Preaching the Blues: Daddy Long Legs interviewed by Julian Marszalek who himself plays guitar in the great London based band The November Five
There’s probably no great zealot than the convert and so it proves with countrified blues-punk trio Daddy Long Legs. Hailing from New York City, the band has been whipping up a fervour across two albums – Evil Eye on You and Blood From a Stone – since their formation in 2010 with an almost evangelical drive that fuses the darkness of Robert Johnson’s infernal legend with the most rudimentary elements of punk rock at its most raw.
At their centre is the combustible figure of Daddy Long Legs – aka Brian Hurd – a man whose talents on the harp mark him down as something special. Embracing distortion with a feral energy, Hurd’s frenzied harp blowing is matched by a gutteral vocal delivery that alternately howls, yelps and hollers with a conviction that’s entirely believable. This isn’t some approximation of the blues swathed in a mawkish reverence that’s at odds with the form, it’s an affirmation of music that draws deep from the well of human emotion.
Crucially, Daddy Long Legs is band, a tightly knitted and wound unit that pulls together in the same direction for a thrilling strap-yourself-in-and-check-your-pants joyride. Guitarist Murak Akturk possesses the looks of a young Keith Richards with a versatility that takes in slide guitar, cranked out riffs and push’n’pull rhythms with an almost indecent ease while the minimalist drumming of Josh Styles simultaneously roots and propels the band.
This is music that evokes roots-punk pioneers The Gun Club as much as it does the deeper roots of the blues but the delivery is uniquely that of Daddy Long Legs. In the wrong hands, the blues frequently becomes a horribly neutered beast that removes all the grit and gravel from underneath its fingernails to become little more than light entertainment or a vehicle for technical boredom and shorthand for creative redundancy. Here, the dirt and the sweat and the struggle remain at the heart of the music to a palpable and believable degree. This is the real deal. Daddy Long Legs are preaching. Are you ready to testify?
Louder Than War: How did Daddy Long Legs come together?
Brian Hurd: We all come from rock’n’roll backgrounds playing in various bands in New York City. The three of us had been in different bands playing places like CBGB’s and a few clubs around the Bowery and we’d kind of admired each other’s groups which were all traditional rock’n’roll and punk influenced bands. We all got to be friends and drinking buddies. Once those bands faded out we saw our opportunity to do something together and so we went for it.
How would you describe the music that you make?
I’d call it stompin’ roots and blues. It’s kind of a fusion of our punk roots and our love of traditional American roots music, gospel and delta blues.
Willie Dixon said, “The blues are the roots and the other musics are the fruits. Without the roots, you have no fruits so it’s better keeping the roots alive because it means better fruits from now on.” What do you think is the enduring appeal of the blues?
I don’t think it can ever die or ever really go away. I feel the same way about punk rock. There’s always gonna be someone in their basement banging on a guitar who can’t play. And whether the blues is popular in pop culture or not, people will always have the feeling of the blues. It comes and goes in waves and right now I feel there’s a blues and roots revival that’s happening and it’s really bubbling up again. I think it’s happening because since the turn of the century and all these technological advances and the way that the media is and pop music is, everything is so manufactured and plastic. People are feeling the effects of this and they want to touch something that’s real and organic and from the earth and the ground; something that’s natural.
What was the first blues record that spoke to you and why did it make that connection?
I always knew that if you wanted to be in a great rock’n’roll band then you had you had to have some sense of the blues. I started with the basics like Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, Slim Harpo and Howlin’ Wolf and I dug that stuff fine but it wasn’t until a friend sent me Son House’s ‘Death Letter Blues’ that it really connected. That was my first introduction to deep delta blues. I’d heard electric blues and I dug it just fine but I never saw myself playing the blues until I heard Son House. That was a revelation; that was like the deepest, darkest thing I’d ever heard. The guitar was so primitive; it was nothing but a man and his guitar and his foot stomping on the ground. To me, that was so raw and real and organic that it blew everything I knew about rock’n’roll out of the water. I made want to strip everything away and try to capture some of that essence myself.
That’s the record that did it for me and I’ve been digging deeper and deeper ever since. I keep going back in time. I’ve traced stuff right back to the beginning with the early performers. I’m a big fan of Charley Patton, Fred McDowell and Furry Lewis, and I love a lot of the early gospel singers. The old preaching blues is what I really dig.
How is that that kind of music makes the transition from its country origins to the urban sprawl of modern day New York City?
I’m actually from St Louis, Missouri, myself. I grew up with evangelists on the TV set every morning and I saw a lot of that and I wanted to get as far away from that culture as possible. I didn’t appeal to me at all! I always listened to the Devil’s music. When I made the trip to New York I started to miss a lot of stuff that I loved from my hometown upbringing because the blues is a big part of St Louis. I didn’t care for it when I lived there because I was raised on punk. The blues, then, to me, was junk because all I’d ever heard until then was the wanky blues like Stevie Ray Vaughan. When I got to New York it was completely saturated with rock’n’roll and punk. It was totally as I expected to be so I got totally immersed in that whole scene but I then started aching for something more countrified and the kind of stuff that I grew up with. I felt that I was someone who could do that justice and my song writing got to be a little more roots and organic sounding; it wasn’t about the urban experience anymore. I started to get back to that and people started to respond to it.
There’s a marked difference between your debut album, Evil Eye On You, and its follow-up, Blood From A Stone…
Yeah, there’s definitely been a progression. For me, the new album has more variety and better song writing. The first album is a collection of earliest compositions and earliest attempts at writing our own style of blues music and it’s very raw and pretty wild. You can hear the country blues elements in there. With the second record our sound developed and we’re getting to know our instruments better. We’ve got a better production.
Does New York City make any impact on the music that you make and how does that manifest itself?
Oh, sure! Absolutely! It’s a fast-paced style of life and things are constantly coming at you and bearing down on you all the time. There’s a lot of great things that can be said for New York City but there are a lot of bad things, too. The rent is outrageous, some of the people are terrible, you see a lot of poverty, you see a lot of crime; the blues can come out of the country but it’s amplified by the city.
New York has its own rhythm. It’s like a subway train speeding down the track and our music is pretty fast paced; it chugs like that and it’s noisy and honking like a taxi cab heading down Broadway.
How is it that Daddy Long Legs avoids the usual blues clichés?
When we formed this band we decided that we didn’t want to follow the traditional blues route and to be unconventional instead. We never play 12 bar blues and avoid that structure at all costs. We avoid the lyrical clichés so you won’t hear us singing about whiskey and the Devil. We put our on stamp on things and if it feels as if something has been done before then we don’t want to go near it. The blues is over 100 years old now and so much has been done and we’re trying to get back to the essence of the original sentiment.
Blood From a Stone was produced by Heavy Trash’s Matt Verta-Ray. What did he bring to the party?
He’s got a fantastic studio on Ludlow Street and lots of great bands have worked there. Matt’s a great guy and super-fun to work with. He’s got all this great vintage and analogue equipment and if you walk in there it’s like going to Sun Studios. He’s got all the stuff that we want to be working with. We pay a lot of attention to the production of our records and with a lot of modern technology it’s hard to get that warm, authentic sound.
You’ve toured with Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, The Jim Jones Revue and Alabama Shakes. Have you learned any valuable lessons from them?
Oh yeah! You look at some like Jon Spencer Blues Explosion; they’ve been around for about 25 years or something. They’re seasoned professionals and we’re like the young cats on the scene. We’ve got a lot to learn from them on the road because this is like a whole new ball game for us. They’ve seen music change throughout the decades and maybe they see a bit of themselves in us and it’s really cool for them to be taking us out on the road with them again and give us the chance to spread our message to their fans.
A hypothetical question for you: you’ve a got a potential blues convert in front of you. What one record or artist would you play them to bring them on your side?
You know, I’d have to say Howlin’ Wolf. I think that what we do is a big electrified sound and it’s pretty evil sounding too. If you can’t wrap your head around Howlin’ Wolf then don’t come back! If you can’t get in to that then you’re never going to understand the rest of it. That’s how I started. It was Howlin’ Wolf that made me a convert. If you’d have told me when I was 17-year-old punk rocker that I was going to be a harmonica evangelist spreading my gospel across the globe then I’d probably have slit my wrists right then but I’m happy that things have turned out that way.
Daddy Long Legs UK and Ireland tour – May 2015
6 – Cork, Crane Lane Theatre
7 – Myrtleville, Pine Lodge
8 – Dublin, Ubangi Stomp @ Grand Social
9 – Belfast, Menagerie
10 – Derry, Sandinos
12 – Glasgow, Broadcast
13 – Edinburgh, Sneaky Petes
14 – Newcastle, Cluny
15 – York, Fibbers
16 – Manchester, Gullivers
17 – Leeds, Brudenell Social Club
19 – Cardiff, The Moon
20 – Bristol, Louisiana
21 – London, Shacklewell Arms
22 – Brighton, The Prince Albert
23 – Southend, The Railway Tavern