Interview with ROGER EARL (FOGHAT)

November 2023

Back in 1973 FOGHAT informed the world that they had a long way to go; fast-forward fifty years, and the veterans are still going from strength to strength. Neither fame nor fortune prevented the ensemble – steered towards eternity by the collective’s last-standing founding father, drummer Roger Earl – from having a hell lot of fun doing it for decades, and their latest album "Sonic Mojo" – the quartet’s first in quite a long time and first release of the current line-up – is a great example of it. And a great excuse to speak to Mr. Earl.

And Mr. Earl started our conversation by proudly demonstrating a vinyl copy of the new platter.

– Roger, how do you feel about the opportunity to have the album out on vinyl – as well as on CD?

It’s great! I love the way vinyl sounds. I got a new turntable for my last birthday last May – Scott Holt [the band’s singing guitarist, – DME] bought it for me; he has a record store, and he had a bunch of them delivered, so he gave me one – and I forgot how good vinyl sounds, and it does sounds better. I have a really good CD player in my 2018 Audi – all the news cars don’t have it anymore; you’re supposed to have this little thing that you stick in there – and Bang & Olufsen Sound System, and the album sounds good in there, but it’s vinyl that’s the way to go. Vinyl has made a really big resurgence, and a lot of young people listen to it again. My granddaughter in England does. When I was growing up – when I was fourteen, fifteen, sixteen – every time a new record came out, myself and one or two other people would sit around the turntable, crank up the speakers and listen to it: it was like something you could share with people. Now people just have buds, but I guess if the world stayed the same it would be boring – and the world is not boring!

– You said your granddaughter lives in England, where you’re from. I know what’s written in Wikipedia, but if someone woke you up in the middle of the night and asked whether FOGHAT are a British or American band, what would you say?

We’re a world band! (Laughs.) Thing is, I grew up in West London, in Hounslow, and when I was fifteen I moved to Central London, as I was a commercial artist, but I listened to American music – Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, who is one of my favorite artists – blues, jazz, bebop, rock ‘n’ roll, gospel, country-and-western: there’s a wonderful meeting of all these different cultures in the north of America that gave music to the world, as far as I’m concerned.

FOGHAT 1973:
Dave Peverett, Tony Stevens, Rod Price, Roger Earl

– Still, when I listen to “Mean Woman Blues” on this new album, it reminds me of Peter Green: I hear proper British blues, not American.

Actually, the idea was to give it a kind of Latin jazz flavor – that’s how we started off with it – so I play congas and percussion on it. Oddly enough, it was one of my favorite songs in the early days – I think it was the B-side of Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls Of Fire” single, with a great piano solo; and when I went to see Elvis Presley, he did a version of it – and Scott Holt also had a version of it, so we wanted to do something different. We’ve done that throughout our career: on every album we do two or three songs that were written by favorite artists of ours, and we change the arrangement to, hopefully, make it FOGHAT’s – it’s like a tradition. The reason that happens is, when we start rehearsing for recording – we have our own studio in DeLand, Florida – we set up in the living room and we just play, and we warm up with other people’s songs, and if we find something that’s working we have a listen to it and… That’s how “Mean Woman Blues” came about: we were just jamming on some stuff, and we figured we’d put those lyrics to it.

– It’s important for the band’s identity to be doing these perennials, right? I think you didn’t record any external material only on “Tight Shoes” and “Girls To Chat” in the early ’80s.

That’s true. They were different albums. “Girls To Chat” and “Tight Shoes” were very much the songs that Dave [Peverett] came up with; I don’t think there were any songs that were written by other people. Other than those two albums, anything else pretty much has got something on it – anyway, it works for us, and I had a ton of fun making this record. In fact, the band at the moment, for the last couple of years, have been an absolute joy to play with on the road: Scott Holt has brought a whole new energy to the band, and in him and Bryan Bassett we have two incredible guitar players with very different styles that mix well together – they’re like a couple of brothers, and it’s really cool.

– “Sonic Mojo” is your first album to make it to Number One in “Billboard”: congratulations are in order, then.

(Laughs.) Yeah, it’s funny, and it shocked everybody. I was at my niece and nephew’s house over in New Jersey this past weekend for the holidays, and my niece – grandniece! – who is three years old was saying, “‘Sonic Mojo’ Number One!” (Laughs.)

– Do you feel this achievement is a validation of your fifty-years-long grind?

No grind, actually. I’m one of those fortunate people in this world who earn a living from something they love doing. The band make a joke about us getting paid for traveling but playing – we do that for free. But don’t tell it to promoters! (Chuckles.) We love playing, I think you can tell this by our records: it’s a joy. Fifty years? Yeah. I don’t think there’s going to be another fifty but hey! – you never know. (Laughs.)

– You once called what you do “two centuries of boogie”…

Maybe it’ll be three centuries of boogie! (Chuckles.)

– …so how do you, as a drummer, find imagination to bring variety into it and make it sound fresh every time?

Well, it’s all about the music, and I also go out occastionally and see other bands because I find it inspiring. About a month ago, I saw George Thorogood and THE DESTROYERS, one of my favorite bands – actually, I’m George’s maraca player when I’m in town – and Sammy Hagar’s band was on the bill, and I hadn’t seen Sammy in over thirty years, and they were fantastic, absolutely incredible! Jason Bonham playing drums, Vic Johnson playing lead guitar and Michael Anthony playing bass: they were monsters – I would recommend anybody to go and see them. But when I first started learning to play drums – playing’s fun and doing an occasional drum solo could be fun – for me it was always about playing in a band, playing music, following the lead guitar, the lead vocal, following the song, setting the cadence for the rhythm, for how it’s going to work; and that’s what was exciting about making this record with Scott Holt. Scott and I worked very closely on this with each other – a lot of the songs were worked out by just myself and Scott; he joined us two years ago, and it was important that he and I have a really good basic framework for how we work together – and it was like magic! Scott and I liked it a lot, and I have an absolute blast playing with this band.

– Your playing is very dynamic. What do you think of this fad to apply heavy compression on drums?

Compression is a tool, and you use it when you need to use it, and I personally use very little of it. Bryan Bassett is our long-time engineer and producer, and he’s absolutely brilliant – Bryan’s been in the studio since he was probably twenty-odd years-old, and he also used to work in King Snake Studio down in Florida – and he’s very judicious with his use of compression. Drums themselves are an acoustic instrument, so you want to use the room – you want to use the room with any instrument unless you want a really tight sound – and rock ‘n’ roll music and blues come from being open, so too much compression on a record is an excuse to cover up the inadequacies of the engineer. Drums are not just a single thing, they’re an instrument as a whole – there are tom-toms, snare drum, bass drum, or bass drums, and cymbals – the whole drum kit is an instrument, the whole drum kit is a voice – as opposed to guitar – and that’s how I approach it. I play it as such, and Bryan Bassett understands that – because of the way I play, anyway. Ever since I’ve been playing in the studio, I’ve been fortunate as I’ve always worked with very good engineers and producers.

– Who’s been your favorite bass player to be in a rhythm section with: Tony Stevens, Nick Jameson, Craig MacGregor or Rodney O’Quinn?

You know, right from the very beginning I’ve always played with great bass players. I started playing when I was thirteen or fourteen and I joined the band when I was sixteen. The first band I was in, I played with three people that I went to school with, and Dave Hutchins, my best friend growing up, was a fantastic bass player. Tony Stevens is an excellent bass player – great timing, great feel – while Nick Jameson is an all-around, brilliant musician: he picks up an instrument that he’s never played before and within ten minutes he’s playing it – anything: horns, keyboards, any stringed instrument, Nick Jameson plays them all well, whereas others struggle to master just one. (Quietly) I hate people like that. But Craig MacGregor playing onstage, he owned that part of the stage; he was incredible, his personality as a player came through, and he was a big part of the band; his playing on the “Stone Blue” album and – what’s the other one? – “Night Shift” was fantastic. Now, Rodney O’Quinn was handpicked by Craig, who passed seven or eight years ago. He had lung cancer and couldn’t tour with us, so I said to Craig, “When you tell me you can’t play anymore, then we’ll get a bass player; until then, you are the bass player in this band.” We had four different bass players at the time, and one of them was Rodney. Craig went to see Rodney play and called me up a couple of days later. He said, “Rog, this is the guy you want – he’s like a mini-me!” Rodney O’Quinn is a brilliant bass player, a great human being and a good friend, and we’re really lucky to have such a talent in the band. But, out of everybody, Craig MacGregor and I were like… we were brothers. Brothers don’t always see eye to eye, but we were really, really close.

– By the way, did Nick Jameson ever play live with you – or only in the studio?

FOGHAT with Roger Earl at the fore

Yes, he did. Tony Stevens was let go from the band in 1974, and Nick Jameson joined us in the beginning of 1975, and he played with us for a year, on the road. Before he did, when I asked him to join the band, he said, “Look, I could only do it for a year,” because he wanted to do other things – he’s an actor, he does voiceovers, he plays with his own band where he lives, in Reykjavík – so he did the “Fool For The City Tour” but Nick and I have stayed in contact, and I consider him a good friend. He played on a number of tracks on our previous studio album, “Under The Influence”: Nick’s a brilliant musician and one of the funniest people I know – he has an incredible sense of humor. I’m going to be seeing him in a few weeks or so: he’s coming to the States – we’re doing some work on the FOGHAT documentary, and Nick Jameson, of course, has to be in it. He’s a big part of this band’s history. He played keyboards on our first album, on one song, “I Just Gotta Get To Know You” – that was my introduction to Nick – and we became friends after that, when I moved to Woodstock, the Bearsville area. We don’t see each other a lot but when we do, it’s always really, really good.

– So that’s the reason of your creative rapport! He produced the best of your classic albums, so what did you find in Nick as a producer?

We got on very well. The last album Nick produced was “Return Of The Boogie Men” – in fact, we’re going to re-release that on Foghat Records – but he’s a great producer, probably one of the best I’ve ever worked with, as he has really good ears, and he’s also an excellent drummer as I said earlier.

– You mentioned Foghat Records. How important is it to you to have the band’s own businesses: the label and a wine line?

The truth is, we have a brilliant manager [Linda Arcello-Earl, Roger’s wife, – DME]. The band finishes a record, and then we say to her, “Could you put this together? Could you do the artwork and put it out, and promote it?” And she does. Linda’s an incredible manager, she’s worked with FOGHAT since 1976, she also managed Rod Price when he left the band, she managed Eddie “Bluesman” Kirkland for a while, and she managed a few other bands during her career, but now it’s just FOGHAT. She’s got her hands full with us. (Laughs.) As of wine, it’s always been the beverage of choice for FOGHAT, so in 2005 or 2006, after we played California Mid-State Fair, the winemaker by the name of Steve Rasmussen sent an email to Linda, saying, “I think the name ‘Foghat’ lends itself to a wine brand, because the fog on the West Coast rising off the sea sops the grapes and then the sun comes up and they dry out.” But my favorite wines currently come from Central Coast in California – I have a large wine cellar. (Laughs.)

Dave Peverett and Roger Earl in SAVOY BROWN days

– Glamorous! By the way, there was a period in the early ’70s when FOGHAT seemed to embrace, visually I mean, glam rock, with all those colored lamé suits.

Well, Dave used to wear a gold lamé suit, yeah – he was a big Elvis Presley fan, of Elvis’ early stuff, on the Sun Records label; in fact, our distributors are relations of Sun, so it goes back – but I never wore a glamorous suit, but, hey, fashions change. We’ve been together, what, since 1970, fifty-odd years, and my trousers are still tight. (Laughs.)

– That, I think, is more important for singers, not drummers.

Actually, I do sing on this record – I do the low harmonies – and I’ve sung on a couple of our records: I didn’t get credit for it, but the bass harmonies sometimes help – when we’re having a three-part harmony, the fourth one would have been me. I can sing low, but middle and high, tenor and higher – I can’t do that. I’ve always been a Johnny Cash fan. When I was growing up in South West London and riding my bike to school, I’ll be singing Johnny Cash songs. (Sings.) “She loves you, big river, more than me…” I think FOGHAT should do more Johnny Cash songs. You know what I loved about him? There was always a story. And even though he didn’t have a drummer on his early records, there was always a rhythm going through it. When I was a kid, my older brother [MUNGO JERRY’s Colin Earl, – DME] would buy Johnny Cash’s singles and albums when they came out, and they just spoke to me. I didn’t always understand what he was singing about, but his songs moved me.

FOGHAT 2023:
Rodney O’Quinn, Scott Holt, Roger Earl, Bryan Bassett

– A few songs on “Sonic Mojo” were cowritten with Kim Simmonds, you former boss in SAVOY BROWN. Did working with him feel like completing the circle?

Definitely. What happened was, we were recording “Under The Influence” and we’d already recorded eight or nine, maybe even ten of the tracks at our studio with producer Tom Hambridge, and I’d invited Kim down to play on a couple of songs. After we winished the album, we were talking and he said, “I’d really like to write some songs for FOGHAT!” And I said, “Kim, that would be fine so long as you play guitar on ’em!” For the last ten years, Kim was also with the same agency as us, Paradise Artists in California, so we got to play a number of times together and reconnect. Kim sent me four songs – it was like a click track with him singing and, of course, playing guitar – but, unfortunately, he passed away last December, and everybody in the band was a fan of Kim as a guitar player, so we recorded three of the songs. He was a beautiful man: really warm, funny, very, very bright, well-read. We stayed in touch with each other over the years, and we stayed really good friends – Kim and I never ever had a bad word between us, which I think is something unusual when you’ve know somebody for sixty-odd years; it was always easy around him – it was easy with my playing, as I fit right in with SAVOY BROWN at the time. Chris Youlden was a fantastic singer and songwriter, as was Dave and as was Kim Simmonds, and it felt very natural to me. I think the three songs we did with Kim on this album are the strongest on there – a couple of my favorites anyway. Ah, they’re all favorites – I love them all!

– FOGHAT are this rare blues-based band where everyone’s a personality, as opposed to singer or guitarist and the rest of players. How do you manage to keep the guys on equal footing, identity-wise?

It was always a band, and we’re still very much a band. We get on great, we have the time of our lives. One of my favorite songs by THE ROLLING STONES, because it says it all for me, goes, (half-singing) “I know it’s only rock ‘n’ roll but I like it, like it, yes I do, I like it!” (Laughs.) I love making music, and creative juices with this band. Life is good!

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