BluesWax Sittin’ In With
By Bob Gersztyn
If you would like to see a slide show of Bob Gerzstyn’s photographs of The Ty Curtis Band, check out this week’s Photo Page.
Legendary record producer “David Z” Rivkin (see the November 20, 2011, Blues Bytes interview by Charley Burch) produced, engineered, and mixed The Ty Curtis Band’s third album, Cross That Line, which was independently released in 2010. The band caught “Z”’s attention when they placed second at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis, Tennessee, in 2009. The Ty Curtis Band has been a blues presence since 2006, when Curtis graduated from high school and his band recorded their first album, Stubborn Mind, in 2006, at Wavelength Studios, in Salem, Oregon. This writer saw the band play for the first time at one of their performances at Portland, Oregon’s Waterfront Blues Festival and was impressed with the energy and intensity that Curtis’s act emanated.
Ty Curtis is a triple threat, since he is the band’s lead singer, as well as the primary composer of their material, and thirdly he’s a sonically incendiary, string-shredding electric guitar player. On any given night you can find Curtis playing at one of Salem’s night spots like Duffy’s Hanger, the Roxy, or Triangle Inn. This writer has managed to catch Curtis playing around town at a variety of venues. One week he would be doing guitar riffs on his Gibson SG-3, to sounds emanating from a turntable DJ spinning vinyl and a drummer’s dissonant rhythm at the Triangle Inn. Then the following week, at the same venue, Curtis would be playing a couple of acoustic duet sets with Northwest bluesman Gary Meziere, who was Ty’s earliest guitar teacher. The guitar interplay between the two artists was mesmerizing as the duet performed selections off Cross That Line, like “Want You With Me,” and Curtis explained how he had to rethink a song when he transferred from electric to acoustic guitar. Then a couple of weeks later The Ty Curtis Band performed at Mac’s Place in Silverton, Oregon, where the cohesive quartet rocked the house to most of the material off their three albums and a few covers, including Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition.” To watch Curtis perform in person offers a visual dimension that can only be appreciated by the experience, as he exudes and emanates an energy that radiates through the audience, like an alien life force.
Curtis is only 23 years old, but the music that he and the band play is a mature mix of blues, funk, jazz, rock, and swing in a potpourri of sound that showcases his phenomenal voice alongside sonic guitar barrages. In 2010 the Ty Curtis Band won the “Muddy Award,” from the Cascade Blues Association, for Best Contemporary Blues Act and Cross That Line won Best Northwest Recording. At the same time the Ty Curtis Band has shared the stage with everyone from local favorites like Paul Delay and Curtis Salgado, to the Doobie Brothers and Los Lonely Boys, as well as others. They have performed at major blues and jazz festivals as far east as Montreal, Quebec, and on a Caribbean cruise ship, as well as throughout the Pacific Northwest.
The quartet’s current lineup is comprised of Hank Shreve, providing harmonica accompaniment, as well as keyboards and additional vocals, while Willy Barber plays bass and provides additional vocals, as well as bringing a wealth of experience to the band, with his background as a producer, singer, and songwriter. Barber has traveled around the world as a musician playing accordion, cello, guitar, and upright bass and has been part of major acts ranging from Steve Miller to the Blues Brothers while performing everywhere from the White House to The Tonight Show. The newest addition to the band is veteran West Coast drummer Jerry Jacques, who was touring nationally with the Drum Corps by the time that he was eleven years old. Since that time Jacques has toured the West Coast as part of major blues, funk, jazz, and pop bands, along with national acts like Dweezil Zappa, Stevie Wonder, Kenny Loggins, and Tommy Tutone, to name a few. BluesWax Contributing Editor Bob Gersztyn managed to convince Curtis to take some time out of his busy schedule to meet with him one afternoon so he could tell the story of his journey from a childhood fascination with the guitar to becoming a successful performing blues artist.
Bob Gersztyn for BluesWax: What was your childhood like?
Ty Curtis: I grew up here in Salem and I lived with my mom and dad. My dad worked as a windows energy efficiency expert at the Oregon Department of Energy. He had one of those jobs like in the Dilbert comic, where you are in a cubicle. I had a good childhood and my only brother was in the room right next to mine. He’s six years older than me and works for Adidas and lives in Germany right now. He’s really smart and is the Brainiac of the family. I grew up listening to my dad teaching my brother guitar in the room next door. He and his friends were kind of interested in playing guitar, so being the younger kid you always think that what is cooler is what the older kids are doing, so I wanted to play guitar and I had a kid’s western toy guitar, and I started out playing on that, and I just tried to mimic what I heard in the next room, and then eventually I started asking if I could be part of them, learning how to play guitar. So I was using this guitar that had a huge action on it. It was really hard to play and it would make my fingers bleed and I had to Super Glue them and stuff, but I kept playing because it was like I got addicted to the feeling and mood that it put you in when I was playing. I remember sitting with this guitar that my dad had in my brother’s room and my back felt like it was broken because I was bent over playing guitar for so long. I remember hearing them play from an early age, where I’d be interested in it, and I kept pursuing it. There were a bunch of different styles of music that I listened to at that time
BW: How long after that did you get your first real guitar and begin to play?
