The Dough Rollers formed in 2008 when Jack Byrne and Malcolm Ford bonded over a mutual appreciation for the blues. The duo has expanded at times to include fiddle and a rhythm section but Jack and Malcolm first caught our eye earlier this year when they appeared at Carnegie Hall in celebration of Robert Johnson’s 100th birthday playing a vintage Epiphone Zephyr. Recently the band has toured with Bob Dylan, John Mellencamp and Queens of the Stone Age. Look for their new release at the end of the summer produced by Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age.
Jack and Malcolm are the sons of actors Gabriel Byrne and Harrison Ford and know a thing or two about taking your craft seriously. Epiphone caught up with Jack to talk about John Lee Hooker, Son House, Charlie Patton, and that vintage Epiphone. Here's Part 1 of our interview
You recently performed at the gala event at the Apollo honoring Robert Johnson. Was Johnson an early influence?
: Yes, we performed at the Robert Johnson 100th birthday celebration at the Apollo back in March. It was truly an honor to be a part of that night. The people we got to meet (I mean how many times do you get to hang out with Sam Moore and Macy Gray in the same night?), playing on the stage of the Apollo and of course because Robert Johnson has meant so much to both of us for so long. For me personally, the Robert Johnson Complete Recordings
album was one of the first blues records I really got into. I bought it when I was about 13 in Memphis along with a Son House record, a Sleepy John Estes and Blind Lemon Jefferson.
They all blew my mind, but that one (Robert Johnson) in particular...I'd never heard anybody play guitar or sing like that. I just couldn't wrap my head around it. I still barely can. Every time you listen there's some new little thing that jumps out at you. When I started teaching Malcolm guitar, he was just starting to get turned on to a lot of old blues stuff so naturally Robert Johnson was one of the first albums I played him, and like a lot of people he took to it right away. I think one of the first songs we ever played together was Johnson's "32-20," there's probably a recording of it floating around somewhere. I don't know if we ever really tried to imitate him or anything like that, but we definitely try to take what we can from a guy like that.
Tell us about the vintage Epiphone you played at Carnegie Hall.
I'd love to! That's been one of my favorite guitars for some time now. It’s a 1960 and 1/2 sunburst Zephyr (I wanted a blonde one, but hey I guess you take what you can get). For some reason these guitars don't really get the credit they deserve, but man are they awesome! The mini-humbuckers really make the guitar sound like something else. I believe the sides and back are maple and the top is laminated arched maple. Also who could forget about the beautiful inlays and logo plate on the headstock? I first heard about the Zephyr because as a big fan of John Lee Hooker, I looked into how he got that incredible tone and lo and behold, it was a Zephyr! In fact, most of his playing in those days was done on the Zephyr. Truly a fantastic instrument.
You have a new EP coming later this summer. How did you go about recording the album and wha
t inspired the songs?
Well, last year we were working on trying to get together some new original material that was sort of a departure from the bluesier stuff we'd done before. It was right around the same time that we were lucky enough to get invited on tour with our friends Queens of the Stone Age. So we quickly put together a rhythm section (we figured not too many people at a QOTSA would want to hear two guys with just guitars doing blues songs) and scrambled to get a set together. Because of the time crunch we did mostly electric blues with a couple covers thrown in for good measure.
Anyway, we played that set on both the tours we went on with Queens and got very used to playing in a full band setup. When we got back we wanted to keep playing in a similar setting but needed our own material instead of a couple blues numbers and some old rock and roll covers. The timing seemed right so we took some time off from playing shows to really sit down and try to come up with songs that combined elements from all the different musics we like. Luckily our buddy Josh Homme from Queens offered to record a few songs for us at their studio so we took him up on that pretty fast. It really was such a privilege to be able to work with him. We both have a great amount of respect for him and the work he's done over the years, so to have him sitting in the control booth working on our songs with us was completely insane! He ended up playing and singing on some stuff too so that was really an honor as well. All in all, we did 3 songs that should be coming out as an EP later this summer (they are currently available in their unmixed form to listen at www.doughrollers.bandcamp.com). It was really a great experience for us.
Along with yourself and Gary Clark, Jr., there is also a 'revival' of string band blues music
. How do you go about translating your favorite early blues to a quartet sound?
Well that's certainly not the easiest thing in the world to do. I mean in the 60's there were a bunch of bands that did that really well, you know like Canned Heat, Cream, Zeppelin, the Dead, etc. They were able to take that music that they loved so much and translate into something that was not only digestible for the masses, but something that was at the same time fairly unique and still paid full homage to the masters. You know, I guess it's just about taking the elements of these songs that really speak to you and trying to tell them in your own way. Doing exact copies of the old songs is still great but you have to have to try to add your own elements otherwise in a sense you're just metaphorically treading water. So when we play now, you might not necessarily hear a Son House song or a Sheiks songs but if we're doing our jobs right and you listen close enough you might nod your head and think to yourself "well that's a nice little tip of that hat buried in there."
The two of you first worked as a duo which is a great dynamic. Many great bluesmen preferred working and recording as a duo. Do you see your work heading back in that direction?
I don't think that dynamic will ever disappear from our work, but as far as recording and playing go now, we will be primarily doing it in a full band setting from here on out. You know we still play like that when we're just hanging around, but it's nice to be able to express yourself in different ways and a lot times that can be limited in a sense by just working as a blues duo. Granted there also many things we could do when it was just the two of us that we can't really do anymore, but its nice to try different things.
For some audiences, that era of blues that you love and draw from is unknown music. Do you consciously try to let go of the records or do you feel some pressure to stay close to the original arrangements?
No, I think when we play those songs we try to do them as much in our own way as possible. Its not like Charley Patton sat down and said "Man I want to play Sitting on Top of the World the exact same arrangement note for note that the Mississippi Sheiks did." He just played it the way he played it and that was that. So I wouldn't say we consciously try to let go of or replicate the old records, we just play them as best we can and hope that they sound somewhat decent. Not to say that the old arrangements aren't better (they are) but for us personally, its more fun to play the songs our own way instead of somebody else's. Plus that way, people can hear our crappy versions and then go back and really be floored by the originals, hopefully making a pretty solid learning experience for all involved.