mwe3.com presents an
interview with
MOTU

The Long Island blues-rock legend speaks about his album
Suitcase Full Of Sorrow And Another Filled With Dreams


mwe3: Can you tell us where you’re from originally and where you live now and what you like best about it? Tell us about Long Island and how living on the Island influences your music. It’s easier than living in the city for sure. Do you have some favorite parts of Long Island?

MOTU: I was born as a first generation American in Manhattan in NYC, but I spent most of my youth on Long Island. My birth year was 1954 which oddly enough is also the year of the first documented use of the abbreviated term "Rock 'n' Roll". It was also the birth year of the Fender Stratocaster. So growing up, I think the cultural shift toward new forms of music, social change and the arts probably had more of an effect on my gravitation toward popular music of the times than my move east to Long Island. Ultimately, during the course of my lifetime, I would end up spending time in almost every corner of the Earth. Thus, having spent time in South and North America, Africa, Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Australia, and the Far East has given me a very global perspective on mankind, which is reflected in my writing. However, we are all programmed with a homing instinct, which brings us back to where it all began and Long Island is my home. My wife and I now live in a beautiful place on the Long Island Sound. So my own backyard is my favorite place for sure.

mwe3: The title track to the new album, “Suitcase Full Of Sorrow And Another Filled With Dreams” is a great rocker in the spirit of The Band and Dylan fans would also like this. Is it a life on the road kind of vibe? The song has a country vibe but it’s also got a solid rock beat ala Creedence for example. How would you compare the song to earlier works you've done?

MOTU: Wow. To be compared to The Band and Bob Dylan is not something I was expecting. I’m honored by your comparison. That title track on the 19th album release is a departure for me from my previous song writing efforts. A little more than a year ago, I purchased my first pedal steel guitar… I got a great deal. I’ve been playing slide guitar since I was a kid so when I saw someone getting rid of an old 1960s model pedal steel guitar I said to myself, “I should be able to play that.” I was right, there was no learning curve. All my years playing slide guitar made me sound like I had always been playing pedal steel. So I ended up writing several songs on Suitcase Full Of Sorrow And Another Filled With Dreams that highlight pedal steel just because it was a new toy. As far as influences go, I grew up in the 1950s and ‘60s, during a renaissance period in music and literature, which history probably will look back on as the largest expansion period of the music business. My theory of “why this was so” is because new, “better” recorded albums were the high-tech software of that time which existed for the sole purpose of selling the high technology hardware of that time, which were record players, stereo hi-fi hardware, and speaker systems. Once technology shifted away from hi-fi systems toward computers and intelligent phones so did the market demand toward software to support these new tech platforms resulting in the contraction of the music business. Nobody cared anymore about big hi-fi systems, so records were now just like outdated software/old technology and the market doesn’t chase old technology. So, yes, Dylan and all of those other icons influenced my writing. Remember, I grew up during a period where lyrics held as much importance as the music did. So, although I have written instrumental jazz, like my Distant Guitar Whispers In The Wind album, which is all instrumental and has no vocals, when I do write songs with vocals, the lyrics drive my creative process just as much as the music does.

mwe3: Suitcase Full Of Sorrow And Another Filled With Dreams is the 19th MOTU album. Can you give a brief background about when you first started recording and how your recording style has changed and progressed over the years? Is there a way to compare the new MOTU album with your earlier albums or do you not like to compare your releases? Also, is there a tale behind the MOTU name for your stage name and your band?

