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TM Stevens - "Like a nail that wonīt go in"

T.M. Stevens skill as a bassist and vocalist is legendary. As a sideman he performed on CDs and in the touring bands of Joe Cocker, Tina Turner and other equally famous artists. His ferocious, yet melodic, style of bass is as unique as his larger than life persona. In constant demand as a session player, he is as at ease in the studio, as he is behind a mike on stage, releasing his special brand of rock, funk and manic soul...

TM Stevens

Katja Duregger talked to TM Stevens in Cologne

Katja: How often have you been on tour in Germany? How about your experiences with jazz-music?

TM: Oh, itīs been a lot. The first time I was playing with Joe Cocker. At that time I met my German manager Gerry [van Essen], this was about 12 years ago. – So Iīve been here quite a lot, playing with all kinds of different bands. And many, many years ago I was even here playing jazz. Before that, Iīve played with John Mc Laughlin and Iīve recorded with Miles Davies once, shortly after he recorded "Bitches Brew", but Iīve never played live with him. You see, Iīve had a strange career!

Katja: Because of all this big names youīve played with on one hand and these little club-tours on the other?

TM: Yes. However, I havenīt played these small club gigs in a while. Because itīs easier to play on these large venues. So, when you go back to these clubs you really have to work hard again. When you are up close to the people itsīa very different atmosphere.

Itīs like the difference of making a movie and acting on a broadway stage. The club is like acting on a broadway stage. I like both. But a larger venue-tour is much easier, you see. When you are with Joe Cocker or Tina Turner itīs much easier for a lot of reasons.

Katja: How would you describe your own music? You once described it as heavy metal funk, but your latest album "Shocka Zooloo" is not that heavy.

TM: Well, Gerry sequenced the album, she softened it out a bit, in hoping that it would run better here. My first albums were made with the Asian market in mind, because they were produced for the Japanese label JVC. Now the first part of the album shows my lighter side and later on it gets more heavy again. So this is what gives you the impression that itīs a lighter album.

TM Stevens

Katja: Speaking about your musical roots. Where did it all start?

TM: It started in Harlem, when I went to the Apollo Theater and saw James Brown. I was around with some young kids back then and we went to the Apollo at 12 noon to see the cartoons and the shows and then at five or six a clock at night, when the live-shows started, we watched all the shows. We went home mostly around midnight, so Iīve been at the Apollo for twelve hours a day. On one of these days I saw James Brown and I went backstage and told him: "One day, Mr. James Brown, I will play with you!"

He gave me some typical answers like: "Go to school! Donīt take drugs!" – all this stuff. And 20 years later, I did record with him*. – He didnīt remember the incident though, but I followed my goal and got to play with him.
[ * TM sang the chorus of "Living in America", the ed.]

Katja: Did you ever have a formal musical education or did you learn everything autodidactically?

TM: I didnīt have the money for going to a music school. My musical education was sitting in front of the clubs in Harlem. I was too young to get inside, so I sat outside on a milk box. That was my education. It was a good education, because I got it from performing artists.

TM Stevens

Katja: When did you had the first chance to get a studio-job or do the first gigs?

TM: My progression was very natural. Actually I couldnīt play gigs because I was too young. When I started to play bass I was 11 years old, so I had to play in illegal clubs, like strip bars. From that day on it just went up straight. You know, every young person has dreams, but I had the chance to make them come true.

Iīve played with almost everybody that was on my list: from Miles Davies to Al Di Meola on the one side and Joe Cocker, Tina Turner and James Brown on the other – I got them all.The only one I didnīt play with is George Clinton, the P-Funk group. Although I worked with members of the band, theyīve played on my albums. All this people liked my playing, even though I couldnīt read a single note, because I like to play what I feel.

No matter if people call it jazz, funk, soul or pop, I donīt like to label it. This is one of the problems I have with my records today, because I write what I feel and not in the sense of some kind of format. I donīt like to think of music in terms of business, I figure it in terms of art.

Katja: But to get to know all these people, there has to be this magic moment, where somebody is giving you the first job...

TM: The first professional chance I got, was to do a tour with Narada Michael Warden. We knew each other from our neighborhood. So, this was the beginning. Then I met Al Foster and he introduced me to Miles Davies and he liked how I played. I wasnīt thinking in terms of jazz, only in terms of how I felt and this was always something Miles liked.

Katja: So, you never studied songs in the sense of analyzing them? You always had a different approach to music?

TM: I think if you analyze something itīs like your PC is in your head. But you have to bring it from the head to the heart, this is when it works. I just put it in my heart and did the best I can. My grandfather said the worst thing you can do is to make a mistake – but if you make the mistake, make it loud! Iīve always been that way. I always just played through my ears and my heart.


My grandfather said the worst thing you can do is to make a mistake
– but if you make the mistake, make it loud!

Katja: But why did it took so long in the States? You were already a big name as a sideman for all this big stars?

TM: I guess, if I would have done this Puff Daddy-thing or R'n'B, it would have been a lot easier. It was always this labeling-thing. I never wanted to go through this labeling, because then you are done. You have a hit-record and they say: Next! – You know? Iīm like a nail that wonīt go in. But for the last 25 years Iīve been on a steady incline, maybe not fast and high, but Iīve been on an incline. Steady but sure.

TM Stevens

Katja: Where do you get this amount of energy from? Itīs always a happening when you are on stage...

TM: I am the bass and the bass is me. That sounds strange, but if Iīm not playing bass I think about it. Itīs not a job, itīs a passion for me. When I put my hands on it, I try not to come from, "Ok, this is an 'A' or 'B'" – all this. I try to come from: "Where can I go with it? How far can I take it?" For some people this is really good. And for some people, who are not secure, they can get a little upset by that.

You see, if somebody doesn´t want someone that energetic, maybe Iīm not the right one. It happened with Joe Cocker once and we had to part, but we are still friends. In my band I like wild Indians behind me, because it makes the whole thing better. Someone who just needs me to be behind them and donīt be wild is something I canīt do. But, I always have to discipline myself, because a good leader has to be a good follower. So I can do that. But if you want a silent musician behind that donīt push you, you need a worker – thatīs how we call it. But, thatīs not me.

Katja: Was it always this way?

TM: Oh, yeah! Because this was all I had in the beginning. I come from the Bronx, you know? The music showed me a way to not let happen what was supposed to happen to me. What was supposed was the drugs, the gangs, all this, either dead or in jail, or both.

The music pulled me out just in time to go for another life. Iīm not coming from the side where people say: "I want to play guitar and meet girls." Iīm coming from what could have been a bad end. I never forget that. But I also never wanna go back to that again. Thatīs where my fight comes from.

Katja: So back then, the music helped you to survive?

TM: Absolutely! It still does, because thatīs what I do for living, but not in this "dead or alive"-way anymore. The music was really what pulled me out from where I was. So, thatīs maybe why I donīt like to play so much jazz, because itīs often a very intellectual way to play. I like to play music to the people not over their heads.

TM Stevens - "Shocka Zooloo"

Katja: Here you give the impression of a thoughtful, shy person, whereas the person you represent on stage, "Shockazoolo", is a a rather wild and powerful one...

TM: Itīs all part of the same person. The guy on stage is not someone going to the phone booth changing into Superman and then later on becomes Clark Kent again. Itīs not like that. All of this goes through me all the time. Letīs say Iīm still the guy on stage but when Iīm off stage Iīm a little bit more less sure of myself, as shy as anybody else. But itīs about putting all this things together. So the guy on stage is also TM, Itīs just like seeing different things in different moments.

Now Iīm just as fragile as anyone else. I always say Iīm masculine-feminine. You have to allow the feminine side of you to let go, too. So my emotional side is very strong. You know, I cry in the movies. So people look at "Shakazoolo" as this wild and rough guy, but on the other side, Iīm very fragile.

I think all this is only about allowing an "and" and forget about the "or". Thinking that I can be everything together and donīt have to decide about either one or the other. I guess, this is something a lot of people have problems to accept, even though it gives you much more inner peace, if you do it.

Katja Duregger

CD: TM Stevens - "Shocka Zooloo" (United One 402 4569 6003-2)

TM Stevens im Internet: www.tmstevens.com

United One Records im Internet: www.united-one.net

Photos: www.tmstevens.com

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© jazzdimensions2003
erschienen: 18.9.2003
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