When I got through to Nine Below Zero front-man, guitarist and vocalist Dennis Greaves, he just happened to be doing a little shopping in South East London.
“I’m in Lidl in Lewisham, doing my domestics! I’ve gone out to get something for the band for the dressing room, because there are eight of us now, you know.”
Yes, Nine Below Zero have shifted away from their traditional band dynamic – doubling the personnel for new album, 13 Shades of Blue, which was released on their long-established Zed Records label on the last day of September.
The initial idea of their 22nd LP since 1980’s Live at the Marquee was to create an expansive celebration of rhythm and blues on record, in a format incorporating extra horns, keyboards and vocals. Accordingly, Dennis – who first got things rolling in 1977 with an outfit initially known as Stan’s Blues Band – put the Nine Below Zero stamp on a collection of re-interpreted rare grooves from across the soul, funk and r’n’b spectrum.
Seem familiar? Well, The Rolling Stones have done something similar, their Blue and Lonesome LP out next month, but – this time around at least – Nine Below Zero got there first. And by way of celebration, the larger format of the band are now travelling the UK – hence the pre-tour rehearsals when I called. I’m guessing they’re not getting bigger dressing rooms though.
“No, but that’s part of the fun!”
The band rehearse upstairs in a pub in East Greenwich, The Pelton Arms, where they’ve been known to play in various formats over the years. And that’s included guest slots by Squeeze guitarist/vocalist Glenn Tilbrook, a good friend of Dennis who collaborated with Nine Below Zero on 2011’s The Cooperative and goes back with them a lot further.
“Yeah, our old mucker, who’s just come back from America. I toured with Squeeze in 1985 all over America. It was fantastic. I couldn’t believe how big they were over there. We played Nassau Coliseum (New York), which holds about 16,000, and they’re all singing Pulling Mussels (From the Shell). It was like, ‘Bloody hell! Are they that big?’ it was brilliant.”
“He was wandering around outside and I said, ‘I need a solo here, do you fancy playing on this track?’”
Like fellow old stagers Nine Below Zero, I put it to Dennis that Squeeze seem to be in a rich vein of form right now.
“Glenn and Chris (Difford) are still writing great songs, and the thing with Squeeze, Nine Below Zero and a few of us, is that we’re all about producing new material – not being a tribute band to ourselves!”
The day we spoke was revered Nine Below Zero harmonica player/vocalist Mark Feltham’s 61st birthday. He’s a year and a half older than Dennis, so how did they meet?
“It’s a funny story! My school backed on to the Thomas a Becket pub in the Old Kent Road and I wanted to form a blues band, and someone told me about this harmonica player. I rang and told him what I was looking for, asked where he lived so we could hook up, and he said,’ Well, you won’t know it – it’s a new Peabody estate in Dulwich’. I said, ‘I live there!’ I looked out of my window and he was about 12 houses down the road. So he came to my house, we played, and instantly hit it off.”
That was nearly 40 years ago now, and while the band – quickly renamed after a Sonny Boy Williamson song – have included several players over the years, they’ve centred around a core quartet since the early ‘80s – Dennis, Mark, drummer Mickey ‘Sticks’ Burkey and bass player Brian Bethell. And while health issues have seen Brian miss out of late – with fellow bass player Ben Willis deputising – Dennis says he’ll be back for a ‘classic line-up’ tour in Sweden in April.
“He’ll be alright. We’ve wrapped him in cotton wool and he’s on the bench, ready to go. Ben is going to be doing most of the stuff for now though, and is really suited to the big band. Meanwhile, Mickey’s all over us, playing the best he’s ever played with us. He’s amazing.”
“He is, and it’s really quite amazing, almost like a Buddy Rich, where you’ve got to lead the band.”
It seems that the big band format gives the original band a lot of added freedom.
“Yes. This is a brand new project for me, but something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. I’m so glad I’ve done it, but it all came about accidentally.”
Just as he’s about to explain himself, there’s a voice, and Dennis – at the check-out – parrots it.
“There you are – ‘Thank you for shopping at Lidl’ You’re welcome!”
Shopping transactions complete, he gets back to the story, although I wonder if it’s a gag at first.
“I walked into a pub, heard this track, and thought, ‘What is that?’ It turned out to be Senor Soul’s Don’t Play Your Funky Trip on Me. I thought, ‘Wow – that is amazing’. So when I got home I started a Spotify playlist.”
A rant follows about that particular online music server, Dennis telling me about his ‘love-hate relationship’ with Spotify.
