RS: Let me start out by congratulating you on being selected as the Greater Twin Cities Blues Music Society's entry into the Blues Foundation's "Best Self-Produced CD" competition for 2010 for your new CD Tuff Love. That's a nice honor. Tell me what your reaction was when you found out about it?
Steve V: I was totally but pleasantly shocked. Initially, I hesitated to submit the CD because I knew there would be very strong submissions from local bands that I have a lot of respect for. Our guitar player, John Franken encouraged me to submit our CD because "nothing ventured is nothing gained." I am grateful to John for his encouragement and to the GTCBMS for their vote of confidence in this recording. I feel very blessed to achieve this recognition and I want the readers to know that it couldn't have been done without the strong contributions of my primary collaborator, John Franken and our rhythm section, John Schroder and Dwight Dario. The CD also features some amazingly talented guests, Bruce McCabe, Jeremy Johnson and Mark Williams.
The CD was recorded at Jeremy's studio and he was involved not only as the engineer but also as a performer and producer. True to the title of the CD, Jeremy gave me a lot of "tough love" during the recording and mixing process that helped shape the CD as well. I also have to mention that a primary reason the CD sounds so good is because of the talents of John Schroder who with the assistance of Franken mastered the final copy before it was submitted for duplication.
RS: What happens next in that process?
Steve V: My understanding is that four copies of our CD, Tuff Love, will be sent to the Blues Foundation and critiqued along with hundreds of other self-released CD's from blues societies across the globe during the International Blues Challenge event in Memphis (Jan. 2010).
RS: Tell me about the making of that CD, your second one, right?
Steve V: Yes this is the second CD under my stage name, Boom Boom Steve V and the Knockouts. My band mates (Franken, Schroder and Dario) and I have been playing together for about four years and collectively we decided it was time to make a CD that would provide a good representation of our live shows. I worked with Franken initially because I knew he would be an invaluable collaborator on the project given his history of superb recordings with former twin cities harp player Joe T. Cook and his strong interest in the creative process. Franken and I got together once a week for a couple of months to share ideas and develop original material. For most of the original tunes I would write the lyrics and suggest a tempo and groove to Franken. Franken would play it on guitar and suggest changes in song construction and key signature. Together we worked hard to create something unique or interesting in each original song on the CD.
RS: What's the story behind the song, My Name Is Meth?
Steve V: We adapted the lyrics into a musical form from an anonymous poem that was shared with me several years ago about Methamphetamine addiction and death. The poem was written by a young Native American woman who died from a meth overdose shortly after she wrote the poem while incarcerated in jail. I saved the poem for several years because I knew a slow, minor blues dirge would complement its dark and poignant message.
RS: What's your songwriting process?
Steve V: As far as the lyrics on the originals goes I was influenced by a conversation I had with John Nemeth at Famous Dave's while he was on break one night. He said that because of his busy schedule touring he has very little time to spend writing songs. When he does get some time he said that he would pick and idea and a groove and challenge himself to complete the main idea of a song in one day. The notion that such an accomplished musician as Nemeth did it this way at times was liberating to me and I tried to do it on several of the tunes. Like most songwriters there is a notion of personal history or experience embedded in many of the original songs.
As I stated earlier, I would then run the song by John Franken who seems to always come up with an interesting hook or suggestion to enhance the song. We would get the song down to the point that we could explain to our rhythm section and then they would add their piece to the puzzle. For instance, on the song "When I Was Young" Dwight decided to use brushes vs. sticks and it really changed my original conception of how the song should sound but ultimately it made for a great feel that is different than any of the other songs on the CD which is what we were striving for anyway.
RS: Tell me about your 1st recording, From The Shadows from 2002, right?
Steve V: Yes, From The Shadows CD represents my effort to challenge myself to do something with music other then just play gigs and sit in with other bands. I wanted to try my skills at writing and arranging and therefore I collaborated with musicians I knew who would support my fledging efforts towards becoming more of an artist and less of just a harmonica player. In another sense I also wanted to see how I would do as a front man and band leader. In all the bands I had played in previous to the From The Shadows CD I would only sing a few songs a night and I would play a limited role in fronting the band. I felt that if I applied the lessons I had learned from countless gigs and incorporated the attributes of performers I admired that I could lead my own band. The title of the CD From The Shadows reflects this emergence and evolution from a side man towards more of an artist and band leader.
RS: When did you start playing the harmonica?
