Intro - Nighthawks assemble
For nearly a decade, New York City-based singer-songwriter and guitar-slinger Ron Pope has been busy building up a huge following across the globe.
Pope has notched five solo studio albums since 2007 and is arguably one of the most successful truly independent self-releasing artists on the scene today.
Two million single sales, 100 million YouTube views and 126 million Spotify streams are just a few of the statistics that underline that incredible success and should serve to inspire self-seeking musicians the world over. Forget trying to find a record deal and a publisher! Do it yourself, put in the hard work and reap the rewards!
Before Pope zips us through the ten albums that most made a mark on his life and musical career, he gives us a bit of background and insight into the superb debut platter by Ron Pope & The Nighthawks, which hits the shops on 8th January.
“I believe that this is the best collection of songs that I’ve ever put together in my life,” Ron enthuses. “I wouldn’t take any song off this album to replace it with something I wrote before.
"Every one of these is really so indicative of something that we wanted to do or say with this band. I’ve never been this proud of anything I’ve ever done.”
Suitably inspired by the ensemble approach of one of his favourite all-time groups The Band, Pope decided he wanted to recruit a multi-talented troupe of musicians that could help take his music to a different level. Paul Hammer, Alex Foote, Andrew Pertes, Alex Brumel, Alan Markley and Michael Riddleberger have certainly helped satisfy that vision.
“When we set out to make this Ron Pope & The Nighthawks thing happen, I was like, ‘I want to be in the best band I’ve ever been in!’,” explains Pope.
“And now I’m in the best band I’ve ever seen! It’s insane! Every guy in this band has the experience of what it’s like to be onstage and be the one that’s like the obvious stand-out best one.
"Onstage, I look to my left and the guy next to me is a monster, then I look to my right and that guy is a monster. I look behind me and there’s a guy putting down an instrument that he plays better than me, and then picking up another instrument that he plays better than me!
"It’s astonishing and they’re all up for any challenge… and it’s a fun challenge for me as a guitar player because there are four guys in this band who are very good guitar players. It’s been a really profound experience for me as an artist.
"It’s like I joined an all-star team, only they play like they’ve been team-mates their whole lives. They’re all great singers and they’re all great ensemble players. Each guy is just as happy to rip a solo behind his head as he is to quietly strum an acoustic guitar and sing a harmony.
"They’re all just trying to support us being more than a sum of our parts and a greater whole.”
The approach to writing and arranging ended up being very much a collaborative Nighthawks approach, which was a suitably refreshing experience for Ron.
“Over the time that we’ve been working on this album, it went from my initial idea which was like, ‘Oh, I’ll write some songs and I’ll record them with you guys and it will be really fun’, to me sitting with Alan and sitting with Alex and sitting with Paul and sitting with all of them and just writing together,” he says.
“For me, it’s been uplifting and really special. I feel lucky to have found these guys and, for me, I’ve never spent this much time on a record.
"We started in this house [in Lake Blue Ridge, Georgia] for two weeks, then we were recording every show on the road, then we were recording in places we stopped as we travelled and - when we came back to New York - we went into the studio [The Magic Shop]. We were constantly writing and thinking and creating and really kept allowing it to evolve.”
UK & IRELAND 2016 TOUR DATES
- JAN 15 London, KOKO
- JAN 16 Manchester, Manchester Academy 3
- JAN 17 Glasgow, O2 ABC Glasgow
- JAN 18 Belfast, Empire Music Hall
- JAN 19 Dublin, Whelan’s
Ron Pope & The Nighthawks by Ron Rope & The Nighthawks is released on January 8th 2016 on Brooklyn Basement Records.
1. The Jimi Hendrix Experience - Axis: Bold as Love (1967)
“Axis: Bold as Love is my favourite Jimi Hendrix record. I pretty much learned all the guitar parts as a kid.
"I may have been 15 or even younger than that but then - right after high school and at the beginning of college - I really super, super dug into it. When you learn Little Wing, you’re like ‘Where is the guy who did some of this other crazy shit? Where did he get all this beautiful nuanced stuff?’
"And going, ‘Where did he get that?’ leads you to Steve Cropper and Booker T. & the M.G’s and all that soul music and Jimi had obviously been on the road and played with all types of soul artists.
"That was in his toolbox. And then you get to the crazy screaming dirty amps and the big bending and then you’re like, ‘Wow, what’s that?’ That’s Buddy Guy and Albert King.
