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Interview: Chris Vachon of Roomful of Blues

Photo: Seth Jacobson

By Kevin Porter

The year 1967 saw the formation of Fleetwood Mac and Genesis. The same year also saw the formation of Roomful of Blues, and the band is still going to this day. Armed with a horn section in addition to the classic guitar/bass/drums line-up, Roomful of Blues (hereafter Roomful) plays a potent mix of swing, roadhouse blues, rock and roll, boogie-woogie and soul. Alumni of the band include Duke Robillard, Ronnie Earl, Lou Ann Barton, Curtis Salgado, and Sugar Ray Norcia, and the band has backed such luminaries as Stevie Ray Vaughn, Pat Benatar, Jimmy Witherspoon, and many others.  Roomful’s concerts quickly turn into dance parties, as it is quite difficult to stay seated when Roomful is playing.

Guitarist, Chris Vachon joined Roomful in 1990 and became the band leader in 1997. He also has produced and mixed Roomful’s most recent albums. He kindly spent some time with us to talk about Roomful.

KP: What makes Roomful of Blues different from everyone else? Obviously, there’s your horn section but are there other things as well?

CV: Well, there’s a lot of us (laughs); it’s a lot bigger band than most people have the sense to take on the road. We’ve been doing this for a long time—it’s our 50th year. I’ve been in the band for 27, going on 28 years, and it’s just the sound that we've developed over the years. Because we have the horns, we like to cover all the different territories, like New Orleans, Kansas City and Chicago and all the different musical styles. We also like people to dance. When people think of a blues band, they think, oh, it’s depressing music, but we’re kind of the opposite of that. We're very danceable and we do a lot of different stuff so we don't stick with one thing all night long.

KP: Roomful tours a lot. How many shows a year is the band doing?

CV: At this point, we're doing about 150 shows a year, whereas before, we used to tour nearly all year long. People aren't going out as much during the week, and a lot of the venues don't do weekday stuff anymore, so it's little harder to string together dates and stay out on the road. You obviously can't sit in hotels for three or four days to wait for the weekend, but we are still playing and touring.

KP: It sounds like it’s getting harder to book gigs.

CV: It’s harder for everyone. Everyone is in the same boat. When I joined the band in 1990, I was on the road for 15 years—I was hardly ever home. We would cross the country at least once or twice a year and go to Europe, all that kind of stuff. But that’s changed for everyone because people are not going out during the week as much as they used to.

KP: Is that because baby boomers are getting older?

CV: It’s part of it. I’m sure you don’t go out every night (laughs). People have to go to work in the morning, they have to take care of their kids, and that sort of stuff, which is normal.

KP: Is it also because competition from other stuff like Netflix? You don’t have to even leave home in order to be entertained.

CV: That’s another reason. There are so many things you can do without leaving the house these days. Everybody's on line doing stuff. That definitely has slowed things down for everybody. It’s harder to sell physical CDs because people subscribe to different streaming things. It’s just the way the world is now. But we still have a lot of people come to see us and have a good time. We’re not going away (laughs).

KP: I bet it would be a lot harder today to start out in the music industry.

CV: Oh yeah, I think that's one of the reasons we just stick with what we're doing because we're established at this point.  I mean I think if you try to do something like we're doing now, you would have a heck of a time doing it.

KP: How do you guys keep it fresh from night to night? I’m sure you have a big repertoire after 50 years.

CV: We do. We kind of go with the set list for a while and then we change it, because you obviously can't remember everything you have done. We always have a good time playing together, too. It's a really good lineup, everybody gets along well and they are doing it for because they like it. We're excited to play when we get out of the van.

KP: Do you call songs out on the stage, or do you stick to the setlist?

CV: We pretty much stick with the setlist unless somebody requests something that I know that we're going to be able to pull off without a train wreck.

KP: What keeps you guys going?

CV: It’s the music. We enjoy the type of music that we play and I can't think of too many bands that I could play with that would be like Roomful, so I’m not leaving!

KP: Did you think you were going to play in the band for 27 years?

CV: Not really, that's just the way it happened you know.  It took about seven years for me to actually get into the band because they had a couple different guitar players, and then I finally got in. At this point, I’ve been the guitar player in Roomful longer than any other guitar player.

KP: So, you were waiting in the wings for seven years...

CV: What happened was that Ronnie Earle was in the band, and Ronnie was going to leave and I auditioned for the band like a lot of other people, but Ronnie decided not to leave. He stayed for a period of time, then they had another guitarist (Tommy Kaye) for three years, and when he left, the band had me on tour and Greg Piccolo (former saxophonist and vocalist) told me I was on probation for six months. After about a year, I asked Greg if I was in or out, and he looked at me and laughed.

KP: How did you get started playing guitar, and how did you get started playing blues music?

CV: Like a lot of people my age that picked up guitar, my sister had the Beatles’ Meet the Beatles when I was a little kid. I freaked out about that and decided that was what I wanted to do. I got a guitar and banged on that for a long time until I made any sense. I got interested in the blues when I was about fourteen when a buddy of mine gave me B.B. King’s Live at the Regal, and I really got into it. I played that record so many times. Which is also interesting because it is kind of like Roomful in that it's got the horns and all that stuff, so that always kind of stuck in my head and was a reason why I wanted to be in Roomful. I then just branched out and started buying blues records. I like blues because you don't have to play the same thing every time. As a kid, being in a Top 40 band means you had to learn the recording exactly. You had to drop the needle on the vinyl record and keep playing it until you had it. To me, it was just wasn't all that much fun. Blues is just a lot more open and spontaneous, and you can play how you feel.

KP: In addition to the horns, what else did you like about the B.B. King record?

CV: B.B. King is just the greatest. I like his singing but mostly I like the way he plays guitar. Nobody plays like him. We all try! You know it’s him as soon as you hear it.

KP: I don’t think anyone got so much out of one or two notes.

CV: Yes, and so many guitar players were influenced by him.

KP: If I'm not mistaken, the last Roomful album came out in 2013.

CV: It’s been that long? I think we’re going to have to make another one (laughs). We are putting stuff together, and I think within the next eight months or so, we’ll probably end up doing another record. It's always fun for us to make a record because we mostly do everything live. For the last studio record, we cut that in a day and a half, and I mixed it later at my place. It doesn't take us that long because we rehearse ahead of time and then we go in the studio and do three takes of each song, and that’s pretty much it.

KP: When you do the mixing, do you take bits and pieces from different takes or pick one of the three takes that's the best?

CV: We'll do three takes of a song, and I'll just pick the best take. If you go beyond three takes, you are not going to get it. But that doesn't really happen with us because are prepared when we go into the studio. We’re not the Rolling Stones where we can take six months to make a record (laughs).

KP: Are you still on Alligator Records?

CV: Yes, for the last five or six records or so.

KP: That's great. Too often, I hear about people it who are not on a label and they're trying to do it on their own. That’s tough.

CV: It is. I just put out a record with a friend of mine and I think it came out really well, but try to get people to know about it is really hard to do. Alligator does a great job with that—they have their own in-house publicist and all that stuff, and you can’t really beat it because it is difficult to do it on your own.

KP: The record you made with a friend—I came across a Kickstarter campaign that you were in. Was that the record?

CV: Yes, we call it Lil’ Shaky and the Tremors (see I did it with friends of mine. Ed Wright wanted to do a record, and I offered to help, and we just got a whole bunch of people to play with us.  We got some good reviews, and we did a couple of gigs, but it’s hard to get everybody together. I can’t book too far ahead because Roomful is my main thing.

KP: Was that your first foray outside of Roomful?

CV: I think so. A lot of people ask me if I’m going to make a solo record, and I’ve always been busy with Roomful, so I guess it is the first thing I’ve done outside of Roomful.

KP: With the record Roomful is planning, I assume it will be the usual mix of originals and covers?

CV: Yes, absolutely.

KP: For the originals, who does the writing? I know you do—is there anyone else?

CV: Phil does, and Rich writes some instrumental stuff. We have some newer members, and I'm not sure what they're going to come up with. Usually what I try to do is to have a ton of songs, and we get together and start picking stuff. For the originals, I’ll do a demo and we’ll work on that.

KP: With the covers, I assume someone brings that in and people go yay or nay?

CV: Yes, it's pretty democratic.  Everybody's got collections of stuff, and for the last record (Hook, Line and Sinker from 2011), I think we had about 80 songs to pick from. We had a party and listened to stuff and then honed it all down.

KP: Is the band doing anything to commemorate 50 years?

CV: Not really. We’ve had 20th and 25th reunions, but it's really hard to get everybody together because we've had over 55 people in the band. Most of the people that are still playing music are busy with their own bands, and they are from all over the place, so it’s a big production get everybody together.

KP: No commemorative box set?

CV: The thing with that is that we were on Rounder Records for many years, and it got sold to Concord so they have all of the recordings up to a certain period, and then Alligator Records is after that, so I don’t know how you would put together a box set encompassing recordings from two different labels. I think a new studio album is a better idea for us.

KP: Are your older records still in circulation?

CV: Yes, but dwindling. I just talked to Concord, and they plan to start ordering stuff, but it could be a while because they are still absorbing and cataloging all the stuff that they acquired.

KP: I always pictured Concord as a jazz label.

CV: They were, but they have all kinds of stuff now.

KP: You mentioned over 55 people have been in Roomful. How does the band replace someone if they leave?

CV: Believe it or not we always end up getting people that have the same background that we do. We don’t really audition—someone will know someone, or they may have played with someone. That’s all we get new people. We’ve been really lucky. I think we've only done one audition, and that was for drummers many years ago. It was a total disaster. People would be rock drummers, or have a totally different music style that had nothing to do with us at all.

KP: They didn’t know how to swing, or what was it?

CV: When musicians think of blues music, a lot them think it’s simple. But you really have to know about it, the people who made it, and how they played it, if you want the band to sound right.

KP: I imagine as a drummer, it would be easy to play the same thing over and over.

CV: Yes. We do a lot of shuffles, but there's a lot of different kinds of shuffles that people don't know about. They think if they play one kind of shuffle then that covers everything, but it really doesn't.

KP: Do you record other artists with your home studio?

CV: I have a commercial studio in Wakefield, and I get different kinds of stuff. I get rap artists, I get rock bands, and it's all different. It’s nothing that I produce—I just record, and it’s a lot of local people. I've been into recording since I was a kid. I also need a place to keep all my stuff!

KP: Do you have multiple rooms or one main room?

CV: I have one main room and a big booth. Sometimes on Sundays when nobody is there, I'll use the lobby to record guitars. I can fit about five people in the main room. We did a Roomful record there, but it was a little cramped. For Roomful, we use a large studio in Connecticut, and then I take it over to my place and mix it. It takes way longer to mix then to actually record the tracks. I can take the time I need to mix it and it’s a lot more cost effective for Roomful than sitting in a studio for two weeks mixing the record.

KP: Do you put the guitars in the lobby to get a certain sound?

CV: It depends on the situation. I'll put something in the in the lobby if I want to keep it out of the drum room. It’s more for separating the sounds for people that plan to do a lot of overdubbing. The main room is pretty live and I can put in mikes to capture the sound in the room. At the bigger studio in Connecticut, I’ll record in the same room with the drummer so if I make a mistake, the drummer has to overdub with me (laughs). I’m not a big fan of sitting there forever trying to figure out a solo. I just hope that it comes out good. I just remember that if I have to play a solo when we’re playing live, I play a solo. I just hold on and hope it comes out good.

KP: For the record you are planning, have you gotten to the point of narrowing down the number of tracks that would go on the record, or is it too soon to have gotten to that point.

CV: Yes, it’s too soon. For us, we create demos for the original songs and work out the band arrangements like for the horns. Once that is done, we’ll start looking at possible cover songs. We’re really picky about songs; we try not to pick stuff that has been played a million times, but we also want the songs to be catchy and easy for people to remember.

KP: For an original song, does someone bring in a demo, and the horn players start working on the arrangements? Is that how it works?

CV: That's exactly what happens. If I have an idea for a song, I'll get a drum beat from a program or something, just to put something up, then I'll play the bass line to it and then guitar. I might even sing it, and you don't want to hear that part of it (laughs). I'll bring it to Rich (tenor saxophonist), I'll give him some idea of how I want it to go and then he prepares the arrangements.

KP: When you write songs, do you start with a riff that gets in your head, or do you start with lyrics?

CV: Usually, I will get a riff in my head or I'll get a title that I like and then try to write lyrics to that.

I've written songs while I was painting the house. Things come to you, and you just try to finish it. Sometimes it's quick and sometimes it’s not. I've got tons and tons of scraps that I got stuck on or just have not managed to turn it into a song.

KP: Do you record ideas on your phone or on your computer?

CV: Yes, I sometimes I will sing into my phone. Sometimes I'll go in the studio and lay some stuff down, just to get the idea down and see if it's going to work. There’s a lot of different ways of doing it.

KP: A lot different than handwriting charts in the old days.

CV: I don’t read music anyway. The horn guys do—they usually pick it up in high school or wherever. I don’t know too many guitar players or drummers who read music; they just learn by ear.

KP: That's interesting because I always assumed most professional musicians read music, that it’s more the rule than the exception.

CV: I think it’s the opposite. A lot of our heroes, in fact, did not read music, they just played it. They’ll be influenced by something they heard and then they play.

KP: I want to thank you for taking the time to talk to us.

CV: Thank you, I enjoyed talking to you.

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Interview: Chris Vachon of Roomful of Blues


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