20 STRINGS & THE TRUTH: A CONVERSATION WITH HARRY MANX by John The Rock Doctor

When I found out that Harry Manx was playing shows in my area (Northeast Alberta), I got genuinely excited.  I reached out to his publicist through his website, offering both the article you are about to read and a full episode of my “Soft Rock Cafe” radio show to air March 13th.  He thought it fine idea and figured Harry would be, and he was.  The following conversation took place on February 24th, 2016, just last week… I hope you enjoy it as much as Harry and I did.

Hi John

How ya doing, Harry?

Yeah, I’m good, man…

Are you just driving to the next gig?

Yeah I am.  I’m in Ottawa and theres’ a lot of snow- just like you’d expect! (chuckles)

Ottawa, I used to live there when I was a kid so I know what it’s like.

It looks real pretty with the snow, Orrawa, you know.  I’ve sort of given in to winter and I’ve started to love it like the rest of Canada (laughing) and it’s much better this way!

That’s awesome!  Now I guess we’ll just jump right into it ‘cuz I know you’re a busy guy.  You were born on the Isle Of Man but you moved to Canada with your family when you were a kid.  How old were you when that happened?

Oh I was just 5 years old when we came over from the Isle Of Man.  We were 5 kids and my parents, we lived near Toronto.

Oh cool!  Now, was it a musical household, (or) are you, like, the only musician in the family?

No, you know my sister took piano lessons and she was the only girl, and there was 4 boys.  The rest of us, we played hockey. (John laughs) We didn’t play music. 

Ah so you’re really a Canadian boy, yeah. 

Yeah- in fact we hated that piano!  (both laugh) It wasn’t a great thing.  No, I discovered music later on, in my teenage years when I started to experience, you know, the angst of growing up- then I took to music.

And you were looking for music that kind of expresses how you feel, right? 

Yeah, exactly.  And I think I still approach music with that in mind you know, as a form of expression.  Hopefully now, my, what I express is a little more objective than when I was younger, but it’s still like that- you still have to have a lot of emotion in the music.  Exactly.  Do you mind if I ask how old you are?

Nah, I’m 61. 

Okay, so we’re not that far apart, I’m gonna be 58 here in a couple of months. 

Oh that’s good, man.  You know I keep telling people the best things happen in your 60’s, I don’t know, I just made it up (John laughs) but it sounds good, doesn’t it?

(still laughing) I hope it’s working out so far! (Harry laugh too)  Now you talk about turning on to music when you were in your teenage years especially.  What kind of stuff was speaking to you, like artists and genres?

Yeah really, you know, I saw a record- do you remember those, great big black CD’s? (laughter)

Oh I still have lots of those!

Yeah!  Well I saw a record of Johnny Winter with his first album, with his National Steel, and I loved the look of that guitar on Johnny.  I bought that record, I took it home and that was my initiation into the blues.  And it wasn’t but a few years later that I left home when I was living in Toronto.  I started working and I was hanging out in the downtown blues clubs, and I really took to that.

Your record buying experience was probably similar to mine, when you used to go to, like, the local stereo shop…

Yes!

…and maybe they’d have the records downstairs or something.  And you’d start flipping through the vinyl looking at the cover art, and you’d go “Oh THAT looks interesting, I’m gonna take this home and check it out.”

Yes!  That’s right, and the cover art was so attractive and huge and all-consuming for you that music became even more alive as a result of that. 

Oh exactly, and that’s one of the reasons I do interviews is, as a life-long music fan- and I’m writing album reviews and writing and producing a radio show…

Oh great!

I have the opportunity and the wish to dive further into the music, and talking to you today, I know, is going to help ME appreciate your music even more, and hopefully it’ll be the same for others (who read this interview or hear the show).  It’s all part of the experience- people that really love music just wanna, you like a piece of music you want to know MORE about it, you want to get DEEPER into it. 

Yes, that’s right.  I get great feedback on, through the internet and many ways, from people about how the music impacts them, and as an artist I can tell you that is where the inspiration comes from to keep moving forward, when the people tell you how much the music means to them or to someone they know. 

Oh exactly.  Now, you grew up in the Toronto area, and I was reading the bio on your website this morning… and it said that you were a sound guy on the Toronto scene, that you were working in blues clubs and that.  Can you talk about that a little bit?

