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Ethan Margolis: Perfect Mission of Feeling


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This album is meant to be a vocal fantasy of what might happen if James Brown or Robert Johnson or John Lee Hooker ended up singing in a wine bodega in Lebrija, Spain.
—Ethan Margolis
Describing guitarist, composer, bandleader, producer and conceptualist Ethan Sultry as a citizen of the world barely does him or his music justice. Born and raised in Cleveland (OH), Margolis left the US when he was 21 to study the art of Gypsy flamenco guitar in Spain. He stayed there for more than a decade, living alongside and learning from many of Spain's most famous Gypsy flamenco guitarists, teaching his own master guitar classes, and writing and touring a "flamenco rock opera" (Spanish Day).

Margolis returned to the US in 2010. He set up shop in Los Angeles and, under the production pseudonym "Sir Sulty," began pulling together American and Spanish roots music into a most unique musical vision. Sir Sultry's first fruits included 2014's self-produced Soleángeles, recorded across Seville (Spain) and Los Angeles with wind player Katisse Buckingham, keyboardist Mitchel Forman (Mahavishnu Orchestra, Wayne Shorter) and other guests, and bearing a Sir Sultry productions logo drawn by comic strip genius Bill Watterson (Calvin and Hobbes).

In July 2016, Margolis released Sonikete Blues, an exquisitely detailed recording that uses jazz to bring American acoustic delta blues guitar and Spanish Gypsy acoustic flamenco guitar together. How detailed? Percussion on two tracks comes from the fleet feet of flamenco dancers on a wooden floor; other percussion credits in addition to "footwork" include nudillos (knuckles) and palmas (handclapping).

Along with the returning Buckingham and Forman, Margolis' collaborators on Sonikete Blues include bassist Jimmy Haslip (Yellowjackets), Latin percussion ace Luis Conte, trumpeter Rashawn Ross and keyboardist Deron Johnson. Even so, although he's spent most of his life in the company of the world's finest music and musicians, Margolis' lifelong source of inspiration has nothing to do with music.

"The strife that black musicians and black people in general have gone through over so many years has probably been the thing that most shaped me. My hero from the very beginning is Jesse Owens," Margolis begins. "He's from Cleveland and went to the same high school that my Jewish grandfather went to, East Tech. My grandfather would tell stories of watching him run down the hallways in the winter because it was too cold to go out on the track, so I know about Jesse Owens."

"There's a famous photo of Jesse on the award platform at the 1936 Olympics, where everyone else is doing the Nazi salute while he's standing at number one atop the podium. That image, and that whole story, is one of the biggest shaping things of my life. That's shaped all my music, shaped all my musical endeavors, shaped me leaving the US, shaped me living among the Gypsies, it shaped this album, it shaped the 'Relevant' video, the 'Afraid' video—I mean, everything."

"I'm Jewish on my father's side. There was some sense when I was learning about oppression, the Holocaust, Germany, the Nazis, how that applies to myself. I don't know if I just didn't know about the Jewish athletes and people who stood up in opposition, but seeing how the black athletes, musicians and other people handled those situations was the most impressive thing I've ever seen," he continues. "Nothing has impressed me to that degree, not even close. And the spirituality with which they've handled and continue to handle that situation over all these years and continue to push forward, many with incredible spiritual positivity, there's been nothing more influential in who I am and what I need to do with my life. That's important to understand because it's in all of my music and it's a motivating source of my life. Jesse Owens had that effect on me, and it happened so young that it shaped everything."

In the language of flamenco, Sonikete roughly translates as having the rhythm and energy to play the music, and Sonikete Blues is full of strong energy and rhythm. Each track features Margolis on guitar and/or vocals.

For "Sultryanas"—a "sevillanas," or folk music originating from Saville—Margolis beautifully conjoins Buckingham's saxophone, John Daversa's passionate trumpet, and Natalie Cadet's breathless soprano vocals into a stunning Spanish mood piece. Maiya Sykes, who appeared in the 2014 season of The Voice, sets the otherwise dark and mysterious "Tricks for Treats" ablaze with her hard-driving yet soulful vocal.

