How long has it been since you’ve seen each other?
James: Yesterday was the first time in at least five years.
Do you keep in touch?
James: Not hardly at all.
How did you get together this time?
James: Chet pulled it together again. Well, Chet was the one who got Janis with the band. See, Chet’s from Texas, and like I said before, Peter and I had seen Janis sing at the Coffee Gallery a year before or so. We were looking for singers – we were auditioning all these singers – and we said to Chet, “There was this chick we saw at the Coffee Gallery a year ago. She was the one. She had a real powerful voice.” So it turns out that he knows her, you know. He says, “Oh, I know her. I know where she is, as a matter of fact.”
Sam: He’d gone to school with her.
Sam: About a year ago – talking about how we got together again and everything – I went into dreams about it. I’d dream about it, like in the daytime, of the four of us going out with Kathi [McDonald] and doing this again. But I’m the kind of person who’d never organize that. I’m not oriented that way. But Peter would, if any of us would. He’s more business-oriented. He’s an organizer, whereas I would think of it but never do anything about it. So it’s great that Chet did it.
Have you considered getting the band back together for more than this gig?
James: No, I don’t think we’ve considered it, really. We haven’t talked about it at all.
Sam: I’d like to consider it. I vote yes. I’d love to do it.
James: It’s kind of difficult to do it now, because I live out in the desert and Dave lives in L.A.
Sam: It’s more difficult because we really haven’t talked to each other in all this time. So we’re all still a little tentative, just feeling around and seeing what’s going on.
James: Yeah. Just to get this job done tomorrow is the important thing at this point. One step at a time. Mainly it’s Chet bringing it all together, because he’s the only guy who can do it. It’s fantastic.
Sam: Considering the source – considering Chet as a person – it’s like the thing I was saying about Hendrix. His thought process are taking it to a whole other level. He’s got the business level going.
He started everything.
Sam: He’s a starter, yeah. And from the right way, too, which starters usually are, and then there’s a second person. There’s the thing about human movement, up comes the other. Like the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 – they had to kill off the guys who started it because they were too heavy into it. They believed in it, and the other guys said, “Ah, get rid of him.” Take him in the back room.
James: Right. Get rid of that guy.
Sam: Because they can’t take it. It’s almost too heavy for history or too heavy for everybody. It’s the price.
What did you guys feel back when reviewers started panning your sound?
James: Oh, yeah. Yeah.
Some went so far as to say that’s why Janis left.
Sam: I felt like they were absolutely right, considering their rules of the game. They were playing by their rules, and they were right by their rules. But I don’t think they saw that another game was being played, one that they couldn’t see at all.
Which was what game?
Sam: Just the things we were saying, that the expression was the more important thing and it was the time in history for that to happen. The scale had to be balanced for that to come up.
To where the music’s energy is more important than its structure?
Sam: Yeah, although I shy away from even trying to nail it down that much. We were talking about this tune “I’ll Change a Flat Tire.” There’s a band called Pure Prairie League who did that. They did it better than we did – people will argue about that stuff, and they may be right. Whatever. But that’s my opinion – they did it better than we did, but we did it first. And it’s always easier to build the second step after the first step.
James: After somebody has already done it, it’s easy the second time.
Sam: You have to make choices. You can reject this or that. But when it’s all just coming out for the first time, it’s hard. Covering a record is like that. Pure Prairie League is great – you understand what I’m saying. So about the critics: Their criticisms were perfectly valid in terms of what they saw.
James: In terms of their expectations. They expected entertainers who are supposed to try to be slick and commercial and try to please them with stuff that they already know about. We were coming from a point of view “Here’s something you ain’t never heard before. Try this.” They’re given too much importance, I think. What the hell do critics know? They don’t know shit about music.
Sam: I have a critical mind like that, analytical or whatever you want to call it. I break things down too, so I can tell where they’re coming from. But as we said before, they can only interpret in terms of what happened in the past. They’re not ready to see something brand new. So it has to be fit to them in terms of what they’ve already seen. A lot of times there’s no way to prepare for a brand-new experience. Most people go, “Wow!” and then they’ll think it over over the years, but the critic right away has to go home and . . .
James: Put it into print.
Sam: So that’s a big chance.
James: Like a lot of records I get, I don’t like ’em the first time, but they grow on me. Like the Wailers – I really love the Wailers [Bob Marley’s band]. I’ve been really heavy into reggae. For the last three years, that’s been my main passion musically.
Sam: They said we played out of tune. They said that we weren’t the right band for her, that she should move on. That was the year of soul, that was the year of horns. I think she was feeling a lot of that. We’d all seen Otis Redding, and that blew our collective mind. Back East, when you’re put in the studio, the musicians are interchangeable. They’re all great. They can play anything. It’s just like, “This guy is a good body man and he can work on brakes great – stick him in the garage.” It’s a different kind of thing, and it will always put together a slick thing in most cases, but always done in terms of the past. You know it as well as I do – it’s like creators versus interpreters.
