Dan Aykroyd on the (Mostly Texan) Blues Brothers Band, Our New House of Blues, Lightnin' Hopkins, Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, Houston Kinfolk, SNL in Campaign '08 and More
Photo by Jay Lee
Rocks Off will assume Dan Aykroyd needs no introduction to most of the English- and Canadian-speaking worlds. Every bit as passionate and knowledgeable about music as Harley-Davidsons, Aykroyd also co-founded House of Blues in 1992. In case you somehow hadn't heard, House of Blues Houston (1204 Caroline) is smack in the middle of its opening week, which climaxes at tomorrow night's invite-only show - click here for a chance to win passes - with Aykroyd, Jim Belushi and the rest of the Blues Brothers Band.
Around noon, Rocks Off sat down with the star of Ghostbusters, Grosse Pointe Blank and the forthcoming War, Inc. - and the first Saturday Night Live alum to be nominated for an Oscar, for 1989's Driving Miss Daisy - in HOB Houston's hyper-posh VIP lounge the Foundation Room to talk about as much as we could squeeze into 15 minutes.
Dan Aykroyd: Our keyboard and Hammond B-3 player is Glen Clark, who was a major collaborator with Delbert McClinton for many years; they wrote many songs together and Glen traveled with Delbert. Our drummer’s Tony Brownigal – he’s from Houston, and he is also the producer of the Phantom Blues Band and he produces Taj Mahal’s records.
Johnny Lee Shell is a Texas-born guitar player who played with Bonnie Raitt for many years. He was her right-hand man. J.J. Holliday is our guitarist from California. He’s played with Bob Dylan and also has his own band the Imperial Crowns. Fantastic artist. Larry Derma is from Texas I believe – he’s definitely from Texas, I don’t know what town. Dime Box, I think, or Farwell or some place. He’s a bass player who’s been in numerous records and bands over the years.
We have the Texicali Horns, Joe Sublett and Darrell Leonard, who were named by Stevie Ray Vaughan. They are two horns who sound like four. It’s just a compilation of the best studio cats around, and recording cats and producers and Grammy winners. It’s very strongly a Texas band.
Photo by Jay Lee
RO: Any guests? I heard Eddie Floyd might be around.
DA: Ahhhh. If he’s around, he’s more than welcome to jam with us. I love him. He’s great. We have Wanda King opening and Guitar Shorty, so that’s going to be very exciting, and I’m bringing Jeff Baxter from the Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan, one of the great world-class guitar players. He’ll be there as well.
RO: What was your first blues experience?
DA: Well, I grew up in Ottawa, Canada. It was a government town, an academic town, and there was a booker there named Harvey Black who used to bring the best musicians in the world to his club. I guess Howlin’ Wolf was the first artist I saw, and I saw him dozens and dozens of times.
Howlin' Wolf/ www.artsbycraft.com
RO: Did many people like that come up that way?
DA: Ummm… yep. We had John Lee Hooker, we had Howlin’ Wolf, we had O.V. Wright, we had Otis Spann, S.P. Leary. I jammed behind Muddy Waters one night onstage there. B.B. King, Paul Butterfield, Charlie Musselwhite, Albert King – saw ‘em all, because it was a university town, an academic town, a town that appreciated blues music and culture. And so as a kid I saw basically everybody – James Cotton, everybody.
RO: Which style of blues are you most partial to?
DA: My favorite movement in American music is the Stax/Volt movement. Eddie Floyd, Wilson Pickett, Sam & Dave, Otis Redding, Carla Thomas, Rufus Thomas. When Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn joined the Blues Brothers Band, that’s when we really became a legitimate act and when the music really became dominant. They were Otis Redding’s guitar players, and for them to recognize that we were doing a valid musical thing really, really put the stamp on the band as a real element.
RO: I wanted to show you this. This is something that just opened last week – it’s a local artists’ collective in the Third Ward that just brought in several artists to create – each house is like a different gallery. I just wanted to ask you about Lightnin’ Hopkins.
DA: Yeah, well, he is right there in the Texas pantheon. Lightnin’, T-Bone Walker, Freddie King. The thing about Lightnin’ is he sort of redefined electric guitar. He was a sharper player than many others, more of a lead player than say like Charlie Christian or some of the other players who were rhythm/acoustic players. Lightnin’ really plugged in, and he is responsible for influencing so many other guitar players. A massive influence.
RO: If he were alive today, do you think he would play House of Blues?
DA: Sure. If we paid him enough. Absolutely. He would be perfect. You know, we’ve had [longtime Howlin’ Wolf guitarist] Hubert Sumlin come and play, and we’ve had all the artists that are in the field today. They come. Buddy Guy – I jammed with him the other night. It was great. He played New Orleans for us.
Photo by Chris Gray
RO: What do you think of this venue, the Houston club?
DA: Well, it’s like the Dallas club in that it’s a big, jumbo, Texas-size club. Beautiful, beautiful big showroom – couldn’t be happier. Our preference when we build these House of Blues is to come in to a place and build a place that’s one-off, that’s purpose-built for the audience and the musicians to have an interface together. We’ve had to wedge ourselves into a couple of Woolworth’s stores – we had one in Cleveland, one in San Diego.
