Interview by Scott Sobol
Next time you’ve got a drum lesson scheduled near the first of the month, cancel it and spend the cash on the two-drink minimum for a stage-side seat at The Smoke House Restaurant in Burbank, California. You’ll get a priceless lesson in dynamics, touch and flow. Established in 1946, The Smoke House is a legendary Los Angeles fixture that was the preferred hang for names like Bob Hope and Bing Crosby back in the day, and still attracts Hollywood celebrities on a regular basis. It is also the home on the first Saturday of every month to Jimmy Angel & The Jason Gutierrez 3, recently called “The best lounge act in Los Angeles” by L.A. Weekly. If you live in Los Angeles, you’ve probably heard of Jimmy Angel–former ’50’s “teen idol” and local legend, Jimmy is truly a phenom, singing ’50’s and early ’60’s-style rock (or “bop” as he prefers to call it) and delivering a blistering set of rock music that would leave most performers half his age gasping for breath.
What is equally impressive to Jimmy’s voice having the quality of a ’50’s crooner at 84 years young is the band that backs him–The Jason Gutierrez 3. Founded by leader and guitar ace Jason Gutierrez, the band is driven by drummer Jon Biggs. A musician with incredible dexterity, Jon has some of the best hands in the business and it’s truly inspiring to hear this style of music played with such authenticity. So effortless is his technique, Jon is one of those drummers who’s sticks never seem to actually make contact with the drumheads (think Keith Carlock playing ’50’s shuffles). Doing D.J. Fontana and Hal Blaine proud, Jon can regularly be seen backing Jimmy Angel, but is always busy with other things as well. He can also be heard on the new Jimmy Angel album, Love Fever. We sat down at an off-the-beaten path coffee house to talk bop shop…
SS: Tell me about the new album, Love Fever. It’s been a long time in the making.
JB: Well, we started it a long time ago, but we scrapped the first bunch of tracks. We had them in the can but then J [Jason Gutierrez, guitar/producer] wasn’t feeling something, I don’t remember exactly what it was. I think we did it with a click, and I think we felt at the time that it took away from the vibe, so we decided to do some of them over. There might be one tune on the album that was done with a click. Personally, I like working with a click; I think of it as a percussionist I’m playing with. That’s the only way I can look at it, or else I’d go insane [laughs]. It’s a tool, basically.
SS: I know you are a huge Ringo and Bonham fan. Was playing stuff rooted in the ’50’s style of playing a stretch for you, or was it already stuff you were familiar with?
JB: Growing up, my dad had a game room in the house with pinball machines and a jukebox, and he had Buddy Holly, Little Richard, The Beatles, The Doors, all this stuff from the ’50s and ’60s in there. The first vinyl I bought was Buddy Holly, and then my first Beatles was a cassette. Those were my first two. So, I had already gotten pretty familiar with a lot of the drumming of the late ’50s and early ’60s before I met Jimmy, but I definitely did some schooling when I got the gig. He lit a fire under my ass, just because he wants things a certain way. He used to say, “Too much tin, cat,” which was his way of saying he wanted to hear less cymbals.
SS: It’s an impressive gig, not just because Jimmy is so good for his age, or any age for that matter, but also because the band is just on fire at every show, yet you guys are able to keep the volume down and rock the hell out of any place. I’ve seen you do loud gigs and I’ve seen you do quieter restaurant bar gigs; you’ve kind of done the impossible and proved that music can still rock at lower volumes.
JB: Yeah, before the gig with Jimmy I always wore earplugs, but he encouraged me to take them out and work on dynamics, bring the volume down. It actually taught me a lot about playing to the room. You know, I don’t want to piss the singer off, or want to lose us a gig by being too loud, so I paid close attention and learned how to play to the room. It schooled me and really brought me up to the next level because I needed to change my hands and develop more dynamics.
SS: On the covers, classic ’50s and early ’60s stuff, did you go and school yourself on the original drum parts or just do your own thing with them?
JB: In the beginning it was probably note-for-note, but you know how those old recordings are, you can sometimes barely hear what the guy is doing, like bass drum nuances, or ride patterns. I was most concerned with nailing the proper feel, and equally important was the fills, those classic ’50’s fills [plays fill pattern on the table], like maybe there are 15 or 20 of those classic ’50’s drum fills. I wanted those to be in there and be right. You can’t be playing some triplet fill in those songs, it’s got to be authentic so I was pretty serious about making sure whenever I went to do a fill that it was accurate and fit the vibe of the song perfectly. This is another way Jimmy raised the bar for me. I saw his talent and I knew I wanted to bring something that would fit with what he was doing and make people say, “Yeah, that’s old school.” You don’t want to have a modern sound when you’re playing that music. I picked up a pair of vintage 15-inch hats, wow. Fit perfect.
SS: Your touch is truly inspiring to me and I don’t think I’ve seen anyone play at low volumes with more groove and more finesse than you. It’s really mind-blowing to me. How did you get this gig with Jimmy?
JB: Well, first of all, thank you so much for that compliment. I’m truly humbled. As for how the gig came about, I was on the road with Orgone in 2011 and 2012, subbing for their drummer and when that was done, I was back in L.A. looking for a gig; I was pretty down and out. I’d had another band with J, and that band had faltered. I think I’d only been home for a few weeks when J said, “Dude, I just saw the guy, the thing that will be our next venture.” Of course, I was curious and asked what it was and he said, “Jimmy Angel.” I’m like, “What? Who?” He told me that he was this ’50’s guy and that he and his dad were going to jam with him and see how it worked. So, I went over there and I walk in the room and I’m like, “What?” I wasn’t sure at first, until we did the first song–I think it might have been an Elvis tune–and when Jimmy opened his mouth, that was it for me. I was in. The fire was really lit in the guy and I was sold.
SS: How long was it before you guys started playing The Smoke House regularly?
JB: It was not long after that. The late great George Grossman heard us and said something like, “Oh yeah, that’s better than canned soup!” [Laughs] He got us into the Smoke House and we’re still in there every month.
SS: Jimmy’s original songs are really some of the stronger moments in your sets, and everyone really responds to them. They’re like ’50’s classic tracks but somehow have a modern punch to them that grabs everybody. What’s the writing process like with him? Does he come in with them finished or bring you guys lyrics, what?
JB: Jimmy usually comes in with the lyrics and uses older songs from different artists as a reference point for the riff. J usually facilitates it for Jimmy and has it semi-worked out before we all get together to solidify the tune.
SS: Jimmy is agreeable to the band’s input on his songs?
JA: Jimmy is pretty open to ideas since he can’t create what he hears in his head outwardly. He trusts our judgment professionally, but he will let you know if he ain’t digging something. As for me, I’m always looking to play for the song and make sure the artist gets exactly what they want, be it Jimmy or anybody else. I am in the background and my ego has to stay there too.
SS: What’s been the major influence on you as a professional musician from working with Jimmy?
JB: Well, like I already mentioned, the dynamics thing, plus I’ve always watched the guitar player or the front man for cues, but with Jimmy I watch him like a hawk. He might change something up and if I’m not watching him, I’ll miss it. It’s made me more aware of what’s happening around me on stage.
SS: There’s a documentary about Jimmy that has been worked on probably as long as the album was worked on. Is that ever going to see the light of day?
JB: Those guys were filming at the record release party, saying that the footage would be great for the end of the documentary, so who knows. Hopefully they’ll finish it and get it out.
SS: The Smoke House still attracts Hollywood celebrities and you guys have had some impressive people stick around after dinner to see the show; Kristen Dunst, Charlize Theron, I know there have been others.
JB: Totally. I hung out with Chris Slade once. Last week Conan O’Brien’s band was there diggin’ it. Even Melissa McCarthy gave us props. There is a list, for sure. I think it’s a testament to both Jimmy, and the JG3 [Jason Gutierrez 3].
SS: You and J play in other bands together as well, correct?
JB: Yes, we have a band called The Zip Guns, that’s kind of ’50’s noir, instrumental booty-shaker rock. Bass, drums, guitar, saxophone, no vocal. We do, like Quentin Tarantino ’50’s rock ‘n’ roll. It’s got a little bit more of an edge to it. And J and I also both play with the King Cotton Aggravation. It’s more of a fun band with a lot of good players who play in many different bands. I replaced the drummer a few years back and still do the gig once a month at the Viva in Burbank. But King is older and it’s unlikely the band will ever leave the area. I respect him and I do it for the love of King, and just want him to enjoy his musical time as much as possible.
SS: What about recording? You’ve done some sessions, correct?
JB: I have recorded with Orgone, as well as Sharon Robinson, who has collaborated with Leonard Cohen on several records. I’ve done some other stuff, but these are the ones that come to mind as the highlights. It’s good to know I’ve left a vinyl footprint in a few places [laughs]!
SS: What’s your practice routine?
JB: Nothing over-the-top, I start with a quick warm-up and usually work on tunes for the next gig. If I don’t have tunes to work on, I’ll work on technique, different grooves and soloing with a click. An hour a day minimum. Maybe take a day off once a week. I’ve got to be dripping in sweat to feel satisfied.
SS: You’re in three bands with Jason, and I know you are his go-to guy when he needs a drummer for anything else he does. Do you actively look for other people to work with?
JB: I am always looking for other bands to play with, but my schedule is pretty full now with work and music. I also play in various cover bands as well. There is one band that I do with this doctor, who is a very cool guy, and he pays well. I also do a Sam Cooke tribute act, which is really fun. I hustle anything I can if the calendar permits. I’ve got a family to take care of, and thank God they are very supportive of the music. I am blessed.
The new Jimmy Angel & The Jason Gutierrez 3 album, Love Fever is available at:
lovefeverthealbum.com or on iTunes and Amazon.