by A.J. Wachtel
After hearing this blues trio’s music for the first time, one realizes there’s a lot about that genre’s sound you’ve never heard before. Everyone can quote B.B., Elmore, and Robert Johnson. Everyone knows about the impact black music had on white audiences in the ’60s. But “Statesboro Blues” or “The Thrill Is Gone” never sounded like this. The Polecats’ unique interpretations and passion are unparalleled by anyone on the scene today.
Noise: You’ve toured the country for the past five years. After hearing your music, do people really believe you are three white guys from Boston?
Chad Rousseau: People rarely ever bring race into it, but they are commonly surprised to find out we are from Massachusetts. They generally expect we are from the South if they don’t know otherwise.
Jay Scheffler: People seem to find the Boston thing, and the fact that there’s just three of us more astonishing than the white thing.
Jim Chilson: Once we open our mouths they know exactly where we are from.
Noise: It’s been said you are influenced by northern Mississippi hill country music. What is this in Boston English?
Jay: Most of your greatest, most famous blues singers were born in rural Mississippi, then moved to a city like Chicago or Memphis to make it. The north Mississippi guys (R.L. Burnside, Fred McDowell, Junior Kimbrough) mostly stayed in Mississippi and never altered their sound or style to appeal to an urban audience.
Jim: North Mississippi hill country blues has quite a distinct sound, just like the Bentonia blues players do, and both are different than the Delta players. I guess you could say that hill country blues is Mississippi’s early version of punk music. It can sometimes be a trance music due to its one-chord hypnotic grooves, while it can also be like a burning freight train out of control heading over the cliff… raw and unpredictable.
Noise: How did you even hear this unique genre of rural southern blues north of the Mason-Dixon line? What attracts you the most to this style?
Chad: I actually wasn’t particularly familiar with this style of music prior to hearing and joining this band, but I was personally attracted to it’s simplicity and, as a drummer, its strong emphasis on rhythm.
Jay: I saw T-Model Ford play in Cambridge back in ’97 or ’98. His style was something I hadn’t heard before but it immediately spoke to me.
Jim: In my opinion the first hill country-style musician I heard was actually Howlin’ Wolf. I know he is not from that area and is sometimes thought of as a Chicago blues artist but listen to “Smokestack Lightnin’,” “Commit a Crime,” or “Wang Dang Doodle.” Those are totally hill country-style grooves. Once I heard R.L. Burnside and Fred McDowell on the radio it all seemed to make sense how it tied in. But when I heard Junior Kimbrough I thought he was from outer space, I was really floored by him. Yes it was hill country/ trance blues but he took it somewhere really different.
Noise: How is rural blues different from the blues we normally hear on the radio?
Jay: More raw, less predictable. More punk rock than typical blues.
Noise: In 2012, you completed an 18-day, 8,000-mile national tour that took you through Montana, Washington, Oregon, California, New Mexico, Arizona, Texas,, IIlinois, Ohio, New York, and Pennsylvania. Tell me about something that happened that you will always remember?
Jay: We played in Las Cruces, New Mexico. A fan from Massachusetts drove all the way out to catch the show and showed up just after it ended. He was travelling with guns, drugs, and a newly purchased coffin. Interesting night.
Jim: (laughs) When we asked the question, “Why did you buy the coffin?” and the answer is “Because it was only $300!” …that is pretty memorable.
Noise: T-Model Ford is most often cited as your main influence and whose music is most similar to your own. Who is he? And can you name some other major influences in your punk/blues sound?
Chad: T-Model certainly is one of our major influences, but there are others, even within this genre, including Junior Kimbrough, R.L. Burnside, Missisippi Fred McDowell. Outside of the hill country stuff, we have many other kinds of musical influences. I personally love a little bit of everything… rock, pop, punk, metal, funk, soul, jazz, country, and I think all of it comes across, in one way or another in our music. If you are an open-minded musician, you can’t help but be influenced by everything you hear.
Noise: Jim—talk about your five-string open G tuning and finger- picking style. What are its advantages and how did you wind up playing your guitar this way?
Jim: It is actually a five-string open F tuning, which is basically the same as the Spanish G tuning but down a whole step. I play five strings because the root note is on the fifth string (second from the top). The 6th string (top string) is a 5th and always got in the way because I play pretty aggressively. So I just took the string off! The advantage of this set-up is that I can still play a drone root note with my right thumb (or chord change when fretted in a barre chord) on bass while playing the melody with my other fingers. Not sure how I arrived at this but it was an idea one day that stuck with me.
Noise: Jay—your growling vocals are perfectly suited for the warp-speed and hypnotic beat laid down. Why does this work so well?
Jay: (laughs) Jim and Chad make quite a racket. If I were to croon sweetly over it, you wouldn’t hear me at all!
Noise: Chad—you and Jim are locked together when you play. How does this enable you guys to play without a bass?
Chad: Well, I wouldn’t say it helps or hinders our ability, not having a bassist. It just so happens that a bassist isn’t really necessary in this band with this style of music, particularly with the way Jim plays. I will say that not having a bassist probably leaves a bit more “breathing room” in the songs and maybe, as a result, a bit more room for Jim and I, and Jay when he’s playing harp, to experiment and try things in a live situation.