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Interview: POPA CHUBBY

Rock Stars...  

Popa Chubby

Bone crunching guitarist, street poet, fierce vocalist, producer and larger than life character Popa Chubby carries the persona of the heavyweight champion of the world. Born in the Bronx, the former busker Ted Horowitz had already made an impression in his native New York playing folk with Pierce Turner and New Wave/ Punk with Richard Hell before slipping into his alias of Popa Chubby and dedicating himself to his beloved blues rock.

Influenced by Keith Richard, Willie Dixon, Sly & the Family Stone and inevitably by Hendrix, Chubby broke on to the American rock blues circuit in 1992 by winning a New talent Blues Competition and scooping the New Artist of the Year award as well as opening the prestigious Long Beach Blues Festival in 1992.

A Tom Dowd produced debut album 'Booty & The Beast soon followed and via a circuitous route that included being dropped by a major label and being embraced by indie labels he finally secured his artistic independence A startling 26 albums later he's big in Europe and a star in France where he records for the Dixie Frog label.

His new album 'Deliveries After Dark' marks a return to an early career tough rocking style though as with all things Chubby there's room for so much more including Dub Reggae, rock, sizzling slide guitar, blues, country picking, funk, shuffles and even the 'Theme From the Godfather'. With a forthcoming mini tour of the UK there no better time to talk to self styled 'King of New York City Blues' Popa Chubby!

'Deliveries After Dark' hit the Billboard Blues chart at number 4, does this feel like a vindication of doing your own thing for so long?

No not really as my last four records have all been on that chart but really that's not what is important to me. It's really all about the people that support me and who come to the shows and buy the CD's. In fact what's really important to me is communicating with people and hoping that my music can make them feel good.

Billboard magazine said "If Muddy Waters was a modern blues artist, then Popa Chubby is a post-modern bluesman." Is that how you see yourself?

Post Modern, hmm maybe, I kind of like that but really I'm influenced by a lot of different music and different people. I've never been about really doing just one thing. I mean if you are influenced by bands like Led Zeppelin and The Stones then you will do what they did and work towards new things and maybe find a new directions.

For example, the 'Woman in My Bed Dub' on 'Deliveries After Dark' goes back years to my New Wave New York days when the only thing you got to hear was either Punk or Dub reggae. The other stuff I do is based around good riffs, a melody and meaningful lyrics.

As regards being a bluesman, well that's for other people to judge. I don't really like being labelled anything in particular, other than being a good guitarist.

For better or worse I may have become a bluesman but I've got a 13 year old daughter who is starting a band and she walked into a record store and put up a sign that said, 'don't label me 'cos I'm not a can of soup. But if I was a can of soup, I'd be frigging awesome!' So I defy labelling but just try and enjoy the guitar led rock blues music.

Are the lyrics to songs like 'Deliveries After Dark' and 'Smugglers Game' anything to do with characters in the neighbourhood you grew up in?

Well for me all lyrics come from life experiences on some level. The way I put them down is like the way I talk and the way I speak to someone. I know some writers go for the clever phrases and the perfect set of words, but that's not what I'm about.

My fans tend to be rock blues fans and I think what they really like is the fact that I can speak to them on a level that's not condescending. I certainly don't feel any better than them, and that's an essential element in the musical vibe. They buy a record and it's an expression of interest and an investment in that experience.

You started as a drummer and still play sometimes. Was the switch to the guitar because you wanted to front a band?

Why did I change to guitar? Drums were forbidden where I lived. Plus I saw a lot of cool guitar players like Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page and Keith Richards and I thought I'd like to do that. I heard Keith Richard's riff on 'Brown Sugar' and I thought Holy Cow!

I heard Chuck's 'Johnny Be Good', Zeppelin's 'Stairway To Heaven', Muddy Water's 'Mannish Boy', and the crazy slide guitar on '19 Years Old', then I heard Black Sabbath and that really ripped me up. So I was hooked.

You always were into the blues but in fact your career took in Punk/New Wave with Richard Hell and folk with Pierce Turner. How did you end up playing those diverse styles of music?