James: Yeah! That’s what I was getting at. The first time I listened to most Wailers records, I didn’t like them. But I’d say, “This is the Wailers. I gotta like it – I liked all the ones before it.” See? So then I play it again, and then I play it ten times, and pretty soon I’ll be liking it. It has a lot to do with your conditioning. If you’re not prepared to hear something – like if you haven’t heard Devo, there’s a perfect example. I would expect that record to get a lot of panning from critics. It really just comes out of left field. There’s some pretty weird stuff. Of course, I’ll suppose there will be critics who want to show how elite avant-garde they are and try to pick up on it. It’s a whole other kind of thing – they’re not just talking ordinary chord changes and stuff. There’s weird electronics and stuff that sounds like a factory going on, just all this weird stuff. The first time you hear it, it will make your hair stand on end. But I really like ’em.
Sam: To continue that one question, because I’ve thought it over ever since it’s happened – about the critics and how right they were and trying to really understand from the outside what was happening. It’d be interesting to go and ask those critics today, “Would you have that same opinion? Would you feel the same way?” Granted, we were out of tune. There’s no two ways about it. First of all, we didn’t have a keyboard around, so there was no objective . . .
James: No fixed pitch. Plus we were doing a lot of wild guitar breaks all the time, stretching those strings.
Sam: For someone with absolute pitch or even close to it, if we’re gonna play in D but for some reason we’re turned to C#, that person’s gonna hear it out of tune from the get-go. And then the fact is, even with that, we weren’t even in tune a lot of times.
James: Yeah, that’s true. A lot of musicians aren’t in tune a lot of the time. They’re right.
Sam: As I said before, I think all the things they said were true in terms of what they knew. But it would be interesting to go back today and say, “After repeat listening” – like you said with the Wailers – “would you still stand by that criticism? Maybe there are other factors you weren’t looking for at the time, or you didn’t see.”
Many people now consider Cheap Thrills to be a timeless album.
Sam: Yeah, yeah.
It’s like Jimi Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner” at Woodstock.
Sam: I wanted to do that so much! I wanted to do that song! I want to say it again: I wanted to do that song so much, a year or two before he did it. But all these guys talked me out of it.
James: I don’t remember that.
Sam: You don’t? Okay, well, it happened. I wanted to do it when we were doing Cheap Thrills. We had a singer we had to relate to lyrically, and our producer, John Simon, said, “The words to that song were dated a week after the battle. It was in the War of 1812,” and all that, which is true. But it really appealed to me, the idea of doing the national anthem in a new way. And I almost flipped. People always say that, man. You know, when clothes styles come out, someone always says, “Ah, I was wearing that two years ago,” but it’s a fact. I pushed it so hard, and I was talked out of it. I think it would have been great to have heard Janis do that, even though the words were dated a week after it was written. But his [Hendrix’s] thing was he wasn’t tied down to lyrics. He could just play the melody.
When you were starting out, how much did you influence each other’s playing?
James: Quite a bit, I think. Sam was real schooled. He had a real disciplined kind of approach, and I was real undisciplined.
Were you a lead player at the time?
James: Not until I joined the band, I wasn’t.
Sam: All the dichotomies you can think of about what he just said, any way you want to put it – once again, Dionysus-Appollo school, emotional technique, self-expression . . .
James: I think my effect on Sam was that he started to play more by ear and with more feeling than having to think about it so much and work it out. And I started to think about it more and started learning more. So we sort of had a merging of the minds, where I became more disciplined and started learning more things in an intellectual fashion, whereas before playing by myself I didn’t have to cope with those things.
What did you learn from each other from a technical standpoint?
James: That covers a lot of ground. Lot of things.
Sam: I just want to say he’s being extremely kind. This [points to James] is like the legendary Demeter rising up out of the ocean. You go, “What?! What is that?!” That’s what I did! [upon hearing Gurley for the first time]. “Who changed the rules while I went to the bathroom?!” [Laughs.] I mean, really, it was like being confronted with an incredible thing that I’ll always be thankful for. Incredible. I feel like he was there before it happened, and that’s the truth. I’m not putting myself down. I was there and all that, but he was there before I was.
James: I think he’s talking about emotional intensity. I had developed to a point of emotional intensity which he later picked up on as we played together. Because Sam can read. He can play classical. He can play anything from the technical standpoint. You give him sheet music of anything, and he can sit down and play it.
Sam: Yeah. That’s the way my mind was. I was going that way. James was going more from taking things off the record.
James: I just always learned by ear, so I had a more emotional approach to it because I didn’t have any technique there or technical-theoretical nonsense to get in the way of something.
Sam: We had a hard time working that out. It was real hard. It wasn’t so much like conflict. It was trying to understand what we were going to do about it.
