Talking to Peter Tork is a real treat -- even better than you can expect or even prepare for. No trick, he is smart, laid-back and witty. He tells jokes when the conversation gets a bit on the heavy side, just for the sake of lightening the mood. But most of all, he will keep you on your toes.
“The honor may be a given,” he says coolly, his voice strong and not missing a beat. “But the pleasure you won’t find out until later.”
Much of that same statement could apply to Tork’s soulfully prolific vehicle Shoe Suede Blues, his band for more than a decade. It’s an honor to be in the presence of pop culture history. The former Monkee has reinvented himself a bluesman, and with his new music, he comes full circle from his first days as a starving musical artist working the folk and blues circuit in New York City.
But the pleasure comes after you take a listen to what Tork and company have to offer. Tunes off the group’s 2007 disc Cambria Hotel drive home good hearty blues, not skimping out on any of the fundamentals but still presenting the material with a fresh familiar likeness. With the socially conscience, sultry sounds of “The Mighty Are Falling,” the Eastern elements laced through “For Pete’s Sake” and the classic love-done-wrong song “Ain’t Your Fault,” the album is pure ear candy, true to fabulous blues form, from track to track.
Not even those tracks on the album could be entirely dark and gloomy but feel good pop they are not. If there was such a genre as “happy blues,” these cats would have it. “It’s a God given grant to make a fool of yourself,” Tork croons on “God Given Grant” before turning the phrase, “It’s a God given right to be wrong.”
Tork hasn’t completely divorced his pop past; the songs of yesterday have just been reborn into a different genre. In a live show, Shoe Suede Blues has been known to knock the dust and supped up some Monkees’ hits, including “I’m a Believer,” “Last Train to Clarksville,” and “Stepping Stone.” Each of these once chart-topping songs has been baptized in their own glossy blues finish.
If there was ever a year that called for singing the blues, this past for Tork would have been it. Tork was diagnosed with a rare form of throat cancer earlier this year. He also lost his good friend and bandmate Richard Mikuls in June 2008 to a heart attack.
Here, Tork discusses the latest reincarnation of his band, his immortal niche in music and pop culture and how a simple blues song might change the world.
And we’ll let you decide just how pleasurable the experience was.
NL: You have been with Shoe Suede Blues for a number of years now. What have you guys been up to lately?
PT: We started Shoe Suede Blues about twelve or thirteen years ago. In fact, I am the only one of the original three still with the band. We have had a lot of lineup changes and different people coming and going. And we lost a fantastic guitar player named Richard. He passed away a number of months ago. He was wonderful. I miss him dearly. But what we have got now is full of very talented musicians in their own right.
NL: What do you like most about playing with the guys from Shoe Suede Blues?
PT: They are all just a great group of people and musicians.
The music we make is really good, and they [my bandmates] are a lot of fun to be around. I enjoy each and every minute.
NL: Some of your songs are unique takes on famous covers, “She Belongs to Me,” “Sea Cruise,” and your old band’s hit song “Last Train to Clarksville.” How do you come up with the different variations?
PT: I think we did a pretty straight-forward version of “Sea Cruise.” Maybe without all the bells and whistles of the original. But still pretty faithful, I’d say. But “Clarksville,” yeah, that is different. We slowed down the groove and set our own with it. And as for the song, “For Pete’s Sake,” we use all these different instruments and a nylon string guitar for the Eastern . It’s very, very different. And we can’t carry all that stuff with us for stage shows. There wouldn’t be room for any of us, and it is too heavy to lug around with us everywhere anyway. I don’t know. We just try to be creative.