In 1971, Bruce Iglauer founded Alligator Records so that he could release an album by Hound Dog Taylor and The HouseRockers. I can’t say there’s another record label established under more noble circumstances. I’m complicit as anyone in mythologizing the raw, unchecked burn of 1960s DIY garage bands, but their records have nothing on Hound Dog’s discography, full of short, sudden blasts of slide guitar. Robert Christgau famously described the HouseRockers as “The Ramones of the blues.” The sound is ramshackle and relentless, a hip pocket of bluster and whiskey.
To commemorate the 50th anniversary of Hound Dog Taylor & The HouseRockers’ self-titled debut, Alligator and Colemine Records co-released a scorching tribute record, GA-20’s Try It… You Might Like It. GA-20 is comprised of guitarists Matthew Stubbs and Pat Faherty and drummer Tim Carman, serious devotees of blues luminaries like Earl Hooker, J.B. Lenoir, Freddy King, and Otis Rush. Plenty of revivalists namecheck the essential references but seldom do they achieve anything more than cosplay. Enter GA-20 with their 2019 debut LP, Lonely Soul. Whereas some contemporary acts are blues groups in name only, losing the plot in favor of extended guitar solos, GA-20 delivers concise, to-the-point songs. There is a warmth enveloping their recordings, not simply because of their devotion to vintage gear, but because of their affection for the genre.
Tribute records can be dicey ventures, yet GA-20’s enthusiasm and heart ensure Try It… never sounds superfluous or opportunistic. Instead, it’s a band asserting themselves as part of a loud, cherished lineage.
GA-20, along with JD Simo, plays Grant’s Lounge on Friday, January 28. In anticipation of their gig, I spoke with guitarist Matthew Stubbs.
I think what sticks out to me most is your embrace of minimalism. For a lot of folks, “blues” evokes scenes of 20-minute guitar solos, and you guys are the antithesis of that– your songs are concise, notes are at a premium. What are your roots in minimalism?
Well, thank you. I’m glad that you noticed that, but I don’t really consider it minimalism on our end. We’re playing the style of blues that speaks to us that we’ve always listened to. I try to play what I would like to listen to, if that makes sense. All the kinds of blues records that I’ve listened to my whole life are that kind of style, not crazy guitar shredding. There are some great players that do that, but I grew up listening to B.B. King, Chicago blues players that were more about phrasing and melody. That’s where it comes on my end, and I think Pat [Faherty] would say the same thing.
Your appreciation of the genre is almost scholarly, and I was wondering about your education and exposure to the blues.
The way I got into it was my father’s a guitarist, so I was around blues and early rock ‘n’ roll music my whole life. My father had a band and would have weekly rehearsals at the house, and I would go see his band play. When I was around fourteen, or maybe thirteen, I got my first guitar, and had it for maybe a year before I got lessons. My father showed me some things that I tried to figure out, and like most people when they start, it was pretty frustrating. Then I got some lessons. I had a bunch of great teachers growing up, so I did that. And then I spent a little time at Berklee College of Music before dropping out of that. That’s my background as far as playing the instrument.
Were you an outlier in your peer group as far as music was concerned?
Early on, yes. I started listening to traditional blues probably when I was fifteen. From there up until probably my early 20s age group, yeah. Little garage bands I’d have, all those kids were into different music, and in school, they were into different music. Once I started going out, my father would bring me to see bands, touring bands, and bands coming through town, and local bands, and I ended up becoming friends with a lot of those players who were a lot older than me. My teenage years into my early 20s, most people I was hanging out with and going to see shows with were definitely older.
Your bio mentions that you formed GA-20 in response to a “void in current music.” Could you elaborate on that void and mission?
Like I said earlier, I wanted to play music that I would like to see, and where we were living in the Boston area, there really wasn’t anybody playing late ’50s, early ’60s Chicago blues. There were a couple of people, but there’s not many, and there weren’t people really trying to pursue it on a slightly bigger scale, like trying to tour and put records out. So that was how it started, and we’ve stuck with that the whole time. When we make a record, when I’m producing, I always think, “Would I want to listen to this record?” Even on a national level, I don’t know of all that many people who are doing what we’re doing right now here. It’s pretty blinders-on Chicago blues, but we’re trying to play the music, keep it within the tradition, but still have our own sound as well.