Steve V: My ability to play the harmonica was developed in several well-defined stages. The initial stage occurred during a summer in the mid to late 60's when I was shipped off to live with my maternal grandparents in northwestern Montana. They lived in a log cabin (the logs were vertical vs. horizontal) on a mountain in a village called Kila, Montana. Kila is about fifteen miles from Kalispell, Montana if you know where that is. Anyway, my elderly grandparents would take long naps during the afternoon and so I spent many midsummer afternoons preoccupied with learning to play a harmonica. On one particular exciting venture into Kalispell I went into a music store and was allowed to purchase a copy of Tony Glover's harmonica instruction book. To this day I thank Tony for providing initial instruction on the tongue blocking technique in his book. Tongue blocking is the technique I learned and it is this method that has served me well as I continue to evolve my skill on the harmonica. Additional information on how this instructional book influenced me can be found in Bryan Dykes induction speech of Tony Glover into the Minnesota Blues Hall of Fame for ("Best Blues Literature").
RS: How did you become interested in the harp in the first place?
Steve V: In high school I had a friend who also played harmonica and we had a friendly competition between us on harp technique and who could best copy certain songs like Whammer Jammer that featured Magic Dick of the J. Geils Band. Once we got to college and the drinking age was lowered to 18 our interest was fueled by seeing bands such as Lamont Cranston, Lynwood Slim, Minnesota Barking Ducks and seeing movies like the Blues Brothers.
RS: Where did your interest in the blues come from?
Steve V: Initially I wasn't interested in blues music as a genre because I didn't know enough to label the music that moved me as any one particular form. I was moved by music that had a particular beat that at some temporal level I found it exciting or that evoked an emotion within me. I recall seeing an early performance of Little Richard on television and remember being drawn to the energy and rhythm of his performance. I got a similar rush from songs by Sly Stone, Deep Purple, Hendrix, Clapton, Winter and even some Beatles songs. Probably the first album that helped me to identify blues as a genre that I was drawn to was the Allman Brothers double live album from the Fillmore East. Studying the liner notes of that album opened my eyes up to the fact that the music came from a much earlier time. And so the journey began.
RS: Who are your blues and harp influences?
Steve V: Many of my initial influences were local bands such as Lamont Cranston, Lynwood Slim and the Minnesota Barking Ducks. I was also influenced by the Dust Bowl Blues band that was playing in Mankato where I went to college from 1972 to 1978. I used to check out a tape recorder from the library and go to downtown Mankato at night and record the Dust Bowl Blues Band and in particular Kit Kildahl who now fronts the Minnesota Barking Ducks. I was also influenced by Billy Steiner who is also a wonderful harmonica player with City Mouse based in Mankato. When I moved to Houston, Texas in 1978, I got hip to this new band called the Fabulous Thunderbirds. I first saw the band in a record store in Houston as they were promoting their first album, "Girls Go Wild." Ever since then I have been a huge fan of Kim Wilson which eventually brought me to Rod Piazza and William Clarke. For many years I purchased every new album that these three released and spent hours trying to replicate their playing. Along the way I realized that so much of what I was listening to was originally done by Little Walter. In fact, a pivotal moment for me getting hip to Little Walter was when I gave Craig Salminen (harmonica instructor and Lazy Bill Lucas's bass player) a ride to the Artist Quarter when it was in Minneapolis. When we arrived at the club Craig was grateful for the ride and gave me the two record set of Little Walters Chess recordings. From that point forward I listened to Little Walter as much as I did any of the contemporary harp players at the time.
RS: How did they influence you?
Steve V: They all combine great technical ability with a soulful feel. All of these guys have a lot of "chops" but also the ability to create and release tension through their phrasing. Along with Gary Primich they all have also developed their own unique sound that is immediately recognizable.
Little Walter is the epitome of this combination of technical ability and soul.
RS: Did you have a harmonica mentor?
Steve V: No not formally. Anyone who has played harmonica in bands around the twin cities has been of some inspiration to me and to be honest I have stolen licks from most of them. Everyone has something different to offer in their approach and style. R.J. Mischo deserves special mention however since he was the first one to invite me to perform on stage in a small town (Sonny Boy II would call it a village, ha, ha) called Little Chicago, Minnesota. After I got to know R.J. he would invite me to sit in at his gigs and this gave me the confidence and inspiration to practice and get better.
RS: Who are your favorite musicians that you like to listen to?
