By Peter Lindblad
To help him escape his past, Henley turned to Danny Kortchmar.
“When I was lucky enough to get the gig of working with him on his first solo album (1982’s I Can’t Stand Still), and then subsequent albums, the whole deal was to get an identity for him that was not based on The Eagles and that was really his own sound,” recalls Kortchmar.
What was needed was radical reconstructive surgery.
“We… didn’t want to be L.A. folkies anymore,” says Kortchmar. “There’s like no acoustic guitar on the first album. [Henley] said, ‘No, it’s not going to have any acoustic guitar. We’re not doing anything Eagle-like — no steel guitar, no banjo, none of that L.A. country-rock crap. We’re through with all that.’”
In wiping Henley’s slate clean, Kortchmar made rough demos “… with drum machines and things like that, and they were dig-able,” he says.
Henley took a liking to the demos and kept referring to them during the recording of I Can’t Stand Still. “Don would say, ‘Let’s get it like the demo,’” remembers Kortchmar.
From that, Henley and Kortchmar developed a “shorthand” that would guide them through I Can’t Stand Still, which featured the single “Dirty Laundry,” a song Kortchmar co-wrote.
“We just had a bunch of rules that came about,” says Kortchmar. “Leave room for the melody. Don’t clutter it up so that Don doesn’t have a place to sing. Leave enough room for him to develop something. Keep it simple. Keep a groove thing going.”
That “groove thing” is the life force that drives Slo-Leak, the gritty, blues-rock duo Kortchmar formed in the mid-’90s with Charlie Carp, a guitarist known for his session work with Meatloaf, Aerosmith and David Johansen.
Their upcoming release, New Century Blues, finds the two combining the programming sorcery of Kortchmar with Carp’s gravel-gargling growl and the sly guitar parts of both men in a nasty brand of blues-rock that builds on what Kortchmar accomplished with Henley.
Influenced by electronica, hip-hop and dub music, Kortchmar, without hesistation, wants to take the blues to places it rarely, if ever, dares to go.
“I wanted to be able to do something really different with blues, ’cause blues very much now has become this calcified entity where a guy comes out, and he plays a medium-tempo shuffle, and he does an impression of Stevie Ray Vaughan, and that’s what people think the blues is,” says Kortchmar. “And not to take anything away from that, because that is partly what the blues is, but those of us that love blues are called upon to take it to the next plateau, the next level of whatever that is.”
Repeating what blues greats of the past have done is not good enough for Slo-Leak. That much is apparent by how the duo reworks blues classics “Early In The Morning” and Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful.”
“The lyric is really dark,” says Kortchmar of the original “Spoonful.” “It’s a really dark, low-down, funky, from-the-swamp lyric. It sounds like something Langston Hughes would write. I mean, it’s poetry… and it’s got a real darkness and edge, a real strong edge to it. He says, ‘One spoon [of love] from [my] 45 will save you from another man.’ That’s bad-ass, you know. So, I figured the tune really has been done as an upbeat tune, in various kinds of ways. So, I said, ‘Let’s take the lyric and melody and get it to where it’s really, really spooky and low-down and bring new meaning to the lyric behind it.’”
Competing with the originators of the blues is fruitless for Kortchmar. He chooses to work off their templates and try to make something new.
“In my opinion, those Chess records that Little Walter and Muddy Waters made… you can’t beat that,” says Kortchmar. “That’s it. That’s as good as it gets for that kind of stuff. You can do imitations of it, but you can’t go any further than that. That’s the funkiest, raunchiest, most bad-ass stuff that I’ve ever heard, that anyone’s ever heard. Now, the idea is to take the elements of the blues and make something new with it.”
New Century Blues is a fresh take on an old standard. Its steamy, deep grooves are mean and menacing, and there’s funky bass everywhere, especially on the opening track, “Taillights.”
“[‘Taillights’ has] got that rolling bass line, and then Charlie and I are playing blues over the top of it,” explains Kortchmar. “But, it’s also got freaky chords (laughs)… a lot of different stuff happening to try to make it interesting.”
A multi-layered listening experience, New Century Blues is the bridge that connects the spirit of old-school blues with contemporary technology.
“It has kind of a traditional feeling in the melodies of it and the vocal of it, that delivery,” says Kortchmar. “It has a more modern feeling in the production of it. It grooves like an old record. It grooves like mad, and that’s the part that counts in my opinion.”
