This interview originally aired live on KFAI radio in the Twin Cities on January 31, 2007 and has been transcribed for prit in the April issue of the regional music paper Blue Monday.
A little back ground, I first saw James Harman on stage at a Hollywood club around 1980 sittin’ in (along with the legendary Michael ‘Hollywood Fats’ Mann) with Los Angles’ top roots punk band X. Maybe it was the Roxy or the Starwood or perhaps the world famous Whiskey A Go- Go, I can’t remember which venue, but I do remember the indelible impression of witnessing this stout, hipster, blowin’ his harp and swingin’ his hips as John Doe, Exene Cervenka, D. J. Bonebreak and Billy Zoom thrashed and slammed out a propulsive beat and Fats fired off gloriously inspiring flourishes on his fret board. X with Harman and Fats was a revelation, I had been hipped to the blues a few years earlier, but was still mostly a ‘Punk Rock Kid’. But this singular event began a transformation in my mind that has broadened my musical horizons and helped to put me on the path that eventually led to where I am today. This show was the one and only time I had the privilege to see Hollywood Fats and James Harman on the same stage together, though I was lucky enough to catch the Hollywood Fats band some three or four times as well as seeing a couple of shows by the Blasters after Fats had taken over guitar duties when Dave Alvin left the group around ’84. And of course I began to check out Harman shows as well, those most dangerous gentlemen, The James Harman Band, in all incarnations have always been a force to be reckoned with, weather it was Jr. Watson, Kid Ramos, Fats, or Kid Teddy Morgan (among others) on guitar Jeff Turmes or Steven Hodges on bass and any number of drummers, throw in a keyboard player here and there and the occasional saxophone, this band has always rocked and swung hard. With Harman’s insightful, witty and provocative lyrics at the fore. The man knows how to turn a phrase weather it be a funny barb about love or a sarcastic jab at politicians, or even a heartfelt and somber good bye to a lost friend, James Harman is one of the most gifted and unique song writers the blues has ever known. And when he’s on the band stand he always delivers, weather it’s a hole in the wall out of the way working class bar room with 20 guys just off from a second shift or a sell out festival in Europe James Harman is a master show man.
I finally got to know him after going to see him perform over the years around 1991 right around the release of Do Not Disturb his Black Top Records debut, and I can tell you he has become one of my very favorite people in the world, he is funny and kind he’s got an amazing knowledge of the history and heritage of the blues and is usually happy to share it, his listen parties are legendary; know for having an amazing music collection of vintage 45’s 78’s and more he’d gather other, younger players in his home and school ’em on the real deal for hours on end. He’s got a quick wit and can have a short fuse, he might snap at you one minute and then he’ll buy you a beer the next. Though he can be difficult at times, I’ve never seen him to be mean spirited or deceitful, and that’s all he asks in return, be honest and come forward straight, and you and James will get along fine but he doesn’t tolerate side stepping or behind the back talking.
Icepick James Harman is the real deal, an song writers song writer and a showman’s, showman, a joker one minute and as serious and a tornado siren the next, I do love this man, and that’s why it was such a thrill to be able to finally interview him on KFAI, I was sitting in on a Wednesday for the House Party when Harold Trembly was in Memphis for the International Blues Challenge and I wanted to do something special so I called James, we have talked about doing this for some time but never did it before this, and what a charge I got when what had been planned to be about a 10 minute interview went on for just over 30 minutes, and though I didn’t ask him every thing I had hopped he answered every question no matter how inane or trivial honestly and openly and for that I am thankful to my friend James ’Drinkin’ Friend’ Harman.
Mark Fredell: James Thanks for joining me. Your out there hanging out in California still.
James Harman: Oh Yeah Thanks Slim, yeah you know every winter, you know I tour spring, summer and fall but you know I stopped ground touring in 2000 it’s all flying now but yeah I stay in California in the winter producing other projects and really keeping away from the cold, you know that’s my philosophy in life, I don’t do cold.
