Chris Fitz

Chris Fitz
Destination Memphis: An Interview with Chris Fitz

By Ann Huff
January 2006

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On January 26, the Chris Fitz Band will represent Boston at the Blues Foundation’s annual International Blues Challenge in Memphis. After edging out some tough competition at the 2005 Boston Blues Challenge last October, the power trio of Chris Fitz (guitar and vocals), Greg Silva (bass), and Chuck Shuler (drums) will head south to compete against more than 130 blues bands from around the world.

Ironically, one of Fitz’s best-known compositions is a song called “Never Been to Memphis.” Well, what better reason to go to Beale Street than entering the largest, most prestigious blues competition on the planet? With their winning brand of blues-rockinitis, the Chris Fitz Band is certain to earn many new fans in the land of W.C. Handy, Sun Records, and blue suede shoes.

A few weeks after the Boston Blues Challenge finals, I caught up with Chris at the Holy Ground in Quincy to talk to him about his music, his band, and, of course, Memphis.

AH: What was the band’s reaction to winning the Boston competition?

CF: In general, it was a fun experience. For me specifically, I find competitions a little bit strange because music is such a subjective thing, and I sort of mentioned this in my speech that night. You can have five great bands playing and they all do really different styles—they’re good at what they do—but it may be completely different from the band that’s on before or after them. How do you judge what’s better? It’s really up to the opinion of what somebody likes.

So the concept of a music competition for me is a little bit strange, something that I’m not quite sure about. But the experience of being in it—meeting Adam Connelly, and seeing Evan Goodrow, and just being around a lot of the musicians—that was fun just being part of the whole thing. I think Greg Silva and Chuck Shuler felt the some way—being part of the whole process and obviously winning made it really fun for us. But even if we hadn’t won, it would have been a neat experience.

I think it’s probably good for any band around here that’s trying to make a name for themselves to at least submit to enter at least once for the experience of it all. It can’t hurt your exposure, especially if you do well. So overall I think it was really a lot of fun.             I thought Heather [McKibben], the BBS, and all the people who contributed to putting the whole thing on did a fantastic job. It was a lot of work, and I thought it was really well-organized. The sound system was good. F1 did a really nice job for the musicians. They had a big green room catered with food, so they really took care of us.

So it was a lot of fun. I’m glad I did it, and not just because I’m going to Memphis, but I’m just glad I was part of the experience. Often times when you work as much as we do, you don’t get to really go out and hear other bands play that much because you’re always working on the same nights. For me and for Greg and Chuck—speaking for them—just being able to hear a whole bunch of other bands play—because you hear about other people through the grapevine, and you hear about what so-and-so is doing and you hear the name of this band, but you never hear them musically unless you get one of their CDs or something. So, then you finally get to see them perform live and see what your peers are doing and that’s a good experience as well.

Overall it was a great experience, but the actual concept of competition for me is still a little bit strange. But they’ve been doing battles of the bands for as long as there’s been bands, and they’re going keep doing it—so we’re glad we did it!

What are some of your expectations about going to Memphis?

I think the first expectation for us is just to go down and have another great experience. Greg and Chuck have both played down in Memphis. Chuck played down in Memphis with the Radio Kings, and Greg played down there with Roomful of Blues, but I’ve never been there. So for me, it’s going to be really exciting just to go down to such a legendary musical place.

Memphis is like the heartland of rhythm-and-blues and roots music, which is what I do. To be on Beale Street—the place where all these amazing musicians that I’ve looked up to my whole life—to spend time and shop where Elvis bought his clothes, to do the tour of Sun Records and go to Graceland and just taking in the whole vibe of Memphis...for me, that’s going to be the best part of it. It’s going to be a lot of fun just meeting all these other bands from all these different blues societies, and meeting people in the Blues Foundation and the industry, and just making contact.

We’re going to go down and play our butts off and hope we make a really good impression down there. God knows how far we’ll make it in the competition, but we’ll just do what we do. We’re not going to try to be anything different from who we are night in and night out. I think we’re all really excited about being a part of the whole event. If something good happens because of it, that’ll be like icing on the cake. But I think for us, just the experience of going down, being chosen to go down, is a real honor. Just being a part of it is an honor. It’s something that’s a real nice shot in the arm for the band. We’re really excited about going.

