Interview – Blues in Britain – Issue 142 October 2013
KEY TO THE HIGHWAY
Saiichi Sugiyama: An Artist’s Profile
Guitarist and longtime Surrey resident, Saiichi Sugiyama is releasing a new album, on vinyl, this autumn. In August, shortly before a launch gig at Jagz in Ascot, Saiichi talked to Fran Leslie about the making of the album, his musical influences and his collaboration with lyricist and musician Pete Brown.
‘It has been a little while since I last produced my own studio albums. I was booked for one of the blues festivals, down south, and the promoter said, ‘We have got no video of you to put up on the web site.’ Nowadays, you must have a visual thing. I took that to heart and I went into the studio I had been using for years, called The Smokehouse, in Wapping. They had recently started doing a series called The Sun Biz Sessions for the News International which is literally next door. The Sun would bring in celebrities into the studio for the afternoon. They perform three songs, which are put on the paper’s web site. So the studio was now geared up for videos.’
‘I went in there with my live band for two days and whacked down the tracks, thinking it was just going to be a YouTube video session. Studio live video meant that we all played in the same room. Guitar amps could be isolated in booths and the bass went straight into the board, but the singer and the drummer had to be recorded in the same room. The drums are all over the vocal mic and we can’t turn up the vocals in the mix without the drums sounding weird, but when we finished mixing, the performance had a lot of energy and the tracks really felt like they could stand on their own. I passed them through a couple of friends who thought it was an album, so it is now coming out as an audio product as well.’
The tracks are a mixture of re-makes of previously recorded original songs and Cream/Blues Breakers covers.
‘I had been wanting to be true to my early influences; besides blues and rock, that was soul music – Atlantic, Stax and Motown. I loved all that stuff, and as I got more experienced in production, I began viewing the whole band as my instrument by arranging each instrument. I began evolving my band sound in that direction. I used to sing all my own songs, but my voice didn’t sound the way I wanted it to in that context. So, I made a big decision to assume more of a “Carlos Santana role” in my own band and work with female singers singing my materials. Now with the singers who can pull that soul stuff off working for me, the missing link has been found and my musical vision of “blues over the grooves” is finally getting fulfilled. That was the best decision that I made musically. These songs are now arranged and sang as they were meant to be. They have been given a new lease of life.’
The line up was subject to last minute changes, he says, ‘When I booked the video session, I had Dave ‘Munch’ Moore on the keyboard and Lizzie Hibbert who was singing with me for a while. They both resigned from the band, for one reason or the other.
We were left with Ben Reed, who has been playing the bass with me for close to nine years now, and I had my son, Mune Sugiyama, on the drums. I played the bass in his band Sour Orange a while ago and he now plays for me on and off. I had Rick Biddulph playing rhythm guitar for me. He is known as a bassist nowadays but he started as a guitarist. In the singing slot, I had Rietta Austin, who sang for me as a backing singer when I was doing my solo albums. When I started the project with female singers, she was in there from the start but she is much in demand, so Lizzie came in. Rietta is back now; she’s doing the launch gig and will be the main singer from now on. She is amazing.’
‘The album opens with a song called Is That You Baby? which I wrote with Pete Brown back in 2004. I was in a recording studio with him and one of the tracks I was recording was my version of “Rock Me Baby’. It really was a completely different tune but I was using the lyrics. I said to Pete ‘can we record this as original?’. I gave him the title plus a couple of lines that I had and he wrote the rest of it there and then in the studio. We recorded it a few hours later. He very seldom works like that but the lyrics came out great. That original version had a more blues rock feel to it. With my new band, I turned it upside down because I wanted it to be more “up”, so I gave it a groove similar to Hip City by Junior Walker and worked a treat. It’s a funk number now with a lot of energy.
The next number is Somewhere Down The Road, which I first recorded on my 1994 album. It’s been like a signature song for me over the years but the way I play it now is more funk – like a marriage between Superstition and Free. It reflects who I am musically pretty well.
What’s Going On is another old one. When I wrote it back in the early 90s, I had Never Loved A Man by Aretha Franklin in mind although the way I sang it was nothing near what I had intended. The way Rietta sings it now realises the potential of the song with big dynamics.
Then A Cellar Full of Noise which was the opening number from my album of 2004, called So Am I. Again it has been turned upside down; it is now a bit of Rolling Stones meets Motown with blues guitar on the top. That is where I am at musically.’
‘We also did three covers from the Blues Breakers/Cream canon. That mix comes from the origin of this project. The videos were to be a demo for blues festivals and one of the things one promoter said to me was, ‘You keep playing these original songs; we want you to play what people associate you with, playing a Les Paul in the style of early Clapton. If you want to come back and play this festival again, you’ve got to do a set of Blues Breakers and Cream and you can play another set of your own stuff after that.’ I thought about it for a while but the customer is always right so I’ll do that and I did a set of that at that particular festival. It worked really well with the audience and I thought “why not to stick to that formula?”
Looking back on his youth, Saiichi reflects on what influenced him. ‘60s/70s was a time when Japanese youth were open to American/British music. Now that the Japanese youth music has matured, they are looking to their own rock musicians and pop artists.
‘I grew up listening to the Beatles and Motown in the background. It was an international language really. When I was 12, I discovered a sort of Japanese acoustic rock band, called Garo; three men sounding like Crosby, Stills & Nash. They were the first act to be on Japanese television with fancy guitars, long hair and psychedelic clothing. Their music was quite different.
