Your Complete Guide to the Chicago Blues Scene
An Interview with Mississippi Heat’s
By Clara Lehmann
On a rainy Saturday in Chicago, Mississippi Heat’s Pierre Lacocque took an afternoon off from his music to answer a few questions. A generous gesture assuredly because the man consciously searches and yearns for every chance he gets to practice his craft: the blues. Twenty years since Mississippi Heat’s founding, Lacocque has released Delta Bound (2012) on Delmark Records (DE 823), his tenth album to date. Lacocque wields the harmonica, “the mother of the band”, and he serves as Mississippi Heat’s bandleader. A Belgian man living in Chicago since 1969 - with a six-year stint in Montréal, Québec between 1970-1976 - Lacocque describes the urgency with which he pursues the blues sound with his “Mississippi Saxophone.” And while his French accent and his doctorate in psychology may make him a unique member of the community, Lacocque has found his home in the blues. Enjoy the interview!
Q: Why the name Mississippi Heat?
Lacocque: It took a while to come up with the name “Mississippi Heat”. When I was considering a name for the band, I was looking for something catchy that reflected the soul of the music that I love. The Chicago Blues’ origins derive from the Mississippi Delta, where an enormous amount of Chicago blues musicians came from. Due to economical restraints, many Delta musicians moved North for work so they came to places like Memphis or Chicago. The Chicago Blues sound developed a unique and amplified electric sound from its acoustic origins.
As a harmonica player I knew of several nicknames for the instrument, like the “mouth organ” or the “Mississippi Saxophone.” Furthermore, some of the original members of my band hailed from Mississippi like Robert Covington, for instance. For all of these reason, I had a tender connections to the state and to the word “Mississippi.”
The word “Heat” is an image my son Jonathan came up with. He was nine years old at the time! We were looking at a variety of words or images connected with “Mississippi.” I wanted a word that would invoke passion, inspiration, and the urgency I feel about this music. At some point Jonathan came to me and said, “Hey Dad, what about ‘Heat’?” It was an ah-ha moment, and it stuck. So, we went with “Mississippi Heat.”
Ultimately, I wanted to honor the roots of the Chicago Blues, which is my first love. So, my music has an electric sound while honoring the Delta acoustic soul.
Q: Can you describe the Mississippi Delta blues?
Lacocque: Originally, it was “field sounds.” Blues developed during a time of brutal up rootedness and pain, for African Americans – during slavery. Blues music was played at parties or get-togethers after work was done, and when the slave-owners weren’t around. Delta blues were acoustic and the harmonica always played a crucial role. First of all, the harmonica was not expensive and it was also easy to carry. The three instruments most commonly included were the acoustic guitar, harmonica, and piano. But the harmonica, with its ability to wail, served as a second voice. In fact, Otis Span, a legendary piano player with Muddy Waters, said, “The harmonica is the mother of the band.” It has a central, irreplaceable sound.
A piano is also important to the Delta sound but it was more difficult to find. If you had been a traveling blues man or woman, a piano would likely be present at a venue but could not be carried from bar to bar. The guitar and harmonica, on the other hand, were naturally more accessible and easily transported.
Q: Have you recorded a solely acoustic album?
Lacocque: I have not recorded an acoustic album yet, but I would like to. More and more I am attracted to the acoustic harmonica sound. It takes so long to harness the harmonica’s tone! I am at a stage in my life now that I’m confident with my tone. Tone is everything to me along with phrasing and melody. But tone is difficult to refine. Especially without the artifices of amplification, such as distortions and compression.
To this day I’m still working on my tone. In fact, I work on it daily. To develop tone, for example, I practice by holding a vibrating note for as long as I can. I constantly practice on how to work on certain reeds to reflect a specific mood. Yes, at this point, an acoustic album would be appealing to me. I still love the electric sound and that’s what changed my life, frankly. I heard Big Walter playing the amplified harmonica in 1969 and that experience changed my life forever. The sound of his harmonica from his Fender Princeton amplifier was so warm and welcoming. It sounded like a tenor saxophone!
Q: You mentioned how the harmonica is warm, and you quoted Otis Span who called it ‘the mother of the band.’ There are a lot of symbols of the female in the words you use to describe the harmonica. Why is that?
Lacocque: Yes, there is obviously a connection between the harmonica and a woman’s spirit in my music. But I look at it far beyond simply male and female distinctions. It integrates both sexes. For me the harmonica has more of a spiritual dimension in that it incorporates the total human: the feminine and masculine sides of me. Also, when I write lyrics, I write from a female perspective. I don’t sing and my band’s lead singer is a woman: Inetta Visor. I’ve always had a female vocalist –like Deitra Farr, Katherine Davis, and Zora Young -except in the very beginning of my band’s existence, when Robert Covington led the band on vocals. In passing, it needs to be emphasized that like Ronnie Earl, Anson Funderburgh, and very few other bandleaders, I indeed don’t sing. There are even fewer bandleader harmonicists who don’t sing. Dennis Gruenling comes to mind.
I write the majority of Mississippi Heat’s songs, so I tailor them, when necessary, to a female vocalist. But as I said, beyond the male/female distinctions, I typically write from the human condition’s point of view. Then, once it’s written I consider who will be singing the song and adapt it to that person. “Betty Sue” (from Delmark’s Let’s Live It Up! DE 807) was written for John Primer, for instance. So the lyrics are here written form a male point of view. When Inetta sings that song live she alters the lyrics to come from a female point of view! Another song, one that hopefully will be recorded on our next album, is called “I Need Me a Working Man.” It was written for Inetta. So that one didn’t need any tailoring since it was written specifically for her. A song called “Sweet Ol’ Blues” (from Delta Bound) is autobiographical, but it didn’t need to be tailored to a female voice because it has a universal message. “Sweet Ol’ Blues” has to do with suffering and how you manage the pain and loneliness in life. “Once loneliness was my enemy but now it is my friend.” It is completely relevant to my life. Indeed, practically every day I thank God that at this juncture in my life I can integrate the deep and dark side of my self constructively. I do look at my pain now as a friend rather than as an enemy. Finally, another song that didn’t need tailoring, also on Delta Bound, is called “My Mother’s Plea.” This song is profoundly personal, and yet it speaks universally because it is about a mother’s last wishes for her children and family. For me, “My Mother’s Plea” is one of my most private songs, as it is about my mother who had recently passed away. Yet its message goes beyond the male and the female perspectives.
Q: When you express yourself through the lyrics and through the harmonica, you must make yourself vulnerable. How, over the years, have you been able to navigate between expressing yourself to thousands of people while maintaining a piece of yourself that is private?
Lacocque: On the one hand, I am a shy and introverted man. For instance, while traveling on the road with the band, I am known for my desire to be left to myself at night, especially after a gig. I just like to be alone at the end of the day. There is a side of me that likes solitude. But the amazing thing about music is its ability to heal and its ability to build a communal spirit. I enjoy playing on stage because I feel good playing with the band. I get energized and feel a communion with the crowd. I do appreciate when someone comes to me and gives me a positive emotional response to our music or to my harmonica playing. It touches me and it validates my work. I regard our fans and public as friends. Yes, I reveal lots about me in interviews like this one, or through my lyrics, yet I don’t think I am talking about things other people do not experience in their own life. The sense of not fitting in, of searching for meaning, or of experiencing loneliness are examples of that.
One amazing thing that continues to baffle me is how an audience welcomes a musician’s crying and/or playing from his or her guts. As an artist, you are given a free license to cry and express what’s in the deep and sometimes dark corners of your soul! The more emotion the better as long as it is expressed artistically and with some mastery. It’s quite acceptable within all the arts, certainly within the blues idiom. With blues music I feel understood, accepted for who I am. What matters is to communicate what’s in the soul. And look at me -- I’m a white guy, I am a Belgian, I am European. I have a French accent. I come from a conservative, rigid Judeo-Christian background. Both my father and paternal grandfather were Protestant ministers. At first, and even at second glance, I do not belong in the blues world. And yet, I do so completely! The blues understands me. I fit in.
At the same time, I want to respect and honor the African-American heritage from which blues derives. Am I African-American? No I am not. Am I moved by their suffering and what they have, or had to endure? Absolutely. Am I moved by the genius behind their inspiration? Definitely. The blues, like the Bible, reflects existential emotions that transcend a particular culture or historical context. It speaks to me, to my heart, and to my soul. It has a universal message.
