Marcus Bonfanti’s seismic new album Shake The Walls is stirring up the UK blues-rock scene. Rik Flynn meets him to discuss biker brawls, the lure of cheap whisky and finally letting go of his first guitar.
It takes a certain kind of character with the right kind of steel-capped bravado to give the blues scene a royal kick up the posterior when it needs one. Overblown frettery and a vinyl collection full of delta field recordings just doesn’t cut the Colman’s anymore, and apathetic artists who peddle hackneyed licks over yawn-inducing 12-bars are not helping. Fear not, blues lovers, this donkey hasn’t quite kicked the bucket yet; a bit of nous, a bank full of attitude and a fine head of hair is all it takes to get it up and whinnying once again. Jack White did it, Dan Auerbach did it, Seasick Steve did it, and now we have a new protagonist with a fine punt in that right leg of his.
Marcus Bonfanti has turned up the dials for Shake The Walls, his third and rockiest album to date, and it seems more than likely to bring the house down. Add to that his Mediterranean good looks, silky locks and appropriate face furniture, and there’s little left to chance. It’s early days, but sometimes you just know: this is a pivotal moment for the young Londoner.
We meet Bonfanti, recently returned from a gruelling but eventful solo tour, at a Kings Cross warehouse, sporting a majestic pair of road-worn cowboy boots. It seems his legion of followers now counts a contingent of hardcore bikers amongst its ranks…
‘We played Europe’s biggest biker festival in Helmsley last year,’ he recalls, ‘and on this tour I kept seeing more and more bikers at gigs. At Glasgow more and more were arriving; big fuckers with mohicans, tattoos on their heads and leather jackets. I literally played the last note and the background music came through the speakers deafeningly loud. When I looked over, there was this three-stone soundman pushed onto the desk and all the faders had gone up because there were three big bikers on top of him, while another three were punching the shite out of him!’
Perhaps it was Cheap Whisky that incited the ruckus. Its Beefheart-esque vocal refrain of ‘cheap whisky made me do it’ growled in a gritty baritone over sleazy, overdriven ’70s chording was itself borne of trouble. ‘I used to sit on my roof at 2am with a couple of beers and a guitar and watch the late night revellers on the high street,’ Bonfanti explains. ‘I remember watching these guys having the time of their lives in the Irish bar opposite, absolutely smashed, causing all sorts of trouble, and I started playing this really slow sort of drinking song. That’s how it began.’
Bonfanti has recently unwrapped the elusive sound that’s been bouncing around his cranium since his first strum. ‘I’ve always had it in my head, but my songwriting wasn’t there yet, my playing wasn’t there yet and I didn’t have the resources I needed around me,’ he continues. ‘I always knew that at one point it had to get here.’
So has he reached perfection? ‘I’m never 100 per cent happy, but now I’m only 10 per cent critical!’ he jokes. ‘I always wanted to make a proper rock’n’roll record, and to do it you have to have the right songs and a killing rhythm section. I’m really proud of the stuff I’ve done to get me here, but this is my proudest moment.’
The ‘killer rhythm section’ are Scott Wiber and Alex Reeves; add Bonfanti and you get a brutal trio that harness the three-strong set up with the same conviction as Taste, the Jimi Hendrix Experience or SRV and Double Trouble. The recording was analogue, and warts n’all; they dispensed with click tracks much of the time and imposed a three-take maximum for each track. ‘All my favourite records have got howling mistakes,’ Bonfanti laughs. ‘Since I’ve Been Loving You has my favourite one of all time. They go for this heavy chord change and John Paul Jones fumbles a note, but it sounds so good! It’s one of Jimmy Page’s finest moments… they weren’t going to re-do it for a small reharmonization that doesn’t really matter. You have to sacrifice for the greater good. I’d rather feel all of us growing with the solo, so I didn’t overdub any on my album.’
It was the prime chops on album closer The Bittersweet that earned Marcus ‘Best Original Song’ at the British Blues Awards, but the process of ‘unlearning’, seeking out that long-lost naivety, has borne interesting fruit. ‘I listen to albums that I played on when I was 19 and there’s some really out-there stuff, but I can’t play like that anymore. I almost know too much. When I listen to phenomenal guitarists like Marc Ribot, he can sound like he’s picked up the guitar for the first time. That’s the sound I’ve always strived for… being really innocent on the instrument.’
Another album highlight is the Keef-like strut of My Baby Don’t Dance, a track where Bonfanti was helped along by friend and songwriter Paddy Milner. ‘There was a lot riding on that – it’s always got an incredible audience reaction. My manager famously says that he doesn’t actually like music, but he really liked that one! I saw it as a swaggery rock’n’roll number. We decided in the studio that we needed more fire in our guts, and I think we nailed it. Paddy put some Hammond on at the last minute and that set it all off.’
Cautious not to get stuck in no-man’s land, Bonfanti has soaked up techniques and tricks from his heroes – ranging from Tom Waits to John Lennon, Shuggie Otis and Leadbelly – and from his various session stints with artists including folkie Sandi Thom, soul singer PP Arnold and British songwriter Findlay Brown. He’s also a regular face in the eight-piece house band at Ronnie Scott’s immense Blues Explosion, a gig that serves as an ongoing musical education thanks to guest slots from the likes of Eric Burden, Buddy Whittington and Joe Lewis Walker. Bonfanti clearly can’t get enough of it.
‘I’ve had the privilege of playing with some really top people, and I try to have my ears open all of the time. They’ll give you an overview of how they like their music played – something you’ve never thought of before, or a story about how it was recorded. It opens your mind and you can then transfer it to your own stuff. When I was recording I almost felt like I was playing session guitar on my own record.’
Marcus adores all of his guitars, and last time we met he couldn’t bear to let a single one go. ‘I sold my first one in December! It was an Ibanez AS-200, the first pro guitar I ever bought, but it was just before Christmas, I had no money and I really wanted a Les Paul. Luckily the bloke who bought it was a fan. He was chuffed that I’d played a lot of the solos from my first record on it. I took that money down to Denmark Street and ended up buying an old ’74 SG. It was all battered up and just played great.
‘I’ve always been one for having one guitar that I really like and then getting to know it. The electric sounds were done on a Telecaster through a Blues Junior. Between the controls, pickup selection and the amp, I found some really great sounds. The Blues Junior is probably the most versatile amp in the world, the tonal options are fantastic. There’s a lot of my Dean resonator on there as well. That’s one of my favourites and it’s the cheapest guitar I own.’
A distinct guitar set-up helps ensure that Marcus’ style is all his own. ‘I use very heavy strings as that gives loads of attack,’ he explains. ‘The low end sounds really meaty. I like it when it hurts when I bend a string, it makes me feel like I’m playing! Most of my friends hate my guitars because the action is really high… and I always favour a much heavier guitar.’
Heavy strings, heavy guitars and one heavy blues rock album… Shake The Walls may well take Bonfanti swiftly skyward, but one thing’s for sure: he’s made sure that our spines will tingle once more.