James: It was a little hard at first because I didn’t understand the technical things that he would be talking about, and he wouldn’t understand the emotional intensity place that I was coming from.
Sam: And also we’re thinking a lot about Janis. I mean, before she came, we really were a musical group.
James: Yeah, an instrumental group. See, this was before Janis joined.
Sam: It was very avant-garde. It really was, man. To me, the only one close is Cecil Taylor – where he’s playing [imitates a wild Taylor solo]. Forget it, technique-wise. Throw out all the stuff. Do that until slowly you’d come back and say, “Oh, yeah, okay. This is right.” And then slowly structure it. But starting out . . .
James: By just putting everything you could on the line.
Sam: Bring the chaos out.
James: Put everything out and then make something out of it.
Sam: This had already been pretty worked out by the time Janis came.
James: Yeah. That was our working method. And it threw her at first, because being tied down to words, she had trouble doing songs of such an instrumental nature.
Sam: It’s hard for a singer to jam.
James: Are you familiar with the song “Hairy Kirschner”?
James: Was that ever released? That was released on a record, wasn’t it?
Sam: Yeah, but don’t feel bad if you’re not familiar with it.
James: Because it’s weird. Dave wrote it.
Sam: We did it on Cheap Thrills. It’s just like a little . . .
James: Oh no, no. It’s not on Cheap Thrills. It was supposed to be on Cheap Thrills. The picture of the Hindu guy with the turban on the cover, where it says “Artwork by R. Crumb” – well, that was originally supposed to have been for “Hairy Kirschner.” That song was just free-space bizarro stuff. Columbia heard that, man, and they couldn’t stand it. They just about flipped out when they heard something like.
Sam: He’s speaking about scatting, because Janis scatted the theme. We all played the theme together.
James: It was all scatting. It sounded like there was no structure, but there was a structure. It was a pretty well-defined structure. The actual notes themselves weren’t defined, but there was a certain progression, a certain development, and a resolution to this whole thing.
Sam: Our drummer wrote it, so the rhythm was agreed upon. [Both laugh. Big Brother drummer Dave Getz, who was seated at the next table and listening to us, chimed in.]
Dave Getz: It was my greatest hit!
James: Yeah, it was. Dave’s greatest hit! But if you hear that song sometime, you get more of an idea [James and Dave scat sing several measures]. It keeps building.
Sam: The middle part has no relation to chords or . . .
James: No relation to chords, scales, or tonality centers at all. And then at the end Janis says, “Hairy, come home!” Because we were thinking about all the Hare Krishna freaks dancing around in San Francisco – you know how that was. It was like your mom would say, “Hairy, come home.”
Dave Getz: When we first were gonna do the album, John Simon came up with a whole mix of the album where the second side started with that song and then went into “Turtle Blues.” It was really great. We had Bill Graham introducing us, and then there was “Hairy,” and then there was this whole fake applause after it. It was great, but Clive Davis cut it. There were like about three or four outtakes from that album.
James: “Goin’ Down to Brownsville”?
Was that the Furry Lewis song?
Sam: No, it’s not.
James: It was inspired by that Furry Lewis song.
Sam: But it never was, not even right away. We weren’t even trying to do that Furry Lewis song. Because we were insane with our playing, which wasn’t his style at all.
How did you view Janis Joplin’s leaving Big Brother after Cheap Thrills?
James: I think other people had a lot to do with the breakup, telling her, “Why don’t you get rid of these guys?” Because it was an equal basis for us. Everything was equal all the way. They said, “Hey, get rid of these guys, and get a couple of guys for $100 a week, and you get all the rest of the money yourself.” Plus, she was very confused about what to do. On one hand, she has these people who are supposed to be telling her what to do, representing her, and I think she felt uncomfortable with the way it worked out. She wasn’t happy with that. I think a large part of her nature was against it. She didn’t know what to do, so she thought she’d go with the advice of her managers and lawyers and such. But I don’t think she ever was happy with her decision. It was something she felt she had to do. And at that point, it was something that she had to do, I guess. You could say, “Well, maybe Mick Jagger could have gone on without the Rolling Stones at some point in his career,” but it seems ridiculous. Mick Jagger without the Rolling Stones is just another singer, as far as I’m concerned. And I think he knows that. That’s why he’s kept the act together. He hasn’t gone on to a thing where he’s said, “Well, fuck these guys, I’ll go for it on my own.” I think he recognizes the unity and symbiotic nature of the relationship – we feed each other.
When did Big Brother have its final split-up? 1972?
James: About that.
Sam: I don’t know if it ever happened.
James: We sort of dropped out one at a time.
Sam: Everybody bailing.
James: Everybody’s life was changing. Times were changing.
Did you move to the desert soon afterward?
James: No, I hung around here for a while. Like I said, I had a band named Ruby, although I hate to say that name again even.
Is that the band that wouldn’t show up for gigs?
Sam: No, that was us.
