Whatever the motivation, the Scissormen and their peers are paying homage to the greats of the blues, from Robert Johnson’s teacher, Son House, all the way up to the Mississippi hill country blues of R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough that was documented by Fat Possum Records in the 1990s. We sat down with Ted as he decompressed after playing Bonnaroo and geared up for the second annual Deep Blues Festival, this weekend’s gathering of all those like-minded bands near the muddy waters of Lake Elmo, Minnesota. The Scissormen are preparing a new album for fall release.
Tell me about “deep blues,” this punky new lo-fi rock movement. Why is it gathering so much steam in the underground?
I think a lot of it has a lot to do with the Fat Possum label in the early ’90s, who were putting out records by Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside and later by Paul “Wine” Jones and T-Model Ford. All that stuff was really raw. It had the same aesthetic as indie rock did — it was recorded on the cheap, often at homes or out in the fields, or sometimes in an old auto-parts storage area. They had a studio in one of those for a while. It was a raw, nasty sound, exactly what you’d hear if you went to a house party somewhere in Mississippi or a juke joint. A bunch of amplifiers turned up really really loud, a P.A. that was half blown out. But it was really exciting, and spontaneous, and all those guys improvised and ripped and put a lot of character into it.
There was a generation that got turned on to that music in high school or early in college when it came out, and it kind of burrowed in. Now musicians turned on to that are putting stuff out. Like the Black Keys and Black Diamond Heavies, who didn’t grow up in Mississippi with their parents playing in juke joints — they grew up as rock and roll kids in those communities and got excited by this other sound and put the two things together. I’m amazed there’s such a large and growing underground interested in this kind of music. But really excited about it, too.
Ted’s known for playing bars. On them, literally, using found objects such as pistols and cell phones to do his slide solos.
How do the White Stripes fit into this genre, or don’t they?
I would say they are on the periphery. To me they’re more of a garage rock band. When you start tossing those labels around you get into some dangerous territory, because there really isn’t a whole lot of difference between garage rock bands and what we’re doing. Maybe rhythmically it’s a little less straight, and improvisationally I think we tend to open up a little bit more than garage rock bands. And Jack White’s a really good improviser. But I think they kinda came out of the same garage Detroit scene as the Detroit Cobras, and they’re part of a continuing Detroit lineage that you can probably trace back to the MC5 and the Stooges. It’s riff-based, and I think there’s more of a contemporary consciousness.
That said, there is really isn’t much difference at all [laughs]. Just the thinnest slice of the pie. [Jack White only references pre-electric blues players such as Son House as influences, in contrast to the dirty-electric Fat Possum stuff influencing the deep blues crowd.]
So how do the Scissormen fit in? How do you describe your act to club owners whose joints you’re trying to get into?
It depends. If I’m pitching a straight blues club owner, I say we’re a north Mississippi hill country-influenced blues band. If I’m pitching someone who’s booking a punk rock show or a straight rock room, I’ll call us an alternative/juke-joint blues band and pitch them on the angle that we play traditional blues clubs as well as other venues.
But it’s more our mission, other than being a band, to stay completely in touch with the deepest roots of blues and what I experienced as a frequent visitor to the north Mississippi hill country in the 1990s as the touchstone. I want to take the oldest roots of blues, translate it through my own interests as a musician, and make it reach a contemporary and younger audience.
My goal is to turn people who are younger than me on to this music. I think a lot of people aren’t interested in blues anymore because they think of it as being a fairly dull sequence of 4/4 shuffles, with bands playing the same tunes all the time like “Sweet Home Chicago.” There’s nothing wrong with those tunes, but it’s just that a lot of bands that play blues haven’t applied any imagination or character to the music in a long time.
There’s the White Stripes, Black Keys, Black Diamond Heavies, Flat Duo Jets, even the good old Chickasaw Mudd Puppies … and you guys. Why does the duo format work?
In north Mississippi, all the juke-joint bands I saw were one or two guitars and drums. That was the whole band. For me, we’re keeping the sound alive and stretching in other directions. It’s great on a practical level. It’s really easy to travel and record with two people. Low-guarantee money from clubs goes a lot further with two people than three [laughs] or more.
As a guitar player, what’s cool is that I don’t have to worry about locking in harmonically with anyone else, because there’s just a rhythmic instrument. So if I feel like changing keys, elaborating a melody, or just going off on some interesting improv thing, I don’t have to worry about another person. I can chase all the impulses as much as I like. Live, the songs can stretch out, sometimes up to 12 minutes. So it’s a little jammy, but not like a jam band, where it’s codified and we’re required to do every song. It gives me the most freedom I’ve had as a guitar player.
I’ve read that you play solos with found objects that audience members hand you. By this point it sounds like it’s more than just a clever bar trick — it’s almost a challenge. How’d that whole thing get started?
Yeah, the only thing I really can’t play with is vegetable matter. Someone might try handing me a pickle and it’s like, “No, dude.”
How’d you find that out?
Well, I tried. It’s all been trial and error. Like, cigarettes don’t come in hard packs anymore, or if they do, it’s softer cardboard. So you have to angle it heavily and know exactly where to hit it.
I honestly don’t know how it got started. I was playing, and one day picked up, like everybody, a beer bottle. Then I tried playing with the bottom instead of the top like everyone else. Then I tried a shot glass and noticed that that worked. From there it got more and more outrageous. Just when I think it can’t get any weirder, the one place where you can count on an extra layer of weirdness is Mississippi. That’s generally where I’ve been handed the weirdest stuff, like a lit blowtorch, which a chef came out of the kitchen and handed me, or a machete that a bartender in Hattiesburg kept behind the bar.
Or a nine-millimeter pistol, which another club owner kept tucked in his belt. He just emptied the clip and made sure the chamber was empty and handed it to me. I actually didn’t know what it was — he had it behind me and just said, “Here, play with this!” And there I was, holding the butt end of a nine-millimeter, and I said, “Ohhhh-kaaaay. No one’s gonna get killed, right?” He’s like, “No, it’s empty.” So it just kind of grew that way. But it is fun. Boots, shoes, plastic straws …
Was getting in the Bonnaroo lineup in June some kind of validation for the Scissormen?
I think so. I think it’s kind of a way for us to tell people what we’re about by not talking and just being able to play. Bonnaroo’s a place where jam nation, rock, and soul music fans all gather. Scissormen, because of all we do, are kind of in the center of that. It’s not like we’re known for being in the center of that, but we are! Soul music feeds what we do, and we appeal to people who like that stuff. Improvisation comes in, so if the jam audience stands and dances, we can stretch it out. The rock crowd [likes us] because we rock, and it’s blues!
Let’s say someone realizes they might appreciate vintage blues records, having discovered and enjoyed bands like yours, the Black Keys, the White Stripes, or anyone of the deep blues gang. What records would you suggest they check out first?
The best thing to do is get a best-of Muddy Waters collection on Chess, [or] a Son House record, probably one of the ones from the 1960s because they’re easier to digest than those old scratchy recordings. Then pick out some Buddy Guy. I expect you probably want to hear a little bit of John Lee Hooker because he had such a profound and direct influence on rock and roll, on guys like ZZ Top, Canned Heat, and a whole lot of other people. That relates directly to the Fat Possum stuff, too.