Popa Chubby has become a staple of the international blues scene with years of touring, recording, and plying his craft. He’s done major label records and huge festival shows, as well as small bars and lo-fi, indie releases. He has just released a blistering set of songs on his latest CD, Universal Breakdown Blues, which showcases both his rock-tinged guitar pyrotechnics and soulful vocals.
The new album has been cited by reviewers and his label as a return to the blues for Popa. “Amen to that,” he exclaims, talking to me from a sidewalk café in Amsterdam. “I’m primarily a songwriter. I usually get fixated on a style or genre, so I try to do everything in that genre. I went back to my ‘70s bluesy hard rock style. I got influenced by hip-hop. The blues was always there, but kind of got pushed back. You don’t find the blues, the blues finds you. Listen to a Muddy Waters record, and every song is a personal story.”
There are actually two distinct bands backing Popa up on the album. “You might know of a drummer named Sim Cain, he’s on half, and the bass player, Erik Boyd, plays on half,” he says. “The other half was Steve Holley on drums. Steve and I have been cohorts for 15 years. On the blues stuff it’s Steve and Tim Jefferson, and Erik Boyd has the Memphis thing down. One of the gems is a woman named Sarah Shore; she sings on the second track. When she hits that high note I have an orgasm!”
One of the songs is a unique, and very moving, take on “Somewhere Over The Rainbow.” It moves through several sections, alternately conveying hope and yearning. “A couple years ago we were touring through the Midwest,” Popa explains. “We got through Indiana and Kansas, and entire farms were under water at the time. The song actually came on the radio, the Wizard Of Oz version. I was messing around with it at soundcheck, and I came up with that version. It became a huge hit with a lot of people.”
That song has become a crowd favorite, and since the band has been playing the songs on the album live for a while, many of the others are also familiar to fans and have become popular even though they weren’t available on a recording before. Another big one has been “Goin’ Back To Amsterdam (Reefer Smokin’ Man),” as well as the first single, “I Need A Lil’ Mojo.”
Even the artwork on the CD exudes the blues, and harks back to the album covers of classic blues records. It’s done in the faux painting style, with the cover showing Popa with old cars, a city skyline, and a beautiful woman at his side, while the back cover has Popa with a guitar, sitting on a stool with a dog at his feet and the woman hovering over him. “Yeah, she’s something else, isn’t she,” he laughs. “That girl is my personal trainer. She’s responsible for my godly physique. Her name is The Goddess Tynaya. Those are the photos we are allowed to sell; there are others that may be available sometime in the future. We were just trying for an image. I’m not the elder statesman of the blues, I’m still a journeyman. I earned the right to sit in that chair with a dog at my feet and a beautiful woman at my side while I play a beat guitar.”
The elder statesmen Popa refers to include his main two idols and influences, who unfortunately he didn’t get the chance to meet or play with. “Well, really when you think about the progression of the blues, it went from Muddy to Jimi. Muddy did the blues, and then Jimi took it into outer space. But Muddy died a long time ago, and I was a little kid when Jimi died. It would be my dream to hang with Muddy and Jimi.”
Popa has a large fanbase in Europe, and spends a good amount of time each year touring there. As far as the difference in the audiences, he’s pretty definitive about the European audiences appreciating what he does more than those in the States. “And the chicks are way hotter,” he laughs. “And 20 in Germany is like 30 in New York. I am a blues man, after all. ‘19 years old and she’s got ways just like a baby child,’ as Muddy says. But I like touring in both places. Europe is a better market for me, man. We were trying to make inroads in the U.S. Guys like us, me, Billy Hector, we don’t have the chance to get on a lot of the festivals. It’s all politics. I sell out in Paris. We just don’t get the same respect in the U.S.”
Popa is appreciative of other purveyors of the blues, and doesn’t have the “me-against-them” attitude that so many musicians seem to be burdened with. “I just played a gig at Mexicali Blues, and this guy, Steve somebody, Rich Monica [a drummer who has played extensively with Popa] was playing drums with him, and he was off the hook,” he relates. “I give respect to anyone who’s out there doing it. Nobody’s the best, that’s the thing. That’s a bunch of bullshit. Everyone just tries to bring it, and express their soul, every night. This is not a competitive sport.”
Popa Chubby will be playing at Turning Point in Piermont, NY, on May 23, and Twisted Tail, in Philly, on May 25. His new album, Universal Breakdown Blues, is available now. For more information, go to popachubby.com.