It started with a spilt pint and could have ended after a tragic death, but Gerry Jablonski And The Electric Band are still standing… and they’re stronger than ever. “You want our story? It’s a long, old story,” laughs bandleader Jablonski. Luckily The Blues has plenty of time to take in this particular tale. Like so many great blues yarns, it’s laced with triumph, tragedy and a whole heap of sublime musicianship. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. First we must head back to 2008. While seasoned bluesman Jablonski had already fronted bands on and off for many years, he was then coming to the end of a seven year acoustic solo stint. At this time, drummer Dave Innes set the wheels in motion for the birth of The Electric Band, even if Jablonski was a little, shall we say, cold to the idea at first. “Dave phoned me and asked if I fancied getting a band together,” he explains today. “And I told him to piss off!”
Thankfully, Innes was persistent. Having already recruited bassist Grigor Leslie and harmonica player Pete Narojczyk, the drummer kept on going until he got his man. After another phone call, Jablonski relented and agreed to join the band for a jam night in an Aberdeen pub. The final piece of the puzzle was in place and the foursome’s chemistry was evident right from the off.
Jablonski picks up the story: “After we went on at that jam night, nobody else wanted to play after us, so I thought that was cool. That’s how it all started. It was Dave’s baby.” It may have started out as Dave’s baby, but it wasn’t long before this energetic young pup of a band developed into a prospect of serious stature. The Electric Band shot into action at frightening speed, going from a potentially one off jam to writing their own tunes within a matter of weeks. Three months after that jam night, they played their first fully fledged live show, and four months on from that, they had their first album in the can. And don’t be fooled into thinking they knocked out a quick record full of covers – that just isn’t the Jablonski style.
“When I hear a band doing covers I immediately think of the original track,” he says. “To be quite honest, it doesn’t matter who it is, even if it’s good old Eric [Clapton], the cover won’t have the magic of the original. Right or wrong, that’s just my view. When I do a cover I’ll try to change it or do something with it and then I’ll listen to the original and think: ‘Man, that’s Freddie King, I’ll leave it. What’s the point?’ At least with my own stuff, if it sounds bad I’ve only got myself to blame!”
“We’ve recorded four albums and we always record original stuff,” blues harp virtuoso Narojczyk adds. “There are no covers or standards. That wasn’t bad to come up with 10 original tunes for an album within four or five months of being a band.”
They followed up their debut with 2011’s Life At Captain Tom’s and then Twist Of Fate in 2013, a pair of rockin’ blues records that covered a hell of a lot of ground, from Zeppelin-ish swagger to BB-style explosive guitar soul. This was a band very much on the up. But then tragedy struck them down.
Dave Innes, the heartbeat of the band in more ways than one, passed away on April 11, 2014 after a battle with stomach cancer. He was 52 years old. Innes was not only a founder member, but he was also an immensely talented drummer. The skilled musician had honed his chops on the London session scene and worked with stalwarts such as Marillion and Midge Ure, guys that wouldn’t accept any old slouch behind the kit. More importantly than all of that, though, Innes was the man who had put the band together, and his passing raised the question of whether they could continue.
“There was a small period where we wondered if we could carry on without Dave,” Jablonski admits. “But Dave was adamant that we carry on and he suggested Lewis to us.”
The Lewis that Innes had pinpointed as his replacement was Lewis Fraser, a fresh-faced talent known to the band thanks to the youngster’s father, Colin Fraser, of Scottish proggers Pallas.
“From the beginning of last year, Dave really wasn’t feeling very well,” Narojczyk sighs. “We had shows lined up and he wasn’t able to do it any more, unfortunately. As bad as it sounds, he knew what was coming and he pointed Lewis out to us.”
It didn’t take long for the young buck to become an integral part of the band. A gig the day after Innes’ passing was – on the insistence of the late drummer – fulfilled, and the new boy stepped up to the plate. He also stepped up to the microphone, tackling vocal duties on heart-wrenching ballad Anybody, a song written by Jablonski in 2000, but one that took on a whole new meaning in the light of the tragic recent events.
“We did the gig and we got Lewis to sing the first part of the song,” Jablonski explains. “That was mainly as I didn’t think I could pull it off at that time.” “
Lewis singing the first two verses changed the song totally,” Narojczyk adds. “It made it even more beautiful. We wanted to dedicate it to Dave. Gerry speaks of happiness but we went through hard times. Losing one of our founding members was tough and we wanted to pay tribute to Dave.”
It’s a song that has become something of an anthem for the band – despite already appearing on Life At Captain Tom’s, it was re-recorded for their latest record, Trouble With The Blues. Recorded at Aberdeen’s The Mill Studio, the latter album shows that the band have somehow managed to jump from their darkest moment to their finest musical hour in a blink of an eye. Not only is it packed with by far their strongest material to date, but it’s an album from a band unafraid of stretching out beyond narrow genre confines. These boys aren’t just fed on a diet of BB King, Robert Johnson and Led Zeppelin – there’s also folk and even modern pop like Adele (“She’s bluesy, she just doesn’t admit it,” says Jablonski). This eclectic old mix is bubbling throughout the record. That said, it’s also purposefully the bluesiest recording in the band’s quickly expanding catalogue.
“With the new album I had to make some changes,” Jablonski admits. “With Dave passing away, it totally changed the whole deal. I also wanted to make more of a blues guitar-orientated album. People were telling me I wasn’t playing enough guitar so I wanted to rectify that. There was a conscious effort to make this more of a blues album than the rest.”
Recorded live in one room, the album sees the band playing off each other as if they were slaying a sweatbox club gig. It has the raw vitality and pulsating energy of the live shows on which the band have made their name.
“I think there’s a video on YouTube of us recording a song and we look like we’re playing a gig,” Narojczyk says. “We’re not just stood there playing the parts. Transferring the chemistry of the live shows across to the album is a difficult thing to do. I think we got as close as we could on this album. People have said to me that they can feel the energy and almost see Gerry singing while listening to it. A lot of bands overproduce and lose that live feel.”
Given the torrid time the band have endured, it’s also a surprisingly upbeat record. While many blues vets sing of heartbreak, Jablonski prefers to take a darkly comedic look at his own relationships. For starters there’s The Curse, a track that laments the problems faced by a below-average-looking guy (or a bloke with a mush like a bag of spanners, if you’re being a tad less kind about it) when he has a stunning woman on his arm.
“I’ve always been interested in the fact that I’m not exactly Brad Pitt but I’ve been very lucky and I’ve got a beautiful wife,” he says. “It’s like the Dr Hook song, When You’re In Love With A Beautiful Woman, so I thought I would rip that off but also make it darker. It’s about how you feel inside yourself as an ugly guy with a beautiful woman. You have guys look at you thinking, ‘What the fuck is she doing with him!?’”
But that’s just Jablonski – eager to turn even the bleakest of subjects on its head with a little black humour. He’s also not one to dwell on the more negative connotations sometimes associated with the music he loves. “I like all kinds of blues, but I don’t like the lifestyle,” he admits. “We’ve lost great musicians who lived the blues life totally, right down to the Southern Comfort, and it killed them in the end. I’m not one of those kind of guys. I’ve tried to wear the cowboy hat and leather boots and it just doesn’t suit me. I’m looking for happiness. I’m not down on the blues for that either – we all have down times. I just prefer to be more upbeat.”
There’s just one thing that perhaps comes across even more than the band’s positivity – both on record and on stage – and that is the incredible connection between our two interviewees. Jablonski and Narojczyk bounce off each other musically, pinging back and forth. Throughout Trouble With The Blues, where one goes, the other holds back; when one calls, his bandmate responds; and when the two get into full flight together, now that is a joy to behold as guitar and harmonica sing in unison. The Blues mentions that it reminds of us Thin Lizzy’s famous duelling guitars, and it seems the frontman agrees.
“My idea was for it to be a cross between The Allman Brothers or a Thin Lizzy kind of idea but we were playing the parts of Buddy Guy and Junior Wells,” he says. “I thought it might work. I would take a solo and then Pete would take a solo and occasionally Pete would play a phrase and I’d think, ‘I can play that one.’ A lot of the time he sounds more like an electric guitar than I do. He’s got great attack when he plays.”
“In many ways, if you see our live show, we are very similar, despite the fact that we play different instruments,” Narojczyk concurs. “It’s not rehearsed or even spoken about before the gig – it just happens on stage. It’s an unspoken connection – that’s what music does to you. It stretching out beyond narrow genre confines. These boys aren’t just fed on a diet of BB King, Robert Johnson and Led Zeppelin – there’s also two interviewees. Jablonski and Narojczyk Much-missed: original drummer Dave Innes. doesn’t matter what language you speak, if you hear beautiful music, you know what it means. We didn’t plan for it to sound how it sounds.”
Armed with their share of beautiful music and, of course, absolutely blistering live chops, the foursome will hit the road throughout Europe in the back end of 2015 and into 2016. Like so many acts on the circuit, they’re doing it all without any major backing – there’s no giant label, agent or manager pulling the strings in this DIY outfit. But what would constitute a successful year ahead for a band doing it all off their own backs?
While Jablonski tells us with a hearty laugh and a wry smile that the goal for the year ahead is for the band to be able to check into better hotels while they’re out on the road, it’s Narojczyk’s response that once again reminds us of the torment these guys have faced and conquered.
“We’ve got stuff lined up for next year,” he says. “We’re touring mainland Europe and we’ll be in Britain a lot, playing clubs and festivals. My dream is to have everyone healthy and fit to do the shows and if we have that then all will be good.”
We’ll raise a glass to that, and here’s hoping there are plenty more chapters still to be written in this particular long, old story
Getting smashed - Jablonski and Narojczyk met over a downed pint, but there’s a little more to it than that.
“I had met Gerry before we jammed together,” says Narojczyk. “I’m Polish but have been in Aberdeen for the last 10 years. Because of my name and people knowing I play harmonica, they would say I had to play with this guy Jablonski, but I couldn’t find him. One day my girlfriend and I went to a jam session. I bought a pint of beer and sat down in my brand new jeans. This small guy gets on stage. There was a music stand on there and Gerry, as a real bluesman, pretended he was going to throw it away. But it wasn’t screwed together and it flew above everybody’s head and smashed the pint glass right in front of me! “I was covered in glass, covered in beer and my new jeans were ruined. I stood up and I was ready to grab this guy by the throat, and with fear in his eyes he turned and said: ‘Hello, my name is Gerry Jablonski.’ He played and I said to my girlfriend: ‘I would love to be in a band with this guy – his playing moved me.’ He still owes me a pint!”