Shun Kikuta – Shogun of the Blues
Shun Kikuta, accomplished musical artist, classically trained but drawn to the Blues. His story is an interesting one, many roads but they all lead back to the Blues. He was kind enough to speak with me at length from Taiwan about his body of work, his trials and joys and how he came to work with Koko Taylor. Enjoy reading it as much as I did writing it.
SK: I’m doing fine, real fine. Actually besides playing the Blues I am working in a lay ‘Anything Goes’ it’s a musical. It’s very different from what I am used to with charts covering each note, no improvising allowed it is very challenging for me even though I went to school for music theory and all. But I think I have forgotten more than I remember !
B411: Well how different is it to go from Berklee School of Music and all that it encompasses to the world of the Blues – which is more free form – is it harder ?
SK: When I went to Berklee it is a great school for music, but to me, there are limits to analyzing music – scales, notes, chords but music is so much more than that stuff or theory. When I first heard BB King it was like ‘man that’s what I’m saying’, it’s something that you can’t analyze but you feel good hearing it. It was his ‘Live at the Regal’ record and I was maybe nineteen or twenty I realized that this was it. I was happy, sad, all of the emotional things involved with the music. It moved me the way he sang his ass off and played great guitar – it was the whole package to me.
Before that I was playing heavy rock music, so I had some chops, heavy rock always uses Blues licks and the like. It was easy for me to get deeper into the Blues because I had some chops but just didn’t know they were the blues. Then I started listening to guys like Otis Rush, Albert King, Buddy Guy Stevie Ray Vaughn all those good Blues players.
In Boston I saw Johnny Winter and John Lee Hooker, and also saw Ronnie Earl, Duke Robilliard and that big band sound from Roomful of Blues all local Boston area bands. The more I heard of the Blues the more I liked it and wanted to play it.
I started to go to jam sessions at the clubs in Boston, and started writing song sand learning how to play. I was still at the Berklee and playing Jazz but wanted to move in a new direction.
B411: It’s amazing how many artists cite B.B.’s ‘Live at the Regal’ as the pivotal recording that turned them on to the Blues.
SK: Yeah man, those cats were amazing and it really made me want to learn more. So within a week of graduating Berklee I moved to Chicago. I packed all my little bags into a mini-van and drove to Chicago. I found me a job at a Japanese restaurant washing dishes, but I got laid off because they were not doing well, so I was the first to go.
So I went to City Hall and got a Performer’s License for like $25 and started playing on the street. Set up in subway stations and stuff like that, it was around Christmas time and I was making like $70 in three hours and I was so excited about that – it was good money ! That was cool, playing on the streets and making good money but then after New Year’s the money dried up. I made like $1.25 in three hours so that wasn’t going to cut it.
At the same time, at night I would carry my guitar with me and go to the clubs where they had jams, places like Rosa’s Lounge, Buddy Guy’s Legends and Wise Fools Pub and do jam sessions and started meeting people and would pass around my cards. But after awhile I stopped that because not everyone was a professional at these jams and it was sometimes hard to really play out. I then started going to the clubs where bands were playing and then during the break I would introduce myself and tell them I am from Japan and play the Blues and could I sit in with them. So many times they would say yeah, and I would wait till they called me up, usually the last song late at night, and we’d play together. So I got to know so many people. It’s an amazing thing about Chicago they are so open about letting you play with them – they all give you a chance. That’s how I met Otis Rush. It was like a month after I got to Chicago he had a gig at the Wise Fools Pub, on a Tuesday and I was sitting right in front with my guitar. So at break he walked by me and asked if I play guitar, I said yes and he asked if I would want to sit in with him ! Imagine that, Otis Rush asked me to jam with him. Chicago is like that very open for musicians it’s a part of the great tradition to keep the Blues alive, and help others learn these great songs and how to play the real Blues.
A few months after that I got my first gig at Rosa’s with Louis Meyers. Tony, the owner of Rosa’s took a liking to me and kept me in the loop and helped me network with these great artists. That was the first gig that I got that was paying me money!
B411: So chronologically what year is this going on. I am trying to see how you went from the subways to playing with Koko Taylor.
SK: That was in 1990, I started playing with Koko in 2000. I didn’t know about Chicago Blues all that well back then. The sound was different then from what it was in the sixties, when I get there they were funkier and more hard-edged overdrive guitar sound. James Brown, Tyrone Davis, Funk, R&B, Al Green even Prince influences so I had to learn to adjust my style. It took me a little while but I can play a lot of different styles of music from classical, to Jazz and Rock that it helped me to adjust and learn from my past experiences. I observed the style and learned it well and I think that helped me get jobs.
A lot of cats came to Chicago expecting to play old style music like Muddy Waters, Little Walter and that but it wasn’t being played at that time unfortunately.
So around 1995 I was hired by Junior Wells for the US and Canadian tour which lasted about six months. That was my very first experience to travel outside the Chicago area to other parts of the country and the world while playing the Blues for people. We were played clubs like House of Blues and all the big festivals and by doing so I met Dan Aykroyd, Lee Oskar and guys like that through touring with Junior.
I learned a lot from Junior Wells, before I played with him I didn’t sing at all I only played guitar. So one day he comes to me while we are in the dressing room, and says to me “you don’t sing, you have to sing to be a Bluesman” – I was shocked and I said that I am a young Japanese guitar player and I don’t even speak English, never-the-less sing the Blues. He shakes his head and smiles and says I don’t speak English well either so you have no excuse. So he’s singing ‘Little By Little’ and tells me to follow him and sing along. So after that I started singing more and I appreciate what he did for me. I still work on my singing, and do more and more.
B411: Great story, especially singing Little By Little, he was right of course on all accounts. I saw a video of you on YouTube singing Little By Little in a club in Asia, very cool.
SK: Yeh, yeh I love it, I sing so much more now. So I first met Koko Taylor in 1996 when I cut my second album ‘Chicago Midnight’ for King Records in Japan. I had been working with them since 1994 so I have had Chicago artists play on my records. So they asked me who I wanted to be a guest on this record (big named people), so I said I’d like to have Koko. Koko was with Alligator and they had a relationship with King Records, so Bruce Iglauer introduced me to Koko and she said OK. We did two songs together in the studio for the release tracks 5 and 6 actually.
I didn’t see her again till 1999, I was playing together with JW Williams at the Kingston Mines every Friday and Saturday. JW and I have been together for a long time, until last year we were together sixteen years. JW is another great musician and guy. One night Koko came into Kingston Mines and she was just hanging out – she’s sitting right in the front row watching us play. So after the set I just went to say hello to her but she didn’t remember me from the recording sessions, so she said she was pleased to meet me etc., and I give her my card and say that I don’t have a day job this is what I do and I can go on the road if she ever needs me to. I never expected her to call me…..
So she calls me a few months later and says ‘do you remember me, it’s Koko Taylor’ ! Well she asked me for two shows and she really liked my playing and said she would call me again. After a few months she called me again and asked me join the ‘Blues Machine’.
B411: See if you don’t ask how will you ever know.
SK: Exactly, very true, you never know I’m glad I asked. So that was in October 2000 and had been with her up until she passed.
SK: Yeh, I have been in Taiwan since February 2011. I tour frequently in Japan, but mainly stay in Taipei, Taiwan. The Blues is getting very hot in Asia right now. There is a big festival there that I am supposed to play in called the INA Blues along with John Mayall – we also have a Japan Blues Festival as does Beijing and India – Asia is starting to grow up more here. For me, being an Asian I feel it is important for me to be here to play the Blues that I learned in Chicago. I can also work on bringing more artists here to open the doors so everybody does well.
Indonesia is very hot now and I am looking forward to playing there at INA Blues. This is like their fifth or sixth festival, they have a lot of money to put into it. Last year they had Ana Popovic and they seem to have a large enough budget to bring big acts over here to play.
Chicago is still my home and I miss it, but being here right now is very important and I can do so much good for the Blues. Yet I think I am ready for the change, it is challenging and I am ready for it. Taiwan is not a big city like Chicago where there is a gig almost every night, but that’s OK. It is a very centrally located city it is near many cities and countries so it is a good place to be.
B411: Any plans on new recordings?
SK: I have about ten songs right now that are roughed out, not finished. Since I am in Taiwan I am talking to management company and seeing what interest there is and as soon as we get that done we will get it out there. I hope to get stuff out in 2012 in one form or another. I can even do it myself but it is always good to have someone backing you up and promoting you.
B411: Shun thank you sir, for your time today and your music.
2/23/12 PS: Shun just got married today also, how great is that – let’s all give joyous wishes to him and his bride !
For more info on Shun visit his web site: http://www.shunkikuta.com/english/index.php
Until next time,
Love, Peace & Chicken Grease
Parts of this interview were originally published in Blues Blast Magazine, we thank them for allowing our shared format with them. You can visit them at http://www.thebluesblast.com/bbnow.htm