Bottleneck John is one of Europe’s best exponents of the blues. His album from last year on the Opus label, called All Around Man, is a wonderful collection of traditional blues songs and three originals. It’s an album of very fine acoustic guitar work, including excellent slide resonator using both vintage and modern instruments. The album is a feast of well-produced and satisfying blues.
DATC: Johan, first of all, congratulations on the new album – it’s fantastic. Have you been pleased at the reception it’s had?
BJ: Thank you very much! Yes, the album has been getting wonderful reviews around the world and it’s so much a dream coming true for me, nothing less! There’s just been so much positive things coming from this release, folks from all over getting in contact to let me know what the album means to them. I’m stunned and humbled, it’s a joy to share music with so many. And in music media it’s been the same, both from a sound quality point of view and also the music aspect. So I’m a proud and happy man!
DATC: So, how did a guy from Sweden end up singing the blues and what is it about the old blues songs that touch you?
BJ: It must be the same reason as for any blues musician anywhere in the world, it makes me feel something that most other music styles don’t. I’m moved by old blues, gospel & spirituals, work songs etc. That’s the simple answer, but why and how this is the case, I can’t explain that in words. The blues is without borders and doesn’t care where you’re from. Anyone who had ups and downs in life can express themselves through this wonderful form of music, it’s all in there, I like that!
My heart is forever rooted way up here in the northern Swedish forests and mountains but somehow my soul really belongs in the Mississippi delta. When I’m over there I feel at home in a spiritual way, might be hard to explain but I feel it in my bones.
The old blues recordings we hear on 78 rpm discs are so direct. So very deep, heartfelt and true, it’s just genuine, that’s the best word to describe what I feel when I listen.
And when I play the old classics live on stage they just turn out in my own way as I never exactly replicate the early blues musicians and their songs. It feels great to be able to offer an old-school repertoire for contemporary blues fans. When I perform I usually sing the original lyrics but make the music all my own, using the original only as a platform for new ideas.
DATC: You’re a very talented guitarist – tell us about some of the blues guitarists who are inspirational for you, and you feel you’ve learned from.
BJ: There’s so many that have influenced how I approach guitar playing, not in detail but an overall feeling. Old masters like Tampa Red, Blind Willie Johnson and Son House of course, I think the guy who really made me pick up slide playing is a fellow Swede called Göran Wennerbrandt who performed some excellent work on a couple of Eric Bibb’s albums. Amazingly tasteful bottleneck and lapstyle work there! In my early days of slide playing I listened a lot to Corey Harris too, some fine playing on his first recordings.
Blind Willie J’s playing skills were out of this world.. That’s the simple truth, stunning command over his instrument. Robert Johnson took things to a new level too, and that’s something Derek Trucks does today, his slide work is utterly fantastic!
DATC: Acoustic blues is very much alive and well – people like Eric Bibb, Keb Mo, Guy Davis and so on are very popular. Who are some of the current artists that you like to listen to?
BJ: The ones you mention of course but I also really like to listen to Doug MacLeod, he’s just awesome! Carolina Chocolate Drops and Paul Rishell are other fine acoustic roots performers today. It’s always, always the voice that captures my interest at first, then whatever instrument an artist use.
DATC: And you have an interesting collection of guitars, I think? Tell us about some of your favourites.
BJ: I do have quite a few old guitars, mandolins and banjos. Been collecting over the past 15 years or so. Starting out finding and repairing these vintage pieces as a hobby. Now there’s not so much time to restore just for the fun of it so I fix the one’s I’m playing on. It’s cool to be able to do it yourself, that cuts a lot of costs getting a wreck playable again.
What I like about the vintage instruments is that they have a “soul” as I see it, or “Mojo”. Whatever you call it they talk to me and through me much differently than a new modern guitar does. All in my mind maybe but that’s the way I feel it. My oldest playable guitar is from about 1840, made in Germany! The years and use leave traces from the past, I get a great feeling playing on them. And they sound perfect for old blues of course!
For the album specifically, my goal was to be able to present as many different guitars as I could for the listeners as well as some good music of course. Not because it was needed but because it was fun!
I think it’s very rarely that such a variety of old and new resonator and acoustic guitars get recorded on the same album and can be heard with this good sound quality, the trademark of Opus 3 Records.
We have 19 different stringed instruments from my collection on this CD along with all the others like grand piano, tuba, harmonica, Hammond organ & double bass.
To name a few fav’s there’s a 1936 Dobro, brass metal body with a fiddle-edge, a wonderful old guitar. A nicely inlaid 1914 Levin, a Swedish made parlor guitar. Also we have a 1933 National Duolian, the ultimate blues reso according to many players (me included). Deep growling tone from that one. A 12-string resonator that I’ve modified myself from a 6-str. Even a one string cigar box called a Diddley-bow is heard on the last song on “All Around Man”.
Being so deeply interested in old guitars and mandolins I felt I’d take the opportunity to share these sounds with blues and guitar fans all over, hope you dig that idea, folks!
Playing live I rotate the gear pretty heavily, using many different models for different gigs. I only bring my vintage instruments for concerts where I know they’ll be safe. Some venues are a bit more uncertain when it comes to this and then I bring newer versions, clones of the old Nationals and Dobros.
DATC: The blues have often been called “the devil’s music.” But there’s a long history of gospel blues as well. And some of the songs on your new record are gospel blues – so you obviously feel comfortable with these and with the spirituals. Why is that? What is it about these songs that is still relevant in the 21st century?
BJ: The Lord’s answer to the Devil’s music! That’s one way to label the gospel blues of old.
It is something of a time warp, touching and magnificent to sing these early, deeply religious blues songs and I do this on every gig. Melodies and lyrics that is characterised by the work, toil and suffering people endured, but also by the warm empathy and true belief in God that gave them strength to carry on.
Where musicians played blues in the juke-joints on a Saturday night and the next morning the same musicians played gospel music in church. The lyrics were different, but the music remains the same.
I’m not so much into playing gospel and old spirituals for a religious reason but mostly for the important historical part they have in this music form and they definitively deserve to be played still.. . I like to help keeping the tradition going.
For me it is almost as important to know and share the history and background of the music as to play and sing the music itself!
DATC: So, what does 2014 hold for Bottleneck John?
BJ: There’s gonna be a new album out later this year hopefully, looking forward very much to begin recording over at Opus 3. Touring and playing gigs here and there as usual. That’s the best thing about being a touring musician, to visit new places and meet new audiences!