The Smokin' Gun Has Been Found
Seattle Blues-Rockers Have
a Real Southern Soul
By: Michael Buffalo Smith
- September 2001
Smokin Gun is one of the finest unsigned
bands in America. Their music brings to mind the golden era
of the Allman Brothers Band mixed with a genuine blend of Texas
blues from Jimmy and Stevie Vaughan to Albert Collins. It was
our pleasure to sit down with bassist//band leader Bill Majkut
at the Whitehorse Mountain Classic Rock Festival in Darrington,
Washington to discuss their music, his roots and the blues.
What first caused you to become interested
in playing music? Were you from a musical family?
I'm not from a musical family unless you count
my parents' enjoyment of ballroom dancing. I think I became
interested in playing music from listening to the radio and
my oldest brother's Elvis records. I listened to those early
Elvis Rock-a-Billy recordings so much that you could hear both
sides at once. From my infancy until we moved away when I was
eight years old, the girl next door constantly listened to all
the black soul music with the volume cranked to 10. That's really
the first music I remember hearing. So, I'd have to say that
my actual Baptism into music probably came from Sam & Dave,
Wilson Pickett, O.V. Wright, Little Stevie Wonder, The Temptations,
Four Tops, Sam Cook and all those artists. I didn't realize
it until years later that the bass player on a lot of those
soul records was James Jamerson.
Was bass your first instrument? At
what age did you begin playing?
Yes, bass was my first instrument and I started
when I was 15 years old. I'm not a guitar player, but I did
learn how to finger chords on the guitar so if I couldn't hear
what the guitar player was playing I could see what they were
playing. It also helped my ear in hearing the different chord
Who were your major musical influences?
Did the music of Seattle influence you?
I don't think any of the Seattle music influenced
me. That mix of Farfisa Organ and Tenor sax that defined the
Northwest R&B sound never really excited me. Albert Collins
lived and played here a lot in the'70s and I'd have to say that
he definitely got me worked up. By that time, most of my influences
were in place. My first bass influences came from learning the
bass parts in the music of Johnny Winter, The Allman Brothers,
British blues-rockers Beck and Clapton and the Irishman, Rory
Gallagher. Power Trios excited me because of the improvisation
that was required from the bass players. Berry Oakley, Randy
Joe Hobbs, Tim Bogart and a little Jack Bruce were my first
major bass inspirations.
Tell us how you became such a huge fan of
The Allman Brothers Band.
That's simple, Berry Oakley! A friend of mine
got the Fillmore album and played Elizabeth Reed for me. I heard
Berry and went nuts because the band was six pieces; he played
bass like he was in a trio and in my opinion never got in the
way. He was SO melodic. I learned note-for-note all those counter
melody bass lines under Dickey's volume knob intro in Liz Reed.
I still play it because it's so beautiful. The Brothers came
through town and played the Gold Creek Dome in Woodinville,
WA. Two shows were scheduled, one at 7:00 and one at 9:30 PM.
They finally came on at 1:00 AM and played until about 4:00
AM. I stood under Duane's feet the whole time and that burned
a life long impression into me. Duane died about three weeks
later, but I'd still go see them whenever they came through.
I know you liked both the Oak and Woody.
Compare the two players and elaborate a little.
Hmmmn..., both of them understood either by
feel and/or intellect what I think is required from a bassist
in the Allman Brothers Band. Primarily being a time-keeper like
in a big band, he must play solid driving bass lines which define
the chord changes and allows the percussionists to kick the
soloists backside in. At the same time, the bassist needs to
play counter melodies that support the soloists (and at times
the vocalist) which give them ideas and inspiration to reach
for more and better ways to express themselves musically. After
nearly 30 years of transcribing and playing Berry's bass lines
and only 8-10 years of Woody's, my opinion is that (and that's
all this is) Berry was more melodic than Woody; Woody was a
bit more foundational. His ideas stuck more to defining the
chord changes through arpeggios and scales rather than Berry's
counter melody approach. It's hard to say, and based on which
recordings you're listening to, I think Allen Woody drove a
little harder rhythmically, too. Both of them were in a class
by themselves and took that kind of bass playing to different
levels. Younger bassists should definitely study both of them.
Anyway…, this is just my opinion so it might be worth exactly
what you're paying for it (nothin)! Laughs……
Tell us about how Smokin' Gun was formed,
when and also how you came up with the name.
Smokin Gun is my musical escape from the world.
