... that's a whole other side of my taste. But the blues guys that I turned on to in those early days were generally the slide players and the solo performers. Fred McDowell on electric guitar, now that's one hell of a tone... so cool!
CR: How old were you when you first began playing musical instruments? Many began in school by playing trumpet, sax, etc. What was your first instrument?
MM: I was a musical failure at school! There were too many rigid rules and my teachers told me that the music I enjoyed so much was not "real" music...idiots!
My first attempt at playing music seriously was the bass guitar in the late 60's, then I graduated to upright bass, then to guitar, and eventually to slide guitar. I was always singing and writing, and my first attempt at writing was when I was around nine years old. Slide guitar became a total obsession that has never gone away; it started with Elmore James type riffs and now covers the entire slide genre. I play Delta and Chicago blues, rock, acoustic Hawaiian guitar, country Dobro, hot swing, Eastern styles...all sorts really. I guess the most influential blues slide players in my life have been Mississippi Fred McDowell, Son House and Muddy. That's it for me...that primitive sound and structure, all pure emotion with no frills. Those guys still blow me away when I hear their music.
(Son House, Muddy Waters, Mississippi Fred McDowell)
CR: Seeing American bluesmen in the UK doesn't happen as often as here in the States. Who were some of the first American and British blues players you had a chance to see perform and what was their impact on you?
MM: The first American blues musician I ever saw was John Hammond. I was nine years old and it was in 1965 when he was part of a touring package of pop stars that included Van Morrison's band, Them, Herman's Hermits, plus Heinz & the Wild Boys. Hammond completely knocked my socks off! He was performing the solo material that was on his first Vanguard LP. He actually had a hit single in the UK at that time; "I Live The Life I Love," which is how he came to be on a show with those other artists. Then in my teens, in the early 70's, I saw many American and British blues artists; Muddy Waters, Lightnin' Hopkins, B.B. King, Albert Collins, Albert King, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, John Lee Hooker, Johnny Winter, Roy Buchanan, Memphis Slim, Clarence 'Gatemouth' Brown, Rory Gallagher, Eric Clapton, The Rolling Stones, plus many more.
I spent most of the 70's going to see bands, and I guess a larger number of those were blues or blues-based acts. I remember going to see Bo Diddley when I was about 18 or 19, and he was so good that I went every night! Regarding your question about their impact on me, I would have to say that seeing those people and hearing their music influenced my taste and creativity for the rest of my life.
In addition to your question about British blues players - I was also heavily influenced by some of the first generation like Jo Ann Kelly, Dave Kelly, Mike Cooper, Sam Mitchell, Tony McPhee of the Groundhogs, Alexis Korner, Cyril Davies. Most are now in their late fifties, and some are sadly no longer with us, but their influence on my music is both very important and very evident.
CR: Let's discuss the "King Guitar" CD a little. Where did the deal with Catfish Records come from? Did you, or your management approach them, or did they come to you?
MM: I became involved with Catfish Records when leading blues record collector, Paul Swinton, who often works with the label, asked me to help him compile two Catfish slide compilations, "Classic Slide Guitar Blues," Volumes 1 and 2. Paul introduced me to the Catfish guys, and they became very interested in my music and my career. We have very similar tastes and enjoy the way each other works. I believe that Catfish Records will go from strength to strength and be looked upon as one of the great record labels of this decade.
CR: Terry Clarke does much of the writing for you. Can you tell us how that works? Does he come to you with structured ideas, or is the framework pretty loose to start with?
MM: Terry is a close friend and a great writer. His parents are from Ireland, but he was brought up in England. Terry and I got to know each other in the early 80's and since then the writing relationship has developed more and more. I just love the way he looks at a subject and converts it into a song. A lot of the stuff on "King Guitar" comes from ideas and lyrical sketches that I give him. The title track is one of those. It was inspired by an idea I had while listening to a song by G Love & Special Sauce, called "Blues Music." Added to that were the titles of so many blues albums--"King of the Slide Guitar," "King of the Delta Blues," etc. Then sometimes Terry will just get fired up with an idea and call me. "Step Right Up" was originally a demo on my answering machine! Terry called me and sang the song over the phone. So I guess the answer to your question is that we have a loose approach to how this writing relationship works. It's fun and it's very creative and that's how I want to keep it. "Crow Blues" is one of my favorite Terry Clarke songs.
CR: I know you and Ed Genis have been working together for quite a long time now. Why don't you get into some detail on how that relationship started. How did you meet? Was there a common bond, as in a shared love for blues?
(Michael Messer and Ed Genis)
MM: First of all let me say that Ed Genis has been a very important ingredient in my music for the past 15 years or so. We have a very strong musical relationship, which over the years has become greater than the both of us; it is now an instinctive thing we have going. In 1983 I was playing in a band in Bracknell and after the show I was introduced to Ed, who was not playing professionally but had all the capabilities of doing so. We started meeting up and playing music together regularly, not gigs, this was just 'round at each others' houses. We definitely found a common bond and similar tastes, we both loved the blues, reggae, African and Hawaiian guitar, and so on. In 1987 I was desperate to make a record of my own, so I recruited a local bass player, Andy Crowdy, and we started rehearsing and doing bar gigs together as a trio. Andy and Ed are still a major part of my music. We've been playing together on and off for nearly fifteen years now. Ed and I have toured and played together constantly since those early days. After that amount of time it becomes like telepathy where we can play anything and everything together and never lose each other. It is a very special thing to have that kind of musical relationship with somebody. We still meet up once a week and sit around and play for a few hours. Andy Crowdy has pursued other areas of music and has a fine reputation as one of Britain's top bass players, but he still records and tours with us when he can. Ed Genis is one of the greatest and most underrated guitarists in Britain. Listeners should pay particular attention to the African tinged solo in "Diving Duck" or the acoustic hip-hop funk line he plays on "Drivin' Wheel Blues Part Two."
CR: Let's talk a little about the guests on the CD, "King Guitar." Were they given parts to play, or did you sit down with a basic idea and run with it?
MM: I try not to dictate to a musician what I want them to play, though at times, I will give them ideas of what I could see fitting into the music, and other times I just let them go. I clearly remember with Jesse Taylor letting him loose on that Newman guitar with the lucky dice volume and tone controls. Jesse is similar to Ed and I in his approach to playing; he just cuts loose and goes for it. Doug Cox on Dobro comes from Vancouver Island and has a hell of a reputation on the Canadian folk scene. Doug's contributions were all as he felt them; it's the only way to get the best performance. As soon as you try restricting or controlling someone's playing, it's gone. That's why I work with these people, because I love the way they play. It tends to be with the rhythm section that I have a clear idea that may not be the normal way of playing things, like turning the Oscar Woods song, "Lone Wolf," into a skanking reggae groove. Creativity has no rules; sometimes it's my idea and sometimes it comes from somebody in the studio.
CR: There's a lot going on in the way of influences outside of blues in your music. Tell us about some of the others who have impacted you and to what extent.
MM: In the early eighties I got very into African music; stuff like King Sunny Ade`, Franco, and Ali Farka Toure. I started to realize how much American music had been influenced by African music. I could hear the melodies from Mali in John Lee Hooker's music, and the Nigerian juju influence on Bo Diddley and the fife and drum music of the Deep South. So for a while I became pretty crazy about African music. I became friends with the great guitarist and singer, the late S.E. Rogie, from Sierra Leone, who was known as the King of Palm Wine Guitar. I produced some album tracks for him in 1989. Also in that year I became involved working with the legendary Ted Hawkins, the busker from Venice Beach, CA. We made a record together which I produced called "I Love You Too." It was never properly issued and remains unknown.
Back in the early eighties in my quest for finding slide guitar music I started to discover Hawaiian steel guitar music, which had been a massive influence on the music of mainland America. The blues musicians adopted the style and that's where bottleneck slide guitar, country pedal-steel, and Dobro comes from. Casey Bill Weldon, Charley Patton, Tampa Red, Kokomo Arnold, Jimmie Rodgers, Chuck Berry, Hank Williams, and others, were all heavily influenced by Hawaiian steel guitar. Another musical discovery that happened quite by accident in the mid eighties was finding Indian slide guitar music, both in the classical form and the way it is used in film scores. In fact, it was in my quest for finding the perfect curry on one of my many visits to Southall in London that I discovered the ABC music shop and started buying Indian slide guitar music. Brij Brushan Kabra is one of the leading names in this area. If you enjoy Ry Cooder's soundtrack to the "Paris Texas" movie, all that solo slide guitar stuff in open D tuning, you should check out Brij Kabra's music. Blues slide guitar players will really dig this guy. Influences...there are so many, it's hard to list them all!