James: Yeah. We were the ones who wouldn’t show up for the gigs. [Laughs.]
Have you consistently played a lot since then?
James: No. No, I haven’t. I got very discouraged. I had a lot of problems with the Internal Revenue Service and all kinds of weird things came down later. I had to get away from here. I’d had enough of it. Too many complications. I went to Salt Lake and broke my leg and wound up staring at the wall for three months. Oh, it was just awful. So I didn’t play for quite a while there. I was very discouraged on the whole scene.
Sam: I did my version of the same thing, which amounts to academics. I started trying to catch up with what I felt I’d been slighting. I went to New York and had a series of very good bands, really excellent ones.
What are some of the names?
Sam: You wouldn’t know them, man, and besides they’re very silly. But basically it had to do with the Third World. New York is a Third World city, you know. It was Cubans and Africans that I worked with mostly. Good rhythms. You know, talking about reggae like that – it was basically that kind of orientation. I don’t know. East and West Coast is so different.
Have you played with bands ever since?
Sam: Pretty much.
Do you do any studio work?
Sam: Very little. Almost non-existent.
Do you find a lot of people remember your work with Big Brother?
Sam: Yes. I’m sure all of us could vouch for this: There are maybe 20 questions that you could put down on a piece of paper and go home and study, just to spew out when people say, “Oh, you were with Big Brother. Tell me . . . .”
James: “What was Janis like?” [Laughs.]
Sam: That’s number one.
James: That’s number one. “Did she really drink as much as they say?” – that’s number two.
Sam: And the whole romantic thing that comes out, like “a bright shooting star that has a glow and then burns out real quick.” All of which you haven’t asked, I might offer. We’re not personalizing this, but you must know that in whatever situation you’re in – you could be really down and just want to relax and take it easy – suddenly somebody comes over when it finally gets out. And there’s a thing where you can see it. Probably anyone in that situation called “fame,” for whatever reason, can see it happen. You can see their mental processes actually visible – the things that are going through their mind. And you’re ready for whatever the result is by the time they get to you.
Does it make you cringe, in a way?
Even as a guitar magazine editor, I run into that. When some people hear that’s what I do, they feel compelled to tell me all about their influences, setups, favorite solos . . . .
Sam: And they can be real likeable, good people and all that.
But you just want to get away from that.
James: Yeah. It’s like if you were a doctor and you’re at a party, and everybody’s coming up and telling you about their headaches.
James: Their goiter or whatever.
Okay. Time for a real important question. What kind of strings were you using?
James: [Laughs.] Wow!
Sam: You know, I hope you didn’t take that wrong. I like to see what strings people use.
James: Oh, yeah.
Sam: They’re valid questions. I really think it’s interesting. It’s also interesting when someone says – which I would probably say – I don’t really use a certain kind. It’s the way a mood puts me. Sometimes I like to try heavy ones or light ones or mediums. You know, I like to change it up. That’s interesting too. I like to know that. Sometimes when they’re very specific answers, I wonder if that person really uses those all the time, or if it’s currently a thing they’re into. You know, “For the last three months I’ve been using . . . .”
Most people seem to stick with one kind for a long time.
Sam: Getting back to what we were talking about, when people ask about Janis, unless I’m really tired, I always to try give them as articulate an answer as I can to get across as to what she was like. I really answer the question, in other words. I don’t condescend – like you probably do it with guitar players. You have to brace up and face it, that’s all. For a long time, I think I tried to run away from it. There’s always an analogy that sticks in my mind about a man who’s very rich and has a child, say a son, but never lets him know that he has a lot of money. Then one day he takes him out in the field and says, “Son. See all this around you? This is yours.” It’s a little far away, but it’s kind of like that thing of understatement. These things all connect, but it’s really hard for me to bring it back. [Long pause.] This is gonna be the 18-minute gap on your tape!
James: Overall, I generally use Ernie Ball light top, heavy bottoms [everyone laughs]. Just to fill the 18-minute gap here! Although I keep trying new sets every once in a while. The current set I got on there is Fender Super Bullets, but I think I’m going to go to a heavier gauge. They’re a little too light. They start with .008 and got to .038, I think. The Fender Super Bullets are real light. Back with Janis, I think we were into LaBellas that were light-gauge rock and roll strings.
Sam, James told me about his equipment back with Big Brother. What guitars did you use before the SG?
Sam: Almost always the SG.
Even on the Mainstream album?
James: That’s the only guitar I can ever remember you using.
Sam: I’d used them before that experience. To me, an SG is the premier guitar.
What kind of amps?
Sam: Fenders. We were pretty much together on all those.
James: We had this whole truck full of equipment from Fender.
Sam: We pretty much used the same things. I like Twin Reverbs a lot. If they asked me to do an endorsement, I would do it. I haven’t had one in years. I wish they’d give me one.
Sam: But I love ’em, man. I think they’re great.
