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Interview : Brendan Power


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Brendan by Brendan Power is seen by many as one of the most forward thinking harmonica players in the Irish music realm. Not only is he a brilliant and innovative player, but he is also a great harp technician and tinkerer. I had the chance to meet up with him in his 'lab' in London at the end of 99, and he told us about his approach, his projects and a few of his most interesting experiences...
Planet Harmonica : Brendan, you’ve got a sort of unusual mix of styles and I was wondering how you came to harp playing in the first place and then how you came to hold that variety of styles.

Brendan Power : Well, the same as just about everybody else: blues, you know. Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee did a tour of New Zealand in 1976 and I was a student at that stage, and never really listened—didn’t play any music before then. But just hearing blues and the rawness of it and the harmonica just blew me away. So, probably like about a million other people, I went off and bought a harmonica music the next day. I went into the shop, and asked "Have you got some stuff with harmonica on the records ?" So they sold me a Bob Dylan album, Blood on the Tracks, which is a fantastic album. I hadn’t really listened much to Bob Dylan and I got quite into it, but his harp playing wasn’t really what I was after…

So then they put me onto Sonny Boy Williamson and I got really mad about him. I didn’t understand a thing about cross harp or theory or even how you lip it and all that. I was trying to do a u-block for about the first year and there were no teachers around at that time—in New Zealand, certainly. And so, it was a real struggle trying to work out what the hell was going on. But slowly I got there.

At that time in Christchurch, there was quite a thriving folk dance scene, with what they call "Bush Bands" down in New Zealand. Bush Bands are basically like a cross between Skiffle music of the late 50’s and Irish music. So you’ve got the fiddles playing the tunes and then you’ve got this kind of like acoustic rhythm section with washtub base and stuff. Anyway, that was just kind of like a rough and ready homespun kind of music. But that’s when I first got interested in Irish music, hearing these bands play. My dad’s father was from Ireland. We had a few Irish records at home that I had heard as a kid. So, I got quite interested in, you know, "Well, I wonder how you could play that on a harmonica ?" That was the early days when I tried to find out how to do that.

And then I heard Charlie McCoy and I really got hooked on his playing for a couple of years. I had to slow everything down. I had an old record player—16-speed. God, I couldn’t believe him when I first heard him! I really got interested in his stuff. And then after that, really I just sort of listened to fiddle players or sax players. But that was the way that I got interested in a little Irish and Blues, although I was a total blues fanatic for the first two or three years.

PH : In the blues milieu, there are some very purist people. And, obviously, when I listen to the Irish stuff you do, it doesn’t sound really traditional. There’s something else you bring into it. Do you have the same kind of purists in the Irish style ?

BP : Oh, yeah. Even stricter. Yeah, the blues purists tend to be white guys who sort of listened to the blues and got hooked on it. But the Irish purists—it’s their traditional music from their homeland. And so, for some of them, if you get someone from another country and playing a bluesy style and bluesing things up, it’s kind of like heresy almost. It’s like excommunication or something. But then there’s a whole lot of other younger players from Ireland who’re doing heaps of experimenting on their own, so it’s not black and white

Part of the reason that I’ve made some sort of success here is just because I did that album and it sounded different. And the younger players listened to it, heard it in Ireland. And then I started getting lots of calls to come and play on people’s records and that. So, there are some purists who don’t agree with that sort of thing but I would say that the majority of players are interested in a fresh look at traditional music. I haven’t had any real problems or hassle.

PH : Yeah, that bluesy thing—especially, at some points, you have this sort of Sonny Terry rhythmic that fits in real well… Do you think that there is some little bit of Irish blood in the Blues idiom, especially pre-war acoustic blues, and that’s why if fits in, blends in so well ?

Amplified Gussow

The Real Blues Reel

Amplified Gussow

Jig Indigo

BP :
Yeah, I think there’s a real affinity between the soul of the two kinds of music. I mean a lot of Irish music tends to be quite fast and dancy, but then you get the slow airs, which are really sad and soulful, very bluesy, you know. And I suppose there’s an affinity between the people who made the music. Both of them had kind of lots of troubles with their oppressive masters or whatever. So, yeah, I’d say that’s had some influence on shaping the sound of the music.

