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Lee Sankey

lee.jpg (2890 octets)I first heard about Lee Sankey through the Internet and asked him to send him his first album for review. He did so and I had the opportunity to listen to some really original music and harp playing. A few weeks later we met up in London and had a chance to chat over a cup of coffee...

Planet Harmonica : Can you tell us a little about where you come from, musically? When and how did you start playing harp ?

Lee Sankey : I started quite late, when I was about eighteen, and prior to that I didn't like music at school, I didn't enjoy classical music or any of those type of things. I got into hip-hop when I was like thirteen, fourteen, so this is like 1983. Then one day, a girlfriend of mine said 'Come down and see this band I saw the other day,' and it was just round the corner in Soho, Dean Street, and they had a harp there; and I walked in and it was like a bolt of lightning - I knew straight away that I wanted to play the harmonica. The sound just jumped out on me, and it was the coolest thing I'd ever heard. And I thought I just had to try playing. It didn't cross my mind about not being able to play it or me being any good. I literally went and bought one the next day, and that was that. I started listening to Sonny Boy Williamson, Little Walter, and my mum used to work for CBS records in the sixties and had a huge collection of records there that up until that point I'd always ignored. You don't think your mum's going to be into cool music. I don’t remember her playing any of these records because she'd obviously moved on to other things. But I looked in there and there was everything : Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, Lightning Hopkins, Paul Butterfield... just everything was there. Yeah it was great, so I just started practising like that.Back to Contents


PH : Right, so you worked on your own, or…?

LS : I just taught myself. I started playing in a band after about three months; it was very natural to me, and also I'm a very confident person, so I thought I sounded great. I'm sure I sounded shit, but I didn't care, because I got such a kick out of it. The harmonica's a very spiritual instrument because when you breath in, the note is inside you. And for me it's such a moving and passionate thing, you know ? It was like a drug. I couldn't stop playing. I would bunk off college and started practising between six and eight hours every day and it just built from there.

Then I was very fortunate to meet a guy called Paul Lamb who was a real big help for me. We used to hang out together and he'd show me stuff and I'd get closer and closer to him. Eventually I started developing my own style. Me and Paul are still very good friends, but he's more into traditional and west coast blues - that's what he does and he loves it. He's not interested in the fame or blahblahblah. Paul just likes that west coast thing and that's what he does. Musically I'm interested in other things as well.

PH :So would it be right to say that you had some influences harpwise and different influences from the other kinds of music you listened to ?

LS :Yeah. I think there's no denying that Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy and Little Walter, made some of the greatest music that's ever been made; but as a white guy growing up in Surrey I know nothing about picking cotton. So if I'm going to be a blues musician I have to express the Blues in my own way. Also, I don't want to be limited musically, there's lots of other great music out there. When I hear Public Enemy, and Joshua Redmond, Michael Brecker, Portishead, Cassandra Wilson, Dave Holland, D’Angelo, there's so much great music out there… Why say 'It ain’t real blues, if it's not One-legged Blind-Boy Jefferson’ ? That’s rubbish. It's not relevant to me and I think that's what's wrong with the scene actually. I don't know how it is in France or abroad, but what's wrong here is there's too much emphasis on re-creation and not on creating new ideas. You know all those famous blues musicians, the Muddy Waters, Buddy Guys and Junior Wells’, they were innovators at the time. Their stuff was new. If they were here today, they'd be making their own stuff, so that's what I want to do. I've learned from them and I respect what they've done, and they're legends, and they're timeless, their music is timeless. But I want to do my own thing as well. Sure it's influenced, and I love playing shuffle, and I love it, but why stick to that ?

That's what I tried to do with my debut album. I don't want to make a shuffle record. There are shuffles on there, there's traditional things, because I don't want to go too far too quick. Plus I do like the traditional stuff. But why make a record you already own? So many bands go and make records that they already own…

PH :They replicate stuff that they've heard...

LS :It's OK doing covers if you add something new or take it in a new direction. But the world doesn't need another Stevie Ray Vaughan. It's been done. There'll be other great players, but just in the same way that Stevie Ray Vaughan took something from Hendrix and Albert King and pushed it forward, someone will take stuff from Stevie and push it forward. And for blues, the next big thing in my opinion is going to be lyrics and not musicianship. Blues musicians have got to go back to the pen and paper and expressing emotions rather than Little Walter licks. For me it's down to songs and songwriting.

PH : I'd definitely agree with that.

LS :That's the way forward.:A lot of stuff that comes out, the lyrics are so cold. There's no feeling in there.

PH :They’ll usually write something that vaguely rhymes so that it sounds like an old blues piece. But all in all it’s pretty bland. There isn’t much meaning…

LS : There's no concept to it. But the problem is you know, that when you try to write something a bit different, you get stuck between the two camps. You're not innovative enough to be like jazz fusion or pure hip-hop so that crowd is not interested, and it's a bit different from traditional blues so these guys slam you. You’re stuck in the middle. The blues people say 'that's way too radical', and the other people say "it's not radical enough". So I just try and ignore all that and make a great record. And when you play live you make sure it's a great set and it's heartfelt, and genuine. And it works. We do a thing ‘round here called the Blue-Bop Shop, which is like a club night where we have hip-hop DJs, Drum-n-Bass DJs and my band playing blues and original stuff. In the set, we throw in like a slow blues and a traditional 12-bar shuffle and it's amazing : you see all these guys in Kappa hats and Adidas boots going mad for it coz it's wicked. But you don't want to do that every song all night because you’ve got to have variety. For me that's the way forward.

PH : Well I have to confess that reading the liner notes I was expecting something more radical, because the notes are written in a way that suggest your style is revolutionising Blues… But apparently Darren (Lee’s Agent) tells me there are quite a few numbers that are more into the hip-hop side, but you didn't want to put them on the record to start with, because you wanted to get into it gradually and still keep that blues thing around. In your mind, when does it stop being blues ?

LS : I don't think it ever stops being blues. It's a matter of perception. As much as we all want to go in and say it doesn't fucking matter what anyone else thinks, if you want to do it for a living, people have to buy and respect what you do. So I make my music for myself, and I don't change it for anyone, but if I've got a group of tracks, and I had a lot of tracks for this album, more than I could fit onto it, then I have to be intelligent about it. You're constantly learning and changing as a musician and your style evolves. I have changed even since I made that album. But for me, even though everything I do is a fusion of different elements, the overriding feel is blues. Blues is a very open concept though, it's a very loose word. Some people's definition is very tight, for me it's very loose, so I try and forget about what blues means in terms of 'I woke up this morning', some black guy singing his woes... To me that *is* the blues, but not the *only* type of blues.

At the end of the day what really matters is what people think about it. They're the ones who talk about it and criticise it. It doesn't really matter what the artist thinks, in a way. He does his thing, she does her thing and you put it out there, and people react how they will. So, in my opinion it's all blues.

PH : Speaking of critics and stuff, you've had pretty good reviews and in all the British press. Was it number one in the blues sales in HMV (Large British record retail chain) or something like that ?

LS : Yes, I've had a couple of number ones. Been number one in Juke Blues magazine, it's been number one in Tower Records' national chart, Virgin's Oxford Street round here - they sell 80% of the stuff at the moment .

PH : That's pretty cool for a first album...

LS : It's sold really well. When it first came out it was flying off the listening posts, which is great for the harmonica. And I had great reviews in Blues Review in America, and San Francisco times...

PH : Is it actually distributed in The US now?

LS : No, because I'm trying to do it myself. You see the problem is, most blues labels are clueless. They're completely out of touch with their customers in the way they package their albums, the way they market them... It's all so middle class nonsense, people who are stuck in the fifties and sixties. And that's bullshit. I can do a better job myself in terms of the graphics, the cover design, the marketing. And no one cares as much as you do about your own music. One of the only labels that does blues justice is Rykodisc…

So anyway, I had some interest from Sony and Island Records when I first started out, but it just sort of petered out, and I could hear the things they were tring to say, that it was too bluesy or whatever… That's the record I wanted to make, so I did it all myself. I didn't cut any corners, we had Phil Brown engineer it, the guy who engineered "Stairway to Heaven". He he worked with the Stones, and assisted on Jimi Hendrix's "Electric Ladyland". We recorded it in a great studio called Protocol in London which has done a lot of good albums over the years, and we mixed it at the Eurythmics' studio, the Church. It's not done like your usual 12-bar pub-band shuffle thing, it's done like a major label would do it.

I'm very proud of the result. Sure, you never get a hundred percent what you want but I'm very very happy with it given where I was at the time and I think it is a great record.

So yeah the critics have been very good, very positive about it. I think I've had two bad reviews and they were written by guys who are in that traditional trip. They’re not interested in that kind of thing so you know, I don’t really care. They're entitled to their opinion.

But it’s been tough you knwo. I've got it distributed out in Scandinavia now, I haven't got a distributor in France. I'd love to have it over in France, and I'm trying for Germany and America, but I'm doing it on my own label, because I don't think another label's really the way forward at the moment. I might license it in America because the amount of money involved to do it in America's too big.

PH : How about electronic distribution, internet, stuff like that...

LS : I have my own website,, and people can order the record online. That’s a first step. It's such a new thing, Internet distribution, I don't know… I think the internet is becoming just like normal shops. Shops are overcrowded : you walk into a record shop and you're inundated : there are so many artists to choose from. It’s very hard to stand out from the rest. I think the internet is turning out to be the same. There's so much stuff out there that finding the good stuff is becoming harder and harder. Amazon and the likes are becoming just like normal shops so… I'm still thinking about what to do with that. I think the technology has a lot to offer, but you have to do it the right way.

PH : Right. One of the things that really pleased me listening to the album was I felt that the songs had genuinely been written. as in not put vaguely together with this and that but there's some thought behind it. So how do you write? Do you start with the lyrics, do you have like melodies in your head...

LS : Each song's different. I don't believe there’s a ‘way’ to doit, except maybe in pop, because it seems to be a formula. Writing is a very personal thing, and I'm very happy that you say that about my music. All those things have happened to me, or people that I've known. It’s all stuff I've observed or seen.

So I never sit down and say "Oh, I'm going to write a song." Sometimes the melody comes into my head first, sometimes I get the lyrics first; each song's birth is different. I'm sure some people do have a method, but I can't just force it. So each song is very different. I suppose the majority of it starts with a thought an idea. You see something, or something happens to you...

PH : And you think "That could make a great song".

LS : Yeah. Or you say a phrase and you start repeating it. The words are the most important thing for me at the moment. I'm getting more and more into a kind of blues poetry. That's the thing I like about rap as well. It's from the streets, it's real. It reflects the violence and drugs in their culture. Songs build up from your experiences.

PH : There’s another thing I wanted to talk to you about. There's not a lot of instrumentalists, if you want to call them that, who have the guts to hire a proper singer. One of the things that really annoys me with a lot of blues musicians is that they will be excellent instrumentalists, but they can’t sing. And yet they insist on taking vocal duties. They’re not singers, just people who sing, if you see what I mean. I think it’s a really cool thing you’ve done hiring a singer, 'cause that guy's got a really good voice, and he brings the lyrics forward very much.

LS : I think you make a good observation about the blues musicians. I think a lot of stuff you hear is half-baked, it's not there. Like I said, the words are very important to me. Like 'Only my Baby', on the album. I think that's a beautiful song and I love the words on it. I can't do it justice and because the rest of the band's so good at what they do, why spoil it with average singing, when everything is really good ? So I think it's important. The strange thing is that the people who'll be reading this interview on Planet Harmonica are really into the harmonica, they'll listen to a song in a different way. But most people, when they listen to a record, they don't even notice the harmonica, the guitar solos, the drum beats. So the lyrics are very important. Why sing them in a half-baked way ? To me it's silly, and also I really can't sing ! I REALLY can't sing. I sing well enough to write a song and get the melody over to the singer, and then I just let him do his thing.

PH : Isn't it difficult from an ego point of view, 'cause normally people expect singers to be more or less the leader of the band ? He’s usually the one with the outgoing personality that talks to the audience and all…

LS : It's a difficult thing. I'm very lucky with the singers I've worked with ; and David is a huge talent, and he should have and will have his own career at some point. Again, it’s a matter of perception. It doesn’t affect me too much. I can't sing, so I have a singer. If people think it’s his band, that's their perception. It's my band, I write the music, I do all the arrangements, and I do all the talking, the introductions. I explain the songs. David doesn't do that. We all jump around and move around a lot.

