By Martin Jones.
LA underground legend Chuck E Weiss died last week after a long and rich life in music, having played with everyone from Lightnin’ Hopkins to Willie Dixon to Tom Waits to Johnny Depp. Infamously the subject of Rickie-Lee Jones’ ‘Chuck E’s In Love’, Weiss’ influence as a musician and DJ was broad.
This interview was for the release of his final album, 2014’s Red Beans and Weiss.
The first thing I noticed about this album is that it involves very long-term friends and collaborators, the Chuck E Weiss pit crew, particularly Tony Gilkyson and of course Johnny Depp and Tom Waits. Is it a matter that you can’t talk anyone else into working with you?
Yeah. Well I’m not a very disciplined guy so they told me it’s time to make a new album.
Your motivational team.
Yeah that’s exactly what that is. My conscience!
You probably could get just about anyone you wanted, what are you looking for in particular from musicians you choose to collaborate with?
Well I’m lucky man, I’ve been playing with the same people for thirty years. But what I was looking for thirty years ago was making sure that I played with people that were much better than I am. That’s the first thing. So that was my priority.
That’s interesting though because you had a musical education that not many of your peers would have, having played alongside Lightnin’ Hopkins and Willie Dixon.
Yeah that was pretty unbelievable for a young guy like me back then to be able to go on the road with Lightnin’ Hopkins and play with him. It was only because I had memorised his songbook way before I had ever met him. And they needed me to fill in at a nightclub because he didn’t have a drummer. And so I came down, I knew the songs anyway… what’s amazing about it is that he was known for making weird stops in the middle of a song and I always knew when that was going to happen. So it was a fairly easy thing for me to do and then he took me out on the road for a couple of dates and it was a real wonderful experience.
So that’s where your foundation in always playing with musicians who are better than you!
Oh yeah, yeah. Anybody was better than me back then… hee hee hee
The blues is still very much the basis of Red Beans And Weiss.
Well you know I certainly like that genre of music but my favourite is of course rock n roll, just straight ahead rock n roll. And bebop and jazz and swing. So I wouldn’t really even label myself as a blues artist, but yeah I like it. I like it.
What do you get out of long term musical relationships that you can’t get out of new ones?
Well I don’t know if… I think you can read each other without even speaking. You’re on stage with somebody for that long… most of the guys in the band have been with me for thirty years, and you just get a feel for what to do next in a live performance. It just flows better. You can cover up a mistake easier.
If Tony Gilkyson was a super hero which one would he be?
Oh he’d be Superman. He’d be the strongest, biggest superstar of em all, man. He is definitely my hero. We’ve been together thirty years, we’ve played a million live shows, I’ve never heard the guy repeat a solo. It’s always something new.
What about Don Heffington, he played a very large role in this record didn’t he? He has quite a CV.
Yeah well there again is another guy I’ve been with for years and he’s an amazing percussionist man, amazing. I first met him because when I first got to LA I was housesitting in Silverlake and he was a neighbour. And we just started hanging out. And that was 1974, early ’75.
It very much seems that the like minded found each other and congregated in LA in that period.
Oh I agree with you. I think it’s one of the most magical things, I don’t know if it’s just LA, I think it’s one of the most magical things about life itself, how people with real obscure interests sort of gravitate towards each other. It’s a very wonderful thing about life.
I don’t know if it would happen so much today with that vast population.
Yeah. And another thing, I don’t think too many people have obscure tastes anymore. It’s sorta like pretty generic.
Johnny Depp is credited pretty frequently as an active contributor, might people be surprised at his talent as a musician?
Well we first got together almost thirty years ago in a coffee shop at Canter’s Deli in LA. He was trying to get his band work, his band was called The Kids. They had just moved from Miami to here and they were trying to get gigs.
And then about a year later, he started getting acting jobs so that he could support himself!
A review of The Other Side Of Town referred to you as a terminal hipster. How do you feel about that?
Well… ah, I don’t know, I feel weird about that record to begin with because you know it’s sort of unauthorised. I sent a demo tape into the record company and they said, ‘oh okay we’ll give you a record deal’. This was in 1981 or ’80. And what happened was they put the demo tapes out as a record and never paid for me to complete the songs, so it was just a bunch of skeletons really. Most of the songs were not complete. And I’ve always felt weird about it you know. It’s not a work that I was proud of. Unfinished business is how I would classify that.
Especially when you release albums as infrequently as you do, you want em to count!
Yeah! (laughs) No kiddin!
The songs on Red Beans and Weiss range from stray cats to political statements to crime noir heroes to ‘Knucklehead Stuff,’ you obviously feel free to write about whatever strikes as inspirational at the time?
Yessir! Oh yeah! I don’t wanna get stuck in one thing, you know. You start to do a concept album and then… I don’t know man, I think you oughta do what feels right.
I’m going to guess at sme song inspirations – I’m gonna be wrong. ‘Kokamo (Boy Bruce)’ – a song for Bruce Johnston?
No, no, no it’s about a guy that used to play with me named Spider Middleman. He passed away in 2000. He was one of the guys in my band.
‘Willy’s In The Pee Pee House?’ I’ve gone through the obvious Willys… Dixon, Nelson… none of em fit.
That’s definitely about one of my band-mates. Will McGregor the bass player.
‘Tupelo Joe’. I guess most people hear Tupelo and think Elvis.
Yeah that’s what they think, but it’s really about a guy in LA who had an experimental band in LA called Tupelo Joe and the Tupelo Chain Sex. And they used a bass saxophone which I’ve never seen in my life. This thing was huge! And Sugarcane Harris on electric violin. It was a great experimental band. They did really out there stuff, like really progressive jazz and experimental rock stuff, and knocked me out man. I saw ‘em about, I don’t know, 25-30 years ago. I don’t know the guy real well… Joey, I forgot his last name (Altruda). But we were just in the studio and Tony Gilkyson said, “Tupelo Joe went to the show.” And I went, ‘wow, man that’s a song!’