Aaron Williams fuels father's legacy with blues of his own
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Local blues-rocker Aaron Williams may be preceded by the mighty legacy of his father, legendary 35-year local jazz and blues veteran “Cadillac Joe” Andersen. But, at age 26, Williams has a list of his own accomplishments that can certainly stand on its own. Williams—who cut his teeth on the road with The Cadillac Joe Band—is currently the main songwriter for Aaron Williams And The Hoodoo, a blues-rock trio that bangs out nearly 200 regional shows per year, and has spent the last few years arranging the “Cadillac Joe” Winter Festival. The annual show was originally put together to assist Andersen with the medical bills that came along with his long battle with cancer, which lead to his death in July 2009. The show has continued in remembrance of Andersen’s life, and the money is now donated to a different charity every year. In anticipation of this year’s installment—taking place Dec. 3 at the Majestic Theatre—Williams sat down with The A.V. Club to discuss his upcoming plans with The Hoodoo, picking up the guitar to meet girls, and nearly getting hit by a plane.
The A.V. Club: Did your father play a big role in you picking up the guitar?
Aaron Williams: My dad had always been a musician his whole life, and I grew up with it, having bands at the house all the time jamming. I just never liked music, I always wanted to play sports and basketball and that kind of thing. I was never good at sports, but I still wanted to try. For some reason, I couldn’t talk to girls when I was in high school, so I thought, “What better way to do it than pick up the guitar?” After I picked it up, my dad would sneak in songs from Stevie Ray Vaughn and the pop-blues scene that he liked, and I just totally dug it. I couldn’t believe that you could do that kind of stuff with a guitar. Since then, being with my dad and living with him all those years, I had picked up a lot of the riffs and sounds, and it just came naturally. It was also cool that he and I played different instruments.
AVC: So you pretty much arrived at guitar on your own terms?
AW: Yeah, exactly.
AVC: I read in a statement your dad made that he got started playing garage-rock stuff, and then sort of migrated toward blues and jazz. Did you start out wanting to play blues?
AW: Actually, I started with Nirvana and Pearl Jam. I just loved that stuff. When I tried to start my first band, I found guys that weren’t very good, to be honest. You call that whatever you call it—garage rock? It was definitely not the blues to start out with.
AVC: Aaron Williams And The Hoodoo seems to identify itself as a serious touring entity. When did you guys start hitting the road?
AW: It was really in the last year that we tried to get out. Even the year where we started, we were doing 150 shows a year, but now we’re up around 190-200. We are playing further out in our region now.
AVC: Do you think that the underground blues scene has the same sort of tight network and support system as say, the punk scene? In other words, do you think it’s more difficult to tour as a relatively unknown blues-rock band?
AW: That’s an interesting question, I never thought about that. I would like to say that it’s easier. I don’t know why, but it seems like blues-rock has much more of—and I hate the words—“cover sound,” and people know that sound, so you can get into bars in between those house shows for door gigs. We would find these gigs where you would play for five dollars, and then the next day we could get 300 dollars. So, we were able to sustain the tours much longer and get our spread out. I would think that blues doesn’t usually have a do-it-yourself attitude, but I think it helped us having that old school [stigma]—that you could get out and play for a guarantee.
AVC: After playing blues for 10 years, do you still find yourself drawn toward pop-blues stuff like Stevie Ray Vaughn, or more toward the school of Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters?
AW: You know, I’ve always liked Stevie Ray, and unfortunately a lot of bands have given him a bad name. I think he’s an amazing guitar player. I started off listening to him, but I don’t listen to him anymore. I’ve kind of gotten into more of the old, old stuff. I dig the really raw stuff, like R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough, where it’s really raw and simple. I also really like how bands like The Black Keys, and bands like that, have mashed that old blues sound with a modern edge.
AVC: As the vocalist-guitarist, how do you typically begin the songwriting process?