I started following them and through their influences I got to know the more hip British and West Coast music. I got friendly with one of the members, Tommy Hidaka. I got hold of tickets to see Neil Young at Budokan on his first Japanese tour in 76, which were hard to get, and he came with me; our friendship took off from there. He became my mentor. I would ask him about the Clapton tone, Paul Kossoff vibrato, CSNY tunings and so on. He was like my older brother.’
‘When I was buying my first electric guitar, Tommy chose a basic 1961 Gibson SG Junior for me over fancier brand new guitars. It sounded so much better. That’s how I got into vintage guitars.
He was the first person in Japan to own and play the Holy Grails, a 1958 Les Paul Sunburst and a 1954 Stat in 1972. These were great guitars with the real tones. I’d go to have my guitars set up and go to concerts with him and his brother. That was the education I had.
Before coming to the UK, Saiichi spent the summers of 1978 and 79 in San Francisco, where he soaked up the music of BB King, Howling Wolf, Muddy Waters, Albert King, Chuck Berry, Sam Cook, Smoky Robinson, Buddy Holly, Joe Walsh, Dave Mason, ZZ Top and Santana. He said, ‘I couldn’t see myself staying in Japan. I wanted to live in California and make a living from dealing vintage guitars while I played music. I came to the UK in 1980, originally for three weeks to check out where the Beatles came from. It became three months – and instead of moving to the sunny California, now I have been here thirty-three years. Eventually I went back to university to get a law degree. I couldn’t relate to the 80s electronic music and I got fascinated with the legal mind.’
Another highlight of Saiichi’s musical life has been working with lyricist and beat poet Pete Brown, whom he met by chance at a birthday party in 2002.
‘In my school days, I would buy Cream records and read about the poet Pete Brown and his lyrics in the Japanese liner notes. Having him writing with me has been a tremendous privilege,’ he recalls. ‘When I started writing and playing gigs regularly in the early ‘90s, the drummer Sam Kelly took me under his wing and introduced me to all sorts of people, as did the bass player Phil Williams. I cut my first album in 1993 with Phil, Mike Casswell and Justin Hildreth with a help from (George) ‘Zoot’ Money, who was brought in by my then-manager.
He also brought Boz Burrell (of Bad Company) to the album launch at The Paradise Bar in Kilburn and Boz ended up playing the bass for me for a while. We turned down some deals hoping for a bigger break which never came. I broke off with my manager and got on with law-mongering in the City for a while. After a quiet period in the late nineties, I was asked to give musical support to a young guitarist Andy Cortes by his stepfather when he was starting to go to jams.
Through him, I met people like Robin Bibi, drummer Darby Todd and bass player David Hadley Ray. I was just writing at the time and I had songs so I thought I had to get back into playing again and asked David and Darby, two of the best people I met, to play with me. Darby’s father brought in Vic Martin as a keyboard player; when he went away on tour with Gary Moore, David brought in Dave ‘Munch’ Moore on keyboards. At David’s wife’s birthday party at The Paradise Bar, I had my (Gibson) SG with me and got up and played. David was Pete Brown’s bass player and Pete was there. He came up to me afterwards and said, “It’s a shame you’re a lawyer!” I said, “I don’t have to be!”
Pete said he wanted to play with me and I was quite flattered. He started performing with me on percussion and vocals. I had a gig I was recording for a log. I was asked by a Japanese publisher to write an article on the Clapton guitar auction, which I had been involved. I said “Pete Brown is still playing and is doing great; this is what he sounds like”. They got very excited and asked could I have an interview with him and could they put out the recording that I had played to them on a Cream tribute album on their label? When I said that to Pete, he said the interview was fine but he didn’t want that recording to go out. He wanted to do it properly. So, the first recording that I did with Pete was to cover Cream songs with him. At that time, Malcolm Bruce was around, so he came in and played keyboards on the session. That was very close to Cream DNA; the Japanese record company was very pleased with it.
‘Then I said to Pete, “Would you look at my lyrics?” and he said, “Would you like me to write for you?” “Yes please that would be wonderful!” So he started writing with me. He liked (the music of) my songs. He co-produced my next album with me and brought in people like (Dave) ‘Clem’ Clempson. Zoot (Money) came back in on keyboards. I had an all-star cast.
We had Rietta Austin on backing vocals. Ben Matthews, guitarist from Thunder, engineered the session and he made a cameo appearance on a track.
Also, I bumped into one of my mentor’s band mates from Garo in Tokyo. He hadn’t recorded for fifteen years. I asked him if he would be on my album. I had a number that was a bit like David Crosby’s “Guinnevere” with harmony vocals, and he came in on it. Pete and I traveled to Tokyo, played a couple of gigs and then went into a studio with him. That was a full circle for me.
So that was the album “So Am I”, ten years ago. It was released in Japan. A compilation album of the Cream and Beatles tributes Pete and I did for the Japanese label and some new tracks came after that.
Why a vinyl release this time? Saiichi explains, ‘I don’t like the sound of CDs. We put out a couple of vinyl discs with Sour Orange and the vinyl had distinctively better harmonics and presence to my ears. So the release will be on 180gms vinyl pressed at the old EMI plant in Hayes. That is the way I want people to hear what we played in the studio. ’