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FEATURES -- Nick Moss

Interview with:

Nick Moss

Nick Moss: singer, songwriter, guitarist, band leader, label head, producer, family man. No matter which hat he’s wearing, Nick is a Chicago blues man to the bone.



By Tim Holek


Nick Moss learned to play the bass at a young age, but what he really wanted to do was play sports. After his career in sports was cut short due to surgery, he became re-enamored with music. Not long after that Moss was performing with the great Jimmy Dawkins. In 1993, Moss joined the Legendary Blues Band where he was mentored by Willie ‘Big Eyes’ Smith. During his final year with the band, he switched to playing guitar. Next, he became the guitarist in Jimmy Rogers' band. In the late ’90s, Moss put together his own band, the FlipTops.


 In 1998, Nick and his wife Kate, a graphic designer, started Blue Bella Records, an indie co-op label that includes fellow blues musicians Gerry Hundt, Bill Lupkin and the Kilborn Alley Blues Band. Since then, Moss has earned over a dozen Blues Music Awards nominations. In November 2008, Moss won his first award from the new Blues Blast Music Awards for best song (“Mistakes From The Past”). Moss produced Magic Slim’s critically acclaimed 2008 CD for Blind Pig Records, Midnight Blues.  Nick Moss and the Flip Tops will release a live CD on April 21, Live At Chan’s – Combo Platter #2, with guest artist Lurrie Bell.




Tim Holek for the Chicago Blues Guide (CBG): The music that you perform is steeped in old school African-American blues. Why aren’t there more African-Americans – particularly your age or even younger – playing blues?


Nick Moss: Radio stations, television and the music industry itself promote music in the urban areas that create hip hop and rap. If there is any exposure, for a younger African-American, let alone a Caucasian American to blues, it’s gotta be that they might have heard it in their mom and dad’s record collection. I doubt they even heard it on the radio or seen it on TV. There is no exposure [for it] like there was in the ’50s and ’60s. It lost its exposure in the ’70s.


CBG: During the so-called Year Of The Blues in 2003, Chuck D tried merging hip hop with the blues. That was going to be the big salvation of blues but that never really took off. Where you an advocate of that? How did you feel about that?   


NM: I’m an advocate of anyone who tries to bring blues into the mainstream. I’m not an advocate of people who aren’t qualified. There seemed to be a few artists who were doing it that were jumping on the bandwagon that year. But there were some artists who had a blues background. To me, year 2003 The Year Of The Blues, it was a complete joke. I don’t think it did anything. That Martin Scorsese seven film series – to let people who don’t have any knowledge about blues actually put something together… If I was Martin Scorsese, I would have asked these directors what’s your knowledge of the history of blues before I let this guy go and make his documentary. Its like I’m going to do a documentary about heat and air-conditioning and I’m gonna have a plumber direct it.

 photo by Tim Holek

nick-by-timCBG: You’ve been critically praised by some tough to please individuals in the immediate Chicago area – guys like Bill Dahl and Dick Shurman. How does that make you feel?


NM: Great because these guys have been around for a long time and have seen and worked with some of the greatest names in Chicago and national blues. It’s great to have their support. I respect what each of them has to say.


CBG: Dick is a very noted producer. Has he given you any tips regarding how to produce?


NM: I fell into the production role on my own and most of the production I learned from Lynwood Slim. He and I go back a long way. He co-produced my first couple of CDs. Lynwood Slim is a guy who probably not a lot of people have heard unless they are a deep blues fan and have really been following the music. He has spent a lot of years and knows the history of the music and of recorded blues. I learned a lot from being in the studio with him. He has produced lots of records for other people like Kid Ramos. He knows how to get those old vintage sounds. He is also well aware of the new modern recording techniques. Just from observing him, I developed my own technique of producing. Producing isn’t all about the technical aspect. A lot of it is just knowing what feels right. There are a lot of things that you hear sitting in the production room that you don’t hear when you are performing on the other side of the glass window. To me, what really makes a good recording is the feel of the song, especially if you are recording live and that’s the way I learned to record and the way I record. I’ve never worked on a record where the different tracks were recorded at different times on different days. The way I produce is very organic.

Nick & Lonnie Brooks 

nick-lonnieCBG: Would you say that you’ve made it your goal to carry on the traditional electric blues of the ’50s or old school blues as some would call it? If not, what goals do you have for your music?   


NM: I don’t consider myself a ’50s or retro or vintage Chicago blues torchbearer. I grew up in Chicago. Everything I do know, I learned from the old-timer Chicago musicians. So anything I play is going to sound like Chicago. I play what I know. I can play West Coast blues, Texas style, Piedmont style, and country blues, but inevitably it’s going to come out sounding like Chicago. People who say I’m a retro or ’50s stylist, I don’t know if they are listening hard enough to my records. On my first CD, First Offense, there probably was a conscious effort to be vintage because I had just come out from playing with Jimmy Rogers. He was my idol and I wanted it to sound like it was old Chess Records but every record since then has been a mixture of ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, and even some ’80s stuff, but it’s all Chicago. I like to consider myself a Chicago blues musician who incorporates all the eras and all the styles of Chicago blues.       


CBG: What did you learn the most from Jimmy Dawkins and Jimmy Rogers?


NM: I didn’t get to spend a lot of time with Jimmy Dawkins, but what I picked up from him was his ability to play with fire and passion. He is still one of my all time favorite guitar players. I went straight from playing with Dawkins to the Legendary Blues Band with Willie ‘Big Eyes’ Smith and Pinetop Perkins and all those guys. With Willie, I learned how to play the Chicago feel. You know that lag time behind the beat feel that Muddy Waters made so famous? That was one of the most important lessons – to learn the feel and timing of how this music is supposed to be played. Willie also taught me how to deal with people and band members. He was like a second father to me. I pretty much didn’t listen to my father when I was growing up. It wasn’t until I went out on the road with Willie that I realized; this guy sounds a lot like my dad. It actually made me have more respect for my father and what he had been trying to tell me all of my life.


CBG: So Willie helped you to have a better relationship with your dad?


NM: I would say yeah man. It helped me open up my ears. Willie helped me to be a better person in life. He helped me grow up and become an adult. The same thing goes when I got my chance to play with Jimmy Rogers. I had always looked up to him as being one of the greatest architects of the Chicago style. Muddy Waters had his sound before he came to Chicago. When he got to Chicago he was still playing that plantation style blues, but it wasn’t until he met Jimmy Rogers that the Muddy Waters Chess sound became famous because the way Jimmy played rhythm guitar. From Jimmy, I learned how to play the way those guys played in that ensemble setting the way you are supposed to play and interact with the other guys on stage with you. With Willie I learned how to play with feel and time. I was playing bass then, so I’d just listen to Willie all night. Where he went, I went. I switched to playing guitar my last year with Willie. As a guitar player and a front man, you have to be aware of everything around you. From Jimmy, I learned to really listen to what was going on and to play off of the next guy. I was no longer just playing a single part.      


 Lurrie Bell & Nick

lurriebell-nickmossCBG: Let’s talk about your band The Flip Tops. Combined, how many different instruments can you guys play?


NM: Approximately 17.


CBG: With the capability to play of all of those different instruments, what advantage does that give you guys over the other bands that are out on the scene? 


NM: It keeps it more interesting. In today’s economy it’s hard for someone to spend $10-$15 cover, especially when you have to fill up your car with gas and that costs $80. Things start to add up quickly for someone who wants to come out and see a band. We give you more for your money. You got four bands for the price of one. I say that as a bit of a joke but I’m being serious too. We all get a chance to sing lead vocals, and we switch instruments. I think people get a kick out of it and respect the musicianship a little more.


CBG: Your music career is closely tied into your family. It could be called a family affair.


NM: You’ve written about your daughter Sadie Mae and your wife Kate. She and you run Blue Bella Records and Kate does all the publicity for you. As commendable as that is, it must present some interesting challenges too, huh?


NM: I don’t think we’ve felt any stress other than the cost of trying to do it yourself and trying to budget an ad campaign for everything. Other than that, the only thing that has any strain is my touring. That’s just starting to show now that my daughter is getting a little older. She’s four years old and misses daddy when he’s on the road. For the first few years, she was pretty much mommy’s kid, but this last year or so she wants to know where daddy is going. When I’m on the road, I get a call every other day and she says “come home, come home”. My wife and I have the perfect relationship because I’m lazy and she is an over-achiever. When I’m on the road and I’m with my band I’m a completely different person. I’m one of the least lazy guys you’d meet. I’m all about the business and making sure that everything runs right. Kate loves what she does and I don’t understand how she does it man. She runs her own full-time business Moonshine Design, helps manage our record company Blue Bella, and helps with the publicity we do with Mark Pucci, she helps manage our distribution with Burnside Records, she helps manage our radio play with Todd Glazer, she also helps to manage the other three bands I have on the Blue Bella roster [Bill Lupkin, The Kilborn Alley Blues Band, and Gerry Hundt], and then she takes care of our daughter when I’m on the road. How she did all of that I don’t know.


CBG: Where did you first meet Kate?


NM: I’ve known my wife for 15 or 16 years. I first met her probably at Legend’s or maybe at B.L.U.E.S. etc. She was probably just out of college. She went to the Art Institute of Chicago. I think one of her first jobs was with Delmark Records as the in-house designer. She was also the house photographer at Buddy Guy’s. I never thought she’d have anything to do with me. We became friends and eventually when the time was right we decided that we both liked each other and wondered why weren’t we together. We’ve been together as a couple for eight years and married for six.


CBG: One of the reasons that you and Kate formed Blue Bella Records is because you couldn’t get a label to sign you. Do you recall why the labels didn’t want to take a risk and sign a new young blues artist?


NM: I didn’t have a household name; that was the biggest thing. I was just a sideman to them. Also my style of blues, which is hard core traditional Chicago, affected it [getting signed]. I don’t hold a grudge [against the labels]. Once the ball got rolling, by the time my third CD came out, I had labels asking me if they could lease my record. I didn’t need them by then. I just started having a relationship with Blind Pig Records in the last year. Jerry Del Giudice [founder of Blind Pig Records] told my last agent that he wished we could work together. I ran into him at the Blues Music Awards (BMAs) in 2007. He was very complimentary about the way my career has been going and said that he’d love to work with me. I told him I really like doing my own thing and I have no interest going with a label, but if you would be interested in me doing some production work for your artists, I would love to do that. Right away he said what do you want to do? I told him I’d always been a huge fan of Magic Slim and that Blind Pig hadn’t released a new album by him in a while. He said, as it happens we are getting ready to record a new Slim album and he offered for me to produce it. We just completed it and I’m really excited about that.


 nick-magic-slimNick & Magic Slim by Kate Moss

CBG: You mention that you don’t hold any grudges. But at the same time, there has to be quite a bit of satisfaction that you proved the labels wrong, in that there is a market for your style of music.


NM: Of course. But I’m not going to say that I’m never going to work with these guys [the labels] or record for them at some point in the future. Who knows? Some day we may decide doing it ourselves is too much of a burden.


CBG: What is your label named after? 


NM: Blue Bella means pretty blue or beautiful blue. It was named after my 1970 Lincoln Mark III. It had a 460 [engine] and was gorgeous. Unfortunately I had to get rid of that car. I got it in California and drove it back home from California. I babied that car for a long time and Blue Bella was my nickname for it.  


CBG: This year you were nominated for several BMAs. You were up for Album Of The Year, Band Of The Year, and Best Guitarist. As good as the BMAs are, some members of the Blues Foundation, and blues fans in general, feel the awards aren’t known well enough in the greater music industry. Some people would like to see the BMAs evolve into the same format as the Country Music Awards with a fanfare, etc. What are your thoughts of the BMAs and what, if anything, about them needs to change?


Lurrie Bell, Magic Slim, Nick Moss display their Blues Blast Music Awards, Nov. 2008--by Kate Moss

NM: The jury is still out for me on that one. I like that there is a sense of community while the awards are happening. But for the rest of the year, I’m wondering what’s going on? For me, it’s just a good time to get together with a lot of my friends that I don’t get a chance to see throughout the year and to party for a couple days. I stopped expecting to win an award after the first nomination [for Best New Artist Debut in 2003]. I don’t go to them expecting to win one. It would be great if I did but I kinda have my own thoughts on that too but I’ll keep those private to me. I think they [The Blues Foundation] do more for the International Blues Challenge (IBCs) than they do for the BMAs and that is actually upsetting to me. I’m not a big fan of competition in music or art in the first place. Art wasn’t meant to be a competition. I know there are a lot of bands that need a break. There are a lot of bands that can’t even afford to make the trip [to Memphis for the IBCs] or don’t have the blues societies around them to sponsor them to go. To me, I think it’s already incomplete that way. The other thing that bothers me is the IBC winner is guaranteed slots on all these great festivals. There are artists that have been touring for years who haven’t played some of these festivals. I think The Blues Foundation should concentrate more on the BMAs. The idea to have a fanfare for a couple days would be great, plus I’d like to see more what’s going on the rest of the year to try to get blues more recognized. It’s one of the original American art-forms that still exist in this country [America].         


CBG: I understand that you switched from playing bass to guitar while in the hospital, suffering from kidney problems. What was it about the guitar and blues music that helped you pull through your health challenges?


NM: I played bass as a kid and in high school bands. When I was in the hospital – at 18 – to have kidney surgery, my brother brought my bass into the hospital. I was at Children’s Memorial Hospital and was bored out of my skull because there wasn’t much for me to do as most of the other patients were a lot younger. To take my mind off of things and play was an important part of my recovery. It [the surgery] was a turning point in my life. I was never going to play football again. I had been a state champion wrestler. I was a scouted football player coming out of high school and this happened right after my final year of high school. I wasn’t going to be able to pursue sports so I thought there is no need for me to go to college. When my brother brought my bass into the hospital, it occurred to me that I had forgot how much fun playing music was. One day he mentioned that a really cool band was playing across the street from the hospital at the Wise Fool’s Pub. He talked the doctors, nurses, and my parents into letting me out for a couple hours that night. I literally had tubes coming out of the sides of my stomach which lead into bags that were holding my waste because my kidneys were shutting down. But I went to the club looking like that and Little Charlie and the Nightcats were playing to promote their first Alligator Records release. Including me and my brother, there was like five people in the audience. The band wasn’t big at all then. I remember sitting and thinking as I watched that show, I would love to be able to do this. If I could do this for the rest of my life and make a living, I’d be happy.


--- photos by Tim Holek and Kate Moss

Thanks to Kate Moss for her assistance with scheduling this interview.

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