Interview with Blind Boy Chocolate & the Milk Sheiks

Nick Marshall of Ashevillian buskers Blind Boy Chocolate and the Milk Sheiks, discusses why his band loves playing century old tunes in the street, why sepia toned is the way to go, and an acute distaste for influenza.

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Our complete interview with busker and Ashevillian Nick Marshall of Blind Boy Chocolate & The Milk Sheiks

Wand’rly:
First, can you tell us how Blind Boy Chocolate & the Milk Sheiks got started. Were you individual buskers before you all started playing together?
Nick:
The band started with Tony, Dwight and myself in the summer of 2009. I actually met Tony in a professor’s office in college. I was in there to shoot the breeze with this professor about old blues music, something he was interested in and Tony came in for help on a paper he was writing for another class. It had to do something with blues music in the early twentieth Century. Our mutual interest in old music sparked a friendship and when I found out that he played guitar, we started working on a few of those old tunes. When I met Dwight, a train rider who played a musical saw among other things, I introduced him to Tony and we all three played. The fact that Bele Chere ’09 was rapidly approaching catalyzed the whole band thing. We wanted to make the best of busking so we home-recorded a five song CD to sell at the festival. With a CD, we realized we would need a name. To make a long story short, the name Blind Boy Chocolate & The Milk Sheiks, which started as a joke just stuck. It’s really a triple-entendre that nods to race, food and old blues monikers like Blind Boy Fuller and bands like the Mississippi, Alabama or Beale Street Sheiks. Mr. Alex Brady, who had been a friend of Tony’s came onboard some months later to add bass and round out the sound. We’ve had other members come and go as well but the four of us have been working on this fairly consistently since the end of 2009.As far as street performing prior to the formation, I know that Dwight had done a bit in his travels around the country. I started busking in Dublin, Ireland in 1999 and have done it here and there since then.
W:
What do you think the difference is between being a band playing in the streets vs. being a single person out busking? What do you see as the advantages or disadvantages of each?
Nick:
I think that it really depends on the performer. Personally, I like playing with a group on the street because of the energy that it generates. While you split the money amongst more people, the experience is more fun. Music is very social for me. Dwight will busk with the group or by himself. Tony will occasionally busk on his own as well. I think it just depends on what your doing musically.
W:
If you don’t mind me asking, how much money an hour do you make on average while busking? How does that compare to what an average show you play at a bar or festival pays?
Nick:
Money made busking fluctuates a great deal. I’ve made five dollars in an hour and I’ve made fifty. It really depends on the vibe, the weather, the crowd. It’s hard to say what you’ll make until you do a count at the end.
W:
Do you mostly play around Asheville, or have you ever gone on tour? Have you ever done any busking on tour, or any traveling busking at all?
Nick:
Blind Boy Chocolate and the Milk Sheiks have played in maybe 14 states in the last three years. We’ve played from Austin to Boston and from Charlotte to Seattle. Usually we’ll try to busk during the day and play the gigs at night. Laws about street performing are different everywhere you go so you just snoop around a bit to get the scoop wherever we are. New Orleans is a good town for busking but very competitive. Portland is pretty good as well. It’s hard to beat Asheville in the summer and fall.
W:
Forgive me for my lack of knowledge regarding turn of the last century tunes, but it sounds like alot of the songs you play are covers from a time well before our grandparents were even born. What made you want to play that old-timey music? If most of what you do are covers from a bygone era, do you write original material, too?
Nick:
Most of the songs we rework are from the late 19th or early 20th Centuries. Its kind of hard to say what makes this such an exciting time period for us to draw from. I’ve always been kind of an old soul for music. There is a great sense of honesty, I think in the simplicity of the old tunes- and they are timeless. I mean they deal with issues that are still pertinent: poverty, travel, relationship issues, revelry, whatever. As I mentioned, Dwight is interested in freight trains and hoboing which were huge in the depression era. There are lots of great train songs out there from this time. I think that traveling fits with acoustic music because there is no “plugging in”. Travel is also a great American legacy. We have written a few original pieces but unlike some bands, we aren’t compelled to fuse contemporary lyrics with old chord progressions. We like to breathe new life into the old tunes. This means coming up with arrangements and solos which ARE original if anything conventional can be called original anymore.
W:
I’m also writing an article on busking in general, not just in Asheville, but across the country, and I’m curious to hear what buskers think about street performance as an art form or as a way of getting their music out there. Do you guys see busking as sort of a means to get bigger shows, with the ultimate goal being to play “more traditional” venues like bars, clubs and festivals, or is it a whole other thing on it’s own? If you could choose to play a street corner or, say, the Orange Peel, all things considered, which would you prefer?
