July 19, 2024

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Interview with Rick Watson: When I’m thinking too much, I am rarely grooving: Videos, new CD cover

Interview with Blues bassist and bandleader of Hog Branch, Rick Watson. An interview by email in writing. 

JazzBluesNews.com: – First, let’s start out with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music. How exactly did your adventure take off? When did you realize that this was a passion you could make a living out of?

 When did you realize that this was a passion you could make a living out of? 

Rick Watson: – I was raised in rural Louisiana on my grandfather’s farm which was bordered on the west by a creek called Hog Branch (for which my band is named). Just across that creek stood Shiloh Church, where my Momma played piano from the age of 13. She loved playing gospel music, and she also truly loved Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, and of course Elvis — so music was always a big part of our lives. She placed me in guitar lessons at age 7 and piano lessons soon after. My sister Lisa and I wrote songs and performed variety shows and plays for our friends, and then when I was 15 I met a friend named Lonnie Gautreau who played 12-string guitar and wrote and sang beautiful songs. He convinced me to buy my first bass (a Japanese Pbass copy that I still own), and bass just felt right for me from that day. My first pro gig was with a band called Kasino with high school friends and my future brother-in-law. And I’ve been in bands, or writing and performing, ever since. And I look forward to making a really decent living at it before I die! Haha!

I must mention the Baton Rouge-area bluesmen from my college years. Tabby Thomas, father of Chris Thomas (King), owned Tabby’s Blues Box and provided a real blues education for a lot of us who were raised on gospel and country and cajun and rock music. It was exhilarating and a real institution. It featured players like Silas Hogan and Raful Neal – and later his son Kenny Neal – who taught us a ton. I even had my bachelor party at Tabby’s!

JBN: – How has your sound evolved over time? What have you been doing to find and develop your own sound?

RW: – So much of bass is about tone and space, but when I started out I just wanted to be heard, which meant lots of notes and all of them loud and not with great tone either. Later I started studying upright bass and getting some real technical instruction, and I began to understand tone and intention and space more.

Recording is always a humbling teacher too. I learned that when you listen back, you can actually hear fear and doubt on tape, and that was painful. But it also taught me that you can likewise transfer other emotions to recordings: joy, desire, sadness, praise!

JBN: – What routine practices or exercises have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical proficiency, in terms of both rhythm and harmony?

RW: – Frankly, the most important thing I do is surround myself with musicians who are good people but also better musicians than me, who challenge me in a respectful way to stretch and grow musically and creatively and to listen better. I tend to naturally play a bit behind the beat, perhaps because of my South Louisiana roots, but practicing with a metronome is critical to keeping me flexible for different styles and gigs. Lately I’ve been working daily with clave apps to improve my pulse and syncopation and expand my groove vocabulary.

JBN: – Have you changed through the years? Any charges or overall evolution? And if so why?

RW: – I’ve played a supportive role most of my career, performing and promoting other people’s music. When my mother passed away, I was on tour with a band I loved but that loss really signaled a change in me. I wanted to honor her, play some of the music she loved along with my originals, and try my hand at leading a band. It has been a real education for me. Fortunately, I found the right players to support me in Hog Branch.

JBN: – How do you prepare for your recordings and performances to help you maintain both spiritual and musical stamina?

RW: – I’m a big believer in meditation and its power to help provide focus. And even though I’m an older cat now, I still try to think of my Momma and the joy she always played with before each of my performances. Every chance to play music is a gift, and I try never to take it for granted.

JBN: – What do you love most about your new album 2022: Hog Branch, how it was formed and what you are working on today.

RW: – I’m stoked that the range of emotions within the songs really shows up on Hog Branch, our self-titled album. More than technical prowess, the band captures the spirit and story of the songs, and our engineer Matt Parmenter from Ice Cream Factory Studio in Austin did a great job facilitating that, along with Tim Gerron, our mastering engineer. One of my favorite tracks is the John Scofield tune Hottentot. Sound engineer Nick Lewis, who’s a killer bassist in Austin, took the liberty of recording a show. We were unaware of the recording but really thrilled when we listened back because we had played so freely and without any pressure, and Nick really captured our live sound with a very limited setup. The band has recently started writing for our next album.

New CD – 2022 – Buy from here

Hog Branch – Hog Branch | Album Review – Blues Blast Magazine

JBN: – How did you select the musicians who play on the album?

RW: – Saxophonist Will Daniel is like family to me. We’ve toured all over for years in multiple projects. He also owns Blue Vada Records, the label that released our album. Check out his band Willie D and The Hip Pockets! I’d also worked in other projects with drummer Michael Bahan, and we already had a strong connection as a rhythm section. Dave Aaronoff, who plays keys on this record, leads his own band The Hens from guitar (for which I’d subbed on upright bass from time to time), and he fit right into the fold. Matt Schmidt filled in last-minute for an early gig, and we all knew immediately that his fit was perfect. We supported each other throughout the pandemic by playing many, many livestream shows while working on the record. All the guys sing in this project too.

