Published July 2013
by Joseph Jordan
Featured Interview – The Hound Kings
The Golden Gate Blues Society - Golden Gate Grooves
The sensational new acoustic blues music trio, The Hound Kings is starting to make big waves on the national blues scene.
Made up of seasoned Bay Area music veterans Alabama Mike (Benjamin) (vocals,) Anthony Paule (guitar) and Scot Brenton (harmonica,) the group has just put out an outstanding (and hella fun) album, “Unleashed” (on 9 Below Productions) and sat down (via phone) with TGGBS to give us their thoughts on the making of the album, how the group came about, and what it means to each of them.
(Please see a full review of “Unleashed” in this issue.)
TGGBS: Tell me a little bit about the making of this album.
AP: The making of “Unleashed” is really the making of The Hound Kings… they’re inextricable. Alabama Mike and the band were asked to play for a Santa Rosa (CA) Film Festival party after the screening of a roots music documentary, and because of the limited budget they had to pay us, we went up and played as a trio. Afterwards we said, ‘Hey, that sort of sounds good. We should do something with this.’ That was in October of 2011. It took a while, but in June of last year we got together and said, ‘Hey, let’s do this thing.’ We picked a name, Scot has a studio, (9 Below,) and we started working on songs. Mike made a bunch of trips up to my house. He had a lot of lyrics but he doesn’t play an instrument outside of a little bit of harmonica, but not enough to write songs with. Mike and I sat and worked on a lot of the songs, took them to Scot and he fleshed them out, and after a number of trips to San Francisco, we recorded them at Scot’s studio.
AM: Actually the idea of the album came up a while back. We were in the studio making the last record (“Tailor Made” on Jukehouse/9 Below Records) and I kind of got the idea of making an acoustic album, but we never got around to it. After I got sick for two years, (San Joaquin Valley Fever, an oft-times serious fungal infection of the lungs.) and everything, we’d been wanting to do it, so I got with Anthony Paule to talk with him about it, and he said, ‘Are you well enough to do this? Do you want to try it? I got a little music.’ And Scot, he said he wanted to be involved with it so we decided to go as a trio. I had all the material (lyrics) already. Anthony and I sat there last summer to put all the songs together. We went into the studio and got with Scot, and everything was written, arranged and ready to go.
SB: Anthony and Mike and I had talked about doing something that was different for us, and that was acoustic, and it sort of went from there to, 'why don't we do an all-acoustic album, and do something that was more of a trio than a full band?' It's kind of a different opportunity to approach venues and not get the traditional volumes that you'd get in an electric Chicago blues band. So we thought that would be fun to do, so we started to get together and get some material together and to practice and come up with the arrangements, and we just had a lot of fun doing that. We decided to do it as absolutely live as we could. The CD was recorded in my studio (9 Below Productions) and we set up three microphones. I sat at the engineer's desk, and we essentially recorded it in one room, and worked very few overdubs. It was intended to be live and raw, trying to catch a moment in time, and I think that’s what we basically did. It was just a lot of fun to do it. Mike is just a tremendous vocalist. His lyrical skills are excellent, and Anthony is certainly one of the best guitar players in the Bay Area if not the country. None of us had worked in this kind of setting before. Most of my work on the harmonica has been in electric blues band settings. This was a cool opportunity to get creative and do other stuff.
TGGBS: Who wrote the lyrics and melodies?
AM: I wrote all the lyrics, and the melodies, Anthony and I got together on that. A few songs, I already knew what I wanted and just played them.
TGGBS: Alabama Mike, your lyrics are so strong. You’ve got a modern sensibility about being able to touch into people’s lives and the human condition. How do you come up with such compelling lyrics? Have you been a poet?
AM: No, I haven’t been a poet before. I just write to express how I feel about a subject. It’s like an outlet for me. I write exactly how I feel about a situation. Everybody is unique in their own way. This is the way I express myself and it just comes out in writing. Some of ‘em I have melodies with them, and some of them I don’t. I have an idea. I have an idea but sometimes it doesn’t work out that way. Sometimes the lyrics take on their own life. Things happen in life. We go through some things. If you want to express it in your music, which is a lot of what people do, and I do too.
TGGBS: Scot, Did everybody work on everything, lyrically and melodically?
