Stephen Dale Petit played the
Rock & Blues Festival in January 2009 and I caught up with
him after his two
Alan: Thank you
very much for agreeing to these questions. First of all, what are
your musical memories growing up in Huntington Beach, California?
Stephen: Well, my
musical memories. Originally I heard music Ėmusic was always around when
I was growing up. My parents played music, records, all the time,
although neither of them were musicians or musical. Both my grandmothers
had pianos. My earliest memories include music and my Dad had a hi-fi
system that was extremely advanced and the speakers were twice the
height of a 3 year old. A big Wharfedale thing and I then latched onto
guitar sounds for some reason and it was the Beatles and the Stones that
really made an impact. And I was really young, 2, 3 and 4 when I
started listening and by the time I was 5 I knew who the Beatles and the
Stones were. My mum was even young herself to be a first generation
Beatles fan so it was some decades later really, certainly 10 to 15
years later. So, in terms of musical memories, it starts there really Ė
I wanted a guitar, then I had some lessons and instantly formed a band.
I had a band when I was 8.
Alan: Did you
then always want to become a musician?
Stephen: I think so,
Alan: What kind
of material did you like playing in those early days?
one has the kind of capability to play really. Youíre quite limited
when youíre 8! I definitely would have played Blues stuff because it
seemed easy and accessible to an 8 or 9 year old, the 3 chord
thing. You know, the thing that is always held against the Blues by the
people who want to knock it, that itís (supposedly) dead simple
pentatonic scales, 3 chords that a monkey could play. Idiots with toy
guitars could play it. I know we played some Beatles stuff and some
Stones stuff, I can remember doing Jumping Jack Flash.
Alan: I can
remember that coming out.
Stephen: I donít
remember that but I was picking up on all this later. A great song is
always a great song. So, by the time I was 13 or 14, Iíd done enough
research and heard enough music to know about proper Blues. Iíd heard
Robert Johnson by that stage, Iíd heard Leadbelly, Big Bill Broonzy, Son
House and Brownie McGee
Stephen: Yeah! So,
Iíd say that was when my first stabs at playing authentic Blues music
Alan: Tell me
about your meeting with Albert King and how he inspired you.
Stephen: I lived in
Huntington Beach as you know and there was a club there called The
Golden Bear which was a place that was a bit like Ronnie Scottís in the
sense that youíd eat, get served food at your table but it was also a
live music venue. It was on the same circuit in the states as The
Whisky A Go Go in Hollywood and was a similar size and structure. The
Golden Bear was directly across from the pier on the beach and he played
there October or November, which is a really nice time of year in
California and there is a massive difference in the weather to what goes
on in the Mid-West states, in Chicago or wherever he was living at the
time. He did two shows at the Golden Bear and his bus was parked out
front and he was sat there, enjoying the ocean view and warm weather,
smoking his corn cob pipe on his own in the bus. So I knocked on the
door and asked if I could come in and he said, absolutely. So I sat and
talked to him for a bit and he had a guitar and showed me a few things.
It was all coming so fast and of course I was in complete awe so my
capacity to take stuff on board was heightened and his guitar was strung
weird so itís all upside down and looking very strange but Iím doing my
best to follow. I was over the moon, he was such a great guy. His
playing was so other worldly to me, it sounded like nothing else I had
ever heard. I was in a daze for weeks, after the first time I heard him.
Anyway he helped open my eyes to inventiveness, and finding a unique
voice with the guitar.
Alan: Who are
your favourite Blues artists?
Stephen: I have
heard The Malchicks recently Ė I like them a lot. Thereís a couple of
James Hunter things I think are really great. Iíve heard an Oli Brown
tune which I think is really good. Joe Bonamassa I didnít really get
until recently when I heard some live stuff which I thought was just
amazing, really blew me away. Blind Willie Johnsonís vocals are just
outrageously amazing. Skip James was just so genius.
Alan: It takes a
while to get into him, with his voice.
Stephen: I really
like his voice. But even more than Robert Johnson, the counter-rhythms
that go on in his guitar playing are just so advanced. Itís really
influenced you the most in your music writing and playing?
