Tijuana Hercules’ new album Mudslod And The Singles is a loose-limbed cocktail of blues and psych. It’s hypnotic and described in the press release as ‘Hillbilly Trance’ which is a phrase I wished I’d come up with. The man behind the band is musician and artist John Vernon Forbes who not only plays on MATS but is responsible for the album’s artwork featuring a cast of 50s-inspired characters including martini-drinking monsters, brainiacs, vultures and two-headed demons.
The 13 tracks on Mudslod And The Singles are a glorious hike through the humid landscape of America’s southern regions. These feel like blues versions of the ragas that Hindu musicians use as a springboard for improvisation. There are tracks like ‘Love Lamp’ or ‘Fazed, Gassed, Far Flung’ which barely have any cohesion and others like ‘ShaTooBog’ or ‘Jehoiachin Released’ which have a taught quality like Teja-era ZZ Top. There’s the lo-fi clatter of ‘Panther Crawl’, a night-time ride through the desert tripping balls on ‘Mudslod’, the juke-joint-heard-from-a-distance of ‘Delta Alien’, blues in a rock tumbler on ‘The Way It Is’, the saxophone-rasp and rambunctiousness of ‘The Back Half’ and even the more traditional blues shuffle and harmonica-tickle of ‘Chilanta’
As someone who grew up with estuaries and not deltas and prawn cocktail crisps instead of Creole shrimp, the blues has a strong hold on me from the first time I heard Muddy Waters and Big Bill Broonzy. Tijuana Hercules rustle up minimalist blues with the reverie of psychedelic music and the whiff of Beefheart and Dr. John. Like a good southern stew, there are a mix or proteins plus a pinch of slide guitar, a rattle of pots and pans, a cup of barroom piano with a splash of bourbon with salt and pepper spray to taste. Despite their lineage I can imagine Tijuana Hercules in an exchange program with Turkish psychedelic act BaBa Zula who have a similar looseness and sprawling live sets that are near-spiritual and there are also tracks like ‘Atmospher’ which could easily be mistaken for the desert blues coming out of Africa.
John Vernon Forbes was kind enough to answer some questions for Joyzine. His responses are flat out brilliant, and he is a man I would happily share a bottle of Old Rip Van Winkle with.
Joyzine: Who came up with the tag ‘Hillbilly Trance’? It’s such a cracking description for your music.
JVF: I have narrowed this down to two people: One a high Potentate of unquestionable conviviality; a person that knows how to pair good alcohol with crap food. The other is an ill-reputed loudmouth. On a thorough assessment of IQ and wit, I give the honors to the Potentate.
Joyzine: How did you arrive at this hypnotic variation on blues? Who were your influences when you started out making music?
JVF: I’ve always liked the sound of a maraca shaking in the subconscious and using sensory deprivation to roll in the darkness. And how we got there goes like this: We were doing a show and these two country women (by country I mean from out in the boondocks) came to check us out. They worked as welders and they weren’t dainty. In fact, they were revelling in their undaintiness. One of the women was Black and the other was White. They were hardened comrades. The Black woman asked me if we played “Proud Mary” because she wanted to sit in and sing “Proud Mary.” I told her that we did not play “Proud Mary,” but if she thinks she hears something that sounds like it, she can grab a microphone and let rip to her heart’s content. As we started our set, I played a guitar chord to see if I was in tune with myself. She took this as her opening, jumped on a mic, and started chanting, “Go, Gus, Go! Go! Go! Go! Go!” We rolled with it and played a groove behind her for an hour. It felt glorious and was a breakthrough in playing.
When I started out, a tune that got me was Don Gardner and Dee Dee Ford’s “I Need Your Loving.” It had me frozen in time and hypnotized. It’s three minutes of one swinging riff. No chord changes. Just a pulse. A vocal group sings a diminished harmony that contains three words for the whole song, while Don Gardner erupts like a wordless volcano. It’s wallowed in reverb that came from another planet. Pure lascivious spiritual distillment!
Joyzine: Who or what is Tijuana Hercules?
JVF: It’s one of several things. A homage to the Tijuana Bible comic books. A salute to the city on Mexico’s north-western border. A tribute to a friend that jumped the mortal coil, but inspired me mightily by being the most “true to thine own self,” pants down.
Joyzine: What’s a Tijuana Hercules gig like, I can imagine it being quite a transcendent experience?
JVF: We try to get into our heads and vibrate. Some people look like they’re high, with their eyes half-closed. They’re moanin’ and groanin’ and twistin’. Others are wide-eyed and look like they are on the warpath. Then there are others that feel very fertile afterwards and are ready to tell it on the mountain.
Joyzine: I see there’s a limited edition of the album with original artwork. Is there any difference in how your approach drawing versus making music (to me, your drawings look like they could come alive and start moving to TH’s music)?
JVF: I’m glad you saw it that way. I try to keep it all in the same circle for congruency’s sake.
Joyzine: What current bands you are listening to you and think the Joyzine readers should check out?
JVF: I’ve lost the concept of past, present, and future. It’s all the same from where I’m at. The dead are still with us. But to get back on track and answer the question; pre-COVID, I liked catching Jaimie Branch, Bitchin Bajas, or Bill MacKay. Since COVID, I have seen Bill play a solo show at a socially distanced gallery. Lately if I have something that requires concentration, I’ll listen to Psychic Graveyard on headphones. They pull it off in close quarters. When I’m the free-and-easy family type, I go to gutbucket blues and jazz; mournful classical music; or something from someplace where the diets are different from mine.
Joyzine: Any plans for coming to the UK to play post-COVID?
JVF: If there’s a will, there’s a way. I’d like to bring a troop of musicians over to have a levitating moment.
Review by Paul F Cook