Keep It Weird
An interview with Dudley Taft
Words: Vincent Abbate
Last time I checked, Dudley Taft was still waiting to be invited on one of those fancy schmancy blues cruises. You know – those overblown guitar orgies at sea that seem to be popping up all over the place.* Six albums into his solo career, the singer/guitarist still hasn’t become part of that exclusive back-patting mutual admiration society. And perhaps his “outside the box” approach means he never will. For now at least, he’s a lone wolf – an outsider who may or may not be looking in.
(*Note to Joe: I’d be happy to accept your invitation to the next cruise. Anything from the “mid-ship balcony” category upward will do.)
Yet with each new release, a few more people do seem to be picking up on what the persevering, axe-wielding longbeard from Cincinnati is putting down. Among today’s blues-rockers, Dudley Taft has a fairly unique skillset.
On the one hand, he boasts the sturdy chops and aggressive, rock-oriented attack fans love. He grafts that onto a strong blues foundation, as evidenced in the songs he chooses to cover: Johnny Winter’s “Leland Mississippi Blues,” Freddie King’s “Palace of the King,” Skip James’s “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues.”
What sets Taft apart from the vast majority of his contemporaries is his songwriter mentality. His background – which includes study at Boston’s Berklee College of Music and successful stints in a pair of Seattle-based rock outfits during the grunge boom of the 1990s – has given him the tools to expand upon the rigid 1-4-5 of the blues. Rather than toss those skills overboard when he founded the Dudley Taft Band some twelve years ago, he has utilized them to create a fascinating blues-rock hybrid. Catchy choruses, layered vocal harmonies and unexpected chord changes make for a bracing, multicolored listening experience.
Those elements are in full display on his September 2019 release Simple Life. The album’s twelve tunes celebrate the new beginnings of the past few years: With his youngest child now grown and out of the house, the 53-year-old Taft has doubled down on his musical efforts and rededicated himself to touring.
Moreover, the record is an ode to the domestic bliss he has found after navigating the turbulent waters of parenting.
Dudley and I sat down a few days prior to the release of Simple Life to talk about the album and assorted aspects of his personal journey. Joining us – and occasionally adding their voices to the conversation – were the members of his current road band: Hamilton, Ohio’s Kasey Williams, the bassist on Simple Life and its predecessor Summer Rain, and drummer Darby Todd, who has also added his thump to the music of Robert Plant, Gary Moore and Jethro Tull-guitarist Martin Barre.
Who Is Blues: Are the musical traits we hear on Simple Life, the melodic element et cetera, merely a case of all your influences coming out? Or do you make a conscious effort to avoid the standard blues formula?
Dudley Taft: I try not to make any conscious efforts, if I can help it. I grew up listening to songwriters like David Bowie, Neil Young and Lou Reed. With them, it wasn’t like, “I’m gonna play this pentatonic riff over and over and amaze all my friends.” I love great guitar playing. But only if it’s mixed with great songs. I love a lot of the soloing on Pink Floyd records. It’s not shredding. It’s melodic and it fits the song.
I think I’ve always tried to live up to those standards. Now that I’m doing more blues, it’s a different space for me to put that kind of stuff. For me, going to the blues and the bluesier part of songs that I write is really just an attempt to get at the root of the bands I grew up listening to. That turned me on as much as the music of the Beatles or Zeppelin or the great southern rock bands. That whole boogie woogie thing I always thought was cool. When I was writing for those bands in Seattle in the 90s, there really wasn’t any place for that. And I kinda missed that.
I love to play lead guitar and I set it up to play good lead guitar. But I think it needs to add to the song rather than the song being a vehicle for it. It’s funny. I look at other blues players and I think, hey, they only have to play seven songs in an hour. I have to play twelve. This isn’t fair!
WIB: Do you listen to other artists working in the blues-rock vein nowadays?
Dudley Taft: Not with much regularity. If Eric Gales comes out with a new album, I’ll check that out. I like Gary Clark Jr. I love his new record. My favorite Pandora playlist is a mixture of Gary Clark Jr. and the Faces. So you kinda get a good cross-section of the blues with a smattering of the Black Keys. There will be some Tab Benoit in there, some Joe Bonamassa. So I do keep tabs on that. But I don’t feverishly seek out their albums.
WIB: But you tend toward artists who are more eclectic, like Gary Clark Jr.?
Dudley Taft: Gary’s just a very talented singer and guitar player. I like his phrasing. I’m drawn to guys like Joe Walsh and Billy Gibbons for their economy and for being lyrical and melodic when they’re playing a solo instead of playing a million notes. I gravitate to guys who are really good at saying something cool without a million notes.
WIB: The opening track on Simple Life, “Give Me A Song,” is a real earworm. Yesterday, all day, I could not get that song out of my head.
Dudley Taft: Cool! There’s a funny story behind that song. It came about after I met a French musician named Manu Lanvin at the Satyr Blues Festival in Poland. He’s a blues-rock guitarist, singer and songwriter who is huge in France. It was a few days before my wife was coming over to spend five days in Paris. I asked him if he knew anything about Paris. He said, “Yes, I live in Paris!” We kind of bonded over that, and I started listening to his music. He does stuff that works live. Big beats that get the crowd going. When I play my songs, people sit there and look at me and I have no idea if they’re into it. I figured I needed a couple of songs like his. He had written a song called “Blues, Booze & Rock’n’Roll.”
WIB: Sounds pretty straightforward.