MF: Oh I know you’re a good old southern boy right, Aniston Alabama is you home town, I was reading in your bio. You know I have to say it feels a little odd to me, you and I have know each other for a lot of years and it’s a little weird to interviewing a friend.
JH: Well for you maybe.
MF: Thanks. Anyways, I’ve always wanted to ask you, or I guess talk to you about your liner notes, it’s something I always look forward to when there is a new James Harman release is those great liner notes.
JH: Really? I’ve never really thought that much about it, it’s really just what I’m feeling about those songs at the time.
MF: Well you know it’s always insightful, it’s always interesting and it seems to always put a smile on my face.
JH: Well I believe anything your write it’s like, a song a poem or what ever it’s like the rule is it’s like a woman’s dress. It’s got to be long enough to cover the subject and short enough to keep it interesting.
MF: See there you have it as I tell any one I meet that’s not familiar with you, I say James Harman knows how to turn a phrase, But listen I wanted to say I guess the only extensive Bio information on you really that I’ve come across was in the notes to those Dangerous Gentlemen the Rhino Records release came out in the early 80’s, well no in 87 I guess but it was recorded in the early 80’s.
JH. Well I don’t record albums I record songs, when ever I’ve got 3 or 4 songs ready to record I record them so it’s not usually bands I get together the guys I feel are right for the songs and record them then when I have enough done for a full package I put it together. I’m not trapped in that ridicules game of the band you know make the record in three weeks and put it out there I’m not gonna do that.
MF: Fair enough. Now though my question about that release, well those liner notes anyways, that’s where I’ve gotten the most info about you other than your web site, and it says in there I guess you dad was in law enforcement?
JH: Yeah, he was a police captain in Aniston, Alabama.
MF: Ok, well lets talks about when you were a young man, I bet still wearing those little boy shorts back in the fifties you used to cut class and head over I guess to the wrong side of the tracks to go play your harmonica.
JH: Oh sure you know it was before that, there was no cutting class yet I was just a little kid and had found some old guys that played and sang blues downtown and I found it interesting so I would go down and hang around them and play a little. There was this one guy, the main one his name was Radio Johnson and he used to play the guitar with a knife. I’d find him in this one alley behind the store where I’d buy my model cars, I’d come out and get on my bicycle and I’d hear them out there playing, and I’d stay and listen and then some times stop and play with them. So every now and then another policeman would see me down there and they’d call my dad on the radio; they’d say like captain Harman Jimmy’s in they alley of so and so playing with those guys again.
MF: Wow that’s something else and I suppose back in those days that was not musically the right place for you to be was it.
JH: Well I guess it could have been dangerous because of the people that might of walked by and not liked what they saw but, it wasn’t dangerous as far as my father was concerned see he was never a racist or anything he always had me going in the right direction. You know he’s the one that got me going on all of it, my mom got me on the piano when I was four and my dads harmonicas were in the piano bench so when I got done with my piano lesson I could take the harmonicas out and play them, so it all came at the same time plus I was singing in the church choir. We’re talking about from childhood not teenager you know. By the time I was sixteen I had stopped singing in the church and was singing for money.
MF: Alright. And that’s about when your life on the road started. You went from Aniston too? Didn’t you go to Florida first?
JH: Yep. Went to Panama City Florida and then To Miami Florida, then Chicago, New York, New Orleans, then California. I had to start over in each of those places trying to make a stand, you know I’d had nine 45’s out through the 60’s and toured non stop, playing dances for radio stations then nightclubs and such and really have been on the road ever since, it’s really all I’ve ever done.
MF: And you’ve got plenty of stories to tell about it too, I know I’ve heard plenty of them. But for the one listener who doesn’t know who James Harman is, all I’ll say is you need to find out cause he’s definitely a force to be reckoned with in the blues world.
JH: Aw shucks.
MF: Well now I mean it you are. I mean you’ve put out some great stuff, I think every record is a masterpiece. And even though you say it all the time and we just talked about it, the way you record and how you do a few songs at a time then eventually figure out which ones will work together, well they always seem to fit together perfectly.
