THE CREEPERS: STILL GOT THE BLUES
They are, almost certainly, the most popular Blues band on this little island of ours, their live gigs an energized display of thumping melodies and rhythmic flow that always has their audience on its feet and getting its groove on. In the five years The Creepers have been in existence, the band has played countless festivals and played alongside several artists, even opening for Blues-rock band The Brew and former-Dire Straits member and co-founder David Knopfler when the UK artists performed here. Beyond all that however, it's a genuine love for raw Blues of the vintage American kind and the thrill of creating an all-out buzz when playing it live that has given the band its popularity. They're clearly thrilled about it all, as MICHAEL BUGEJA finds out when he met The Creepers ahead of the fifth anniversary celebration concerts the band will be playing later this month.
So when, and perhaps more importantly how, did The Creepers get together? American vocalist and harmonica player Gilberto Arredondo says the band started to come together late 2009. "There was a blues gig at Muddy’s where the singer was ill, so they asked me to step in on vocals and harmonica". As luck would have it, Dutch guitarist Steven Van Der Nat was playing too. "That's how we met really, and realizing we were both deeply rooted in vintage American blues, we started looking at how to put a band together on the island". The Dutchman had already spoken to (drummer) Patrick Camilleri, and a few months after some initial jams, bassist Antoine Tonna completed the line-up. "Before long we were playing our debut gig at Snoopy’s in Sliema. That was April 2009." If, like me, you're wondering where the name came from, Arredondo says it's all music-related. "There's a harmonica-driven instrumental number by James Cotton called The Creeper, which is, simply put, a badass tune". Apparently, it’s a good time song with lots of oomph and that, together with the Creeper Cat, is how the band got its name.
Without a doubt the Blues is the key to the band’s existence, perhaps unsurprisingly so, Tonna recalls, given that the genre was the order of the day, indeed the raison d'etre of the band's very formation. "From the very beginning, this was all about vintage American Blues", he continues. "Both Gilberto and Steven were heavily influenced by the 1950s and 1960s plugged-in Chicago style, and they wanted to capture and recreate that sound in our music." While acknowledging the sound of the Delta Blues as an important part of their roots, Tonna emphasizes that rather than looking towards the Deep South, The Creepers were more focused and inspired by the "gutsy sounds of electric Chicago, such as Little Walter or Buddy Guy, for example."
Further to the mention of the Delta and Chicago Blues, I'm intrigued as to how a Mediterranean Blues band has managed, and successfully too, to steer clear of the 'European' sound. Arredondo says it was fairly straightforward. "European Blues was never of any interest to us, and we make no secret of it". Indeed, the band's tagline clearly reads 'Vintage American Blues' which, he adds, is where the origin of the groove and tone begins, and also where The Creepers' music is rooted. "It mostly comes out of the second and third generations of Blues artists; the ones that that came after the 1940s, emerging in the 1950s and 1960s in the Delta, up to Chicago and eventually California".
Arredondo also believes there is a big difference between the Blues The Creepers play and the Blues that Malta has experienced. "I think Malta is mostly familiar with the UK Blues scene, and I'd say that most of what is considered Blues here is more of a 'bluesrock' hybrid, which is a very different sound." He feels that it has been a challenge for the band to overcome the perception of blues in this scene. "Many tend to dismiss the Blues, saying it's boring or slow... until they come to one of our shows, following which we usually hear a lot of 'surprised' comments." It's quite likely down to people not having been exposed to vintage American blues and if, like myself, you've been to a Creepers gig, you'll know there's nothing that comes remotely close to slow or boring. On the contrary, you can expect music to boogie to and some impressive dynamics too.
Certainly one of, if not the primary foundation of most guitar music, I'm eager to know what is about the Blues that The Creepers find so alluring, addictive and inspiring? "Blues is about playing live, experiencing it live", says Sven Midensol, the guitarist and vocalist who has ably filled the space vacated by Van Der Nat. "The rustic sounds of a bar gig pull people in because when you’re there, and it's played with heart, you can really feel that in the music. You see it happening, you feel it, you get pulled in." Several past gigs in Malta are mentioned here, all of them solid proof of the Swede's statement, where the audience starts to move, shout, dance and get into the vibe of it. "And we’re on stage having a good time and buzzing to it all". Once that magic kicks in, Midensol says rockers start to groove, the Spanish tourists lose it, even the pop fans get it. "Barriers come down and that's what makes it great. Of course, we feed off it, keeping the tempo high to maintain that feeling for a couple hours, no breaks, just keep the audience there with us. What people feel, they like."
As with most bands, there have been some line-up changes too, but have these impacted much upon the band's sound? "Definitely", says Camilleri. "Andrew Francica, who played guitar with us for a while, and Sven have different influences, so the band's sound has evolved. Also, since Gilberto isn't always available, we've brought in sax and piano when our harmonica man is away". This exercise has successfully maintained the band's dynamic, or as Camilleri puts it, "The band's knack to deliver goodtime live gigs has not waned, regardless of which formation we're fronting; no matter who’s on stage, we’re going to play as hard just the same."
The Creepers have released two EPs so far. The first, Just the beginning was intended to show people what they could do and to get bookings. It worked, getting a lot of social media plays and bringing in gigs, with the band gracing the stages of all the major local festivals. The second, Movin’ On, aimed primarily at capturing the band with its current line-up and sound, has effectively consolidated their fanbase even further. So, five years on, what are The Creepers’ ambitions? "We love music, we love performing and we’re here to stay", Tonna assures me. "There are no particular aspirations for fame and fortune, to get signed or go global. We're just a group of friends who love to play Made-In-Malta-Blues, and that's what keeps us going".
The Creepers will be performing at St James Cavalier on Saturday, March 28 and Sunday, March 29. Ticket and event information is available on the 5th Anniversary Gig event page on Facebook or at www.facebook.com/thecreepers.
An edited version of this article was first published on The Sunday Times of Malta (22 March 2015)
Photo by JJ Chircop