Interview with Neil Minet: It’s just a problem to be solved: Video

- in BLUES, INTERVIEWS, VIDEOS

Interview with blues guitarist and singer Neil Minet. An interview by email in writing.

JazzBluesNews.com: – When you improvise, you know where you’re going. It’s a matter of taking certain paths and certain directions?

Neil Minet: – That’s a great question, and a bit tricky to answer; yes and no. Sometimes I have a very specific solos rehearsed, and I play it that way every gig, but for other songs my solo will be different each night. In those cases I usually have a general idea what I want to say, and a few licks I know will work well, but it depends a lot on everything going on in the  moment: the energy of the crowd, the feel of the room, the tone of my guitar, and even the vibe between the guys in the band. If everyone is feeling subdued, that naturally calms me down, but if everyone is really feeling it, I feed off of that. Once I’m into a solo though, whatever the vibe, it’s absolutely about finding the best path I can take to tell the most coherent story. I get lost in a trance while I’m play so I’m often not even fully aware where my fingers are going. I’m usually only thinking about the emotions I’m trying to convey and what’s worked well in the past. I’m not all that eloquent with words, but I have a number of emotions I need to express. The only way I’m truly able to do that is to speak through my guitar.

JBN: – Do you ever get the feeling that music majors, and particularly people who are going into jazz, are being cranked out much like business majors? That they are not really able to express themselves as jazz musicians?

NM: – I think the outcome is totally dependent on the person. I should say that I haven’t had a great deal of formal music training, nor am I studying music in college, so I can’t speak from personal experience, but I think it can go both ways though. I imagine some musicians who go to school for music really benefit from it. It fits with who they are and what they want to learn so it allows them to express themselves even better. For others though I think an intensive program can be suffocating. I think it can force some students to either “get through,” either when their level of interest or style of learning doesn’t match their program, or it might teach material that doesn’t really resonate with someone. In either case I think it’s possible that this can cause a musician to lose the spark that brought them to music in the first place.

I’m almost certain this would’ve been the case for me. There are some days I can’t help but practice for hours, staying up till the wee hours of the morning, but there are other times when I don’t touch my guitar for days on end. I don’t think this is a problem at all, but it probably would’ve caused me to flunk out of a music program. Also, I have yet to find a program that teaches the music I want to learn. If there were a course on Stax/Muscle Shoals horn arrangements I’d absolutely take it, but I haven’t seen one yet.

JBN: – What about somebody who is really gifted and puts together a band and just gets upset to the point of quitting because of the business aspects-the agents and the clubs?

NM: – I would absolutely understand. It’s not like you get hired once and then you have a steady job, you continually have to get hired over and over again. But at the end of the day, that’s the nature of the music business. It would be nice if it were easier, but for me, I absolutely love performing so the rest is all worth it. Plus, I like getting on the phone, meeting new people, building relationships; the business side of things that satisfies the half of me with a Type A personality.

JBN: – How do you prevent disparate influences from coloring what you’re doing?

NM: – I think this was a bit more difficult when I was first starting out. I like to think that I have a better grip on what I’m doing now though. It’s important to have a bunch of different tools, but that doesn’t mean you need to use them all at once. It’s more about knowing when to use the right ones. In my playing for instance, if I think a tune might benefit from a little Latin influence, I’ll absolutely throw some in there. Yet to play something just to show that you know it is no good at all (although I’ve certainly been guilty of that before). At the end of the day it’s all about the song. It’s about making each song the best it can be. I think as a whole this is what it means to be musician; it’s a continual process of learning to play for the benefit of the song. I, for one, certainly have a lot more to learn to further that end!

JBN: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?

NM: – This is something I’m still learning myself. I think as artists we have the opportunity to make observations about the word and tell stories without the burden of needing to represent a particular view or standpoint. That’s a pretty big canvas to work on and there’s lots than can be said. However, simple is always better. I think you can say a lot more with a simple message that really resonates with people than saying something super witty and intellectual. It’ll stick if they feel it. I think I’ve learned a lot more about the world listening Van Morrison sing some non-words with a whole lot of soul than from anything I’ve read in a textbook.

