RALPH HEIBUTZKI's EXTENDED INTERVIEW
WITH RICK SHAFFER
JULY 12, 2010 • PART 1
"PLAY IT LIKE YOU FEEL IT"
When The Reds® guitarist Rick Shaffer released NECESSARY ILLUSION, his first solo album, my immediate response was: "When the Rolling Stones finally figure out how to get their '64-era mojo back, it's gonna sound like this stuff" Mind you, I'm joking, but in an era when everything has gotten so processed 'n' pitch-blended to perfection, until every last ounce of spontaneity and life has been wrung out of every pore, it's refreshing to hear something standing so squarely in opposition to that kind of nonsense.
Of course, around these parts, such developments are more than welcome: as tracks like "Shakin' Hips," "Two Weeks" and "Why Do You" make clear, this is the type of music that slithers its way into your attention, rather than beat you over the head for just 30 seconds of your time − if you like swampy guitars, lots of reverb and primeval almost-drummin', you'll definitely feel welcome at this down home reptilian party. Enough said.
Then again, Rick Shaffer has always plowed his own furrow, starting with the appropriately-titled JUST THE BEGINNING (Fly By Night: 1971), his first album with the band, Freight Train, which contained the seeds for The Reds® . . . whose New Wave Noir styling’s have never been forgotten by those who hear them. Three decades later, Shaffer continues to fly The Reds® flag with keyboardist Bruce Cohen.
I'd interviewed Rick once before, in conjunction with The Reds®' 2007 release, FUGITIVES FROM THE LAUGHING HOUSE . . . which was a much more abbreviated affair. But I longed to do an extended conversation about Rick's work, and musical approach . . . in other words, the kind of thing most mags just won't let you get away with nowadays.
Rick agreed, and here are some early highlights of our 5/23/10 phone conversation, which began with a question on my part: was he familiar with Relive The '80s (ReliveThe80s.com), which is dedicated to the Philadelphia New Wave, power pop and punk scene?
RICK SHAFFER (RS): Yeah, the person that runs the site has contacted [manager] Theresa [Marchione] a couple of times, and we've done stuff with 'em, shared things. The thing is, for us in Philadelphia, they don't quite like us so much, because we kind of left, you know what I mean?
CHAIRMAN RALPH (CR): In what way?
RS: Well, because a lot of the bands just really had a local presence. They never toured. Right from the beginning, with the [first] independent singles, we started playing everywhere we could. We'd go to Washington all the time, Boston, New York, anywhere we could play . . . Detroit, y'know, whatever . . . whereas, a lot of the other guys were just into being the big guys in town.
CR: Right − they never really wanted to leave home.
RS: No. The other thing was, once Bruce and I started doing the film [soundtrack] stuff, a lot of our contemporaries were [saying]: "Well, man, this isn't about rock 'n' roll."
CR: So, I guess that is the perennial dilemma, you might say, of The Reds®. Perennial outsiders, I guess.
RS: Yeah. Our thing wasn't to be big, as much as just playing, and getting the records out there, into all the other scenes, too. That was part of it, too. That's the way you gotta look at it.
That's what really helped me to get out of the thing of working with labels, and all that business, because you're always at their mercy . . . when you can record, if the producer's available, if he feels like doing it at this point . . . it's not what it's about, in terms of the creative process.
CR: So, NECESSARY ILLUSION − your first solo record, as such . . . why now, and what was the motivation for doing it?
RS: The first record I did was like a '60s blues psychedelic thing, and I've always been into that kind of sound. And I think that's how The Reds® sound kind of evolved, because [keyboardist] Bruce [Cohen] and I were into that early [material] − the Yardbirds, the Doors, and stuff like that.
I've worked on material like that, but never really brought it to light within The Reds® thing, in the production way that I wanted to do it. I love listening to that old Excello [Records] stuff, with Slim Harpo, and Lightning Slim. The sound and the production of those records, was really something that I wanted to do.
CR: I can definitely hear that − my favorite track is “Two Weeks.” That sounds like something the man [Slim Harpo] would have been doing today, perhaps, with a different production style and approach.
RS: Yeah, it's been funny − the response to the record's been really good. I'm thrilled about that aspect of it. A number of fans, in Europe, especially, have said that it really reminds them of the earlier Reds stuff, for some reason − even though it's not really like The Reds®' material.
CR: What was the basic strategy and approach? Since it looks like you carried a lot of the load yourself.
RS: Yeah, pretty much, I did − I just had some friends of mine add percussion and bass things on two tracks. And I've been obsessed with the Joe Meek production style, that '60s producer. For the last couple years, I've been listening to a lot of it − just fascinated by his approach, and getting into his style. When I dug into things deeper about him, he had his home studio − and he had hits. They were big hits. And he wouldn't work anywhere else − they wanted him to do stuff at Abbey Road, and some of the bigger, better studios, but he just liked his little atmosphere, how he worked, and manipulated stuff.
And also, [I've been listening to] people like Jessie Mae Hemphill, and that whole crew down there with the hill country kind of blues sound, with Junior Kimbrough, and [R.L.] Burnside, and all that music.
CR: In a way, it brings you full circle, because you played with a lot of those guys in Philadelphia, when you started.
RS: Oh, yeah, yeah.
CR: Who were some of the names that you worked with?
RS: Well, it wasn't a matter of working with them − you'd go to the gigs, 'cause I was younger. I was 17 or 18, in some cases, when I first started . . . sittin' around, talkin' to people like Muddy [Waters], Magic Sam -- the really old-timers.
I mean, these guys were accessible, and they were bigger than life to me. They all dressed really great, and they had this intensity to their music. And they were very accepting of you, as a young kid, being into their music − having all these questions about the business, and all that stuff.
CR: Right, because they'd certainly all been through the ringer . . . so this would have been the '70s?
RS: Yes, the album we cut was in '71. I was 19 then. It was called, JUST THE BEGINNING [by Freight Train]. The thing that's really frustrating [is], I don't even have a copy of the record – people sell 'em [online] for $100 or $200. They call it, “'60s psych blues, very similar to Peter Green, Fleetwood Mac, and Chicken Shack and stuff like, British blues kind of stuff.'”
And we liked that stuff, but we were more into people like T-Bone Walker, Magic Sam, Howlin' Wolf. The press − when they used to write about it − said, "Imagine a bunch of 19-year-old white kids thinkin' that they're 50-year-old black men." The thing that drove me, the deeper I got into that scene, was, you really had to write your own stuff.
CR: Right. And it had to be a cut above the rest, as well − that was always part of what those guys were about.
RS: Yeah. It was to maintain the intensity . . . they would always say, “be true to yourself,” and to play it like you feel , , , that whole concept. And so, that really drove me to the thing of starting to become a songwriter.
CR: So, yeah, it's kind of interesting that some 40-odd years later, you make this record, and you go back to how you started.
RS: It's always been such a passion. Even when we'd be on the road with The Reds®, I was always carrying stuff like Eddie Boyd, and all these old recordings − I would take tapes, at that point, with me.
CR: Did people ever find that a bit incongruous? Because people commonly assume, if you're in a group that plays a certain style of music, that must be all you ever listen to.
RS: Yeah, to some extent . . . one time in Buffalo, these three guys showed up, they had that [Freight Train] album, they wanted them signed, and they were into The Reds® stuff!! It was funny, the one kid said to me, “Well, it's really not much of a stretch.” And I was like, “Whoa!” I said, “I think The Reds® stuff is a lot different than some Chicago shuffle music.”
CR: It must have knocked you a bit sideways.
RS: Yeah, being right in the midst of that whole era of the first album, and the tour − it kind of really threw me. But it was kind of cool that they liked both things.