By Kevin Porter
Canadian-born, blues-rock guitar maestro, Anthony Gomes just released his 13thalbum, Peace, Love and Loud Guitars, a tour de force of Gomes’ trademark soulful singing and rocking guitar playing. Gomes has won numerous awards including Artist of the Year by BluesWax magazine, Best Musician and Live Performer award at the 2017 European Blues Awards and was named one of the 10 top guitarists in the world by Music Tasters Choice. He has performed in 17 countries and opened for artists such as B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Robert Plant, Alice Cooper, Joe Bonamassa, Heart, Jonny Lang, Sammy Hagar, 38 Special, Robert Cray, Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Gretchen Wilson.
Not only is Anthony Gomes a musical virtuoso of the blues, he also is a blues scholar—he earned his master’s degree in history from the University of Toronto with a thesis on the racial and cultural evolution of blues music. His thesis was published in 2014 and nominated for Best Blues Book of the Year by Blues 411. He also founded the Music is the Medicine Foundation in 2010, which has funded songwriting scholarships, offered music education programs, and donated musical instruments to those in need. Gomes kindly talked to us by phone.
Kevin Porter: You have a new album, Peace, Love and Loud Guitars, that we all love at Rock and Blues Muse. What were your thoughts and goals when you went into the studio to make this album?
Anthony Gomes: I had a couple of goals. I wanted to push the soulfulness of my singing and guitar playing because there’s so many shredders out there. At the same time, I wanted to up my game as a guitar player. I wanted to hang with the big boys, and I feel like on this album, I accomplished that, both vocally and for playing guitar.
KP: Tell me more about the technical side because I think you’re a fantastic guitar player so the idea that you’re not keeping up with the shredders is mind boggling to me. Tell me more about that. What was it that you were trying to push yourself to do?
AG: Well, I guess there’s different approaches for guitar players. When I play the guitar, I’m thinking of singing. I’m not really thinking of technical licks. I’m thinking of melody. Technical to me means adding the two or three extra notes that I’m hearing but not playing.
Let’s take a guy who’s really popular (name) and a very technical player. I think that technique dazzles people. When they hear a very fast run, it’s like a magician performing. Jaws drop. I think when you play soulfully, that’s when you move people. And guitar players are among the biggest haters in the world (laughs). I mean, it’s true, they’re so catty. If someone is a very technical player, they’ll bad mouth you by saying “he’s got no feel.” If someone is a feel player, they’ll say “he can’t play.” I always looked at them as two sides of same coin. I think technical players should listen to feel players and feel players should listen to technical players and try to push their playing.
KP: The first song that came out before the album was released is “Come Down.” I love everything about the song, and I really love that it was released on B.B. King’s birthday. I thought that was a nice gesture. Tell me more about the song, what inspired you to write it, and what was the message you wanted to get across?
AG: B.B. King was such a huge influence on me in so many different ways. I was in my early 20’s or late teens, and I’d go to a jam night on Thursday nights and they’d give you a free beer if you played well. They’d give you two beers if you really played well. I was in college at the time, and two free beers was like a million dollars. One night, I was playing really well – it was a two free beer night, and this older guy came up to me and said, ‘Who’s your favorite guitar player?’ What a tough question to ask. It could be Hendrix, it could be Jeff Beck, it could be Albert King. Without even thinking about it, I said, ‘B.B. King.’ And he said, ‘I thought so, I’m his bus driver.’ He said, ‘I want to introduce you to B.B.’
Lo and behold, I got to meet my hero and throughout the course of my career, he was a mentor to me and to other people. I was doing my master’s degree thesis on the racial evolution in blues music when I was in college–I guess I just wanted to figure out how a white boy from Canada figured into all of this. I learned so much from B.B., the ambassador of the blues. I have such a tremendous amount of respect for him as an artist, a guitarist, a human being. He had such a profound effect on me and from that first meeting and from then on, he taught me how to be a band leader. He’d say things like ‘You know Anthony, when you hire a musician, it’s always better to hire 70% a musician than to hire 100% a musician that’s only 70% a man.’ Because he said, ‘You could take 70% a musician and work on him and maybe get him up to 90 or 95, but 70% of a man is always going to be 70% of a man.’ I had the pleasure of playing with tremendous musicians and one of the compliments I’ve received is ‘You know, everybody in your band is a pretty cool person.’ And we’ve been a very fan-friendly project. That’s one of the many lessons I’ve learned from B.B. This has been a long answer, I apologize.
KP: No, this is great. This is great.
