Interview by Jas Obrecht
l to r – Big Brother and the Holding Company in 1967: James Gurley on the left and Sam Andrew on the right; Janis Joplin in the middle.
Photo: Lisa Law
Following their stunning performance at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, Big Brother and the Holding Company hit the top of the album charts with Cheap Thrills. This psychedelic masterwork featured the astounding vocals of Janis Joplin and the groundbreaking guitar work of James Gurley and Sam Andrews. “Piece of My Heart” remains one of the era’s defining singles. Many of those who were on the scene cite James Gurley as the father of psychedelic guitar in San Francisco.
Barry “The Fish” Melton, guitarist on San Francisco’s first commercially released psychedelic record, Country Joe & the Fish’s 1965 “Bass Strings” backed with “Section 43,” explains, “James is the founder of psychedelic guitar because he was the first guy to play in the zone. He never really played straight all that well, but the thing that defines psychedelic guitar – because certainly the chord boxes are the same as folk – is that it gets improvisational and goes out to this place where the beat is assumed. The music is kind of out there in space, and James Gurley was the first man in space! He’s the Yury Gagarin of psychedelic guitar.”
Big Brother’s ride to the top of the charts would be short-lived. After Cheap Thrills, Janis Joplin quit the band to go off on her own. Big Brother carried on for two more albums – Be a Brother and How Hard It Is – before disbanding around 1973. Five years later, Chet Helms, the band’s original organizer, persuaded its original members – Gurley and Andrews, bassist Peter Album, and drummer Dave Getz – to reunite for the Tribal Stomp concert, held in Berkeley, California, on October 1, 1978. At the time, I was the new editor at Guitar Player magazine. Helms invited staff photographer Jon Sievert and me to the band’s rehearsals in San Rafael the day before the show. When Jon and I arrived, we learned that the previous day was the first time James Gurley and Sam Andrews had seen each other in five years.
The following two-hour interview with Sam Andrew and James Gurley took place on September 30, 1978, in San Rafael, California. Earlier that day, I’d done a solo interview with James Gurley, which he occasionally references during the following conversation. (The James Gurley solo interview is in my book Talking Guitar: Conversations with Musicians Who Shaped Twentieth-Century American Music [University of North Carolina Press, 2017].) The day after this interview, Big Brother and the Holding Company featuring vocalist Kathi McDonald performed at the Tribal Stomp concert at the Greek Theater in Berkeley, California, where they shared the bill with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Country Joe and The Fish, and other bands from the 1960s and early 1970s. It would be another nine years before they’d perform together again.
When you started playing together, how did you work out parts?
Sam Andrew: Spontaneously.
James Gurley: Yeah. Our first method would be to just play the thing any way we could. We’d have a general idea of what we wanted to do, and we’d try it each man for himself. Just figure out what you want to do and jam it all together. We’d see what we had, and then we’d sort of take it apart and see what didn’t fit. Throw that out. Isn’t that the way it worked, Sam, or am I making this up?
Sam: [Laughs.] No. We played just like we’re doing now – through the changes.
James: The main thing was to approach it from a feeling standpoint, an emotional standpoint of what we were trying to do, and not get too involved with the nuts and bolts right at first. Get sort of an idea of what is there, and then you can shape it. Clean it up after you get a general mold of what’s there. Bring it in to focus by leaving one chord out or putting another chord in, or whatever it was that was needed to make the song flow along.
What was the difference when Janis came into the band? How did it change the inner-workings?
Sam: Naturally it became more organized around vocals, whereas before we were really trying to do more instrumentals.
James: We did a mostly instrumental thing. And we started doing more organized songs. We used to get up and just jam on anything – you know, total spontaneous kind of stuff.
Sam: Even though Peter would sing, it was more with Janis’ vocals – because she was so powerful – that the breaks had to be more organized. Like James said, before it was more, “There’s two breaks and a verse long,” and we’d decide who’d take the first one or the second one.
Why is there such a wide difference between the Mainstream and Cheap Thrills albums?
James: Because she had just joined the band when Mainstream was made. We hadn’t been with her more than about two months. When she first joined, we went to Chicago to play Mother Blues right away. She’d been in the band about a month.
Sam: Wide difference from what point of view? Because there are two answers. One is production – obviously Columbia is miles away from Mainstream.
The presentation too. The material itself became a lot heavier all of a sudden.
James: Oh, yeah. It wasn’t all of a sudden. Cheap Thrills was a year later from Mainstream. Mainstream was actually recorded about ’66.
Sam: And then there was the time spent. I think we did Mainstream overnight – literally.
James: Yeah. It was on a four-track.
Sam: Columbia was over a period of six months.
James: Yeah. But we were traveling too, on the road, so we had to do it wherever we could get studio time.
Was there a lot of overdubbing on Cheap Thrills?
James: Yeah, a lot of overdubbing, and we used studios in New York and L.A.
Sam: But mostly it was live, even though there would be overdubbing. But still we would have to choose songs on the road that we could play, say, 20 nights. Some of them wouldn’t be good, and other ones would be recorded.
Did either of you play more lead than the other, or was it pretty evenly divided?
James: Well, it was. I don’t know what it would be now.
Sam: We might have been like 60-40, with James being the 60, something like that.
James: But it was always pretty close.
Sam: And Peter did some lead too.
James: Yeah. Peter plays guitar.
Did Peter play the acoustic guitar on “Turtle Blues”?
James: Yeah, that’s Peter playing that. That was my mahogany Martin, the one that got stolen and thrown out the window and got the neck broke.
Were you living together in the Haight?
James: No, but we were all very close to each other, just a few blocks apart. Janis was living on Lyon. I lived in Clayton, you lived on Fell.
It’s estimated that there were 1500 bands in the San Francisco Bay Area at that time. When did you first realize that Big Brother was starting to happen?
James: I think Monterey Pop was the breaking point.
What were your impressions of Monterey?
James: To tell the truth, Jimi Hendrix, man. I’m still . . .
Sam: Doing acid like chewing gum. But that’s trivial.
In our interview a couple of months ago, Country Joe mentioned that he was over-psychedelicizing. He said he was trying to be like the Grateful Dead, but he was doing much more acid than they ever did.
Sam: He has a funny attitude about that whole period. I’ve read a few interviews with him. I felt that subsequently he put himself on the outside, but then he seemed really in it. He’s made many comments like that. He felt like they were over in Berkeley kind of being a string band while all this crazy stuff was going on in San Francisco, so they over-compensated or something. But at the time, it didn’t feel like that. That first single was beautiful.
James: The Country Joe single. [Here they are referring to Country Joe and The Fish’s “Bass Strings”/“Section 43,” the San Francisco Bay Area’s first commercially released psychedelic music.]
How did you get on the program in Monterey?
James: I forget. I think they contacted all the bands.
Was this before the album?
James: We had Mainstream, but Mainstream hadn’t been released. It had been recorded, and we got to the point where we couldn’t work with them. And then Monterey broke, and we totally wanted out of our contract. And they said, “Well, we’re gonna go and release those tapes we do have.” Because we said, “These tapes are no good. We want to do them over again and do them right,” because they were just made overnight.
Sam: We met [manager] Albert Grossman at the same time as Monterey, and that’s when we made the break. There was some kind of clause in the contract that if we’re not making so much money a year, this is broken. It was so much more than we’d thought of.
Grossman signed you, right?
Sam: Uh-huh. At that time.
James: It was not at Monterey, but that’s where we first made contact.
Sam: It was a couple of weeks before, but it feels like we almost signed the contract backstage at Monterey.
How did the first initial rush of success strike you?
Sam: It was wonderful, naturally. It was something we loved to do and had been doing for years.
James: And looking forward to. And then it was happening, so it was a thrill of a lifetime, the whole experience.
Sam: The thing you love to do, and being paid a lot of money for it.
How’d you find being on the road?
James: That was hard. It’s hard being on the road.
When did you reach your highest point as a band? What was your best moment in terms of the music or overall experience?
Sam: Yeah, for a time.
James: I think after Janis announced to us that she was gonna split. [Sam laughs.] I think that really reduced the tensions a lot. There was a lot of tensions between her and us, because she wanted to go more soul and have more horns.
Sam: We’d come back East, and people were filling her with back-East stuff.
James: Back-East stuff. They wanted to make her Barbra Streisand or something.
Sam: Right. Exactly.
She was starting to become influenced by them?
James: Yeah, yeah.
Did she think you were the wrong backup band?
James: Right, right. That’s the trouble: It was a backup band. See, we were not a backup band. We were a band before she joined the band, we were a band after she left the band, and would still be a band if we wanted to.