What are the realities of being a full-time musician compared to what you imagined when you were a kid?
It’s awesome! I love it! I’ve only had a couple jobs here and there when I was a lot younger, for maybe six months to a year, but I’ve always been a full-time musician. One thing that’s different where I think people coming up, playing their instrument, and they want to be an artist is that playing your instrument or writing and recording music is only one small part of actually being a full-time artist or musician. There’s so many other aspects. I handle all the business, so it’s dealing with booking agents, record labels, venues, promoters, social media, graphic design, all this other stuff. It sounds like, “Oh, you’re a full-time musician! That’s great! You play music.” The reality, the hours per day, for me, anyway, are spent not with the instrument in my hand, but running a business around that. That’s one thing I wasn’t thinking of when I was 15, 16 playing guitar.
Moving on to Try It…You Might Like It. How does it sound so warm? I know there are hours of gear talk in that answer.
I produced the record, but I had an engineer come in. This record was during the shutdown, so I ended up building the studio in my house, more or less treating the room because you’re getting the room to sound good with baffles and stuff like because it’s a small room. And then I had Matt Gerard, our engineer for this record, he came in and brought some of the gear that I didn’t own, some preamps and stuff like that and some other microphones, and I rented a few microphones to supplement what I already didn’t have.
But the way we made it was I talked to Bruce Iglauer, the guy that produced the first two Hound Dog records. I asked him about the kind of setup they had when they made those records, and there were some pictures that you could look at. We tried to take the approach that Hound Dog did, which was all play live in a room– there’s not really any overdubs. All the amps and the drums, everything’s in one room, and the idea was to have it sound like a live performance, like you’re there, and just try to capture the spirit of those first two Hound Dog Taylor records.
So that was the approach going in, and then once we got the performances that we liked– which everything was done pretty much in no more than three takes [and] most of the songs took one or two takes. I had another engineer, Pat Dicenso, who works with me. Him and I mixed all the records, so from there, we just turned knobs until things sounded good, getting the drums sounding good, and the amps, and try to EQ things a little bit because there’s not a bass guitar in the band, trying to figure out what’s going to play sonically and going to be the low end– that’s probably why you said it sounds fat— just hours of mixing.
What’s your philosophy when you approach a cover song? How do you get in the headspace to tackle someone else’s material, embrace their mannerisms?
For Hound Dog, Tim [Carman], Pat, and myself would get together once or twice a week for a couple of months out on my deck– this was before everything was shut down– and we would all come in with a couple of Hound Dog songs that we wanted to try. We would rehearse them, jam on them, just trying to find the songs that had that spirit, the ones that when we’d play them, would connect and have the energy and rawness of those first two records.
Pat tackled all the slides so that was probably the more challenging end of things. He only had a little bit of slide guitar knowledge before we made this record. He somehow figured out how to play slide guitar in a matter of eight weeks. When you hear that record, he’s probably, at the time of tracking that record, probably only three months into playing slide guitar. He just hunkered down and figured it out.
Did you pick up any tricks or philosophies from these sessions that you’ll use again down the road?
With this particular record, on the production side of things, those records are really dry. They weren’t using a lot of spring reverb or reverb at all, really. On our other records and most records I produced, I really like reverbs, so I typically probably lean on them pretty heavy. This one was a little intimidating at first, like, “Man, there’s going to be no reverb on the voice, no reverb on the guitar.” You’re pretty exposed in that regard, and then also making things sound big when they’re completely dry was something I never did. I’d done it for a song or for an effect, but never for a whole record. That’s one thing I would say that was new for me on the production side that going forward, I’ll definitely tinker with again.
Some artists I’ve talked to either embrace the “retro” and “revival” tag, or they recoil from it. How do you feel about those labels?
We have our own sound and I like to make records that I could listen to and those are the type of records I listen to. I mean, we’re not getting up on stage and wearing retro suits; it’s not like a Halloween spectacle (laughs)! Those are the records we like, and that’s the music we play.
Retro? I don’t know if I’d go so far… Our next record is coming out. It’s along the same lines as what we’ve done, but I definitely think the songs are growing, the sound is changing and evolving. I like the word revival. I’ve used that in other interviews. Blues music really has not had the revival of some other classic styles like soul music, funk, bluegrass– I mean bluegrass is huge right now– or traditional country. I’d love to see blues have that happen, like if there were some bands that were doing retro, timeless blues, or throwback blues in the same way as Sharon Jones did it for soul music. I think that’d be great for the music. There’s a few artists doing it, but not that many, and there’s not a ton that are really crossing over into other genres, like other music, non-blues festivals. So yeah, I embrace that. Call me whatever you want.
