Interview: Dan Hicks

Dan Hicks has been a part of musical history in at least two big ways.

First, he was the drummer for The Charlatans, which is widely credited as the first psychedelic rock band. The Charlatans formed in San Francisco in 1964, and Hicks joined in time for their summer 1965 residency at the Red Dog Saloon in Virginia City, Nevada. When they returned to San Francisco, The Charlatans were important players in the city’s burgeoning music scene, helping to pave the way for the emerging San Francisco Sound.

Second, in 1968 he founded Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks, which went in a more eclectic acoustic direction colored by jazz, country, and swing influences. Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks released several well-regarded albums before disbanding in the mid-1970’s. A little over a decade ago, Hicks put together a new incarnation of the Hot Licks to record new material and to tour.

The following interview was for a preview article for a concert by Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks at the Maverick Saloon in Santa Ynez, California on 2/27/13. It was done by phone on 2/9/13.

Jeff Moehlis: What can we look forward to at your show at the Maverick Saloon?

Dan Hicks: I recently did a show here in Mill Valley, where we did a bunch of new material. That stuff’s good. We’ll be doing a mixture of some of this new stuff, and the regular tunes, the signature songs that I do like “Scare Myself”, those kind of numbers that I’m known for. We’ve got all that material that nobody’s heard, got the girls to sing with me – two ladies – and swing violin, guitar, and bass. It’ll be a pretty good show.

JM: You mentioned some new material. Does that mean you’re working on a new album?

DH: Yeah, you know this stuff is definitely going to go into a new project eventually, sometime later this year. I don’t know exactly when this would come out. I definitely should do an album at some point here.

But also, as far as new albums go, last April I did a 70th birthday concert in San Francisco at the Davies Symphony Hall, with a big sold-out crowd. And that was recorded. So there will be an album, sometime this spring quite possibly, an album Live at Davies, with highlights from that show. That’s a new thing coming out. I did songs with Rickie Lee Jones, Maria Muldaur, and the old original Hot Licks, and the new band, and Jim Kweskin, and Dave Grisman. A bunch of people. Tuck & Patti. So it’s going to be a cool album.

JM: That must’ve been a fun night for you.

DH: Yeah, that was good. That was a great event. It was sold out, with 3000 people. That’s usually more than show up to one of my shows. It was great.

JM: You’ve recorded with some notable musicians on your recent albums. Who has been the most fun to record with?

DH: On the album I last did here in the studio a couple of years ago, Tangled Tales, we had instrumentalists like Bruce Forman – a jazz guy – and Roy Rogers. And we had Charlie Musselwhite. That was a good period there, with those guys. It sort of just turned out that way. The times that we do have guests, usually it’s vocalists. But this time it was instrumentalists, so that was good. I can’t really think of somebody that was better than the other person.

JM: I have to ask you about the old times. According to my calculation, the fifty year anniversary of The Charlatans is coming up in a few years. What are some of the highlights for you from your time with that band?

DH: Well, I got together with The Charlatans in 1965, and I was with them until 1968, at which point I formed the Hot Licks, you know, went off on my own. You know, we played a lot of the early dance halls – the Avalon, the Fillmore, Winterland, all that. We stayed pretty local here. I was the drummer a lot of the time, and I switched to some rhythm guitar.

You know, as far as highlights go, just being in the scene, living in Haight-Ashbury and being in the whole thing. I was one of the guys that had a job [laughs]. As far as the hippie thing goes and everything, I was employed. I was in a band. Just being part of that got my name going. While in the band, sometimes I worked as a solo folk singer acoustic guy with my guitar. I was inadvertently getting a reputation, getting my name around San Francisco. It was good to be in The Charlatans for that stuff.

JM: I understand that the band had a residency towards the beginning at the Red Dog Saloon.

DH: Before the band had even performed at all – it was still just rehearsing – a guy was down from Virginia City. The Red Dog Saloon was being built, getting ready for the summer of 1965. So a guy was down in San Francisco scouting for people to work there. Even cooks and bartenders and different stuff, which included a band. So he saw these guys on the street – it wasn’t me, it was a couple of other Charlatans – and he asked them if they were a band. It was all like that.

So we went off and played there that whole summer. That was our first gig. You know, that went well. We stayed there until maybe Labor Day.

I’ve been back a few times. The Red Dog is still going. I think I played there once, a little group in there played one night. Sometimes I play in Virginia City, I guess it’s the Miner’s Hall, then afterwards they have another little party at the Red Dog. So the Red Dog is still going up there. That was a good thing.

Other bands followed us. The next summer, Big Brother [and the Holding Company] came in. I don’t know how long, at that period, that the Red Dog lasted. It closed for quite a while, I guess. It’s still going though.

JM: You shared the bill with various bands back in San Francisco, and maybe at the Red Dog as well. Are there any of those bands or shows that really stand out to you?

DH: There were a lot of them. We played the Red Dog by ourselves, I think maybe six nights a week. Then we came back to San Francisco after that, in the fall of 1965, and they were starting those dance halls, the Avalon and stuff. So we played there at the beginning shows. Those years, and even when I got the Hot Licks going, I was playing Winterland… We were on the bill with a lot of different people.

Some of it for the Hot Licks went really well, some of it didn’t. Because we were acoustic, you know, so it’s a little different. You couldn’t get the acoustic sound up real loud back then, so sometimes people couldn’t quite hear us after listening to a big electric band. That’s still the case, actually. The kind of stuff we do is a little lighter, and not as loud. More vocal.

