How do you not want to sit down and talk with a band called the Bedbreakers? No one really knows where the name came from although the consensus is it originated from “a late night, beer-fueled ‘marketing research session” and the Bedbreakers just happened to be the last name not crossed off the list.
That said, they are an electric party of five, led by the twin guitars of band co-founders Alan Brown and Tim Pinnell. Harp player David Harrison, the stand up bass of Ruben Ramos, and drummer James Bowman round out the extremely diverse and talented rhythm section. All five are native San Diegans and all five share a deep-rooted love of music. “We’re kind of devotees of a certain style of music and the way that music was played,” Alan says. “The fundamental five-piece band, minus a keyboard player….”
Yet, the Bedbreakers are anything but your standard blues band. “We use the term roots or Americana,” Alan says. “Because if you tell a young person blues–or anybody, really–they have their own definition of what that means. There’s a tendency for people in order to understand things to want to pigeonhole. So we try to broaden the spectrum.”
And broaden the spectrum they do. Drawing from their vast range of personal and stylistic influences, the Bedbreakers set list on any given night works through a barrage of American roots, blues, soul, R&B, and ’50s rock.
We sat down briefly, right before the band tore up the Turquoise Room at the Riviera Supper Club in Le Mesa. Alan and Tim told me they have known each other since their youth and have been playing music together for the better part of 40 years. Alan says. “I was in this other band with a high school friend and he was ready to do an originals project. We’d been doing the bar band thing for a long time and Tim kind of dovetailed into it.” Alan laughs and adds, “You know, when I first met Tim, he was 22 or 23 and he had a Les Paul guitar and a Cadillac Coupe DeVille and I was like, ‘I’m gonna’ party with this guy. [laughing] It was a ’61 Cadillac and we had so much fun…Tijuana, Hollywood. That was our band car for many years.”
Tell us a little about that early band? “I started out on drums,” Alan says. “I was a drummer for many, many years, a singing drummer. You know, everyone in the band sang and we all took our turns. So we rented the most expensive studio in town–Studio West on the plateau–and we recorded our record and album. Our band’s name was Color TV. And, like all great bands, when you make your first album, you’re obliged to break up.”
What year was this? “This was the late ’70s,” Alan remembers. “Because I was out there playing military bases in Top 40 bands; I was playing in punk bands.” He smiles. “Anybody who called me up. I was on one of the first punk rock/new wave records that came out in the San Diego area. A band called the Skoings. It was a bunch of film students doing this project and coincidentally, you know, Tim Mays did that big thing at the Observatory at the North Park Theatre? He was talking about his early influences and he talked about this band that friends of his, these film students, had gotten together. And they are called the Skoings.” Alan laughs, “And I was sitting in the audience, just flabbergasted.”
I take it you’ve known Mays awhile as well. “I’ve known Tim from the North Park Lions Club days, Adams Avenue Theater days, from the old punk rock days. He was letting me in and kicking me out on a weekly basis.”
So why did Color TV disband? “Our friend,” Alan says, “decided to move to Hawaii and shape surf boards. So, Tim and I decide [that] we got a good thing going here; let’s continue on and find a rhythm section. So we met this fellow, Tom Flowers, who worked at the museum in La Jolla. He was from Austin, Texas and grew up with the whole Texas blues lexicon. Every time one of the big guys would come into town–Lightnin’ or Otis Rush or Albert Collins or any of those guys–he would personally escort us, almost like he was training us to be in his band.”
As Tim Pinnell grabs a seat at the table, he says. “Alan and I played together in all sorts of bands with lots of different people. He mentioned Color TV, but we had another band in the mid-’80s called Eleven Sons; it was all original stuff in the post-punk era. It was a different kind of music and we were influenced by British post-punk bands–the Joy Division and that kind of stuff–but we met some friends that turned us on to some good old blues and American music and we really started going that route. That band pooped out in the late ’80s, but we gave it about five good years. We used to rehearse in the basement of the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art in the Sherwood Auditorium.”