Yes, I worked with a lot of bands in the beginning when I was 15, I left home and started to be a roadie, I wanted to be around the music.  I worked with many bands, but eventually I worked at the El Mocambo Club on Spadina, and that was kind of the main club to have a really good blues act in and I saw all the great blues acts there over the years.  It really was a great inspiration, you know.  I didn’t learn any notes from those guys , but I learned something about the feel and the approach, and I think I still carry that today.

As a fan of yours, and I’ve been listening to your music for about 10-12 years now, I can definitely say that’s the case.  Now you moved to Europe in your… was it in your 20’s that you hopped the pond?

Yeah, yeah. 

Did you have, like, a big plan in mind, or did you just say “I think it’d be cool to live in Europe for awhile…” ?

Yeah, Yeah I just escaped you know.  The last gig I had, I was doing stage monitors for Rush on a tour across Canada, that was the last gig I had as a roadie before I left for Europe at 19.  I thought “well I’ve had enough of that rock & roll now.”  I took my guitar and I went to Europe and when I landed there, I told people I was a musician. (both laugh) I was no longer a roadie, I just said “Yes, I’m a musician.”  And what it amounted to was me playing on the street for the next 10 years in Europe, and actually learning to become a decent musician. 

Yeah- learning to entertain and learning your craft.

Yeah. I got paid right from the beginning for practicing! (laughs) I went straight to the street and started in Paris, but I ended up living in Switzerland, Germany and many places in Europe.

Wow, you really got around, didn’t you?

Yeah, I spent a long time there, and I figured out sort of how to make a living with music.  I realized that I wasn’t the best musician, but I needed to be as unique as I could, you know.  And I think, to that end, I started playing the guitar on my lap just to stand out from the others that played normal style. 

Interesting, yeah…

And that just evolved into always looking for something unique that I could make my own.

Well speaking of something unique, please talk about when you moved to India and you were studying with Vishwa Mohan Baat.  Was that, again was that a plan, were you just intrigued by East Indian music, and was putting the blues and east Indian music together always in the back of your mind?

No, actually I never intended to mix blues with anything, it’s sort of, its almost sacrilegious (laughs) you’re not supposed to do that!  But in the end, you know, I found that as deep a love as I had for the blues, I also had that deep a love for Indian music.  I got to listen to it, I noticed in Europe, some people playing it you know, it was some Ravi Shankar music and everything.  I realized that I was very attracted to it, so … I went to Europe, I went to India the first time in ’79 and stayed for a year.  I bought a sitar and I started to fool around, and I realized that was really a very attractive thing to me, so I went back to the West and I decided at some point “I’m gonna move to India”.  In ’86 I moved there, and I stayed there ‘til ’98.  And I just studied music, I studied up to 5 hours a day for many years, and I knew many Indian musicians became a part of their scene.  And yeah, that was my journey in India. 

I have to say you’re not the only one who has had this vision in that if you pay attention to some of Led Zeppelin’s stuff, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page have always seen a connection between the blues and middle-eastern scales and whatnot.  So that’s something that I think you felt too.

Yes.  You know, in fact if you think about, like, the blues, what it is, is really very old and very deep African music .  And Indian music is also very old and very deep, and by that I mean they’ve played it long enough that they’ve figured out how to really get the mood into the song so that when you hear it, it moves you.  So it’s sort of natural that those two types of music, there’s gonna be times when they overlap.  What I mean is they use the same notes, and even the same phrasing to get their message across, and it’s so kinda overlapping in places that I really try to get into and use in my music.

When… do you know exactly when it was, did a light bulb go on when you said “Hey, I’m gonna put these two together and see what happens”?

(laughs) yeah, well here’s the thing… you know I was a blues slide player, and then I was there studying in India with Vishwa, and he went to America during my studies, and he made an album with Ry Cooder. 

Oh wow!

And he came back and he told me he’d made an album with Ry Cooder, “Meeting By The River”.

Okay, I’ll have to look that up…

Yeah, and then that won him a Grammy award.  And so, you know, it inspired me because I was playing blues and I was playing Indian music, and I got really into the record they made, and that sort of, my style sort of grew out of that, I realized what a great, deep, wonderful idea that was, mixing blues with Indian music.

Well like you say, two very deep forms of music, so it should seem natural that there’s some kind of connection there.

