By Alan Brostoff
Since their incarnation in the early 1970s, the band Poobah have recorded over a dozen albums with various lineups, while opening for some of rock and roll’s biggest names. The one constant in Poobah, though, is guitarist/singer Jim Gustafson, who has led the band for five decades, directing them through rock music’s many trends, yet holding ground with a classic guitar rock feel.
With Poobah, Gustafson has a great story to tell. A band that might not end up in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but did perform a record 12 times on those sacred grounds in Cleveland. Lately, the band’s leader is quite proud of the latest Poobah accomplishment: the album evolver/revlove, released in 2020.
GOLDMINE: The new album, evolver/revlove, is quite eclectic as it spans several different music styles. One thing that you have left off this record is politics, which many bands are covering in recent years.
JIM GUSTAFSON: That is true. I’m not into spreading my beliefs or anybody else’s about politics. They got enough of that on Facebook.
GM: Explain the name of the new album and where it came from.
JG: Well, I thought about how my playing as a guitarist had changed from the time I was 13 years old until now and I just thought I had evolved, and that’s where the “evolver” part came from. Then I noticed that there were other things called evolver, so a friend of mine who works in film said, “Why don’t you just call it revlove?” which is evolver backwards. I said, “Well, that’s a great idea.” So, I just put them together and used my idea — and his — and switched it from being evolver to evolver/revlove.
GM: With album cover artwork of a monkey evolving into a rock guitarist.
JG: I thought that was a great idea. The artist did a terrific job taking my idea and making it look really cool.
GM: The band has been around since 1972, correct?
JG: That is correct. That was when the first album was released. I got called Poobah as a nickname prior to that. Actually, me and the bass player (Phil Jones) used to tease each other and call each other Poobah as a joke. We picked up the name from someone … everybody said she was biker chick that would beat up men, but I don’t know if that’s true. That was her nickname, Poobah. And that was why we thought it was funny, because she was like a senior and we were freshmen. Yeah, everybody feared that girl. The rumor was that she’d poke you with a rat-tail comb if you pissed her off.
GM: Does she know that you ended up naming the band after her?
JG: Yes, and the rumor that she would beat men’s asses scared us, because she showed up at one of our shows and we were thinking that one of us was going to get it. Truth was, she was one of the nicest people and it was probably one of those stupid high-school drama urban legends.
GM: Your first album, Let Me In (released in 1972), now sells for over $140 oversees.
JG: Well, I saw one the other day for $2,200, an original copy.
GM: How are the rereleases doing for that album?
JG: As a matter of fact, Ripple Music is reissuing it for the fourth time. The album just keeps selling out.
GM: Talk more about Poobah as a band.
JG: Well, I would like to say that I try to be versatile. I don’t really enjoy an album when all the songs sound the same. I realize a lot of people are on a budget and it’s tough to even get an album together, but if you’re going to, you should try, for a lack of a better word, “spruce” up the album by having some variety within the type of songs that you write and record. I really like a lot of variety. I’ve had fans tell me that as I go from … I’ve released 15 albums already; this album doesn’t sound anything like that one and that one doesn’t sound anything like this one. It’s because I’m trying to be different. I don’t want to be pigeonholed into one sound.
GM: The new album is very reflective of that, where each song stands on its own.
JG: I feel that this new album really has a lot of uplifting lyrics and stuff on it, because I’m not into the crying and moaning about how terrible everything is. Where’s that gonna get you?
GM: You are also working on a Greatest Hits collection?
JG: Yeah, within six months Burning In the Rain: A Poobah Anthology will be out on vinyl and CD. It will have music from 1972 all the way through 2020. [Check for updates at www.poobahband.com]
GM: You also have a couple of your songs being used on television shows?
JG: That’s right. Nick Nolte’s latest television series, Graves, where he plays a president from, like, 30 years ago or something, and he realizes his policies had hurt America instead of helping it — the poor people — and he wants to change all that. It’s a comedy. It’s a very funny show and episode six has a Poobah song off Let Me In. Also, the star of X-Men and Game of Thrones, Sophie Turner, has a movie on Hulu right now called Josie. At the end of the movie credits, there’s a Poobah song.
GM: Poobah has played a lot of live shows and opened for a lot of major acts. I understand that you toured with Judas Priest. Any good Priest stories you can share?
JG: Matter of fact, I do. I really wanted that gig. I’m really happy that I got to play with Judas Priest. I was really thrilled because it drew gigantic crowds. So I got backstage and I see (guitarist) Glenn Tipton standing back there. I start walking up to him and he turns around and runs away. I said, “Hey, Glenn, I’m not a groupie. I’m in the opening act.” He turned around and came back and goes, “Man, I meet so many nuts backstage.” He called them something that begins with a-s-s. Anyway, I tell him I’m just really glad I got to play here. I started asking him some questions about who he liked and stuff like that. I don’t know if I caught him at the wrong time or what, because he doesn’t seem to like anybody I mentioned. But, man, those guys had more guitars. I’ve opened for a lot of bands and headlined a lot of shows, I’ve done so many shows with famous people, and Judas Priest had more guitars than any other band I’ve ever seen. They had probably 30 guitars in one room. It was like a music store. I really wanted to go and pick out a few. I gave Glenn and Ian Hill, the bass player, copies of Poobah’s Steamroller (1979 album) on vinyl and, you know, about three years later I thought I heard some of the lyrics off “Jump Thru the Golden Ring” from Poobah on “Some Heads are Gonna Roll.”
I started years ago, giving copies of my music to famous people, thinking maybe they’d like it and help me out. There’s a famous guitar player I gave a copy to and his biggest hit, I think in his whole career, had the bass part off of “Live to Work” by Poobah. I’m not going to mention any names, but his first name is Joe. I also walked up to Aerosmith’s … I don’t want to say van because it was more like a bus … but I knocked on the door and a guy asked me what I wanted. I said, “Can I talk to Steven?” He told me to “speak loud because he can hear you so just tell me what you want.” I said I wanted to give him this CD of my band Poobah. He said OK and he took it, and f**k, two years later I heard the riff from “Bowleen” off of Let Me In. I had given him our CD called Rock Collection, which also had “Bowleen” on it. I heard the beat in a song by them called “Taste of India.” So, my bit of advice for all you guys out there, you think you’re giving your tape or your CD or your files to somebody, more than likely what they’re gonna do is rip off your ideas. So, hey, I don’t blame anybody for trying.
GM: With all the years you’ve been out on the road are there any Spinal Tap moments that you can share?
JG: There’s lots of them. One of them that comes to mind is that Poobah went and did 20 shows in Canada. We were in St. Catharines, Ontario, where Rush was from, and we’re playing in this (hotel) bar called Queensway. We were booked for four nights, and on the fourth night they gave us rooms there at the Queensway Hotel. We’re playing our last couple of songs, after four days we’re kind of tired from partying and sh*t, we’re ready to get the heck out of there and go to sleep, when all of a sudden the police come storming in the place. I think it was at least 15 cops and I thought, “Oh no. It’s a raid. Hope I don’t have any pot on me.” The head policeman comes walking up to me and says, “Are you the leader of this band?” I said, “Yeah.” He then asks if we can keep on playing because there’s a sniper up on the third floor shooting out of the window. That was unbelievable, but what is even more unbelievable is when I finally saw on TV the next morning who it was that they arrested. It was a guy that had bought me lunch the day before in the cafeteria of the hotel.
GM: Who was your favorite band to play with, either opening or headlining?
JG: Well, I can tell you a great story. I played in Cleveland with a band of superstars where it had two of the guys from Alice Cooper and one of the guys from Blue Oyster Cult. They formed a trio called Blue Coupe. Since then the drummer from Blue Oyster Cult has joined it and Neal Smith, from Alice Cooper Band, has dropped out. At any rate Neal Smith was with them and I played with them. I did four or five shows with them. The following year I was getting booked again for the Rock Hall. On my way up to the Rock Hall, my phone rings, and I don’t recognize the number. I almost didn’t answer it, but I did, and it was Joe Bouchard from Blue Oyster Cult asking me if Poobah would be his backup band for some shows. I thought that was fantastic. You never know who’s gonna be on the other end of that phone call.
GM: Anyone out there you would like to sit down and record with?
JG: Oh, there’s so many people. One person I’m really glad that I did get to record with was Jimi Hendrix’s bass player, Billy Cox. I went to Memphis and made an album and he produced it. Hopefully that’ll be out this year.
GM: How has COVID impacted you and the band?
JG: Well, we’d be touring the United States if it wasn’t for COVID, and we had planned on going over and doing a European tour. Everything has just been smashed. We had our whole tour canceled. The only shows that I’ve been able to play were little tiny parties where we played for a dozen people who wanted to hear some live music. It’s a far cry from opening for Blue Oyster Cult.