[Update] Three years later, this Popa Chubby interview remains my favourite. On this special day, I’ve discovered an artist with a huge heart, a witty sense of humor, similar music tastes to mine, like a music-nerd big brother. It was not really an interview but more a really friendly chat between two music fanatics. Popa Chubby is a unique artist with a nearly spiritual vision of music. His voice is out of his world, his rhythm and his playing skills are breathtaking. Support him as much as you can, go see Popa live, treat yourself with one or more of his albums! Artists like him are too rare… :D
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A few weeks ago, Popa Chubby was playing at the Trianon. The day after this very intense show, I was lucky enough to meet him for a wonderful conversation that lasted one hour and a half. Excerpts…
Yesterday evening, you were playing at the Trianon in front of a bewitched crowd. You often play in Paris. What does this city mean to you?
Parisians are a unique audience, they really get music. The first time I played in Paris was in 1996. It was MAGIC! Something about the city and the people… Last night, I was overwhelmed. I could feel so much love and devotion… You know, when you’re a little kid and you think about playing rock’n roll, you have this dream of what it would be like. Last night was exactly what it was like in my head! There are a couple of shows on the tour which are always like that. Paris always gives me that kind of feeling.
And I really like the venues here. I played at the Olympia and on the stage, I remember thinking : “Jimi Hendrix was on this stage!”. Another time, I was playing at the Olympia and on the following night, Lou Reed was playing there so I went to see him play. It was great!
Comment expliques-tu le succès que tu as acquis auprès des français ?
I don’t know, man. Maybe it’s because I’m raw. I have no polish. I’m not “nice“… I’m ugly! (he laughs)
Do you think that artists have become polished?
Most artists are polished. Most artists are created and contrived. They are like dogs that you dress up but it’s never gonna work for me. I’m The Beast From The East. I think people like that because it relates to who they are. It reminds them that it’s ok to be yourself. That’s what rock ‘n’ roll is. It brings people together. It’s a “fuck you”. It’s supposed to be dangerous. It’s not bullshit.
On your last album Universal Breakdown Blues, you draw a very cynical portrait of society. You say the world is breaking down. Does that mean you’re breaking down too?
Oh yeah, always! I break down every day and I start fresh every day. Every day, every minute, right now. That’s what you have to do!
Where do you find the resources to start fresh every day?
Well, in some philosophies that I study, with some enlightened people that I’ve met in my life. The best thing someone told me is that in life, you’re only obliged to do one thing. That’s to be authentic. And you can only be authentic on the moment.
If you think about the person you were before coming to this interview or the person you will be after this interview, then it’s not you. What’s YOU is RIGHT NOW. Right now, you’re looking at my eyes and you’re connecting with me. Because we are connecting, we have a real moment. That’s rock’n roll!
Do you have other tips in your everyday life to start fresh? I’ve heard you were practicing Tai-Chi.
Haha. Yes, I’m practicing Tai-chi every morning. I was practicing out there today, on Boulevard Rochechouart and people were looking at me like I was crazy weird!
I was in a serious car accident in 2001. I was driving to a gig and my van turned over three times. I almost died. It really hurt my body so the Tai-chi helps with my body. Now, it can be difficult for me to move. That’s why on stage, I sit. But that’s life… C’est la vie!
Tai-chi is very spiritual. Are you a spiritual person?
Yes, I’m spiritual and I think music is spiritual too. When you play the drums, you call the spirits. In every culture, they have drummers. The drummers call the spirit with the help of the shaman. That’s kind of what we do on the show. A good rock show is a spiritual experience. Everybody gets uplifted and goes to another plane.
Speaking about that, that was quite a duet yesterday with your drummer. We were all floating out of our bodies…
Yes! People forget their shit, they forget their problems. For just a minute, they are here, they are engaged. To be able to create that is just a great way to spend your life. I wouldn’t be able to do anything else anyway… (he laughs)
How did you learn to play drums? Have you learnt to play drums first or guitar first?
I first learnt to play drums. When I was a little boy, there used to be a television show called “The Johnny Carson Show”. It was an original talk-show. Buddy Rich was drummer on this show. It is to this day the greatest drummer who ever lived! I was so impressed by this guy. And then, there was a song on the radio in the 60’s called “Wipe Out” by The Surfaris. There was a drum solo et so I used to do that (he hums the solo). So, at the time, I had a lot of trouble because all the time, at school, I was playing on the desk and the teacher was mad at me. And I couldn’t care less. I just wanted to be a drummer.
And then, when I was about 10 years old, my dad took me to see Chuck Berry and it blew my mind. And then, I discovered The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix and I just wanted to learn to play the guitar! I put the drums on the background and focused on the guitar for a while. I started with an acoustic, shitty guitar. That’s the best way to learn!
