Interview – Blues in Britain – Issue 183 March 2017

KEY TO THE HIGHWAY: Saiichi Sugiyama

With a new single, an album on its way and a tour of the UK schedules to start this month Saiichi Sugiyama has a hectic schedule but Blues in Britain caught up with him at home recently.

Q/ SO, the last time that I saw you play was at the British Blues Exhibition at Proud Camden with your band backing Pete Brown last year. Your Wikipedia entry says that you were best known for your collaboration with the Cream lyricist extraordinaire. You have worked with Pete for sometime.

A/ Yes, I worked quite closely with him in the early 2000s, initially on stage, then as co-writers. He produced my album “So Am I” in 2003 among others and we toured Japan together afterwards. I self-produced our last album, “the Smokehouse Sessions”(2013) which was a snapshot of my band at the time recorded “live in studio” on cameras. With the next studio album, my son Mune Sugiyama has taken over the production but Pete has written some lyrics for us, for which we are most grateful. Pete and I are discussing another collaboration gig sometime this year.

Q/ Then you invited me to come to see you at your gig supporting Terry Wilson Slesser playing tribute to Paul Kossoff at the Water Rats in Kings Cross. I couldn’t make it but how did that come about?

A/ Terry of course was Paul Kosoff’s singer in Back Street Crawler, his tragic post -Free band. I listened to the Koss’ solo LPs a huge deal back in the 70s when I was 16, 17. They were a formative influence on me. I met Terry and John Buckton, the carbon copy Paul Kossoff tribute guitarist up North, when I played Bill Flynn’s Annual Free Convention in 2015. John was booking gigs and I wasted no time asking them if I can support them. Terry is an excellent singer and I never expected to be hearing these BCR songs played live. They do them so well.

At the Free convention, we backed Chris Spedding and Snips playing Sharks songs, too. Andy Fraser was in that band…

Q/Ah, of course. Your Andy Fraser connection. How did that happen then?

I came in contact with Andy through his UK PR person who also represented me at the time.  Andy had heard my music through him and kindly said he would play the bass on my tracks and would like to produce my music.  We met at a restaurant in South Kensington when he came to visit London for promotion of his Rock Against Trafficking charity. When we sat at the table, he showed me his latest music videos on his iPad. I told him that I had a song that I would really like him to play on, but I wasn’t sure if he would like to because it sounded a little bit like his old band.  I knew that Andy was trying to get away from blues rock of the Free era for years. I passed on my iPod with the song. Andy sat there listening the entire track – the six minutes of it. When he got to the end, he said “I will, but I will put a new spin on it”. I pushed the boat out further and said to him “I wonder if you noticed there was a section for a bass solo”. He said “Yeah. It will be a challenge.”

Andy went back to California with the multi track file of the song. A couple of weeks later, he sent me the track with his bass part as well as a synth part and his screams. I just beamed with a smile when I heard what he send me – the bass line could not be anyone else’s but Andy’s but, as he had said, updated. He also put some effects on the track and told me that he wanted the track to have more depth, which somehow made me hear string quartet parts to work with Andy’s bass parts on the long instrumental section. We recorded the parts with a quartet and I was anxious to hear what Andy thought of it. Then the next thing that I heard was that he passed away.

Q/ That was very sad. It had to happen only when he started to play live again.

A/ Yes, it was devastating.

Q/ Trev Turley reviewed the single in Blues in Britain and commented that it was “epic” which was a word he said he didn’t use lightly. It was interesting to have a string section with Free-style blues rock.

A/ It wasn’t that I had classical training, but I had a sort beginner’s luck. I was working with the musical director of Jack Ashford’s Funk Brothers, John Shipley based in the US for string parts on my other songs to go on the album. I asked him to write parts but on this occasion, what he sent me was not what I had in mind. I wanted to explain to him my ideas. So, I went to a Maplin and bought a MIDI keyboard and found a violin sound in a Pro Tools plug-in. I had never played strings parts in my life, but I just had a go and laid down three parts demo, just improvising. It came out as a sort of a violin playing a lead guitar parts. When I sent that to John as a sample for the feel I was after, he said that what I wrote were the parts and he just sent me transcriptions. Mune, who has a classical background, then wrote the main string arrangements for the body of the song with his signature pizzicato, glissando etc. After we recorded his parts, this time with nine string players, Mune went into hiding into the studio for weeks and came out with his wall of sound production. The song was transformed from a blues rock band playing live in a room via a string quartet super-imposed finally to a full orchestral tour de force number. In the process, the track realised Andy’s early vision – the spaciousness, the depth, that he said he wanted to hear in this song. I hope he would approve of what we did.

Q/ These are all your classic rock associations, and you are playing at Planet Rock’s Winter’s End in Poole on 26 February. Now that is a proper rock festival with the Answer and Inglorious headlining the bill, which reinforces your rock connections. Are you really a rock musician rather than a blues musician?

A/ Well, I also supported Kirk Fletcher on the last couple of tours of his and they were definitely blues gigs. – the Borderline, the Cluny, your Haven Club etc. Still…

All I can say is that having been born in 1960, I lived through the time, like you and many of the kind people who come to my gigs, when there was just “rock”. The halcyon days of music, 1965-1974, when blues bands were in the pop chart and all you needed was love. When I was four or five, I was inexplicably obsessed with the song “When the Saints Go Marching In”. The first song that I “wrote” when I was 7 or 8 was a twelve bar blues. I discovered Wolf’s London Sessions and the Beano album, then BB’s “Jungle” and Junior’s “Hoodoo Man” Finding blues music was like coming back to a home that I had never been in. That’s how I learn to play the lead guitar and I am a blues guitarist, but no, Saiichi Sugiyama Band is not in my definition a blues band. Blues is an art form that needs to respected and I feel that strictly speaking, only those who were born in the first generation in the US can play it authentically. My writing draws from all other rock and soul stuff that was going on around me in that period. The Beatles, Classic Soul from Motown and Muscle Shoals, the London underground rock scene bands like Cream, Hendrix and Free; CSNY from Laurel Canyon; Dave Mason, Joe Walsh – they all left marks on my music. I like music with heart and soul. I will go and play wherever there are people who like my type of music – whether they are on the blues circuit or not. Blues is not a religion for me and labels mean little. I don’t need the uniform of hats, beard, long hair and neo-hippy fashion that young people wear so as to identify with yesterday’s heroes. I’ve done that in the 70s in my teens. At this stage in my life, the music is the only thing that matters.

Q/ So you are touring in March/April with a new single.

A/ Yes. We are releasing a new single – “Somewhere Down the Road (2017 Remix)” produced by Mune. This song has been with me since my first album (1994). The version that he worked from was the 2013 studio-live track on the Smokehouse Sessions. None of us were happy with that 2013 version because of the natural limitations of a studio live track. So we put new clean vocals on and Mune wrote new guitar parts, got Munch to add Hammond and overdubbed an old Moog Prodigy synthesiser himself giving it a sort of 70s Bernie Worrell vibe.

He then mixed the track with the multi-Grammy award winning New York engineer, Kirk Yano. He is a heavy weight with engineering credits like Miles Davis’s last LP, Public Enemy, Mariah Carey and Tedeschi Trucks Band. I am really happy with the finished product. The official release date is 24 February. My wonderful radio promotion person, Mr Steve Dinwoodie, has always said that the song should have been exposed more and this is the chance!

Q/ So when your next album going to be released?

A/ We are going to take as long as it is necessary. We have had some amazing sessions. “It’s Up to You” was recorded live in studio 1 at RAK in West London with Lizzie Hibbert on vocals, me on electric guitar, Ben on bass, Mune on drums, Munch on acoustic piano, 9 piece string section, 4 piece horn section, 3 LCGC singer BV section, oboe, glockenspiel and Mr Leon Mead on tambourine. The proceedings were videoed HD as a single continuous cut. It may well end up being the lead single. We are building the album like a jewel box of 11 songs with harmonies and melodies. We are definitely not going to rush it. I guess it will come out sometime this year.

Q/ You have a 12 date spring tour. Who are in the band this time?

A/ On lead vocals, we will have Rietta on 7 dates (15, 16, 17, 30 March 21, 22. 29 April) and Monica George from the London Community Gospel Choir on 5 dates. (2, 18, 23, 24, 26 March) Rietta is fantastic but Monica is amazing, too. She has done some pretty heavy weight gigs – I spotted Monica on TV backing Nile Rodgers and Pharrel Williams. We will have Sam Grimley joining us on keys and the amazing Stuart Dixon will play rhythm guitar on most of the gigs. Mune on the drums and Ben Reed (freshly back from recording for Frank Ocean in LA) on the bass – a luxurious six piece. So it will be a pretty strong band with musicians that I admire greatly. I am really looking forward to the tour!!

Penny Lee