In fact, the blues music (and its lyrics) explores what I hid from myself. The blues accepts the very thing I feared about myself growing up! I felt shame for being me, I was convinced that I was a dumb child, a disappointment to my family. Frankly, I felt like an absolute failure. My torment was so devastating that I didn’t think I was going to survive my adolescence. I never thought I would become an adult. I would end it myself. I really thought I was going to die young. I just didn’t have “it.” But it is amazing over the years how things have changed. When I first played music in the late 60’s, early ‘70’s, it was devastating -- excruciating. Early in my career, the music did not heal me. My sad moods worsened. It triggered a sense of profound aloneness in the world. After six years of intense playing, I stopped cold turkey. For about fourteen years! From 1976 to 1989, I didn’t play. There was unfinished personal psychological business I needed to deal with, understand, and work through. So for years I turned to books on existentialism, theology, philosophy, literature, history of religions, etc. to try to understand my depressed and shattered affective states (feeling estranged, experiencing panic attacks, ashamed, unworthy to be seen in social settings, etc.). Reading and studying helped me so much. I went the intellectual route, reading, writing, publishing, going to university for advanced degrees in psychology and so forth. Then, in the late 1980’s I came back to playing the harmonica with an urgent need to create music again. And it was a totally different experience from my earlier years. I was able to contain and manage my feelings.
Q: Why is it that you came back to music after the fourteen-year hiatus?
Lacocque: Eventually meeting Vickie, my wife, was a grounding experience. She stabilizes me. And of course, having children that I adore was, and remains, most meaningful! Not to mention that I have lovable godchildren, nieces and nephews. In my heart, I always wanted to have roots, a place I could call “home.” Having Vickie and the children was psychologically and spiritually grounding. And my relationship with my siblings and parents became stronger. My conservative family supported my need to return to music. It surprised the heck out of me. But I was relieved. Delighted. They seemed even more excited about that than they had been about my career as a psychologist! Their support never wavered ever since. I assume they saw how happy and transformed I became.
Q: Returning to that feeling of home you get from the blues, I understand you moved a lot as a child. How has that informed your yearning for a home that you have found in the blues?
Lacocque: I was born in Jerusalem, Israel. My parents are Christians, though we are also profoundly attracted to Jewish philosophy and theology. From Israel we moved to Germany, because my father was a chaplain in the Belgian army; then to Alsace, France for a few years. After that, in 1957, we went to Belgium for six years, returned to Israel for a year (1962), then back to Belgium for five years, and finally we all immigrated to the United States in 1969. One year later and for the next six years (1970-1976), while my parents and siblings stayed in Chicago, I went to study psychology in Montreal, Canada. I finally returned to Chicago in 1976. I have been in The Windy City ever since. This theme of being uprooted from Belgium is so real for me. The first time I lived in or visited Belgium was when I was around five years old. My ancestors on both sides of the family hail from Belgium. Living in so many different cultures and eventually attending a Jewish orthodox school in Brussels from Kindergarten and up, was difficult for my two siblings and me. At least initially. My family was not Jewish so my siblings and I were the only non-Jewish students in that school, and ever since. So, it made sense that I eventually asked myself, “Who am I really?” Not only psychologically speaking, but also religiously. In addition to not knowing who I was, life at home was very difficult. I didn’t feel a sense of security at home or at school. All of this together, made me question whether I could survive and make it into adulthood.
I have to give credit to my dad for offering me the love of music. Besides giving me a harmonica when I was around two and a half years old (in Neuviller, Alsace) , he would play records at home. I could see how peaceful and content it made him feel. We got to appreciate Ella Fitzgerald, Clara Ward, Sidney Bechet, Myriam Makeba, and Dave Brubeck. Most of them were of African-descent. I also enjoyed Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, and Otis Redding.
My mother was a great mom. Her parents were also kind to me. My maternal grandmother made me feel lovable. I did have a few friends at the Ecole Maimonides in Brussels, but not many. But the teachers - and my peers’ parents especially - often reminded my siblings and me that we were not Jewish. We sometimes were made to feel that we didn’t belong at the Athénée Maimonides. In fact, while at Maimonides my brother Michel won an award in Liturgy in one of his religious Jewish classes. The school was to give him the award publically at a ceremony at the end of the academic year. But the headmaster of the school took it away from him, without telling him, and instead gave it to someone else because he was not Jewish. Humiliating to my then 13 year-old brother! Embarrassing also to the person who was given the award, since the scores had already been publicly displayed with her clearly in second place. She, however, expressed her embarrassment to him as she knew she did not deserve it. But it was also upsetting to our parents who had received an earlier congratulatory phone call from that very same headmaster.
This discrimination was sometimes a part of our experience there, though I felt our classmates were good to us. Some are still part of our lives today. It remains that it was difficult growing up: I felt homeless. And look at me now. I’m a non-African American man fully invested into this foreign world called the blues. As I said I now feel at home – certainly at home on a soulful level.
Q: Music is a universal language and it speaks to you obviously.
Lacocque: Yes, and many African American bluesmen and women have accepted me. I have received touching and validating comments from legendary blues musicians. It means the world to me. For me, playing music is a necessity not a luxury. Few people get this point, including artists’ wives or husbands. Many of my musician friends consistently tell me the same disappointment when it comes to their significant other.
Blues is a language that continues to evolve. I’m never satisfied with what I achieve, or whatever skill I have mastered. This is very good as it keeps me on my toes! And I often say to myself, “How long will God give me this gift” because inspiration is not something that you order on command. My wish to create and work on my craft may die right now, or any time soon after. It is an unfathomable gift. I am thankful for having a youthful urgency to create. I’m already working on our next album. I love composing and writing lyrics. The creative process for me is like life itself: an excitingly unfolding towards new discoveries. Along with my family, music gives me purpose, hope, and meaning.
Q: Let’s talk about your creative process. How do you harness that inspiration and creativity?
Lacocque: I allow myself to clear my mind. The best creative time for me is when I’m alone, especially in the car, and can entertain myself by playing the harmonica and thinking about the next performance. I’m always exploring new ideas. I try to write melodies down as they come. I do the same with lyrics for songs. We rarely record or perform cover tunes. You know, I do not read music, but I have learned the notes on each of my harmonicas. As a bandleader I have had to know my notes and a bit of music theory as I often rehearse with my musicians before going on stage. So, knowing the name of my notes became a necessity to explain bass lines or melodies on the spur of the moment.
I also find it inspiring to listen to my favorite blues musicians like Jimmy Rogers, Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, Otis Span, and Little or Big Walter. I listen to these guys and just jam with their recordings. I do this for many purposes. One, it helps me improve my tone, riffs and phrasings. I pay enormous attention to the harmonica as a background instrument. I always try to be a part of the ensemble without interfering with the singer or the guitar player so that we can all contribute uniquely. If I listen to an album wherein a harmonica plays, like with Sonny Boy Williamson or James Cotton, I come up with a second harmonica line and harmonize to their contribution. It is an intimate conversation. Along these lines, I love to play the harmonica as a horn would play. I am often told that I play like a saxophone player. Buddy Guy mentioned it on stage at his club last week.
Years ago, as my brother Michel pointed out to me many times, I was a sideman in my own band. In the early years of Mississippi Heat, an all-star cast – an ensemble more experienced than I - surrounded me. The stars included Robert Covington, Billy Flynn, James Wheeler, Bob Stroger, Deitra Farr, and more. In the very beginning it was a humbling experience. I had never had my own band. I learned so much as a sideman. As strange as this may sound, one of the things that I learned is how to use silence. No notes are sometimes better than a flurry of riffs.
Q: It sounds like you made a really good decision and surrounded yourself with the best, even if you weren’t the best at that time.
Lacocque: As I said, it was humbling. And to this day I still aim to get musicians that are better than I am. If I can include musicians that are better than I in the band, I’m a happy guy. I love it when Billy Satterfield, Lurrie Bell, or Carl Weathersby play with me. I enjoy their genius. Kenny Smith or Andrew Thomas on drums, Brian Quinn or Andre Howard on bass, Chris “Hambone” Cameron or Johnny Iguana on keys. They are awesome at what they do.
