Monday, December 6, 2010

Coco Montoya

When guitarist Coco Montoya first ventured into music, it was on another instrument: the drums. Born in Santa Monica, California, he learned the drums and throughout his youth and early adulthood played in several rock bands.
Still he had had curiosity—and exposure—to the guitar, which from time to time he had enjoyed fiddling with while growing up. When Montoya saw guitar great Albert King open for Creedance Clearwater Revival at a 1969 concert, a seed was planted. The seed took root and began to grow uncontrollably when another guitar great named Albert— Albert “Iceman” Collins—signed Montoya on as a drummer for a Pacific-Northwest tour. The two formed a mentor-protegee relationship in which the “Master of the Telecaster” taught Montoya his guitar style.
By the early 1980’s Montoya was again playing with bands—but this time with a guitar rather than drumsticks in his hands. One night, his audience included British bluesman John Mayall, known for his work with the 1960’s pioneering band John Mayall and the Blues Breakers, a group that over the years included guitarists Eric Clapton and future Rolling Stone Mick Taylor.
Montoya went on to play with the 80’s-90’s reincarnation of the group for ten years.
Montoya recorded his first solo album, Gotta Mind to Travel, in 1995, with Blind Pig Records. He released two more albums under that label, Ya Think I’d Know Better and Just Let Go.
Signing with Alligator Records in 2000, he eventually released three albums under that label. The last of them, Dirty Deal, teamed him up with members of the rock band Little Feat.
Montoya, 59, released his latest album, I Want it All Back, under the European Blues label Ruf Records. Beldon’s Blues Point talked to Montoya about the new release—among other things—after a recent performance he gave near Baltimore for the Baltimore Blues Society:
BBP: I notice on this new album you have Keb’ Mo’ producing and he’s also playing rhythm guitar. How did that collaboration come about?
Montoya: Well, we developed a really good friendship first. That’s the first thing we developed and we’ve always liked each other as people which is kind of like the blessing of it all, and we always thought that if it was the right time and the right circumstances that we would work to do something together. We wouldn’t do it just to do it, you know. It was more “it had to be the right thing at the right time” and this turned out to be the “right time and the right place.” It was actually a blessing. It was wonderful. It was a real great experience.
BBP: Was there a certain type of aspect or flavor that he added to the album?
Montoya: Oh, God, he added tons to it. I mean he really took the reins and decided what he was going to do with me. It wasn’t about what I was going to do as much as Kevin getting a vision and deciding what he wanted to do. What he was more interested in was developing my voice more than the guitar. The guitar he figured had already been established in the last six albums. So he said “nobody’s concentrating on your voice, we’re going to concentrate on your voice,” and he says “I’m going to beat you up,” and he did. And he and Jeff Paris, the other producer(he also plays keyboards on the album), super talented people, wonderful, and that’s the result of good people, working with great people and taking me out of my comfort zone, putting me some place where I think I needed to be.
BBP: Can I ask you about Albert Collins? What was the greatest lesson that he left you with?
Montoya: Many lessons. Gosh I can just think of—perseverance, you know, to just believe in yourself. I mean that’s probably the biggest lesson he gave me, is believe in yourself no matter what anyone says, hold your own. Just be yourself. You ain’t got to be nobody else.
BBP: How did you learn how to play in his style? It was almost like listening to him, that one song you did.
Montoya: Just influence, you know it’s uh—if you listen to a lot of what I’m doing there are so many really big influences in there. Freddie King, Albert King, you know B.B.’s obviously in there. Albert Collins is definitely a huge influence on my life, musically and personally. So he’s in there, there’s a lot of Eric Clapton in what I do too, you know, so—I steal from everybody, as many as I can get. Still do.