I read this quote from Dave Grohl who was saying that the Voice and all these reality shows were harming rock’n roll because now, everybody thinks it’s easy! They don’t realize that what you have to do is take the shittiest guitar, gather with friends who have shitty guitars too and practice till you have a good sound.
How did you start?
When I was a kid, where I lived, I was kind of the asshole kid. Then, I started to play the guitar and suddenly, I was cool. My first gigs were awful. Shitty places, didn’t get paid. One day, I got offered a gig in CBGB in New York. I was so happy! I was living so far and I had this big Marshall amp. I had to take it to the city. I carried the Marshall amp for one mile to the subway and got there. I played for no money but I was in heaven. When I told my friends I had played there, they didn’t believe me!
I didn’t see these people for a pretty long time. And I ran out into one of these guys recently. He asked me what I was doing. So I told him I had a band, Popa Chubby. He said “Oh yeah, I know him”. So I answered “No, I mean, I’m Popa Chubby”. He looked at me and said “Fuck you, liar!” Nobody ever believes me! (he laughs)
I loved the song Danger Man on your last album. Where does it come from?
I was trying to explain to a woman that I loved at the time that I was the right guy and she was with the wrong guy. It didn’t work… (he laughs) but I got a good song! When you go back to the origins, the blues and the rock’n roll… were really dangerous. Elvis Presley was this threat to society. It threatened the status quo. Parents were so afraid that they burnt his records and forbid their daughters to see him. When Chuck Berry came out, nobody knew he was black. The minute they saw he was black, they freaked out!
Bo Diddley! He is my hero and was a good friend of mine. Tommy, my drummer used to play with Bo. Bo Diddley was the nicest guy in the world but he’d say “I’m the Black Gladiator, the True Originator, 500% more man”. It was like a zulu thing, tribal ritual. That was awesome!
Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters… All these guys were dangerous. They used to carry guns and razors in their pockets. It’s not an easy job. When young musicians come to me asking for advice, I always say “If there’s anything you can do in life, anything besides this, go and do it! But if you can’t… then you’re damned. Rock’n roll is a heartless bitch! It takes a lot from you. But if you really do it, there’s nothing else you can do!
Among your idols, you mentioned lots of black artists: Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Albert King… You cover songs from B.B.King and Jimi Hendrix. Are you a black man in a white body?
(he laughs) I never thought about it in those terms but let’s face it: white people didn’t create rock’n roll, jazz & blues… It all came from the black, man! Then, white men took over and did their own thing with it. I like to think that we’ve past that point in our evolution, that color doesn’t matter anymore. It’s interesting because most of the people playing rock’n roll now are white. Somehow, black men got put aside at some point and now, it’s nice to see more and more black artists coming to the front stage!
Should you create a superband like Travelling Wilburys or Superheavy, which artists would you choose to work with?
Oh, I would LOVE that! There are guys in the New York area that I would like to work with. It would be a cool thing. It would be great to have a jazzy element in it. You need people who could do anything. In my music, I like to be able to cover anything.
I read an interview where you were saying that touring was financially necessary for you. If you were rich, would you tour less?
I want to say yes. I will be entirely honest with you. It’s impossible for me to maintain a relationship because I’m always on the road. It’s hard to get anything else going really. Sometimes, I think that it would be nice to be a normal person but then I say “Naaah” (he laughs). I’d like to spend more time in the studio. There are other creative things that I would like to do: more instructional videos, more creative, interactive, mutimedia stuff!
I’m also really into energy and healing: Tai-chi, Qigong, Chinese medecine… I’d like to be able to put it all together. There’s a big connection between Tai Chi and music. They serve the same purpose. It would be great to bring that to more people and to offer that to the public, so that everybody could access their own healing talents. Sometimes, I think that by playing live music, I’m serving that purpose as well.
What are you listening to at the moment?
I like hip hop. Such an important music! A lot of the creativity that used to be in early rock’n roll can be found in hip hop right now. Though there are really good new bands in rock’n roll also… I Alabama Shakes for example. Brittany Howard, the singer is like 25 years-old. She is fantastic!
I also love jack White!
Actually, I mostly listen to jazz but old jazz like be-bop, hard bop, cool jazz, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins. There’s a big tradition of jazz in Paris. The black jazzmen couldn’t get any respect in the US, they were not respected but here in France, they were well-treated.
Why do you think it is different in France?
French have a natural appreciation for art that Americans lack. In France, you grow up understanding that art & culture are a vital part of society. In America, it’s a taste that few “acquire”. It’s not natural.
Can we use music to change that?
