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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 . In 1993, Moss joined where he was mentored by . During his final year with the band, he switched to playing guitar. Next, he became the guitarist in ' 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.
by Tim Holek
photo by Tim Holek
You’ve been critically praised by some tough to please individuals in
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 & Lonnie Brooks
CBG: 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?
I don’t consider myself a ’50s or retro or vintage
CBG: What did you learn the most from Jimmy Dawkins and Jimmy Rogers?
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
CBG: So Willie helped you to have a better relationship with your dad?
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
CBG: 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?
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
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?
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
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
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?
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
--- photos by Tim Holek and Kate Moss
Thanks to Kate Moss for her assistance with scheduling this interview.