JM: You must’ve dealt with Bill Graham back then, booking the shows and so on. One hears stories that he wasn’t always the easiest person to get along with. What was your experience with Bill Graham?

DH: I liked him, I liked what he was doing. I dug all the stuff that he was doing.

I liked to view him from a distance. He could be a little harsh, kind of short with you. He’d get you mad easy, that kind of thing. I think a lot of musicians at the time had a certain opinion. I knew this wasn’t true, but he seemed more like a business guy than a musician’s friend. He was friendly. He just had a little bit of a reputation. There’s a couple of documentaries he’s in where he kind of blows up. He was like that, he was kind of scary. But you had to kind of respect him, too.

JM: From your perspective, what was the influence of The Charlatans on the San Francisco scene?

DH: Well, people say The Charlatans was the first band. That could be. I think there were other bands rehearsing at the time. I think the Grateful Dead was forming down toward Palo Alto. But I think in the city, The Charlatans were really the first underground, alternative, long-haired kind of band. So, that was an influence I think on other people to form bands, and stuff like that.

A lot of it was, I think, guys who were acoustic players that played around town, then they got together and plugged in, got electric instruments and formed bands. I mean, I used to see people in the Jefferson Airplane, you know, before they were in the Jefferson Airplane, just playing around. And Quicksilver [Messenger Service], different bands like that.

I think maybe The Charlatans might have had an influence on just getting other people to get together and form bands, just making that electric-acoustic sound, that folk rock, really is what it was. The folk rock sound.

JM: Why did you leave The Charlatans to form the Hot Licks?

DH: The Hot Licks kind of evolved from my singing solo stuff, which I liked to do. I could sing my own songs, I could sing whatever. I had my own repertoire going, and I was performing a little bit around town. I just added a violin player one night, finally got the girls going. I got an idea of more singing, listening to the singing more, concentrating on more of a folk-jazz kind of sound. I’d always been a jazz fan. So, that was kind of where I was headed. That was just what was going to happen. Just to be the leader, and get my own sound, to make more the music that I wanted to do, rather than a rock thing. Rock was secondary to me. It wasn’t like what I always wanted to do. I wanted to do swing stuff, really. It was a matter of choice and taste. The guys in The Charlatans were sometimes difficult, you know personalities, so I got out of there.

JM: With the Hot Licks you had a nice run in the late ’60’s and early 70’s. What were some highlights from that time for you?

DH: During that period, I think maybe the earlier days were the more fun, like ’68, ’70 or ’71. I was writing some good songs and new stuff. I enjoyed making the sound. We were traveling around. You know, we were on some television shows – Flip Wilson, and Johnny Carson, the Dick Cavett Show. We played Carnegie Hall. Some of the albums were getting on the charts a little bit. Didn’t go real far up. I think #37 was the highest nationally. You know, just the success of it was a highlight. Just the fact that I was doing it and people were digging it.

JM: What made it the right time to revive Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks, I think it was back in the late ’90’s?

DH: Yeah. Well, I’d been still performing all along, had different guys playing and was still writing songs. Kind of keeping my same sound, all along in the ’80’s and ’90’s. I met the guy that runs Surf Dog Records, which I’m still on that label. He was a big fan of the Hot Licks, so he kind of talked me into it. Getting the girls back with me, and using the name The Hot Licks again, you know, making a record. So I warmed up to the idea eventually. Got some lady singers.

At first it wasn’t my idea, but now I’m glad I did it and am doing it. People always associated my name with the Hot Licks thing, anyway, even if I was with the Acoustic Warriors or any other name. So it was kind of an artistic choice. I always liked making that sound, that three voice sound with the girls. It was suggested to me but then I kind of took it from there.

It was time, I guess. And I’m still doing it.

JM: What advice would you give to an aspiring musician?

DH: You know, I used to say to do one thing real well. I mean, do one thing and sort of stick with it, get that down. I don’t know exactly what that means now. Like, maybe play an instrument.

When I think about it, it’s the people that sound good and other people think they sound good, those are the successful people. They’re making a good sound, and people like it, and the person likes it themselves. Some people, though, continue to keep going and they’re not that good [laughs].

So I don’t know… You know, realize whether you’ve got it or not, and don’t waste time otherwise.

JM: You mentioned a few things in the works – your 70th birthday album is coming out, and maybe an album of new material. Is there anything else in the works?

DH: There’s always talk about stuff. There’s a fellow who’s interested in doing a documentary. But this is all kind of down the road. I don’t know how close we are to reality on all that. Maybe doing a film documentary thing. And there’s a lady that’s interested in writing a book. And someday I’m going to have my songbook out. This is all stuff that needs follow-through, you know? There are a million ideas, but you have to follow through with it, have them come to fruition.

And there’s touring, gigging. I’ve got some dates. The week I’ll be down there I’ll be also playing in San Diego, San Juan Capistrano, and McCabe’s [in Santa Monica]. Just gigging, doing some stuff.

There’s always stuff to do, it seems.

JM: Do you want to set the record straight on anything about your career, the San Francisco scene, etc?

DH: No, I can’t think of anything really.

JM: Where are you speaking to me from?

DH: Mill Valley. I’ve lived in Mill Valley for quite a while. I’ve been in Marin ever since ’68, when I moved from San Francisco. So here I am in Mill Valley.


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