Blues Into Metal #1: Jason Ricci

Welcome to Blues Into Metal, an occasional Decibel interview and blog series on the history and ties between America’s homegrown music and the extreme fare our readers cherish. In it, we’ll seek out musicians from both genres to discuss the links and shared history between the blues and metal – and the misconceptions about both. Readers interested in delving further into metal's musical history should also check out Hank Shteamer's exhaustive blog and interview series Heavy Metal Be-Bop, which examines the parallels between jazz and metal. A good choice to begin the series is Jason Ricci, a young blues and rock harmonica player who began his career playing in punk bands in his native Maine and received his blues education in the Mississippi Delta in his 20s. Ricci is known for compressing an ungodly amount of notes into a single bar and Icharus styled solos that tempt fate like a Cirque Du Soleil stunt; as they ascend they seem doomed to crash and then, improbably, succeed. He’s covered Misfits songs; jammed with generations of famous bluesman and traveled the world. He’s also experienced the pitfalls of a musical life: drugs, mental illness, instability and imprisonment.

After a relapse that ended in an extended heroin and crack bender in New Orleans, Ricci is recovered, receiving treatment for bipolar disorder and slowly taking back to the road. His life and the themes that haunt him will be familiar to any listener who has spent many hours with their metal collection. He talked to us about the ties between the extremely extreme and the blues and the links that draw us, as Fitzgerald said, ceaselessly back to the past.

What did you listen to growing up?

I listened to everything, including metal. I listened to speed metal, thrash, skate punk, stuff like that. I really liked punk influenced bands and alternative before it was alternative, like The Replacements and The Pixies, who were really popular in Boston and in Maine. I also liked The Dead Kennedys, The Misfits, Fugazi, The Sex Pistols. A lot of the music was fun and the lyrics spoke to me as a kid; they had a lot of integrity and sincerity, even if the delivery was sometimes juvenile or histrionic. They still meant what they were saying whereas most of the shit on the radio didn’t. I was into bands like that and somehow I got into harmonica. I had a harmonica teacher who made me listen to blues music, which didn’t interest me at the time. But I was impressed with what the harmonica players could do.

If you are listening to The Dead Kennedys and Fugazi how do you decide “I want to play a harmonica.” That doesn’t make sense to me on the surface.

(laughs). That’s a completely relevant question. I was playing guitar in bands but there were already guitar players who were better than me. I wasn’t going to get that job so I was the singer. The guitar players started to write songs and then they wanted to sing them. All of a sudden the choices were like trumpet or sax, some kind of lead instrument.

As a rule I’m a pretty unreliable individual (laughs). Even at a young age I had an awareness of that. I didn’t want to be roped into spending a lot of money on an instrument and then give it up. So, the band suggested a harmonica. Even if I played it like shit I could probably damage the music less than if I used a keyboard. As long as I got the right key I could do something. Other people decided I should play, and it was cheap. My mother insisted I take lessons. My guitar teacher at the time was my harmonica teacher. Not many schools offer harmonica but luckily they did.

The harmonica player Andy Just said that many people think of harmonica like they do a child’s instrument and aren’t aware of the levels of expression a talented player can achieve. How long did it take you tap into that?

Right away. I didn’t practice at all and I’d show up to play and I played pretty well. After playing guitar it was clear this came a lot easier. Maybe it was because I carried it everywhere. I was a troubled kid and ran away a lot and had a lot of time to fuck with it. After a few weeks of listening to blues I fell in love with the greats. Pretty soon, I was even buying blues albums without harmonica.

Did you think early on in your musical education about the parallels between, say, heavy metal and punk and the blues? Both are rooted in a sense of unrest; dark themes abound.

There are a lot of connections between both of those types of music and the blues. There’s even more of a connection to rap music and blues. There, you are dealing with direct link to the heritage of the American-American experience in United States. Public Enemy and NWA, to me, are the equivalents of Leadbelly or Gil Scott.

There’s an album you can buy called Sissy Man Blues. It features songs from the 20s and 30s; there are all of these songs about lesbians and gays and having sex in prison. I don’t feel like you could do that now. People would get all upset. There doesn’t seem to be much of that in contemporary blues. I’m not criticizing the music but I will say, and this isn’t just true for blues but most music in society, that people are scared. People are scared to say things or criticize. In an effort to obtain the largest possible audience people will give up on honest expression. It doesn’t matter if the subject is romance or sex or even gun control.

How familiar are you with early Black Sabbath?

I’m wicked familiar with them. I’m thinking of doing a cover of "The Wizard" and mixing it with Arabic music. I’m going to do an Arabian scale version. I’ve been playing it as a solo harmonica piece and I’m thinking of teaching it to the band. Ozzy played harp on that. I do think I have a better harp version of it than what Ozzy played. But I wouldn’t have a version without an Ozzy. I’m also a huge fan of 60s (John) Coltrane. I feel like that early Sabbath was like the rock version of the 60s Coltrane quartet. That’s how much the music means it to me. I’m comparing Sabbath to something I consider scared music; Coltrane is like a prophet to me.

How did you decided to cover (The Misfits) “I Turned Into A Martian”?

First of all, it’s one of the funniest songs ever. In some ways I think that song is about demonic possession. A good portion of the album that song is on, Done With The Devil, is about the subject of demonic possession. It’s something my publicist has asked me not to talk about (laughs). But I do have a belief in good and evil. In some ways, the older I get the more black and white things seem. The song also just fit on the record. It was very easy to turn into a blues song because of the chord changes and the drum beat.

How did you figure out the harmonica parts for it?

I just played over the chords. That’s really what I teach people -- to hear chords and know what’s in them. I have a variety of notes I know to play and can play them in any order.

In both blues and metal, you can play simply but with feeling and make something incredible. At the same time you can do the opposite and play like a virtuoso and people like it. They seem to be contrary extremes.

That's a good observation. You just illustrated the positive aspects of both of these things. Certainly, yours truly has been criticized as using a lot of notes but having no fucking heart. Anybody that can play will hear that all the time. I have been and will continue be guilty of playing a lot of notes. It’s true that after 10 minutes of hearing a lot of notes people will get bored. It blurs together. I played with both R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough and what they played is technically simple but has a ton of feel. On the other hand, you have guys like Walter Trout and me.

It’s almost like having both a heart and soul and a brain. What I think you don’t want is songs that sound the same, use the same licks. I’m not saying there aren’t cool licks but people will get as bored of that as they will a lot of notes. You need to have a little bit of soul and a little bit of intellect. You have to keep it interesting in any style of music. But finding balance is a motherfucker. Keeping things even keel is a process. You see this in other pursuits like painting and cooking. Some people are good at the technical side of things or they are good at the soulful part. But too much of a good thing and you will miss something.

People in metal use the Devil to shock and offend but a lot of them don’t realize how long that motif has been around.

It goes even beyond blues. The notes Paganini used were considered evil at the time – the minor third (i.e. the devil’s tritone).

To making a living playing music that is more marginalized – like blues and metal – you need to be on the road 300 days a year. Even if you love the music you need to almost kill yourself to survive.

That subject is pretty important to me. I was sober for years but I was working 300 days a year. I was doing that not only to pay for a house and a car but to make a name for myself, to establish myself as an artist. I also wanted to keep a group of individuals I cared about employed. Of course there’s a selfish motive but I wanted a good band.

That shit killed me. I didn’t relapse onto dope because I was on the road so long. But I did have a nervous breakdown, got pneumonia and had a whole host of problems that led to a relapse. Working that hard and travelling that much fucked me up. It would have helped if I had utilized some of the other skills I have in life. In some ways, that would have helped my name by reducing the supply of live appearances. Shit, I could have gotten a job a few months out of the year. I’m going to try to never make that mistake again. I’m blessed to be alive after a horrific period. I’m lucky enough to have some of the same people supporting me professionally and personally. All these things led to a significant time incarcerated and a three-year lesson in humility. I found out the people that had been with me for day one really were the ones that supporting me.

Now, I’m trying to tour a bit but spend more time at home. I’m going to teach. I’m going to work with autistic children and kids from bad homes. And I’m going to get more involved in helping the medical community with bipolar disorder. I went on lithium (after a bipolar diagnosis) and it’s incredibly disabling creatively. It’s made me wonder how I’m going to keep writing music and support myself and improvise. The drug in many ways hinders those abilities. But I’ve overcome a lot of obstacles and I’m going to continue to overcome them.

I think one of the reasons the blues has lost a lot of the young audience is that it’s lost some of a sense of danger. The music was written by people who faced discrimination, but a lot of people think of their parents listening to blues while eating dinner.

There’s nothing wrong with how the blues is being played right now. Everything has a time. A lot of great things have happened with blues, especially as it’s become less lyrically centered. There’s so much more attention on how to play it and getting good instrumentals and combining influences from jazz and rock. There are some monster musicians out there. Yes, blues musicians are guilty of having lyrics that are a vehicle for a solo to happen, y’know, ‘I woke up this morning and heard the news/it was so bad/it gave me the blues.’ At the same time it’s hard to be upset because there are some badasses playing. So, the music has taken an intellectual and studious approach. On some levels I think it needed it. There might not be the most advanced lyrics now but it will all catch up at some point. People will eventually tire of fancy playing. I’m not too worried about it. I’m not pulling out the Mayan calendar.

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