“They pay me 0.002 of a penny while I pay £9.99 a month for a subscription. As a musician and songwriter I can’t stand them, but at the same time it’s like having a library to go to. Sting did a lovely piece in The Independent the other day, about people like us not getting paid by the massive corporates.
“Anyway, with the help of Johnny Chandler – head of back-catalogue at Universal, a former DJ who managed the Blow Monkeys – we started to get a playlist together. He was saying, ‘What about Little Milton and Sil Johnson?’ and mentioning real rare, under-the-radar types. It really got me excited.
“People like Buddy Guy are brilliant, but if I was 18 and wanting to listen to the blues, my album would be the one to listen to – a real eye-opener to people like Little Milton.”
“Absolutely. The first few Rolling Stones albums were r’n’b albums, before they even wrote a song. Fantastic. That’s gone in my business now – the chance to develop as an artist and musician. It’s changed in the last five years quicker than it did in the previous 20.”
Last time I saw Nine Below Zero live was as a four-piece, supporting Bruce Foxton’s From the Jam at the Muni in Colne in January (with a link to my review here). They then returned to East Lancashire later in the year for a headlining role at Colne’s Great British R&B Festival, in a summer that also included the eight-piece Nine Below Zero’s debut at Glastonbury. And now they’re out again as an octet, including a visit to Manchester’s Ruby Lounge next Saturday, November 19 (0161 834 1392, or via this link) – my excuse for speaking to him.
“The northern powerhouse? Lovely, eh!”
Supposedly so. It’s a nice title – whether it’s anything more than that remains to be seen.
“I was up there a while ago and it was buzzing. I did the Curry Mile, then stopped a couple of school-kids at the bus stop and asked if everyone gets on, because I saw so many different cultures. They said they sort of tolerate each other. I thought that was really cool!”
When we caught up, Dennis and the band had already put in around six dates on the tour, and their frontman was looking forward to a return to Yorkshire that weekend.
“My Grandad was born in Leeds and I’ve got fond memories of there.”
Dennis mentioned recently – ahead of a date in Aldershot, where his Dad was stationed in the Army as part of his national service –how his parents helped him get into the business. Was there plenty of music in the Greaves house?
“Yeah, that’s down to my Grandad. I was born in Tufnell Park, but in 1962 my Mum and Dad got offered ‘£10 Pom’ tickets, so we were going to Australia. But he bottled it, and funnily enough a Peabody flat in Elephant and Castle then came up.
“My Grandad, Alf Hardy, sold newspapers outside Tufnell Park tube station, but had harmonicas, keyboards, Hammond organs, guitars, banjos. He could pick things up and play them immediately.
“My Dad would go and see Matt Munro in a real famous pub, The Boston Arms. He was a bus conductor at the time, and his accompanist was Max Bygraves’ brother. My Dad, my Grandad, my great-grandad and I have all sung in there. And my dad thought he was Al Jolson!
“I grew up in a house that really adored music, and it was always on. My Dad was a hero of mine, a London taxi driver and bus driver, and bought me my first proper guitar – a Gibson 335.
“As a parent myself, I think about that a lot. I wasn’t the brightest tool in the box, but as soon as I left school I educated myself through reading, especially by being on the road. Travelling educated me, but my Mum and Dad gave me a fantastic start in life, giving me confidence. I can’t thank them enough for that. They never told me I was rubbish or told me what I couldn’t do. I was dyslexic, short-sighted and couldn’t read or write as good as other kids. But I certainly made up for lost time.”
Even during the band’s 1984/89 hiatus, Dennis kept busy with The Truth, notching two UK top-20 singles five US r’n’b chart hits. How many gigs does he reckon he’s played since 1977?
“I wouldn’t know, but averaging 100 gigs a year over 40 years … that’s 4,000. Something like that!”
While he still spends a lot of time on the road, it must be nice to chill at home in between.
“Yeah, I live in Charlton, on the Greenwich peninsula, part of the Royal Borough of Greenwich – very posh! My wife may disagree with me, though – she might like it when I go away!”
Talking of family, I see on the album credits that his youngest lad, Sonny Greaves, featured on percussion.
“Yeah, Sonny’s out with a young lad called Aaron Keylock, playing with Wilko Johnson and Joanne Shaw Taylor, signed to Mascot Records. Yes, I’m afraid Sonny’s in the music business – much to my chagrin! My other son Jake, is a great drummer as well, but he’s a pub landlord, whereas Sonny’s got the bug!”
There’s also a mention of Helen Greaves on backing vocals.
“That’s my wife! She was making some sandwiches and I said, ‘You’ve never sung on one of my records – come and have a sing! She’s very shy, but I think Glenn put her down in the mix, so she’s most upset!”
For the record, Sonny’s 19 while Jake’s 25, although while asking him that I apologised to Dennis for making it all seem like This is Your Life.
“Listen – this is the trouble when you’ve been around 40 years. There’s a lot of water under the bridge, loads of stories, fascinating places I’ve been to, and great people I’ve met.”
As well as Sonny, there are plenty of other younger players on the LP, including Charlie Austen (who also plays bass and sings with Lux Lisbon), who shines out in a duet with Dennis on Don’t Play That Song (You Lied), perhaps the closest Nine Below Zero get to a Jools Holland Big Band vibe on the album. Her voice works well with his, I put to him.
“Doesn’t it! Yeah, alive it’s working really nice. We’re getting a real nice blend, bringing a lovely colour to the band. And it was Glenn (Tilbrook) who mentioned that song.
“I run a blues jam down at The Pelton Arms. I adore playing, and it’s a nice way of meeting people and socialising with friends and family. Aaron Keylock started there, and this girl said she’d like to sing, choosing Stormy Monday in B-flat. We started, and the whole pub went silent and turned towards her. We all just went, ‘Oh, my God, this is amazing! Where have you been?’ So I asked what she was doing that Monday. She’s so lovely.
“Also, the trumpet player, Jazzy Jeff (Brown) was a barman at The Pelton. A lot of people who walked in found themselves on the album! With bands like The Strypes (managed by Squeeze’s Chris Difford), Aaron Keylock, Lawrence Jones – there are lots of great kids out there, and I’ve got four or five of them in our band! They’re all playing jazz and blues, and long may it continue. What we don’t want is this homogenised corporate-sounding music. It’s so nice to have players.”
The new album, 13 Shades of Blue, has received a fair amount of attention, including national radio airplay from the likes of Paul Jones on BBC Radio 2. And deservedly so. I put it to Dennis that it’s a joyous album too – his band sound really tight together, yet they seem to be having a lot of fun.
“You’ve got it! You know what you’re talking about! That is a bunch of guys going into a room playing live together and creating a really wonderful sound. No posh overdubs or multi-track-laying – just playing live, with the magic captured.”
It’s a mixed bag, in a positive sense. The horns are perfect, and from Funky Trip onwards the band are on a roll, that opener bringing to mind The Staples Singers and Sly & the Family Stone too. Yet the album has as much a London identity as a stateside one.
“I know! And God, I love Sly and the Family Stone. I also did John Mayall’s Crawling up a Hill, from a record I had as a kid in ‘65, live at Klooks Kleek, very British-sounding r’n’b, before John Mayall got (Eric) Clapton involved. I feel I’ve captured a bit of that as well.
Incidentally, I should add there that Nine Below Zero opened for ‘Slowhand’ for 12 successive dates at the Royal Albert Hall in 1994. And on this album, it’s fair to say that Dennis’ own guitar work impresses – with traces of everyone from BB King to the Isley Brothers.
“Oh yeah! Summer Breeze! What a great song that was!”
From straight blues numbers like Watch What You Do To Me to a James Brown undercurrent on That’s What Love Will Make You Do, they mix it up too.
“True. And I think the great thing about our music is that the older you get, you mature into it, and that’s what I hate about …
He sighs there, and I tell him it sounds like he’s trying not to mention The X-Factor and all those TV talent shows.
“You read my mind! I just don’t like this modern pop culture, where your career’s over in 12 months, almost quicker than a football manager’s. You don’t get a chance to develop as an artist and travel the world, like I have. “
If Dennis and his bandmates back in ’77 had to stand up in front of Simon Cowell or some other industry mogul on some talent show, I don’t think he would have liked them.
“He’d have hated us! It’s about control, being able to control one artist and tell them what to do. Imagine a four or five-piece with as many characters – he couldn’t control that!”
That’s not a new thing though. There have always been pop svengalis with that power to make or break artists.
“Oh yeah – like Mickie Most, and before that Joe Meek, with artists like Heinz.”
At that point we get talking about The Stranglers, one of the many bands Nine Below Zero have toured with over the years.
“Oh yeah, and their lead singer now, Baz (Warne) loves our song Don’t Point Your Finger. I walked into a Stranglers soundcheck and they played that. In fact, Baz lives in Leeds now, so should be coming along to see us up there and jam with us.
“Yes, him, JJ (Burnel), Dave (Greenfield) … they’re all lovely. And the crew are so helpful. Don’t get me wrong – don’t piss them off or be an idiot around them, but my first ever gigs were with The Kinks and The Who, and you soon learn how to conduct yourself.
“When we first turned up to support The Kinks in the early ’80s, we were told in no uncertain terms that we weren’t allowed to talk to Ray (Davies) and not to do this or that. But within two days we were in their dressing room, chatting about football, Tottenham, Arsenal, and it was lovely.
“It was the same with the Who. We reminded them of how they were when they started. It was all London boys, and we spoke the same language.”
Apparently, The Who’s interest came after Keith Moon’s replacement Kenney Jones, the Small Faces and Faces legend, saw them live and was suitably impressed. And it was 1981’s Don’t Point Your Finger album (produced by the revered Glyn Johns) that opened the door for Nine Below Zero, while the following year’s Third Degree proved to be their biggest commercial success.
Nevertheless, the band then went their separate ways, Dennis concentrating on The Truth, while Mark became a high-profile session player, most notably for Rory Gallagher initially, and Brian saw success with the Blow Monkeys. Yet by 1990 they were reunited for a 10th anniversary gig, a Town and Country Club sell-out in Kentish Town something of a landmark moment, although Mark left within two years, not returning until 2001.
That post-reunion period included high-profile supports with the likes of a solo Ray Davies, plus Brian May, the afore-mentioned Sting, a slot with Chuck Berry at the 100 Club – where The Truth recorded a five-track EP in 1984 – and appearances with Jools Holland and Paul Jones.
Talking of Pauls, I tell Dennis I spoke to Paul Young the day before (feature to follow on here) and understand his band The Q-Tips, were also on that bill with The Who around the same time.
“That’s right – it was The Ruts, The Q-Tips and Nine Below Zero. We got a third of that tour. Actually, I spoke to Paul about a month ago. One of our mutual friends died of prostate cancer, so we did a charity gig in London.”
Interesting he should mention that link. While they’re very different artists in certain respects – not least the amount of past commercial success – Dennis and Paul have a lot in common, and the latter not long ago released his own covers album, Good Thing, mostly tackling long-lost soul tracks.
“Yeah, great minds think alike! And The Rolling Stones – they’ve done exactly the same as us!”
Indeed – kindred spirits. Meanwhile, getting back to 13 Shades of Blue, by the time the band reach the penultimate track, Allen Toussaint’s Hercules, I reckon there’s a Marvin Gaye feel from Dennis.
“Well, I’ve been listening to a lot of Marvin Gaye. I went in some second-hand record shop and bought a load of stuff, and love his work with Tammi Terrell. I had to change Hercules a little though, as Aaron Neville’s just so unbelievable on the original. It was a tough call, so I made more of the chorus.”
And then the album finishes with Paper in my Shoe, which – despite what I said earlier – I venture is more New Orleans than New Cross really.
“Ha! The last piece of the jigsaw for the blues is a bit of cajun, isn’t it!”
Seeing as he said he didn’t come to much at school, I have to say I’m quite impressed with his French on that finale.
“Do you know what? That school French really stayed with me. I can definitely order my food. With Italian and French I understand a lot more than I can converse in it though!”
Well, you convinced me anyway.
“Ha! Yeah, we’re really dreading that’s incorrect!”
With that, Dennis reached his studio and had to go, his band no doubt hungry, wondering where he’d got to, the tour bus not far off leaving.
Remaining 2016 dates (eight-piece band unless stated): November 10 – Arts Centre, Norwich (four-piece); November 11 – The Concorde, Brighton; November 18 – The Cricketers, Weston, Herts (Mark and Dennis, acoustic), November 19 -Ruby Lounge, Manchester; November 26 – Kevin Thorpe Blues Night, The Elms Hotel, Retford (four-piece); December 2 – The Electric Palace, Bridport; December 3 – The Globe, Cardiff; December 8 – The Junction, Cambridge; December 9 – Greystones, Sheffield; December 10 -The Musician, Leicester; December 17 – Ripley Blues Club, Ripley, Yorks.
For this site’s recent interview with Dennis’ good friend Glenn Tilbrook, including his own appraisal of Nine Below Zero, head here. Meanwhile, ahead of this summer’s Great British R’n’B Festival in Colne, I also had the pleasure of speaking to co-headliner and Dr Feelgood legend Wilko Johnson, with a link here to the resultant feature.