SB: Kind of. Mike definitely contributed the majority of the lyrical content, and Anthony and I put music underneath that. We arranged what the groove would be, and the chordal structures and the melodies and so forth. That was a very collaborative and pretty much on the spot process. It didn’t happen in one setting. We sat together and worked on the stuff and Mike would take it away and come back in and we'd make changes to the arrangements. Some of the songs are firmly in the bag of acoustic blues or Muddy-style songs, and we weren't trying to reinvent the wheel on the covers. But some of the other songs are not really traditionally blues tunes. Quite a few of our original songs have a different vibe and feel from a lot of traditional blues songs. When I was doing "The Real McCoy," what was going through my mind was Dusty Springfield, that kind of a vibe, like "Son of a Preacher Man," that mood.
TGGBS: Anthony, Alabama Mike wrote most of the lyrics and you wrote most of the melodies. Is that correct?
AP: Mike wrote all the lyrics… probably 99 and 9/10ths of them. Mike’s a great lyricist. Mike and I worked for quite a while and we took what we had down to Scot’s and finished arranging them. It probably took us four or five days of Mike coming up to my house, with lyrics, and we just sat around, me playing acoustic guitar, and he’d sing a little bit. I’d go, ‘Does it go like this?’ And we’d try different grooves and different things, just to see what would work out musically. I wrote the music and he wrote the words for the most part. The Scot helped me put his contribution to it.
TGGBS: So Anthony, you basically got lyrics without melodies behind them?
AP: That’s right. Mike would have a pretty good idea of the melody, but he doesn’t know what kind of chord changes, or what kind of rhythm or groove is going to go with it. A lot of them are just standard 12-bar progression, not anything special. Others have a little different kind of progression. So I just helped work on the groove, and arrangement more than the melody.
TGGBS: The album was produced collectively by The Hound Kings. What was each of your contributions in the production of the recording?
AP: When we would go to record, it was a pretty democratic process. We all worked on the arrangements together and we were all deciding if a “take” was a “take” or not. After we were done recording, it was pretty much just me and Scot that did the mixing. Night after night we did mixing on the tunes together. Mike was involved a little bit in that but not nearly as much as me and Scot. Scot did not like the idea of him mixing alone, he wanted somebody right there to help check his judgment. So I actually worked on the mixing and co-equal producing of the recording.
SB: We all had a hand in the mixing. It was mixed at my studio, and the majority of the hands-on mixing was done by Anthony and myself. In terms of instrumentation, we didn’t start out thinking it would be strictly guitar, harmonica and vocals necessarily, it was just that as we worked through the process, we came out the other end with the songs, it just happened that the songs we really thought worked the best was just a stripped down instrumentation, the kind of music you'd play sittin' down on the porch for a party or something.
TGGBS: Did you have to shift gears a lot or was it a pretty easy transition?
SB: Actually recording acoustic instruments is an all-together different challenge. Because we decided to do this in one room, there was very little margin for error; we were not going to be able to overdub anything. There’s no "Quick-Track." The microphones are in one room, and what you put out is exactly what goes on to Pro-Tools. You have to be a lot more concerned with the performance itself, because it's so spare. In an electric setting, some of the musical things can go awry, and it can get covered up a lot easier. In a performance like this, it's all there right in front of you. You can get away with a lot more in an electric setting, because there are other instruments and other sounds that can fill out the space. This recording is as old school as it can get. Back in the Fifties, you’d turn the tape player on and play 'til you got something that sounded like a good take and that was it.
AM: Everything that had to do with the record, we all were involved in it, as a group, and that’s the way we're working with this thing. Everybody brings something to the table. If you don’t have anything to bring to the table, then you can’t be involved. That’s the way we approached it. I bring my writing skills, and everyone (else) has something to offer.
TGGBS: Did you approach this album differently from that of your two solo albums, which were electric blues? ((Both Alabama Mike and Anthony Paule have two solo albums)) Did you have to shift gears a lot, or was it a pretty easy transition?
AM: I kind of liked that style anyways. What really got me motivated was one of my idols of the blues, Lightnin' Hopkins. I like Hopkins and his phrasing, along with Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker. I like the roots of the blues. I’m comfortable with that. It is a lot different when you’re trying to do acoustic blues. 'Cause you’re out there butt naked. It was different for each one of us. It's amazing how lazy you can get with all the accompaniment. But now, here I am exposed. It's just like the real blues, man. A lot of those old blues men, they did it as a one-man show. It just gives me more respect for those guys, to do that kind of work, and at the level where they were at. That’s amazing, man.
AP: Right. Playing an acoustic guitar is a lot more demanding of me. Playing electric guitar in a band is much easier, because if I stop playing for a second, the band will carry on. But in this setting, I’m the one carrying on the bass and the chords, and a lot of responsibility falls on me. It takes a lot of me. It’s a challenge, really, to be honest.
TGGBS: Did you record live in the studio or were there overdubs?
AM: Everything was recorded live. Every song. You know, the album has just kind of grown into its own. And I thought doing this album I was comfortable. I was glad I had the freedom to do it on an independent label, 'cause with different labels, they want you to do what they want you to do. I think we kind of owe it to acoustic blues lovers. Not a lot of people are doing this, as they’re fired up and rockin' out and everything. But I feel like I owe the bluesmen (of the past) that. So we put out this acoustic offering out and say, 'Look, this is for you.' If it goes someplace, I'd definitely love it. I’d stick with it if the people tell me that’s what they want. And the way they’d do that is to buy the record and to watch us work. If that’s what they want, I’ll be doing another one. If that’s not the case, then we’ll get back to what makes the money.
AP: We played around with some percussion with some of the songs, and none of it was really working. It was definitely live in the studio. We all had to get a good “take.” And sometimes we had to play a tune several times before everybody felt comfortable with their performance at the same time. So it’s 100% live. You couldn’t really go fix one part because we were all just sitting in close proximity. The only way I could go and fix a guitar part because everybody was in each other’s microphone.
TGGBS: Alabama Mike, your first two albums, ("Day by Day" and "Tailor Made") garnered well-deserved national acclaim. Now you’re relishing in another musical form.
AM: When I was first starting out with the acoustic performances, I got a lot of positive feedback. From what I’ve been hearing and from the reviews that we’ve got, everybody likes it. It's refreshing to make this kind of approach again. People love this stuff. You can’t fool people’s ears. They might just settle for this and settle for that, but when the real stuff comes through, that’s what satisfies them. There’s a difference between settling for something and being satisfied. I feel like this is who I want to be. The Hound Kings, the basic nature of the music, although it's uncommon, it's the real raw music, and that's the way I approach it. The acoustic blues is the birth of the blues, and everything else, I call it, the afterbirth. I came up with the name of The Hound Kings. I wanted it to represent that were serious about this. The name sounds kind of greasy. I wanted to take this music from the roots all the way, up to the top.
TGGBS: What did you enjoy most about your experience about working with the guys, or your finished project?
SB: First of all, there are very few records out there that I've heard in a long time that are as fundamental as the one that we did. I really like that. I found it to be one of the most creative experiences that I’ve had musically, because I wasn’t thinking about it like, 'Oh, this is a (Little) Walter-ish song.' For the original stuff it was, 'How can I make the parts sound different from anybody else might play?' I don’t know if that was successful or not, but it was the goal. I didn’t want it to sound too derivative, of the great harmonica players that I love and that everybody loves. So that part was very interesting to me, and a very freeing experience because I just would try to play whatever came to my mind. Whatever came out was like, 'that's it.'
TGGBS: Anything more about the album.
SB: For the many years I’ve been in and around the blues scene, and worked with different people, I haven’t had that much time working with Anthony. He and I were always with different groups and our paths did not cross musically that much until we ended up doing stuff with Alabama Mike. It was really great just to see the depth of Anthony’s talent. He’s very, very diverse in terms of what he's able to do. This album was an interesting challenge for him, because it's out of the normal range of what he'd been comfortable with, and it's the same with Mike. Mike is used to working in an electric band with a lot of musicians, and I could really showcase Mike’s ability to show emotion on this CD. He’s mainly sequestered (in the studio) on electric recordings, but on "Unleashed," it really comes through all that much cleaner in its stripped down version. I think everybody that contributed has done a really good job with the album. I hope it does well, but more than that I hope that people who listen to it enjoy the listening as much as we enjoyed the making of it.
AP: The album’s getting some good radio play and I would love to be able to do some festivals. I’m hoping next year we can get more festival gigs and do some traveling. Mike’s never been over to Europe, I’m pretty sure that’s true, and I think they’d just love this kind of thing over there. I’d also like to work on some more songs. We haven’t worked (lately) on any new original material, but Mike’s got a box full of lyrics on all kinds of pieces of paper, I’d like to see him pull a few more of them out and turn them into songs with him. I’d love to do another album. I’ve loved acoustic blues since I was in high school. I used to listen to a lot of Delta Blues and stuff, Piedmont style, and all that music. I used to try and play it when I was a kid and I’d work on it and work on it. I’ve always played a bit of acoustic blues but this is actually the first time I’ve ever got to use it in a performance or recording setting. Kind of fun after all these years of loving it. And after playing it for so many years, it was nice to actually put it to work.
TGGBS: Did you have fun?
AP: I did yeah. Absolutely. We had some good times down in Scot’s basement.