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Huey and the New Yorkers - Interview with Huey Morgan

  by Dave Goodwin

published: 24 / 3 / 2013

Huey and the New Yorkers - Interview with Huey Morgan


Dave Goodwin speaks to Fun Lovin' Criminals front man Huey Morgan at a gig in Nottingham about his new band, Huey and the New Yorkers

Just lately at all the gigs I have been to it has always been raining and cold and tonight is no exception. I wait outside The Rescue Rooms for a while, but then make my way in to the venue to catch the last throws of Huey and the New Yorkers’ sound check which is running by about fifteen minutes late. As I stand at the bar watching intently and waiting, a figure cuts out of the gloom and heads straight for me. Holding his hand out, Huey Morgan greets me with a generous smile and a chuckle, and adds that he just needs to freshen up a bit and that we are good to go. I nod and in good time he is back to gesture me to the stairs that lead up to the heavens above what for me is the best venue in Nottingham. The Rescue Rooms is certainly not the biggest music venue, but it has got that intimate yet grown up feel about it and when a band is in full flow it sounds fantastic. I shuffle into the somewhat small-smoke filled green room where the rest of the New Yorkers are slouched on the big square red leather sofas that are there. Drummer Frank Benbini is the first up, and with an outstretched hand greets me and welcomes me in. Huey motions me to a sofa and asks me to make myself at home. The first thing he declares as he sits down is that he “never wants to do a record as fucking bad as that shit on there,” and he points to a big flatscreen on wall in front of us. A chuckle erupts from the sofas as Huey blasts out, “Fucking piss, man!” Brooklyn born and half Irish, half Puerto Rican, Huey Morgan is the lead singer of the very successful Fun Lovin’ Criminals. They had great success in the 1990s with a string of brilliant albums and singles, most notably 'Fun Lovin’ Criminals' and 'Scooby Snacks', and their music is an eclectic mix of styles such as hip hop, rock, funk, blues and jazz. According to Huey, they have sold approximately ten million albums worldwide. And who are we to argue? Since their 2010 seventh and latest album 'Classic Fantastic', Huey has moved to the UK, and made himself a household name by doing slots on the superb musical satire show 'Never Mind the Buzzcocks' both as a competitor and compere. He also does various radio shows for the BBC and has, as he tells us further on, has got married. The Huey I meet today is the lead singer of a band of friends called Huey and the New Yorkers. The New Yorkers are all members of a group Huey used to play in way, way back called The Tangiers Blues Band and, as well as Huey on vocals and guitar, also consists of Chris Scianni (guitar), King (bass), Frank Benbini (drums), Pete Levin of the Blind Boys of Alabama (keyboards), Naim Cortazzi (ukulele) and on harmonica award-winning photographer Danny Clinch. Their just released debut album, 'Say It to My Face', is different from what has gone before. It is a world apart from the Criminals stuff, and Huey will explain to me later on what those main differences are. At the moment, however, I am sat with most of the members of the band around me as if I myself play an instrument with them and am a part of their band. I do promise, however, that I am not an undercover cop, and so Huey proceeds to tell me a story about Paul Anka and Buddy Rich and. as he does, one after one most of the band disappear and just leave us and King and a few others. PB: ‘Say It to My Face’ is such an eclectic mix, Huey. I get the feeling that this album is more about yourself than the others before HM: It is kind of me exploring my musical education, and with these guys that I know so well I know they have musical educations as well, and I know where they come from and what their inspirations are, and they are very similar in a lot of respects. Doing this record was cool because if I set a track for Pete to do keyboards I wouldn't ask or tell him what to do. He would know exactly what to do. It was really refreshing doing this record because you got to look back with it, and see what inspired you to actually pick up and instrument and be a musician in the first place. PB: The overall feel to the album is quite laidback and has more of a country element than I expected. HM: Like my shirt? Huey is sporting a light blue denim type shirt with flowers on the shoulders of the collar. He seems jokingly proud of his acquisition. PB: I never said a word, did I? (Laughs) Is the album all your input or does any...? HM: A lot of the songs started out with an