Q&A with Bill McKay of Leftover Salmon

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Whether burning down the house with Leftover Salmon, heating up the keys for the Fox Street Allstars, or catching fire with his own outfit, Papa Bill McKay commands attention. In addition to playing with some of Colorado's finest roots acts McKay played in an early incarnation of the Derek Trucks Band.

In advance for his band's CD release parties this weekend -- Friday, April 2 at Oskar Blues in Longmont and Saturday, April 3 at Pete's Monkey Bar -- we caught up with McKay and asked him a few questions about the new record, how having a young son impacts his music and about playing with Derek Trucks.

Westword (Nick Hutchinson): How did you come to live in Denver?

Bill McKay: I graduated from high school in Rye, New York, in 1987, and I wound up attending Colorado College College in Colorado Springs. I'd always had a fascination with the state of Colorado. One of my older sisters had gone to DU, and a bunch of my friends also migrated out here.

I guess part of my move here also had to do with teen angst. I wanted to get as far away from home as possible. I showed up in the state a little early, during the summer of 1987, because the Grateful Dead were playing at Red Rocks, and I wanted to see them. I started college in the fall that year and graduated from CC in 1991. After graduating, I high-tailed it up to Boulder to become part of the town's thriving music scene.

WW: What kind of music did you play with Band du Jour?

BM: We dubbed our sound "soul and roll." That was our little catch phrase. The group was founded by Danny Schultz, who's still a great friend of mine. He's an attorney in San Francisco these days, and he now has a band called the Danny Brant Band, whose latest album I'm on.

We played a lot of original music, but we also touched on reggae and some other stuff. We were kind of a funk rock and blues band, along the lines of Little Feat. We also incorporated some soul music, like Aretha Franklin. It was our take on a mix of roots rock and soul music. Before that, I had a band called the Circle, which actually has a small amount of success. We opened up for Phish at the Boulder Theater in 1989, right before they took off.

WW: What venues were you playing then?

BM: We were road warriors, so we played all over the country, but locally, we played some of the usual haunts including JJ McCabes, the Walrus, Tulagi's and the Fox Theatre. In fact, we became such good friends with the owner of Tulagi's that he actually let us rehearse in the club during the week. So Tulagi's became our unofficial rehearsal space. Later on, when the Fox Theatre opened, we sort of became the house band there, selling it out about a weekend every month until I moved to Atlanta to join the Derek Trucks Band.

WW: How did you get the gig with Derek Trucks?

Band du jour toured a lot, and during our travels, we used to cross paths with Colonel Bruce Hampton and the Aquarium Rescue Unit. I got to know Bruce and the group's guitarist Jimmy Herring, who was also real good friends with Derek.

So when the Derek Trucks band was looking for a new keyboard player/singer/songwriter, the immediate referral from both Jimmy and Colonel Bruce was me. Their management called me and invited me down to do a short trial tour with them, and so I drove down to Texas with all my gear, and I ended up staying with the group for five years.

WW: How did you first get into music?

BM: I started singing as a boy soprano in my school and church choirs at a very young age. I was raised Catholic, but I got hired by the local Episcopalian Church to sing in its choir, and they paid. So I guess I've been a professional musician since I was seven.

I also started taking classical piano lessons around that time. I got pretty into it, but eventually, my piano teacher, who saw that I was getting bored with classical music, asked me to bring in some music that I liked. So I brought in some stuff by the Beatles and Crosby Stills and Nash, which my older siblings were listening to at the time. Once she showed me that I could play that kind of music it was a revelation. After that, there was no turning back.

WW: What kind of music do you love? Any specific genres?

BM: The older I get, the more I enjoy all sorts of music. My iPod includes everything from bluegrass and straight-up jazz, to Thievery Corporation. When I sit down and apply myself, it's usually an amalgamation of boogie woogie, blues and jazz, but I also love playing folk songs and ballads.

WW: How do you approach your songwriting?

BM: I haven't been terribly prolific in quite a few years. When I had more time on my hands, I would write a lot more. I have a family now, which has taken up more of my time, plus being on the road a bunch, too. So these days, I have to force myself to get away in order to write. I guess I need quiet to compose.

WW: What about the songs on your new solo disc?

BM: They're all originals. But the work on this release spans a period of about fifteen years. Some of the songs on there are more recent creations, while some go back a ways. I look at the disc as my body of work that I currently play. Over the years, I've rearranged some of the tunes, but I produced them all the way that I think about them here and now.

WW: How does having a young son impact you as an artist?

BM: I want to spend as much time with Cotton as I can. I don't mind going away for a short tour or what have you, but his effect on me is that I want to play more local stuff and teach locally. It makes me less willing to want to get on a tour bus and drive around for weeks and weeks at a time. So, its made me want to play around town more with my brother, John, who's a songwriter and guitarist, and to play locally in my solo band.

WW: Where do you see yourself in the future?

BM: With the album released, I'd like to get out in front of more people to perform my songs with the solo band. Or even just performing by myself, with no band.

WW: Whats that tiny toy-like keyboard that you blow into on stage sometimes?

BM: It's called a melodica. I'd been wanting one of those for years, and my wife just bought me one for Christmas. As a keyboard player, it's difficult to fit into a camp fire jam or an informal late night picking session, but with one of these, you jump right in. Once I got my wife to remember what it was called, she got it for me.

Bill McKay will mark the release of his new self-titled album with a series of live performances during the month of April. The disc features some of his regular collaborators, including James Dumm of the Fox Street All Stars, Adam Stern of the Adam Stern Trio, and Bill's brother, John Mckay. Catch Bill McKay at one of the shows listed below. 

04/01/10 - Bill McKay Band at Washington Park Grille
04/02/10 - Bill McKay Band Oskar Blues in Longmont
04/03/10 - Bill McKay Band at Pete's Monkey Bar
04/10/10 - With Fox Street All Starts at Herb's
04/11/10 - Bill and John McKay at West End Tavern
04/16/10 - Bill McKay Band at Boulder's Drafthouse
04/17/10 - Bill McKay solo at Zio Romolo's
04/24/10 - Bill McKay solo at Bagali's in Broomfield

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