Philipp Fankhauser (Funk-howser) is from Switzerland, yep Swiss cheese, yodeling and milk chocolate – Blues, eh not so much. Well whoda thunk it? These cats get it, and lay it out with a feel for the music that reaches out into the audience in a wonderful symbiotic relationship
I first met them on the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise as guest MC and brought them to the big stage with these words “…you may not know who these guys are, but after their set you will be telling everyone you know about how good they are and you will not forget them’. That was true in January 2012, and I can honestly say that after their appearance at the Chesapeake Bay Blues Festival it was true again.
I want to thank Don Hooker for having the foresight to bring them over to the US, and hope other festivals and clubs can pick up on their unique brand of soul blues and get them the exposure they deservedly.
B411: This is your first landing in America, flying in from Switzerland arrive on time only to get hung up in customs. But overall it was a very successful set here at Chesapeake Bay Blues Festival.
Philipp Fankhauser: I definitely hope so, but so far my toughest journey for a show was with Johnny Copeland’s band back in nineteen ninety four. We did Harlem to San Antonio, Texas which I believe was a fifty eight hour drive in his van – we got there set up and played just like normal.
This time we had a show yesterday (last night), at midnight in Switzerland, we slept for two hours, caught the plane came all the way to Annapolis and almost made it on time.
It’s been quite a journey and I hope it was all good.
B411: It surely was – it was more than good. People here really appreciated and got behind you and the band. They couldn’t believe you just flew in for the show.
PF: I think that’s part of our philosophy, I mean come on, it’s only an hour and that’s why we came here. I’m tired and exhausted, yes, but you can be that after the show. We don’t event talk about it – once we hit the stage that’s what we do, we don’t yawn or scratch our butts, we play.
B411: You must have learned a lot at the side of Johnny about how the deal with the road and all the other stuff on tours? Also what I see as an issue today – the ability to entertain the crowd, it seems to have lost some value these days.
PF: I don’t now if they forget, I think most of them can’t. Entertaining is not something something you learn it think it is something you are. I think that if you act like you are entertaining you will come off a little ridiculous. Me – I’m just that kind of guy, I say things I shouldn’t say at times, and might get into a little bit of trouble, sort of like a when you say something and then go ‘oohh what did I just say’?
B411: I understand, but also that I feel is part of your genuineness of you as an artist, You are a genuine kind of artist, you are who you are, not someone else. You are successful and very successful in Switzerland and soon the US.
PF: But it has not always been like that. I just listened to my first recordings of like twenty five years ago, I was a young man. I was trying to be everything and everyone but myself. I wanted to be Buddy Guy, B.B. King and Big Mama Thornton all rolled in to one.
It took me all my years and especially all the years I spent in the US and with Johnny Copeland’s van to realize that I’m just me. Granted I can play like B.B. King but B.B. can’t play like me. I am not being arrogant but we all only ourselves, you understand that yes.
B411: Absolutely, I totally agree. So let’s talk about your band for a moment – these guys are tremendous musicians in their own right yet they give of themselves to be YOUR band. And it shows – the audience gets it, it’s for the greater good, they have their moments in the light and then blend back in perfect symmetry with everyone else.
PF: Absolutely, we are a band !
B411: Yes and people see that and enjoy that part of the picture. They love your stories and it endears you and the the band to us, the audience. So I hope this day brings you more exposure in the US.
PF: I would certainly hope so. Being recognized in the homeland of the Blues is, of course, so very important. Everybody can be a great blues singer in Switzerland because they have no comparison. So being able to stand on that ground in the US is a dream of mine.
When we first did the Legendary Rhythm and Blues Cruise I was kind of scared. You are on the same boat as Latimore – heck once you see Latimore you don’t need Fankhauser – it’s over. Taj Mahal etc.,, but then I saw there’s a lot of – I call them my white colleagues – they can play great guitars and I know they can do this and that but they lack the SOUL of the Blues. What I saw in Luther Allison, Johnny Copeland, Little Milton – Little Milton told me something shortly before he died, we were talking backstage and he said “ to define the Blues is very easy, if its boring it ain’t the Blues”.
B411: You’re preaching to the choir here.
PF: The Blues is not boring music, and though you can play all these great guitar solos they are still boring. Give me something that makes me smile. There was this African-American gentleman before signing CD’s before and he says to me “where’d you get that soul boy?’ I don’t know, that’s not something you learn I guess that’s just something you are born with.
B411: That’s great, it must have been quite gratifying, and validating, for you to hear that.
PF: Absolutely, it’s very much so.