Q: I’ve noticed when you play on stage as a group that your band is aware of you as a leader. They pay attention to your hand gestures, and I’ve noticed you give the stage up to every single band member if they’d like a solo and if they are comfortable with being center stage.
Lacocque: Absolutely. I feel respected and appreciated as a band leader. If my band members are comfortable with the limelight, I happily share it with them. I am a true ensemble man and I enjoy the whole sound the band creates. Every part is as important as the other. I also like to integrate other people’s solos into our shows when I can. But sometimes, for instance, Kenny Smith, who is a phenomenal drummer, does not like to do so. When he does, he always blows me away. But he is not interested in soloing, and feels he can express himself better by staying in the pocket. Kenny is the most musical drummers I’ve ever played with. It’s not just about keeping time and the beat with Kenny. When I play with him, he knows me, and he has mastered the art of drumming while maintaining that emotional connection with me. He always listens and hones his playing to our solos and vocals. There’s something beyond the math or just keeping the beat. Kenny sings with his drums.
Q: When you play harmonica there is passion in your body language. When you perform, are you so lost in the music that you forget everything else? What is going through your mind as you perform?
Lacocque: The best experience for me is indeed to play in the moment and to feel the band jiving as one. The feeling of being at one with my band members is exhilarating. When I’m in the zone, I can fly. I can do anything I want because the band has my back. So I feel whole and secure.
Q: You compare it to flying? Do you see yourself playing?
Lacocque: There is a flying metaphor for how it feels. It’s the ensemble experience that inspires me to take off in a solo, for instance. I’m still very much a part of the ensemble but I’m allowed to also be separate with joy. It is an uplifting experience. I do not visualize myself in a sort of out-of-body experience though.
Q: Can you compare that feeling you get on stage to something else in life that perhaps more folks have a frame of reference?
Lacocque: Yes, ever since I was a child I have loved soccer. I still am a heck of a fan. I would assume a soccer player gets a similar feeling while playing well with his or her team. I could see it happening with painting and other arts. It’s an experience of bliss. Everyone can experience it. You can have it while running. After inspiring moments on stage, I say to myself “You see Pierre, all of your hard work before tonight was worth it.” It is so fulfilling.
Q: You’re native tongue is French. Do you write in French or English?
Lacocque: I write in English. However, the imagery for each song is beyond language. Ultimately it gets translated into English. I use English more often in the United States, as my singer sings in English. But I do have a song that I wrote in French, “J'ai Besoin de Toi” – “I need you.” It is a rumba, New Orleans style. My mother was cracking up when I sang it in public. She was in the audience. My father was there too. I’m not a singer and I never, ever sing at shows. But for her I did it one time only, and she was smiling ear to ear. Priceless!
Q: A lot of artists experience anxiety or fear when performing. Do you or have you experienced that when performing on stage or when releasing an album?
Lacocque: Yes, in the beginning of my career, it was difficult because I was not as secure as I am now. I remember my wife Vickie and my brother Michel telling me that I looked nervous on stage in my earlier years. I still get nervous, but I anticipate positively the upcoming performance, and I trust my band. I love being around them. We have each other’s back. With the years, I’ve become comfortable with the nervous energy that comes with performing. To offset some of the tension, I always like to have a song list for each gig. Even if we end up deviating completely from the song list, I feel more at ease going into the performance if I have visualized and planned the sets out. I hate dead time between songs. So, I plan what songs make sense sequentially. It’s a form of meditation before each performance.
Q: You manage Mississippi Heat, perform as lead artist, write and record albums, perform your duties as a practicing psychologist, and take care of a family. How do you manage to wear all of these hats successfully?
