photo credit: Arnaud Lerondeau
The best things in life oftentimes just happen.
Think them through too much and you think the mojo right out of them.
Take, for instance, Live In Germany, the new live album and accompanying concert video from guitarist/singer/songwriter Marc Ford. When Marc and fellow players Mike Malone (keys/vocals), Chris Jones (bass), and Tom Gilkes (drums) hit the stage in a small club in Germany in the summer of 2017, they weren’t thinking about anyone rolling tape or recording video, they were just there to play the gig, play it hard, and have some fun doing it. (At that point, as we’ll find out, the four had only played a handful of gigs as a quartet; they were still just starting to explore what kind of magic they could conjure up together.)
The resulting recording and video from the Star Club in Norderstedt, Germany captures Marc and his bandmates tackling a 21-song setlist as if they’d been formation flying together for years rather than a few days. There are classic moments familiar to Ford followers like the rump funk of “Greazy Chicken” (from 2007’s Weary And Wired album) and the sweet open-souled testifying of “Dream #26” from 2014’s Holy Ghost, but a good portion of Live In Germany comes from The Vulture – Marc’s 2017 studio album he did with the Neptune Blues Band. Dig the title track: presented here with brutal honesty mixed with Crazy Horse-style lurch and brimstone. “Devil’s In The Details” is fueled by some of that same twangy crunch; “Deep Water” is some serious Sunday morning-style soul; “The Same Coming Up” blends hooky power pop with cool keys and fierce guitar over a thrashing beat while “All We Need To Do Is Love” takes a look at the bigger picture (with Marc’s guitar asking some questions of its own).
The quartet navigates a broad spectrum of moods and rhythms all connected by a solid groove – and by the time you hit the final one-punch of “Arkansas Gas Card” (a wild, jammed-out ride with the top down – JJ Cale at the wheel and Jimi Hendrix riding shotgun) and “Steady Rollin’ Man” (yes, it’s a standard, but it’s made to be driven hard), you’ll know you’ve been somewhere.
We spoke with Marc at his San Clemente, CA home where he’s been taking the weirdness of 2020 in stride, enjoying time with family and facing the future with his trademark Southern California Zen.
Live In Germany will debut with a live streaming event and Zoom afterparty on January 14th via NoonChorus.com. Click here for information and tickets. The digital album can be ordered through Bandcamp and will be released on January 15th.
Before we discuss the making of the new album, I wanted to talk about the players involved, starting with keyboardist Mike Malone, who’s one of your co-conspirators in the Neptune Blues Club. Maybe we should start with how the Neptune setting differs from other lineups you’ve led and been a part of.
Neptune is just a hoot. Basically, it’s a bunch of guys from Long Beach who are really down-to-earth blues players.
Long Beach has a long tradition of great blues – it’s still going on – and I wanted to be part of it. I wanted to play with some really bad-ass blues players but not just be stuck playing blues clichés, you know? So there it went.
Neptune morphs as far as the lineup goes – it’s more of a concept than anything. There’s a certain set of rules I stay with when I’m writing for or playing with the Neptune Blues Club compared to, say, what I did on the Holy Ghost record–a different set of tools, I guess you’d say.
So, describe what makes for a Neptune Blues Club setting.
There’s a certain funkiness. The songs aren’t really deep, but it’s a good time–a groove and a good time.
That’s mostly what I’m concerned about with Neptune – people enjoying themselves. I’m not trying to dig any kind of psyche out of me or anybody around me with the songs. Whereas, other times I’m exploring different things–more inner stuff, I guess.
With the Neptune Blues Club, we take the building blocks of the blues without getting hung up on the rules, we avoid the laws that some players live with.
In the beginning, it was an experiment; a good time for us players to get together and play. Overall, it kept me from going too far and it got the others to play out of their bag.
You’ve recorded two albums that include the guys I’ve heard you refer to as the “core four” of the Neptune Blues Club: Mike Malone on keys, harp, and vocals; bassist John Bazz; and Anthony Arvizu on drums. Those players were common to both 2009’s Neptune Blues Club album and The Vulture, which was released in 2017.
And both times I told them, “I’ve got some songs”–which was a lie. [Laughs.]
When we went into the studio to do the first album, I had the riffs; we’d jam; and I’d make changes on the spot–listen to the jams, make edits, write lyrics, and go back the next day and sing over it.