JH: Well that’s the art don’t you see the art of making what we used to call an album, now it’s a Cd release, but if your gonna put a dozen songs on a release, they need to fit together well so you can have a motif, you know an over all picture of what that means; so that’s the art of doing this.
MF: So talking about releases, do you have anything in the pipeline now, I guess your last release was Lonesome Moon Trance came out in ’03...
JH: Well no I had a release after that it was the re-release of Strictly Live In ’85, which had three extra songs you know cause it was digitally re-mastered so you could fit more songs on it. Because Strictly Live In ’85 was mastered for an Lp., back then you could only have about 22 minutes on a side, so two sides is 44 minutes and a Cd will go an hour, so you know when I transferred all those four shows to a digital disc I was able to pull out three more songs that fit on to the disc. You didn’t get that?
MF: No that’s the one gapping hole in my collection…
JH: Well it’s not the one gapping hole but it is A gapping hole…Anyways Lonesome Moon Trance and Strictly Live I actually have nothing to do with because my ex-partner (wife) of 35 years has seen fit to separate and break from me and so as a result I am getting nothing from either of those two albums.
MF: And such is the life of a blues musician I suppose.
JH: Yeah you’d think I’d be to smart for that but I made a great mistake, it wasn’t like keeping an eye on the record label guy it was keeping an eye on your best friend and partner.
MF: Well what’s in the pipeline now can we look forward to a new release?
JH: I’ve been busy producing other people really, I haven’t thought about putting out something on me in a while. I just produced this Danish artist Peter Nandy (? I couldn’t catch the last name clearly there was some static on the line I think this was it) from Copenhagen he’s a good friend of mine. And we’ve been doing some stuff that hasn’t come out yet. Eventually I get to throwing some tracks down and putting an album together, I haven’t really thought about it though. I only fly to about 40 or 50 festivals a year right now so it’s not like I’m out on the road 250 nights a year; it’s well see in the rock world you tour to promote the sales of your record in the blues world your record is just your calling card to get you work so it’s backwards. So there’s no point in touring if you don’t have a release but I’ve got that many festivals that call me and want me so I go play them without a new release and they seem to want me and still pay me so that puts me in a place with less pressure and I’m all about the path of least resistance. You know though I’ve probably got forty or fifty songs in the can at all times.
MF: Well of course you are ever vigilant in your writing I know that.
JH: Well you know your either prolific in writing or your not, when I’ve got three or four song ready to record I call in who I want to hear on them and we record them. That’s why I have so many different players on my albums. You know if you look at the one you just named, Lonesome Moon Trance, there’s probably 25 guys on that one.
MF: Yeah there’s a whole bunch of great guitar players, including Bob Margolin among others as well as all the rest of them.
JH: Well there’s no use in using a lame guitar player, there’s no percentage in that (laughs…)…
MF: Point taken, score one for Mr. Harman.
JH: See when your growing up and your playing with your friends and you playing parties and you all having fun and it’s all a great time then the minute you cross over that line and you start really making money and it becomes your work, eventually that point will come when the guy that can sing recognizes that he can sing and the guy that writes the songs weather it’s the same guy or not recognizes that he can write the songs. Well eventually poor old Tom the bass player from boy scouts is gonna get kicked out and their going to hire a real professional player cause they want it to sound good. It’s not a forward game it‘s more fun if you keep it that way. See I have some friends that are lawyers that have a band for fun on the weekends, you know hey what a hoot. But if your really in the ’music business’ it’s different, it is a business. See it’s a matter of learning the definitions, a band is not a group of friends, it’s a group of professional musicians playing behind an artist. An artist is a person with a recognizable voice. A song comes on the radio and you go, that’s Bobby Bland, well that’s an artist, now who’s in his band? You see. No one ever went crying down the hall did you hear Bobby Bland broke up… See people when they say band they mean group, cause there orientation is based on pop groups and you know that’s never gonna work anyways, cause look the most successful pop group of all time couldn’t stay together cause a few of them brought their girlfriends to rehearsal. Think about it.
