The Mystix

The Mystix
The Boston-based band has a new CD, but they still like to keep it live and local

By Bill Copeland
November 2007

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Music scene followers have been inundated with computerized, synthesized music for so long now that many are crying out for something as real as meat and potatoes with hot gravy.

A band of veteran musicians together for three years now are doing their part to provide local scenesters with some authentic down home rootsy music.

That band is called The Mystix. If the bandís name is unfamiliar, then maybe these names will ring a bell: Jo Lily, formerly of the popular locals Duke and the Drivers, on vocals, acoustic, and slide guitar; Bobby Keyes on guitar, and Marty Ballou on bass. Marty Richards plays drums on some nights, and Dennis McDermott plays drums on others. Tom West, a keyboardist, joined just after The Mystix recorded their new sophomore release, Blue Morning.

Blue Morning represents what these aging music scene veterans have been listening to all their lives. Lily, proving himself a keen wit, gave this interview.

“If thereís to be such a thing as benefit of age, it may be that,” Lily said. “What weíre playing there constitutes probably the music we admired when we all got going. Those records were what we all listened to when we were young - Elmore James records, or Ritchie Havenís records. I just write from what I know.”

Elmore James is a big influence on Lilyís slide playing and vocal approach and, of course, Howliní Wolf, too, influences Lilyís gravel-and-grit timbre.

“The rest of my voice just is what it is,” Lily said. “The American tobacco companies may be one of the big contributors to the vocal style.”

The guys in The Mystix are all sidemen who have played with big names. Some of them are playing with other bands when The Mystix has a night off.

“Marty Ballou, the bass player, is with John Hammond,” Lily said. “He just came back from Norway doing gigs out there. And Marty played with Duke Robillard and Roomful (of Blues.) Tom West, the new keyboard player, we just got from Susan Tedeschiís band. And a lot of these guys have played with Peter Wolf.”

The band mate whom Lily calls his “cohort in crime,” Bobby Keyes, is a well-respected, in-demand studio guitar player in the national scene.

“He goes back to having worked at Famed Studios and Muscle Shoals. But he right now does a lot of Los Angeles. Last week he was working with Robin Thicke whoís one of these kid pop stars right now,” Lily said.

Keyes is working on a second album with Thicke at this time.

“He does some of the co-writing for Robin Thicke. He brings in grooves from his studio, and Robin works from there. Heís done Mary J. Blige and Lil Wayne. Bobbyís done guitar work on all that stuff. That started when he did the New Kid stuff,” Lily said.

Of course, the experience Keyes brings greatly benefits The Mystix.

“He has a totally different studio perspective when he comes back to play with us;” Lily said, explaining that Keyes can use his studio knowledge but play his own brand of music. “He can play his roots stuff. Thatís why he loves the band so much. He puts such great energy into what weíre trying to do. Heís the engineer and the producer of all the material youíre hearing. We all did this in his house with the amps in the bathtub. This particular recording is pretty backyard.”

Lily wrote and co-wrote with Keyes the eight original songs on Blue Morning.

Lily, a writer by trade, has been a fan of the great roots songwriters for a long time.

“Well, everyone I admire wrote their own stuff. Iíve never been too keen on being a cover guy. I guess I wrote a lot of bad songs for a long time and finally learned how to write them a little bit better. I bring the tunes to Bobby, and heíll give me some chords or some tweaks or a bridge or some suggestions, then Iíll write to those upgrades. Thatís how I seemed to have gotten my material a little bit better is the co-writing with Bob. But Iím driven to be a writer. If you listen to Elmore or Muddy or Bo Diddley, they wrote their own stuff. Iím looking for my own artistic persona. I donít think I could be happy in the bars doing Allman Brothers tunes.”

Lily said The Mystix plan and vision while writing Blue Morning, and going into the studio to record the material, was a chance to showcase the band in a different light than their first album, Satisfy You. That debut album was recorded at an impersonal studio in New York City after The Mystix had played two gigs and four rehearsals.

“In the way we approached recording, it was entirely different,” Lily said. “Satisfy You was recorded in two to three days. Blue Morning was recorded in eight or nine months, and a lot of stuff went on the cutting room floor. Everything was pretty much cut live. Thereís overdubbing, but basically, if you hear a vocal, itís probably the one I cut when we put it down. We tried to be as authentic as possible.”

Their club experiences provided testing ground for what they thought would work on the CD.

“This second album, weíve been out playing for almost two years,” Lily said. “We wanted to show more of our edge that we had developed in the clubs. We had no slide guitar, for instance, on the first album. We cut a lot more material than appeared on the album, but we had no general agenda other than to do the stuff we loved.”

It is the songwriter in Lily that makes him crave feedback from the crowds.

“I think for me as a writer,” Lily said, “I have to be working. I hear stories that legends like Bob Dylan canít stay at home. He gives the whole band a monthís vacation, then a week later they get a call ĎWeíre going back out.í”

While Lily is not that extreme, “I just feel like a sounding board of an audience and a club experience is real.”

The music on Blue Morning doesnít take itself too seriously. People can dance to it. The Mystix, Lily explained, was looking for something basic.

“We think thatís a relief from a lot of the bullshit in the music business. The music is lighthearted, and itís meant to be that way. The whole project is. Itís a labor of love,” he said. “Thereís really no big serious interest about getting on a bus and going to Toledo and going on tour. Weíd like to be the band that there used to be in New Orleans. When you went to New Orleans, you went to see the Sub Dudes if you could. Weíd like for the Mystix to be that for Boston. We really are Boston-based. We work just around Boston, and we just donít tour. Weíve had our offers, but we just donít want to. Weíre a bedroom band. We want to go home to our own beds.”

The new title track, “Blue Morning,” sounds like old folksy blues.

“Thatís one of those songs that just came. And I wasnít going to put it on the album because I thought it was too different. But my daughter loved that tune. She convinced me to put it on, and Bobby liked it. Itís just something I felt and I wrote, and we ended up recording it and putting it on. Itís a throw back tune. It comes from places like Ritchie Havens and Astral Weeks Van Morrison, that kind of feel,” Lily said.

Another tune, “Which Side Of Heartache,” has an earthy, organic guitar sound. It makes the listener wonder if it is challenging to get that kind of clarity in the studio

“It is. Bobby got those old German microphones. Everything we did, we did on tape. We didnít do any Pro Tools. No digital. We were very organic in our approach. We had amps up in bathtubs. We had this and that like they used to do on old records. We tried to get some space in it, and some of the warmth of tape. We think the digital stuff is brittle,” Lily said.

The Mystix is much different from the work Lily did with his old band, the respected Duke and the Drivers.

“With Duke, it was a show band. Everybody performed. A lot of material was cover. It was obscure cover. But it was R&B cover. With this band, 90 percent of it is original. Itís not really a show band. Itís more of a musicianís band,” he said.

Mystix guitarist Bobby Keyes, a legend in his own right, started playing Route 1 clubs at age 11. Aside from Robin Thicke, heís worked with Mya, Lil Wayne, Pharrell Williams, and Andrea Harold. It takes a slick professional to work with those kinds of egos in LA studios.

“He brings a professionalism in there in terms of his approach and his playing,” Lily said. “I played the guitar for 35 years, and I went to Bobby for lessons to try to get some more chords for my songwriting.

From that, Bobby asked me to take a couple of his tunes and sit in with his trio. He plays the Beehive and all kinds of places in town all the time. I sat in with his trio a couple of times, and we liked what was happening, and then Bobby sort of hand picked the players. He said, Ďif we want to try this stuff as a band, we want Marty on bass, you want Marty on drums.í He helped me put it all together. It really came from me going to him to learn more. He is a guitar maestro. There arenít many out there like him,” Lily said.

The Mystix play packed rooms all over New England. The band has a marketing strategy to reach people and bring them to shows.

“We do regular advertising. The label is doing some limited advertising. The label is doing some limited television advertising on VH1 for the CD,” Lily said.

The Mystix website receives up to 3,000 visits a month, which is impressive, considering the band went through a name change.

“Originally, we were spelled Mystics---Ďt.i.c.s.í Thatís how we started the band. We found out that when you went to Google and put that in, you got 20 pages of Nostradamus. So, it was a mind fuck. We got it suggested to us by New Media, the guys who help market us. Then we put an Ďxí in there, and when we did that, we became the number one listing on that spelling on Google and we own the domain. The name change was really just all about the Internet. The Internet is important to us,” Lily said.

For a band that never tours, The Mystix reach some curious markets.

“We actually got some good music reviews in Europe, and sold a fair number of CDs, particularly in Belgium, and the Netherlands, and Denmark, and Luxembourg. Radio Luxembourg played it. We have some sales in Europe and some website hits coming in from Europe.”

Curiously, The Mystix still play small rooms like Wild Horse Cafe in Beverly and Dolphin Striker in Portsmouth.

“Well, weíre trying to move up the food chain, to be honest with you,” Lily said. “Weíd like to play Tupelo Hall, The Stone Church, maybe some day Scullers, when we have the following for it, or the Regatta Bar. But right now thatís where weíre at. Frankly, as we become a band, and gel, and learn how to work together, those (Wild Horse and Dolphin Striker) are pretty comfortable rooms for us. Theyíre for wood shedding. Theyíve worked out very well. Everyone is super nice to us. We can go in and try out almost anything. Thatís how the album turned out with a country tune here, and a folk tune here, and a blues tune there. We just do whatever we want. We figure weíve earned the right at this age,” Lily said.

His taste for eclectic music goes back to being a fan of late 60s-early 70s Fleetwood Mac.

“I listen to the early BBC tapes of Fleetwood Mac. I was a pretty big Peter Green freak. I see that early Fleetwood Mac, they did country. They did Buddy Holly tunes. They did everything. I like that feel that they had, how loose they were. I was looking to bring a little of that into what we do now.”