Yes.  And, like on a musical level, there’s really great connections.  They really use the same scales in some ragas, in Indian classical pieces, that they use in blues, and it’s just a matter of phrasing.  That’s what I do, I try to see where they’re similar and I use the phrasing accordingly.

Exactly.  Now, I must admit when I first heard about the kind of music that you were making, the east Indian and the blues, being a blues fan myself I was thinking and not knowing, really, anything about east Indian music other than what I’ve heard in maybe the occasional restaurant… (Harry laughs) and I thought “Well how’s THAT going to work?” And then I think it was 2004, Simon (publicist) sent me your “West Eats Meet” CD?

Yes…

And I just went “Okay, I GET IT now”, it spoke to me immediately.  Do you find peple have that immediate response to what you’re doing?

Yeah, I think it’s, you know, my music is maybe a stepping stone towards hard core Indian classical, if you will.  Indian classical, it’s demanding to listen to in a sense if you’re a westerner because there’s a lot going on you don’t know about.  And so my music is like… just this little step in that direction and it’s easier to take, I frame it in

A western context.  So people do, right away, feel something and enjoy it, but they’re not really sure exactly what it is. (chuckles)

Or WHY they like it- they go “I like this but I have no idea why.”

Yeah, yeah.  It touches them on a deep level.  You know anything with the Indian phrasing and the sound of India touches a lot of people on a deep level, you know.  Either they’ve had some connection or some vision about India, and that comes out right away in the sound of the Mohan Veena ( the guitar/ sitar hybrid with 20 strings that Manx plays).  .

It’s interesting, I think, that the blues, which is essentially an African art form, and the east Indian music…

Yeah…

You would think, or it would be reasonable to assume that they’re maybe not culturally exclusive but speak mostly to their cultures… but white people like myself, I’m a big ol’ white guy, and this music speaks really LOUD to me.

Yes, that’s funny.  Music, like they say, it’s the universal language, you know, of the human spirit, and that’s… that’s beyond language let’s say, it’s aside from language.  It’s a different kind of language, and I think we all speak that.  Everywhere I’ve gone people have enjoyed the music whether they speak English or not.  In fact my biggest market in Canada is in Quebec.

Oh wow, I didn’t know that!

Yeah (chuckling) and I don’t speak much, I’m ashamed to say my French is terrible!  But you know there’s the spirit of the music resonates with them very well, so… there it is, it’s beyond language.

There you, go, exactly.  Now let’s get quickly into your recording career.  Your first record was “Dog My Cat”, which is of course also the name of your record company.

Yes.

Were you discovered, did you have to go looking for a deal, how did that set up for you?

Oh you know I made my first record and I gave out the first thousand, and I got really great response, in fact I got an offer for a record deal and I signed with a company. I did 3 records with them, but I just leased the records to them if you will, with it in mind that eventually I will start my own label, which I did.  And now I have all my, what… well, most of my records that I’ve made, I have them on my label now.

Cool. Now in terms of making your records, you have original stuff, and you do cover songs on most of your albums that I’ve heard anyway.

Yeah…

Do you have any particular criteria for selecting the songs that you choose to cover?

Well you know, I think that I keep drawing on songs from the 70’s because that was maybe, maybe the time in my life when music had the biggest impression on me.  And so, you know, I cover stuff from Van Morrison and Jimi Hendrix and, you know, Bruce Springsteen, I think that era had the biggest impact. I’ve never even considered doing any modern material, covering any contemporary songs, I never considered it, I don’t know.  I could, but that’s just sort of the first thing that comes to mind- I think of songs that I love from the 70’s and I play them.

Yeah, the songs that speak to you.  Like on your last album, “20 Strings & The Truth”, you covered “Summertime”, and I’ve always loved that song because I love the first line; It’s summertime, and the livin’ is easy”. 

That’s right! (laughs) I love to play that song this time of year, especially when we’re up to our ass in snow (both laugh) and wondering if it will ever bloody end!  That’s when I love to bring that song out.

That’s awesome!  Now, I own seven of your 12 albums, including three that you collaborated on with Kevin Breit which, of course, are “Jubilee”, “Strictly Whatever” and “In Good We Trust”. 

Yeah…

Now can you describe your relationship with Kevin, how you came to working with him, making music together, and is there any thought again about perhaps getting together in the future making music?  Because I know Kevin is an adventurous soul as well.

