Johnny Childs is a New York City bluesman who’s developed something of a controversial reputation. We sat down with Childs for an exclusive, no-holds-barred interview on calling out Tommy Castro after the Blues Music Awards Nominations, being a bluesman trying to get by, and doing some great things for the good of the blues, including starting a blues society and spearheading the burgeoning International Blues Day movement.
AB: So Johnny, tell us about your latest album “Groove”. I thought it had some creative twists and turns. It’s kind of got this gritty sound with the over-driven guitars, and a little bit of… well placed absurdity. The upbeat kind of crazy nature of the album is endearing. You got some shuffle blues and you got songs like “The Junkman’s Son” which is fascinating, with this mixture of, if I’m not mistaken, a Jewish influence with a hard electric blues twist. Tell me about the direction you were taking with “Groove”.
JC: I like that quote, ‘well placed absurdity’. Works for me. Groove was my first album since 2005. Obviously, I play and sing and wrote the originals on the album. The track you’re referring to called “Junkman’s Son” has got some Klezmer tonalities, with a reggae beat and a bluesy guitar solo. Basically, it’s a track that I recorded it for my film which is also titled “The Junkman’s Son“. And it’s not to be taken literally. A lot of people ask me, where’s my father with the junkyard? But it’s a euphemism. It’s really about growing up poor in a sense or challenged in some other way. Maybe you come from a home with substance abuse or something along those line. Or life in general, really.
But the album was supposed to be my break out album. It was produced by Bruce Bromberg from Hightone Records who I met through my film. If you see the movie “The Junkman’s Son” you’ll see how Bruce and I met. And eventually that led to him flying out to New York and helping me produce this record. There’s a lot of shuffles and boogies and straight ahead stuff, but then the rest of it is I guess what you would call blues-crossover. And I did cross over into several genres. I think the center of it is definitely the bluesy guitar throughout. I mean you got guys like Eric Clapton that can write any kind of song and it’s centered around that bluesy guitar so it’s technically blues.
The album was voted “#1 Electric Blues CD of 2011” by Wasser Prawda Magazine. And it’s been getting amazing reviews, a lot of radio play and I’m very proud of it. As a self critical musician or an artist, I’m usually ready to record my next album the second I finished my last one, because I just hear everything I could have done better. But in this case, I still like what I did on there so I’m pretty proud of it. It’s my 3rd record and I think I did a pretty good job especially for it being an independent release. So if you’re reading this, please go out and here GROOVE and pick up a copy.
I want to ask you about your film, “The Junkman’s Son”. It’s already won a couple of awards which is pretty cool, and you’ve got some pretty interesting plot lines and crazy motifs. Tell us a little more about the film and how this project came to be. What’s the premise?
It’s essentially an experimental, autobiographical documentary. It’s my life story. That’s what it turned out to be. But the original premise was that I was about to turn 30, and I had been in Los Angeles for about ten years. And I was just really struggling to woodshed and get noticed and try to put some kind of music career together. And it just wasn’t coming together.
I was about to turn 30, and I wanted to just make that grandiose effort to finally realize my dreams by my birthday. So I came up with this premise to have this sort of ticking clock and shoot a real life documentary for the last 6 months leading up to my 30th birthday, where I would try to get signed to a label before then. Ultimately, as we were shooting it and going on our little adventures and escapades, and as I was learning the process of film-making, I realized that the current story was only interesting if you know more of the back story. So I ended up digging up all kinds of old footage and media of my life. So there’s 2 stories going on. There’s the thirty year back story, and it keeps flashing back to the present day story. And it sort of all culminates around my 30th birthday.
What makes my past interesting is just the very unique background and sort of adventurous life that I lived. I did grow up in an impoverished, ultra-orthodox Jewish home with ten siblings, and I did leave home at the age of 8, believe it or not.
So having that history and taking you through some of the more interesting phases of my life, some are very surprising and I actually had footage of a great deal of it. And using the interviews with my ultra-orthodox family and others to help narrate, there’s a real story there.
