Dig Interview Disc - Boz Scaggs Interview
Virgin Records 2001
[Transcribed from disc by myself 2005]
I think growing up in Texas and Oklahoma probably is the single most important influence on my music. We had such clear and pure musical styles growing up there. We had what everyone else had in America at that time, Top 40, Easy Listening and so on and so forth. But in Texas we had blues on the radio. We had Lightning Hopkins, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Leadbelly, T-Bone Walker and on and on and on. I grew up in a small town near Dallas, and Dallas itself is a big R&B hub town so there were concerts and there were clubs, it was part of the environment in a big way. There was country music. These things were a part of daily life and if you learned how to play guitar you might learn to play some folk music or some classical guitar. But you would be most likely to be trying out some B.B. King licks or some T-Bone Walker licks or some Lightning Hopkins. So it was at that formative time of life and with that early thrill that everybody has in discovering their music. The energy that comes from those formative years came out of that musical background which could only have been set at that place at that time.
Would you characterize your music as having a Southern sound?
In regards to lyric and attitude and the way you sort of develop a persona for a song, its not so much the South really, its the South West, its sort of the wide open spaces, its the Wild West in some ways. When you see the attitude of the players that come out of Houston or come out of New Orleans or out of Shreveport or parts around Northern Texas. You see a unique approach, there's an attitude, there's a style and there's a way of projecting that is unique to that part of the country and I think that's followed me up to now. There's someone that I have inside of me that. I'm still projecting to. It has something to do with the way Lightning Hopkins carried himself or the way Aaron Neville delivered a song and it comes from that very important time.
What has been the biggest change you have seen in the music business over the course of your career?
I think we tend to mistake music for music business and what we call music around us. A lot of the airwaves are dominated by the commercial music and commercial music has really I think gotten in some cases pretty far off the beaten track. It's been aimed at demographics and the demographics happen to be 18 and have too much money in their pocket or something, but it doesn't reflect music itself.
What is your feeling about the state of music today?
People find their music, they find it on the internet, they find it in print sources, they find obscure music and they enjoy it. Its just that so much of what we call and what we hear as music from the main sources is something different than that. But I still think the desire and the impetus is there for people to go out and find their own style. I think its a very very healthy time for music. To think of the complex rhythmic structures that kids are getting when they are 7, 8, 9 and 10 years old in hip hop or on Christine Aguilera records. They are amazing groups. The chord changes are sophisticated, the instrumentations are complex and the arrangements are in some cases brilliant and kids are getting to it and its going to lead to other things.
Do you hear a common link between the music of today and when you began your career in the Sixties?
People are going back to basic songs and basic singers and basic emotions. They will always come back to that because that's what music is in the end all about, and people are going to discover their own voices and they are going to seek out more. The more the better, the more music the more choices the more people are going to find themselves in the world of musical experience and artistic expression.
Many people still remember you for your break through album Silk Degrees. Have you ever felt the pressures of having to duplicate its success?
The album "Silk Degrees" was an experience for me that I would wish for every musician or every creative person because it was really the fulfilment of a lot of work. It was arrival, finally one really got through to a lot of people and I was ready to go. I had a fine band, I had been out playing a lot and this thing finally reached an audience and struck a nerve in a big way. I got to play a lot more places and got to do a lot of things I wanted to do. Musically I discovered a whole new ground, a whole new footing for myself. I fell into a group of musicians who really understood my music and were able to lend their talents to getting it out of my head and onto the record. It was a very fulfilling experience. Of course when you have something that hits a peak like that there is always the challenge to follow it up and do it again and so forth.
The image you created with Silk Degrees was very sophisticated and stylish. Are you still comfortable with that image?
I think the challenge is to create an image that continues to grow and change. There are some people who have done that for 10, 20 and even 30 years who have been able to ride that wave and hang on to that image and create a persona that lasts for a time. I have had several hiatus's in what has been a rather long career. But then you look at the careers of some of the greats; the Bob Dylan's, the Joni Mitchell's the Paul Simons', the Springsteen's and you see a remarkable feat, a remarkable ability to change and adapt and grow in the publics eye which is an amazing challenge and really speaks for their artistry and their vitality.
Do you ever give any thought to who your audience is?
You wonder over the course of a career who your audience may be. Is there a face or do you have an image of who is out there listening as you scribble away in the darkness. It goes back to the first time you ever imagined, you're playing guitar and you're singing along. Could anybody be interested in this and would I dare to do this in front of people. I think the overwhelming answer that occurs to most of us is yes there might be someone out there, therefore I'll get out of the bedroom and sitting on the bed playing the guitar and I'll go out and do this in front of a few people and see how it flies or see what it feels like. For those of us who have been doing it for as long as we have the overwhelming feeling was "yeah, we like it" !
Any thoughts on your enduring popularity?
I'm still amazed sometimes that I can continue to do this. What I mean by that is I'm amazed sometimes that people come out, people inquire, people buy the records, they're out there and that's really a lot of what its all about. Its why we got into it in the first place. But I think it might be a mistake to think that your audience is not always expecting more and expecting you to change and expecting you to grow. I think you would be selling yourself short not to have that attitude. You can't be afraid to change, you can't be afraid to move into new areas and you have to explore your intuitions and your interests and keep looking for new ways to express yourself. You're not playing to a static audience.
On your new album, Dig, you play a lot of guitar. Any particular reason why?
The guitar and I have had a long affair and it comes and goes. Playing as a teenager was one of those things that I wish I had started earlier. Once I discovered it I just played it... and played it... and played it and it really has been a very important formative part of all the music that I have done. At a point I just stopped playing it on stage as much, I was writing songs that were more progressive and I was picking stuff out on a keyboard and I was collaborating with other people and the guitar sort of got left to the side at a point in my recording. I rediscovered it a few years ago and it led me to an album of rhythm and blues which is really the only kind of guitar that I feel somewhat adept at, blues and rhythm and blues styles. I began to play it more in concert and I found it led me back to some of my musical beginnings and led me back to some music and some styles that I had sort of left behind and forgotten about. Revisiting that has been really important for the stuff that I am writing now.
How did you come to the creative decision to play more guitar on Dig?
I did play more guitar on this album and I have to credit my producers for really encouraging that. They gave me confidence and really set up a bed in some ways for me that lent itself to my guitar style. Several of the songs, lets say a song like "Desire" or a song like "Pay Day", were to some degree built around my guitar style.
"Sarah" is one of the stand-out tracks on Dig. What was the genesis of this song?
"Sarah" is just a dream. "Sarah" is a wonderful southern Memphis dream. I was thinking of a couple of people that I know and have known, but it really is just a dream. Its a song that Danny Korchmar brought to me. It was a track that he had created. It swings, I can see a porch swing, you can feel the breeze, you can smell the honeysuckle and the southern girl came right out of this music that he had expressed.
Did you collaborate on the creation of "Sarah"?
The Song "Sarah" was brought to me by Danny Korchmar and I listened to it once on my own in the room alone and something about it put me off immediately. I listened through to the end because Danny had given it to me and I pay a great deal of attention to anything Danny brings to me. I listened and thought, well there are others that I will look through and I will move on, but there is something about the changes that I wanted to go back into. What is it that's bugging me about this song ! What is it that's nagging me that's unresolved about this song. I listened again and again and a spell came over me with these repeating changes which never resolve. They keep tugging at you. Musically there is a yearning that it creates and the more I listened the more I became enchanted with the song. And as I do sometimes I just begin singing a melody and the melody leads to a word and the word leads to an expression. I went and found that just in my musings with it there was a song in there and the lyrics were practically already written, the Southern Belle was finally in view. Enchanting song.
"Get On The Natch" is another key track and a real change of pace for you. How did that song come about?
"Get on the Natch" definitely comes out of the South, definitely out of the Texas background of mine. I don't know what the inspiration for that might have been except for shear desperation. It was one of the last songs that I completed for the record - completed lyrics to. Its a song Danny Korchmar brought me and it had a loop, sort of a hip hop groove, and I knew I loved it but didn't know what to do with it. I tried various approaches to it. I tried more or less a legit R&B style vocal to the song and it just really didn't sit up. As the deadlines were coming for finishing this record I spent time... sometimes in the middle of the night. I'd wake up and couldn't go back to sleep so I spent the time shooting in the dark with this song. I happen to use a little machine that has different vocal effects that I can try. I put on headphones in the hotel and I'm singing into a microphone and there are a couple of novelty settings on this little digital unit that I was singing in to. One was called karaoke and the other one was called bullhorn. So I combined the karaoke and the bullhorn and started speaking into the microphone to test it and this strange voice from out of my past or some bad dream started coming back to me and this character emerged. It struck me as bizarre, abstract and hilarious, and this character woke up in me and I wrote the song in probably 20 minutes. Its one of those things that happen, as fast as I could jot down the silly words I would sing into it. It was funny and it somehow completed the picture.
People who know your music will find stylistic touchstones in tracks like "Miss Riddle" and "Desire"; Was that intentional?
