Everything was put on hold. The initial diagnosis was dire…
So here we are, barely halfway through 2020, and already we have been subjected to the horrific scenario of Australia burning, a crisis in the Persian Gulf that threatened to provoke a third world war, some of the most catastrophic floods in British history (and elsewhere), the effective bankrupting of the world economy due to a viral pandemic and a new wave of race riots. Stephen Dale Petit’s ferocious new double-vinyl-album 2020 Visions seems to have taken these elements and hammered them together into a screaming, dystopian nightmare. It comes as a shock then, to find out that the album was finished, done, dusted and in the can two years ago. Even more disturbing is that Petit himself came close to shuffling off this mortal coil in the meantime. Have real life and art ever brushed this close before?
“Yes, it was ready for release sort of late 2018,” says Petit in his lazy hybrid California/London drawl. “And then I was the recipient of a diagnosis of cancer, so everything was put on hold. The initial diagnosis was dire.” Petit was advised to prepare for life-changing surgery or else get his affairs in order and wait for the inevitable. However, a re-diagnosis held out some hope and it turned out that a better scenario was at least possible. “It was still stage four cancer, it was hardcore. So I had chemo and radio for 2 months, every single day. It was gruelling; I got through it, and a year and a bit later it’s still all clear, so you know, I’m a happy camper on that front.”
Before any of that happened though, Petit’s method was already changing, and he approached this album in a new way. “I really was kind of channelling sort of a Shaman, or John the Revelator, trying to use spider-sense and any other sense – meditation quiets down all the stuff that the media is filling our heads with and I suppose there’s an element of that tool if you will, of meditation, coming into play. But anyway I was just trying to put my finger up to the wind to catch the zeitgeist in a sense. It felt kind of odd; I’ve never really gone for anything like that, so this was all fresh territory in terms of my writing. But it all just started to work and I went with it.”
Early in life, Petit chose the blues as his language of choice. But he refuses to be constrained by anyone’s expectations of what the blues should be. Whether the guitar work screams in overdriven anger or chats calmly in clear tones, rolls gently inside a 12-bar structure or thunders blindly down a prog-fusion track, no direction is disqualified from inclusion in the set. “For instance, I have never released an album that had nine-minute songs on it,” he says. “But I gave each song its head, so if it felt like it needed to be nine minutes, I wasn’t timing it as I was writing it. Once there was enough form to the song that it could be measured or recorded, I put it on my phone just for a reference, and it was sort of like, oh – how did it get to nine minutes? Oh well, if that’s what it is, then that’s what it is.”
Indeed, the furiously-titled The Fall Of America is one of the nine-minute epics in question, and it can’t be coincidence that it finally sputters out at nine minutes and eleven seconds – or 9/11 if you will. Anyone else would have held it back as a breathtaking album closer, but Petit stuck it in at track no.2.
“Well yes, the original thought was to put it at the end. But it’s turned out so well from all sorts of aspects, which we can circle back on. In fact I was so excited about how it had turned out, that I was open to the idea when Jack the drummer said, ‘Nah, we should put it first! It should be the lead-off track,’ and I thought you know what? That’s a pretty good statement. So for a little while, that was the running order. And then I just thought, well the title track 2020 Visions really sets the stage and should be the opener. It’s the compère of the evening, who oozes onstage and introduces the rest of the set, so it made sense to put The Fall Of America second. I didn’t want people to have to wait, because it’s a double album, and you never know – people tell me they discover the second side of the second disc a year later sometimes! I don’t understand that; I never listen to music that way, but apparently some people do. So I wanted to make sure that it hit people right in the solar plexus as soon as possible.”
He needn’t fret, as the actual album closer is another nine-minute workout; Zombie Train is a rock-rap mashup which powers into a prog-fusion juggernaut before a leisurely drift into oblivion, the only fadeout on the album as it happens. With a full hour of playing time, there is plenty of light and shade in the set, but for Petit the structure hangs on three numbers in particular. “2020 Visions is a slightly dystopian vision, or post-apocalyptic dystopian or pre-apocalyptic dystopian, you know. The three main threads are the title track 2020 Visions, The Fall of America and Zombie Train. They are the main pillars I suppose, so everything else is built in around that.”
He introduced us to these coffees that are shots of espresso and condensed milk, and probably by then we were on triples; by the time we left we were on quads.