Sam: I think really objectively – and I have to say I love Janis a lot, obviously, and we were all really great friends – but I think we did some of our best stuff, that sounds the best to me listening to it right now, either before or after. What I can remember before and what I can hear on the records after. It’s funny it worked out that way. But I have to agree that once she’d announced that she was leaving the band, it was a release.
James: We were relieved, and I think we played a lot better for the last six months we were together there. Well, it wasn’t that long – it was maybe three months. It was in the summertime. We were in New York, in August of ’68, I think it was, when she said she wanted to split and was gonna stay with it for a few more months. I think we played up until about November of ’68. So between that time, those three or four months there, was real nice because the tension was off, and we played really well, I thought.
Sam: How come you haven’t asked us what picks or strings we use?
I’m gonna. This is more important.
Sam: It is.
James: Speaking of contracts, which we mentioned just a second ago, I think the magazine [Guitar Player] ought to have a column or series of articles on contracts. “The Musical Law School” is one title I thought of.
Sam: I don’t mean to be jive, because it’s nowhere near as good as yours, but have you seen the magazine Songwriter? They have good stuff on contracts in there, real good for songwriters. They even have a monthly running column. But Guitar Player was always like the musical magazine.
James: Yeah, right. But that’s one area I think you’ve overlooked so far. So many of these kids are growing up, and you read the ads – get this guitar and you’re gonna become a big star. Everybody’s hoping it’s true and all, but what they don’t realize is it ain’t how much you make, it’s how much you get to keep! And they got ways – listen, this has happened to us, see? – of making you think that you’re making a lot of money, and you are, but you ain’t getting any of it because they got you signing away here, signing away there. And there are so many tricks in the book.
Do you feel you got burned?
James: Yes! In one word, yes.
Sam: In some deep ways, too.
James: By the managers – the people who managed us – by the lawyers that we were paying to do our business.
Sam: We had some real cuties along the way.
Did you see a lot of money from Cheap Thrills?
James: Not to what we could have.
Sam: Not what you would think.
James: Not what you would think. You would think that we’d all be rich, but we’re not. Barely middle class – in those days, lower middle class.
In those days, people didn’t make as much money.
Sam: True, but that same thing is still going on. That will always be there. If there’s a guy who loved to play music, right away you’ve got him at a disadvantage because he wants to do what he’s been paid for.
What can you do to avoid it?
James: Know what some of the tricks are. Education.
Sam: Run that column in your magazine.
James: Yeah. “Musical Law School.” Until you’ve been burned and gone through all these things, you don’t know. We didn’t know. They serve you all these papers that got so much all this legalize in it that you can’t figure out. And you go, “Well, I’m paying these guys to work for me – I’ll just trust their judgment.” That’s one thing they gotta learn: You can’t trust ’em.
At the very least, you should have your own attorney and not use the company’s lawyers.
Sam: Oh, that definitely! But even our own stuck it to us worse . . .
James: Our own lawyer, we feel, was working in collusion with Columbia Records. The lawyer for the band. If you read our contract and said, “Who wrote this for whose benefit?” you would say, “Columbia Records wrote this for their own benefit.” It’s obvious in every paragraph. Recording costs was one thing – we had to pay all recording costs, plus all production costs. Plus we had to pay for the records to be pressed, the labels to be printed, the photographer to shoot the picture. Out of the royalties!
Sam: Advance and royalties.
James: So that’s $100,000-$200,000 right there. So they’ve got a free business, right? We pay for everything – they pay for nothing. We have to pay for it all, we give them the tape – we don’t even own it – and they go out and sell it and just reap all the profits.
Sam: That’s standard business.
That album made a lot of money.
James: Yeah! It was gold. It was #1 for six weeks when it first came out.
Sam: The thing is, even besides that . . .
James: You can’t even hardly trust the guys you got working for you. You’ve got to watch them like a hawk. You can’t assume that just because you’re paying them to do the job for you that he’s actually going to be doing it for you. He’s gonna be doing it for himself. You need to have lawyers to watch your lawyers.
Sam: The lawyer we had, and it probably happens a lot, was in collusion with the people he was supposed to be litigating against, whether it be record companies or the manager. The manager’s lawyer was out lawyer, so . . .
James: He’s representing everybody in the pie. He represented Columbia in a lot of things. The whole thing was just . . . And we paid him to do it! At $100 an hour, we paid him to give us the shaft.
What did you have to do with the live material that was released? The two songs with Big Brother that came out on the two-record Janis Joplin album?
Sam: Greatest Hits or whatever it was?
James: Not much. All we had to do was say yeah.
Sam: Because it was already done. That’s dredging in the basement after someone’s died, like with Jimi Hendrix.
James: I bought five Jimi Hendrix albums that were early stuff.
Sam: Horrible stuff. Alan Douglas . . .
James: Alan Douglas, right. Horrible stuff.
Sam: And that’s what happened here with that. Those are things we had shelved. We knew all about them and we’d done them, some of them for Cheap Thrills.
Are there other unreleased Big Brother tracks out there?
James: Oh, yeah.
Sam: There could be. In fact, I’m sure – and I’ve never talked to these guys about it – that a couple of these songs on Janis Joplin’s Greatest Hits were stuff that . . . I’d taken a tape down one day to a record exec here in San Francisco, and it had a lot of those songs on it that came out later. It was a good tape, like a studio tape. I left it there at the office and came back the next day, and it had been “lost” or something. And a couple of those were on the album. Those things all come under the heading of “burned,” in so many ways.
James: Yeah, burned again, burned again, burned again.
In retrospect, was the experience of being in the band more positive than negative? Did the good outweigh the bad?
James: For sure.
What do you think is the place of Big Brother in music?
Sam: Right now? Or at the time?
Sam: It was a seminal thing for all of those bands at that point in San Francisco. As to Big Brother in particular, I don’t know.
James: It’s hard to assess. Collectively, the whole thing was a movement, if you will.
Would you go so far as to say that period produced a Renaissance of the arts?
Sam: To put it a little differently, it was like a cycle that will come around again and again in human history. A lot of people have talked about Hegel and things coming in cycles. It was the height of a particular cycle. If that can be called a Renaissance, yeah.
James: More like a Renaissance of spirit. A spirit of goodwill, of good vibes, if you will [laughs].
Sam: And it was realized too. People were conscious of it. It wasn’t like we were just living good. Everyone felt that people could relax and admit things and express things that they couldn’t have a few years before.
What were you trying to convey to your audience? Because people changed very fast during that period, and you were helping to lead that change.
Sam: But at the same time – and I don’t know if it’s comprehensible – but I felt like I was one of the audience who had gotten up onstage. I felt like I was expressing them as much as me. I felt like the whole thing was completely together, that it was really that separate. It wasn’t like relating to an audience – in other words, that those were the record buyers out there. It was more like, “We’re all in this together and we’re really doing something that the world needs.”
James: A mutual purpose.
Was there really a “Summer of Love”?
James: Oh, yeah! There was. Yeah. It was real.
Sam: With all hindsight possible and analytical faculties, it really was.
Do you feel like you still have the spirit?
James: Yeah. Yeah. It’s been modified a bit.
Sam: Which is necessary.
James: Subsequently, the world has changed a lot since then.
Sam: There were excesses of the period.
James: Yeah. There were a lot of excesses. We did a lot of things then that we wouldn’t do now.
Sam: We were slammed down by ’em, but still there’s a main thing that was there that was good and is good right now. It’d be nice to see it happen again, with knowledge of those excesses and with the ability to avoid that and maybe make a better time.
A lot of critics are now calling Janis Joplin the best female white blues singer.
Sam Andrew: Mm hmm. Yeah, yeah.
James Gurley: In retrospect, I feel too much importance was given to Janis. It also was like the back-East mentality of the record companies and executives there who want you to be slick and commercial, you know.
Sam: They can only think in terms of things that have happened.
James: That have happened. They can’t think of what’s going to happen or making something happen. We’re talking about creation. As much as she made us as a band, we made her as a singer. She had to sing the way that she did in order to sing with us. She had to sing that way.
Sam: As she said many times.
James: She just didn’t have any choice. If she was gonna sing with us, she had to sing that way. We didn’t say, “You have to sing like this,” but we said, “This is the way we’re gonna play. How are you gonna sing?” And she went, “Whoa! Okay. Here’s this. [imitates Janis] Whaaaa!” It went on from there.
What was Janis’ role with the other members?
