Sunday, March 27, 2011

An Interview with Counter Culture Icon John Sinclair

John Sinclair Interview by Bo White, December 29th, 2010
Responses @ 420 Café, Amsterdam, February 7, 2011

John will be performing @ White’s Bar Saturday April 23rd with guitar wizard Jeff Grand, The Bearinger Boys, the Laverty/Torres Band and John Krogman’s Rustbucket. Sinclair’s DVD Twenty To Life will be screened throughout the evening

“To be literate in today's world is a political statement."
- John Sinclair

John Sinclair
Affiant Sayeth Not

At 69 years of age John Sinclair shows no signs of slowing down. Besides touring the world with a loose and ever changing aggregation of Blues Scholars , Jazz masters and Rock & Rollers, Sinclair continues to release CDs, books, articles and programs and produces podcasts and internet radio programs. John has performed in Saginaw several times and possesses a historic grasp of Michigan culture from an international perspective. Sinclair is a sweet man of peace who is also a realist. From his early days at Trans Love commune, managing the MC5 and befriending John Lennon, Sinclair has kept his hand on the pulse of our crumbling empire. He is quick to point out that that America, like ancient Rome, has lost sight of its democratic principles and given the ruling class carte blanche to rob our coffers. He is also a man of the earth, a happy and contented grandfather who values love and friendship above all else

John – what have you been up to since 20 to Life was released?

The film was released in 2007 and quickly faded into media oblivion. Since then I have continued my travels, performing around the USA and in London, Amsterdam, Paris, Genoa, Rome, Santiago, Tokyo, Seville, Barcelona, Madrid and wherever they will have me. I’m based in Amsterdam and London when I’m not in Detroit, where I just completed a two-year Poet in Residence term at the Bohemian National Home and am now based at the Trans-Love Energies Compassionate Care Center at 1486 Gratiot in Detroit. I now write a bi-weekly column for the Detroit Metro Times called HIGHER GROUND.

It must have stirred up renewed interest in your life and times?

Not so much. The filmmaker made a bad deal to get it completed and the distribution was a big let-down, plus there were no theatrical screenings & very few festival screenings, so not much notice was attracted to the film nor, by extension, to myself.

Have you released any new music, poetry or writings?

As a performer I continue to work with diverse bands in Amsterdam, London, New York City, Detroit, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Mississippi. Some of them play my arrangements, some improvise jazz to my texts, some play straight-out blues to my poems. In the past three years I’ve performed in ensembles with David Kimbrough, Afrissippi, the Black Crowes, Marshall Allen, Elliott Levin, Daniel Carter, Ras Moshe, Sabeer Mateen, 101 Runners, Pinkeye Orchestra, Planet D Nonet, Carlo Ditta, Dr. Prof. Barry Kaiser, Tom Worrell, Vincente Pino, Leslie Lopez, Steve Fly, the Dirty Strangers, Gary Lammin, Charles Shaar Murray, Jair-Rohm Parker Wells, Primal Scream, DKT/MC5, Youth, Mark Ritsema, Angelo Olivieri, Raskolnikov, and people I can’t even remember right now. I have bands of Blues Scholars in Amsterdam, Detroit, Los Angeles, and Oxford, Mississippi.

I’ve issued two books—IT’S ALL GOOD: A JOHN SINCLAIR READER and SUN RA INTERVIEWS & ESSAYS with Headpress in London. SUN RA has just been translated into Spanish and issued by Libertos Editorial. My “underground classic” book, GUITAR ARMY, was reissued in a 35th anniversary edition by Feral House/Process Books in 2007 and has been translated now into Italian, Spanish and French. BookBeat in Detroit will be bringing out my poetry & prose collection SONG OF PRAISE: HOMAGE TO JOHN COLTRANE, and Ecstatic Peace Press is planning to issue the completed first half of my Monk work in verse, always know: a book of monk. And Dotty Oliver in Little Rock is publishing my New Orleans prose collection, MARDI GRAS TO THE WORLD, later this year.

I’ve issued three CDs since 2007—TEARING DOWN THE SHRINE OF TRUTH & BEAUTY with the Pinkeye Orchestra (LocoGnosis Records); DETROIT LIFE with the Motor City Blues Scholars (No Cover Records); and VIPER MADNESS with the Planet D Nonet (No Cover). My new record is called LET’S GO GET ‘EM by John Sinclair & His International Blues Scholars and will be released by No Cover in March, and I’m just now completing a new album project with a producer in London known as Youth that I’m calling BEATNIK YOUTH.

I’ve also completed a work begun in 1982: a book of blues verse titled FATTENING FROGS FOR SNAKES that’s in four sections, each one set to music and recorded with a different ensemble in New Orleans, Detroit, Oxford and Clarksville, Mississippi. I’m assembling the package into a box set as we speak

Are you still involved in radio? Do you see radio as an effective medium to get your message and your poetry and music to a wider audience?

I also program & produce regular podcasts for two internet radio stations, Radio Free Amsterdam and Detroit Life Radio, including weekly installments of the John Sinclair Radio Show, Sinclair On The Air and Jazz from the Hempshopper. I also collect and edit for broadcast blues & jazz programs by deejays present & past that I enjoy. I post one one-hour program each day on each of the two stations.

With the advent of file sharing do you see a shift in the relationship between record companies and artists like yourself?

Yes: basically there is none in terms of what used to be, i.e., with the possibility of getting paid. My best experience is to be able to make the records and get someone to press some of them at no cost to myself.

Last time we talked you seemed to paint a bleak picture of our future based on the ascendance of powerful business-led coalitions and the financial Institutions that control our government. In the past year Matt Taibbi, a contributing editor to Rolling Stone Magazine, has written several articles and a book Griftopia that has exposed Wall Street’s culpability in destroying America from within. Are you familiar with Taibbi’s work? Why aren’t people in an uproar over the theft of our country?

That’s a question I’m unable to answer. I know exactly how fucked up this country is, but the white people love it this way and they won’t change for anything.

You had a bleak outlook on Detroit's recovery in the BBC documentary Requiem for Detroit. Do you still feel there is no hope for Detroit and other cities that were built on the auto industry?

I don’t know about the other ones, but Detroit is not going to come back. It’s over. What becomes of the fabulous ruins of Detroit may be something interesting but it will not be economically viable again.

What keeps bringing you back to Michigan?

I have a beloved daughter & granddaughter in Detroit and hundreds of friends made over the past 50 years. My estranged wife Penny Sinclair lives in Detroit and I like to see her when I can. Also, I can work in and around Detroit and use it as a base to tour different parts of the country and make enough dollars to maintain my very frugal lifestyle while I’m in Amsterdam & London.

What role could music/poetry play in the recovery of Michigan….the country? Are established artists important to our culture? Should they look for success elsewhere? Can our artists, poets and musicians be heard over the din of mass produced and disposable music that dominates the corporate airwaves?


Over the past ten years, Europe has shown an interest in the downfall of Detroit and the auto industry. Documentaries have been filmed, photographers have come to document the urban decay. Do you feel that their interest is based in aesthetics, or are they sincerely concerned with what seems to be the end of an era? Are they infatuated or concerned?

(A) Aesthetics. (B) They are documentarians.

Do you keep in touch with any of your friends from the days of the MC5 and Trans Love?

Yes. An astonishing number of us are still alive, although we’ve recently lost people like James Semark of the Artists Workshop, Stanley the Mad Hatter of the Grande. Eastown and Second Chance Ballrooms, Bruce Cohen and others. I consider Wayne Kramer of the MC5 one of my closest friends, ditto for Charles Moore of the Detroit Artists Workshop, Pun Plamondon of the White Panther Party, Marton Gross and Johnny Evans of the Urbations, Cary Loren of Destroy All Monsters, and many others whom I see in Michigan and around the country on my travels.

Do you see any signs that our counter culture/peace movement is growing and establishing a wider base of support?


Do you still collaborate with your ex-wife Leni?

I remain a terrific fan of her photography and often recommend her work to people publishing various projects of mine.

Any last comments?

I’m happy to be alive in an old age I never anticipated nor expected, I’m ecstatic to be a grandfather, I only do the things I want to do and don’t do the things I don’t want to do, I’m borne along in life by my hundreds of friends all over the western world and generally speaking I’m happy as a clam. Further, Affiant sayeth not.

