Interview by Philippe Archambeau
We are French and great enthusiasts of Southern Rock Music, we carry out a web site www.roadtojacksonville.com to talk (again and again!) about our favorite music.
Thanks for granting us this interview.
RTJ : Let's start with the beginning : can you tell us where you come from and how you
began the music ? How did you start out ?
CHRIS GATES : I’ve wanted to be a musician since I was a little kid. I remember seeing the Rolling Stones on the Ed Sullivan show when I was 7 years old (in 1968), and from that moment on I knew
I wanted to play guitar in a rock band. I grew up near the University of Texas campus and there were
a ton of students in my neighbourhood, and I started buying used records at yard sales whenever
I could find them. Didn’t even matter what the music was as long as it was rock and roll.
I got my first guitar at 13 years old and I’ve never stopped playing since then.
RTJ : Was there some music at home in your family when you were young ? Did it inspire you ?
CHRIS GATES : There was a lot of music in my house growing up. My grandfather on my fathers side played bluegrass guitar, and my mother was a classically trained pianist and opera singer who spent a short time singing with the New York Metropolitian Opera when she was young. When I was growing up my mother was a piano teacher, and so I took some piano lessons. I wish that I had stuck with the piano (which I have begun to relearn now), but at the time I only wanted to play guitar. I was also encouraged to play in the school band and I ended up learning to play trumpet, trombone, tuba and drums while I was in the band in middle school and high school.
RTJ : We first know you as first gunman in JUNKYARD, a band with a touch of southern rock. According to you, what did lack to the band to succeed ?
CHRIS GATES : Junkyard was (and is) a great band. I was on tour with another band in 1985 and ran into several friends in LA who had just started to put together rock bands. I went to a party one night in the basement of a place called the Mallaga Castle in Hollywood, where I saw Faster Pussycat play one of their first shows and Guns & Roses 5th show, and I decided right then that I needed to move to LA and form a rock band. At the time, every band in LA was dressing up like girls and trying to sound like Poison, and I wanted to do a band that was influenced by AC/DC, ZZ Top, Ted Nugent & Skynyrd.
Once Junkyard came together, we managed to get a deal with Geffen and made our first record. From the beginning we were very different from most of the other rock bands of the late 80’s, but we managed to find a loyal and fanatical fan base. By the time we made our second record, drugs and alcohol were causing a lot of problems for us and many of our friends, and our second record was a pretty dark record, which is probably why it didn’t sell quite as well as the first one. Ultimately the reason that Junkyard didn’t get more successfull was Nirvana. Once « Nevermind » hit and Grunge music took off, nobody cared about rock bands anymore. We tried to leave Geffen and find a deal with a label that would support us, but they were all trying to find the next Nirvana or Alice in Chains, so we decided to call it a day. For a while anyway…
RTJ : Two years ago, you toured in Europe, how was it ?
CHRIS GATES : Junkyard has been doing short tours of Spain for a few years, but this was the first time we got to play everywhere. It was a great trip. The people were amazing everywhere we went and the shows were a blast.
RTJ : Will you tour again with JUNKYARD ?
CHRIS GATES : Plans for more Junkyard stuff (tours, new CD…) are on hold right now because we are all so busy with other things, and I am hoping we can find a way to get Gatesville over to Europe soon.
RTJ : You also played in BIG BOYS, can you tell us more about this band ?
CHRIS GATES : The Big Boys was my first real band. In 1979 in America, there was me sitting in my room playing my guitar and Journey at the 18,000 seat arena, and not much in between. Very little local music, and it seemed impossible for a guy like me to ever be in a rock band. And then along comes punk rock, which said » Screw all that big corporate rock stuff, just go ahead and do something ». A thriving alternative/underground music scene began to thrive in Austin in about 1978, and by 1979 two of my best friends and I decided that we would start a band. Tim Kerr had been playing guitar longer than me (and was quite a bit better), but I had a guitar and an amp, so we flipped a coin and I lost, so I switched to bass. That was the very best thing that could have happened, because the music was WAY better with Tim on guitar and me on bass than it would have been the other way around.
Musically we were an adventurous band. Most of what we did sounded like post-punk bands like Gang of Four and the Minutemen, but we also did some hardcore thrash songs and some straight funk songs with a horn section (including a cover of « Hollywood Swinging » by Kool and the Gang !). I learned to write songs in the Big Boys, and I learned how to put on a kick-ass rock show too. It was a very important step for me, and without the Big Boys and the Austin punk scene I don’t what I might have done musically.
RTJ : Let's speak about your topicality, can you introduce your band to us ?
How did you meet your musicians ?
