BluesWax Sittin’ In With
By Bob Gersztyn
Last week, in Part One of his interview with BluesWax’ Bob Gerzstyn, Ty Curtis spoke about his musical beginnings and how he came to the blues. This week he talks about his recordings and working with producer David Z.
Bob Gerzstyn for BluesWax: You’ve recorded three solo albums since then, beginning in 2006 with Stubborn Mind, how did that come about?
Ty Curtis: We had this band going that was me and Jim Smith, Davis Brown, and Jeff Grechny, and we were basically playing enough gigs all around town. We started off, when we won Keizer’s Battle of the Bands, and I won around six hundred dollars for playing against these metal bands in a circus tent. After that, we started to get all these calls to do gigs. Then right about the time that, that started happening, we started to get offers of people wanting to record us. We had a bunch of songs that we could play, and our stuff was original. The reason why we recorded our first album was because we had enough songs, and we were playing so many gigs that people started to ask, where is your CD? So we needed something to give them, and then get more gigs. So the first thing that we did was go over to the house of a friend of Davis Brown, our drummer at the time. He was a music student and we recorded this demo in his garage. He called it My Kind of Wednesday at Poverty Line Studios.
We recorded three tracks, including “No Regrets,” which was on the first CD, along with “Come On” and a version of Robert Johnson’s “32-20 Blues.” Those are the first three songs that we ever recorded. We got tons of gigs with that CD. We thought if we got all this with that, then we went into the studio with a friend who was doing the sound at Lefty’s blues club, when it was open, called Alan Stone. Back when Lefty’s was hopping and doing its thing; he was the main sound guy there and he was the assistant engineer on our first CD, and helped us hook up with Jason Carter at Wavelenght Studios. Jason Carter plays drums now for Black Francis of the Pixies. He’s recorded other people as well, like Pete Yorn, but before we met him, he wasn’t doing that at all. Now he’s got a better studio. We met Alan at Lefty’s when we were playing on Sundays there and he hooked us up with Jason, and we just went in there and did the first CD, and then we went back and did the second CD there again, because I think that the band wasn’t really ready to go super big yet, and have a huge production CD. Plus at the time we didn’t have much money to do anything, so we just went back to what we were comfortable with.
BW: Your third album, Cross That Line, was produced by David Z, how did that come about?
TC: We entered in the International Blues Challenge and the first stage was with twelve other bands up in Portland. The preliminary takes place in places like bars, and in our case it was the Cascade up in Vancouver, Washington. We played there and really played good and got the crowd riled up and got the biggest response. I was like all intensity and we were just ready to just show everybody what we had, and so we won that club. They do it on two days and they judge you basically on the bands that they’ve seen and who are going to represent the Cascade Blues Association the best. So all the bands that won from the different locations competed against each other at the Waterfront Blues Festival on the Back Porch stage. When we played we got a standing ovation again and then we got awarded to represent the Cascade Blues Association in Memphis, Tennessee.
That was in 2009, and we went to Memphis and played at Club 152 for two days and we had to play two different times and to two different sets of judges and then, based on those performances, out of twelve different bars around Memphis, you had twelve different bands, plus us, that got selected to compete in the finals. The finals were held in the Orpheum Theater and we got a standing ovation there. I thought that we were going to win because it was the biggest response in the whole thing. We became friends with the band that ended up winning and we got to go play in the Caribbean and become friends with the winners and like they are our best buds and they live in Florida, J.P. Soars and the Red Hots. They played this really cool blues set and he went down and played real slow gut-wrenching guitar. Then he played “Gangster of Love” on a cigar box.
BW: So the reason why David Z produced your album was because you came in second?
TC: It wasn’t even because of being second, because he thought that we should have been first. The other thing about J.P. Soars, is that he was in that competition for five years. That was his second time for being in the finals, and a couple of other years he hadn’t made it to the finals. Then right after the year that we came in second, they changed the rules saying you can’t be in the finals more than two years in a row, or whatever it is now, so they changed the rules. He knew the judges. They endorsed him before he came up to play.
