Interview: Jawbone: Play Dang Blues
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In the household of modern rock n roll Bob Zabar is the solitary figure on the back porch. Bob Zabar is Jawbone, a one-man blues band from Detroit stripping away the complications and pretensions of rock. In the musical world of Jawbone, ‘primal’ is the word.
“It’s a one-man band based on traditional one-man blues band performers like Dr. Ross or Joe Hill Louis. So instrumentally I’m playing electric guitar and harmonica, and keep a beat going with a bass drum and high hat.”
“My idea for Jawbone is rooted in that sound, but other kinds of music that I’ve been influenced by, like country or r&b or punk rock, find their place in there too,” explains Zabar of the Jawbone ethos.
Infused with primal beats, the ghosts of many blues legends and punk-rock energy, his music has an immediacy that grabs the listener by the balls and MAKES them listen, appealing to the most basic of human musical needs in a grand fashion. It’s the sound of ‘Rivers, gravel pits, gas stations, hardware stores, empty buildings, Memphis, Detroit , Chicago, New Orleans and Sun Records.’
“It’s a very simple, raw, basic sound. The sounds themselves are nothing new, but they’re sounds that I’m really drawn to. Heavy bass drum with a big boom. Vocals right up front. Amplified harmonica. I like my music to be agitated. Like mice on a hotplate.”
Jawbone embodies blues, which to Zabar is ‘the start of all beat-based music. You can dress it up lots of different ways but at its core it’s a rhythm thing. I like it for that, I’m interested in the power of very simple rhythms.’
Zabar lives music; “I really have no idea what I’d be thinking about all the time though if it wasn't music,” he claims, adding that his ‘highest aspiration is really to be a musician’ and if he couldn’t do what he’s doing now he would be ‘a piano player in a boomtown whorehouse.’
Starting its performing career busking on the streets of New York, the Jawbone live experience was built around the harmonica, with the electric guitar becoming an obvious addition to the set-up because of Zabar’s need to create excitement. It came after realisation that playing only the harmonica would limit his chances of getting booked to play live.
Now playing in proper venues on stage Zabar is a one-man rock n roll/blues powerhouse playing guitar and harmonica whilst providing driving rhythms and singing in his distinct gravelly voice. On stage Jawbone can blow away most multi-member bands with ease.
Embracing simplicity and a DIY ethic, the amplification of his guitar was initially provided by jump leads and a 12 volt car battery. Back to basics indeed.
Describing a normal gig Zabar explained, “I stand up and sing a song using a harmonica and a drum. I sit down and play some guitar songs. Scream a bit. Howl some. Stand up again. Sit down again. Stomp them drums. Sweat. Break a guitar string. Try to tell a joke while fixing a string. Start playing again. Stand up again. Scream some more. Catch my breath. Try to retune my guitar. Fail. More harmonica. More howling.”
“After 30-40 minutes or so I push my stuff in the corner to make room for the next band, and get a drink.”
It may be Jawbone’s raw energy, emotion and simplicity that gained the attention of the late, great DJ John Peel, who in April 2004 picked up a CD-R copy of Jawbone’s debut Dang Blues, recorded on lo-fi equipment in Zabar’s basement, from his mail-box. Peel changed the profile of the one-man ‘White Stripes in the nude’, giving him a Peel session and with the DJ bestowing the accolade of ‘album of the year’ for 2004 on Dang Blues.
Such was Peel’s affinity to Jawbone that Zabar joined the ‘John Peel Day’ concert-bill at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall alongside the likes of New Order, Super Furry Animals and The Fall, in a hand-picked musical celebration of the DJ’s life.
Through Peel’s patronage Jawbone toured the UK and Dang Blues was given a full release on London’s Loose Records.
“He was inspiring because he kept up his enthusiasm for music right up to the end. He was a real human being in the world of radio.”
“You either liked what he played or didn't like it but at least you felt like he was being straight with you. I don’t know what radio in general is like in the UK, but that sort of thing just doesn’t exist in the US. Radio could be a much bigger part of our lives, and it should be, but it just isn’t.”
“I really feel like we’re all missing out, and that with him gone it won’t even occur to anybody,” remembers Zabar of the late DJ.
Lyrically Zabar spits tales of every-day American life in Michigan. Of his home he said, “I’m from Michigan. It's very hot in the summer and very cold in the winter. It's cloudy a lot. It's very flat, very spread out.”
“You see more cars than you do people, the entire landscape is built around driving. Most people seem to be into things like sports, or deer hunting, or television, but there's lots of other things too if you go looking for it.”
“Detroit has a lot of vacant land, a lot of empty buildings, and a lot of freeways. I think it’s a very unique and special place, though not always for the better.”
Jawbone reflects both the bleakness and optimism of life. Being a blues-man you could expect Zabar to be down but his outlook is a happy one, his favourite thing in the world being ‘The sound of my kid laughing in his sleep.’ Zabar likes life and communicates this through his sound.
With the UK embracing ‘dang blues’ Jawbone is on the rise and, in a world with justice, will sit alongside the big-hitters in many a record collection. But what does Zabar want to achieve?
“I’d like to write songs that don’t just disappear, that people will still find valid 50 years from now.”
50 years of Jawbone’s ballsy blues power?
Sounds good to me.