Usually if someone told me they made a documentary about their life, I would instantly assume that it sucks and that they’re delusional. But in this case I spent eight years weaving this tale which was culminated from over 200 hrs of footage and other media, and so I think it paid off. It is getting amazing reviews and it did thankfully win “Best Feature Documentary” at the first film festival it was submitted to. So hopefully that’s a very good sign of things to come.
I saw this clip where you got some shaggy looking homeless guy holding your sign with the countdown of ‘days to go’ and you’re just relentlessly working on your career. And that’s actually become something of a reputation you have now — This unrelenting drive. Tell us what your looking to accomplish with all this and with your career.
I think the short answer is that ultimately I just want to play the blues and I want to make a living doing it. And the process to get there – beyond it being a hobby where you just play once a week in your home town – you can’t make a living that way, and I feel I have something to say on top of that and I’m not looking to just do something on that level.
So I think all roads lead back to my objective of just wanting to play the blues and make a living doing it. The fact that you have to become world-famous to achieve that objective is a reality that I’ve been trying to contend with. Ultimately, if you’re not known around the country, you’re not going to get booked around the country. So it’s very important to get your name out there and get known. You’d be surprised at the amount of people that have heard of me — but still haven’t heard me play. And that’s a result of the accumulative publicity that I’ve done over the years. And that publicity is a necessity I feel, not only to get your name out there but just to get discovered.
Sometimes in a targeted way, where I met people like Bruce Bromberg [Hightone Records] and Bruce Iglauer [Alligator Records] and other high profile players in the business that did become aware of me through these high jinx publicity stunts. And then also to achieve the accumulative effect of the general public getting familiar with your name.
Let’s talk about some of these high jinx publicity stunts. Because some of them have made some controversial waves. I don’t think you’re much of a stranger to controversy. You’ve got one video out, doing shots with some gal in a bar, and another video where you’re calling out Tommy Castro in what’s now kind of an infamous video about the Blues Music Awards. Talk to me about what was going on there.
Well I did submit my two latest creative projects to the Blues Music Awards for 2012. My album “Groove”, and my film “The Junkman’s Son”. I was hoping to pick up a nomination for either one in order to create the opportunities that are essential to getting ahead in this business. Let’s just start by saying a Blues Music Award, or even a nomination can put you on the map as a blues artist. So it can be an amazing “short cut” in a way to getting out there. Having said that, I did not pick up a nomination for either project.
And just the sheer amount of work that it took to put these projects together. The time and the expense and the quality and all the publicity… When that didn’t culminate in a nomination, I felt I had to sort of create a value in all the work. And I did that through the “2012 Blues Music Awards Nominees REACTION” video” that I posted where I challenged Tommy Castro to a guitar duel.
In other words, I could care less about winning any award. It’s only to create opportunities to play and make a living. And all roads lead back to that. And anything I do is really either directly or indirectly designed to facilitate more opportunities to play. It’s just that hard to get out there and have a consistent kind of career doing it.
Sometimes with these publicity stunts, they backfire… and sometimes they’re very effective. In this case I challenged Tommy Castro and a lot of people were perturbed by that video. He does have a lot of fans. But if you look at the dozens and dozens of comments on the YouTube video, ironically, one of the only people that ‘got it’ was Tommy Castro. That it was a PR move. He just got it. Of course, at that point the video already had 5,000 hits. But I’m not going to act surprised that people were upset — I wanted to upset people. That’s what made it effective. I think the people that were really supposed to get it, got it. And the people that were upset about it helped me because I needed those people to stir the pot. It was designed to upset people.
As far as Tommy Castro himself, I’m not his problem and he’s not my problem. And I feel a little bad that I had to drag him in to this ridiculousness. But he was the guy that submitted one CD and got 6 nominations. So he was the obvious target. But if you read the YouTube description, you know it was not intended to really offend anyone, in some ways it was just an artistic expression reflecting how I felt about being sort of overlooked in the nomination process.
I do get that since we’re all up against the same process, you can’t really complain if you don’t get a nomination. And for my part, I erred in submitting my 2 projects at a very late date, which means a majority of the judges probably didn’t even have the chance to preview them in time for the vote. So if you ask me now, I’ll tell you I blame nobody but myself. I know I picked up a few votes cause I had people coming up to me at the BMAs and telling me they voted for me. But unfortunately, that’s just the few judges out of 100, that managed to preview the projects in time.
Well, it’s a hard process. There are a lot of artists that spend a lot of time and money submitting things that don’t get nominated. And that’s the way it is. Some people have said that instead of doing a publicity stunt like that, you should just be out there playing, and that playing for whatever crowd is what’s going to get you out there and what’s gong to make you popular among people. What do you have to say to those folks?
They’re 100% right, that playing is how you get out there. What they don’t understand though, is that all I’m trying to do is create those opportunities to play. Tommy Castro has been on the national Scene for 20 years. And people coming to his defense are saying that he’s been working his butt off for 20 years playing. Well, it’s actually a lot harder to spend 20 years NOT playing than 20 years playing. That would have been my dream to have spent the last 20 years working my butt off touring the country. So they don’t quite get it. If I could be playing I wouldn’t be here talking, and I wouldn’t have posted that YouTube video in the first place.
And I probably wouldn’t have even submitted anything to the Blues Music Awards. I’d be out there playing. So that is my main objective and I think it’s interesting that people don’t understand how hard it is to actually achieve that. It takes me about 3 months to book a string of ten dates somewhere. So that’s just a losing proposition… and then you have to repeat the process over and over again. Tommy’s national booking agents have been on the job for 20 years. He was playing on a weekly television show 20 years ago. Now he’s with the biggest booking agency in the country. So yeah, he’s paying his dues in his way, I’m paying mine in my way.
I don’t think it’s really a fair comparison. Like I said, in many ways it’s a lot harder to NOT be playing than to be playing. Because you still have to keep your chops up, stay focused, evolve as an artist and not lose sight of your dream. So that’s how I look at it. If a guy like Rick from Intrepid Artists wants to book me 300 dates for 2013, I can assure you I’ll
be there and ready to play at every one.
For the record, I don’t debate the fact that Tommy’s very talented. He’s obviously successful. He’s obviously well liked. I’ve got no issues with him. I’m just telling you my perspective on things. And those who know me or saw my film understand that I would love to be working as hard as he’s working. In fact it’s been my sole goal and dream every single day for over 20 years now.
So regarding the publicity that you’ve been doing, let me ask you this: Is it working?
Well like I said, sometimes it’s very effective and sometimes it backfires. But I think I can definitely cite a lot of instances where it worked. And there’s usually an agenda that the general public not aware of when they stumble in to these publicity stunts. For example, an even deeper level of truth about the Tommy Castro video is challenging him to a guitar dual wasn’t the real objective. That was just a hi jinx way of annoying people. I actually want Tommy Castro to
discover me. And for better or for worse when he saw that video he went and checked out all my other videos were I’m actually playing.
And he then came out and called me a very fine guitar player and said I reminded him of other very fine guitar players such as Jr. Watson and Charlie Baty. Which kind of diffused me a bit. I no longer felt the need to engage him in a guitar dual. I guess you can say he killed me with kindness. But if he wanted to take it the next level, Tommy’s also a guy that can take someone like me, a quality and original blues act, and literally put them on the map. So that could have been a best case scenario. We’ve seen him do it with other acts such as Trampled Under Foot and others. He’s just got that kind of clout and the connections to do it. So like I said ironically I would have been happier if he personally discovered me rather than take me up on the challenge and perpetuate the stunt. Although judging by all the reactions, I think we could have sold a lot of tickets to that “guitar battle”!
But to an extent he did discover me. He knows who I am now. A lot of my publicity stunts are to create an opportunity some time down the road. Not necessarily instantly. In other words, there’s now over 5,000 people that are aware of those creative projects, that wouldn’t have been otherwise. In lieu of not being nominated or having real representation, I had to find a way for people to become aware of these projects. Otherwise I just wasted ten years of my life and those projects would just wither up and die. Kind of like my first two albums, that for one reason or another, very few people got to hear. I’ve since had some offers to distribute these projects and at the very least there’s now a whole slew of people that are simply aware of the fact that I’m alive and exist on this planet as a result of that little stunt.
So I’d say that even without being able to point to an actual pay day, I’d say it was still very successful in that sense. After all, here we are still talking about it 8 months later.
And the other thing is, my philosophy in life, when taking on these almost impossible goals, is to always do one small thing towards your goal every day. Every thing’s a catch 22. Especially when you’re essentially a broke blues musician. And the most important thing is to never stop taking those baby steps. To never let a day pass without doing one thing towards your goal… no matter how big or small. And unfortunately a lot of times the only thing I can do is some sort of publicity stunt. Because they’re free to think up, and if you get creative you can execute them for free as well. So if I can’t be out there on the road, why not have people all over the country discovering me in the meantime, so that when I do get out there, I’ll have a bigger draw. So it’s accumulative in many ways.
It’s not my preference to be obnoxious to get discovered. But I do what I have to do. I’m not going to go away just because some big fat record producer doesn’t have the time to discover me. I’m here to stay and that’s my message ultimately. I know my real fans are the people that have seen me play live. And I realize that that’s the only real way to accumulate fans. But until I have the proper support and the opportunities to achieve that, I’m going to keep making noise and letting people know that I’m trying to break out, I’m here, just take the time to figure out for yourself if you like me or not. And I’m confident enough people will.
Well I find it interesting that you have that philosophy of trying to work hard every day at doing something to advance your goals. Because as well known as you are now for some of these publicity stunts, you’re also well known for working incredibly hard at trying to advance your career and your perseverance.
So let’s set aside your career for a second. Because I also want to talk about some of the things you’re doing in the blues, which I find really interesting. Let’s just briefly mention that you are working hard in spearheading the initiative to establish an International Blues Music Day every year, which I think is great. And you also started the NYC Blues Society on your own. Tell me a little more about that.
Well I’ll tell you about both initiatives. There’s the global initiative that I started last year to establish an International Blues Music Day, for which I’ve collected over 12,000 signatures & facebook group members in support of that. And also there’s the New York City Blues Society which I began thinking about upon returning to New York a few years ago and finding a blues scene that was essentially dead on arrival. The wheels started turning.
In both instances since no one else was doing anything about it, I decided to do whatever I can do bring those 2 initiatives to life. The NYC Blues Society is currently the only blues society dedicated to promoting the blues scene in New York City. And we do things a little differently than other blues Societies.
Well for starters, I’m surprised how many blues societies out there, in this day and age with the technology that’s available, that are not taking the time to put together a comprehensive blues calendar of all the events and gigs going on in their area. What I’m seeing is blues societies that are listing their paid member band’s gigs and only their paid member band gigs. And I think that that’s actually a disgrace to call yourself a blues society and only promote people that are giving you $20 or $30 a year.
We do everything for free. Our philosophy is to build it and they will come. We list over 600 blues gigs a month in the NYC and surrounding areas. We cover a 75 mile radius. We list every single band, every single venue that promotes blues, from national acts to local acts, from great acts to the worst acts you’ll ever hear. We list everybody. And by doing that we’re creating a bigger community and sort of shrinking the distance between everyone. In other words, a 75 mile radius now feels like you’re just going around the block to hear some blues. Because you’re getting familiarized with all these band names and all these venues to the point were everyone feels like they know everyone. It’s a great way to create a better sense of community and to let the fans know what all the musicians are up to.
You’d be surprised how many blues fans there are in NYC that just don’t know where to find blues. And you have all these great blues musicians that don’t know were to find fans. And so the most obvious thing to do is to create this comprehensive calendar, and I wish that every blues society in the world would do it. Because it works. Our calendar gets over 5,000 hits a month. I run in to people everywhere I go that love the calendar, they use it and they go out and support music because of it.
So I think that’s something everyone should take a look at doing. Another thing we do is, every new member that joins the NYC Blues Society gets a free pair of concert tickets to a national touring act visiting NYC. We get tickets to all the blues shows that BB King’s Blues Club books on their main stage as well as some of the other venues that bring in the touring acts. And we use those tickets to help build our membership. So every new member gets a free of pair of concert tickets. We’ve given out over 200 pairs of tickets this year alone. That’s 400 people that got to see a major, quality, blues concert that otherwise might not have had the chance. And it’s not just for our members, but we’ll go around town when we have extra tickets and give them out to random blues fans or do a free raffle at one of the jams. We’re trying to create a real value and excitement for the blues here. The average blues society that you join, you’d be lucky to be entered in to a raffle against 2,000 other people for a chance to win a cd of some blues band you never even heard of. So again, we’re just trying to think out of the box a little, and create more excitement and that means doing things differently. And I think the members will come.
