On an old issue of the magazine, n.99, we published an interview with Nick Moss by Matteo Fratti, done when Moss played the Vallemaggia Magic Blues festival during the summer of 2006.
Moss was an emerging artist with a streak of very good records on his own Blue Bella label. A lot happened since then. We’ve had a long conversation with him via Zoom on the verge of the release of his third Alligator album, “Get Your Back Into It!”.
Your first recordings were on this record, “Money Talks”, by the Legendary Blues Band. How does that make you feel?
Yes I played bass on that record…You know when someone holds up a record like that all of these memories come flooding back. It doesn’t seem that long ago, but it’s been thirty years since then. A lot of stuff happened. My parents were not musicians but they just loved music. My mom always had blues, soul and jazz and early rock’n’roll records and my dad had doo-wop and big band music, it was always played in the house. We’ve been lucky, our parents always encouraged me and my brother. He was the first one wanting a guitar for Christmas one year. And he got this cheap acoustic guitar. And Joe, my brother, he’s a natural, I’ve always considered him technically a better musician.
He knows theory, the way his fingers work I can’t even comprehend half of that stuff. We grew up listening to the same kind of stuff then we got into sports early, I was in sports and in bands. I was quite good at a few things football and wrestling, and I thought I was going to college on a sport scholarship but I ended up having a genetic problem that no one ever knew about until I was eighteen. I always had this problem but It turned out it was not my stomach but the kidney and I got 80% of my kidney removed so that negated any kind of sport for me.
It was my brother again who took me when I was in the hospital recuperating, he got me to see across the street, at the Wise Fool’s Pub, Little Charlie And The Nightcats. They were on their very first Alligator record and there was nobody in there, it was like ten people. They had only played in Chicago once or twice before, but my brother heard them on the radio and he said to me, “man I heard this band, I’m gonna sneak you out and we go over there”. He told the doctors and nurses, “hey he’s been in the hospital for like six weeks, he’s about to be discharged, can I take him out to dinner, get him out of the hospital?” And for some reason the doctors agreed, they said “just don’t wear him out, get him back at 9 pm”…which was not gonna happen! We walked across the street at the Wise Fool’s Pub and I watched these guys play. The whole time I was in the hospital I was feeling sorry for myself, I was not gonna play football…that night the musicianship and the love and joy they had while they were playing, I already loved blues music anyway but there was something about watching them, I made up my mind that this is what I want to do.
And you did that.
Once I was well enough my brother started taking me into the city to all the blues jams. And it grew from there. We started meeting people and Joe got the gig with Buddy Scott and I would tag along to the gigs with Buddy’s wife Pat. I was still maybe nineteenth and I did not really know how heavy a lot of these guys were. I saw Buddy Ace, Bobby Bland, Johnnie Taylor walk into a club and sit in with Buddy Scott’s band. I did not know that Buddy was that influential of a guy but everyone loved him. And all the women would go nuts. I had heard Bobby Bland and Taylor but I did not know who Buddy Ace was. Later on I learned how important these guys were. We started to go into the north side clubs and see people like Willie Kent and Magic Slim…all these great guys were still around.
How did you get the gig with Willie Smith?
Eventually I ended up getting a job playing bass in a small band and one night Melvin Smith who was Koko Taylor’s bass player and befriended me on the jam scene, he said to me “hey Willie Smith is looking for a bass player.” I had only met Willie a couple of times and so I asked “What happened to Fuzz?” “I think Fuzz moved to Mississippi.”he said. So Melvin gave him my phone number and I got a call from Willie and he took me on the road, he ran out of bass players! No one could do it. The only other real experience I had was with Jimmy Dawkins and I had messed that up so bad. I was young and I did not know the music well enough. And Jimmy only had me for six months. It was hard to follow Jimmy, he had this drummer Ray Scott and he was not easy to play with either. For a young kid I was just messing up all over. I don’t think Jimmy knew how to explain what he wanted or what I was doing wrong so he just let me go and I remember that feeling. I was not gonna let that happen again, so I just kept studying and listening to records and going to clubs literallly every night and watch Bob Stroger, Willie Kent and Fuzz Jones when he was in town and all these great players. When Willie Smith called me I was better prepared to play. I remember for the first week on the road Willie kept looking at me when we were playing and finally one night, about six nights into the tour, he said “I kinda like what you’re playing, I think I’ll keep you”. And I ended up playing with Willie for four years, before moving over to Jimmy Rogers band. And somewhere in between there I switched from bass to guitar.
