Chattanooga Times Free Press entertainment reporter Casey Phillips spoke with Ted Drozdowski, vocalist and slide guitarist in the Nashville-based blues duo The Scissormen, about honoring the blues tradition, how he developed his style and the experience of playing with a slide pumpkin.
CP: Since Scissormen has basically been you with a rotating cast of supporting drummers, why isn't it called Scissorman?
TD: When the band started, we started purposefully as a two-piece with just guitar and drums. I told the drummer at the time that he could name the band. He actually encouraged me to start the band. I had been traveling to North Mississippi in about 1990, when I got completely infatuated with the music of R.L. Burnside and Jessie Mae Hemphill and Junior Kimbrough and became friends with those folks.
Until that point, I had been playing rock, ersatz jazz and textural music. I even had a five-piece band called Blood Blister that basically three guitars, two basses, no other instruments and no tunes. (Laughs.) It was basically an improv group.
I always loved blues, but I didn't want to play it. I thought it was kind of like pooping in holy water, if you didn't really have your crap together. So I didn't want to go there. Then, I met those folks, and it took me a long time to play that music because I didn't want to jump into it. I didn't want to be intrusive.
Eventually, R.L. Burnside, in particular, opened the door because he heard something in my rock playing that I guess he thought would somehow translate to Mississippi blues. So I ended up getting into it that way. He (R.L.) didn't even know I was a guitar player until I knew him for five years. A lot of people will run down there and immediately want to play with those guys. I didn't, because I didn't want to mess up their music. I respected them and respected their sound too much.
But why it's called Scissormen? (Laughs.) Rob encouraged me to start the band as a side project to a band we were already in called Devil Gods, which was a psychedelic rock band. I said, “OK, we'll do this, but you name it because I've been in a lot of bands, and I don't want to name it. Whatever we name it, it can't be a 'blues' band name.” I didn't want to have “The Mojos …” or “Smokin' …” or any “Kings of …” or “Queens of …” - none of that bullshit. I wanted to step away from cliché.
Rob came up with the name Scissormen, which is taken from an old German fairy tale about the red-legged scissormen, who snipped off the thumbs of children who sucked their thumbs at night. As it turned out, I later found out there was a European pseudo-metal band also called Scissormen, but they have long since broken up, and I have the U.S. trademark anyway, so there. (Laughs.)
CP: Do you often get questions about the name?
TD: It's a little abstract, and it definitely throws blues people off. I think sometimes I might sometimes insult them with the preamble by saying I think that (names) like “Smokin'” and “Mojos” are cliché.
I realize that when you have a name like that, it makes it easier for people to realize that it's blues, but I just don't want to go there. One of the problems with blues is that it has an image of being extremely stale. I don't think a name like that helps sidestep that image at all. I don't think what we do is stale at all; I think what we do is vibrant.
I think (blues) can be a really vibrant and contemporary music if you treat it with respect you would treat any other musical form instead of treating it like a troglodyte trapped in amber and hold it from a distance. You don't hold it from a distance. You jump right in, wallow around and see what happens.
CP: How do you honor the tradition of blues music while still leaving room to apply your own signature to it?
TD: It's interesting. To me, I kind of fall in the path of masters by doing that.
Let's take Muddy Waters, for example. He comes up from the Delta, where everyone is playing acoustic country blues, and he plugs in and starts experimenting with distortion. He has one of those pickups that attach to your guitar, and he starts exploring the sound. Then, he starts building a larger ensemble. That's squarely in the blues tradition.
To transpose it, I go down to Mississippi and latch onto this music and some Delta stuff. I've always loved country blues artists like Son House. For me, I draw on deep roots from the Delta and the hill country and, to a lesser extent, Chicago.
Since I didn't grow up in that period - I'm a child of the rock'n'roll era who listened to Sonic Youth and played in punk rock bands - I did a whole bunch of stuff like that, so I like to incorporate elements of dissonance and improvisation.
I also loved Coltrane. One of my friends and guitar influences was Sonny Sharrock, who I knew for the last eight years before he died. He was the father of American free jazz guitar. He was great. He came up in the '50s but had a resurrection in the '80s and '90s collaborating with Bill Laswell and people like that. He was a really interesting musician and a brilliant and fearless slide player. I borrowed stuff from him.
I guess the idea is that we're based deeply in the tradition, but we draw from our own era and incorporate contemporary elements in an attempt to take that traditional sound and history and present it to a contemporary audience in a way that respects the past but connects with the present.