Margolis' vocal frappes "Malted Milk," composed by the original Delta blues legend Robert Johnson, into a lugubrious moan that's so blue it spirals into deathly black, but closes with acoustic guitar chords that stretch flamenco into jazz. In "Go Down Blues," Margolis uses one of the most basic forms of flamenco music (the soleá) to pull the American Civil War spiritual "Go Down Moses," Leroy Carr's essential "How Long Blues," and a tribute to flamenco vocal legend El Chozas, into a seamless moaning and groaning, whispering and wondering, Delta blues. "Malted Milk" and "Go Down Blues" form the molten core of this volcanic set.

"The Soleángeles record was very much an attempt at finding a nice meeting place between flamenco and jazz, and composing that way," Margolis suggests. "This album is who I am, this Sonikete Blues. If you want to know me, that's this album."

All About Jazz: How does Sir Sultry know Bill Watterson?

Ethan Margolis: Let's start with "Sir Sultry," just so we get that straight. Sir Sultry is the name that I put on my initial project when I returned to the US after having lived in Spain for ten years. It's meant to be tongue-in-cheek on how we "Hollywood-ify" the Spanish, Gypsy, flamenco, "Latin lover" thing. I originally attached it to the band that I was in, the quintet whose album you reviewed (Soleángeles [2014, Self Produced). It's very far from being serious, like, "We're some sultry thing." But the American take on the Spanish or exotic is often very romanticized and fantastical and we often miss the essential point. I don't particularly go by that name myself, but it does go on some of my projects and I do use it as a production name when I produce things for other people.

The Bill Watterson connection is that he's actually from the Cleveland area, where I'm from, where I grew up. I had heard for years that he grew up in either the Cleveland Heights or Chagrin Falls area and never gave it a second thought until years and years later, when all of a sudden Bill Watterson develops a strong interest in flamenco music, and I was coming in from Spain to teach some masters' classes and he showed up. That's how we met. Years later, we still remain in touch and when I go back to Cleveland, we'll hang out, get coffee or whatever.

Maybe two years into this, he came up to me and said, "Hey, if you ever need any art for one of your projects, let me know. If we can come together on a concept, I'm game." I didn't seek him out. He volunteered himself and kind of showed up on the down low. He did the "Sir Sultry" logo for my production name, sort of a Quixote-esque, comical, foppy flamenco-looking guy, which we think is great, knowing that the name is kind of a jest at what foreign countries like to make out of flamenco music. Apart from that, he did a whole series of scratchboard drawings for the flamenco rock opera I toured. I admire him so much because he is the epitome of artistic devotion at all costs. Yeah, super cool.

AAJ: How does a musician collaborate with a cartoonist?

EM: When he's done art for things, he kind of just does his thing and then asks, "Does this strike a chord with you?" We'll work together a very little bit on whether it can be honed or changed but for the most part that's about it. In other words, it either is or it isn't, and we've done several things together where it just wasn't—it didn't seem to represent the project the way that I wanted it represented. That's great, really interesting, edgy collaboration, when you have that relationship with somebody and can say, "You know, this isn't working." Literally, we'll just bail on it, then we'll wait until the next thing comes around and talk about that one. I think we're both on a similar page: Neither one of us is prioritizing financial matters around creativity, so it's really an artistic endeavor. He's amazing.

AAJ: Although this isn't really a question, I do want to explain how I finally got inside Sonikete Blues. The Led Zeppelin album Physical Graffiti (1975, Atlantic) experiments with Moroccan and Arabic tunings and scales, and once I fixed the sound of that album in my mind, it opened me up to imagining Robert Plant singing the opening line of "Sonikete Blues" or verses to "Malted Milk" in his primordial blues wail. It sounds kind of ridiculous, but that's how I got in.

EM: I think it's interesting when you look at an album, or when a composer's putting together an album, to ask, "Who is going to listen to this? Who's going to enjoy it? Who am I focusing the target concept at?" This is not focused at anybody in the US. It's tricky to get into. You've got to find some way in, for sure.

On the Spain side, the only people who will probably connect the dots immediately are going to be people in the Andalusian school of Gypsy flamenco where they are constantly are doing what that image on the front of the album shows, knuckle percussion with singing. Sonikete Blues goes deep into these longstanding traditions of targeting vocal phrasing at certain accents within these rhythms so even though it's in English and many of them don't speak English, they'll hear all that. They'll hear that happening immediately.

This album was really targeted at that scene I was in out there. It's a very niche scene—small, barely understood by most people—but it's incredible and I believe it to be basically the total essence of all flamenco music. I believe it to be where the magic of open improvisational Spanish music has influenced American jazz musicians. I believe it to be THE thing, or one of the two or three things, that make up the core of this Spanish fusion thing.

That event, four people standing around a bar or at a table, a shared bottle of whiskey in between them, taking themselves into this blissful oblivion where they're doing these complex rhythms and patterns in twelves, watching each other rhythmically target these beats—they're only doing it for the four people at the table. That's it. They're impressing each other as they do it, and never losing track of the spiritual need for transmission. That is the priority over perfect pitch, over perfect tonality in the voice, over all these things. It's an incredible aspect of the decorum of the Gypsy style of flamenco, and that is where really this album is targeted.

In response to how you had to get in: Everyone has to get in some way, if they're really going to try. And it takes effort to get in. I don't think it's an "easy" listen. It is definitely a challenge. The fact that you had any way to get in? Great!

I am hopeful that talking about it in these and other ways will help people get in. Even in the sessions with musicians that I played with here in Los Angeles, I had to help them get in because until they're in there, it's hard to play on it: "I don't know what to do, I don't know what part I'm supposed to put here, I don't understand how the phrasing is moving."

There's not a ton of historical references to draw from. You can go to Return to Forever with Chick Corea, you can go to some older Weather Report stuff, you can go to all that stuff and look for it, it's definitely in the same ballpark, but it's not really the same.

AAJ: There certainly aren't a lot of references for the vocal aspect of it.

EM: When we perform, the vocal aspect probably makes up only about 25 percent of the live show. It's significantly instrumental and improvisational with lots of solos and really good 'comping by the band. But this album is meant to be a vocal fantasy of what might happen if James Brown or Robert Johnson or John Lee Hooker or whoever ended up singing in a wine bodega in Lebrija, Spain.

AAJ: Even though it's hard to get in, the first lines of the first song really do set the listener up for the rest of the set: "John Lee, Robert and Son left a legacy behind/ Tomas, Fernanda, Manuel left another of a different kind..."

EM: This is the overall concept—if these two legacies could meet. The first legacy draws from John Lee Hooker, Robert Johnson and Son House. "Tomás" was an incredible Gypsy flamenco singer from way back, no longer around, but one of the most important interpreters of the flamenco piece called the soleá, which of course Miles Davis famously did on Sketches of Spain (1960, Columbia). His name is Tomás Pavón and he's one of my favorite interpreters of the soleá style.

"Fernanda" is a Gypsy woman singer, one of the best, also one of the soleá interpreters; her name was Fernanda de Utrera, one of the most important flamenco singers and no longer living also. She's a member of the Pinini family, who I have a very close relationship with. They're almost like family to me at this point. I've worked with them a ton, I've lived with and had all sorts of experiences with that family.

"Manuel" refers to singer Manuel Torres, perhaps the most famous kingpin of Gypsy singing from the "old school" that we have on record. I don't know what year he passed but I have a recording from him that's probably from 1920 or something like that. He's definitely one of the patriarchs.

So the idea is: All of this has been done by these blues guys. All of this has been done by these Gypsy flamenco guys. They're all incredible interpreters. There's not a whole lot of "better-ing" that can be done, in my opinion, of what they've already left. So I have two options here: I could sing the blues based on the fact that this artistic quality is no longer around, sing the "Sonikete Blues" to say, "I miss that kind of peak in both these roots forms."

