Interview with Reverend Peyton of Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band

Reverend Peyton took some time away from his Big Damn Band to chat with us about his journey so far and life on the road.

Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band are one of the busiest bands out there. There’s barely a time when they aren’t out on the road. If you’ve never seen them live, you truly are missing out as they are always sure to put on a fantastic show. You can’t fail to be impressed by the Rev’s guitar skills, accompanied by Breezy on the flaming washboard, and Max Senteney on the drums (in between Reverend kicking his cymbal off the stage)! 

On a rare day off, Reverend Peyton took time out to chat with Loud Hailer about his influences, his life in music and how the Big Damn Band got to where they are today.

LH:  Thanks for taking the time to speak to us. It’s funny that I am speaking to you right now, as I have just been to Clarksdale and I believe Clarksdale is very important to you. You made the decision to play music again when you were in Clarksdale, right?
RP:  Clarksdale, we’ve found, really embraced our music and everything we are about. I’ve been playing since I was a kid, you know. I had a problem with my hands that kinda delayed things for a couple of years, but I was still basically a teenager, so it was probably for the best. In Clarksdale, that’s where we were able to meet guys like Robert Belfour and T-Model Ford and learn so much from them. Clarksdale was a defining place. We’ve been headlining the Juke Joint Fest now for the better part of a decade at the largest venue. For us, it’s like a pilgrimage. What Clarksdale is now, it’s hard for some people to understand that, at one time, the most important music center in the country was Memphis down to Vicksburg on both sides of the river, Arkansas and Mississippi. And not just in terms of the blues.  So much American music was born there, and so much music is born in blues.

LH:  I have enjoyed learning the history of this country and its music. Parts of Clarksdale are like a time capsule. I know from reading previous interviews with you that you mention Robert Belfour a lot, so I went back and listened to him. That guy is unbelievable. That playing is phenomenal. I love “Hill Stomp.” I’ve had that song on a lot. That’s just great playing. 
RP:  Belfour’s playing is the most underrated bluesman of the last 50 years. I don’t think that’s an exaggeration. I just wish he was more famous in his lifetime. But you know what happened, he didn’t need to play blues to live. He was a working man, he’s retired from his union construction work.  So he played blues because he loved it. His wife didn’t like him touring, so he had to make a lot of money on the road or she wouldn’t let him leave. And you know, when you’re an unknown, you don’t make a lot of money. So he didn’t leave a lot… And then when she died, he started trying to play more, but it was almost like it was too late, you know? He didn’t live very much longer after that.

LH:  Yeah, it’s a shame.
RP:  It’s a shame. But you know, he was a big influence on me. Just huge.

LH:  You referred to it earlier, you started playing and then you had the issue with your hand and then that was fixed. I saw you do a video interview where you were showing how far your hand stretches out now and it’s unbelievable how far your thumb bends back. Right back when you started, you talked about Charlie Patton being an early influence. Were your parents musical or was it just something you always wanted to do?
RP:  Well, music was always big in my house and I didn’t know my dad could play guitar because he sold his guitar when I was born because he needed money. And you know, at 12 years old, he said we’re going to go buy a guitar. And I had no idea. We went and got the cheapest damn Kay that you can get.  But, you know, from that point on, I would say it was like I felt like a fish out of water. And I felt like I got put back in the water when someone handed me a guitar and I just took to it.

Man, I was born to play the guitar. My hands are weird. The reason I have a lot of trouble with my hands is because they’re so flexible. I’ve had to learn how to deal with it and it’s something I’m always going to be battling, I think, a little bit. I try to stay on top of it by being strong and taking care of my hands. But, you know, it’s a battle but I love it, man. I learned from my Daddy. His favorite was like Johnny Winter, and Johnny Winter is such a great place for people to start with blues. But you’re always going to end back at Muddy Waters at the very least, right. And then from Muddy Waters, it’s real easy to take a song back and back and back. And at the beginning, you get back to Charlie Patton. And Charlie Patton is just, I guess, he’s like my patron saint, man. I love Charlie’s music. I love that, everything began right there with him. You know, the connection to West African scales, the connection to early American music, you can hear how it was all sort of born. Then, if you trace it from Charlie up to, you know, anybody today. I think it’s better if people start with Charlie. I always tell people, I’m like, man, Charlie is great for people with what I say is pop-damaged ears. You know, the ears have been damaged by years of pop music that is just overly produced. But once you get into it and feel the beat rhythms and lots of ancient scales, and his voice is just incredible and the song is so amazing.

LH:  Yeah, it really is. And I think that style came about, that kind of style of guitar playing, finger-style, and the way that you play, that came about in the early days I guess through necessity, right? Because these guys were playing on their own so they had to be like the whole band effectively. They had to be the bass player, the rhythm guitar player and the lead player all at once, which is exactly how you play.
RP:  That’s exactly right. That’s exactly it and, you know, like Robert Balfour told me that his dad played music, too. And his dad played by Charlie Patton. You know, and you can hear like Robert Balfour, he’s still like country blues. But he don’t play like Junior Kimbrough, you know what I mean? He had his own thing that was definitely more finger-style and I think felt way deeper and more rooted in. You can hear it, traced right back to guys like Charlie and that earlier stuff, you know? And I think it’s one of the reasons I always liked Robert’s music so much, you know, but I liked Robert as a person too, I just thought he was great. I know he was cantankerous sometimes, but you know, when he got old, you know, I think everybody gets cantankerous as you get old.

LH:  Yeah, exactly. You earn the right to be cantankerous once you’ve got a few years on the clock.
RP:  One of the first times I met him, he carried my amplifiers into the show. And I said, “Oh, I got that, Mr Belfour.” He looked at me like, are you kidding me? You don’t think I can carry this amp? Get out of my way, you know. But he was a working man, you know, he worked for a living his whole life. So he believed in hard work. Robert Belfour was not lazy. I can tell you that much.

LH:  When you started, when you came back to it the second time around and you were going to play that style, for me, I play guitar and whenever I think maybe I’ll try and learn new  things, I find it hugely challenging just to separate your thumb from the rest of your fingers. But, the first time I saw you play, we try and catch you guys every time you come to Chicago, I was like, wow! I’d never seen anyone play that like you, that speed and with that kind of ferocity. When you came back to it, were you just like woodshedding all the time to get there?
RP:  Yeah. But you know what, man, I must have spent untold hours practicing. I mean, there’s very few people you’re going to find that’s got more hours practicing guitar than me. But I can also say this, there’s something about my brain that understands that. And I try to tell people, I’m like oh, you know, I think of it like dancing, people look at me like I’m an insane person. But that’s really, truthfully, the best way I can describe it.

LH:  Yeah, it just naturally comes to you.
RP:  I mean I spent years cultivating it and taking it to another level. But I think there’s just something about when my hands and brain connect, man. If you see my hands when I open up real wide. You’ve seen that. I can spread from the first fret to the eighth fret on a guitar.

LH:  That’s absolutely crazy. That said, so bringing it up to date a little bit, Poor Until Payday was out last year. I thought that was a great album and I wanted to talk a bit about your recording process. With a lot of bands, you know, records are very produced. One of the things I love about your records is you can put one of your records on and you feel like you’re in the room with you guys and that you could be at a live show. Was that deliberate? Do you sort of record live to tape when you do the albums?
RP:  Early on, some of our records were like under-produced, like it was like, lift the mics up and it’s like, okay, what are we doing? Then we sort of started playing with different things but this record, Poor Until Payday is recorded like a record would have been recorded, say, in like 1958 using vintage stuff, vintage mics, vintage amps, vintage guitars. And a vintage sensibility for it all, you know?

