GA-20's Matthew Stubbs found Hound Dog Taylor at age 14.
He's lost the discovery's details to time (unlike my own Taylor awakening), but Stubbs assumes it was either a compilation album or from cruising the Alligator Records website, back in the times when one couldn't call up almost any song or artist and hear their entire body of work for free.
The teenage Stubbs became the adult Stubbs, playing with blues harmonica legend Charlie Musselwhite, releasing solo records, and eventually forming the blues band GA-20, with singer/guitarist Pat Faherty. Their 2019 debut LP, Lonely Soul, was classic Chicago blues with, if not a modern sensibility, then at least a contemporary strut.
Stubbs and GA-20 had their follow-up album all ready to go when Covid shut the world down. While all too little good has come of this pandemic, one small sliver of sunshine is that it returned Stubbs and his bandmates to Taylor, resulting in Try It...You Might Like It: GA-20 Does Hound Dog Taylor, a tribute to the under-appreciated blues legend.
GA-20 found themselves making the album after Bruce Iglauer, founder of Alligator Records, Taylor's label, reached out to the band about doing a record, not realizing they were already signed to Colemine Records. Stubbs didn't want to give up on the idea of a collaboration, though. "I've always been a huge Hound Dog fan and this is the 50th anniversary of his first record on Alligator, so I kind of brainstormed up an idea to try to get both labels to get behind it, and see if we can reach even more people having both labels working it," Stubbs says. "Also, [another] kind of interesting thing is we have two guitars and drums, no bass, and that's the same kind of instrumentation that Hound Dog had. So we've already kind of been compared to them: Hound Dog and the Houserockers as well as some other Chicago acts from like the 50s and 60s that don't have bass, which people seem to find unusual, even though back then there [were] lots of different bands without [it]."
The album was more than a convenient calendar hook, though. GA-20 are Taylor devotees. "So first of all, we all love Hound Dog and the HouseRockers," Stubbs says. "Tim [Carman], who is our drummer, loves [HouseRockers' drummer] Ted Harvey. I've always been really into [HouseRocker guitarist] Brewer Phillips, as well as Hound Dog, as a fan. Just wild and raw. You know it's him right away; I can hear like two notes, an intro with him playing the slide part or whatever, and I just instantly know it's him."
The challenge of an album like this is that while Taylor is not a mainstream blues name, people who love him, really love him. Any effort to sand off Taylor and the HouseRockers' rough edges would be met with indifference by too many, but anger and outrage by a small-yet-loyal following. Luckily for everyone, GA-20 pulls off the songs reverently, nailing the HouseRockers' sound and grooves, while still managing to inject enough of themselves.
The blues is a genre of interpretation. There's a shared songbook that artists use as points of departure. Which is one of the many beautiful things about the style: covers become songs within songs, as artists find opportunities to express themselves within the confines of someone else's voice.
In this interview, Stubbs discusses GA-20's process for honoring Taylor's work without losing themselves. He also talks about how learning and producing these songs has impacted his own songwriting. But perhaps most importantly, he shares what made Taylor and the HouseRockers such a special blues band.
Making Try It...You Might Like It
Working Mojo: What was the process for for making the album? Did you start with a setlist?
Matthew Stubbs: Yup! So that was in July, when the idea kind of was born, and then it was a few months of figuring everything else out on the business side, make sure it was worth [it to] everyone to be involved or whatever, make sure this is gonna make sense for everyone. But during that time, Pat, the singer and other guitarist, myself, and Tim, just started picking out some songs that we liked each [and] put a list together. And they would come over once or twice a week, and I have like a little screened-in porch deck, and we're obviously distant and outside or whatever, but we just started running these songs and figuring out which ones, when we played them, [if] they will make sense, because just because you like a song sometimes, as a group, it doesn't come across the way you want it to.
So we ran a bunch of songs, and I produced the record, so I started thinking about sequencing on the record and what would make sense and, you know, slow songs, fast songs, all that stuff. That was the very beginning process. Once we dialed in the 10 songs we wanted, we rehearsed once or twice a week, just [to] get everything up to where it needed to be; not overly arranged, because when we went in the studio, I wanted it to be alive and I wanted it to be raw. I mean, that's how Hound Dog did it.