Steve V: I love to listen to Junior Watson. I get a kick out of seeing him perform live and I think he has almost invented a new style and approach to playing blues on guitar. I really like how Mitch Kashmar plays harp and his recent recordings have established him as one of the best contemporary harp players out there.
I am also a big fan of Rick Estrin. I think he is one of the best singer/songwriters and harmonica playing front men on the scene.
RS: What other types of music do you enjoy?
Steve V: I like all kinds of folk music that is done well and by that I include reggae, Latin music and Tex Mex (from my time in Houston) etc. I am also especially drawn to funk music and beats with strong rhythms.
RS: Are you from the Twin Cities? Where did you grow up?
Steve V: I spent most of my formative years growing up in Billings, Montana where I was born in 1954. When I was 9, my family moved to Salt Lake City for two years and then returned to Billings until I was 15 (summer of 1969) when we moved to Burnsville, Minnesota. I graduated from Burnsville High School in 1972.
RS: What clubs do you enjoy playing in?
Steve V: Different clubs for different reasons. I especially enjoy Neumann's for the down-home folks who frequent there and the fact that they appreciate the music. I contrast that with the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake Iowa which I've had the opportunity to play at on two occasions in that past few years. The Surf Ballroom is really cool for its obvious history (Buddy Holly's last gig) and the grand stage and ballroom sound.
I miss the Blues Saloon (who doesn't). I was in a band that was the opening act for three consecutive New Years Eve performances at the old Blues Saloon and it was a big thrill for me at the time. The featured bands were Otis Clay, Lonnie Brooks and Robert Lockwood Jr.
My dream is that a club similar to the Blues Saloon will open up before I'm done playing.
RS: What musicians do you like playing with?
Steve V: Obviously I love playing with my band because they are very interested and skilled at creating a huge "pocket". The pocket is the rhythm being played just behind the beat that is the essence of blues music in my opinion. The bands that I was in when I started out were all blues rock bands that played on top of the beat. For many years as I was starting out I didn't appreciate how critical a fat pocket was in playing with feel and emotion. Once I started to play with guys who understood this and could do in the context of ensemble playing it opened up so much for me because all the music and musicians I had studied came from this style. John Franken is such an accomplished player in the sense that not only can he play expressive solos he is especially adept at playing rhythm along with drums (Dario) and bass (Schroder). When the three of them are locked in behind me it is blues nirvana. That being said, I like to play with anyone who "gets" this style of playing and plays it well.
RS: How long have you been performing in the Twin Cities?
Steve V: I first started out playing professionally in the twin cities in 1987 with a band called Out All Night. So it's been 22 years now.
RS: How did you get started playing here?
Steve V: I had done some playing and recording with friends in the St. Cloud area in the early '80's. Towards the end of my time there in 1984 I was coming to the twin cities almost every weekend to see blues bands. I recall coming down on a week-day night to compete in a blues harmonica competition at Wilebski's in 1983 or so. I remember that Curt Obeda was in the house band and that R.J. Mischo and Paul Berry were sitting in the balcony. I ended up winning a small first place trophy that was given to me by Ted Wilebski that said "Wilebski Blues Saloon Harp Champ." This really helped my confidence and I continued to practice and play as much as I could. I moved to the twin cites in 1984 and continued to play and sit in with R.J. whenever he would have me. Then one of my colleagues at work had a husband who invited me to attend a blues jam of friends in the basement of a house in N.E. Minneapolis by Mayslacks. The jam was organized by Russ Ringsak who is Garrison Keillor's truck driver and the main musician was Olie Foran who played keyboards for a short time with Willie Murphy and the Bumblebees. We had a lot of fun playing and eventually the weekly jam turned into my first real band called Out All Night which was fronted by guitarist, Paul Suikkonen. Several notable musicians ended up playing in that band including Dave "Biscuit" Miller and Curtis Blake who replaced me on harmonica.
RS: How has the blues scene changed over the years you have been playing?
Steve V: Good question however in many ways it hasn't changed all that much. You still have a healthy dose of traditional and blues rock bands working and we're all doing it for about the same money we did it for 20 years ago.
