Popa Chubby is back on the road again, preaching the gospel to blues fans around the world. His new album, Universal Breakdown Blues, is a rollercoaster through the many facets of blues and rock. His stamp on tradition brings new life to the genre with a combination of tongue-in-cheek humor and mean guitar. Chubby plays relevant blues about fractured people and strange situations.
What’s new in Chubby Land?
We’re just hittin’ hard, plain and simple. The last couple of years have been pretty tumultuous. When people ask if I’m taking a break from touring the answer is always “No.” I can’t, for a lot of reasons. Not only because it’s what I do, but also because I’m playin’ the blues. I take three months off and I’m broke. A brother has to keep on playin’ the blues. When you have nothing left but your guitar, then you can play the blues.
How do you handle the life you’ve chosen?
You stay grounded and focused. You become a casualty, or you embrace it for what it is and try to use it and realize it’s a way to bring a lot of good stuff to a lot of people. That’s why you’re doing it. I choose to go that way. I’m not one of those guys you’ll find hanging at the bar all night. I’d rather go back to my room and watch a movie. Preferably not alone, mind you (laughs)!
What was the idea behind the new disc?
Life kind of dictates concept. There are a couple of records in my life that are really important to me. One is Indianola Mississippi Seeds, by B.B. King and it’s some otherworldly s**t. And Freddie King’s Getting Ready is one of my favorites. So I tried to incorporate that sort of feel.
Did you play the songs on the road before you recorded them?
We played all this stuff live for a year, and you can see which songs become hits onstage – they’re ones that work on the record. At the end of the day, I try to have an album of great songs that work live.
Your instrumental cover of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” is virtuoso stuff.
That’s live from The Rodeo Bar, in New York. It was a great night and the recording came out great. It became a real hit onstage so I just had to put it on the record. You can hear me f**k up a couple of times, but then I use the clams. When you’re playing live, you’re gonna hit clams. Listen to Led Zeppelin’s “I Can’t Quit You Baby” on the first record. There are two parts in that song where they completely mess up and it doesn’t matter.
Unlike a lot of artists who follow a blues tradition, your music is personal. It’s about you.
I had to make something new happen. It’s about owning your personality and who you are, and letting your personality be expressed through your music. There are a lot of guys out there who are playing all these licks way better than I am, but what are they saying? Carlos Santana said, “You gotta have the right connection of head, heart, and hands.” I can listen to anybody play and tell you where the deficiency is in one of those three. When you hear somebody who’s hittin’ all three, that’s when you got the magic.
What’s your main guitar?
A ’66 Strat with a [Seymour Duncan] JB in the bridge position. I love it and it’s the only guitar I take out. For amps, I’ve been using a 50-watt Ampeg Jet when I’m in the U.S., coupled with a Fender Deluxe, Pro, or Super. In Europe, I’ve been using Fender Twins and a JCM900 because they’re bigger venues. Together, they sound good.
What’s the common denominator that allows you to maintain your sound?
You have to take a minute for everything to settle before you start playing. A lot of bands hit the stage, do the intro, and bang. I don’t do that. I go onstage, the audience can be there, and the first thing I do is light a couple of sticks of incense just to chill out my vibe. Then I pick up the guitar and tune the amps in the moment because that’s the moment I’m playing in. I could have done it in sound check, but when I get up there, I just take a minute to play. The band plays, we swell up and make sure the vibe is right. When that happens, your tone happens, the head is right, the heart is right – and the hands will be right.
This article originally appeared in VG October 2013 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.