MOTU: The acronym “MOTU” is for Music Of The Universe. It was just shortened by my fans in California. Not much of a story. As far as my own music/recording journey goes, I actually started playing around with recording techniques at the age of 11… no kidding. I was fascinated with tape recording and spent hours experimenting. At the time my first instrument was violin so by the time I started teaching myself guitar at 12 years old. I realize now, looking back that I was pretty ahead of the curve in understanding audio recording technologies. My first influences were all of the popular new music of that time which included folk, blues, rock, and jazz. My first instrument emulations were of Paul Simon, BB King, Muddy Waters, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Wes Montgomery, Bob Dylan, The Beatles, and Rolling Stones. When The Jefferson Airplane hit the radio waves in 1967, I became obsessed with a young guitarist by the name of Jorma Kaukonen when I heard “Embyonic Journey” on their 1967 release Surrealistic Pillow. Even today I still sometimes perform that instrumental tune at shows. When I do finger picking blues tunes you certainly can hear Jorma’s influence in my playing.

Now, at age 65, I play many string instruments and guitars of all styles—pedal steel, slide dobro, banjo, mandolin, violin, and even the balalaika. On my 19 released albums, some of which are now out-of-print, I have always been changing, growing, and never standing still. As I mentioned earlier, I did a jazz-instrumental album not so long ago yet this newest album is American Roots—encompassing Americana / country / blues and rock. This new band is a 6-piece band but, if you go back just a few years ago my band was a 15-piece band. Three of my own past favorite albums are Fast Food Blues, which was heavy on horns, Distant Guitar Whispers In The Wind, which was a jazz guitar instrumental album and Time Runs Faster, which was heavy on dobro. I’m very fond of my newest album Suitcase Full Of Sorrow And Another Filled With Dreams, which is very heavy on vocal harmonies. So I can’t explain the evolution of my music, and writing, except to say that each album is a time capsule of where my head was at the time when I did that particular album.

mwe3: What guitars are you playing on the new album and what pedal steel are you playing? Are you recording with amps or do you record directly into the soundboard? The guitars are superbly recorded, especially the pedal steel and what about amps and do you use computers to help you edit or record?

MOTU: Thanks for recognizing the sound engineering. I record direct and also using mics on mostly old Fender amps. Most of my audio techniques are old school analog on the instrument side but going into a digital interface. I’m very anal about sound engineering and sometimes my best mix downs are the 100th or so attempt at 2 AM in the morning! I don’t use tape anymore even though I still own some truly vintage tape equipment. I own over hundred guitars and will use many of them for specific sounds that I’m looking for. On Suitcase Full Of Sorrow And Another Filled With Dreams, the acoustic guitars are by Taylor (T5), Gibson (Humingbird), National (Resolectric), Paul Beard (Dobro), Ovation, and Carlo Robelli. The electric guitars are by Gretsch (White Falcon), Fender (American Telecaster), PRS (24) and Gibson (LP Standard and ES355). The pedal steel is by Sho Bud (Maverick), the mandolin is by Morgan Monroe and the banjo is by Gold Tone.

mwe3: “Just A Fool’s Game” is classic country-rock. Dee does a great job on the vocals. Is it kind of a New York style blues and how about the chord pattern? Is that a standard blues chart? It’s very original sounding. What guitars are you playing on that track? There’s a very heavy guitar solo, perhaps reflecting the heartfelt lyrics?

MOTU: I hate violence and wish that more women would not stop making excuses for it when their man beats them. I think this is a perfect subject for a blues-human-interest song… but in my song the woman leaves. It is a deviation of a 1,4,5 blues progression with the addition of inserted 7ths and minor chord changes off of each dominant change. There also is a strategically placed Cm. Although it isn’t a standard blues pattern, it is based off of a standard pattern. So even though it is unique, there is a blues familiarity to it. It definitely works. Thus, I felt that the recording needed some powerful guitar, both picking on the PRS and slide on the Gibson LP, as well as Bob Rush’s awesome Chicago style harmonica and blues piano to offset the beautiful purity of Dee’s voice. I also brought up Mark Loebl’s bass guitar and Ed Modzel’s bass drum on the final mix to accent the highs of Dee’s voice. She is an amazing vocalist. One of the past officers of the Long Island Blues Society remarked that “you can tune a piano to Dee’s voice”, which is true. One time the two of us were practicing with just my acoustic guitar and Dee singing. Dee told me my guitar wasn’t tuned correctly. My guitar sounded perfectly in tune to itself but when I checked it with a tuner, the whole guitar was actually less than about a quarter step off but still in tune to itself! Amazing that her ear could pick that up. I’m very lucky to have her in my life and she is an incredible artist.