What kind of guitar do you play today, Sam?
Sam: Well, really an SG if I have a chance. I’m playing a Les Paul, one of the late ones. They’re good. Gibsons are good. Fenders are too. James is more for this than I am, and I’ve noticed that musicians fit into this thing. The whole world is divided into two kinds of people: Those that divide the world into two kinds of people . . . .
James: And those who don’t.
Sam: Right. Henry James said it. I divide the whole world of guitar players into those who say, “I care about the music, man” and the other guys are really into the tools. Obviously, there are mixes, but there are those two orientations. I’m one of the guys who’s always more into music. I could play it on a ukulele, the things I have to say. I would welcome the limitations. Whatever comes up. It’s not better or worse, it’s just a personal orientation.
James: The challenge of working in the context of what you’ve got available for whatever the challenge is.
Sam: We probably all did, but I moved to acoustics in the’70s, like the acoustic guitar. I started getting really into that and loving it.
Was this in a rock band context?
Sam: I played in sort of an early version of fusion music. We’ve all known about jazz for years and years, and we kind of played that. I guess you could call it – “fusion” is such a shitty word, it sucks.
James: Yeah. It was good the first time the guy used it. It’s just after it’s been repeated a million times . . .
Sam: It’s a label.
James: Yeah, just a label.
Sam: But that would get us close to the particular thing I was doing in the New York. We had jazz overtones. Sometimes straight jazz. I got into acoustic probably largely from not playing to large crowds. It was more like a nightclub situation, and then going home and playing in the living room. I was starting to hear that more again, after years of being heavy. There was an interesting article in Esquire about the ’70s versus the ’60s. It’s an interesting subject for all those who lived through it.
James: Yeah! The contrasts and the changes.
Sam: They had columns of different things, and one was electric guitar in the ’60s and acoustic guitar in the ’70s.
What do you think is the heritage of the late 1960s for us today, especially as related to the counterculture?
Sam: A few things of value . . .
Dave Getz [shouts from another table]: Janis Joplin!
Sam: [Laughs heartily.] That’s what you call “crossfire.”
James: Well, the heritage, I think, is that there’s a lot more individual freedom available to people now than there was before then. You know? We can have all kinds of hairstyles, we can have our hair any length we want. We can wear any kind of moustache, beard, whereas before, you didn’t really do that. I remember when I first grew my hair long, it was an outrage. People used to chase us on the streets – it was like scenes from Frankenstein movies – “Get the monster!” with flaming torches, you know. When we first went to Chicago from California, there was nothing like that in Chicago at all, like we were. Some people just didn’t know how to react to it at all. A lot of people reacted with hostility and hate and all kinds of things.
Sam: I feel that same thing. People are more tolerant, just subjectively. Before 1965, the world wasn’t in color.
James: The world was in black and white. You can see it.
Sam: Take something like bed sheets. They were always white. Underwear was always white. And all the colors came in all of a sudden. Things were colored in . . .
James: Fantastic hues.
Sam: You don’t need to stick with that. Does that make sense? It happened to logos, like for CBS Television. Through all areas of life, more choices.
James: That’s right. More creative emphasis and a lot more freedoms, I guess. The ’60s were a breakthrough for a lot of things.
What do you think of the music today as compared to ten years ago?
James: Oh, I think there’s a lot of great stuff going on. The level of musicianship is much higher than it was ten years ago, that’s for sure – especially the guitar playing. There was nobody around ten yours ago who could play like some of the guys around today. It’s just amazing, the incredible guitar players that are around now.
Sam: A whole new level has come out.
James: There’s a definite increase in musical consciousness and musicianship as such. This has swung the other way: There’s a lot more emphasis on technique.
Sam: One of the things you can say about disco music or even punk rock is that they are the exact opposites in every detail of the ’60s. In the ’60s, long guitar solos. No guitar solos. In the ’60s, guitar. In the ’70s, piano.
James: Synthesizers, right? Synthesizers are real big now. There are always differences.
Sam: The music that’s popular now, like garage bands and stuff, there are Cmaj7 chords. There are major seventh chords, minor seventh chords, diminished chords – in the music. It’s not brought in, it’s right in the music. All those choices to use.
James: At the same time, I see less individuality among players too. It’s like you can’t tell one guy from the next. One Eric Clapton lick from the next Eric Clapton lick, you know, a lot of times, which is one of the unique things about Hendrix. You always know it’s him. Just the tone of his guitar – you just know it’s him.
James: The attack, right! It’s his signature. It’s just him, whereas today there are so many great guitar players from a technical sense, but they lack individuality, I think, so it’s hard to tell one from the other. Although there are some who do have a pretty identifiable sound, like Robin Trower. He’s pretty good – I like him a lot.
Sam: I thought he was a Hendrix clone.
James: Yeah, he was for a while, but he’s developed into his own thing. Yeah, he was a clone.