Then there's the other idea of me being here in Los Angeles, far away from the world that I was part of for a long time. In this sense, I'm pretty alone out here, and singing the blues has always been an element of sitting around alone, with a drink, just being lonely and thinking about that fact or lamenting certain things. Figuring out how to restart life once I'm no longer in an environment that I grew accustomed to...the fact that very few people really understand this musical culture shock has definitely been a difficult experience for me, so this project is, in a way, sort of like self-therapy (laughs).

AAJ: In "Malted Milk," your vocal phrasing sounds dead on the blues, but your guitar playing, especially the more free-sounding parts at the end, sounds nothing like the blues, and it's very cool to hear these two types of sounds in the same context. How did you put them together?

EM: I think that jazz functions on this album, and functions in all my music, as the glue. Always. Jazz is always present in everything, even if you can't hear it. It might be present in a modulation. It might be present in how I transition from one piece to another. It might be present in the types of scales that are being used over the keys. It's always there, and I think that's a little bit of what you're talking about.

AAJ: Like, for example, how Mitchell Forman's acoustic piano solo in "Afraid" sounds like it's cut in from a completely different recording?

EM: I meant to do that piece as a moving painting. I didn't really care if it was a song, you know? I wanted it to be like you were sitting with a glass of wine in the countryside and it was peaceful and maybe it stormed for a minute and then it came back to peaceful. I did the arrangement for that tune originally without that solo, which is a really incredible solo, it's really difficult, there's crazy changes going on with hardcore rhythms, and it just provided this escape from the sad, droning feel of the verses. So why not?

AAJ: Then as soon as you notice it, it's gone?

EM: Exactly. There is a flamenco aspect to that kind of an arrangement. It's very common in flamenco to have a really slow, spacious thing, and then, for example, the dancer—if it's a dance show—takes off and does this really fast dance, and then they stop, and then they go all the way back to slow and spacious again. So once again, a Spanish, flamenco listener might hear and understand that piece a little more conceptually than an American listener because they're used to the slow, and then the fast, then the quick stop, and then back to slow again. That kind of arrangement is very characteristic of flamenco dance.

AAJ: "Go Down Blues" pretty successfully puts together three different things. American blues and gospel fans will be familiar with Leroy Carr's "How Long Blues" and the gospel standard "Go Down Moses," but who is "El Chozas"?

EM: He's another non-commercial, non-fulltime professional Gypsy singer, a legend who is no longer alive. The song talks about "las dos tierras más flamencas"—the two lands that are the most flamenco in essence—referring to Lebrija and Jerez de la Frontera. Chozas was actually born in Lebrija, grew up and moved to Jerez, and spent most of his singing life in Jerez. It talks about how Chozas unified these two birthplaces of the Gypsy style of flamenco. It's paying tribute to those two towns, which I have lived in, and, now that he's passed away, talks about how he continues with his singing school by giving lessons to the angels in heaven. In that sense, the gospel harmonies in the background—that whole, "Go down/ And tell 'em"—combine without you really knowing: There's this gospel choir harmony in the back, there's talk about Chozas teaching the angels, there's talk about Moses liberating oppressed people, so...that's probably the track I'm most proud of on the whole album.

Interestingly enough, that's a 12/8 rhythm, and when it starts off its first part is acapella. It's definitely not the most accessible, but I think it's one of the coolest tracks. The fact that it stuck out to you is a positive thing because I definitely did that track for myself and for my Gypsy friends and maestros. I did not put that track together for an American or a jazz/blues audience.

AAJ: "Brewing My Stew," however, IS a track that has jumped out at everyone who I've played it for. There's something really "rock 'n' roll" about the drums but a New Orleans feel to the background vocals and chorus, and the dynamics you discussed before. Have you found that this is the one track that jumps out the most to American ears?

EM: I probably agree. My two favorite tracks on this album would be that one and "Go Down Blues." If you're looking for something that's more accessible in America, and funkier, more "in your face," that would definitely be the track.

