The sound of the capital’s Bluesmix combo is a canny blend of soulful funk, jazz and, yes, blues – and guitarist Robert Fleming knows exactly what he needs to get a righteous sound. Interview by Rik Flynn – Photos by Mike Prior
Robert Fleming has ventured far from his first hesitant strums on a ‘horrendous Kay copy’ and thankfully, that particular six-string’s defective tremolo arm did nothing to hamper his desire to forge ahead and pick up some much classier models along the way. Fleming is now deeply embedded in the London music scene, making quite a name for himself with his band Bluesmix, and he has hobnobbed with quite a few names in the process.
But rather than following the purist blues direction favoured by the majority of his peers, Fleming and his three compadres have chosen to inject the standard blues format with a funk edge and as a result are surfing the wave of a burgeoning new scene that embraces the two divergent genres and forges them into something quite wonderful. There’s no posturing here, and no glitzy show guitars with which to posture; this man is serious about music.
Fleming cut his teeth in the capital’s jam scene, and he met his fellow band members at a regular congregation of musos in Soho called Ain’t Nothing But The Blues, an improv night that attracted some other rising stars too. ‘Ian Siegal used to run that jam and he used to play a lot,’ he remembers. ‘We know him from there, and we’ve supported him since; he’s come up and played a song with us a few times. Matt Schofield also appeared occasionally and other people dropped in too, like Amy Winehouse… so it was a kind of interesting little scene.
A lot of people have gone on to start successful bands from there. We’ve had some excellent nights at those regular places like the Troubadour, Ain’t Nothing But The Blues and the 100 Club. Thank God that’s still there. We’ve had Mick Abrahams, who sat in with us for one session, and we’ve had Amy come and play with us three or four times. It was always really nice… even though she was sometimes a little bit worse for wear with the drink. She was amazing.’
Fleming and his crew took what they learned from jamming the blues and melded it with a strong rhythmic slant, an approach that finds them buddying up to several other new bands – all critically acclaimed and carving out a niche together.
‘On the blues side there’s some great players. I really love Ian’s [Siegal] stuff obviously, he’s probably the main stand-out guy for us in the UK. And then we like these bands that aren’t really blues at all. That’s the other side of what we do, which is more the funk stuff. We really like Haggis Horns’ – a band described by Mark Ronson as having the ‘best horn section in the world’ – ‘and an amazing new funk band called Soullive, and then there’s a band called the New Mastersounds that we’re supporting at the 100 club soon. They’re taking that kind of Meters/New Orleans sound and blending it with a bit of James Brown and Grant Green and doing something a bit different.’
Robert with his mint dot-neck Gibson 330s, a Cherry 62 and a sunburst 1960
How do Bluesmix fit into all of this? ‘Well, I think there is definitely a scene developing around it all,’ muses Fleming. ‘There’s not so many bands doing that kind of funk thing in the UK blues world, but then there’s this other totally different funk scene. I think maybe we fit in between the two somehow.’
Straddling two genres isn’t the easiest of musical undertakings for the most learned of musos, and Fleming has gathered a modest but effective collection of guitars, amps and effects that allow him to tap into all the necessary channels needed to confidently cover the idiosyncrasies of both styles without the need for a super-sized tourbus and an army of roadie muscle. Like many of us, he’s a tone nut in search of the ultimate ambrosial sound, but rather than just hoarding guitar after guitar and causing structural damage in the attic, Fleming has ducked, dived, tried, traded and swapped until he’s found a sweet cache of options ideal for Bluesmix’s blues-funk melee. They may be pretty, but these are guitars chosen for action.
‘I’ve been back and forth over the years. My first “proper” guitar was a walnut brown ’75 Strat that I bought after a fairly mundane summer job working hard to save up for it. I always used to play Fenders a lot more – mainly Strats – then I dabbled in Gibsons for a while, and then I actually sold them a while ago in order to go back to a Strat again!
‘So my current Strat is the sunburst 1960 one. I traded a whole load of stuff at the New King’s Road Guitar Emporium for it. The first one to go was the
’70s Strat, though I wish I’d kept it now. I feel bad about that, but more for sentimental reasons. I also traded some relic Strats and a Les Paul Custom goldtop that I just didn’t get on with… it was too heavy. I was trying a whole range of late ’50s and ’60s Strats in the shop but I was disappointed by what I was trying. It just didn’t feel right until I found this one. He had a ’58 which was amazing, but the neck was just massive! This one is a slim C.’
Having secured a perfect vintage Strat, many would head straight for the vault without passing go… but not Fleming. As we have said, these guitars are bought to play, and we were pleased to hear that he’s no yellow-bellied treasurer and takes this rather delectable 1960 all-original two-tone sunburst to the stage as well as calling upon it several times during the session for his new album, Flat Nine.
Superb 1960 slab-board Strat with the sunburst faded to two-tone
‘Oh yeah, I still use that for the gigs,’ he confirms. ‘I just have to be super-careful with it, and never let it out of my sight! I used it for a lot of the stuff on our new album. It’s in there for the big-hitting bluesy kind of numbers. It still sounds fantastic. It’s got that bitey, harder-edged kind of sound and I love it.’
Bluesmix have recently returned from a tour in San Francisco, but sensibly the Strat was left at home (we’ll forgive him that one). Instead, Fleming invested in an olympic white Fender Custom Shop 1960 relic Strat that he leaves in the States.
‘It’s not that heavily aged, but it’s a custom relic kind of thing. I wanted a closer copy to the one that I’ve got – so that guitar is actually a ’60s relic. It’s kind of interesting. It does play similarly, but the sound is not as sweet… it’s just in the pickups, I think. It’s a great guitar but it really isn’t a patch on the original.
‘I don’t think I’d ever buy a relic for the relic’ed look alone; that would feel really pretentious, but because that one’s been made in a particular way to be a closer, faithful copy of an original vintage, I like it.’
Did it serve him well on tour? ‘It certainly did. The tour was terrific, too. We played at Slim’s and the Boom Boom Room, where John Lee Hooker used to play. Apparently he used to always sit in this booth; they’ve still got it and no-one’s allowed to sit there. It just says “Reserved for John Lee Hooker”! It’s like the 100 Club… everyone’s been there.
Speakers corner: Carr Rambler, Two Rock Custom Signature, Fender Blues JR and Pro JR and TopHart Club Royale
‘Then we did this thing where we supported Macy Gray at an open festival in Yerba Buena Gardens, which was terrific. The audiences are all just really up for it in the States. They’re up for a party and they really just kinda let it all hang out. Sometimes the dancing was not so good… but at least they were dancing!’
Although Fleming’s Strat regularly comes into play, he feels Bluesmix’s forays into New Orleans-inspired funk is more suited to the ‘other’ brand. ‘In more recent times I play mainly Gibsons,’ he continues. ‘The music I’m playing in the band has a bluesy kind of funk feel with a little bit of a jazz thing going on too, and somehow semi-acoustic Gibsons seem to work a lot better for the all-round sound we’re going for.’
Fleming is referring to the two ES-330s that really got him hooked on Gibsons again. The first, a stately 1960 sunburst, and its partner, a vibrant cherry red model from 1962, are both in mint condition and were bought together in one uncontrollable splurge.
‘The 330s are amazing. I got both at the same time from Vintage Guitar Boutique. I couldn’t help it! I was loving that P90 sound – that Grant Green sound that’s kind of jazzy with an edge – and I wanted to get a nice semi-acoustic, something a little bit lighter. That’s how I ended up on these, and
I got completely won over by them. I think it’s more the feel than anything else. It definitely is partly the sound, of course, but the feel and the comfort of a guitar is the most important, especially the neck. It seems to me that it inspires you to play in a slightly different way.’
Robert with ES-225 – ‘It’s got a dirtier sound, more of a blues-box feel.