With each band member being a big local name in his own right, it makes one wonder why the five prefer to be a band under one name.

“I donít know,” Lily said. “It must be the old male pack mentality from the cavemen hunting together. Thereís something about being a band thatís different, and everybody at the moment is really enjoying the experience, because weíve all been through so much sidemen stuff that we really like having one project that weíre all committed to the material.”

Coming such a long way in three years makes one wonder if it has to do with the individuals already having loyal followers.

“I think there was a little of that,” Lily admitted. “I think there was a good acceptance of this kind of music showing up because itís not as out there as much as maybe you think it is. Because of the dominance of Clear Channel, everythingís getting so homogenized. I think some people like hearing something thatís a bit different.”

Even as a youth, Lily sought out the funkier music of the time.

“When they were trying to get us to listen to Bobby V or something, we were looking for the Bo Diddley album or the Chuck Berry album. There are still young people out there doing that on the Internet. Theyíre looking for the truth.”

A recent appearance at the Boston Blues Festival, and The Mystix CD release party at Johnny DĎs were the kind of gigs that further cemented their bond with local music fans.

“I felt very good about them,” Lily said. “I thought the Boston Blues Festival was great. We got a fantastic response there. We rocked it. It was one of those days. We opened for Sir Mack Rice, which was a big thrill for me because I used to buy his records years ago when they were on 45s,” Lily said.

“Johnny Dís was an amazing party. We had a really full house and we had a lot of fun, and we were competing with the Red Sox, and thatís no small feat. A few people were watching the big screens,” he said. “Itís a Ďrollingí CD party. Weíre doing a CD party at the Lizard Lounge on November 9th.”

The new disc, Blue Morning, opens with the track, “Yolanda,” a driving blues song about a very appealing woman. When asked who she is, Lily said: “Yolanda is the voodoo woman of my imagination.”

The guys also cover the Traveling Wilburysí “Rattled,” and Jimmy Reedís “Iím A Love You.”

“Jimmy Reed - I grabbed it off one of his albums,” Lily said. “I brought it in and we recorded it. We just thought it was so much fun. We put it on because people liked it. When we did the Wilburysí tune, the Wilburysí stuff was completely unavailable. You got only get a Wilbury's album on eBay. Now, of course, since we recorded it, itís all been re-released and the tune is out there. But we bring something different to that tune. We have a more gritty approach, and I think Jeff Lynne had more like a Sun Studios sound on it.”

Plus, The Mystix get a good response to it in the clubs.

Marty Ballou, of course, makes full use of his stand up bass, and his electric, giving each tune the right low-end timbre.

“(Ballouís) an extreme admirer of a bass player called Larry Taylor who now plays for Tom Waits, but used to be the original Canned Heat bass player. Marty is very into that very slappy, belly flop on stand up bass, and heís much more precise and funk-oriented on his Fender,” Lily said.

Lily sings lead vocals on all 10 tracks, putting some pressure on him to front the high caliber musicians, but he also finds it very supportive.

“I have an unusual voice. To have a real high caliber behind it, gives it a credibility that I certainly appreciate it.”

Cover art on Blue Morning features the band hanging out at the counter in Patís Diner in Salisbury, as Lily writes something in a notebook.

The Mystix added Tom West after finishing the disc. Kenny White, who played with Dwight Yoakam and produced Peter Wolf, used to be their keys man. Lily said The Mystix appreciate all that White did for them before he moved on.

“We would cut everything. Then we would bring Kenny in. We got to the point where we wouldnít even let him hear the songs first. Heís such a feel player that he would jump on, and in one or two takes, heíd add a tremendous feel to it. We missed that dynamic live, having a keyboard player, because we had it on all our records. We waited and tried to get Tom West because thatís the guy we really wanted.”

Lily, unlike other modern blues players, does not want to present himself as an heir to the traditional blues sound of poor southern blacks from the early 20th century. He did live and play in Mississippi for a while, where he had to reestablish himself in an area where nobody knew him from Adam.

“I donít play a lot of 12-bar blues because I believe thatís not where I'm coming from. It wouldnít be authentic. Clapton does it damn well. For me, to be a 12-bar blues guy and strictly write in the blues genre just wouldn't be authentic. I really love it, and believe me I listen to Elmore James almost every day. So, Iím pretty sick over the blues. I really like it. But I wouldnít make it my one sole thing because I donít think Iíd feel honest doing that,” he said.

Since hitting the Boston music scene, Lily has been the subject of rumors that heís related to the Lily family that owns the large Lily pharmaceutical company. Well, is the singer-songwriter related to the wealthy family?

“Very distantly, unfortunately,” he said. “I get that all the time. Guys come up and ask me, ĎCan you get me some of this or some of that because I know your family makes it.í And Iím like ĎWhat?!!?í Itís not true. I am related, but Iím certainly no multi-billionaire. Iím not heir apparent to any pharmaceutical fortunes,” he said.

The Mystix will play Acton Jazz Cafe on New Years Eve.

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