AG: So, B.B. passes away, strangely enough on my birthday. I’m doing an interview for a German radio and they asked me, ‘Who’s the new king of the blues.’ And I said, ‘Nobody. I love Eric Clapton, I love Buddy Guy but nobody can fill this guy’s shoes.’ And they said, ‘Well that’s kind of morbid.’ And I said ‘I think it’s going to take everybody to equal BB King. No matter if you’re a traditional player to the most avant guard, it’s going to take all of us to equal that man. And that’s kind of the legacy of him, bringing people together, so it isn’t really morbid.’ After finishing the conversation, I was very emotional, I think because I was trying to process the grieving of losing someone I cared about and I wrote the song in maybe a minute/a minute and half. I think I had been writing it ever since he passed away, I just didn’t know it.
For the riff, one thing I really try to do on this album is to blur the lines between blues and rock. Some of my albums have been more blues and some have been more rock, but I really tried to find that piece of real estate that was right in the middle. Will Smith used to have a thing that he talked about called “The Truth.” He spent half of his life going to a white school and half of his life going to a black school, and he liked to be the class clown. So, when he went to one school, he used the same jokes at the other school, but they didn’t laugh. He realized there was a different kind of humor for each ethnicity. He found a certain kind of humor that worked with both groups and he called that “The Truth.” I tried to find the truth between blues and rock and the groove in that song is very much a hybrid from the song “Why I Sing the Blues” by B.B. King. There’s a bass line in that song that’s similar to what AC/DC or the Cult would do. I tried to marry AC/DC with B.B. King just to see what we get.
KP: That’s great. BB King – I never had the pleasure of meeting him, but he always struck me as a kind and warm human being, for lack of a better term.
AG: He was perhaps the most humble human being I have ever met. And that’s another thing that really resonated with me. I was a young man, and thought, ‘I’m not half as good as this guy and he’s the nicest, down to earth guy I’ve ever met, so I better be twice as nice as him.’
We’re touring with him and after a while he stops being B.B. King, and he’s just my friend. We’re eating, we’re talking and he says, ‘How you like the tour so far?’ and I say, ‘I hate it.’ And he says, ‘What do you mean you hate it?’ and I said, ‘My friends come and see me play, and they watch you and then they see where I stole all my licks from. It’s really embarrassing.’ He said, ‘Look man, don’t say steal, say borrow.’ He was telling me about Blind Lemon Jefferson and Lonnie Johnson, people like that and he’s like, ‘I just took their stuff.’ People don’t know who these people are so they think I made this stuff up. He was being very humble. He basically created the vibrato on the guitar as a technique. He broke it down in a certain way that demystified his aura. What wonderful experiences to have. I’m just like everyone else. I’m a music nerd and a music fan and just to have that experience was so tremendous.
KP: You have a song on the album about Robert Johnson. How did that song come about? What was your inspiration in creating it?
AG: Interestingly enough, I heard a Tim McGraw song and it was about Robert Johnson, namely, about how bad you want it and the whole idea was, don’t go selling your soul–work for it. I always related to Robert Johnson, and I felt kind of bad for him because I know how hard it is to make it in the music business. There’s been a couple of times that I nearly sold my soul to the devil. My thought was it really is not right for him to be in hell. I thought, what if I went down to hell and got him. Sort of a supernatural tale, a footnote to the legend. I really enjoy the art of storytelling—it’s almost a lost art. For me, “Stealing from the Devil” is such a triumph because I had a vision and I think it really pushed me musically where I’d never been before on a recording. I’m just proud of that song in that way that we were able to create an epic sort of blues tale.
KP: I want to ask you about song writing. How do you go about it? Do you start with the music first or the lyrics first, or is it kind of case by case?
AG: Well, music and lyrics are like putting together an outfit or ensemble. You got to make sure the pants match the shirt. Lyrics have to match the music. To me writing a song starts with a concept. Let’s take “Stealing from the Devil.” Ok, I’ve got a title. Why am I stealing from the devil? Okay, I want to write a song about Robert Johnson, so the devil’s going to be involved. I come up with a title, then I work backwards from there and then I usually apply the pieces of music that I have. To me, it would be tough to write a piece of music and write a song around it. For instance, when you’re in Nashville, session musicians want to see a lyrics sheet because they want to know what’s the song really about. That’s very important to them. I know guys in bands and they don’t even know the lyrics to their own songs. To me, it’s such an integral part. It’s the story and you lay everything upon that foundation.
KP: There’s some great humor that I heard through the album like “Whiskey Made me Do It,” and “Your Mamma Wants to Do Me, And Your Daddy Wants to Do Me In.”
