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Interview: POPA CHUBBY

Rock Stars...  

Popa Chubby

Hard Rock/Blues guitarist Popa Chubby is like a cartoon character come to life. He cuts a snarling intimidating figure who plays his music the way he feels it. But Chubby is anything but predictable, as his music veers from rock-Blues and metal to rap via JS Bach and Leonard Cohen. Chubby is also a true New York son who also happens to be a star in France, a place where he is revered as a 'personage'.

His albums come with titles like 'The Good The Bad & The Chubby', 'Deliveries After Dark', 'Stealin the Devils Guitar', 'Booty & The Beast' and 'The Fight is On'. But scratch beneath the surface of the apparent snarling shaven headed tattooed figure and you find a martial arts practitioner and a Tai Chi and Chi Kung devotee, as well a song writer in search of a spiritual enlightenment, even in a place like his native New York City.

'Back To New York City' on Provogue is his toughest album so far and brings him full circle as he draws his inspiration from the big apple - past and present - and related cultural signifiers such as films books and musical heroes to street people. 11 eclectic wide ranging songs are pounded out by his tour band and carry a punch as only Chubby can. Pete Feenstra talks to Popa Chubby a man for all seasons.

Popa Chubby

You've been described 'a post modern blues man' who has incorporated rock, metal, r&b, hip hop, rap, electric loops etc in to your music. Does that explain your widespread appeal to non traditional blues markets?

Well I'm a bit more like Popeye, I am what I am, but none of it is contrived man! I'm wide ranging in what I do, I'm musically dyslexic, and sometimes all over the place, but I've got my roots and they are blues and blues/rock roots. So I step out while I'm still rooted in that way and I think the end result has got a lot of power.

Your last album 'The Fight is On' took 2 years to make and this one sounds more 'live in the studio' and presumably took half that time?

No actually this one took longer as it was a lot of work. The main difference between this record and 'The Fight Is On' was that I recorded it with my touring band, so the material was road tested before we went into the studio. So by the time we got to recording it I had what I wanted. It's straight ahead rock with lots of low end on the bass and drums.

There's much more of a raw edge to it?

Yeah there is and I really tried to go for the throat on this record. Very often when the tape is running in the studio a band suddenly changes and you know they get very thoughtful about what they try and do. But I'm very aware of that so I try and bring a performance to the whole thing.

'New York City 1977 Til…' from 'The Fight is On' was your homage to the New York City of your youth. Is 'Back To New York City' a case of extending that concept to a full album?

Well I stole the hook from 'Walk on the Wild Side' and added Snoop Dog's 'Gin and Juice' and the rest of the song came from the city itself.

I didn't really have to bring a concept over from the last record as this album is really about how I felt when I came back from a year's touring. Things had been tough for me in 2011, it has been a challenging year and I toured all over the place and came back shattered and broken.

But when I flew back home and we were coming in to land over New York, I thought this is still my city, a place I still love to come back to and it still nurtures me, it's the tit I feed from if you will, it's still my mother. And it's also the creative source for my music as I always look to it for inspiration.

But the New York of 2011 is a vastly different place from that of the early 90's when your solo career took off, a point reflected in your own lyrics; “whatever happened to the great wild way; things ain't the way they used to be/No more pimps, no more whores, just wax museums, and retail stores'

Oh yeah man. It was like the city that never was. Just like the lyrics suggest it's all changed, from Broadway to the places I used to hang out like 42nd street where I used to see Kung Fu movies and the pimps in all their gear and the whores on the street.

I guess there was also a big change after 9/11?

In a way that event was the great equaliser


Well maybe that's the wrong word, I mean catastrophe! But after it happened the city went back to square one and the day after you've never been in a more peaceful place on earth.

You don't realise just how quiet the place can be when there's no one crowding the air space. There were no planes at all. Then there was also the fact that people were really nice to each other like never before.

It lasted about a day (laughs) and then they went back to normal and back to the old hatred. So the place changed in so many ways, but it's still home and an inspiration to me.

Is 'Back To New York City' as much a concept of you going back to your musical roots as it is the place itself?

