Ask most songwriters and they will tell you that collaborating with another artist can be the spark of life … or at least the spark for some great music. Some of our greatest songs were created by two or more musicians sitting together in a room humming out a melody or rattling off some words of folly or wisdom. J Geils Band harmonica player Magic Dick felt that pinch of excitement as soon as he checked out a young guitar player named Shun Ng. And although they have only released one official song, a cover of James Brown’s “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag,” they have more music in the works.
Magic Dick has a long history in rock & roll. A founding member of the J Geils Band, when it was a simple acoustic trio in the mid-1960’s, with John Geils and bass player Danny Klein, the band remolded their sound and with the addition of Peter Wolf became a top live act of the seventies and eighties. Although their bread and butter was the soulful undercurrents of R&B, blues and rock, with their 1981 album Freeze Frame, they added a springier pop sound to their music, going to #1 on the charts on the bounce of the single “Centerfold.” Magic Dick was an important component of the J Geils Band, springboarding songs such as “Sanctuary,” “Homework, “Just Can’t Stop Me” and his signature blowfest “Whammer Jammer” with his soulful, often jazzed up harmonica playing.
Shun Ng was raised in Singapore and didn’t discover his guitar calling until his mid-teens, having grown up in a household that stressed academics. But once he found the guitar, his fate was sealed. He came back to the States (he was born in Chicago) to attend Berklee in Boston and before he knew it he was sitting in a room with Magic Dick wailing away on “Whammer Jammer.”
Glide talked to both Magic Dick and Shun Ng last week about how their music came together, what they have planned for the future and how two seemingly different musicians can create something so right.
Dick, how did you come across Shun and what made that light go off that you wanted to make some music with him?
MD: It was sort of accidental the way I came upon Shun. Shun’s manager sent out an email blast to a whole bunch of undisclosed recipients announcing that he had signed a new young artist that he was very, very excited about. His manager, Ralph Jaccodine, was an old friend of mine so that’s why I happened to have been on this list. So because of my connection to Ralph, I immediately decided to click on the link that he had provided for me to hear some of Shun’s stuff. I think it was a YouTube thing of Funky Thumb Stuff and I was immediately impressed with Shun’s playing. I don’t think I can emphasize enough to you how impressed I was and why I was impressed with his approach and his playing. I was impressed with Shun’s composition and the way he played and his use of space. And I recognized very quickly that Shun and I share something in common, which is a love of minimalism. For those people who are minimalists, I think minimalism is thought of as a preferred mode of working and being rather than just an alternative. In other words, we’re a duo by choice not because that’s just how it happened to work out. Shun, please hop in if you want to add anything to what I’m saying.
Shun: I was just enjoying listening to you compliment me (laughs). Yeah, me coming here, moving to Boston, I was working with Ralph and next thing I know Ralph says that Magic Dick, somebody that I listened to when I was in Singapore and admired, wanted to work with me. Of course I jumped on that opportunity and I was so honored. It’s like the best, most generous welcome to Boston. It’s been so great. He’s really been sort of a guiding light for my career and we’ve become very, very close and very good friends. Sometimes we talk about the age difference but we don’t notice it till we think about it. When we’re together, it’s like just the two of us making music and it’s been a very enriching experience. I’m pretty old-school and the music that I love is from probably the eighties and before, and the stories that Dick has about the industry and the road is just so fascinating to me. It’s been such a thrill for me to be doing this.
It’s always good to have a mentor who already knows the ropes and kind of helps you stay away from some of the bad stuff.
Shun: That’s right (laughs)
MD: You know what, I know nothing (laughs). When it comes to the business, I really think I’m quite ignorant about it and a lot of that is by choice because I find that, and there are a lot of things about the music business that I’m not going to elaborate on, but there are a lot of things about it that are very frustrating and annoying. And all of that stuff can tear down and can ruin your love of doing what we love to do, which is to play and create music and make people happy. That’s why we do what we do, because it’s fun and it’s a challenge. I’ve been doing this a long, long time and, to me, the most important thing is to keep the attraction to the instrument going so that I’m drawn to it like a magnet to the thing itself. And anything that gets in the way to that is detrimental in terms of me developing further and wanting to continue with it. So I keep my focus on the fun. And Shun has been really great because I have a natural tendency to have gone through decades of being a particular way and often getting in my own way musically, getting in my own way in the sense of there are things that I can play and do that I know how to do intuitively. So sometimes you can get in your own way of not recognizing that. You just need to step aside and it will come. There are negative attitudes that can creep in.
So Shun has been a good spark for you and your creativity
MD: Absolutely a great spark but even beyond the spark is the continual tearing down of my negativity. Shun will challenge me, tearing my pre-assumptions down. So we’ve gone through an extended period of me getting used to working with Shun in a creative way in the moment. I did a lot of work with the J Geils Band but my role in that band was creative but tended to be less in terms of the moment of putting the stuff together. When Shun and I get together, it’s always about now; every day is new and fresh and whatever we had created, we don’t just leave stuff alone (laughs). It’s like, you really think you’ve got on top of a tune and we got it but actually, the next several days or weeks may bring improvements or new ideas. I come more from the point of view of, “Let me get on top of that thing and perfect it before we start going on the road and making a change.” But now I’m getting used to the thing of, “No, no, man, just go for it NOW,” and that really takes getting used to for somebody such as myself who for a long period of time was used to the idea of, “Well, I’ll take that thing and work on it at home.” Now it’s like, “Go work on it right now,” in front of each other, the willingness to be not perfect in front of each other when we’re working on stuff.
Shun: It’s like a relationship, being open and free with the ideas and there is no bad idea. It’s really a collaboration and we’re feeling more comfortable with each other. I think, from my perspective, when I had got to know Magic Dick’s music through the blues and “Whammer Jammer” and on his Geils stuff, I got to him through the blues. He was one of the must-know guys. For me, I have international influences from Indian music to Chinese music and soul music and Classical music. And the thing about Dick, what is always very inspiring about him to me is that I’m somebody that likes to always push boundaries and I want to always improve myself. And it’s easy for me to say that because I’m young and that’s easy to say. But after what Dick has been through and the acclaim he has gotten as a musician and what he has achieved and where he’s at in his musical journey, for him to still want to innovate and step out of comfort zones and push boundaries, that is something that is truly inspirational because that’s something I want to be. I want to be, even after the greater successes I could never possibly imagine, I still want to be where I am still pushing and evolving as a musician. And I think that is something very special about Dick. He spent many years playing harmonica in that format but he has so many great musical ideas. He’s not just a blues harp player and it’s not like all he knows is blues. He knows so much and has made so much great music, it’s like he has so much in him that now as we work together I feel like so much stuff I never heard him do before is coming out. For somebody who has grown up listening to his stuff, for me to hear him do all this, it’s very, very inspirational.
MD: Thank you Shun. I’d like to add just one thing to what Shun said and many people don’t realize this about me and my background in music. I’m a real lover of classic Jazz and by classic Jazz what I’m referring to is, my influences as a musician are primarily from the great Jazz musicians, trumpet players and sax players in particular. The trumpet lineage – Louis Armstrong, Roy Eldridge, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Fats Navarro – these are the people that really influenced the way I play and what I’m driven to do. The stuff that I do with the J Geils Band is less close in that regard to these Jazz masters. Although we have the element of their style and their approach to be heard in any of the solo work that I have done and things that I did with the Geils Band, at this particular time the stuff that Shun and I are doing, I feel now more than ever that I personally am really knocking on the door of all my bebop heroes.
I’m a huge lover of the form of music that was called bebop. I was born in 1945 and 1945 was the year that bebop really came on strong. It was a point in music at which the whole creative endeavor totally changed music around the world. So I feel the stuff that Shun and I are doing, any of that stuff that I want to tackle, Shun is game for. The creative freedom for me in what Shun and I are doing is unlimited and unbounded, and in that sense it’s really, really exciting to me, cause I’ve never been this close to actually doing what I always wanted to do. It’s not so much a dream anymore. For me, I have aspired to this, and I’m a frustrated trumpet player from way back. That was my first instrument. I started on that at nine years old in third grade. And it wasn’t till a while ago that Shun and I were working together more intensively and I discovered that some of Shun’s very favorite instruments are harmonica and trumpet. It was like, I can’t believe this is so tailor-made.
How long after you connected did you actually pull out the instruments and start to jam with each other?
MD: First day. I met Shun at his manager’s office and I brought my harps with me and Shun asked me if I would play “Whammer Jammer” for him. He immediately dove in on the guitar and was reinterpreting the harmonic structure of the tune in such a way that I was like, I wasn’t sure what was happening (laughs). It was like, well, this is really going to be interesting.
Shun: It was our first meeting and I wanted him to be excited about working with me so I had to try my best to leave some sort of imprint.
MD: I was feeling similar. I wanted to do a good rendition of “Whammer Jammer” and all I could think of was how badly I was really sucking on it (laughs). For a long time when Shun and I would get together, I was reluctant to play in front of him because I didn’t want to suck in front of this master. Shun is a musical genius and I say that seriously. So I felt really like, wow, I’m never going to be up to this level. But I’ve grown a lot in the work that we’ve been doing together. Shun is just a fantastic teacher for me too. We teach each other quite a bit.
What are you guys doing now?
MD: Well, we are working on new material and we’re going to be doing some recording and more gigs.
Shun: A new video and new EP and writing more stuff, expand our show and keep growing and letting it blossom. I think we’re probably thinking of doing another video of maybe an original tune and then simultaneously work on recording an EP of originals and some cool guitar/harmonica versions of maybe some Jazz tunes or some old stuff. And writing a whole bunch of new stuff. Some of those are in different stages, still growing, but we have one that’s called “Space” that we’ve sort of sculpted out already. So we’re probably going to record some of that and eventually do an EP.
Are you doing this organically, sitting in a room together creating, or are you having to send files back and forth the modern age way?
MD: (laughs) Oh we do it in person. Once in a while we’ll send files but Shun and I both live in the Boston area so we get together fairly frequently. We have quite a time when we do. As I say, it’s a really exciting creative endeavor. When I know Shun is going to be coming over and we’re going to be working on stuff, it’s like before Shun gets here I may have a head full of apprehensions about, “I’m not on top of this part yet. I’m not on top of that. I need to practice all this more.” (laughs) After a while you recognize that that sort of stuff can get in your head and get in the way and it keeps you from being in the moment. I’ve been going through this transformation, thanks to Shun, developing a particular kind of I don’t give a shit attitude (laughs).
You played the Iridium a few weeks ago and I know that wasn’t your first show so if somebody comes to see you, what are they going to get?
Shun: We like to keep the live show as sort of a journey with a lot of surprises. We do interpretations of classic Jazz tunes, some that Miles Davis made famous, and we do a guitar/harmonica version of that. We do a section where we’re doing classic blues stuff, cause what we do we always try to bring something new in and push a lot of boundaries. We have sections where we’re doing just straight up acoustic blues and then we do some funky stuff and then we do some originals, we do some ballads where Dick adds some harmonica on, we do Jazz stuff, we do “Whammer Jammer” and some Jazz/blues stuff like “Let The Good Times Roll.” But it’s a variety of stuff but that’s tied together with minimalism, just the guitar and the harmonica, and what can happen and what sounds can get a reaction, how big we can sound and how subtle we can sound, how complex and intricate. There are so many aspects of this pairing. We play many different styles but we are very rooted in the blues so we bring that element of blues and soul into all the stuff that we do. So it’s really a mesh.
MD: And Shun sings too and very greatly, I might add. I sing a few. Also, there is a segment of our show where Shun gets to do his solo stuff. One of the things that I really enjoy is to have the audience hear Shun by himself because then they get to hear what I was drawn to.
Shun, did your songwriting come as you were learning guitar or after?
Shun: I come from a non-musical family, non-musical background. I grew up in Singapore and it’s all about academia and when I found the guitar, that was my way into music because before I picked up the guitar I really had no idea. I picked up the guitar when I was fifteen and then I sort of became this student of music. But before that I didn’t have music that I liked, I didn’t have music that I listened to. We really didn’t have music around the house. Mostly what I would listen to was when my sister was listening to Backstreet Boys (laughs). That’s all I knew. And through the guitar I got into music and then I got into Classical music and stuff. So I always sort of approached things like my guitar work and the melody and then I can add poetry to it. I’ve never really thought of myself as a songwriter. I always see myself as more a composer and then the songs sort of came after the desire to create music. The songs were a medium because I loved to sing and I love it when a melody is sung or a melody is played. I don’t really like when guitars play melody. I like it when harmonica plays the melody or saxophone or trumpet or voice.
When you started playing guitar, what goals did you set for yourself?
Shun: That’s a good question. Leaving Singapore, I had a lot of goals and my goals were very kind of milestone type of goals: If I can get into Berklee on a scholarship, if I can get a manager and stuff. I thought if I achieved those goals, then I would have made it. When I came here so many things happened so quickly, like I signed with management a few months of being here and then I got to work with Magic Dick. There are so many things that happened that I realized that all these goals that you set for yourself, the journey is way more important. When I got to Berklee, I was sort of a little underwhelmed. Then I found a management company and I was like, okay, now the work begins.
So I don’t really set career goals anymore. Now I try to adopt the mentality of the goal is to continue to create and do the best that I can. Because when you create goals like, I want to sell this amount of tapes to this amount of people, it doesn’t really mean anything. You can set a goal like, I want to be nominated for an award, but those kind of tangible goals somehow don’t mean anything cause when you get them you realize that’s not really a goal. I didn’t have goals coming here but very quickly a lot of things that I got far exceeded my goals of what I thought I would do. I never thought I would be working with Magic Dick or meeting Quincy Jones or doing all this stuff. I never thought all that would happen. So when it happened it suddenly felt like I wasn’t ready for it. Of course, you have goals to put out an album but I see it as more timeline goals.
Dick, when you started off in music, and you didn’t get to do what you wanted to do on the trumpet, what did you do?
MD: The reason I didn’t get to do what I wanted to do on the trumpet was perhaps a little bit complex. I realize now in looking back on all that, it was always up to me, which is one of the greatest things that you can appreciate about something like this. If you started really young and it didn’t flower into what you thought you wanted at that time, but in looking back on it, I was always on the right track. Sometimes the teachers that you have can help you or hinder you. You get to a certain point and you may need to do something a little bit differently and at that particular time it didn’t materialize for me in that particular way. But once I started living in Boston in the seventies, I started taking trumpet lessons with the head of the Brass department over at Berklee. That was one of the greatest experiences ever for me.
But I think the goal for me has always been that there is something about making the audience happy and that in and of itself is a very gratifying thing. Not every musician cares that much about that but I always did care about it. Part of it may be because it took a great deal of effort, both physical and emotional, to do what the Geils Band does onstage. I always felt that I was so lucky, and continue to be so lucky, to get the kind of feedback from the audience that I’ve always gotten, the support and appreciation from people. But basically I really like to make people happy by virtue of my playing and for people that I am playing with. It’s a situation of giving and getting in return. So I realized that you can set goals, and this is related to what Shun was talking about, goals after a while, once you reach a goal, then you need new goals and after a while I dispensed with the idea of goals and realized that actually the embrace of an attitude was more important because it’s the attitude that gets you through all the stuff that you either have mixed feelings about or you feel insecure about. The attitude is everything.
I don’t care how much talent a person has, as a musician you don’t really develop without really working on it, cause learning to do new things, whether it’s learning to ride a bicycle or a language, whatever it is that you’re studying and applying yourself to, it’s the attitude you bring to it that’s going to get you through. One of the goals for me in the Geils Band was I always wanted to play the most amazing harp solos that I could come up with, because that was primarily my role in the band, at least in the recording. I would usually be given a featured solo spot on many of the tunes in addition to having a written conceived part for the harp that would be part of the machinery of the groove of the song. But basically I was a soloist and in terms of being a soloist it’s kind of like being a painter or a visual artist where you are confronted with a so-called blank canvas and the fear of having to fill that in in an appropriate way; the potential of what it could be. So I got used to this idea of thinking that filling a blank canvas with a statement. So for me that was the specific goal that I would always keep my attention on. Once we were able to achieve those sorts of solos on the recordings then the challenge was to deliver this stuff live and to do it in such a way that it carried power and soul and a conviction to it that would move people. And if people are moved by it then I feel like I’ve met a goal.
And I think the audience has a similar goal. They make the effort to come to hear you and see you and make you part of their life and their goal is in some respects to hear as much of you as they can get if they’re a fan. Shun and I are first and foremost fans of music. We have heroes whom we really love and there is a lot of overlapping in who Shun and I sort of worship musically. I’m very lucky that way to have a musical partner who if you were to draw a circle which represents Shun’s area of musical interest and mine, the two of these circles would overlap, they would almost be concentric circles.
Speaking of the Geils Band, how did you feel about the change from the R&B/blues influence into this more 80’s pop on Freeze Frame?
MD: Well, the direction that we went in was determined mostly by the songwriting team, Seth Justman and Peter Wolf. So those decisions involved with what songs were going to be done and all of that, it’s not a decision I was that much a part of. I was very much a part of the creative endeavor of making the music when it came time to put it together, of course. I would contribute, as we all did, to the fashioning of details but when a song is conceived and written it is largely taking on the form of the songwriter, what the songwriters want to see. So I was not particularly against moving in any kind of direction as long as it was a good creative outlet for me, which I always felt that it was and it was always quite a challenge to do. But as the commercial aspects developed more and more, there tended to be less use of harmonica in the music, as I’m sure you’re aware of Leslie, and more was taken over with the keyboards and the synthesizers and stuff. But I wasn’t opposed to that.
And live you were still doing some of the old songs where you did get to play more.
MD: Yeah, I mean, even those albums that moved in that direction there was always some material on there that featured some really cutting-edge harp stuff.
Do you prefer the way the concerts were back in the seventies and eighties where everybody was playing to where nowadays anybody can go up on a stage and not have any instruments?
MD: Yes, I really do prefer the older way. But on the other hand, I’m not a person that just looks back on the old days as everything was better back then, cause the whole world was different and to make these comparisons is sort of interesting to reflect on.
Shun: I’m with you on that one. Now it’s more like music is more of a product than an art form, which is very sad. And there is so much noise. It’s kind of like a goal to not add to that noise.
Who was the first real rock star you ever met?
Shun: Magic Dick (laughs)
MD: Well thank you Shun (laughs). For me, I remember meeting my blues heroes first, like Muddy Waters, Junior Wells, James Cotton. I was into those people more so than rock heroes. What happened is in the late sixties, long before your time Leslie I’m sure, these bands from Chicago started to leave Chicago and travel around the United States. So they would come to Boston and Cambridge and play and that was the beginning of hearing people like Junior Wells and Buddy Guy, people like that, and those are my heroes, particularly Junior Wells. These guys were very helpful to us. They were really nice, they really dug the fact that we were very interested in what they were doing, they let us sit in with them. Those are my heroes. As far as rock people, there’s nobody popping into my head as a rock hero influence in that particular way. And I’m sure after we’re done with our call, I’ll go, “Why didn’t I think of that?” (laughs). Oh, James Brown. He was a huge hero to both Shun and me. In fact, when I first heard Shun’s singing, and one thing that really struck me about Shun, was from the moment I first heard his singing, after hearing about two or three tunes, I thought, Shun’s voice is right in between Michael Jackson and James Brown. I couldn’t quite believe it. It was mind-blowing to me that it had those characteristics without it being mimicky.
So it must have been fun making the video for the James Brown song
MD: That was a lot of fun and a bit nerve-wracking at first because at that point when we recorded that, Shun and I were still very new in our relationship. You know, that was the first presentation that we put out there to show people what we’re about and what we look like when we do our thing, what’s going on. So from that point of view, when you’re presenting something for the first time to people, you give some thought to how do you want this. So we wanted to convey to people in a very simple, direct fashion what we do and what we sound like live when we play. There’s no overdubbing, there’s no multi-tracking. This is live performing.
I think that Shun and I have always been intrigued by recordings of live performances, where it’s a record of a performance rather than a manipulation done in the studio where in this day and age the way people record, a lot of times people aren’t even really playing their instruments. There is a lot of manipulation done to deal with certain aspects of being in the commercial marketplace, cause everybody is competing with everybody else, but what Shun and I do is old school. We want to create and record in the moment. If it’s not a recording of the moment then it’s kind of a little less exciting because of that. So we need to take risks. And another of the nice things about being minimalists and using minimal equipment, it’s very easy for us, in terms of recording, it’s not that big a deal for us. Shun and I can basically record anywhere that’s quiet. These days to do what Shun and I do, we don’t really need to go into a recording studio to do it. I have a bit of a recording situation in my basement. It’s my studio where I practice and do whatever I want. So we do it here.
What are you guys doing for the rest of the year, individually and together?
MD: Shun, as you know, does quite a bit of solo performing and I’m sure Shun will continue to do a bunch of that. I, from time to time, will be busy with the J Geils Band, do some touring. We have some shows coming up in August.
Shun: In July, I am going to Singapore and doing something with the Singapore Wind Symphony and doing a whole bunch of solo stuff around and doing a lot of writing for the duo. Then we have a few shows later on this year.
MD: Basically, Shun and I are continuing to put our thing more together and our plan is to basically play around the world. That’s really what it amounts to and the more people we can turn on to what we’re doing the happier we will be.
I’m glad you found each other
MD: Thank you. I think both Shun and I feel that way about each other. We both feel really fortunate to have this thing happening for us at this particular time. It seems like it was truly meant to be.