With his gravelly delivery, quirky songs and southern blues attitude, Big Boy Bloater has become a modern blues favourite. Fellow musicians Imelda May, Jools Holland and Paul Jones have all sung his praises. Bloater has become a regular at the annual BluesFest in London, along with playing venues all over the world and his latest album Luxury Hobo was released earlier this year. We caught up with Bloater ahead of his show at BluesFest to find about more about the man behind the music.
PHOTOGROUPIE (PG): WHAT ARE YOUR FIRST MEMORIES OF MUSIC?
BIG BOY BLOATER (BBB): 50s rock and roll music really. My Dad was really into that so it was always playing in the house, he had a big record collection. Blues and rock and roll from the 50s and early 60s, that's what I grew up with.
PG: YOU OBVIOUSLY PLAY THE GUITAR, BUT DID YOU ALWAYS WANT TO SING TOO?
BBB: I started off singing really because we didn't have a singer. I fell into the role and been stuck there ever since. I never really wanted to sing, so it's a bit odd but I'm so used to doing it now.
PG: YOU GET THIS TAG AS A BLUES ARTIST WHICH YOU OFTEN DISMISS BECAUSE YOU HAVE MANY OTHER INFLUENCES. WHY DO YOU THINK PEOPLE TRY AND PIGEON HOLE YOU?
BBB: I think people like to pigeon hole things because it makes things simpler. There's obviously a big blues streak running through me, there's no denying that. I think it's just the easiest, less complicated way to describe the music. I always say to people 'yeah there's blues in there, but there're so many other things in there too.' People generally identify with the things they recognise.
PG: HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE THE MUSIC YOU MAKE?
BBB: I don't know, sometimes blues rock kinda fits, but then it doesn't. It's complicated. Since I started The Limits, the whole concept was to play what we wanted and not get bogged down in styles and genre. Whatever comes out comes out. There's sometimes blues, but sometimes ska, soul or black rock, I'm a big fan of Stevie Wonder and Motown and Stax, so I'm sure that comes out too.
PG: HOW DID YOU GET DRAWN TO BLUES RATHER THAN PLAYING STRAIGHT ROCK FOR EXAMPLE?
BBB: I guess because I was exposed to a lot of things when I was younger. I was taken to blues festivals and clubs, it just starts to mould you. I said to somebody else recently that I cold even do opera and I bet there would still be a blues tang in there somewhere.
PG: WHO IS YOUR BIGGEST MUSICAL INFLUENCE OUTSIDE THE BLUES?
BBB: I'm into a lot of 70s stuff at the moment, ELO, CCR, T-Rex, Mott The Hoople, all those kind of things.
PG: HOW DID YOU APPROACH THE WRITING OF YOUR LATEST ALBUM LUXURY HOBO?
BBB: I'm not really the sort of person who wakes up in the morning and decides to write a song, I'm a deadlines person. When Mascot told me the release date, I thought I'd better get on with it. I do work better under pressure with that sort of thing. I had a few ideas swimming around, but I had to go and sit down in a quiet room and get on with it. It's like homework in the school holidays, I always think 'why do today what you can put off until tomorrow' (laughs.)
PG: DO YOU HAVE A FAVOURITE TRACK?
BBB: It changes all the time, but at the moment it's between Robot Girlfriend and Luxury Hobo Blues.
PG: DID MUSIC HELP WITH YOUR BREAKDOWN?
BBB: Yeah can be great for those sort of things. For me, I was in a very low dark place and I used to go out for long walks and put my headphones in and listen to music and that started to get me through. Working with the band and writing the album that was another thing that pulled me up by the bootstraps really. Music is a very positive thing in my life.
PG: WAS THERE ANY SONG OR ARTIST YOU LISTENED TO A LOT DURING THAT PERIOD?
BBB: I was listening to a lot of Nick Lowe. Fantastic songwriter. I can't believe how many songs he's written. That was a great lesson in songwriting.
PG: DO YOU HAVE ANY HELPFUL ADVICE FOR OTHER PEOPLE GOING THROUGH SOMETHING SIMILAR?
BBB: (Laughs) What, depression or being in a band?
PG: HOW ABOUT BOTH.