JBN: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; you’re okay with giving the people what they want?

NM: – Absolutely! There’s nothing like the thrill of playing in front of a live audience. I feed off their energy and I hope they feel the same. It’s definitely possible for someone to take their desire to please their audience too far, but for me, I just love what I do and I love to share it with anyone else who enjoys it too. I’m first and foremost a music listener so I understand both sides of the relationship. I don’t know what I’d do if I couldn’t go see live music. I know a lot of other people feel the same way so I’m just happy I can contribute to the whole music project.

JBN: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, opening acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

NM: – Absolutely! One that I’ll never forget is from a number of years back at one of early gigs. Just as I’d just counted in a slow blues, one wonderfully intoxicated patron came up onto the stage shouted in my ear “Know Any Zappa?” before walking out the door. At the time it was floored, but now I think it’s hilarious; you can’t make that stuff up!

Aside from that, making the album was a particularly memorable experience as a whole. We were tight on time in the studio so we mostly tracked the whole thing in two marathon sessions, the first was something like 18 hours and the second was a straight 24 hours. By the end of each day Shane Patterson and I, the bass player in the band and my right-hand man, were absolutely delirious. It was a blast though; I wouldn’t have traded it for anything.

Also, for the tune we featured Morris Tarbell on (the other guitarist in our group), we must’ve had the fastest tracking session in history. I remember he rolled up to the studio after work, plugged in his amp, tuned his guitar, did one take, killed it, and then packed up and headed out. I don’t think he was in the studio for more than 30 minutes. I was blown away; he’s a true professional.

This summer Shane and I made a few trips to New York City too, playing at a club called Paris Blues up in Harlem. The logistics were a nightmare, the club was tiny, the place was hot, but it was an absolute blast! I can’t wait to do it again!

JBN: – How can we get young people interested in blues when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?

NM: – I’m not exactly sure. I’ve thought a lot about this. A big hero of mine, Sean Costello, was asked the same question in an interview he did with Blues Review back in 2000. His thought was that a lot of young people just haven’t been exposed to a lot of the great old blues, soul, and R&B material. He felt that if young people were to just to hear it, they’d like it. I feel the same way for the most part. It’s timeless music and there’s not much of a barrier to entry to enjoy it, but maybe that’s just me.

As with anything though, I think culture has a lot to do with it. I love the culture that the blues comes from so the music is a natural extension for me. Growing up I never quite had a place to fit in so the music and the culture of the blues were an escape, a way to forget I was just some dopey kid. However for young people that enjoy the youthful culture they’re a part of, I think the blues and its culture can be pretty foreign. For some of these people, they may never come to enjoy this music but that’s completely all right. It’s only music, there’s no right or wrong about it.

JBN: – How important is it to you to have an original approach? Can you comment on the bridge between being a musician and being a composer?

NM: – For me, being a composer is still a skill I’m developing. For most of my career I’ve focused almost entirely on honing my craft as a performer, learning with songs that have already been written. I’d certainly like to have my own distinct sound at some point, and I think it’s slowly starting to develop as I mature as a musician, but it’s not something I’m overly anxious about. I feel like once I’ve written enough songs to be able throw out all the bad ones, my own sound will naturally become clear. As for now though I’m focusing on putting on the best shows I can and learning to become a better writer.

JBN: – Do you have an idea of what it is you’re trying to say or get across? Is it an idea or is it just something that we feel?

NM: – Right now, my goal is to just make music that grooves and conveys emotion. I want to make people dance, feel sorrow, feel relief, and anything that will allow people to experience all those emotions that we usually have to pack away day to day. Life’s hard, and when I’m in the audience I want something that takes me out of that difficultly and lets me feel what it means to be human. So, that’s what I hope to do as a performer too. In time, there are topics that I would like to address with my songs: inequality, climate change, poverty, but these are weighty issues. If they’re not done right I think they can sound really immature.