I’ll tell you what's worse though : it’s having a guitarist or harmonica player who takes on the vocals, sings a couple of verses, and that's that out the way, now I can solo for five minutes. I think that's worse, because it's like two verses, solo, it's just the same formula over and over again…

PH : And it also means the lyrics are pointless, just there to fill in….

LS : Exactly ! To me that looks worse than someone like me who can't sing. I play a lot of guitar in the band, and sometimes I'll play harp and I'll just sit right back and just come in where it's needed. Because of that it has more impact. I find sometimes I can take a step back, and people still know it's my band and as long they're coming up and enjoying themselves they'll remember the band's name and take an interest in what we do, I don't mind. Some people will come along and not notice the harmonica, some people come along and just think, "Wow! What a great guitarist," everyone's experience will be different.

I think I might speak in some of my new stuff though…

PH : Like rap ?

LS : More like poetry really.

PH : So what are your projects now ?

LS : I'm currently working with some hip-hop and drum 'n' bass producers in London. I might also be doing a more traditional acoustic album but with original material, with a guy called Ian Siegle. I have my next record and the one after that pretty much written and finished. But I need, maybe twenty thousand pounds to go and make it properly, again, if you use an engineer and studios it costs a lot of money, so that's what I want to do. Lots of possibilities. Also, I want to go out and tour, so that's what I'm trying to do at the moment.

PH : Can we talk about your harp playing a bit ?

LS : Sure !

PH : One thing that struck was that you sound more daring on the diatonic than you do on the chromatic. I have the feeling that you keep the chromatic for the more jazzy tunes, in a sort of mellow Toots style, whereas you used the diatonic on funk stuff and the more forward sounding stuff. How do you pick them ?

LS : Well, I love both. But I know my chromatic playing has got a long way to go. I mean, I'm better than a lot of other people and there I think my strength is I can play the guitar, I can write songs, I produce, I play good harmonica. There's not a lot of people who can do all of those together. For a time I was interested in being the best harmonica player in the world and maybe I'll come back round to that. I do want to be known as a great harmonica player. And I believe that my tone and my phrasing gives me the opportunity to do that, but the harmonica, the chromatic harmonica, it's a lifetime's work. It's sort a difficult animal to play. And you can't just tear into it and throw yourself at it like you can with the diatonic. You have to be more gentle with it...

PH : Maybe more systematic, as well ?

LS : Yeah, the scales and all… Recently I've been working on my words and my writing, so both the guitar and the harmonica have taken a bit of a back seat. I still play two or three hours every day, but I used to play eight to ten hours every day. So I'm working at it all the time, and I think I'm one of the best chromatic players in the UK. I've toured all over Europe, and I've got a good live sound. A big sound. I can do that William Clarke thing.

But as for playing like Toots Thielemans, he's a god, man, he's a legend and you have to dedicate yourself to only playing like that, same as Stevie Wonder. So I think my style will develop over time.

Most blues chromatic players use only third position, but I'm working on doing it chromatically, in major instead of minor, and playing a lot of first position in chromatic as well, which I really like. Diatonic-wise I concentrate on cross position cause the possibilities are endless, and straight position I'm also kind of getting into key changes like fourth or fifth position, but only for like eight bars then going back, and it's enough. That way it sounds different. I like pitch changes as well, like a jazzy kind of thing. That’s what I like to stick to. All these people like Howard Levy are playing in different positions and it’s dazzling technically. But to me, it doesn't always sound too good. It's more of a technical feat, rather than something which is valid musically. Howard is maybe a bad example actually, he is an amazing musician… But some players seem more switched onto the technical aspects of the instrument as opposed to feeling or emotion. To me, tone is the most important part of playing the harp, for example.

