Monster Mike Welch

Monster Mike Welch
Interview (originally published in Modern Guitars Magazine)

By Brian D. Holland
January 2006

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Now 26 years old, Mike Welch started playing guitar when he was eight. This led to his presence at local Boston blues jams by age 11. He played at the opening of Bostonís House of Blues when he was 13. Shortly thereafter, he became known as the house prodigy of Dan Aykroyd and the House of Blues management. In fact, it was Aykroyd who tagged him ĎMonster Mike Welchí, primarily because he was so good and so powerful at such a young age.

Eventually Mike started gigging on his own, forming the Monster Mike Welch Band. Their debut release, ĎThese Blues Are Mineí, was released in 1996, when he was a mere 16 years old. The band went on to record a handful of acclaimed blues albums, as Mike, simultaneously, did guest appearances on the records of other blues greats. Along this amazing journey, the young guitarist played with the likes of Johnny Clyde Copeland, James Cotton, Johnny Winter, Hubert Sumlin, and Junior Wells, to name just a few. He was also a member of Sugar Ray and the Bluetones for a while, the band fronted by blues vocalist and harpist, Sugar Ray Norcia.

Monster Mike Welch has been an accomplished musician for years now, and his credits are significant and comprehensive. Whatís incredible is that heís still young and almost certainly hasnít reached his musical peak. In other words, thereís still a lot of guitar playing to be done.

Although Iíve known Mike for a while, and have followed his career since the beginning, the interview below was a long awaited conversation. It was one that was open and honest in all areas. In it Mike talks about his career, his new CD, his newborn son, the Boston blues scene, the state of the blues today, Hendrix, guitars and amps, and the blues in general.

Brian Holland: How are you doing, Mike?

Mike: Iím doing great. Iíve got a thirteen-month-old son and heís been taking up most of my time. Iíve also got a record coming out in Europe, called ĎCryiní Hey!í.

BH: Iíve listened to it, and I like it a lot. Itís nice to hear a blues CD that has an assortment of slow blues on it. It has three or four of them. I love slow blues.

Mike: Itís always my favorite thing to play. I have to find a balance when doing gigs because I could play slow blues all night. I know you need to present a wider spectrum of things.

BH: Hendrixís ĎRed Houseí, the original studio version, is what did it for me originally. I love his tone settings on that one.

Mike: All of Hendrixís tones are like that for me. I remember ĎHendrix In The Westí, and the thirteen-minute ĎRed Houseí on that one. He uses that clear, thinner tone, like heís on the middle pickup of a Strat for most of it. Then he throws the Fuzz Face on and goes totally mental with it. But then thereís verse after verse of clean, pure sound, with phrasing like a roller coaster. Itís like early Buddy Guy and early B.B. King, with the Curtis Mayfield R&B influence, and the fact that he was a space alien from Mars. (Laughing) He came at things with a whole different outlook, and it was beautifully creative, conversational playing. He talks and tells stories and jokes, and he cries out. Itís all of the things that the great blues players have. I think thatís something that gets overlooked by some of the players who come to the blues from a rock perspective. Great blues players are storytellers. Itís vocal music basically.

BH: Why is the CD being released only in Europe?

Mike: I actually donít have an American label for it presently. I definitely want as many people to hear the record as possible, because itís the one Iíve wanted to make ever since I was a kid. Dixie Frog, the European company thatís releasing it, will be talking to their contacts over here about a sublicensing deal. Iíd love to get it out in the states, but Iím not doing a tour of the states right now anyway. As you know, smaller genres of music in the states are hurting right now. When it comes to local labels, itís not that they donít like the record or donít want to release it, itís that theyíre having trouble getting them into the record stores. There are too many records still waiting, so theyíre not in the position to take anymore on. A lot of blues labels are having trouble just getting their CDs on store shelves. Iíve heard stories from other musicians about how they arrived at this big deal with Borders or Barnes and Noble or something, and how they had put in an order for 3000 copies. Six months later it sold less than 200 copies off the stand. First of all, people donít go into record stores to buy music anymore. Not the way they used to anyway. With online song streams and downloads, the idea of sitting through a whole CD is foreign these days. Iím probably the last of the generation that was used to pulling a 12 inch vinyl record from the sleeve, making sure as to not scratch it on the paper jacket when taking it out. Then you had to get up and walk over to the stereo and carefully place it over the spindle. What Iím saying is - you had to work a little to hear your music back then. And the point is, people used to care enough about music as to do something about it.