Seriously, I think a lot of the change has been in the support and appreciation for blues in general that has evolved through local internet sites. I can name four or five local sites that promote blues including Blues on Stage plus a strong Blues Society (www.gtcbms.org) and blues publication (Blue Monday) that offers a regional perspective both on line and on paper. Another thing that has changed is the fact that so many of our "local" musicians have gone on to establish themselves on a national or international stage. Curt Obeda and the Butanes established a reputation for providing expert backing to national acts that would visit the twin cities. You also have bands like Big George Jackson doing multiple tours of Europe as well as musicians like R.J., Stupka, McCabe and Bernard Allison who are known around the globe.
There is also so many more summer festivals then what I recall 15 - 20 years ago when the Bayfront Blues Festival seemed like the only game in town.
Another healthy change has been the introduction of the alternative blues formats thanks to Chris Johnson (Deep Blues Festival) and a greater appreciation for acoustic blues which has been nurtured by the IBC solo/duo competition.
RS: What direction do you see it heading?
Steve V: It seems like there is a greater appreciation of diverse musical styles that align with the blues. I think it is healthy for the blues genre in general although many would argue that "real" blues is long gone. I often hear that blues is a dying art form yet it is very encouraging to see so many young folks at gigs and performances who are drawn in through one blues style or another. Hopefully these experiences will broaden their tastes just as I and so many others have in our journey of musical appreciation. I am also hopeful that some of the artists we have in our town will achieve greater recognition and bring a focus on the blues scene here in the twin cities which I think is good if not great on most days.
RS: You definitely have a joy for life and people. What keeps you so positive and upbeat?
Steve V: In a word, Faith. I've always tried to see and appreciate the best in people I meet and who are a part of the blues community. I also try to stay optimistic and focused on having fun. Hopefully the joy I get out of playing is transferred to the audience and they have fun and are entertained as well.
What I love about the Knockouts is that we never have two nights the same. Not that we don't strive for a certain level of excellence it's just that there is lots of room for spontaneity and improvisation that keeps things fresh, interesting and not boring.
RS: How do you balance your day job and family with your performing?
Steve V: To be honest finding a balance it is tough at times. However, I am blessed to have a wife that is very supportive of my musical aspirations. When we were dating I was playing in Juke City and the Soulmates and so she knew that playing music was part of the deal with me. When we got married in 1997 I took a year off of playing out just to get myself establish with having a wife, new baby son and two great step-sons. I also had a job change and moved from Minneapolis all at about the same time.
I am also very lucky in the sense that I am passionate about my "day job" and have worked in my current position for twelve years. I supervise a small unit of other committed professionals who work hard to facilitate the transition experience of youth leaving foster care. Although there are days I am tired at work I find it very stimulating and rewarding.
RS: Tell me some stories about your experiences playing the blues?
Steve V: This summer I did six nights with Reverend Raven at Blues on Whyte in Edmonton, Canada. The band is put up in a fairly rundown hotel above the bar with long crooked hallways. The clerk in the lobby is responsible to make sure that no one in the hotel takes any guests to their room (which is grounds for expulsion from the hotel) and checked us over when we would pass through the lobby to our upstairs rooms. On the last night there was a terrible thunderstorm in Edmonton. Just as we began our first set the lights went out and reduced the club to total darkness. It was very eerie scene as the staff began lighting candles the Rev and I walked through the darkness playing acoustically and tried to keep the audience until the lights were restored. After about an hour the audience left and the bar pulled the plug on the gig. I grabbed a candle to help find my way to the room and as I went past the tattooed clerk at the front desk I noticed that she had a huge snake wrapped around her neck. As the storm continued throughout the night I couldn't help but think about the snake and what if it got away in the hotel? Needless to say, I didn't sleep real well that night.
RS: What's the most interesting venue you've played?
Steve V: It would have to be the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa. The place is as much a museum to the great musicians and the big band era as it is a music venue. I spent an hour just looking at the pictures and exploring all the nooks and cranny's of the ballroom.
RS: What has been the most challenging thing about the music business for you?
Steve V: Without a doubt promotion. As mentioned earlier, I have a full-time day gig and a busy family life so there is little time left to promote the band like I would like to. Some of the more successful acts I am aware of are constantly on the phone or the web making contacts and chasing down gigs. I just don't have the time to do what is needed day in and day out.
RS: How about the most rewarding?
Steve V: When a performance goes real well. The symmetry that occurs between the band and the audience when both are "feeling it" is very rewarding.
RS: What advise would you give a young blues musician, or harmonica player in particular, starting out?
