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Honkeyfinger headline
Dec 2006. Interview by Rick Webb. Photos by Andy Hall

Whenever we do one of these interviews, I like to introduce the subject with a pithy breakdown of who they are and where they're at. Reading the Biography on Honkeyfingers own website though, I realised that the man himself has summed it up more succinctly than I ever could:

"Welcome to the primal, pounding, one man skronk blues mayhem of Honkeyfinger. Where screaming lapsteel, spasmic harmonica riffing, and crazed beastial howling are the vital ingredients of this sonic blues cocktail.

Riding the freak rock legacy of Beefheart, Blue Cheer, ZZTop, Black Sabbath and The Butthole Surfers, Honkeyfinger boils it back down to the bare bones of the country blues - only to soup it back up to one fat drooling slab of heaviosity."

Er... quite. Not your usual lap steel player then, as anyone who's seen one of his perfomances will agree. We caught up with him before a gig at the Spitz with similarly punk one man bander Scott H. Biram...

So how did you evolve this style of music you're playing now?

Well as a kid in the 80s I wasn't listening to any 80s music at all - I despised it, but at the point where people like The Specials and The Jam finished it was like I started going deeper into investigating music in a more analogue way, as opposed to what was available at the time. The whole mod thing - The Jam, Small Faces, The Who, The Rolling Stones was the music I was then getting into and from that I began to understand that there was a whole other world - the moment of realisation was hearing something like 'I Just Wanna Make Love To You' by the Stones, realising that was coming from somewhere else - that the first couple of Stones albums were coming from this whole other universe, and I went back to explore that. At that point the harmonica just drew me in! That was a fascinating instrument and I thought "Yeah, I can try that!" I had no musical background whatsoever but I just saw that kind of energy the stone had... So I got a harmonica and learnt to play with the Tony Glover 'Bluesharp' book, which was Brilliant!

That's how I started too! I loved that book...

Yeah, all that hep cat speak, and he takes you back to Sonny Boy Williamson, Sonny Terry and all those sort of people. So at that point I'm still a teenager and still at the point where I just want to be in a band of some sort - to find a way of expression myself and breaking out of the tiny middle of no-where tiny village in the east midlands where I grew up. I had a friend who played the drums a bit, but I couldn't figure out how you get the harmonica in a band, unless you do a straight RnB band, and then you have to get a guitarist who can play blues, and a bass player, and the whole band thing, which at that stage was quite difficult to come by - most of the people playing guitar were into AC/DC, Black Sabbeth etc, which now would be much more relevant for me but back at that time I was much more into the pure R&B sort of approach.

So I learnt to play bass. I knew people who played guitar, and drums, but I didn't know any bass players - I figured it would be easier than learning chords and stuff, just playing one note! So I started learning bass, and that's what I did for the next 10 years or so. I played in lots of bands all the time.

The first time I saw you play was with the Lucci Daddo Fuzz Orchestra back in the 'Come Dancing' (mid 90s South London club night) days, playing to a packed house of saucer eyed clubbers. How would you describe that band?

Well it was taking the whole rare groove thing - the more guitar orientated side of that Mother Earth, retro funk thing... Some of that Hendrix/Chambers Brothers late 60s stuff that got funky and started to move in a more sort of beat driven area. But by then Jon Spencer was also doing his thing, which also had a soul/hip hop version of guitar based music... So Lucci Dado become sort of Booker T & The MGs but with guitars, and with a more Jon Spencer sort of punky attitude, and that moved into a more vocal version which became my next band Schwab, and then about a year ago I started doing this solo thing.

So how did it come about?

Well, I'd been doing a sort of old school 50s lounge/burlesque music, and doing that led me to the lap steel. I started putting that through fuzz pedals and stuff and straight away I was able to get a good dirgey blues sound that I really liked. Having been into the sort of MC5, Stooges, Sabbeth, Blue Cheer big heavy late 60s early 70s rock bands that were directly influenced by the blues, suddenly I found I was getting those sort of sounds. I was always interested in the Albert Ayler free jazz thing and that came into it as well.

