Editors note: Last month we opened our New groove of the Month selection to our readers via our Jambands 250 poll. Mr. Blotto took top honors and while the group has been together more for than decade, to our mind they nonetheless still qualify as a New Groove since they have mostly performed in their Chicago region and more than likely they are new to you
Crisscrossing North America to play concerts is pretty much a fact of life for any card-carrying member of the jamband scene. But, from its inception 16 years ago in Chicago Paul Bolger (lead vocals/acoustic guitar) and his brother, Mike (bass/vocals) decided that living, almost constantly, on the road was not a life desirable for them. They created a work schedule that dealt with the region surrounding their hometown, enticing fans with originals, covers of the Grateful Dead, The Who, Led Zeppelin and more, along with a musical aesthetic that regularly offered positive surprises.
Along with Mike Hague (lead guitar/vocals), Steve Ball (Hammond B-3/keyboards/vocals) and Tony Dellumo (drums), Mr. Blotto has carved out its own specialized touring circuit without having to pack its bags for excursions that seem to never end. The bands presence has been slowly growing thanks to a handful of studio albums, which included work with John Perry Barlow, live recordings compiled for release plus scores of shows available on sites such as archive.org.
*JPG: Mr. Blotto approaches the idea of making a career in music differently than other jambands. After 16 years together, how do you define success? *
PB: Success to us, always, was being able to live off your music. To be in a band full time and being able to have, even, a bohemian existence off of it was a victory because no one gets to do that. Everyone has the day job and they’re a weekend warrior band. We were like, ‘We want to do music so we can rehearse Tuesday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. if we want. We don’t have to worry about anybody, ‘Well, I got a job or I got this or that so I can’t do it.’
In my mind’s eye, you have a series of goals. One of them is World Domination. The other one is to get out of bed in the morning. In between is everything else. To really to boil it down, success would probably be defined by being able to play music for your vocation. It’s really the hardest business there is to be in. That and acting. Almost no one gets to do that.
*JPG: With several member changes during that time, it seems as if the level of commitment is something that must be there from the moment you join. *
PB: We changed our guitarist, way back 10 years ago. We didn’t have this philosophy in place, but it just evolved. Replacing a member of the band, we should really try and get someone who is a fan of that last guy he’s replacing. Not a fan in the traditional sense, but someone who really appreciates what that person brought to the table because they’re going to learn the parts exactly.
That was always our actual policy. You’re playing music, so when you’re going to cover some song, always start from the exact version they did. No excuses. You don’t say, ‘Well, can I take this solo my direction?’ No. If you’re going to do ‘Eruption and You Really Got Me by Van Halen, the guitar player’s got a lot of work to do. If you start from every note perfect and then if you want to say ‘Hey, I took it my own direction.’ Then, everybody knows including you that you’re changing it because you want to, not because you’re lazy. Same kind of thing if you’re replacing someone in the band. It’s a big deal because the band has a sound and the band has a vibe.
For that reason, the band pretty much evolved from what it was in those first years of the early 90s. There’s no huge artistic shift gong on even though three of the original members have been replaced. Each one is like handing off the baton, whether it’s a friendly hand off or a forced one. Sometimes it’s a javelin throw and the guy catches it.
*JPG: Mr. Blotto doesnt go on the typical national touring cycle as other jambands. But, youve made it work for you. Has that been difficult? *
PB: Fairly early on we looked at people wanting to put us on the road. It started to look like you can go hit the road and go broke in the hopes that something’s going to click for you, that you’re going to become this big popular thing. In the meantime, your life is a mess and your relationship is a mess. If you’re married, your marriage is a mess. So, we thought, You know what? If we change our sets enough, which we do…often someone will request a song and I’ll be like, We just played it last week. They look at me like I’m crazy. We do make exceptions, but if your repertoire is large enough you can play Friday and Saturday, two or three times a week, in the same 150 mile radius, 120 shows a year and you’re going to draw your core audience to 80% of those shows because they came out and saw you. That was the thing with the Grateful Dead. You’d go see them as many times as you could and you’re never going to see the same show. You’re never going to have the same experience. We wanted to do that. Whole new batch of songs, whole new vibe, whole new feel. That takes a lot of work, especially initially, to pile that many tunes on your back, and then when you get a cool new tune you want to play, the restraint to not play it every show. For 50 shows! And we don’t get tired of it. We have a fresh version of it, the audience doesn’t get tired. They haven’t heard it in 10 shows.