Sam: She always said, “I’m one of the boys.” One of the big statements that stands out was “At last I get to be one of the boys.” I was true too – not to be chauvinistic about it, but she was one of the people or something. She was a first among equals.
Is that in fact what she was?
James: Oh, yeah! We had a very close relationship. I think success probably spoiled the relationship. I’m sure of it.
Sam: That phrase “the greatest white blues singer alive” – I found it very hard to relate to, even though maybe thought processes would say it was so. It’s hard to explain, but that’s one of those superlatives that’s always kind of . . .
James: I did say that at one time.
Sam: Who’s the greatest white blues guitar player alive – Bloomfield or whatever? But I’d never think of them that way. You what I mean? I mean, I love his playing – it’s not that.
Are you too close to it, or do you think it’s just not the right term for it?
Sam: I don’t think it’s the right term for it. First of all, how many classic 12-bar blues did she actually do? There weren’t that many. She was definitely of the psychedelic age – it wasn’t a blues age in the first place. Who were other white blues singer, though? It’s not really like there’s a school of it. There was Sophie Tucker, and I’m not sure I’ve even heard her that much. Who’s from now – is there a female white blues singer around? There aren’t many. She was definitely one of the greatest white female singers, period.
Did you watch her develop once she joined Big Brother?
Sam: Yeah, but that’s kind of misleading. Yeah, I watched her develop, but she could always sing. She was an excellent singer.
Did Janis have that power all along?
Sam: No. It was like she switched a channel that brought that out. It was latent – from the first minute it was there.
James: She had a lot of power.
Sam: See, the volume at that time – you have to remember it in context. You see these surfer movies or old TV serials where there’s a rock and roll band in the background. And if you remember how quiet it was, the guitars almost sound like rubber bands. The volume increase [during the psychedelic era] was incredible at that time. You probably remember some of the early concerts – you could go out and hear the riffs ringing in your ears for hours. So the volume increase was incredible, but the minute she heard that, she had it. It was there. But I saw her develop, and Otis Redding too – it seemed like both of them before they died were just right around the corner from a whole change of style, a whole new thing. More substance, maybe. The same with Jimi Hendrix too. He was going through heavy changes before he died. He got into wearing all black and just standing in one place because he didn’t want to be a clown anymore. To me, he had a wrong perception of what that role was. He did a beautiful thing, and he was into clothing and all that. But I can understand from his point of view: “I don’t want to be psychedelic anymore.” He’d been talking to some people who were jazz players and said, “Get hip. You’re black. Play black music.” But that quieting down thing is something they all went through, like Otis just before he died with “Dock of the Bay.” It was a real quiet song on acoustic guitar. The whole opposite.
Was Janis heading for that?
Sam: I think so. I think it was in the whole culture.
James: “Mercedes Benz.” Yeah, I think she would have got back to her country blues kind of thing. Eventually she would have recorded some, like her early stuff.
Sam: Or even softer things like ballads and that, but really done well with that ’60s knowledge in back of it, those insights. That’s why I was sad all three of them had to go, because I felt they were just getting ready to make a real good change.
How about Jim Morrison?
Sam: You’ll have to answer that. I could never relate to him. I realize he’s great and people who I admire and feel were intellectual and intelligent at the time really admired him, but it just didn’t get to me. I couldn’t get it.
What did you think when you saw Jimi Hendrix at Monterey?
James: [With awe] Oh, I was blown away. Just totally blown away. I was just . . . Oh, my brains were dribbling out my ears. I kid you not, man. I was right in the front row – we were in the performers’ section, right up close, and I was just [shakes head].
Had you expected anything like it?
James: No. I had no expectations of anything like that.
Sam: Yeah, even with hearing the record. I’d heard Are You Experienced about a week before. But still, seeing him in person, the level of musicianship was taking place on a whole other level.
James: Yeah. The whole sheer flamboyance.
Sam: We were used to “This is a C chord and this is a G7 chord, and after that you play an E7.” It was a whole other level of playing. He was playing those things, if you wanted to think about it that way, but the level that it was on was almost like poetic compared to a conversation about music, if you know what I mean. It wasn’t like a sequence of events. It’s really hard to express about Jimi Hendrix, what he was.
James: It was almost like a flow from the subconscious mind.
Sam: Yeah, yeah. Totally apart from the chords or “We stop here. This is the way the song is arranged.” But still it was doing those things.
James: But those things were somehow secondary to the flow. He used to come in – remember that time in New York when he played that club there with B.B. King?
Sam: Yeah, Generations. Right after Martin Luther King.
James: Yeah. The same week we were there with B.B. King, and Martin Luther King got shot. B.B. King really played his set to him, just really played beautifully. B.B. King played so beautifully and delicately that night for Martin Luther King. He was fantastic. But anyways, Hendrix came in every night that week and jammed. They stayed open all night. After the regular scheduled acts were over, they stayed open all night for jam sessions. And Hendrix came in every night, and he played everything under the sun! He played all the Beatles stuff, he played Bach, Beethoven – on the electric guitar. And not only that, he could play the guitar right-handed and left-handed. Either handed!
You saw him do this?
James: Yeah! Upside-down.
Sam: That’s a fact.
James: He played his guitar [points to Sam].
Did he flip it over to play it?
James: Either way!
Sam: He would flip it over. He could play it both ways, or restrung so it’d be right for a left-hander.
James: Right. He could play right-handed guitar left-handed, left-handed guitar right handed, right-handed guitar right handed, and left-handed guitar left handed.
Sam: And it wasn’t like he was compromising because it’s a harder position. It was all the same level of musicianship.
James: Yeah. I could not tell any difference when I was listening to him play – we sat there all night for a whole week, every night, with him playing. And he played all night long.
James: Well, B.B. maybe sat in – I don’t remember. It was just like a jam session. People would get up, some people would sit down, and then another guy would get up and play.
Sam: Real good local guys.
James: Local New Yorkers. You know, New York guys who were really hot. Remember that one bass player who had a white Nehru jacket on? He was really hot. That guy – I can’t remember his name or who he was, but he was really good. Jimi played all the Beatles stuff, all the Stones stuff. It just seemed to go on and on and on, without ever stopping! And he was very good at directing things, when he felt like a change or something, getting everybody tuned to another thing without breaking the flow. He could go through all these different changes. Play “The Star-Spangled Banner,” “Three Blind Mice.” I mean, it was just incredible! It just came pouring out, a constant flow, a stream of consciousness of music. It was almost everything that you ever heard in your life. It was amazing.
How well did you know Jimi Hendrix as an individual?
James: Not that well. We played a lot of gigs together.
What was he like as a person?
Sam: If you’re asking if there’s any difference between the stage image and the way he lived, no. He was definitely in what he was doing all the time.
Sam: It wasn’t like a gimmick or whatever you want to call it. It wasn’t a mask that he put on to perform. He was always there.
The same with Janis?
Sam: Yeah, definitely. That’s the case.
James: Yeah, yeah. They both totally lived their identity in what they were.
Sam: To put it another way, they were that before they were paid for it or before it was capitalized on. I guess everyone knows all about Hendrix’s history, that he had done a lot in New York, just hanging, bumming out in the Village. I knew a lot of people who knew him at that point. He was doing the same things.
James: He was very sweet and rather more shy and unassuming than you would suppose someone of that flamboyance to be. I mean, offstage you would talk to him, and he was a very gentle cat. Just the sweetest guy. He babysat one of my kids while I went onstage at Winterland one time. There was nobody around, and he said, “Okay, I’ll stay back here and take care of the kid,” just like that.
Sam: It was there in his music too. On his face when he played, there would be expressions of the most incredible sweetness.
James: And compassion. He’d sit back there and take care of my kid – you know, what a guy.
Sam: Another thing in conjunction with that was when he got a movie camera. Remember that?
James: Oh, right, right.
Sam: The way he’d take pictures with that movie camera was the way he played guitar. Even with his body and everything.
James: Yeah, he’d be moving around with that thing.
Sam: It wasn’t put on – it was just the way he would take pictures with a movie camera.
James: He was real spontaneous.
Sam: He was moving all over the room.
James: Always moving.
Sam: It would be something to have a film of him filming.
He was pretty close to Janis for a while, wasn’t he?
Sam: Mm hmm. We were traveling a lot together.
James: Yeah. We were traveling and saw each other a lot. We played quite a bit on the same bill.
Did either of you play Woodstock?
James: No. Janis did.
Sam: I didn’t either. That’s when she switched to Full Tilt, so that wasn’t even Kozmic Blues Band. She was already in the last stage.
Some of the songs of Janis with Big Brother on that live album are dated 1970.
Sam: Which live record?
James: The two-record set.
Sam: Oh, yeah! That’s because she came back to Winterland – no, what’s that one on Market Street?
James: The Carousel.
Sam: We’d come back and kind of had a half-way reunion. Nick Gravenites was there.
James: Yeah, yeah. The Who or one of those English bands couldn’t get into the country at the last minute because of legal passport difficulties. Janis had come in off the road with the Full Tilt Boogie Band, and Sam was in town. We were all just around, and Bill Graham needed a band, so he called us up. We rehearsed that afternoon, went down and played that night.
How different was Janis?
James: She was pretty loose.
This was close to the end for her.
James: Yeah, it was just a month or two before she died.
Did you have any indication it was coming?
Sam: Her death? No more so than anyone else who was doing all the same stuff at the time. It could have been anyone.
James: Anyone who was doing all those kinds of things.
Sam: And all that stuff about suicide is. . .
James: Just baloney.
Sam: Pure baloney.
James: Oh, yeah!
Sam: I know so. I mean, as much as you can know something like that. She was pretty settled at that time, and this guy had proposed marriage to her and all that stuff.
James: It was an accident.
Sam: She’s not the kind of person. I mean, there’s no way. It’s not in the style.
Sam: But in a larger sense, Ralph J. Gleason had written and article about her, making the point that she was murdered by the whole rock scene.
James: Right. By the pressures and the nature of the game.
Sam: You could say it that way; that’s about it. It was definitely no “I’m gonna do myself in” number or anything like that.
James: She sought relief. She was under a lot of strain.
What happened to Big Brother after Janis?
James: Sam went with Kozmic Blues.
Sam: I was there maybe a year.
Did you play the slide on “One Good Man” on the Kozmic Blues band album?
Sam: I kind of doubt it. I’m not sure which tune you even mean. Bloomfield worked on one of those anonymously, which I’ll never understand. He didn’t put his name on the album. There’s one that’s obvious Bloomfield, and this might be the one.
This one is really heavy.
Sam: No, that was the Steppenwolf guy, one of the guitar players. [Sam is probably referring here to another song, as the guitarist on “One Good Man” is very likely Mike Bloomfield.]
What did you play on I Got Them Old Kozmic Blues Again?
Sam: All the rest of the tunes. There was that one that you’re talking about, and then there was the other one that Bloomfield played on. And then I played on all the rest. We were the band, and for one reason or another they had different players, like sax players, come in.
Then did you go back to Big Brother?
Sam: Right. Yeah, I came back and started playing again. Got Kathi [McDonald] – talk about one of the greatest white singers alive! That’s my vote, by far. That’s nothing – that doesn’t mean anything beyond itself. That’s just the way I feel. She has a discipline or something that I think all of us lack. Kathi has a musical memory and – although she would laugh at it – a knowledge of scales. Complete musical knowledge of what’s going on, whereas all of us were more orgiastic.
James: Yeah. We were learning a song of hers yesterday that has a lot of changes in it, and she’s just leading the whole thing: “Short verse, short verse! [Claps hands.] Long verse, long verse!” Just putting all these things in it, conducting us.
Sam: It’s an exact thing.
James: She really knows her business, and she’s good.
Sam: Not to turn the conversation that way or anything, but it is more like we’re Dionysus and she’s Apollo – that whole duality. Knowing technique or just wow! Maybe it’s a time difference – she’s a little later. I’m not sure.
James: I hate to make a comparison like that.
Sam: Yeah, as a matter of fact, it’s not really a comparison.
James: No, it’s not.
How did you take to fame when it came to you?
James: I think it went totally to our heads.
Sam: In what sense?
James: Oh, that we became irresponsible in our personal conduct, shall we say.
Sam: For me, it would be hard to do that because I was already there.
James: In other words, we drank too much, we used way too many drugs. You know, out too late, partying too much. Too many chicks running around. Which is all great fun – I mean, it was a blast at the time.
Did your musicianship suffer?
James: Oh, it certainly did! It certainly did. Yeah.
Sam: I think at that time – “look down upon” might be too string of a phrase – but one of the whole points about that age is that education and all that kind of went out the window. Studying technique wasn’t favored.
Sam: Guitar players didn’t talk to each other about “How do you practice?” “Oh, I start out and do scales the first hour, and the next hour I do ear training, and the next hour I study a little theory.” That would have been absolutely forbidden.
James: Yeah, yeah. It would have been.
Sam: I could be putting that a little strongly – I hope you don’t take it the wrong way – because it was positive. It wasn’t a negative thing. It was just over-balancing on the other side of whatever technique is. The expression and all that.
James: In other words, we tried to escape the confines of techniques, because you can become so conditioned that you want to try to break through your conditioning. But the point ]was to break through the conditioning.
Sam: People would practice. It wasn’t a thing like . . .
James: It wasn’t like we didn’t practice, but it wasn’t from an intellectual kind of approach.
Was it more about harnessing energy?
James: It was more energy, more feeling. “How does it feel?” “It feels good – let’s do it.” “Okay, here we go.”
Sam: That was a button at the time: “If it feels good, do it.”
James: So we did it.
Sam: Except it’s hard to talk about all this without sounding impossibly trite.
James: Maybe. It sounds like flower-child talk on some levels. But so be it.
How long has it been since you’ve seen each other?
James: Yesterday was the first time in at least five years.
Do you keep in touch?
James: Not hardly at all.
How did you get together this time?
James: Chet pulled it together again. Well, Chet was the one who got Janis with the band. See, Chet’s from Texas, and like I said before, Peter and I had seen Janis sing at the Coffee Gallery a year before or so. We were looking for singers – we were auditioning all these singers – and we said to Chet, “There was this chick we saw at the Coffee Gallery a year ago. She was the one. She had a real powerful voice.” So it turns out that he knows her, you know. He says, “Oh, I know her. I know where she is, as a matter of fact.”
Sam: He’d gone to school with her.
James: Yeah, he’d gone to school with her and everything, and he sent for her and she came. Just like that. There it was. It was amazing that he knew her at all, and how the circle of events all just went around like that.
Sam: About a year ago – talking about how we got together again and everything – I went into dreams about it. I’d dream about it, like in the daytime, of the four of us going out with Kathi [McDonald] and doing this again. But I’m the kind of person who’d never organize that. I’m not oriented that way. But Peter would, if any of us would. He’s more business-oriented. He’s an organizer, whereas I would think of it but never do anything about it. So it’s great that Chet did it.
Have you considered getting the band back together for more than this gig?
James: No, I don’t think we’ve considered it, really. We haven’t talked about it at all.
Sam: I’d like to consider it. I vote yes. I’d love to do it.
James: It’s kind of difficult to do it now, because I live out in the desert and Dave lives in L.A.
Sam: It’s more difficult because we really haven’t talked to each other in all this time. So we’re all still a little tentative, just feeling around and seeing what’s going on.
James: Yeah. Just to get this job done tomorrow is the important thing at this point. One step at a time. Mainly it’s Chet bringing it all together, because he’s the only guy who can do it. It’s fantastic.
Sam: Considering the source – considering Chet as a person – it’s like the thing I was saying about Hendrix. His thought process are taking it to a whole other level. He’s got the business level going.
He started everything.
Sam: He’s a starter, yeah. And from the right way, too, which starters usually are, and then there’s a second person. There’s the thing about human movement, up comes the other. Like the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 – they had to kill off the guys who started it because they were too heavy into it. They believed in it, and the other guys said, “Ah, get rid of him.” Take him in the back room.
James: Right. Get rid of that guy.
Sam: Because they can’t take it. It’s almost too heavy for history or too heavy for everybody. It’s the price.
What did you guys feel back when reviewers started panning your sound?
James: Oh, yeah. Yeah.
Some went so far as to say that’s why Janis left.
Sam: I felt like they were absolutely right, considering their rules of the game. They were playing by their rules, and they were right by their rules. But I don’t think they saw that another game was being played, one that they couldn’t see at all.
Which was what game?
Sam: Just the things we were saying, that the expression was the more important thing and it was the time in history for that to happen. The scale had to be balanced for that to come up.
To where the music’s energy is more important than its structure?
Sam: Yeah, although I shy away from even trying to nail it down that much. We were talking about this tune “I’ll Change a Flat Tire.” There’s a band called Pure Prairie League who did that. They did it better than we did – people will argue about that stuff, and they may be right. Whatever. But that’s my opinion – they did it better than we did, but we did it first. And it’s always easier to build the second step after the first step.
James: After somebody has already done it, it’s easy the second time.
Sam: You have to make choices. You can reject this or that. But when it’s all just coming out for the first time, it’s hard. Covering a record is like that. Pure Prairie League is great – you understand what I’m saying. So about the critics: Their criticisms were perfectly valid in terms of what they saw.
James: In terms of their expectations. They expected entertainers who are supposed to try to be slick and commercial and try to please them with stuff that they already know about. We were coming from a point of view “Here’s something you ain’t never heard before. Try this.” They’re given too much importance, I think. What the hell do critics know? They don’t know shit about music.
Sam: I have a critical mind like that, analytical or whatever you want to call it. I break things down too, so I can tell where they’re coming from. But as we said before, they can only interpret in terms of what happened in the past. They’re not ready to see something brand new. So it has to be fit to them in terms of what they’ve already seen. A lot of times there’s no way to prepare for a brand-new experience. Most people go, “Wow!” and then they’ll think it over over the years, but the critic right away has to go home and . . .
James: Put it into print.
Sam: So that’s a big chance.
James: Like a lot of records I get, I don’t like ’em the first time, but they grow on me. Like the Wailers – I really love the Wailers [Bob Marley’s band]. I’ve been really heavy into reggae. For the last three years, that’s been my main passion musically.
Sam: They said we played out of tune. They said that we weren’t the right band for her, that she should move on. That was the year of soul, that was the year of horns. I think she was feeling a lot of that. We’d all seen Otis Redding, and that blew our collective mind. Back East, when you’re put in the studio, the musicians are interchangeable. They’re all great. They can play anything. It’s just like, “This guy is a good body man and he can work on brakes great – stick him in the garage.” It’s a different kind of thing, and it will always put together a slick thing in most cases, but always done in terms of the past. You know it as well as I do – it’s like creators versus interpreters.
James: Yeah! That’s what I was getting at. The first time I listened to most Wailers records, I didn’t like them. But I’d say, “This is the Wailers. I gotta like it – I liked all the ones before it.” See? So then I play it again, and then I play it ten times, and pretty soon I’ll be liking it. It has a lot to do with your conditioning. If you’re not prepared to hear something – like if you haven’t heard Devo, there’s a perfect example. I would expect that record to get a lot of panning from critics. It really just comes out of left field. There’s some pretty weird stuff. Of course, I’ll suppose there will be critics who want to show how elite avant-garde they are and try to pick up on it. It’s a whole other kind of thing – they’re not just talking ordinary chord changes and stuff. There’s weird electronics and stuff that sounds like a factory going on, just all this weird stuff. The first time you hear it, it will make your hair stand on end. But I really like ’em.
Sam: To continue that one question, because I’ve thought it over ever since it’s happened – about the critics and how right they were and trying to really understand from the outside what was happening. It’d be interesting to go and ask those critics today, “Would you have that same opinion? Would you feel the same way?” Granted, we were out of tune. There’s no two ways about it. First of all, we didn’t have a keyboard around, so there was no objective . . .
James: No fixed pitch. Plus we were doing a lot of wild guitar breaks all the time, stretching those strings.
Sam: For someone with absolute pitch or even close to it, if we’re gonna play in D but for some reason we’re turned to C#, that person’s gonna hear it out of tune from the get-go. And then the fact is, even with that, we weren’t even in tune a lot of times.
James: Yeah, that’s true. A lot of musicians aren’t in tune a lot of the time. They’re right.
Sam: As I said before, I think all the things they said were true in terms of what they knew. But it would be interesting to go back today and say, “After repeat listening” – like you said with the Wailers – “would you still stand by that criticism? Maybe there are other factors you weren’t looking for at the time, or you didn’t see.”
Janis Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company at the Palace of Fine Arts.
Photo: Wolfgang's Vault
Many people now consider Cheap Thrills to be a timeless album.
Sam: Yeah, yeah.
It’s like Jimi Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner” at Woodstock.
Sam: I wanted to do that so much! I wanted to do that song! I want to say it again: I wanted to do that song so much, a year or two before he did it. But all these guys talked me out of it.
James: I don’t remember that.
Sam: You don’t? Okay, well, it happened. I wanted to do it when we were doing Cheap Thrills. We had a singer we had to relate to lyrically, and our producer, John Simon, said, “The words to that song were dated a week after the battle. It was in the War of 1812,” and all that, which is true. But it really appealed to me, the idea of doing the national anthem in a new way. And I almost flipped. People always say that, man. You know, when clothes styles come out, someone always says, “Ah, I was wearing that two years ago,” but it’s a fact. I pushed it so hard, and I was talked out of it. I think it would have been great to have heard Janis do that, even though the words were dated a week after it was written. But his [Hendrix’s] thing was he wasn’t tied down to lyrics. He could just play the melody.
When you were starting out, how much did you influence each other’s playing?
James: Quite a bit, I think. Sam was real schooled. He had a real disciplined kind of approach, and I was real undisciplined.
Were you a lead player at the time?
James: Not until I joined the band, I wasn’t.
Sam: All the dichotomies you can think of about what he just said, any way you want to put it – once again, Dionysus-Appollo school, emotional technique, self-expression . . .
James: I think my effect on Sam was that he started to play more by ear and with more feeling than having to think about it so much and work it out. And I started to think about it more and started learning more. So we sort of had a merging of the minds, where I became more disciplined and started learning more things in an intellectual fashion, whereas before playing by myself I didn’t have to cope with those things.
What did you learn from each other from a technical standpoint?
James: That covers a lot of ground. Lot of things.
Sam: I just want to say he’s being extremely kind. This [points to James] is like the legendary Demeter rising up out of the ocean. You go, “What?! What is that?!” That’s what I did! [upon hearing Gurley for the first time]. “Who changed the rules while I went to the bathroom?!” [Laughs.] I mean, really, it was like being confronted with an incredible thing that I’ll always be thankful for. Incredible. I feel like he was there before it happened, and that’s the truth. I’m not putting myself down. I was there and all that, but he was there before I was.
James: I think he’s talking about emotional intensity. I had developed to a point of emotional intensity which he later picked up on as we played together. Because Sam can read. He can play classical. He can play anything from the technical standpoint. You give him sheet music of anything, and he can sit down and play it.
Sam: Yeah. That’s the way my mind was. I was going that way. James was going more from taking things off the record.
James: I just always learned by ear, so I had a more emotional approach to it because I didn’t have any technique there or technical-theoretical nonsense to get in the way of something.
Sam: We had a hard time working that out. It was real hard. It wasn’t so much like conflict. It was trying to understand what we were going to do about it.
James: It was a little hard at first because I didn’t understand the technical things that he would be talking about, and he wouldn’t understand the emotional intensity place that I was coming from.
Sam: And also we’re thinking a lot about Janis. I mean, before she came, we really were a musical group.
James: Yeah, an instrumental group. See, this was before Janis joined.
Sam: It was very avant-garde. It really was, man. To me, the only one close is Cecil Taylor – where he’s playing [imitates a wild Taylor solo]. Forget it, technique-wise. Throw out all the stuff. Do that until slowly you’d come back and say, “Oh, yeah, okay. This is right.” And then slowly structure it. But starting out . . .
James: By just putting everything you could on the line.
Sam: Bring the chaos out.
James: Put everything out and then make something out of it.
Sam: This had already been pretty worked out by the time Janis came.
James: Yeah. That was our working method. And it threw her at first, because being tied down to words, she had trouble doing songs of such an instrumental nature.
Sam: It’s hard for a singer to jam.
James: Are you familiar with the song “Hairy Kirschner”?
James: Was that ever released? That was released on a record, wasn’t it?
Sam: Yeah, but don’t feel bad if you’re not familiar with it.
James: Because it’s weird. Dave wrote it.
Sam: We did it on Cheap Thrills. It’s just like a little . . .
James: Oh no, no. It’s not on Cheap Thrills. It was supposed to be on Cheap Thrills. The picture of the Hindu guy with the turban on the cover, where it says “Artwork by R. Crumb” – well, that was originally supposed to have been for “Hairy Kirschner.” That song was just free-space bizarro stuff. Columbia heard that, man, and they couldn’t stand it. They just about flipped out when they heard something like.
Sam: He’s speaking about scatting, because Janis scatted the theme. We all played the theme together.
James: It was all scatting. It sounded like there was no structure, but there was a structure. It was a pretty well-defined structure. The actual notes themselves weren’t defined, but there was a certain progression, a certain development, and a resolution to this whole thing.
Sam: Our drummer wrote it, so the rhythm was agreed upon. [Both laugh. Big Brother drummer Dave Getz, who was seated at the next table and listening to us, chimed in.]