The other indispensable factor is the band. Petit favours the classic power-trio format, and he is effusive in his praise of his musicians and even the production crew led by Vance Powell, who hosted the recording sessions at his Nashville studio. Zombie Train features bassist Sophie Lord driving into the kind of fluid bass improv that would have 1970s jam bands frothing at the mouth in admiration. I mention that it seems like a bit of a breakout for Sophie, cool and disciplined as she is elsewhere on the album, but Petit is taken aback. “Well it was always the intention for her bass to be featured on that track. It’s kind of the way the song developed; it started with the drum pattern and she put something to it. It was clear it was going to be a rhythm-led track with the bass being at the forefront. And I was all for that, she’s a great bass player, truly brilliant. And I don’t know that I’d agree that she’s laid back elsewhere; it’s a different attitude sure on Zombie train, but she’s giving it plenty of wellie on Tinderbox or Raw; even on Fall of America, she’s playing her ass off. But Zombie Train is so welded together, it’s like a fine watch mechanism. The way the guitar riff works with the way the bass works with the way the drums are working, it’s one of the reasons, like I said earlier we can circle back; one of the reasons I’m so happy with the song. Because it’s an organic machine, not clinical; there’s the interaction, you can hear there’s a little bit of breathing going on, and there are a couple of moments where I think the whole thing is just magical. And Vance Powell of course; I’d say he’s a sonic genius.”
Petit digresses here into an anecdote that showcases producer Powell’s man-management skills as much as his production wizardry. “We flew to Nashville and we had six days with him to do all the songs. I think we did Fall of America after lunch on the third day, and by then the jet lag was kicking in because we flew there, spent the night then were recording the next day. He introduced us to these coffees that are shots of espresso and condensed milk, and probably by then we were on triples; by the time we left we were on quads. We recorded another song then had lunch, and after that it was just really difficult and we couldn’t settle, and I ended up storming out of the studio! It all just sort of happened; we weren’t really gelling; we weren’t having arguments or anything, but you could tell people were getting a bit irritated and frustrated. Everything else had been so smooth, but this was proving difficult. And it’s a long song as well, and if somebody makes a glaring mistake six minutes into a nine minute song, you have to go back and start again. And bless him, I stormed out and he read the situation so well. He’s a pro; he’s world class and he’s seen some punch-ups I’m sure in the past – but he came flying out after me and he said, what’s up? He read what was going on, he knew all the circumstances; we’d been working our asses off – and having a great time! But still, you gotta rest, you gotta eat, you gotta have some breathing space somehow; there had been none since we hit US soil. He was so chilled and cool, and he just talked to me; he wasn’t even addressing it head on so to speak, he was just there. So I went back in after 20 minutes, probably had a cup of coffee or something, and then we laid it down. So there are a lot of reasons I’m so hugely grateful and honoured to work with him.”
Petit came across Powell’s skills by accident, when he was looking for a likely candidate to produce his previous album Cracking The Code. Petit had been so impressed with The Dead Weather’s set at Glastonbury that he went and bought an album and found that Powell had been involved with the production work. “I had done some test days at a couple of studios in London; they were great, but I was looking for something with a whole different character. And I had the feeling that Vance would be able to do that – and he delivered beyond my wildest dreams and imaginings. He started as a front-of-house sound mixer, and when people are mixing live sound, if there’s something wrong, you don’t have 15 minutes to get your assistant to go into the back room and sort out some widget or some grommet or whatever. He came up solving those sorts of problems and issues on the fly, so when you’re in the studio with him, all that instinct is still there. So if you say to him, imagine that we’re, I dunno, at the Acropolis or something, and you’ve got a platform so you can be slightly elevated from the guitar amp and you can mic it from two different perspectives – he’d go – ‘Okaaay… OK yeah, just hang on a second,’ and he’d go and dial this and dial that and then say right, see what you think of this… So from that point of view, he’s the dream recording man, as far as I’m concerned.”
The Pretty things were always understandably territorial about him … the best drummer in the United Kingdom bar none.
Petit was introduced to his drummer Jack Greenwood via Phil May and Dick Taylor of The Pretty Things, who had saved Petit’s bacon when he migrated to England as a teenager in the mid-80s. “When I first moved to London from California, I suffered and struggled through my first English winter – I had 15 years as a kid in California, so it was a massive culture shock, weather shock, everything shock. I met Phil and he instinctively took me under his wing, he and Dick Taylor. So I’ve known him for decades and he was a huge help and a huge inspiration and always encouraging; we wrote songs together and he came and sat in with us. I sat in with the Pretty Things a lot.”
Phil sadly passed away just a couple of weeks before this interview, and the loss clearly hit Petit hard. He recounts an anecdote from his early days in London. “Famously, or infamously, when I was about 19 he invited me down to a friends’ band sort of a jam thing where they played Chuck Berry and Blues and I set up my guitar and went to the bar. When they called us back, I strapped on my guitar and was checking it; I’m turning my amp on and making sure I’ve got signal and some guy’s stood right next to me doing it on my left, three feet away. And I look up and it’s Dave Gilmour! Ian Stewart was there that night and the Memphis Horns and it became this little Mecca. I moved to London with this image of swinging ‘60s London in my head; it was nothing of the sort of course, but there were about twelve shows that ended up happening, and people were coming from all over Europe. Gilmour was at all of them, you had Glen Matlock of the Sex Pistols, Peter Frampton, Mick Jones, Kiki Dee, other people.