acoustic guitar. Some songs Pete and I recorded around five or six years ago, and Chris and King wrote a couple of songs on the record and we recorded those. A lot of the songs which I wrote, however, came from an acoustic guitar, and they felt like they needed to be a little countrified, but when you sing about a girl named Shania you can't get that country. It is like tongue-in-cheek country which we actually do it quite well. Country is one of those things that I liked when I was growing up. Those were the songs that had the stories. When I became the vocalist in the Criminals, I wasn't a writer. What did I know about writing songs? So I wrote stories. How did I know them? George Jones, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings. PB: So before you started the album, did you have any rock solid ideas about what it was going to be like?' HM: We didn't even know this stuff was going to come out. We were just writing songs. We got in Tim Latham who worked as a producer with me and did some of the Criminals stuff, but really I didn't think it was going to get to the point of release. Then I did a gig in some club, and the manager there introduced me to Simon Drake who runs the Naim Label, and he said, “Do you want us to put this out?” I was like, “Really?” So I agreed, but not like the way regular people do it. I said that I wanted to do it my way and not to go back to Paul Anka. The other New Yorkers still in the room fall about laughing at the in-joke from the start of the interview. HM: I wanted to do it with my friends. I realised that if I was going to do it I couldn’t do it for money. You can't do things for money nowadays because they don't sound good and they don't feel good, and people are savvy enough to know what's bullshit, and so I said I was going to do it for love, and anything we made off the record sales we were going to give away, and all of a sudden this good shit started happening. It wasn't because I thought good shit was going to happen. It just kind of happened. Danny Clinch is the harmonica player with the Blues Band, and he is a fantastic photographer, and I called him up to play harmonica, and he said to me, "Who's doing vocals?" and so I said, "I haven't even got that far yet," and he said, "Okay, I'm coming to New York!" When it came to the videos, he said, "Who's doing the videos? I can come in here." A lot of good things came from it. PB: You were saying that this band is a band of buddies and of best friends? HM: Yeah, I'd say that. PB: Do you fall out with each other and argue? HM: Oh, it is ball breaking! Ball breaking! There are chuckles and wheezes from all directions around the room. Some of the band have left and some have come in from outside. PB: This is a Tickets for Troops promotion. HM: I 'm in a position to let these guys forget about all that crap for a few hours, and so we give them tickets if they want them, simple and plain. Keep it as simple as you can. Huey goes a little quiet here. It is as if he is a little overawed with the gesture himself. An ex-marine, Huey’s own individual cut of sales of the album are being donated to veterans’ charities and he hopes to visit as many hospitals, rehabilitation centres and places where he can play some music for the troops along the way. A charity called Tickets For Troops has been set up, and current troops and ex-servicemen alike are being given tickets to each concert on the tour. Huey is doing all this out of respect and gratitude, not to publicize his show but to try to give service people a chance for a great night out. PB: I saw a post on Facebook that said you weren't going to play any old Criminals stuff. HM: It is a different band with a whole different sound… PB: Do you get annoyed with people asking you to play that stuff? HM: Nobody has really asked us. What's this? Our sixth or seventh gig?' Pete Levin: Yeah I think we had one guy asked us to play 'Smoke ’Em If You Got ‘Em'. So we smoked him!' Huey motions to shoot a pistol from the hand. HM: Yeah, it's a whole different thing. PB: Can we go a bit further back? You mentioned once that the Clash were the only band that ever mattered?' HM: Yeah, I was at T in the Park. What was it? 1997? And we had just done our set, and were getting changed and were in our underwear, and we had Uncle Mike Schatt with us who looks like a biker when he's had few beers in his gut. So Joe Strummer just walks straight into our dressing room, and we were all in our underwear, and to me it's like John Lennon just walked in. He was the man. And I've met Mick Jones since then and spoken with Topper Headon. Punk rock was really important for guys our age, but to be a good musician was also important. The Sex Pistols