Sam: Back then it would be hard to tell them apart.
James: But now he’s really got his own thing.
What has psychedelic music contributed to music in the 1970s?
James: It opened the mind to more involvement in general with music. People are much more involved with it. There are many more people playing nowadays, it seems. There’s a hell of a lot more information available in books.
Sam: Psychedelic music opened the door to synthesizers.
James: Yeah, it opened the door to new sounds and fresh, creative ways of going about it.
Sam: Sounds that are not “natural.”
James: Yeah. Sounds that just were never heard before.
Has the use of drugs by psychedelic bands in the 1960s been overemphasized or underemphasized?
Sam: Depends how you take the question.
James: It was a big part! It was a big part.
Sam: I was thinking, like, you were asking if people had discussed it. It has been discussed endlessly.
James: Yeah. I mean, everybody was involved with drugs.
Did they help the music?
James: It helped and it hurt, probably. I think it led a lot of people into creative blind alleys. In other ways it led people out of blind alleys.
Did they help you loosen up?
James: Yeah, that’s what I mean. It broke your conditioning so that you were able to step back from what you already knew to try to perceive something that you don’t know. Because all these things come from your subconscious – that’s the source of your creative endeavor, somehow. Sometimes when I’ll be falling asleep, I’ll hear something, almost like hear it in the air, and I’ll think I left the radio on in the other room. I’ll get up to turn it off, and I’ll realize it was just in my head. You can just feel it at that moment, like in the Twilight Zone of your mind.
Sam: An auditory hallucination.
James: An auditory hallucination, maybe. Yeah.
Where does this come from?
James: From the workings of subconscious mind.
Sam: It comes from your mind imposing a structure on reality. Like I’ve heard radiator pipes – exactly what you’re talking about – making very quiet noises. Not when they first come on or are banging, but when they’re quiet. I’ve heard the most incredible guitar solos on them, and I just say, “How can I even play after hearing that? Where’s that coming from?” It sounds like there’s a band many blocks away. “God, those guys are so incredible, the way they’re playing that stuff!” I only realized after a few months of hearing these things a lot that it was my mind imposing the structure on the sound of the radiator.
James: I’m sure the same thing must have happened to Bach. Those kinds of feelings where it just becomes so real that it almost becomes physical in a sense.
James: Sometimes, yeah. Other times, I would say no.
Sam: I know they make you aware of it more.
James: Yeah, they change your perception.
Sam: As for writing it down . . .
James: It’ll change your perceptions. But what you’re gonna do about it, that still has to do with your personality and how you perceive yourself in the world. The ball is still in your lap, so to speak, although you have these fresh perceptions. I don’t think anyone should try to rely on drug experiences in order to be creative or feel that you have to have these things in order to create or play well or whatever. I couldn’t have talked about it like this ten years ago because I didn’t have this perspective on it that I do now.
Sam: You’re taking it from an individual point of view, but even the culture in general has had those insights. The logo of CBS News is in day-glo, psychedelic colors.
James: Yeah. It’s been assimilated throughout the culture. Like I heard an old lady at the supermarket the other day – something bad happen to her, and she said, “Well, I just have that kind of karma.” Just a perfectly straight old lady saying, “I just have that kind of karma,” which is an obvious influence from the ’60s psychedelic.
I heard a four-year-old say, “That’s a bum trip.”
James: Right. “Bum trip” is another word I hear people of all ages use. My girlfriend’s mother has been reading books on brown rice lately, and organic foods. All these things are spreading out, sneaking their way through.
Sam: That lady in the supermarket is choosing products where the packaging has been designed by some guy in an advertising agency who goes out and smokes a joint on his lunch break, maybe.
James: So the influence shows.
Has your creative drive changed in the past 15 years?
James: Well, yeah. I’d say not being in a band context reduces your drive to create, because you don’t have the inter-personal relationships making demands upon you to keep you going. Like if I get up and don’t want to play, I don’t play. But if I’ve got a rehearsal I’ve got to be too [snaps fingers], yeah, I’ve got to be there and I’ve got to play. This stimulates you to play more.
Sam: Yeah. You’ve got to come up with something. You’re on the spot. Do it now. But there’s another way I heard your question, and I have a stronger drive nowadays. Or at least I’m more aware that I can channel it more. That’s what age in general does. But I feel like my drive is stronger than before or I can get to what I want to get faster.
James: You have a stronger ability to channel your energy into what you want to do . . .
Sam: With better results.
James: Whereas before it was more chaotic. In the old days, it was hit and miss. And now I feel that I’m slowly working my way toward certain musical concepts that have been in my mind, things that I’ve been wanting to do. I feel like I’m finally beginning to get a grip on how I can go about doing them. And so I feel in some ways in the future I can be more creative than I was then.
What would you like to accomplish musically?
James: Musically? Well, I have a bunch of themes and different songs which I’ve been running through my head. I’d like to do an album of anything, everything. I want to do a lot more studying of theory.