Beatles, definitely, because they knew how to structure a song. But
equally somebody like Captain Beefheart who also knew how to structure a
song but completely in his own inimitable fashion. In terms of soloing
Ė everybody! Freddie King, BB King. Eric in the Mayall/Cream period,
which I think is untouchable and is just right up there with anything,
Hendrix or anything. Just astounding. He was structuring solos at a
new level, when at that period in popular music you just had people
mimicking the choruses of songs or something to do with the melody of a
vocal line, such as George Harrison did a lot. Or you had those
freakouts, like Dave Davies did which were all pretty one-dimensional,
on one level. Then, Eric came and was able to follow his head,
Alan: What was
the best Blues album you ever had?
Stephen: How about a
few? Firstly, BB King, Live at Cook County. Then thereís The Beano Album
[John Mayall's Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton]. A constant favourite to
this day is The Crusade album [John Mayall], the Mick Taylor album. I
knew that people didnít really demonstrate on the streets for the Blues
but putting it on the cover was just so genius. Mick Taylorís playing is
great on the album, you know, his tone & touch and soulful vibrato were
a massive inspiration to me. ďThe Death of J B LenoirĒ haunts me still.
Itís such a moving song, sung so well, great melody. I discovered the
album at exactly the right time in terms of unlocking loads of puzzles.
For example, Skip James was doing all this complicated stuff and a lot
of it was indecipherable to me, so I would approximate. But when I heard
the stuff that Mick Taylor was playing, for some reason it was very
clear to me and I could figure it out. Also, I began to notice that when
you play stuff on different parts of the neck it gives you a difference
in the timbre and the tone. So you can play a phrase on a high E string
down at the bottom of the neck or you can play the same phrase further
up and it will have a whole different tone, texture and intensity, and
thatís when I began to develop the ability to hear where people were
playing on the neck. So, once I started to be able to play solos as the
people who composed them had played them, I could see how they had been
constructed and could kind of get into their head for the moment of that
solo. Itís never going to be exact but I started to get glimpses of how
these people did it. The Crusade album was huge for me.
Then, ANY Albert
King album. With The Crusade album, Iíd feel good and it filled in huge
gaps about what I was striving for and what I could actually achieve.
But then Iíd hear Albert King and just think, ďIím lost. I thought Iíd
made great progress but Iím lostĒ. So you have to regroup, re-approach
and come at it from a different angle. You think youíve got some degree
of proficiency and you feel comfortable, and you can hear that youíve
really made some progress but then somebody like that comes along and it
just blows you into a scorched earth, bleak state of mind.
So, thereís no
ďbestĒ album, but thereís loads of them, and it still goes on.
And itís a great journey
Thatís the beauty of music and especially the beauty of the guitar.
Keyboards are fixed and you canít bend notes. Synthesisers can begin to
sound so plastic that I donít even consider them music but the guitar is
so expressive with all the ways you can tune, finger and slide. It
might sound technical, and I suppose it is, but another way of saying it
is that itís never going to get boring if Iím both always learning from
the past Blues masters AND open to exploring the unknown - sounds,
textures, amps, recording techniques Ė everything.
Alan: I was going
to ask about your favourite instrument but youíve already answered that.
But I believe youíve got a Gibson? Was it made to your spec?
Stephen: Yes, I
have. The blue Firebird I was playing last night was custom-made. I
sent Gibson a Les Paul with my favourite neck on it and they scanned
that and made a replica neck with the same dimensions for the Firebird.
I sent them a block of wood painted the colour I wanted it and they did
it. The colour is a one-off and the wiring is different on it too.
I love the drums
too. Albert King was apparently a professional drum player before the
guitar and I think thatís one of the reasons why his phrasing was so
Alan: Are there
any particular songs that you play that have special meaning to you?
Stephen: As The
Years Go Passing By has come to have certain meaning and Iíve been in
that position of, ďthereís nothing I can do if you leave me here to
cryĒ. I can step into that perspective of the lyric, almost like a
script, and I bring very personal, real experience to it. Itís not me
just singing a song. UmmmÖIíve been the person leaving too, so I know it
from both sides.
brought you to the UK?
Specifically, the British Blues. I was just speaking to Jimmy Page
about this and I said to him that he might have a different opinion (he
didnít really) but I think that the Beatles did blues-based music,
derived from the Blues. The early ďSaw Her Standing ThereĒ and ďCanít
Buy Me LoveĒ are Blues songs. Pop choruses are just bolted onto the
Blues progressions. ďSheís a WomanĒ is the same thing. ďI Feel FineĒ
is a Blues song with a pop chorus. I knew that they were really
influenced by Chuck Berry and at that stage I thought that Chuck Berry
was a rock n' roll guy because that was how he was marketed, but when I
discovered that he was on Chess and I started to look at who else was on
Chess, then I was away with realising that the Stones did Chuck Berry
stuff and were ALSO name-checking Bo Diddley, John Lee Hooker, Muddy
Waters, Howling Wolf. Even though it was years later, as a 9 year old
Californian kid seeing the reverence that the UK musicians had for these
guys made a big impression on me. Strange as it may sound, to start with
I only felt a part of this music I was hearing by the British bands.
Even though it was two decades down the line, the album covers I saw
from Cream for example were aimed at youth but the album covers I was
getting for, say, Cook County [BB King], (which were about as trendy as
it got) Ė it was that sort of bitmapped image, some treatment they did
to a photograph, but most of them looked like scholastic library issued
recordings (and, of course, many of them were.) They spoke to me only of
austerity and adult and were impenetrable in a certain way. So all that
marketing they did on the 60ís stuff was still working on a younger
person down the road and I did take note that all these guys were
British and I also knew that the Stones were on some Beatles sessions
etc and I really was drawn to that because the music was so magical. I
know that in the 60ís in the UK there was a whole thing going on about
authenticity and Iíve spoken to the likes of Jeff Beck about it who said
he just felt guilty taking the music. But what was going on for me was
that it was British music that was steeped in and saturated with Blues
and Blues sensibilities. I had no aspirations to go and hang out in
Chicago. As a young teenager Iíd been driven through Alabama and the
southern states and didnít want to go and hang out in the Mississippi
Delta. The UK was more exotic. A different country is always more
exotic than your own country.
impressed you musically when you first came to the UK?
Stephen: I was quite
disappointed when I first came to the UK. I came here with a huge
image, and fantasy, about what it was like. I didnít really think that
people would demonstrate for the Blues on the street but that was one
little component of a huge thing that Iíd already constructed by the
time I arrived here. So the stuff that was in the charts, I thought was
horrific and synthesisers were still quite prominent when I arrived in
the 1980s and I was also disappointed by what had happened to the Blues
in this country, that it had been put into a specialist ghetto, and was
being treated as an uninteresting footnote in the musical story of the
UK. There should be statues to people like Alexis Korner, Cyril Davies
and Chris Barber. Graham Bond, John Mayall Ė there are many more.
People just seem to do down their own country.
healthy do you think the Blues scene is in the UK nowadays?
Stephen: I think
itís getting really quite strong and there are definite signs of an
impending breakthrough into the mainstream, which I think will really be
a great thing. Itís getting easier, I donít feel that I have to
apologise for being Blues. I remember being on Billy Butler BBC Radio
Merseyside - it made for good radio and I was being sincere, but in the
end he would name an artist and say ďBut youíre going to tell me thatís
Blues based, arenít you Stephen?Ē. But the fact is that even punk is
rooted in the Blues. I did see the Pistols on the night they broke
up in San Francisco. Iíve no idea what the consensus is or isnít on
them, but [Sex Pistolís songwriter] Glen Matlock says he just sped up
Blues songs & progressions. I know The Clash were Blues fans and
theyíve got loads of Blues songs, and some of it might sound rockabilly
but again we're talking about the Blues sped-up.
Alan: How do you
think the British Blues Singers impacted the Blues?
Stephen: I consider
the contribution that British music has made to The Blues, equal to that
of the pioneers, equal to Son House, to Skip James. Absolutely equal.
Alan: How did
you get to play alongside Eric Clapton, and did he inspire you in any
friends. When I was a teenager he floored me, completely inspired me,
and still can. Particularly, the Mayall album, and even more the first
Cream album when he was set loose. Ginger and Jack were coming from this
jazz background and improvising and letting it go, and I find Ericís
work on the first Cream album astounding. Itís beautiful and genius,
tough and ruthless.
Alan: Tell me
about your busking days. Did you feel you were following the steps of
the old Blues men?
