RALPH HEIBUTZKI (RH): One of the things that made me think of the Slim Harpo connection was "Shakin' Hips." With your last three records (FUGITIVES FROM THE LAUGHING HOUSE, EARLY NOTHING, NECESSARY ILLUSION), there's always little quotes from well-known R&B stuff throughout the songs.
RICK SHAFFER (RS) (laughs): Yeah, you're one of the first people to pick that up.
RH: Yes. On EARLY NOTHING, you've got a mention of “Bright Lights, Big City,” and I smiled when I heard it – I said, “Eh, I don't think that's a coincidence.”
RS: It's a weird thing − I like to put it in as a tribute to my heroes kind of thing. On "Diggin' It," I make a reference to Sonny Boy [Williamson] − because I just think what those guys have done is so important to our music. It just means a lot to me, and any time I can get it out there about these people, is just important to me.
RH: Sure. Exactly. You can follow the thin red line from Sonny Boy, and he works with the Yardbirds − the next thing you know, they're the biggest thing that's coming. You've got this whole British blues scene, everybody dipping into each other's pockets.
RS: Yeah. And I guess it's like the thing you mentioned to me last week − really, I think you hit it on the head with the primeval Stones kind of thing. I mean, that's really what I wanted to get back to − a lot of the stuff, I recorded with the tape and the old tambourine [attached] to my foot, then laying it down with the guitar and the vocal, and putting everything else on top of it.
RH: Right. Because you get the basic rhythm, the basic beat, and then you can pretty much go from there.
RS: Yeah. And it keeps it, like, where it's in that hoppin' kind of thing − that kind of groove, like Slim Harpo, or even that early Stones stuff. I mean, if you get analytical about it, it's all over the place, at some point.
RH: Well, to give you an idea of what I don't like − I did a session about 15 years ago . . . the first thing that he [the engineer] made us do was work with a click track.
RS: Ah, that's the worst. I've met so many young guys who'll talk to you about that, and say, "Oh, I had to do this" . . . guys that are into that slick kind of scene, or they're on a major label. And they say, "Why doesn’t your stuff sound like this? It sounds so great, it's rough” . . . because they don't do any of that stuff.
RH: Well, why do they [producers] insist on that much, you think?
RS: They're looking for perfection. When I worked with [Mike] Thorne, he sat there, at one point − for a week, him and another person tuning my voice.
RH: Tuning your voice?
RS: Yeah. Every single word, every syllable, and I was disgusted: "You know, I understand what you're doing, but the stuff I like has nothing to do with that." But, you know, they're just into this thing of trying to make a perfect record.
RH: And yet, it's kind of funny − I think it was John Peel who once said, he preferred somebody who could play the same three chords honestly, as opposed to 39 chords perfectly.
RS: Right. Going back to the Joe Meek part of it, I used all old vintage stuff for my gear − for the bass stuff, it's funny, I picked it up from a guy [Greg Cohen] who'd played with Tom Waits, a Billy Wyman 1964 Framus bass. I used that bass for the whole record, because I wanted that kind of sound for it. And I used these old '60s reverberation units, made by Premier, that people like Dick Dale, and that whole crew, Duane Eddy, used. Just that kind of stuff.
RH: So, basically, what does working with that kind of gear give you, that the modern stuff can't give you?
RS: It seems like it has a warmth to it. In the case of those fuzztones, I picked up a 1967 Tonebender. Mick Ronson used one, and Jimmy Page used one in the early Zeppelin [era], first two albums, and [during] the end of the Yardbirds. To get those tones, you've gotta use that stuff, if you want that [sound].
RH: Tell me your favorite tracks on NECESSARY ILLUSION, and what inspired them. Give me two or three.
RS: Well, the title track, I like it, because it reminds me of something off DECEMBER'S CHILDREN, or ENGLAND'S NEWEST HITMAKERS [by the Rolling Stones], in that it's like a simple song. Yet I wanted to incorporate the fuzz hooks, like the Joe Meek kind of stuff he would use in some of those records . . . and then, the tremolo kind of things from that era . . . just have a concise song with a good hook, and a nice groove in it.
I watched this really huge documentary with Noam Chomsky − that's one of his big concepts that he's putting out there, and I thought, "Wow, this is a great idea for a song.” Then I just got into laying it down with a reverb track, and then the tambourine on the foot, and started putting everything on top of it.
RH: OK, that's one, give me another.
RS: Well, "Lucky Day" is just the hill country kind of groove − the "Boom-bah, boom-bah," [R.L.] Burnside kind of feel. But then, I wanted to tie that aspect of hill country into the Yardbirds kind of thing. And that was the whole idea − again, keeping it simple, but tying it to the garage thing, marrying that with the hill country kind of groove, and putting the two of them together.
RH: And that's what you get. OK, give me one more.
RS: I like the atmosphere in "Open Your Eyes" − it's a dark track, but I just like the atmosphere of it. On that song, in particular, I went back to what I would consider a huge influence − Magic Sam, putting that West Side soul kind of thing that he had going on in his records, before he passed away . . . just that real bite-y, kind of reverb, ethereal kind of thing in the background there, lurking around in this piece.
RH: From the lyrical standpoint, you captured a lot of that feeling you were after . . . "My woman done me wrong, the world done me wrong, everybody done me wrong . . ."
RS: Yeah, it was definitely to incorporate that, and maybe paint it a little broader − it's actually within all the blues songs, the tragedy, the misfortune, and the redemption, in a lot of cases.
RH: Yeah, well, as evidenced by somebody like R.L. Burnside coming into his own, late in life.
RS: Really, at the end of his life.
RH: At the end of his life, which − in the pop music industry − really isn't allowed to happen, as we both know.
RS: Yeah. I don't know if I ever mentioned it to you before. It really blew me away, and I didn't know, at the time − Robert Palmer used to write about us all the time. And he really, really liked the band. When that first [Reds] album came out, he was writing for the [NY] TIMES − he gave it, “one of the best albums of the year” [mention]. And he used to review us live.
And he did this huge thing in PENTHOUSE one time, where he took all the New Wave bands, and did a review of every single one of them. Then he picked out our album, and said, "To me, these guys are the best of the batch, and I'm gonna tell you why." He said, "They play it the way it's supposed to be played, real and red hot, all the time."
But the thing I never knew is what a blues enthusiast he was. I found out, much later. It was after he passed away − after he did that whole DEEP BLUES book, the movie, and all, and then I thought, "OK, I can see why he liked this stuff." He had that element in him.