La Hora del Blues (Barcelona)

Interview with Chris Bergson by The Blues Stalker | October 2011
Lyrical Laudation

New York native Chris Bergson, acclaimed songwriter, guitarist, vocalist, and producer recently took the time to share his reflections with me after his recent release of Imitate the Sun. His creative melding of blues and Americana has produced an amazing disc that is stimulating and quixotic. It is indeed a tribute to the exceptionally talented musicians that he employs and to his real life partner who teamed up to co-author the lyrics so suited to his vocal talent.

Blues Stalker: Chris, have you had any formal training or musical education or are you self-taught? Was your family musically talented?

Chis Bergson: I started taking lessons when I was seven. I graduated from Manhattan School of Music in 1999 with a degree in jazz guitar. My grandmother on my Dad's side was a talented classical pianist and my Dad played a little bit of guitar. Both my parents are big music lovers and they made it a point to take me whenever any jazz and blues greats came to town. I remember going to the Benson and Hedges Blues Festival with my Dad at the Beacon Theatre when I was 13 and the bill that night was John Lee Hooker, Buddy Guy and Junior Wells, Bobby "Blue" Bland and The Fabulous Thunderbirds! It was some of the most powerful and exciting music I'd ever heard.

B.S.: A New Yorker by birth, you found your way back to the city in 1995. At that time you were backing mostly female jazz singers, correct?

C.B.: Actually, when I first moved back to city, I mainly locked myself in my room and practiced! The singers came a little later. I played some memorable gigs with Norah Jones and also recorded with Annie Ross.

B.S.: You were chosen as a Jazz Ambassador of the United States in 2002 by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the U.S. State Department and toured eight countries in West Africa. How did that affect your musical growth?

C.B.: That was an amazing experience. I'm grateful we had the opportunity to visit some of these countries, many of which would have been hard to get to on your own. We heard some incredible drummers in Ghana and jammed with a really bad-ass young bassist at this open air, covered porch jazz club called Club So What in Benin.

Our first gig of the tour was in Guinea and after a very long drive on unpaved roads, we arrived at the venue, which was a concrete military bunker. We were playing for a group of sixteen year-old soldiers the U.S. was training to patrol the border. Midway through our set, the soldiers got up and started waving their AK-47s in the air and marching around the bunker shouting and chanting. We really couldn't tell if they were enjoying the music or not and I remember thinking "Okay, no one hit any wrong notes!" Our guide told us later that this was their way of showing their appreciation! This tour really drove home how the blues can cut across all kinds of boundaries.

B.S.: Your last three CDs have been on your own label, 2 Shirts Records? Can you tell us about that?

C.B.: Sure. The label was founded in 2003. Matt Wilson, the original drummer in the band named it. He said, "You ought to call it 2 Shirts Records. You sweat so much that you need to bring two shirts to every gig -one for each set!" And the name stuck.

The label was founded for the sole purpose of releasing my own CDs, not out of any desire to be a label per se. And the response has been very gratifying. Our previous CD
Fall Changes was named MOJO Magazine's #1 Blues Album of 2008. That's something that would have been unthinkable ten or fifteen years ago. I think that now is a really great time for artists to put out their own albums and work out different distribution deals while still retaining ownership and artistic control of their music. We have distribution in Europe through Bertus, a great distribution and marketing company based in the Netherlands and in Japan through BSMF Records. There's a finer and finer line now between what a label, especially a small label, can do for you versus what you can make happen yourself with a small team of people working hard.

B.S.: You have played several festivals in Europe, mostly northern European countries. Any plans for France, Spain or Italy?

C.B.: Yes, a larger European tour is in the works for 2012 and we hope to include dates in France, Spain and Italy. Imitate the Sun was recorded right after we got back from our last European tour. It made for smooth, relaxed sessions as we'd been playing the new material every night, honing and fine-tuning the arrangements so when we went into the studio, we knew exactly what we wanted to do on each tune.

B.S.: In addition to the talent of your wife in your endeavors, you have an amazingly talented band and group of people that you record with. Tell us about them. You seem to have found the perfect combination.

