Interview with Andy Bernstein: Let The Roots Roll: Photos, Video


Interview with Andy B. AKA Andy Bernstein- has been the primary singer-songwriter for roots rockers The VooDUDES since 1990.

How has the American Roots music influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

My grandparents were all immigrants. Three of them lived into my adulthood, so I heard about their lives and processed that information through my own adult experiences. My father’s father came to America at 14, and loving cowboy stories, road the rails out west. Though the frontier was gone, he learned a lot of English from listening to the hobos singing folks songs – similar to what Woody Guthrie experienced when he traveled the country. So as a youngster when I would sing traditional American music, likeCandyman on my new, solo album (or the many “trad” New Orleans songs on The VooDUDES’ discs), my grandpa would know the tune and be able to add to my understanding of it.

My mom’s father had played music in Europe as a teenager. Once in America, he enjoyed the company of others who enjoyed music, particularly waltzes, which were the rhythm of so many early country songs. His experience was the fellowship of music. For me having an ear for traditional American music was key.  American folk music started with an arcane mix of English – Irish – Scots – African sounds and rolled on to incorporate every other wave of immigration that arrived. So to discover zydeco or conjunto or reggae just seemed like a natural progression. Being based in New Jersey where many Greeks settled, we all grow up knowing how to “OPA” when the situation requires it!

How do you describe your songbook and sound? Where does your creative drive come from?

My compositions encompass the roots music that I think will fit the subject matter. A song about a wild woman I met has a combination Rockabilly and Second Line groove; a tune about trying to attract a more reticent person is set to Texas Swing. On the new album LOOK WHAT THE CAT DRAGGED IN, I wanted the listener to experience pumping coins into a roadhouse jukebox. That vibe runs through the nine tracks that present some funky Blues, Country Rock and retro Country, Folk Rock – short catchy tunes that work for dancing, singing along and drinking. Lyrically I’m always telling myself (and the listeners) some little story.  It could be about a woman, a historical event or even a non-sectarian article of faith. The drive comes from a need to express my interests to the world. A musician friend said I was always name-dropping in my music. Well yeah, I am because I’m interested in how that person or situation effects my own thinking.

Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

I’ve spent close to 30 years with The VooDUDES, so those certainly guys loom large in my life.  It’s one of the reasons I convinced guitarist Gary Ambrosy to come work with me on this solo project – he’s my security blanket. I also have a close relationship with John Rizzo better known as Blues Leaf Recording artist Juke Joint Jonny. I did some touring with him as his percussionist, harmonica player and relief vocalist. He’s a life-long musician who has played and lived all over the world. His advice and encouragement has been key to my doing this solo project. As for advice, it’s not been so much what was said, but the example set by so many of “the greats” I’ve played with. Whether it was Levon Helm, Johnny Adams, Buckwheat Zydeco or countless others, they all made it look like they were having the time of their lives. I saw Muddy Waters on his last tour – the man couldn’t stand up through the whole set. And yet he sang and played with all his heart, and he smiled in acknowledgement of the audience’s applause. When an audience spends their hard-earned money to see me play, they should get a great show, where I smile and entertain them – share their good time.

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

The VooDUDES tour of Greece set up by Johnny Angelatos where we met you.  Lots of fun, lots of beautiful people and places. And those dates we did with Levon Helm, all very special. The story I’ll share with your readers is that after our first gig with Levon (at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Museum), the two bands went out for dinner at a barbecue joint where Robert “Junior” Lockwood was playing. Lockwood sits down on his break to eat with us and I ended up seated between him and Helm. They begin debating who was the best drummer in Muddy Waters’ classic bands. And then they asked my opinion. Here are two great musicians whose music I’ve grown up with! I don’t want to offend the guy we’re touring with, nor do I want to argue with Robert Johnson’s stepson and heir. I’m sitting there and NOTHING is coming over my mouth.  I finally picked a drummer that hadn’t been mentioned yet. They realized that I was playing the neutral party – like Switzerland – and started laughing.  Nice to be able to make my heroes laugh even if I was the butt of their joke.

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

First there’s the artistic part: I love the convenience of CDs and downloads. But I miss the art of album jackets. I also dig digital recording and working in producer John Pittas’ set-up allowed my new band, SoulFolk, to play live in the studio almost eyeball-to-eyeball. That would not have been possible with analog recording. I do not hear any difference between the sound and production quality of my own digital recordings and the analog ones cut with The VooDUDES, so there’s no problem for me on that point. Then there’s the mercenary part: In a world where Peter Frampton only made $1700 on digital downloads last year, what chance do I have of making a living that way? Whatsmore, the fees for live shows have not kept up with the cost of living here in the US. It’s one of the reasons that musicians jump from band to band and juggle gigs. My own hope is to license and sync music for media. When I’m home, I watch a lot of documentaries and mini-series on TV. Many of these are now employing independent music on their soundtracks. To me that’s an income stream that continues to pay off and lets me play the gigs I want to. This was one of the main reasons for going with the IOA Records label for this recording’s release. Of course it still pays to showcase. In March I’ll be in Austin, Texas playing such a show for my record label at South By Southwest Festival’s Music Week.

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

I would like to have experienced the time when the corporate record companies actually supported creativity. The Band and Little Feat never had big hit records, yet they found homes on Capital and Warners respectively where they could work at their sound and which allowed them to make those great records of the 1960s and 1970s. To have that kind of patronage keeping the wolf from the door is a reality I would’ve liked to have known. I should say in defense of my own label that IOA Records is extremely supportive in terms of digital distribution, promotion, personal encouragement, suggestions-without-arm-twisting and a general sense of fun. I trust that the things we’ve discussed, ie, licensing/syncing and booking support, will come if my project proves to have legs.

What touched (emotionally) you from the NJ music scene? What characterizes NJ in comparison to other circuits?

New Jersey is home. It’s where I came up, made mistakes, got shot down and was helped up again. It’s where I can pick up the phone and either reach people-in-the-know or have them call me back. It’s the kind of place where if I’M coming from a gig with a couple of hundred dollar bills in MY pocket, and the local bartender can’t break them, somebody will buy me a beer. It’s a small place with lots of big opportunities. It’s surrounded by three urban music markets and has its own culture as well.

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your paths in music industry?

Just like that old Jazz musician says to the young rocker in the film THAT THING YOU DO “You got to watch your money!” I protect myself with copyrights and filings for music publishing (in my case BMI). And scrutinize contracts like my life depends upon it.

What is the impact of Roots music and culture to the racial, political, and socio-cultural implications? 

As I’m sure your readers know, we’re at a crossroads in America. Something about the changing demographic, ie, more non-white people, more empowered women, more vocal LGBTQ frighten the status quo of white people. I grew up in a city of Black and Hispanic people where I was in the minority, so those changes don’t bother me.  But I find it shocking that even among the mostly white Blues Societies, there is fear and anger at groups that were once quiet minorities and now want to be heard. I think that my own childhood experience surrounded by people different from myself, prepared me to be open and accepting of things, whether that’s music, alternative politics or just who my neighbors are. I don’t believe that it’s absolutely necessary to love everyone. To me justice and fairness are much more important. Exposing oneself to different music AND the people who make that music will only make this a more balanced world.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

1) Buddy Bolden and his band playing the first jazz dances at the Funky Butt Hall in New Orleans around the turn of the 20thCentury.

2) A.P. Carter coming down from the Appalachians in the 1920s with a collection of traditional songs and playing them for his wife and her cousin who would all become the Carter Family.

3) Early 1930s: Robert Johnson teaching Robert Lockwood how to play guitar (maybe he could teach me a little something as well).

4) Late 1940s, Houston, Texas: Clifton and Cleveland Chenier (allegedly) invent zydeco.

5) The early 1950s in the American South to see the classic line-up of Hank Williams band.

6) The mid 1960s to either be with the Ike & Tine Turner Revue on the road or in Texas to see Baldemar Huerta – later known as Freddy Fender – mix rock, country and Mexican folk music at roadhouse gigs..

This is why that musician called me a name-dropper!


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