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Otis Taylor: Trance Blues Certified (with a Festival to Prove It)

JPG: There are some people who complain about politics mixing with music or the shut-up-and-sing crowd…

OT: Yeah, but I’m not telling you what to think. I’m just reporting history. I’m not a protest singer or social commentator. That’s a difference. My things are just stories. I’m a storyteller in the Black tradition. I usually don’t tell any lies. These things are proven.

You listen to my songs and it’s a story about this guy or a story about a couple.

JPG: There are some people who can’t even handle that. I just feel that as much as I love music, politics needs to be paid attention to even more because that affects our daily lives.

OT: But I don’t put my politics in my music. People do that. I don’t have to do that.

JPG: I’m not saying you have to do that. I’m just saying that I don’t think it’s wrong if politics and music mix.

OT: Yeah, but it’s not what I do. Here’s a funny story for you. Bob Dylan got the Nobel Prize. He should have got the Nobel Prize five years after he was writing songs. They should have given it to him a long time ago.

JPG: Maybe it’s the musician stigma.

OT: But he was still a poet, a writer, and he still affected people about peace and his protest songs.

JPG: The guest musicians on your new album – Jerry Douglas, Brandon Niederauer and Ron Miles, I really love the cornet…

OT: Well, Ron Miles has played on seven to 10 of my albums. He’s played on so many I can’t remember anymore. Ron came up and recorded with us [for “Fantasizing About Being Black”].

JPG: I see that Jerry and Brandon’s parts were recorded elsewhere. Was it a matter that after you record a song you think you need something more added to it? When that happens how do they end up on there?

OT: The rumor was that somebody told Jerry that I was doing a record and Jerry said, “I’d love to play on his record.” So, I called him up because I knew I had the right songs for him.

Ron, he’ll play something and after the first comment we usually have it locked down. He goes really fast. He’s amazingly fast. It’s very easy with him because he plays so good. I just have to give him the kind of vibe I want – fast, slow, Spanish. I get the vibe down and he’s right on it.

JPG: Was Ron doubletracked on “Walk On Water?”

OT: He does that sometimes. He did an album where he did three tracks. On “Pentatonic Wars and Love Songs” a guy named Jason Moran, a jazz guy, flipped out watching Ron do it. He’d record and he’d memorize what he just played and then play over it. It was just unbelievable. He did that three times. Jason flipped out, couldn’t believe it. No charts. Just knew what he played. Total recall.

JPG: I like your writing on the CD booklet – “The folk thing was about civil rights… Folk music is the music of the working class, the music of the folks. Blues is folk music.”

OT: I said that once and, I don’t know if you know this but I’m in the Museum Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture. It’s really an honor. There’s a banjo in a case and next to it there’s a picture of me playing banjo. Then, they had this record store and “Hey Joe Opus” is in there as an LP. The quote pops up on another board. That quote is in the Smithsonian. So, that’s why I put it in there. (laughs) I’m calculated.

My father was a hipster, a bebopper. So, I’m first generation hip.

JPG: I read that you were a rebel because you didn’t go into jazz.

OT: He was not a happy camper. He was completely upset. He wanted me to be a painter. He wanted me to play jazz. He wanted me to be intelligentsia but I’ve got long hair and I’m a hippie. Kind of didn’t work for him.

JPG: Did your dad paint while listening to jazz or he just played jazz?

OT: That painting [in the CD booklet for “Fantasizing”] with the OT on it. That color painting. My father liked to paint clay. That picture is part of his painting. My father’s name is Otis, too. My name is Otis Mark Taylor and his name was Otis Taylor. So, I’m technically not a junior. I’m sort of a junior. I’m a half-junior, I guess.

JPG: The reason I brought that up is I know painters whose work is done while listening to jazz. It’s influenced by the music. Jazz elements such as musicians and instruments will show up in the paintings.

OT: My father, he only painted for 10 years because he died. He started painting in his early 60s. He died at 74. He didn’t paint for very long. He was really good but he didn’t have enough of a body of work to start a big gallery deal. I have seven of his paintings.

JPG: At least you get to expose his work in this way. Maybe you can display his paintings at the Trance Blues Festival.

OT: I paint, too. I tried to do a show of my stuff and my father’s stuff at a local gallery. They didn’t go for it. They wanted something more contemporary. One day it might happen. I do some pretty out there shit.