It's really the only place I can go to and play from my roots
the way I like to play. The Oakley/Woody improvisational (put-it-ALL-on-the-line-go-for-it-jam-your-tail
off) type of playing. I love the music; that's why I started
it. You gotta love the music or it ain't worth it. It took a
few years to find the right players who shared that same love,
but they eventually came forward. So, unless the Allman Brothers
called (and even if they did), I'd still want to keep making
music with these guys. The name came about from trying to find
a name that fit the music and might already have some name recognition.
Robert Cray's tune "Smoking Gun" helped that along. I didn't
know at the time that the P.C. (Politically Correct) crowd would
pitch such a fit. I guess you had to have a name like .38 Special,
Molly Hatchet or Smokin' Gun before 1990. Laughs……..
Can you tell us a bit about each of the
guys in the band?
The men I work with are the best in the P.N.W.
when it comes to playing this music. They are all great human
beings, too. Jamie Phalen has the vocal qualities of
Greg Allman and Joe Cocker, the soul of Ray Charles and a personality
that could sell seat belts on the Titanic. When we write tunes
and he hears something in his head, it's usually really powerful
stuff that's worth listening to. He has a roaring sense of humor
that can create a party anytime, anywhere and under any circumstance.
The guy could stop the crying at a funeral if he wanted to.
Jamie also has one of the biggest hearts of anyone I've ever
known. He does his very best when he just opens that thing up
and lets the love pour out.
I have known Jack Johnston the longest
and we are extremely close personal friends. He's my brother.
Jack sounds like Jack Johnston but if somebody had cloned Johnny
Winter and Dickey Betts, he might have been Jack. He can put
an audience of crippled people on their feet when he solos on
a slow blues. His intensity and searing soulful leads remind
me of watching a runner finally make it to the other side of
a minefield. You never know where he's going to go, or what
he's going to do. He never plays it the same way once. A true
If I had to put a label on Brad Spear's
style (and I hate labels) it would be a cross between British
blues-rocker Gary Moore and jazz-blues-fusion guitarist Robben
Ford. But really, Brad just sounds like Brad. He is a full-time
music composer, a sound designer in the computer game industry
and owns a successful multimedia production company. He's got
radar for ears and hands as fast as a humming bird. He has a
mind that contains an endless supply of brilliant ideas and
excellent communication skills when he expresses them.
Ric Ulsky was Chuck Berry's bandleader
and keyboardist, from 1985 until 1999, when he got thrown from
a horse in Mexico. He's worked with Stevie Wonder, The Association
and countless other national acts. He works with everyone! He's
a real gig pig. Ya need a B-3 player? I'll give you his number!
Laughs……., Ric is a musician's musician. He's the kind of keyboardist
that other players come out to just listen to. He has deep and
funky jazz/blues roots, extraordinary technique and a hypnotic
sense of rhythm. As far as B-3 players go, he is by far and
with out a doubt the best in the P.N.W., and one of the top
three on the West Coast. Ric takes crap from no one. Whenever
the business bullets start to fly, he's my most trusted consigliore.
Bill "The Hitman" Brammer is in my opinion
one of the greatest '70s style blues-rock drummers still in
the business. A SOLID drummer and human being, he's an outstanding
groover with an immovable sense of meter. Bill has been with
me from the very beginning. He never took time off and he weathered
all the dark days right there with me. Red Dog wrote in his
book "A Book of Tales" that when you suffer together it makes
you tighter. If that's true (and I believe it is) then Bill
and are as close to being one person as any two people can get.
I think it shows in the way we play together. We are somewhere
between best friends and brothers and we argue like it too.
Rob Pearsall could dial in a '60s AM
transistor radio and make it sound like a million dollar state-of-the-art
sound system. When it comes to sound technicians, he is as good
as they get; everybody in town tries to hire him. He recorded
the "Live Rounds" CD and I think the man plays every instrument
as well. God has blessed him with outstanding ears and Rob has
done everything, including schooling, to develop them. The house
soundman might have the monitors totally hosed, but Rob will
be at the deck smiling; the audience smiling too. No matter
what kind of jerk is running the show, what system or set-up
time we're given, he's like a rock and never gets rattled. Rob
is one of the most pleasant people on earth and we're extremely
grateful that he's the last link between the audience and us.
Do all of you write music?
Yes, but it seems that the best stuff comes
when one of us brings in the basic idea and arrangement and
lets everyone else rip into it. If you are sensitive about your
ideas you won't like the way we work. Our motto when writing
seems to be: "If you want love, buy a puppy!"
Both of your albums are awesome. How did
you come to record the first record, and tell us about the awards
We needed to start writing after being together
for 5 years; hence, our first CD "Bad Luck Blues". It won CD
of the Year from the Washington Blues Society, in 1998.
Speaking of awards, I heard the band has
garnered several, as well as numerous nominations from The Washington
Blues Society. Please share.
I really can't count how many times we've been
nominated over the last 8-9 years, but we've been nominated
numerous times for: Best Band, CD, Male Vocalist, Writer, Drums,
Keyboards, Lead and Slide Guitarists and Bassist. We've only
won Best CD and Drums.
The second record is live. What compelled
you to do a live recording as your sophomore project?
We needed to record a live album because we're
a live band. We play our best live. Though there have been better
more magical nights, "Live Rounds" pretty well captures the
spontaneous improvisational energy that we're known for.
When I was in Seattle, we visited the place
where "Live Rounds" was recorded. Tell us a little about your
band's connection to that venue, and why you now play "next
Gee, I hope I don't tick anybody off with this.
Pioneer Square is THE place to play in the Seattle club scene.
Though we'd been sounding pretty much the same from the beginning,
I couldn't buy a gig there until "Bad Luck Blues" won CD of
the year in 1998. When the booking rep from The Central called
and offered me a Saturday night, the first words out of my mouth
were: "Who cancelled?" We did what we do and smoked the place.
After that, we played there every 4-6 weeks for 3 years. The
last few times weren't that great though. A 20-something barmaid
replaced the booking rep and club manager. She started booking
all that Alternative-to-music stuff. The clientele changed and
she gave us a string of bad dates like the Saturday after the
Seattle Mardi Gras riots and the Seattle Earthquake, which destroyed
numerous businesses in the Square. No one came down to any of
the clubs. So she Dissed us. It all worked out though because
Larry's Blues Café next door (www.larrysbluescafe.com) called
right away and we were back with the whole crowd. I gotta say
this: I have nothing but respect for Guy and Jomo at The Central
and have NO hard feelings. They are great guys and good businessmen.
I think they did what they felt they had to do to keep their
business going. They work to keep their families, their club
and their employees alive. They are not in business to be a
welfare distribution center for musicians. Booking music 7 nights
a week is tuff. They had to go with the music they felt would
bring the most people in. Let's face it, the 30-55 year olds
have jobs and don't party like the 20-somethings do. The Central
still has a great food and drink menu; if you're in Seattle
hungry or thirsty, it's worth stopping in.
What are some of the most memorable gigs
Smokin' Gun has played, and who are some of the folks you have
opened for. Also, who have been some favorites you have opened
I think some of the most memorable ones were
the charities we've done, like the Children's Diabetes Fundraiser
Ride, The Forgotten Children's Fund stuff and a few others.
There is a real heart warming experience that comes from trying
to do something good for others, especially children. Over the
years we've opened for or shared billing with: Jeff Beck, Credence
Clearwater, The Marshall Tucker Band, Steppin Wolf, Kansas,
Nazareth, Iron Butterfly, The Guess Who, Black Oak Arkansas,
Mark Farner, Georgia Satellites, Atlantic Rhythm Section, Pat
Travers, Rare Earth, The Southern Rock Allstars and now Molly
Hatchet and 38 Special. My favorites would be Beck, The Southern
Rock All-stars and Hatchet/38 Special. Beck because he epitomized
the British blues invasion of our youth. S.R.A. because those
guys sweat more than we do and have so much fun doing it. The
Hatchet/38 Special because our music was so compatible and the
fan base was the same. Also, Phil McCormick was very gracious
to us personally with his comments about the band and our music,
both before their show and to the audience during their show.
We were talking earlier about Molly Hatchet.
In fact, it was through your e-mails to me about the Gritz interview
with Bobby Ingram that we all somehow ended up on the same stage
in Darrington! Tell us your thoughts about Hatchet.
Great band, great players, great tunes and great
show. I have nothing but admiration and respect for Bobby Ingram
and that band. What they've done both musically and business
wise with Molly Hatchet is stupendous. Let's face it, we're
all roughly 45-55 years old. The boys in Smokin' Gun never quit
playing. But unless you had radio hits in the '70s or early
'80s playing this kind of music, it's really tuff to try and
make a living in a music world dominated by Britney Spears,
The Back Street Boys and cRap. Bobby took the initiative, used
their talents and made their own way while keeping that music
fresh, alive and in the tradition of what Molly Hatchet is all
about. In my opinion, they deserve a standing "O" for their
Do you still work at the craft of bass playing,
or did you reach a point where you just "leveled off?"