You mentioned Magic Slim. Years later you even produced one of his records on Blind Pig, Midnight Blues. It must have been special.
It was absolutely special. I had been talking to Jerry Del Giudice, one of the owners of Blind Pig about me recording on the label, because he was a fan of the album I had been doing on my own. When I first went off on my own, after the Jimmy Rogers band, I put out an album, “First Offense” in 1998 or ’99. I tried to get on Blind Pig, Alligator or Delmark but I was still a young kid and for the most part they did not want to market me to people who did not know who I was. Around 2007 I started having a dialogue with Jerry and it looked like we were gonna get signed but one of the things we talked about was me being a Magic Slim fan. At that time, on a couple of my records I had done stuff that you would say sounded a little like Magic Slim. I’ve always liked his vibe, everything about Slim’s playing is intense and is heavily groove oriented. And Jerry one day he threw it out “hey we’re doing a new Magic Slim record you wanna produce it?” And I was like, “really? I’d love to do it”. It was one of the funniest session I’ve ever been involved in. Slim got me laughing the all time. I got to pick the songs that they did, Otis Clay and Cotton were on that record…It was a lot of fun, I remember Slim and Michael Blakemore his manager, may they both rest in peace, they were great guys. Slim could be a little trouble sometime but he was very playful, like a kid, I just cracked up. A great experience.
A lot of the guys you’re talking about have since passed.
Yes, that’s life, everybody does pass. It’s weird, I have pictures above my fire place of all my friends that have passed, Willie, Jimmy, Lynwood Slim, Mike Ledbetter…I have a kid that’s in my band now and he just turned 21, Pierce Downer, the drummer. I’ve had guys like Mike Ledbetter, Patrick Seals, Nik Skilnik or Matthew Wilson who plays with John Nemeth now. I have a lot of young guys coming into the band and it is strange for me at 53 to have someone like this kid Pierce. I realize I was his age when I was sitting in a van and everyone else was either in their forties up to their seventies! And I was this kid, everyone was so much older than me, but they did not seem to be that much older, they did not act like that. We had fun. I’ve never thought about this that much until maybe the last ten years or so. I had young guys in the band more out of necessity because some of the older guys would leave my band and there wasn’t a lot of older guys left in the city there were wanting to play more traditional blues. So I had to find some young guys that were interested and wanted a chance to play. I never put two and two together. I never thought intentionally I’m gonna go out and teach some young kid, it just happens. At this point in my life it makes me extremely grateful to think about Jimmy and Willie, Pinetop…all these guys that allowed me to be in their presence and so I got whatever knowledge they did offer me, whether it was about music or life or anything, I got all angles of their wisdom. And it was fucking incredible. It really was. With these guys that are with me now I take it a little bit more seriously now and I explain to them, “you guys havo no idea what it was like to be with these guys! I’m trying my best to show you in my way what I’ve learned and what it was like and if you listen you might get something out of it”.
I guess it’s very different for them. You had the chance play and get on the road with Willie Smith or Jimmy Rogers. Younger guys have, at best, seen them on youtube.
Yes, that’s another thing. Pierce, my drummer, at home plays with friends his age, guitar players and it’s amusing and encouraging to see these guys. Sometime they even show up at my gigs. I talk to them and they tell me they have seen this youtube video while back then I had to rewind my cassettes five thousand times when I was their age! I’m glad it’s out there. But they’ll never understand the humanity, the rawness, for lack of a better word the funkiness stinking and attitude of being in a van with five guys who are from another world, from a different land, I mean I grew up a white kid in the suburbs we had black kids and hispanic kids, but I was still a white boy from the suburb now I’m in the van with them. It never occured to me to think about that, I was just living in the moment. I had a little bit of naivete to no let that freak me out…I think sometimes overthinking does not work. I was like oh they want me to play with them? Cool. It was like of the things my dad would say when I was doing something in the house with him, that is “shut up and listen! You’ll learn something. And if you don’t know something ask. I’d rather have you say you don’t understand something and ask, don’t be too proud.” But they never had an esoteric discussion nothing like that, it was the way they did it and I saw it, they were just playing. A lot of times you can see people from my generation or even younger really thinking about what they’re gonna do while playing but that doesn’t work, it sounds sterile.