PH : I see it a bit differently. I think there certainly are some players who integrate it technically rather than musically. But others play the most beautiful stuff… There are a few guys in France who play jazzy stuff, or even be-bop, and it sounds great…

LS : There's no-one like that here. I'd love to hear that…You know you work within your country and you don't know what's going on elsewhere. I don't think you can swing and tear up using overblows like you can normally. I can overblow here and there but I can't tear into an overblow six, like you can a draw three to get the blue note. Mind you, the way harps are made these days is terrible. You can't get good harmonicas and you've got to set them up and all…

PH : Do you play stock harps or custom ones ?

LS : Well I'd love to play those Filisko harps, but the waiting list is so long… I'm sponsored by Hohner, so I get all my harps for free, and ultimately, for what I do, a good hand made Marine Band is the best harp for me. You can muck around with the reed offset yourself, and they're amazing harmonicas when they work, At one point in the last few years their quality went down so much they were just unplayable. But recently, they've started to come back, and I think they've reintroduced the old reed alloy and things are much better. So the last few that I've been sent have been fantastic. I basically play stock harmonicas.

I have my diatonics mucked around with 'cause you really need them in top condition. I use a guy called Bill Stewart or Tony Danaeker to service them. If reeds go out of tune I tune them. But I'm not a sort of harmonica tekkie. Life's too short ! I'd rather spend the time practising. It's the same thing with all these different tunings : if you wanted to dedicate yourself to just being a harmonica player then there's a lot there and it's a lifetimes work. But for me a lot of that effort doesn't result in good music. It comes back to what I was saying earlier about the importance of feel, phrasing and tone. I don’t care how technical something is if it doesn’t sound good. I think this applies especially to all those cats who try and play at a million miles an hour with no tone. It's technically amazing, I would love to master these techniques, but sometimes it sounds like a cat being strangled, you know ? I would rather hear BB King than Steve Vai ! B.B. King can't do anything Steve Vai can, but he’ll just play two notes and that’s it... I can play pretty quick, but I can't play like these guys. I'm not interested in doing it either... The only players I know who pull it off are Sugar Blue and John Popper, but it’s still not my bag. I prefer the Kim Wilson or William Clarke approaches. Blues Travellers are cool, I've got a lot of respect for them musically, because they’re writing good songs, but the harp playing… I know a lot of people really love it, but to me, it's too technical. And there is a point where, just like in jazz, or something like that, it is more about the technique, and you're only going to appeal to the fanatics. I don't write like that. So, well there's a lot out there and there's a lot of players, there's a lot of good players, there's a lot of crap players as well. I'm always interested in hearing about new guys who play something different. But so far, I've never seen someone who can make it sound, you know...

When I play live, I’ll play a song on the chromatic, then play the guitar, then go back to the chromatic, then play diatonic. I'm constantly swapping, so I have no time to get warmed up, and twist and change. That’s where I'm really learning at the moment. Because when you pick up a chromatic, or just going from the chromatic to the diatonic, it's a completely different thought process. So when you're really cooking, when you're really going for it on the diatonic, you're not playing it as such, you're not thinking; it's all natural and fluid. And to try and do that on a chromatic and then the guitar and then go back, it's very difficult. So that's what I'm really trying to work on at the moment, become a good entertainer, a good all-round musician. I want to be known as a musician, and a songwriter, and maybe a great harmonica player, I don't know.

PH : So when can we expect the next delivery ?

LS : Well it's purely a case of money. I could go and record it tomorrow, I have a great band, I know how I want to do it, and what samples and stuff I want to use. I'm hoping by the end of the year. I'm hoping to go touring in Scandinavia and Germany and also I've just spent two months out in Australia which was amazing. I played a couple of clubs out there and they were going absolutely bananas, so I'm hoping to go back to Australia as well. In between those I would hope to make another record. Early next year I think it'll be released. I want to do it sooner but I can't afford it, and I don't think it's right to give the rights to a record company at the moment.

In the meantime, I have a new 5-track EP coming out this fall. It will be on sale in the main record shops in London. It’s called "She’s not alone" and will feature two new studio songs and three live tracks including two new ones.

PH : Well, Lee, thanks for talking to us. I hope it all goes for the best and I for one can’t wait for the next release. We’ll talk again when that happens !

LS : Sure, whenever !

This interview was made in London in March 2000.

Many thanks to Niall Tracey for transcribing it.