Singer/songwriter Steve Katz, of Blood, Sweat & Tears and The Blues Project will perform at this year’s CMF Benefit, on Saturday, July 11th at 6PM at the Orpheum. Recently I had the opportunity to talk to him about his life, music, and some recent projects.
You recently wrote a book; how different was that from your other projects and experiences?
It’s just another artform, so it was different in that it was sort of like writing a bunch of lyrics that didn’t rhyme. Other than that it was pretty much the same; it was a fun thing to do. Just like when you write a song, you have an empty canvas, and it’s the same when you pick up your typewriter or laptop. It’s an empty word processing page, and you begin somewhere.
Obviously you’re a successful musician with a pretty exemplary career, but what would you consider to be your greatest achievement?
Winning Grammy awards – we won Album of the Year in 1970 – and I think the nicest thing about it was the award was handed to us by Louie Armstrong which was a real thrill. There have been so many things in my career that have been lucky for me, and we worked hard to get them, but there have been so many great things. We played Woodstock, and with The Blues Project I played the Monterey Pop Festival, which was a real highlight. I got to shake hands with Otis Redding, and I had hot dogs backstage with Jimi Hendrix. It was a fun time.
What influenced you as a songwriter and composer?
I think a lot of it was the freedom that the sixties afforded us, because we were all experimenting. We were all getting stoned, we were kids, and we were trying out different guitar tunings and different ways to play our instruments. We were writing songs that were a synthesis of the things we liked: country blues, bluegrass, old time music. There’s a synthesis of folk music and rock and roll. Between that and the politics of the time, that really gave us a freedom to create that I don’t think has been recreated since.
Was it difficult to keep the ball rolling with the band after Al Kooper, Randy Brecker, and Jerry Weiss left?
It was difficult to keep it rolling because we didn’t know if the record company would support us after Al left, but we got David Clayton-Thomas to be our lead singer, and Columbia records came up to hear us. They loved it, so we did our second album, which had all the hits on it.
How did it feel to beat The Beatles for a Grammy?
You know, I didn’t even think about that until people brought it up a couple of years ago. I didn’t even remember that until recently.
I don’t think we felt that we beat out anybody, we were just happy to be recognized for what we did. But as far as beating anybody, I didn’t see it that way at all. Now when I look back, it’s pretty incredible. Still, if you put the music together The Beatles were The Beatles. Abbey Road is a great album, you can’t deny it. I don’t know why we won over The Beatles. I don’t see music as a talent contest or anything like that; Abbey Road is a classic record.
What is it about BS&T that’s allowed it to remain relevant for so long? Forty years is quite a long time in the music industry, and they’re still touring.
I don’t think it is relevant. They shouldn’t be touring, actually. There’s no originals in the band. I don’t mind it if they call it the BS&T tribute band, but they don’t. So they’re sort of lying to their audiences and taking their money, which is okay, except they’re taking a lot of money and presenting something that really isn’t what it was. I’m not happy about it, and I know some of the other original members aren’t happy about it. Basically that’s kept the name alive, but I think it’s taken away from the respect that we could’ve had over the years.
Let’s talk a little more about you. You started a small business with your wife; what was that about, and is it still up and running?
Yes it is. While I was the Managing Director at Green Linnet records, which was a little celtic label back in the early nineties, my wife was just getting her ceramic art business going. We did a flyer that we sent out to different galleries, and the response was incredible. Alison said to me, “you gotta help me with this.” I stayed at home in our studio and worked at Green Linnet for a year as a consultant; meanwhile we were doing lots of wholesale shows, selling to galleries, and upgrading our business. That was fun because it wasn’t like being in a band, I had my own business. It was a lot of fun.
Do you think you like that home life more, or do you miss the on-the-road band life?
Well, we did build a large arts studio on our property. The things that we’re doing now, like workshops, are much better than taking our booth on the road and setting it up for shows, that’s why I’m happier going back to playing music. If it was a choice of sitting in a booth at an art show or playing in front of an audience, I’d definitely want to play in front of an audience. That’s why it’s been a very happy time for me the past couple of years.
Speaking of performing, do you like being on stage better, or do you like the behind the scenes work of producing more?
Oh, I like both of them. Performing and producing are both creative things, and I do like both. I think I probably enjoy playing and relating to audiences more. I like the smaller audiences. In BS&T we had thousands of people coming to see us, and it was fun, but it wasn’t very intimate. Now my book is sort of a mirror of my performances and vice versa, they’re both in chronological order. I just enjoy doing it, I like looking back on my career and playing the songs I played throughout the years and doing it acoustically. I’m having a lot of fun.
While you were producing you worked a lot with irish music and irish tradition, what do you like so much about that?
I was producing a band called Horslips around the late seventies and they turned me on to a lot of irish music. I felt it was a kind of roots music that was the equal of blues or old time music in this country. In fact a lot of the old time music from here was based on irish and celtic folk music. I just love that kind of rootsy feel, so I was drawn to it and the musicians, and that feel that probably nobody’s ever heard of to this day. There are some great musicians out there playing celtic music. For me as a musician it was fun to work with them.
You said that no one’s really heard of that feel. In that light, what do you think of popular music today? Do you think anyone’s achieved that again?
That’s true. I would love to see what the next thing is gonna be, the next important thing. I guess the next big thing has been in rap and hip hop, and stuff like that. It’s not something that I particularly enjoy but it’s still just as valid, and it’s just as much a social movement as the blues were in the thirties. At this point in my life I like to look back on all the recordings that are accessible to me from this century. I mentioned Louie Armstrong before; I haven’t listened to everything that he did. I haven’t listened to so many things, groups in rock and roll, or classical. I like to go back and find new things that have already been recorded. I’m not really interested in newer things because I don’t think anyone’s doing anything that’s really exciting to me.