"Jimi Hendrix was like my tour guide in guitar-playing. For years, I was just sitting in my room learning Albert King’s greatest hits.
"I’d say 85% of what I’m playing is in the guitar parts to Little Wing and Bold as Love. I learnt almost everything in those two songs. Axis: Bold as Love was a big, big album for me.”
2. Led Zeppelin - IV (1971)
“Another one that was huge for me was Led Zeppelin IV. The first couple of years I was in New York, I was struggling and trying to make it with music and I would teach guitar lessons.
"Kids would come in for lessons and I would be like, ‘Well, would you like to learn about music? I’ll teach you chords and scales, and I’ll teach you how to play some songs.’ And kids would look at me like I was out of my mind and they’d be like, ‘Fuck no! Teach me how to rip Black Dog, right now!’
"In my mind, Led Zeppelin IV is like this thriller of ass-kicking rock’n’roll. It’s got fucking great songs, great playing and a masterful production. Led Zeppelin always felt like the best thing that you could do with rock music.
"Robert Plant can sing his face off, Jimmy Page is just doing everything as a guitar player and oozing stacks, Bonham is killing it back there and John Paul Jones is holding it all together.
"All the things that are great about rock’n’roll happened with Led Zeppelin and especially in Led Zeppelin IV. And I didn’t even mention that fucking Stairway [to Heaven]’s on there… that’s how good that record is!”
3. The Rolling Stones - Exile on Main St (1972)
“I’ve always loved the Stones. I love lots of Stones records but my favourite is Exile on Main Street.
"First of all, Happy has always been one of my favourite songs. I love when Keith sings. Bobby Keys, who plays sax and only recently passed away, is also one of my favourite parts to the Stones because he’s just like this force of nature.
"One of the reasons I incorporated horns into my own music, with what we’re doing now, is because horns always feel like a celebration to me. It feels like a party for rock’n’roll and Bobby is kind of the pinnacle of that.
"And Sweet Virginia just feels like this loose party in a brothel or something. When I heard that as a kid, I was like, ‘I want to time travel to 1971 and do drugs with Gram Parsons!’
"There are lots of things that made me want to be a musician but the spirit of that record made me really want to be a rock star.”
4. The Allman Brothers Band - At Fillmore East (1971)
“Sometimes, when people jam, it can make you want to go and get a beer but The Allman Brothers managed to create this thing where people wanted to watch them jam.
"With Fillmore East, they’re doing that ‘Keep it loose, keep it tight’ thing, Dickey [Betts] and Duane [Allman] are playing together so beautifully and I think Gregg [Allman]’s voice is one of the best American rock’n’roll voices.
"The record only has seven songs on it but the version of Whipping Post goes on for like a year. Those guys are great at just going on this journey but they go on it together and they stay together so beautifully.
"I can imagine that the audience stayed engaged which is really a challenging thing to do when you’re taking your songs and you’re turning them on their heads. That’s something that was kind of revelatory for me when I heard it.
"I play slide guitar and it’s like if you don’t go to Duane Allman as a starting point then you’re short-changing yourself! So much of the language of slide guitar in rock music really is derived from what Duane did in just those couple of years.
"I love their studio albums but there’s kind of a raw intensity about At Fillmore East that I’ve always really dug.”
5. The Band - Music from Big Pink (1968)
“I’ve always really been into ensemble playing. I like virtuoso players but I really love it when you get a group of guys together and they become more than a sum of their parts. Because of that, The Band has always been my favourite band.
"The idea that you have other people in The Band that are good enough to sing lead and make Richard Manuel not sing lead is fucking absurd! They had three guys that were that good at singing and it’s like, ‘Get the fuck outta here!’
"When you think about all these other things that were happening in 1968, it’s unbelievable that these guys were kind of camping down the ego. Rather than the parts being the central focus with what they were doing, they really were just focused on ensemble playing and making The Band sound better than the sum of its parts. To me, that is a really profound thing and it’s something that I’ve always been moved by.
"The Band were originally The Hawks so when we were trying to figure out a name for this group, I thought that The Nighthawks was kind of a nod to them. Their ensemble playing is unrivaled anywhere in the history of recorded music.
"I love all their records but that one has great, great songs and they’re all kind of at the height of their powers at that point.”
6. Robert Johnson - King of the Delta Blues Singers (1961)
“Obviously, he didn’t make this as an album. It’s just a collection of a bunch of recordings that they made of him.
