Interview with the president of European Blues Union
„European Blues Challenge” will be held in Riga, in 2014. How did you reached the idea of organizing the event in Latvia?
2014 is a great year for Riga, many cultural events will take place in there focused towards Europe. We have found good promotion partners in Riga, they will help „European Blues Challenge” to happen the best possible way.
You are the president of European Blues Union. What is your daily work routine?
I call myself the main European Blues Union mule who pulls all the weight himself. It's a voluntary work, bringing the good work to community.
So, you're the best candidate who could tell more about „European Blues Challenge”!
We started three years ago with the idea to support European blues artists and new talents. Currently, American artists dominate in this genre, so we try to promote Europeans. For instance, Latvian blues band might find it hard to organize a gig in France, Norway or France, but for Americans it's pretty easy. We try to take down the borders in people's minds in order to make the music market broader.
The strongest argument must be that the origin of blues is in America.
It is the strongest argument - only American blues can be considered authentic.
At the same time we want to tell people that European blues is a new form of blues, no less important. We don't have to hide as it was some second class.
How deep is the stereotype that black blues musicians are better than the white ones? We are not speaking about racism, but the attitude itself towards blues genre.
(Hiding under his shirt.) It had to end a long ago! In 1970ies, Muddy Waters turned his head when he was asked about the same issue. White musicians also played in his band. Muddy Waters supported „The Rolling Stones”. This stereotype should be striked out from people's minds.
No doubt, it will happen some day. In the end, blues music is when a good man feels sadness.
Yes, that is blues. Everyone may experience hard times. It's emotions.
Let's continue about „European Blues Challenge”.
So, it will be the fourth event in Riga. First two were held in Berlin, Germany, the third one in France, now it's time for Latvia. We have 20 member countries, every member organizes the national competition, and the winner goes to „European Blues Challenge”. Those are great 20 bands from 20 countries.
The concept looks similar to „Eurovision” song contest. Maybe you should call it „Bluesovision”?
„Bluesovision”! What a name!!
(Normunds Kalniņš, the chairman of the board of Latvian Blues Society Support (also a member of EBU) and organizer of Sigulda Blues Fest, joins the conversation). Besides, the affinity might be that „European Blues Challenge” will be webcasted online. And in this case, we are talking about show business, not only musical skills.
T.R. We have four criterions when judging the bands: vocal talent, instrumental talent, ability to represent themselves on a stage and originality. The latter mostly is related to musical material if the band performs only covers or has their own pieces. So, we decide if those songs are good, if every piece is composed by one pattern, if musicians are able to vary within their style.
What are the musical borders that are defined at the competition? Do musicians cover blues rock, blues folk, blues-something?
Blues rock, blues jazz, pretty much everything they like. But music has to be based on blues roots.
What about blues dubstep?
Blues dubstep! Everyone is invited to create something new, that would be original.
Actually, I have heard blues dubstep, it was classic piano blues with a rumbling, roaring electronica basics. Such kind of experiments are allowed at „European Blues Challenge”, or you prefer so called „live” bands?
We had one French band, they played together with DJ mixing hiphop and blues. The band is called „Scarecrow”. They performed with guitars, drums, vocals, vinyl player or turntable... Everything is possible.
It's a nice message to new talents, blues is not only for old people!
Yes, exactly. Blues is not only for old people or slow dance. It's a whole genre with lots of vitality, energy and experiments.
I think blues is very popular in various generations and social groups because emotions dominate. It's not about the fact that you play your guitar fast enough or can perform a complicated song. It's emotions on the stage that matters.
How did you came down to blues and decided to start „Ruf Records”?
I don't think I chose blues. It chose me. It happens that way. As a teenager, I worked some social work, we organized gigs with a youth club. One of the first musicians I met was a bluesman from Chicago, Luther Allison. I left my hometown and went on a tour with them. I learned a lot, and that's how I got into music business.
Can you consider blues record lable a real business? Can you make money from it?
We started in 1994 with the records of Luther Allison. I continued to work with American and British artists. We have only few European musicians. In that form it works out.
Still, you follow the same stereotypes you named before!
I don't deny it. The record label works around the world, so it's hard to offer European musicians in a world market. But I managed to do that. For instance, Ana Popovic, a girl from Serbia who broke out in USA. I also work with Finnish and Austrian girls, but it's realy hard from a business perspective.
As a record label, you release CDs/vinyl or prefer the digital way?
Both. We sign a contract with the artist, produce the music and then sell it any possible form.
Which records are sold the best?
The digital side continues to grow, but our main listeners are middle-aged people who prefer a physical record format. They are record collectors. Digital record sales are only 20 percent. 10 percent are record sales at the concert venues, but the rest is CDs and vinyl at the music retailers.
It has come in fashion to record in vinyls, but it's often just a form without a content. Digital records are released in vinyl, therefore the idea of vinyl saving better quality of some analogue record dissapears. What studios do you use for your artists?
I personally prefer vinyl, but sometimes we are not able to use analogue master copies. Still, analogue records are being made, and there are studios where you can do that.
We have our local rockabilly king Pits Andersons, he just recorded his album in the analogue studio, in Berlin, and will release a vinyl single. It seems that analogue records suit rockabilly genre the most.
I definitely want to know which studio he used. Maybe I can take it for my artists. If it is good for rockabilly, maybe it would suit for blues!
We will find that out and send the name to you. Who is the blues king at your company?
It's hard to name one. Because someone might get offended. But there is a band who uses the king's crown in their image with reason. I am together with them on a tour and I only came to Riga for one day in order to see the places we could organize „European Blues Challenge”. The band is called „Royal Southern Brotherhood” where literally royal blues family members have united. One family is „The Allman Brothers” and the other is „The Neville Brothers” from Georgia and New Orlean, Louisiana respectively. Gregg Allman's son Devon Allman and the youngest Neville's brother Cyril Neville are in this band.
It's realy royal!
Yes, a real royal court of blues and rock'n'roll!
You work with such legendary musicians as „Canned Heat”.
Yes, I work with them for many years. Fito de la Parra is totally crazy and he still is an absolute boogie music spirit.
„Canned Heat” will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year. Fito told: „I will not advertise! What is it? 50 years on a boogie stage? It makes me old!”
It's wonderful that younger folks still listen to those old men. It means that blues has a future.
N.K. We noticed many young listeners at Sigulda Blues Fest, as well. It made us think of new promoting options.
By the way, which is the most popular German blues band?
T.R. To be honest, I can't really talk about German blues bands, because I know more about Finnish or even Latvian artists. For instance, you have the great „Latvian Blues Band”. The most recognized German band might be „B. B. and the Blues Shacks”. They are on European tour right now and are doing very well. I can't tell who will represent Germany at „European Blues Challenge”, because our national contest will be held in October.
Does European Blues Union continues to grow, new members are joining?
Yes, it continues to grow, I am glad about that, no doubt.
But it still has no Estonian or Lithuanian representatives!
N.K. We have started negotiations with Estonians, I think, they might join soon. In such small countries, blues is mainly concentrated in one or few people's hands. So it depends on them. If they wish to create their blues foundation in order to join EBU.
Thomas, can you name the leading blues country in Europe? Germany? Great Britain?
Great Britain is definitely one of the leaders if not the first one. They had the blues boom in the 1960ies. „American Folk Blues Festival” was quite popular in Germany during the 1960ies, it was American musicians' union who toured in Europe. Scandinavia also has a great blues history. Now it's time for Latvia!