TC: I played that crappy thing, actually it’s not really crappy at all, now that I know guitars and wood and tone and all that, it’s actually an awesome guitar and I’ve recorded some live songs with it. I was around 11 or 12 when I first started messing around with it, and by the time that I was 13 I really had a guitar. I always tell people that I’ve been playing 11 years, but maybe it might be more like 14, but the first few were just fiddling around and things like that.
BW: When did you first begin singing?
TC: I began singing earlier, when I was in boys choir in elementary school from around third to fifth grade. It was the boys choir out at Blanchet Catholic School, which was like the choir that was formed after the Salem Argonauts choir, and my teacher was Matt James. I always liked to sing and in school you always had to have music classes and stuff like that and my music teacher, who was Tim Lewis, would say that I sounded good and sang well, but I was really shy and never wanted to pursue it. They had this honors music class and I never went and never signed up, but somehow I ended up in the honors choir and I didn’t know how I did, but they made like an exception for me because I sounded good. My teacher kept putting me into it and I ended up liking it a lot, which helped me get through that period. Choir background is what I have, from singing in the boys choir and singing to favorite bands that I liked, like Sublime, Less Than Jake, and alternative horn-sounding bands. Sublime was one of my all-time favorite bands. Early on it was Aerosmith and Pearl Jam; I really liked the grunge era. I inherited a lot of music from my brother and that’s what I did, I listened to a lot of the music that he liked.
BW: So how did you get into the blues?
TC: When I was growing up, I really didn’t like the blues and I remember my parents listening to Stevie Ray, but when you hear it so much when you’re young you go, I don’t want to hear it, but when you get older, you realize how good it is, like in the emotion that it carries. So I got addicted to that, because I felt like the way that Stevie Ray played was the style that I grabbed onto, because I felt like I could take out aggression and I always felt like I had an abundance of energy. Even when I’d play baseball, at the same time when I was 13, which is also when I switched to an electric guitar instead of playing sports, they had to run me around the baseball field to wear down my energy because I was too amped up to pitch. I was a pitcher and I was really good. I was voted the best pitcher on my freshman baseball team, played second base, outfield. I played baseball with my brother when I was 12 and all the other kids were like 18 and 19.
So I was like high energy all the time and I felt that the blues style of music that Stevie Ray played was a way to get rid of that energy, so I was really getting into the music. In order to play the style that Stevie Ray played you have to be aggressive, because there is a ferocity to it that is controlled. When I’m playing guitar and singing I’m really passionate about it and try to put everything I have into it.
When I first started writing songs I didn’t have enough life experience to know what I was singing about. I knew the songs, but I hadn’t experienced it yet, but once I experienced a break up and bad things in life happened to me, that everyone goes through, you kind of like channel all that, and make it more emotional and passionate by living more I guess. If I were starting again, I’d probably wait longer, just so I could have lived with the words. It’s like when you first begin playing, you get off on melody and what sounds good to you, but when you get to the heart of the music it’s when you’re singing about yourself and what’s personal, because when you really care about what you’re singing about, you can feel it. A lot of the words are really personal and it’s what you’re going through. A lot of songs are metaphoric, where you trying to say things hidden like, and not quite reveal what you’re singing about, because it sounds like something else. Somebody else will say this is what it’s about and I’ll say, no it’s not, it’s about this, but they don’t know that. It’s a challenge to try and mask it but at the same time not become clichéd or trite, which is a challenge that I’ve been getting better at by living more life I guess.
BW: What is the songwriting process like for you?
TC: How I write a song varies and I collaborate with other people on songs a lot, too. I’m going to collaborate with Willy [Barber, bass player, vocals]. Early on in the first two CDs I collaborated with Hank [Hank Shreve, harmonica, keys, vocals] on a couple of songs, but the style that I’m kind of going after more is a passionate blues rock. Trying to be more modern with the blues funk and kind of mixing all those styles that I like together into a kind of blues-rock style. I really enjoy putting passionate vocals into the music.
BW: What was the first song that you wrote and recorded?
TC: It was a song about being picked on for being short. “Head Over Heels” is what it was called, and basically it was like the first thing that I wrote that I cared about, which was like, I wanted to be taller, but couldn’t, so I was writing my frustration about not growing in high school, basically. It was a reggae sort of rock sort of song and I could probably still sing it to this day. It even got recorded with this band that I played with really briefly, which never did any gigs. We got this one recording of ten songs that we played, because one of the guys’ uncles had a recording setup and he came up from California and recorded us. It was right around the time that I was breaking away from doing rock and that stuff and doing more blues stuff. If you listen to that recording you can hear me doing blues leads over their punk-style songs, which they liked because most punk guitar players play just one-note kind of songs and they didn’t have any other kinds, so it actually gave them substance.
To be continued…
Bob Gerzstyn is a contributing writer at BluesWax, and a writer and photographer based in Salem, Oregon.
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