AW: I’m definitely a guitar player that sings and not a singer that plays guitar, so I’ve always written my songs on a guitar. I’ll come up with a riff and come up with the music then try and write the story over it. I’ve always had writer’s block, ever since I started playing guitar. The way I write is I look at a picture. Pictures are a moment in time, so I like to think about what happened right before or right after that picture. A lot of my songs are written that way.
AVC: Pictures of yourself?
AW: No, no [Laughs]. Pictures that move me. We all kind of look at the newspaper, go online, or look at an art museum, and I’ll find a picture that moves me.
AVC: What particular song of yours would be an example of this writing style put to work?
AW: I’m sure a lot of people in Madison know about that student that was killed downtown a few years ago. That really got to me, so I kept up with the news and [have] seen a few pictures. There was a story, and one of the songs on the new CD will be about that. I don’t want to make it too literal, because it’s such an intense subject, but it’s about seeking revenge on the murderer that just disappeared.
AVC: How did the Cadillac Joe Memorial Winter Festival come together?
AW: It’s a show that we’ve been doing for the last three years. It’s pretty much been the same bands, because the bands that have done it are really close with our family. It was originally started to help my father out with a lot of his health insurance costs. Unfortunately, he passed away, and I felt like I want to keep his legacy in the papers and on people’s minds. Also, he was always a big proponent of raising money and helping other musicians out when they needed something. Our friends and I wanted to do two things: Keep his name because he was my dad, a good guy, and our friend, but then also raise money each year for a different section of cancer research. Last year we raised a lot of money for the UW hospital where he was treated, and this year we’re doing The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, because that’s the kind of cancer he had.
AVC: When did you start backing up your father on guitar?
AW: I think I was 17, and I went on the road with him at 18. It was a blast hanging out with him. Most people think that it’s not cool to hang out with your parents at that age, but we would play Playstation on the road, hook it up at the hotel. It was just fun to hang out and talk to him as more of a friend than a dad. It was a blast.
AVC: Do you have any particularly crazy memories of hitting the road so early on?
AW: There was one that we did in Iowa, I believe. We played for this huge wine festival, just beautiful sprawling grounds. After we were done playing, we were packing for another show because the wine festival gig was in the afternoon. They told us to take this right, we took the right, and we went off this beaten path. We ended up driving on this person’s farm land—in a cornfield basically. We probably drove for 45 minutes through a cornfield. We took another right and this airplane was coming straight for us. We had no idea what we were doing, but apparently in Iowa, they have a lot of airports just out in the middle of cornfields. We had driven on to an airfield and this plane was just barreling down at us! We’d always joke about almost dying.
Also, my father’s first CD release party was at Luther’s Blues when it was still around. It was kind of his homecoming party. We had done a lot of shows in Madison, but we still had no idea what to expect. We got there that night and were ready to set up. We were in the green room hanging out, and one of the door guys came and said, “You sold it out.” To see the look on my dad’s face—because he had been in so many bands in Madison for the last 25 years at that point, and not really had local success—I could see that he was really proud that night. It was cool to see my dad have one of those proud moments. It was a proud moment for me, too, to see him get that look, and then come onstage and see all these people cheering for your old man.
AVC: Your father also played in The Hoodoo, correct?
AW: Yes. In fact, the last show my dad ever played was with the Hoodoo back in May of 2009. He passed away in July that year, so at this point, he was pale and you could see that the cancer had already taken over. But, he was still playing hard, hammering away at that organ, and people could see that and were really getting into it. He just had that charisma. He was playing until the end.
AVC: What’s next for The Hoodoo?
AW: We are working hard on the next CD. We have over 15 songs ready and we’re gonna put 10 of them on a new CD that we’ll be recording after the first of the year.
AVC: How will the new album differ from 2009’s It Ain’t Easy?
AW: Our first CD was kind of balls-to-the-wall. We hadn’t learned any subtlety. I think this CD is a bit more relaxed. Also, I recently got a cigar box guitar, and I’ve been in love with how nasty that thing sounds. We’ve been doing a lot of slide-heavy, dirty, old-blues-type stuff. Much more gritty and live-sounding is what we’re hoping to go after.