That's also a fairly complicated track in its arrangement. I'm glad it doesn't really sound like that, I hope, but it goes from 6/4 to 4/4 back to 6/4. The phrasings over the 6/4 are pretty complicated while the vocal mimics a flamenco rhythm called the siguiriyas. The positioning of that rhythm over the base groove creates this ultra funky sound, and that's what got me. That's how I decided to make that track like "New Orleans meets Sly & the Family Stone meets an almost Tom Jones-y vocal."

AAJ: Tom Jones?

EM: Just a little. In the 4/4, in the choruses of that track, I definitely used him as a little bit of inspiration, and believe it or not, I actually used Eminem as an inspiration for the modulation in that bridge. The rest of the song, vocally, is kind of funky and drawling and slow—you know, gooey—and then when the modulation happens, I hit it really hard rhythmically so it turns into something Eminem-esque or like some Chuck D. thing from Public Enemy. (sings) "Working working working and working all day..." It's a lot more staccato and it hits hard.

As for Tom Jones: I'm not a huge fan, but vocally, the guy is ultra-impressive. I discovered him through my wife. I became sort of a fan because I started to listen to what he was doing vocally, and he had a Spanish flair going in and out—like "Delilah," that's a straight Spanish ballad. And his voice is so clean and powerful.

AAJ: There's one other song that sort of jumps out at first hearing, and the more I listen to it, the more it reminds me of something you might hear in a creepy Tim Burton movie like A Nightmare Before Christmas, and that's "Tricks for Treats." This also features Maiya Sykes, who sang as a contestant on The Voice?

EM: (Laughs) Yeah, you're not the first person to mention Tim Burton on that one. I met Maiya Sykes out here in LA. She's backed up Macy Gray and she's great, I've seen her many times locally. I got connected to her through the woodwind player who was a really strong presence on the last record, Katisse Buckingham, who's on "Sultryanas" on this new record; he had a project which she sang in a couple of times, so we connected through him. She brings back a little of the Aretha Franklin flavor to projects here in LA, which is cool—and rare.

AAJ: You mentioned before that you wanted to make "Afraid" a moving sound painting. "Tricks for Treats" is also very visually evocative. It also made for a great video, full of dancing, which reminds me to ask: Are you a good dancer?

EM: (Laughs) Well, I have to have a few drinks in me and then I get funky. I put a lot of work into all these videos. I really believe in video as a visual way to explain where I'm coming from on the composition of the song or track. Instead of trying to match the video with what I think everyone would like to see, I use it to further understanding of what's behind the thing.

The basic message of "Tricks for Treats" is that there are a lot of incredibly talented musicians here in this city where I'm living now, and there certainly were in Spain where I was living then, and a lot of them aren't getting their due, don't get the exposure, and don't have the money to hire $15,000 PR campaigns for their music. A lot of folks are out here struggling and some of these guys are really the best musicians in the city but you don't know they're here! That's just so crazy.

So "Tricks for Treats" showcases the fact that there's a bunch of people who know a lot of stuff who would be happy to tell it to you if you gave them their due. That's what the chorus means. At a certain point, I think a lot of people say to themselves, "I put a lot of work into my craft, and I put a lot of time into this, and if it didn't generate money, that's okay..." But then they go into hibernation. And a lot of these guys are among the best in the world, they're just really hidden. So that song IS sort of a creepy, funky warning: "Don't come too close unless you're really serious..."

That song is a little different from the others on the album. It has a little bit of a warning behind it and I wanted it to feel like (sings), "I know something you don't know," hopefully without the egotistical reference that could take on. But there are a lot of people who are literally hiding here, and everywhere, who know things that we don't know. And I love that. For me, that's magic. People like Bill Watterson—he's hiding. And he knows a lot of things that other people don't know.

AAJ: Generally speaking, is the relationship between your previous Sir Sultry project and this project one of evolution or revolution?

EM: Not evolution. I don't think it's evolution. Maybe it's revolution. You mean revolution like rebellion against what ought to be the evolution, or...?

AAJ: No, this second project is much more than an outgrowth of the first record, which, to me, means more revolution than evolution.

EM: This album is who I am, this Sonikete Blues. If you want to know me, that's this album. If that means that this is complex and difficult to hear—then, yes. How do you go from punk rock to blues with a rock 'n' roll father then move to Spain and live with the Gypsies for ten and a half years, then come back to LA and play in a strictly jazz setting? It's pretty complex, how you deal with all of that. The whole time, there was really quite a lot inside of me that was prompting those changes. This album is kind of me. And in that sense, I think it's a little strange, a little mixed up.

The Soleángeles record was very much an attempt at finding a nice meeting place between flamenco and jazz, and composing that way. Also, I think it is important to understand that I was working strictly as an instrumentalist for twelve years, so I needed a CD to serve as the bridge to get me back to the vocal thing. My father's a singer and I sang all the time when I was younger, but when I was in Spain, I was strictly an instrumentalist.

I don't know what the word would be for this one. But I learned in the time that I was in Spain that there are things that I can do musically, for better or for worse, whatever those things are, and some people might like them and some people might not, but there are things I can do that I think nobody else can do. And if I can do this stuff that nobody else can do, I ought to document it because otherwise I'm just letting it dissolve.

It's not an easy thing. You have to have a deep knowledge of the Gypsy school of flamenco to pull off "Go Down Blues." There's no way you could do that track without being able to sing along with the rhythmic phrasing of flamenco singing. There's no way. The whole track is built on that.

AAJ: Music seems to be so deeply engrained in who you are. Were your parents musicians, or was there always music around your home? Have you always been this way?

EM: There was always tons of music around the house from day one. My father was a musician. For a while he was almost a pro, making decent money at it, and then he stopped to have a family; he was a rock musician, so he was a singer and songwriter and keyboard player. My mom was really into world music and jazz, and she was always playing that. I was around her more because he was gone working and what not, and she played world music and jazz and all that kind of stuff all the time. I was exposed to an incredible amount of music through both of them; and, my brother is a classical guitarist teaching in Pasadena, CA.

AAJ: Can you recall any specific, especially impactful musical childhood experiences?

EM: There was a show in Santa Cruz, where I was born, called the Ramayana. Every year they do this Ramayana, one of the largest ancient epics in world literature, at this big show in Santa Cruz. That was the most impactful thing I'd ever seen: Totally a world music event, where people come out dressed as animals and all this Indian music's going on. Really heavy. That show and an African dance show that I saw are the two most impactful musical events that I witnessed when I was young.

That pushed me a certain way, and I think, interestingly enough, it pushed me away from what my dad was doing. So even though music was everywhere, and even though he played and sang and definitely taught me, I didn't really go in the direction that he did.

AAJ: The 2016 Olympics are taking place in Rio while we're talking so this seems like a fair question: Have you ever spent time in Brazil, and what's your favorite music from Brazil? I'm praying I hear you say you're working on a project that's kind of like "Antonio Carlos Jobim meets Reverend Gary Davis."

EM: You're not going to hear me say that because I have purposely avoided the Brazilian thing as far as what I play. I think it's one of the most incredible influences on music ever. I think in a lot of ways it is exactly the bridge between jazz and everything African, and harmony at its height. However, so many of my fellow musicians have gone that route and I've seen the kind of music that they've composed as a result, and it has scared me a little bit because I worry that I would lose some of the edge I have in the rootsy blues stuff and in the bebop-flavored composition style.

Flamenco guitar at this point is drawing a ton from Brazilian guitar. So the more I go Brazilian, the more I might start playing voicings the way that they do, or I might want to do versions of Jobim or Joao Gilberto or someone like that.

I'm not at a place where I feel confident that it would help me or help the product that I want to put out. It IS the number one direction that flamenco people wanting to get out of flamenco go—they go to Brazilian voicings and they go Cuban as well. So even though I might play or record with Cuban players like Jimmy Branly and Luis Conte, I've specifically avoided that in composition style and progressions. There are only so many ingredients that can go in this pot.

AAJ: You probably listen to a lot of music as research or work, for lack of a better expression, but what are some of the last few things that you've listened to just because you wanted to listen to them?

