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Mojo Risin: And Exclusive Interview With BLACKTOP MOJO

By Brian Davis, Contributor
Thursday, August 23, 2018 @ 7:01 AM

"...playing a gig in New York or Seattle and having a bigwig in a suit come in and sign you to a major record deal – that stuff doesn’t happen anymore..."

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Our lives are a series of roads and intersections crossing through towns, states, countries, the lives & roads of others and even time itself. The kinds of roads where it’s easier to check the rearview mirror’s reflections of choices made and where we’ve been than it is to navigate the path of consequence and new choices rapidly unfurling before us. For a group of small town sons of Texas the roads they’ve traveled and follow are both literal and metaphorical, carrying them first to cross paths and form BLACKTOP MOJO - one of the most talented Melodic Southern Hard Rock units of the last 20+ years - then from the birth of greatness onward from rural Texas into the great wide open, blazing down their asphalt aspirations in their journey as brothers-at-arms towards the heights of musical greatness. Married to the Blacktop with their pockets full of Mojo these Rock ‘n’ Roll rednecks rolled through Seattle in support of their exceptional new album, Burn The Ships, and put the MOJO machine in neutral long enough for some idle chatter about origins brotherhood, and the essence of integrity. Members Matt James – Vocals, Nathan Gillis – Drums, Ryan Kiefer – Guitar, Chuck Wepfer – Guitar and Matt Curtis - Bass

KNAC.COM: Welcome to Seattle, I’m glad to see you Texas boys all the way up here.

JAMES: Yeah thanks, we love it here. We brought you some sunshine! (group laughs)

KIEFER: We bring rain everywhere else but it always rains in Seattle, so maybe we brought sunshine.

KNAC.COM: I’ll take it; you guys should just stay, keep playing. So you’re from Palestine (Pal-uh-steen), TX right? It kinda fascinates me because looking at it on Wikipedia and Google Maps it looks kinda equidistant from any big cities, several thousand citizens but still a small town.

JAMES: Right smack dab in the middle of nowhere.

KNAC.COM: Right! See I grew up in Southwest Colorado near the Four Corners in a town called Cortez, and it was very similar because it was like 6 hours away from Phoenix, Denver or Albuquerque so you had to just do your own thing.

JAMES: Yeah, absolutely.

GILLIS: The area we’re from – we’re actually from three different towns close by - but everyone from those towns all goes to Tyler, it’s the closest big city and it’s in the middle of all three. So a lot of the bands around the area meet and play in Tyler.

KNAC.COM: So did you guys know each other prior to forming BLACKTOP MOJO?

JAMES: We did actually, we started out playing Country music because those are the only gigs going around town.

KNAC.COM: Regarding the name of the band, I have a couple questions but why don’t you start by running down how that came to be?

JAMES: Ok, the name of the band comes from what we’ve been talking about. We all grew up in the middle of nowhere so a lot of the time the only things there were to do were to drink and run around on backroads & stuff. We’d get a bottle of whiskey and go down a road where nobody goes then just drive real slow, listen to the radio and hang out with our buddies. One time I was waiting for [drummer] Nate [Gillis] to get off work - we were going to hang out and jam or something – when some of his buddies showed up with a big bottle of Jim Beam and said, ‘Hey, you wanna go back-roadin’ with us?!?’ (laughs) And I thought they were really cool but I hadn’t gotten to hang out with them much so I said, ‘Hell yeah!’ So we go out back-roadin’, I’m hangin’ out with these guys and I need something to stir my drink; one of them is a duck hunter and he hands me a Mojo duck decoy so I used part of it to stir my drink. Me and Nate had been jamming for a couple months at that point and we had been trying to come up with a name for the band without any luck, but when we got back from that trip even though the details were a little fuzzy (group laughs) we came out of it with BLACKTOP MOJO.

KNAC.COM: I dig it, that has a cool literal representation but also captures this great freewheeling Rock ‘n’ Roll vibe. So the reason that really struck a chord with me was – again, having also grown up in the middle of nowhere – when I was researching interviews with you and you’d mention back-roading nobody would ask about it, it was like nobody else has grown up in a small town because I’m like, “Man that is the essence of small town life!” We had several lakes in the area and we’d go out on the Country Roads – they didn’t even have names, it was just County Road L or County Road M – and we’d just drive on these gravel roads and hang out.

WEPFER: Yeah man it was the only thing to do! (laughs)

GILLIS: And it’s great to come home too; you get a lot of the city while you’re out on the road touring and it’s nice to go back. Plus they all know us there so nobody cares about us. (group laughs)

KNAC.COM: I was reading that you guys also live in the same house?

JAMES: We do, we have our own shack.