AG: (laughs) Yeah, they probably won’t be playing that one in church. On this album there’s more humor. Occasionally, I’ll have one or two funny songs. But I thought during this time humor was important. I feel like we are in a toxic place, not just in America, but globally. It seems like people have no tolerance or patience and we’re so polarized. I think we just need to laugh. We need to loosen up. We have more as a society than we’ve ever had. We have more technology, ease of life and we’re more angry and bitter and divided as we’ve ever been. If we could take some time and laugh together and take a moment to be recharged, maybe we can get back to addressing those kinds of things. I tried to do in a flippant way. Take the album title–Peace, Love and Loud Guitars. It’s about world peace, but I tried to do it in a very fun kind of way without being too preachy or what have you.
KP: Tell me about “Hard Road Easy,” how did that song come about? I really love the lyrics “hard road easy, can’t stop me if you try. I’m going to love you till the day I die.” It almost seems autobiographical to me.
AG: Well, you’re pretty close. It’s about one of my good friends that passed away about a year and half ago. He was a biker and he used to do these bike rallies and he became one of our biggest fans and he died riding. He had this crazy bike, man, I think this thing had a Corvette engine in it. It was stupid, you know, too much bike for any one person, and he was way too young when he passed. But the thing that I took away from that was that this guy always lived his life with his hair standing on the back of his neck. He was going to go out on his own terms. I really tried to capture that in the song. Tim was such a cool guy, the only person he was afraid of was his mother (laughs) and she was just an itty-bitty thing. If I wrote a ballad for him, he’d kick my ass. So, I wrote this rocking’ song for my buddy.
KP: Switching gears just a little bit, I want to ask you how you got started playing guitar. I read that you thought your dad was bringing you home a video game set, but he came home with a guitar.
AG: Yeah, biggest regret of his life! No, my dad is really old school. Born in Portugal. Born during the Depression. Raised during World War II. Only kid in his village with shoes. Started working full time at 13. Put himself through high school part time and then college. Moved to Canada not knowing English and with $40 in his pocket. He’s sort of my hero. I was doing well academically and doing some sports and he just thought music would be something that would make me more well-rounded. I picked up the guitar at 14, and I just fell in love with it. I loved everything about it, and I became obsessed with it. I’m at a place where I’m comfortable enough that I know enough to get by, but there’s still so much to learn and know about the instrument and I think that’s the real exciting part–the journey of it. The mystery behind this piece of wood and these wires.
KP: How’d your dad take to you becoming a musician? Did he have to come to terms with that?
AG: (laughs) You have a little bit of a backstory of my father. Actually, meeting B.B. King is what gave me the courage to become a professional musician and tell my dad. I was in school and I loved studying. I loved academics. In many ways, I feel like it made me become a song writer. But for my dad, he had different designs. He sat me down and he said, ‘You’re a man and you can make your own decisions, but as a father, I need to tell you about a place called fantasyland.’ I was like, ‘Oh, God.’ I never said anything because I knew I couldn’t convince him. But slowly he started to see. He was selling real estate and I told him, ‘You know, Dad, getting a gig is like selling real estate, you make a presentation, you know, it’s a win-win situation.’ Slowly, he started to warm up to it. He was always real loving and supportive, but he was afraid that I was making a bad decision. I never said anything.
About eight years later, we’re playing a big festival in Ottawa, Canada, and I’m the only Canadian on the bill. There’s like 10,000 people there and my parents are watching on the side of the stage. I tell the crowd that I’m from Canada, and they go wild. I tell them my parents are here and do you want to meet them. Of course, they want to meet the homeboy’s parents! I bring my mom and dad up on the stage, and they stand in front of the crowd, and they’re cheering. Oh my, my dad was smiling. I say to my dad at that moment on stage, ‘What do you think of fantasyland now?’ (laughs) And he just laughs. He says, ‘It’s pretty good work.’ My dad, he grew up on Beethoven and Brahms. There was always classical music playing in my house and now he’s playing the guitar.
KP: That’s amazing.
AG: Yeah, I got him an electric guitar a few years ago. This is an honest to God true story–he calls me up two years ago and he says, ‘Anthony, have you ever heard of a band called the Pink Floyd?’ (laughs). I’m like, ‘Yes, you know Dad, they’re quite a popular group.’ This is the amazing part of this story. I’m in the States, my dad’s in Canada and he’s calling me up saying he’s learning “Wish You Were Here” in Toronto, on the internet, in Portuguese, from a guitar teacher in Brazil.
KP: I know you’ve got some gigs coming up, but I assume you’re going to be touring kind of heavily to promote the new record coming out?
AG: Yeah, we have quite an extensive touring schedule and it’s exciting. We’re going to be playing a lot of the new songs. You make an album, you create a statement. I like artists like U2–every record is a little bit different, so you go put on a show that reflects the mood of that album. And it’s exciting. It’s a celebration.
KP: What can people expect from an Anthony Gomes concert?
AG: Just a total commitment to putting on and delivering the best show that I can on any given night. High energy. Honest and loud fun with moments of introspection and emotional connection. Something that really is powerful, loud, exciting and a moving experience. I want it to be more than a show. I don’t want it to be some guy coming on wearing the same clothes that he wears to fix his car. I want it to say something. And I want it to mean something. I want to go the extra mile in every way possible to deliver a show because I think our fans are worth it and they put hard earned money on the table to see a show.
KP: I was really impressed that you have this foundation, Music is the Medicine. What prompted you to start it?
AG: I started it with a couple of friends of mine. It’s just this old hippie idea that music can impact change in the world. We believe in the healing power of music. Everyone’s been talking about the healing power of marijuana and that’s all well and good, but there’s a healing power in music, more so than anything I know. I see people coming to our shows and they’re so down trodden and they leave excited. Music can change the feeling in the room. We did this thing with war vets that had post-traumatic stress disorder. We give them a guitar and guitar instructions. There was one guy that wouldn’t speak, and who hadn’t spoken since the Gulf War. He starts playing the guitar and he starts talking. After several lessons, he went to the person next to him and asked, ‘Can you show me how you do that.’ For whatever reason, the guitar opened that guy’s means of communication. What a moving experience that was.
KP: I can imagine.
AG: Only recently have I felt comfortable talking about these things. You know, as a musician, you have a personal side and a professional side. My mom suffers from mental illness. Paranoia and schizophrenia. It’s real tough if anyone you know has gone through that. As someone suffering from paranoia and schizophrenia, it was just a huge blow to my mom. She became very sick and life became very hard. If it wasn’t for that guitar, I don’t know how I would have gotten through some of those days. I guess I would have. Music has been so good for me that I just want to give back.
Music is really meant for everybody. Sometimes as a professional, you get caught up in your professional stuff. This is a reminder that music is a means of communication. And music is so much bigger than we are marketing it as. I can tell you that we’ve done some amazing things in Music is the Medicine but for all we’ve given, it’s given me back more. It is such a cool thing.
KP: You’re absolutely right, we don’t talk enough about mental illness not only in the US but in the world. It’s stigmatized. It’s kind of in the dark corners of society.
AG: People fear what they don’t know or what they don’t understand. I’ve come to understand that my mom’s illness is manageable. There’s going to be ups and downs and I can see them coming. It’s a physical problem that impacts the brain. As we’re learning more, I’d like to think that this is just some growing pains for increased tolerance and understanding. By talking about these things will encourage other people to talk about it because everybody’s got somebody they know in their family that’s going through this, and there’s many productive people going through mental illness. I just hope that maybe it’ll open up a little bit of a dialogue.
KP: You hinted at this earlier–you’ve kind of fought against the perception that the blues is negative and depressing and old school. You’ve described it more as blues overcoming the odds. Tell me more about that.
AG: I feel like whoever the blues’ publicist is, is the worst publicist ever. Can we talk about all the wrong things to talk about? Wrong thing number one – blues and jazz. Who put these two music forms together? Jazz is the exact opposite. Jazz is intellectual music where you have to play through the changes to get to the right notes and blues is 3 chords and 5 notes that relies on emotion. People really don’t get what the blues is. It’s really the birth of all things.
How they market blues is totally wrong – point number two. They market it in this manner: “You should listen to the blues, kids. You should listen to the blues because that’s where rock and roll came from. The Rolling Stones.” No! Tell kids not to listen to the blues. It’s the devil. You will do very bad things if you listen to this music. Do not listen to this music. Trust me, they’ll start listening to it.
It’s put on this shelf and it’s preserved and not allowed to grow in so many ways. Blues is marketed as you complain, you repeat the complaint, and then rhyme it. No, blues is about overcoming, it’s about being triumphant. And the reason why it resonates worldwide is because it’s about humanity, we can relate to these things. There’ve always been uplifting blues songs but sometimes everybody goes through tough things and if you have someone out there who has gone through something and you’ve gone through the same thing, you go, ‘Hey man, I’m not alone.’ Your husband or wife is driving you crazy, so is mine. Oh my god. It brings us together and reminds us of our humanity.
I really just feel that blues has not been marketed in the right way at all. It should be marketed as exciting, triumphant, dangerous and loving – those are the things that strike me as the blues. Everything rock and roll to me is the blues to me – dangerous, bad boys, you know. Blues is not an old period piece that sits on the shelf and you have to ask your dad if you can take it out. That’s wrong. Blues music won’t grow if we keep looking at it that way.
KP: That is true. It was a real pleasure talking with you.
AG: Likewise. Thank you for your time. We’ll talk again soon, I’m sure. Take care.
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