While the 330s have become his principal guitars for both gigs and recording, he has other Gibsons that make lively cameo appearances now and again. First is an absolutely divine 1958 ES-225 with Bigsby – originally a single-pickup version, but now with an added P90 at the neck – that Guitar & Bass took a particular shine to. It adds some shimmering spice to the anchoring tones of the 330s on Flat Nine and is also put to occasional use in their live set when Fleming needs a certain sound.
‘I got the 225 from a good friend of mine, he was just selling it off,’ he recalls. ‘That’s a really, really nice guitar. It’s got a dirtier sound, kind of a bit more of a blues-box kind of feel to it – and then it’s got this Bigsby on it that does something completely different. It’s the only vibrato I use. I play a bit of rudimentary slide on the 225, too. It’s great for slide guitar.’
The last of his quartet of Gibsons with f-holes is a classic ES-335. For Fleming, it’s the missing link, and completes his palette of Gibson tones with a healthy portion of grunt.
‘I think I was done buying more 330s! So I wanted to get a good 335. This one is a fairly recent addition that I bought off another friend of mine; it’s a 1963. I had a 345 a few years ago which was a ’62, but it was really heavy and just somehow didn’t gel for me, but this one’s really great. It was the last one I was really looking for to complete the sound; a nice 335 with that humbucker thing going on that’s obviously missing in the others.’
Fleming, as we can see, is somewhat of a vintage guitar lover, but his collection isn’t exclusively so. The next two out of their cases seem rather out of character. Firstly, we weren’t prepared for an ice blue Yamaha Pacifica to make an appearance…
‘To be honest I don’t play that very much now, but that’s Ty Tabor’s from a great prog rock band called King’s X,’ explains Fleming. ‘I became transatlantic friends with him a few years back. I met him over the internet because I like his music and his guitar playing. We just corresponded and I ended up buying that off him.’
The prog-rock Pacifica is swiftly followed by a sleek, beautifully bound black SVL replica. ‘That’s an interesting one,’ he explains. ‘It’s made by a guy called Simon Law, who’s guitar tech for Matt [Schofield], so I met him through that connection. He’s doing quite well with those guitars now, apparently. I don’t know how many he makes a year – it can’t be too many – but there’s a lot of demand. It plays beautifully and it isn’t your typical Tele sound; it’s got a fuller tone. I use it as a back-up guitar live. I just bring it out now and then.’
Would Robert consider expanding his collection of solidbodies? ‘Actually I think I might get an old Tele for that classic twangy sound ’cos I don’t really have that with the SVL. And of course I don’t have a Les Paul anymore. I think I should revisit them again sometime but I still don’t know if I’d get on with them! We’re not really a Joe Bonamassa kind of thing. Not that I wouldn’t mind being able to play like him, but blues rock isn’t really what I want to do. The other guitar I’d like to get hold of is a Dobro.’
Would he ever consider some more modern fare? ‘I would be up for trying some out,’ he considers. ‘I’m not collecting these for the vintage as much as because I really love the sound and the feel of them. It’s a bit of a cliché, I have to say, but the modern ones I’ve tried don’t really cut it compared to the vintage ones that I have. There are some nice handmade guitars, though, like a Collings guitar; I’d consider one of them.’
Tanglewood cutaway dread and a 1960s all-mahogany Gibson LG-O Acoustic
Fleming’s main acoustic is a splendid and rather cute little Gibson LG-0. ‘I write probably the lion’s share of the songs and then collaborate on some of the nuances with the other guys. I write mostly with that acoustic. I prefer writing on acoustics, they’re easier just to pick up and play… and then that sunburst 330 is the other one that I play around with a lot at home too. A lot of the album was written on that Gibson, though.’
Of the two basses in his collection, a Fender Sting Signature Precision catches our eye, signed by the man himself. ‘I met him backstage at one of his concerts,’ Fleming explains. ‘Somebody I know was organising the event and they invited me along.