KNAC.COM: It seems like that would work to your benefit, you guys seem to click on multiple levels.

JAMES: Oh yeah, it allowed us to all quit our day jobs so we can just say ‘this is all we do’ and alleviated a lot of stress in everybody’s life. We didn’t have to wake up and do the 9:00 – 5:00 thing anymore. So although we don’t make a whole lot of money we’re free to pursue whatever we want to do.

KNAC.COM: When you wake up every day and know you don’t have to grind, that’s gotta be great to not have the work stress.

JAMES: And why argue with the people that are helping you do that?

KIEFER: It’s a lot better than sitting at a desk 8 hours a day.

KNAC.COM: Yeah I still have to do that (laughs). So one of the other cool things I learned and was surprised that nobody had asked you about was the fact that you got to record at the legendary Muscle Shoals studio.

JAMES: Mmm-hmm, yeah we did.

KNAC.COM: Man that had to be pretty special, right? Give us some of that.

JAMES: Well that’s where we recorded the first single, “Where The Wind Blows”. Our bass player Matt [Curtis] is actually from Muscle Shoals so he had some mutual friends...his dad is a really big musician & producer, he knew Jimmy Johnson [co-founder of Muscle Shoals Sound Studio]. They were friends and had known each other for years. So he kind of made the introduction and we asked Jimmy if he would be interested in working with us, so we sent him a few songs and “Where The Wind Blows” was one of the ones he picked. He had us come down there to Fame Studios where Duane Allman was a session player and he used to sleep in the parking lot of that place; Wilson Pickett has recorded there, Anita Franklin, Percy Sledge...you can walk in there and you can really feel it in the walls, man. So to be there with Jimmy Johnson, and he even brought in his engineer from the original Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, Steve Melton, who engineered the original LYNYRD SKYNYRD record, Bob Seger, The STONES, all those guys; so between the two of them they were chock full of stories – I wish I could pull one of the top of my head (laughs).

KNAC.COM: Was there some old school type of equipment you guys used?

JAMES: They had an old soundboard in the A room at Fame Studio, and we kinda got a mix of that with the digital tools for ease of recording and for budgetary reasons, but we got a nice mix of the old school production with the new school.

KNAC.COM: Well the cool thing, whether budgetary or not, is how that feel fits your vibe. Honestly – I know you hear the BLACK STONE CHERRY comparison a lot, you’ve toured with them and whatnot...

KIEFER: Yeah, we love those guys!

KNAC.COM: Well the band that I really relate you to and about the biggest compliment I can give is SHAMAN’S HARVEST.

JAMES: Thank you, man.

KNAC.COM: The reason being that with this last album they did...

JAMES: Oh yeah, Red Hands Black Deeds.

KNAC.COM: They did this PINK FLOYD type album where you just slap on the headphones and it pulls you in, it’s so well written and produced and they used all these weird animal bones and shit like that to get this perfect sound. But that’s where I see the similarity, you guys aren’t playing some brand new style of music but you’re finding that key thread and then taking something down a different road, making a clear effort to really own it and make it your own thing. I also appreciate the fact, I’m a really big critic of cover songs, but I think you did a good job with [AEROSMITH’s] “Dream On” (video on KNAC.COM HERE, I’ll say that up front, but it’s just a cover and that’s when I watch how people market that. Like SHINEDOWN – I can’t stand them anymore because of what they did with [LYNYRD SKYNYRD’s] “Simple Man”. For you guys it has just been an outlet to bring people to your music and I think that’s the purpose that a cover should serve, not to be the defining song that everyone knows you by.

GILLIS: Yes, and you know with that…because of the good points you’re making…

JAMES: I’m right there with ya.

GILLIS: I don’t usually go this in depth with people about it (group laughs) but since you put a lot of thought into this – the deal with that cover is it was put up in what – 2016, 2015?

KIEFER: It was awhile ago, 2016?

JAMES: Yeah we’ll go with that.

GILLIS: It was like, we’re sitting there as a band and there’s no outlet; there’s no way to get people to listen to our music – not really. You know, we’re in Texas, we don’t have a booking agent, we don’t have a manager, we don’t have any radio airplay – we have nothing. And these days how do you get people to listen to your stuff? Nobody recognizes the name BLACKTOP MOJO; they recognize AEROSMITH and “Dream On” though. So that’s how a band with zero following can get a million views on YouTube. And so you set it up with all your links and to roll into your next video and you try to drive them that direction; because like you said that’s absolutely what we were trying to do was get people to go listen to our original stuff. That’s what we want to pour our heart and soul into, it’s not about money and fame for us, it’s about doing something that we love to do and making something that we’re proud of; and I’m extremely proud of the Burn The Ships record - and the first album, I’m proud of it too for where we were at the time, we were just trying to get a handle on things you know, but I’m proud of it – but Burn The Ships to me was a big leap forward into us coming into more of who we were and getting better at what we do and honing the craft a little bit better. So when we got done with that we were like ‘whatever, man’ – if people still wanna...the record was released two years after the “Dream On” cover, and if people still wanna think of us as the “Dream On” band then those people probably never even listened to any of our original stuff. I mean there are troubles everywhere, you can be labeled whatever but what really matters is going out, playing these gigs, having a good time and meeting people that have discovered the original music. I mean playing a gig in New York or Seattle and having a bigwig in a suit come in and sign you to a major record deal – that stuff doesn’t happen anymore, you’ve gotta get discovered by people; there are so many bands and there’s so much going on you’ve gotta grow your own numbers before anyone is even going to look your way. And then at that point for us it was like, ‘Well – we’ve kinda had people coming to the door now, and we’re not sure if we really even need you.’ So we’ve got a pretty interesting stance on labels and getting signed on (group laughs)

KNAC.COM: And I think that the industry needs that; plus these days as you pointed out I don’t think labels are really looking in the same way, they wait for the people to determine if they want to buy it. It’s better than them taking a chance making an investment and risk the possibility of losing money.

WEPFER: They’ll give 15 bands record deals all at once and then expect one to pop on a small advance, and nine times out of ten that fails, you know?

KNAC.COM: The digital era seems to have been a rough transition for the industry and bands like yourselves but I think that it’s forcing things in a direction where you are re-establishing control of at least who you appeal to, whereas before you’d be singed to a contract and to this number of appearances and you must do this and you can’t do that, kiss this ass before you kiss that ass...

JAMES: (group laughs) We have the benefit now too of being able to figure it out on our own while the industry is also trying to figure it the hell out because none of them know what to do either (laughs).

KNAC.COM: It’s a crap shoot.

JAMES: Exactly.

KNAC.COM: And that’s really what...everything you guys have said – that’s what I look for, I can recognize that in your music and that’s such a key difference now because you do have bands that are about the money and they think the quick ticket is to re-capitalize on somebody else’s art. To me – not just as a preference but in a professional standpoint – those things don’t tend to go well because you identify your type of music by a cover song and it’s either better than your own music or your music is not much different than the covers you’re using, so either way you’ve already cornered yourself and you’re not really proving anything to the industry, certainly not to discerning fans.

GILLIS: Well I find it a little odd – and I guess maybe to some people it’s not that weird – but I find there are huge bands, I’m not going to name any names, but there are these big bands who are already established that still insist on releasing covers.

KNAC.COM: I’ll name one - FIVE FINGER DEATH PUNCH (laughs)

GILLIS: I’m not gonna say anything...

KNAC.COM: I know what you mean though, there are several major bands that still heavily market themselves using covers.

GILLIS: And I find it odd, I mean there’s nothing wrong with it, it’s working for them I guess but...

KNAC.COM: It’s not like there isn’t a market for that but if you wave the banner of a true artist then once you start to create strictly for profit it skews things.

GILLIS: Well we like to pick around and like with the [Phil Collins’] “In The Air Tonight” video, that was just an accident; that was just a live video for our fans that we filmed at a brewery while we were just drinkin’ and talkin’ and having a good time. I mean all musicians look up to other musicians.

KNAC.COM: And that’s a perfect scenario for a cover.

JAMES: And I think the covers should be for fun especially; like you said, as an artist you want your own stuff to show through.

KNAC.COM: So where do you guys go from here?

WEPFER: The moon? (group laughs)

KNAC.COM: What’s next for the future of the band, what do you see next? Have you given it much thought or are you still focused on Burn The Ships?

CURTIS: We’re always working on stuff. I think the stuff is going to be really diverse for the next album.

JAMES: Yeah we’re playing a new song tonight so be sure to catch that one. We’ve got some bluesy stuff, some heavy stuff...

CURTIS: We’ll see what comes of out of it.

KNAC.COM: Do you feel you’re even more invested in fleshing out and fine tuning your sound to stretch it to even better material?

CURTIS: All the time, there’s always room for that kind of thing.

GILLIS: And you’re just a little less scared than when you started out and you’re a little less scared to try new things because it’s worked for you a few times. You have that experience under your belt where you doubted something but you laid it out and it works so you’re braver in trying other things. One thing we struggled with was this; we have some songs that are so different from the other songs and we’re like, ‘Does this all work together?’ but then we’re like, ‘Well yeah, who the fuck says we can’t?’ (group laughs) Bleep that for me I was having a comfortable conversation (laughs)

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