MF: Yeah, well that’s the truth, and if there is one thing that James Harman always does it’s speak the truth.
JH: Hey there’s no point in lying, life’s to short.
MF: I know I’ve got 20 plus years of experience of you truth’s. And I’ll tell you it’s been 20 some very colorful and insightful years. I’ve learned a lot from your insights. Your one of just a handful of people in this blues world that I have always looked too to kind of help guide my direction on my journey of learning about this stuff. Not being a player and simply being a fan who wants to do what I can to promote it, your one of the guys I’ve always looked to as sort of a guiding light.
JH: Well thank you, I appreciate that. You know all I’ve ever tried to do is be a guy with a good song who could sing and if you got some inspiration out of that, well that’s a good thing.
MF: Oh absolutely. You know I got to ask you this; I heard, going back to the Strictly Live In ‘85 recording. You know for those of us that are from the west coast, that was one of those really legendary roots times you had some really great almost legendary players in the band at that time with Hollywood Fats and Kid Ramos on guitars among others, but some one told me that they’ve actually seen film of those shows, that there is some video out there.
JH: well you know there was probably so fifty or so videos shot from our shows we had no control over that then. There was also some five or six videos that we produced back when it seemed like videos might be a viable thing in the early eighties. You know we made it wasn’t anything real serious just like 35 millimeter film and it was on MTV and some of the movie channels late at night. You know video then was a different thing and nobody really cared about a blues band anyways, so we took our most commercial song and tried to get some attention. We had the Big Dance off of the Thank You Baby album on Enigma from eighty two or three, The Big Dance was trying to be a hit record, then of course Those dangerous Gentlemen album on Rhino you mentioned on there we had My Baby’s Gone. Those were just absolutely directed at the radio, there not blues records by any means. Their blues like the Rolling Stones would have played. We were trying to get on the radio so we could sell more records and do bigger shows. So there’s plenty of film now on this Youtube thing people are always sending me this amateur shot film of the band, now I get nothing from that, I have nothing to do with it, I didn’t ask for it, I didn’t sign on it to say they could do it, but this is the digital age of bootleg and nobody cares anymore. You know if some one on some dance floor at a show had a camera and filmed the band I have no control over that.
MF: Ok fair enough, but that kind of leads me to my question, which well one of my new obsessions is collecting video and film of blues, cause with the advent of DVD there is just so much stuff coming out now.
JH: Yeah your right and most of it, nobody is getting paid. See right now there is a DVD out that was a VHS five years ago and a CD ten years ago Live at Buddy Guys and it came from a TV show that I appeared on but I did not agree to ever have it released for sale. See the guy that well some body on the production crew it was a TV show in Chicago that I was on, they interviewed me then came to the show that night and shot a three camera shoot of the show and put it o TV well some one on that crew got a hold of the tapes and released a Cd and then the Video, I never agreed to that and I’m not getting paid for it. The show I agreed to it to be aired twice in Chicago and that was it, the guy put out the Cd then the video and now a DVD people are asking me all the time about it and they the guy that put it out well he’s a criminal and he’s robbing me, I never got a dime and I’m not the only one he’s done this with a bunch of guys.
MF: Oh I see. Well of the film footage that you have done though, those videos and such, it seems that that’s kind of the new wave of things, or even some of the labels now are putting out DVD’s or Cd’s with a companion DVD is that something you may consider down the line?
JH: No I won’t do that, I’m to old and fat now. When I made those films 25 years ago I looked ok but now I’m an old weird looking fat guy with a long white beard and that’s just not the image I want to capture. You know at 60 years old with arthritis in both my knees, it’s just not what I want to see on film. Now when you’d see me in the sixties, seventies or eighties or even the nineties, that was alright, is was still dancing around and looking pretty good. But now as an old guy it becomes less and less important to me I have no interest in filming what I do.
