Brian Robbins: John, when did you first discover Jimi’s music as a fan?
John McDermott: I was a teenager when I first became aware of his music in a meaningful way. I would say that The Cry of Love, Hendrix In The West – the first of the posthumous records – really made an impact on me. And Smash Hits was certainly an entrance point into the legacy for me, as well.
I’m 47 now; I never had the chance to see Jimi perform live. But I recognized his music at the time as being something very unique.
BR: How would you describe your role with Experience Hendrix?
JM: I’ve been very fortunate to work with the Hendrix family as the manager of the Jimi Hendrix music catalog. I’ve been co-producer of the releases that have come out since 1996, along with Janie Hendrix and Eddie Kramer. Basically, my responsibilities encompass anything that relates to Jimi’s music.
BR: How did you connect with the Hendrix family?
JM: Prior to 1995, I worked on a number of Jimi Hendrix projects. I had written a book with Eddie Kramer called Jimi Hendrix: Setting The Record Straight. Eddie and I also worked on a tribute album called Stone Free that had Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Buddy Guy, and others covering Jimi’s music. We used proceeds from that to create a scholarship fund, which is still in operation today. It was a very successful project – the record was a big hit – and I felt that when it ended, my Jimi Hendrix work was complete. I was happy with the book; I was happy with Stone Free. I figured that was it.
I then learned about the litigation that had begun between Al Hendrix and his former lawyer. I contacted the attorney who was representing Al and told him, “I’ve done a lot of research on this music – and it is owned by Al Hendrix. Please don’t sell this man out; he does own what he says he owns … he is the guy.”
And they were like, “Thank you very much – we’ll get back to you,” and so on. I didn’t hear from anyone for a couple of months – I didn’t know what had happened. But two or three months later, they called up and said, “We feel you’re on to something – we’d like to have you come out and meet with us and the family.”
I did; and I volunteered my services to them throughout the litigation process.
BR: Doing what kind of stuff?
JM: Mainly trying to piece together what had happened to Jimi’s tapes and his masters and developing a plan for Jimi’s catalog. In the end, the case was successful, of course. And when the litigation was over, they said, “You know, we’d like for you to stay on – would you be interested in working with us?” And of course, I was – it was a great opportunity.
BR: I suppose one could call it a dream job for a Hendrix fan.
JM: It really was; to be able to contribute was a wonderful thing.
BR: What kind of shape were the archives in when you came on board?
JM: It was a bit of a mess. There’d been a lot of problems and different issues over the years in terms of people who’d had access to some of the tapes and where they went. It was a bit of a mish-mosh and it took a lot of work, which is still happening today. You’d see notations that something was supposed to exist – but you’d go to the box and the master was cut out of the reel. There was a lot of that sort of stuff. We had to approach it from a detective’s point of view and go tape-to-tape to bring these things back to the archives.
People often ask, “Where is all this music coming from?” Well, Jimi created it. And in many instances, we’ve had to go out, find it, and bring it back. So that’s been a big part of the work we’ve done.
BR: I’m thinking of some of the great sound and recording people who worked with the Dead over the years – and how they began compiling their own in-house archives from early on. They always had a pretty good team. Is it fair to say that Jimi really didn’t have that?
JM: Well, when Jimi was alive, it was pretty organized. But when he passed and then his manager Michael Jeffery died suddenly in a plane crash a couple years later, that’s when it went a bit awry. Then you had estates that were kind of, “Well, what do we do? Where does it all go?” The continuity didn’t exist once some of those events took place.
I don’t know that the previous administration looked at the long term in a way that we’ve tried to. You’ve got to be just so careful and protective of this music; it’s all we have of Jimi. We don’t have anything else – this is it. This is what he’s left behind. Our mission is to organize it in such a way that fans can appreciate it, have access to what is the best of it, and contextually understand why something is available – what’s the point and purpose of each release. I think so far that fans have felt that we’ve brought the music to them in ways that they understand and appreciate.
What’s so unique about Jimi Hendrix is that unlike The Beatles or Bob Dylan or his contemporaries, he owned his own music. It wasn’t as if he was at a union-controlled studio and somebody was looking at his watch saying, “Okay, Jim – The Tremolos will be here in 15 minutes, so wrap it up.” Jimi didn’t have to do that; he had the freedom.
He didn’t put his money into some big grand mansion – he had a two-room apartment in the Village. When Jimi made some real money, he bought a recording studio. It was important to him; that kind of access to a creative facility was significant for him. That’s one of the reasons why there’s so much music over just a four-year period of time.
