STILL SMOKIN' AFTER ALL THESE YEARS
"Fito" de la Parra of the legendary Canned Heat. Interview by Michele Martin.
The legendary Canned Heat -- the band that defines Woodstock for many people -- played the Yale recently during the recent Vancouver Jazz Festival. Luckily for me, I not only got to see their show, but also managed to squeeze in an interview with long long time Canned Heat drummer and singer, Adolfo "Fito" de la Parra.
L.A.-based Canned Heat has been around since 1966. The current roster includes Fito, who joined in 1967, and original Canned Heat guitarist Henry Vestine, as well Junior Watson on guitar and vocals (an eight-year veteran) and lead vocalist/slide guitarist/harmonica player Robert Lucas, who is a relative newcomer at one and a half years with the band. The newest member, bassist Greg Kage, completes the ensemble.
So what's it like playing to a young audience, most of whom were not even born when Canned Heat were oh-so-hot? Fito expresses his sincere amazement: "I can't believe it. Sometimes, you know, up to 80, 90% of the audience are under 20 years old and I say, well, wow.... To me, seeing somebody young, I'm talking 20 or under, or around 20, at a Canned Heat show, to me that's a sign of true rebelliousness."
This seemed rather an ironic comment in view of the fact that in their heyday, Canned Heat was the music of choice for a whole generation of youthful rebels. Fito explains: "I'm saying that they have to be true rebels because they are rebelling against what the establishment is giving them. They are rebelling against techno-pop and against rap. These are young people who grew up with MTV and all that and they really haven't had that much of a choice, so they are taking some power away from the media and putting it up on themselves and I like that because the mass media, like let's say MTV, Rolling Stone Magazine, etc., they don't really care for bands like us, they don't have time for us. But in spite of [the media's] abandonment of Canned Heat, the people continue to come see us, steadily. I mean this is amazing."
Why did he think that Canned Heat continued to generate such a devoted following? "I guess our music must be quality and we are considered legends; and we have a few of them that come because their parents sent them, or their older brother turned them on to a Canned Heat tape."
I laughed, then explained to Fito that this, in fact, had been my introduction to Canned Heat, so many years ago (thanks, Big Bro' Mike). Chuckling, Fito continued: "I hear stories like that every day but it really pleases me. It makes us feel great that we have a lot of young people there; it's reminiscent of when we were young, when we were 19 or 20 years old, and they are there and they are digging the band, I mean they really love it, and it happens not only in Canada, but it happens a lot in Europe, and some in the U.S. In the U.S. it's more people our age that come to see us. The percentage of young people is not as high, but still, we get about 30% younger people."
Fito mentioned that they play in Europe a great deal: How did he account for their European success? "Well, again, we're talking about mass media and people having their own choice. I think the European audiences are more loyal and less trend-oriented. There are trends there, too, and of course disco music, and all that other stuff we don't like, has been strong in Europe. But there is also this certain sort of intellectual approach to music which keeps us there. Especially the French and the Germans, they like blues music a lot and they like jazz a lot and that's why many musicians end up establishing themselves down there and living down there."
With their ongoing success in Europe, what keeps Canned Heat in the U.S. of A.? "We're not about to move there because we like the weather here. We're Californians and we like the hot weather! We don't like the snow and cold and all that. But we do appreciate the fact that the people are very loyal in Europe. We enjoy a very high degree of recognition and acceptance there."
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What's been their experience of touring in Canada? "I wish I would work more in Canada. We basically come to Vancouver. We have played Vancouver Island, Victoria and all that, and we have done a couple of full Canadian tours, playing in Calgary and as far as Halifax and Prince Edward Island and all that. But in the past ten years, we have not done any of that and I really miss it and I think Canada also misses having Canned Heat in the rest of the country. I don't know what's going on with the promoters or agents or whatever or whomever is in charge of it, but we have not been invited and nobody has really put a tour together for us to play Eastern Canada and French Canada too. It's kind of a disappointment for me to know that I come all the way here and I only play in Vancouver. I would like to play Calgary, I would like to play the other places I mentioned. I know there is an audience there for us. I guess I should go and wring my agent's neck or something..."
So what is it about the music of Canned Heat that keeps so many people enthralled: "A journalist friend about 20 years ago described us as the band that married country blues with rock and roll and that's very close. Because we're not really your typical blues band and most blues bands that are around are very good but they play basically what we call swing blues or city blues, Chicago blues, and a lot of them copy a lot the black masters, the first generation blues players. We, of course, have copied it too, but we always had an edge to it. We had an edge of rock and roll into our music. So, that's one of the reasons why we never wanted to call the band the Canned Heat Blues band -- we were just Canned Heat."
How much of their old music do they still play? "We mix the old and the new. You may not be able to tell the difference because the style of the music is very much the same, but the songs are different, different hooks and all that. But the approach is the same. We will never follow a trend -- we will always do what we do. We don't want to prostitute the band." Fito hesitated briefly then continued: "Because sometimes bands see certain styles being successful, they start copying them immediately and try to jump on that train. It even happens with rock and rollers who become so-called blues players. They play rock and roll all their lives and then all of a sudden they decide, 'Blues is what's happening...so let's do blues.' I don't think it's valid. I mean, how can you compare that with somebody who's been dedicating themselves to blues all their lives... the culture, the history, it's a total education. There is more to music than what the ear hears and people should be aware of it."
What about those 19-year-olds calling themselves bluesmen? "It's great that there are such things as a 19 year-old-blues freak, as we call them. To us it's wonderful because they are not getting it from MTV or from AM stations or music magazines and all this. The blues has never been mainstream. I mean, sometimes a few performers cross over.... Not us, I mean, look at us: we were lucky enough to be able to put three blues-oriented songs on the top ten world wide. That's what made us famous, and that was 'On The Road Again', 'Going Up The Country', and 'Let's Work Together'."
We discussed what was happening with current releases, and re-releases, etc. EMI has just released the double Best of Canned Heat. In addition, King Biscuit Records has recently put out Canned Heat in Concert, which Fito describes as a historical recording celebrating the 10th anniversary in Woodstock. Although Fito had not even been aware of the existence of such a recording, he's delighted with it. King Biscuit also released Gambling Woman about three years ago, which contains some of the best stuff Canned Heat has done in the past five years or so. Fito says he's also looking forward to recording with the current roster of band members.
Any final comments? "I'm just grateful to the audience that continues to come see us at the Yale, and I hope they concentrate more on the band now, that's my message. Concentrate on the band now and please buy our current CD's because we don't get paid from the old stuff anyway [lots of laughter], so we don't really care about selling it. Plus the old stuff is basically the old guys... I'm very proud and very happy with the current line-up and with the people's support, we will continue. If we ever feel that people are not there for us, I'll just fold it up and retire."
Me thinks it'll be a wee bit longer, like until Hell freezes over, before people tire of Canned Heat. Hopefully, we can look forward to many more years of great music from one of the most loved and revered bands in rock and roll history.
First published in Drop-D Magazine on July 25, 1996
By Michele Martin - © 1996 Drop-D Magazine