C.B.: It's an incredible joy to play with such great musicians. I met Jay Collins (tenor sax, backing vocals and horn arranger) back in 2003. We come from similar backgrounds in that we both moved to NYC to play jazz and along the way we both got more and more into The Band, Dr. John, Freddie King and writing our own songs. For a time, he and his wife, Amy Helm, who's an amazing singer, lived upstairs from us in Brooklyn and that sure made it easy to rehearse! We did our first gig as the Chris Bergson Band in June of 2004 at the Big Apple Barbecue. Bruce Katz is a musician I've always admired and I used to hear him with the great Ronnie Earl when I was a teenager in Boston. We first jammed together at one of Levon Helm's Midnight Rambles, New Year's Eve 2006, I think it was. Drummer Tony Leone joined the band in 2006, he just grooves his ass off and has such a great sound. Bassist Matt Clohesy is as good musician as they come and he joined the band in 2007. It feels as easy talking or breathing playing with these guys.

B.S.: Your Fall Changes album was recorded at Levon Helm's studio in Woodstock, NY. My friend, Jimmy Bennett, plays guitar with Alexis P. Suter has told me about the magic of Levon's Midnight Rambles performances. What was it like for you to participate in that experience?

C.B.: Yeah, Jimmy! He's a great player. And they're such a great band.
It was an amazing experience recording up at Levon's barn. The sound of that room is incredible and Justin Guip is a great engineer. The Rambles are really magical. There's nothing like them really. A few days after the sessions for
Fall Changes, Levon called me to see if I'd be able to come up and sub in his band and that was a really amazing experience playing with him. It was really a dream come true as he's one of my favorite musicians on the planet. "Just get in there in the rhythm section with us, son" He told me and that's what I did! What a joy to play with him and to hear him up close. He radiates so much love and joy when he plays and always gives 100% of himself to the music. What an inspiration! I just saw him and his band in Central Park a few weeks ago and in the middle of their set, the skies opened and it just poured and poured and everyone in the audience stayed and just got drenched to the sounds of the Levon Helm Band! It was really powerful.

B.S.: Not many people are often referenced to channeling Dylan, Gramm Parsons, Keith Richards and 1920's blues women. Your originality and visionary bent are to be applauded but how do you market to today's audience?

C.B.: Well, I think people are looking for good, honest music and the music of the artists you mentioned is really timeless. I meet younger fans at some of our shows that are into The Band, Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf and that's encouraging to see. There's been a resurgence of interest in classic soul over the past bunch of years with people like James Hunter, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, the late Amy Winehouse et al. and I think it's high time that happened for classic blues as well. I think the key is to take inspiration from the music that moves you but hopefully make it your own.

B.S.: In your dreams, of all the living musicians, who would you like to collaborate most on a disc with?

C.B.: Hubert Sumlin is one. I've played a number of shows with him over the last few years and he's one of my all-time favorite guitarists. I would love to hear him and work with him in some different settings. It would be a big thrill to record with him.

B.S.: The sound quality on Imitate the Sun is incredible, almost old school vinyl quality. Care to talk about gear?

C.B.: Hugh Pool at Excello Recording did a really great job and was just fantastic to work with. He's a great guitar player and musician himself and he keyed into the sound we were going for right away. We were listening to a lot of the 60's Aretha records on Atlantic before we went in to the studio, the natural sound and warmth of those records just can't be beat! We went for an old school approach, similar to how we recorded the last album, with the sound of the band playing live in the room being the core of the record. Most of the record was done live with some overdubs. Excello has a big live room: 40 x 25 feet with 17 foot ceilings. Hugh has a really nice EMT plate reverb, which we used throughout the sessions. You can hear it especially on the solo tune, "Shattered Avenue". Some of the other gear at Excello Hugh used for the sessions included a Calrec Series B console (3 in the world) bought from the BBC, a Neve 1063 mixer for mic pre-amps, Neuman tube mics and RCA ribbon mics.

Hugh describes Excello as having "a cool vibe where you can engage the trust and just make music" and we had a blast recording there. For more info, you can

B.S.: What are your plans in the immediate future? Any special project or tours in the works?

C.B.: I've been playing a lot of acoustic guitar recently and am working on some new songs. I'm excited about a new duo project I'm getting going with Tony Leone, just drums and guitar. We'll be playing at the 92Y Tribeca here in the city on November 4th. I feel like we can go in a lot different directions musically and cover a lot of ground. We'll start with improvising off of a Mississippi John Hurt riff and just see where it takes us. We're excited to write some stuff together too. A Chris Bergson Band European tour is also in the works for 2012.

B.S.: Thanks, Chris, for taking the genre into an invigorating groove. Your interpretation of the classic covers is a breath of fresh air. I hope that music fans all over the globe will discover the magic that you create.

This interview also appeared in the September/October 2011 issue of the Suncoast Blues Society's Twelve Bar Rag.