My expectation as far as winning or losing or coming in second or third—music is so hard for me to judge—I don’t know, we’ll just go do what we do and hope for the best. I’m by nature a competitive person, so of course I want to win, but just being down there and meeting everyone, and hearing all this great music, and being on Beale Street and doing all those fun things is going to be what it’s really all about.

Will your preparation for the IBC be any different from how you prepared for the Boston competition?

Well, I guess in the preliminary rounds [of the IBC] you get a 30-minute set, and then in the finals—if you make the finals—it’s only a 20-minute set. So, the difficult part for us is we’re used to playing these club gigs where we do 75-minute sets, and that always gives you time to sort of warm up and get into the flow of things. I’m not really used to going out there and having 25 minutes to say what I want to say and being done with it. And there’s something to be said for doing that.

I don’t think we’re going to change anything we did up here dramatically. I think what we want to do is do what we do best: whatever songs we feel will best represent the band. I want to represent my songwriting, and so like up here I’ll do all original songs—I know in the judging criteria they judge for originality—so I hope that doing original music will be one of our strong points down there.

I also want to show the band’s versatility, so I’ll probably try to pick a set that has or covers, in the limited time we have, a few different styles of blues. Because I think to pigeonhole blues and say blues is only Chicago blues, or blues is only Texas blues, or anything that doesn’t sound like that isn’t blues, is totally wrong. I think the blues is every style of blues as far as I’m concerned. 

So I’m not going to worry so much about, “Well, we’ve got to play Chicago-style blues or we’re not going to do well with the judges.” I think we need to go and do what we do best.

I like the sets we did for the competition up here, but there’s probably one or two things I’ll change just because of time constraints. But I know two or three of the songs I did up here will probably stay in our set down there, but then again things could change the minute I get down there. I’m not afraid to change things on the fly either, so I could be sitting there in the audience and hearing these other bands play and think, “Okay, now I know what I need to do.” 

So I’ll go down with an idea of what I want to do, but that could change like within seconds. I don’t think we’re going to restrict ourselves to, “Okay, this is what we’re going to do,” and that’s it. We’re gonna probably have a good idea what we want to do but play it by ear once we get down there. Will we play the same set every night down there? I don’t know. We might; if we really feel good about it and the judges really liked it, maybe we’ll stick with it. Or, maybe we’ll switch things as the nights go on. Being honest is the best thing you can be when you’re an artist. If you try to be something you’re not, it just shows. It doesn’t come out right. 

So I think the most important thing for us is not to worry so much about what songs we play or what styles we do, I think the most important thing is just to go down and be the Chris Fitz Band and just play like we’re playing our best set any other night and not try to overthink it—like, “Oh we’re in this big competition now, and we have judges and we need to do this and do that.” If we just go and do what we do, we’ll be fine. That’s going to be sort of my philosophy, and I think the guys in the band would agree.

What kind of gear do you use at your gigs?

I’m not a big guitar collector—I can’t afford to collect a lot of guitars—so I have just a small handful of guitars that I use a lot. And it kind of goes in phases. Right now I’m using my Gibson ES335, and I always have a Stratocaster with me—always. And then I rotate between the Gibson ES335 or a Les Paul Special, or I also have an Epiphone Joe Pass model archtop hollow guitar—and I sort of switch between those three. So I usually have two guitars with me on any particular gig, and one of them is always a Fender Stratocaster. And then one is a combination of those other ones or my acoustic guitar, a 1967 Gibson Heritage.

My main gigging amp is a 1964 Deluxe Fender Reverb, and then I have a 1965 Super Reverb. And I have an early ’70s little Princeton Reverb that I use occasionally in really small clubs, and that’s it. I’m not a big gear guy. I don’t even think that if I had the money that I would do it. I kind of like what I like. I’m not a big collector type guy or gear head. That’s not really my personality.

How did you and your band get started?

The Chris Fitz Band started about 10 or 11 years ago after a year I spent playing with Vykki Vox as her guitar player. We parted ways, and I started the Chris Fitz Band just on the fly. At the time, Vykki and I had a residency in a place called Waldo’s in the Back Bay, where we played every Thursday night. I had put that gig together, so when we split up, I kept that gig. 

So, we literally talked on a Monday about going our separate ways, and on Thursday I had to put on a show at Waldo’s on my own—which I had never done before. And that’s sort of where it all started. The Waldo’s thing was great because every week I had a gig—I knew I had a place to play, a place to develop the band and bring musicians in and find players. I had a guaranteed gig. And as I got more comfortable doing that, I started booking a lot of the same rooms that I had played with Vykki, so it was sort of easy to call up those places and say, “Hey, remember me? I was Vykki’s guitar player, I have my own band now.” And pretty soon I started playing every Friday and Saturday night.

I’ve been through several drummers over the years and a couple of bass players. The current band, Greg Silva on bass—he’s been with me about two and a half years, and he spent two years on the road with Roomful of Blues. 

Chuck Shuler has been with me for a few months, but he’s been playing around the Boston scene for a long time. He played with the Radio Kings, Fatwall Jack…he did some European tours with Brian Templeton and the Radio Kings. So he brings a lot of amazing experience to the band. He’s also a great drummer for this band—he has tons of power and energy, and because we’re a power trio he just really fits in really well, and I think that musically things have gone to another level since he’s joined the band. 

So it’s taken the better part of 10 years to get this lineup together that really clicks. I’ve had great players in the past, and it’s been great in its own way, but this seems to be something that really works that I’m really happy with. And I think Greg and Chuck are happy with it.

We have three CDs, self-produced. Our first one [Just Gettin’ Started] we put out in 1998. We put our second one [This Is My Church]out in 2000, and then our most recent one [Journey of Hope], which is pretty old now, came out in 2002. And it looks like—fingers crossed—when we get back from Memphis, starting in early February, we start working on our fourth one. Our goal is to have our fourth CD done before we head to Europe, because we’re going to Europe in April for another tour. We’re heading back to Europe, to do our second European tour, in April, and we want to have a new CD for that. And we’re also working on a DVD made at the Time Out Pub in Rockland, Maine. So, I hope to have a new CD and a DVD out by the spring. Right now, it looks like 2006 is going to be a really great year for us—with the Memphis competition, a new CD, a DVD, a European tour. So we’re excited about that.

But I think the most important thing about the history of the band is that it’s been a constant work in progress—and it never stops. When I started out doing this, I was a neophyte. I’d never sung before, never stood in front of a microphone before, I didn’t know what I was doing. I had a lot of ambition and a lot of enthusiasm and a lot of energy and not a whole lot else when I started. And I still have those qualities, but I feel like the band just keeps maturing and getting better and better. And I just keep getting more secure with myself as a performer as time goes on as I play more gigs. 

And I think it’s all just starting to work its way into shape now. And we’re starting to reap some rewards for it. But it’s just a constant work in progress. I never want to get stagnant—I always want to be moving forward, I always want to be challenging myself as an artist, as a songwriter, and challenging the band to try doing things a little differently so that we don’t sound like everybody else. It’s just a major work in progress and I have great guys in the band who love to play.

I think the one thing that I hear the most from fans and from people who see us play that I take the most pride in is, “It’s so obvious, Chris, how much you love what you do.” And it really is [true]. I don’t feel one iota less enthusiastic about playing music now than I did 10 years ago when it was brand new to me. In fact, I feel more enthusiastic because I’m actually starting to feel like I know what I’m doing. And it’s taken me really this long to really feel secure about it—I can do this, I actually have a slight clue about what I’m doing onstage or when I’m writing a song. And there’ll be a lot of work to go for the rest of my life. 

But I have more enthusiasm now than I did 10 years ago when I started out, and back then that’s all I had was enthusiasm, so the band is always evolving and it’s always going to have a lot of energy because that’s just my personality. I just have lots of energy, and like I said, I love what I do. At this point in my life it’s like I have no choice in the matter—I have to do this. I don’t really have a choice. I don’t have a say in it. It’s like I wake up, and this is what I have to do with my life. And there’s a security in that too, because I don’t question it ever—no matter how tough times get or how hard financially it is to make a living as a musician. No matter what happens good or bad, I know this is what I want to do. So I never start second-guessing myself. 

And my bass player, Greg, he’s a lifetime professional musician. This is what he’s chosen for his life, so he and I are on the same page. He doesn’t want to do anything else; he wants to play music. And Chuck’s the same way. So it’s really fun to be around the three of us. When we’re onstage, we really love what we’re doing, even at the worst gig on the worst night, when you’re feeling lousy, sick or whatever. It’s still better for me than doing anything else. 

So that’s sort of the attitude of the Chris Fitz Band—lots of attitude and passion.

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