Kevin Norris

Interview: Caleb Quaye

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At 61-years of age, legendary guitarist Caleb Quaye shows no sign of slowing down. The former Elton John and Hall and Oats guitarist checks in with us to discuss life as a solo artist, his years playing with Elton John, and what it was like to hear fellow guitarist, Eric Clapton deem him the “world’s best guitar player.” During the ’70s you toured the world with the likes of Elton John and Hall and Oats as a band member. What does it feel like now to be the main man, to have the spotlight directed solely on you?

Caleb Quaye: That’s a good question [pause]. I haven’t really thought about that [laughs]. I was telling someone the other day about the idea of being “cool,” the definition of cool. I was kind of joking but I think there was some substance to it. I think “cool” is when you get pass 50 and you don’t care anymore [laughs]. So, for young people there so worried about is my hair right, do my pants fit, am I in the latest trend? once you get to my age – I’m 61 – it’s like I could give a rip [laughs]. And I’m not saying that to be arrogant or anything. There’s a real freedom that comes with it, so it doesn’t unnerve me. I’m playing the kind of music I’ve always wanted to play and with the kind of musicians I really enjoy playing with, so it’s great. It just feels like all the pieces are together in a creative level. We have a lot of fun playing, so I don’t really get phased by the spotlight.

SCMT: You touched on the current trends of today. What are your thoughts on the current trends in music, and the way it has changed from your time spent with Elton until now? Do you feel it has overall progressed or digressed and how would you say your own music has changed in that time period?

Caleb: We could spend a lot of time on that [laughs]. Well obviously because of my age I started making music back in the analog days. So I’m old school in that sense. I have a lot of younger students that ask me, “How did you get that sound back then?” Obviously we didn’t have a whole ton of equipment or technology back then, this was pre-digital. Everything was much more organic. The way we recorded music had a lot to do with the placement of microphones, how you’d mic up a room, stuff like that. So it was very much organic. Having said that, I’m also very aware that every generation has its own sound. So here we are in the digital age, where there’s a certain sound to it. With all the technology now it’s about pushing buttons and stuff like that. Which there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that, but that’s one thing that I miss, what I’d call the indigenous identification of music. Back in the analog day, us musicians would have competitions amongst ourselves: we’d buy an album, sit around playing it, and you could tell where it was recorded, who was playing on it, who produced it, and who engineered it.

SCMT: I know exactly what you mean. The other day I was listening to a relatively new album and was blown away when I learned that the multiple layers of instruments I was hearing was played solely by one person. It kind of throws you off.

Caleb: [Laughs] Yeah, well I miss that. In each studio it had its own sound. Memphis, Stax Studios, Motown, EMI studio number two (with the Beatles), all had their own sound. So this is an indigenous organic quality and reality to the music itself that was a lot of fun to identify. That’s part of the process of assimilating your various influences, because everybody is influenced by somebody. Nowadays you can’t tell who is doing what and where it was recorded.

SCMT: What would say your favorite studio to record is?

Caleb: It would depend on context. It would depend on the style, what genre you had to play. I really enjoyed a studio that’s not there anymore called Trident Studios that was in London. That’s where we did a lot of the early Elton John albums, what was referred to as the “classic period.” The songs, “Humbleweed Connection,” “Mad Man,” and “Tiny Dancer,” were all recorded at Trident.

SCMT: Eric Clapton has called you the “best guitar player in the world,” how does it feel to know that someone of that prestige thinks so highly of your skills?

Caleb:[Laughs] Very flattering. Just amazing and very humbling. Eric and I have known each other for a long time, from way back in the ’60s, like 1967. Myself and Elton John were playing in a band called Bluesology and we use to be the backing back for a famous English blues singer called Long John Baldry, and we would do tours, being the opening act for Cream when they played. So, backstage Eric and I had this mutual admiration society going on. We’d watch each other play and be like, “Hey man, I like the way you play and I like those licks, blah, blah, blah.” We were both influenced by the same type of music, we were all blues fans. That’s where that relationship started and when I got to hear about what when he said that statement on the David Letterman show, I was absolutely blown away.

SCMT: You’ve performed to crowds of over 100,000, but most recently you’ve performed to a few hundred at the Spaghetti Jazz Club. What about a more intimate setting do you like more, or do you prefer the bigger stage?

Caleb: I’m pretty comfortable with both of them. You begin to adapt. I like the more intimate setting. They have these in-ear monitors [at larger shows], I hate those things, I can’t stand those things. So, what I like about the smaller setting is you get to play to the room. I’m not a monitor dependent musician. I was trained to listen to the room. I like to listen to the band and what everyone else is doing. There’s this whole syndrome of I need to hear more of me in the monitor [laughs]. I’m just not that way. When I first started playing there was no such thing as in-ear monitors.

SCMT: How would you describe your new album “Out of the Blue”?

Caleb:A key word here is chemistry, with the guys that are in the band. I’m the oldest guy in the band by about five years, so we’re all of the same generation. We all share this same musical influences, which is blend of jazz, blues, R & B, and funk. It’s just fun. We go to some places musically, we just go there automatically.

SCMT: How long have you guys been together as a collective unit?

Caleb: About three years now. The bass player, PeeWee Hill, he’s one of my best friends, we’ve actually been playing together on and off for 30 years. The drummer Doug Matthews and keyboard player Charles Williams, they’ve played together on and off for a long time as well. So there’s this very interesting kind of chemistry that happens. The tunes, there pretty diverse. I like to use the term “flavors.” I think we were able to capture a lot of different flavors, which really have to do with the musical influences that we have invested in over the years.

SCMT: Lastly, what does the future hold for you?

Caleb: We just want to play. I’ve spent a lot of years in gospel music and now I feel like my life has come full circle. I’m a lifelong musician and I just feel like it would be good to connect with people in the church but also outside the church. I think I still have some music that will be a blessing to people in a nonreligious way. There’s a lot of music out there that is dark. It seems a lot of bands go out there to vent their angst. I’m just not that kind of guy. Especially in troubled times I think there is a place for good music thats got some good organic improvisational quality to help people look up in hope instead of looking down in despair.

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