In the last few years I’ve been making some tunes up, which kind of cross over between the two styles. I’ll just play you one. This one’s called The Real Blues Reel. So, it’s in the form of an Irish reel but it’s using a blues scale. It’s an A-A-B-B format but on a blues harp.

BP : Et cetera, et cetera. I don’t know if you could hear it but there’s an A-part, which goes to the B-part, which repeats. That’s very much an Irish kind of slow reel—on a blues harp with that scale. Just seems to work. There’s another jig—I call it Jig Indigo

BP : Et cetera, et cetera. To me it’s interesting to compose Irish music for the harmonica, because it’s a very young instrument in general, and certainly in Irish music, it doesn’t really have any history. So, basically, what you end up doing is playing fiddle tunes or flutes tunes on the harmonica, which is a really worthwhile thing to do. But there’s scope also for composing things on the harmonica in the idiom. So, that’s what I’m interested in doing.

PH : So, obviously, with what I see here before me, you tinker a lot with your harps. But from a basic point of view, how do you choose tunes that you’re not composing. Do you just pick up a chromatic and see if it lays well on it? Because, I mean, you do modify the harp, so, I mean, I was trying to imagine what this process was like. I mean, do you try to play the tune on a given harp but think, "Yeah, this sounds cool but there’s a note missing, so I’ll alter it"?

BP : Yeah, that tends to happen. Or, it might be for a whole style of playing. For instance, I was getting into western swing for a while and that major seventh was missing in cross harp and I found country tuning made all the difference. And then I though of mirroring that in the top octave. That’s how that eleven-hole harp came along : I was playing lots of country-ish stuff and you really need that major seventh and the bend on that.

With Irish music, what I find is that it’s actually easier to play a lot of the tunes in straight harp on the diatonic. It’s easier just because of the way the Richter harp is laid out, you can play them easier than in cross position, even with the major seventh. But with the half-valved instrument, you can still get plenty of soul on the valved blow notes, so it’s still expressive.

There’s only one note that’s really missing and that’s three draw bend, down a whole tone (the A on a C harp). It’s too hard to bend it in tune at the high speeds of the jigs and reels, when you need it really often and quick, and it sounds different. So, basically, I just tune the three blow up a tone. I call it "Paddy Richter tuning" because it’s kind of an Irish Richter harp — the rest of it’s just a Richter harp but the three blow is up a tone. And I find that really great for Irish music. Here's what it sounds like.

Paddy Richter #1

Paddy Richter Tuning #1

Paddy Richter #2

Paddy Richter Tuning #2

Important Note

The Important Paddy Richter Note

Trills and Decorations

Trills and Decorations

BP :
But that note’s really important there. If you had to bend that all the time, trying to get it accurately in pitch at a high speed… It’s really hard. Plus with the note built in, you can get do a lot more of these kinds of little trills and decorations on it. So that’s a tuning I tend to use for Irish music but not for Blues or anything else, basically. It just sort of suits that style, and playing in straight harp or third position or whatever.

PH : So, now, now we come to chromatic and you also modify those. Is that tunings as well as instruments ?

BP : Yeah, lots of different tunings. And, I got quite a few different instruments, different models.

The main one’s are these modified CX-12’s. I find the sound a wee bit plasticky, a bit dull, so I drill some holes in the covers and put these metal covers inside… So, basically, you get a brighter sound. But the design of the CX-12 is great. I love the mouthpiece. It's very ergonomic and very easy on your lips and they're very easy to work on. You pull them apart in seconds.

Plus I make them half-valved. Same as my Blues harps. They're all half-valved.

PH : So, this is all valved on the blows ?

BP : Valved on the blows inside. But all the draws are unvalved so you can bend each one, you know, a semi-tone.

PH : So, I mean, obviously, you're playing with so many tunings. How does your mind adjust ?

BP : Yeah, good question. [Laughs.] What I tend to do is, say, two or three tunings I can improvise in easily, that I'm sort of really familiar in terms of getting around. But say for Irish music, this Paddy Richter one, I just tend to learn a tune and a few variations. And that's it; I wouldn't use it for improvising. So, basically, I've got specialist tunings for certain things and one or two tunings that I use for jamming.

PH : Now, there's this thing in Irish music of going from one song to the next in the same song. Do you switch harps or do you stay on the same harp ?

BP : Um, you can switch harps but what I tend to do if, say if I'm constructing a medley of tunes is I’ll try to find three tunes that change keys but don't require a change in harps. For example going from Dm to C to G. They’re related keys, each tune is totally in a different key but there isn't a lot of really radical changing. Finding pentatonic tunes makes changing keys in a medley easier too.

PH : So, you don't have to think in a totally different way when switching from one to the next.

BP: Well, your home scale and key does change, but not radically. If I wanted a radical change, I would definitely switch harps, as then you’d retain the easy dexterity in the new key and be able to put in the appropriate trills and decorations. That wouldn’t be possible if you were having to do lots of bends or overblows just to get the natural notes of the new scale.

PH : I imagine that Irish tunes, like Blues, have frequent keys…

BP : Yeah, well, they’re fiddle keys, you know. Mostly like D, G, A. those are the main ones—the majors. And the rest are the minors related to those: Bm, Em, Am etc

PH : When we talked earlier, you mentioned that you were playing in a sort of jazzy band ?

BP : Yeah, PHB: Power, Haig and Bolten. We’ve recorded an album, but the project is on hold for the moment, for various reasons. Basically, it’s kind of like a cross between jazz and folk or Celtic music, all original music. A crossover between those two styles. I’m interested in improvising and jazz improvisation but I’m certainly not up there—I’ve got a long way to go to really become very good at it. But this is like coming from an area I know—the Celtic music—and with improvisation as well, I think we’ve got a really interesting sound.

PH : Any other current projects ?

BP : I played with a guy called Andrew White last year and early this year, and we recorded an album in February called Live in Ireland. We did his and my original stuff. He grew up in New Zealand as well. He's actually from Newcastle originally and he plays some really nice original instrumental stuff, as well as being a good singer. He’s now got a solo recording deal, and is in the middle of recording an album, so the duo is pretty much defunct – but I’m glad we did the album; it has a good live vibe.

At the Harmonica Summit in Minneapolis I played with a guitarist called Dean Magraw, and that was amazing. We’d never met before but just clicked on a personal and musical level. He’s the best guitarist I’ve ever played with, and I’ve played with lots of good ones. Our concert was a blast, and many people said it was the highlight of the festival for them. We’re both really keen to work and record together more, and are currently working to make that happen – despite living on different sides of the Atlantic.

What else? I went to Bulgaria in July ’99, and did an album with some Bulgarian musicians which came out really well. It hasn’t been released yet, but hopefully some kind of live project will emerge from that.

PH : Is that Bulgarian music ?

BP : Some of it is straight ahead Bulgarian and some of it is my tunes which they play on and some of it os kind of stuff we composed when we were there together.

PH : Interesting. And you definitely gave up on Riverdance or… ?

BP : Yeah, I've definitely finished with Riverdance. Yeah, that was a good, regular earning patch for a few years but it did my head in after a while. I was playing exactly the same thing every night – good music, and very challenging technically, but after a time I knew it backwards and just dreamed away on the gig.

PH : Yeah, I can imagine. It was scored.

BP : Yeah, very much. It's a real challenge to play. I mean the tunes… For instance, I had to construct almost an entire set of harmonicas. One for each tune almost, 'cause the big leaps and jumps in the tunes were really not harmonica-friendly at all. So, I found the best way to get around to play it really convincingly, you know, with swing and soul or whatever, was to actually to do some very radical retunings.

PH : How did you get into that gig originally ? Did they call you because they heard "New Irish Harmonica" ?

BP : That sort of did lead to it in a roundabout way, but, basically, the guy who had the job is a button-box player, an Irish button-box player and he couldn't do the London run. And we became friends because he was interested in the harmonica and the relationship between the button-box and the harmonica.

So, you know, he just offered me the gig in London, which he couldn't do. And as things went on, he just got less interested in doing it, and I got offered the contract. But it wasn't designed for a harmonica player by any means. So, when I had to come and really learn the tunes, it was pretty scary, especially sitting in front of three or four thousand people. For the first month or two, I was really quaking in my seat but, after a while, you can do it just like driving a car, you know, with your mind a million miles away.

PH : I heard that some of the guys in the orchestra used to go in local pubs or whatever and do gigs at night ?

BP : Yeah, we did that a little bit. I mean certainly in the early days when people were still enthusiastic. After a while, everyone just wanted to go back to the hotel and relax… A lot of that sort of shut down after a while. People just get into a kind of touring mode. But, yeah, in the early days when there was still a bit of enthusiasm…

PH : It must have been quite fun then. How did locals react to it?

BP : They loved it ! I mean the pubs, you know, the pub owners loved it as well! In Australia, for instance, we had to be careful because they were actually making quite a bit of money out of us. They'd advertise "Riverdance musicians coming down on Tuesday night". They were making lots of money and the company was getting a bit pissed off about it… It was huge in Australia and New Zealand. There's a big Irish immigrant population there. But, yeah, it was good fun.

PH : Do you have any releases planned ? I mean, you have some stuff in the works, obviously…

BP : Yeah, well, this Bulgarian one is all finished, just needs mastering and artwork, but we need to find the right deal first.

I've got an album of all original tunes, which I finished over the course of the Riverdance show when I was just touring around then. Wherever we spent a bit of time, I would do some recordings. Lots of good musicians on it. That’s now finished and I’m selling it from my website under the title ‘Tanks Aloft’ – though I think that will change when it gets officially released later this year. People think the name is too obscure.

I just released an album in May with a Blues player called Dave Peabody. He's an English guitarist/Blues singer. We signed that to Indigo Records, which is a respected British Blues label. I'm quite pleased with that. It was just done in two quick sessions, direct to DAT. But it came out really good.

PH : So, quite a few things.

BP : Yeah, almost too many! That’s just albums: I’m also very nearly finished an instructional package called ‘Play Irish Music on the Blues Harp’, which is a book, CD, and comes with two specially tuned Suzuki ProMasters as an option. I already have quite a bit of interest in that from all over. It’ll be available in September.

And the latest project is selling a range of custom chromatics for specialist use, ones you can’t buy in the shops. I’m making a Richter tuned CX10 – a cut down CX12 with Hering reedplates. It is half valved, and is really airtight. Blows and bends as easily as a blues harp, but of course has the slider too. Every blues harp player who’s tried the prototype wants one, so I’m confident that will develop into something. I’m also making up specialist chromatics for playing Celtic music. I enjoy customising harps almost as much as playing them, and it’s work I can do from home, which is nice.

PH : Do you do a lot of session work as well ?

BP : Yeah, that's kind of my bread and butter here in London, you know. It's kind of fun. I mean, it comes and goes. You get, you know, a really good patch and then it's a bit quiet. But when you do get it, it pays well.

PH : So, film music mainly ?

BP : Yeah, there's been a lot of American movies being made over here recently, you know. Pushing Tin was one I played on, with Kevin Kusack, and the latest Jackie Chan movie called Shanghai Noon. I think it’s because they don't have to pay the musicians residuals here in Britain. Whereas in America, every time a soundtrack's played or whatever, the musicians get more money. So, I think that's one of the reasons. And also TV jingles…

PH : I imagine some of them are more interesting than others ?

BP : The film stuff tends to be, very much. Often the composer’s got an idea in his mind of exactly what he wants. I just did a film soundtrack with this French composer, Gabriel Yared. He had a very clear idea of what he wanted, which is good. He was a real perfectionist about how much vibrato, how long you held a note, whether it tailed off at the end or not. I actually like that because any musician, when he gets down to it, is concerned about little details like that. And he wanted it played really straight, you know. So, I had to get rid of a lot of the expression that I normally put into it—which is good discipline.

But then you get some other places and you go and they say they just want a few Blues licks and they're happy with almost whatever you put down.

I like the more demanding ones better, in a way, 'cause that's just more challenging. One film composer I like here is Anne Dudley, who did the Pushing Tin soundtrack. She’s got great ideas, and grooves. I played on a new Hollywood she composed for called Monkeybone, which looks good.

PH : Do they—do these guys actually know the specifics of the instrument or do they just score something ?

BP : Most of them don't, no. That's where it comes in handy, playing different harmonicas in different keys and tunings. You can give them the flavor that they want. Whereas, say, if you just played one chromatic in C, there's no way you could really, you know, give a good, you know, Irishy flavor in F# or something, or play a convincing delta blues in E. So, you know, for me, in a commercial sense, it does help playing different tunings and different harps. To give people what they want on the day.