Scott Baker & the Universal Expressions

Going Deeper
Scott Baker & the Universal Expressions
It’s All in the DNA

Scott Baker is one of those guys that doesn’t take no for an answer. He’s been a musical Sisyphus for years, rock and rolling that boulder to the top of the mountain, only to see it roll down the other side. He’s been as stubborn as he is generous. He will doggedly create music for himself daring the listener to like it or hate it but really only hoping that they listen to it. He has forged an identity as a multi-purpose jam rockin’ sonovabitch who believes in peace and love and the honor of hard work. At heart he’s working class minstrel immersed in a labor of love, building his career brick by brick and never imagining the mansion on a hill. He knows it’s just an illusion but he simply cannot help himself. Baker is in it for the long run…because he is the music he creates. He built it and he will be it. Scott Baker & the Universal Expressions have been around for several years and along the way garnered some well-deserved attention and several Review Magazine Awards (15 and counting). They have opened for Creedence Clearwater Revisited, Larry McCray and Sharrie Williams. Baker has worked alongside our favorite son rock & roll icon Dick Wagner at Downtown Digital Studio Saginaw and helped compile Wagner’s recordings for WMG Records. Currently Baker is busy in the studio putting the finishing touches on his new CD Details & Desire with bandmates Jeff Yantz harp/guitar/vocals, Timmy Scott on drums, and Pete Socha on bass. A quick listen reveals that Baker has been honing his skills as a lyricist and songwriter as well as advancing his craft as a guitarist. Baker rocks solid and the addition of Yantz gives the band a folk/roots sensibility that adds a melodic layer to Baker’s tasty rock & roll stew. Below is an excerpt of conversation I had with Scott Baker about his career, musical vision and the new CD.

Tell me about your new CD Details and Desire. First of all – who is the girl on the cover and is there a reason she is looking back and then away, eyes averted?

That would be my neighbor Taylor Rupp. She’s a senior at Central High and a highly intelligent, beautiful, and musically talented (5 plus instruments!) young woman. While mulling over ideas for a layout poster or CD cover, I thought up this idea that in this new generation there are a few modern day hippies—so driven for peace coming from a whole other angle in time. It became a centerpiece for the record and Taylor was willing to help me try to depict an image that would convey my thoughts on it. While she’s far from a hippie, I took a few photos and that one spooked me enough to use it. Luckily, I get asked often how I found that ‘cool cover.’ It was just Taylor dancing and me in the right spot snapping pics. The black and white of the entire album art goes with some of the lyric to the tune. Taylor is going to help me with some more poster art for the year ahead promoting Details & Desire.

This disc is really an amalgam of styles from raucous rock & roll to folk and pop. Were you intentionally eclectic?

Yes—eclectic was one of the words I wanted to convey. I was going for a ‘songwriting’ album. I wanted different sides of the coin and many textures featured. It seems independent CD’s over the past decade (that cross my desk anyway!) seem to be same-sounding, run-of-the-mill crafted, and have no heart to them. I wanted to make sure there were peaks and valleys, different styles, and a vibe that tied it all together—which is VERY important, like great pieces of vinyl from the ‘60s or ‘70s. There are so many avenues, it’s amazing that in the world of home recording and local studios, it doesn’t seem to be appropriate to experiment a little anymore with the songwriting. Everyone has a style and sometimes that particular style is all you get when you push play, even some good records. There is more to music than that.

Gettin’ There is an old time folk blues feel with harp accents that help drive home the perspective of the singer…someone who has experienced and accepted all the joy and sorrow life can bring. Does your personal experience inform the universal message?

Yes, I drew from my surroundings lyrically. It was actually the first song on the path to writing an album’s worth of material that would be ‘song’ oriented. Having had Jon Portykus in my band for a short period in 2009, his fiddle was meant to be on the track. Jeff Yantz joined after Potrykus departed and he brought the harp and a strong drive to be part of that song as well—Jeff was instrumental in helping my vision of pinning down ‘quality songwriting’ for the project. He and Andy Reed co-produced D & D with me. Our last CD Between Seasons had a nice mix of music that I still am proud of, but it kept with a rocking/jammy vein I usually like to veer towards. Gettin’ There was penned in 2008 and it was an eye opener to play—I was almost embarrassed to play it for Timmy and Pete since I usually don’t perform that kind of personal material, especially acoustically. They jumped on it to be an immediate part of the show

Your singing has changed through the years, a deeper baritone has emerged. Do you feel that you have found your voice?

I think the voice has been found at last. I know singing has been something that never came natural to me, yet performing with it did. Half way through cutting Between Seasons in 2007, a change happened in my voice and I found where I was able to hold a better pitch and keep strength in it like never before. Since then I have been trying my best to polish it more—thanks in large part to working with great musicians over the years in my band—Bob Hausler, John Grundner, Mike Sheets, and Jeff Yantz, they have helped me to develop it. Yantz and Andy Reed worked with me to make the vocals ‘pop’ for Details & Desire—I owe them huge for drawing a very good recorded voice for this album.

In the song Timeless you seem to convey a weariness with an almost whispered vocal. You seem to be saying that the power of love can hold melancholy. What is the message of the song?

That song came out of a memory download one night in 2009. It was all these ideas hitting me at once and it was conveyed to me like with all the troubles we may face day to day in the world, nothing can break true love. When the chords came out on the acoustic, it took a very Pink Floyd-ish turn which opened me up for a soft vocal. Andy Reed worked me into whispering it and getting my message across. Timmy’s drum pace against Pete’s bass work is priceless on there. Jeff surprised us with the fittingly eerie keyboard line.

Tangerine Moon conveys powerful images. Is this a song about wishfulness? A yearning for enduring love? The marching beat and bass string riff toward the end seems to cast doubt on the outcome.

I would say wishfulness is a good way to put it. That one was another writing of an idea download while I was up in Sugar Springs with my wife a few years back. I had my acoustic and the words just emerged, like I HAD to write them down. I love when that happens. It was another crazy idea to put forth to Timmy and Pete, but they loved that one too, like Gettin’ There. The best part is the rhythm section on Details & Desire are almost the highlights of the music for this being a ‘songwriting’ album—Timmy wanted to get some original grooves on all the cuts and Pete wanted to counter them in his own way on bass. They are the total reason that song is so alive and dreamy. Pete even took a tasty solo.

So Aglow seems to tell the story of a working musician, writing original music and surviving in small pockets in communities across the nation. Is this your story?

I never thought of it like that, but that does work! So Aglow has different meanings from different ideas, but it molded itself into that kind of musical situation. A good tune can mean anything to anyone and I am glad you got that feeling out of it. To me, it was a song that could have been on Between Seasons—one of the few rockers on D&D, with that watery groove. Pete and Timmy are responsible for breaking it into the 6/8 section, giving it the ‘Allman Brothers feel’ as Loren Kranz pointed out one night while sitting in on it. Jeff whipped his harp through a Korg B3 floor pedal and it gave it that vibe on the CD. It was a fun track to create.

Son of Jack is a wonderful track with a great riff reminiscent of Nazareth’s Hair of the Dog. It seems to be a tribute to a lost friend. Who is the song about?

My former co-worker and music buddy Dave Strauss of Auburn. He was a super-kind hearted dude that was into classic rock, parties, festival atmospheres, personal freedom and world peace, the Pistons, and best of all his family and friends. He was one of a kind. He moved down to Florida and had his life cut short in a car accident down there. He loved my band and was always the first to buy CD’s or help me to promote the music. The month before he passed, he did call me up, as I sing in the tune, and just wanted to let me know that ‘he missed me’ and to say ‘I love ya man.’ Out of the blue, you know? What a friend. You can’t have enough like him in your life. Musically, I was tipped off about Nazareth after we cut the song a few times now! It does have that feel, I have to admit, but the song was written purposely for Dave right down to the music. The riff is a take on Day Tripper by The Beatles—Dave’s favorite band. I even tease Day Tripper at the very end before the instrumental track Compass takes over. I wrote Compass in the ‘90s and never had anyone that could help put a frame around it. Timmy and Pete nailed the ‘Santana-esq’ groove and I thought it would be fitting for Strauss’ song to go into a jam of sorts. He would have loved it—and the keys of the song work perfectly for the transition. It was all meant to be. ‘It’s all good’ as Dave would say…

My favorite track on the CD is Friends. It is a perfect coda to a well conceived body of music. The lush harmonies recall Brian Wilson…is Andy Reed hiding somewhere in the grooves?