The Grateful Dead thing that we learned from them is that you can do that and sonically we learned a lot from them as far as separation of the instruments and how they played together. But our goal was never to sound like them note for note. Our thing was we need to sound like The Grateful Dead playing. We need to think like the Grateful Dead playing. What was Chuck Berry to them? That was part of their roots when they were kids. Okay, what was roots to me? It was Ray Charles or Freddie King or somebody like that. Pick one of those tunes and let’s make it our own. And the audience probably hasn’t heard the original version of it. They’re just going to take our version and like it. Although we’ve covered the Dead extensively over the years, our goal was never to become them or to become a copy of them. If someone came up and said, ‘Boy, you have the same philosophy and MO as the Dead, I really appreciate it. Then I’d be like, Wow, they get it. I’m trying to take their template and apply it to our own personality.
*JPG: Not being forced to spend your money for tour support must have its advantages as well as a more content family life. *
PB: We immediately began assembling our own PA system from the floor up, just design completely to our spec. And so this was way too fun to play here and have full on heavy duty concert sound and try and build Chicago bigger than to go to Cincinnati and play through a little PA that’s hanging from the ceiling there cause we’re all packed in a van. I guess we were never too sold on the romantic notion of the road. To us it was, Why are we doing this again? What makes sense? And, you know, it does make sense at some level if you can sustain that long enough. But we were like, Why do we have to roll the bones on this? We won vocational lotto already. We’re musicians. We’re not ditch diggers. We’re not bankers. We’re our own bosses and we’re playing music we wrote last night onstage tonight if we rehearsed it well enough, quick enough. This is the dream for us. And this is success to us. I don’t know if we really want to risk all that to go on the road. It’s got a whole lot of baggage with it. Yeah dude, we’re going on the road tomorrow.’ It’s really cool to say that, but in the end, there you are in that van headed down that road to that town where that owner may or may not have promoted your show. May or may not pay you…
*JPG: Looking at your website, I see that you are doing a bit of traveling this summer. Heading to Nelson Ledges Quarry Park for a weekend of shows and doing 10,000 Lakes Festival. *
PB: The guy that works for us, used to work for Dark Star Orchestra. He got sick of the road. I was like, ‘Hey man, jump on our train.’ And he became, well, we had a crew chief, so he’s like next in line, but they work together really well. He’s a very professional cat. He can drive the diesels and the buses and stuff as well as has a good a mentality for putting gear together. He’s like, ‘How come you don’t play a little more on the road? I’m telling him our philosophy and he’s like, ‘Okay. Why don’t you give me a weekend and I’ll book you somewhere really cool.’ ‘Sure take it.’ He comes back three days later and says, ‘“Nelson Ledges”:http://www.nlqp.com.’ He looks at me with wide eyes like expectantly and I’m like, Yeah? Is that a guy’s name or what? He goes, ‘You don’t know Nelson Ledges? Got to get you to some of these other places that you don’t know about.’ So he tells me about it. I’m, ‘Well it sounds great.’ It just came about that way. He knew the guy from Nelson Ledges and he’d been there with Dark Star Orchestra so many times. Heard our stuff and flipped and said, Let’s get them out here for two nights.
We love going out on the road doing gigs and this one we’re leaving tonight at about two a.m. after I have a solo acoustic gig and our lead guitarist has a side project he plays on Thursdays called Hack and Wheeze. After our gigs there’s going to be 12 partying hippies on a bus headed to Ohio at two in the morning. It’s going to be a lot of fun. From the sounds and everything it’s just going to be a beautiful site and should be a lot of fun. So I have no problem with going on the road in that sense. In the early days, it wasn’t a 40-foot tour bus. It was going to be a station wagon.
We are a little bit older. We have houses in the suburbs. We have wives and kids. You don’t really say to your wife and kid, ‘Hey, I’ll see you in five weeks.’ Unless you’re at the hugest level and you know you’re going to fly home on the weekend or fly them out and have ‘em stay a couple days on the road with you. That would have to be a way higher echelon than we have achieved. We’re still working musicians, eking out a bohemian existence, which is fine, is great, but when you have more pressures on you, you get other obligations. This is a smart play. 10,000 Lakes is a smart play no matter what you do, 25,000 fans there. That’s a great thing to do rather than playing a bar 10 miles away on the weekend before 10,000 Lakes. Nelson Ledges? Great. If we can do fests like that. We go to Colorado. We call it the Carpet Bomb Tour. We zip out there in a bus or a plane and we’ll play Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and come home. Cause then you can get things to cover for you at home for that long without uprooting it all. That’s what makes sense to us.
*JPG: I saw a link on your website for Blottopia VIII. I imagine its your own event. *
PB: Blottopia is our camp-out concert, end of every July. Two nights out in the field. It’s us Friday night. It’s us Saturday night. Ten other bands before us. People camp out two nights in a row. It gets bigger every year. It’s fantastic. It’s my favorite thing of the year. We shot it last time in a five camera shoot and straightforward sound and it came out fantastic so we put it out as a DVD. It’s a DVD of Blottopia VII. Well probably shoot it every year and probably put it out between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Blottopia, it’s all us. We’re all in-house. We do everything ourselves. We won’t decide the other bands until the beginning of June, mid-June maybe, just because it’ll take us awhile to get stuff done. We should have it all figured out right now. But we keep looking for really interesting other bands to play with us.
We had The Big Wu last year. We’ve had Dr. Didj. We always try and get like somebody who’s not necessarily our genre, although The Big Wu is, to go on before us, that are just really, really great bands at whatever they do. I think that’s the value-added idea for promoting year to year, and that’s why it’s bigger and bigger. And not going for somebody who’s going to draw a certain demographic or put this many asses in seats or anything like that. That’s not what it’s about. It’s about Blotto. That’s what’s going to draw people. And how good of a time people had musically last year is going to draw people again. So, if you make it high enough quality as far as putting great bands and interesting bands on with us, it just becomes a whole big vibe.
*JPG: Besides the consistent concert schedule, youve recorded five studio albums. I think it averages to one every three years… *
PB: I think that five in 16 years is most likely evidence of disorganization. Because we write so much we could do a double album a year. And it’s been true for the entire time of this band. We write so many songs. The reason we don’t put it out is because you put one out and then two years later you feel like, Oh, we just put that one out, we got to get going on another album. It takes a year to get that going. And then you mix it and then it goes out to the plant and pretty soon two, three years have gone by or four years. I think that if we had somebody hounding us, a record company, to put one out every 16 months or something like that we would easily be able to do that. We’d probably have more albums out now.
When you do everything yourself, you’re going to drop some balls and some stuff’s going to slip through the cracks. That’s just the way. If we had a manager or a management team then we wouldn’t be worrying about booking the band or getting the crew out of jail or fixing the trucks, stuff like that, it would just be music. But, as a consequence we would probably be on the road nine months a year.
*JPG: I always like asking this question, especially to bands that are new to readers. There are so many good bands out there in the jamband scene, and some dealing with similar musical territory, what makes Mr. Blotto different? How do you distinguish your band from others? *
PB: How do I distinguish ourselves from the pack of jambands? The biggest thing, we’re songwriters. My brother and I are definitely songwriters trapped in a jamband. Our whole lives we’ve written for whatever band we were in. When we were in rock bands we were writing rock tunes in high school and stuff like that. For a while in college when we were in folk bands, we were writing folk tunes. And so we got into Mr. Blotto and, all of a sudden, we’re writing. In the early days of jam, the early 90’s Hootie and the Blowfish was considered a jamband when they came out in the mid-90s. There was Big Head Todd and the Monsters. There was Freddie Jones. There weren’t that many jambands.
So we’re writing roots, country, rock, blues-based stuff, which evolved as we all were following the Dead’s path and the Allmans and stuff like that. But we continue to distinguish ourselves that we were writing songs. So many of our contemporaries are writing jams to which they tack on a sentence or two and repeat it or something like that. Not being critical of every other member of the genre we share. I’m saying the distinction that we are proudest of is that we are songwriters. To boil it down, a Blotto song, there’s something you can hum. There’s a song you can pick out of the guitar and play, where a lot of these other jambands, they can be a truly great jam, but if you really boil it down, there’s not much of a song there.
The Grateful Dead were a double threat. They had songs, real songs that they jammed out. We loved that. That I think distinguishes us from other bands.
*JPG: Mr. Blotto gained wider recognition when the band collaborated with Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow on what became the Barlow Shanghai album. Tell me how about that situation. *
PB: Says a lot right there. Here’s a guy whos all about the telling of the story, the turning of a phrase. He didn’t write an inane line in his life. Every line he ever wrote made some sort of sense and did something, moved the ball forward. A treat to work with.
*JPG: For someone whos a major fan of the Grateful Dead, when he agreed to work with you, did you run in the other room and scream for joy? *
PB: We jumped up and down right in front of him. ‘Hell, yes!’ What happened was he came out and saw our band. He was on the way home listening to a couple CDs and the guy he was hanging with was one of those connecter people who put people together. Wonderful cat. ‘Why don’t you do something with these guys?’ ‘Oh, I’d love to.’ So, next day I get an email from Peer Munck, whose the guy I’m talking about who said, ‘Would you guys be interested in working with Barlow? Im like, Hell, yeah. Are you kidding me? I mean, we work really hard on our lyrics, really proud of our lyrics, but a chance to work with Barlow…its not like you’re going to say, Nah, I got the lyrics covered, bro. We don’t have any weakness in the lyric field. Given a chance to work with him, it’s like, Wait a minute. I will bow down and not write one word if I need to because he’s that good.