BH: I still attempt to stay album oriented, and listen to complete works. An entire album is like a journey from start to finish, one that isnít over until itís heard in its completion. But it appears to be a pop culture weíre living in right now.

Mike: It really is. I recently watched the new Dylan documentary. In the very beginning there was this whole segment about the kind of world Dylan grew up in. They showed old footage of the children in the early fifties, ducking under their desks, doing atomic bomb drills and that kind of thing. At the same time, the pop music of the day was ďHow Much Is That Doggy In The Window?Ē I looked at my wife and said, “Thatís the environment our son is growing up in.&rdquo: The pop music of the day is \ďHow Much Is That Doggy In The Window?,\Ē and thereís this constant fear of ĎHoly shit, everything is gonna blowí. Thatís the pop world.

BH: The radio stations are all into it, too.

Mike: Well, radio stations have to play what people want to hear; they have to accommodate. Also, people are being fed this stuff thatís backed by millions of dollars. Iím not saying that there isnít great pop music and that it doesnít have its place, but it is sad that some of the best musicians I know are struggling for work.

BH: Iíve been into your website. You appear to be gigging fairly regularly, with the Monster Mike Welch Band and with others.

Mike: Yeah, Iíve been filling my schedule with a few different things. Iím playing in The Soul Band every Wednesday night at the Hi Hat in Providence. Some of the guys in the band are from Roomful Of Blues. There are rotating chairs involved, but the core band is pretty steady. Weíve got an unbelievable singer by the name of Tim Pike. Heís also a great guitar player but heís not doing that in this band. It was suggested he join the band just as a singer. I was interested in seeing how that would work. He got up and did it. I immediately realized that when you take the guitar out of his hands he turns into Otis Redding. He really is that good.

BH: You're able to get into all of those Steve Cropper fill in licks and all.

Mike: And Cropper is such a hero of mine. We get into the material of Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, James Carr, O.V. Wright, and Sam & Dave. Part of playing that music is how it fits together. All the parts on their own, maybe with the exception of the bass part, tend to be very simple. But if you can get it so all of those simple parts are walking together, it then becomes this incredibly complex, driving thing. You have to be at the right millisecond on the beat to make that happen. But itís hard to keep a seven-piece band working. The Monster Mike Band is a trio, so that way I can afford to pay the other musicians what they deserve. Itís hard to do that with a seven-piece band, especially this day and age. But the quality of the players in The Soul Band is so ridiculously hot. Iíve become a much better musician from playing with all of these guys. Part of it is because Iím just playing rhythm all the time. My focus on where Iím playing on the beat has become much more natural and relaxed, where I donít have to think about it.

BH: I saw you play a couple of times years ago. I think it was at the Yardrock in Quincy, and maybe Ed Burkeís in Mission Hill.

Mike: Yeah, Iíve played those places a lot. Just hearing you mention those places, Iíd forgotten about Ed Burkeís.

BH: Both donít even exist anymore.

(Editorís note: ďYardrock NightsĒ featuring blues are held each Thursday at The Holy Ground in Quincy. Also, Monster Mike Welch is scheduled to play there on a special Friday night show on Feb. 16 - a benefit for Step Up 4 Kids.)

Mike: That was my point earlier. There is not a blues club in Boston anymore. I miss Harperís Ferry (now a rock club), Ed Burkeís. A few still exist, just not as blues clubs.

BH: I was amazed when they closed the doors to Bostonís House of Blues, the first one ever built. I wonder if there are any plans to replace it.

Mike: If they do, itíll probably be more like the other Houses of Blues, which are similar in terms of dťcor, with big rooms, and it will play host to all different types of acts, not just the blues. The House of Blues will probably never open a tiny little blues club again, like Bostonís was, unless thereís a huge resurgence of the blues. That place was home to me. I learned so much about music there. I met so many musicians there that I ended up playing and collaborating with over the years. It literally felt like home, not just to me, but to a lot of people. It was a place where the blues scene would congregate. Musicians would go out to watch other musicians. It really helped to create an impression of a scene, a living and breathing scene.

