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A Conversation with Levon Helm

by Lee Gabites

The interview was conducted in the early hours of October 15, 1996, while Levon was on a shooting schedule in Hartford, Kentucky, for his new movie. Interview originally appeared in Lee Gabites' Band fanzine in the UK.

© Lee Gabites, October 1996.

[Photo of Levon Helm, 1996]

Can you tell me about your current film project?

It's a Steven Seagal film and it's called Fire Down Below. Felix Alcolla is the director and Philip Martin wrote the screenplay - he's out in Los Angeles, a nice guy too. It's a good time, here in Kentucky. We go to California next week, I assume at Warner Bros, one of the big sound stages. Steven's a hell of a good guy and he's very musical, we play music all the time. As a matter of fact, most of the people in the cast are music people too, along with their acting.
I heard Harry Dean Stanton's involved.
Harry Dean Stanton is a good example. Y'know, Harry Dean's been in probably two or three hundred movies and he's also got one of the best tenor voices you'll ever hear, and plays guitar, harmonica. As a matter of fact Harry Dean is a band leader, he's got his own band out in L.A. and they play every weekend in a couple of the clubs there.
Who else is in the cast?
Kristofferson I haven't seen yet, he's in the cast. Ed Bruce, Marc Collie, Alex Harvey.
Do you know if you'll be involved with the soundtrack?
Y'know, I kinda doubt that there'll be any different formula from what there usually is in a Steven Seagal picture, and I'm not sure yet if any of us will have that much to do with the soundtrack. Most of the people in the film are music people, but again, I don't know if that determines that any of us will have a whole lot to do with the soundtrack or not. That might be just done in a standard kind of way.
So it looks like you guys will be playing all the music when you're relaxing and off the set.
Yeah, we're definitely doing that. When they get serious about it and start to put it onto the picture, it could change around.
Seagal's movies are usually fast paced, action/adventure thrillers. Is this the same kind of thing?
I think so, pretty much.
What are the reasons for it being shot in Kentucky?
Well, it's about the coal mining area. The bad guys live in the coal mining country and Kristofferson's one of the bad guys.
Your part is as a southern baptist minister, isn't it?
Something like that, if you can believe it.
So, you managed to step back into the acting quite easily?
Well, so far. My part is a small part, you know, it's not that difficult a proposition.
Feeling Minnesota is now on general release in the States, did you shoot that last year?
Yeah, we went out to Las Vegas for a couple of days. It was just a small kind of cameo part. I didn't get to do any scenes with Cameron Diaz, of course. I would have loved to have done that. I did maybe four or five scenes with Keanu Reeves and I'm the travelling salesman, the bible salesman as a matter of fact. I pick him up and give him a ride. I'm kind of his last hitchhike into Las Vegas and I drop him off at the big casino there, where he's chasing Cameron Diaz, and I don't blame him (laughs). She is a sweetheart too, and being around her just the little bit that I was, I know right away why everyone's so excited about her. She is really, really good and super-down-to-earth. Beautiful all the way through.
So, you've played a bible salesman and now you're playing a Baptist minister, you might get typecast!
That'd be alright with me (laughs).
Can you tell me about pre-production for High On The Hog?
Most of the pre-production was accomplished when we were doing our Jericho record, and we had songs like "High Price Of Love", Stan's song (Stan Szelest), and tunes like that, that were mostly completed but we just didn't quite have time to get them on the Jericho project. So, those songs kind of gave us a head start on the High On The Hog record.
Is there a lot of songs from those sessions that would maybe make it onto the next record?
Whatever is left over, we took what we thought was the best of that half a batch. Y'know, we took what we thought went together the best. So, there is a lot left over that we didn't use. Maybe we'll use it on something for the future, maybe we'll just use it as an outtake copy. I'm not sure yet! I kind of think that our next record might be more acoustical.
That sounds interesting.
Good, good. I think that's kind of the direction that we're leading in right now, and I kind of like that myself. On this last tour that we did, we went to quite a few radio stations, we would stop in with our acoustic instruments and play some songs like that, live on the radio. It would be fairly easy for us as we've always done it, we just kinda got away from it over the last couple of records.
Whose idea was it to cover "Free Your Mind"?
We just took songs that were fun to do, and that particular song is just one of them tunes that we always liked. When it first came out we liked it and used to play around with it and have fun with it.
Is that something The Band do in pre-production, try out current songs?
Yeah, we don't have any set rules of things to do or not to do, and when that one turned out to be as much fun as it was, and it was such a surprise to people - ya know, they just didn't expect us to have anything to do with a song like that.
It works well.
It does for us, and it's fun to play at our shows and the crowd likes it. So, no harm no foul.
I thought the High On The Hog cover was reminiscent of Robbie Robertson.
[_High on the Hog_ cover art]

