Blues is a language of many dialects, and when regionalisms collide, sparks fly. So it has been since Texas six-stringer Jesse Dayton joined Kansas City’s slide maven Samantha Fish for Death Wish Blues, an album of edgy, guitar-intensive alt-blues. With histories that run the gamut from traditional blues to pop and heavy rock, the dynamic guitar duo entrusted their artistry to producer Jon Spencer, and the result is full of wicked stories, tongue-in-cheek escapades, greasy grooves, and hellacious guitar.
How did you guys get together?
Samantha Fish: I’ve known Jesse since I started going to shows when I was a teenager in Kansas City, where I grew up. We fell out of touch because he was in his circle and I was in mine, but we kept an eye on each other on social media. He came through New Orleans last year, and my manager, Rueben Williams, and I went to see him. We’d been talking about this side project I wanted to put together with another player for years – kind of a duets album with a certain vibe and aesthetic. But I hadn’t found the right person. Then I saw Jesse, and I was like, “Oh my God! He’s the guy!”
Jesse Dayton: Sam used to open for me in Kansas City a long time ago. Boy, have the tables turned, but in a great way. After my gig in New Orleans, she asked, “Do you want to do some recording together and write some songs?” I was like, “Absolutely!” Rueben asked, “What do you think about going to New York and doing an album with Jon Spencer?” I was like, “Let’s do it!” (laughs)
SF: I credit Jon a lot when I talk about influential albums. His R.L. Burnside collaboration was a massive inspiration for me, just for what he did for blues and rock and roll, head-on. For me, it was a big deal to work with him. He’s incredible. Jesse and I started writing and wound up cutting an EP (The Starlight Sessions) that is the most-bootleg, raw thing (laughs). We didn’t know we were going to record it; we got together to write and Rueben surprised us with, “Hey, pick a couple of songs. We’re going into the studio.” We were messing around trying to find songs that fit the vibe we were going for. We thought it was going to be social-media content, but then the label loved it. It came out as a teaser for the full record. Jesse and I brought our specialties together, then went to Jon’s studio in Woodstock, which was Rick Danko’s old barn.
Your resumés make for a compelling album.
JD: We were trying to do something different with a genre that is so fertile and open for it. I’m excited about it. Jon Spencer was vital in getting the sound of the record. We knew if we worked with him, it was going to be different. He’s the first producer I ever worked with who builds a song into a character. His way of making a record is fun, live, and surprising. He’s always working on a way to do something different to the song. He loves guitar players, and he pushed us. “Come on! You’ve got another one in you!”
SF: I was nervous about meeting him because I was like, “What’s he going to be like? Is he going to be nice? Is he going to be cool?” He was so nice – and creative. He’s an incredible producer, and I can’t say enough nice things. He has such an ear for production, and a surprising approach. There were songs I brought where I thought, “This is how the bass is going to go, and this is how the drums are going to go.” I could see him walking around whispering parts to people, telling them what he was looking for. Then we’d start playing, and something surprising would happen, and it would work even better. It had a cooler vibe and was very musical. His approach to vocals was more like an acting thing. It became more conversational.
Death Wish Blues is like an edgy boy-girl record with lots of guitar.
JD: A lot of that has to do with Sam’s style of R&B and blues. It’s a great gumbo. The great thing about this project is our love for the blues shows up in everything we do. When I was a kid in Beaumont, we’d see Johnny and Edgar Winter at the Dairy Queen. So, I was aware of all that stuff, and it, too, played a big part with this record.
SF: Doing an album of duets might sound like it’d be sugary-sweet, but we wanted it to be tough, angular, aggressive, and rock-and-roll. But, it’s personal because you’re singing to your partner. It takes you out of the solo performance, where the world interprets a singular point of view. Now, we have this chemistry, and we’re singing and creating a story. Rueben kept throwing around the idea of an alt-blues version of “A Star Is Born,” and we laughed, but it has that because there are a lot of love songs and songs about relationships and dynamics between individuals.
I knew we would be creating stories between us, but I wanted to keep it tough, rock and roll, and exciting. When we put the live show together, it might be some of the most bombastic work I’ve done with the levels of tempos and energy. I haven’t played with another guitar player in years, and I’m excited about it because Jesse is such a great guitar player, and we have such different voices on our instruments. It’s going to be fun.
There’s great chemistry on the record.
JD: It’s not a gender thing with guitar players, it’s a human thing. She’s a badass human being. I think about the way she plays guitar, and it’s like, holy s**t, I don’t know anybody who plays guitar like that, girl or boy. Her attack is amazing.
Jesse, you have a lot of rockabilly in your playing.
JD: Oh, yeah. James Burton and Link Wray. I’m really into that stuff, and I love the cinematic vibe of Dick Dale. It’s so musical. Rockabilly and country are a big part of my playing, but also Keith Richards and Jimmy Page. Chrissie Hynde once told me, “I love the country in your rock and roll. It reminds me of Chuck Berry.” I was like, “Oh, I can die and go to heaven now.” The important thing between me and Sam is that she’s great to write with. She’s great for a lyric-driven writer. She comes up with melodies that are earworms (laughs).
Did you write separately or together?
SF: We did both. We would come together to write in person and then go our separate ways. We worked on Zoom when I was in Europe. I brought in one of my friends, Jim McCormick, who wrote some songs with me and Jesse. We finished some songs in the studio, as well. Once you get into the spirit and energy of the session, it propels you to get creative.
JD: One night, I dreamt the song “Know My Heart.” I woke up in the middle of the night, went into the bathroom, and hummed it into my phone so I wouldn’t wake anybody. I sent it to Sam, and she finished it. I was like, “Holy s**t!” I can’t believe we turned that into a song (laughs)!
