Pierre Lacocque Talks About Living The Blues and The New Album
Mississippi Heat is a benchmark for excellence in Chicago blues, and has been since the group was founded by the Lacocque brothers, Pierre and Michel, in 1991. The roster of past and present members, augmented by guest players, reads like a who’s who of the best the blues genre has produced, including members of the great Muddy Waters bands we hold in such high esteem. Past players and guests have included such greats as Carl Weathersby, Lurrie Bell, Bob Stroger, Billy Flynn, Mary Lane, Barrelhouse Chuck, Robert Covington, and Deitra Farr, just to name a few.
Pierre Lacocque has had a very interesting journey, in the blues itself, as well as the path he traveled to the blues. These days, Pierre leads Mississippi Heat, and his brother Michel is their manager.
American Blues Scene had the good fortune to speak with Pierre as he had just returned from a recording session for the new album, to be issued on Delmark Records. We discussed what it was like growing up in Europe in the aftermath of World War II, starting a new life in the United States, securing an education at leading institutions around the world, and finally enjoying a career making music he loves so much. We also discussed the upcoming album, which will probably be issued between the end of June, and mid-July.
ABS: So, how fresh in everyone’s mind was the war?
They talked a lot about it actually. Yes. It was very vivid. We also went to a Jewish Orthodox school ourselves, although we’re not Jewish. My grandfather, he was a minister, during the war, was very involved, as was my mother’s family with hiding Jewish children and families, and so forth. So it was vivid. So the war, and the atrocities were very often talked about, certainly at home.
ABS: How did your family wind up in the United States?
My father was a professor of old testament in Brussels. In 1967 he got a full year, and he came with my mother and my sister to Chicago. My brother Michel and myself stayed in Brussels for a year and we lived with different families. Then, when they came back for one year to Brussels, they got a full time tenure offer to go back to Chicago.
So in 1969, the five of us came here, and my father was teaching at The Chicago Theological Seminary, teaching Old Testament, as well as being the Director of The Center of Jewish Christian Studies. We are not Jewish, but we are very Jewish at heart. My father’s a minister, we’re Protestant, but very attracted to Judaism. So my father started the center in Chicago for Christian and Jews to have dialogue; and Muslims, down the road.
ABS: Coming to the United States was a big change for the family?
It was a different world. Everything was big! Even the milk. I had never seen a gallon of milk before in my life! The cereal boxes were big; everything was big. Buildings, guitars, I mean everything was just so big! It was a move the family welcomed, and we had a very positive attitude and view of the United States. Belgium as know, during the second World War was invaded and leveled, by the Germans. I had an uncle who died in a concentration camp, on my mother’s side. So, the US and all that was really idealized, because we were saved by the allies, which included the United States. We definitely had a positive view.
It took quite a while to get used to the different culture, because Europe, as you probably know is very tight at the time; very rigid in terms of what’s appropriate, what’s not, behavior wise. ‘You’ve got to conform.’ You know, very strict social rules. When we came to Chicago, everything went out the window because we couldn’t understand how people behaved differently kind of a thing, you know? Certain courtesies, social manners. It took us a year to get used to, and we said ‘We like this!’ It’s freedom. You can dress the way you want, so, it was definitely an eye-opener for us! We all became citizens, and I just love the country.
ABS: Being that your father was an educated man, and very disciplined, was it beneficial for you growing up in that environment?
In the long run, it was just amazing, that I had that privilege. As a kid, no. It was very severe. I dote on my father, he’s still alive, we’re very very close, and we talk about the past, and worked it out. So I am blessed that way. I would say that I had a very difficult childhood. I was a very sad little boy. I was crying a lot inside of me. I was very lonely, even though I was close to my siblings. I have a brother who is nineteen months older, Michel, and a sister, four years younger, Elizabeth. The family – my father was a very rigid man who did not tolerate play, but reading Dostoevsky, and all the heavy guys. So I was exposed to that very very young, so it was cool, but it did not match my I was mentally, so I felt like I didn’t belong.
This whole thing with blues fit me very well, I can assure you. The experience of the loneliness. I used to go to synagogue, just to visit my friends, and go to church on Sunday, because we went to church as well. All of that was just ridiculous after a while. ‘Who am I?’ So, anyway, it was hard for many years, and I was a non-verbal guy. Even though my family talked, I was not a talker. I kept everything in, and I was shy and withdrawn.
ABS: You have said that harmonica saved you. When did it first have an impact on you?
The harmonica, very early in life, just moved my soul. I was very young. My father bought me a toy harmonica when I was two and a half, and I would cry. I would blow in it, and literally, just the sound of it! Very early in life. ‘That’s the one! That’s it.’ I don’t know what to play on it. It took me a long time, until I came to Chicago in 1969. I said ‘Oh man, this is it.’ When I heard a blues played on harmonica, and Walter Horton, actually amplified, my life changed.
I often say it was an experience of awe, but also, it was like a religious experience. My life had a meaning, right there. Oh my goodness! I couldn’t believe the horns, the depths of those sounds that Walter did! The sound! He played through an amplifier, and I was very moved. It really changed me; it gave me oxygen.
ABS: For you though, Little Walter was the ultimate?
Yes. Little Walter is ultimately my master. OF course, Big Walter is very influential, because he had phrasing, but Little Walter was just another world. Amazing creativity, and abilities technically. I mean, he was just amazing. And nowadays, I think that Kim Wilson that comes the closest. He’s so versatile, and yet so close to Walter, yet he’s still Kim Wilson. I love the guy, and I love his playing!
ABS: Do you feel as though the time you spent pursuing your extensive education was wasted, or beneficial?
It’s been absolutely beneficial. Given my family context, and all this heavy reading. Eventually, I made a decision and I went into music but, I also said, ‘You know what? I want to read about what is the meaning of life. So I studied existentialists for a long time, and I followed a path that was exciting; going to school, writing papers, formulating my thinking, and reading other people. So I went that route because it was natural for my family. As you know, I went all the way to Oxford.
It was very valuable because I learned about wisdom, I learned about so many things about human nature; not only my nature, but other people’s nature. I learned about techniques about how to listen, how to heal; how to heal myself. It was very valuable, and it’s about life, like blues is. However, with psychology, I felt I was getting old too fast. I was thinking like I was sixty years old when I was in my thirties, and I thought that something was missing.
I had played music for six years in a row, and then I stopped for fourteen years. I stopped playing, and I said ‘I have to get my life together.’ I was studying, and reading, and my degrees and all of that. Then I said ‘No. No, no, no. This is good, it’s beautiful, because I work with people and I can see changes and it brings meaning to my life, to see people improve with talking with me.
ABS: Are you still working in psychology in addition to Mississippi Heat endeavors?
I still work a little bit on the side, to help the home. I work music full time, and in between I still do some consultation. I’m going to stop that in a year or so because I am too busy with music but it’s all about love. Blues is a whole range, from very sad songs, which I enjoy, but also happy songs. You know, about betrayal, have I been lonely? Do I love? Psychology helps also. I write lyrics based on true situations in my work.
I think it’s true that we have a natural calling. It has to fit with your soul, and temperament. We’re all born to do something. We’re all born with our own temperament, our own history, and we have to find our path. I always work on new ideas, I write songs, so I always have this challenge and I’m never satisfied.
ABS: Do you feel the band has been treated fairly by critics and the press? Do you feel that they have been afforded the recognition they have earned?
It’s been over twenty years working, and we have eleven CD’s, with this new one now. We’ve traveled the world, literally: South America, Europe, Canada. So, we are an active band, and yes, at times, I try, I really do, honestly I’m gonna tell you, I try not to go there. It’s misleading, it’s intriguing, and the reviews we get of our recordings, and certainly song writing and all that, have always been very positive, but more than that. It’s been intriguing. That’s why we asked Frank Roszak to help us a little bit, and see what is it that we are not doing. It’s a dangerous mood for me as an artist to go to, because many of my friends here, that I know, will tell you the same thing. ‘How come not me?’ I try to do what my heart tells me to do, writing songs. I always keep my heart, and humility aside, I always give my body into what I do. There’s nothing I can do really. All I know is I’m proud, very happy.
ABS: Tell us about the lineup on this upcoming album.
My drummer is Kenny Smith. He’s been around the world, and he’s been my drummer since 1997. We are as tight as can be! He’s a man that I trust.
