Boz Scaggs new album Out of the Blues is an homage to the music of his youth: Chuck Berry, Ray Charles and of course, the King himself, Elvis. Scaggs was raised amongst the bluesy roots of rock and roll in Texas, before heading to Wisconsin for school, then to the infamously heady San Francisco scene of the mid sixties. Since then, Scaggs has been producing music at a constant rate, honing his skills and sharpening a mind already incredibly attuned to music.
CONVICTS caught up with Scaggs out west to talk about his new album. Along the way, we learned about the legendary Memphis sound studio where Out of the Blues was recorded, the difference between covering music and writing originals, and Scaggs’ surprise at finding out that Bruno Mars has been around for a while.
Hey Boz. First of all, congratulations on the new record.
Thank you, I think.
How did this album come together for you?
I could go on for a while here. There is a genesis to this thing. In some ways, it’s a trilogy. The first two pieces of the trilogy were collaborations with Steve Jordan the drummer. He’s something of a scholar of where the music we love came from. It turned out to be a search for the roots of where we came from and what music we liked and why we liked it and the people that played it.
How did y’all decide to take this route?
We love talking about the music that we grew up on with radio. Radio was our kindergarten, grade school, high school and our ongoing education. Ninety-five percent of what we love came out of New Orleans one way or another.
We listened to the Top 40 and we listened to the standards. My parents loved music and we grew up listening to not only the stuff that was national but stuff that came out of Louisiana and Texas, so we kind of had this in common…this love of early rock n roll.
Talk a bit about that early rock n’ roll and how it influenced y’all?
We had Chuck Berry and Elvis and Fats Domino and Gene Vincent and all the early great rock n’ rollers, but that other stuff was our own. That’s what we learned to play our instruments on and learned how to sing. It was really an interesting exploration going through early rock n’ roll that came out of our part of the country.
How did it feel using all of this material that you hadn’t written?
There was a certain amount of artistic license and freedom because I hadn’t written any songs. I didn’t feel any obligation to write songs. So it was strictly the music that we liked and the music that I could sing. Any song that was particularly interesting was fair game, so I demoed some of it just to see how my voice fit into it. We went through a lot of material. Over a period of a year, as Steve was doing his work and I was doing mine, we got together periodically on the phone or just by sending packets of song ideas to each other. That culminated in our getting together on the first record. It was a meeting of minds and unlike anything that I’ve experienced. We were just so much on the same wavelength when it came to choosing musicians and then eventually choosing the studio that we’d make the album in.
Was that in Memphis?
It was in Memphis, yeah Royal Studios. It’s always had the same name. I’d had some experience down there with a couple of things. Steve had experience down there and we both just instantly said that’s where we want it to be.
Talk a bit about Royal Studios.
Royal Studios are a living monument to a time and a place and, of course, a particular sound. Willie Mitchell was a great producer who built the electronics and built the walls and chose the microphones around a sound that he was looking for. It’s very much got his signature on it and it’s there. They have preserved it right down to the console and there’s a tambourine hanging on the wall that you can actually recognize in Al Green‘s records. There happens to be an old soda pop case hanging on the wall, back from when they used to make them out of wood. I was talking to Teenie Hodges — he’s one of the original session musicians and his two brothers and Willie and some others-and I asked him what that wooden case hanging on a nail was. He took it down and said “Well, that’s what I used to prop my foot up on when I played guitar.”
What is your recording process like?
When I’m not writing, I know what I’m doing. I’ve got sixteen or eighteen core songs that I know I want to use. On the other hand, if it’s something that I’m writing material for, I have no idea what I’m going to do. I just choose the rhythm section and have some sketches, then I’ll go into the studio and complete it.
How did this album get the name Out of the Blues?
I don’t want to jolt your mind explaining what we went through trying to find that name. It’s the last thing I do on any project. It finally comes to the point where I have to call it something. I usually look at song titles first, if there’s one title that wraps it all up. If not, maybe there’s a lyric that lights up the whole idea. In this case I couldn’t find anything. When I had this idea for a title that would be Out of the Blues and I thought, “it’s perfect. That’s it.” It represents the sort of spontaneous nature of finding these songs. Inevitably, with any title, song, album, I look to see if anybody else had a record named Out of the Blues. It turns out that there have been about a hundred seventy five albums named Out of the Blues.
Hah. Guess that’s no surprise. Are you still going out and seeing new music pretty frequently?
I go out very little. I’m not keeping up with a lot of stuff that’s out there. I’m amazed when I go out and hear something and I say “How about that Bruno Mars guy?” People look at me like, “Yeah Bruno has been out there for awhile now.” Yeah he’s pretty great. And and I kick myself for not going out and keeping up with it all.
After all these years, what keeps you going musically?
Every once in a while, you find some fellow musicians who fall under the same roof and it’s a great thrill to feel that music going through everyone. It keeps us running and that is what makes it such fun. I feel good about my voice. I’m getting a little closer to my guitar and I’m surrounding myself with musicians that are like this too. The fun keeps me going.
Lastly, why is music such an important art form?
Music is a huge part of human life. We get turned on by it and it’s wild and crazy. That’s why we sing and we relate to it. If you’re a professional and you get into it, you’re writing it, you’re performing, you’re seeing it, but that first love for music doesn’t go away. I’m still as excited about playing it as I was starting out.