There are some people who have heard advanced copies of this record, friends and some people in my record company and some musical associates. They seem to be drawn to the songs "Miss Riddle" and "Desire". In some ways these songs are throw-backs to an earlier era of rhythm and blues, and yet they are still somewhat current. There is a little drum double time thing that happens in the song "Desire". In hip hop world its called timberline beat. So we borrowed a little from the new and a lot from the old and it somehow combines elements of here and now and then and there. Its a style that I keep going back to and it probably has its roots in me as the Bobby Bland, its what Bobby was doing in his day and its what rhythm and blues singers ever since and ever more will be doing.
What is it about ballads that appeal to you?
Its a style that I like a lot. I have always included ballads and I like using my voice in that context so I'm always looking for a new venue for that attitude... that voice in me. Miss Riddle is a song that lends itself in that same way to that stylistic device that I use. I don't know if it will reach out, but some people who have heard it have been taken by those couple of songs. I recently got together with some musicians and did a small showcase performance and those songs really came up as being amongst the most natural expressions that I have. They just play very easily and lend themselves to my style.
There seems to be a thematic core to several of the songs on Dig. Could you talk about the characters you have created in "I Just Go", "You're Not" and "Vanishing Point"?
"I Just Go" and the song "You're Not" I suppose in some ways address a similar character. Then again I think there's a string that ties several songs together. There's a song called "Vanishing Point" that addresses another sort of alone person struggling to make some sense out of his life. They really come about from different points of view and meet some place out there on their own.
"You're Not" is particularly memorable. How did it come about?
Danny Korchmar brought me the song "You're Not". It struck me as being a very aggressive song. Whatever the attitude was that went into making that song and whatever attitude it was going to take to fill that song out. Whatever voice was going to complete that song had to have a real 'in your face' attitude. It was a very challenging groove to me and I felt it had to be a challenging idea. The lyrics fell into place. I didn't even know till the very last word was written that "You're Not" is a simple love song about a guy who got left behind by some lover. He went through a lot of haranguing, kicking and screaming to finally face the fact that he had been deceived and left behind. True to sort of an attitude that Kooch brings along with him. It's just emphatic.
"I Just Go" is a very moving musical portrait. What was the impetus for that track?
"I Just Go" comes from a different place entirely. Its a guitar riff that I have been playing for years and years and it never really had a voice or a character until I was putting together songs for this record. I wrote a completely different song, it had been completed lyrically and sung and was a done deal just about... different title. At the eleventh hour I just felt that it wasn't saying what the music was telling me. The music haunts me and has haunted me for a long time. This character came to mind, this lonely desperate stranger started speaking to me. It was another one of these songs that was written in 20 minutes. It was just write it down and that's it, there was no equivocation, there was very little to re-write. But that character wandered in so vividly and so clear to me I had to go with him. I don't know who that character is exactly. I could probably tell you more about why I was visited by that enigma. I will be wondering about that song for a long time.
"Vanishing Point" is one of the most intriguing cuts on Dig. What was the inspiration behind this song?
The song "Vanishing Point" really started out as an offering from David Paich, one of the co-producers of the album, an old friend. Its a song that comes out of Paich's musical realm, its very distinctively his style. David has been for many years a leader in the band Toto and I knew David first as a collaborator and arranger on my album "Silk Degrees" years ago. Its very very stylised, it requires a voice that is almost operatic. Its not a song that I would ever write and I would only be attracted to it because I know David so well and really like his styling. But as I try to sing into it it's a voice I don't own. I don't sing songs with that attitude. So although it seemed very accessible to me in the beginning and I liked it musically and I liked the groove and I actually played it on stage with a band sort of mouthing some nonsense words. When it came time to actually attach some meaningful words to go along with the musical narration I couldn't.
Its probably the most difficult song that I ever wrote. I wrote 50 - 60 pages of a story about travelling through Asia which I did as a young man. I was writing a story about travelling through the desert in Iran and in Afghanistan and going into India and there was something there, there was a secret in this song. I wrote and I wrote and I wrote and the more I wrote the more stilted and philosophical it became. One night I got off on a tangent and I said... well what if he's not going to Nepal, and what if he's not going to search for this higher truth, what if he's going to Vegas. What if he's just out hitch hiking through Arizona trying to get back what he lost last time. Lets bring this whole thing down to something we can get hold of and work with.
What is it about the character in Vanishing Point that you connected with so strongly?
He became somebody I could talk about. If there is a thread that runs through this album its that pretty much song for song you're talking about a string of losers who have lost out in one way or another, from a world weary attitude of a "Thanks To You" song to maybe a vet who came back from Vietnam and never could put it together on "Pay Day" to "Desire" to "I Just Go". They are a series of dead ends in some way.
Why are you drawn to characters who seem to be living on the edge?
I think they are more interesting to explore. They relate to the losses and the experience that we all have. Not the winners, but the losers, and the way that we experience things with their ups and downs. I found each experience to be more complete in analysing the loss side as well as the wins.
"Payday" is a quintessential Boz Scaggs composition. What is the story behind this song?
"Payday" was probably the real corner stone of this record. Its the first one that we started working on in the studio. I think the spirit of that song is probably the driving force of the whole album. It represents a character who spoke really more or less for all the other songs on the record. It has a spirit and a stride about it that I think really set the pace for everything we tried to do on this record. It's got some guitar in it, its a very natural vocal approach for me and I don't know, something about it just made it lead the list for me.
"Miss Riddle" makes a real musical statement as well. What was going on in the studio as this one was being recorded?
"Miss Riddle" was one of those songs that fell so easily into place from the beginning. It came about as the result of the engineer that I work with in my studio who is quite an accomplished musician in his own right. He was playing a piano riff one morning when I was walking by the door to the studio and I was immediately drawn to ask him what it was and where it came from. He said it was just something he was putting together and I asked him to put some down on tape and let me play with it for a while. It enchanted me from the beginning of our work together. It just strikes a mood, the 2 chord changes essentially. It sets up a mood and off it goes. I think it really took shape and definition though when I showed it to David Paich and he played some keyboards on it and did an extended middle section. Then a little further on in the process we asked Roy Hargrove Junior to try some horns on several tracks. This is the first one he did for us and the hairs stood on end when I heard what he read into that track. I don't know, I think its probably going to stand as one of the most complete songs I have done.
On "I Just Go" you create a vocal sound that is different than anything else you have ever done. How did that emerge?
On "I Just Go" I think I had another narrative, another story, another image going on entirely until the moment when it occurred to me that I had just written some good words but not the words to this song. In re-writing the song I found another voice and I almost felt like I was taking on a kind of a Merle Haggard kind of delivery. Once his voice rang into my head I re-sang the song and all of a sudden the words made sense and the delivery made sense and it's a voice I have never used.
The song "Desire" is one of the most evocative on the album. Could you talk about its creation?
"Desire" was a surprise in a way, there was a moment as David Paich and I were putting the song together. We were trying to find a word that would just phonetically speak in the chorus. There was a where the music just wanted to say.... d e s i r e.... this long held out note. It repeated and repeated and I don't know whether we were saying the words "the sign" or "the desire" or whatever it was to phonetically work in that situation became the word "desire". As I started writing the lyrics it was really becoming one of those kind of cliched rhythm and blues silly lyrics.
"Call That Love" is a track that brings all the classic elements of your style to bear. How did this song come into being?
"Call That Love" is a song that was written after all the other songs had been more or less completed. David Paich, Kooch and I were looking for another element, another sort of live track that we could incorporate Roy Hargrove's horn ideas and just set up another kind of groove, maybe with a little Latin flavour, maybe with a little street character to it. It was Kooch's idea to call up Steve Jordan, the great drummer out of New York, who collaborates with Kooch from time to time. So we invited Steve to come over to the studio one afternoon. We set up his drums and Kooch on the guitar and Paich on keyboard and I set up with a mike and we just played for a while. It was the only song we tried and we knew after we had done it that we had sort of hit the one we wanted. Steve Jordan actually opened up the base on it and it just stood up as a complete little thing on its own.
"King Of El Paso" is a real musical travelogue. Can you give us a tour?
It was the first song that I tried to write lyrics to on this record. The rhythm track had been sitting around for some months. I was reading the sports pages and reading the names of the horses that were racing at the race track that day and there was one called King of El Paso and it struck an image. I had been reading Cormack McCarthy "All The Pretty Horses" and I had become interested in Cormack McCarthy's life itself. He lives in El Paso. One thing led to another and I started just thinking about some of the characters that he had created. Anyway there was a musical landscape there on this track that I had so I started writing a Cormack McCarthy character into "King Of El Paso".
Are you looking forward to touring after the album is release?
I like performing because its what I started out doing and its really got more to do with my initial urge to be a musician in the first place. I love working with new players. I've been fortunate to find and to have attracted some of my favourite musicians and getting to perform lets say stuff that I did a few years ago with a new ensemble is very refreshing. I love playing. I love being on stage with the band and can't wait to play this particular record. There will be a tour around the release time of this record and I hope its a long run.