I think the most important thing is if you’re going to call yourself a blues society, is to promote everything blues related in your area. There’s plenty of personalities or bands I may not be a fan of myself, but I’m still going to list your gigs no matter what. Unfortunately, I see blues societies getting political or they won’t talk to you unless you’re a paid member or a paid advertiser and I think that’s absolutely ridiculous. And the only reason I’m saying that is in hopes of someone out there reading this and maybe changing their way of doing business. Imagine if all 300 blues societies, each had thousands of people visiting their blues calendars every month. That’s never gonna happen when all your listing is your own monthly blues society jam and a handful of other gigs.
What’s the website for the NYC Blues Society?
(We had to go check it out) You do have one heck of a blues calendar here. So what kind of challenge did you have when forming this Blues Society?
I wouldn’t say we ran in to any problems in getting this blues society off the ground. Because the most important thing is just to put the time in. And I’m personally still the guy that puts together the calendar every month which takes me several days. But I think as long as you put in the time you can accomplish a lot without the financial resources that you may think you need. In my case I build my own websites and do a lot of the work myself.
Another thing we do is we list the websites links of every single blues band within 75 miles. So venues looking for new acts can just follow those links. And we actually offer all blues bands [worldwide] a free display ad on our website, featuring their latest blues albums. Everything your average blues society charges for we basically try to do for free. Because that’s the only way to honestly be all inclusive. It has to be part of the culture. Because the reality is most people either can’t or won’t pay for it anyways. But that kind of organization is vital if we’re going to reinvigorate the scene here.
Let me just add that we also produce 7 annual blues revue concerts right here in NYC, where we try to bring in a larger audience and shed a spotlight on some of the regions best blues artists and bands. We book no fewer than ten area acts performing at each event. And unfortunately even on those events, so far we’re just breaking even because we’d rather build up the fan base by keeping tickets very affordable. So those events can certainly be a challenge at times in producing them. But just imagine how far we can potentially go if we ever figured out a way to bring in some kind of real funding? The sky’s the limit.
So all that to say, we can certainly always use more support and more paid members so go to www.nyblues.org, check it out and if you like what you see become a member. We are doing very good work and making a genuine effort to promote the blues.
And how is doing? Is the Blues Society [membership] strong?
Well like I said if the calendar’s getting 5,000 hits a month, as far as I’m concerned I’ve already done my job. I can do nothing else and still have accomplished a great deal for a lot of people just with the calendar. So that’s why I’m encouraging other people to follow that model. So I’d have to say that we’re doing good. We’re only about a year and change old. So considering what we’ve accomplished in that short time I think we’re just going to keep getting bigger and bigger.
Between you’re new album, you’re film, your touring band, and your blues society, you still found time to spearhead the initiative to establish an International Blues Music Day. We interviewed you a few months ago about this, which has been gaining serious grass roots support. Can you tell us a little more about the current state of the IBMD initiative?
Sure, that’s more of a global initiative that I think is supported by every single blue musician, supporter and fan in the world and really has an unlimited potential. We haven’t launched the website for it yet, but we do have 12,000 people in the facebook group and I would encourage everyone to come and join us if you’re on facebook. The group is called “Petition to declare an International Blues Music Day”. Join the group and follow the developments. We’ve come a long way in just under a year.
We’ve recently set a target date for August of 2013 to celebrate the inaugural International Blues Music Day. We are going to need support to make that happen and we encourage anybody on a any level to come and join us. Just joining the group is a great way to support the cause. And if you want to get involved as a board member or event organizer or whatever else, please send us an email at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Absolutely. It’s a great cause and that’s got to be quite a bit of work.