Friends has seemed to be the overall favorite from the album, in popularity so far. I do love that song. I was in the midst of writing that and performed a version to Yantz in the summer of 2009. It just wasn’t working for me—or him at the time. I threw it aside. As we were recording the basic tracks for Details & Desire, I started plucking the guitar line on the acoustic. Timmy and Pete jumped in like they had played it before—we all were freaked out. Jeff was engineering the take and I suggested I pull out some old lyrics to see how they fit. That song fell out and Yantz hit the record button. It was a freak moment in time. I said then and there ‘that would be the way to end the CD’ and Jeff said he had the same thoughts. The take we used was actually cut the very next day with Jeff clapping the groove. When I got to Andy’s for the vocals, I thought it would be cool to have Jeff sing one harmony and I would do the main one that is the core of vocal sounds between lyrics. After we did that, I had Andy double with his voice on my bit and Bob Hausler was in for a session and he doubled Jeff’s bit. That’s how the lushness came to be finished. Pure magic. The real treat is the groove of drums/bass and Jon Potrykus’ simply tasty dobro part he added that dances around my lyrics throughout. I tossed in some counter mandolin in the other channel. Andy added some keyboard magic and Abby Road style bells and the song hit us all between the eyes. I am very proud of it.

Let’s shift from Details & Desire to your longevity on the scene and your work ethic. Rock & Roll is no longer the most popular form of recorded music. It is standing in line with blues, jazz, rockabilly and traditional country music. How are you able to go on and continue to write and perform original rock & roll music after all these years?

I would have to say it’s what is in my DNA. I love all the many styles you mentioned, but to just jump into a style just for the sake of popularity would not be playing from the heart. I just write songs and record them, hoping they fall in line somewhere and people get tickled to hear them. As for my blues side, I would say I have never really done a blues song per se, or project, but my style has always been lumped in with the blues jams and maybe lyric delivery on occasion. It’s a bittersweet thing for The Universal Expressions—we can be lumped into so many musical styles, there is no shelf we can go on other than rock just for the fact that we are a conglomerate that has more rock songs than blues, folk, or country. And we dabble with sounds from them all. I am happy to still be trying out new fresh material. That is what truly drives me. I just wish more venues would open up around the region and people would be more accepting to hear something new. Over all exposure is the main thing we lack.

Who has inspired you as a guitarist? Did you have a mentor?

Outside of the decades of guitarists I could name—even some ‘80s cats that you wouldn’t believe, I have been inspired over the past ten years of my recorded life, by the likes of the guitarist that can write a tune—like Peter Green, Warren Haynes, Trey Anastasio, Marc Ford, Mike Campbell, Adam Levy, Jose Neto, Neil Young and Neal Casal. I was lucky to have some mentors since I started out. I have spent some serious time with Larry McCray, Dick Wagner, and Bob Hausler—all cats that have been to the big show and back again. They have helped in ways you can’t get just by listening to records. The personal experience, stories and hands-on ideals have guided me to be the player I have become. You can’t also ignore the fact that the local original scene itself is so incredible.

As you look back on your career can you talk about the highlights?

In the short eleven years I have been out and about, highlights have been some great shows like recently opening for The Steepwater Band out of Chicago—man, they smoke! Or even having a great night locally. In Muddy Gumbo opening for CCR was a treat in 2003—thanks to promoter Chad Cunningham. We got a slot for the up and coming group Blackberry Smoke at a Bay City Fest about five years back or so. Now they are national. Some of the sit-ins and jams over the years have been highlights—jamming with Sprout, Gutbucket, once with Holy Gun, once with Dick Wagner, Larry McCray, Sherrie Williams, Dan ‘Swival’ Sliwinski, and so many more. The night I got to play with Sprout for The Band Last Waltz on mandolin and vocals—with all the performers there, that night was incredible. I also have many solo acoustic or duo nights that ended up being outstanding from a performer’s point of view.

The CD Release Party for Details and Desire will occur over two big nights in Bay City: March 18th @ Bemos and March 19th @ Brewtopia. For more details check out and scottbakermusic at Facebook and Myspace.

Bo White