BR: Plus, he did a lot of informal recordings – hotel room jams and whatnot – on his own, right?
JM: Yes, indeed. Jimi loved to record and bring his tape machine around. He dug recording. I think when he finally made some money, he was able to do some things that he always wanted to do. Jimi didn’t read or write music, so recording was how he measured his advancing. If he was working on a song, he’d make a rough demo of it and keep doing it and doing it. He might go into the studio and cut a basic track and make a rough mix. Studying tape was Jimi’s method of refining his music towards a finished work.
BR: Again, I can’t help but think about the Dead and some of the really, really talented live sound people they had over the years. It amazes me that so many of Jimi’s live shows sound as good as they do.
JM: I don’t know – in some ways, the simplicity of what he was working with is what makes it so magical. It’s literally a piece of wood with six strings, a couple of foot pedals and some Marshall amps. You know, even the stage monitoring was very limited … it wasn’t until they started playing some larger venues that drummer Mitch Mitchell had some monitoring to hear the other guys.
It’s pretty remarkable, really – no light shows, no cues, no steps, no nothing … you’d walk on stage, you’d tune up, and you’d feel the audience. If Jimi thought that he needed to lift them up, he might play “Johnny B. Goode” or “Fire” – he’d go entirely by feel. And there’s something special to that spontaneity that’s often lacking today – where even a really well-done rock show is more like a Broadway performance than it is a traditional rock and roll concert.
I know Mitch Mitchell told me later on that they loved the stage as a place to try new material – to take a song that wasn’t on an album and gauge the reaction of the crowd: “Should we play it a little faster? A little slower?” They liked that; and particularly in the latter period – 1970 – they’d take a song like “Dolly Dagger” or “Ezy Ryder” or “Roomful of Mirrors” and let the crowd get a sense of those songs. That’s the kind of stuff that doesn’t happen today. For the prices that acts are charging, it’s almost as if you have to play your hits, hits, hits and that’s it.
BR: What is the percentage of live vs. studio material in the vault?
JM: It’s really hard to put numbers on it. There were a number of concerts that were professionally recorded, many of which we’ll be releasing in the years to come. There’s a lot of studio material, as well. This year alone we’ve put out the Valleys of Neptune album along with the new West Coast Seattle Boy anthology.
Our plan for the future is to release thematic albums that will showcase this archive material in a way that fans will say, “Oh, okay – I get it. This is what this is.”
BR: When you’re doing your “detective work” for the archives, do you look at the history of where Jimi was playing on a particular week – target specific times and places?
JM: Sometimes we look at places where we know that professional multi-track recordings were made; in other cases, we might have records of where filming was done, so we try to connect on that level. It’s really a mixture of things; you cast the net as wide as you can, because this stuff is so precious.
I’ll tell you a funny story: Woodstock is obviously an iconic gig – it was very well covered at the time by [“Woodstock” movie director] Michael Wadleigh and his film crew. But we got a call from a guy who ran The Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas, TX – the presidential assassination museum – who said, “My cousin filmed Jimi.” I was like, “Really?” “Yeah,” he said, “at Woodstock.”
I figured, “Well, we have a lot of footage from Woodstock …” But what the guy had – incredibly – was a black and white open-reel video tape of Jimi performing that even included songs Wadleigh’s team had missed. When stuff like this pops up, it’s a gift. Simply fantastic. The perspective the guy had was amazing and we ended up putting it on the Woodstock DVD we released. That’s why I say, you can never discount any call that comes because invariably, it’s something amazing.
It really is satisfying to know that a lot of the releases that we’ve put out in the last 15 years have been compiled from things we were able to find. The West Coast Seattle Boy box set is a prime example of that. There’s so much music here that didn’t exist when the Hendrix family won the case. A lot of this is stuff that we had to go out and find and pull back together.
But we love that journey; we love the searching; and inevitably when you do that digging, more stuff is revealed.
BR: That first disc of West Coast Seattle Boy featuring Jimi as a sideman with all those various bands is such a treat. You can hear little bits and pieces of him becoming Jimi Hendrix, you know? He wasn’t over-playing; what he’s doing is totally within the context of the music; but you can’t help but laugh, because it’s Jimi.