LH:  Yeah. And I think there’s a lot to be said for that. I mean, obviously you play in a very particular genre, but it’s funny that I talk to a lot of different artists and a lot of artists I’ve spoken to over the last two years in different genres are going back to playing to tape, or playing live in the room to get that feeling. I think it’s just a reaction to, and you kind of referred to it earlier on, everything just feeling so overproduced these days. I think you can go into a studio and you can do everything perfect now and whatever isn’t perfect, you can fix it. But I don’t know if that’s really what music’s about, to be honest.
RP:  Well, you know, there’s more than one way to skin a cat we say, you know. And I think that what you’re hearing, some of the best, even in pop music, like if you go to like Bruno Mars or something like that, Mark Ronson. They’re using a lot more real sounds, real instruments. You know, the way they are mixing the tape or mastering to tape on some of those records. There is a warmth that comes with real analog stuff and the plugins, the Pro Tools, are getting better all the time. But, you know, there’s just something to be said for going in and knocking it out live. There’s excitement as it’s up to the minute. You know, what you’ll find is that in this day and age, you got to make records cheaper, right? Because, you know, it’s not like the days of The Rolling Stones. The Rolling Stones could rent a mansion and bring in studio equipment and, you know, a bunch of production people. And then they were like, they spent a year on a record.  And you know, no one can afford that anymore. Not even The Rolling Stones. So it’s like, you got to make records faster and the way they’ve been doing it in Nashville a long time, is they just did it live because they could, on the meat of it. Then they over-produced the vocals like crazy in Nashville. They got to be like an obsession. They get a lot of those field guys coming in to knock out the band portion and never even see the vocalists but they did it like that because there’s so many good pickers in Nashville, they could do it and it’s cheaper to do it live. For a lot of people, that’s what it is.

LH:  Yeah. And it makes me kind of smile sometimes that people go chasing these sounds like The Stones. When you read about them recording Exile on Main Street, they were just in the stone basement of that house and bouncing the reverb off the walls. And Led Zeppelin, when they recorded “When The Levee Breaks,” that drum part at the beginning with John Bonham. Everybody tries to get that drum sound and that was just his drum kit set up in the entrance hall of the house. And everyone’s still chasing that sound today. It’s crazy to me.
RP:  Yeah. Well you know, those guys had a lot of time to be able to practice. They could move that drum kit around the house until he got it perfect.

LH:  Yeah, absolutely. I agree. And like you say, not everyone can just buy a mansion to go and do that.
RP:  Yeah, exactly. You know, I certainly can’t. When we make a record, man, we only have so much time, so we have to be rehearsed. You go in and it has to be right, so we spend a lot of time outside of the studio, woodshedding new songs so when we go into the studio, we knock them out.

LH:  Yeah. And you generally tour upwards of 250 days a year. In terms of writing new music, are you writing every day? Do you just put time aside to do it on the road or just when it comes to you?
RP:  Man, I write down ideas and I get song ideas and I write music all the time. But I don’t finish them unless I’m home, usually.

LH:  Okay. And I guess that that’s probably somewhere where technology is handy because a lot of musicians I speak to just say that their phones are just full of like sound clips and ideas of different riffs and songs and things like that.
RP:  Yeah. I used to never get demos, man, because it was all in my head and now I do a ton of demos on my phone.

LH:  So 250 days a year, I mean, that’s such a heavy schedule, but you guys, you seem to just be enjoying yourselves constantly. Is there a secret to it? I know that you always seem to carve out some time during the days to fish if you can, do something you enjoy during the day.
RP:  Man, I had a fan write to me recently and I just responded to the message. I don’t have time to respond to everything. I try to respond as much as I can, you know? And this fellow said that he used to tour and couldn’t handle it and wanted to know what our secret was. And I said, man, the only thing that I know for sure is that I think some people are cut out for it. Some people just ain’t. As simple as that is, you know, and there’s tricks to make it easier and whatnot. But we did it back in the day. Breezy and I were homeless and we started, we lived in a van. We lived off of trash food and sleeping in that conversion van and no money, no nothing. And we were fine then. So I think some people, man, are just cut out for it. Some people are just not, but I tell you this much, those people that are cut out for it, they can’t live any other way. That’s for sure. And I know a few of them out here on the road. They can’t live any other way. And to live any other way, it makes them insane. Like, for most people come out in the roads and I’ve known a lot of people out on the roads good people, solid people, lose their freaking minds out here. Go nuts. But the people I know that are cut out for doing this, they go home and go nuts.