I’m not sure it can. I used to think that good quality music could change the world. I’ve become more pessimistic over time. I used to want to save the world but now I don’t know if the world wants to be saved…
Even in France, you see a Mcdonald’s and it’s packed. People eat shit because it’s cheap and accessible. It’s easier! In America, we have the GMOs. It’s crazy and GMO food is everywhere. And they don’t tell people. People buy this stuff because they are not aware and because it’s cheaper.
It’s the same thing with music. I’ve learnt that it’s important not to confuse what I do with the mainstream. Quality has nothing to do with the number of records you sell. I’ve learnt to stay away from that. I just want to play my music, make people happy and live my life.
You have built up a really long discography up to now. Is there a record that you like more than the others?
The one I just made! You always feel that way. The reason why I made a lot of records is that each record is a manifestation of where my life is at the moment. So, I could look back on records where I thought that my life was in a very happy place but I don’t do that. I want to put my focus on where I am now. I think that if you’re a singer-songwriter, you should be a commentator. You should comment on what you see from your perspective. Focus on the moment.
And what would be your 5 favourite records?
Wow, tough! I’d say “Saxophone Colossus” by Sonny Rollins, “Kind of Blue” by Miles Davis, “Axis : Bold as Love” by Jimi Hendrix. Then, that becomes difficult… I think that the best live recorded is The Who “Live at Leeds” from 1970. The sound was amazing, they’re all singing. It was incredible! And then for the 5th one, maybe “Catch a Fire” from Bob Marley. That’s only five but I could go on forever! What about you?
Um, “The Wild, The Innocent & The E-Street Shuffle” by Bruce Springsteen, “Astral Weeks” by Van Morrison…
Yeah, great record! Van is a spiritual guy but he is crazy too. I’ve read his biography and his band said that they used to look around him and used to see angels floating around him. He is a really heavy guy. “Enlightment” is an amazing record but “Astral Weeks” is even more incredible!So emotional…
Then, I’d say Neil Young’s “Harvest“, the first record from Rickie Lee Jones and Jimi Hendrix’s “Electric Ladyland”. By the way, you never covered “1983… A Merman I Should Turn To Be”, my favourite song from Hendrix.
Oh, I would LOVE to! This is my favourite piece of music ever written! I’ve never covered it because it’s one of those pieces of music that I don’t want to touch. I’m afraid to touch it. It’s not just about the notes. There’s something about that song…
First of all, what that song is about… the song is about a man who comes up with a way to walk under water and everybody says “No, you’re no good, you’ll never be anything.”. I’m getting chills just talking about it! “And furthermore, it would be against the Grace of God and the Will of the King” for you to do this… People are so scared by this guy because he’s gonna do it. He says “Fuck it. You say I’m crazy. You say I’m gonna die but I’m gonna do it anyway!”.
And musically… it’s fucking awesome!
That and the song “Have You Ever Been To Electric Ladyland ?”, I will never touch them. NEVER! There’s something that happened in that moment when he recorded that… something sacred. It’s funny you should say that because it’s really my all-time favourite piece of music!
This song! Everything about this song… (he sings).
There are moments like that in rock’n roll… like Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”. Freddie Mercury was one of the most talented men who ever lived, on every level. I saw them in 1974 before “Bohemian Rhapsody” and there were the best hard-rock band I saw. They were hot and heavy.
You never covered Lynyrd Skynyrd! You would be awesome on “Free Bird”.
Love this song! I’ve never thought about it. Next time I play in Paris, I’ll cover some Lynyrd Skynyrd!
Hey, do you want to hear my Lynyrd Skynyrd story?
When I was 17 years old, Lynyrd Skynyrd was playing maybe 100 kilometers away from where I was living. Of course, I had no money or anything. So, with a friend, we decided to go see Lynyrd Skynyrd. We got on a bus. We had no money to get home. No tickets. We showed up at this place, we were just hanging out by the stage door, thinking that we were never gonna get in. All of a sudden, the drummer Artimus Pyle comes and sees us. He says to us “You boys wanna go to the show?”. Of course, yes! He told us to go over to the front and he let us in. We saw the whole fucking show! It was amazing! He saw us and just though “you guys deserve that”.
That’s why sometimes, if the show is sold out and I see people who can’t get to the show, I let them in.
Are you arealdy thinking about new projects?
I’m always looking for new ideas. In a few days, I’ll be home and will work on the new album. I don’t know what this record is gonna be about yet. I guess I will decide that on the moment.
In 2015, I will celebrate 25 years of musical career so I’m gonna create a record especially for that.
We’re looking forward to it. Thank you so much for this interview!
Buy Popa Chubby’s last record “Electric Chubbyland : Popa Chubby plays Jimi Hendrix” on Amazon and find out more about Popa Chubby.