Dick & Jason Stewart of Lance Records
Are you ready for a trip down memory lane? The 60s was an exciting time for music. Dick Stewart and The Knights were on the edge of breaking it big, then things changed with arrival of those guys from England.
This interview will give you some insight into the life and times of Dick and his groups. We start in the beginning and bring you right up to speed to the present day. This is a fascinating interview. Dick and his son Jason were a pleasure to work with and made it very easy to get this together. Some of the photos used for this interview are very rare and are being viewed for the first time. Sit back and take it all in.
MuzikMan: What are your thoughts on the new CD "Surfin' the Southwest, Santa Fe Style"?.
Dick: After the reformation of the '60s instrumental Knights in 1998, we weren't sure if we could build a fan base, and if we did, would it only be comprised of senior citizens. Our live performances and the release of "Surfin' the Web" in the Spring of '99 gave us the answer. It seems that our expressions appeal to all ages and there's more early '60s trad guitar instro fans (both old and new)out there than we had imagined. That prompted us to rush back into the studio and record, "Surfin' the Southwest, Santa Fe Style" (read the review) and we gave it our best.
MuzikMan: Dick, What is your background and upbringing? What got you started playing the guitar and how did you end up playing Surf music?
Dick: I was born in Albuquerque, N.M. in 1940 and before rock made its appearance in 1954, I spent hours listening to classical music and progressive jazz. But when Fats Domino, Little Richard, Chuck Berry and a number of other great artists came on the scene during the birth of rock'n'roll, I was blown away. My interest in playing the guitar, however, didn't come until the late Î50s when I heard the guitar riff in Del Shannon's "Runaway." A short time later, "Apache" hit the airways and I was mesmerized! I couldn't get enough of it! But it was the Fireballs' Southwestern guitar instrumental style and the Ventures' bridge tremolo effects during a time when guitar instros ruled (they weren't called surf then) that really got me to pick up the guitar. I was 20-years old then so I guess I started late in life. But guitar rock instros became my passion and it remains that way to this day.
MuzikMan: Dick, What was it like for you and the Knights in the 60's? Whom did you have the opportunity to play with?
Dick: The original Knights (1961 to 1964), who played 99% guitar rock instros, was by far the most exciting time of my musical life. Everything was new. The Ventures and The Fireballs had introduced lots of new guitar progressions with dominating minor chords. I've always loved minor chords and, in fact, have written few songs without them. Learning Venture and Fireball covers was exciting especially during the time when their music was in. The Knights back then was the only Albuquerque band that had a playlist of nearly 100% instrumentals which was cool too. In 1964, we developed an identity and released a song called "Precision" that became a hit in New Mexico and other parts of the Southwest.
Unfortunately, it was short-lived because of the arrival of The Beatles in that same year who quickly killed off rock guitar instrumentals worldwide. It was a low point of my musical life! We just couldn't believe that their music would be accepted the way it was. Anyway, we were forced to add vocals and even included a few Beatle tunes (although reluctantly), but frat rock vocals did become our specialty from 1965 to 1967 when The Knights were known as King Richard and The Knights. Of course, the original members of the instrumental Knights (with the exception of myself) became discouraged over all this and dropped out of the band which was a bummer. I hired four new musicians and from 1965 to 1967, we played mostly vocals with the exception of a few classics like "Green Onions" and "Tequila." We were now a five-piece band with the addition of a keyboardist and saxophonist. The Knights disbanded in 1967 when I formed Lance Records so I could promote local psychedelic and R&B bands that I thought had promise. Oh, and I hate to admit it, but as popular as The Knights were, we never had an opportunity to perform with anyone big! We were close though with the release of "Precision" but the Beatles came on the scene too damn quick.
MuzikMan: Dick, Do you feel that the Knights were given ample opportunity as far as recording and gigs?
Dick: Yes, in a local sense. We played heavily throughout New Mexico and southern Colorado and were one of the few local bands that had recording contracts (Red Feather Records - instros and Delta Records - vocals) but our time just ran out. The British Invasion was responsible for that.
MuzikMan: Dick, What has it been like getting the Knights back together in this new age of technology as opposed to the "old" days?
Dick: It's way different now. When Gary Snow, who is my brother-in-law and one of the original bass players for The Knights, and I decided to get back to our instrumental roots, we were turned on with the idea of picking up where the instrumental Knights left off in 1964. Now at our age, ego has disappeared and so it no longer stands in the way of the group's performances as well as my writings and arrangements for the band. Being put on a pedestal is no longer our priority, but good musical productions are. That's what gives us our high now. Also what's really cool are the advancements in sound productions due to the arrival of DAT etc. Of course, you still have to have a good engineer and fortunately, our drummer, Steve Hudgins, knows his stuff. Steve was barely in this world when The Knights originally formed in 1961 and he had never heard of surf instros until we met in 1998. I might add that, aside from his superior skills as an engineer, his timing as a drummer is impeccable which is a must in laying down tracks.
MuzikMan: Jason, What was it like growing up around the band? Did your dad give you lots of private lessons on the guitar or did you just eventually gravitate towards it?