Dave Getz: It was my greatest hit!
James: Yeah, it was. Dave’s greatest hit! But if you hear that song sometime, you get more of an idea [James and Dave scat sing several measures]. It keeps building.
Sam: The middle part has no relation to chords or . . .
James: No relation to chords, scales, or tonality centers at all. And then at the end Janis says, “Hairy, come home!” Because we were thinking about all the Hare Krishna freaks dancing around in San Francisco – you know how that was. It was like your mom would say, “Hairy, come home.”
Dave Getz: When we first were gonna do the album, John Simon came up with a whole mix of the album where the second side started with that song and then went into “Turtle Blues.” It was really great. We had Bill Graham introducing us, and then there was “Hairy,” and then there was this whole fake applause after it. It was great, but Clive Davis cut it. There were like about three or four outtakes from that album.
James: “Goin’ Down to Brownsville”?
Was that the Furry Lewis song?
Sam: No, it’s not.
James: It was inspired by that Furry Lewis song.
Sam: But it never was, not even right away. We weren’t even trying to do that Furry Lewis song. Because we were insane with our playing, which wasn’t his style at all.
How did you view Janis Joplin’s leaving Big Brother after Cheap Thrills?
James: I think other people had a lot to do with the breakup, telling her, “Why don’t you get rid of these guys?” Because it was an equal basis for us. Everything was equal all the way. They said, “Hey, get rid of these guys, and get a couple of guys for $100 a week, and you get all the rest of the money yourself.” Plus, she was very confused about what to do. On one hand, she has these people who are supposed to be telling her what to do, representing her, and I think she felt uncomfortable with the way it worked out. She wasn’t happy with that. I think a large part of her nature was against it. She didn’t know what to do, so she thought she’d go with the advice of her managers and lawyers and such. But I don’t think she ever was happy with her decision. It was something she felt she had to do. And at that point, it was something that she had to do, I guess. You could say, “Well, maybe Mick Jagger could have gone on without the Rolling Stones at some point in his career,” but it seems ridiculous. Mick Jagger without the Rolling Stones is just another singer, as far as I’m concerned. And I think he knows that. That’s why he’s kept the act together. He hasn’t gone on to a thing where he’s said, “Well, fuck these guys, I’ll go for it on my own.” I think he recognizes the unity and symbiotic nature of the relationship – we feed each other.
When did Big Brother have its final split-up? 1972?
James: About that.
Sam: I don’t know if it ever happened.
James: We sort of dropped out one at a time.
Sam: Everybody bailing.
James: Everybody’s life was changing. Times were changing.
Did you move to the desert soon afterward?
James: No, I hung around here for a while. Like I said, I had a band named Ruby, although I hate to say that name again even.
Is that the band that wouldn’t show up for gigs?
Sam: No, that was us.
James: Yeah. We were the ones who wouldn’t show up for the gigs. [Laughs.]
Have you consistently played a lot since then?
James: No. No, I haven’t. I got very discouraged. I had a lot of problems with the Internal Revenue Service and all kinds of weird things came down later. I had to get away from here. I’d had enough of it. Too many complications. I went to Salt Lake and broke my leg and wound up staring at the wall for three months. Oh, it was just awful. So I didn’t play for quite a while there. I was very discouraged on the whole scene.
Sam: I did my version of the same thing, which amounts to academics. I started trying to catch up with what I felt I’d been slighting. I went to New York and had a series of very good bands, really excellent ones.
What are some of the names?
Sam: You wouldn’t know them, man, and besides they’re very silly. But basically it had to do with the Third World. New York is a Third World city, you know. It was Cubans and Africans that I worked with mostly. Good rhythms. You know, talking about reggae like that – it was basically that kind of orientation. I don’t know. East and West Coast is so different.
Have you played with bands ever since?
Sam: Pretty much.
Do you do any studio work?
Sam: Very little. Almost non-existent.
Do you find a lot of people remember your work with Big Brother?
Sam: Yes. I’m sure all of us could vouch for this: There are maybe 20 questions that you could put down on a piece of paper and go home and study, just to spew out when people say, “Oh, you were with Big Brother. Tell me . . . .”
James: “What was Janis like?” [Laughs.]
Sam: That’s number one.
James: That’s number one. “Did she really drink as much as they say?” – that’s number two.
Sam: And the whole romantic thing that comes out, like “a bright shooting star that has a glow and then burns out real quick.” All of which you haven’t asked, I might offer. We’re not personalizing this, but you must know that in whatever situation you’re in – you could be really down and just want to relax and take it easy – suddenly somebody comes over when it finally gets out. And there’s a thing where you can see it. Probably anyone in that situation called “fame,” for whatever reason, can see it happen. You can see their mental processes actually visible – the things that are going through their mind. And you’re ready for whatever the result is by the time they get to you.
Does it make you cringe, in a way?
Even as a guitar magazine editor, I run into that. When some people hear that’s what I do, they feel compelled to tell me all about their influences, setups, favorite solos . . . .
Sam: And they can be real likeable, good people and all that.
But you just want to get away from that.
James: Yeah. It’s like if you were a doctor and you’re at a party, and everybody’s coming up and telling you about their headaches.
James: Their goiter or whatever.
Okay. Time for a real important question. What kind of strings were you using?
James: [Laughs.] Wow!
Sam: You know, I hope you didn’t take that wrong. I like to see what strings people use.
James: Oh, yeah.
Sam: They’re valid questions. I really think it’s interesting. It’s also interesting when someone says – which I would probably say – I don’t really use a certain kind. It’s the way a mood puts me. Sometimes I like to try heavy ones or light ones or mediums. You know, I like to change it up. That’s interesting too. I like to know that. Sometimes when they’re very specific answers, I wonder if that person really uses those all the time, or if it’s currently a thing they’re into. You know, “For the last three months I’ve been using . . . .”
Most people seem to stick with one kind for a long time.
Sam: Getting back to what we were talking about, when people ask about Janis, unless I’m really tired, I always to try give them as articulate an answer as I can to get across as to what she was like. I really answer the question, in other words. I don’t condescend – like you probably do it with guitar players. You have to brace up and face it, that’s all. For a long time, I think I tried to run away from it. There’s always an analogy that sticks in my mind about a man who’s very rich and has a child, say a son, but never lets him know that he has a lot of money. Then one day he takes him out in the field and says, “Son. See all this around you? This is yours.” It’s a little far away, but it’s kind of like that thing of understatement. These things all connect, but it’s really hard for me to bring it back. [Long pause.] This is gonna be the 18-minute gap on your tape!
James: Overall, I generally use Ernie Ball light top, heavy bottoms [everyone laughs]. Just to fill the 18-minute gap here! Although I keep trying new sets every once in a while. The current set I got on there is Fender Super Bullets, but I think I’m going to go to a heavier gauge. They’re a little too light. They start with .008 and got to .038, I think. The Fender Super Bullets are real light. Back with Janis, I think we were into LaBellas that were light-gauge rock and roll strings.
Sam, James told me about his equipment back with Big Brother. What guitars did you use before the SG?
Sam: Almost always the SG.
Even on the Mainstream album?
James: That’s the only guitar I can ever remember you using.
Sam: I’d used them before that experience. To me, an SG is the premier guitar.
What kind of amps?
Sam: Fenders. We were pretty much together on all those.
James: We had this whole truck full of equipment from Fender.
Sam: We pretty much used the same things. I like Twin Reverbs a lot. If they asked me to do an endorsement, I would do it. I haven’t had one in years. I wish they’d give me one.
Sam: But I love ’em, man. I think they’re great.
What kind of guitar do you play today, Sam?
Sam: Well, really an SG if I have a chance. I’m playing a Les Paul, one of the late ones. They’re good. Gibsons are good. Fenders are too. James is more for this than I am, and I’ve noticed that musicians fit into this thing. The whole world is divided into two kinds of people: Those that divide the world into two kinds of people . . . .
James: And those who don’t.
Sam: Right. Henry James said it. I divide the whole world of guitar players into those who say, “I care about the music, man” and the other guys are really into the tools. Obviously, there are mixes, but there are those two orientations. I’m one of the guys who’s always more into music. I could play it on a ukulele, the things I have to say. I would welcome the limitations. Whatever comes up. It’s not better or worse, it’s just a personal orientation.
James: The challenge of working in the context of what you’ve got available for whatever the challenge is.
Sam: We probably all did, but I moved to acoustics in the’70s, like the acoustic guitar. I started getting really into that and loving it.
Was this in a rock band context?