CP: That seems like a tough balancing act.
TD: What's great about it is that, as somebody who has always listened to music for ages and ages and pecked at playing different things, as a result, it's easy for me to do that because it's just where I'm at naturally at this point. My brain always zeroes in on that era, whether I want it to or not.
CP: Go ahead and break some would-be slide guitarists and tell me how long you've been playing.
TD: I've been playing for about 30 years now, or maybe a little bit more. I'm far from brilliant, but I do think I've developed my old approach. I can play slide in standard tuning, but I tend to play mostly in open tuning for Scissormen.
I play almost exclusively in finger style, mostly by dint of sitting for hours and hours, mostly when I lived in New England, with a guitar in my lap learning how to finger pick. Until the mid-90s, I played with a pick, but then I decided I should use my fingers because many of the guys I admired from down south in Mississippi in particular are finger style guys. I thought, “Well, finger style is probably the way to go, especially if you're playing open chords and want to be able to play a fairly full amount of notes.” I kept picking at it until developed right hand, five-finger independence. I can pretty much hit any string I want to without thinking about it, which is nice.
CP: You have a fierce touch on the guitar, which is more energetic than the laid-back style many people associate with Delta blues guitar. Where does that come from?
TD: I've always liked to bring energy and intensity to music. The music I like generally has that forceful expression. I think that playing live a lot, bringing a lot of energy to the stage is a good thing because you want people to be excited by it. The people I've seen and admire the most bring a lot of energy to their performances, especially the ones I knew personally.
To me, R.L. Burnside was a very forceful, energetic and open-hearted performer. In the traditional blues camp, I was a huge Stevie Ray Vaughan fan, although I play nothing like him. Stevie, I felt, always gave everything when he got on stage. Sonny Sharrock was the same way, from the jazz world. He didn't hold anything back. Sometimes, I would see Sonny and have no idea where his solos were going because they were getting so abstract, but no matter how far out he would get, he would hit two or three notes and come right back to it.
It's weird, because some people in the blues world think I'm too intense and because the music we play is so dramatic that we're not essentially a blues band. That's funny because it implies that the blues should be boring, which is totally incorrect. (Laughs.)
CP: I read online that The Scissormen is 20 years old this year. Looking back, how is the band different now than when you started?
TD: It actually started in 1992 or 1993. I was in a bunch of other bands back then. Back then, it was an alternative rock group called Vision Thing, which lasted from 1991 to 1996. After Vision Thing, I took two years off because I wasn't singing. I was writing a lot of songs and doing the arranging. I basically taught myself to sing in that period.
Then, I started this band called The Devil Gods with another guitar player. That was a full-blown psychedelic rock band. We would do everything in that band, from covers of “In the year 2525” to a 12 1/2-minute instrumental piece that is Mark and I sitting in the studio as we did live looping. We called that “Lunchbox of the Gods.” We never actually played that live because I didn't think most rock club audiences would tolerate that.
CP: How does coming from that diverse stylistic background impact your approach to the blues?
TD: I definitely draw stuff from all those things. I use a little bit of sampling and delay. It's funny. When I first started this band, I was only using a tuner as an effect and plugging straight into the amp. I recently have gone back to a variation of my Devil Gods pedal board where I've got two samplers, a delay modeling device, a vibrato pedal, a pitch transposing pedal which is also a harmonizer and a couple of nice distortion boxes.
I try to use those judiciously with this band, but I decided that after doing four albums of basic, straight ahead, plug-into-the-amp stuff, it was time to begin expanding the sound again and taking it in a slightly different direction. The band is in a pivotal stage, where I'm trying to blow the sound out a little more and figure out what I'm comfortable with.
We recently did a movie with Robert Mugge, and I feel like the movie and DVD and soundtrack album that will come out later this year is kind of putting a cap on the first chapter of the band. Now it's time to take it into more contemporary territory.
For example, I just produced an album that came out in May for this Boston guitar player named Peter Parcek. On Peter's album, we have a rearrangement of a Jessie Mae Hemphill tune. She had this beautiful gospel song called “Lord Help the Poor and Needy.” In Peter's version, we built it over a loop, so we have a sample of a chain gang on the bottom, but we heavily distorted it so you can't dead-on tell what it sounds like.
Peter also plays a couple of jazz-based guitar solo, and we brought a violinist in. We really blew the sound out in a whole bunch of different ways, so it's like orchestral Pink Floyd meets hill country blues.