Jason: I just eventually gravitated toward it, although being surrounded by musicians certainly made it easier and more likely to happen in the first place. I'm convinced, however, that I would have gravitated toward some kind of art form regardless of my environment. I have a strong inner need to be creative musically. I'd probably be in the nuthouse by now if I didn't.
MuzikMan: Jason, Has MP3.com served you well? Are you happy with the sound quality and the opportunity that the Internet has provided?
Jason: Oh yeah, MP3 is too cool. It hardly costs me a thing to post tons of songs to the Internet and gain worldwide exposure, not to mention having the CDs made for free and getting 50% of any sales. It beats having to cover all the production costs before seeing a penny of your money like you would with a record company. Nowadays, companies will sue a band that doesn't do well on their label to recoup their losses. Right now, for me, the best thing about MP3 is the exposure. I've had people from countries all over the world send fan-mail on my music. It's awesome. What kind of chance would I have with some limited release only in the U.S.? Hell, you can even make money on MP3 if you're popular enough. I just recently got paid by them and I certainly have no complaints.
MuzikMan: Dick & Jason: How does it feel playing together? Do you both inspire each other?
Jason: We've played many times together in bars, jams and what not. Each time is different. Sometimes it jibes, sometimes it doesn't. We have had some really inspiring "jam sessions," though, where there were no restrictions or limits. That was cool. I would say that if there is one thing that my dad, as well as my brother inspire me in, it's song writing. I am the more technical player but their songs make me really wonder why in the hell we're not all millionaires yet.
Dick: Jason, and I along with my other son, Richard, who presently shares an apartment with Jason in Austin, Texas, played quite a bit between the early Î80s and Î90s under names like Knee Deep, The Rocky Mountain Riff-Raff U.S.A. Rock Band, and Jyck Monkeys (pronounced "jick"). That's when we were into a sort of glorified frat rock thing flavored with classical rock and performing mostly material which we all wrote, produced, and released under the album names of "We're the Mountain Riff-Raff," "Bar Dog's a'Comin'," "Jyck Monkey Time," and "Lobo Power." I really think we were kick-ass together but father and son acts are hard to keep together especially when they each have their own ideas of how their material should be expressed. So there were good times and bad; however, the good that came out of it by far outweighed the bad. We all learned a lot from each other.
MuzikMan: Jason, Who do you feel has been making the most advances and inroads in technology and sound of late? Particularly guitar players? Dick, your thoughts?
Jason: I feel, in general, that music seems to have taken a bit of a down slide in the last decade or so. Of course, there are exceptions (thank God). In popular music and what's on the radio, I don't see much advancement at all. I tend to lean toward the players who so love what they do that they spend most of their time doing it. I like Joe Satriani, Eric Johnson and Steve Vai, to name a few.
Dick: For quite some time melodies have taken a back seat. I believe most of the top 40 stuff has become popular due primarily to effects. I don't see much in the way of melodic verses and bridges in today's rock. Also, with the exception of the early Î60s, instrumental guitar rock groups have never ruled in comparison to the vocal acts. Nowadays you have to be an exceptional guitarist like Santriani, Eric Johnson or Steve Vai to turn heads and even then they really don't get their due. Jason is definitely on their level of guitar delivery and with the right breaks, he could make it big. Richard, who is an accomplished bass player as well as rhythm guitarist, song writer, and singer in the folk rock genre, has a good shot too.
Now I'm not a speed guitarist by any stretch of the imagination (when I need that, I hire Jason) nor one who relies on heavy reverb and distortion effects. I try to compensate by writing moving melodies and creating catchy arrangements with unforgettable hooks that build continuously throughout the song. Fortunately, Steve and Gary believe whole heartedly in what I'm writing and because of that, we're cookin' right now. That's the key to any band's success really. We're working together amicably as one
MuzikMan: Dick & Jason: Did you gents ever think about creating a supergroup consisting of three or more guitar players combining the old school with the young and the restless? Now that would be quite a sound, don't you think?
Jason: It could be interesting but it wouldn't be easy since one thing that my dad, my brother and I all share is an almost obsessive originality. I've played with other guitarists, as well, and I don't mean this sanctimoniously but they have a tendency to get in the way. I cover a lot of ground in my playing.
Dick: That's always tough to do. It's difficult to find guitar players who are unselfish. They all want to be heard over the other and before you know it, everyone is playing on level 10. However, we did have some success at it with Jason and another kick-ass guitarist named Martin Howard both on leads, me on rhythm and back up leads, and Richard on bass. We did that frequently during the Î80s and those who weren't affected by the volume loved it. But it's tough to write and arrange material for a band that has three guitarists! That's why The Knights are a trio now. No one in the band really wants another guitarist although if we could find the right person on rhythm who is willing to play his parts at a volume that would compliment The Knights' efforts, that could be a consideration.
MuzikMan: Dick & Jason: Do you both feel Surf/Instrumental music has made a strong comeback and the genre is on the brink of creating an entirely new genre and cutting edge sound? If so, who do you feel would be the first to break through with a "new" sound?