BH: Bostonís House of Blues was where you got your first big break, right?

Mike: Yes. I started going to blues jams when I was 11, and I played at the opening of Bostonís House of Blues when I was 13. I started gigging on my own right after that.

BH: What do you think of the blues scene now, as opposed to when you first started?

Mike: When I first started, there were a lot of Boston based musicians I knew who had gone on to have national careers, all in the same little group of people. There was my band and me; Toni Lynn Washington was putting a band together; Susan Tedeschi was around, and the Radio Kings. All went on to tour and put out records. I started going out on the road with some degree of frequency in 1996, right after the release of my first record. What happened was, Iíd come back and Iíd play the House of Blues for the first time in a while. It would be packed. Iíd go on the road again and then come back and play Harperís Ferry. Same thing. I hadnít been in town for a while so these places would be packed. There were definitely other regional gigs going on, too. I soon realized that I was losing touch with what the scene was really like, apart from my friends who were going through the same things I was. I was really losing touch with the local people who were playing and just starting out. I looked around and saw that there was a blues scene, and there were people I didnít even know in it, and people I hadnít seen in years. There are some great players around. But like I said, itís harder these days. But there is this grass roots thing going on, which is a little different. One of the differences is people can make their own CDs and get them up on CDBaby or iTunes. You couldnít do that back in 1996 when I made my first record. The demos I had were cassettes, and they looked like demo cassettes. Now people are using Photoshop and designing better CD covers than the major labels. Itís difficult to tell that it was self-released. If you slap a bar code on it you can sell it anywhere. So thatís a big difference. People are doing it themselves in a way they couldnít before.

BH: Right. Itís now easy for anyone to record a CD, novice or pro. But you canít change the fact that the recorded results of some are professional in quality, while others are very amateurish. Of course, either way, itís fun for the artist.

Mike: Well, it still boils down to the fact that if you want to get your CD released on a label, then the label has to like the CD. Iíve noticed recently that some of the self-recorded CDs do sound professional as well, probably because a lot of the blues guys have gotten a little older, more experienced. Like The Racky Thomas Band for example, a great local Boston blues band. Rackyís a great singer. His guitarist, Nick Adams, is just about as good as they get. If they did back in 1994 what theyíre doing now, they might have a record out on Blind Pig or something. Theyíd have a record out on one of the blues labels anyway, and theyíd be touring. But as it stands now, theyíve put out their own record and theyíre doing regional New England gigs. Youíll find many performers doing this these days. Iím doing the regional thing when Iím home, and Iím doing sideman gigs with pretty much anybody whoíll hire me. Iím lucky that Iíve got a great collection of people whoíve been calling me up to do gigs. And Iíve got this soul band that Iím doing, too. Thereís a bunch of stuff going on, but if Iím going to go out on the road then chances are itíll be in Europe. Thereís just more desire for it there. I didnít realize it until recently, but I get about five emails a month from European fans. You know, wanting to know what guitar I played on a record, wanting the lyrics to a song, whenís the next time Iím coming back to France. So even though some people are struggling for gigs around here, there still is an audience. There are people who really care and want to hear it. Unfortunately, the people who really care about it here arenít being served. I was in the blues section of a record store one day not long ago and noticed that they didnít even have a best of Sonny Boy Williamson.

BH: Tell me, Mike. Starting out as a blues guitar prodigy in your early teens, did you have what most people would consider a normal childhood growing up?

Mike: Absolutely. A lot of this was due to my parents. When I was releasing records and touring, I had to be to school every morning. All throughout high school I may have missed five days because of music. Kids miss more than that for head colds. I was gigging every weekend. If I didnít play every Friday and Saturday night I was itching to play another gig somewhere. Whenever there were more than two days in a row off from school Iíd pile into a van with the band and book it. I was out on the road throughout all of the long weekends, big breaks, and summer vacations. 1996 was my junior year in high school. That was really the only year where there was a road issue. By senior year I had enough credits built up, and crammed a lot of classes in early. I graduated in January instead of June. That worked out good because my second record was released in February. I spent pretty much all of 1997 on the road, a lot of í98 and í99 as well. I then took a break for a while because of health problems in my family. I did some minor things, including producing a record for Brian Templeton, the singer of the Radio Kings. By about 2000 I started realizing the gaps in my musical knowledge. I mean, if you asked me to play a Jimmy Rogers, B.B. King, T-Bone, or Albert Collins tune I could do it in a heartbeat. But if you wanted me to play over a chord that wasnít 1, 4, 5, or maybe like flat 3 or flat 6 or something, I got a little lost. I was probably beyond that point, but I certainly couldnít play over jazz changes. I had the time, and I wasnít gigging, so I decided to go to Berklee. I went there for two semesters; I learned a lot and had some great teachers. At the end of that, in the spring of 2001, I got the call to play a couple of gigs with James Cotton. It was amazing just to stand onstage at the House of Blues and play for James Cotton; you know, this living link to Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, and the Wolf. Heís one of the best harp players in the world, and I played backup blues guitar for him all night. I took a couple of solos and I was proud of those, but that wasnít the reason I was there. I looked around at the packed House of Blues and at this killer band that was assembled to back up Cotton, and at Cotton as well. He made a point of pointing at me during the middle of the show, and said, “Youíre welcome on my stage anytime.&rdquo: I started welling up with tears and all. It was a heavy moment. I said to myself, “Screw this 2/5 shit; I wanna go play some blues.&rdquo:

BH: James Cotton is known for his genuinely raw blues sound. Was the band like that?

Mike: Well, he doesnít sing much anymore, maybe one song a night if heís up for it. It was Cotton on harp, Darrel Nulisch on vocals, Mudcat Ward and Per Hanson (bass and drums respectfully, from the old Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters), and David Maxwell (Freddie King and Bonnie Raitt) on piano. It was a very traditional blues band, probably more so than the old Cotton bands. It was more like Muddy at Newport, or something. It was raw, but in the best possible way. Anyway, I realized then that this is what I do best, and it was the most satisfying. Right after that I got the call to join Sugar Ray & the Bluetones, who were one of my favorite bands growing up. As far as local blues bands in New England, for me those guys were the kings. To be asked to join that band was overwhelming to me. I stayed with them for a couple of years and made one record, Sugar Ray & the Bluetones featuring Monster Mike Welch. Iím proud to have just been on a record with those guys, a real good one no less. In other words, whatever my performance was, Iím proud to have been on an ass kicking Sugar Ray & the Bluetones record. When I was thirteen that was all I could have ever wanted. But I eventually left because I had all these other ideas. I was listening to a lot of Elvis Costello. I was listening to a record by DíAngelo, called Voodoo, a really dark and contemporary soul record. Guitar wise, I was entering another phase. And none of that is appropriate for Sugar Ray & the Bluetones. I decided to go out on my own again. I figured Iíd put together a new Monster Mike band and take this new music of mine to the world. I really felt like I was nailing down something that was original and different from what I had done before. Sort of a cross between Otis Rush and the White Album or something. I got some really great players together to play that stuff. We were playing a couple of times a week at the end of 2003. It got really hard because I was playing blues clubs, and although the music contained blues elements, we really werenít a blues band. We released a record called Adding Insight to Injury.

BH: You did an interesting cover of Dylanís ĎMasters of Warí on that.

Mike: Thanks. Iím really proud of that record. That record is the most original thing Iíve done. Itís probably not my best singing or playing on that record but the ideas are the strongest and most original Iíve ever had. It was hard, though, because I couldnít find an audience for those ideas. Blues audiences donít want to hear that. When blues works itís very simple, very direct, and itís all about telling a story to the audience. The music I started making was a little more cerebral. The songs would take weird left turns. Ten people in the audience would think we were the most amazing thing theyíd ever seen, while the other hundred or so would think, well, this is good, but it isnít what I came to hear. I found myself staying awake at night, asking myself if I was doing the right thing. It starts to really get to you, because ten people liking what you do doesnít make a club ask you back. I started feeling as though I was letting my regular fans down, so I decided to give it a rest for a while. It was time for another break.

I then got a call to go over to France to back up the French harmonica player, Nico Toussaint. Heís a really good harp player, really good singer, and an incredible bandleader and showman. I went over and did a whole tour with him. Just the enthusiasm he and his band, and their audience, had for the blues was amazing. This is what Iím more comfortable with. It was kind of like the experience I ran into with James Cotton after going to Berklee; it was really satisfying to me. Sure enough, toward the end of the trip, Phillipe Langlois from Dixiefrog Records showed up, because Nico was signed to Dixiefrog. After the show he asked me if I had ever thought of making a straight up blues record, in an early Chicago blues style, the way I played that night. Well, I thought about that for a while, asking myself if it was something Iíd really want to do. When I got home I realized that it was exactly what I wanted to do. And Iíve always wanted to make a record in which I could cherry pick the guys Iíd like to work with. Some of those guys are the ones Iíve been playing with for years, and some of them arenít. Warren Grant, the drummer on the record, was the drummer in the old Monster Mike band. Weíve been playing on and off for about thirteen years. Anyway, I started getting really excited about it. It was a chance to go in and make a record that wasnít so much about production. It was about getting the performance with the most passion, like an old blues record. It was about turning on the tape machine and seeing what happens. My goal then was to get players who were thinking the same way I was, who didnít need a lot of direction. You know, like Mudcat Ward, who I played with for years. Heís as deep a bluesman as I know. His concept of playing the blues is so tuned in to the way I want to hear it, that when I start playing a slow blues I know Iím going to love the way he plays along with it. So over the next few months I ended up writing about fifteen songs, actual songs, yet straight up in the blues form. Writing like that turned out to be really easy, much easier than I had thought it was going to be, mainly because I was so excited about the project. We got in the studio and we had everything set up; we did it in one day. No overdubs at all. I played and sung better than Iíd ever done before on a record, because it was so comfortable. It was very much like doing a gig. We went in and played for ourselves, and were each otherís audience.

BH: You played with Johnny Copeland. Talk about that a bit.

Mike: Absolutely. I loved that guy. I met him only a few times actually, and I played with him twice. He was one of the people who went out of his way, when I was very young, just to be gracious. Some guys would get me onstage just because they thought it would make them look good. A couple got me up with the intention to cut my head or something. But Johnny showed me nothing but respect. Iím eternally grateful to him for that. He treated me as a musician he enjoyed playing with. And Johnny was such a great singer, guitar player, songwriter, and performer. Just a really inspiring guy to be around, and one of the warmest people Iíve ever met.

BH: You played with these greats when you were very young, too.

Mike: Well, itís funny, because most of my playing with famous musicians was done at the openings of the House of Blues, the ones in Cambridge, New Orleans, and LA. At that time I was sort of the pet project of the House of Blues Company. They flew me around to do these things.

BH: Did you realize back then, being so young and all, what a big thing it was?

Mike: Oh, absolutely. I went from playing the Johnny Dís blues jams to being onstage with Junior Wells, all in the space of a couple of weeks. Iíd been doing the Johnny Dís blues jams for a couple of years, but it all happened quickly. Everything about it is a blur; thatís the only thing keeping me sane. I was never the type to go around asking to sit in with these people, though. That wasnít me. I got asked to sit in a fair number of times, but I never pursued it myself because I knew that everyone was going to take the idea of the hotshot kid differently. Some were really into it, while some were really threatened by it. Theyíd try to cut me down to size. I didnít want to put people in that position. Iíd show up to a show, and if someone asked me to play, and had a guitar, then that was great. But I didnít show up armed and ready to play.

BH: Itís good to keep a low profile sometimes, I guess.

Mike: Well, as low a profile as one can keep when youíre the only 14-year-old in a bar. (Laughing). The last thing I wanted to do was make enemies. I didnít want to be seen as the bratty kid with his pushy stage parents, because that wasnít what we were. My parents were incredibly supportive and they helped with a lot of the business, but I gave them the queue in which to work from. One time I went to see Albert Collins, and a bunch of people asked me, “Hey, are you gonna get up and play with Albert?&rdquo: I told them Iíd get up if he asked, but I wasnít there to cut his head. I was there to see Albert Collins. I wanted to show Albert all the respect in the world, because, frankly, I stole a lot from him. But I didnít want to push these people.

My mother likes to tell the story about how the House of Blues tried to get me onstage with Aerosmith at one time. They wanted me to do a show with them, or sit in onstage, or maybe even tour and sit in. Actually I forget what it was. My mom was judging my response very carefully. My response was “Why would I do that? Iím a blues guitar player; theyíre a rock band.&rdquo: I knew they liked the blues, but I just couldnít see what I could add to it. She still says that that was the moment she knew I was going to be all right. I wasnít star struck. I certainly didnít want to impose myself on Aerosmith. I just couldnít see the point. And itís not that I didnít like them. Those guys are great. But it wouldnít have done anything for either them or me. It would have gotten me huge exposure, but that wasnít my concern. I was concerned about what would be best for me, the most inspiring thing for me to do. I idealistically envisioned myself in a Chicago blues band at the age of fourteen. (Laughing) My decisions are still based on that.

BH: Before we close, Mike, Iíd like to talk about gear. I noticed that your website is bursting with info about your gear.

Mike: Well, thereís a reason for that. When I first put up the website it had a lot less information. I started getting all these emails asking about what gauge strings I use, what amp was used on ĎThese Blues Are Mineí, and whatever. A sizable portion of my audience plays guitar. Of course, Iím lucky to have guitar players care about what I do. So I figured Iíd put everything Iím using up on the site so people would have some of their questions answered.

BH: Has anything changed?

Mike: Actually, yes. I got tired of playing loud every night. The first solution was that I bought a Weber MASS Attenuator and strapped it across the output of my Pro Reverb, which is still my favorite amp. The MASS is great because it allows you to use amps like that without being deafeningly loud. But it does change the tone and the response. So I started to look for something different, a small amp to bring the stage volume down. I really wanted to hear the interplay between the guitar and the drums. The amp I started using was a Fender Pro Junior. It was a brand new 15-watt amp. I started using it at a couple of gigs and realized I could get away with 15 watts no problem. I started thinking about unlocking some of the tone because there was stuff I wasnít hearing. The speaker wasnít very good and the cabinet was too small. Being a father of a one-year-old, my funds were kind of limited, so I had the Pro Jr. put into a bigger box, a tweed style pine cab I had made for it. It was big enough to put a twelve-inch speaker inside. We dropped the chassis down into it, and we did some tube swaps to give it lower gain and more sweetness. That was my main amp for a few months. I liked the size of it, and where it sat on the stage in relation to the level of the rest of the band. But I started noticing a little bit of harshness, a little lack of touch response, and so on. I probably couldíve spent an endless amount of time trying to improve the sound of the amp, and Iím sure I wouldíve because itís a good design. But one day something crapped out on me. Looking inside, I noticed cheap components, ribbon cables hooking things together. It was really flimsy looking, unlike an old Fender. What I needed was an amp in this power range that was as well made as my old blackface Pro Reverb. So I started researching new amps, and the person I ended up talking to was Mark Bayer at Victoria. I played a ton of Victoria amps over the years. In fact, the only amp on my Cryiní Hey! record is a Victoria Deluxe, the 20112. I love Victorias. He started telling me about this amp called the Victoriette, which is somewhere between a tweed and a Deluxe Reverb. At this point Iím waiting to get one, and hopefully, Iíll love that amp as much as Iíve loved his others. That stands a chance at becoming my main amp. Right now my Pro Jr. is being worked on, and Iím using the Pro Reverb and the MASS again at gigs.

I came to the realization not long ago that if I have the blue Strat (his main guitar since 1992), a good spare guitar, an acoustic guitar, and the Pro Reverb, everything else is expendable. Iíve sold so many guitars over the years. My dream guitar is the Gibson ES-345. Thatís the guitar I need. Iím such a B.B. and Freddie fanatic. When my ship comes in Iím going to buy a cherry 345. I have an Epiphone Riviera, and I love it to death. Itís basically a 335 with the mini humbuckers. Itís the old Magic Sam guitar. Mineís just a straight out of the factory Korean reissue. Itís a great guitar. But what Iím talking about is an actual 345 that looks, feels, sounds, and smells like the kind of guitar Freddie King was playing on that mid 60s TV show. Iím very particular about the shape and size of the neck. Itís got to be big and itís got to be comfortable. Around 1965, Gibson switched to that really thin, narrow nut width, which is impossible for me to play a C chord on. So Iím pretty much stuck with a 59, probably not a 60 or 61, but maybe a 63 or 64. And itís not something Iím ever going to find. I could call the Gibson custom shop and wait a year, but either way weíre already talking about multiple thousands of dollars on a guitar. Vintage will always be preferable, especially when theyíre not making them anymore.

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