Stephen: Yes, it was
the way that I talked myself into going down there (into the London
Underground). I didnít really want to do it but knowing that so many of
the Blues legends had busked made it more palatable for me. Personally
it seemed a definite step, even 10 steps, backwards at the time. I was
asked about it recently in an interview but when it was printed the
journalist said, ďYes, it was great that he went down in the Underground
bla bla but Tottenham Court Road is not as edgy as Memphis in 1948Ē, and
I thought, ďWell, how would you know?Ē He wasnít there was he? And his
image of Memphis in 1948 is one thing, not unlike my image of England
before I arrived here Ė I had no way of knowing. And the other thing
thatís missing from that journalistís view is that I was at a dead end
in my life. Iíd been recording and touring, and I had a contractual
situation which had hit a dead end and I was lost as to what to do,
drugs and alcohol were featuring too heavily in my life at the time, I
had no sense of direction or purpose, so busking seemed to tick a lot of
boxes, and solve a lot of problems. You know there were periods when I
had nowhere to live. It might be that the journalist thought I was
trying it on, like a fashion statement or something, but I wasnít doing
it because I thought it was cool & trendy and it could be tough, very,
very tough. In the end what seemed to be a rather humiliating turn of
events was in fact a catalyst for me, a reconnecting to my roots. It
Alan: A lot of
British stars started by busking.
I know Eric did it in his student days. The difference is that I wasnít
17 or 18, so from that point of view it was hard but ultimately it led
to me recording Guitararama. People stopped me down there and said ďCan
I buy thisĒ but I had nothing to sell so after a few months I thought
Iíd better set about recording some music. Once Iíd made that decision,
I knew I wasnít going to be happy with something that was shoddily done
just to sell to people on the Underground [London Tube] and I knew it
had to be a proper recording and a CD that stood up in any arena. So it
took a lot of time, about 18 months.
Alan: I bet it cost
Stephen: Well, yes.
I found I had to continue busking to fund it. But it also meant I could
take time, it wasnít a rushed job and I could be relaxed and breathe. I
had some perspective on it.
Alan: To quote,
ďThe New Blues revolution thatís a predominately UK based musical
phenomenonĒ. Tell me more.
Stephen: Youíve now
seen the live set twice. The album is something that I did before this
live situation developed, so some songs, like the one we open with (The
Gun Song) is a song that goes in a whole new direction; it started as
ďAlexies Korner SaysĒ from Guitararama, and is now itís own entity. So
New Blues is just that Ė itís a way of describing Blues in 2009, itís a
way of describing the ethos that blues music is a breathing, living
organism, itís not a museum piece, itís not meant to be sealed in aspic
and also itís a way of speaking about an atmosphere that says Blues is
meant to be that way. Knowing about what the music was and getting
inside early blues music is hugely, critically important, you know
really feeling it, but itís a pointless exercise unless it has relevance
to today, because otherwise itís just a museum piece, just a curiosity
Alan: Yes, and itís
getting it to the younger generation.
Stephen: I think
the White Stripes had a period when they were doing that. The Black Keys
have done that; itís nice to see Seasick Steve getting on and I know
lots of kids love the music. When I was busking I had instant market
research and I would get stopped by kids all the time who had no idea
they were listening to Blues and they would say ďWhat is this? Itís
fantastic!Ē. To them, it was just guitar music and then theyíd say, ďI
never really thought I liked Blues musicĒ. Itís somehow happened that
Blues has been segregated on all levels Ė retail, live, radio, media Ė
and pushed into a specialist niche. In 1968, in the charts, you had
Zeppelin, Hendrix, Cream, Fleetwood Mac in the charts. It was stunning
stuff and thereís no reason why that couldnít happen again. By the way,
thereís nothing wrong with pop charts Ė itís only short for popular.
Blues is like a well
of pure music that you can go back to at any point, wherever you are.
People will be able to do this in 2050 but it requires that you turn
loose of all your sensibilities. You canít keep one foot in modern
life, musically speaking. It requires of you that you surrender your
musical points of reference and that you are back there with Son House,
which also means getting used to the way the old recordings sound. You
listen to the Kaiser Chiefs or Alicia Keys or Leona Lewis or Britney
Spears or Duffy or Amy Winehouse or a even a new Buddy Guy recording and
the actual technique of recording sound has changed, in the way that the
sound engineers are doing it, itís so compressed and so dense and people
get accustomed to hearing things that way and everything else sounds
Alan: You did a
tour of universities Ė The BLUnivErSity Tour. How did that go?