PH : Tell us about the Sting thing. How was that ?

BP : That was just amazing. Basically, when I came here from New Zealand, I sent out vast numbers of demo tapes to people. Didn't hear a thing back, you know. In New Zealand, it's a small place and people are very friendly. So, even if someone's not interested in what you've got to offer, they generally write you a letter and say, "Thanks. It's not really our thing. Try Joe Blow down the road." In London, I guess it's like musicians pouring in from all over the world and people are inundated and they just can't be bothered. So, I didn't hear anything and it cost me quite a bit of money sending this stuff out, you know. It was a bit of a bummer not hearing anything back.

I was getting quite discouraged, really, you know, sort of thinking of going back to New Zealand. And then suddenly about nine months later, I get this call, "Sting wants a chromatic harmonica player and he likes what he's heard of your demo" or whatever. So, basically, that just led to that session.

I was only needed for a specific period of time to play on one track of the album. Then there was a single that he played a harmonica on, just had some very average blues harp that I had to mime for "Top of the Pops". I didn’t like that too much, but wasn’t going to say no…

But, yeah, it was quite a change of pace from getting despondent in a bed-set in London. Suddenly kind of being around all these people with vast amounts of money…

It was a good experience and it was good to go through it 'cause you tend to think all your Christmases have come at once. But, basically, I was a craftsman who was needed for a particular job and I did the job and then it was back to square one again. But I learned a lot from doing it.

PH : Did it open some doors ?

BP : Yeah, sure. I was a hero when I went back to New Zealand, I can tell you…

New Zealand's got a sort of inferiority complex in some ways 'cause it's a small country a long way away from anywhere. So, if any Kiwi does anything of any note, you know, in the wider world, people blow it up out of proportion—which is quite handy when you're booking a tour. "Oh, YOU're the guy…"

PH : What made you come here in the first place ?

BP : Two reasons : I got married to an Englishwoman in New Zealand. She'd been traveling around in Southeast Asia, Australia, New Zealand for a few years and sort of wanted to return to be close to her parents. So, that was one reason.

The other one was musical. New Zealand has no real indigenous music of its own. The Maori people had their own music but they don't know really what it sounded like 'cause it was just obliterated by the colonial invasions. So all of our musical influences are American or British or Irish, sometimes European. So I felt like it was time to get out there and go back to the source. Ireland was one place I really wanted to go to. America was another but I haven't really been to America much. I'd like to spend a bit more time touring there, especially after the reception Dean and I got in Minneapolis.

Actually last year I went there too, doing an interesting project with Rick Epping. He works for Hohner and I've known of Rick for years because he played in a band called Pumpkin Head, which was an early kind of Irish fusion band, if you like—folk/pop fusion. But he’s Blues player but he was playing Irish music on the Blues harp back in the '70's. I heard a couple of his tracks in New Zealand, and I really liked it. The project is with him and another guy called Mick Kinsella, who's an outstanding player from Ireland. He plays Irish music on the chromatic in the Eddie Clarke style, with the slide reversed. But he's also a brilliant over-blower on Blues harp—very creative, you know, a natural kind of musician. He's just finishing his first album at the moment.

Anyway, he, me, and Rick did a tour around Ireland in ’97 with a guitarist, Martin Dunlea. We called ourselves Triple Harp Bypass, but the name Iron Lung is preferred by some. And we just enjoyed ourselves so much that we thought, well, we've got to do some recording. So, we all went to Rick's place for a couple of weeks and recorded an album on his gear. It's quite an interesting fusion because we're all interested in Celtic music and Blues and sort of that, you know, the mixture. But we've all got totally different approaches to it. We tend to use different harmonicas and we play different parts. It's a huge sound, a lovely sound, 'cause you work out, you know, harmonies and all sorts of things. We really enjoyed it and the audiences loved it when we did the tours.

PH : So, that's a yet another album.

BP : That’s true! We intend releasing it ourselves in a limited edition initially, and hope to do some festivals later on.

PH : OK, well, good luck with that recording session and all the releases planned, and keep us posted when Triple Harp Bypass is ready to come out !

BP : Sure will !

This interview was made in London in November 1999

Many Thanks to John Galvin for doing the transcription.