Updated: Dec 6, 2020
Dirty riffs, stomping swamp percussion and gutsy vocals are typically the stuff of biker rock legend that you'd find somewhere down an American highway. Surrey based J Lee & The Hoodoo Skulls blend Americana with bluesy retro vibes to create their unique brand of urban blues rock. With a sound this big, you'll have to pinch yourself to remember that they come from the UK.
The band formed in early 2016 when lead singer J Lee Barratt had a yearning to make a blues album. Contacting guitar player Harun Kotch, the two knocked around a few ideas that steered the sound away from traditional blues and developed a rock vibe. Wayne Riches (drums) and Luke Sohl Williams (bass) came aboard and J Lee & The Hoodoo Skulls was born. Having completed solo projects before, the band found focus with the democratic approach of writing, which enabled then to start writing and recording pretty quickly in Harun's home studio. J explains “we all put our pennies worth into the songs, being individual writers it works. Sometimes it's easier when there are three heads if two say yes and the other one says no, you have to go with the majority.”
It certainly helped the writing process that all the band members were working under the same “umbrella of influences” allowing the band to have a natural synergy when creating their material. “We are all on the same page, same influences and similar ideas, we are all facing the same direction rather than tug of war on various ideas all the time.”
J draws on his influences of traditional rock n roll and classic staples like The Rolling Stones and The Beatles but also incorporates bands such as Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, Gene Vincent and The Blue Cats, which is where the “old school naming” style of J Lee & The Hoodoo Skulls comes from. Instantly memorable and recognisable the band's name is as striking as their image. J defines their style as “biker western,” which certainly fits their music too. “We sound how we should look. People like a look to focus on.” Their music has also helped the KLM Motorcycle brand to advertise some of their apparel too, with the company using tracks from the Hoodoo Skulls forthcoming EP.
Of course, there's no denying that his formative years and musical education also played a part in the love of the retro rock n' roll, blues rock sound. J also happens to be the son of 80s legend Shakin' Stevens, and J responds enthusiastically to his early memories of music influences. “Music was always in the house that's where all my influences came from. Growing up seeing your dad on stage or telly is going to have an influence on you too. It just so happened that what he was singing and the records he had appealed to me and got the blood racing.” After hearing Get In On by T-Rex in the car radio and instantly relating to it, his Dad allowed Jay to raid his T-Rex collection and as a result J has also become a huge Marc Bolan fan.
This love of the 'old school sound' for the Hoodoo Skulls drags the music of the past masters into the contemporary world. The traditional blues sound can get pretty tiring, so like The Black Keys, J Lee & The Hoodoo Skulls add their own modern twist. Their music is gutsy, vibrant, riffy with plenty of distortion and the vocals resonate with a powerful slapback echo to really give it that retro sound. It makes the blues exciting and updated for the modern music fan. A track on the new EP entitled Save Me, also plays with that big echoing Gospel sound using plenty of slide guitar, once again bring the bluesy style of their music up to date.
Their debut single and lead track from the EP, Woman, epitomises their sound which is born from the blues but rolled in generations of fiery rock – but the two are comfortable bedfellows. The song itself is traditional blues fare about two lovers who can't live or without each other. The tracks erupts into a terrific strutting melody and a phenomenal riff which harks back to Led Zeppelin's awesome sound.
“ Their (Led Zep) riffs are so memorable, I'm a big fan of a good riff.” The Hoodoo Skulls, have certainly tapped into the great rock riff. The accompanying video, which is so simple, yet so fitting, happened like so many things, by chance. “Luke (bass player) was doing his solo project and had an idea for a video with a line dancing theme. Years later that idea sprung back into my head.” J tells me that over a couple of glasses of Ribena he and his brother started trawling through YouTube when they came across a line dancing group from San Antonio performing the Bikers Shuffle. “All of a sudden there she was; the amazing, wonderful Steph and her girls and we couldn't believe the track fitted the dance.” The band's fusion of sassy swagger and real, honest ladies having fun and strutting their stuff was a stroke of luck and genius for the band and their aptly named track Woman, and Steph and her girls really do the track justice.
J says his Dad's experience gave him a 'smack of reality' and that the industry is, of course, far from easy. Even though the internet has opened the door for many musicians he says that “there's probably the same amount of people doing it, but because you have this platform now it seems a lot more people are out there. The neck of the bottle is still the same size in terms of management, publishing, record deals, but you're trying to cram all these people into a nozzle that's still the same size.” It would be easy to be dazzled by the bright lights of success, but J is once again philosophical and modest about so-called 'success' as an artist. “Do it because you love it. Don't do it because you want to be famous. Do it because you want to be heard. It's like anything artistic, if you want to paint, you paint. You might not be a Rembrandt and sell it for a million quid, but you can be proud of it. If you're proud of something, it doesn't matter.”
J Lee & The Hoodoo Skulls certainly have a lot to be proud of from their rich musical heritage and experience to their dynamic and catchy rock songs. With American bands like Rival Sons and The Black Keys bringing the blues rock music back into the mainstream, it's time that us Brits once again repackaged the genre we originated and The Hoodoo Skulls are the best new band for the job.
'Woman' is out now:
https://itunes.apple.com/gb/ album/woman-single/ id1166383187?app=itunes