By Chris M. Junior
Back in the day, it seemed that British blues musician John Mayall was always hunting for replacement members for his backing band, the Bluesbreakers.
Mayall, you see, had a talent for finding gifted musicians, who in turn seemed to have a talent for quickly forming blockbuster bands.
Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce were working with Mayall when they decided to form Cream. Fleetwood Mac’s Peter Green, John McVie and Mick Fleetwood all did tours of duty with Mayall. Future Rolling Stones guitarist Mick Taylor was a Bluesbreaker, too, as was Free’s Andy Fraser.
Stability hasn’t been an issue lately for Mayall. His current band, which has no official name, has featured the same lineup since 2009: guitarist Rocky Athas, bassist Greg Rzab and drummer Jay Davenport. They provide the musical foundation for “A Special Life,” Mayall’s latest studio album, which was recorded in late 2013 at Entourage Studios in North Hollywood, Calif., and released on Forty Below Records.
Singer and multi-instrumentalist Mayall, 80, recently checked in from his home in the Golden State to talk about the making of “A Special Life” and more.
GOLDMINE: “A Special Life” is your first studio album in five years, although you’ve been on the road a lot since 2009 with the three-piece band you assembled for that year’s “Tough” album. How have the musicians bonded and evolved, both as players and as people, as a result of the steady touring?
JOHN MAYALL: Well, it’s just gone from strength to strength, really. But it seems like it’s happened very quickly. Once we got together, we all felt that we were in the right company, and we’ve been having a great time ever since. It’s been very stimulating every night. It’s lots of work, but it’s also very pleasurable, and the fact that we have done so much work and that everybody is in very good spirits and good form just shows we are on the right track.
GM: You’ve played with Americans for years, and your current band features three of them: Rocky is from Texas, while Greg and Jay are from Chicago. Do you think there are any differences in how American musicians play the blues and its related forms as opposed to British musicians?
JM: I’ve been asked that quite a few times. I don’t really think it’s a matter of different countries. I think the culture of the blues has become a worldwide thing, and the best players — regardless of where they’re from — have their own identities. So I’ve never figured out that there’s a difference between the countries.
GM: As a bandleader, what do you look for in a player?
JM: Well, I don’t really have to do that very often (laughs). But I think the capability socially is a very big factor. One assumes that they can play their instruments, so that’s a given. But the main thing to hold a band together is the rapport between the musicians when they’re not onstage.
GM: Has that always been the same through the years? Or as a younger man with the early bands, did you look for different things in terms of the capability socially and performance ability?
JM: No, I think the capability has always been the main thing. The reason in the early days [for the change in personnel] — people like Eric, Peter and Mick [Taylor] — once they found their own direction, it was obvious they wanted to move on and explore their own thing. So as a bandleader, you just roll with the punches, and one thing leads to another. It’s always worked out for me.
GM: Getting back to the new album: How much of the material was already in your live repertoire?
JM: Not too much — probably only a couple of songs, really. I think we approached the album with having a whole new catalog of material to play, not only in the studio but also integrated into our set lists.
GM: A guest appearance you made on Walter Trout’s “The Blues Came Callin’ ” album put you in touch with Eric Corne, who co-produced “A Special Life.” What in particular about Eric impressed you to bring him onboard?
JM: He was very efficient and a fast worker, and I always appreciate somebody who’s on the ball and can capture what’s going on in a very short space of time. It was a really nice airy studio, where we were all in the same room, so there was a lot of connection just like there is in live shows, so it worked out very well for us in that format.
GM: Talk about the inspiration behind the three new original songs on “A Special Life.”
JM: The title track is a self-portrait of my life in its current situation. I’m just enjoying life as a single person, and the words tell it all, really. “World Gone Crazy” — the title says it all. All you gotta do is pick up a newspaper these days, and the world is going crazy. “Just a Memory” is a memory of a girl I met a long time ago, probably about 25 or 30 years ago. She was always stuck in my memory because we had such a fleeting romance, and one wonders how old loves turn out when you never hear from them again.
GM: Do you keep up with newer and younger blues artists?
JM: Not specifically. [Sometimes] we happen to run across the young players; it usually happens at festivals. But other than that, I don’t go out consciously searching for people. There is a definite observation that so many new players are very young and very enthused, so that’s all good for the movement.
GM: What do you listen to when you’re not playing music?
JM: God, it could be anything. There are a lot of jazz artists, a lot of blues artists — old and new. It’s so varied. Whenever I get asked that question, I’m always at a loss to answer it because one day it could be one thing, and the next day it’s another.
GM: At this stage of your life and career, is there anything in particular you still want to accomplish?
JM: I don’t know. It’s one thing at a time. When we get the opportunity to do an album, I just round up ideas that are currently on my mind. And I don’t really plan ahead any further than that, so “A Special Life” is an up-to-date view of my outlook.