Big Boy Bloater is never going to die. At least, that’s the plan. At some unspecified point in the future, he informs us, when age and booze have finally caught up with him, he’ll merely hand his shattered body over to a team of scalpel-wielding automatons for a full cyborg overhaul. “I’ll be fitted with a robot brain at some point,” he predicts, semi-serious. “And as other bits of me fall off, they’ll be replaced by robot parts too. I’m convinced of it.”
You don’t get this sort of soundbite from the blues cubs. But then, black-comedy flights of fancy have been something of a Bloater speciality since the R&B kingpin hit public consciousness with 2012’s The World Explained. At that time, we interviewed him for issue three of The Blues, holding on tight as he rattled off a hilariously caustic worldview that made us snigger and wince. Soon after, as the host of TeamRock Radio’s Blues Magazine Show, he became the gruffly garrulous soundtrack to our Tuesday nights. At no point did we think: “This is a man who needs help…”
Given that, it was a jolt when Mascot Records circulated a press release last December for new album Luxury Hobo, in which it emerged that Bloater had fought back from depression and a crippling 2013 breakdown to write the new material. Jaws clanked open across The Blues office. The revelation simply didn’t square with the public image of the gallon-hatted, whammy- twanging raconteur (this afternoon, as usual, he sounds chipper).
These days, of course, Bloater is a seasoned interviewer himself. He knows we’re bound to ask, and he doesn’t duck the subject. “All my life,” he begins, choosing his words carefully, “I’ve had these periods, y’know? Maybe two or three weeks where I’ve just been really down. I think having this alter-ego of Big Boy Bloater almost kept me in denial about it for a long time. I believed that everything was alright, because here’s this big character on stage, and he’s the same as he always was – so there can’t be anything wrong, surely? Y’know, I couldn’t be depressed if I was like this.”
We had no idea there was a problem. How did you keep it hidden?
“Well, the only time most people saw me was in the Big Boy Bloater persona,” he reasons. “I didn’t want to spend any time with anybody. If I wasn’t on stage, I didn’t want to socialise. So to most people, they wouldn’t have had a clue. Some of the guys in the band knew, definitely. The people who are close to me, yeah. But to everybody else, it was just business as usual. It was almost like a dual personality kind of thing in the end. It was like, there’s Big Boy Bloater – and then there’s this bloke at home.”
And while the artist known as Bloater watched his career take flight, the bloke at home was unravelling. “I guess it’s the downtime, the time when you’re on your own, that it really starts eating away at you,” he says. “After I did The World Explained, I just let it all get on top of me. I had a really, really bad time. For that reason, I haven’t put anything out now for, like, three years. I think the worst was Christmas 2013. I just couldn’t shake it that time. I can barely even remember that two-month period. My wife Lisa reminds me now and again about bits and pieces that went on. I was almost catatonic, not talking, not wanting to move. It was almost as if my brain had shut down.”
Your career was going so well by that point, following years of cult acclaim. Didn’t you find professional success brought personal fulfilment? “Oh, that’s such a big question. Success is in the eye of the beholder. It’s relative. It’s not a case of how well you’re doing and how much good stuff is going on in your life. The richest people in the world, and the luckiest people in the world, can also have depression. It’s not really anything to do with what’s going on. It’s a chemical imbalance, really, at the end of the day. I guess if I hadn’t had such a good life, I might have been even worse.”
Was there a point when you considered walking away from music?
He shakes his head: “I think it was actually the music that kept me going. Being on stage was kind of like the only time when I felt comfortable and relaxed. Almost having a shield, a barrier. Having that persona of Big Boy Bloater to come back to. I found that a lot easier than the rest of life, really. So I guess I wouldn’t have ever given up on that.”
The turning point came when Bloater’s wife convinced him there was no taboo in seeking professional help. “I had a couple of really dark months there. Lots of things were going wrong around me. I think the biggest deal for me was actually acknowledging it. I conceded that something wasn’t right. I’d been living with this forever, really, but it was the first time that I’d actually listened to someone who said, ‘You know what, you should get some help’.
“So I went to the doctor and had a chat with him. And he was really great. I was helped through by a good wife and a good doctor – and a bit of medication. I took some time, got myself together and finally thought, ‘Right, I’ll get myself back on track, make this album’. Y’know, feelings of depression and anxiety do tend to make interesting listening, I suppose.”
No doubt about that. As our review in this issue confirms, Luxury Hobo is a triumph snatched from the jaws of oblivion: nine cracking tracks that amply repay the faith of the Mascot label in their new signing. Even before you get to the music, though, your eyes are drawn to a sleeve that finds Bloater nursing a bottle of grog on the steps of an Airstream caravan.