I think we'll start picking at that a little more. I'm not sure we're necessarily going to take the next studio out to five- and six-person arrangements, but I know I'll be doing more overdubbing. I've never done overdubbing on any of the records, except for one overdub on one acoustic song where I have one electric feedback solo.
CP: Why have you been avoiding doing that?
TD: It's kind of weird. I've been putting it off for a couple of reasons. Part of it is not being able to try it in the laboratory. I've had a rotating cast of drummers for a couple of years now, and when you basically have hired hands for every gig, it's hard to have any rehearsal time.
Now, with Matt Snow joining the band, we're starting to work on material like this now. We're examining some of the older material, but we're primarily interested in the new catalog. I've got about 14 songs written now that are contenders for the next studio album. I'm just going to keep writing and writing until it feels like it's time to make it.
We've got the movie touring film festivals right now, so that's an interesting thing going on. Provided that the tornado watch gets canceled, I'm going to go in the studio and finish mastering the live album. We have about a half dozen labels that are interested in speaking with us about that. If they don't bite, perhaps we'll get someone else to do it, and we'll get the DVD/CD package out.
At that point, it will be time to look at getting back in the studio, but that will take a couple of months. During that time, we'll be writing new material and considering exactly how far to take things. (Laughs.)
CP: Tell me more about Matt Snow joining the band. He's coming all the way down from Boston to join you, so it sounds like he's pretty committed.
TD: Yeah, he is. Matt and I met in Boston in about 2006. I even had a rotating cast of drummers there. Rob quit to join Tarbox Ramblers after the band had been together for five or six months. We were just starting to get off the ground. I feel like the founding point for the band is really 2003. He left shortly thereafter. Ever since then, I've had a rotating list of drummers.
Anyway, I met Matt in a bar in 2006. He was playing in a band up there called Cassavettes. I thought he was a good player, and I asked him to come out in the road with me. We've toured periodically, and Cassavettes was breaking up this year, so I said, “Why not move to Nashville and settle into this for a while?” Matt has had a growing appreciation for this music all the way through, so he did.
We're starting to roll out on the road again. We've done a few little things here and there, but we've got a couple of formal, longer gigs under our belt now. March is going to be a pretty intense month. We have 11 shows or so. We're trying to crank things up and tune up the current version of the duo and work on new material and keep going - with the ultimate goal being world conquest, of course. (Laughs.)
CP: How will having a permanent drummer affect things for you, creatively?
TD: I think it will create a different layer of freedom. He will be intimately familiar with the material, and since we're writing material together - I haven't had anyone to write material with before - he will be completely informed about what the basic tenets are.
He's also an improviser, so we'll be able to take it out farther than it's ever been before, but still be able to pull it back in and keep that rhythm going so people can dance or trance out or do whatever they want to do.
I think it actually will make us quite a bit more versatile and more focused. I enjoy that. I enjoy that a lot, especially the freedom of knowing that the person sitting the kit always has your back and won't get lost because they know the material intimately.
CP: Did you experience any culture shock when you moved to Nashville from Boston?
TD: Yes, but I had been spending a lot of time down here. We had been touring down south a lot. That was one of the things that influenced us to relocate down here February 2007. It's been four years for myself and my wife. The band had been playing a lot here, and sometimes, when we had been playing shows in Georgia and Mississippi, we used Nashville as a hub because we had friends here.
It became a more socially and musically diverse city and a more creative city over the course of the 2000s. We first came down in the '90s, and it was basically country stuff with people singing on the sidewalk and doing karaoke machine type stuff, hoping they would be discovered for their voices. It was kind of pathetic and a little sad how completely industry-driven it was.
Now, especially with the blossoming of East Nashville, there are these creative musicians in the community down here. There are people doing punk rock and noise rock and alternative rock. There are jazz bands and even an instrumental jazz scene, which has been a weakness of Nashville in the past.
All that stuff is really appealing. The Yankee culture shock for me came mostly in the form of political stuff, and a lot of strange things, like the notion that it's a good thing to carry a gun into a bar. That one baffles me. Or the notion that, if you're Islamic, you have less of a right to practice your religion than Christians. Or the idea that people think Nathan Bedford Forest was a hero.
CP: In your bio, you say that, “We believe that the blues is blood and guts relevant … if it's played right.” What is the “right” way to play the blues?
TD: (Laughs.) That is a little contentious, isn't it? My thing is to play the music as if it is a contemporary, living thing and to invest your own character into it. All the best artists invest their character in their music.