CR: I know a lot of guitar players will want to read about your collection of vintage guitars and amps. Tell us what you have in the way of National steels and other models; and what about the National amp you're sitting on for the "King Guitar" cover?
MM: This is a whole other can of worms and could easily be the subject of another interview... I have been collecting, researching, and playing National instruments for over twenty years. These days I don't have the amount of guitars that I had back in the late eighties. I have a cross section of instruments that I use in the studio and on the road. For example, relating to the tracks on "King Guitar," the slide part on the title song is a 1950 National Map of America Glenwood. On "Living in Rhythm" there is a 1929 National Duolian plus a 1928 National Triolian. "Steel Guitar Blues" was recorded with a 1929 National Tricone Hawaiian guitar. Both "Diving Duck" and "Driving Wheel Blues Parts One & Two" were recorded with my "Fine Resophonic" guitar made by Mike Lewis at: http://www.chez.com/resophonic/index.html in Paris, France. He is the greatest builder of National type resonator guitars in the world. I also have two guitars made by the British guitar builder, Dave King at: www.daveking-acoustics.com . His guitars are also used by Eric Bibb. The amplifier on the cover of King Guitar is a late thirties National model. Those amps are so cool and have an amazing sound. The only other picture I have ever seen of a musician with that amplifier is the one of Big Bill Broonzy, Memphis Slim, and Little Bill Gaither. Check it out; it's the same amp and guitar! Like the Memphis Minnie National, but earlier. Most of the electric guitars on the album were played through a 1950's National amp. It's my little favorite. The electric guitar on "Lone Wolf Blues" was recorded through a cheap battery practice amp.
(From Left: Little Bill Gaither, Memphis Slim, Big Bill Broonzy)
CR: You've done a lot of research on the National Guitar Company. How did that all come about? And please talk a bit about your own brand of Messer National Guitar Strings.
MM: I guess it was really the fact that back then there were no books or websites on the subject, and no one had ever really laid down the facts. When I was first into these guitars, we didn't even know the model names, let alone when, how, why, and by who they were made. Myself and Mark Makin in the UK, plus Bob Brozman, Dennis Watkins and George Gruhn, all from the States, between us, we built a story of how all this came about. It was just curiosity and a search for answers. These days it's all laid out in Bob Brozman's book, various videos and websites. I recently built a website with my friend and National collector, Colin McCubbin; take a look at www.notecannons.com http://www.notecannons.com.
We have a lot to do, but when I get the time, which is getting harder these days, I like to work on the Notecannons website. With reference to Nationals, you should also check out www.resocentre.com . It's a store in London that specializes in resonator guitars.
(National Archtop and National amplifier)
About eight years ago I met a string maker, Malcolm Newton, who makes Newtone Strings, which area a fairly well known brand for acoustic guitars. Malcolm approached me with the idea of making strings specifically for playing open-tuned on National guitars. After many experiments with different gauges and materials we started a brand of strings called "Michael Messer National Guitar Strings." These are now licensed by the National Guitar Company in California and are the most popular strings around for those instruments, something I am very proud of. They're hand-made and well worth checking out. I have also just started a new brand of Michael Messer Electric Slide Classics. These strings are designed for open-tuned electric slide playing. The thing is, with regular sets, as soon as you change the tuning or start using a slide, everything changes; the tension, the tone, everything. These strings take that into consideration and in my opinion, work better than regular gauges.
Check out my website www.michaelmesser.co.uk http://www.michaelmesser.co.uk for more information. If anyone wants to talk to me on the subject of Nationals, or anything else, there is a guestbook/noticeboard on my website which I check regularly.
CR: What's in the works for you now? Are you planning another CD, and if so, what is the slated release date? Can you give us an idea of what's going to be on it, without giving away too many secrets?
MM: I will be releasing a new album on Catfish Records in March 2002. I am currently writing material and rehearsing with different musicians. It'll be different than "King Guitar," in that the next album will be a new exploration into mixing traditional blues sounds with current grooves and rhythms from around the world.
Michael Messer website: www.michaelmesser.co.uk
This review is copyright © 2001 by Craig Ruskey, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved. Copy, duplication or download prohibited without written permission. For permission to use this review please send an E-mail to Ray Stiles.