mwe3: “We Need To Find Our Way Back Home” is another highlight from the new album. It’s a great track to end side one of the album so to speak—or back in the day when we had a sides and b sides to an Lp! Is it a sort of a 50 year update to the Blind Faith song “Can’t Find My Way Back Home”, with a kind of 2020 hindsight?

MOTU: I had to write this song. The current partisan divide in this country has become so tribal that it has turned friend against friend fostering hate and prejudice on a scale that I have never seen in my lifetime. Even more of a disappointment to me is that I took part in marches and protests decades ago in order to implement positive social change much of which I now see has gone down the toilet. Having been all over this world, including in third world countries, I have seen the worst and the best of humanity. This song has a simple message that doesn’t take sides but reminds us of how far we have fallen. It is one of hope and brotherhood, which were the ideals of my generation when I was growing up. I believe that we can get back to these ideals as one nation and as one world.

mwe3: “New World Order” is very current and topical. Does it sum up the hopelessness and helplessness we find ourselves in near the end of the first fifth of the 21st century? What brought that track on? Welcome to the land with no apology. Are we still the land of the free?

MOTU: I still have hope that our country will find a way back to being a beacon of light for the rest of the world, even if it is not in my lifetime. The song is dark because we are at a very dark point in our country’s history. Our government is totally disconnected from the problems most Americans face as these leaders only pass self-serving legislation that benefit themselves and the very few extremely wealthy. So this song digs deeper with direct criticism at those at the very top who are the real cause of the current social and economic divides that face us. Whereas “We Need To Find Our Way Back Home” explores the societal impact of our current divide, “New World Order” explores the erosion of our democracy.

It is the frog in the boiling pot of water paradox, i.e. throw a frog into a boiling pot of water and it will struggle to jump out but put that same frog in a pot of cold water that is slowly brought to a boil and it will just sit there unaware of the rising temperature and boil to death. Americans have slowly lost many rights over a period of time so that many just have not noticed. This loss is race and economic class based, eliminating the middle class entirely so that now, there just exists a lower economic class and an upper economic class. I have seen this in many third world countries that I have visited but I never thought that I would see this in our country. However, our leaders now favor corporations over the rights of individuals, which is the beginning of fascism. Therefore, the question should not be if we are still free but rather what freedoms have been taken from us and what freedoms are at imminent risk of being taken away?

mwe3: On “New World Order” you and Rich Fry combine the guitar sounds. How did you balance the guitar work between you and Rich and what guitars is Rich Fry using on the new album?

MOTU: On this song I play the acoustic guitar and the pedal steel guitar you hear at the beginning. I also play the electric lead guitar and acoustic lead guitar you hear during the break. Fry plays accent chords on an electric guitar with a phasing effect, which blends nicely with my acoustic guitar throughout the entire song.

On this album Rich Fry plays a custom shop Gibson LP, a Taylor acoustic and Taylor T5. Rich Fry and I work great together and never step on each other. Our styles complement each other. For example, on “A Devil Woman” Rich Fry plays the first single picked lead during the first guitar solo instrumental and I follow on the second guitar solo instrumental playing slide guitar—sort of an Allman Brothers formula.

mwe3: How about the guitars on “Queens Empty Throne”? It sounds like Clapton’s sound on Wheels Of Fire. Searing! Is that a fuzz box? Also is there a tambourine sound on that track? Do you use tambourine to add percussion textures? It’s an underrated instrument.

MOTU: It is a Boss DS-1. Simple, but does the trick. I’m playing a Gibson LP Premium Plus Standard through the DS-1 because the burstbucker pro pickups are hot and perfect for this kind of blues lead solo. I don’t remember Ed using a tambourine on that track but then again this was recorded live in the studio, with no tracking, so maybe I just didn’t notice when we performed it. I’m surprised I missed that. I’ll have to go back and listen to it.

mwe3: “Not Part Of Their Game” is interesting. Who is the lyrical message directed at? It’s kind of a sad song. Also, tell us about your mandolin sound. The mando adds a lighthearted touch to the sound and helps lighten up the mood at bit. I happen to really like that track and its unusual chord structure. Is Rich Fry playing acoustic on that track too?

MOTU: There is a great song by Van Morrison titled, “Professional Jealousy”. This is another take on that subject. On this track both Rich Fry and I play acoustic guitars. I also play mandolin on it. And yes, the chord structure I wrote is strange but I wanted to get an ominous feel to it, which I think I ended up accomplishing. The vocals’ minor structure harmonies add to this.

mwe3: “You’re Going Down” reminds me a bit of Neil Young. Did you want to feature a heavy lyric with an even heavier guitar sound and how did you treat the guitar sound on that track? Dee really nails that track. It’s a perfect track for her strong vocal. It’s a powerful kind of message. Was Neil Young an influence on your song writing on this track? I was just thinking that even a casual Neil fan would like the entire Suitcase Full Of Sorrow And Another Filled With Dreams album.

MOTU: It is a real fun jam song and we like to perform this one a lot live. Funny thing is that this song was not intended to sound like a Neil Young tune but it did come out having that sort of flavor. I was originally going for a Patty Smyth-Springsteen Punk style. In the end I really like the way the tune came out. Dee’s voice really does nail the emotional and lyrical feel I was looking for and, I would certainly be excited by any Neil Young fans that this album attracts.

mwe3: “She Knows How To Rock & Roll” closes out Suitcase Full Of Sorrow And Another Filled With Dreams on an upbeat groove. Did you purposely want to end the album on an upbeat note? Dee isn’t singing on this track, though I guess it’s a tribute track to her. So an upbeat blues closes out a very introspective album indeed!

MOTU: This was another live-in-the-studio recorded tune and you can hear Dee at the very end cheering our performance. My core fan base has always been blues and jazz based so this one is for those loyal fans that have always supported my efforts regardless of the odd twists and turns I have made. Plus this song is my first recorded attempt at improvisational scat jazz singing. At 65, I’m still experimenting with my craft. And yes, it is an introspective effort. The more years I live, and the more experiences I have, the less I understand and the more questions that present themselves to me. So it is meant to be an upbeat end of yet another brief journey.

mwe3: You were telling me you’re doing some private shows this weekend. Do you plan on playing other shows with MOTU and blues festivals this summer and how about spreading the MOTU sound all over the US and even in other countries too? Suitcase Full Of Sorrow And Another Filled With Dreams is certainly an album worthy of being enjoyed all over the globe.

MOTU: If you check out my many Youtube concert videos you will see that they were recorded at locations all over the place. But if you look real close you will also notice that there are several different bands associated with me depending upon the location and / or venue. This is by design and not because it is always changing personnel. There are some obvious configurations. For example, the six people that perform on this latest album is my standard electric band. Most of these people have been with me for years and I consider this my core band: Dee (Chetta) Michelson, Ed Modzel, Bob Rush, Mark Loebl, Rich Fry, and me. The second most common configuration is what I call my acoustic trio which is Dee (Chetta) Michelson, Rich Fry, and me. The third configuration is just me solo. There are other configurations but those three are the most typical ones I work with. Also, I will occasionally do the private or corporate gig thing which also can be anywhere on the globe. I’m glad you enjoyed Suitcase Full Of Sorrow And Another Filled With Dreams and I hope my fans embrace it as well. This year is my 50th year anniversary in the music business and I hope to continue performing, writing and releasing albums for many years to come… as long as my fans want me to continue to do so.



 

 
   
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