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 sounds.

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 bluesman!

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 it won?

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 door."

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 for?

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 work.

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……… Francis

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 brilliant.

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 way.

What are the immediate future plans of Smokin' Gun?

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 stores.

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!

Gritz Magazine

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