I’ll get a gallery to do it together, father and son. That’s a whole other story. Whenever I wasn’t playing music I was probably painting or doing conceptual sculptures. One time I put a car inside of a van, like a ship in a bottle, crazy shit like that. Way out there.

JPG: The term “trance blues” that’s used to describe your music. Is that something you came up with to help offer a description of what you do?

OT: Yeah, me and my publicist a long time ago, we came up with it. Well, we talked about “alt blues,” “indie blues,” I didn’t like that. I go, “How about trance?”

Trance music is what I do. It’s something with repetition. Ravi Shankar, Mississippi hill country or Mali music or voodoo music is totally trance music. There are no chord changes. Hip hop is trance music, too. There’s very few chord changes in hip hop songs.

JPG: Tell me about the Trance Blues Festival.

OT: It was a fluke. Nobody wanted to hire me close to the holidays…I ended up being a little famous then because I did it.

I never had work in November so I thought I’ll do a workshop. The workshop was packed. People loved it. I thought, “Maybe I’ll try this at a festival.” Then, the festival, it took me a long time to get it where it needs to be. I had some great musicians onstage – George Porter, Mato Nanji (Indigenous), Tony Trischka, Bob Margolin, my daughter Cassie, my bands…Last November, Marcella Simien and Mato Nanji were the main out-of-state people.

JPG: From promoting shows myself I know how there’s a lot of work put it into it. Is it still fun for you?

OT: It’s a nightmare. (laughs) I’ve been wanting to stop doing it forever but I can’t because…in France I have a better following. One year I was really smart – the second year I rented the Boulder Theater, a big theater – and invited four French journalists to come, and one was from a major magazine. They all showed up. Had a great time. So, it got written about in France a lot. So, whenever I get interviewed they always ask about my Trance Blues Festival because I’m noted for my trance music in Europe. Well, watch what you [ask for]…know what I mean? Maybe, my daughter will take it over someday.

JPG: Maybe you need to start distributing responsibilities to others so you can diminish your role.

OT: Yeah, but I’m not good like that. That’s the only problem.

We had Bill Nershi from String Cheese Incident who came to the workshops and taught. Didn’t come to the big concerts but came to the workshops, which is really cool. It’s actually kinda cooler.

People have a great time at the workshop. We get an average of 60-70 people in a room. We all play music at the same time – piano, djembes, cellos, violins, banjos…ukuleles. The way it should be.

JPG: See, that is why you continue to do it because of moments like that.

OT: Yes, I can’t stop because this is the best way to promote trance music.

JPG: Well, there’s the stress of putting it together until it actually takes place and then there’s the joy of it happening.

OT: There’s no joy. (laughs)

People go, “Encore” and the band looks at me like, “Do you think he’ll do one?” I’m not one to even do an encore. I’m not the guy who wants to jump onstage. You know how you go to a party and this guy pulls out his guitar and starts playing it? I’m not that guy. I’m the opposite. I’m not as bad as Barbra Streisand but I’m not the guy.

JPG: I respect you more for not doing an encore. I wrote an essay years ago about encores being a part of the overall setlist makes them not true encores.

OT: I do ‘em because I have to. I try to build up my set to end it when it ends. It’s hard to get there. And I don’t want to build it up and then I don’t get an encore then it’ll be like I didn’t go 100 per cent. Make sense?

I used to tour with Gary Moore and he’d do three encores. He’d do an encore. Then, I’d come out and play with him for the other encore. Then, he’d do an encore after I played. (laughs) It was all set. It was all designed. Three encores.

JPG: If it’s on your setlist then it’s not a true encore. It’s just a part of the overall setlist.

OT: That’s my thinking, too. I did one because they were banging on the stage. I thought there was going to be a riot. I got my ass out there quick. (slight laugh) It scared the shit out of me. “These people are gonna go fuckin’ nuts, man. (laughs) Let’s go before they jump on the stage and go crazy.”

JPG: That’s a compliment of sorts…I guess.

OT: It’s more scary than anything. It means I lost control of the crowd. I always like to have control of the crowd. That’s an important thing to control your show. I like to watch Buddy Guy because he really controls his show and really controls the crowd. He’s so good at it, it just blows my mind.

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