Get Out Yer Ya-Yas & Yin-Yangs
Get Out Yer Ya-Yas & Yin-Yangs
A Q&A with Popa Chubby
By Geoff Gehman
Popa Chubby not only makes opposites attract, he makes them kiss, make up and tell. As a guitarist, he’s just as comfortable with punk country funk as low-slung, bucket-seat, hot-rod blues. As a singer, he’s equally effective at Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and his own “If the Diesel Don’t Get You Then the Jet Fuel Will.” It’s not for nothing that his right arm is tattooed with the Chinese character for chaos and opportunity.
On Feb. 26 Mr. PC will return to the Mauch Chunk Opera House to kick out the ya-yas and the yin-yangs. He’ll sample tracks from his latest record, “Big, Bad & Beautiful” (Cleopatra), two live CDs loaded with everything from “Noise Making Love Machine” to “Over the Rainbow.” The album was cut in France, where the big man is celebrated as bad and beautiful.
Below, in a conversation from his Hudson River Valley home, the massively talented musician discusses his debts to the jukebox in his parents’ candy store, Otis Redding and a legendary producer/engineer he calls Yoda.
Q: What was the first song you couldn’t forget, that absolutely laid you flat?
A: “Johnny B. Goode.” I first heard it when I was seven years old when my dad took me to see Chuck Berry at Madison Square Garden. I was obsessed with it.
As far as a first record I couldn’t forget, I remember being seven and hearing “Purple Haze” on the radio and it really rocked my life. I heard that and Frank Sinatra’s “That’s Life” on the same station; back in the ’60s there was only AM radio and they played all the hits: “Magic Carpet Ride,” “Somebody to Love,” the Supremes.
My parents owned a candy store [in the Bronx] with a jukebox. I would play the hits from Stax and Motown–all rhythm & blues. Man, I heard Marvin Gaye’s version of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” over and over and over again.
My parents sold egg creams, hamburgers, penny candies, newspapers, cigarettes—the whole nine yards. All the neighborhood kids would hang out at the store.
It was at 181st Street and Arthur Avenue, a real old school Italian neighborhood. If you ever saw the movie “A Bronx Tale,” that’s the place.
Q: What was the first blues tune that nailed you to the crossroads?
A: Man, that’s a hard question because how do you define blues? But I do have an answer. My father was a huge fan of blues, jazz and rock and roll when rock and roll happened. He had a lot of 78s and my favorite song was “St. James Infirmary” [sings first line]. After that, man, I’d have to say my first blues experience came from listening to Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix. The first Led Zeppelin record was basically all Willie Dixon songs. I remember reading the credits and wondering: Who the fuck is this Willie Dixon guy?
After that, I started listening to all the Chess [Records] stuff. The early Muddy Waters Chess records really rocked my world. Then I heard B.B. King’s “Live at the Regal” and that changed my world. And then I heard Freddie King and once I discovered him it was all over, man. Freddie King was the shit, man.
Q: In 1995 you recorded the album “Booty and the Beast” with Tom Dowd, the legendary producer/engineer of albums by the likes of the Allman Brothers Band, Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding. What did he teach you besides paying very close attention to the low end?
A: I had the great honor of working with Tom and becoming a close personal friend. He was a great teacher and like all great teachers he demystified the process. He was a master at really getting the low end to have presence and definition, at getting the mixes to really pop. It was old school but it’s completely valid, more so than ever in a world of digital manipulation and ads that say “Make music like a DJ.”
What Tom taught me to do was to trust what I already knew. What he did with record making was incredibly uncomplicated and simple; he proved that a good engineer can make any room a studio. When you learned the lesson, you got the key to the puzzle; once you get the key, you just have to make the puzzle. It was like Luke Skywalker meeting Yoda, man.
Q: Have you had a recent revelation about playing, amplifying and/or recording guitar that pointed you in a new direction?
A: It’s never like a thunderbolt for me. The closer I get to my own personal joy, the closer I get to comfortability with my own being, my own soul, the better my guitar playing gets. My life has been a quest to find that place, that space. I believe that’s the way for all of us. We’re trying to work through, to get to a point that’s closer to our essence.
If there’s anything that’s rocked my world recently, it’s recording with old RCA microphones from the ’50s and ’60s. That’s opened up a whole other world of sonic possibilities. Limited good mikes in the right places—that makes a big difference.
Q: What was your toughest time in the music trade, when you thought seriously about hanging them up?
A: Oh, it’s all a roller coaster, man. This business is not an easy ride whoever you are; you deal with a lot of rejection and a lot of bridges to cross, man. But let’s talk about the up side. I was just in France and I played [Leonard Cohen’s] “Hallelujah” and a family who had lost their father two days before told me that playing that song gave them solace. It had less to do with me and more to do with the song meaning a lot to a lot of people.
People have gotten married to my music. I’ve visited people in the hospital, on their deathbeds, who have told me that my music matters to them. Again, it has nothing to do with me; it’s what my music represents. In the end it’s not how many records you’ve sold; it’s how many souls have been moved by what you do.
Q: I hear a lot of soul in your take on “Hallelujah.”
A: It is a soul song to me; it defines soul. Whenever I’m performing a song like that, I approach it the way that Otis Redding would have approached it. At the end of day I’m a rhythm & blues singer and a guitar player and a songwriter. I’m always trying to connect with that R&B thing, that Otis kind of place.
Q: You once recorded Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” partly to prove to your violinist daughter that you had classical chops, partly to tweak her for being a classical snob. How did she react to her dad dipping his fingers into her world?
A: She’s a 20-year-old girl; she’s way more interested. in what she’s doing than what I’m doing. But she likes what I do. We communicate on a musical level; there’s a lot of different music in the house. She’s an accomplished violinist who’s achieved musical accolades at 20 that I can only dream about. I give her mad props.
Q: What advice have you given her and her trumpet-playing twin sister about playing music for a living?
A: Do something else. That’s my advice to anybody who wants to play music professionally. If there’s anything else you can do, do it.
Q: What tops your Bucket List?
A: I can’t say I really have a Bucket List. I will say that I’d like to play piano like Dr. John–seriously. And I’d like to go to China.
Q: What tops your Fuck It List?
A: I’m in a kind of place where I don’t give a shit. I’m not taking on negativity from anybody. I’ll leave that to the fuckers.
Q: Suzy Bogguss, the country/folk singer-songwriter, told me that her No. 1 Fuck It List wish is death to all snakes.
A: She’s in the wrong business, man.
Popa Chubby: The Scoop
He entered the world in 1960 in the Bronx as Ted Horowitz.
His stage name is slang for getting an erection; he chose it as a colorful expression for getting excited.
His former bosses include Richard Hell of the Voidoids and Screaming Mad George, a Japanese punk rocker best known for creating special effects for such horror movies as the third and fourth editions of “A Nightmare on Elm Street.”
His 2009 CD “Vicious Country” features his versions of the Louvin Brothers’ “Satan Is Real” and Hank Williams’ “Straight to Hell,” which he likes to pair in concert.
“A Love That Will Not Die,” the seventh track on his 2011 album “Back to New York City,” rides on chords from the slow movement of Beethoven’s seventh symphony.
In the movie comedy “Analyze This” he was hired to play a prisoner who takes group therapy with a mob boss suffering a nervous breakdown (Robert DeNiro). While his part was cut, he still receives $17 royalty checks every quarter.
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. He shares Popa Chubby’s jones for records made by Otis Redding and Tom Dowd. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.