No so much going back musically as drawing inspiration from the past to create what I do now, but as a place, despite the changes, it's still where my roots are.

You said you've 'gone for the intensity wall' on this album, does that explain the live in the studio feel?

Yeah it's just the band going for it, just guitar, bass and drums, balls out flat to the floor rocking, reaching for that live feel in the studio but with plenty of guitar overdubs.

You're a child of the 70's, is that where your love of the guitar comes from? After all you are a drummer too?

Absolutely, from the moment I heard Chuck Berry, The Stones, early Zeppelin, The Who and Pete Townsend - with his power chords - Foghat, Johnny Winter, Hendrix, Robin Trower and all that stuff. I had to be a guitarist, though I still play drums.


My inspiration comes from my own life impressions and experiences. I try and take the good things from the changing circumstance of my life. Every year brings different changes and I never end up where I think I'm gonna go.

This is your 22nd album you've been involved with as a solo artist, producer and sideman. Where do you go for your inspiration when you approach working on a new album?

My inspiration comes from my own life impressions and experiences. I try and take the good things from the changing circumstance of my life. Every year brings different changes and I never end up where I think I'm gonna go.

Is that always a bad thing?

Not necessarily, it can be both positive and negative of course, but I tried to use it all to my own ends. As I got older there were big changes in my life, including physical changes. About a year ago I had a debilitating back and joint pain and I was in bed for a month.

It was terrible man. And I tried all the different therapies and drugs etc and surgery wasn't an option. So I studied Tai Chi and got into martial arts systems, the idea of energy flows and lettings things flow through you instead of getting caught up in you.

The album has got love songs on there and songs about broken relationships, broken hearts etc. And that is what the blues is all about. Maybe whoever said you can't sing the blues till you've experienced heartbreak was right after all?

I looked at everything and found the philosophical side of it too. I hooked up with a guy called Rick Barrett who got me into energy healing (the idea that Energy flow is helped or hindered by structures of the body).

And a year later I'm fit, no pain, no drugs, I'm a lot healthier and I'm working. It's a philosophy of life and it works for me. So right there is an example of how things can change and it's proved to be an inspiration for me both as a person and a musician.

And I can't over stress the importance of music in my life as it's an extension of who I am. It's all there on the album in songs like 'Warrior God' and 'Back To New York City'.

The album has got love songs on there and songs about broken relationships, broken hearts etc. And that is what the blues is all about. Maybe whoever said you can't sing the blues till you've experienced heartbreak was right after all?

On 'Back To NYC', you've reappraised your life as a survivor, and yet you have grown to become an experienced recording artist. What originally gave you the confidence to express yourself through music?

I didn't go back to being a survivor, I am a survivor! I came up in rough circumstances, my father died, my mother left, I was self raised, did drugs and eventually found my music.

And confidence is not a term that sits easily with me. I'm not really a confident person at all man, I'm lacking in self confidence, it's not confidence so much as necessity that drives me. The need to be playing and recording music for one thing, but also the greater thing is the need to please people. The need for people to like me is ultimately my salvation

You are also a prolific song writer unafraid to work in different genres. In 2008, you and your partner Galea recorded 'Vicious Country' which was chosen as 'Record of the Week' by a French TV station. Were you surprised by that success?

Yeah I was, but it was funny because the people in France initially misunderstood about what kind of country we were singing. I think they expected some traditional republican style redneck country music, so I had to explain that we were playing Outlaw Country music.

I guess I'll always be a rebel and my music is a vehicle channelling that part of me, but having said that, in business terms I'm always looking for a partnerships and a way forward. I'm not interested like some band's managers in an adversarial role which I think is really stupid. We're all in it together, so let's make it work.

It's a long way from your Richard Hell Punk days to country music?

Yeah but like music as a whole things are connected, they are all part of the treatment. I mean you can go out there at different times with three different hair cuts and be called three different things, everything can change.

You first heard Freddie King when you were 19, but I think the Popa Chubby band didn't start until you were about 30. You must have taken the long way round before you came back to the blues?

I first heard Freddie King through a guy I knew when he was 28. I idolised him and he turned me on to Freddie King. I think it must have been round about the time he played with Clapton and did some of that funky stuff, things like 'Pack It Up' and maybe the 'Burglar' album that Mike Vernon produced.

That album had Steve Ferrone on drums who was awesome (he's with Tom Petty now). So I knew what I liked and what I had to do, which was to play music at all costs. So I moved from the suburbs to New York and played with all sorts of people and in different places whenever I could.

Did you become a gun for hire as a guitar player?

No so much a gun for hire in the financial sense as just an enthusiastic and willing participant who just wanted the opportunity to play when and where I could. I still like to do that now, so when I'm back home and somebody calls me up and says 'come and play this cool, small bar, its fun', I'll probably do it.

1994 you signed to the Okeh label to record 'Booty & The Beast' produced by Tom Dowd, Was there a lot of pressure working for that famous label and with a heavy weight producer?

Well there was no pressure from Dowd at all, quite the opposite, but tons from the record company of course. The trouble was that like a lot of labels the record company didn't really know what they wanted.

And when you recorded something for them it was never good enough. But it did do me a lot of good as 'Booty & the Beast' got me noticed and I got a radio hit with 'Sweet Goddess of Love and Beer' which got me international acclaim.

You've produced most of your own albums, what techniques did you learn from Tom?

I learnt so much from Tom that I could write a book about it. He had tons of knowledge and was very generous with it. I also guess he liked the fact I was very open to what he was talking about and receptive to his ideas.

Years later in my role as a producer I tried to realise Tom Dowd's concept of low end. No one had a pair of ears like him, he had this instinctive ability to just listen and hear the most important things.

You can have a studio full of the best gear but without those ears you miss so much. He taught me things like how to mix at low volume for example, the importance of the sound at the lower end, and I used to love the way he got the bass to pop out. No one had his ears.

You've said 'This is an inspiring time to be a guitarist' when talking about the new album. What guitar players inspire you?

Well there are gazillion guitar players out there and you can learn so much now. Everything is easily available. There's you tube now so you can just learn from the best and that makes it a great time to be a guitar player. Then there's also the fact that I'm on Provogue records now and they have a great roster of guitar players too, so I'm inspired by all those things.

What do you think Hendrix would be into musically if he's was around today?

That's a hard question man and one we've all thought about and I guess everyone has an idea about it.

All I know is that some of his stuff was amazing. I've been listening again to 'Electric Ladyland'. Check out track 11, '1983… (A Merman I Should Turn To Be)', one of the greatest compositions of all time. But I think sad to say, he couldn't have lived, he was like a supernova. I saw him on the Dick Cavett TV show and he'd already gone, he was ready to leave…

With 2004 'Peace Love & Respect' brought heartfelt political commentary with Bush and Iraq in the firing line. What was the response to that?

A lot of people supported me but I also got a lot of hate from that. America right now is a lot like that, if you don't fit the prevailing trend you get ostracised. So looking back in commercial terms it was a big mistake, but sometimes you got to stand up and say what you think.

Let's quickly talk about the new album

'She Loves Everybody But Me' is a Texas shuffle with a 'call & response' sequence and gutsy guitar work, will it be part of the live set?

Yeah I think so. I love covering different guitar styles and this was my Freddie King meets SRV moment.

'Pound of Flesh' sounds like an early 70's rock ballad/love song with repeated guitar lines and an unexpected Spanish guitar part. Where did that come from?

The strange thing about that track is that the Spanish guitar part came about as an afterthought. At the time I was listening to Willy de Ville and was influenced by Doc Pomus. Do you know Doc Pomus?

He was part of that New York City song writing team and he wrote everything from stuff for Lou Reed and Willy De Ville to 'Save the Last Dance For Me' and 'Can't Get Used To Losing You'. Anyway, when I was busy writing 'Pound of Flesh' I got to the point where I needed a solo.

I loved the way the drums and low end were nailed on that song, a bit like the early Zeppelin, Eddie Kramer type of production. So I thought about a Les Paul solo and got this acoustic and aimed for a nice gypsy jazz style solo and it fitted so well.

'Warrior God' has the opening rap 'coming at ya baby like a warrior god, half the fat and I'm twice as hard' and is maybe the closest you get to speed metal?

That song came from my King Fu practice and it was also about the same time I went to see the film about Lemmy. In fact I came right out of the move theatre and went home and wrote the song. I love Motorhead they are a great blues band! The end of the song was conceived as a funky Cream, 'Disraeli Gears style guitar solo

As was the case on 'The Fight is On', you've recorded another Leonard Cohen song called 'The Future'. -It's a doomy song with the lyric I've seen the future, brother: it is murder. Yet you are a survivor and seem to be an optimist in contrast to the sentiments of the song?

The thing is it's not just necessarily gloomy. What he's singing about is a song about change. We can't deny there's so much energetic stuff going on and after 2012 we might need to get a new Mayan calendar (a reference to 21 Dec 2012 when Mayan calendars predict the end of the world).

Everything changes and I think Leonard Cohen is a prophet and he can see that things are going to slide in all directions. You have to look at what he means, his lyrics are fucking deep man. He's not just doom and gloom and it's not all negative.

I've got a new tattoo on my right arm which is the Chinese character for chaos, but it also represents the character for opportunity. And it's that kind of ambivalence in the song that appeals to me.

Did you come to that song via 'Natural Born Killers' movie?

Oh yeah, fucking great movie man!

Were you always into Leonard Cohen?

Not at all. I got into him in the 80's when in fact he was a junky. I wasn't a huge fan at all as his stuff was much too dark for me, it sounded like heroin music, a bit like the way the Velvet Underground used to sound.

But I first got into him through the song 'Everybody Knows' (from the 'I'm Your Man' album) which I heard on a CBS sampler and I was hooked. Then I heard Jeff Buckley's version of 'Hallelujah' which I thought was good but it didn't move me, So I went back to Leonard's version and I learnt that his songs are all about the lyrics, I've become a huge fan and he's a great model as a song writer.

'It's About You', features the line 'Crawling up from the bottom, everyone knows my name'. What was that a reference to?

It was a song I wrote a long time back and it's a point I will continue to make again. The reference is autobiographical but the 'you' in the song refers to the audience I play to.

For example, you can have the greatest venue in the world with the perfect pa, great stage site lines with everything new and you put a good band in it, but what's missing? People, man!

It's the audience, the public that makes any venue and they make me who I am – It's about YOU!! And beyond that what I believe in is my music, I don't need religion just the music and the people.

A bit like the song 'Rock & Roll is My Religion' on 'The Fight is On'


'A Love That Will Not Die' is another love song?

Yeah an autobiographical song, set in the city.

I particularly like the splendidly titled 'She Made Me Beg for It' it's really good keyboard/guitar groove

Thanks man, that's a touring band you're hearing doing what they do best.

You close the album with JS Bach's 'Jesus Joy of Man's Desiring'. I used to sing it at school, and I guess it's not a transcription? Where did you get that idea of mixing JS Bach & metal chops?

It all came about because my oldest daughter is a classically trained violinist and a bit of a snob, so I really did this to piss her off. It wasn't transcribed or anything, I just learnt the melody and went for it.

Is it now a regular Chubby album feature to put something different on the end, as you did that with Motorhead's 'Ace of Spades' on 'The Fight Is On'?

Ha ha, it ended up that way on the last two albums but it wasn't deliberately thought about, I just do what I do at the time.

Finally you are playing with Walter Trout again, on the forthcoming 'Giants of Blues Rock' tour across Europe and the US.

Yeah. It will be great to play with Walter again, we go back a long way and this will be both of us going for it, flat out Blues- rock. Some people know me in some of the countries and others know Walter better in other places so we're trying to build all the time.


'Back To New York City' is released via Provogue Records

Popa Chubby tours with Walter Trout in the UK in November

Wed 23 Nov Woloverhampton Wulfrun
Thu 24 Nov Islington O2 Academy
Fri 25 Nov Salisbury City Hall
Sat 26 Nov Holmfirth Picturedrome
Sun 27 Nov Edinburgh The Queen's Hall

Interview © September 2011 Pete Feenstra


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