Sam: I played in sort of an early version of fusion music. We’ve all known about jazz for years and years, and we kind of played that. I guess you could call it – “fusion” is such a shitty word, it sucks.
James: Yeah. It was good the first time the guy used it. It’s just after it’s been repeated a million times . . .
Sam: It’s a label.
James: Yeah, just a label.
Sam: But that would get us close to the particular thing I was doing in the New York. We had jazz overtones. Sometimes straight jazz. I got into acoustic probably largely from not playing to large crowds. It was more like a nightclub situation, and then going home and playing in the living room. I was starting to hear that more again, after years of being heavy. There was an interesting article in Esquire about the ’70s versus the ’60s. It’s an interesting subject for all those who lived through it.
James: Yeah! The contrasts and the changes.
Sam: They had columns of different things, and one was electric guitar in the ’60s and acoustic guitar in the ’70s.
What do you think is the heritage of the late 1960s for us today, especially as related to the counterculture?
Sam: A few things of value . . .
Dave Getz [shouts from another table]: Janis Joplin!
Sam: [Laughs heartily.] That’s what you call “crossfire.”
James: Well, the heritage, I think, is that there’s a lot more individual freedom available to people now than there was before then. You know? We can have all kinds of hairstyles, we can have our hair any length we want. We can wear any kind of moustache, beard, whereas before, you didn’t really do that. I remember when I first grew my hair long, it was an outrage. People used to chase us on the streets – it was like scenes from Frankenstein movies – “Get the monster!” with flaming torches, you know. When we first went to Chicago from California, there was nothing like that in Chicago at all, like we were. Some people just didn’t know how to react to it at all. A lot of people reacted with hostility and hate and all kinds of things.
Sam: I feel that same thing. People are more tolerant, just subjectively. Before 1965, the world wasn’t in color.
James: The world was in black and white. You can see it.
Sam: Take something like bed sheets. They were always white. Underwear was always white. And all the colors came in all of a sudden. Things were colored in . . .
James: Fantastic hues.
Sam: You don’t need to stick with that. Does that make sense? It happened to logos, like for CBS Television. Through all areas of life, more choices.
James: That’s right. More creative emphasis and a lot more freedoms, I guess. The ’60s were a breakthrough for a lot of things.
What do you think of the music today as compared to ten years ago?
James: Oh, I think there’s a lot of great stuff going on. The level of musicianship is much higher than it was ten years ago, that’s for sure – especially the guitar playing. There was nobody around ten yours ago who could play like some of the guys around today. It’s just amazing, the incredible guitar players that are around now.
Sam: A whole new level has come out.
James: There’s a definite increase in musical consciousness and musicianship as such. This has swung the other way: There’s a lot more emphasis on technique.
Sam: One of the things you can say about disco music or even punk rock is that they are the exact opposites in every detail of the ’60s. In the ’60s, long guitar solos. No guitar solos. In the ’60s, guitar. In the ’70s, piano.
James: Synthesizers, right? Synthesizers are real big now. There are always differences.
Sam: The music that’s popular now, like garage bands and stuff, there are Cmaj7 chords. There are major seventh chords, minor seventh chords, diminished chords – in the music. It’s not brought in, it’s right in the music. All those choices to use.
James: At the same time, I see less individuality among players too. It’s like you can’t tell one guy from the next. One Eric Clapton lick from the next Eric Clapton lick, you know, a lot of times, which is one of the unique things about Hendrix. You always know it’s him. Just the tone of his guitar – you just know it’s him.
James: The attack, right! It’s his signature. It’s just him, whereas today there are so many great guitar players from a technical sense, but they lack individuality, I think, so it’s hard to tell one from the other. Although there are some who do have a pretty identifiable sound, like Robin Trower. He’s pretty good – I like him a lot.
Sam: I thought he was a Hendrix clone.
James: Yeah, he was for a while, but he’s developed into his own thing. Yeah, he was a clone.
Sam: Back then it would be hard to tell them apart.
James: But now he’s really got his own thing.
What has psychedelic music contributed to music in the 1970s?
James: It opened the mind to more involvement in general with music. People are much more involved with it. There are many more people playing nowadays, it seems. There’s a hell of a lot more information available in books.
Sam: Psychedelic music opened the door to synthesizers.
James: Yeah, it opened the door to new sounds and fresh, creative ways of going about it.
Sam: Sounds that are not “natural.”
James: Yeah. Sounds that just were never heard before.
Has the use of drugs by psychedelic bands in the 1960s been overemphasized or underemphasized?
Sam: Depends how you take the question.
James: It was a big part! It was a big part.
Sam: I was thinking, like, you were asking if people had discussed it. It has been discussed endlessly.
James: Yeah. I mean, everybody was involved with drugs.
Did they help the music?
James: It helped and it hurt, probably. I think it led a lot of people into creative blind alleys. In other ways it led people out of blind alleys.
Did they help you loosen up?
James: Yeah, that’s what I mean. It broke your conditioning so that you were able to step back from what you already knew to try to perceive something that you don’t know. Because all these things come from your subconscious – that’s the source of your creative endeavor, somehow. Sometimes when I’ll be falling asleep, I’ll hear something, almost like hear it in the air, and I’ll think I left the radio on in the other room. I’ll get up to turn it off, and I’ll realize it was just in my head. You can just feel it at that moment, like in the Twilight Zone of your mind.
Sam: An auditory hallucination.
James: An auditory hallucination, maybe. Yeah.
Where does this come from?
James: From the workings of subconscious mind.
Sam: It comes from your mind imposing a structure on reality. Like I’ve heard radiator pipes – exactly what you’re talking about – making very quiet noises. Not when they first come on or are banging, but when they’re quiet. I’ve heard the most incredible guitar solos on them, and I just say, “How can I even play after hearing that? Where’s that coming from?” It sounds like there’s a band many blocks away. “God, those guys are so incredible, the way they’re playing that stuff!” I only realized after a few months of hearing these things a lot that it was my mind imposing the structure on the sound of the radiator.
James: I’m sure the same thing must have happened to Bach. Those kinds of feelings where it just becomes so real that it almost becomes physical in a sense.
Did you ever find drugs could help you tap this?
James: Sometimes, yeah. Other times, I would say no.
Sam: I know they make you aware of it more.
James: Yeah, they change your perception.
Sam: As for writing it down . . .
James: It’ll change your perceptions. But what you’re gonna do about it, that still has to do with your personality and how you perceive yourself in the world. The ball is still in your lap, so to speak, although you have these fresh perceptions. I don’t think anyone should try to rely on drug experiences in order to be creative or feel that you have to have these things in order to create or play well or whatever. I couldn’t have talked about it like this ten years ago because I didn’t have this perspective on it that I do now.
Sam: You’re taking it from an individual point of view, but even the culture in general has had those insights. The logo of CBS News is in day-glo, psychedelic colors.
James: Yeah. It’s been assimilated throughout the culture. Like I heard an old lady at the supermarket the other day – something bad happen to her, and she said, “Well, I just have that kind of karma.” Just a perfectly straight old lady saying, “I just have that kind of karma,” which is an obvious influence from the ’60s psychedelic.
I heard a four-year-old say, “That’s a bum trip.”
James: Right. “Bum trip” is another word I hear people of all ages use. My girlfriend’s mother has been reading books on brown rice lately, and organic foods. All these things are spreading out, sneaking their way through.
Sam: That lady in the supermarket is choosing products where the packaging has been designed by some guy in an advertising agency who goes out and smokes a joint on his lunch break, maybe.
James: So the influence shows.
Has your creative drive changed in the past 15 years?
James: Well, yeah. I’d say not being in a band context reduces your drive to create, because you don’t have the inter-personal relationships making demands upon you to keep you going. Like if I get up and don’t want to play, I don’t play. But if I’ve got a rehearsal I’ve got to be too [snaps fingers], yeah, I’ve got to be there and I’ve got to play. This stimulates you to play more.
Sam: Yeah. You’ve got to come up with something. You’re on the spot. Do it now. But there’s another way I heard your question, and I have a stronger drive nowadays. Or at least I’m more aware that I can channel it more. That’s what age in general does. But I feel like my drive is stronger than before or I can get to what I want to get faster.
James: You have a stronger ability to channel your energy into what you want to do . . .
Sam: With better results.
James: Whereas before it was more chaotic. In the old days, it was hit and miss. And now I feel that I’m slowly working my way toward certain musical concepts that have been in my mind, things that I’ve been wanting to do. I feel like I’m finally beginning to get a grip on how I can go about doing them. And so I feel in some ways in the future I can be more creative than I was then.
