Back Door Slam – Interview with Davy Knowles, Adam Jones and Ross Doyle
Hailing from the tiny Isle of Man, Back Door Slam are a three-piece outfit making big waves on this side of the Atlantic. Taking musical cues from past greats such as John Mayall, Eric Clapton, Albert King and Rory Gallagher, and in turn the masters who inspired them, Back Door Slam put their powerful spin on the blues and infuse it with a healthy dose of rock and youthful energy.
Although guitarist/vocalist Davy Knowles, bassist Adam Jones and drummer Ross Doyle are each just 21 years old, they play like they’ve been joined at the hip for decades. Knowles’ songwriting is already noteworthy, and his voice has a weary earthiness that belies his youth. And his guitar playing is phenomenal. Jones and Doyle are polished players, as well, and provide the perfect rhythmic backdrop for a band poised to be the torchbearer of the blues for years to come.
I caught Back Door Slam at a recent show at Minneapolis’ Pantages Theater – the second of a two-night weekend venue as opening act for Gov’t Mule. While Gov’t Mule performed their sound check, I sat down with Knowles backstage to talk about the blues, the band and more. A while later, his bandmates Jones and Doyle joined us.
I think it’s a perfect match for you guys to be touring with Gov’t Mule. They have such an encyclopedic knowledge of music. What’s it like to watch them every night?
Knowles: We’re learning so much just being around these guys. As a guitar player, watching Warren Haynes every night – I’m like taking notes. [laughs] He’s incredible.
One of things that impressed me about Back Door Slam’s music is the riffs. The songs are built on more than just a 12-bar boogie. Your riffs have some steps and progressions that are missing in a lot of blues music.
Knowles: Thank you. I think there are a lot of people who can do that 12-bar thing and pull it off a lot better than we can. It’s already been done and done really well. We just kind of stumbled into that.
You and Ross have been playing together for several years now, and Adam’s the newer guy. How would you describe the musical chemistry between the three of you?
Knowles: It’s just a really good, intuition type of thing. Sometimes what the other players are doing will push you into something that you don’t normally do. Having that kind of movement is something really quite special. It’s also wonderful to be up onstage with your two best friends every night.
Do you ever play musical tricks on each other?
Knowles: Probably without knowing. [laughs]
“Raw” and “rhythmic” are two words that describe blues music very well. How would you like your music to be described?
Knowles: Energetic. Sincere. Not strictly blues, I guess. I mean I love the blues, and that’s where everything comes from, but I think to try and create a distinctive sound is the ultimate goal.
One criticism about blues music – or just a generalization by those who don’t like it – is that it all sounds the same. Can you relate to that?
Knowles: I can see it, but in all honesty I think that’s kind of a shallow way of thinking. It’s such a vast genre. Listen to Robert Johnson or Johnny Lang – they’re still pigeonholed as blues, but it’s two completely different types of music. It’s a vast genre. The whole 12-bar thing is wonderful. I mean Status Quo made a living out of the 12-bar thing, but no one calls them blues, they’re a rock and roll band.
The title track on Roll Away is a blues song that a lot of young people can relate to – the idea of leaving someplace small or isolated to see what’s out there in the world. Was that a band idea or more coming from you?
Knowles: I think it was more from me. I have an older sister, and ever since she moved away to go to University – that always seemed like almost a romantic thing, getting off the Isle of Man. I was really proud of my sister. She moved away to the English mainland, then she moved away to Malta – she just completely distanced herself from it. She still loves it – we’re proud to be Manx – but she really just moved away. I was amazed at that, and ever since she did that, I wanted to do that.
Does your approach to the acoustic guitar differ from the electric?
Knowles: I’m always more nervous on acoustic because everyone can hear it if you mess up. [laughs] But I think the electric is such a versatile instrument – you can have some really atmospheric, beautiful sounds, sort of Mark Knopfler-esque and people like that. Or you can have an all-out rock approach, like Angus Young. Whereas acoustic can be a very delicate instrument, and that’s wonderful. I really love the playing of Bert Jansch and Davy Graham.
Graham is amazing.
Knowles: Yeah. I could never do anything like that.
On the same hand, you won’t see Graham get on stage with a Stratocaster and do a 15-minute solo.
Knowles: That’s so true.
Both types of playing are equally difficult to do well.
Knowles: They’re almost like two different instruments.
On your EP, you guys do a really cool cover of The Doors’ “Been Down So Long” and an electrifying version of Hendrix’s “Red House.” And live you’ve been covering David Crosby’s “Almost Cut My Hair.” What’s your approach to cover songs?
Knowles: I think you always have to be careful when you’re using someone else’s songs. You just find a song you really enjoy – you enjoy the lyrics or the meaning of it – and one that you think you can put your own stamp on. You don’t want to cover it really religiously, because the guy who wrote that has done that. You gotta try and put your own stamp on it without wrecking it.
I love the way you put a charge into “Been Down So Long.”
Knowles: The reason we chose that song was because when I was about 13, I was in this band with some 40- and 50-year olds – and I was the kid guitar player who came in and had fun and jammed. And we used to do that song, so I thought it would be a really nice thing to go back and revisit it. I would not be in the U.S. without those guys over there. I learned so much. It was a great education.
How was your experience in the studio, recording your first full-length album?
Knowles: It was strange. I mean, we’ve been a live band for so long that it felt very strange to go into the studio. It’s so different to try and get the sound you like. I know Rory Gallagher – a hero of mine – always talked about how much trouble he had doing that. I can absolutely see why now. [laughs] With more experience, hopefully it will become easier and we’ll find some tricks to help.
I know Gov’t Mule records all their shows. Is your music being recorded, too?
Knowles: We are recording it. A lot of what we’re doing is new stuff, and we want to kind of archive it.
I want to throw out a few names and get your thoughts. Let’s start with Albert King?
Knowles: Albert King – the guy had the most stinging guitar style but the smoothest voice. He was absolutely terrifying.
Blind Willie Johnson?
Knowles: Blind Willie Johnson’s actually my favorite Delta blues guy of all time. He was so haunting. Robert Johnson had a cleanliness [to his music], but for just raw, gospel-type blues. He was chilling, like he was possessed. It was like he was delivering a sermon – “John The Revelator, “Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground” – all that stuff was incredible.
Knowles: Duane Allman, I really love because of his pioneering work with slide guitar. I really just love his style. Unbelievable. The influence he left is really astounding.
Knowles: I first heard Rory Gallagher because there was a magazine – Guitarist – and they had a rundown of the Top 100 blues guitar players. And he came in at the Top 10, or something like that, and I thought, “This is one of the only guys I don’t know,” and I wanted to find out who he was. So I bought the Irish Tour video, and it just blew my mind. I loved it because I completely related to it, because where I grew up I was so close to Ireland – a really Celtic place. And I heard his music and it blew me away. I had heard rock-blues and thought it was blues, and yet I hadn’t heard Celtic blues before. I never thought you could mix those two together until I heard Rory. And that really opened a lot of doors for me.
I don’t think his live performances have ever been matched.
Knowles: It’s unbelievable. The guy gives out so much energy. I wished I had seen him live. I really do.
Do you experiment much with open tunings or try to play traditional British Isles music?
Knowles: Rory used DADGAD tuning a lot, and I’ve been using that on one of the songs on Roll Away – “Too Good For Me” is in DADGAD. And there’s another song that’s been written recently that’s in that tuning, also. What I really loved about him was his acoustic playing, his flatpicking. I actually bought a National guitar – the same model he played. And I actually think he’s the reason I picked up mandolin, too.
Adam, who has influenced you as a bassist?
Jones: I’m a big Pino Palladino fan. He’s my favorite bassist. I also like Donald “Duck” Dunn, Willie Weeks. Jaco Pastorious, obviously. He’s the master.
Can you take a player like Jaco and incorporate his playing or style into Back Door Slam’s music? Maybe just his creativity and approach?
Jones: Yeah, his creativity. He had a great harmonic sense, so stuff like that. But in this type of music we play, it’s not that practical to use – a lot of what he does. Though I try. [laughs] I try and make it fit. [laughs]
Ross, I picked up a definite John Bonham influence in your playing. His playing worked very well in a blues-rock context, and it seems like that less-is-more style can really make a statement with the type of music you play.
Doyle: He was one of the best I heard. He could do all the crazy stuff when he wanted to, but he could also play a simple beat and you knew it was him.
Davy, I know you discovered blues through your dad’s record collection. If you were going to teach a course in the blues at a school, how would do it?
Knowles: Wow. You know what, I think the most important thing to know about the blues is that it’s a folk music. It’s important to know the history behind it – why it came about and how it came about: the slave trade and the horrible things that went on. It’s important to realize where the basis of the music comes from. So I think that’s where I’d start. You can learn the technical things later – the 12-bar system.
How about you, Adam?
Jones: [laughs] I’d probably invite Davy. He’s got much more of a blues knowledge than I have. Practical uses are probably best – bringing in instruments and tell the history of the blues.
Your thoughts, Ross?
Doyle: I’m not really as proficient in the blues as Davy. When I joined the band I was more into pop, like Oasis and that. So if I was going to teach a class in blues I would probably bring in Davy, or someone like that, to speak about it.
What have you learned about the blues playing in this band?
Doyle: It’s such a great style of music. It’s so open, and there’s so many styles of blues. I hadn’t really listened to it, and he [Davy] turned me on to so many different people. There’s so many things you can find in it.
Back to the classroom. Would there be any records you’d make required listening?
Knowles: Yeah. The first one for me, which I think got so many people into the blues, would be John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers With Eric Clapton. Again the important thing is the history behind it. That album wouldn’t have been around if it weren’t for Freddie King or Albert King or Otis Rush – people like that. So I’d start there and work backwards.
Jones: I’m a big John Mayer fan. I like his blues playing.
What appealed to you about Mayall’s album?
Knowles: The aggression of the guitar playing that Eric Clapton had on it. Mayall’s voice is unique – that was really cool. But it was the aggression and how loud it was. It’s just a really raucous album.
Concert Notes: Back Door Slam played a tight, 30-minute set with material taken from their 2007 debut, Roll Away, along with some as-yet-to-be-released songs to a very appreciative crowd – most of whom were old enough to be parents or grandparents to these three. Two album highlights were the infectious “Come Home” and a riveting cover of Blind Joe Reynolds’ “Outside Woman Blues.” They closed the set with a stunning take on Willie Dixon’s “What In The World.” As Knowles’ fingers flew across the fretboard, Jones and Doyle hammered home an impossibly huge-sounding rhythm. It was one of the most powerful musical moments I’ve witnessed.
The video posted below features the band playing the aforementioned Dixon tune at another venue. Imagine hearing this live, with a bank of speakers throwing the sound right at you! It was phenomenal.
As well, my friend Arnie Goodman at Blue Storm Music forwarded some excellent shots of the band in concert at the Chevrolet Theater in Wallingford, Conn.
Enough said, you must see and hear these guys live.
Special thanks to Sharon Weisz of W3 Public Relations, Back Door Slam road manager Todd Bradley and Goodman for their help with this interview.