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Steve 'West' Weston
Feb 2007. Interview Julien D'Imperio.
Photos by Rick Webb / Steve Sleddon / Andy Hall

At his regular gigs at Aint Nothing But, both with his own band and with Big Joe Louis, Steve Weston has got a pretty solid claim to being London's top harmonica man. His tone is extraordinary, as is his taste and style, and within his chosen field - old style Chicago/West Coast harp playing - he's right up there with anyone in the world today. Not only that, he can sing and front a band with some charisma...

Jules D'Imperio caught up with him for a chat...

When did you first hear the Blues?

The first blues record was bought by my father, on Woolworth (the American chain store) it was a compilation LP. I can remember it costing him 50p, it had Sonny Boy Williamson, Junior Wells, and Sam Myers on it, and was called This Is The Blues.

What age were you?

I was about 15.

So tell us about your band, West Weston and the Bluesonics.

The way it stands now, there’s obviously myself, Matt Radford on double bass, Chris Corchran on guitar who’s been with my for many years now (probably playing with us for the best part of seven years), and at the moment we’ve got a floating drummer situation so we’re using session drummers.

How long has the band been together?

I've had the band since 1995.

Tell us about your very first band experience.

My first band was called the Crawling Kingsnakes and I was in my early 20's, playing the same stuff, Chicago Blues; Little Walter, Sonny Boy, Muddy Waters. Before that it was a local band called the Screamin Abdabs which actually had Allison Moyer as a singer who, when she left and joined Yazoo I went from doing harmonica for them to doing singing and playing harmonica.

Tell us a bit more about your first experience with the harmonica, its discovery and how you found out this was what you really wanted to do…

Well I played the piano (from the age of about 7 actually). I sort of got the grip for playing basic boogie woogie. When I first heard that first record (This is The Blues) I loved the sound of the harmonica and I really wanted to learn it. So I asked my dad if he would buy me a harmonica and I figured that for playing Blues you'd probably need a chromatic harmonica (because with the button you'd be able to play all the notes). But I was wrong and wasted a good few years. It wasn't until I was 17 when the local music shop in their harmonica display case showed a model called the Blues harp. This was the first model they had with the word 'blues' on it so I bought one and that was it!

Your main home for the Blues in London is Ain’t Nothing But... which we all know. What do you make of the current Blues scene in the UK and more specifically London?

There are good Blues clubs dotted all over the country where I play from time to time. There is the South Lincoln Blues club, The Bottleneck Blues club in Kent. They are scattered throughout the country and promoters do a great job on keeping the music alive.

And within London?

For London I only play the one, which is really the only main one, Ain’t Nothing But, with as you know 7 nights a week…

What do you make of the British Blues genre according to your musical taste? Did it ever captivate you compared to the more traditional American approach?

If you are referring to the 60’s British Blues scene with people like John Mayall, we certainly did tend to have a different approach to Blues music and Rock N Roll. We always seemed to be more aggressive than the Americans and they more laid back. Of course John Mayall's Blues Breakers is its own thing, it's got its own place. I personally prefer the American feel, more laid back. Of course Fleetwood Mack were massive in America; they took the music back to them. So British Blues has got its place. I personally prefer the Chicago/ American style.

Did any of these British bands influence your approach as a performer?

When I grew up as a teenager in Canvey Island, we had Dr Feelgood with number 1 album. They were playing what would be called R&B coming out of the Pub Rock scene of the mid seventies. There again much louder and aggressive than the American style of Blues. I remember seeing Mickey Jupp, another piano player, big in the 70's, from the South End and when I saw him play the piano I knew I wanted to do that.

You don’t play piano at gigs?
No, Ain’t Nothing But is a small gig so I stopped using it in the band because I couldn’t physically fit it on the stage, as opposed to my harmonica. I prefer to be standing up playing harmonica and singing rather than sitting down playing piano.

Any plans to do any recording?

It's expensive to record well. I've recorded on and off, through the time with this band and have had some recordings on compilations come out. It's just something that is always in the pipeline that I need to find time to do and we definitely want to do it !

Now tell us about your harmonicas! It's kind of a business I gather. Some well established players continuously ask you for them. Do you plan on developing this activity?

We plan on getting a website next year. And expand. I have got plenty of customers; it's a word of mouth thing. Customers are usually pleased with the product I bring out so I've got enough work and think we will develop into a business.

I've tested them myself but for those who are not quite familiar with your 'custom harmonicas' can you tell us exactly what is it you do on them that makes them as good as they are?

Well the only model I do is the Diatonic Marine Band which is the one that classic Blues was played on - a wooden harmonica nailed together. But with a wooden comb you get swelling when it get's wet from moisture from playing. Also you can't service them: once you take it apart, it's never really air tight when you put it back together. So what I do is strip the whole thing down, seal the pear wood comb so it's fairly moisture resistant then it's drilled and screwed together so you can replace the reed plates, service it and it goes back to what it was when it was new…

And for a modest price of £35....

Yes, that’s what I charge at the moment.

How can we get a hold of one?

You just need to come to one of my gigs, or phone me up, contact me direct!!

Who are the harp players that most appeal to you?

Well from the States side, I think any harmonica player would agree we've got Kim Wilson who I think is the finest player in that traditional Chicago West Coast style as I think they call it. He probably is the finest. Everyone loves Rod Piazza... William Clarke... There’s a whole bunch of great players.

For those who may not know, anyone in particular who you would say defines the pure Chicago tradition?

I mean the best is always going to be the originals you know, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson, Walter Horton, George Smith. They influenced all the great players now.

Can you tell us briefly about your gear? What you have and currently use?

Like most harmonica players I use a bullet shaped microphone, originally designed for hand radios used in bus terminals for example. Harmonica players use them because they are very good for that distorted sound that the Chicago Blues is famous for. At the moment I'm using Green Bullet elements in various shells.

The element being the inside...?

Yes the part that makes the noise. It's a very reliable element: I used crystals for years and years but they started to let me down and I changed over to Green Bullets and I'm getting the hang of them now.

Amp wise?

I use a standard Bassman reissue 4 x 10 (4 ten inch speakers).

People are very critical when it comes to 'West Coast and Chicago' Blues bands, often immediately comparing them to the likes of Kim Wilson or Rod Piazza. Do you think this is a Blues genre worth preserving? In other words, where is the limit between someone doing their own songs and someone looking to imitate or recreate shall we say, the sound of this genre they love.

There's nothing wrong with being a covers band. We are all a covers band if we are doing old material. A lot of bands I hear or I go see play, copy these new wave American bands like Kim Wilson or Rod Piazza and almost copy them note for note. They've put a lot of work into doing that but it's not what the music was really about. Generally it's never more than 3 chords, and putting your own signature on those three chords is what the great players did. You can recognise B. B. King with a couple of notes, same with Little Walter or Sonny Boy. Just by hearing a few seconds of their music you know it's them. So it's nice to be able to sound just like them but it's not giving yourself your own voice. You should think about doing your own thing. That’s the way forward!