Well, I don't know if that's been mentioned to you before - but that came to my mind.

More laughter.

Y'know, we had that title for awhile, it's something that we've always enjoyed laughing about. For us, it was a cartoon of us riding racing pigs, and we would be coming into the home stretch and the crowd would be cheering and we'd have our guitars and instruments strapped to our backs. Maybe Aaron would be out front with four hogs pulling the wagon (laughs). Fitting that kind of an idea onto a tiny CD format didn't work at all, and the fellow out in California, that came up with that drawing of the pig, really saved the day for us. Coz' we were stuck with the title, pretty much, and thank the good Lord that he made it work for us.

When was the session with Champion Jack Dupree recorded?
Champion Jack came over here just before he passed. He's been gone a couple of years now, I guess. He came over on his American tour and Garth talked Dick Waterman, one of his managers, into talking with Champion Jack and stopping through Woodstock and we would try and do some recording with him - and that's what they did. We only had a couple of days to do it, but boy we had a good time. And it just went so well and so quick it seemed to have a mind of it's own. I'm really thankful that it happened because Champion Jack went back to where he lived in Germany, and as you know, passed away shortly after. So, I guess that this is some of his last recordings. There's enough in the vault to do a whole record, a Champion Jack Woodstock record, for lack of a title, but I don't know when that'll happen. We've told so many of our friends about it that we decided to go ahead and use one of the tunes, just so it wouldn't stay hid for ever. We would like it to maybe create demand for the whole thing, if it does, it'd be great, if not, at least we got some of it into the light of day. It really was a whole lot of fun to get to meet him and get to play with him.
The Muddy Waters Woodstock Album has been released on CD recently, and also your first solo album with the RCO All Stars.
I'm glad they done it, it's a nice boost to the spirit to have it happen, because it was so much fun when it all went down. And Muddy's Woodstock Album, naturally, I'm partial to it. I think it's one of Muddy's greatest performances, I really do.
It was his last record for Chess, I believe.
I think! What I heard was that it was the last Chess record, and they got conglomerated and bought out, right after that. Also, that year, that album won a Grammy for folk and blues album of the year, or whatever category they had it in. One of those categories that they give out before they turn the television on, right (laughs).
Did you enjoy the European tour?
It was all coming at me pretty quick as we went through there. I didn't get to stay any place very long.
It was a tight schedule, wasn't it?
It was about as tight as you can get (laughs). I especially enjoyed it when we got to go to Ireland, I'd never been to Ireland before. Four Men and A Dog, the Irish group, are good friends of ours and they record over at our studio in Woodstock. They've cut a couple of albums up there and we've been friends with them now for a few years, so that's been really rewarding for us.
Didn't you have a visit from Scotty Moore and D.J. Fontana at the studio?
We sure did! Jimmy Weider and Randy Ciarlante went down to the city and they had a music seminar going on, Scotty Moore, D.J. Fontana and Paul Burlison that played with the Burnette Brothers Band back in the Memphis days, they all came up to it. Jimmy and Randy of course, started on Scotty and D.J. and Paul right away, about coming up to Woodstock and recording with us some and letting us try some musical experiments. We were willing to flight test anything that they wanted to try and damned if it didn't work out and they did come up.