Steve V: Practice smart! Work on your technique and practice blues scales in different positions. Know where you are weak and pursue resources that will help you overcome any particular obstacle. Because there is a lot of great free instruction on harmonica on the Internet you should grab your harps and practice along to what the instructor is trying to convey in any given lesson. Don't be afraid of asking for advise from others and attend blues jams to find other musicians of your caliber to play with.
RS: What's the best advise you have received about the business and/or playing harp in particular?
Steve V: Its always good to be reminded to try to tell a story with your solos. Solos should be built and have dynamic quality. Because blues is so much about creating and releasing tension there is lots of opportunity to do this on any given song.
RS: What's the first concert you ever attended?
Steve V: I believe it was Steppenwolf at the Minneapolis Armory.
RS: How about the first record ever bought (that dates you doesn't it)?
Steve V: It was a Beatles album. I don't recall the name of the album but I remember it had an up tempo version of Kansas City on it that in retrospect may have been my initial orientation to three chord blues structure.
RS: First blues record (tape, CD)?
Steve V: It was a double album by Muddy Waters. One of the cuts was I Got My Mojo Working on it when James Cotton was in the band. Unfortunately I left it in my car and it got hideously warped.
RS: Any good stories you can tell me about the blues or performers you have played with?
Steve V: Ray! Don't you know that what happens on the road stays on the road?
Seriously, a highlight of my musical career (and life) was to meet B.B. King on his bus outside the Surf Ballroom in 2007. I really have to thank Reverend Rick Raven and especially Rico Anderson for the opportunity. Rico had arranged for Reverend Raven to open for B.B. and Rev including me in a lot of his regional tours at the time. After the show, Rico talked with the road manager for B.B. (who I believe was B.B.'s son) and made arrangements for a couple of us to meet B.B. I was super nervous as I waited my turn in the hallway of the bus to meet B.B. When it came my turn I was so impressed by how affable and gracious he was. In addition to his stature as one of history's finest performers he is also one of the classiest and most gracious gentlemen on the planet.
RS: What are your top ten, or however many you have, perfect musical moments - live, recording, whatever (thanks to Mick Sterling for this idea from his book, The Long Ride Home: A Life in the Minnesota Music Scene)?
Steve V: In no particular order:
- Opening for B.B. King (with Reverend Raven) at the Surf Ballroom and meeting B.B. on his bus.
- Standing next to Muddy Waters backstage as he was about to perform at a blues festival in Houston, Texas (circa 1987)
- Seeing B.B. King with his big band at the Cabooze (circa 1976)
- Partying with James Cotton in the green room of the Blues Saloon
- Meeting Jr. Wells in the green room at the Cabooze
- Seeing the Fabulous Thunderbirds play live in a record store in Houston in support of their first album "Girls Go Wild"
- Seeing the T-Birds play live at a bar in Houston when an unknown Stevie Ray Vaughan stood behind Jimmie and played Jimmie's guitar in a surprise moment on stage.
- Playing the big stage at Bayfront Blues festival with Juke City.
- Winning the best blues harmonica trophy at Wilebski's (circa 1983)
- Playing on live compilation CD that was considered for a Grammy nomination. www.bamfest.net
RS: What's up next for you?
Steve V: With the success of our CD, Tuff Love, I am going to focus on trying to get into some summer festivals in 2010. One of the strengths of our band is our live performances and I know we would do real well in a festival setting. I realize I have to become more knowledgeable about the politics and relationships that must be established in order to get into some of these festivals. Unfortunately, it's often not enough that you play well but you also have to know someone and be introduced to the "right" people. That is my challenge for these winter months ahead.
I would also like to continue to do some recording and hopefully guest on other bands projects if they need some harmonica tracks.
RS: Please comment on anything else that you would like, that I may not have asked about.
Steve V: Nothing other then to congratulate you on your H.O.F. award and to thank you for all you've done to promote blues music in our community and for providing me and others with an opportunity and vehicle to talk about the music we love.
RS: Where are you playing in the near future?
Steve V: My schedule varies and I also play with a couple other bands on any given weekend. I suggest that people check out my website at www.bluesonstage.com/stevev and click through to my calendar on MySpace to see where I'll be (www.myspace.com/boomboomstevev. Email: SteveV@bluesonstage.com).
I'm looking for a New Years Eve gig right now so if you know of anyone wanting to have a righteous blues party to bring in 2010 let me know - ha, ha.
More pictures of Steve V.
You can also order Steve's new CD at his website: www.bluesonstage.com/stevev