Let’s talk about the formation of the Bedbreakers. “In about 1989 we talked about getting a little blues band together about the time the original Casbah opened.” Alan says. “We were one of the first bands in there [that played] regularly. They were considering it more of a roots-type, blues, rockabilly, country environment. The Paladins played there a lot; Dave Gonzalez and Tim are very tight and we played with them the last time they appeared at the Casbah. We had a lot of fun.”
In the late ’80s and early ’90s a number of venues were showcasing different genres and styles. “We used to see the Swinging Kings during the big swing craze at the Belly Up. Sometimes when we were opening the show with the Blasters or when we were regulars on the Sunday two-band shows, [it was] all up-tempo bands; we really didn’t do slow blues. We were kind of their ‘go-to’ guys in certain situations. We got on a lot of bills with swingin’ Rockabilly bands. We played half a dozen times with the Blasters.”
All of the current Bedbreakers’ work outside music include harp player, Dave Harrison. A commercial photographer, Harrison said he was never officially hired to play in the band. “I got to know these guys from mutual friends,” he says. “And they were playing the exact music that I really dug. I started jamming with a lot of local musicians and I saw these guys playing and one of my friends tipped them off that I played harmonica. I jammed once or twice and played in Carlsbad at the Coyote Bar & Grill. I remember how I figured out I was in the band… Alan told me, ‘Who’s gonna’ take pictures if you’re in the band?’ [laughing] No one said, ‘You’re hired!’ So, I thought, ‘Oh, I guess I’m in a band!?’ [laughing] Anyway, we used to party and these guys were playing cool- old-time blues.”
This was in the early ’90s? “I played one of the very last shows at the old Casbah with these guys on the very weekend they closed the place down.”
Speaking of the Casbah, Alan says, “We used to do these barbeques–the four Bs: beef, beans, blues, and the Bedbreakers. The shows had the grill going out front, you know, on Kettner Blvd. and we’d be stirring up the beans and everybody would eat and then we’d play. It was a blast. We held the long-standing beer sales record at the Casbah until the Downs Family, which is an Irish band, beat us out on St. Patrick’s Day! And that is, like, cheatin’!” [laughing]
“We played a lot of early shows at the Casbah,” Pinnell adds, smiling. “And we’ve changed some personnel over the years. We’ve played weddings, played anyplace that would have us. We recorded a CD back in ’98 called Widetrack Town. Then, we took a break in about 2000, but our last big show was at the Casbah backing Hubert Sumlin who was Howlin’ Wolf’s guitarist for years. It was a nice way to go out. The guys at the time all needed a little break and we took about ten years off. But we all got a little itchy and we got James and Ruben to come on board with us, friends from around town.”
How long have you been working with this lineup? “James has been with us seven years? 2010, 2011? and Ruben…about the same time. Another reason we wanted Ruben was because he plays a standup, and we really wanted a standup bass.”
Your set list reflects such a tremendous diversity; do you think that comes back to the bands’ influences? “We got Dave,” Al says, “because he plays in the Little Walter-distorted harmonica style with the Fender amp and Bullet microphone.” Harrison nods and adds, “Without a doubt the number one influence is Little Walter for any amplified harp player–to get the tone and the big sound and to learn all the licks, which is a whole other story. Paul Butterfield is one of the first records I bought… Incense, Herbs and Oils and I tried to learn every note on that record.”
But it’s more than just the Chicago sound…“We like Chicago.” Tims says, “but there’s room in there for everything. Remember in the ’90s that big full swing revival where you got a little more jump blues in there. We were never a swing band or rockabilly band or any of that, but if you pick up a few more of those numbers you get on a bill or two.”