LH:  Yeah. Exactly. We recently saw Slash from Guns N Roses, and I think he’s one of those guys you’re talking about. I remember reading his autobiography and that’s exactly what he said. He felt like he was at home when he was on the road and when they earned a lot of money and he had a house, he just didn’t have a clue what to do with himself when he was in that place. That drove him nuts being there and you can see it now cause that guy just tours. I mean the same kind of schedule as you, I think, he’s constantly on the road and writing but that makes sense to me. That what you’re saying is that for some people that just seems to be the way of life and it’s just natural to them. And I guess it must help that, it’s with Breezy and you guys are married, so that one or the other’s not getting left at home for 250 days the year.
RP:  Yeah. Oh yeah, definitely. It certainly makes it a lot easier.

LH:  Coming from the UK, one of the first times I saw you guys in Chicago was the first time I’d seen someone play the washboard. And I love the sound of that thing so much, but also Breezy is locked in with you. Her and Max, it’s like almost telepathic with you guys now, the three of you. Did she just start playing washboard when you guys started playing music?
RP:  Yeah. You know what I mean? At this point, I guess it’s a little bit of that 10,000 hours thing. It’s a lot more than 10,000 hours, I can tell you that much. With music, to be great – not to be good, to be great – to be great at music, you have to have a few things aligned. One, you have to have passion for it because it ain’t gonna come otherwise. Two, you have to have a natural proclivity, you do. You know, some people got it. Some people don’t. Especially when it comes to rhythm, I think rhythm is one of those things that is either in you or it’s not. You can get better, but if you don’t understand it, you’re never going to. And the third thing and the most important thing, is you’ve got to put in that time. Practice, practice, practice. You know, people can talk about, oh, there’s good practice, bad practice. I don’t know about all that, I practiced by playing, by making music, by pushing myself. I try and make sure that there’s nothing that I don’t know how to do on that guitar, you know? So that’s the way I feel about it, it’s those three things have to all align. If you’re gonna make it in music as a living, then you know, I don’t know. I don’t know how to answer that question because I’m still trying to figure that out.

LH:  It’s like when I’ve visited Nashville, it just amazes me the level of musicianship of some of these guys. You walk down the street, there’ll be a guy playing a guitar and you’re like, wow, listen to him play. That’s unbelievable playing. And you know, these guys playing with bands for tips in bars and there’s that much talent there, you know? And these are guys who’ve put the time in who are clearly really talented and sometimes it just doesn’t work out. I mean, it’s that kind of business I guess, right?
RP:  It is. Man. I mean it ain’t supposed to be easy. You know, it’s a long way to the top if you want to rock and roll.

LH:  Yeah, they got that one right.
RP:  And also too, man, you know, there’s a music business game. And if you don’t figure that out, it’s going to be that much harder for you, too.

LH:  Yeah. I mean it’s great you guys get to tour the world. And it seems to be to me like whenever I see interviews with you, or listen to you talk, none of it seems to be about the, I mean, obviously you’ve got to make a living, but you just seem to genuinely love what you do and the life that you’re living at the moment. And that’s a great thing as well.
RP:  You have to. And I think too, something that helps me, because I know I’m still getting better. You know, like if I ever got to a point where I wasn’t getting better and I wasn’t pushing new ground. I wasn’t making what I thought was fresh music, then I’d be like, you know, maybe I’m bored with this, maybe it’s time for something else. But as far as I’m concerned, you know, like my best record hasn’t even been made yet. And you know, the best record I’ve made so far is Poor Until Payday. I think that’s where that passion comes in, I got passion, you know. If I’m missing any of my three things, you know, it’s like you gotta have that, you know. If you don’t, it ain’t gonna happen.

LH:  Well, the thing is, as a fan as well, and we go to tons of shows, and I have to say, you can see it in a band, you can see it in a band when they’re still enjoying what they do. You can see it in a band when they’re on the stage and giving it everything and that’s a massive part of a good show. If you go there and the band’s just dialing it in, and we’ve been to a few of those as well, where it’s obviously like the, you know, the retirement fund tour. You can’t hide that on stage, no matter how good you are. If you don’t want to be there and you’re not still enjoying it, there’s no way of hiding it to the audience. It just doesn’t work. That’s one thing I would say about your guys’ shows. There’s never any doubt that you’re not into it.
RP:  Yeah, man. I think that’s been the case since we first started playing. You know, and I’ve seen a lot of bands that don’t love it anymore and you just wish they’d go home. But sometimes it’s nostalgic for the fans too.

LH:  It is, it is. But you can definitely tell when they don’t want to be there.
RP:  There’s another thing, another component. Because I worry is as we move along in this world, that I hope that people can still tell the difference, you know, there’s so much that’s just so produced and so, I don’t know, just fabricated and fake. I hope people will still be able to tell the difference when something’s real.

LH:  I totally agree with you and I think as long as people are still playing instruments live and singing. There’s some forms of music obviously where they don’t, but as long as that’s happening and people are writing about stuff that matters, right? Because I think that’s the other thing that worries me about music these days. And like some of my favorite music as well at the minute is some of the songwriters like Jason Isbell and John Moreland, those guys who are writing music where you want to listen to those lyrics, they’re writing about stuff going on around them in the world. And there’s a lot of disposable music these days. That’s just about nothing, I think……
RP:  Yeah.

LH:  But I think as long as there’s bands like you and other people, and especially the way the world is at the minute, everyone’s so polarized about everything and everybody wants to be at each other’s throats. And a lot of the time, the only times I see, you know, where that’s not happening is in a room where there’s live music on. You know, we’ve been down to Clarksdale this weekend and Nashville and I’ve talked to people from all over this country, and everybody has been friendly. And I think there’s this narrative that everybody’s at each other’s throats and this side’s bad or that side’s bad or whatever. And whenever I’m just in the real world, that doesn’t seem to be the case at all. 
RP:  Yeah. I think that’s totally true. You know, there’s 8 billion people on this planet, man. And when you are reading the news, you’re seeing the worst six stories in that 8 billion that happened that day. They don’t take it into account, but people aren’t very good math, man. You’ll find people are pretty bad at math. They really are. So, you know, they’re not very good at statistics and all that. So, you know, I tried to tell people, especially in the UK, I think that, you know, the way the media in the UK portrays the United States makes me laugh whenever I see it. And it’s like, dude, come to the United States you’re going to see that it really isn’t that bad. And I wish the people here would sort of recognize each other. You know, people aren’t talking to each other like human beings anymore, man. You know, if you don’t see your fellow man as a human being, it’s real easy to paint them, as not a human being. That kind of communication is going to tear people apart. You have to communicate and you have to understand that every single person on this planet is your brother essentially. 

LH:  I totally agree with it. I love living in this country, that’s why I chose to stay here. And 99% of the people I meet, are really good people. You’re never going to agree with everyone’s politics or everyone’s views on particular stuff. But that doesn’t mean you can’t speak to them like a person or try and understand where they’re coming from, at least. I think that’s where we’re going but I always feel like music kind of has a part to play in that, just in the sense that it can take people away from all of that, even if it’s just for an hour or two, you know? And, and that’s important.
RP:  It can. And art and also explain to people, it can also humanize people in a way that hopefully allows people to understand the situation. You know, people write a dumb meme or say something mean on their Facebook, that doesn’t win people over. But sometimes art can explain it in a way that really makes you feel it rather than even understand it. Because a lot of times with humans, we listen to our emotions more than we do our reason. And in my opinion, that’s part of what I was supposed to do, too.

LH:  Absolutely. And it’s a really powerful thing. It really is, I think.
RP:  Especially when it comes natural, some artists try too hard. When it comes natural, it can change the world.

LH:  Yeah. If it’s someone’s true voice, then I fully agree. When it’s authentic, there’s never any doubt that it’s authentic. There was never any doubt that Dylan was authentic or someone like that. That was just him.

LH:  Just in closing, I wanted to say that in November, you have the West Coast tour and then the Big Damn Blues Revolution tour with Don Flemons and JD Wilkes which all sounds pretty exciting.
RP:   Oh yeah, that’s going to be killer man, oh man, yeah!

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About Phil Walton 52 Articles
Phil grew up in the UK and loved listening to and playing music from a young age. He moved from the UK to Chicago in 2011, falling in love with the city and its music scene. He enjoys nothing better than spending time with musicians, whether it be watching them perform, talking to them for the website or reading their autobiographies.

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