What is your favorite song?
I guess the first movement from Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto is on the top of that list. My favorite things done by John Coltrane, oh I could go on and on! It’s a very tough question because I have so many favorite songs.
I know it’s a tough question, that’s why I like asking it.
That’s good, that’s actually a good question. Give me about six months and I’ll be able to answer it. I might even find the one! At least once a week I’m listening to my ipod in the car, or my record collection, and I say wow, this is the best song ever recorded. And then it changes the week after, so it’s very hard to answer that question.
Do you think there’s a difference in how songs are recorded now compared to vinyl, cd’s, etc.?
I’m kind of glad to see that they got rid of vinyl, because the vinyl was very poor in the seventies when I was working for a record company and doing most of my production. What I used to do as a producer was put the ballads on the ends of the sides, because the grooves are compressed. With a track with heavy bass, or metal, like heavy guitars, you have a problem where the needle could actually jump off the track or give you distortion at least. So I don’t know what this whole thing about vinyl is, unless it’s so incredible. I try to listen to a cd, especially since I like classical music so much. Then I don’t have to hear the pops and crackles. I’m a real advocate of cd’s.
That’s interesting, because now they’re making vinyls again with popular music. I guess it’s the specific sound, or maybe it’s nostalgic, but for some reason it’s almost coming back.
Everybody uses the word warmth; vinyl is warmer. I produced an album in LA where the guy who did the mastering said “here, tap your foot to this.” We recorded this track both on tape and digitally. He said, “I bet you don’t tap your foot to the digital recording.” I thought he was crazy, and when he played both of them back I confirmed he was crazy, because I was tapping my foot to both of them! It depends on people’s tastes. If you’re an audiophile lunatic then I guess vinyl is a wonderful thing, and the thing I do miss about vinyl is the album covers. But I certainly don’t miss the distortion, and the crackles and pops.
That makes sense.
But I don’t like mp3’s either, I have to say that. There is a difference. I love cd’s. Cd’s were difficult because of the range of dynamics, and earlier engineers didn’t know how to handle that, so the sounds were kind of all over the place. They finally got that tamed, but it took a while.
What don’t you like about mp3’s?
They’re compressed. One of the things a as a producer that I regret doing was compressing instruments. You had to compress some things for them to fit on the track , or compress a whole track when you master, and mp3’s are compressed at a lower quality. The problem is that people aren’t listening through large speakers, They’re listening through headphones and tiny speakers. If you listen through large speakers the way I grew up and love doing, you hear a difference. You can hear the compression, and it’s just not fun.
Wow, I never realized that.
Yes, mp3’s are made for people with smaller speakers, that listen to their music smaller. That’s very disappointing to me. How many people have large sound systems now? Very few.
You seem to be sort of humble about your guitar playing; opting out as the washboard player in the Even Dozen Jug Band and playing harmonica in some BS&T songs.
Right, you answered the question. I was humble about it. I was brought up playing acoustic guitar, and that’s what I did for a couple of years before I picked up an electric instrument, and that’s what I’ve gone back to now. I was never a great electric guitar player, I was a rhythm guitar player. When I listen to people like Derek Trucks, who is just amazing, I can’t consider myself a very good guitar player. There are people out there that are really amazing. I think because I was able to sing and write songs and play harmonica, I never thought of myself as just a guitar player.
So you kind of took on a multi-faceted approach to being a band member.
Well with the jug band, either I was in or I was out because there were too many guitar players, so I picked up the washboard. It was different with BS&T and The Blues Project. In BS&T the guitar was an ensemble instrument, and that’s how some of the guys saw it because they were jazz guys. In live performance I did a lot of soloing, but not on the records.
BS&T has that signature combination of jazz and rock, and I know in jazz there are a lot of technical nuances that people might not pick up on if they don’t know a lot about the genre. In reference to that, in your opinion, are there any songs that were kind of underrated? Songs that maybe weren’t as popular but were really well done musically and technically?
I liked a few of the songs that we did on our fourth album. One called “John The Baptist” is a great track. I think the whole fourth album is very underrated because that’s when people weren’t even listening to it anymore. We did an excellent job with the Isley Brothers song, “Rock Me For A Little While.” It was downhill from there, but for different reasons. I think my favorite is “John The Baptist.”
What’s your opinion on cover songs versus originals?
It depends on the person. I mean, if somebody’s not really talented and they do a cover song, then it sucks. I’ve heard people do over songs that are incredible; there are people who do just covers. If you take someone like Emmylou Harris, who does mostly other people’s songs, she does an amazing job. There are very few originals that can compare with what people like that can do to a song, the way they interpret it. You can go back to Frank Sinatra – he was covering a lot of songs and making them his own. That’s what happens. If an artist can cover a song and make it their own, then it’s better than the original.
Can you tell me about some parts of your life that people may not know about?
No, I won’t.
I’m kidding! I’m just kidding. I think I put everything in my book. I don’t think I really held back too much. I talk about a period when I did some drugs but it wasn’t that much, and I talk about the women that I’ve been with and stuff like that, and problems I’ve had with my family. Aside from that I’m not holding anything back.
So you’re a pretty cut and dry guy.
I’m a big mouth.
A big mouth! Well.
I’ve had a pretty good life you know, I’ve been very, very lucky. I have no secrets.
Steve Katz will present an acoustic evening of story and song, with special guest Greg Dayton, at the CMF Benefit, Satuday, July 11th, at 6 PM at the Orpheum, 6050 Main Street, in the Village of Tannersville. Tickets start at $125 and include the performance, plus a plentiful buffet of delicious hors d’oeuvres. For tickets or more information, please visit www.catskillmtn.org.