Music interview: The Creepers

Vintage American blues are not that common on the Maltese airwaves, let alone live. But this outfit is breaking the mold with a series of gigs that bring a rich and vibrant sound to our nightlife.

 The Creepers – featuring Gilberto Arredondo on harmonica and vocals, Steven van der Nat on guitar and vocals, Antoine Tonna on bass and Patrick Camilleri on drums burst on the scene in  2010. The passion of the band since that first day is the raw tone, the dynamics of a Friday night roadhouse, the energy blues lovers can feel at their favourite live performances.  They are influenced by vintage blues ranging in styles of the early 1950’s pioneers of amplified Chicago blues, up to the contemporary acts at the forefront of modern blues. As regulars will tell you, the energy at every Creepers gig is something incredible! You can listen to their demo CD by clicking here.

I had a chat with Gilberto about the music that inspires him and the band.

How do you describe your music?

Our music is rooted in vintage American blues. It mostly comes out of the 2nd and 3rd generation of blues artists that came after the 40’s and emerged in the 1950’s and 1960’s in the Delta, up to Chicago and eventually California.  There is a big difference between the blues we play and the blues that Malta has experienced. Malta is familiar with the UK blues scene and I would say that most of what is considered blues in Malta, is more “blues-rock”, a very different sound.  This has been and remains a challenge for us, to overcome the perception of blues in this scene as many find the blues they’ve known “boring” or “slow”… until they come to one of our shows and then we hear a lot of surprised comments.  People have not been exposed to vintage American blues, it’s not slow, it boogies and the dynamics may surprise you.

Which bands/musicians influence you?

I grew up listening to blues in the house. My mom was young and she was in a blues circle in the 1970’s that put her in the same social circles with Robert Cray, Curtis Salgado, Paul Delay and Albert Collins, very big-time names in the blues world. She’d play the music every Sunday at home for four hours as we listened to The Rooster Man on KLCC and I heard it all.  I always loved the blues harp (harmonica), the boogie of a Magic Sam tune and everything in between.  I have been personally inspired to play the blues harp by James Cotton and Rick Estrin. I saw James live when I was 17 and I just stared at him for two hours. Everyone dancing, moving, cheering, and I was just there, front row watching. I said to myself… “I can do this”, somehow it looked right.

Two years later I saw Little Charlie and the Nightcats live, Rick Estrin is the harmonica player.  I was 75 meters from the stage when they started playing, and in the front row 20 seconds later. I never imagined someone could play like that.  That was the kicker, I bought a harp and their “The Big Break” cassette the next day.

Today my influences are still Cotton and Estrin, but more to my style are Mark Hummel, James Harman, RJ Mischo, Kim Wilson and William Clarke.  Little Walter is the Godfather of it all, even all those guys got their chops from him, so he’s right there at the top.  These guys are the harp players I listen to most, try to emulate and steal my licks from.

What was the first CD/cassette tape you ever bought?

My first music was a 45 rpm of Cheap Trick, then I moved to LPs of Kiss. Collected them all, that was pre-teen.  Somewhere in between I bought Stevie Ray Vaughn’s First, and The Stray Cats and that was an eye opener. I play those almost every week to this day.

Once I was a teenager my music was influenced by rap first, The Fat Boys, Lisa Lisa with Full Force, LL Cool J… until I hit rock. Then it was Zeppelin, INXS, The Doors… until I heard U2, and that was it, for years.  U2 and the blues.  The blues was always there. It never arrived or left, it was just there and other music came and went around it. Still does.

Your top three albums ever and why?

I thought this was a hard question at first, then they just came naturally: Stevie Ray Vaughn, Texas Flood (1983):  I bought the album when I was 12, just when it came out, and I’ve had it with me ever since playing it weekly, monthly, sometimes forgetting about it for awhile but always coming back to it. I know every guitar lick on it by heart, every side-take, every inadvertent scratch on the strings, every stop. His control, timing is untouchable by any guitar player. Just ask the top guitar players in the world what they think.

My second is Little Charlie & the Nightcats, The Big Break (1989).   This is the cassette that I bought the day I decided to start playing harmonica in 1990.  I listened to it a thousand times trying to imitate him. One song on this one became my favourite of the time and my ultimate goal in life was to be able to play it.  The song is called Lottery and I was able to play it eventually. About five years ago I was at a Little Charlie show and I asked Rick Estrin to play “Lottery” when we were outside on the break. He didn’t remember the song! They hadn’t done it in 15 years and I had to remind him. The things you learn when you speak to your idols.  PS – does anyone remember what it was like to try to learn an instrument using cassettes?

The third is Sonny Boy Williamson’s Keep It To Yourself (1963) released in 1990. This was the cassette that I bought once I realised that it was impossible to begin learning harmonica from Rick Estrin. It was like learning to space walk before learning to crawl. I had to go back to basics and this acoustic recording of Sonny Boy together with Matt Murphy and Memphis Slim is what I spent the next couple of years playing to. Every song on this recording was how I learned to play blues harmonica and anytime someone asks me how to learn, I tell them to buy this recording and learn it.  I found out 18 years later from Mark Hummel that this is “the best way to learn” and I did it by accident… or out of necessity you could say.

Do you sing in the shower?

I sing everywhere I’m alone, sometimes. I’m not too impressed with myself, but there are moments that’s not important. A mood is a mood and my singing depends on my mood… I never want to try new things with others around, dampens the daringness of it all… and can make for some embarrassing moments too! I love watching people sing in the car when they think no one can see them…

A song you hate and why?

I don’t hate many songs, or artists … do I? I could go on a rant here, talk about the music everyone’s focused on today but what’s the point? Ok, I’ve got it, anything by Bob Dylan or Pink Floyd.

Butterflies before performing?

No and I wish I did.  Somehow I’m too relaxed before a gig.  I need to amp things up a bit, have more fun.  I think its because I’m new to this, The Creepers started April 2010, so I’ve only done this for a year and am finding my stage mood. I respect people with a stage presence, look at Matt (Red Electrik), Ira (Losco) and Errol (Airport Impressions) on stage… damn good at it they are.

A singer you’d like to duet with and why?

Mark Hummel.  The two of us on stage, plugged in and duelling harmonicas.  Ten minutes of going to town with Hummel with duelling blues harps, plugged in and nasty, that would be the duet I’d like to pull off.

Which is your instrument?

Blues harp, aka Harmonica.  I never heard anyone call it a “mouth organ” before I came to Malta and if this interview can do any one thing, I hope I can ask everyone reading to please, never call it a mouth organ again!  When people say this to me, it sounds… yuck! You know who your are!

Your go-to music when you’re happy?

Its usually house rockin’ blues harmonica, Stevie Ray Vaughn, or very often it;s just throw on Frank Sinatra and sing along. Yeah, Sinatra with all knobs on 11.

And sad?

Probably some Greek music you’ve never heard of.  Alkistis Protapsaltis. Stamatis Spanoudakis. Dalaras. The Cure. The Smiths.

Do you listen to the radio?

No. I’ve got 140GB of music in my iTunes and it tells me this is 72 days of straight-play music, so that’s mostly where I stay. I catch Maltese radio when I’m in the car, or when I listen to Lito or Michael Bugeja’s weekly rock shows, but that’s it.

Three words to describe the Maltese music scene

Talented.  Hungry.  Frustrated.

Last good concert/gig you attended was…

Santana at MFCC.  We’re both Mexicans from California… he was supposed to say hello, bring me back stage and hang out! But he didn’t. Wonder why.

Which particular band would you like to see live and why?

I think a good rock show line-up for me would be an outdoor show, me with a back stage pass and VIP access to the after-party and the line-up looks like this:  No Doubt, Green Day, The Cult, Electric Six and U2 with me on harp.

For blues, one of Mark Hummel’s harmonica blow outs that include all the greats of today on one stage on the same night: Kim Wilson, Curtis Salgado, Rick Estrin, Carey Bell, Johnny Dyer, Charlie Musselwhite, Rod Piazza : the list goes on.

What inspires you?

Winning.  In business, music, anything.  Getting better as a harmonica player, taking the bag of tricks farther is the best music feeling for me these days.  That and being on stage when I see an audience realize how blues can really make you move.  The surprise on their faces during and after the show when they tell me how much they liked it and had no idea how much they liked blues.

What do we find on your MP3 player?

If you look at my playlist you’ll think I’m schizophrenic. I just looked and that was my own first thought.  It looks like this : Anna Tatangelo, Daddy Yankee, Def Leppard, DJ Quik, Electric Six, EPMD , Giogos Dalaras, Ice Cube, James Brown, James Harman, Keyshia Cole, Kim Wilson, Little Walter, Marc Anthony, Mark Hummel, No Doubt, Pat Benatar, Paul Van Dyk, Ratt, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Rick Estrin, RJ Mischo, Sade, Sinatra, Stereophonics, The Clash, The Cranberries, The Cult, The Kooks, The Paladins, The Ramones, The Smiths, The Stray Cats, U2 (Unforgettable Fire), Van Halen, William Clarke.

The music industry destroyed real music. True or false and why?

Once you had to be a model in order to be a singer, it was over. No offense to the models who can sing, but that represents what, 5% of singers today?

A life without music would be…

…impossible.  Somebody, somewhere would have too many drinks and invent it in an hour. Probably me.

What do your family think about your music?

Like I said, it came from mom, she’s an artist in San Francisco.  When I was in University I went to business school but she never stopped hoping I’d play harmonica more.  She loves it.  She came to Malta and saw a few shows, when she see’s my “artistic” side she is in heaven.  Me being in The Creepers, playing harp, doing shows, recording… she knows its what I like best so she’s very happy.

Did you ever get the “music is not a real career” talk when younger?

Never had that discussion, my career has always been business. Blues harp is my passion.  I always had too much sense of self-preservation (and fear) to live a true artist’s life on a true artist’s means.

Which of your own compositions is your favourite and why?

Every Bar in Town (the band laughs). There’s something about singing your own song that you remember what you were thinking when you wrote it while you’re on stage and having fun.

This post appeared on The TV Guide (Times of Malta).