Are you still allowed to drink, then, given what’s been going on? “Yeah, I am. That’s fine. When I first went to the doctors, they put me on some medication that I couldn’t drink with, and it really screwed me up. I was getting hot flushes, shakes, it was terrible. That was a real low point. But we changed the medication and a couple of months later, they said, ‘Oh yeah, you can have a bit of a drink again if you like’. I’ve never looked back.”
So where was that sleeve shot taken?
“I’m not sure I should tell you.”
Go on. It looks like the Nevada desert.
“That’s what I wanted. But we couldn’t get the Airstream to Nevada, unfortunately. So it was done at a caravan park in the south of England.”
The music, meanwhile, was tracked by Bloater and his long-standing band, The Limits, at Buckinghamshire New University. “They’ve got a state-of-the-art studio there, all the top-notch gear, and we managed to get it for a week in August while all the students were on holiday. We did it with Adam Whalley, who’s a producer at TeamRock Radio and does all the live sessions. He’s really from that hard rock background, but he put in a lot of work, listening to previous albums, coming to gigs, working out the sound, talking to me about how it should feel. I basically just wound him up and let him go.”
Did you have a good laugh in the studio?
“Y’know, to me, this is quite a rock‘n’roll album,” considers Bloater. “A good old-fashioned, sex, drugs and rock‘n’roll sort of album. You could slap it on when you’ve had a few beers. We spent a week recording as a band, and you’d think it would have been this wild, late-night-session-type thing. It wasn’t. It was recorded between the hours of nine and five, all very civilised. Our total alcohol bill for the week was 70 quid, between six of us. I think that’s pretty poor, to be frank. That would normally be a lunchtime session for me. But the tea and coffee bill was over £120! And I’m thinking, ‘I need to get the band back on the road again. We need to toughen up a bit.’ When we do a tour, there’s always a couple of nights that get a little bit messy. Once the sambuca comes out, that’s it – you know there’s gonna be trouble.”
Perhaps staying dry in the studio was a wise move. Released on March 11, Luxury Hobo delivers the most focused songs of Bloater’s career. “The album is about modern life,” he decides. “The title came to me because I was thinking about how everyone does so much travelling these days, but it’s not like the old days when you had to walk down a dusty road or something. We have nice, shiny trailers, all the modern-day luxuries. So I thought: Luxury Hobo. It conjures up visions of modern-day life, I think.
“It’s a nine-track album,” he continues, “and the reason for that is because I just kept all the good stuff in and cut away all the rubbish. I just thought to myself, ‘Ah, that’s album filler, I’m gonna cut that out.’ So for me, this is almost an album of singles. I love them all, and it sort of has a weekly rota of another song being my favourite. At the moment, Robot Girlfriend is definitely my favourite…”
Ours too. Set to a sharp-elbowed riff, Bloater’s vision of a servile robot missus turning on its feckless master is equal parts Blade Runner and Benny Hill. “That’s a song about not taking what you’ve got for granted,” he explains. “It lays it out pretty much on the line. This guy has got this amazing robot girlfriend, and she does everything for him – and he just treats her like absolute shit. In the end, it comes back and he gets back what he’s due. So it was a nice story – and it had a robot in it. What more could you want?”
If what you want is a stompy, eastern-inflected vamp with a B-movie lyric, well, you’ve got one of those here, too. “It Came Out Of The Swamp is about this misunderstood monster,” Bloater explains. “All the villagers get up in arms, get their pitchforks out and try to chase it away. In the end, the town becomes part of the swamp. It’s the idea that you can’t fight nature.”
There’s also a sense of alienation. Is that salient, after the Paris attacks?
“I despair of what happened,” he says. “I can barely even process it. What the hell is going on, y’know? You can’t even go to a gig now without getting shot. That’s gonna filter down into a lot of things in society, and I suspect on to my next album. I think if you think too much about what’s going on in the world, you would be very depressed.”
A lighter note, then. Tell us about the ridiculous funk-flavoured finale, Not Cool Man.
“Well, that was the first song I wrote, actually, for the album. We were doing a support for George Thorogood, and it was a really weird gig, because although it was a massive 5,000-person venue, we had to supply our own sound system. Because of that, we might have run over just a little bit on the first night, and as we were pulling our gear off the stage, one of their roadies just turned to our sound tech and said: ‘Not cool, man’. That told us. For weeks, we were saying that to each other, and the line just stuck in my head.
“From there,” he continues, “I wrote that song, and I started to invent these characters. You see these characters about these days who are ridiculous - by why should it matter? It doesn’t make any difference to your life. If they want to wear a pink frilly coat on the beach, y’know, it’s up to them. You can only worry about yourself. Just live and let live, I guess, is the moral of that song.”