And I spent some time talking with Bruce [Iglauer] because he produced those records, and I asked about what gear the guys were using, kind of how they set up the microphones, the vibe in the room and I just tried to, not mimic it, but kind of create a scenario where we'd go into the studio and play live and try to capture the spirit of those records, which are just off the rails and wild.
WM: And what was your setup when you were on the screened-in porch working through the songs? Were you playing the acoustic guitars with drums? Or was it your full set-up?
Stubbs: Full set-up. Quiet. We used little five-watt tube amps. My neighbors are cool, so they didn't mind that we were out there doing it. But we played electric guitars, a full drum set, and just played on the quieter side. I think it would have been hard to do it acoustically just because [of] the way they played; the way they attacked their guitars. I think we needed to practice on the electrics.
The Way of the Hound
WM: How did Bruce describe the vibe in the room for those Hound Dog sessions?
Stubbs: I started with the technical stuff. I was like, what guitars? And then there [were] a few pictures online and I asked about that.
With the vibe in the room, he said he was a big fan of Hound Dog, seeing him in nightclubs all the time, so he said it was basically just like that. It was like they were doing a nightclub set: amps cranked up, minimal microphones. They didn't have headphones on; they just had monitors in the room. Basically, I think it went to a two-track tape machine and it was just like a live performance. When you think of other records being made, where it's like doing a bunch of takes and stuff, I'm pretty sure, from what I understand, they just went in and knocked it out, just like it was a nightclub.
WM: So is that what you guys did in the studio, too? Was it headphones off and tearing through a set?
Stubbs: I built a studio at my house during the pandemic and this is the first session we did there. That's not a huge studio, it's on the smaller side, but yeah, we had headphones; that was the only thing that was different, just so Pat could hear himself, because we were all live in a room. We used smaller amps than Hound Dog, but I got the same brand, same era—60s—old tube amps. We used a little bit smaller [ones] because the room was so small.
But yeah, we cut every song, I don't even think we did more than one or two takes of these songs. Maybe two or three on a couple. And we cut everything in like a day and a half. We just went through all 10 songs and did a of couple takes, and then picked the ones we liked, and moved on. So it was very much like a live show.
WM: Did you change your guitars to get more of a Hound Dog and the Houserockers sound?
Stubbs: Yeah, so Pat played the slide parts and I played the lower parts that Brewer Philips would play. Pat and I sourced, we went hunting for [guitars]. Hound Dog used a Teisco/Kingston model guitar. So we went down the rabbit hole of searching [them] out. I think we bought like four or five of them. They're not super expensive. They're kind of like cheaper 60s guitars. So I think we ended up buying about four or five of them and just testing them out with different amps, trying to get in the ballpark tone wise, and right before the session, I think it was a week or two before, we found pretty much the model that [Taylor] used and Pat was able to score that one. That's what Pat used for most of the record. So that was his guitar.
My guitar, I used an old 50s Telecaster, which I already had. But on those first two records, I believe that's what Brewer was playing.
And as far as the amplifiers, I talked to Bruce, I got the models that they were using. They used really big amps. Hound Dog used the Silvertone with six 10-inch speakers. My studio, that would have probably blown the roof off my house, so I got a 60s Silvertone amp, just like that, but it was a smaller one, like a five-watt one, but it sounds it sounds pretty close. So that's what Pat played through and then I played through an old Gibson GA-20 amplifier and then a Fender as well, like an old black face Fender, I think it was a Pro Reverb. So close to what those guys were using.
And the drums, we tried to match up the same sizes that Ted Harvey used. He didn't play a lot of toms, only [on] a couple [of songs]. A lot of the time he had a ride cymbal. So real minimal, like I don't think Tim even had a crash cymbal up. Just a ride cymbal, hi hat, mostly kick and snare. A couple of exceptions, I guess; it's like two songs that we put the tom up. That was it.
WM: How did you account for not having the sixth finger?
Stubbs: [Laughs] Pat played the slide parts. I'd have to ask him. He covered it. It sounded pretty good to me. But yeah, I didn't think about that.
WM: That's all I could think about.
Stubbs: Right. [Pat] played all the parts with one less finger.
Learning the tunes
WM: So when you were arranging things, were you playing the albums and making sure that you were faithful, or were the songs embedded in your memory?
Stubbs: The three of us have always been fans of Hound Dog but it wasn't like we were doing a bunch of Hound Dog songs already in our set. I was just a fan. So we listened to the records, we wanted to be true to Hound Dog. But it's gonna end up sounding like us a little bit anyway, because we're not Hound Dog, right?
So we tried to take the essence, the spirit of their thing and their arrangements, and tried to stick as close to possible to it. I don't know how to explain it, but it's weird. You just listen to [the records] and you're not really trying to dissect every little part, technically, [of the] music. It sounds wild and off the rails, like they're just going crazy sometimes, but when you sit down and you actually pick it apart, man, there are these little parts on Brewer Phillips, the rhythm player, the guy playing the low parts on the guitar, and then Hound Dog.
They do these little things, and you almost think it's a mistake, like they might leave two bars off on the turnaround like, it's not a full 12 bars, and you're like, 'Oh, they messed up or something.' But then the next verse, it's the same thing, the same thing in every spot. And I've noticed other people, when they cover some of these songs, going back now, you listen [and you're] like, 'Oh, they didn't pick up on that. They're just playing it like a normal 12 bar.' They didn't realize that that was an actual part. It was stuff like that.
I played most of the Brewer Phillips parts. Again, he's playing the low, almost bassline-like parts, and again, you're just listening, and it's the background or whatever, it doesn't sound like it's all that hard. But when you really get in, like, "Give Me Back My Wig," there [are] turnarounds, and if you put headphones on, you listen to what he's doing, it's crazy. That turnaround took me hours to just figure out. It's fast but it sounds easy, but I didn't find it [easy]; it's pretty complex, actually.
WM: Did you learn anything else about Hound Dog and Brewer Phillips and the rest of House Rockers by learning the songs that way? Things that you might have missed as a fan.
Stubbs: The biggest thing I took away from it when we're rehearsing, and trying to get that spirit and get that energy—I mean, they were on 10 on a lot of songs, with energy— is how the band played as a trio, as an ensemble, almost like a jazz sensibility, where, if you listen to Hound Dog rip into a solo, Ted Harvey on drums, he really reacts to what's going on, where I think a lot of not just the blues, but music in general, where there's a soloist, a lot of times the rhythm section just kind of drops wooden and stays kind of straight beat, lets the soloist do whatever. They were really, really like, one guy did one thing, and the other other two would react, like a true ensemble. And I think it was probably just from them playing together as a trio for so long, nightclubs, and long nights, that they really almost like felt like one person playing everything.
WM: And it might be a little too early to tell but has doing this album and doing this deep dive into the songs, has this impacted your songwriting?
Stubbs: I think any any time you spend hours learning something and studying something, it's going to rub off. I know from a production standpoint, when I produced this, the sounds I was going for, and then later on when I mixed it with my engineer, [were] very different than our last record and what I might do on my own.
Hound Dog's stuff is very dry; there's no added reverb or anything like that, where we typically, left to our own devices, have some reverb on the guitar or put reverb on the vocals. This record is, other than a little bit of room sound from microphones being in the room at a distance, it's dry as a bone, both guitars and vocals. There's no reverb on anything. And I like the way it sounds. I think I might move forward with doing some of that with original stuff down the line.
WM: The blues is so idiom based. How do you find something new to say? Obviously you guys, but then also someone like Hound Dog?
Stubbs: I see it like we're taking these artists that inspired us and we loved—and I guess this doesn't go for the Hound Dog record because we didn't write these songs—but when we're writing, the thing I think we bring to it that might be new, like any other artists, is just songs. Writing our own songs in that idiom. I think that's all you can do. There's only so many notes and all the notes have already been played by the masters.
On our first record, Lonely Soul, and on the record that's going to come out after Hound Dog, [where] we wrote most of the songs, I like melody, and I like songwriters, and I like arranging. So just trying to write songs that get in people's head or create a mood, comes on and makes you feel something, I guess that's what I'd like to add. And I think Pat would probably agree with that. It's more about writing songs that people remember and can relate to.
WM: I know it's sort of impossible to describe, but how is the new album different from Lonely Soul?
Stubbs: It's like the next step past Lonely Soul. It's leaning a little bit more 60s, and I think the songwriting is probably improved since the last one. But I think it's a good follow-up to a Lonely Soul. If people liked Lonely Soul, I think they'll definitely like it.