Lacocque: Well I work constantly at organizing my life, and I must say, I don’t sleep much! While I do everything else, there is music in my head all the time. I accept my lot. I am grateful for the rewards it brings me. Certain things like a quality family life or financial responsibilities are non-negotiable priorities for me. I accept and embrace them. In the midst of all these responsibilities, my heart and soul stay focused on my music throughout the day. I devote hours to my family, and gladly so. But if I have opportunities to work on my music in between work or family functions, I take advantage of that time. Preparing for a recording in particular is a huge endeavor, and it takes a lot of my energy. But for some reason it works, and I am happy doing it. I have noticed after all the hard work and effort of putting together an album, I often have a post-partum period. A period where I’m drained and I doubt myself. Indeed, there are so many factors involved in recording an album. For example, while finishing Delta Bound last year (2012), Inetta was hospitalized. She even lost her voice, which created complications in the scheduling. So many other issues came up to slow the scheduled recording. That’s why you have to love what you do. It offsets the frustrations. Delta Bound turned out great – definitely one of our best recordings to date. I love the songs and especially the sound on it. The mixing by Michael Freeman is fantastic. Delmark Records also provided a special packaging for it. It’s a big honor to our 20th anniversary as a band.
Q: How do you feel your psychology background influences your music and your band?
Lacocque: After decades of reading, studying, and practicing psychology it has become a part of who I am. It helps me in terms of song writing and stories. It is also quite useful in dealing with my band members’ personalities and quirks … including my own! I find that music and psychology are compatible: both are about truth, soul, and the human condition. In fact, some of my songs have been inspired by my clinical cases. For example, “Ghost Daddy” (from Footprints on the Ceiling, CrossCut Records, CCD 11071) is based on a blend of true stories. Also, “What Kind of Man is That” on that same album is based on a true story too. It’s about a woman who was physically abused. Both are graciously interpreted by Billy Boy Arnold.
Q: How would you describe your sound to a deaf person?
Lacocque: Big, gentle and soft. Also tears and smiles. All of it together. I hope that people interpret my sound as one that provides an optimistic view in spite of the chaos and suffering in this world. I would like to think that my music invites you to reflect positively upon your life, and also feel understood.
Q: I would agree. Even in the saddest of songs you’ve recorded there is an uplifting element to them. For example, “Blues for George Baze” (from Footprints on the Ceiling) reflects on the life and death of your friend. The notes and tone of that song are at times excruciating, and yet the cry of the harmonica is somehow innocent and hopeful.
Lacocque: Thank you. That song is one of my signature songs. The sky is the limit in terms of depth for that piece. I can stay a long time within that emotional state while saying goodbye to George Baze. But over the years that song has taken on a more universal meaning. It has become an invitation to go deep into one’s soul and find oneself tightly and wonderfully held. It has a tension, but also a denouement. To me, it has a coherent statement even though it doesn’t have any lyrics.
Q: What’s the hardest part about being a professional musician?
Lacocque: The hardest part is financial. In spite of working as much as we do, there is not enough income to cover the bills. There are no material luxuries. There are also familial consequences if you have loved ones depending on you.
Q: The business of music is competitive. Do you have advice for any who hope to successfully navigate the waters of becoming a professional musician?
Lacocque: You must ask yourself, “Why am I doing it?” Personally, I don’t play music just to play. I play music out of necessity. It’s a soulful urgency for me. I think if you follow your passion, you must also take responsibility for that passion by taking care of things outside that passion. For example, you may have a family or a part-time job that will require your attention too. It’s important to balance those things with your passion. It is also hard to make it alone. You will need the support of your family and friends. In my case, my brother, my parents, my wife, and my sister support me, so that I could pursue this passion of mine. But it took determination and risk. I have chosen a balance in my life where I devote time to my wife and family, where I work part-time in my private practice and play my music whenever we get a call. We are fortunate to be in demand. We play more than a hundred dates a year. I guess I am saying that playing music for me, is not getting rid of responsibilities. It actually means adding responsibilities. I bring my income from work as a psychologist, as modest as it is sometimes, to my wife and home. I could not bear enjoying my musical career without taking my responsibilities as a husband and father.
Q: What do you see for the future of Mississippi Heat?
Lacocque: More recordings, touring in new countries, traveling to Brazil in October, lots of exciting festivals where we meet new friends and run into old ones.
To learn more about Pierre Lacocque and Mississippi Heat visit www.mississippiheat.net. Also, be sure to pick up a copy of their new CD Delta Bound(Delmark Records, DE 823) to experience the urgency with which Lacocque and Mississippi Heat interpret the blues.