Carrying on the tradition of old school blues
Published in SixDegrees 27.3.2014
It sounds like the set up of a well-worn joke: a Scotsman, a Finn and an American walk into a bar. Yet, for Robbie Hill & The Blue 62’s, their punchline is that their unlikely ingredients together create remarkable, authentic blues. Based in Helsinki, the band consists of Robbie Hill, the front man, singer and guitarist; Tatu Pärssinen, the drummer and also an architect; and Jesse King, the bass player who’s also a manager of a surf shop in Helsinki.
One might wonder why the guys have chosen Finland’s capital from all the places they could have sprung from. Well, there are a couple of reasons. First of all, they all are more or less country boys: Pärssinen is from Ruukki; King from a small village in Oregon where, he says, everyone is related; and Hill from a small town on the east coast of Scotland that nobody has ever heard of. So, in fact, in their eyes Helsinki is the ‘big smoke’. Secondly, as they point out, the blues scene here is distinctive from anywhere else.
We meet in Bar Mendocino on a Wednesday evening. The location where the trio first met, the small room is a must-visit for those into retro rock, blues, country, soul and western swing. A small stage wedged in the back corner of the bar has hosted various bands and randomly thrown-together musicians over the years, jamming together for the love of music.
First things first: how did the band start out?
Hill: It first started when King and I met. They have these open stage jamming sessions here on Mondays, and we ended up playing together on stage on one of those occasions. We actually played together before we spoke. It was early summer 2012, and I had only been in Finland for a few weeks. When I first said something to Jesse in English, I was speaking very slowly as I assumed he was Finnish. We just clicked straight away and then got to talking that maybe we could start something together.
Hill: And then I just basically stole Tatu.King: I knew Tatu before as he was in a band that had asked me to play bass for them. I hadn’t played for years so I was a little bit sceptical. Then there was this festival where Pärssinen’s band had been booked to play but their second guitar player suddenly couldn’t make it. So Robbie stepped in.
How did you all end up in Helsinki?
Hill: I came here purely for the music. I heard that there was a good blues music scene in Finland. It was Otis Grand, my mentor in the UK, who gave me the courage for this. We had become friends after I once went to see him play and got a chance to actually join him on stage. He did this walkabout in the audience and handed me his guitar. At the end of his show, he called out ‘Where’s Hill?’ and invited me on stage. We were playing together, and then he just walked off stage and let me close the show. After some time he told me to go to Finland. He mentioned a few other places, too, but when I started to look into things, Helsinki just seemed like such a cool place. I’m glad I made this choice.
King: My story is much more boring: I just had nothing better to do. I came to Finland in search of my roots 11 years ago. Members of my family four, five generations back come from here. They were jewellery makers and goldsmiths, so presumably followed the Gold Rush. I really needed a change of scenery at the time and a friend of mine suggested I came to Finland. I was first in Turku, working as a chef, and then Hans Välimäki asked me to come to work in his new restaurant in Helsinki. I had played some guitar, some bass, but had no idea about the great music scene here. I came to this bar a couple of times just to listen, and then just caught the music bug again and finally climbed on stage to join in with other musicians. It all fell into place when I met these guys; it’s been really nice to find the spark to play music again.
Pärssinen: I graduated from music high school and then the University of Oulu as an architect. I feel that I just have this alter ego of a drummer. Ultimately, I would like to make a living out of playing, if it’s possible. I actually had four years off music after moving to Helsinki but soon realised that I can’t live without it.
How do you find it here?
Hill: The blues scene here is really small, but also very active. I really like how Finnish people embrace their certain cultures when they’re into something. The rockabilly scene is a good example – Finns really go for it. It’s the same with the blues scene; it’s almost like a small family. I can just walk into certain bars here and they’ll be playing my favourite music. You’d never get that in Scotland, anywhere. There are some good players over there but they’re more dotted about.