Yes.  Yeah, you know I went to, when I first arrived (back) in Canada in 2000, I went to, early 2001, I went to a Folk Alliance conference in Vancouver where the artists showcased their material, and I was in a hotel showcase room, and there was a woman singing.  She was jumping around, waving her arms, but singing not so special.  But I looked and sitting on the bed making all the music was a guy on the guitar, and that was Kevin.  And I right away realized that he was quite brilliant, I could see that.  You know as a guitar player I could immediately recognize somebody, but… and I just took note of that.  And a few years later at an Owen Sound folk festival, they put me in a workshop with him, and he had a trio.  And man, did we blow the roof off that day!  

No doubt!

YEAH! And we both realized that we had a lot in common and a kind of synergy happened when we got together to play.  So yeah, we made three recordings and we toured a lot, we opened for some great bands; Gregg Allman and Los Lobos, people like that.  And then Kevin’s gone off and played with other people- lately I think he’s been playing with Cassandra Wilson, I’ve been doing my solo thing, so… But, you know I’m always open to getting to play with Kevin.  In fact I think we might do a couple of festivals this summer coming up together.
That would be very cool.  Now speaking of touring with Kevin, I saw you guys perform together a few years ago at a place called The Rossland Miner’s Hall…

Oh yeah!

And that was just a really cool gig, it’s a funky old building, it was awesome, and I even met you guys after the show! 

Right!  Yes!  I remember that gig, that was fun as hell! 

Yeah it was, wasn’t it?

And we had a keyboard player too, maybe?  Or was it just the two of us?

I think it was just the two of you- I could be wrong, because I’m getting older and I forget things!

Yeah, yeah, we came there as a duo once- yeah, I remember that one.

Do you have as much fun, or more fun, getting up in front of people and playing your music, as opposed to crafting a studio record, or are they completely different for you?

Yeah, you know I don’t mind getting out to play, I’ve been doing that forever and it’s actually a very different thing than recording.  I know that a lot of artists would like to be well received in the public, but don’t really enjoy being with the public if you know what I mean.  Their introverted nature makes it difficult for them to come out. I’m kind of, I’m both- I’m pretty introverted, I love solitude, but I can go and meet people after the show and I honestly really enjoy it.  I like to look in their faces and shake their hands, and see what I’ve done and how it’s impacted them.  And then I know for the next night “Oh yeah, I’m good I’m on a mission here, they’re enjoying what I’m playing.”

Yeah, whatever you’re doing is working.

Yeah I see that, so I’m pretty good meeting the people and that part of it, but yeah I can be totally out in nature on my own and I really, really think that’s where you charge your batteries in life.

Yeah, you get yourself back together for sure.

Yes- solitude.

Okay.  Now let’s talk about your last couple of albums, like 2013’s “Om Sweet Ohm”, which initially struck me as being more ‘middle eastern’ than the last few albums that came before it.  And to be honest I had to make more of an effort to get into it musically.  Was that kind of the intention, to challenge the listener, or am I just being an idiot?

No, no, you’re right.  See, it’s different from the other records.  It’s that, you know as an artist you keep trying to stretch yourself, you try to reach out and you try to things a little different without losing the flow.  So, you know, I experiment, and I’ve experimented a lot in the last few records, you know?  But it’s a funny thing, because “20 Strings & The truth” was sort of the last record of some stream of records, and I stopped writing and recording since that one.  And now I start to feel like “Oh yeah, now I could probably make a record like my first one again”, where I get the guitar out, you know! (laughs) So we’re working on that with some strings, me playing with some string, kind of simplified but beautified. 

Oh interesting!  You don’t wanna keep making the same record over and over again…

Nawwww!  I like to experiment a lot.

That keeps it fresh for you and it keeps it fresh for us too.

Yeah, but I look back… but like, honestly, “20 Strings & the Truth” is not my proudest work.  Between me and you, I had cancer last year and I wrote the fuckin’ record when I was having cancer, so I think the music… when I listen to it now, the music, I can’t listen to it, really.  It was a time that came and it went so now, I’m good, I’m healed up and feeling good and I have a totally different perspective.  I’m thinking, like, “Oh the recording?  Oh yeah, it’s gotta be joyful, it’s gotta be beautiful”.  I’m not trying to present any really depth that I presented in “20 Strings & The Truth”, which really was a reflection of my life a that time. 

Can I get you to talk about just a couple of songs on the album? 

Sure.

