VH1 - Boz Scaggs Dig Interview
[By Jim Macnie - VH1]
Boz Scaggs used sophistication to conquer shimmering pop during the age of punk. Now he's back with new disc that's both gritty and graceful. He hopes you Dig it.
In a "Where Are They Now?" world, Boz Scaggs will forever be associated with the slightly jazzy, disco-lite sounds of 1976's "Lowdown." Those adjective's shouldn't be construed as argumentative. Most of the tunes on Silk Degrees, the disc that housed "Lowdown," "Lido Shuffle," and "We're All Alone," were terrific: meticulous and seductive bits of R&B-tinged pop that earned themselves platinum sales and a Grammy. Texas native and San Francisco resident Scaggs has always had a way with putting a modern spin on America's R&B offshoots, meaning blues, jump and funk. From his hippie-era arrival with the Steve Miller Band (go check "Baby's Calling Me Home" for a glimmer of his early ballad panache) to the Ray Charles-styled brass driving the swing of "Runnin' Blue," to the dapper crooning of "Slow Dancer," he's expert at communicating what many still call white-soul.
VH1: It's been a while between records. Did being in the studio feel natural?
Boz: Yeah. I've been doing this for a long time, and this time I was in with a couple of veterans who have spent thousands, if not tens of thousands, of hours doing this. There was a sense of freedom in the studio, and a highly sophisticated set of standards we used - so it was fun. We all knew we wanted to get to the same place, and we trusted each other's vision. It's rare that we get to turn on the lights and push all the buttons just for the fun of it.
VH1: In interviews you've been talking about the importance of African-American music - blues, soul, and hip-hop - on you and this country in general. Music-wise, was this century all about rhythm?
Boz: Well, I'd say it's been key since rock 'n' roll hit - since the early '50s. A lot of the early American rhythms came from New Orleans, they were brought up from the South. I'm talking about black music - it really found an outlet in the '50s with jump and jive stuff, which turned into rock 'n' roll. Gospel went from the church to the airwaves, and these rhythms and grooves not only captured the attention of black people, but white America, and really, the whole world.
VH1: Seems like it's captured your imagination since your days with the Steve Miller Band. Back there you dealt in blues, and along the way you dropped into everything from soul to disco.
Boz: It's stuff that I've always used, always listened to, and personally love. I've always had my ear on that side of the dial. I'm of the age that was there when rock 'n' roll hit, and growing up in Texas, I had a bit more choice in terms of music that was coming out of that part of the country. Beyond that I was listening to doo-wop from New York, and the sounds from Chicago and Nashville, black Nashville. One of the things that is so healthy about the scene today is that people are digging back to where all this began and finding some real treasures.
VH1: You're a fan of hip-hop. What attracts you to it?
Boz: It's a logical extension of what's been going on all along. In the '80s, when synthesizers came storming into our musical lives, and pop explored all these sounds and digital techniques, that synth sound spread like wildfire - a lot of it was horsesh*t. Then the rhythm and blues people, as they always have, started using these elements, and started coming up with some incredible musical landscapes: Pure sounds and rhythm in minimalist forms. Sonic stuff that was intellectualized with the things they wanted to say [in the lyrics]. My God, it was fantastic. Sophisticated yet primitive. Out of that rubble of bad music came this really remarkable stuff. They made the form speak. And I'm no aficionado; don't ask me who did what. But when I listen to it as a musician or an arranger, I think it's brilliant.
VH1: The tone of Dig reminds me that you've always been a singer who's unafraid to let the music demonstrate its mood. You don't have to have your voice in every measure of a tune.
Boz: I approach each new song as an experiment. We find a groove and find the changes and create a backdrop. From that point on, I just consider myself a novelist. I'm trying to find out what those grooves are saying. Trust them. Listening and listening to find a clue to the [heart of a song]. I have to do that because I've emulated vocalists in my head for all these years, and that's how I get into the center of a song, and find out what it's saying. I use my voice as an instrument. So a lot of the music has to be left in place.
VH1: Who are the singers you're talking about emulating?
Boz: As far as a voice that tells a story, it's got to be Bobby Bland - somebody in the tradition of American roots music. Anything from ... well, Lightnin' Hopkins would be at the top of the list. Bob Dylan, of course. Aretha Franklin would be way up there, as far as a woman who could say the words and make you believe their meaning.
VH1: Dig's "Sarah" has this sensualism to it. You reference Memphis, honeysuckle, the front porch - it's all enhanced by the tempo, your inflection, and a bit of theater. Do you like your music to have a cinematic edge?
Boz: Certainly. We're creating vignettes. That's the fun, that's how you use your skill. Step out and depersonalize what you're doing - create and depict roles outside your own experience. One of the tough things about listening to criticism or reading reviews these days is that a lot of people just don't get it. It's not necessarily you who's singing the song. You're creating images and depicting events. Every song is not to be taken as one's personal credo. Every song that Bob Dylan or Donald Fagen sings is not a personal statement. You create little movies.
VH1: Somewhere lately you said, "It's important not to play to a static audience." The idea is to remember to take chances, move forward, live in a contemporary era?
Boz: I respond to whatever's around. I didn't have success early on. I didn't have a defining moment that locked my persona. I made a lot of records and tried a lot of things. Followed my instincts. It all came together with a big album in the '70s, and at that time I was recognized and associated with a certain style. I think that with all the music out there people want to put you in a bag. They remember what you once did and always want to keep you there - they're lazy. [As a listener] I'm a bit that way, too. And I've been surprised a few times: Thinking of an artist one way and then being surprised when they evolve and change? I like that. It demonstrates a sense of vitality, and that's something I'd like to have. I'm not the same as I was [in the '70s]. I'm different, the music's different, and I'm drawing on different sources. If you're not busy being born, you're busy dying.
VH1: Must have felt great to shine a light on your guitar playing this time around.
Boz: You know, I gained some confidence working with Danny Kortchmar, who I consider to be a brilliant guitar player. One of his genius strokes is bringing primitive guitar stylings into a modern age - with effects or other ideas. Anyway, he's responsible for letting me play some guitar that was natural to me. The record's two co-producers [David Paich and Danny Kortchmar] are incredible arrangers, and they recognized my particular approach to the guitar. I have a limited range and a stylized way of play, and they found some middle ground for me to work. Time itself has made me see what I can and cannot do [on the guitar]. Here, I'm pretty much staying in the pocket.
VH1: What are some of the tunes from your songbook that you really think you hit the bull's-eye with? Not necessarily hits, but things that really came out the way you wanted.
Boz: There was a song I did once called "My Time." And I'd include "Lowdown" on that list. "Baby's Calling Me Home," the first I ever wrote, is still close to my heart. And on the new album there's "Thanks to You" - I think I got close to something there.
VH1: You just shot an episode of Ally McBeal. Was it fun?
Boz: Fun? You know, I'm really afraid of the camera and I consider being on television to be work. There's a natural rhythm that goes with making music that's 180 degrees contradictory to doing video. But in this case I was completely surprised. They've had so many good artists on there they really know how to make you relax. Real smooth. Easiest TV thing I've done.
VH1: Is "dig" a word you use on a regular basis?
Boz: It comes naturally, especially if I'm around musicians. It's a really easy word to use, and I like what it says.