JBN: – In your opinion, what’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?

RW: – I can’t pretend to be the most musically educated musician you’ll meet, but I can offer my own take on what works best for me. When I’m thinking too much, I am rarely grooving. The intellectual work, for me, needs to happen in daily study and practice, and I also need to take the time to prepare myself emotionally for each performance too so that I can channel the music. Then I can play freely and listen clearly and respond musically on stage and on recordings.

JBN: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; are you okay with delivering people the emotion they long for?

RW: – This is the most thrilling and challenging aspect of being a bandleader, and I honestly am still learning and growing, which is a great place to be at my age. Fortunately, this band functions as an ensemble, with all of us sharing front- person duties and lead vocals, and the other guys, particularly Will Daniel, are very experienced and open and able to strongly connect with the audience on an emotional level. I’m getting there.

JBN: – Can you share any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions over the years?

RW: – One of my best friends in Austin is bluesman John Gaar, an incredible singer and musician from my neck of the woods in Louisiana but now who lives just a few blocks from me in Austin. When he discovered our similar paths, John asked me to write with him, and it was really an honor to co-write seven songs on his album Roll Like That. The single of the same name won Video of the Year at the Independent Music Awards. Check out John Gaar! Another great memory is playing in Houston and in walks Billy F. Gibbons from ZZ Top, and he played drums during sound check. That was a fun night!

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

RW: – Tell them it’s off-limits, and then they’ll sneak to listen to it. Haha! Seriously though, I think keeping music education alive in schools is of vital importance, no doubt, but keeping it alive in families is also critical. It’s got to be a living art and interaction, not a museum piece. I was lucky enough to grow up in rural Louisiana where the culture supported all-age jams and bands, and family gatherings always included live music. Instruments were readily available. Of course, in my teens I rebelled against traditional music and tried other styles, but the gyre keeps turning and like most musicians I returned to my roots with fresh ears and new appreciation.

JBN: – John Coltrane once said that music was his How do you perceive the spirit and the meaning of life?

RW: – I can barely begin to imagine what Coltrane’s higher power and spirit must have felt like. He had such incredible facility and access and creativity. In my own way, I find peace and purpose and rejuvenation when I’m playing, especially when improvising, and I’m reconnected in a spiritual way to that little church where my Momma played piano and where my family rests.

JBN: – If you could change one single thing in the musical world and that would become reality, what would that be?

RW: – That more musicians could find work that supports them full-time without so many needing to struggle just to survive.

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

RW: – I’ve been enjoying albums from Naughty Professor, Greyhounds, Tomar & The FCs, The New Mastersounds, Charlie Hunter, Galactic, The Budos Band, Grupo Fantasma, Black Pumas, and Adrian Quesada’s new album, Boleros Psicodelicos. I’m always revisiting Mingus, The Meters, Galactic, Buddy Guy, and Gatemouth Brown, as well as the early Springsteen albums.

JBN: – What is the message you choose to bring through your music?

RW: – I feel strongly that the lyrical message of each individual song should stand on its own, whether expressing despair, longing, joy, even rage, but that the overall message of the music, the physical vibrations moving through our bodies (which is very different live than just listening with our ears through headphones or buds) is always life-reaffirming, expressive of the range of human emotions, which in itself heals and rejuvenates us. This can happen individually, but can be particularly magical in large groups, which is why live music is so important.

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

RW: – This changes all the time for me, but for now, drop me in NYC in 1959 and let me catch sets of the Mingus quartet with Danny Richmond, Ted Curson, and Eric Dolphy, wander into shows with Miles Davis playing songs from Kind of Blue, hear Coltrane’s immortal crew from Giant Steps, Brubeck’s killer band, and Ornette Coleman tearing up The Five Spot with Charlie Haden on bass. What an amazing trove of new and gorgeous and transcendent music!

JBN: – So far, it’s been me asking you questions, now may I have a question from yourself…

RW: – Have you ever considered how fortunate we are, from the long history of humanity, to have been born in the recording age and have so much amazing, fun, life-changing music available at the touch of a finger. In any other age it, wouldn’t it be considered sheer magic? Aren’t we blessed with so much beauty?

JBN: – I agree, but decades from now they may wonder how we worked so slowly today. Technologies are developing very fast.

JBN: – At the bottom line, what are your expectations from our interview?

RW: – I’m just appreciative of your interest and of anyone who read this far. We in Hog Branch and at Blue Vada Records are trying to add just a tiny bit of our own magic to the musical world, and we hope this interview sends a few folks to our recordings. And maybe we’ll meet at a live show somewhere along the road! Thank you!

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

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