“Yeah, we like to keep the country blues thing going, too.” Al says. “The Delta feel with a little swing and a little bit of Texas. I would venture to say that we’re one of the few bands that do Lightnin’ Hopkins stuff in our set AND some Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland. Tim and I know a couple hundred songs between us, like oh…remember that one? We just love that old-fashioned two guitars, bass, drums, and harmonica; that classic Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf lineup. We were always two guys looking for a singer, which is a hundred times more difficult to get something going. At a certain point we said, ‘Why don’t I step out from behind the drums and we’ll go out and find a bass player and a drummer.”
The drummer they found was James Bowman and his influences were just as wide-ranging. “I mean, Booker T and the MGs are a cornerstone for me.” James says. “That and the JBs and all the James Brown stuff. Howlin’ Wolf and Lightnin’ Hopkins. I love John Lee Hooker. I grew up in a house of music; my mom and dad were always blaring James Brown and they were killer dancers. There was always R&B and funk stuff and that was my doorway. I’m a big jazz fan, ’50s and ’60s era, Blue Note, Impulse stuff, and John Coltrane is my all-time… but when it comes to drummers, it’s the pocket players like Al Jackson, Levon Helm–those guys that can just sit in the groove.”
The bottom end of the Bedbreakers, bassist Ruben Ramos says, “I’ve know Al and Tim forever and a day.” Ruben says. “We had tried to get together back in the late ’90s but I was too busy with other projects. I was in a big band called Big Time Operator. And I’d just come off the road with a punk show and another band, Battalion of Saints. I come from a more rock ‘n’ roll bent, a little harder edge, being a kid from the ’70s. A punk rock background but somewhere along the line, country and stuff like that, what my dad used to listen to. It’s like it’s come full circle.”
And as far as blues, “Paul Butterfield was big for me. Muddy, obviously.” But, Ruben confesses, “It was more of a jazz thing for me. I was really influenced by Jeff Beck back in the day; it struck a chord with me. And later on in the late ’70s and early ’80s it was Return to Forever and Jean-Luc Ponty, so that’s where that comes from but now it’s like, it is what it is.” [laughing]
Tim Pinnell admits, “I grew up like most kids around here, with the radio on. I focused on the classic rock stuff in Jr. High in the ’70s and got a little sideways into some of the punk stuff going on. But talking about Little Walter,” Tim just shakes his head, “the guitar players are phenomenal. The guitar players on all that Chess stuff really caught my ear… I really love those guitar players. I tried to learn a lot of styles of blues guitar, from B.B. King to the Delta blues slide guitars. Willie Johnson, Wolf’s first guitarist, that real dirty, distorted stuff… ’til it sounds like the amps are about to blow up.”
You mentioned a previous CD. Any plans to go back into the studio? “Yeah, in fact we did a number of songs that are on Bandcamp that my son produced and engineered. They’re all rhythm and blues and standards, like ‘Mellow Down Easy’ and ‘Tramp,’ Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland. It’s absolutely free and anyone can go and check it out on Bandcamp.com. That’s us on there, doin’ our thing.”
Do you write music together? “We’ve been focusing on that.” Tim says. “I’d like to write more. We wrote a lot on the album we did in the ’90s and we’d love to get back into that.”
“It’s not easy, man.” Alan adds. “If you’re a traveling band, it’s one thing. If you stay in town it’s a whole other thing. Especially if you’re writing songs about your true feelings and you’re pouring them out in front of everybody every night; it gets stale quick, you know? We’re doing what we think is fun, and keeping it fun.”
Tim nods, “This is fun–it’s partly our entertainment, our recreation, our mental health, and if we make gas money…”
And if you had to describe the Bedbreakers…? “We have this long-standing friendship we like to express through music. And we like to share that with others,” Tim says, “We love this music, it makes us happy. For us it’s the best music to party to. Like a lot of people who have played different styles during their lives, many of us gravitate toward a more rootsy or traditional style as we get older.
And we love it. This town is full of such wonderful talent and we just do what we do. We have fun and hope people join us.”
Your next opportunity to have fun with the Bedbreakers will be Saturday, June 2, 2018 at the San Diego Museum of Art – Panama 66 in Balboa Park. Get out and support you local music scene!