They had some of those signature basses as a giveaway for guests at the event and I managed to get one, which was lucky, and then he signed it – nice guy.’ Is Robert inclined towards the odd pop and slap of an evening? ‘No, not really!’ he chuckles. ‘I only play rudimentary bass at home, so I shouldn’t really have it at all! Our bassist plays a Fender Precision, though, and he just ordered a Sadowski bass that he’s very proud of. They’re from New York and they’re meant to be the ultimate handmade basses, or so he tells me.’
When it comes to amps, Fleming is as particular as he is with his guitars. One that’s especially close to our hearts here at G&B is his Top Hat Club Royale. ‘I was just looking for a nice combo that I could take and do club gigs with; nothing too heavy, just a nice kind of Class A amp. At the time I wanted more of a Vox AC30 kind of sound, and the Top Hat was reviewed in your magazine in the early 2000’s and got a rave review. A week later I was down in Denmark Street and I saw it in the window and they said that was the actual amp that was reviewed in the magazine, so I bought it!’
The Top Hat still goes on the road from time to time, but for now Fleming’s main noiseboxes are his Carr Rambler and another amp picked up from a famous friend.
‘I primarily use the Carr. I only came across it about two years ago. A friend of mine in San Francisco recommended it; he’s an absolute amp geek and he basically said if you’re looking for that cleaner Fender Twin kind of sound but with a bit more depth and not as heavy, then that’s the one to get. I went for it and it seems to be a really great choice. That’s my favourite… but my Two Rock Custom Signature is sometimes wheeled out for the bigger gigs.
That one was bought from Matt Schofield, he recorded the Sifting Through Ashes album on it and I recorded most of our last album with it.’
Also sitting pretty in his armoury are two Fender amps, although Fleming seems to have been somewhat unfortunate with them. ‘I have this Pro Junior and Blues Junior,’ he explains. ‘That’s the third Blues Junior I’ve had! I don’t know whether I’m just unlucky with damage or something, but they just constantly blow up!’
Robert’s FX including a VanAmps spring reverb, T-Rex, Ibanez, Menatone, Boss, LovedPedal, Xotic, MXR and many more
We all like to dabble in the wizardy world of effects and Fleming is a self-proclaimed pedal fiend. One that constantly appears at the feet of many a blues star is the simple, yet masterful clean boost; something Fleming is a major fan of.
‘I’ve got too many pedals! It’s an endless search for the right one. What I’m really looking for is a kind of clean boost, not heavy distortion. At a club gig you’ve got to have the volume at a fairly decent level to get a bit more response out of the amp, but a clean boost gives it a nice kind of gain, like cranking the amp but without that overdriven fuzz.’
Has he found his choice stompbox for this purpose? ‘I’ve tried a few… probably too many!’ he laughs. ‘I’ve got this Xotic EP Booster now which I really like, it’s a little tiny thing. That’s got a really nice, warm sound to me, so I’m kind of settling on that. Then I use a Menatone Red Snapper, which is also a boost, but it’s got a little bit more bite and gain to it for more of an overdriven sound. I have two of them!’
The other pedal that Fleming won’t leave home without is the humble wah, of which he has four. ‘I’m a bit of a wah-wah nut, to be honest. I’ve been through pretty much all of them over the years! That’s the reason why I’ve got quite a few, ’cos I keep going through them trying to find the perfect one. I think I’ve found “the one” now, it’s the Vox reissue. I’ve also had fun with the RMC wah; that’s the sparkly blue one that a lot of people really rave about. It’s nice, but I find that both the RMC and the other Fulltone are just a little bit too trebly whereas the Vox is a lot warmer. I’m going for more of a ’70s kind of sound.’
Fleming intends to return to the States with his band and tour Europe, but for now he’s content with a collection of guitars and gear that serve his needs nicely, a stellar new album and fantastic reviews across the board.
‘Probably the biggest thing for us right now is the recording of this last album. We were trying to evolve the band and do a bit more funk stuff, so we’re really pleased how it turned out. We’re happy with that more ’70s kind of feel and we’ve been really chuffed with the reception it’s had.’