Axeman, your time is now

After years of lurking in dub, rap and hip hop, Skip McDonald is back where he started - playing the blues. By Ben Thompson

Ben Thompson
Thursday 19 September 1996 23:02

In the 60 minutes it takes to watch Little Axe play live, a forest of contradictions sprout from seed. At their intense and stormy best, this homely delta dub ensemble bring the blues down from the sky like a chariot full of thunderbolts. At their sleep-walking worst, they attain levels of tedium that verge on the Clapton-esque. And Skip McDonald, the group's founder and guitarist, whose name is a byword for subtlety and discretion; whose transition from perpetual sideman to toast of 1995's end-of-year polls made him the Sheryl Crow it's OK to like - well, he turns out to have a repertoire of guitar-hero grimaces that would bring a blush to the cheeks of Jimmy Page's mum.

Off-stage, grimaces are not on the agenda. Delayed by a hot date with a Linda McCartney vegetarian sausage - "Linda McCartney is not a communist," he observes with a lop-sided grin - McDonald sails into his press officer's kitchen on a trade wind of joviality. Having spent two thirds of his 47 years as a professional musician, does he never get bored? "Put it this way, I've had a good look at the science of a million different ways to do one thing. But I'm glad I can still cut it."

Skip McDonald's dad was a Dayton Ohio steelman who played blues guitar in the evenings. Was this an unusual thing to do? The Ohio blues tradition is not universally celebrated. "But Ohio is right above Kentucky," Skip explains, "which is right above Tennessee. My father was from Alabama, and that's how migration goes - people bring their baggage with them." From migrant to globe-trotter in a single generation... "The world's much smaller than anyone wants to admit. If I fly from London to New York it takes seven hours; if I fly from New York to London it takes four and a half - a couple more drinks and you're there."

If you could chalk up air miles for musical voyages, McDonald's personal odyssey from blues to doowop to jazz to funk to hip hop to dub and back to blues again would have secured him a free flight to the moon by now. The journey was well underway by the time he made his first recordings; hooking up with Doug Wimbish, fellow fretboard virtuoso and the most misspelt man in rock, to release a couple of albums as Wood, Brass and Steel. "It was a Brass Construction/ Earth Wind and Fire kind of thing, but we tried to put our own twist on it." What was that? "We tried to keep the horn players at the back - they tend to be a bit chubby."

By the end of the Seventies then, when they were called in to become the house band of New York's Sugarhill label in the wake of the global success of "Rappers Delight", McDonald and Wimbish were already seasoned professionals. It's funny now to think of the birth of rap as a window of opportunity for jobbing musicians, but McDonald and Wimbish played (along with drummer Keith LeBlanc, a fellow Wood Brass and Steel veteran) on numerous early hip hop landmarks including Funky Four + One's immortal "That's the Joint". "There wasn't any sampling at first," Skip explains, "everything was played live, but I remember the DMX drum machine coming in, which was very bad news for drummers - I think Grandmaster Flash's 'The Message' might have had a few live drums, but the bulk of it was machines. Then on the heels of the DMX came the sequencers, and that was where the guitar-player, bass and keyboards started to lose their gigs."

Happily for the instrumentalist fraternity, relief was on hand, albeit from an unlikely quarter. "Just at the point where it was all drum machines and computers, rappers started listening to older grooves - James Brown, Funkadelic - and they started sampling real musicians, so the whole thing came back from someone sitting in their bedroom with a computer to people playing instruments again. You could see it in the new groups that started to happen - all the weird marriages between heavy metal and rap."

Of all the weird marriages that the Eighties threw up, Tackhead was the last one you'd want to live next door to. McDonald, Wimbish and LeBlanc's union with East London dub overlord Adrian Sherwood was blessed with cacophonous issue: notably a sheet-metal guitar sound that dogs are frightened of. After years of tearing at the sonic envelope, Tackhead finally broke up in 1989-90 when an abortive attempt at writing proper songs alienated their paranoid fans. "Some people..." Skip shakes his head sympathetically, "the last thing they want to hear in music is a song."

Wasn't it a strange thing to do after that, to go back full circle to the blues-based thump and moan of Little Axe? McDonald doesn't think so. "Everybody tries to separate different types of sounds - jazz from blues and blues from dub - but there's not that much difference between them. There are only really two kinds of music," he observes sagely, "the kind you like and the kind you don't." But the limits of blues seem very clearly delineated now - blues means beer adverts and a white man in an Armani suit - how do you try to move it on from there? "I don't think you can move it on. It is what it is. There's nothing I can do to it that hasn't already been done, other than introduce some element that people think wasn't in it before, but which probably was at some point: just because something hasn't become widely known doesn't mean it hasn't been done."

That seems a very modest way to look at it. "I don't think things just start - they're going on all the time. It's not that one time-period is better than another. It might be that the judgement in one time-period is better than in another: the thinking changes at the level of investment. We're at a stage now where it's not quite that people want to take risks, it's that they have to take risks because they're scrabbling to find something that's going to lead to the next time-period. So practise, everybody!" McDonald beams wryly. "Your time is now."

Does he find it strange to be a front man after years of influential lurking? "It is interesting, because I never actually envisioned myself doing this. I like to play a strong role but more in terms of putting the band together, not kind of 'Can he dance? Can he stand on his head? Will he do the splits?' I'm not into the flashier side of it - that whole thing about being the best. Once you're the best there's no place else to go: you're placed on this pedestal way up in the sky, nobody gives you knee-pads, and next year someone's gonna want you off it."

No one seems to want to knock Little Axe off that pedestal just yet. Their second album Slow Fuse inevitably lacks the novelty value of its elegiacally sample-strewn predecessor The Wolf that House Built, but highlights like the sinewy "On the Beat Sound" and the apocalyptic "Storm Is Rising" point to the future as well as the past. Sometime after Christmas, Skip will settle down with "a nice fire, a nice bottle of wine and perhaps one or two other accoutrements" and get to work on a third Little Axe album.

Presumably he'll want to take the land of his birth by storm at some point, too - with fellow blues travellers Keb Mo' and Ben Harper currently basking in the critical sunlight, the climate would surely be favourable? "I want to be very patient about that. I've got a lot of other places to deal with first, and I'm still experimenting. To tell you the truth, I'd rather groom it here before taking it back to America." So Skip McDonald is just using his British audience as guinea pigs? "But you love it!" he exclaims genially. "You wouldn't want to go and see anything that was finished".

n 'Slow Fuse' is out on Monday on Wired

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