Coco Montoya is an upside down, left handed rock blues
guitarist with a fine pedigree that includes 10 years with John
Mayall's Blues Breakers and learning his chops with Albert
Collins, first as a drummer and then as a guitarist.
Since becoming a solo artist in his own right in the mid 90's
he's picked up a WC Handy Award for 'Best New Blues Artist', has
cut 5 well received albums and now undertakes his first major UK
in support of his 'I Want It All Back' debut release for Ruf
Records. And as Coco explains it's produced by the Grammy Award
winning Keb' Mo' and marks a significant change in direction for
Your new CD 'I Want It All Back' seems to have shifted the
emphasis on your style from guitar to the voice'?
Yeah you did well to pick up on that so quickly. The voice
really is the focus for this album. Kevin (Keb) pulled me aside
and really wanted me to focus on that - he said "we'll beat the
hell out of you" - and take it all a stage further; We had a
good talk and he pretty much laid out what he wanted to us to
do. And actually looking back it really was the greatest thing
for me to be taken out of my comfort zone and I think it worked
In many respects there's a parallel here between 'finding
your voice' literally, and John Mayall telling you to find your
voice through your own guitar playing?
Yeah, in fact John Mayall once gave me a real bollocking one
night, telling me what he wanted me to do, which was basically
to play the way I felt a piece. He didn't want my attempt at
Clapton licks etc. he said, 'forget the rules son, you should
interpret stuff in your own way'.
And it's your roll as an interpreter of songs that really
shine on the new CD?
Well this was a different project for me as I was able to do
some songs that touched me in different ways. In fact a couple
of these songs by the Marvelettes and Mary Wells are songs that
have only been sung by women before. But I already loved the
songs and enjoyed messing around with them and coming up with
something of my take on them.
If you asked me
what do I like most about the new CD I'd have to say it's the fact
I've had a go at different things to what I've done before.
It's music we all enjoyed making and it's a new experience, an
exciting one and a real challenge that I am enjoying.
How did the songs come together?
Well they basically came from Kevin (Keb), with two from Jeff
Parris and two from the Nashville song writer Gary Nicholson.
And the whole thing was a good exercise for me as Kevin's
approach to songs is very laid back and he is also very
understated in what he does, whereas Jeff Parris is an exciting
character who takes things a bit further and always goes for
that bit of extra reach.
And when you consider that my previous album (which was produced
by Paul Barrere from Little Feat) was an album on which we
stripped things down and went for the raw sound, you can see how
different this new project is for me. And I'm loving it as it's
really taken me from one place to something very different.
If you asked me what do I like most about the new CD I'd have to
say it's the fact I've had a go at different things to what I've
done before. It's music we all enjoyed making and it's a new
experience, an exciting one and a real challenge that I am
Did the fact you moved from Alligator to Ruf Records give you
more room to move?
Hahaha John Mayall would love that. Let's plug him again, 'Room
to Move' hahha.
But, yeah absolutely, in meeting Thomas Ruf, I met a guy who I
sensed had the same goals as me. He's willing to take chances
and work with artists who take chances, which is important for
me. It's as important to produce good, inspirational music as
worry about the commercial aspect. You know, chance makes life
interesting, and by doing things that way you might just open up
your music to new people which is great.
How did you meet Keb' Mo' (Kevin Moore)?
We had the same manager John Doncimino and we've known each
other for about 5 or 6 years, but there was never any
expectation on my side for him to get involved in my career We
were happy being friends. But I always liked his music and
appreciated what he does. But we did start talking gradually and
it was along the lines of, 'we should do something', but only if
it's the right thing musically, then I'm up for it.
Of course Kevin is a 3 times Grammy award winning artist, so it
really needed to be something that we both musically wanted to
do, rather than him just helping out. Then the idea of
production came up, and he said yeah, he'd love to do it. And
for me it was the very best thing that it all came together that
way…almost in an artistic way, rather than via some business
plan. I am so grateful for his time, energy and ideas that he
brought to my album.
Going back to your career as a sideman, at what point did you
realise you had your own sound? Was it when you stepped out on
I don't really know. In many respects it came much later than
you might think as I hear all my teachers in my head when I
The influences are all part of what you do be they Clapton,
Albert Collins, Freddy and Albert King or Buddy Guy. All those
influences come out in your playing, but I guess at some point
other people do hear your own personality in your playing. But
still there's wider influences at play like British Blues for
example and the fact I play upside down, left handed like Albert
All those things are in there so I guess the answer is that your
own style comes from other people's visions of how they hear you
and then you having the self confidence to go with that.
I was totally lost when I left John Mayall. It was really the same
feeling as when I quit being a pro musician after leaving Albert
(Collins). You start worrying about the money, security and thinking
about the security of a day job, maybe even bartending again.
It must have been a wrench after leaving John Mayall's Blues
Breakers, almost as big as when you left Albert Collins?
I was totally lost when I left John Mayall. It was really the
same feeling as when I quit being a pro musician after leaving
Albert. You start worrying about the money, security and
thinking about the security of a day job, maybe even bartending
Plus you have to remember I was drinking a lot and a drug
addict. When you are like that you can't really see any other
horizon. But Albert's advice helped me and even John was very
helpful and encouraging even though I was quitting his band.
