By Dan Dodds
Legend has it that the aspiring classic rock star has to live fast and die young, just like Jimi Hendrix. Or that a barrage of drug taking, loud music and promiscuity will have you washed up, no more creativity to offer, unable to get it up and living out the back of some old VW camper van, declared SORN at the beach.
But there is a third way, one which former Fishbone guitarist John Bigham is currently navigating, a course that very few rock journalists choose to draw attention to: that of the modest-living, independent rock musician, devoted to his family, making music despite the financial constraints of a globe ravaged by recession. Not that The Soul Of John Black started out with that intention; rock stars never do.
“I came to LA to party,” admits JB, recalling his true motivation for upping sticks from his crib in Atlanta and travelling out west. “I left my original band [pre Fishbone] – which included former Maze keys player Wayne Lindsey – back in Georgia, joined the military and became an aircraft mechanic.”
Stationed at Nowheresville in the Californian desert, Bigham [the ‘Black’ would come later] headed uptown to the City Of Angels at every opportunity to simply kick back and have a good time and forget about Uncle Sam. “It never even occurred to me to go to a guitar store, that’s how much I was thinkin’ about re-joining a band,” he admits.
But music had other ideas, reeling the young hotshot in despite his initial apathy.
“I warn you, this will come across like a name-dropping story,” says John, “but the young musicians need to know how these associations come about. I saw N’Dea Davenport [before she hit with Brand New Heavies], who I knew from Atlanta and she said, ‘Hey, I want you to meet a friend of mine’. And she introduced me to a drummer called Phillip “Fish” Fisher [brother of John Norwood Fisher who started the ska/funk band Fishbone] and from that moment we became fast friends and started jamming together. We would play some wild and crazy stuff, in the underground clubs across LA, and, well, before I knew it we both ended up in Fishbone.”
With perfect timing, John joined right when Fishbone were riding high with their notable cover of Curtis Mayfield’s Freddie’s Dead.
“I played with those guys for eight or so years, from ’89 to ’96 … or ’97. It all gets a little fuzzy from there.”
He recorded two albums as part of Fishbone for Sony before switching to Dallas Austin’s Rowdy Records [including a feature playing on Joi’s slop-classic Amoeba Cleansing Syndrome], then, following the release of Rowdy’s solitary album Chim Chim’s Badass Revenge, John left and got his own thing, putting together the blues-rock group The Soul Of John Black with Christopher Thomas.
“We both came from a background of playing with other artists, being sidemen. But we were really committed to the band for a period of six-to-eight months.”
Then the money ran out.
“We didn’t sell enough to really keep it going, but man we had a ball. The bread and butter was to go play for other people – Nikka Costa & Everlast. Chris went off and played with Macy Gray. But I always kept something on the side with The Soul Of John Black, a little record deal with just a little money.”
To hear John Bigham – not Bingham btw: “Its Bigham man with no ‘n’. It’s so damn simple right?” – speak you’d think he’s got a little DIY Tascam recorder in his bedroom cranking out unheard demos and jam’s, not an award winning soul, blues & rock band that’s been kicking arse for 14 years. Indeed, the new album [their/his sixth] A Sunshine State Of Mind – with its slant towards the more slop ‘n’ soul lean of John Black – is his most accomplished yet, including the brilliant lead single, and IMA [Independent Music Awards] nominated Higher Power, an anthem for the reformed rock star.
“I was here at home man, feeling introspective. I’ve spent so much time here since the birth of my daughter, who’s three-and-a-half now – not that I’m complaining y’understand – but I had to adapt to a real change [to my life]. I was just here with my family and, like I say in the song, “I was making plans when the real life hit me… ”
“It’s that Kris Kristofferson song Sunday Morning Coming Down, where he sings, ‘I put on my cleanest dirty shirt…’ well I believed him, because he was always kinda rustic!” He laughs.
“Your favourite artists take you there, tap into those moments, and I wanted to be self-revealing. I want to be a better person for my daughter and family, because I believe were all connected to something bigger, a spirit or a vibration. Some of us are afraid to admit to our vulnerabilities and move on higher, but when you get to that point you’ll find people are more willing to embrace that than you think.”
And it’s all delivered eloquently over a hauntingly gorgeous, Al Green-style melody. At times mellow, A Sunshine State Of Mind – so named because “it’s always sunny here in Los Angeles man, everyday … it rubs off on you” – whilst flipping from soul to slop, includes plenty of references to JB’s “wild & crazy” days on the LA rock scene.
“Lenny Loves To Cha Cha, yeah that’s about Lenny Kravitz. People don’t like to take the mystery out of their songs but, hell, that song is about Lenny. I went on tour with [former Different World actress] Cree Summer, who he produced and was really good friends with, and we used to open for him. We were there in Spain, drinking Sangria in the lobby of a Barcelona hotel, just like the song says. It was a whole Lenny Kravitz thing! I had a riff and it was like, ‘Wow, this reminds me of Lenny – how can I change it?’ If you listen to the chord progression, it’s totally different to anything Lenny has done, so there’s my disclaimer!”
There’s also a mention in the song of how John met his wife, the mother of his child.
“Ah man, that’s back when we used to go out! It’s more difficult now, without a babysitter.”
When Bigham does get out, it’s a hard day’s night, working The Soul Of John Black live on stage. Sometimes his family is there in the crowd.
“We have so much fun playing together. I don’t take myself too seriously we just go out and have a ball man. We just want to be seen. Love goes into the music – everybody does it for the love.”
A Sunshine State Of Mind by The Soul Of John Black is out now on Yellow Dog Records.