B411: Let me digress so we can shift gears here, I came to the Blues the White man’s way, Stones, Zeppelin, Cream – and then I worked my way back to the original artists. Europe always seemed to have an ear for the Blues, even selling it back to us in the early sixties. With this being so, is there a difference in the audiences, or in playing for them?
PF: Switzerland is my home turf and it’s sometimes occurs to me that some people adore me more than I actually deserve. I would wish that they might be more critical but….if I walk on stage here at the Chesapeake Bay Blues Festival and play some of Johnny Copeland’s songs I now there’s a lot of people that know the songs, so they will say ‘uhh huh, let’s see what he does here”. In Switzerland I play ‘Pie In The Sky’ but they don’t even know that it isn’t my song tho’ so, I’d like to have an audience that’s a little more educated in the Blues.
B411: It’s like the next level of the test, a step up sort to speak. You now have to please the ever critical and knowledgeable American crowds.
PF: Yes, as they say if you can make it here …. and of course with Mrs. Johnny Clyde’s wife right here next to the stage and looking at you with one eye checking you out. I know she knows Johnny Clydes’ music – so I better be half way all right or she would actually cuss me out, she don’t give a shit about that.
B411: I think you passed this test pretty well, I was right there and she didn’t go for the knife and climb up and cut ya’ (we both laugh about this). I seem to be harping on this one topic but again, you are a white guy doing soul blues, and well I might add. On the Blues cruise you were joined by Shemekia on stage for several numbers, that was great – so in a way it helped solidify your spot in the ‘r&b family’.
PF: I have been dealing with that issue all of my life, I have been doing this for over thirty years, when I started I was fifteen years old, so no one took it, or me, seriously, I understand that. On the other hand every city in the US has those little child wonders. So back in 1994 we (Johnny’s band & I) played the House of Blues in Boston and they had TV come out to report on it because they wanted to bring Monster Mike Welch out (he was like fourteen years old at the time) and they really didn’t care about Johnny. I was actually pretty pissed at that, because they didn’t come out for Johnny, they came out for the little kid. Every city has white kids that play the blues and they take it seriously. Yet being from Switzerland it has been a thorn in my side.
It’s really strange, earlier you mentioned how you got to the blues, I came up to the Blues thru Lightin’ Hopkins & Sunnyland Slim. I was really deep into the Chicago Blues thing. Thanks to Johnny Copeland I learned about OV Wright, Johnny Taylor and Bobby Blue Band. That really expanded my view as to the twelve bar blues guitar solo/harmonica kind of blues. If you listen to some of the early Bobby Blue Bland stuff from the fifties it’s just pure soul.
B411: I have decided that the Blues is really a big tent. There is room for all of us inside. We need to have Big Head Todd, JJ Grey because they attract new people to our beloved genre – we need new people or we will die. But we also need to steadfastly keep the Shemekia’s, Mavis Staple’s, and Philipp Fankhauser’s here and vital too.
PF: Yep, this is true. If I can talk about my band in that sense for a moment. My band is not a Blues band. That’s a great advantage, they don’t go back and listen to how Odie Payne played the drums, or how Buddy Guy played rhythm guitar they just play what they feel and that’s what makes it sound so different.
A lot of musicians I meet they try to copy a certain style ‘we play 50’s style Chicago Blues’, well but you live in the year 2012, so it’s seems all that preservation kind of thing, is somewhat misguided. Muddy Waters is not gone his music is still here and if you are going to play ‘Hootchie Cootchie Man’ I bet your bottom dollar you won’t play it any better than he did, so you are fighting a losing battle. You might as well come up with something new, still knowing that ‘Hootchie Cootchie Man’ is great but if I want to hear it I will pick up an LP and play it. That may be our advantage, not to be disrespectful, but my guys aren’t interested in how it used to be, they are in the here and now. That’s pretty cool, it’s our time now.
B411: You know, it shows, I was right down front (yes I like what you guys do) and the crowd was really digging it. Half way thru your first number I could see jaws hitting the floor and people asking me who these cats were….that’s great I really believe that you and the band connected with the audience today and hope to see you back here in the US touring.
Philipp, thank you for your time and get home safe (he did).
I would like to send special thanks to several good folks who helped make this interview a reality, Don Hooker (Chesapeake Bay Blues Fest) for providing Press access to his fine Festival. Tony Colter (SiriusXM Bluesville) for his persistence in getting me down there for it. Amanda Aday (Rocket Science) for placing the thought of speaking with Philipp in my head, and to Philipp and his band of amazing musicians for welcoming me as a friend.
Until next time,
Love, Peace & Chicken Grease
photos: Leslie K. Joseph
For more on Philipp please visit his site: