Blues duo Boo Bradley has been busking and gigging around Madison for three years, reshaping traditional blues standards and ragtime numbers into inventively gritty forms. Scraping away the conventions that have been glued to modern blues artists, Boo Bradley chooses to cut out the predictable wanking and grandiosity and fill the gap with rawness and vulnerability, all while injecting its own outsider approach. The howls of Scott “Boo” Kiker lock into a melodic argument with his dirty guitar slides, while Brad Selz taps away at his washboard, augmented with random kitchenware to evoke a variety of odd percussive sounds. Before playing this Saturday's Blues Fest on the Terrace, Kiker and Selz sat down with The A.V. Club to discuss the pros and cons of gigging versus street performing, meeting at a Covance medical study, and why nobody wants to hear another all-dad blues revue.
The A.V. Club: How did Boo Bradley form?
Both: [Both laugh.] We met at Covance.
Brad Selz: I dropped out of college and did Covance so that I could travel.
Scott Kiker: I went to buy equipment.
BS: We talked a lot at the study. Boo had been playing blues for a long time already, traveling around and playing as a street musician. He taught me all about hitchhiking and living on the road and was like, “No, man, it’s a great time, so easy, nothing to worry about.” So I was like, “Shit yeah, sounds great.” We did a 31-day Covance study where we just sat around and played guitar. They gave me enough money to travel around for a while and buy groceries wherever I was. I began hitchhiking and hopping trains. When I got back, we started running an open mic together at Steep & Brew. We’d hang out and play together in other people’s apartments afterwards. Eventually, we started warming up the open-mic as Boo Bradley. Once it got nice out, we began hitting the streets together.
AVC: Do you prefer busking on State Street and at the Farmers' Market over doing actual gigs?
BS: We’ve been slacking more this year because we have more actual gigs. We would like to start being amplified most of the time, because it’s a lot harder to get a balanced sound on the streets. Before, I used to play a plain washboard, but I’ve added all kinds of pots, pans, and cups on it. Also, if we are playing on the street, Boo has to kind of holler and bang the shit out of his guitar to get anything out of it. Amplified gigs means not wearing out Boo’s voice or fingers as much.
AVC: Which method pays better?
SK: It really depends. We’ve gotten a lot of our gigs from busking, actually.
BS: Yeah, busking is definitely marketing. A lot of people recognize us from seeing us play on the street. It was a good way to start out. The problem with street performing is that once the winter comes…oof. Also, it’s hard for me to get by on what I make playing gigs in the winter because a lot of what we get offered is outdoors. Someone says, “Oh, you’d be great for this picnic I’m having.” Right now we busk on Friday nights and sometimes the weekends. But we try not to beat ourselves up on the streets as much anymore. We’re playing at a senior center this week and a daycare next week.
AVC: Which blues musicians have had the most influence on your slide-guitar playing?
SK: Blind Boy Fuller was the one for me. He played steel guitar in the '30s in the Piedmont style, as in Piedmont, N.C. He played a jumpier, more celebratory blues. He had a washboard player, Washboard Sam, so it made it easier for me to transfer the ideas to Brad. But where Brad and I really connected, in a soulful sort of way, was old Delta blues like Son House. The emotion of the blues that you get from him just hits you at the core.
AVC: Both the traditional blues numbers and your originals seem to have a raw stamp on them. How do you try to keep the covers a fresh?
SK: At first there was the balance where, starting out, I knew exactly what I wanted out of a street band and Brad—who could barely play the washboard—really didn’t. When he began adding all this stuff onto his washboard, I thought that maybe this is how it should be. Nobody was telling the first blues artists how to do what they did. They just did it. I’ve learned a lot from playing with Brad about just forgetting about how the songs are “supposed to sound” and to rebuild them as though we were born in that time. It makes it more authentic that way.
BS: Exactly. The old guys weren’t following some “basic progression” of the blues.
SK: In a way, Brad really improved my slide playing. My sliding is built around this kind of rhythmic chatter between he and I.
AVC: So you tend to focus more on the raw end of the blues spectrum?
BS: Well, yeah. How many times do you need to see an all-dad blues revue? [Laughs.] Now, that’s definitely the blues I grew up on, but Boo definitely steered me more toward the acoustic stuff. When I met him I was more into indie stuff, which I still am I guess.
SK: The biggest difference between the new blues and the old blues is that the new stuff has gained a purity of tone, quality of notes, and clarity. The old guys couldn’t afford that stuff, so they had to rely on rhythm, which is what is really interesting to me about the blues.
BS: These are the first African-Americans who got to play music again. A lot of the earlier stuff is based so much on the old African chants and syncopations. During slavery and Jim Crow, black people weren’t allowed to play instruments for fear of an uprising.
SK: With the slide stuff, I don’t do a lot of that typical stuff. I’m more interested in popping notes, popping strings, and doing little sweeps where I mimic Brad or add to his rhythms. Also, we use a lot of classically rotten notes or “blue notes,” because you get something out an atonal note that you don’t get out of a perfectly in tune note with a key or whatever. If you throw in a wrong note, it can add a percussive quality, because it jolts the ear. The other beautiful thing about the slide is that you can mimic the human voice.
AVC: You went on your first big tour this past spring. Were you hitting up venues or mostly busking?
BS: Mostly venues, but both, really. We went down to Texas and played all points in between. We played mostly venues, but when we played the street in the French Quarter in New Orleans, we were really at home.
SK: I got us a gig while we were on tour at this place in Mississippi called the Shack Up Inn.
BS: It was in Clarksdale, which was the capitol of the Delta blues.
SK: It was a bed and breakfast converted from worker and slave cabins.
BS: The booker’s name was Guy, and we told him we played straight-up Delta blues. He was like, “Yeah, I think y’all would be great. We’ll put you up in the Airstream trailer.”
SK: We also played this place called Red’s that had been up since the '60s. It was a complete dive. There was this plastic sheeting on the ceiling, it hadn’t been raining or anything, and there were puddles just pouring down. [Laughs.] When I checked the microphone, it zapped me in the mouth, and I was like, “Are we playing a show or being electrocuted?”
AVC: What’s next?
BS: I think mostly we’re just looking to mess around with recording a new album. I was recording a lot this week for fun while he was out of town. I have a whole trunk of pots and pans that I got at St. Vincent’s Dig And Save, and I’ve been banging them on the walls. I want something that has a fuller, crazier sound.
AVC: So your new recordings won’t be limited to what you are capable of pulling off live?
BS: Until now, the recordings have been based on the live sound. Before, we’d do no more than three takes live, sitting in a room. But like, we haven’t done a record for a couple years now. We are starting to think about what to do with the next one. We definitely want to maintain the traditional street sound, but we also want a broader selection of sounds and textures. We have already started some preliminary stuff. Recording has been a bit tough because the summer is when we make the best money, and I can’t put making a new record too ahead of making rent and eating. Unfortunately, the stuff we’ve been doing lately isn’t on any of our CDs. So we really want to get the album done, do a tour out East, and then maybe end up in New Orleans for the winter. I grew up here, but I don’t have the build for the winters here anymore. Also, Boo’s a Southern boy, so he doesn’t like the winters much either.