If those cuts sound a little frivolous for a man who’s just battled back from the brink, let’s not overlook the title track, with its references to Bloater medicating his brain. “Luxury Hobo Blues, that’s sort of about after [the breakdown]. It’s very autobiographical. It’s like an anti-blues song, really. So I took the cliché of ‘I woke up this morning and my baby was gone’. And I changed it to, ‘I woke up at lunchtime and my baby was still here. Then I found the pub and had some beer.’ That’s kind of my life, really.”
Then there’s I Got The Feeling Someone’s Watching Me: the track whose tetchy, paranoid scuttle is perhaps the most direct product of Bloater’s darkest times. “I was definitely tapping into some of that bad energy that I felt in the previous years there. It started off as a song being sung by a guy who’s in a padded room with a two-way mirror. Then it sort of expanded.
Y’know, if you go out in the street now, you’re on video everywhere, aren’t you? There’s cameras everywhere. There’s always somebody watching you – and you don’t know who it is. I don’t know what inspired the music. Musically, there’s a few different things going on: a great big church bell at the beginning, and then some handclaps, almost like flamenco. It’s some sort of crazy idea that hatched in my brain one morning, and it all just came together.”
Is there less of an overt R&B and blues influence on this album?
“I’m a big fan of 70s rock-pop stuff, I guess, like Mott The Hoople and T.Rex and what have you. I think there’s a bit more of that in there, probably. But there’s definitely a bit of Howlin’ Wolf on the album, too, on I Love You (But I Can’t Stand Your Friends). That ‘woo-hoo’ bit: that’s directly from Howlin’ Wolf’s Smokestack Lightning. I thought, Well, if I’m gonna borrow from somebody, Howlin’ Wolf is a great source.’ I couldn’t quite do the falsetto like he does, though. It came out sounding a bit camp…”
Won’t your wife’s friends be pissed off about that song title? “Nah. I think she hates them too, so that’s fine.”
As a lyricist – thank God – it’s fair to say that Bloater’s sense of dystopian mischief has made it through the wringer. “Yeah,” he nods. “I think my humour is quite dark. I think there’s enough people gazing at their navels these days, doing these bloody songs, moaning and wailing. Oh God! So a bit of tongue-in-cheek dark humour, it adds a little bit of spiciness to the music, I think. And I’m a fan of black comedies generally. There’s nothing I love more on TV than watching a head explode.”
Thankfully, right now, Bloater’s own headspace seems healthier than it has in years. Still, let’s say you’re wrong: that you don’t get that robot brain transplant after all, and you’re stuck with the one you’ve got. How are you going to live your life to make sure the depression doesn’t strike again?
“I’m taking great drugs,” laughs Bloater. Then he’s suddenly serious: “The most important thing is just acknowledging it and dealing with it head-on, rather than not talking about it, pretending it’s not happening. Keeping on top of it. If something goes wrong, you don’t bury it. You deal with it…”
Luxury Hobo is released March 11 via Mascot/Provogue.
Bloater on the pleasures and pitfalls of his Blues Magazine radio show…
“I think the best thing about the radio show is that I’ve got to meet so many people. I got to interview Robert Cray and watch him do a session, up close. I’ve interviewed Beth Hart a couple of times and she’s done a session for me. I do enjoy interviewing people, but I find it a bit hard sometimes. You start to worry, ‘Am I gonna get on with them? Am I gonna remember all the stuff I need to remember?’ But at the end of the day, it’s not rocket science, is it?
“My first interview with Robert Cray, he came into the station and I had to interview him on a FlashMic. He was probably the biggest name I’d interviewed, certainly at that point. But the FlashMic broke and we lost the second half of the interview. It was like, ‘No!’ It had to happen with Robert Cray, y’know? Luckily, we found out he was playing in Basingstoke, which is just down the road from me, a couple of nights later. So I went back and redid the rest of the interview in his dressing room. He was really nice and gracious about it, but I just thought, ‘Oh, that looks so amateurish, doesn’t it?’
“A lot of my interviews have finished up in the pub, strangely enough. I’d always make sure the guests came right at the end of my session, then I’d say, ‘Well, we’ve finished the interview now, do you want to go to the pub?’ We’d sit in there for a few hours afterwards, sort of discussing the world and blues and stuff like that. I had Dennis Greaves from Nine Below Zero in there and Jack J Hutchinson is always up for a drink and a laugh.
“Challenges? We interviewed Mud Morganfield a couple of years back, when he was playing at BluesFest. But we couldn’t find anywhere to do this interview. I was just trying to find a room that wasn’t busy and noisy. Eventually, we found one, so we sat down and we were doing the interview, but for some reason, there was a telephone in there that kept ringing all the time, and the air conditioning was blowing. It was impossible, y’know? We had this great chance to talk to Mud, and there was just so much stuff going on. You just felt, ‘Arghh!’ He was great and he had some great stories. But I kept having to stop him and go, ‘Sorry about that – now start again!’”