For both your previous Alligator albums you had Kid Andersen involved. This time around you worked at your Chicago studio.
The first Alligator album was actually recorded in my studio, Kid flew out to Chicago, while the second was done at his place. Dennis lives in Los Angeles and he was rightly wary about travelling during the pandemic and I wasn’t comfortable if he was uncofortable. So we just waited. At one point I think Bruce asked why can’t you guys record and then send the tracks to Dennis in L.A. but that’s not the way I like, I wanna see the guys face in the room. So we have not really worked in three years and money was tight, we did not have enough money to fly five of us to San Jose or get him and his equipment to Chicago. And also Kid is busy as hell. So I talked to Bruce and said “hey, you signed me on the strength of my recordings on Blue Bella and I produced all those, so I’m gonna produced this one”. And he said Ok, right away. I had my buddy Pete Galanis, a great musician, he came out here and helped me engineer because if there’s one thing I hate doing is punching a computer and doing all the editing…I just wanna play, I can tell the guys what need to be done, but the other stuff I’d rather have someone do that. Then we mixed the album at Pete’s studio in Chicago. We had a lot of fun making it. Sax Gordon came out about a month later to record his part, he’s incredible, I had John Kattke play organ on another tune. We were defintely ready to put something out, after three years. I remember Bruce when we gave the final mix he said “oh there’s a lot of music! And three instrumentals…can we lose one of them?” And I said no. “But we’re gonna do Lps so I have to make sure this music fits on.” So we had to do a little trimming to shorten some songs. But he got it all on the Lp and I’ve just got a test copy, it looks beautiful. I’ve never had one of my recordings on Lp, it’s kinda cool.
How does that feel to be on Alligator, one of the last blues labels out there? And what is your relationship with Bruce Iglauer?
People say a lot of things about Bruce, he’s quirky but you can’t argue with the success. And sometimes it comes from things that other people just don’t understand. I tried to get on the label for many years and Bruce being Bruce he would write me letters back. I don’t know how he finds the time to listen to everything people send him but somehow he does. And he sent me his letters written in green with track by track what he liked and what he didn’t like. I remember I used to get a little frustrated reading these comments until one day I realized “hey he’s not saying you’re horrible or anything like that, he would always finish with send me your next one, I’d love to hear it.” It was kind of a road map to what he wanted to hear if you read between the lines, one day he’d say I really like that and I want it on my label. One of things he said to me at a live show at Buddy Guy’s one night. We were talking and I asked him, “ what do you think about the show?” And he said “you know,Nick, nobody walks away humming the guitar solo.” And I’m a guitar player why would you say that? But then I realized he want people to remember the song that the solo was in. I know that Bruce’s ways can look unorthodox to some people but he’s still here and he’s been around as long as he has. I can tell you even all the years of knowing Bruce and being in the blues scene in Chicago, I kind of thought that I knew as much as I was gonna know about him. Until I signed with him. Once I did that I realized I did not know as much as I though I did. He’s a really compassionate guy, he loves this music, his job, his business…some people complain that he has both hands on everything but I think as somebody that loves what they do and love their product so much it’s hard not to do that. Sometime he’s asking question and one leads to another. But when I go back and think about, I understand that only someone that asks so many questions is someone who cares about something so much. I respecet that and I love that he loves this music and what he does so much. I’d rather have someone on my team that has that much interest. I have conversations with him about the old guys and his eyes wild up, I loved that about him.
You put out a lot of records through your own Blue Bella Records, not just yours but of people like, Cash Box Kings, Kilborn Alley, Gerry Hundt, Bill Lupkin, Matt Stubbs…
They were my friends and they were in the same predicament. They could not get someone interested in them. And I just said. “look we have set this template set up and if you have enough money to put your product together I can help you put it out and get the same distributor distribute it. You guys will make a little money and we’ll look like a real label!”
And I know your wife was very helpful.
