By Kevin Porter
Tommy Castro has been playing music professionally for over 30 years, starting first with the Dynatones in the 1980s before peeling off and leading his own bands in the 1990s. His music is a joyous and boisterous fusion of blues, rock, and soul, and he has built a solid and loyal fan base through relentless touring and churning out quality music. He has recorded 17 albums during that time frame, and has won numerous awards for his songwriting and music, including the B.B. King Entertainer of the Year award in 2012.
His new album, Stomping Ground, on Alligator Records, was released in September 2017 and includes several rock and blues luminaries such as Charlie Musselwhite, David Hildago of Los Lobos, and Mike Zito. The album is garnering great reviews, including one from Rock and Blues Muse. Tommy kindly spent some time with us and talked from the road while traveling from Florida to Texas.
KP: Tell me about the new album.
TC: My new album is called Stomping Ground, and on it, I covered for the first time two of the artists that influenced me: Elvin Bishop and Taj Mahal. We mostly do original songs on albums but we always have at least two cover songs. I try to find songs off the beaten path. I sent Elvin’s song, “Rock Bottom,” to my record label, and they didn’t recognize the song, even those Elvin was on their label. They said this song needs more words, and I said this is an Elvin Bishop song from Rock My Soul. It is a good song that really suits me, and Mike Zito played on it, so that was cool.
KP: Your new album is pretty nostalgic and about your old neighborhood in San Jose. How did the album come about?
TC: It’s like everything I do—I just started working on songs. I didn’t have any grand plan. I actually tried to come up with a concept but I couldn’t come up with one, so I just started working on songs and the themes in Stomping Ground just took its natural course and came about organically. I didn’t know it was happening until it was happening. It started to go in that direction when I was writing the song, “My Old Neighborhood.”
At the same time, and not as a part of a plan, I had this list of covers I wanted to do. I realized I never covered Taj Mahal or Elvin Bishop, and they both had a lot to do with the way I sound. I was a huge fan of Elvin when I was a kid. I had this cheap imitation red guitar that was a copy of his Gibson guitar, and I wore overalls and flannel shirts. When you’re a kid, sometimes you go out of your way to be like your idols. Same thing with Taj. I would sit and listen to Giant Step /De Old Folks at Home and and I would try to learn the songs. I decided to cover those songs, and that got me going back to my early days, learning to play music, listening to records, going to shows, and jamming with my friends.
Independently, and completely unrelated, is that I decided to work with Kid Andersen (guitarist with Rick Estrin and the Nightcats). I’ve never worked with him before, and his Greaseland studio in San Jose just keeps popping out one great record after another. Kid’s a blues guitar player, and he loves blues and soul music and rock and roll just like I do. He’s a very talented artist in his own right, so I thought I would just go down to San Jose and record with Kid in his funky little studio he’s got built into his duplex.
These three unrelated things—the song “My Old Neighborhood,” playing cover songs from my all-time favorite artists, and recording the album in my old hometown—made me realize we had a theme going.
KP: You also did one of my all-time favorite songs, “Them Changes,” by Buddy Miles. That’s been due for a cover version for a long time, so I was glad to see you did it.
TC: That’s what I thought. Back in the day, when I was hanging out with friends, jamming in garages and stuff like that, that was one of the songs everybody did. Every club band, whether it was a soul band, a rock band, or a blues band, everybody did that song to the point where everybody stopped doing it for a good 30 or 35 years, as far as I can tell. I hadn’t heard anybody cover it or play it in years, and I thought it was safe to go back in the water and cut it. You always try to do something a little different and so on our version, the tempo is a little slower, and the guitar jam goes into a slightly different groove. The band just kind of fell into it. I love the rhythm section on that track.
KP: Mr. Anderson played an unusual instrument from the Middle East on your track, “Fear is the Enemy.” Tell me about that.
TC: He played a bouzouki. He has all these strange instruments hanging around the house, and this one was hanging on his wall in the kitchen. The theme of “Fear is the Enemy” is that people are afraid of things they don’t know about, like different religions, different races, and people from other countries. People are using these fears of other people to gain political power. The line in the song is “they don’t believe like you, they don’t look like you, or talk like you.” Right after that, he played this Middle Eastern instrument, and it just fell right in there like it really belonged there. Who else would do that? It’s just a small thing, it doesn’t make or break the album, and it’s going to go by most people, but in my mind, it’s just further proof how brilliant Kid is.
While we’re on the subject, “Fear is the Enemy,” “Enough is Enough,” and even “My Old Neighborhood” are making statements and addressing social issues the way the way people did in the ‘60s. They still do, but I remember when it started. I was a kid listening to rock and roll radio and buying records, and before a certain time, all you ever heard were songs were about boys and girls and romance and holding hands and dancing and heartbreak and stuff like that. Then people started to write about social issues in the ‘60s, and that was the time when I really started to get this music and figure out who I was as a person.
The other part of the equation is that I grew up in a largely Mexican-American neighborhood, and there were all these low riders driving around, listening to soul music in their cars and blasting this stuff out of the windows of their cars. It was not the same music that my friends and I were really listening to—we were listening to rock and blues and jamming in the garage but I was listening to the soul music every day and I loved it. It took a while before that became a part of what I do musically. There were groups of people that would hang out together and at one point, the walls started coming down and people were hanging out together more, and it was because we had music in common. We started going to the same parties, the same dances and concerts and things like that. That was a time where those two worlds kind of came together for me. It was an important time in my life, and I have fond memories of those days.
KP: You mentioned music as a common element—maybe that can help people come together.
TC: You know, it is happening. You don’t hear about it much, but at least half of my audience is completely on the other side of the political spectrum from me, but they don’t care, they like my music and I don’t care, I’m happy to see them. We do have the music in common. On my last album, I did a song called “The Common Ground,” and you find that when you just talk to a person, you have a lot more in common with them. There’s a small percentage of hardcore ideological types that I probably couldn’t get along with, but the majority of the people that don’t believe like I do politically, we’ll have a good conversation and recognize our humanity, and we’ll hang and talk about music and any number of subjects without politics ever coming up.
The music is what can start bringing people together. I’m not saying anything that is so outrageous. I mean if I say, “enough is enough,” everybody has their own version of enough is enough. A lot of people are tired of the status quo, of politics, of business as usual, and everybody is fed up with the whole thing. I can sing “Enough is Enough” and know what it means to me; it might mean something else to someone else.
The idea of “Fear is the Enemy”—well, that’s just the truth. Fear causes people to do crazy stuff, as we’ve all seen. Kid Anderson asked, “Who is going to argue with that?” I haven’t gotten any dirty looks from people when I sing these songs. I’m not trying to upset the apple cart—I write songs about things that mean something to me. That’s how you do honest music—you put yourself into it, you put your heart into it. You have to make a statement about how you feel about the world and all the injustices.
I was a little apprehensive about some of the material going in. My band, though, they’re good guys and good sounding boards and I bounce things off of them. They were supportive and encouraged me to say what’s on my mind and not be afraid of that.
KP: Our readers rave about your live shows. What’s the secret? What do you do to make your shows so popular?
TC: You know what, I don’t. I know it’s not surgery (laughs). My influences are these high energy groups, like the J. Geils Band, The Rolling Stones, James Brown. I’m a big James Brown fan. Old soul acts. People would just get on stage and SWEAT. Not standing around, not posing, playing nice little licks, but performing and giving a show and engaging the audience. In the old days, it was just about getting a party started. We’d be in a nightclub or a bar and people would just come, not necessarily to see us; we were just there to entertain. We did a combination of blues, rock and roll and soul music, all very high energy and danceable and we would leave people whooping and hollering at the end of the night. That’s what I still try to do, even though our audience now likes to sit down (laughs). That bugs me a little, but I still go about it the same way. We just try to give them a good show, and we really want people to leave there having had a really good time.
KP: If our readers are any indication, you have a passionate fan base that you’ve built up over the years.
TC: I go out after every show or during the break or in-between sets, and I meet and greet with everybody in the house. I sign CDs and take pictures, and I know a lot of these people who have come to our shows over the years. I recognize them, and sometimes, I remember their names (laughs). But a lot of times, it’s just faces and people that I’ve seen come back many times and I appreciate them. People are still coming to see us twenty years later. It’s amazing really, and I genuinely appreciate it. This is my life, this is what I do, and I put everything into it that I have.
KP: I read that you consider yourself a songwriter first and a guitar player second. Tell me about that.
TC: I was originally a guitar player. I was in different bands when I was a kid, and they were usually cover bands. Somebody had to sing this song or that song and different guys in the band would try it out, and I would try it and I would end up singing. It wasn’t my part of my plan, but I did wind up singing because I needed to. So, I became a guitar player and a singer and then I got my first record deal with Blind Pig. They asked me how many songs I had, and I told them not to worry about it because I had a lot of songs. Well, I didn’t have any songs (laughs). I started writing, and I wrote songs based on the kind of stuff that I liked. I started becoming a student of songwriting right away because I needed to, and as time went on, I started to become more interested in the quality of songs than anything else.
I also learned that guitar players are really a dime a dozen. There are A LOT of really good guitar players out there; there are twelve-year-old kids all over the country that could play circles around me and most of my famous friends. I like being a guitar player and I am interested in guitar, but that’s never been the focus since this band started. It’s always been about the songs. It became important to me to write good quality songs. I got to know a few really good songwriters, I would learn from guys I co-wrote with, I read some books on songwriting, and I found lectures and seminars on the Internet. You could see what Bruce Springsteen has to say about songwriting, or Bob Dylan, or Leon Russell, or Michael Jackson, and how they went about it. Berklee School of Music has a whole series on songwriting, some of them hosted by people like John Mayer. It helps me improve my skills, and when it comes time to write some songs, I might have a different approach that might be fresher and gets something more out of me.
A good example off Stomping Ground is, “My Old Neighborhood.” I started to write another protest song that was going to be about how I don’t like these big corporations that have taken over and displaced small and independent businesses. Stores like Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Guitar Center, Amazon. There’s a number of these. These corporations come into an area and take all the business and run everybody else out, and I just think that’s a bad trend that’s not good for anybody except for a handful of billionaires. I started writing a song about that and I thought this song sucks (laughs). I watched a video of a woman talking about how it can be helpful to use imagery in your songwriting. I started thinking about when I was younger and what it was like then. I imagined a typical day of my life, getting on my bike to go to school in the morning and trying to hold on to that little bag lunch on my handlebar. By describing that stuff, you bring the listener into the story.
KP: I definitely noticed a soul influence in listening to your vocals on Stomping Grounds. Who were some of your influences? You mentioned James Brown and the old soul guys. Who else?
TC: I always think of myself as a blues guitar player and a blues singer, but my biggest influences vocally were the old soul guys, especially the Stax/Volt guys. Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, and Ray Charles were influences. Also Buddy Guy and B.B. King, because of the blues. I just love the classic soul stuff, though. I actually learned to sing by driving around on my day job before I started making enough money as a musician. I had my own small delivery business and I would listen to cassette tapes that I would make of stuff that I liked, or stuff I needed to learn if I was in a band. I would drive around, listening to the music and singing along, and that would help get me through the day. I also would get a lot of funny looks from other drivers because I would be getting into it! Try singing Little Richard without looking like you’re screaming your head off. People were wondering what the hell I was doing, shaking my head around.
KP: Tommy, I have to go back to my day job. It’s been great talking to you. Have a great rest of the tour, and I’ll see you the next time you come to the East Coast.
TC: All right, take care.
Tommy Castro and the Painkillers are currently on tour. For their tour schedule go to http://tommycastro.com/upcoming-dates/
For more information on their album, Stompin’ Ground go to http://tommycastro.com The album is currently #2 on the Billboard Blues Albums chart.