Sam: What’s the album concept? What kind of album?
James: Any kind of album. Band context, I’m thinking of. And also I’m thinking of a more avant-garde approach where I would do all the things myself or with just one or two friends, just put a whole bunch of things together just by overdubbing. I’ve got a four-track studio in my house.
Would you like to start gigging again, working the road?
James: That’s a tough question. I do, and there’s plusses and minuses. I would find it exciting, yeah. I would like to do it. But there’s practical problems – I have a family, children and stuff – and it takes time to be on the road a lot. I’m close to my children, and I take a great interest in watching their development every day. That’s a great source of satisfaction. Yeah, I would like to in some limited way – not the full-time thing like we used to do of just always being on the road.
Sam: We have the advantage now of hindsight.
James: I think maybe I’d be able to handle this.
Sam: I’m not pushing for this right now. Speaking about the avant-garde thing or doing a whole album yourself, this is the time to experiment. I feel that disco was running out when Saturday Night Fever came out, and that gave it an artificial shot in the arm. It’s time for a change-up. It’s time to try a lot of new stuff.
James: The funk thing signalizes that. This funk thing – I detect a spirit there of “to hell with it all, let’s just straight-ahead play it.” You know, just a kick-out-the-jams kind of situation. “Throw the old farts out and let’s blow.” That kind of thing. [Laughs.]
Sam: It’s definitely time, man. You can’t go on old formulas. We’ve all had the drugs – the whole world has.
James: That’s old hat.
What would you like to accomplish, Sam?
Sam: Basically that: Just experiment, try a lot of different forms, try to settle on something and play good music. Play real quality music with some substance.
James: Just continue developing.
Sam: Practice more. Have everything together this time.
With Big Brother, you were driven by your personal vision, energy, and direction. Now music is much more driven by genre.
Sam: It’s more of a business now.
James: On that level, it is more of a business.
Would you rather be in the mainstream or avante-garde?
Sam: I’d rather be in the mainstream. I’d like to play really nice stuff. Avant-garde if necessary, but get people to accept it, really love it, do a good thing, and get paid a lot of money for it. I’d love to be Pablo Casals when I’m 80 years old. I couldn’t imagine anything nicer. And you were talking about going on the road: Go on the road for four months and then stay home and work, work real hard. There are no free tickets or free rides. It’d be so utopian. It’d be nice to settle into a groove of working real hard and getting what you deserve for it.
James: Working and developing, yeah. That’s what I want: To work more and develop more.
How are your playing skills as compared to decade ago?
James: I think I’m a lot more circumspect. [Sam and James both laugh.]
Sam: I think that’s a good answer! Mine change every three months. I can’t tell where my chops are at. Sometimes they are so clean, really clean – as good or better than ever. And sometimes I can’t play “Mary Had a Little Lamb” without it being off-time.
James: Right. Yeah, yeah.
Sam: I do know there is more of an accent on technique now. That’s true for everyone.
James: Yeah. Musicians in general are more concerned with technique than they were then.
How do you view the period from 1965 to 1969 in terms of your whole life?
James: Probably the most important years of my life, maybe. Yeah. That was an experience that I’ll never forget, an experience of such an intensity that it has a long-range effect on my life. I mean, here it is ten years later, and you’re talking to us now. Why? Because of what happened then. It’s something that’s gonna stick with us.
Sam: They’re impossible to answer, the questions you’re asking. They’re that good.
James: Ask anyways.
Sam: Well, there was no other period of time like it. There were other ones – adolescence is hard for everyone, so intense, and this was like a second adolescence. It was almost like that intense. I hope everybody’s granted that. I felt like I was really fortunate.
[At this point, James and Sam were called back into rehearsal and our interview together concluded. An hour or so later, Sam joined me for a few follow-up questions about his background.]
When did you start playing?
Sam Andrew: Actually, I always kind of tried to play. In fact, I really can’t remember when I didn’t because my father was a player and I had a guitar around the house. I remember being six or something, playing to the dog. Before I actually played, I used to hold a guitar and play in front of people, pantomiming to records. My father would play to my mother, sit in the living room. He was basically Western-oriented. He like Bob Wills and all that. I did too, you know. It was around. I had all the standard things. Chet Atkins was an early hero, and then Barney Kessel followed shortly after. Around 14 I got pretty serious about it and started making money at it.
Did you learn to read music right away?
Yeah, almost the same time I was learning by ear. I think I learned “I Walk the Line,” the [sings the guitar riff] by ear. That was my first song learned by ear, and then I was learning how to read at the same time. My father read. Like in a lot of families of musicians, both sides were musical, but one side was only ear-musical, and the other side was only reading musical. I’d seen both of them, so it was real easy to pick them both up. Neither one seemed unnatural. They both seemed like ways to do it. I notice some people seem to have a conflict at some point in their development – you know, should it be by reading or by ear?
