Exclusive Interview with Howlin' Whale

Howlin' Whale

How did you discover the bluesharp ?
~ My first memory of harmonica is hearing John Popper playing harp on the Blues Traveler album four. I was about six years old. I did not know what a harmonica was, but the sound struck me in the very core of my soul. Ever since, whenever I hear harmonica, my whole world stops. When I first heard Led Zeppelin, I fell in love with Robert Plant's harmonica playing. Led Zeppelin led me to Howlin' Wolf. Howlin' Wolf led me to the worlds of Delta blues and Chicago blues. When I first heard blues harmonica, my dream became learning how to make these sounds that so movingly express and uplift the soul of the world.

If everything would be possible (waking the dead included), which bluesharp player would you invite for a jam session?
~ Big Mama Thornton and Howlin' Wolf. If everything would be possible, then it's possible for all three of us to jam! As well as playing music together, I would be honored to thank both Big Mama Thornton and Howlin' Wolf for giving so much to music and the world. I am awed by their power, courage, and achievements. They inspire me to be brave, work hard, and stay true to myself. I would love to hear their stories and perspectives on music, life, harmonica, and the blues.

What is your favorite blues harp brand / type and tell us why?
~ I love playing all types of harmonicas because adapting to the subtle, unique qualities of each harmonica helps me grow as a player. In the spirit of choosing a favorite brand, I choose Hohner because I am grateful to Hohner for bringing harmonicas around the world. Hohner's mass production of the harmonica delivered harps into the hands of some of the greatest musicians of all time, who in turn created some of the most beautiful, powerful, and profound music I have ever experienced.

What are the most important tips you can give to someone who wants to learn to play the bluesharp?
~ Playing harmonica is a meditation that teaches the importance of relaxation. When one tenses up or plays too hard, forcing too much air, the tone can quickly become squeaky and stifled. The solution is to relax the mouth, body, mind, and heart even deeper, and to play more gently and loosely. Like magic, the tone returns. In this way, harmonica shows us the immediate effects of tension, as well as the immediate effects of relaxation. Tension can warp and even inhibit freedom of expression. Relaxation allows for beauty to freely express itself. Harmonica's teachings are valuable in all aspects of life.

Tongue blocking or lip pursing, what do you prefer and tell us why.
~ Techniques are tools to ever more richly express the soul of the music, so it is worthwhile to practice all techniques. I practice so I can go where the music takes me. When I play, I let the music guide my physicality.

Give us the 3 most important albums every (beginning) blues harp player must buy.
~ 1. In Europe by Big Mama Thornton (1966) - All Big Mama's records are essential listening. Such is the power of her spirit and her ongoing, indelible impact on culture. I choose In Europe for "Down Home Shakedown" in which Big Mama leads a legendary instrumental harmonica relay-race of master blues harp players. You can watch this epic performance online - essential viewing!
2. Moanin' in the Moonlight by Howlin' Wolf (1959) - Howlin' Wolf's otherworldly voice and harmonica playing continue to inspire generations of people and musicians who have never been the same since we heard Howlin' Wolf, myself included. This album is the raw, pure, wild spirit of the blues. Howlin' Wolf's biography Moanin' at Midnight is one of the most inspiring books I have ever read. It gives profound context to his music. I return to this album and Howlin' Wolf's biography constantly for reference and inspiration.
3. "Off The Wall" (Single) by Little Walter (1953) - This song blew my mind wide open with new possibilities of the sounds harmonica can make. "Off The Wall" is one of the greatest examples of full-blown harmonica mastery and sets the bar for what one can achieve tonally and soulfully with the instrument.

How do you clean your harps?
~ When necessary, I clean them with a cotton swab dipped in water. Overall, I keep my harmonicas clean with meticulous dental hygiene! Before playing, I brush my teeth or chew sugar-free gum. I always rinse my mouth with water. During performances, I usually do not eat or drink anything except water. Because of this, I have learned the importance of requesting a meal to be held for me, for the end of the night. When I'm done rocking my harmonicas, my meal at the end of the night is a sweet closing-time ritual like no other.

What is the question interviewers never seem to ask you and...you wish they would? (Please provide your answer as well.)
~ Q: Will you accept a gift of 4,000 harmonicas to use in your harmonica mosaic sculptural works?
A: Yes. Thank you!

Describe the ultimate recording studio (not the technique but the facilities)
~ The ultimate recording studio is located on a cliff overlooking the ocean, above the favorite haunt of singing whales. There is a Bosendorfer grand piano positioned with a majestic view of the ocean and whales, with massive glass windows and doors you can open to play inside or outside, without having to move the piano. The studio's architecture and position high on the cliff amplify the whales' songs as they resonate into the studio space, so you can listen and compose music along with them. All the gear is analog, making sounds from physical objects resonating in natural environments. There is also a dance floor and a disco ball in every room.

Are you still nervous before going on stage and if so, do you use any "rituals" to calm you nerves?
~ I mostly get nervous about remembering all my gear, so I've got a checklist, and I pack early. While I get ready for a show, I love to dance like crazy to my favorite music, like KRS-One and Linton Kwesi Johnson. Before going on stage, I sneak off for a moment alone to give thanks for music and to musicians who have come before me: Big Mama Thornton, Howlin' Wolf, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Bradley Nowell, and others. This reminds me music is a dance with unseen forces, here to uplift our spirits and connect us across time and space. I am grateful to make music, so I take a moment to appreciate each opportunity I have to play.

What was the most memorable day in your musical career?
~ I've got many, so I'll choose the funniest: the day I played a show with harmonicas sprayed by a dead skunk! A skunk died underneath a studio where I was recording. Regrettably, I had kept my harmonicas in the studio overnight. In the morning, the smell was so bad you could see it. All my harmonicas got blasted. I'd been airing my harps out for about a week when the band Sea At Last invited me to sit in with them on harmonica for a show. I took a quick test whiff, and my harps smelled safe enough. So I packed them up and off I went. I was introduced on stage, grabbed a harp, and began to play. It hit me like a dead skunk to the face. The short time sealed inside my case reactivated the smell. I was already on stage, and the show must go on. I blew that harmonica like it smelled like roses. It was a transcendent experience. I hope this never happens to another harmonica player. It took about five months for the dead skunk smell to finally leave my harmonicas in peace. Thankfully this is a hilarious memory now, because I will certainly never forget it!

Howlin' Whale

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Answers given on may 19, 2020