JOSEPH ‘Amp’ Fiddler has a theory that conversations are the dynamic for change in our lives and I’m with him all the way.
How true this is when you’re speaking over the phone, I’m not so sure. Surely you need to be close enough to be able to see the whites of their eyes to really have a chance to know what’s going on in someone’s head?
It’s a shame not to meet the guy in person. Fiddler cuts a striking figure. Tall - well over six feet when you take into account his hair, which fluctuates between dreads and an impressive afro – distinguished, and a snappy dresser to boot, Amp resembles nothing so much as a latterday funky Malcolm X, stepping out to an afterhours jazz den in his wraparound shades, polo neck and leather raincoat.
But he’s in France, midway through a lengthy European tour, relaxing before tonight’s gig and I’m in the UK, midway through production day, not relaxing before the magazine goes to press. We’ll have to try our best.
Thinking about it, it’s unlikely I’d be able to see the whites of Fiddler’s eyes anyway one, he’s on tour so they’re probably a little red around the edges (“we’ve been having a lot of fun,” he drawls) and two, he’s rarely seen without sunglasses, even indoors.
Fiddler, however, has been in this game a lot longer than I have and he fields my questions like the seasoned pro he is, his rich, melifluous if, occasionally, a little croaky voice booming over the line from Lyon.
The tour is going well. A native of Detroit, Michigan, he “most definitely enjoys the European way of life” and only wishes the weather was a little better, “but it’s okay. I been having a great time.”
Roughly half of the people in his audiences have already heard his astonishingly assured debut solo album, Waltz Of A Ghetto Fly he estimates (well, he actually recorded his debut for a major label at the start of the Nineties, but it wasn’t a happy or rewarding experience); the other half haven’t but, “our show is very dynamic, so if people don’t get it by the middle of the show, they definitely get it by the end. But,” he adds with a chuckle, “most of them get it in the beginning.”
Old enough to say “record” when he means “CD”, young enough to know who Dizzee Rascal is (he recently bought Rascal’s album for his son Dorian), Fiddler is also polite enough not to mention it when I get the titles of his songs wrong or interrupt him, mid sentence. He doesn’t let things bother him. He’s playing a long game. He turned 46 last week but isn’t unduly perturbed: “The older the fiddle, the better the tune.”
Raised in Conant Gardens in Detroit’s Eastside, Fiddler was the youngest of five children. Coming from a family of musicians and music-lovers, Amp’s mother played a lot of classical music while his father, who emigrated from the Caribbean after WW2 and worked in a tyre factory, played ska and calypso. His siblings, meanwhile, would play anything from Thelonious Monk to Jimi Hendrix.
Fiddler studied music at Wayne State and Oakland Universities in Michigan, including a few classes under the tutelage of the renowned jazz teacher, Harold McKinney. He left college when Enchantment, a local doo-wop group, needed a keyboard player.
Although he “really didn’t know anything much” he went on tour with the band, driving across the vast open spaces of the US from one gig to the next, opening for people like Teddy Pendergast, Philip Hammond and Natalie Cole and even appearing at the prestigious Carnegie Hall.
A few years down the line he got the chance to play with one of his heroes, the legendary George Clinton (after hopefully hanging around Clinton’s Detroit studio for a couple of years) stepping into the not-inconsiderable platform-heeled shoes of Bernie Worrell in the P-Funk All-Stars.
And although by the time Amp joined the crew of the Mothership, “things had slowed”, P-Funk having been supplanted by hip hop and contemporary R&B, it’s clear that he learned a lot from the grizzled old space cadet.
“George is full of knowledge,” explains Fiddler. “He came to Detroit during the Motown days, which was back when Parliament were a doo-wop group. I learned so much from him, it was ridiculous about everything that I’m doing musically, about the dealings he’s had with the music business, touring, travel, literature … everything. He’s a mentor to me, his knowledge of the music industry is so vast.”
Tell me about Detroit. It’s been a big force in music since the days of Motown and it still seems to be going strong today.
“People who live there still have the same views, a respect for the city, they still have a bit of pride about being from a town like Detroit because it’s such a musical place,” muses Fiddler.
“And I think it’s kinda like your Manchester is, because it’s an industrial city, which is kinda changing from industry into technology, which is good. Things are getting better so people are every excited. We’ve got the electronic music festival this month and there’s a lot of music coming out. People are very excited about living in Detroit and representing Detroit because of that.
“There’s a big D12 record, there’s the White Stripes, there’s Eminem, there’s Dwele and his guy Cam, Kid Rock. There’s a lot happening.”
For many of those of us who were too young to appreciate Motown or even Iggy and the Stooges and the MC5 first time around, the first music coming out of Detroit to make an impact was the techno, of people like Derrick May, Juan Atkins and Kevin Saunderson. While they made beautiful music, they often painted a dark picture of the place.
“At that time, Detroit was a dark place, but the clouds are moving away and we’re seeing progress in terms of rebuilding the city’s economic structure,” replies Fiddler. “At that time, when electronic music was really becoming big, the factories all moved out of the city. It was like a ghost town. But now things are changing and it’s getting better, we have a new, young, black mayor.”
Does it feel like there’s a sense of optimism in the city?
“Always has … even in the darkest days. I’ve always come back to Detroit.”
Indeed, after 14 years recording and touring the world with Clinton, and later Was Not Was and Lucy Pearl, Fiddler (pictured) gave up life on the road when he took over the care of his son Dorian, then six, back in his hometown.
It’s a testament to his commitment to his son and an indictment of the music industry which gave him absolutely no help that it has taken until now for him to release Waltz Of A Ghetto Fly. But it’s been worth the seven-year wait.
Recorded in his own Camp Amp studio in the basement of his house with a variety of collaborators, from J Dilla of Slum Village to Kenny Dixon Jr aka Moodymann, the album is a smouldering collection of slow-burn funk jams with Fiddlers vocals recalling those of some of the great male soul singers of the last 30 years (from Sly Stone to D’Angelo) whilst maintaining a resolutely contemporary musical feel.
As well as being a gifted arranger and no slouch as a singer, Fiddler handles the keyboard duties, alternating between a squelchy-beyond-belief Moog and a Rhodes piano that must surely have been dipped in honey. Other than that, it’s back to basics – drums, bass, guitar. Those massed P-Funk horns might sound great but they cost money. This is music where you can hear the spaces between the notes.
Fiddler rarely takes the obvious route into a song, and his lyrics often have an engaging playfulness which separate them from what can sometimes be an overly earnest soul milieu. He also stands virtually alone in his willingness to talk about social issues within his music. You should look elsewhere for macho posturing and bling-obsessed consumerism.
The album’s title track, for example, was inspired by Fiddler’s memories of growing up in East Detroit in the Sixties and Seventies, seeing “the older guys walking down the street with a stride,” with, as he puts it in the song, “the rhythm God give ’em.”
Once again, you find yourself recalling the stance of people like Roy Ayers and Stevie Wonder, Sly Stone and Curtis Mayfield, who all wrote their share of love songs, but also knew that we exist in the real world.
“I have a big respect for all that because, for me, it’s important to say things that could possibly make a difference to listeners, however they hear it,” says Fiddler. “Like, you might hear me talking about a pair of shoes but I’m actually talking about the way that people walk.”
“In the world I’m looking at on Waltz Of A Ghetto Fly, a kid who’s walking in the neighbourhood, in the ghetto, is going to be different from the way a kid walks in the suburbs. His pants ain’t going to be sagging so he’s not going to walk the same.
“I think that seeing the things I seen as a kid, where some of the artists who were prominent at the time of the Sixties and Seventies, who felt that they had a responsibility to speak about the social and political issues at hand, they made all that important.
“Artists like Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, Bob Marley, Fela Kuti and many others, made a difference, in the way that they wrote songs. I still feel that reponsibility myself.”
That’s not a particularly fashionable stance these days, is it?
“No, it’s not a particularly fashionable stance at all,” he laughs. “But it sure makes you feel good.”
[This interview first appeared in the Big Issue in the North in May, 2004]
I finally saw Amp Fiddler live at some small and smoky little club venue in Manchester a while later, though the jury is out whether it was the Hop & Grape, the Band on the Wall or even the Mint Lounge. I was drunk and I was dancing. What more do you need to know? I do remember being pretty much blown away by the live Amp experience though.
Unfortunately, his second album, Afro Strut, found him going off the boil a little – at least as far as I was concerned. All the elements were in place once again, with the addition of hot producers (Unabomber and former New FAD Justin Crawford worked on a couple of tracks recorded in Manchester) and even hotter musicians (Tony Allen lay the drums down for another couple of tunes), but there were only two or three tracks that recaptured the lazily funky intensity of Waltz Of A Ghetto Fly. Everything seems tighter, more controlled, I dunno, maybe even a little more accessible.
I just didn’t like it as much.
That’s not to say I think Afro Strut is a bad record, but it was always going to be difficult to compete with his debut. The ‘difficult second album syndrome’ is the standard bullshit excuse for any indie-kid guitar bands who can’t handle the fact that their lives suddenly got a lot easier once they had some success with their first album.
Fiddler isn’t some here today, gone tomorrow chancer. He’s been in the business for years and knows the way these things work, but for whatever reason, his second album didn’t seem to hang together in the same way as his debut.
I lost track after that. My bad. But Fiddler was still plugging away, even if I wasn’t paying attention. For example, I’ve only just heard about it recently but it seems that Fiddler recorded an album with Sly & Robbie in Jamaica last year. I’ve only heard one track but it is outrageous. Ridiculous. Extraordinary. In a good way. In a very good way.
Maybe we shouldn’t write Amp Fiddler off just yet.
See also: Sly & Robbie interview
POSTSCRIPT*2: Just heard that Dorian Fiddler, Amp’s son mentioned in the piece above, died earlier this year. Details here. Condolences to all who loved him.