Jason: That's a better question for my dad since it's his forte but I have noticed a resurgence of surf music, like in the movie, Pulp-Fiction and some spinoffs from that. Once you get Californians into "retro" they just eat it up and that's a good thing.
Dick: That's really a tough question. I would like to think so but really I don't know if there's a large fan base or not for surf rock guitar instro bands. Has it made a come back? I think so. But big? Probably not. The third wave surf bands tend to play the Dick Dale style . . . you know, double picking and dripping reverb. Although I don't play that style and never did, I do like it and there are a lot of bands out there that do it well. But I really believe it has a limited audience. The Knights, on the other hand, are trying to deliver a milder, trad surf guitar instro sound that we hope will have a broader appeal. Whether we'll be successful at it or not is unknown but at least we'll always be proud of what we're putting on tape. To compete in a world that's dominated by vocals is always tough for instrumentalists no matter what the genre.
MuzikMan: Dick & Jason: Are you both heavily involved in your website development or do you have web gurus to take care of everything? I know from personal experience how time consuming a startup and continued maintenance on a site can be. Do have the time for all of that?
Jason: I handle most of our web site's development and what not. It can be very time consuming but it's worth it. We all know how hot the Internet has gotten and there seems to be no foreseeable end in sight. Web design and advertising can be VERY expensive so I decided to learn it all on my own. The knowledge is free and you can learn as you're surfing the net. From a business perspective, you can't afford NOT to be on the Internet. The hardest part is troubleshooting but I always manage to stop just short of throwing my computer out the window.
Dick: Jason is my web master. I tell him what I want on my site and he creates it. He's doing a great job although using free hosts can be a problem especially with broken link page errors. But then both Jason and I have only had our web sites for less than a year and there's a lot to learn. The Internet is where it's at though and yes, it's very time consuming especially when you're constantly trying to promote it. But it's a much better and certainly cheaper promotional tool than the expensive long distance phone calls and snail mails in the Î60s. The thought of worldwide promotion in the Î60s for a little label was out of the question. I wouldn't even have considered getting back into the business if wasn't for the Internet.
MuzikMan: Dick & Jason: Are you both active on the live circuit? How often do you jam together?
Jason: I live in Austin, TX, which some say is "The live music capital of the world." I would love to be on the scene but few things are harder than finding the right people. You'll never get a perfect match, but even getting 50% of your expectations can be hard. In general, musicians are flakes and anyone who's been there knows exactly what I mean. It's quite a handful to run a band and keep everyone interested and keep them from killing each other at the same time. I'm working mostly on recordings and MP3 stuff but I would love to be out there. My dad and I haven't jammed in a while but we do it every so often.
Dick: Yes! Our bookings around the state of New Mexico are strong at present, however, we limit them to special engagements. We don't like playing bars with the exception of one: Molly's in Tijeras, Canyon which is just east of Albuquerque. The owner, Romeo Dilallo and I are Kappa Sigma fraternity brothers and he's followed The Knights since the band's creation.
In fact, Romeo, who played for a popular Albuquerque group in the Î60s (Romeo and the Playboys), taught me my first three chords on the guitar in 1959 which were E, A, and B. He said that if I master that progression then I could play 90% of the top 40 play list. He was right about the majority of the vocals but not so with the instros. I fanatically learned those progressions on my own.
MuzikMan: Any closing comments or anything you would like to comment on or convey to the cyber community?
Jason: I just want to thank all the fans around the world who have written to me and all future fans who hook into my expression and feel it. I think it's so awesome that music (especially instrumentals) can be shared around the world because no words are necessary. A smile is a smile in any language and I think the magic of music can take that sentiment even further. We don't need any words, let's just play! Thanks again! -Jason Stewart.
Dick: You know, after more than three decades since The Knights reformed, I'm grateful that I still have the desire and good health to continue with my instrumental guitar efforts. Of course, to have The Knights' original bass player, Gary Snow, feel the same way as me and to have met ace drummer, Steve Hudgins, certainly was a blessing as those were the necessary ingredients to make it all happen once again. I'm also proud of Jason and Richard's musical accomplishments and their willingness to never give up. Being creative musically is a healthy venture, but presenting your works to the public can be very stressful if things don't go your way. So I try and keep everything in perspective and stress to my sons (as well as to myself and the rest of The Knights) that it's the effort that really counts. Because if you have what it takes, feel good about your musical achievements, and use good judgements, something positive will eventually come of it even if it's not monetarily. So in short, don't sweat the situation! Life's too damn short!
Dick Stewart's wife, Judi, sneaks a photo of him (tongue and all) in 1999 while working on some material in his computer room.
Finally, I would like to thank those incredible fans from around the world (including you, Keith), as well as those great business associates of mine like Lee Joseph (Dionysus Records), Michael Greisman (Cicadelic Records), Harry Vee (D.C. Records), Barry Barnet (Zorrila Llc), Mike Dugo ("Lance Monthly" staff writer) and Mike Stax (Ugly Things mag) to name a few, who like what The Knights are accomplishing on tape. It's cats like you and them who are the ones that really keep us motivated.
Make sure you visit The Knights website and check out the Lance Monthly here- http://www.lancerecords.com