Dudley Taft: Yes, but it was very catchy. I think he was inspired by the Black Keys’ “Howlin’ For You.” I think it’s fantastic. So I thought maybe I should give it a shot. I had demoed a melodic riff and I thought it could use this beat. I’m talking four on the floor with the kick drum, with the tom doing a shuffling “dung-diggity-dung” … I didn’t have a song like that! I wanted people to get excited when I play.
So when we recorded that song – and we recorded a lot of songs at my studio – with Kasey on bass and Chris Ellison on drums, everyone had a smile from ear to ear. They just loved playing that beat. The chords are simple.
And I just thought: This is a song about joy. So I followed it up with the lyrics. I can’t just write a fucking happy song! I have to put the shit in about why are you happy? What happened? How did you get here? Well, when I met my wife I was going through a really shitty divorce. I was really having a tough time and was in a dark place. So that’s the verse.
But what I found out was I wanted to celebrate. Give me a song. Give me something to believe in. Give me a reason to fight for someone. It was hard to condense that into the lyrics. Because I would like to say a lot more, you know?
So the lyrics just came out of the vibe of the music. As they often do. Every so often I’ll have a lyrical idea and try to fit the music to it. But when I’m doing my songwriting thing, which usually involves having a nice bong hit or toke of weed at the end of the day when I’ve got all my shit done, I just open my mind and let it happen. The ideas come in and I grab them on my phone and I save them for later. That’s how the whole process works.
I sent “Give Me A Song” to Manu and he loved it! He totally understood what was going on. So from the Black Keys to Manu to me, that particular chain of inspiration had a story to it. Whereas with other songs, I’ll be in the basement with my dogs, nobody’s home and I can crank the amp up and go crazy and come up with something.
WIB (to Kasey Williams): What are your recollections of recording “Give Me A Song”?
Kasey Williams: It was interesting, because you don’t often hear those kinds of drum beats, where you can kind of lay down on it. You kinda get into this primal, jungle groove. It’s a lot of fun. It’s very easy to complicate something that can get by with being simple. Keep it simple! There’s a tendency to want to put all these parts into a song. But when you start with that kind of a drum beat, you don’t have to put much on top of it to make it work.
Dudley Taft: Some songs I like to work up with the band. But a song like “Death By Bliss” is just me with my acoustic guitar. When you have a rhythm section in the room, with some songs you think “oh, that’s cool” and on others it’s “no, that’s not gonna work.” When you work it up with humans in the room, it’s really quite nice. It’s sort of the Neil Young philosophy. Work up the song with the band, play it four times and then record it.
WIB: It stays fresher that way.
Dudley Taft: You can hear it in the track. Even if it’s not perfect, there’s more of a vibe to it. Why iron out all of the personality? We do a little bit of editing. But not much.
WIB: In the press notes to Simple Life, you mention how your youngest child had moved out of the house, which was a dramatic change for you. How many kids did you raise?
Dudley Taft: We have a blended family. My wife has two kids from her first marriage. I had a biological and a stepchild from my first marriage. So when we got together, we essentially had four kids, although my stepson moved in with his mother. We did okay! Then you start this new chapter of your life. When you’re raising a family, it’s a team effort, and it consumes everything. I really wanted to keep playing and everything, but I couldn’t just take a job in some band and go out on tour, because I wanted to be there for my kids. Now that they’re out on their own, we’re travelling more. I’m putting more effort into playing with my band. I’m writing more music and looking for new territories to play. So it’s a good place to be in. We’re still somewhat young. No one has anything bad wrong with us.
WIB: How long have you and your wife been together?
Dudley Taft: Sixteen years. We’ve been married for 13.
WIB: I only ask because you kind of put it out there with Simple Life, saying how the album is about the personal circumstances that brought you to the good place you’re now in.
Dudley Taft: I feel like it’s worth bragging about. I’m happy now. The album is about happiness, for the most part. I feel more comfortable with what I’m doing. I already have a bunch of new songs for the next record. More in the same vein of honesty, writing about who I am and what I have going on.
WIB: Being somewhat unorthodox for a blues-rocker, how do you deal with the compartmentalization of music? Where are the opportunities for you?
Dudley Taft: I’ll give you an example of what you’re talking about. I didn’t get any of the songs off my new album on the SiriusXM blues channel. The guy who programs it is a real nice guy. He said he liked “I Can’t Live Without You” until the chorus.
WIB: Where it becomes more poppy.
Dudley Taft: Yeah. But I don’t write music to fit in anybody’s category. David Bowie had this little quote: Keep it weird. That was his advice to other bands. Keep it weird. Do your own thing. Being in Seattle, all the really creative bands that came up in the early 90s, after hearing how rock was dead and all that … independent music! Hey, actually that shit is pretty good. Bands like Dinosaur Jr. Weird bands that you may never have heard of. That’s fucking cool! So just do your own thing.
The early 90s was such a special time. Being in Seattle at that moment in time, it was like – dude, pay attention, there’s some seriously cool shit going down here.
WIB: You once told me how all the bands on that scene were very supportive of one another.
Dudley Taft: When I was playing with Sweet Water, Chris Cornell came up one time and said, “Hey man, I love your band.” We heard that he would use a couple of songs off our record to warm up before a show. That was really cool. We were friends with all the guys from Soundgarden and Pearl Jam and Alice In Chains. It was just a big warm, fuzzy community, really. It wasn’t like L.A., where the bands would be going: “We brought more fans to the show! We sold more tickets! We have more hairspray than you do!”
WIB: You were in L.A. during the hair metal era?
Dudley Taft: I was. I did not have good hair.
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In Part 2 of our interview (coming soon), Dudley resumes talking about the making of Simple Life inside his basement studio, a state-of-the-art space he acquired from Peter Frampton.
In the meantime, here’s the official video for “Give Me A Song.”