I guess Keith Richards has got a place over in Connecticut, and Keith heard about it, and of course here Keith come. He's like me, he didn't want to miss it either (laughs).

He's a big fan of Scotty Moore.
Oh, of course, of course. We only got to keep them up there for about three days, I guess, but we had about as much fun in that three day period as you can have.
What was recorded?
I forget now exactly what we did record. It felt more like a visit than it did a session. I know that Aaron Hurwitz, our engineer/producer, I know Aaron was running the tape machine and was getting as much as could be got. I would love it if they would come back and do some more anytime.

Naturally, it doesn't seem unusual, because BB King sounds better now than he did in 1965, right! And it's the same with Scotty and D.J. and Paul, they sound better now than they've ever sounded. God, it's just unbelievable that they've still got...I don't know what I was expecting, or why I was expecting that they wouldn't sound that good, but, it just shocked me, coz' I hadn't heard 'em in so long and then for them to come out and sound better than the last time I heard 'em, and better than the records that they made. It's just eh...

They've still got fire in their belly!
Oh man! It is smokin', it really is. It was as enjoyable as anything that I've been in on in a long time.
It sounds wonderful. I really hope we get to hear something from that session.
I do to, my friend, I sure do. I hope that we get to hear it and everybody likes it so much that they have to come back and we have to do it again (laughs).
In your book, around 1965, I think you mention you spent some time in California, and I've heard there was a group called the Oklahoma Mafia. Is that a group you were involved with?
Well, at the time, Leon Russell and J.J. Cale had created the first home studio. They took Leon's house there, in North Hollywood, and took out a couple of bedroom walls and made a fine little home studio. Leon was the producer and Johnnie Cale was the engineer and they would both play instruments too. They were producing the Shindig Show and the house band was called the Shindogs, that was Delaney Bramlett, I think, playing bass or guitar in that band, and some more of the Oklahoma guys. So, we would go over and hang out at Leon's and Leon and Johnnie Cale kind of big brothered the rest of us, and kept us from getting into any more trouble than we did. Bobby Keyes was around and Junior Markham, Carl Radle of course, a lot of the guys from the Tulsa, Oklahoma area was around during that particular time.
So that was 1965?
Yes it was.
And did you do any sessions with them?
No, I didn't. Music at that time was still fairly closed shop. Leon would get assignments to do the Shindogs or Gary Lewis and The Playboys or whatever. It never was the kind of thing where we could jam, or anything. A little bit after that we had played with Dylan and that kind of kicked the door open for us, and then all of a sudden it wasn't so disadvantageous to be in a band. It didn't last long (laughs), but it lasted a little while and a few of us finally had the opportunity to try and cut some records.
Did The Hawks ever cut a track called "Bacon Fat"?
Yeah, we sure did. We cut that one...along about the same time...that was Henry Glover, right, that produced the Muddy Waters Woodstock session, and Henry was the Hawks A&R man at Roulette Records.

So, when we would cut over at Bell Sound Studios, we would end up with fifteen or twenty minutes on the clock, and Henry would let us do "Bacon Fat", I think we cut "Further On Up The Road" one night, that Junior Parker tune. He would let us try something on our own, which was a helluva thing for us. That was the first time that we had ever recorded under any kind of professional circumstances and it was just as exciting as it could be, and disappointing as hell too, when we heard the playbacks (laughs). I thought it sounded a whole lot better when I was recording it, but when we heard it played back, it was kind know! (laughs)

I was listening to the Canadian Squires tracks recently and I really like that hard R&B sound.
Well, I appreciate you saying that. We were certainly learning a hard lesson in them days, we were a long way from being real professional at the time.

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