JM: And you’re right – that’s why we picked these songs as examples, because people will hear them and say, “Wow – even with the Isleys; even with Don Covay; even in all these different settings, that identity is still there. You may not have known it was Jimi Hendrix’ guitar riff underneath it before, but now it all makes sense.
It was important to us to get this out, as that’s long been a misunderstood part of Jimi’s life and career – and we hope to bring some clarity to it. There have been so many dodgy records that made it seem that he played on a gazillion singles from sessions with Little Richard, for instance – but he didn’t; he only played on a couple. Those couple are really cool, and here they are. There were records that came out in the years soon after Jimi’s death when people were trying to cash in on his name. They would make all these inaccurate claims, but in actuality, he wasn’t on them … he was on these.
BR: You had to have gone to a lot of different sources to put that first disc together …
JM: Well, we did, plus we had help from Sony in terms of clearing licensing and those sorts of things. But part of it for me was being a fan, hearing those bands, and searching for the “new” Jimi, if you will. Hearing things like the Rosa Lee Brooks single and being knocked out by it.
I remember interviewing Rosa Lee years ago and she was very proud that she’d worked with Jimi during that period – and lo and behold, Arthur Lee of Love was involved with that session, as well. When you start to do the interviews with these folks, you realize, “Wow – _really?”
BR: Moving forward to Jimi’s period in the studio himself; Eddie Kramer was the key man behind the board, wasn’t he?
JM: Absolutely. Eddie had a rapport with Jimi that was based on respect – mutual respect. Jimi, as a young Afro-American artist, didn’t have a lot of opportunities back then like people do today.
Plus, from their first session together to the last, Eddie was a guy who pushed Jimi; challenged him; sought improvements in his sound and mixing and techniques. And I think Jimi absolutely responded to that; he wanted to push the boundaries, stretch the parameters as far and wide as he could – that’s what he was about. He wanted to see what he could create – “How far can I take this music?” And having someone like Eddie Kramer, who obviously had the technical capacity to be able to do that meant a great deal.
BR: Just like the Strat was something Jimi could push and yank and coax new sounds out of, it seems like the studio was another instrument for him. And he approached it much the same way.
JM: I think that’s true. I think he was very creatively free. He didn’t feel that he had to mirror the “sound of the moment.” Rather, he had an idea that he wanted to express – a sound; a style; a vision that he wanted to pursue – and I have to say that was a pretty brave stance. A lot of acts in that era didn’t have that creative freedom; they were under pressure to make records that sounded like the ones they had and to stay within the successful path that they had already established.
Jimi wasn’t anywhere near that mentality; the same guy who was playing at Monterey was the same guy who was doing “Machine Gun” with the Band of Gypsys two years later … it’s almost unfathomable.
BR: Absolutely; it wasn’t breaking the mold – there wasn’t a mold.
JM: That was the great thing. And I think that guys like Kramer understood that and helped facilitate anything that Jimi wanted. Or Chas Chandler, who gave Jimi the gift of opportunity. The talent was there, but Chas gave Jimi the chance – and Jimi never looked back. Chas brought with him a resume that included, what – ten Top 40 singles with The Animals? He knew how to arrange; he knew how to be concise … and those were lessons that Jimi learned.
Jimi once said that “Purple Haze” began as ten pages of lyrics. Chas was able to cut right to the meat and help craft a signature song. Those lessons stayed with Jimi – and at the same time, he would push the boundaries even further. Like, “Okay, I did that – but now I’m going to do this.”
I think that’s the great success with Jimi’s ability to learn and grow as opposed to being stagnant and just making the same-but-slightly-different record over and over again.
BR: We talked about the first disc in the West Coast Seattle Boy box set, which takes us through the sideman days. The three discs that follow present a great timeline of Jimi’s career as a bandleader. How did you decide what to include on those?
JM: Our focus with West Coast Seattle Boy was to show the music as it was being created along an arc of time. You’re hearing take one of “Are You Experienced”; you’re hearing an interesting version of “Castles Made of Sand” or of “Freedom”. We’re trying to give you a look inside the music to see how some of these songs were developed. You have Jimi in his apartment or in his hotel room … it shows you different ways of how he brought these great songs to life and, in some cases, gave them an entirely different feel. I think that’s the interesting contextual opportunity this new record gave us. It was a project we spent a long time – a number of years, actually – pulling together.
We knew we wanted Valleys of Neptune [released this past March] to showcase the period of time between the completion of the Electric Ladyland album and before Electric Lady Studios. It was like, “Okay, where was Jimi in ’69?” – that was Valleys of Neptune.