We touched on it briefly before, your remake of “Summertime”.

You know, I took the raga “Bujarhi Toadie” (sp) which is from Rajistahn, and it’s a very deep, dark, bluesy raga, meant to be played late at night, and I mixed that with “Summertime”, and the tension between the notes is apparent right from the beginning.

That’s what gives it a very different feel from your average recording of “Summertime”. 

Cool.  Now, the first song on the album is the instrumental “Veenarama”.  Is that just an excuse to play on your instrument of choice there? (both chuckling) *(note: the “Mohan Veena”, which we are talking about here, is a 20 string instrument, a cross between the sitar and the guitar)

(Laughing) yeah, I guess so!  That’s also actually, that’s the melody of another raga that actually is played very slow, but I sped it up and changed the key and whatever.  You see I take great liberties with my ragas, and then I added a few bits to the melody, and there it became “Veenarama”.

Very cool. Now can you talk just a little bit about this particular instrument?  Because I’m thinking people that are coming out to see you, if they don’t know your music, if somebody’s saying “This guy Harry Manx is playing in town tonight. Come with me, you’re gonna go see this guy play”, can you describe the instrument to them?

Yes- the Mohan Veena’s really a mixture of the guitar, the slide guitar, and an Indian instrument called the sitar, which has 20 strings and Ravi Shankar plays it.  So it’s really a mixture of those two instruments, so it looks a lot like a guitar but sounds very much like a sitar. I play it in my lap, Hawaiian style, and the music I play is really a mixture of blues and Indian classical. 

Now you’re playing festival Place in Sherwood Park, which is a suburb of Edmonton, on March 19th and 20th.  Now, for folks coming out to the show, or thinking about coming out, what would you say to them directly?  What can they expect?

Oh you know, when I’m coming up there, I’m playing with a quartet, and also to your guys there in Vermilion, but I’m playing with a quartet of great musicians.  I’ve got Clayton Doley from Australia, one of the best organ players in the world, this guy is an amazing B-3 player- he’s been playing with me about 5 years now, Clay.  And then I’ve got from Vancouver , I’ve got John Reishman, what a wonderful mandolinist, a top. Top shelf bluegrass guy, he played on my “Mantras For Madmen” album…

Okay, I’ve got that one too…

Have a listen to “Never The Twain”, that song- he’s featured on that, he’s really good. 

Okay, I’ll do that!

I’m adding a percussionist from Vancouver, Liam McDonald.  He’s well versed in Brazilian percussion and also western  percussion, and he’ll help me keep the rhythm clickin’ along. 

Very cool.  Now, you’ve been out on the road for awhile, and as you say you’re in the Ottawa area, Quebec- I think you’re playing Gatineau tonight?

Yeah that’s right, that’s correct.

How long do you plan to be out before returning to Salt Spring Island (where he lives), and how far along are you in the thought process for maybe doing that next record?

Well… okay, first of all the next record is, in March I’m working on the, end of March I’m working on the charts for the string section, a quartet.  We have a few quartets in mind we’ve been talking to, so we’re gonna record, and eventually that’ll become a live performance, myself and the strong quartet.  So we’re pretty good, I’ve chosen the songs and I have an arranger. We’re starting to work on that, so we expect that album’ll be out within 6 months.  

So is that going to be a live record?

No, we’ll record it.  We’ll record it, and eventually it’ll be a live show, yeah.  We’ll start with the recording,  I wanted to do a recording so people can envision what the live show would look like and sound like. 

It’s nice for people to have a frame of reference, instead of showing up and saying “Okay, well I have no idea what’s going on!”

(laugh) That’s right!  And now I’m sort of in the middle, I’m doing about 20 shows out here in Quebec, and then I’m heading west and I’ll be doing some BC shows before I get out to Alberta so yeah, I’ll be back, I think I’ll be back out west in the 2nd week of March to do some shows.  And then we’ll start heading out towards Alberta, and I’m really looking forward to the shows out there with the quartet.  In fact the quartet is only playing in Alberta, otherwise I’m pretty much playing solo or as a duo.

Previous articleHodge Podge by Charlie Hodge – Feb 25-2016
Next articleMusic Reviews by John The Rock Doctor March 7th
The Rock Doctor is in the Cyber House to tell you how it is! (or at least my own opinion). Want a music review? email: rockdoc@gonzookanagan.com. \m/

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