"When I was a little kid, maybe seven years old, and I first heard Robert Johnson’s Hellhound on My Trail, it was terrifying! On that song, he sounds like the devil is literally standing behind him and it’s spooky.
"One thing that I like - in addition to him being able to do that stuff that has a lot of emotional depth and gravitas – is that he also could be silly and just be singing about nonsense and funny stuff.
"So much of what happens in modern blues is people trying to fit into a format, and everything is very restrictive. Robert Johnson is like, ‘I’m going to play 12 bars now but maybe next time it will be 13 and then it will be 14 and then it will be 11! I’m just playing.’
"So much of what I eventually learned about guitar and helped define me as a player comes from trying to learn to play like him and then failing. I spent a lot of time on this stuff.
"In my playing, I find that a lot of those things still pop out like I’ll play a lick that I copped from Robert Johnson or from early Muddy Waters. I learned it but I learned it incorrectly and then in my brain it got turned around.
"Sometimes when I’m playing, maybe you don’t hear me channeling Muddy Waters or channeling Robert Johnson, but that’s because it’s gone through the washing machine in my brain. I love how raw and bare and honest he could be.”
7. B.B. King - Live at the Regal (1965)
“I used to play a ton of blues on the road and, every night before I’d go onstage, I would sit backstage and either listen to all of this album or most of it. I think, as a guitar player now in this era, sometimes you forget that the guitar can be sexy.
"When you listen to B.B. - and this is like a lifetime ago, when my parents were babies - sing ‘I got a sweet little angel, I love the way she spread her wings’, young women are screaming at him! It sounds like you’re at a boyband concert!
"The incredible part about B.B. is that sex is just straight up falling off the dude but he manages to be class. He’s the king, man. He’s the classiest dude that ever picked up an electric guitar. Live at the Regal is a huge, huge one for me and I copped a ton of stuff from that.
"There’s a lot of guitar-playing stuff where you’re like, ‘I don’t know where this came from’. But that major-over-minor thing comes directly from B.B King and that giant bend with the beautiful vibrato at the top?
"I’ve spent my whole life doing that but it still does not sound like B.B.! That’s one of the fun things about being a musician. You learn all these things and you get all these ingredients, you put them in the pot and you stir it around and make gumbo.”
8. Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits (1967)
“I tried to avoid things like greatest hits albums but… Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits is from 1967 and this dude had only been making records for five years! It’s crazy that, in those years, he went from acoustic guitar and harmonica Bob Dylan all the way through to Rainy Day Women [#12 & 35] and stuff like that.
"If you’re a songwriter, when you put that record on and you get to the end, you’re like, ‘Ah… I guess I’m just going to quit and go drive a truck or something!’ It’s true. The dude’s just an animal… and he’s like 26 years old at that point.
"How did he do all this stuff within those five years? If I could only have one album of his, I would probably take Blood on the Tracks but if I could have a greatest hits it would be this one.”
9. Bruce Springsteen - Born to Run (1975)
“If there was a Mount Rushmore of influences for me, Bruce’s face would be at the centre of the mountain. One of the things that’s really striking to me is that there’s only eight songs on it.
"How is this possible? How is this that good, yet has only this many songs on it? Obviously, everybody knows the song Born to Run, and everybody knows Thunder Road. Those are beautiful masterpieces but he also manages to kick ass.
"He’s got Jungleland and Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out, fun rock’n’roll energetic stuff, but then there’s also Meeting Across the River, which is an incredibly evocative story song about that time in the New York area. And the band is killing.
"Clarence [Clemons, sax] is just a superhero. This is another place where the saxophone is such a big deal. His saxophone solos are just huge and memorable like giant melodic lines. As a composer, Clarence writing those parts is really significant for me and - in rock’n’roll - Clarence has always been one of my heroes.
"Bruce is a great guitar player and he’s always had great guitar players in that band but in terms of featured solos, it’s Clarence that you remember.”
10. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers - Greatest Hits (1993)
“This came out when I was 10 years old. If I can’t have a greatest hits, I would have Damn the Torpedoes but I thought this record was incredible because - when it came out in 1993 - there was so many bands that sounded similar to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
"I guess Tom was probably in his 40s then but these young guys were coming in like The Wallflowers and a lot of American rock bands that were living in that similar kind of world.
"Tom Petty’s songs from the ‘70s and the ‘80s still felt brand new in 1993. When you put that record on now, it still feels brand new. I just think Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are one of the great American rock bands.”