Innes Sibun is a joyous and relentlessly energetic guitarist who is on electrifying form on blues sensation Sari Schorr’s new album, A Force Of Nature. A veteran of world tours with Robert Plant and the Eastern European blues circuit, Innes joins us to ta
Afew weeks ago, Guitarist dropped by the Steam pub in Bristol to find Innes Sibun – freshly returned from touring Europe with blues singer Sari Schorr – absolutely thrilling a room full of punters with his powerhouse blues style. Innes just doesn’t know how to give less than 100 per cent, whether he’s playing stadiums with Robert Plant or slapping smiles on the faces of pub-goers on a weekday night. Backed by an excellent band, he romped through Rory Gallagher and BB King classics like a man possessed, pinning his heart to the fretboard throughout. Now, that’s the kind of player we like – so we invited Innes down to Guitarist during one of his rare quiet spells to talk about giving the performances of his life in Schorr’s Engine Room band. And we also heard some tales of duking it out on the Eastern European blues scene, and the time when Clapton lent a hand in the garden…
When did you first realise blues guitar was your calling? “Initially I was into punk and all that. But then I heard BB King, and it was an epiphany. I must have been about 12. I remember I shoplifted a BB King album, Live At The Regal, from opposite the Theatre Royal, where there used to be a secondhand record shop. And I remember sticking it under my coat, because I was just desperate – I had to have it. I played it to death, but I still feel guilty about that. Anyway, I did a paper-round, and I got this cheap sort of Woolworths guitar, you know, really bad electric guitar. I would play the album at night, with the speakers out, just in the groove – and I’d be up till three in the morning, just totally obsessed.
“After that I used to go to the local record shop and buy albums on the strength of if they looked like they were going to be a blues album. So I kind of accidentally discovered things that way. I remember saving up my paper-round money for Donny Hathaway – Live, with Cornell Dupree on guitar, and also getting the second album by Free when I was 13 – although actually I was a bit embarrassed about buying it at the time, because there was a picture of a naked woman on the front! And I also became obsessed with Rory Gallagher records. I was so desperate to hear this music!”
There’s a Rory link to how you met Sari Schorr, isn’t there? “Yes. I met Sari [in 2011] when I got asked to go over to New York to play at a concert at the Iridium Jazz Club to celebrate the release of the Notes From San Francisco album, which Rory recorded in America [between 1977 and 1979]. It was a lush production, with strings and everything, and the famous story is that he went to see the Sex Pistols one night in San Francisco, then went back to the studio and binned the tapes, saying, ‘That’s where I come from,’ meaning that ‘raw energy’ thing. He felt they were making him overproduce the music. Anyway, that album was later rescued by his brother Donal and released. The original engineer and the producer were all at the launch and it was great.
“At the end of this event there was a bit of a jam session, and Sari, who lives in New York, got up. And I thought, ‘Wow, what a voice,’ and later on we met, chatted and promised to keep in touch. In fact, we didn’t keep in touch – you know what it’s like. But then last year I was on tour in Spain, playing with different Spanish bands. I kind of started off in the north and worked down. And, out of the blue, I had an email from Sari, saying, ‘Hi, remember me? I’m in Spain, at Mike Vernon’s house. We’re recording my album. We’re discussing what guitar players we want, and I want you on the album.’ I’d worked with Mike Vernon
many moons ago, on the first record I ever made, so it was kind of like a full circle. I said, ‘Well, funnily enough, I’m in Spain.’ And I had a couple of days off. So, yes, so it was almost meant to be. And then, once the album was finished, Sari was wanting to put a band together, The Engine Room, to tour the album in Europe. So I said, ‘Well, I hope I’m the first choice as guitar player…’
Seems like there’s a lot of love for blues guitar in Europe right now… “Yes, it’s good money and they really appreciate you. Eastern Europe is very good at the moment. I think they’ve been musically starved for so many decades, not having the records, not having the instruments, not having access to blues and rock music for so long [under Communism]. I did two tours of Russia last year, and it really was an eye-opener. There’s a guy over there called Boris Litsinev, and he’s obsessed with British blues. He took me to this corner by one of the universities in Moscow, and he said, ‘This is where my brother and all his friends would secretly swap blues vinyl.’ Back then, they were worried that the KGB was going to arrest them because that music was banned – in Soviet Russia it was thought to be Western, imperialistic, decadent, so it was only available on the black market. And he said that one of his friends at university made a machine for re-pressing vinyl out of parts. So they would get all the BB King records, or The Rolling Stones or whatever, and they would make these copies and then they would sort of secretly pass them on.”
What’s it like playing blues in the former Soviet Union these days? “Well, it’s kind of gone the other way now. I did a gig in Latvia a couple of months ago and Ziggy, the agent that puts me on over there, he said, ‘I’ve got a gig, €600, I’ll pay all your flights.’ So I went, ‘Great, okay.’ And I went over there thinking it was going to be a blues club or whatever. Turns out it’s a private party for a bloody mafia boss. Oh my word! When I got there I was thinking, ‘What the hell am I actually doing here?’ Christ, there were strippers, fire-eaters and everything… I was playing with this great Latvian band – but they all got completely bollocks’d on whisky [laughs].
“So, anyway, I get up with the band and it’s great until about the third song. Then Ziggy comes up and announces to everyone that ‘there will be a short break for strippers’. And I thought, ‘I’m not hearing this right.’
“Once the album was finished, Sari was wanting to put a band together, The Engine Room, to tour the album in Europe. So I said, ‘Well, I hope I’m the first choice as guitar player…’”
So, anyway, we get off the stage and these two women come on in all the gear and start stripping off. Then they get this guy out of the audience – this big, burly, bald-headed guy – and he starts taking all his clothes off. So he’s bollock-naked on the stage, on our stage, where we’re supposed to be playing. Then these two strippers run off. And here’s this guy, absolutely out of his head, built like a shit-house, still on stage… and for some reason he’s started throwing punches. At that point, Ziggy comes up and says, ‘You go back on stage.’ And I said, ‘No!’ But they insisted and told me, ‘No, you must play. We pay you, so you must play.’
“So we’re on stage trying to stay clear of this burly, naked gangster… It was just mental. And then it ended up in a food fight. And to top it all, I messed up my flight home. I’d mistakenly booked the wrong return date and so in the end I had to buy a flight to Finland, spend a whole day in an airport in Finland, then fly back to Heathrow, then drive from Heathrow back to Stansted, because my car was at Stansted. When I finally got back, I think I’d made about £15 out of the whole experience!”
Tell us about working with Robert Plant. How did that come about? “Again, being in the right place at the right time. Charlie Jones was playing bass with Robert and he was married to Robert’s daughter, Carmen. They were in the middle of a European leg of what was a two-year tour, and without going into too many details, there were problems with the other guitar player, so he got booted out midtour. I think they had a week off, and they needed somebody very quickly and Charlie suggested me.
“So we went to a rehearsal studio in Birmingham and we were just sort of jamming. Charlie said to me, ‘You’ll be all right as long as you play some country blues and something a bit ‘raga-esque’… because Robert loves all that West Coast stuff and the Middle Eastern influences. And so Robert walks in, and he’s got this Strat over his shoulder – not in a case, over his shoulder. And it’s the one that Stan Webb [of Chicken Shack] had given him. So he just plugs in and starts playing – because he plays a bit – and we just jammed all day and he recorded it. And I was thinking that I was probably trying too hard, you know. So afterwards I just thought, ‘Well, I’ve met Robert Plant and at least I can say I’ve played with him, you know…’
“But then a couple of days later I got this call saying, ‘You’ve got to get yourself down to Grosvenor Place to get your American visa, because this time next week you’re going to be playing Miami.’ I thought it was a joke. But I think Robert just wanted
“So we’re on stage trying to stay clear of this burly, naked gangster… It was mental. And then it ended up in a food fight. And, to top it all, I messed up my flight home”
somebody that was sort of unknown and somebody that was easy to get on with who had the same influences, you know. And obviously I was a massive Zeppelin fan as a kid. So I was just really lucky.”
Can you tell us what the next step is with Sari Schorr’s band? “Well, in January, we go over to Mike Vernon’s for a couple of weeks. Then in March, April and May it’s solid touring all round Europe. There are some stretches that are six nights without a break. When I played with Robert, he would never do more than three nights. He’d always have to have a night off for his voice. But Sari, she can do it, you know? She trained as an opera singer. After that, the whole of August is recording the next record – and then the plan is to release it in November.”
Is it daunting to work with the guy who produced Clapton on the ‘Beano’ album? “I used to think, ‘What does a producer do?’ But it’s almost like a different set of ears and brain. He’ll say something like, ‘Don’t do that, play arpeggios on that track instead.’ And you think, ‘That’s a weird idea.’ But you do it, and you think, ‘God, that sounds great.’ Everybody trusts him so much. And you know, his memory’s great. He said Eric and Peter Green were both real dreams to work with and he has all these stories about them. He was at one of those Hyde Park concerts a few years ago, and he said he caught somebody’s eye, winking at him. And he looked over and saw this bloke with a cap and a scarf, and he said, ‘Oh, it’s Eric!’ He was kind of in disguise…
“Actually, I heard another funny story about Eric Clapton. I have a friend who’s a keyboard player and his wife’s dad owned a plant nursery. Anyway, one day her dad had to deliver some big pot plants to an address in Gloucestershire, which turned out to be Steve Winwood’s place. So her dad, who knows nothing about music, sees there’s this guy standing there by the door. ‘’Scuse me, mate,’ he says, ‘Can you help me carry these potted plants in?’ So this guy helps him and off he goes again. Afterwards, he phoned up about the delivery and was told, ‘You just asked Eric Clapton to help you!’ [laughs]. Poor old Eric Clapton – his hands are worth millions and he was carrying these bloody plants in!”
“I used to think, ‘What does a producer do?’ He’ll say something like, ‘Don’t do that, play arpeggios on that track instead.’ And you think, ‘That’s a weird idea.’ But you do it, and you think, ‘God, that sounds great’”
Bacci Martha single-cut “The Bacci guitars are handmade in Italy in Lucca by a guy named Bruno Bacci. It has a onepiece body and neck. It’s just a beautiful guitar”
1961 Gibson ES-335 “It still has the original pickups, although the bridge pickup had to be rewound. It’s been refretted many times, but there’s something about it that’s just right”
California Artist S-Type “The California Artist S-style guitar Michael Couling made me is gorgeous. To me, it feels and sounds like a really good old Strat”
“I’ve been through loads of Leslie pedals, but I just want something simple with controls that I can see without needing my glasses…”
Innes met Sari in New York in 2011, but lost touch until a serendipitous recent tour around Spain brought the pair back together
Sari Schorr’s latest album, A Force Of Nature, is out now on Manhaton Records