My guitar player now is Michael Dotson. He’s been with me two years, and he’s been with Magic Slim for six years. I’m very pleased with Michael. I think you are gonna be pleased and surprised with this new album. He’s a slide player as well. We definitely highlight him on the album – he’s an incredible slide player. He did three of the sixteen tunes of this album. He brings an enormous amount of heritage and vintage culture.
Inetta Visor, she’s been with me thirteen years now. She and I are the fronts, and I write the songs, so the material is mostly mine, but, certainly Inetta’s, because she writes beautiful songs too. Brian Quinn on bass, who is really unbelievable. So, the rhythm section is Brian Quinn with Kenny Smith. When Kenny can not make it, I have on this album, as on previous albums, I have Andrew Thomas, who is his replacement when he can’t make it. They call him ‘The Blaze.’ I call him Andrew. So, that’s basically the core. Then I use Giles Corey when we need a big band, you know. Giles and Michael work very well together.
ABS: Are there any special guest players?
I’m gonna have Sax Gordon doing the horn arrangements, as well as soloing on some of the tunes so we have a stellar saxophone player. I have known him for a while. We did some master classes in France; he was teaching sax while I was teaching the harp. I just fell in love with this guy. He’s like a King Curtis on steroids!
I have a B3 player, his name is Neil O’Hara, he’s a young, up and coming keyboard player. I may bring in a marquee name too, I don’t know yet. We have to see how the tracks look, and what Delmark tells me. I have a trio on background voices, so we have a little call and response. So, I think that is the core of the project.
ABS: What can Mississippi Heat fans and devotees expect on the new album?
It is very varied, as always with my albums. I try always to press forward, always with fresh new material. There’s sixteen originals, one cover by Ruth Brown, called ‘I Don’t Know,’ and it’s just a stellar, slow, beautiful minor, with a ballad feel to it. Then I wrote ten of mine, then I gave three to Michael Dotson, and two to Inetta, so she did one of hers, and then the Ruth Brown. Oh, and Kenny Smith wrote one and he sings on it as well. So, that’s the sixteen.
But again, when we press, we may have to sacrifice a few songs, and I’m not too sure which ones yet. It’s so good though, and the band was well rehearsed. That’s typically what I do; I get the band really ready before we even start so that we don’t take too much time in the studio, and I don’t have to work too much at home. We were well prepared, and everyone did their homework.
ABS: Of course your music is blues, but there’s also jazz in it, and soul, and even a splash of funk here and there. You also cover swing as well. Since the band covers such a wide range, what kind of material should we be looking for?
We have a very vintage feel this time around. In many ways, my sound depends on who records with me. With Michael Dotson, we are totally vintage We also do some Elmore James type of songs with him on slide. It’s fresh because it has a unique feel to it, but it has a very strong vintage approach. Michael Dotson does some finger picking, Delta style, and we use a standup bass on a couple of songs, but overall, it’s an electric album. I have to say, I am very thrilled.
We have some up tempo, like Santana type, so it’s catchy, and has a jungle beat. We have some ‘back porch Delta blues,’ just a few instruments, very quiet, very nice. I have a 1950s danceable kind of rock and roll type of thing, Chuck Berry style, with Horns behind that. It’s called Alley Cats Boogie. I have a Rumba, a Calypso type of song; a minor Calypso like song, with vocals. One of my guests will be Ruben Alvarez, who is a Latin percussion man, who will appear on three or four songs, including this one.
ABS: What does the touring schedule look like for the near future?
We have shows coming up, in Rhode Island, Washington D.C., Maine, New York, and The Canton Blues Festival in Ohio. There’s a ten day tour of Quebec Province, and Hawaii in June. In Europe in November, they will be the featured band in Lucerne, Switzerland for ten days.
ABS: How do you feel about your music, and being able to make the music you love?
I put my heart into this, that’s all I can say. I can also say, it’s my life. It really is. It’s my soul, I feel it. I feel young, I love what I do, and with all the costs of being the boss, and the headaches of being the band leader, as you can imagine, but overall, I’m happy. I just play from the heart, I play as if it’s my last gig. I have those kinds of attitudes. I give the best I can. We need a team. To make it, we need a team. Alone, I can not do it. If I didn’t have my family, my dear brother in particular. I mean it’s a team, and I couldn’t do this alone; I really couldn’t.