Recently I discovered the Alan Lomax archives. One of his recordings that really caught my ear was that of the chain gangs on Parchment Farm in the late 1940s (The Mississippi State Penitentiary). Those chants are raw. You can hear the pain in their voices. They’re singing about more than being in prison, they’re singing about a society that’s failed them. Things have improved since then, but many of the same problems still exist today. I believe music with that kind of emotion can really change the world. Look at the civil rights movement; “A Change Is Gonna Come.” I hope I’m able to be a part of that progress one day too.

JBN: – What do you see for your extended future? You know what you have going on? You have life? If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

NM: – I don’t have an exact path forward, but I know music is absolutely what I want to spend my life doing. I lead my own group, Neil Minet & the Night Flyers, and I’m also a member of the Carolyn Kelly Blues Band, both of which are incredible opportunities, but I have a lot of work to do before music can become my full-time job. I’ll be graduating from college this coming May so my plan after that is to take a decent enough job, but one that will allow me to keep honing my craft. Then, when the times comes to set out on my own, I’m going to take it.

It’d be nice if a career in music had more stability and paid a decent amount, but that’s the nature of the beast. In the past, I’ve found myself in other situations where I’ve said something along the lines of “I’d like this job, if only this one thing…” but in time I realized that was because I didn’t actually love the work. With the music though, I’ve never once found myself wanting a certain aspect of it to be different. Not that it’s perfect, far from it, but rather because this is what I love to; the nature of the business is beside the point. It’s a matter of “how do I survive?”, “how do I make it so I can do what I love?” After that, it’s just a problem to be solved.

JBN: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?

NM: – Oh man, this is a tough one to answer, namely because it changes all the time. However, John Németh is a regular in my ear buds. That dude can sing, and his band absolutely grooves! He’s a wonderful guy too. He’s very supportive of my career and I’ve had the chance to sit in with him a few times. Chris Stapleton is also someone who I’ve really gotten into recently. I’m not usually a fan of country music, but his songs are masterpieces and his vocals are golden. Not to mention that his band is incredible; they manage to say so much with so few notes.

In addition to that, I’ve been getting into some of the old Stax recording artists like Wilson Pickett, Sam & Dave, and so on. J.J. Cale is also someone who’s given me a new perspective on music. Not only are his songs so unique and raw, but the way he lived his life is a lesson in humility. Of course a bit of The Band and the Allman Brothers Band is good to get back to, and Ronnie Earl is by far my biggest guitar influence so I always return to him before too long as well. Out of Syracuse specifically, I can’t get enough of the Kingsnakes, Built for Comfort, and Los Blancos. All of those groups are top shelf. Both Pete McMahon, Matt Tarbell, and Colin Aberdeen all have incredible voices, not to mention excellent song selections, and the bands just plain know how to groove. Paul LaRonde, Steve Winston, and Mark Tiffault have been a big influence in showing me what it means to be a rhythm section too.

JBN: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go?

NM: – To be honest, I think I’m pretty happy living in the present. But if you really push me for answer I would’ve loved to have been around in the 50s, 60s, and 70s to see so many of the great acts of that time. To have been able to see Muddy Waters live in Chicago, or The Allman Brothers Band live at the Fillmore East (I get chills just thinking about that one), or even sat in on the some of the Muscle Shoals sessions…man that would’ve been something!

I would’ve liked to have seen the music scene in Syracuse during the 80s when it was really hoping too. Seeing the Kingsnakes or Build for Comfort live would’ve been a kick, or even some of the big-name acts when they passed through town. Syracuse used to be a regular stop for some of the national touring blues guys when they made their Chicago to NYC runs. That would’ve been a great time to be around!

JBN: – I have been asking you so far, now may I have a question from yourself…

NM: – Of course! After interviewing so many musicians, what personal qualities or outlooks on music do you think helps make a musician both happy and successful?

JBN: – Thanks for answers. The intellect !!!

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

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