BBB: One of the most important things is to be true to yourself and develop your own style and sounds. There's a lot of blues guitarists out there and a lot of them sound the same so you have to make yourself stand out. For depression, the biggest thing for me was realising that I was suffering from depression. I was saying 'there's nothing wrong with me, I'm fine', that sort of thing. Realising it and talking about it was important. I had some good friends and a very good wife to help me through. Take the help, that's the best advice.
PG: HOW DID YOU COME TO REALISING THAT DEPRESSION WAS AN ISSUE, DID SOMETHING SPARK IT OFF FOR EXAMPLE?
BBB: I had it all my life really and had low episodes and periods and didn't know what it was. It got worse because it wasn't addressed, to the point where I couldn't really function properly. It was ridiculous, I was still saying 'there's nothing wrong with me.' I was talked into going to the GP and he was really good, he talked things through. We tried out some medication and stuff, it was a bit hit and miss in the beginning, but thankfully it really helped me out.
PG: SO, WAS LUXURY HOBO BLUES A BIT AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL?
BBB: I think it all is. As you get older and become a better songwriter, you stop writing so many cliches and you start writing about what you know and what you don't. As time goes on the songs become a lot more personal, for me anyway.
PG: DID YOU FIND WRITING THE ALBUM CATHARTIC?
BBB: Definitely. There's a lot of references in there to going through that and that period of my life. It's good to have a record of how you were feeling at the time and look back and see how far you've come. I'd recommend it to everyone, write an album! It's great therapy.
PG: THE ALBUM IS FILLED WITH LOTS OF DARK AND QUIRKY HUMOUR, DOES THAT REFLECT YOUR OWN SENSE OF HUMOUR?
BBB: I guess so. The other thing when I was growing up I was watching Saturday night horror double bills on the TV, so that got into me too. I've got quite a dark sense of humour so let it shine through!
PG: DO YOU HAVE A FAVOURITE HORROR FILM THEN?
BBB: From Beyond The Grave. That's my favourite Horror film.
PG: YOU USED LEGO PIECES FOR THE VIDEO 'IT CAME OUT OF THE SWAMP' – ARE YOU A LEGO COLLECTOR?
BBB: Yeah I am, I've got a whole room in my house dedicated to it. Lego was another therapy for me. I started to do stop motion animation because I could just go and sit in a room by myself and do something creative without having to write an album or something. I got all my old Lego out of my Dad's loft and just started mucking around with it and making quirky little films. It was really good therapy for me coming out of the depression and gave me something to focus on that wasn't really important and it was just fun. I wrote it Came Out Of The Swamp and found that Lego had made a swamp monster figure, it was like a match made in Heaven.
PG: HOW DID YOU GET THE NAME 'BIG BOY BLOATER'?
BBB: (Laughs) What being the skinny bloke that I am?
PG: BUT IT DOES HAVE THIS FEEL OF A SOUTHERN BLUES GUY FROM NEW ORLEANS...
BBB: Well, I got the 'Bloater' name when I was at school. When I got thrust into the limelight with the band with the singing, I thought 'what's a good blues name?' I was thinking of people like Big Joe Turner or Big Boy Arthur Crudup and Big Boy Bloater had a kind of ring to it, so it stuck twenty-five years later.
PG: DO WE GET TO FIND OUT YOUR REAL NAME?
BBB: I don't really use it anymore. Everybody calls me Bloater. It's only people that I haven't seen since school that come up to me and call me by my real name. Even my Mum and Dad call me Bloater.
PG: DO YOU HAVE A FAVOURITE GUITARISTS?
BBB: I know he's not very popular but I really like Ike Turner's guitar playing. He did some amazing guitar stuff. He did a lot of session stuff and was also an A and R man, he was responsible for getting Howling Wolf onto Sun records. He had that whammy bar style that I like, that's where I got that from. Johnny Guitar Watson, I like his aggressive playing. He did this track called Space Guitar in 1954, and it really was out of this world. He was a real pioneer, you can hear his playing going on in people like Hendrix.
PG: WHAT WOULD YOU BE DOING IF YOU WEREN'T MAKING MUSIC?
BBB: I don't really know, even when I was at school I wanted to play music, so I kind of gave up on my studies. I'd rather be in the music room playing the piano than doing maths. If I couldn't do music I don't know what I'd be doing. I'm pretty much unemployable.