Nick:
I think busking is great. I think its good for the performer, good for tourism and thus good for the town. We also love playing bigger indoor venues, mainly I think for the exposure to an audience that is enthusiastic about the music. Playing to the public is great because you never know what will happen whereas playing to a paying audience is great because of their express interest in the band and the music. We certainly have no plans to quit busking. We are still very much at home on the sidewalk.
W:
For a city of it’s size, Asheville’s got buskers packed in and that’s kind of unusual in America, and it’s not just musicians, which I think is the most common form of street performance in our country, but musicians, living statues, etc. Why is Asheville such a haven for buskers in general?
Nick:
As far as Asheville goes, I’m not sure. I think that somebody in local government must share my opinion that the performers enrich the whole downtown experience. I think that musicians hear about the scene here and want to try it for themselves. Likewise, many tourists have their favorites that they look for when in town, whether it be music, a statue act or whatever. All of this generates a healthy bit of competition among performers which raises the bar. While you will see the occasional wino with guitar, now you will see really great musicians and performers too. It’s kind of exciting on a Friday or Saturday summer night here.
W:
How do you choose where to play when you’re busking? Are there secrets to getting an attentive audience or just certain places that’ll bring in more tips?
Nick:
The really good spots downtown are places where people expect to see street performers. Pack Place is like that. It’s sort of a tradition that people will be performing there in the evenings, weather permitting. As far as getting a good audience, I think its just a matter of performance and showmanship. Being able to play a wood saw, wash tub or a pair of rib bones proficiently doesn’t hurt. I mean the thing about the Milk Sheiks is that although its a spectacle, it also based in American musical tradition so its familiar- particularly to a lot of older people.
W:
Thinking less about busking now, what’s your favorite place to play in Asheville as far as indoor venues go? And what is it about that place?
Nick:
The Grey Eagle is a particularly nice place to play. It’s an honor to play on the stage that has hosted so many country, blues and roots music greats. They do a great job with the sound, which is something, as street performers, that we hate to worry about at a gig. We’ve played the dive bars and we’ve played at the Orange Peel and we like them all.
W:
Is there a sense of community between musicians in Asheville? Do you have a few other friends / bands that you guys try and always help one another out getting gigs or is it more “every man for himself” in a town with so much music and only so many stages? What about within the busking community?
Nick:
There are a lot of buskers in Asheville and while we are certainly not one bit community, we are pretty familiar with each other and try to be mutually respectful of each others time and spce. Generally a performer will give up his or her spot after two hours to the next waiting performer. We do have good friends that play in other street performing bands and its always great to run in to them out there. Sometimes you’ll run into a performer who is rude or selfish but they don’t seem to last out there for the most part.
W:
I couldn’t find a whole lot of info on Low Five Studios, which is where your Bandcamp page says you recorded your record. What can you tell us about where you recorded and how?
Nick:
Low 5 studios is a small recording space that is run by our friend Patrick Kukucka. He’s recorded several of our friends bands and I always thought he did a great job so we went to him in November.
W:
How does recording an album and selling it online compare to busking? The audience part is obviously different, but how does it compare monetarily and just as a way of getting your music out there?
Nick:
Honestly, we put our stuff up at bandcamp to make up for the fact that we constantly run out of CDs. We wanted our stuff to be available to the public regardless. It is not a big source of income but it does help pay for things like gas for out-of-town gigs.
W:
Do you ever wish it was the era from which your songs come from? Do you have a bit of a longing to trade in all of the mp3s, iPhones and instant connection to anyone in the world as quickly as you can rattle off a tweet for the days when cars still ran on steam and everything was just a bit more sepia toned?
Nick:
Ha! Good question. Again its hard to say. Would I want to live in a time when influenza was often life threatening or walking to school took two hours each way? No. In other words I appreciate our modern conveniences and cures. I am charmed however, by old sepia toned photos of river boats and dusty old phonograph record players. I don’t think any of us in the band do Twitter but yeah, things seem to be happening so fast nowadays that one can’t help wonder if we’ve traded quality for quantity when it comes to products or even information. In a way, we are lucky to have access to both worlds. I mean much of the digging we do when we are researching the old stuff is done using the internet. None of us are luddites but we do appreciate old art, music and humor.

More on the Grey Eagle and Asheville’s music scene in our debut issue, and don’t forget to check out the full busking article, too. Photograph by Zen Sutherland.