SF: Jesse and I talked about making something so aggressive, and the very first song he sent me was the melody to “Know My Heart.” We finished that first, and I was like, “Now I have no idea what kind of album this is going to be (laughs).”
“Trauma” is an exciting mix of cool guitar sounds and twisted love.
JD: When I was writing that, I was listening to a Tom Jones record and noticing how ’70s-radio records sounded. I was thinking, “Let’s put a big fat blues riff in there.” If you listen to the choruses, it’s like a Motown or Philly soul thing. We’re making hybrids. Sometimes the verses are classic ’70s blues riffs and rock stuff, and then we go for classic soul on the choruses. All my favorite bands when I was a kid were bands that dabbled in everything. If you listen to the lead track, except for the psychedelic part, it’s just us doing Freddie King (laughs). The exciting thing for me is playing with another lead player who excites me with her choices. We’re working on what Keef and Ron called “the ancient art of weaving.”
Is that a bitcrusher on that solo?
SF: Jon had me running through a Hiwatt DR201 Custom 200 bass head and some kind of fuzz pedal. He brought in a Magnatone M15 combo that sounded pretty f***ing wild, too. We used so many different amps because the studio had everything – a couple vintage tweed Deluxes, a Kay, an Airline. My favorite was an old PA from Woodstock Elementary School. We got some crazy stuff out of that (laughs). A lot of the rhythm parts I cut were with a Deluxe.
Who did the solo on “Deathwish?”
JD: That’s me. I was trying to do Freddie King meets Jimmy Page. Going out, I did these little double-stops. I like the way it turned out. We wrote that together with Jim McCormick. On “Deathwish,” Sam sent me a voice memo singing the main riff. I was like, “Oh s**t! Yeah!” Then I wrote lyrics around it, then we brought it to Jim, who re-wrote the whole song, and that’s how we got that.
Which guitar did you use for the solo?
JD: I used a King guitar – the first one that Jason Burns ever made. It’s a big hollowbody. Everyone thinks it’s a Gretsch, but it’s like a Trini Lopez on crack (laughs). It’s got the Bigsby and the TV Jones pickups, and I get a lot of tonal stuff you don’t get out of a solidbody. I’ve been playing it more than my other guitars. I played it on every song on the record.
What were you plugged into?
JD: I used a ’60s blackface Super Reverb cranked all the way up. It was direct, with no pedals, live, and no punching. It was cool to have that pressure on us to go in and cut it without doing any punches on the leads. I think it made us play a certain way to where things counted more. We also had a Champ, a Silvertone, and a ’70s Mesa Boogie. Jon is really into changing amp sounds.
Samantha, what was your main guitar?
SF: I came in with an SG – my go-to for everything – so our voices are very different. It feels good in my hands. The pickups are stock, but versatile. You can approach things delicately, and it can also blow your hair back. It’s a good, well-rounded guitar for me. Because it’s set up with low action, it’s made me an even better slide player because I have to go even lighter. It’s all about making little adjustments in the moment.
You sing the hell out of “No Apology.”
SF: I wrote that one on the road. I locked myself in a hotel and finished it. I like having albums with a bit of range. That one and “Know My Heart” are some of the sweeter songs.
Another great song is “Rippin’ and Runnin’.”
SF: I left my cigar-box guitar out of the last album, so I wanted to bring it in for at least one song. It’s such a prominent feature in my live shows, and people dig that guitar. I worked up a riff I liked then built different melodic parts around it. The cigar box has melodic parts through the whole song. It took me a little longer to get the lyrics because I start songs with a design and a certain instrument; if I start with a great melody and hook line, the song writes itself, but when you come in with specifications, the song is a little harder to write. I brought in Jim McCormick on “Rippin’ and Runnin’.” It’s a song about not letting life pass you by. You have to work hard and get after it. It’s a power anthem (laughs). That song was a struggle, but I’m glad it made it on the record. We’ve been messin’ with it live, and it seems like people dig it.
What’s the setup for your cigar-box guitar?
SF: I use a lot of pedals. My go-to is an original version of the Analog Man King of Tone. I also use a JHS Mini Foot Fuzz, a JHS SuperBolt, an Electro-Harmonix Micro POG, an MXR Carbon Copy Delay, and a Boss Super Shifter. The cigar box sounds like a chainsaw when you have it dialed in right. It’s really aggressive. There’s a juxtaposition between how it looks and how it sounds. It’s this cute little guitar, but it’s the most-aggressive guitar in my whole arsenal.
Who solos on “Settle For Less”?
SF: We split those. I took the first one; I might have been playing through an Airline amp. Jon had so many cool amps – Supros and cool little vintage amps. We went with what sounded cool in the moment and moved forward. Jesse took the second half of that solo.
JD: She’s playing the descending line, and I’m playing an ascending rhythm part with tremolo. It sounds cool when we weave it together. I used the King guitar and a Fender Champ on that.
What’s next on your schedule?
SF: Getting this project off the ground has taken all my focus. Last year, I put out a record called Faster (VG, December ’21) and toured with my band non-stop, so I think this year is going to be juggling a bit of both. I’m proud of this record and excited about what we’ll be able to accomplish together. I want people to hear it; it’s a piece of art. So this year, I’ll be sharing it, executing it onstage, and going out and killin’ it with Jesse.
JD: I just made a record with Shooter Jennings producing. He’s coming off winning all those Grammys with Brandi Carlile and Dave Cobb. We made a cool record, but me and Sam are looking forward to a lot of touring (laughs)!
This article originally appeared in VG’s June 2023 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.