When we got together it was like, this could be like a clash of egos or this could be uncomfortable. It wasn’t. For 25 years my brother and I have written lyrics and songs together and you get into a dynamic of being able to say what you think of the other person’s idea, be critical of it without being personal. No disrespect, but dude I really think that line is not your best. That one’s not working for me. The other guy says, Well, I’m not married to that line. We can change that line. And you’re off and running. So, we already had that constructed in our heads as far as working on something as delicate as music or lyrics. It’s like two kids building a sandcastle. Obviously, you don’t want to tell the guy, ‘Look don’t build that turret there, it’s driving me crazy.’ You let people flower, but at the same time, you gotta speak your mind, because I’m going to end up, as a singer, singing some line that’s really awkward every fuckin’ time I sing that song…the rest of my career! It’s got to be fluid. It’s got to work for me. So, it immediately worked really well [with Barlow]. Fit right in with him. He had some funny terms for lines that weren’t working. I’d say, That line is a little awkward to phrase. He goes, ‘A little clunky? A little clunky there?’ Yeah, clunky. That’s a perfect word.
He sent me an email later. He was at a point where he wasn’t sure he could do this kind of thing anymore or that he wanted to or that he’d be good at and he actually thanked me for helping him see that he definitely could do this again. I think he had been out of it for awhile or he had been jaded by working with other bands considerably bigger than we are after The Dead. He said they were just trying to churn out some radio hit without much of an eye for the artistic integrity of the lyrics and they were really chopping things up so it would fit the edited version and stuff like that. We didn’t have to do any of that cause I gave him a blank palette. I said, Here’s the syllables to fill and he’d fill ‘em and I’d be, Holy crap! Listen to that line! So it was as effortless as something like that could possibly be. It was really a natural dynamic we had between us.
*JPG: You mentioned that an appeal for him was that he didnt have to write material that would fit for radio, but what did he see in Mr. Blotto in the first place that interested him to work with the band? *
PB: What caught him was his buddy, Peer Munck, I think he does all the live music marketing for The Dead now, knows him real well and he came and stayed with him for a weekend and took him down to see Mark Hague, our guitar player’s side project, which was Hack and Wheeze. He caught him and said, You’ve got to come see the other band. So he came and there were multiple moments where the way, like I said earlier, our philosophy of trying to think like the Dead and not play note for note. Mike’s bass goes down, way, way down in the Philzone. I think he came out see us at a nice size room and Mike goes down and hits that ‘A’ at the bottom of his five string bass and it rattles your ribs. It’s just air. Yeah, he’s dropping a bomb, but it’s pillowy, it’s not disco bass in the chest. It’s literally rattling your clothing. He hits that so low, it’s out of the frequency range of the electric guitar and the acoustic guitar and the piano, and those things are each in his range. I think he just had a ‘Oh my God, I’ve heard this thing before.’ This is what the Grateful Dead used to do.
It might have been one of our tunes. It might have been anything else. I think he was knocked out by the sound of what was going on and the completeness of the sound. Didn’t sound like a small band. It sounded like a stadium band. Everything was where it needed to be. We took a big lesson from the Dead sound-wise too. Paid a lot of attention to how they made the drums sound and made those toms crack. You could hear every instrument that they were playing and that’s what we have. You go to a Blotto show, whatever guy onstage you’re looking at, you clearly hear his instrument. I think he had a few moments like that. It was just, I like the way these guys play together. I like their spirit. I like what’s going on.
*JPG: You mentioned playing an acoustic gig as well as the Hack and Wheeze side project. So, its not Mr. Blotto all the time? *
PB: Right, but Mr. Blotto supersedes everything else. Everyone is gainfully unemployed, as we like to say. If you’re playing music, you’re getting paid and you’re able to continue your existence as a fulltime musician that’s the goal. The success that we talked about like that defines it. You may have to work a lot. You may work more hours than 9 to 5-ers do. You may not have a dental plan. You may not have anything, but you are playing music for a living. More than that, you’re playing your own music most of the time for a living. That’s ungodly rare. We’re well aware of it and we’re very appreciative of the Big Guy in the sky granting us that thing we’re trying to earn at. It’s so easy to lay back and say, Hey man, I’ve got it made.
I play Friday and Saturday, and I can lay around all week. No, you’re going to put five hours in every day or something music-related. And you’re also going to do a couple hours on the computer. We design our own t-shirts. We design our own flyers. We do all that stuff. We make our own shirts. We have our own screen machine. It’s like a mini Rockefeller or Carnegie, one of those guys was horizontally consolidated. He would have an iron mine. He’d have an iron smelting factory. Then he would have a railroad that would take it to the plant he owned. He didn’t want to pay anybody. He had all those things. It was horizontally consolidated. That’s what we want to be. Make our own CDs. Make our own shirts. Make your own flyers. Produce your own sound system. Run our own lights. Own our own truck. Blah, blah, blah. Of course, the other guy in that scenario was vertically consolidated. He wanted to own every coal mine or every railroad. Can’t really do that. Can’t be the only band in America, although that would make it a lot easier. But we’d have no one to jam with.