The main announcer guy was Jason Ricci, who is this really crazy harmonica player, whose band is called New Blood. He’s a harmonica player, who uses a plethora of effects to make his harmonica sound like other instruments, and he plays incredibly fast, like John Popper, but he was very biased and was telling the judges, if I needed a guitar player, this is who I would hire, and he’s a great friend and a long-time musician. And I’m going, like why don’t you just tell him that he is first. It was like pretty ridiculous. He was using our band for a joke. For a while it was funny, and then it was like we were a new band that was where the big dogs were and we didn’t deserve to be in second place. They played more straight-up blues and we played rocked-up, young blues, like harmonica, like crazy, like over-the-top vocals and I played more rock-blues guitar, sort of, and my drummer, Davis Brown, at the time was more of a rock drummer, so he wasn’t as traditional as Jerry Jacques, my current drummer is now. Jerry grew up listening to his dad play in a big band and has that background of old style like Gene Kruppa and a really good foundation for the bluesy sound.
BW: What was it like working with David Z?
TC: It was pretty awesome because he basically comes in and he knows exactly what to do, he had Bob Stark as an assistant engineer there at Kung Fu Bakery. When he came in he was nice and then he was just like, alright, I need this, and I need this, and I need this! He was checking out all our pre-amps and went through all their stuff and wrote out a list. He was very methodical. Within like ten minutes, it was like resetting everything up. He worked with our drummer taping the drums and doing all kinds of things before he would even go into the control room. He was out in the other room making sure that everything was set up the way he wanted it. Within ten minutes of miking everything and getting it set up and liking it, it was like, that cut sounded good, and that cut sounded good, and it was like all of a sudden the sound got huge and I go, what did he do? He was super quick, really good to work with. Really good ideas as far as like…our CD he didn’t do a lot as far as musically changing it or anything like that. He got a really good performance out of us. He didn’t let us just go, that’s it, he’d go like, take that again. If it wasn’t good, he’d tell you things that you don’t want to hear, but you do want to hear.
BW: How long did the entire recording process take?
TC: Three days. Seven hour sessions each day. It was under budget. We’d go there in the morning and come back at night, and then go back the next day. So I didn’t spend a lot of money on it at all. Even like the radio play and all the cool stuff that we got with that CD, and not spending a lot of money on it was pretty cool.
BW: How did the band personnel change come about to the point where you are at right now?
TC: The first band was me, Jeff Grechny, Jim Smith, and Davis Brown. Jeff got let go because he had a job and a family and they didn’t want him to be going out and gigging and it got to be too big of a thing, and it wasn’t that big, but for his wife, it was taking too much of their time, and he had a kid who was 6 or 7 who needed him, because he wasn’t as social as he should be at that age. So he couldn’t really keep it going, but he wasn’t going to say that he couldn’t, so what happened was, he went on vacation and we filled in Hank [Shreve], because at the time I had heard about Hank playing on harmonica, and at the time we had Jeff playing on harmonica, but he wasn’t there and we played at this gig called Happy Days on the Bay [Oregon’s Pacific Coast]. They rented this giant tent that cost around $10,000, with nobody in it. It was a brand new event and they just overshot everything, from beer to vendors, and nobody was there. They were probably totally screwed moneywise, but Hank played with us at that gig. There were probably about 15 people watching us. We played “Do I Love You Too Much,” and he played the riff that Jeff did off that song. The song was originally performed by Mike Morgan and the Crawl, out of Texas, but we do it more rocked up and kind of straight ahead. A more rock-band sort of feel. So he played that part and it was very eerie, because he didn’t even know that was the part, but he did it anyway, and it was kind of like, hey, this is working too well. At the time he was singing more blues stuff and he was hanging out with a woman singer, whose name I can’t remember. They were singing kind of a duet style at the time and he didn’t have a car, so she gave him a ride to the gig, and it ended up working really well. After that gig we were like, “Man, that was great. Your tone sounds awesome,” and he fit really well, and he was younger and had more energy and was just better for what we wanted to go with. As bad as we wanted to make it, we weren’t going to make it with an electronics dad, and we’re not knocking him for that, but he’s either going to do music or he’s going to do that, and he can’t give up his family and his job which supports them.
So then it was me, Hank, Davis, and Jim. Jim was our bass player and he was good and was this workhorse dude who played in Top 40 bands in Vegas when he was younger and tons of bar bands around here, doing classic rock and covers. So he was very well versed in cover songs and many different music forms. He studied at Mt. Hood Jazz College and has a background in the fretboard and things like that, but his problem was he couldn’t stop drinking. His drinking got to be a problem to the point where he’d be passing out on stage. He wasn’t staying awake and things like that, and so we let him go because of that. At the time Willy Barber had just quit Big Monte’s band and Lloyd Jones and basically he just wasn’t musically happy, and I called up Willy and asked him if he could fill in on a gig. So Willy came in and he’s a tremendous player, he’s incredible, and he’s catapulted our band to that next level. Being able to give us that rhythm section and makes me be able to sing better, having that backing and solidity. Davis just wasn’t consistent and he wasn’t keeping up. He wasn’t performing the same in shows. He would tire. He wouldn’t practice. His girlfriend was more important to him. Just on and on with things like that, and he wasn’t contributing anything musically, and I didn’t feel like I was being challenged or feel like I had a solidity with him at all. If I’m at a show in front of 10,000 people and I tell him solo, I want to be able to count on that. So that became an issue and then he just wasn’t putting the work and the effort into the music.
And then Davis and Willy clashed, because Davis used to be the oldest one in the band, and from the get-go, when I first played with Davis, he was like kind of, this is how it works, this is the way it was with the band I came from, and I said this is how it works, I wrote the song and you’re coming into my band, so it’s a little bit different than the way that you’re seeing it. So there is always that kind of tension, when you have to work for somebody who is younger. And I still deal with that, with Hank and with Willy and everybody. It’s difficult to be in my position to run a band like that, but it’s working, we’re just trying to get to that next level. Get that booker and get that publicist and all those things that I know that I need to succeed, to get to the level that I want to get to.
BW: So, then Jerry Jacques, the drummer that you have now, how did you get him?
TC: So basically with Davis and the issues that he was having, I was going out to Vancouver to watch him play, with Willy’s recommendation. I’d been looking at a bunch of different drummers, and I hadn’t really found anybody around here that I really thought would be the right fit. There’s a lot of good drummers around here, but it’s just got to be that right person, you know? It clicks and it feels good with everybody, and gets along. Jerry is just like…I went and met Jerry and he was a super kind-hearted guy. He’s probably like the hardest working person I’ve ever met, and you can always count on him, he’s always there, and he helps out with the website. He cares about the group and he cares about our sound. It’s really cool to meet somebody like him, that shares the same passion. That was something that we didn’t have with Davis. He cared about the lifestyle and being popular, and getting the notice for being in a band, but not really caring about what it takes to be in a band, which is like learning new songs and effects and or caring about what’s going to make that next track sound the best or updating your drums.
BW: Why are you using the mule as a personal logo?
TC: I’m the mule, I’m always stubborn, and there’s a joke with my parents about when I begin to play my music or do something that I’m really into, I’ll tune people out and I won’t hear you. One time we were practicing in my garage and our neighbor came over and shut the garage door on us, and then we got the cops called on us at my aunt’s house and we kept on playing. It’s just about being stubborn and the donkey, and it’s just kind of a cool image. It was Jason’s idea to put that image of the Italian painter that was a picture of a billboard in Italy or somewhere like that. It’s actually a real billboard and we put our name above it.
More information about the Ty Curtis Band can be found at their website.
Bob Gerzstyn is a contributing editor at BluesWax.
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