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CANNED HEAT: FITO DE LA PARRA AUSTRALIAN TOUR INTERVIEW

After more than fifty years on the road and thirty-eight albums to their credit, the unsung band of 60’s rock and blues, Canned Heat is still going strong and coming to Australia in May. Canned Heat have been a global phenomenon for 40 years, when they first gained international attention and secured their niche in the pages of rock ‘n roll history with their performances at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival (alongside Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and The Who) and as headliners at the original Woodstock Festival in 1969.

Their take on modern electric blues, rock and boogie has earned them a loyal following and influenced many aspiring guitarists and bands during the past four decades. Their Top 40 Country-Blues-Rock songs, On The Road Again, Let’s Work Together and Going Up The Country became anthems throughout the world with the latter being adopted as the unofficial theme song for the film Woodstock. Their cover version of Wilbert Harrison’s Let’s Work Together was actually their biggest hit as it rose to No. 1 in 31 different countries around the world.

Canned Heat come back to Australia with a band that includes original members Fito de la Parra & Larry Taylor plus long standing members, John “JP” Paulus & Dale Spalding.

Ahead of the tour Australian Musician’s Greg Phillips spoke to Canned Heat’s legendary drummer Fito de la Parra about the band’s past and the upcoming Australian tour.

Fito, how are you doing?
Great. We’re getting ready to come downunder. We’ve been there many times and I always enjoy myself a lot in Australia. We are delighted to come back because we thought the last time we were there, last year, we thought was going to be the last time. We were invited once more and we are very happy to come back and play the Broadbeach blues festival and many other dates.

You have been to Australia so many times, do you now have any favourite restaurants, bars or towns?
To be honest with you, some of my favourite spots don’t exist anymore. When we were touring Australia in the mid seventies and the 80s I used to enjoy hanging around The Cosmopolitan Hotel at Bondi Beach. I don’t think it’s there anymore and Bondi is huge now and very crowded.

Canned Heat have been so inspirational to so many musicians but who were the artists hat inspired you growing up and made you want to join a band?
Well actually my father was the first person to influence me into music. I think he figured that If I dedicate myself to music I would not get involved in any silly bad stuff that us teenagers were doing in the late 50s and early 60s. My dad used to take me out to see these movies about legendary jazz players and swing players … The Benny Goodman story, The Glenn Miller story, Gene Krupa story all these great biographies they made of these fantastic musicians. So that’s when I got into music. Then I got my first drum kit and started out with the typical garage band with kids in Mexico City and eventually I moved to the US when I was 19 years old. I was very lucky because I joined Canned Heat right after I arrived here in this country.

Coming from a Latin and jazz background, how did you get into the blues?
For several years I was just a jazz and rock n roll drummer. I played with jazz trios, with piano and upright bass in some of the clubs. They were for beatniks and people into that sort of music. I was not even old enough to be in those places but somehow I would wear a hat and some dark glasses and they would put me in the darkest corner I the club, so if the police showed up they couldn’t see that I was underage. That was my beginning. Then I started playing rock n roll with some of the most popular bands in Mexico City so I enjoyed rock n roll status since I was a young kid. At 14 years old we got our first record contract. By the time I was 15 years old, I already had one gold record to our name. Then a few years went by and I discovered blues music and rhythm and blues. One of the guys who influenced me a lot was Javier Batiste a Mexican guitar player singer who was also Carlos Santana’s first teacher. So not only did he teach Santana his first chords, he also turned me onto what blues music was about. Once I discovered that kind of music I never went back to my old rock n roll and pop bands that I was playing in. Even if they were making more money and getting more recognition, that didn’t really mater to me. What I wanted to do was play music that was more from the heart and I found that in blues music and also the opportunity to improvise and be with musicians who felt the same way, a brotherhood of blues musicians.

What about your drum kits over the years? Have you had a lot of kits?
I started with cookie boxes, cardboard boxes. My first actual kit was made from various parts. It was funny, my first cymbal was one of those huge metal ash trays they used to have in the late 50s. It actually sounded pretty good. Later on I got my first Slingerland kit and I was endorsed by Slingerland and Ludwig, two of the big mainstream drum makers, so I felt privileged to have one of the first Slingerland kits.

At Woodstock you played a Slingerland kit …
Yes a black Slingerland, I was sponsored by them but then the label was bought out by Gibson or something and they stopped making drums and now I use Pearl drums, which are excellent and they gave me a half sponsorship. In Australia I will use whatever they provide, providing it is what we are asking for. We have sent our specifications and they usually have pretty decent equipment. I have no worries in Australia.

Speaking of Woodstock, the song you are really famous for is Going Up The Country. Your drum part on that track really propels the song along. Did you try different tempos and ways of playing that before you arrived at final version?
It is influenced by an original song called Bull Doze Blues by Henry Thomas, one of the old blues players from the south of America who was a one man band. The tempo was pretty much like the original. Of course, we changed the arrangement and changed the lyrics. Bull Doze Blues has nothing to do with Going Up The Country but it has the flute part and it had pretty much that beat. But yes, I do hear the drums especially lately when they are using it a lot in commercials and movies. Keeping in line with contemporary times, they crank up the drums a lot. I like that because in the 60s we didn’t have the drums so loud. Now I hear them all the time, the bass drum, the snare drum, it seems to be on top of all of the other instruments. Yes you hear the drums a lot on the newer versions of Going Up The Country.

Is it true that you didn’t really want to play at Woodstock?
Yes it is. I was exhausted, really tired and I didn’t really know what Woodstock was about. To me I thought it was just another gig. My manager physically pulled me out of bed and dragged me about of the room to perform at Woodstock. As I was saying, I was very tired and had just gone through a tragedy in our band, Henry Vestine had just quit. We had a new guitarist Harvey Mandel but didn’t rehearse with him. We’d played a couple of gigs in New York City before Woodstock but I was not in the best of shape. I didn’t want to play the gig but somehow my manager Skip Taylor found a key to my room because I was not opening. Eventually, once I was in that helicopter and I looked at half a million people down there, then I felt good about being there of course.

This year you are back there again playing the 50th anniversary of the Woodstock festival. How did you feel when you were invited to play?
Yes it is very nice, the 50th anniversary is happening. We are very happy to be part of it because there really aren’t that many more bands that have survived the 50 years since Woodstock and it was great that they invited us. We are going to be there with some of the old guys and there will be many newer bands that are famous now. It’s going to be a great festival.

You have had many tragedies in the is band over the years … the deaths of Al Wilson and then Bob Hite. Was there ever any question that the band would continue after those deaths?
When Alan died, we continued the band. We knew we had suffered a serious blow but we still had a frontman and hit records. We were not going to quit. When Bob Hite died, that was different. I had to evaluate the whole situation. it was basically because of Australia and the Australian fans that we decided to continue. Right after Bob Hite died, we were already booked to play a tour in Australia in 1981. I contacted Peter Noble who was the promoter then (Now Bluesfest director), he was just starting to promote shows. It was the beginning of Peter Noble. He said the shows are booked, Fito I know you have a band, get another singer and come to Australia and we will back you even though you don’t have your frontman Bob The Bear Hite. I found myself another singer/harmonica player and came to Australia not knowing how the reaction was going to be, whether they were going to like us or not and the people backed us. They were very polite with us and understood our pain and understood that we were trying to do our best and we gave them a good show. That made me make the decision to continue the band after Bob died and we never let go since and have been going steadily for 53 years.

You wrote a book of your life story, Living the Blues. Did you enjoy the experience of writing that book?
Some of it was very enjoyable. Some of it was more like going to therapy because I was interviewed by Michael Limnios for six months. We were recording my whole life from the very beginning, so for some of those chapters I had to relive the tragedies we have been through and you know we have had a lot of them. Some of the other parts were very funny and that’s what the book reflects. You can find the book in my website www.cannedheatmusic.com and I have to say it is a very good book, not just because it is mine. My co-writers helped me a lot and made it what it is and it has been recognised by Hollywood. Last year I signed an agreement with Mike George, the well known producer/director. He did The Mule, The Hunger, King of the Hill, Silicon Valley, the movie Idiocracy, Office Space, the guy is brilliant. He called me up one time out of the blue, the book had been out for ten years. He called and said I have read your book and I love it and I want to make a movie about it. I was very happy to do it and we went ahead and hired our respective attorneys and we signed a deal last year. I am waiting to hear from Mike he is a very busy man and movie making takes a long time. I have been pressuring him to finish this movie before I die! I told him, I don’t have all the time in the world, I am 73 years old so he better hurry up and get the movie done. I am sure he is working on it already because I also have interest from other film makers. All of a sudden my book has become hot. When we released the book in 97, 08 we went all through Hollywood and asking for attention and we never found any interest. We visited many producers and finally we just gave up and said whatever happens, happens! Ten years later I get this call from Mike George, that’s how life is. It is just amazing.

How do you think Canned Heat would go starting out today in the social media age?
I never thought Canned Heat would last as long as it has. I guess it has been me though as I am the one who has kept the band together year after year, especially since Bob and Alan died. The whole thing is that in Canned Heat I found something valid, something good in this life. Canned Heat was my train. You visualise life like you’re at a station and different trains go by and they are different opportunities that you sometimes have to jump on when they go by and that was my train. When I was offered the job I told them I was born to play with Canned Heat because I felt that kind of commitment to this fantastic band. That’s why I have kept it together and I will still keep it together until I die.

After all these years what is your mind set every time you go on stage? What is the goal?
I love playing music. I love to entertain. It’s a fantastic feeling that nothing else can take its place. Its as good as any drug or meal or great bottle of wine. It’s an experience that you can’t really convey with words. Many musicians I know all feel the same. Some of them are famous, some of them are not but we all feel this certain thing about the power of music. Music has the power to enhance life and enhance your soul and that’s what we do. We feel great on stage but we do hate travelling. That’s why I say that the music is for free, what we charge for is to get there! That is the truth. The airline industry takes forty percent of our gross and after 53 years not once have I got a thank you from any of them.

How would you like Canned Heat to be remembered?
I would like Canned Heat to be remembered for what it was, what it is, it is … the band that made blues music palpable for white audiences word wide.

CANNED HEAT
2019 AUSTRALIAN TOUR DATES

Thursday 16th May
Corner Hotel, Richmond
Tickets available from:
www.cornerhotel.com

Friday 17th May
Yarraville Club, Yarraville
Tickets available from:
www.yarravilleclub.com

Saturday 18th May
Evan Theatre, Penrith Rugby Leagues Club
Tickets available from:
www.ticketek.com

Sunday 19th May
Broadbeach Blues Festival, Gold Coast
Tickets available from:
www.bluesonbroadbeach.com

Tuesday 21st May
The Wedge Theatre, Sale
Tickets available from:
www.thewedge.com.au

Friday 24th May
SS&A Club, Albury
Tickets available from:
www.ssaclub.com.au

Saturday 25th May
Bridge Hotel, Sydney
Tickets available from:
www.bridgehotel.com.au

Sunday 26th May
West Leagues Club, Newcastle
Tickets available from:
www.westsnewcastle.com.au

 

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