Diverse rhythmically, with a mandate to make asses shake, New Century Blues also sees Kortchmar telling tales about the dark side of fame and fortune. Trouble is lurking around every corner of “White Lines” and “Death By Hollywood.”
“We think the lyrics are funny as well,” says Kortchmar. “They’re dark, but they’re very funny… and I think a lot of blues lyrics are dark and funny.”
Kortchmar’s own battle with temptation and excess following the success of Henley’s Building The Perfect Beast (1984) and The End Of The Innocence (1989) is explored here, although Kortchmar is not out to exorcise any inner demons.
“I wouldn’t say [it’s] cathartic. It was too fun to be cathartic,” laughs Kortchmar. “Not that I was that heavy of a doper, but you know, it was the ’70s and ’80s, man. Nobody escaped unscathed.”
Wounds inflicted on Kortchmar during the wild times included a failed marriage. In
the aftermath, Kortchmar decided to clean up his lifestyle and move from Hollywood to Westport, Conn., where he met Carp, the one-time teen prodigy who, at age 15, left school to play guitar with Buddy Miles.
“As soon as I got to [Westport], the people I knew there starting talking about this great guitar player, Charlie Carp,” says Kortchmar. “So, I’d been hearing his name, and he probably had been hearing my name when I moved to the area. Finally, we met up and started talking about music, and I immediately dug him.”
Both loved the R&B, blues and rootsy rock ’n’ roll of the ’50s and ’60s, and they started out with a full-fledged band behind them that included ex-Paul Butterfield bassist Harvey Brooks. After 1996’s self-titled debut, logistical problems forced Slo-Leak to trim down to just Kortchmar and Carp for 1999’s When The Clock Strikes 12. That album signaled a change in course.
“I had all this gear and was capable of creating a lot of music myself, says Kortchmar. “We just decided to start using what we had right there, and with the album When The Clock Strikes 12, that’s our first album in that direction — a lot of samples, a lot of loops and a lot of programming, and then us playing the blues on top of it.”
All this electronic experimentation might shock those familiar with Kortchmar’s history. A session musician known for helping usher in the singer/songwriter era of the ’70s, Kortchmar spent the mid ’60s toiling with New York City bands like The Kingbees and The Flying Machine, which included James Taylor. He makes reference to the group in the song “Fire And Rain” (“Sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground”).
A brief stint in The Fugs, with Kortchmar appearing on their Tenderness Junction album, was followed by a move to California with bassist Charles Larkey. The two would join King in the star-crossed trio The City. The group’s one album, the Lou Adler-produced Now That Everything’s Been Said, was a commercial failure, but it gave Kortchmar something more valuable.
“What I learned working on that record I used on every subsequent record I played on and produced,” says Kortchmar. “Lou Adler is a brilliant producer. He doesn’t say much. He doesn’t have to. He just does little things and suddenly, all hell breaks loose. During one tune, he turned around and said, ‘Let’s try compression on this.’ Suddenly, this beautiful compression just saturates the drums and the overhead cymbals. It was unbelievable.”
Kortchmar applied his education in two seminal works, starting with Taylor’s 1970 breakout album Sweet Baby James. When the two were in The Flying Machine, Kortchmar knew Taylor was headed for bigger and better things.
“He had started writing songs when we had The Flying Machine,” says Kortchmar, “and all the songs he wrote were really good. They all had that essence of what we love about James now.”
Then came the chance of a lifetime: the opportunity to play on King’s 1971 classic Tapestry.
“I started working with Carole years before she made Tapestry, and I started playing on her demos, and that was actually about the first time I was in the studio… ,” says Kortchmar. “She had seen The Flying Machine downtown at a club called The Night Owl. This is in the mid-’60s. And so she had me come in and start playing on her demos, which was a complete eye-opener. It was like going to Harvard or something. I mean, she’s so brilliant.”
From there, Kortchmar’s reputation as a top-flight studio musician spread, and he would work with artists like Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne, Harry Nilsson, Warren Zevon, and, of course, Henley.
Now, he has a chance to establish his own identifiable sound with Slo-Leak.
“I was always kind of seduced between jangly guitar rock and like hard-core R&B and all this stuff,” says Kortchmar. “It all spoke to me. So, at one point, I spent a lot of years just saying I’ve got to do one or the other. Now, I’m thinking, ‘Hey, why not let my music be informed by all these things.’”