BBP: You turn them on and off at will. That’s what’s so amazing about it. Also John Mayall, you played with him for ten years. What did you take from that?
Montoya: Oh, confidence builder too. John was a big confidence builder for me. Took a few of his scoldings but they were all for the good, you know, and he’s another guy that persevered and saw his visions and wouldn’t let up on them no matter what anybody said. He’d just go around obstacles and get to where he wanted to be and I think I learned a lot from John Mayall that way.
BBP: Let me ask you about something that (guitarist) James Armstrong talked about. You guys played together with Mitch Mitchell (of the Jimi Hendrix Experience) one night. What was that like?
Montoya: Mitch played in my band a couple of months. He played about a couple of months worth of gigs with me. And James was up and coming. And he was there and played. I can’t remember exactly, it might have been Club 88 or something in west L.A. But James—I’ve known him since he was a kid in high school—he’s a great songwriter, he’s a really really great songwriter and a hell of an entertainer too. He’s come a long, long ways.
BBP: I noticed that you are a left-handed guitar player. It’s a right-handed oriented world and I guess the music is too—right—with the type of guitars that are out? You had to really figure out how to play…
Montoya:, it’s self-taught. Where I’m coming from musically is basically I have a lot of holes in my education because I taught myself. I never take formal lessons or anything like that, I don’t know how to read music. I just taught myself by ear, everything I’m doing. So, really, nothing else really applies, because there was no one there to tell me anything applied to it. There was nobody there to tell me I was doing it wrong. But I did it anyway. So, it’s just when you’re self-taught you don’t know any better, you don’t know anything. By the time somebody made me aware of the fact that I’d done it wrong, it’s way too late.
BBP: I guess what I was trying to ask was, like guitars they’re made for…most guitars are made for right-handed people. I guess you really have to look to find a left-handed guitar.
Montoya: Well I’ve played right-handed guitars.
BBP: Did you play it upside down?
Montoya: yep…
BBP: Like Hendrix…
Montoya: Well Hendrix, he restrung for lefty. I play like Albert King or Otis Rush where I just strung right-handed. Because they did the same thing, they picked up a right-handed guitar, and, being left-handed they turned it upside down. And developed their own style because there was nobody to tell them not to, or they can’t. Which to me speaks volumes about playing any instrument: if somebody’s not there to interrupt what you’re inventing, sometimes you come up with a whole original thing because there’s nobody there to stop you, and you’re left to your own devices to figure out how to do it.
BBP: This (I Want It All Back) is your latest album. What’s down the pike for you?
Montoya: Hopefully more with Ruf Records, and I don’t know for sure. We’re still in negotiation about what we’re doing next. Maybe a live album, maybe a live DVD, we don’t know. But probably somewhere around those lines; we’ll probably do something like that.
BBP: Who would you like to collaborate with who you haven’t collaborated with yet?
Montoya: Well, there’s so many people, it’s hard to even fathom. Because there’s so many people I would like to collaborate with. Millions..I can’t think of…they’re just millions. There’s great musicians all over, there’s people that have become my friends. There’s people I don’t even know, I’ve never met. Who knows what’s down the road, you know. But I’m pretty much open to a lot of things.
BBP: Would you at some point step outside of the blues?
Montoya: I think with this album I pretty much have stepped out and if you listen to my other albums I venture into many different areas. I don’t consider myself a traditional player very much. I don’t think anyone else would either (laughs). But I think music is just a wonderful vast area without fences. Well, the music industry decides to put fences up, you know, where they think country has to stay over there, jazz has to stay over there, blues has to stay over there, rock has to stay over in this corner, you know. I don’t believe that. I think it’s just whatever moves you, just go there and play it.
BBP: There was one song you did, it was just an amazing song, the slow one you did, “It’s a good day, it’s a bad day…”
Montoya: “Good days, bad days.”
BBP: Where did you get that song?
Montoya: That song was written by Gary Nicholson out of Nashville, Tennessee. A great, incredible writer. He writes great stuff. He’s written several songs that I’ve done, I’ve done several songs of his, and he’s tremendous. And we picked up on that tune, and just took it to where we took it on that album(Suspicion, for Alligator). Now it’s taken another life live, it’s completely different from the album cut, so..
BBP: I was watching you while you were playing it and you were just really, it’s like the audience wasn’t even there.
Montoya: Yeah, it takes me somewhere. Especially with my guys. I got some great musicians playing with me. My guys, Randy Hayes on drums, he’s been with me over ten years. Great drummer. I got Brant Leeper on keyboards and Nate Brown on bass. I got some of the best guys with me, I’m really proud of them.
BBP: Are you touring with a different bass player than who’s on the album?
Montoya: On the new album, I Want It All Back, well that’s Steve Ferrone on drums from Tom Petty’s band, used to be with Clapton?
BBP: Cool.
Montoya: Yes, I’m very, very—I can’t believe I tracked with him. And the legendary Reggie McBride (bassist known for work with Stevie Wonder and Minnie Riperton, among others) on bass. So uh, and Kevin’s in there and Jeff Paris, the other producer, they filled in all of the other stuff. Just tremendous, what a great experience.
BBP: I know you want to get out of here but I just want to ask you one more question. The Legendary Rhythm and Blues Cruise. What was that like?
Montoya: It’s a gas, it’s fun. It’s an amazing way to get close to the other artists, you know, to see people I haven’t seen in a long time, and hang out.
BBP: Were there any kind of collaborations that you were involved with on that cruise that stick out in your mind?
Montoya: Well, uh having (guitarist and harmonicist) Mike Morgan and (guitarist) Jimmy Thackery come up and play on that song you were talking about, “Good Days, Bad Days.” I had Thackery come up on that, and I got Mike Morgan up and we played crazy stuff. I mean it was just—yeah we’re good friends and we haven’t been able to do that kind of stuff in a long time. So when we had this opportunity..and hanging out with the Los Lobos guys was great. Kim Wilson (of the Fabulous Thunderbirds) is always a great guy to hang out with. I just really respect him as a musician and have known him since my drumming days with Albert Collins.
BBP: Were there any recordings made of that session you were talking about?
Montoya: Not that I know of.
BBP: So if you weren’t there, you missed it.
Montoya: Probably (laughs).
BBP: Do you spend a lot of time with Los Lobos?
Montoya: Not a lot, no. I know the guys, we’re getting to know each other more and more as years go on. I have a lot of respect for those fellas. Great players.
BBP: Any kind of collaboration with them coming up?
Montoya: Nothing on the horizon, no, but friendship’s good. I think that’s the basis of everything. You get that going and if it’s the right time, if it’s the right place and the right situation, then it will happen. Never force those issues. Those things just have to be. Everything has to be in alignment for that to happen.

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