Stephen: It went
really well. We generally tied it in with a gig in the town. Iíd love
to do it again. Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Howling Wolf, Willie
Dixon etc were all one man campaigns for the Blues. Again, perspective
is everything but I got into John Lee Hooker quite early on and I always
took it as read that he was a fixture and always had been, but it turns
out that he had huge chunks of time when he was wandering in the
wilderness. When he moved to Detroit, they wanted more sophisticated
stuff than what he did, plus they considered him old hat, and he had to
play in a shabby club at the end of the road. There's a whole road
dedicated to live music in Detroit that he describes. It took a good
while for him to establish a beach head. Muddy Waters and BB King had
the same thing, and couldn't get a look in either initially, so they all
had their struggles against prevailing attitudes. The University thing
is just another way of doing it, getting the message out about Blues and
the students love it. It was described as a Masterclass but was really
part politicianís speech, a bit of a preacherís sermon Ė all for the
Blues you know, and then there was a live performance bit and then I
would have a section with historical content like, ďEven now, in 2009,
The Mississippi Delta still has the highest level of poverty in
I toured for a month last May and it really opens your eyes.
Stephen: Yes Ė and
it still has the greatest infant mortality rate in America, black or
white. Share-croppers were 40% white on the plantations, it wasnít all
black families. By the way (Barack Obama took office the week
before this interview) I do love the fact that Obama is in the White
House. For Blues music. If he can be in the White House, I just see
it as a road sign that things have finally opened up. Something about a
black president that seems so huge & symbolic. What would Charlie Patton
say about it , you know? What song would he write? Anyway, if you are a
guitar player and you donít get steeped in the Blues, as far as Iím
concerned you might as well be playing with one finger less. It doesnít
matter if you want to be a slash metal guitar player, or a jazz guitar
player Ė all the techniques were pioneered by Blues guys, even the fact
that we have distortion now, itís taken as read that sounds are
distorted Ė the Blues players sought it out, they actively and
consciously aimed for it. They were the first to do that. Sometimes
because they had equipment that led them, perhaps they had a cheap amp
that gave them the sound but whatever it was, they knew it worked.
Musicologists studying musicians in Africa were astonished to find that
theyíd take something like a flute, which has a very pure tone and
theyíd dirty it up. The kazoo came from a process of seeking out a
dirtied-up, distorted sound for rituals which they would wear a mask
for, with a metal mouthpiece in the mask. In the context of popular
music in the west in 2009, you trace it back and get stuck into the
Blues and itís the only thing that makes sense to me.
Alan: So, your
tour in May with Mick Taylor. How did that come about?
was talking about having a special guest and I thought of a few people
and he was the one guy I just thought, ďHeís fantasticĒ. It turned out
we were playing a club in London a week after he was playing the same
club so I went down to see him and it turned out that I know Mickís
manager and so itís just come together.
Alan:. Iím really
looking forward to this tour.
Stephen: You and me
what are your future plans. New album coming out?
Stephen: Yes, we are
recording just up the road from here. We are hoping to get it finished
by April and releasing it in June.
Alan: Got a
title for it yet?
Stephen: Not sure.
Well, I do, but Iím not yet ready to commit to it. But Iím really
excited about it because Guitararama was me with various musicians, but
this is an album with a band and weíve been playing now for 18
months and some of the new songs have been played on stage many
times and you can hear in the recordings that they are road tested.
Itís a whole other dimension thatís been added with the band functioning
as one organism.
thank you so much for your time. Really appreciate it.
Stephen Deale Petit on
tour with Mick Taylor - Photos
Skegness Rock & Blues Festival 2009 - Photos
Story board from Stephen (a series of ongoing 1
minute story clips which will make up a complete story board):
releases his new
single 'As The Years Go Passing By' on June 15th via 333 Records.
His last single A Better Answer has just been named Track of the Day
by Classic Rock magazine
Blues Interviews List
Website, Photos © Copyright 2000-2009 Alan
White. All Rights Reserved.
Text (this page) ©
Copyright 2000-2009 Alan
White & Stephen Dale Petit. All Rights Reserved.
For further information please email: