For most people, the arrival of a new year often means a time of change, of looking forward; a time to embrace new ideas and new projects. This is especially true for Damo Fawsett, a hard-working guitarist who recently parted ways with his band Slam Cartel. He already has various new projects underway. At the beginning of January 2016, he stopped by at Real Gone to tell us all about them…
RG: It’s been a while since we last heard from you.
DF: “Things have been very busy. I have new projects under way and I’m feeling very positive. In a few weeks, I’ll be sharing a stage with Dave ‘Bucket’ Colwell [previously of Bad Company and AsaP] at an event I organised called 3G. I did the first 3G two years ago with Bernie Torme [ex-Gillan] which proved very successful. People kept asking when I’d be doing another one but I got really busy with my band Slam Cartel, so I made a concentrated effort to get one off the ground for 2016. As before, it consists of a name headliner and a couple of local artists. Dave has been on my hit list for 3G for a while, so I was really pleased when he agreed to take part.”
RG: How do you know Dave?
DF: “Actually, I’ve never met the guy, but we’re endorsed by the same guitar company, Fret-King, and I’m a fan of his work. I contacted him, we had a chat on the phone and the wheels were set in motion.”
RG: Easy as that, huh?
DF: “If only! [laughs] It’s been a bit daunting, to be honest. He’s toured with Bad Company and I’m a relatively unknown guitarist contacting him to play this gig with an unknown band. That’s the beauty of social media in the modern music world, though; other artists can see what people are up to and also having mutual friends in the business works wonders. It also helped that the event will be at Leo’s at The Red Lion [a well known rock pub in Kent] where a lot of rock musicians played in their early days…and Dave is one of them. People have fond memories of The Red Lion and are keen to go back there. Iron Maiden played there. Gun and Marillion played there in their early days. …And Steve Marriott and Manfred Mann’s Earth Band. Not on the same night, though, obviously! [laughs] It’s had the same landlord for over thirty years and 2016 is already seeing John Verity [ex-Argent] and Danny Bryant playing gigs there.
“To have Dave Colwell on board with 3G is great. You should hear his solo work; it’s great balls out rock…absolutely fantastic stuff! At the upcoming gig, Adam Barron will be singing with him. Adam was a finalist on The Voice and also sings with The Mick Ralphs Blues Band.”
RG: How do you feel about TV talent shows?
DF: “A lot of musicians slate those shows, but I will admit to watching The Voice. It’s a different format and, unfortunately, the people I would favour never get through. The judges obviously have a mission statement and they are obliged to follow that. …And yes, those kind of shows are geared towards finding Simon Cowell’s next money making venture, or whoever, but for a singer, it’s probably the best chance they’ll get for a shot at fame. What I find really sad is when you get artists that were stars from the 70s and 80s coming back for a second chance in the spotlight.”
RG: You know as well as anyone, that not everybody in bands gets to be a star and that there’s no fast track to long-term success. What advice would you give those just starting out?
DF: “For a guitar player starting now, I would suggest utilising social media and video sites, highlight your playing and get out and play live as much as possible. Practice hard, learn from experienced musicians and more importantly listen to the members of your band. Don’t make enemies and always be nice. It’s such a fickle business and very hard to make a good living from being a musician, unless you’re an established session guy or on the payroll for a big artist or band. You’d be surprised how many pro musicians have regular jobs.
“I remember dreaming at age twelve that I was going to be famous by the time I was sixteen – just like Eric Clapton. Then I got to eighteen…and before I knew it, I was forty years old. I had a couple of chances in the 90s to make the jump to being a full time musician. I was studying at The Guitar Institute part time, getting started in the session world and being offered tours with unknown artists, some of whom actually went on to be pretty big names. For some reason I didn’t go for it and I ended up giving up for about five years and making a career for myself in my then day job. I was almost thirty when I decided to make another go of it and joined Nervous Echo who were destined for the big time, which never materialised… I still have a dream, though; it’s just that nowadays it’s more realistic. I’ve played big stages, big venues, opened for name bands and I’ve done what I always wanted to do…but I will never give up on waiting for that call…”
RG: Last time we spoke, you were working hard on a second album with Slam Cartel. What happened with that?
DF: “I did three tracks with them over the last two years: ‘Hypnotised’, ‘Vanishing Worlds’ and ‘Storm Seasoned’.”
RG: So, no album then?
DF: No. We decided to just go for a record and release approach with singles. As it had been so long since the first album [2011’s ‘Handful of Dreams’] our fan base wanted to hear new material, especially as the band also had a new frontman [Gary Moffatt] join, as well as me, since that album’s release. To go away for a year and record a full album would’ve taken us away from the public eye for some time. By recording singles, we could release a new song before a tour and then promo the song during the live shows. It worked very well for us and the singles were successful. Those tracks certainly got the band noticed internationally, there are independent radio shows all over the world playing those last three songs daily.”
RG: …And you got to support Vandenberg’s Moonkings off the back of those?
DF: “Actually, no. That gig – and the one supporting Y&T – were already in place by the time I joined Slam. Supporting Y&T at Nottingham Rock City was a lot of fun. It was a packed house that night. Dave Meniketti is the man – amazing voice too! The gig supporting Moonkings at the Islington O2 was something like my third with the band.”
RG: A baptism of fire!
DF: “Oh yeah! [laughs] It was the same when I played with Curran at the same venue!”
RG: You’ve played with a lot of bands over the years, but never seem to settle for long. Is that down to circumstance, or is that just a wandering spirit?
DF: I guess you could say it was the gypsy in me [laughs]! I played with Slam Cartel for two years and then it was time to move on. Prior to that, I did four years in a rock covers band, Contra-Band, with Gary [Moffatt, Slam Cartel vocalist]. The thing is, with me, I don’t know if it’s some kind of attention deficit or something, but I like to keep things fresh. if I’m playing the same songs for years and stop enjoying what I’m doing then it’s time to move on. Otherwise, things go stale and your particular craft begins to suffer. That’s when you start firing on half power rather than giving a full-on show.
“In the last couple of days I’ve just been asked to play second guitar in a sleaze metal band, with a bunch of pro musicians who’ve played with some big names. They’re called Liquor & Poker. See what they’ve done there? [laughs]… 80’s sleaze, man, It’s not really something I would’ve thought I’d be revisiting, but the guys – and girl – involved are very good, so the invite was too good to turn down. It’s an authentic tribute to those heady days when hair was big and strides were tight! I’ll be digging out my pointy guitars, strapping on the bandana and shades. Who knows…I may even wear a bit of lippy! [laughs] It’ll be a lot of fun!”
RG: Do you think they’ll make you wear a wig?
DF: “I’m a real sucker for a wig! I’ve never come to terms with losing my hair, I’d have a transplant tomorrow if it wasn’t painful! Oh, yeah…and the thousands of pounds it’d cost! I do love celebrity wig spotting, especially with old rockers… You look at how these guys were in the 60’s and 70’s and then look at there fluffy manes they sport now. The rock wig is king! I’m getting expert at spotting them now…[laughs]… You’ve gotta love a syrup!”
“Right now, though, I’m really excited about my main new project, Big River. With that, I’m going back to my roots. I’ve been playing more modern rock for the last couple of years with Slam and I loved it, but my real passion was calling. I really wanted to put my own band together, which is something I’ve never done, and I wanted to test the water with a certain style and sound. With Big River, I’m moving away from mainstream rock. I have always had a love of Zeppelin, Free, Cream and those kind of bands and I really wanted to create a modern version of that powerful old heavy blues sound.”
RG: Something more in the vein of the Led Zeppelin debut, or a reworking of the Hendrix-y power trio sound?
DF: “You got that right, one hundred percent! When I put the band together, I had an envisaged sound. In my head I heard a mix of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Doyle Bramhall II, but I have a unique heavier guitar sound. Coupling that with the other guys in the band, we’ve ended up with more of a Rival Sons vibe.”
RG: Unleashing your inner Paul Kossoff…
DF: “Most definitely! I always had this dream where if Free ever reformed, I could take on the guitarist’s role. There are far more deserving players out there, though…[laughs]”
RG: There’s been an upsurge of blues and blues based rock music over the last couple of years…
DF: “Yeah…I love it! It was seeing Vintage Trouble on the Aled Jones Show of all places…[laughs]…that made me pick up the phone and start putting Big River together. I’m a big fan of The Temperance Movement. I contacted them not so long ago as they were looking for a guitar player, but I missed the boat there. They were really nice though and didn’t dismiss me out of hand. They’re a great bunch of guys and this latest album they’ve got out [‘White Bear‘] will take them to where they need to be. As for Rival Sons, I’m a big big fan. The other guys in Big River love them too. That band have got it right…they’re going to go far. I think they will be bigger than they are already…if that’s possible.”
RG: So many people have gone down the heavy blues route, often citing Cream as an influence. When you think about it, it’s odd that so many bands would liken themselves to Cream. Sure, they amped up the blues, but as well as that, the old Cream albums are littered with psych pop and novelty tracks that you just couldn’t recreate effectively now. People often forget about them when talking about the band.
DF: “Like ‘Wrapping Paper’?”
RG: Yeah. Also, ‘Anyone For Tennis’, ‘Doing That Scrapyard Thing’ and ‘Pressed Rat & Warthog’.
DF: “’Pressed Rat & Warthog’ is a classic. Those more whimsical tracks are very important songs to that band, I agree…although I won’t be going down that road with my lot. At this early stage, I am pleasantly surprised by the sound we make in Big River. It’s not your standard “crying in your beer” style of blues. It’s much bigger and dirtier. We call it “filth”! [laughs]
RG: Who are you working with on the Big River project?
DF: “I have Adam Bartholomew on vocals who is a man mountain version of Paul Rodgers, he has the soul and can scream. He looks like a bare knuckle fighter…he’s a big boy and you wouldn’t mess with him, but he’s got.a fantastic clear and powerful voice, with just the right amount of croak. You should hear him sing ‘Trouble On Double Time’ by Free. He’s got early Paul Rodgers down to a tee. I found Adam when he was advertising for a band. I checked out some YouTube footage and it was an acoustic cover of Audioslave’s ‘Like a Stone’ that swung it for me. When he’s on stage, he doesn’t need to pose or jump around like a wally. He just looks the part and sings, but he has this great thing where he winds the mic lead round his wrist. I’ve not seen that before and it’s fucking cool!
“I got a BOGOF on the singer and drummer! [laughs] Luke Calvert’s on drums – he’s a jazzer, but plays like Mitch Mitchell. He understands the music and knows his music history. His dad plays bass in Mungo Jerry, I’m led to believe! Luke has all the right chops and has that groove that a good drummer needs, he’s technical and has feel. He came along with Adam, but who turned out to be truly awesome. On bass is Ant Wellman. When I floated the idea on social media of putting a blues rock band together, Ant was the first person to send me a private message and say he wanted to be a part of it. Ironically, though, he was always my first choice. He’s got a great Andy Fraser type vibe going on. He also plays in the 80s mod band The Lambrettas, too, but deep down he’s a blues man and he’s very cool. He’s a big fan of Jaco Pastorius so his groove and jazz influence means he works great with Luke.”
RG: Given that Luke is a jazz drummer and there’s a love for Pastorius, was a jazz direction not something you’ve considered?
DF: “Mate, I tell you, I’ve tried jazz. It just doesn’t work for me…and considering I’m still very much of the Jimmy Page school of refinement, it’s certainly not something I’m looking at currently [laughs]. Things could move towards fusion, maybe, and with the way Luke and Ant work together, there’s a little of that in what we do anyway, especially with my rock sound and the finesse of their playing.”
RG: So, where are Big River at, creatively speaking, at present?
DF: “We’re currently looking at writing our own material. We’ve been out playing live with a full ninety minute set of covers, as I was keen to get out there as soon as possible and test the water. The public reaction so far has been very positive. I’m putting a few new riffs together and Adam has a bit of a hidden talent as a wordsmith, so as far as our own stuff goes, we’ll take it from there.
“We’re all a great fit, though. It’s a very rare thing: we learn our parts, turn up to rehearsal and play what we’ve learnt and we sound a certain way. There’s none of this “oh, it goes like this”, “you missed a beat there” or “don’t play the solo like that!” etcetera. It’s easy. I must tell you, the funny thing I noticed when we first met up: we’re all bald! I think it was Luke said we should be called Four Skins! [laughs] We also have a great hat selection, as four shiny heads glistening with sweat is too much for the ladies in the audience to handle, so we just leave Luke uncovered for now! [laughs]
“On a more serious note, I want Big River to be more than just a sideline to what I’ve done before. I’m putting a lot of time and love into this, all members are very passionate about what we are setting out to do. Working with Big River is immensely enjoyable and the sound is like nothing else out there right now. We fit nicely in a slot that has been vacant for some time: a nice raw and filthy power blues band…”
To find out more about Big River, their live dates etc., visit their Facebook page. [Photo taken by Jenny Ellis; supplied by Damo Fawsett.]