Too many blues artists play the blues in a rote fashion, in the fashion they learned it in records and things. Basically, they're trying to play it like it's 1956 or 1965 or, if they grew up listened to Cream and Hendrix, like it's 1969 or 1970.
To my thinking, that's really incorrect because anyone who is a real artist invests themselves in the music. Look at people like Captain Beefheart or Tom Waits, who I think are, at the core of what they do, blues artists. They are extreme examples, but they are people who completely invest themselves in their music.
Listen to Muddy Water's vocals, and you'll see that he's completely invested in what he does. If you see a video of Sun House start to play “Death Letter” and his eyes close and his head is facing up in the air and he's singing with all his heart, you know he's completely invested in the music and that the music and him become inseparable.
The ultimate goal for the musician is to find a way for yourself and the music to become inseparable. That's how I look at that gauntlet I would throw down to a lot of other blues players. (Laughs.) I don't think I'm a genius, but I do think that when I play, it's me, and it sounds like me. That's what it should be.
CP: What's your batting average on achieving that?
TD: I think I'm pretty much there the minute I get on stage, to tell you the truth. I get on stage without any trepidation and with a complete belief in what I'm doing. If people like it or not - often I don't give a damn. The worst thing that will happen is that we won't go back to that club or somebody will complain. I don't really care. If I think I'm doing something I think is straight and true, I'm going to stick with it. If I'm vindicated and can invest all my waking hours into music, that would be a beautiful thing, but if not, at least I have fought the good fight and did not surrender. (Laughs.)
CP: Tell me about this penchant you have for people in the crowd passing you random objects to use as a slide.
TD: Yeah, I do. It's just something I thought would be a lot of fun. When I was a kid, I always saw people do this with beer bottles when I went to see a band, everyone from blues bands to Randy Hanson.
I thought, “Well, that's a little typical.” I do try to not be as predictable. It struck me one day as I was playing that anything that had an appropriate edge could be manipulated to play slide with.
Even some things that don't will work, like a pumpkin. There's a video of me on a cable show in New England called “Don Odell's Blues Time” when I play slide with a pumpkin. It's a small pumpkin; it's not like I'm playing with a 40-pounder.
I think people are probably entertained by it. I think people are inherently entertained by the slide anyway. One of the reasons I like about slide and the reason I play so much is that, to me, the slide guitar is so much more like the human voice than single note lead guitar. With a slide, you can cover all the spaces between the notes, too.
I've played with a crazy amount of stuff. I've played with a full plate of spaghetti that I pulled off a diner's table where we were playing. In Mississippi, a club owner handed me his nine millimeter one day, and I played with that. It was sort of funny because he told me to reach behind me, and there was this heavy thing. I pulled it out, and it's a gun. I said, “There are no bullets in this, right?” and he said, “No, no. Here's the clip, and here's the one from the chamber.” So I said, “Fine, I'll do it.” You can even play with cigarette boxes, if you angle it correctly.
It's just sort of fun, but it also challenges me. I've played a lot of slide, so to be able to try it with a bunch of different things is always a blast. Sometimes, it gets a little clunky, but most of the time, I can pull it off. (Laughs.)
CP: What would those traditional artists like R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough think of you doing that? Would they embrace it or consider it too kitschy?
TD: I think they wouldn't, but maybe more sophisticated urbanites would. I think they would just consider it fun. It is kitschy, but there is so much stuff in entertainment culture that's kitsch. Kitsch is part of the tradition.
If you look back at Charlie Patton, by all accounts, when he would play on a cotton field out in the middle of a plantation, he would take his guitar and hit a chord and throw it up in the air and let it spin, and then as it fell back in his lap, he would grab it and play the same chord. Or he would throw the guitar on his lap and slap the bottom like a drum.
Guitar Slim in the '60s was known for coming out on stage perched on the shoulders of his valet, James “Thunderbird” Davis, wearing shoes, pants, jacket, shirt, tie, handkerchief and scoks everything all in one color - typically something bright and crazy like red or blue or yellow - and he would dye his hair to match.
One man's kitsch is another man's entertainment. To me, that's upholding the tradition. It's definitely not shoe-gazer music. You're interacting with the crowd.
Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, consumer technology, animals and news of the weird. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German from Middle Tennessee State University, where he worked as the features editor for the student newspaper, Sidelines. Casey's writing has earned numerous accolades, including first and second place ...