were probably the most famous of all punk bands, but they weren't the best musicians in the world. The Clash, however, knew what they were doing. They would go to places like New York, and they would do different stuff like hip hop and a bit of reggae, and it was all coming from this West London group from Portobello and around that area. ‘Sandinista’ is one of my favourite records, and people are like, “Oh man, it's all over the place,” but I'm like, “Is that wrong?” PB: When you were growing up in New York, you had quite an interest in the English music scene? HM: Yeah, believe it or not, I got a lot of my education from Freebean Records, on 2nd Avenue and 8th Street. The dude there knew my kind of taste, and he'd point me in the direction of Elvis Costello and the Attractions and Nick Lowe and a lot of the other stuff of Stiff, and of course I was listening to a little bit of Led Zeppelin when I started picking up a guitar later on. I also listened to a lot of XTC. King and I were from the same downtown neighbourhood, and when we were down there we'd listen to everything, didn't we?' You would have ‘Paranoid’ by Black Sabbath. King: Everyone would have radios on their cars, and then there would be fire escapes there. Whatever you heard you liked really.... HM: There was that band from Scotland. What was their name? Huey raises his hand to his head in disbelief. HM: Oh man, I'm fucked now. King: The Average White Band. HM: Yeah, the AWB. They had a kind of moderate success in the 1970s in the UK, and in America they were doing the college circuit. ‘Show Your Hand’ was a big hit so there was a lot of people looking to England for their music, and that is the thing that I found really interesting in that when we came here they liked what we were doing. I guess I was doing my version of what they were doing although a while later. PB: So how accessible was this British music then? HM: We were really lucky in having Freebean Records in that any imports that came in came in through Freebean. There were a lot of other little record stores as well. Is that Bleecker Bob’s selling the fucking Ramones records for a hundred dollars? Pete Levin: He is but he's about to close. HM: Yeah, because he sells Ramones records for a hundred dollars! That old shit is coming back! I guess the young kids don't care about sound quality because they can listen to that shit on the iPod/headphones so they don't understand hi-fidelity that have Boss speakers and pioneer amp and decent turntable and a good needle. That's what music was. You used to look at the album liner notes and see who was playing on that track. Chris, our guitar player, if he is being annoying, will tell you who's playing on every Stones Album. PB: I can only think of one or two albums that I've listened to though that I've liked every single track on it. Can you think of any that you've bought and thought the same? HM: Apart from every Led Zeppelin record, every Mahalia Jackson album I have. I like the whole idea of finding that hidden gem. I love ‘Black and Blue’ by Gary Clark J. I think it's a great album. Every song on it is just really good. Before I was a musician and when I was listening to records, if you liked one song you couldn't go and fast forward. You had to get up and move the needle because we could only listen to vinyl in those days, so you listened to the whole album and you thought, “Oh I like that song. It is growing on me.” And I think the ADD of nowadays is kind of not doing that. Pete Levin: The least favourite song would become your most favourite song by the end of the month and vice versa. The song that you loved and you bought the record for would then be like the sixth best song on the album.' HM: I am like you. I get a stack of CDs for my radio shows, and so I do spend a lot of time listening to music. It only happens very few times, but when I get to hear good music I stare at the speakers. When you hear something extraordinary, you stare at the speakers like something's going to happen. The Gary Clark record was the last one to do that for me and the one before that was a Cody Chestnutt record. That was the same. I mean this guy’s on another level. PB: So how did you first get into music?' HM: I was sitting in a school assembly at 104 and I was in the front row, and a guy has an amplifier set up, and this guy gets picked to do a song. He was in his eleventh/twelfth grade of High School, so he was like a senior in junior high school, and all the girls loved him because he played guitar, and he started playing ‘Jumping Jack Flash’, and I was like, ”I ....wanna...do...that!” PB: I understand you're in the middle of writing a book? Huey looks a little shifty, and one of the band glances at Huey and then me and pipes up, “He meant in the middle of reading a book. It is his first one!” There is schoolboy laughter from around the room. HM: I've written three espionage novels, and I was talking with my literary agent, and she said. “You have got to do something musical so people will understand.” So I'm writing a story about a guy that gets out of the marines in Vietnam, meets Jimi Hendrix, and then he puts a record out, and he then gets totally disillusioned with the music business. PB: You mentioned a while ago in an interview that joining the marines opened you up to different music. HM: There were guys there from all over the place and all around the United States, so they all had their different types of music. One guy had a boom box, so he was like, “Hey, you got any Junior?” So I was saying, “Who's Junior?” And, of course, he meant Hank Williams Jr. They listened to all kinds of music. PB: You also said in another interview that you were like a tropical storm and now you're like a pressure front. What did you mean by that? HM: It was when I married my wife that things started to really change for me because I was out all night drinking, half bottles of whiskey every night, and I was just not being progressive, and when I met my wife things really did change for me! I was going down the wrong path, and she showed me that there are so many other things you can do that are positive and productive. That is what I meant by that. PB: Is there anything you've done that you've later really regretted? HM: There was this Saturday cooking show for the BBC which was not good. They gave me the opportunity so I said, “Hey, why not?” You have to try stuff out, and if it doesn't work then at least you know you tried. And, yeah, that was one of the things that was really for the weekend, you know! The guy said something about tribute bands, and so I said, “Oh, like Fisted Sister,” and he said, “What did you just say?” I said, “Yeah, like Fisted Sister,” and it went like this with the earpieces. Huey starts to pretend like he is a naughty schoolboy hidinga bag of marbles. HM: And the producer was going, “What did you just say?” and I was like, “Oh my God!” because it was live. There is laughter from all around the room. HM: It was like being in school assembly in class nine of primary school for me. PB: How do you manage to juggle everything you have got going on in your life with your radio shows, touring and family life? HM: Everything just finely fits together real nice. I had an opportunity to get another show on the BBC which is going out on a Friday night, which is even better because I get to play even more of the crazy stuff that I really like, and it is a really good way of going through my record collection and falling away from making music for bit. But then when I wanted to make more music because the Criminals had taken a bit of a break, this seemed like the right thing to do. I'd got Chris going, “Come on, man!” and I was like, “I'll get it together, man” and now four years later. Chris Scianni: But he did! PB: Is that the end of the Criminals then? HM: You never know. We're brothers. Chris Scianni: The only other way out is murder! Because once you're in you're in… HM: With the twentieth anniversary coming up, we will maybe do some shows. But I'm thinking if we're going to do something like that it would be kind of cool to do it with some new material. And that's the thing. Are we ready to go and do it with new material or is it,” I shall not work with him again”? PB: You're a massive ‘EastEnders' fan? HM: I've been saying this for years. I would be a free extra. All I want to do is sit in the Vic, and they can just pan by me when something's going on. I've got my whole back-story on my character - he's a cabbie sitting around a table with a cap on and they just roll on. Simple! We did ‘Top of the Pops’ at Elstree Studios, and then we realised that that's where they have the Vic, and I always thought they shot it in London, and I found it was really queer wandering round. It was like “Shit, this looks just like London man!” PB: Have they asked you yet? HM: No! But I'm going to keep trying. PB: Thank you.

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live reviews

Rescue Rooms, Nottingham, 15/3/2013
Dave Goodwin watches Fun Lovin' Criminals front man Huey Mogan's new band Huey and the New Yorkers play a first-rate set of jazz and blues on their first UK tour at the Rescue Rooms in Nottingham


Say It to My Face (2012)
Surprisingly soul-oriented, but also well-crafted debut album from Fun Lovin' Criminals front man Huey Morgan's new side project, Huey and the New Yorkers

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