But we don’t like that as much as being able to build from raw space. Here, we were able to work with the developer and get everything we wanted. Big huge, huge kitchen, massive loading-dock facility, great big stage, so I think this is perfectly, perfectly Texas-style. And perfectly jumbo for the community. Of all the clubs, I think the Dallas and Houston ones are the ones where we’ve been able to do everything we’ve wanted.
RO: Is this the first House of Blues that’s part of a big development like the Pavilions?
DA: No, we had one in Cleveland, the downtown Flats district. The one in Dallas is also part of the Victory development. Downtown Disney, the Disney West in Orlando, same kind of thing.
HOB Houston's Foundation Room/ photo by Jay Lee
RO: How hands-on were you in the process of getting this thing off the ground?
DA: Well, I was an investor. I put money into it, and I put my name and, you know, the celebrity value behind it and the ability to get media to come to it. But it’s Isaac Tigrett's concept. He is the genius designer behind what you see here – the décor and the food. He designed everything, right down to the Louisiana menu. The dining room, the whole concept. I was merely the mouthpiece and actually remain that today.
Photo by Mark C. Austin
RO: Did you get a chance to see any of Jay-Z’s show last night?
DA: I did not. I was at a gallery viewing the works of my friend John Alexander, who is a Texas-based artist who has been a good friend of mine for many years. I went to this incredible, incredible gallery to see John’s work. He’s doing drawings of oil wells. They’re great. I forget the name of the gallery, but you should get over there. Great stuff. [Ed. Note: Elder Street Gallery, 1101 Elder, Suite 109.]
RO: Have you spent much time in Houston?
DA: I have kin here, actually. My wife’s cousin lives here. So we get down to see them. We played the Children’s Charities benefit last year. Jimmy [Belushi] and I did.
RO: Do you still do your radio show?
DA: Yes. We’re in the sixteenth year of production on that. Advertising new bands and treating the veterans with respect. [Ed. Note: The station closest to Houston that airs House of Blues Radio Hour, which Aykroyd hosts in character as Elwood Blues, is Victoria's KLUB 106.7 FM, Sundays 8-9 a.m.]
RO: Who are some of the newer people you’ve been playing lately?
DA: Well, of course I love Jonny Lang and Kenny Wayne Shepherd and [Blues Traveler’s] John Popper – they’re not so new-new-new, but certainly the next generation coming up. I love all the new artists: J.W. Jones, from Ottawa my hometown.
RO: Do you play stuff like Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings?
DA: Love Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings. We play her a lot, have interviewed her. I like Duffy too, that same kind of R&B sound. I hope that’s where live music is going. I think the Dap-Kings are heroes to me – they’re just great. They’re recreating that old Stax/Volt sound.
RO: Do you think music is getting more soulful these days?
DA: Certainly that type of music is, yeah. Absolutely. Sure. I don’t know – I don’t listen to radio too much. I just buy CDs.
RO: That kind of stuff seemed like it was gone for a long time, but now it’s really starting to come back. Why do you think that is?
DA: I think people are looking for more warmth in their music, and certainly horns give you that. A little more rhythm, and less of these staccato beats of rap and hip-hop. People are looking for something more warm and comfortable and soulful.
The original cast of Saturday Night Live
RO: As someone who’s done your fair share of both, what’s harder, music or comedy?
DA: Comedy’s the hardest thing to do. No doubt about it. It’s an exercise – you feel like you’re the astronaut who has to keep the ping-pong ball above the red line at all times. You have to continually keep an energy – stoke, stoke, stoke a performance. With comedy you can’t just lay back and sort of let it happen.
With music you can get in the groove of the song and the cradle of creativity, but with comedy, you’ve got to push it. You always have to push it. You have to keep it ignited, otherwise it disappears, it just no longer works. It’s got to be a focused, concentrated effort. You feel like you’re engraving when you’re doing comedy. For that intense time when the camera rolls and you’ve got three or four minutes to engrave that scene, and your energy has to be very high. I find it hard.
RO: Did you ever get starstruck by some of the musical guests on Saturday Night Live?
DA: [Laughs] Yeah, well, the Stones. Definitely the Stones, and Linda Ronstadt. All the time. Absolutely.
Tina Fey as Gov. Sarah Palin
RO: What do you think of the show’s prominent role in this campaign right now?
DA: I think they’re doing the best political satire of anybody on TV, because [of] the impressionists and the writing, and I believe it has an influence. Either way, it’s got an influence. People are affected when they watch it. I don’t know if it’s going to swing any votes either way, but it definitely makes people think about the candidates and, you know, how real or how deceitful they can be.
RO: Do you think it does a good job spoofing both sides of the aisle?
DA: It does. I think it does. I think it’s fair. That’s always what Lorne [Michaels] wanted. He’s not coming out on the side of one candidate or the other.
Bill Murray, Aykroyd and Harold Ramis in Ghostbusters
RO: I keep hearing that Bill Murray’s in town. Have you seen him?
DA: In Houston? No. I don’t know why he’d be here.
Jay Lee (photographer): He’s supposed to be shooting a film.
DA: In town? Really?
RO: He was definitely at the Austin City Limits festival. Have you ever been to that?
DA: I haven’t. I hear it’s great, though.
RO: Last thing I’ll ask you: Do people ever come up to you and quote lines from your movies, and you have no idea what they’re talking about?
DA: Let me try to think. I usually know the references. I don’t think there’s too many that I wouldn’t know. – Chris Gray