Well, let’s make it clear, she was not helpful, she did it all! Help is not a strong enough word. I did not know what I was doing, I was just playing. She did everything from the graphic design to the publicity, the packaging to the shipping…Even to this day my website and other stuff is all her handywork and she has a little bit of input sometimes, even with the new cover art. Kevin killed it but there were a couple of things, changes I wanted that I could not explain to him, so I talked to Kate and she wrote and email to Kevin. And he was like, “Ok, I got it, I know what you want”. For all the stuff that we were able, no the she was able to learn about this business, it’s incredible that we got as far as we did. We got all this Nominations for Blues Music Awards, not just for my albums, but Kilborn Alley as well. I remember the day I thought I was going in to sign my contract with Alligator but Bruce had me come to their headquarters just to meet the staff first. I had no idea there was like 13 or 14 people working for Alligator. There was 10 or 11 people sitting around a table and another three on their phones. Bruce started out the meeting and introduced me to his staff then said “here’s Nick and his beautiful wife Kate, they started this record label, they did so much work…” And I was feeling really proud of myself and my wife. Then everybody around the table started introducing themselves and what their job was. And I was thinking – wait a minute, we never did any of this stuff! How did we get as far as we got? – It’s incredible how well oiled they are and they’re all great guys and ladies.
How did you start playing with Dennis Gruenling? Did it happen around the time Mike Ledbetter was leaving the band?
Many years ago I’ve stopped trying to figure out if there was something that needed to be done specifically to get to where I was gonna go. Part of that process is recognizing when there is an opportunity. Many years I passed on that because I did not recognize that that specific thing was an opportunity, I thought it was either an hindrance or just an annoyance that was in my way. I met Dennis when i put out “First Offence”, he wrote a letter, not en e-mail! He wrote something like –“My name is Dennis Gruenling, I’m from New Jersey, I’m a harp player and I’m like your age and I really liked your CD. I do part time DJ at a local radio station. If you ever come out this way let me know maybe I can hook up a show”. And it just happened. That summer we played on the east coast and I needed to fill a couple of dates and Dennis got me the gigs and sat in with us. We became friends and everytime I’d go out there I’d see him. Then he started touring with Doug Deming and The Jewel Tones, Doug was a friend of mine from the Detroit area. I’d see them on the road and sometimes they stayed at my house when they were coming to Chicago. We remained friends.
Then in 2016 Mike Ledbetter recorded this album with Mike Welch and originally it was gonna be a guest starring spot, eventually Mike said to me “you know what, I ended up recording the whole album and is a very good record. Mike and I have been talking, we’d like to tour and I’d like to pursue this opportunity.” He’s family, we’ve been together for a long time. I’ve never been one to step in anyone’s way for them to grow. Curtis Salgado once told me something. Curtis said, “ who am I to even be angry at someone that is leaving my band? I might be hurt because I miss him, but this guy followed my dream for all these years. They’re basically helping me live my dream, not following their dream”. So when Mike came to me I said “Ok man, but let’s not mention this until the beginning of the new year, we already have dates booked”, it was october. “We have the Blues Cruise, we’re gonna make an announcement then”. A week later I got a call from Dennis, he said – “hey man, I have to play in Grand Rapids, Michigan a benefit for this guy who raises money to buy headstones for old blues and jazz artists, they want to do a William Clarke tribute, can you guys come and back me up?” And I said yes. We went and played this gig and there had been quite a few years since I backed a harmonica player, with Mike we played different stuff, we never had a harp player. We had so much fun playing more traditional and jump/swing kind of stuff again. I thought – this is fun, I’m gonna go back playing more traditional blues – I grew up with that. During the break Dennis and I were sitting backstage I said “you know Mike is leaving the band, you and Doug split up, is it beacause you don’t want to go on the road?” “No”, he said, “it has just ran its course”. “What do you think about coming out and doing some shows together? Tonight was fun”. He said yes. And we wanted to keep it going. I called on the blues cruise to ask if they had a room for Dennis and it was Ok he’d come over. I wanna be able to tell people that Mike is leaving the band but this is what you are gonna get next. That would be a cool transition. That’s how we did it. The last show we did we made the announcement.
Everything happens for a reason in a way.
Yes. Like when I met my wife. I was stuck in a lot of weird relationships from my teens to my late twenties, I was engaged to someone else for five years. But it was not a good thing. And basically I had dated the same type of woman since I was seventeen. I realized one day I can’t be with a person like that. It doesn’t work for anybody. With my wife we were friends for a long time, from being around the scene. One day I made up my mind after a bad thing with my ex and I wad talking to Kate, she was helping me through it and I blurted out, I said “why aren’t I with someone like you?” And she said, “I don’t know, why aren’t you?” And we’ve been together ever since.