What would you like to accomplish musically?
James: Musically? Well, I have a bunch of themes and different songs which I’ve been running through my head. I’d like to do an album of anything, everything. I want to do a lot more studying of theory.
Sam: What’s the album concept? What kind of album?
James: Any kind of album. Band context, I’m thinking of. And also I’m thinking of a more avant-garde approach where I would do all the things myself or with just one or two friends, just put a whole bunch of things together just by overdubbing. I’ve got a four-track studio in my house.
Would you like to start gigging again, working the road?
James: That’s a tough question. I do, and there’s plusses and minuses. I would find it exciting, yeah. I would like to do it. But there’s practical problems – I have a family, children and stuff – and it takes time to be on the road a lot. I’m close to my children, and I take a great interest in watching their development every day. That’s a great source of satisfaction. Yeah, I would like to in some limited way – not the full-time thing like we used to do of just always being on the road.
Sam: We have the advantage now of hindsight.
James: I think maybe I’d be able to handle this.
Sam: I’m not pushing for this right now. Speaking about the avant-garde thing or doing a whole album yourself, this is the time to experiment. I feel that disco was running out when Saturday Night Fever came out, and that gave it an artificial shot in the arm. It’s time for a change-up. It’s time to try a lot of new stuff.
James: The funk thing signalizes that. This funk thing – I detect a spirit there of “to hell with it all, let’s just straight-ahead play it.” You know, just a kick-out-the-jams kind of situation. “Throw the old farts out and let’s blow.” That kind of thing. [Laughs.]
Sam: It’s definitely time, man. You can’t go on old formulas. We’ve all had the drugs – the whole world has.
James: That’s old hat.
What would you like to accomplish, Sam?
Sam: Basically that: Just experiment, try a lot of different forms, try to settle on something and play good music. Play real quality music with some substance.
James: Just continue developing.
Sam: Practice more. Have everything together this time.
With Big Brother, you were driven by your personal vision, energy, and direction. Now music is much more driven by genre.
Sam: It’s more of a business now.
James: On that level, it is more of a business.
Would you rather be in the mainstream or avante-garde?
Sam: I’d rather be in the mainstream. I’d like to play really nice stuff. Avant-garde if necessary, but get people to accept it, really love it, do a good thing, and get paid a lot of money for it. I’d love to be Pablo Casals when I’m 80 years old. I couldn’t imagine anything nicer. And you were talking about going on the road: Go on the road for four months and then stay home and work, work real hard. There are no free tickets or free rides. It’d be so utopian. It’d be nice to settle into a groove of working real hard and getting what you deserve for it.
James: Working and developing, yeah. That’s what I want: To work more and develop more.
How are your playing skills as compared to decade ago?
James: I think I’m a lot more circumspect. [Sam and James both laugh.]
Sam: I think that’s a good answer! Mine change every three months. I can’t tell where my chops are at. Sometimes they are so clean, really clean – as good or better than ever. And sometimes I can’t play “Mary Had a Little Lamb” without it being off-time.
James: Right. Yeah, yeah.
Sam: I do know there is more of an accent on technique now. That’s true for everyone.
James: Yeah. Musicians in general are more concerned with technique than they were then.
How do you view the period from 1965 to 1969 in terms of your whole life?
James: Probably the most important years of my life, maybe. Yeah. That was an experience that I’ll never forget, an experience of such an intensity that it has a long-range effect on my life. I mean, here it is ten years later, and you’re talking to us now. Why? Because of what happened then. It’s something that’s gonna stick with us.
Sam: They’re impossible to answer, the questions you’re asking. They’re that good.
James: Ask anyways.
Sam: Well, there was no other period of time like it. There were other ones – adolescence is hard for everyone, so intense, and this was like a second adolescence. It was almost like that intense. I hope everybody’s granted that. I felt like I was really fortunate.
[At this point, James and Sam were called back into rehearsal and our interview together concluded. An hour or so later, Sam joined me for a few follow-up questions about his background.]
When did you start playing?
Sam Andrew: Actually, I always kind of tried to play. In fact, I really can’t remember when I didn’t because my father was a player and I had a guitar around the house. I remember being six or something, playing to the dog. Before I actually played, I used to hold a guitar and play in front of people, pantomiming to records. My father would play to my mother, sit in the living room. He was basically Western-oriented. He like Bob Wills and all that. I did too, you know. It was around. I had all the standard things. Chet Atkins was an early hero, and then Barney Kessel followed shortly after. Around 14 I got pretty serious about it and started making money at it.
Did you learn to read music right away?
Yeah, almost the same time I was learning by ear. I think I learned “I Walk the Line,” the [sings the guitar riff] by ear. That was my first song learned by ear, and then I was learning how to read at the same time. My father read. Like in a lot of families of musicians, both sides were musical, but one side was only ear-musical, and the other side was only reading musical. I’d seen both of them, so it was real easy to pick them both up. Neither one seemed unnatural. They both seemed like ways to do it. I notice some people seem to have a conflict at some point in their development – you know, should it be by reading or by ear?
Did you start on acoustic guitar?
Yeah, acoustic, but right away I switched over to electric. Very early. I was one of those guys who played at the teen dances – like that.
Was this in the early 1960s?
No, it was the late ’50s. I’m 36. An old guy.
Was this in southern California?
No, it was in Okinawa, oddly enough. I’m an Air Force brat. I lived in Texas for a couple of years in high school. My parents are both from Texas, but I lived all over the world.
James mentioned that you had classical training.
The classical part – a great deal of that was self-taught. I taught myself to play classical guitar, probably around 18 or 19 or so. Starting about 1960, through 1962 – right in there.
Did you attend San Francisco State University?
Yes, but at that point I was in graduate school at UC at Berkeley, where I was studying linguistics.
When did you live in Europe?
Europe was before UC. That would have been ’63 and ’64. That probably had a lot to do with it, just being in the atmosphere.
I heard that you worked as a jazz guitarist for a while at a place called the Jukebox.
Ahh! [Laughs.] A little bit. Yeah. How’d you know that?!
I did a little research.
Wow! Yeah, I was going over there when I was at State and also USF, where I started the undergraduate stuff. Going out and just kind of hanging out and trying to see what was going on up and down Haight Street.
Were you mainly a folk player at this point?
I don’t know. Well, folk and jazz, I guess.
Were you playing acoustic?
No, both. I played an electric since I was 14. I learned on both, because my father’s guitars were acoustic. He’d gone overseas and I traded his guitar for an electric one, for a Silvertone straight from Sears. That kind of shocked my mother a little bit. I mean, it belonged to my father. But he liked it when he found out what happened. So basically it was electric right from the start, and acoustic too – both of them kind of together. But definitely as far as playing any way professionally at that age, it was on an electric. I never played in public on an acoustic. In fact, I never have, come to think of it.
What kind of playing were you doing up until you joined Big Brother?
I’d say I was teaching myself classical and playing at jazz.
After you left Big Brother in 1972, you went out East and played in a succession of bands.
Mm hmm. And I was also in a very academic frame of mind. I studied a lot of harmony and counterpoint, very carefully. I pretty much went a routine composition major’s route – you know, did some string quartets and some inventions for piano. I didn’t play them. It was composition, so I’d have other people play them, like in a classroom context. There were a couple of small performances. It was “serious music.” This was at New School of Social Research in New York, and also at Mann’s School of Music.
When did you go to New School for Social Research?
Just over the last two or three years. I probably started in 1975. It’s a great school. It was started by some renegade professors from Columbia in the early part of the century, so it was a very early alternative kind of university. I was taught by a guy there who won Prix de Rome, and I really liked him a lot. And I still want to do a lot of composition. He put me through a very rigorous Palestrina style of counterpoint. I loved it. I couldn’t believe it. It was so great. I’m still kind of working on that.
Were you going for another degree?
No, nothing formal, because I already have a degree. Actually, before I left New York I was contemplating possibly getting into Julliard in the graduate school for composition. I still may do that at some point. I’d like to.
Any ideas what you’re going to do out here in California?
No, except that I want to play with whoever. Play some good music and make a living at it.
The 1978 Tribal Stomp concert that served as a backdrop to these interviews was reportedly Big Brother’s only reunion during the 15 years following the band’s 1972 breakup. The original lineup – James Gurley, Sam Andrew, Dave Getz, and Peter Albin – reunited again in 1987 and toured on and off for the next nine years, backing a variety of women singers. Since the deaths of James Gurley and Sam Andrews, original members Dave Getz and Peter Albin have continued to perform as Big Brother & The Holding Company.
Used by permission of Jas Obrecht