Just ahead of his appearance at the Kapiti Coast’s Coastella Festival, a part of his New Zealand tour – retro-blues merchant C.W. Stoneking talks to Tim Gruar about discovering and playing music that’s out of time, going all ‘Boogaloo’ and working with Jack White and Josh Homme.
It seems that technology was determined to sabotage this interview. We’d tried three times to connect over the last fortnight with a number of platforms and technologies – What’s App, Skype, etc. Nothing seemed to do the trick. Finally, we got to have a yarn over the good ol’ telephone. C.W. (aka Christopher William) Stoneking had just landed in Nelson after flying in from the States and was high-tailing it over the ‘mountains’ to a gig at the Mussel Inn, Onekaka. It seemed apt that the man who makes music that sounds so much that it belongs to the previous century should be thwarted by modern means of communication.
If the name seems familiar, then you might remember his breakthrough album 2008’s Jungle Blues (actually his fourth release) which completely bucked the pop trends of the day with a collection of songs that sounded like they had been recorded way back in the 1920’s and 30’s. It also raked in a sizeable cache of Aria awards and other accolades that year. I can distinctly remember being in a hip CD shop in Melbourne, buying up Acid Jazz and D’n’B, when the owned suggested I give Jungle Blues a spin. Firstly, the crackly sound, the tinny banjo and steel guitars set the scene and then that distinctive voice! To me it sounded like old timer blues purveyors such as Blind Boy Fuller, Howlin’ Wolf and Blind Willie McTell – with more than just a hint of a ranting Mississippi State Fair side show compere. This music was not modern, or even retro, it sounded genuine, like some lost 78’s found at the back of a cupboard or in a dusty loft.
“Actually, I used Pro Tools, I think, to make those,” he tells me, dispelling the myth I had in my head. “I may have used a couple of old vintage mic’s here and there but most of it was standard gear.”
But it’s not just the sound that makes Stoneking’s music stand out – it’s the subject matter and the delivery. Drugged up pygmies; all-seeing third-eyed clairvoyants; ventriloquists; voodoo doctors and serpent charms; sea lice; haunted cemeteries; ill-fated deaths in an octagonal room; a disappearing groom; and fighting off a fellow sailor with a banjo whilst shipwrecked in the Caribbean. These are just a few of the tales he tells. His repertoire is a battered suitcase full of grungy Blues, croonings, Calypso, Ragtime vamps, mountain yodels and revivalist stomps.
Razor sharp wit and fine tailoring accompanies a music as slick as his bryl-creamed hair. I ask Stoneking about this stage presence, and about his dapper stage wear. Until recently he was dressed in a Southern bygone-era style, all white with a bow tie. He shrugs it off. “I was dressing all in white – kind of puritan, riotous dude I suppose. You gotta put on a show. I think people like to say I’m a ‘Southern Gentleman’ or a whiskey soaked minister or something. That’s just BS. But you have to be ‘someone’. So, I do this. I do dress distinctively because I’m a performer. I think “what am I going to where? A track suit or something.” People don’t want to see that. That’s not very interesting and it doesn’t really sell the songs, either.”
I wanted to know how he ‘found’ this sound. Given he was born in Katherine (Northern Territories) and “lived out in the desert for a while” (his words), then moved to Sydney and rural Victoria, I would have expected Stoneking to have been into contemporary bands like Cold Chisel, INX or ACDC. “Nah,” he replies in a strong Aussie drawl, “Not my thing.” So why this old time Blues, Folk, Americana?
At this point he warns me that the phone may cut out on the winding roads. Between bumps and tight corners, Stoneking tells me about how he came to fall in love with the Blues. He was the son of an American school teacher with a passion for music. His father came from Orlando and had been raised in an Airforce family and moved around a lot. He’d collected a lot of records over the years and was exposed to many experiences and musical styles. Stoneking tells me that his dad was also involved with making books local languages for the Aboriginal populations of the area. He doesn’t see a direct correlation between his father’s work and his future musical career but he does give credit to his dad’s vinyl collection.
I ask him about coming across a very influential record when he was eleven years old, called Living With The Blues. “That was a compilation of old blues songs, that my dad had. You know, when I first put it on, it was funny to me, kinda squeaky and scratchy.” He says he go into it because it seemed so “deconstructed. There was not really any proper structure to the songs. No training. These guys were just making it up. I listened to it over and over, I thought it was sort of rebellious, I guess (the opposite of formal music).” That opened up his musical taste buds, leading him to Son House, Buka White, Robert Johnson, Gospel and Ragtime and Hokum Blues. “It just seemed so much better to me than the over produced stuff coming out in the 1980’s”. And there was an endless universe of blues to explore, one that was much more interesting to Stoneking than the mundane world of late ’80s pop that surrounded him at the time.
“I learned some guitar from my father and my stepdad. (But) I don’t think I ever thought “I’m gonna play this music as a job, forever”. I didn’t really have any plan.” Yet, he decided to teach himself banjo (“he admits to me that he doesn’t think he’s a great player and still can’t believe he made two records of it) and electric guitar. While he started with a banjo, his favourite was a 1931 National Duolian Dobro. “When I got this, Dire Straits had made that album (Brothers In Arms) and it was on the cover, so everyone was trying to one. I came at it a bit too late and the prices were already pretty high. Now there are lots of different people making them all over the world. You can get ‘em easily, everywhere. National Guitars have started up again.” This was same instrument that Blind Boy Fuller and other great old Blues players had used. “That’s ‘cos you could hang out on a street corner and make a huge racket,” he says, referring to the steel body and it’s powerful but tinny acoustics. “It was loud and I liked to play loud.” The sound could fill up the whole street, without the need for an amplifier.
Originally, he wasn’t really playing the Blues. He tells me that it wasn’t until after left High School that he got the opportunity to play alongside musicians who also played Blues he loved. “I was invited to join this band they had – one was called The Blues Preachers. They were mainly older guys. I was just 18yrs, they’d been playing for years. I was just learning. It was a good stepping stone. Then, I moved down the country and that’s when I started to collect a repertoire of the ‘old stuff’ (lots of Blues standards). That carried me along for a good while. I started writing my own ‘Old Style Blues’ and I took my own interests into the songs. I tried Caribbean stuff, Jazz, Rag, whatever.”
Stoneking says playing old Blues for a living was not easy when he started. “Yeah. Nobody wanted that. I had a lot of trouble getting gigs because it was too different and distinctive. It wasn’t popular.” He says that he spent a lot of time busking, and that, in turn meant that he got to hone his craft. “It wasn’t easy, but, you know, the old time players all did that. There was a reason for it. That’s how they got good. Early playing was hard. I played a couple of little bars around Melbourne, opening for other acts. It was only after that record (Jungle Blues) came out that I could afford a band.”
I note that since he made Jungle Blues, a lot of bands specialising in variations of the Blues, particularly the stripped back vintage sound, have come on the scene. Is it more normalised now? There’s The Black Keys and The White Stripes for a start. “I think so. It certainly feels that way.” In fact, Stoneking appears on one of Jack White’s latest album, Boarding House Reach, on a song called Abulia and Akrasia. That must have been an amazing experience, I ask. “Well sorta. I actually did the voice over several years before the record came out. We’d been meaning to catch up to record together but somehow it didn’t happen, for lots of reasons.
When I was in New York, I get this call from his people and I was given this address and they tell me to wear black clothes. I don’t really know why. He just likes the vibe and theatre that wearing different colours gives off, I guess. Like the red and white in the White Stripes. ” Stoneking finds his way to the studio, which is decked out in dark blue bulbs, very atmospheric. “He’s there and I’d brought my guitar but I didn’t really know what he wanted me to do. For the song (Abulia and Akrasia), he’d already done the music. He said he loved my voice and wanted me to read this stuff, I didn’t really know what it meant at the time. He read it a couple of times and I thought that sounded pretty good. He could have done it. It would have sounded fine. So, I read it over a couple of takes. There wasn’t much of a creative element in it me, other than just reading it.” I suggest that the recording reminds one of an old time fire-and-brimstone preacher or an announcer on a gospel radio station. “It does have a preacher vibe to it. I guess he like my voice, it fitted the part.”
Stoneking also got to do a version of Silent Night with Queens Of The Stone Age’s Josh Homme. “Yeah, he was pretty cool to hang out with.” The version he did is not as intense as the Jack White track but is still different and quirky. “I think I’m typecast to do these things. I’m the guy they want to do the weird stuff,” he quips “why can’t I just get a normal song?”
Stoneking is the first to admit he’s not a prolific writer. “It takes me ages to write a record.” He’s planning to record again soon, noting the last effort was over 4 years ago. There’s new material but that’s still under wraps. His last, 2014’s Gon’ Boogaloo was more of a party record, he reckons (if that knees up was illegally held in the servant’ quarters of 1930’s Downtown Abbey perhaps). He promises there’s more coming soon but won’t elaborate. It’s something of a departure from the porch and dustbowl blues of his early material. “I wanted more of a knees-up, shin dig kinda thing.” That record sees Stoneking playing an electric guitar for the first time on record (previously it was just the banjo). But that doesn’t mean he totally changed direction. And he didn’t want to abandon his antique stylings, either. “We made it live. No overdubs in just two days, with all the band and singers grouped around a single (ribbon) microphone and one additional tube mic me and my guitar.” This ‘stripped to the bones’ method was the very same technique used by folk music archivist Alan Lomax used when he traveled around the South recording delta blues singers in hotel rooms and old factories in the 1930s. The album has a mix of old calypso, vintage rock ’n’ roll, late-’50s R’n’B and gospel peppered with Stoneking’s distinctive, colourful and sometimes outrageous lyrics. Many of these sepia toned tales are inspired by his travels which span Egypt to New Orleans to Trinidad to Africa. He now lives in Nashville (“my landing pad when I tour”). He won’t divulge any details but simply told me that “I work always better when I have some real life thing to hang it (his tale) on. I like to run free with my metaphors. You can’t always tell what’s real or made up. Leave you guessing.”
His current tour of New Zealand is a solo effort, just him, his guitar and his ‘Sherpa’ (manager) to drive the car – a much different experience to his last shows in New Zealand as support for Queens Of The Stone Age. It’ll take in a smattering of venues and gigs around the country from Dunedin to Auckland. He plans on including a ‘bit of everything’ from his 6 albums to date.
Around this time the phone cuts out and I can’t return the call. Curse those mountains! I was just about to ask him about working as a Hoodoo Doctor’s Assistant in New Orleans (one of his own tall tales). Oh, well, maybe I’ll get to ask him when he plays at Coastella.
C.W. Stoneking headlines Coastella, alongside The Beths, The Miltones, Soaked Oats, Mama Kin Spender, Trinity Roots and many others on 23 February, Southwards Car Museum, Paraparaumu. Tickets are still available from the Coastella Website, but get in quick as they’re selling fast!