The first thing was I needed to sober up, but at least I
recognised that. So what happened was I had a friend called
Albert Molinaro who owned a guitar shop 'Guitars 'R Us' in
Hollywood. It became very famous actually with Eric Clapton,
George Harrison etc going in there. Anyway he wanted to produce
a record and wanted me to be the subject. So we recorded when we
At the finish it came out pretty well and I got Zomba/Silvertone
in Holland interested in it. So I had my first solo album with
plenty of guests on it, but the enthusiasm by one part of the
label wasn't shared in either New York or London. If anything,
after I later signed to Blind Pig I realised a big label isn't
necessarily what you need for music like this.
After you cut the album you were apparently turned down by
Alligator Records with who later signed you up?
Bruce Iglauer wasn't interested point blank. He said this record
'Gotta Mind To Travel' will do no good for your career. I
thought well if nothing else, its not bad and its got Albert
Collins, John Mayall, Al Cooper, Debbie Davies, Mike Finnegan,
Joe Yuele and Richie Hayward on it, no way is it not going to
get a release.
So it was picked up by Blind Pig Records and it turns out Bruce
Iglauer from Alligator was livid that I signed with them. In
fact I made 3 CD's with Blind Pig which I was happy with; I only
left for Alligator later because I thought they would have
The album gave you a WC Handy Award for 'Best New Blues
Artist' and set you on your solo career?
Well I was both grateful and pleased to be out there as a solo
Then I worked with Alligator and recorded 'Suspicion'. I was
happy to work with Bruce and above all proud to be on the same
label as artists I respect like Albert Collins and Koko Taylor,
but Bruce's power trip was a bit stifling, he kind of over micro
In fact I thought the last CD could have been better. That's not
to say Paul Barrere didn't do a good job, in fact he was great.
But we were in a very controlling situation.
And I thought long and hard about things, about how I was an
artist in my 50's and not a kid looking to have a top ten hit.
For me it's got to be about the music and making music I'm proud
of. It's like being an artist you can hide your canvas for a
while but then bring it out and then let the chips fall.
Which bring us full circle again as Keb' seems to have been
the conduit to you expressing yourself on the new CD?
Exactly. He was interested in what I wanted to do and he had his
ideas and so the source and imagination came from us and we
interpreted the music that way and I love that about the
project. And given what Thomas Ruf had to say about who saw
things it all came together.
Tell me about your role as a band leader, did you learn it
all from Mayall or some from Albert Collins?
I leant a lot from both obviously. Albert taught me a lot of
things earlier on, but John Mayall helped me so much. John is a
great organiser and above all he told me to 'accept my mistakes
and learn from them, consider them opportunities'. Nothing ever
deterred him. He told me he used to have people screaming at him
but he never deviated from his path. He never let a negative
thought stop him from doing anything. He was and is at peace
with himself with who he was.
You also teamed up with Walter Trout for five hard years in
your decade withThe Blues Breakers, at a time when Disco had
decimated Rock/blues. You must have been through some hard
They were hard times for the music but John always had an
audience. They were also very different times. I hadn't seen
Walter for ages until a little while back and we hooked up and
talked about what happened between us at the time. We really
used to have battles on stage and the Coco fans and Walter fans
would be on either side of the stage. It was a real battle
between us, we were fighting, to see who could be better, who
could be louder and we both fell into that trap, but people
I guess it was an age thing?
Well partly that but John was giving us some success, we never
had before. We played to some huge crowds and I met a lot of my
heroes like Jack Bruce, Ginger Baker, George fame and Bob Dylan
What was Dylan like?
He was pretty strange though I don't think Bob was to
enthusiastic about meeting me (laughs). But there was a lot
going on in that band, not least the fact you also had the
constant worry about the ghosts of the previous guitarists in
the Blues Breakers.
When I took over from Mick Taylor I was as excited as I was
apprehensive, but then John brought in Kal David for a while on
guitar so I thought, well at least he can take some of the
strain on his back. Then Walter joined and we had our love/hate
relationship. We used to fight and argue like brothers but we
looked after each other.
Years later we reconnected and it was wonderful time a very very
emotional meeting. I played an upstate festival in New York and
he came out, and we said 'let's do it' and three songs in we
both started crying. And couldn't stop. But we had so much fun
playing music together again and I hope that me and Walter will
finally do something together again in the future. I already
recorded with him on his 'Full Circle' album.
Do you see your new CD 'I Want It All Back as having
crossover appeal to a wider audience for both Coco Montoya and
your brand of the blues?
Well I think blues has always had that ability to draw in
different audiences and musicians to it and maybe this will be a
step along the way.
Going back to when I played with Albert Collins, I was amazed to
see people like Joan Jett and her band and Styx coming to see
Albert. That was really amazing. And over here Gary Moore did a
lot of good things to open up the market for Albert and for new
people to feel the music.
Finally what can we expect at the live shows this September?
Well I guess when you've got a bit of history you naturally dip
into that. We've got some tunes from the new CD and some from
the 6 albums I've done so far, plus there will be room for some
John Mayall and Albert Collins stuff. So let's see if we can
bring in a few more people to hear what we do.
See tour dates section for gig
Coco Montoya's new CD 'I Want It All Back' is released on Ruf
Interview © July 2009 Pete
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