That’s how the first one went. With The Vulture, I had a few songs I knew I could hang a record on; we just sort of finished up the rest in the studio and ended up with a pretty cool record.
So, we’ve established the vibe of the Neptune Blues Club; now let’s go to 2017 and the European tour you did during a break in Magpie Salute’s schedule, the tour that the Live In Germany recording is from. To start with, Mike is the only player of the “core four” who made the trip, correct?
That’ right. I’ve always wanted to take what I thought the Neptune Blues Club to be in spirit over to Europe, but none of the other guys were able to come when the opportunity came to do some shows in 2017–just Mike. I’d still like to take everybody someday.
I got ahold of my friend Stew Jackson in Bath, England and asked him, “I need a rhythm section; who’s around?” There’s a big scene in that Bath/Bristol area with some amazing players.
And Stew came up with bassist Chris Jones and drummer Tom Gilkes.
Yeah; and they were great. They’re kids–or I call them kids; they’re half my age–but we had a really great time playing together.
See, when you first sent me the file to listen to, I didn’t realize it wasn’t the full Neptune lineup – it certainly wasn’t obvious. How much time did you get to rehearse before the tour started?
We didn’t. Well, we had a soundcheck. [Laughs.]
You’re kidding me.
Nope. The first gig was the first time we played together. By the night of the recording that’s on the new album, we were a week into the tour with no rehearsals.
So, what we hear and see is all from a single show – May 16th, 2017 at the Music Star in Norderstedt, Germany – correct?
That’s right. Like I said, we’d been playing together for a week at that point. I was surprised it sounded as good as it did. [Laughs.]
Did you go into that show knowing it was going to be recorded and released as an album and video?
You know, I really don’t remember. Maybe I knew at the time that the club was set up to do multiple cameras and multi-input recording, but it really didn’t matter to me as far as what we played.
Or what you wore for a shirt.
Nope. I certainly wasn’t thinking, “Oh, boy – we’re recording this…” But it was a nice surprise later to find out the recordings existed. It was a good show and it looks like we had fun.
Listening to Live From Germany, one would think the four of you had been playing together for a while; there’s plenty of jamming going on and Tom and Chris are right on your wingtips.
And I wasn’t being exceptionally giving to them as far as cues and stuff, I like to make sure people are listening. There are a couple times when people went where they thought the song was going but, but was like, “Nope, we’re not doing it there.”
But that’s why I do this: the conversation on stage. I’m not there to perform a record for you or some preconceived concept of what you came to hear. I’m there to enjoy myself and to create an atmosphere that you might be able to enjoy, as well.
How did you handle the gear and logistics for that sort of a stripped-down tour on the other side of the ocean?
There’s a company that I’ve been working with for a few years — Teenage Head Music — and it’s a pretty neat deal. They do it all, including booking the shows and managing the tour. They own the backline gear, the van and they do the merch. They basically lay everything out and you just show up and play.
So, you were plugging into whatever was already there, basically traveling with your guitars…
And a few pedals – and I’m sure you remember what you had on the floor for that show.
You mixed the album yourself.
Yep. There was just the one night recorded and what you see and hear is no edits; no overdubs.
After we got the recordings, we were trying to decide what to do with all of it. We talked about having someone do the mixing, but at some point, I thought, “Gosh, I could do that.” Part of it was having plenty of time in 2020, right?
I bought some gear to up my game at home and figured I’d mix it myself and see what happened. For good, bad, or worse I took the money I would’ve paid someone to mix the record and got some decent United Audio gear here at home and did it myself for the first time.
When I first heard the mix, I didn’t realize it was the work of a novice.
Well, thanks. [Laughs.] It wasn’t the hardest thing to figure out, you know? It’s all about balancing–making it sound like what I wanted to hear. I know what things sound like; it was just a matter of how to do it; turning the knobs and getting everything to sit right.
At that point you were going out to promote The Vulture, which is well-represented on Live In Germany. But you also have a large catalog of songs of your own from other albums, along with some covers that are like old friends. How were you handling the setlists during that run of shows?
Well, like I said before, I really did think of it as a Neptune thing – that kind of groove. Even though it was just Mike and me with the guys from Bath, I think we kept that Long Beach funkiness and had a good time doing it. [Laughs.]
You can hear it, Marc. Mission accomplished.