A while back I managed to blag a gig supporting Zodiac Mindwarp at 333 (nightclub in Shoreditch) and I had this idea that I could do a really stripped back blues thing with bontempi beats - a really simple pre-set beat and then putting a guitar and harmonica over that. I think I called it the Lubricated Monkey Acid Blues Experiment or something!

I was playing very basic guitar, and harmonica, and my girlfriend and another girl playing bongos, and another friend just playing feedback, and we pretty much got bottled off stage! But from that, I realised that I could do it on my own and the idea was appealing - that I could control what it sounded like and that it didn't actually have to be that complex.

At the time the White Stripes were doing their stripped back blues rock and, probably more importantly for me, seeing bands like the Immortal Lee County Killers (read our interview with them here) , Soledad Brothers, and Bob Log for the first time in the UK, thanks to Rupert (Orton, organiser of Not The Same Old Blues Crap) made me think that there was something going on.

So I started recording on my own, largely as a way of demoing my ideas for the band, but the demos themselves were sort of standing up on their own, with their own sound. It was a very primitive blues sound, going back to the old country blues - the origins of what the Rolling Stones were taking from and marrying that with a really big late 60s and 70s rock sound.

But learning how to play it live was a whole other thing! I had a couple of demo tracks and I'd even made a video with a couple of friends, and having come to all the Not The Same Old Blues Crap gigs I'd got to know Rupert a bit and he gave me a gig, about a year ago, supporting DM Bob and Country Jem. My debut though was on the Joe Cushley Balling The Jack radio show on Resonance FM.

I'd said to Rupert I'd do the gig, but really I only had these recordings and not much of an idea how exactly I'd do them live. So in the space of about 5 days I intensely learnt how to play as a one man band, but about half way through and Rupert called me and asked if I wanted to do the radio show to plug the gig. I was in a mild state of panic at this point, but I managed not to betray that on the phone and I assumed it was just to do a interview, but Rupert said "No, come on and do some songs - 3 or 4 songs!"

Literally, those songs I played on that session were the first songs I learnt, and the only ones I could play at that time! But it worked out great, and was really invigorating.

So do you consider what you do to be 'The Blues'?

Well, it's got a bit of blues in it, but I think the whole terminology of 'What is Blues?" is so heavily loaded that it becomes a flawed term... The popular understanding of 'Blues' is fat white accountants playing banal guitar solos over budweiser commercials - it makes you think of Patrick Swayzee! But if you take it back to it's original essence - picking up an instrument and finding your own way of playing it - that for me is the spirit of the blues.

So would you say that there is a scene emerging, of which what you're doing is characteristic?

Well I think so, yeah. There's a definite trend towards people that have been in garage bands or rock bands seeing that there's a lot you can do with a more primitive approach. Something comes out of playing in a very naive sort of way. It a bit like the free jazz thing I was talking about - what's appealing is the fact that it sounds like just a complete and utter noise, and that out of that comes a purer form of expression. It's kind of the Beefhart approach - it's blues, but not as we know it. I think the interest is in not so much the technicality but in the freedom of the playing, and in being open to pushing the form in every which we you can.

And do you see this happening elsewhere?

It seems so yes, there are people doing this kind of blues all over - in the UK and worldwide. The Whole myspace thing has made a difference. You become friends with someone like Scott Biram and suddenly you're being contacted by loads of Fat Possum guys, and you look on each others profiles. It opens up your network and straight away locate the people in your niche.

There seems to be a lot of one man bands going on, as if everyone's suddenly realised that running a band is a pain in the arse!

Well I've really discovered the thrill of doing it! There's a freedom to it which I realised as was doing those first gigs when I realised I can change things as I go along - I can speed songs up, or slow them down, put new things in, and not have to look at a moody drummer because he lost his beat 5 bars ago! It's just you, and that's a very free thing to do, which opens up more creative outcomes.

The other thing is playing beyond your ability - going just a bit further than what you think you can achieve 'properly'. I think that's the problem with a lot of blues music of the 70s and 80s, it was just too much the preserve of the people who could play their instruments really well. But getting some people who've got some great ideas and some energy and just doing it raw is much more going back to the spirit of that early country blues - picking up and instrument and coming up with something new.

More info and an outstanding video on Honkeyfinger's website:

Location Emily Chalmers at Caravan

Our October 2007 review of a Honkeyfinger gig here