MF: Alright. So is there anything else on your plate, I know you said your doing 50 or so festivals a year. And what about Europe are you still getting over there to play?
JH: Well there’s tours in April or May I’ll be in Scandinavia then later in the year I’ll be down in central Europe. I usually go there every year, but in 2006 I did not go because I had done three European tours in 2005 I played twelve or fifteen country‘s even Liechtenstein you know a few that you don‘t usually go too. yeah so last year I did no Europe at all I did East Coast, Midwest, Canada and West Coast. I’ve already got some stuff going. I know there’s stuff being booked now there’s a big show in Delaware, one in Boston and then Detroit and Canada, then I’m sure you had mentioned one (MF: Yes a festival down in Iowa), Well that’s probably the Mississippi Valley Festival in Davenport I might be on that, I don’t really know for sure, I don’t know if that’s with my band or as a special guest with some regional band or maybe with Mark Hummel on one of his Harmonica blow down tours we do a lot of that. We do a lot of them, we’ll saddle up, the last one we had Kim Wilson then the one before was Lee Oscar, we’ve had Paul DeLay, you know they’re fun.
MF: Yeah I’ve talked to Mark about that and I want to try and help him find a venue back here to bring that show.
JH: You really should and make sure you have him bring me on it, he always gets different guys, it’s usually three to five harmonica players and their all friends and then a great backing band (Hummel’s band The Blues Survivors). Hummel’s got a great band a really solid rhythm section, and you know every body does their set each guy does a short maybe twenty or thirty minutes set then we all get up together and have a blow down, and you know what’s sillier than four or five harmonica’s on stage together maybe 4 or 5 clarinets. You know you don’t have five piano’s or something but we all get up there and play and it works cause everybody‘s polite everybody knows how to play with each other and we have a good time.
MF: Yeah, those Cd’s that Mark has put out from those shows it seems like a lot of fun from those.
JH: Oh yeah, you know we were on the Legendary Blues Cruise The first one to Mexico last year was Mark and his band and Kim Wilson and me and Kid Ramos was there back some one else Jeneva Magness I think. So of course when we did our last show, we got him up there with us so we had Rusty Zinn and Kid Ramos Bob Welsh the piano player, well he also playes great guitar, so we got him up there too playing guitar. It was just a lot of fun we had all had plenty of drinks and just played, lots of jammers.
MF: Well James, I don’t want to take out any more of your time. I want to thank you so much for taking a half hour of your day to chat with us here.
JH: Aw it’s a gas Mark your always fun, it‘s always great to talk to you.
MF: Your just such a great guy and you have a special place in my heart. It’s been so long since I’ve seen you I guess it was out in that little bar in San Pedro or some place about a year and a half two years ago.
JH: No no that was Lameda, a place called Ricky Jeans?
MF: Yeah that sounds right.
JH: Yeah I played there with Zola Moon twice, that was a little Crap bar. You know I don’t play out here much at all last year I only played three shows in California with my band. I Played the San Francisco festival, the Doheney festival and the Merced festival up in central valley. Three gigs in all of California in a year, I don’t play in California, I got priced out of all the clubs years ago. (MF: So I just got lucky then) Yeah well that was just an oddball thing Zola’s an old friend, believe it or not she used to open for me back around ‘78 and ‘79, she had just quit singing country and tried singing rhythm and blues. She was young and she’d open for me and now she looks just exactly the same and she sounds just great. But yeah that’s the reason I was there normally I wouldn’t have been in that place.
MF: Alright we James it’s just such a kick to finally get you on the air and share some of that great banter that you have all that knowledge and wisdom. You hold a special place in my heart I just want you to know that. Oh and I want to thank you for your tips about my Billy Boy Arnold interview. Thanks again.
JH: Aw Mark it’s been a treat thanks a lot.
And there you have it my conversation with one of the most talented and unique members of the blues world, Icepick James Harman. no matter what you might think, if you haven't heard or seen Harman you are not hip to some of the best in contemporary blues in the world today. James Harman is a genuine master!!!