The blues has such a deep tradition. How do you keep it interesting for you and for the audience? There are the standard, go-to licks and tropes, but you seem to transcend those. How do you avoid those trappings?
For us anyway– I don’t know if it works for everybody– but I love blues music, but I also like other styles of music. I love The Beatles, and I love pop music, like ’60s pop music. And for me, in a band like this, I like short songs. On Lonely Soul, I don’t think there’s a song over three minutes. The Hound Dog record stretches out a little bit more because his music did.
When we play live, in a set, I’d rather have 25 songs in an hour set or 70 minutes rather than have eleven songs. I’d rather change it up and have different grooves, not give the audience time to get bored or allow their attention span to move. That’s one thing. Another thing is that live, we try to have a show. It’s not just like, “I’m gonna get up there, and you watch me play.” We try to have a show. We talk to the audience; we have it move along quickly, with segues in between songs, and I have a couple of jokes I tell, so all those things I think keep the listener with us the whole time.
Have you had to deal with purists who have a certain definition of what constitutes a blues song or band? Have you run into people who say real blues musicians have to be from a certain area or be a certain age? Given you’re young guys from Boston…
Online, you sometimes get these keyboard cowboys; you get that a little bit. We usually just laugh at it, but I have noticed a couple times, you overhear it where we live, there’s a couple of people who are like, “Oh man, they got guitar pedals! There’s a pedalboard. That’s not blues!” I’m like, “Well, the pedalboard is a reverb pedal and a tuner. We’re not going crazy here on effects.” If you listen to the music, there’s no real effects.
I just kind of laugh. It can be funny or annoying, but whatever. Again, right now for the traditional blues scene, there’s not that many people doing just traditional blues. There’s blues rock people, but we’re in a totally different space than them. I don’t really think there’s a comparison other than the word “blues” still being in the description.
Do you feel like you’re ambassadors of the genre, that you’re keeping it alive?
Oh, man, I won’t say that about myself. I can’t– it’s not my music. I really love the music and enjoy playing it and putting out records. I’m not going to be that person that would say that about us. I feel like that’s not my place, but if someone else wants to say it, cool, but it’s the music I’ve literally played since I was thirteen years old when I got a guitar, and I’m still doing it, and I love it, but again, I’m just making records I would like to listen to.
I was wondering if you could identify three or four records that are solid entry points– besides your records—for young folks who are looking to get into blues.
Well, if you’re looking for Chicago Blues– like low down– one of my favorite all-time records is Junior Wells and Buddy Guy’s Hoodoo Man Blues, but you know, you got to be ready for dry, stripped-down, raw, Chicago blues for that one. Any early Johnny Guitar Watson– that’s the stuff I listened to when I was first starting out, and I still listen to it. Early Guitar Slim, and the entire Freddie King catalog. He’s a great singer, but he also put out amazing full albums of instrumental, like blues and surf stuff. There’s a compilation record called Just Pickin’ by Freddie King, which is all his instrumentals. I spent a lot of hours on that one.
I know Pat loves all the J.B. Lenoir stuff, and he loves R.L. Burnside. We don’t really do a lot of hill country stuff, but Pat in the last year or so has spent a lot of time working on that guitar style. Ted, our drummer, would say Jimmy Reed. That’s his favorite.
I know you’re promoting Try It…You Might Like It, but what’s on the horizon for GA-20? I read elsewhere that you have three albums on deck…
We have a full-length, which is ten tunes– nine of them are originals– that’s coming out. That’s scheduled to come in summer 2022, early June or July, on Coalmine records. Following that record, we have a full-length live record that we recorded at Plaid Room Records in Loveland. Our record label owns a big record store, so we did an in-store concert there, and we recorded live-to-tape, so that would be following the studio album. Then we also have a full acoustic album that we did during the lockdown, and I’m not sure when that’s going to come out. That might come out in the sequence of the other two, or we might end up doing another studio album before that comes up. We’re not sure yet. That’s kind of up to the label.