CHRIS GATES : Gatesville is a hell of a band. I do all the singing and songwriting, and I share the guitar chores with Tony Redman. Tony is one of the best guitar players I have ever seen. People have called him the Hillbilly Zak Wilde. Tony and I had a bunch of mutual friends, but we had never met, and back when I was first trying to put a band together 4 or 5 different people told him he needed to talk to me about playing together. He came in for an audition and we started talking and playing, and by the third song it stopped being an audition and started being a rehearsal. We’ve played together ever since. I constantly have to practice to be able to keep up with him, and when he’s on fire there’s not a better picker in the world. Paul Soliz playes drums for Gatesville. He joined the band about 4 years ago and the music immediately got better. Paul kicks ass. The last piece of the puzzle fell into place when I found Scott Womack to play bass. Scott has been playing for years and was a perfect fit for the band. Once we had all four members in place, the music really began to take off. We had already begun to do harmony solos, but with Scott and Paul we were also able to start adding extended improvisation sections to a bunch of the songs. We were playing the music we loved the WAY we wanted to play it, and before long it became apparent that we had created a kick-ass southern rock monster. Nobody else seemed to be playing Southern Rock anymore (probably because it takes both skill and PRACTICE) so we figured we better do something about that…
RTJ : The Chris Gates Band, your band, just released his second record, let's say it straight,
I can't wait to see you on stage, and you know it's rare, but first do you think that you may
come in Europe ?
CHRIS GATES : The band is Chris Gates & Gatesville, and we are a hell of a live band. Our latest record « Welcome to Gatesville » came out at the end of last year and I think it’s the best record I’ve ever made with any band I have ever been in. That being said, there’s nothing like one of our live shows. We were recently contacted by a French music festival, and they are talking to the European promoter who handled all of the Junkyard tours. We are trying to set up a tour for next spring that includes a festival in France and a number of club dates as well. We are dying to come play for you guys…
RTJ : Can you tell us how and where your album was recorded ?
CHRIS GATES : « Welcome to Gatesville » was recorded at White Door Studios in Dripping Springs Texas. Dripping Springs is located about 30 minutes outside on Austin TX in the middle of the Texas hill country. The studio owned and operated by Sean Rollie, who engineered the record as well. I produced the record, and before we got started I spent several weeks going back and listening to some of my favorite records – Second Helping by Lynyrd Skynyrd, Tres Hombres by ZZ Top, Idlewild South by the Allman Bros, plus music by Steve Earle, John Mellencamp and Tom Petty. I wanted to refamilarize myself with the guitar tones and over all production of these bands that had influenced what I was getting ready to record, and also to remind myself that most of my favorite records are not perfect performances. Back in the 70s most bands recorded the basic tracks live, and capturing a good feel was more important that playing every note perfect. I wanted to record the same way, so wherever possible we recorded the basic tracks live, with everyone playing at the same time, and then went back and overdubbed the vocals, etc… I think it made for a better record over all.
RTJ : Your album Welcome to Gatesville, is already an invitation in its title, so how did you choice to make this cover of the tune « Simple Man » coming from the first Junkyard record in a much more long version than the original dated 1989, for a time of 8 minutes 27 secondes of pleasure with a... Southern guitar stampede ?
CHRIS GATES : I never really had any plans to play any Junkyard material with Gatesville, but Tony wanted to do Simple Man, so we added it to the set. In the beginning we played it with the same arrangement that it had in Junkyard. Over time we began to extend it. First we just let Tony take the main solo and play it as long as he wanted, then we wrote the harmony guitar break in the middle of the solo section and added my solo to the front end. Over time the song hss gotten longer and longer. On a good night it will clock in at 15 minutes. It is such a great feeling to play with musicians who can listen and follow and adjust as a band, and we have begun to add open solo sections to several other songs as well.
RTJ : Can you tell us how this tune « Simple Man » is born and the memories of its recording with Duane Roland and Al Kooper ?
CHRIS GATES : Simple Man was one of the first songs I wrote for Junkyard – even before I had the band together. It was one of those rare songs that just wrote itself. I got the idea for the song, sat down with my guitar and a pen and paper, and 5 minutes later it was done. I love it when that happens.
One of the best parts of being in Junkyard was that it allowed me to meet (and in some cases play with) some of the musicians I had always loved growing up. Over the years I got to hang out with a bunch of guys I grew up listening to, so when we got the opportunity to work with Tom Werman (who produced Ted Nugent, Molly Hatchet, Cheap Trick and Motley Crue) we jumped at the chance. As we were recording the record i kept getting Tom to tell me stories about the making of some of my favorite records. When we started working on Simple Man, I started describing the piano and B-3 organ parts I wanted to have on the song, and said « you know – like Al Kooper » to which he replied « Why don’t we just call AL ? » Mr. Kooper was such a nice guy, and sitting in the control room listening to him (AL KOOPER !) playing on my song just about blew me away. It was perfect, just perfect. I took several stabs at playing the slide part on the song, but I’ve never been very good at slide, so Earl Slick (who was living with our engineer at the time) came by and nailed the part.
Duane Roland came by the studio to visit with Tom when Molly Hatchet was doing a show in LA, and we basically shoved a guitar in his hand and made him play one of the solos on the record. No way we were letting THAT opportunity slip away.
RTJ : Are you friend with Dan Baird of the Dusters ? Some tunes like « Those were the days »
or « I'm Not Your Man » or « Southern Man » are in this musical tradition.
CHRIS GATES : I’m a huge Georgia Satellites fan, but I am not familiar with the Dusters… When I finished writing « I’m not your man » and was trying to figure out how I wanted to play it, the second or third thing I tried was a Georgia Satellites approach and that’s the one that stuck. Once I wrote the riff to Southern Man, all I could think of was Gimme Back My Bullets… I am not shy about letting my influences show.
RTJ : « Devil's On My Trail » is more in the Danny Joe Brown's Molly Hatchet tradition,
is it an influence that you recognize?
CHRIS GATES : I think that, rather than Molly Hatchet as an influence, me & Danny Joe Brown ended up in the same place because of the same set of influences. I grew up listening to Billy Gibbons, hard rock like Deep Purple, all the great early Southern Rock bands (I saw Skynyrd seven times between 75-79, plus the Outlaws, Charlie Daniels, The Allmans, Wet Willie, Grinderswitch, Elvin Bishop, etc…)
and well as Texas blues like Lightnin’Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb.
RTJ : What is your favourite tune on this record ?
CHRIS GATES : Awe man, that’ s like saying « which one of your kids do you like best ?… » Each song is exactly the way I wanted it. I love the dueling guitars on « Lowdown & Dirty » - I’ve been wanting to do that since I saw pictures of Duane Allman and Eric Clapton sitting on their amps trading solos during the Derek and the Dominoes sessions. The extended version of Simple Man wasn’t even going to be on the record, but we finished what I wanted to record that day and had some time left, so we hit record and let ‘er rip. It came out so good that we couldn’t leave it off.
And I love the space, raw feel of Loving You, with just me and Tony, sitting in a room playing…
RTJ : Your voice on « Loving You » has Tom Waits intonations, are you a fan of him ?
CHRIS GATES : I love early Tom Waits. When I was about 14 years old a friend of mine’s mother played his record « Small Change » for me, and life was never the same again. She also introduced me to
John Prine, who is also a huge influence on my songwriting.
RTJ : Your song « Come See About Me » reminds me Calvin Russell. He was Texan like you,
he just passed but was very popular in France. Did you know him?
CHRIS GATES : Calvin and I crossed paths a number of times. Austin is a small town, especially in the music community, and if you hang around long enough you get to know everyone at least a little. He was a great writer and I am proud to have one of my songs compared to him. Seems like we were both hard living men from Texas…
RTJ : For our readers playing guitar, can you describe your gear, guitars and amps ?
CHRIS GATES : Right now my main guitar is a 2001 1961 reissue Gibson Les Paul with a chambered body and Burstbucker pickups, and I am playing through a 100 watt Peavey 5150 2x12 combo amp. Tony playes a Fender Telecaster that has custom-wound pickups through a Victoria 100 watt amp that is a hand wired hand made replica of a 1950s Fender tweed Twin Reverb. Scott plays a Gibson Thunderbird bass through an Ampeg amp and Paul plays DW drums.
RTJ : Do you manage to tour throughout the USA ?
CHRIS GATES : Mostly we spend out time in and around central Texas. With the cost of touring so high (fuel prices, etc…) and very little radio support, national touring is just too expensive.
RTJ : Did you have the opportunity to play with Point Blank ? Do you know them ?
CHRIS GATES : Man, I have been a Point Blank fan since their first album, but we have never had a chance to meet them or do any shows together. Sounds like it would make a hell of a bill though !
RTJ : How would you describe Southern Texas Rock ?
CHRIS GATES : Hell, I don’t know… Southern rock is a solid mix of blues and country with bigger amps… Southern rock brought the story song out of country music and made it part of rock. Texas is where the South meets the West. Northeast Texas is very much like the deep south, and the further west you go the more it becomes cowboy country. All those regional influences, plus the proximity to Mexico all play a part in Texas music.
RTJ : If you have to finish your life on a desert island, what are the 5 records
you would take with you ?
CHRIS GATES :
Jackson Browne – Late For The Sky (amazing songs – I’m still listening to it 35 years after it came out)
Allman Bros – A Decade of Hits 69-79 (I know it’s cheating but I couldn’t pick just one)
Billy Joe Shaver – Honky Tonk Heroes (Gotta have some Billy Joe)
John Prine – John Prine (the best American songwriter in the 70s)
ZZ Top – Tres Hombres (this record changed my life)
RTJ : So, I won't take you more time, but if you wanna conclude this interview speaking
with your European friends reading our site, it would be nice...
CHRIS GATES : Man, I tell you what, it is awesome that so many people in Europe still love Southern Rock. We are gonna do whatever we can to get over there and kick some Texas-sized ass for you just as soon as we are able. Until then, y’all check out the CD and keep on rocking !