EM: These things haven't changed a whole lot in my life. I'm a huge Nat King Cole fan, so he's always somewhere in the mix. I'm a strong follower of edgy dancehall and soca music, and old calypso like Mighty Sparrow. I love Mighty Sparrow from Trinidad. I'll listen to Mississippi John Hurt, some of the most uplifting music I can imagine, all day and all night long.

I think I have to rest my brain a lot. So even though there are Charles Mingus and Billie Holiday and Paco de Lucia things that I might listen to quite a bit, I don't because it's just too much stuff. When I'm not composing and rehearsing, I'm definitely drawn towards simpler but very essential music like finger-picking blues, voices that are a little calmer, like Mississippi John Hurt and Nat King Cole. I really love the phrasing of both those guys. And Nina Simone also, but Nina Simone can sometimes be kind of dark, which I already am, so that just makes me darker.

I don't know how much you know about calypso stuff or soca stuff or old, old dancehall or any of that, but that's this whole other passion that I have. That's why I put it on as the hidden track on this album, at the very end. It really doesn't have that much to do with anything else that I'm doing, it's just that I get a whole lot of joy from there.

AAJ: Is that a hint at your future direction?

EM: No, that was just for fun. Like I say, this album is really designed around what I like, who I am, so that part of it, for me, had to go there. It's basically one of the well-known originators of dancehall music, named Papa Michigan, from Jamaica singing over a funky flamenco rhythm and he actually addresses a couple of my Gypsy maestros in Spain in the Spanish he says. It's just an extension of me and what I like and who I am. Just a little detail.

AAJ: Looking at the trajectory from the first Sir Sultry to this second record, it's hard to imagine your third one.

EM: Yeah, I definitely think about it. I don't know what it will be. I think it's quite possible that it doesn't particularly evolve, either; in other words, I think my production is definitely getting better and my concepts are stronger than they ever were, but I think it's possible that it maybe combines the first two or something? I need it to be a little more instrumental, there's no question about that. It definitely will have that going on, and a lot of it has to do with how I feel about the issues of race.

I'm 38 now and I'm starting to feel like if I'm going to say things that I need to say, then now is the time to do it. I don't know whether I'll get reclusive about that or I'll decide these things should be said louder or how I will do that. But that need has definitely started to surface in this project, because those are things that I believe and they've started to come out.

In the "Relevant" video, there's a Japanese butoh dancer named Oguri interpreting an old delta blues with a work song vibe—the "How Long Blues" by Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell —who embodies visual disgust in his dance. Butoh is something that I learned about a few years ago and it's incredible; the dancer hears the music and what it's about, then starts to visually paint this picture of disgust and torture.

And there's a line in that song that I put in to explain what I'm doing, because I think it's still quite "Relevant" what all those artists were singing about. It's still relevant: How long until we get out of here? How long until we live a better life? How long until things are going to feel better? I think it's as relevant as ever. Even though certain progress has been achieved, there's still a lot of pain and misunderstanding. It's all in there. It's the roots of all that.

AAJ: We live in a hard world and inside all of us, or most of us, we have a vision that this world is not the way things were meant to be. It seems that the blues, like the poor, will always be with us.

EM: There are a lot of essential factors in there, which is why I think I've always been a fan of roots stuff. There are certain genres, when they're in an innovative state, when they hit their climax... that climax coincides with this perfect mission of feeling. In Thelonious Monk playing the way he was playing at his peak—or Robert Johnson singing the way he was, or whoever—whatever those things were, there's a lot of truth in there. We lose that with all our Hollywood-ification of everything, and people try to get it back, but if we lose it for too long it's really tricky to know how they were doing it and then it's hard to express that again. So I've always been a very big supporter of these roots forms because they push the essential buttons and they dial in ways of making their pains, their joys, their everything, be right on that stage for the listener. Nowadays, I think that we're losing that. We need that old school. We need that training of how to go directly from the heart to the audience. A lot of those guys did it better than we're doing it now.

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