Did you start on acoustic guitar?
Yeah, acoustic, but right away I switched over to electric. Very early. I was one of those guys who played at the teen dances – like that.
Was this in the early 1960s?
No, it was the late ’50s. I’m 36. An old guy.
Was this in southern California?
No, it was in Okinawa, oddly enough. I’m an Air Force brat. I lived in Texas for a couple of years in high school. My parents are both from Texas, but I lived all over the world.
James mentioned that you had classical training.
The classical part – a great deal of that was self-taught. I taught myself to play classical guitar, probably around 18 or 19 or so. Starting about 1960, through 1962 – right in there.
Did you attend San Francisco State University?
Yes, but at that point I was in graduate school at UC at Berkeley, where I was studying linguistics.
When did you live in Europe?
Europe was before UC. That would have been ’63 and ’64. That probably had a lot to do with it, just being in the atmosphere.
I heard that you worked as a jazz guitarist for a while at a place called the Jukebox.
Ahh! [Laughs.] A little bit. Yeah. How’d you know that?!
I did a little research.
Wow! Yeah, I was going over there when I was at State and also USF, where I started the undergraduate stuff. Going out and just kind of hanging out and trying to see what was going on up and down Haight Street.
Were you mainly a folk player at this point?
I don’t know. Well, folk and jazz, I guess.
Were you playing acoustic?
No, both. I played an electric since I was 14. I learned on both, because my father’s guitars were acoustic. He’d gone overseas and I traded his guitar for an electric one, for a Silvertone straight from Sears. That kind of shocked my mother a little bit. I mean, it belonged to my father. But he liked it when he found out what happened. So basically it was electric right from the start, and acoustic too – both of them kind of together. But definitely as far as playing any way professionally at that age, it was on an electric. I never played in public on an acoustic. In fact, I never have, come to think of it.
What kind of playing were you doing up until you joined Big Brother?
I’d say I was teaching myself classical and playing at jazz.
After you left Big Brother in 1972, you went out East and played in a succession of bands.
Mm hmm. And I was also in a very academic frame of mind. I studied a lot of harmony and counterpoint, very carefully. I pretty much went a routine composition major’s route – you know, did some string quartets and some inventions for piano. I didn’t play them. It was composition, so I’d have other people play them, like in a classroom context. There were a couple of small performances. It was “serious music.” This was at New School of Social Research in New York, and also at Mann’s School of Music.
When did you go to New School for Social Research?
Just over the last two or three years. I probably started in 1975. It’s a great school. It was started by some renegade professors from Columbia in the early part of the century, so it was a very early alternative kind of university. I was taught by a guy there who won Prix de Rome, and I really liked him a lot. And I still want to do a lot of composition. He put me through a very rigorous Palestrina style of counterpoint. I loved it. I couldn’t believe it. It was so great. I’m still kind of working on that.
Were you going for another degree?
No, nothing formal, because I already have a degree. Actually, before I left New York I was contemplating possibly getting into Julliard in the graduate school for composition. I still may do that at some point. I’d like to.
Any ideas what you’re going to do out here in California?
No, except that I want to play with whoever. Play some good music and make a living at it.
The 1978 Tribal Stomp concert that served as a backdrop to these interviews was reportedly Big Brother’s only reunion during the 15 years following the band’s 1972 breakup. The original lineup – James Gurley, Sam Andrew, Dave Getz, and Peter Albin – reunited again in 1987 and toured on and off for the next nine years, featuring a variety of women singers. James Gurley left the lineup in 1996 and was replaced by Tom Finch.
Big Brother and the Holding Company continues to perform and release albums. Their Live at Winterland ’68 CD came out in 1998. Lisa Battle sings on 1999’s Do What You Love, while 2006’s Hold Me features Sophia Ramos. In 2008, the band released The Lost Tapes, a two-CD set of live performances from 1966 and ’67. In addition to his work as a musician, Sam Andrew has also made his mark in recent years as a music journalist, painter, and sculptor. One of the nicest people imaginable, Sam has a blog with photos of his friends, band mates through the years, and artwork at http://bbhc.com/samsblog/?p=916.
After leaving Big Brother and the Holding Company, James Gurley fulfilled his goal of recording an album of his own songs. Credited to Saint James, his Pipe Dreams CD came out in 1999, with his beloved son Hongo on drums and percussion. The visionary guitarist did not make it out of his own sixties, dying of a heart on December 20, 2009, just two days shy of his 70th birthday. RIP, brother James.
My heartfelt thanks to Sam Andrew for permission to use of his rare photos and these interviews on my website, and to Jon Sievert and Clara Erickson for sharing their photographs of the 1978 interviews and rehearsal.
Donations to help maintain this Archive are appreciated.
© 2011 Jas Obrecht. All rights reserved. This interview may not be reposted or reprinted without the author’s permission.