S J Downes is a blues maestro and proves it with new EP – Lion’s Path – out today. We had a chance to catch up and find out a bit about what makes him tick.
A clear reference to New Orleans style blues, yet with nothing added and, probably, quite a lot taken away. The lazy guitars and subtle harmonica on this instrumental offering are the ideal soundtrack to a long hot summer.
Which, perhaps, makes December the perfect time to release it.
Just sit back and enjoy what we could have had.
We had a word, or three, with S J over Zoom. He anticipated our usual Where are you and what are you doing? question before we’d even had a chance to fire it.
No worries. He’s passionate about his music and his home studio set up. We’ll let him start the story:
S J: I live in a little studio flat. I have tape players and guitars. I do landscape gardening for a living, so I’ve got loads of timber [shelving] in here, from floor to ceiling – as much as I can fit in. [S J gives us a mini-tour – the place is rammed with records, speakers and machines about which we can only wonder what they do].
I have a Tascam cassette player, which is the centre piece of the recordings I’ve done. I’ve slowly got my head around it and picked up some other bits. I’ve had this little mini-dream to get an analog recording studio since I was a kid, really.
I’m into loads of old school technology. I haven’t really got my game on with 2021 internet connections. I’m on big catch up with digital interfaces and stuff. It comes from me as a teenager, I was born in 1975 when it was all cassettes and analog of one shape or another until CDs came along. So, I’ve followed along that [path] really. I can do [recording] on the computer, as much for ease as anything, but when it comes down to it, I like the physical processes of analog.
On every stage as well. Even from watching the motion of the reels while you’re playing the guitar, you’re working in real time. Everything is moving while you’re moving, rather than it just going into the computer. There’s a different quality to it.
That’s led to a simple analog chain of the multi-track tape recorder which is reel to reel and then I wanted to be able to mix onto a two track reel to reel, so there’s an old 60’s Revox A77 (re-built by a guy in Norwich I found online). This EP is the first time [I’ve done that]. There aren’t loads of tracks on the EP, probably a maximum of four. Two guitars, mics and harmonicas. And then mixed down live onto the two track.
And then from the two track, onto QBase to master it.
That gives it a bit of saturation and a bit of boost. It gives a character, which is a big part of the finished sound.
It’s a simple affair in some senses. The finished EP is [very much] less is more, but I was thinking “Should I more?”. There were a few opportunities over the summer. Effectively I had a month off in August and nailed [it].
P3dro: Where abouts are you?
S J: I’m in Hartford, just north of London. It’s tucked out of the way, really. I had moved to Liverpool in 2006, originally to help a friend open a shop up there.
P3dro: Is that stint in Liverpool how you got involved with Mellowtone?
S J: Yeah, it is. Dave and Johnny from Mellowtone came into the shop, just connecting with people. So, we got chatting about music and they said I should go and play an open mic at the old 33-45 at Parr Street Studios. So, I did a 20 minute set – three or four songs and it was great. Then one thing led to another.
Liverpool is great. It’s such a close community. And then before I knew it, somebody said: “Oh, this guy can play some blues”. And that’s really where I’ve come from.
P3dro: Yeah, we were going to ask about that. It’s quite clear the EP has a heavy blues feel. Who would you say are your influences?
S J: The EP’s strange because I haven’t tried to impose upon it, but there are some very clear musical styles which went to influence it. More from a country / blues angle, perhaps. And those old time influences. There’s a nod to John Fahey. He’s run in my listening since my teens. And even the second tune [on the EP] ‘Death Blues’ [is named after one of his albums – ‘I Remember Blind Joe Death’].
At the time, it was some of the most haunting music I’d ever heard. The darkest, most haunting, lonely, sad, mysterious things.
I became like a sponge. It was these blues sounds that captured my imagination.
A lot of my influences are like an exploration – trying to find the roots where this stuff met. And then I find the cycle fascinating, coming back to the 2020s and summing up the recording industry in the space of about 100 years.
I have a great passion for recording and just capturing sound. There’s a fascination with sound in its acoustic form that ties my journey. When I play gigs, the ones I enjoy most are the ones in a really interesting space, so the sound does interesting [things]. When I was in Liverpool I had the opportunity to play some great spaces – St Bride’s Church and the Nordic Church.
P3dro: You were involved with the Never Records pop up events. Tell us about those.
S J: Again, this was a Liverpool connection. In 2010 this was Ted Riederer, a NY artist. His concept was based around vinyl and the idea of cutting it. So he travelled around and found a space, through contacts and arts projects, in a city, with a vinyl lathe and a cutter. He’d have a shop aspect to it. So, for example, in Liverpool, he set up in Seel Street, put the word out and I heard about it, got in touch and went down and recorded. But so did another 70 or so bands.
He’d cut a record for the band, give them a copy and keep one for himself. So, over the time he’s doing it the shop builds up into an archive of records.
It’s a brilliant concept and I fell in love with it instantly. There was a real buzz about it. We kept in touch and then he had an opportunity to go to Derry in 2011. It was easy for me to make it over there, so I got on the ferry to Belfast and a bus to Derry. It meant I had a continuity with Ted.
Then I got to go to London with him, so I’d recorded three [sets] with him. So we recorded 10 copies of the album as a limited edition. And then there was a film of the Derry experience.
After that he opened an opportunity in Jordan and I managed to wrangle a cheap ticket [to get there]. It’s all in the quest for art in one form or another. And then there was one in New Orleans. I’d always dreamed of going there. I sold a guitar to do that.
I was chasing dreams. If there was the chance, then I was, like: “How can I not make it? If I have to swim, then I’ll get there!”
Since Jordan, then there was Kansas City, unexpected and such a brilliant community. Wonderful in the same way that Liverpool has – a connected stream of people all feeding off the same inspirations, booking each others’ gigs and playing in each others’ bands. And then there was Brooklyn this year, which was Ted’s 10 year anniversary.
P3dro: What’s next from S J Downes?
S J: Good question. I didn’t expect making music this summer to be as difficult as it was, having so much time. So, as a result I’m really satisfied with the completed creative ‘thing’. And that gives me a lot of confidence to carry on a new creative cycle.
This EP drops a little anchor. It doesn’t give the whole picture away.
P3dro: Recommend a band or an album we should be listening to right now.
S J: I was thinking about this last night! One that I’ve been really into this year is Tyler Childers album, released in the summer called ‘Long Violent History’. It’s an instrumental album, nine cuts and it’s a good listen. It’ll show up my production!
Listen to the EP here: