The T-Birds Are Tuff Enuff

I could write something trite like "It's been a long road back for the Fabulous Thunderbirds" but that would just be lousy journalism and downright false, too. In fact, the T-Birds have been playing and partying as if nothing was wrong. You see, the band had a falling out with Chrysalis Records which some wags suggested was very ugly, blah blah blah, you know how it goes...When I spoke to them in town on their last visit, they weren't bitter or negative because they had a plan.
It is a rare thing to see a group of musicians take charge of their recording career the way the Fab T-Birds have. After holding out for a satisfactory deal for three years, they have issued a kick-ass album recorded in London and produced by Dave Edmunds. What follows are extracts of my interview with Kim Wilson (harp, vocals) and Jimmie Vaughan (guitars, guitars) wherein we covered the subjects of the band, new member Preston Hubbard (bass), the record, and sundry items of interest to their fans:

Tony: How about telling me about the new member of the band, Preston?
Kim: Yeah! (laughs) He's great!
Jimmie: Preston's an old friend of ours, he's from the Roomful of Blues and we've known him for ten years. Me an' Kim always dug his playin' and everything, and always dug string bass playin' so we called him up, an' that was it.
Tony: That's something different. What's the idea behind bringin' the upright bass into the band now?
Jimmie: Well, that's what we do. You can play electric or you can play upright, it's bass, y'know? It's just I like the sound better. I love that sound. It's like boom-boom-boom...(mimics bass)
Kim: Well, it's just really good, new blood, y'know. It's the best thing that ever happened to me, since this band's gotten together.
Jimmie: It's just right up your butt when you're playin'. He plays electric bass, too, see? So we got the best of both worlds.
Tony: What was that he was playing on that one number? Was that a fuzz bass?
Jimmie: I don't know, mighta sounded different out front.
Kim: (laughing) It coulda been...
Jimmie: But we did it on purpose. (laughter)
Tony: You're a real Fender man, Strats and Teles, you only used the one guitar tonight, the Fender, what's your thoughts on sound, years and the like?
Jimmie: Oh see, listen, that doesn't make any difference to me. I've had old ones, and I've had new ones, like the new reissues they came out with...
Tony: The Squires?
Jimmie: No, before the Squires, the '57 reissues and the '62's and I've had like, '83 models. Really, to me, a Fender is a Fender. Like they made, in the '50's, the ones everybody's collectin', they made bad ones and they made good ones too.
Kim: Y'hear that Leo, he loves ya!
Jimmie: I love Leo Fender, I have a Music Man, too. I just don't like the idea of payin' a lotta money for these old ones, that somebody else beat up. I have several old ones, but I'd rather spend the money on my shoes. I'd just as soon have a new one if it sounds right.
Tony: What do you use, equipment-wise, Kim and do people use equipment as a crutch?
Kim: I use a JT-30, it's an Astatic, the thing is, it ain't what you use, the sound comes from you. There ain't no mike in the world that's gonna make up for the tone you've got yourself. Equipment is a crutch, that people like to...they like to buy things that distort, an' stuff, but...
Jimmie: Mah favourite harmonica stuff is straight through the mike. The tone of the harmonica. Like Junior Parker.
Kim: That's what really separates the men from the boys. If it doesn't come out right with you standin' there without a microphone, then it ain't gonna through anything, no matter how you make it distort or any of that shit. Your sound comes from you. You can fool a lotta people but you can't fool me! (laughs)
Tony: When you guys go into the studio, how do you get that 'live' sound?
Kim: We play live. (laughs) We do overdub some things. We usually do a band track, let's say if I screw up on a vocal, I might, I might do something over again, or Jimmie might dub a coupla guitars over.
Jimmie: Depending on the song, sometimes I'll play lead first, then come back and play rhythm or I'll play rhythm first, come back and play lead, or I'll put fifteen overdubs on it. We like to use ambient mic-ing where there's a little distance between the amplifier and the microphone.
Tony: You like a 'live' room rather than a 'dead' room?
Jimmie: I do. It gives the engineers fits, a lot of 'em. They got better stuff now than they had on them old records, and them old records are my favourites, so you should be able to take the new equipment and combine the two and get a better sound.
Kim: The whole thing is makin' it mean. You gotta be mean, you can't be a fuckin' wimp. We don't do any more than three takes. If it goes past three takes we shelve it.
Tony: You guys got any heroes? I guess guys like "Juke Boy" Bonner and Jerry McCain, guys like that?
Jimmie: Oh, we got a million heroes. Muddy Waters is everybody's (hero) here. He was the greatest.
Kim: When we first started goin' Muddy Waters did more for this band than anybody.
Jimmie: I was in Dallas, I had "The Best of Muddy Waters" and "The Best of Little Walter". I was followin' around Freddie King and Albert Collins an' them guys. We used to back up Albert at Antone's in Austin when we was the house band there.
Kim: Albert Collins is the baddest man in show business. When I see him I thank God I don't play guitar. (laughs)
Jimmie: I think Albert Collins is the meanest guitar player on the planet Earth. You should try to be up on stage with Albert. You can either try your best and play a lot of crap, but he's still gonna cut, there's nothin' you can do.
Tony: This beats workin', doesn't it?
Jimmie: It beats workin'! That's what I say!
Kim: It beats the shit outa workin'! Goin' out on the road is work, but playin' the gigs is just play.
Tony: When you guys hit the stage tonight, it got real quiet like in a library or somethin', what was goin' on there?
Jimmie: Yeah, well, I think a lot of the people though it was like a 'blues seminar' or somethin'.....(Kim explodes laughing) I told 'em, we just wanna have a party.
Tony: Tell us about the new record.
Kim: We did it in London, Dave Edmunds producing, and what we did was picked out all the stuff we liked out of all the records we've done and we combined the beats and the styles of music into one record.
Jimmie: Is that what you did? That's not what I did!
Kim: Well...then, what did you do? (explodes laughing) Jimmie: This'll be our fifth record, we've been together ten years and what you do is you change between records. This new record is just what we were doin' at the time, to me.
Tony: Are Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds still talking?
Kim: Sure they are.
Jimmie: They were writin' or fixin' t'write stuff together.
Kim: When we first met them in 1980 I was askin' them "Would you produce our record?" Even back then when they were playing together they wouldn't do it. We've been very lucky, we've got Nick Lowe on our last one (Butt Rockin'), I think Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds back-to-back producing our records, that's a big deal to me, because this is American music but those guys are like an exception. They know what it's gotta sound like. Edmunds really got a great sound on us. He really did a helluva job. He was wonderful to work with. To me, as far as producers go, those two are the tops. Ahead of American producers. A lot of American producers, they tend to lean on still, even today, still the disco beat, the disco boom-boom-boom-doong-doong-doong...(simulates disco Crisco)
Jimmie: (with a strange grin) I'd like to work with Nile Rodgers.
Kim: Nile Rodgers!?!?
Tony: 'Do you in' like Jeff Beck?
Jimmie: (like a hurt puppy) I think a lot of people use him...
***[In 1986 this seemed strange, but remember now that Jimmie and Stevie used Nile for their beautiful "Family Style" album in 1990]
Kim: The thing is, these people in Europe really know where our sound is at.
Jimmie: Rockpile did. I'd love to work with any one of those guys any time I could, Nick or Dave.
Tony: Is that good for you too, 'cause it lessens the "blues band" image?
Kim: We play blues but we're much more than a blues band. We play blues, we play R&B, we play Rock'n'Roll, y'know, we play rockin' shit. Let's get that shit straight, we're not on the fuckin' Holiday Inn circuit around here, man. We wanna get out here and rock these people. We wanna see 'em dance. This isn't an evening at the Boston Pops - and I like them too - but that's not where we're at. We wanna hear that floor pound, pulsate with dancing humanity. We wanna see the fuckin' people dance out there. Our whole thing is fun. Fuck art, let's have fun.
Tony: So the 'meat and potatoes' cycle is coming back?
Jimmie: It never went anywhere.
Kim: Nah, it never did go anywhere.
Jimmie: See, people ask us, "Oh yeah, there's a blues revival, what do you think about it?" And we're like...this is '85 an' we're ten years old...
Kim: That's what they always ask us, all the interviewers ask us.
Tony: (affecting 'professional announcer voice') What do you feel about the state of rhythm and blues today?
Jimmie: In general.
Kim: Today in general.
Jimmie: It's always been here, it just comes in and somebody's be lucky and sell some records like my bother Stevie, but he's been playin' for ever an' ever, too. All these people been playin' gigs, it's just that nobody knew 'em.
Tony: It's tough to get airplay, isn't it?
Kim: See, we got the rock and roll thing, there's no reason whyever the last two or three records we did shouldn't'a gotten AM radio airplay...they can't ply us, they can't use us like putty. We do what we do and the sooner they figure that out, the better off they're gonna be. See, the whole shitty thing about that Chrysalis thing...
Jimmie: (kidding, yells) HEY! It don't matter, 'cause that's water under the bridge, we're lookin' towards the new...
Kim: (kids Jimmie) Get outa here! We're in control of our own shit.

P.S.: I found the guys alternately hilarious, touching, defensive, charming and always open. I dropped by the second night of the gig and chatted some more with Fran and Preston too, gave them all CKCU t-shirts, had a few (!) beers with them and all I can say is they're wonderful, talented people; and buy the goddamned record, it's called Tuff Enuf!

(c.) Tony McLean, April 1986, April 1997