“Anyway, so Phil May and Dick Taylor are dear friends, and their musical legacy is thankfully left to all of us. Jack Greenwood started to play with them and he did a couple of radio sessions for me – then we did the High Voltage album with Dick Taylor playing bass and Jack on drums. The Pretty things were always understandably territorial about him; I think he’s the best drummer in the United Kingdom bar none; there’s nobody who’s got the magic, who can just pull it out of the hat. He’s sort of like a combination of Mitch Mitchell, Ginger Baker, John Bonham and Keith Moon! And with all that, he brings his own thing of course.”
A modicum of research into Petit’s history makes it obvious that he knows, has met or played with virtually everybody in the world of blues and rock’n’roll, but the conversation sounds more and more like a roll-call of the high and mighty as it goes on. For instance, his met his current bass player Sophie Lord through Norman Watt-Roy, formerly bassist with Ian Dury and the Blockheads, now playing with fellow ex-Blockhead and ex-Feelgood Wilko Johnson. Wilko has gone on record as saying that Watt-Roy was his favourite bass player and one of the main reasons he joined the Blockheads back in 1980.
Petit went to see Wilko at the Shepherds Bush Empire, but missed his connection with the friend who was supposed to be getting him into the venue. “So I was stood outside the venue and John Mayall’s son Jason was out having a cigarette. I had just hung with him a few days before, so that was kind of easy. So at the aftershow, at the bar, I was speaking to Norman and he said here, meet Sophie, she’s a fantastic bass player. Well if Norman Watt-Roy is going to recommend someone as a fantastic bass player, that’s enough for me! She’s got a fantastic work ethic and she’s talented as well, so when you put those two things together, you get something special. She’s got a great ear for the song, and she’s always listening to the melody of the vocal as well as any sort of sub-melodies that might develop in any of the guitar parts or any keyboards that happen to be there. So she’s always adding; she’s just got a knack for being able to do it, so it seems effortless. So when you say she’s laid back, I think that’s it; it sounds effortless. It sounds like it’s all hung together exactly as it should be, but it’s actually an exquisite sense and a grace about how to approach what she’s playing. But she also digs in; she can be as bad-ass as any bass player.
“One of the manifesto bullet points about this album is that I wanted it to be a tribute to the bent guitar note, guitar bends, because it’s the instrument I think that most readily lends itself to mimicking the wail of a human voice. Roxie’s Song is already packed full of emotion, then there is this part where Sophie’s basically taking over the melody, just responding instinctively in harmony and embellishing it, adding a whole other component. It’s like a dream, it’s brilliant. She does that everywhere. There are parts of the album where Jack’s just playing something that’s impossible, you know, insane, and there are parts of the album where Sophie is making the same sort of contribution on her instrument. It’s one of the reasons I’m so proud of the album, the ensemble playing. They’re bringing performances to the music, capturing lightning in a bottle; everybody rose to the occasion and played their asses off.”
Next in line for Petit’s praise are the guest musicians on their uplifting cover of Blind Willie Johnson’s 1930 gospel hit Soul Of A Man. Shemekia Copeland’s massed vocal harmonies lift this number into a league of its own, as does Paul Jones’ gritty, distorted harmonica playing.
“Shemekia’s in another league, she’s such an amazing voice and talent. When we did the session, she was in Chicago, I was in London and we did it by Skype! There are a lot of harmonies there and there’s a lot of Shemekia, but it sounds glorious. I was kind of concerned because I wanted to double them or triple them, and I thought she was going to go, no man, I’m outta here, I’m done! But she was fabulous, she had a great attitude and I didn’t want it to sound like a typical vocal group, where the parts are always the root and the third and the fifth, with maybe some embellishments on the seventh or the sixth, whatever, so we were searching for parts and she was really happy to do all that and I was chuffed and she said she had a great time. And she’s a friend, she’s someone I know, she’s been to England, I’ve seen her here three of four times. I visit her Manager in New York sometimes.”
I mention that it’s unusual to hear veteran harp-honker Paul Jones of The Manfreds, now into his late 70s, blowing through a fuzz-pedal; his trademark sound tends to be traditionally clear. Once again though, Petit has a different view. “I’m not sure it’s overdriven; it’s just a small amp turned to 10! I don’t think there’s much effect on it, it’s just the old blues school of working your equipment to the point where it’s on the edge. He’s just phenomenal; he’s got great energy and I think he played some astonishing harp. But the genius of it is that it’s all in aid of the song, even though it’s proper virtuoso harp playing. I don’t use the word genius haphazardly or casually, but if you took what he’s playing and put it on a standard blues progression, you’d be blown away. And yet it fits perfectly into the song, so that is just true genius.”
Several other musicians appear in lesser roles, including a cellist, no less, on The Fall Of America. There is another cameo appearance worthy of note – slow blues The Ending Of The End starts with a ‘vocal collage’, with a toddler singing the Teapot Song and some older voices wishing happy birthday and suchlike. Keep your ears peeled here and listen out for Ringo Starr’s voice! This track also features the twinkling piano of Nashville keyboardist Daniel Ellsworth. “He just fitted right in,” says Petit. “Nashville is full of the most astonishing players on the planet. So we would be routining the song, making certain settings or changes in mic placement, just getting ready to punch record; I’d give him a chord chart and we’d play through it, and by the time it came to do the take, 15 minutes or so later, he was all locked in. Another instinctive, intuitive musician who’s just fabulous.”
Ellsworth also lends his talents to Zombie Train, which features a rocking vocal rap of all things. It doesn’t sound like Petit’s plaintive wail though, so I’m interested to know who it is. Turns out it is Petit after all, but he’s working hard to give it an extra edge. “The original idea was to have Iggy Pop and Dr. John do it, and I had actually been in touch with Dr. John. But he became so ill, and he was not well for a good 18 months to 2 years before he died. So I ended up cutting that vocal first, because it was an easy sort of sung-spoken kind of thing, just as a warm up really. Then I did all the rest of the vocals, and that was a lot of fun – there were three and four part harmonies, so I did all those and stacked them up, then when I came back to listen to Zombie Train, it just sounded kind of stale and stiff, so I did it again. And bearing in mind that Dr. John was the original voice that was going to do that, I thought well I can’t do an imitation, but let’s give it something; some ‘garlic in the puss’ as he would say! So I was trying to go for something that had character and had some vibe to it.
It’s been mentioned that Petit isn’t much of a one for genre restrictions. His guitar varies between smooth jazz for the instrumental On Top to comfortable pub blues on their groovy cover of Tommy Tucker’s Long Tall Shorty, and screaming Hendrix rock on the title track, which owes a fair debt to Stone Free. There is a glorious homage to Clapton in the shape of The Bluesbreakers’ pioneering blues rocker Steppin’ Out; the epic Zombie Train starts in the rap gutter and ends in cosmic transience, while his voice carries the punk/New Wave flavour of Midnight Oil, The Clash or The Ramones. I ask him if he deliberately throws as many styles as he can at it.
“It’s not deliberate – but letting it happen is deliberate. That is to say, I never subscribe to the ‘stay in your lane’ mentality. What’s the point? As a musician you have the entire history of recorded music at your fingertips, so everyone can get influenced by all kinds of stuff and it’s more accessible than ever. I have come to realise that The Beatles’ White Album, which I stole from my parents’ record collection, was a huge influence on what I thought an album should be. There are no rules. Why should there be rules? Who says you can’t do this or that? Who says so? And if they do say that, why do I have to agree? They can say that and feel that and be really strong in their opinion, but I didn’t sign up for it. I’m a big believer in music is music, and I’ll stick to the description attributed to Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington amongst others, which is ‘There are two kinds of music: there’s the good kind and then there’s the other kind…’”
So what is next for SDP? “It’s looking like we’re going to do a 10-inch EP for Record Store Day, which has turned into three Record Store Days in the UK. And a big shout-out to all the independent retailers and shops up and down the country; they are a hugely important component for music and music lovers. And it’s thrilling that vinyl is making such a comeback. The digital release is upon us, and then the physical looks like being early September. I think we’re going to do the 100 Club in early March of next year, but there are dates this year; we’ve got another Spanish tour in October which we had a great time doing last time, we did 17 shows. And then another album as soon as all of this unfolds.
This album’s turmoil and tragedy serves to underline Petit’s total immersion in the music, which initially prompted him to migrate to London, the hub of the blues world as he understood it, while still a kid, and has powered his existence ever since. It’s too strong, too primal a force, to be constrained by petty ideas of genre, and Stephen Dale Petit, preacher of the blues, can evangelise with the best. “For me, it’s 24/7 for however long it lasts; the recording, the mixing and the mastering, and everything is as if your life depends on it and your soul depends on it and you’ve put so much into it. And so, for me to be willing to subject myself to that, which might sound really pretentious, I need to be happy that I can let the creativity be what it is. It’s all-encompassing and exhilarating and draining and magic and there are hard times too, when you can’t seem to figure out how to get something right, and then somehow the solution appears, and all points in between. Because once you turn it loose, you turn it loose, and that’s it and it’s done.”
Amen to that, brother.