NEW YORK: Tommy Castro Interview - by J. Blake

Posted on 12/15/2009 by J. Blake

As a long time fan of Tommy Castro, to say that I was “thrilled” that he agreed to take some time out his busy touring schedule for a fairly extensive interview, is an understatement. As he spoke to me over the phone, from his tour bus, I found him to be charming and candid. We chatted at length about everything from his blues music beginnings and his guitar-heroes to his creative songwriting process and the making of his latest album; HARD BELIEVER, a Billboard Blues Music Chart staple since its release in September.

Though it appears that he has accomplished just about everything that there is to accomplish in the blues music industry, Castro revealed that it has been a long road to the top and there are still a few more important stops left on his musical journey.

J. Blake: First of all I just want to thank you for taking a few minutes to talk to me. I saw you play at a blues festival in Troy, New York in 1997 and I’ve been a fan ever since.

Tommy Castro: Cool! Was that the one that was sponsored by a beer company? And was
Magic Slim on the gig?

JB: I’m not sure.

TC: I remember, that was one of our first trips out east and we played this festival out there, with Magic Slim on the bill. I just remember, because it was sponsored by a beer company and they were bringing him some beer and he says over the microphone “I don’t drink no beer! Beer makes you fat!” (we both laugh) And it was sponsored by a beer company! It was so great…maybe that was it.

JB: Yes maybe. Changing gears a bit, I just wanted to talk to you about growing up in California.

TC: San Jose, California.

JB: And taking up the guitar and what motivated you to play. I’m a guitar player and I’m always curious about how one picks up the instrument and really gets into it and decides to pursue it; obviously to the extent that you have.

TC: Well, it was pretty simple. My older brother was playing guitar. I don’t know what made him think of it. Obviously The Beatles and The Stones were on the scene and he was just a kid wanting to learn how to play guitar, because that seemed like such a cool thing to do and he was about 6 years older than me. So I watched him play guitar for a couple years and then somewhere around age 10, I guess, I started sneaking his guitar when he wasn’t around. One thing led to another and I started to play.

And you know the blues explosion of the ‘60s was happening; and I wasn’t really all that knowledgeable about music or about what was going on. I just knew the bands that I liked. I liked The Rolling Stones, I liked Cream and I liked bands like The Doors; and somewhere along the line I got into Michael Bloomfield and the Paul Butterfield Band. Elvin Bishop was one of my favorites and all these guys are blues guys. You know at the time they were big stars on the radio; being played on FM radio all the time and I figured out somewhere along the line that it was blues that I liked.

JB: Sure…

TC: I didn’t realize at first what it was. I remember somebody told me that Eric Clapton was the best blues guitar player in England and I went “wow!” I didn’t realize that he was a blues guitar player! I thought he was a rock guy. (laughs) I thought I was listening to rock ‘n’ roll! So that’s when I started thinking about it a little bit. I read some interview of Michael Bloomfield talking about B.B. King and I went out and got a B.B. King record and that was really what kind of changed my life I think; from that point on.

JB: Which record?


JB: A classic!

TC: And I got
LIVE AT THE REGAL too. They were both out about the same time.

JB: Yeah LIVE AT THE REGAL was the one that did it for me.

TC: Really?

JB: Yes.

TC: That’s the one where his amp head had all that reverb on it?

JB: My brother gave it to me one year for Christmas and when I popped that it was kind of all over for me.

TC: (laughs)

JB: So was it the ‘70s that you started playing in bands?

TC: Yes. I had played in some bands back in my hometown. You know just a couple of hometown blues bands. We ran a jam session at a little club on Sundays. So we created the house band there, called the Boulevard Blues Band; because
JJ’s Blues Club was on Stevens Creek Blvd. So we called it the Boulevard Blues Band and it just had a bunch of my old friends. And then some of the members from that band splintered off into a thing called ‘Night Cry’ and we were actually working quite a bit around the South Bay and sometimes we’d get to work up in other parts of the Bay Area; namely San Francisco.

That was about the time that I decided I wanted to try and make it as a musician and so I moved to San Francisco. That was when I joined The Dynatones. I was playing in little clubs around San Francisco as a hired gun for just about anybody that would have me and these guys in The Dynatones saw me with Johnny Nitro and the Doorslammers. They were looking for a guitar player and so I played for them for a couple of years.

JB: So you were strictly a guitar player with them?

TC: Yeah, but I did sing. I sang some. They had a lead singer, so I played guitar and sometimes sang. And in Night Cry I was the singer who sometimes played guitar.

JB: I see.

TC: So I was going “sooner or later I gotta get it together, where I’m the singer and the guitar player!”


TC: You know that’s what I want to do. So I started my own band at the end of the ‘80s. It might have been 1989, that I started The Tommy Castro Band and we just knocked around the San Francisco Bay area. There was such a scene at the time. We worked every single night somewhere. We didn’t take any nights off. Once in awhile we would take Monday night off, but we couldn’t really pick a night to take off, because there was always a gig available.

You know it took a little while to get to that point, but pretty soon we had plenty of work. But it was all local gigs and you know none of it paid very well, but if you put enough gigs together, everybody was making a pretty decent living. Of course the goal was to make a record and get out of there.

JB: Sure.

TC: Then Blind Pig came along, who has an office in San Francisco and offered us a deal and an agent offered to represent us. Anyway, those two things are the hardest things to get happening when you’re a new band; to a get a record label and an agent. The record label wants you to have an agent and the agency wants you to have a label!

JB: (laughs) Yeah it always seems to turn out that way.

TC: And you’re in a ‘catch 22’ situation a lot of times, but we managed to cross that little bridge and we’ve really just been doing this ever since.

JB: It is kind of amazing, because it appears that since that time…I guess looking at it now, it has been 20 years, but ultimately you’ve accomplished a ton within that time. You’ve won the Blues Music Award for Entertainer of the Year, but the thing that is most impressive to me, and I would imagine to you as well, is all the people you have gotten to share the stage with. And recording with John Lee Hooker! I mean that stuff has to be amazing right?

TC: Yeah it is pretty amazing. I never thought that those kinds of things would happen. Look I never expected that those kinds of things would take place, but they just happened quite naturally as I went about my business. At one point John Lee Hooker and I were with the same booking agency, so I got put on the bill with him a bunch of times. And so we became friends and he would tell me “everywhere I go they’re talkin’ ‘bout you.” (laughs) “They’re talkin’ ‘bout ‘chu!” And so I made this record and I had this idea of him singing on it and it just came together and it was pretty amazing. He passed away about a week later.

JB: In the picture on your website, you’re sitting next to him and you look like a kid in a candy store. I mean it has to be surreal, when you’re a blues musician and you get to sit there and watch John Lee Hooker perform on your record? But what about jamming on stage with people like B.B. King and Buddy Guy?

TC: I know. It still doesn’t even seem like it’s real. It’s more like I’m watching a movie or something in my memory when I think about those things. It’s pretty exciting and of course quite an honor. I’m just very grateful that those people accepted me enough for those things to happen.

JB: Sure.

TC: And it’s pretty amazing. Especially B.B., because you know B.B. was my hero. He was the first guy that I really just went nuts for on guitar and I just didn’t care about any of those rock guys anymore after I heard B.B. King. (laughs) I stopped playing rock and just kept on trying to get into more traditional blues guys after that; for a long long stretch anyway.

Later on after the Stevie Ray Vaughan era came and went. I was recording for Blind Pig and everybody was trying to get you to be more of a blues-rock player, I started to fuse a little bit of my old rock ‘n’ roll roots in with the blues and that’s where some of that stuff came from. But my time with The Dynatones, especially, really turned me on to all different kinds of soul music. You know driving around in a van with Walter Shuffelsworth and The Dynatones, he had so many great records that he had put on cassette. He had like 90 minute cassettes, about a hundred of them, just loaded with greasy old soul music and we would drive for hundreds of miles and thousands of miles, listening to that stuff the whole time. So I just got deeper and deeper and deeper into the soul music sound and then all three of those things have become what it is that I do now; blues, soul music and rock ‘n’ roll.

JB: Yes. The latest record, HARD BELIEVER, is definitely a blend of all those things. There’s definitely a ‘Stax’/Memphis soul influence on a lot of the album and then the next track comes around and it’s hardcore roadhouse blues…

TC: Yeah.

JB: And then some good old fashioned rock ‘n’ roll. When you sit down and you start to compile the material for an album, I’m always interested in how that process works. Clearly there are cover songs on this album and originals; I was wondering if maybe you could give me a little bit of insight into the thought process of putting together a song list for an album like this one?

TC: Well first of all, I go out and write songs with as many people as I can and I work on a couple of things on my own. I get my ideas together and then I go out and write songs with these really great songwriters, like Jeff Silbar and Bonnie Hayes; I sometimes get together with Gary Nicholson or Stephen Bruton, before he passed away, Jimmy Pugh from Robert Cray’s Band. There is a number of people that I like to get together and write songs with; oh Mike Schermer, you know these are guys that I know are good songwriters and I take them some of my ideas. I think co-writing is the way to go, because I have a lot of ideas but I am always interested in what somebody else thinks. Some other input is always good. I always just say “two heads are better than one.”

JB: Right.

TC: So we get together and I think I get better songs, depending on who I am working with. So I start that way, but it’s hard to do because I’m working all the time.

JB: Sure.

TC: It’s hard to do, because I have a family at home and kids and stuff like that; a regular life to lead and besides this being my work, it is hard to find the time to get together with other writers, but I run around and do my best at that. And then I keep notes when I’m listening to music; ideas for songs that I want to do. Cover songs that I think would be good for me to do.

JB: Yes.

TC: Then you get your producer in there and they always have some ideas. In this case Victims of Darkness and My Babe, from The Righteous Brothers, were John Porter’s idea and it was my idea to do Wilson Pickett and Bob Dylan.

JB: Okay.

TC: So there you go. There really wasn’t any kind of concept or plan in place. I just try to write good material and I try to pick stuff to cover that I haven’t done yet. Like, I’d never done a Bob Dylan song. That’s basically what was happening when we were putting this one together and then you just have to wait and see how it turns out. I had no idea it was going to turn out like it did. I think it is a really good record and to honest with you, I was kind of worried about it.

JB: What were some of your worries, specifically?

TC: I wasn’t sure if we had the right material exactly. I wasn’t sure about some of the songs, but they really came together really great. You know it takes some doing. When you write a song, you don’t have the finished sound yet. You haven’t heard it yet. You don’t know how it is going to turn out. You don’t know exactly what it is going to be, until you have a chance to work with the band, work with the producer, work with different ideas, changing things around. You know, tweaking it to make it better.

JB: Can we take a couple of steps back? When you were talking about collaborating on writing songs; clearly there are many ways of going about it and inspiration comes in different forms. When you work with somebody, do you come to the table with ideas musically, lyrically, or both…or does it differ from song to song?

TC: Usually it is an idea for a story or something; like ‘Trimmin’ Fat’. I had just written that down, because I thought it might make a nice idea for a song.

JB: Okay

TC: Then we just built a story and a guitar riff around it. Mike (Schermer) and I, both play guitar; we were both just sitting there going at it, trying to think of different ways that we might be able to do that and I ended up using a combination of ideas for the final song. Usually it is just an idea for a story; something I had jotted down somewhere. Going through life I notice this and I think of that, I hear a phrase in a conversation or in a movie, or in a book I’m reading; something just jumps out at me.

Definition of Insanity’, I wrote that down and when I got together with Jeff (Silbar) to write songs, he asked “what’ve you got?” I went “let me see.” So I look through my book, at what I have written down and we decide which one of those ideas seems like the ‘idea for the day’. He said “let’s work on that one. I like that.” So we start to work on it. Then after we get a start on it, I continue to work on the lyric later on. We don’t necessarily sit there and finish it one day. It’s a long process. It takes the input from all kinds of people. I have lots of help. I’ve got a lot of really good musicians that I work with and I had a great producer; the engineer usually has some input when you’re making a record. I had a guitar teacher that was working with me on some of the guitar playing; to help me get some nice guitar stuff on there. It’s a process and it takes awhile.

JB: That’s interesting. So even at this stage of your career and experience, you still sometimes bring in a coach or a teacher to help refine your sound?

TC: I’ve been studying with this guy a little bit and basically when I take lessons, I tell him the kind of thing I’m trying to do; “I’m planning a solo over these changes…teach me something.” (laughs) So I thought, why not take him into the studio with me? You know, sometimes when you’re singing there’s somebody that does ‘vocal production’ and they help the singers get the harmonies right and they sometimes help the lead singer get the best performance. It is called ‘vocal production’ and I thought that we could do the same thing with the guitar. I thought maybe we could get some really great stuff with the guitar and I think I managed to do that on this record. After a dozen albums, I’ve done just about everything I can think of. (laughs)

JB: Yes after awhile, you do start to realize that you’re playing the same solo on every song, if you don’t brush up.

TC: Yeah, you’ve got to go out there and try and find some places that you haven’t gone before. I insist on doing that. I’m not going to play the same stuff over and over. I’m not going to make the same record. I’m not going to make the same kind of record. This record is different than
PAINKILLER. It’s different than RIGHT AS RAIN or SOUL SHAKER. It is different in a bunch of different ways and the one before that was different than the one before that and I think that is why people keep buying our stuff. Well at least that is my evil plan.

JB: Earlier I was pointing out some of your accomplishments. For a guy that has won pretty significant awards and played with some of the greatest, arguably, to ever play the blues; what are the goals now? Is there anything you’re still striving for? Anybody you’re still looking to play with? Or is the goal to just keep going and making the best music that you can?

TC: My goal is to write a song, eventually, that is really just better than I’ve ever done before and really really great. I want to write a really great song; (laughs) maybe a few really great songs, but at least one really great song that will absolutely have to be played on the radio, everywhere.

That’s really the focus for me next, because otherwise, we’ve played all the places we want to play. We’re continuing to work. We’ll be going on blues cruises a couple of times this next year. We’ll be going to Europe again. We’ll be going around the country again. I’ll be doing the legendary Rhythm and Blues Revue with different artists coming to play with me and my band on tour. We just have a lot of stuff going on and that’s all great. That’s what we do. That’s kind of my job. We love to do it and it is continually getting a little better; especially since we got on with Alligator Records.

Business has been good for us, but so my goal, I guess, is to really seriously make a mark and write, perform and record a really amazing song and I just have a feeling that I have one in me. (laughs) Hey and getting a Grammy nomination would be nice. That is another one I’d like to do. We missed it this time around and I think maybe if we had that song I was talking about, I think that might do it.

JB: I’m sure your legions of fans believe that you can do it too. Lastly, is there anybody out there that you’ve spotted on the circuit; any more recent blues bands that you’re listening to that you might want to let our readers know about?

Trampled Under Foot.

JB: Okay.

TC: That’s the best new band I’ve seen in years. I really like them a lot. Do you know who they are?

JB: No I don’t. Not yet, but I’ve been doing a lot of reviews on our site and we’re always trying to get the word out about some of these great bands, that may not be all that well-known around the country yet. I am definitely going to be checking them out.

TC: Yeah Trampled Under Foot. They’re out of Kansas City and they won the International Blues Challenge a couple of years ago and they’re just a girl and her two brothers. They’re bass, drums and guitar and it’s pretty cool what they do. The girl singer is phenomenal. Oh and of course
Ruthie Foster! She’s another one of my favorite artists. I don’t know how ‘new on the scene’ she is, but I really dig Ruthie Foster.

JB: Well I appreciate you taking a couple of minutes out of your busy schedule to talk with me. I loved HARD BELIEVER. It is definitely one of my new favorite records and I just appreciate it a lot.
TC: Well, thank you man. You have a great rest of the day and I’m glad we finally got to do this.

JB: Me too.

Since our conversation, Tommy Castro and his band have been nominated for 5 Blues Music Awards; including Band of the Year, Best Contemporary Blues Album, Contemporary Blues Male Artist of the Year, B.B. King Entertainer of the Year (which he won in 2008) and Best Instrumentalist (for Keith Crossan, Saxophone). Congratulations!!!

Click HERE to check out the ABN CD Review for HARD BELIEVER.

Copyright © 2009 - J. Blake. All Rights Reserved
*Live Photos: Copyright © 2009 - Nelson G. Onofre. All Rights Reserved.

American Blues News Staff

What makes American Blues News unique is our coverage across America. Here is our lineup:

Mon: Memphis Correspondent - Robert "Nighthawk" Tooms
Nighthawk is our resident globetrotter and man behind the scenes, as he tours with the Reba Russell Band.

Tues: New York Correspondent - J. Blake
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