Well, I think that both of these initiatives that I’m doing are symptomatic of a blues industry that’s largely asleep at the wheel. Because why am I the guy doing these things? I’m just a bluesman trying to get a gig. Why am I spending all this time and effort trying to uplift the entire industry? Well, on the one hand it’s actually easier to promote the entire industry than just yourself. Because there’s so many people that want to see the industry grow. But on the other hand it’s really out of necessity. I mean, when I came back to New York, there wasn’t really a place to play. Now we have over 20 thriving jams and about 50 venues that are open to booking blues. When I came here there was only one blues venue left. And I’m not going to tell you I’m responsible for all that. What I’m saying is that we worked towards creating that excitement and towards making that happen and keeping it going.
And frankly speaking, I think that the industry as whole is in need of a rude awakening. And I’m not trying to be a provocateur.
At least that’s not what I set out to do. But aside from my personal interest, which is that I think for starters, the industry needs to discover me simply on the basis that I’m a quality and original act and that’s what they should be seeking out. There’s a bigger picture that involves everybody. The labels claim to be seeking out that 1% but what we see is something different. Of course, I’d make the argument that I’m in that one percent in terms of quality, but that’s not my point here. The industry clearly needs to get back to seeking out real blues artists. I’m not just talking about labels, I’m talking about venues as well. When I look at the acts getting signed and booked today, what I’m seeing is largely quick fixes. I see 8 year old white boys playing “The Thrill Is Gone”. I see 20 year old girls in mini skirts. I see Stevie Ray Vaughan clones,
I see sidemen alumni from previously famous bands. I see sons of daughters of celebrities. What I don’t see is a real, consistent effort to discover people that have a real voice and something to say. Everyone seems to be looking for the quick fix. Of course, the other 50% of acts being discovered and promoted are fantastic. So I’m just saying that there’s a lot of room for improvement. Feel free to disagree with me but that’s what I’m seeing as a fan and a musician. People need to stop compromising quality for the quick fix and to save a buck now, because what they’re doing is actually turning everyone off to the music by doing that.
The average venue that books a ‘Mustang Sally – cover band’ for $35 every week, eventually when they bring in a great artist, no one shows up. Because they’ve already convinced everyone in their neighborhood that blues sucks. You know, Good Job!
If you want to do that, go right ahead. But then you’re a sports bar, not a blues venue. I think there just needs to be a little
more consistency and a little more genuine effort to seek out real talent and some of the many unique artists that are out there. And that’s a perfect world scenario I suppose. But I’ll say it if no one else will. Because I’m only trying to get people to think a little more about these things. I’m not saying it’s all bad. There’s tons of great blues acts out there but only about 50% of them have been discovered and are being promoted. We need more visionaries in the business – is really all I’m saying.
The fact that I’m the guy that thought of establishing an International Blues Music Day, in a way is just absurd. Why hasn’t anyone come up with this until now? And I have at least five other BIG ideas to promote the entire genre and industry as a whole. I don’t see these brainstorming sessions going on and these initiatives coming forward. Why am I the guy doing it?
Like I said, I’m just a guy that wants to play the blues. I want people to think about these things and maybe something will come out of it. Maybe everyone will just think I’m some kind of angry person but I’m not. That’s not the sentiment at all. There’s just so much untapped potential in the blues genre that I want more people that have the resources, to come forward and do something about it. And if we do, the blues can do what country music did — Which is to go from a relatively obscure genre, to creating the worldwide network and foundation to become the next biggest genre after pop music.
The blues can do that. And the time is ripe to do that. But we need to come up with ideas. The Blues foundation and Alligator Records, these guys are visionaries but they’re already so busy doing what their doing. We need more and more people thinking out of the box and doing something and following through.
So if you weren’t a bluesman what would you be doing?
Well, I was starting small businesses since I was about 13 yrs old. The reason none of them were really successful is that I never had any passion for what I was doing. At that time I was the guy looking for a get rich quick schemes. Or shall we say “a way forward”. But at the same time I was constantly searching for something more meaningful. All of my male siblings and relatives are Rabbis. So having taken an alternative path from that myself, I guess I’d either be in business and married with kids, or I would be involved in some other field of art. It’s hard to say, if I was a successful businessman I might not feel as tortured and feel the need to create art on a daily basis. Who knows which direction my life would have taken had I not discovered the blues?
All I know is I’d probably be making more money but I think it’s fair to say I’m past the point of no return.