Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Bill Noonan Interview

Tangents Magazine: What first made you want to be involved with music? 

Bill Noonan: I was always just drawn to music from the time I was a little kid…hearing AM radio in the car on family trips, my older siblings listening to Kingston Trio records, folk singing and people playing guitar at summer camps…

Tangents: Would you describe your sound as rooted in one genre, or a mixture of many?

Noonan: I like to think that I do a bit of genre-hopping, but among some pretty “rootsy” genres. Old-school rock and roll, C&W, bluegrass, blues, R&B.

Tangents: Tell me about some of the early bands that led, or played with?

Noonan: Well, my first band after college that actually got off the ground was Radio Reach…formed with my best buddies from UNCC…that was 1980...our singer was known as Scott Savage, and he really had an authentic proto-punk persona…so our music was somewhat in that vein…a lot of original tunes and our own take on covers that we liked. We played a lot of gigs and developed a pretty good local following. After that I had a band called the Watchcats that went in more of a rootsy direction…country rock and blues…and still later the Emotives, which reunited me with my old friends from Radio Reach. All that time I also did solo gigs every chance I got – I was always interested in being a good singer/songwriter was well as an ensemble player.

Tangents: What would you say are your biggest influences as a songwriter, and guitar player?

Noonan: Ha! Well, I would have to cite the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan as my biggest initial influences. And since they were both very evangelical about their musical roots, that led me to look back and study the roots of rock and roll. Also, from the time I was little kid I was drawn to country music, and growing up in small-town NC one of my classmates was a great bluegrass player, so I was lucky to get exposed to that music as well. Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood, and Mick Taylor were my most formative guitar influences…their styles are accessible for an aspiring player, and there is so much to learn musically all around from those records. The songwriter I love the best is Ian Tyson, the Canadian folk/cowboy artist, along with Texas songwriters like Guy Clark and Rodney Crowell.

Tangents: What are you working on these days? Talk about your current band(s)?

Noonan: One of my recent bands is the Hey Joes, in which we were trying to play authentic old-school C&W a la Hank Williams Sr: stand-up bass, non-pedal steel, acoustic guitar, restrained drums. The “Joes” were Joe Williams on bass and Joe Turick on old-fashioned steel guitar, with Tim Belk on drums. We worked up all the Hank Sr. stuff, plus some Carl Smith, Ray Price, etc. It was really a great musical experience learning to play with the necessary restraint, versus the typical “crash bang boom” approach to rocking up country music. And it was a lot of fun learning to sing those songs. I feel like we got it down pretty well. But, the Joes are on hiatus at the moment, and on recent and upcoming gigs I am back to focusing more on my original material, with fave rock and roll and C&W covers thrown in…what I always say is, “so many tunes, so little time”. And I also play guitar with the Loose Lugnuts, which is so much fun since I am “just the guitar player” – most band leaders would agree, it’s great just being a sideman. And the Lugnuts are great guys to play and hang with. I also hope to do some more recording this year, with any/all of the cast of characters noted above.

Tangents: Do you write a song, and say, “That sounds good for this band,” or is it more spontaneous than that?

Noonan: It can go a lot of ways. Mainly you are always hoping for inspiration to strike, in any form, from any direction. You hit dry spells where you think you’ve written your last tune. But, it does help to have a band or an audience to write for. For example, “we need another good old rock and roll tune for the next gig, what can we come up with?”. Or, other times,  just driving along, or in conversation, a thought or concept or phrase might occur that triggers an idea for a song. Or maybe you are just banging around on guitar, mandolin, or fiddle, and you run across a musical idea that could be the basis for song.

Tangents: When you’re producing a record, does it help to be a musician? Or do you have to think about the music as a separate entity? Something that you’re overseeing, rather than playing in? 

Noonan: Well, I think a producer needs to bring an overall “musicality” to a project. Typically a producer will have strong musical proficiency, even if not necessarily a virtuoso in any one area – but someone who brings good song sense, good rhythmic sense, good musical ideas. And, a producer also has to have some technical proficiency…an understanding of how records are made, often relying on the help of a good engineer…and the ability to communicate all of this. And, yeah, part of the job is project management:  mapping out the game plan, budgets, schedules, herding cats, etc. So, there are a whole range of skills that a producer might bring to the table, and what you’re looking for ideally is a positive creative atmosphere where the producer’s skills and ideas match up in a good way with those of the artist.

Tangents: How would you describe the current scene in Charlotte, and the Southeast?

Noonan: Generally, it seems to be thriving. I can only speak to the view from my small corner of it, but clearly there is a hell of a lot going on. So much has evolved over the past, say, 20 years. Many artists have “happened” from the region on a national or even global level, across genres. There are any number of happening local music scenes in cities from Atlanta, to Charleston, to Asheville, Knoxville, etc. And even Charlotte, which seems to have always had a sort of identity crisis or at least self-deprecating view of its own music scene, is actually very happening. You know, especially if you take that 20 year view…it’s come a long way. I think there is still the opportunity to do new things here, to create more of a music economy and take things to a “next level”.

Tangents: How much the music scene changed from your days in the Rank Outsiders?

Noonan: Well, as noted, things have changed a lot, and mostly, for the better. When we started out in the early Rank days, there were a limited number o places in Charlotte to “go out” and the audience was smaller…for example, all of the night life that you see now in Elizabeth, Plaza Midwood, Dilworth, South End – was not happening on that scale 20 years ago. It could just be me getting older, but it seems like there are a lot more young people now getting out and about, and a lot of them are going out to hear music. Yes, there could be more appreciation for local music as being a great thing for the city, but I think a lot of people are out there working on that, trying to make things happen. And there are certainly more touring artists coming through. Aside from the corporate venues, kudos to local promoters like Gregg McCraw of Maxx Music, and venues like the Visulite Theater, Neighborhood Theater, Snug Harbor, etc. for taking risks bringing great music to town and giving local acts a shot as well.

Tangents: What themes would you say pop up most often in your songs? Have you ever been surprised by the themes in your songs?

Noonan: Ha! I think I am mostly bored with the themes in my songs! I’ve been saying for years that I am trying to write more positive uplifting songs, but my comfort zone seems to be the time honored themes of heartache and loss! Occasionally I manage to vary that with a topical theme, like change in the rural South. I’d like to think that I capture some authentic regional flavor in my writing. You know, Texas songwriters are famous for celebrating Texas, I’d like to do the same thing for the Carolinas.

Tangents: Tell me some about some of the most memorable, or favorite shows that you have played?

Noonan: Well, playing out live is the most fun of all, and I am always appreciative to have the opportunity. Way back, Radio Reach played the annual Beaux Arts ball for the UNCC architecture school…it was in sort of a community hall somewhere out off of Mallard Creek Road, out in the country in those days…the hall was packed, and that band/audience chemistry thing just happened…probably the first time I really experienced that…when we tried to quit they started chanting “Radio Reach! Radio Reach!” Then at the end of the night Scott Savage staged one of his classic theatrical Jim Morrisonesque “pass outs” on the stage, and a guy with a Hasselblad camera took pictures of it as the crowd dispersed. Man, I sure would like see those pictures. Also, Rank Outsiders had the opportunity to play a lot of gigs in a lot of different places, but I always thought some of our best nights were at Jack Straw’s (now Jackalopes on 7th St.) and of course, at the Double Door. It just don’t get no better than that.

Tangents: When did you first play the Double Door, and how many times do you think that you played there?

Noonan: I think I first played the Double Door with Radio Reach, in 1980. And then, probably played there a time or two with most of my subsequent bands, but most often with Rank Outsiders through the 90s and early 00s. 

Tangents: Favorite moments of working at, or playing the Double Door?

Noonan: In early days, late 70s into the 80s, as I was getting my own music off the ground, seeing and hearing some of the great local and traveling bands that played at the Double Door was a huge part of my musical education. Then, playing there provided the opportunity both to improve as a musician and performer and to reach a bigger audience. That opportunity, as a local player just getting started, to improve and develop musical “credibility” is a huge part of the gift that Nick and the staff and audience at the Double Door gave to so many local musicians over the years.  

Tangents: The night that Clapton played with your gear, on the same bill with your band. Talk about talking to Portnoy, and how that day went down.

Noonan: My band at the time, the Watchcats, were booked at the Double Door on a Thursday night. When we showed up to set up the PA and gear in the late afternoon, we saw on our poster that the Legendary Blues Band had been added to the bill. That was the band that had just played there the previous weekend, so we were a bit confused. Jo Dawkins, who booked the club at that time, swore me to secrecy and told me that Eric Clapton might show up to play with the Legendary Blues Band. You can understand that we took this news with a bit of skepticism. But, Jo put me in touch with Jerry Portnoy, the harp player in LBB. The LBB, by the way, was 3 older black guys, including pianist Pinetop Perkins, who had been Muddy Waters’ backup band, along with a couple of younger Jewish guys from the Northeast, playing traditional Chicago blues. So, I called Jerry Portnoy at the motel where they were staying (land line only in those days!) Jerry Portnoy could not have been more humble about the whole thing, and apologetic for crashing our gig, etc. He explained that since Clapton, who had played in Charlotte earlier that week, was still in the area, and this was an opportunity for him to play with the guys from Muddy Waters’ old band. So I told him that if it actually came together, come on, and we’d accommodate. That night, we played a 1st set, then just about the time we were wrapping it up, I looked over to the door and there was Clapton and entourage coming up the steps. We played one more tune, and turned it over to them. Jerry came up on the stage, introduced himself and also, incidentally, Gary Brooker, the keyboardist from Clapton’s band. Again, they could not have been more polite or appreciative. At that point, we did what we could to facilitate the happening. We got them plugged up. They used our PA and some of our other gear, brought in a couple of their own amps, a Wurlitzer electric piano on loan from Don Tillman at Tillman Music, and then we got out of the way. They got up and played old-school Chicago blues, and Clapton sat in with them in a very low key way…like he was just one of the guys in the band…obviously for them, it was all about the music.

Tangents: Finish this sentence. At the end of the day, Rock & Roll is…..

…an ever-expanding universe. The generation I was part of was lucky to come along soon enough after the big bang that some of that original heat and light could still be felt. Maybe that’s why, in those days, rock and roll had equal or greater significance than sports and religion, and why my own tastes still tend toward the retro. But the universe continues to expand and assimilate, and even though it may be hard to describe in words, and may look and sound different than it once did, you still know the real thing when you hear it.

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