I don't think I'll ever level off. At least
I hope I don't. I still practice and try to get in at least
a few hours a day. It doesn't always happen though. I have spent
4 years in music school studying and playing jazz, both in big
bands and combos, where I learned to transcribe and analyze
music. I find major satisfaction in learning to play in the
styles of different bassists. In the last six weeks, I learned
note-for-note Francis Rocco Prestia's bass parts in four Tower
of Power tunes. I really like Roscoe Beck's playing with Robben
Ford. I transcribed and learned his two handed technique for
walking a blues bass line with one hand while tapping out the
chords with the other. "Victor's Jam" by Victor Wooten off the
Bass Extremes CD took me about 10 months to learn because of
the way he double thumps. Learning his technique required major
changes in the way I played slap bass. It was like starting
all over, but it was worth it to me. As a player I need to have
a project going or I feel like I'm falling behind.
Who do you feel are the five or six best
bassists in music living today?
Oh my…, living only? I'd have to rephrase your
question to my five or six best/favorites. That would depend
on style also. I judge a bassist or any musician for that matter
on three things: their meter, technique and the emotional content
of their ideas. All three are necessary, but meter and emotional
content are the most important. I think younger players should
study each one of these guys, because they all carved out their
own thing and contributed greatly to bass playing.
Roscoe Beck: Best blues/jazz/fusion bassist.
Until I heard and saw his work with Robben Ford, I didn't think
it was possible to take blues bass playing to another level.
Roscoe did it. His sense of time is hypnotic and unmovable.
He plays killer bass lines while simultaneously tapping out
chords. The guy plays all the standard blues bass lines and
styles with a progressive feel and sound while somehow maintaining
a retro character. He kills me. He's like bassist Ron Foos,
in that he tastily chooses the most perfect notes to play. I
could sit in the studio listening to the masters of their recordings
with only the bass and drum tracks in the mix and just hang
out diggin' it!
Peter "Mars" Cowling: Best blues-rock
bassist. His playing in the Pat Travers Band is revolutionary.
In my opinion, he's the most under acknowledged and revolutionary
rock bassist in the history of music. His playing with drummer
Tommy Aldridge on the "Go For What You Know" album is beyond
brilliant in both technique and emotional content. On paper,
his transcribed bass lines look like fly poop. He's like Rocco
Prestia, in that he plays a constant 16th note feel but never
gets in the way. Listen to what he's playing under the guitar
solos on "Gettin' Betta" off the live Pat Travers CD and you'll
hear what I'm talking about.
Neils Henning Orstead Pederson: He's
THE monster upright bass be-bopper. His walking bass lines and
solos on the duo albums with Oscar Peterson and Kenny Drew are
ground breaking. He's melodic, rhythmic and harmonic. You don't
miss the drummer. He keeps it all together. If you want to learn
how to walk a bass line or stretch the limits of the chord changes
while driving it hard, Neils is your man!
Victor Wooten: Best Slapper. Both Victor's
slap and pizzicato (finger) technique are stellar. But I think
he really rewrote the book when it comes to the double thumping
slap-bass style. He never loses his emotional and melodic content
in all that technique either. His playing with Bela Fleck and
work with 6 String bassist Steve Bailey are full of brilliant
bass playing. I think Victor is presently the undisputed heavy
weight funk/rock bassist in the world (Is that a title?) Laughs………
Rocco Prestia: Best finger funkster.
His playing with David Garibaldi in Tower Of Power is as revolutionary
as it gets. Rocco plays with his fingers only. He doesn't slap.
He credits Duck Dunn and some others as influences. But to me,
I hear James Jamerson on Crack. His technique is somewhat unorthodox
because of the way he mutes his strings and his ideas are beyond
John Pattitucci: Best straight-ahead
jazz/fusion. He has brilliant melodic ideas and superb technique.
He's John Coltrane on electric bass. He took 6-string bass playing
way beyond where it had been before. He's also a fantastic teacher
in that he articulates things easily and in an understandable
What are the immediate future plans of Smokin'
We need to finish writing and recording our
3rd CD. It's about half written now. I'd also like to get some
good national and international distribution for all our CDs.
We get emails and orders from all over the world, but at this
point we're pretty much limited to our Internet distribution
and Steve Harrison's Consignment Distribution Network. I'm grateful
for this but it sure would be nice to have Smokin' Gun in the
Hey Michael….., Thank you. It really is an honor
to be here. Gritz is the best and most informative Southern/Blues/Classic
rock website on the net. After spending 4 days with you at Whitehorse,
I can also say that when it comes to human beings, you're one
of the finest on the planet! God Bless you, Michael B. and Gritz!
Back at ya Bill..., it was our honor!
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