Interview

The Rollicking Thunder of HowellDevine's Pete Devine

HowellDevine live in San Francisco

After living and performing in the San Francisco bay Area for a quarter of a century, drummer Pete Devine hit gold when he teamed up with guitarist Josh Howell and bassist Joe Kyle, Jr. to form HowellDevine. The formidable blues trio quickly garnered local and national fans for their raw and rhythmic live sound, releasing a trio of acclaimed CDs, including two with roots label Arhoolie Records. With their fourth album, HOWL, HowellDevine continues to hone and develop its well-considered blues vision, broadening their sound to incorporate electric elements, and signing with Jim Pugh’s Little Village Foundation. I caught up with Devine as the band prepared for their CD release show, November 29, at Berkeley’s Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse.

Can you describe how you first started playing together and when you knew you had something?

Pete Devine: I first met Josh howell back in 2011, at a small arts and entertainment space in San Francisco's Mission District. My friend Sara Powell had a cozy music listening room, and she hired Josh Howell to play an opening set for my jug band, Devine's Jug Band, one night. I listened to Josh play some really nice blues slide guitar. Then he broke out his harp and truly blew me away. I asked if I could sit in with him on jug, washboard and drums on a couple songs....and magic was made!

We played as a duet for maybe 6 months, and then felt it was time to add an upright bass player. We had tried a couple of different guys who were both great players, but they weren't quite right. I then contacted my longtime friend, bassist Joe Kyle. Joe had always been my number one want for upright bass players to join me and Josh....but he was very busy playing with other groups.

It took a bit of time before Joe committed himself to being the third member, a very integral member, of HowellDevine. [In part because] I had just 6 months earlier pulled a stint in a drug and alcohol rehab down in LA, and Joe wanted to make sure that I had straightened out and was flying right! And yes indeed that has been the case...I've been a clean, killing machine for 6.5 years now.

Tell us a bit about creative process as a band. How do you typically work together sourcing, choosing and writing or co-writing songs?

All three of us openly share our ideas with each other, and we all listen to what another has to say. There is a lot of respect between the three of us. One of us will suggest a song to play, and we will put our own twist onto it, and most likely our own arrangement—different from the original.

Josh has brought many of the songs to the table that we perform now, but Joe and I have also come up with some of the tunes that we cover. Two of my favorite songs on the new HOWL CD were written by Josh: "Sirenic Woman" and "PM Blues." I do think Josh is an excellent songwriter. I'd like to see him do more of that in the future…. My wife Sandie also suggested at one point that we cover Blind Blake's "Rope Stretchin Blues," which we now perform and have recorded for the new CD.

We are definitely not a "cover band" in the sense that we try to recreate songs like they were heard on the original records. Why do that? It’s already been done. When we decide upon a song, we make that song our own, at the same time hopefully giving justice to it. Hopefully creating something that the original performer (if they’re still alive) might actually be happy to hear.

Who would you say are your musical influences? Any notable mentors?

As far as influences for me personally, there are many from different genres and time periods. I love early jazz, and one of the early jazz drummers who has influenced me most [is] the great New Orleans drummer Baby Dodds. Another one of my favs is the early NO drummer Zutty Singleton. And from the swing era, Gene Krupa.

For electric blues, I'd say Frances Clay (who I was lucky enough to meet on several occasions. He once even told me he really dug how I played!). Then there's drummer Fred Below, Odie Payne, and the lesser know Ted Harvey. All of these cats were more Chicago-style electric blues drummers.

For earlier blues percussionists, both Bull City Red (Blind Boy Fuller's washboard player) and Robert Burse (percussionist on the later Memphis Jug Band records, and brother to Charlie Burse) come directly to mind.

Throw in some Earl Palmer (the drummer on many Fats Domino & Little Richard records), and maybe even a small dash of Mitch Mitchell...and you've got a drummer here with MANY different influences coming from MANY different directions. Do I time travel? Perhaps I do.

How do you think living in the Bay Area has or hasn’t influenced your sound?

Well I don't know if I be the same type of drummer as I am today if I had lived elsewhere. Living in the SF area for so long definitely, has played a hand in how I sound. In this music-rich part of the country, I have played, or still do play, in Traditional Jazz Bands, Blues Bands, String Bands, Ragtime Bands, Gypsy Jazz Bands, Jug Bands. Anything organic and rootsy. Pretty much everything except for a disco band. Maybe that's next...lol. Probably not.

HowellDevine is my main act these days, and I'd have to say it's my favorite band I've ever been a part of. I've played in some good ones too. To me, HowellDevine is not just blues, but blues with jazzy nerve beats and a rollicking thunder. We've been compared to sounding like a freight train at times. I also get to blow the jug and play the washboard....along with my drumset in this band. Sometimes all at the same time!

Joshua Howell and Joe Kyle are both amazing musicians AND people. I credit both of them for helping me to be a better drummer than I may have otherwise been if I had not teamed up with them for this band.

Describe working on your latest recording: How did you select tunes for HOWL? Was this your first time recording at Greaseland?

HOWL is our fourth record, and this was our first time recording down at Kid Andersen's Greaseland Studios in San Jose. Working with Kid and his side kick Robby Yamiliv was truly a special thing. There is some sort of magic —or mojo if you will-—that happens just being in that space. Kid is an amazing engineer, as well as musician. He joins us on two songs on the new record on the B3 Organ, and that's a sound that we really dig!

The tunes we decided to record for this record are basically songs that we have been playing lately as part of our repertoire.

You recently signed with Jim Pugh's new label, Little Village Foundation. How did that develop, why the switch from Arhoolie?

We sort of stretched the boundaries of what one may have heard on our last couple of Arhoolie recordings. Like I had mentioned, we have thrown a B3 Organ into the mix on a couple of tunes. Joe also puts down his upright and picks up the electric bass for several songs, which gives the band more of groovy, funky electric sound on a couple tunes...dance grooves you might hear on a early 60's R&B jukebox. These new aspects of what we are about might not necessarily fall into what we all consider to be the "Arhoolie sound".

Chris Strachwitz and Arhoolie was a very good thing that happened to us. It's wonderful to have a couple records that are now part of the Smithsonian/ Folkways/ Arhoolie Catalogue. They will be there forever...and I DO mean forever. It is an honor to have worked with Chris, Tom Diamont, and the rest of the Arhoolies. They are legendary

Jim Pugh, who is an amazing pianist and organ player (Robert Cray Band, Etta James), started this new nonprofit label called Little Village Foundation. He's doing really good things, getting some great music out there to folks so otherwise might not get a chance to hear it. Musicians like singer/harmonica player Aki Kumar—who has an amazing band that mashes Bollywood music and blues together, or local songwriter Maurice Tani, are just a couple of the artists he has on his label.

I thought HowellDevine's music might be a good fit for Little Village, so I approached Jim about having us on his label. He really dug our band and this new record of ours.....so here we are. We are very excited about our new record, and also being a part of the LVF family!

What can listeners expect at the Freight & Salvage on November 29? Any other notable appearances or tours planned for 2018?

I think our upcoming Nov. 29th Freight and Salvage show is going to be a very exciting event! Not only will we be playing songs from our new CD, but our friend, 1960's San Francisco Liquid light pioneer George Holden will be presenting a liquid light/ cinema show on a big screen that he'll be setting up behind us on the stage at the Freight. Linked up with our music, there will be old video and photos just above our heads, as well as the psychedelic swirling liquid light. A total sound and imagery extravaganza.

Also blues guitarist Pete Madsen and his musical partner, vocalist Celeste Kopel, will be playing a short opening set to kick off the show. They're really great...and we're looking forward to hearing them.

Will there be some dancing, too? You betcha!

To answer the second part of this question, well....it's hard to say what 2018 will bring for HowellDevine. I do know we'll continue to perform at our favorite haunts around the Bay Area. Hopefully we'll get a good little buzz about HOWL.

Over the last couple years we have played several major festivals — including Strawberry Music Fest in California and The Rhythm & Roots Festival in Rhode Island. I would love for us to do more stuff like that, and hopefully a bit more traveling.

As long as the three of us keep the music coming and continue to improve as a musical entity, I have a feeling that good things will be coming down the road for us.