Q&A with Roger Blevins, Jr., front man of Mingo Fishtrap

Chattanooga Times Free Press entertainment reporter Casey Phillips spoke with Roger Blevins, Jr., front man of Texas's Mingo Fishtrap, about what it's like playing with his father, what Norwegians know about funk and how he gets an audience's attention.

CP: How has the summer treated you guys, so far?

RB: It's been alright. We had a fairly long run in June. In July, we've been based out of home doing some one-offs and fly-ins and festival things. We head out here in a few days, and we'll be out for about a month.

CP: You pretty excited to get back out on the road?

RB: I am. Usually, we hit the road in the summer and expect to see some cooler temperatures than we're offered here in Texas, but I don't think we'll get much respite from this nasty heat wave. But that's alright; it'll just feel like home everywhere we go. (Laughs.) That's alright. It should be a good run, a really fun run. We've got equal parts festivals, clubs and theaters.

CP: Between now and the end of the summer do you have any big events you're looking forward to or is it just being out on the road?

RB: I think they're all exciting. There are a lot of great places we only get to hit once or twice a year. We'll be going back to some of those. I'm excited to play Chattanooga for the first time. That should be fun.

We leave there and then we hit the Jefferson City Theater up in Virginia, which is one of my favorite places to play, in general. Then, we hit Music Fest in Pennsylvania, which is a great festival. There are a lot of exciting things: some returns and a few new joints.

A little later in the year, we'll be trying to finish our record. There's a lot in the works. We're keeping our calendars pretty full, which is a good thing.

CP: Music is kind of a family affair for you, since your dad's playing introduced you to music. At what point in life do you remember thinking you'd like to play, too?

RB: Man, you know, that's tough because I grew up in it, so I was probably messing around on stage before I knew that's what I wanted to do for a living necessarily.

It wasn't until I was in high school that I thought it would be difficult to not have that in my life on a regular basis. When you start thinking about what you'll do for your 9-to-5, the thought of being a hobby was a difficult idea to swallow.

Even at that point, I wasn't sure what that would be, but it presented itself. I went to school for music, and the love I have for soul music and rhythm and blues trumped anything else I was trying to do at the time. It just reared its head and pushed its way through.

It was fairly early on. I always had interest in it, but there are some very unconscious things that happened and some conspicuous decisions you have to make when you get to that point where you can depend on it for a living or leave it as a thing on the side or for the weekends.

There are a few discussions you have to have with yourself to make that call. It's not an easy thing. Like a lot of artistic endeavors, you have to make sacrifices, in terms of income and time, those sorts of things. But so far, so good. (Laughs.)

CP: When you had those discussions with yourself, was it a difficult sell?

RB: You know, I think I was just really lucky. This band has been around for a long time. We got started when we were in college, and there was no immediate necessity to be able to "make a living." Our living was pretty meager. We were living in a three-bedroom house that cost $450 a month, so if we had one good gig a month, we'd be alright.

That was a good thing because we didn't have to worry about that. We had time to get to know what we might be OK at with music and what was natural. We go to spend more time than maybe some folks can in letting it grow naturally.

By the time we were ready to not live in a three-bedroom house that cost $450 a month, we were at a point where we could move down to Austin - which we did - and pursue it more full-scale without having to make sacrifices. Our sacrifices had already come; the big ones had come early. There will always be trade offs, but it was able to grow naturally.

It wasn't a difficult sell. If I knew everything I know now about the journey of being a professional musician, it may have been a harder sell. (Laughs.) I'm glad I didn't know then what I know now or it might have been a harder sell, but it's part of ht journey.

CP: When you started taking music more seriously, did it feel like you were following in his footsteps or blazing your own trail?

RB: Well, there was never really a disconnect. I grew up with him playing. My mom's side of the family wasn't that musical, but really close friends of my mom's side of the family were. There was never a disconnect where I considered it until later on when I was in college and studied music and an opportunity to play with my dad presented itself. Then, it was this epiphany that, "This is a cool thing," and added another element of what music means to me.

Now, I can maybe realize that I was following in the path a little more than when I started on the path. It's been great, great for both of us. He played in Louisiana and Mississippi in these great R&B revue bands, these big Louisiana acts, and although we don't necessarily do exclusively that, those folks became a big influence on me, in terms of writing original stuff and how they were playing and singing these standard things.

I think that it seeps in, and only when you're a little further down the line can you see that these things have had an impact on what you've done. Based on our body of work, it's definitely impacted where we came. It definitely had an impact, maybe a larger one than I would have thought from the beginning.

CP: When did you dad join Mingo Fishtrap? Was he in it from the beginning?

RB: No, no, he came into it a little bit later. We had a couple of great bassists before Pops joined the band. Especially early on, you see a lot of folks come and go.

I think it was probably just before we moved to Austin, a year or two before we moved to Austin - so the late '90s - that he joined the band. I don't remember the year, but I'm sure he does.

The group has been together so long now that it feels like he's been in it forever. There was a mentality shift when we decided to move and take this more seriously. Not to put anything we did before that, but there were some shifts that got made at that point. That was the birth of what we're maybe finally realizing now. He wasn't the original bassist, but he has been in it a long time, and he's helping to forge what we're doing now.

CP: Your role as band leader turns that typical father-son relationship on its head. Do you get ultimate say in the band or do you ever defer to him?

RB: (Laughs.) Nah, man, it's a democratic process with everyone. You kind of have to put that relationship aside, because the fact is that we have a bunch of great musicians in the group. If I bring a song in, which is generally how it works, it's a free-for-all. The songwriter always gets the veto, but I think you have to put some of those relationships aside.

Obviously, when you have eight people in an artistic endeavor, there will be relationships that have different dynamics, but you have to do what's right for the art, what's best for the tune. I have a pretty good grip, and I don't back down if I think something should be one way. Neither does anyone else. We make a go for it and have to explain our position, if there's that kind of discussion.

At this point, we see eye to eye on a lot of stuff. We'll try everything a few different ways, and nine times out of 10, we'll say, "That's the one." It's pretty good; there aren't a whole lot of blowouts happening.

CP: Funk is very much a genre that seems to thrive on audience participation, and listening to some of your live performances, Mingo Fishtrap seem to put a lot of emphasis on that as well. As front man, that means a lot of pressure is on your shoulders to get the crowd engaged. What's the trick to doing that?

RB: I don't know that we have a trick. As an audience member, when I go see music, I think the biggest catalyst for me wanting to be involved and more active, as a member of the crowd, is when I know those guys are having fun and are interested in what they're doing. I think that comes through with Mingo; I hope it does because we're having a blast.

It's a large band so there's an element to the entertainment aspect with eight guys doing their job well and all being featured in the set. There's a little something for everyone, just in terms of the music. In terms of the instruments, we've got a lot of stuff going on.

There's a lot of interaction between the audience and us throughout the night. I don't know that it's a trick; it's just the only way we know how to do it, so that's what we continue to do. It's a big part of the genre and how we came up.

In the little clubs and stuff, you can't fake it, or they'll let you know what they think of you. We've been, and continue to be, grounded in the reality that you have to entertain folks. It's two different jobs. You have to be a musician when you're writing in the studio, but on stage you have to be an entertainer. Those two worlds happily collide with us. We enjoy what we do enough not to have to force entertainment on someone. It's always there.

And if something bad happens during the day, we shrug it off, laugh about it and bring that to the show, too. It's all part of the gig.

CP: Speaking of funk, that's obviously a genre that's alive and kicking in New Orleans and places like Chicago, yet you've performed with some big names in places around the world. In your experience, how is funk received outside of its native hotbeds?

RB: You know, if you can provide context to someone, than they'll be open to just about anything. That's a difficult question to answer succinctly because some places just don't get a lot of entertainment or music in general, so they're starved for it, and if the group is good, they'll be digging it.

There are some places you wouldn't expect it to go over well. We've been to Norway a couple times, and it's crazy how much they know about soul and funk music there. It's just nuts. I've had discussions last an hour, in broken English, about Otis Redding that taught me stuff I didn't know. The response was tremendous, overall, from the Scandinavian crowd. It was crazy.

In the states, everyone has their own idea of what we do. Some call it soul, some call it funk and some call it blues. That's fine. It doesn't matter to me, as long as they're enjoying it, but the perspective they have coming to the show might be different from the last night. That's an interesting thing, from our perspective. Sometimes, that works to our advantage, and sometimes it doesn't.

People like to move, and a lot of American music - whether it's country or blues or jazz or whatever - intersects somewhere. We're not trying to be really specific in our genre; that's never been a goal. Some folks like the Dap-Kings have a very strict, almost formulaic approach to what they do, and they're amazing partially because of that. Our advantage, if any, is that we're not specific to any one genre. We play music that's influenced by American music, soul and rhythm and blues and funk.

I don't know that everyone would call it funk, even if it's a funky tune. If you go to the Midwest, and it's not something they've ever seen before, they'll come out with a different perspective. They might say, "Oh man, you sound like so and so," and it's like, "I've never heard that ever, but cool. If that's a good thing to you, then great."

It's been interesting, particularly in the last few years, as we've done more touring. You can't go, "Oh no, it's not that" and have this ego about what you're doing. You have to take it for what it's worth and maybe even listen to that person, if you've never heard of them.

We've played for alt-country crowds, and that's been really cool because hopefully, we're giving them something they've never heard before and getting in front of folks who have an affection for live music. There's something to be gained on all sides from all those situations.

It's really interesting - it really is - because you're right: it's not pop music. It's not something everyone can relate to easily. There are plenty of people, who if you said

"funk," would have no idea what you're talking about. Even if you say, "James Brown," they would go, "Oh yeah, James Brown," but they still wouldn't have an idea. Sometimes, it's a sore subject to look at a bill and see that we're "reggae-inspired," but if it gets people out, that's fine. We have to do our jobs and convince them it's worth listening to.