Pärssinen: Yeah, I like Helsinki. There’s this semi-underground thing going on here.
Hill: Coming to Finland is the best decision I’ve ever made. And not just for music – my whole life has changed. I’ve made such cool friends here.
How did you come up with the name of the band?
King: Robbie Hill is obviously our Rob. 62 refers to a guitar, a Stratocaster, which is one of the most recognisable shapes when you think of a guitar, an iconic shape. Things started to happen to us really fast so we didn’t have much time to think of a name. Robbie Hill & Blue 62’s was my idea, and it’s proved to be impossible for people to remember. We’ve been introduced as everything from Robbie Hill & the Beatles, to Blues 52’s.
What kind of people listen to your music?
Pärssinen: Some fans of Erja Lyytinen have started following us now.
Hill: Our music appeals to a lot of different age groups. I think the old blues fans are going to like our style because we play old school blues. At the same time, we’re a young band so hopefully that will attract young people who may not be familiar with blues music before.
King: People think that they don’t really know blues music, or get to hear it anywhere nowadays, but that is actually not true. You hear it often in the movies and on television. But it’s true that blues is, in a way, old music. A lot of those people we draw inspiration from are dead now.
Hill: So we’ve got a long way to go! The thing is, the popularity of blues music has come and gone in waves but it’s still always there.
King: In the blues world, there are actually very few people who can fill the gap between the old masters and the young people, as the blues kind of died out for a while. There are not very many who carry out the old traditions anymore. Not to take anything away from people like John Mayer, he’s widely successful, but there’s this pop aspect in his music. It’s somehow missing the essence.
Who inspires you then?
Hill: All the old style blues musicians who have been here before us. Otis Grand, he is proper old school with a lot of integrity – doesn’t mince his words, either. I admire him as a person as well. Sugar Ray and the Bluetones is great, too. In Finland, there are also lots of great blues players, such as Tomi Leino and Erja Lyytinen.
What is your greatest achievement as a band so far?
Hill: We have managed to cause a lot of damage in a short time…
Pärssinen: We have actually achieved quite a lot when you think about it that we have been around for only a year-and-a-half.
King: For example, we’ve already played at Järvenpään Puistoblues. There are bands that have been waiting for years to get on that stage. And we’ve played at a blues festival in Haapsalu, Estonia – there were like 2,000 people in the audience. We thought that we’d be playing in a small park with maybe 200 people listening. People were actually singing along and knew some of our songs. It was weird because, at the time, we barely knew them. Since releasing the album, I think we’ve done about 50 gigs.
Hill: That is a lot, especially considering that we’re not with any booking agency.
King: Other bands come and ask us who’s booking our gigs. We’ve got around six to seven gigs a month, and they’re not at small venues either.
Hill: But we’ve got a long way to go still.
What are your plans for future?
Hill: We’re currently planning a tour in Europe. So far, we’ve got Belgium and Poland booked. I would like to go back to Scotland. That would be the first time I’ve been there in two years. Generally, I would just like to get to a point where we can be touring all the time and pay our bills with music. I would like to keep in the tradition of blues, turning new people on to that. We’re also looking forward to our next album.
King: The first one had to be thrown together pretty much in a weekend. I didn’t even know we were going to record an album, I thought we’d be making another demo.
Hill: It received great reviews, however. One European radio named it as one of their top ten albums of last year. And it was great fun recording it.
Where would you like to perform the most?
Hill: Well, I just want us many people as possible to hear our music, doesn’t matter where we go.
King: It’s more about going to play for the blues enthusiasts. So far, it hasn’t been like that very often. Sometimes people just don’t get it.
Pärssinen: I would like to play in one of these places where it all started for blues music. Like Chicago. It would be interesting to see whether they’d accept us, and how it would feel for us to play in an iconic place like that.
For upcoming gigs see Robbie Hill &
The Blue 62’s Facebook page or the
band’s website: http://www.robbiehill.net