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Coco Montoya

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 him.


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 so well.

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 enjoying.

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 your own?

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 play.

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 King.

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 again.

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.

Albert Collins and Coco Montoya

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 could.

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 better distribution.

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 artist.

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 manages people.

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 times.

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 loved it.

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

Coco Montoya

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 listing.

Coco Montoya's new CD 'I Want It All Back' is released on Ruf Records.


Interview © July 2009 Pete Feenstra

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