For this project, however, we wanted the arc of the story to be from Seattle to his passing. We wanted him to tell his own story. The documentary DVD that’s included in the box set, “Voodoo Child” is Jimi, in his own words, telling his story.
For the four CDs, I began by wading through all those many releases by other artists, trying to get a sense of what Jimi sounded like before he became famous. So, as we already discussed, that was the first disc: the 15 best examples from that period. Not every single example, because that would water down the approach – we wanted to distill it to the really great examples of Jimi as a developing artist.
From there, on the remaining three discs, we really wanted to provide alternate views of music you knew and loved that you’d be totally blown away by – both studio versions you’d never heard before and live things that would knock you out. So those were our goals, and I think we were fortunate; we had the material and we certainly didn’t have to stretch it. There was so much that we could’ve easily done seven discs. But a four-cd set was where we wanted to go.
BR: Were there any pieces in particular that just tickled you personally?
JM: Well, there were a bunch of things … (laughter) For instance, there are some great hotel room recordings that give you a look at just how much Jimi dug Bob Dylan. If you recognize the timeline, he’s doing “Tears of Rage” before it was even on The Band’s debut album.
BR: I double-checked the dates myself, actually. (laughter)
JM: Jimi’s publicist, Michael Goldstein, also worked for Albert Grossman, who was Bob’s manager. Michael had access to those tapes that had been floating around and became The Great White Wonder and all that stuff back in the day. It just shows you how open-minded Jimi was to music. He loved the blues; loved Elmore James, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and all those guys – but he also dug The Beatles and Dylan. Jimi was just free; he wasn’t afraid of what was happening around him – he just dug what he heard. So I thought that version of “Tears of Rage” was particularly great.
But there were many other things in there that I just absolutely loved. For example, his live recordings with the Band of Gypsys at the Fillmore East are wonderful. And I really enjoyed the version of “Are You Experienced” that’s on there: just three guys on the floor. This is it; this is how it started – it’s all right there. All those other things that got added later – the piano, the backwards guitar – embellished what was clearly a fabulous song to begin with; a tremendous idea that existed literally as soon as Jimi started strumming those chords at the beginning of the song.
BR: The very last cut, “Suddenly November Morning”, is just Jimi and his guitar, bare bones and beautiful. It makes the hair stand up on your arms.
JM: Yeah, that was really an important piece. We knew so much of what Jimi was doing at the time of his death, but we don’t know where it would have all gone. “Suddenly November Morning” is an example of even though we have all this music and we’ve put out all these releases, there’s still more. And more we don’t know about yet. And that’s what’s amazing.
“Suddenly November Morning” is a wonderful example of what I’m sure Jimi would’ve been working on had he lived. It’s how he approached writing: trial and error; play it; play it. “I’m not happy with it; I’m going to try it this way.” By making that effort, Jimi was able to make songs be what he wanted them to be. In that particular example, he had the “Drifting” melody – he dug it, but it just wasn’t what he wanted yet.
We just thought it was a good way to end the album: here’s what the future was looking like; here’s Jimi on his own, still creating.
BR: In your opinion, John, what’s Jimi’s legacy?
JM: The great contributors to culture stand the test of time – and I think Jimi has done that. For 40-plus years, he’s been seen as the innovator he was. His songs remain as amazing works that people are still interpreting in their own way. As a guitar player, there are innovations that have been modeled on things that he did with his own hands; now you have processors and all kinds of gear that try to create sounds that Jimi made with a piece of wood, six strings, and an amp. He’s rightfully acknowledged as the unique artist that he was.
If anything, I think the respect for Jimi has grown – he was once an outlaw counter-cultural hero. Now you can’t think of a Fender Stratocaster without thinking of Jimi Hendrix. You can’t mention an _electric guitar _with him being part of the subject. And we’re 40 years on from his passing.
BR: It’s true.
JM: Jimi’s music is still seen as special and unique; the legacy is so strong that it still has that effect. It’s like The Beatles: not that many people saw The Beatles play, but the music endures and people are still inspired by it.
Jimi was a special person; a special artist. When we’re putting these releases together, we’re aware of how much he is beloved. You always have to pay heed to that.
BR: You really love what you do, don’t you?
JM: Oh, absolutely. How could you not love doing this? It’s such a wonderful opportunity to share this music.
And the best part? There’s still stuff to learn.
Source : jambands.com