Well it wasn't a conscious decision, it was just the fact I wanted to play music. With Pierce it was the case that I was busking on the subway and he heard me. He had a deal with RCA I think and asked me to join his band.

New York's music scene was very small pond in those days. So although I loved rock blues, I just wanted to play whenever I could and ended up playing both Folk and New Wave stuff.

Your first major album was 'Booty & the Beast' and was produced by Tom Dowd. What did he bring to your music that made it special?

Tom was a great man. I mean what didn't he bring to the party? We really hit it off. His was simply a voice of respect in the business for me. It was him that recommended I should go to Europe. He told me it's not happening in New York but over there, they will love you, and they did.

We made a great R&B record, though that's not what I'm about now. But working with different people brings in different musical aspects and with Tom it was obviously those soul influences like Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin and even the southern feel of the Allman Brothers. He's sorely missed.

You split with your record company Sony shortly afterward Beauty & the Beast -circa 1996, is that when you really stated thinking about being an independent artist?

Well I didn't really know what to do after leaving Sony apart from maybe playing live. It was a strange course of events for me as they had picked up their option on my next record and we had started the pre production with Tom Dowd. Then I got a call from my manager saying he had bad news and good news. The bad news is that they had decided not to make the record, so I said OK, what's the good news?

The good news is that they had to pay me a lump sum as they had picked up on the option. As a result I made a live album 'Hit The Hard One' which did pretty good. I also got my own studio so I figured I could make my own records for the love of music, and not what someone else wanted. So yeah being independent has enabled me to follow that goal of enjoying my music.

On the press release accompanying 'Stealing The Devils Guitar' you said, 'This record is about a rite of passage as a young man comes of age into his own blues.

Your vision of the blues is certainly board based and contemporary, is this what you mean by New York City Blues?

Yes it is, but my feeling for New York style blues goes back 15 years, its not just this album. At the time there was a definite new scene breaking out and there were bands like The Holmes Brothers, Joan Osborne, Blues Traveller, and the Spin Doctors, etc. And when you are part of a musical community everyone borrows ideas from each other. And right about that time there was lots of different musical influences around.

You could move 100 meters in any one direction and hear Polish music, Russian Music, Middle Eastern music or Salsa. It was like going to a pub and hearing something and you'd take a little bit and maybe incorporate it. And that was the New York City blues thing, those bands were taking the music in a different directions and I guess that's what I still do.

Before that there was no blues scene in New York, especially in the 80's. It was a bad time for the blues and music in general. I blame Pat Benatar single handidly for the demise of good music on the radio (laughs), oh and maybe Meatloaf too. They brought in bad radio rock!

In 2000 you signed with the Blind Pig label and cut 'How'd a White Boy Get the Blues'? The album included contemporary pop and hip-hop influences. Was the label comfortable with your wide ranging version of the blues?

Blind Pig was very supportive from the start. After I left Sony I went through the indie label thing and ended up signing for Dixie Frog in France. Both labels in fact have been great for me. It was probably a strange signing for Dixie Frog because of the variety in my music but they've ended up going down different avenues that they might not have done without me. And actually now I think I'm one of their best sellers. But they both have been very supportive and really good for me.

Is your French success down to the fact they like their blues over there and also love a larger than life character?

Yes and yes. France has always supported blues and jazz artists and continue to do so, and maybe they like me as a person too. I get good crowds in France and sell a lot of CD's. But I also do well in Germany and the Benelux Countries and Italy.

In fact it's only in the UK that it hasn't happened for me yet. It's a bit strange 'cos I play British style rock blues (the British invasion style stuff).

'How'd a White Boy Get the Blues'? was dedicated to both Willie Dixon who I believe you met and Muhammad Ali?

I never actually met Willie Dixon, although I was close to his family and I met his daughter Shirley. The only award that really meant anything to me was when I received the Blues Foundation Award as it was presented to me by Willie's daughter Shirley Dixon.

The reason I dedicated the album to both Willy and Muhammad Ali is that I consider Willie to be a man of the people and Ali was the people's champion. They both brought their respective gifts directly to the people. They brought their life experiences to the people who supported them. If you think you are bigger than anyone else, life will quickly bring you down.

2004's 'Peace, Love, and Respect' was your political album, did you get a lot of support for your views or did you feel isolated back home?

Oh yeah man I had the shit beaten out of me for taking a stand. They really clobbered me. If it had been say 6 months later as events unfolded it might have been different story. It was like Goebbels, 'the best way to control people is to call a patriot a traitor.' It was right in the midst of the Bush era and no one questioned anything about what was going on.

I even had some builders over to my house and I asked them if they could do the job quickly as I was going to France to tour. And their response was, what you want to go to France for? etc etc. But you know what? I'm still gad I made the record. Some people told me at the time there was a silent revolution going on, but I didn't hear it! (laughs)

The next major album 'Stealin' The Devil's Guitar' was certainly a varied work on which you included rock, blues, hip-hop, Rap, Latin, reggae and even Gospel. It's quite a varied mix.

The gospel track 'In This World' was inspired by a Jessie Mae Hemphill record. I sometimes like to interpret other people's music. You know sometimes you just connect with something and I was playing this record for months. In fact I sometimes sing that song accapella in my concerts. There's something about that old North Mississippi Hill country the drums and fife sound.

But on that album I covered a whole lot of genres and I must say that even though I like that record, it was a mish-mash of styles. So the following 'Deliveries After Dark' was a reset for me. I went back to playing rock again, playing round riffs and doing what I used to do.

You also released the Hendrix album 'Electric Chubbyland'. Were you originally inspired by the Hendrix concerts you did in Holland some years ago? And how does Hendrix fit in with your contemporary take on the blues?

I was totally inspired by those concerts. I really enjoyed playing those shows and playing with Walter Trout. In fact we haven't sat down and talked for about 8 years, which is crazy as we keep zig zagging across each other at festivals etc. So 'Chubbyland' was great thing to do for me.

As regards Hendrix's role in the blues, really for each genre or for each different era you have one guitarist or one guy that sets the standard. For example, there was Charlie Christian, Chuck Berry, Eric Clapton etc, and Hendrix. And I started playing Hendrix simply because the fans shouted out for it, and I still have fun doing it.

Did you enjoy making the video for 'Sally Likes to Ride'? on 'Deliveries After Dark'?

Yes it was a lot of fun and I think it worked well in the context of the song; I think the visual got the meaning of the narrative across.

Plus red is my favourite colour and it's all over the album! There are a lot of influences in the music too from the White Stripes to the Back Keys. I'm always open to a lot of stuff.

Didn't it concern you that the lyrics of 'I'll Piss on your Grave' might stop you from gaining radio plays?

Really Man I don't care. It's not a problem in France and if they don't want to play my music over here then they don't have to. After all there are 12 other songs to choose from. Maybe they read the lyrics and felt guilt about something and perhaps they thought I was talking about them?

Aside from your role as a recording artist you are also writing a book and producing Magic Slim I believe?

Yeah I've done a few production jobs such as for the Bill Perry (Richie Havens guitarist) who's sadly no longer with us. The last one was on 'Don't Know Nothin' About Love'.

I also produced Magic Slim's 'Blue Magic'. I really think the Slim record is the most real album he has ever made. It did him justice, 'cos I understood him and understood his music.

We recorded it live in the Blind Pig warehouse. They even had a pool table in there and people where shooting pool while we were recording. He came out with some of the funniest stuff you ever heard and I got it all down on tape.

The album is called 'Blue Magic'. Apart from that I've done four records with Big Ed Sullivan (rockabilly blues guitarist) including his current one 'Run To The Border'. I'd really like to produce that kid guitarist from the UK Danny Bryant as well. I first saw him about 6 years ago in his formative years and I really liked the way he plays, he's got real talent.

And the book is called 'Roadrot'. It's taken about 5 or 6 years but I'm coming to the end stage now, its all coming together. It's about life on the road, stories about my life and growing up on the street in New York .I came up the hard way, and there are a lot of characters in it, something I'll hope you all enjoy.

Popa Chubby is on tour in the UK in May


Interview © May 2008 Pete Feenstra

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