WM: Why do you think the songwriting is better?
Stubbs: I think it's a craft. The more you do it, and when we did Lonely Soul, it was just me and Pat with a different drummer. We were only a band for like six months to a year. I think playing together, listening to more music. For me as a producer, I produced all these albums, just being in the studio more, working with different engineers, stuff like that. I think it's like any craft: the more you do it, the more you learn.
WM: And it sounds like your process is to write for an album, so you're not really working on stuff now. But I guess you'll release the tribute, the upcoming album of originals, and then keep touring. And then you'll go in and write for the album after that?
Stubbs: Yeah, we go through phases. We probably have six to eight songs that are started. The beginning of the pandemic, before this concept kind of came to life, I was writing [and] demoing out a bunch of stuff, so we have some rough ideas. We really stockpiled a bunch of recordings already. So we have this Hound Dog one, and then we have our follow-up, original album. But then we have two other albums done as well.
So we have four that are all done and ready to come out. Right now we're concentrating on releasing and getting out there and touring and trying to get as many people as possible to hear our stuff. We have a rehearsal today, in like half an hour, they're coming here, and we'll probably start working on some new tunes today.
WM: So the two albums you have, when you say they're done, are they done done, like sequenced and mixed and ready to go?
Stubbs: Mixed. Mastered. Artwork has been started. Yeah. The very last one, I don't think we've started artwork for. But like artwork concepts. We've got them stocked up pretty good right now.
WM: Is that because of the pandemic? Or are you guys just super organized?
Stubbs: The Hound Dog one, 100% pandemic. The concept was born, rehearsed, recorded, manufactured, all during this. The next studio album, that's ours, was actually recorded and done before the pandemic. We had already gone into the studio, and we delayed that at the beginning of the pandemic. It was supposed to come out and we delayed it, because we wanted to be able to tour behind it. So we did the Hound Dog one, and we just got through it so quickly. It kind of came together quickly, [so] we decided to release that now, because it was his 50th anniversary, so it made sense to put that well first.
And then the other two, I'm not sure how much I should say, but one is a live record that we cut. That was cut before the pandemic, but during the pandemic, I mixed it with an engineer and had it mastered. So that's a pandemic release. And then the last one, which I won't say too much about, but that was one that I thought of and we did record during the pandemic. So what is that? Two records and one mixed during the pandemic.
WM: That's really impressive.
Stubbs: I had a lot of time, like everybody [laughs]. And at home. I mean, literally not doing much. Just hanging out with my dog.
WM: What keeps you from going back to these songs and tweaking them or thinking of a new verse or a bridge or something like that?
Stubbs: Usually when we're writing new stuff, we'll rehearse it, we'll just record it on an iPhone, and we'll all listen back. Everybody has an opinion. We try to keep everyone—we're a trio—happy with it. But for me, once we kind of have it where it's presentable, we start playing it live, like at shows, we'll sneak it into a set, and we'll play it live as much as possible for a while.
Because usually, at least for us, once you play it live in front of people, and they're watching you and not in a rehearsal space, things become pretty clear, what needs to change, at least from my perspective. Like, 'Oh, we're playing it too slow. We're playing it too fast.' Or 'It's too long,' or 'It's too short.' And when you slide it into a set live, all that stuff seems to reveal itself, like the skeleton of the song, the melody and the parts or whatever, usually, we have that, obviously, before we play live. But working it out, actually on stage, is how we've done all our other stuff.
WM: Are you going by your perception of the song from on stage? Or are you watching the audience to see how they're reacting?
Stubbs: A little of both. I'm not writing the song purely—well sometimes I guess I might—purely just to see how people react at a live show, because there's other factors at a live show, like, the sound man might not be mixing it correctly, so maybe the vocals aren't clear to the audience. Things change when you're in a live setting. and we're a live band. We love being in the studio and recording, but the whole purpose of that is I love being on stage and playing my music for a live audience. So I just feel like it's more natural when we're up there. I mean, there's times I go back [and I think], 'Oh, I probably should have done this or that with that song.' But usually, it's pretty clear when it's done. I listen to a lot of different styles of music and songwriters and other than all listening to blues, we all listen to different stuff. I just feel like we kind of just agree when it's done. We usually know.
Interview edited for brevity and clarity.