Big Bad Voodoo Daddy Speaks

Big Bad Voodoo Daddy’s Scotty Morris talks with Pollstar about 20 years of playing swing music, how the band has stuck together all this time and why performing on stage never feels like “a job.”

Emerging out of California’s Oxnard-Ventura area during the early 1990s, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy had already self-released two albums before an appearance in the 1996 film “Swingers” helped introduce them to a wider audience.

Now, having released its eighth studio album – Rattle Them Bones – Big Bad Voodoo Daddy continues doing what it does best – entertaining fans with their own style of big bad voodoo swing.

In preparation for this interview, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy’s record label, Savoy Jazz, asked the band’s fans to send in their photographs, promising the best one would be included. That honor goes to William Hawkins, whose photo of BBVD at Disney’s Epcot Center appears below.

Photo: William Hawkins
Epcot Center, Lake Buena Vista, Fla.

With many aspiring musicians dreaming about becoming rock stars or country music artists, why did you seek your fortune in swing music?

I grew up playing trumpet and listening to all kinds of different music. At that point, when I was a little kid, Louie Armstrong was still alive and [was still appearing] on TV. That’s the kind of stuff I saw. When you’re a little kid, especially in that time, your TV was your only outlet to find out what was what. I started trumpet in second or so grade. At that point, those were the guys that were role models – Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Louie Armstrong. When I heard Armstrong’s music, that was it for me. I’ve just been trying to catch some sort of derivative of that kind of thing. And, with more music, it just got deeper and deeper with Count Basie and Duke Ellington.

Did your interest in swing make you the odd one out while growing up?

Maybe by default. Swing music and jazz music are just a few of the musical things I’m in to. I love music … and I listen to everything. For me a good song is a good song. It doesn’t matter what style or genre it is. I’ve always been that way since I was a little kid. I think that, as a musician, I can play so many different styles. I’m into so many different kinds of music.

What do you think you would be doing if you weren’t playing Big Bad Voodoo Daddy music?

The music that I write. It’s an interesting thing. I write all kinds of music but when I play swing music, I get the best results. There’s something about the way that I play or perform this kind of music that people want to hear me or my band do more than if were to put out something different.

I play lots of different songs for friends and whatnot that I recorded in the studio. They’ll listen to it and go, “That’s great, man. When’s the record coming out?”

I’ve had the best results with the reactions that happen when I play music.

Is it difficult writing within the swing music genre?

If I was on a deadline, it would be murder because you’re standing in the footsteps of some of the greatest songwriters in the history of music, as far as I’m concerned. It’s pretty daunting if you have to write a record, if you have to do something.

But if you’re listening to certain style of music or an artist, and all of a sudden you’re totally inspired to write music, and that kind of music comes out of it, it’s pretty easy.

This last record that we just did was a little more easy for me because I was a lot more inspired.

When performing, you not only play the music, but you somewhat take on the persona of a swing band leader. Is that something you can just turn on, or do you have to psyche yourself up mentally to step into those shoes?

As cliché as it may sound, it is me. We did a thing for Google Television and did a collaboration with a tap dancer. They asked for pictures of me as a little boy. I pulled out a couple of pictures of when I was 3 and playing the ukulele and singing. The way I was playing and performing in front of my family, all of the guys in my band were laughing, going, “You’re exactly the same. There’s no difference.”

When listening to the band’s records, it’s easy to imagine the music appearing on a soundtrack from a film made in the 1930s or ’40s.

We take the music really seriously. Especially the music we’re playing now [and] not just because it’s the latest record we put out. [The band] is almost 20 years old. I still practice three hours every single day and work really hard at this whole thing. I don’t take anything that’s happened in the past for this band for granted, and I don’t take anything that’s going on for granted. I just take everything for what it is. This whole band just tries as hard as we can to do the best we possibly can with the opportunity we have. Music is a special thing.

Especially right now. Music in the business is being stripped. Musicians have such a hard time making a living playing music. You got to really cherish what you have.

When you started Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, did you think the band would last 20 years?

When I started the band, it was my intention to only do this kind of thing. The original members are still in the band and that’s pretty unheard of. I’m still pretty dumbfounded that we’re still very good friends.

Does it ever feel like a job?

The only time it feels like a job … there’s a joke in the band that [goes] I play every single night for free, but you have to pay me to travel. That’s the hard part. Traveling is hard.

Are you bored when the band isn’t working?

I stay active. If I’m not active, if I’m not producing a record or writing songs for somebody else, or if I’m recording my own thing or working on new tunes – yes, I’m bored.

How do you turn a song into a Big Bad Voodoo Daddy number?

In the simplest form now, I’ll basically write the tune – the music and the lyrics. But what I do now, is I’ll edit it in its simplest form. So I don’t take advantage of the chords, I don’t take advantage of any of the theory of the music. I take it in its simplest form and give it to Joshua Levy, our pianist. He’s a USC graduate – orchestration, jazz degree – he’s a phenomenal musician and incredible arranger. I give him what I think is good and then I reference what it is I’m trying to go for. Because we’ve been working together for so many years, I just give him a few songs to reference. Then, what he’ll do is, take the demo or song and listen to it and then start using his knowledge of chords and his arranging skills and frames the tune around the melody. Then he gives it back to me and we start digging around in the horn section. Then we’ll piece it back together … then the band will put its stamp on it.

By the time you go into the recording studio, do you already know how the music should sound?

You have to. We usually record with about, between three and five other horns, so you have to be totally organized or you’re going to waste a lot of money.

What changes when the band works with an orchestra and you need to incorporate other people’s ideas into the performance?

I kind of feel like … during a two-week run the band is already on fire, kind of like a sports car. And when you play with a symphony, because it’s so big and it’s got such a cushion to it, it feels to me like going from a sports car to a 1969 Cadillac. It’s big and smooth.

What we do is, basically, we score a symphony around what we do. It works out pretty good.

So the symphony has to adapt to you and the band.

Yeah, but we incorporate them quite a bit. But it is a little bit of give and take, but it’s more their give than ours.

Is it a thrill to perform with a symphony and hear that big fat sound backing you?

It is, big time. I wrote this song years ago, called “Save My Soul.” It’s a New Orleans dirge and jumps a lot of keys and modulates about four times throughout the song. As the song goes and is played right, it really starts to pick up speed to where it’s really going towards the end. When we do that with a symphony, I get chills every single time.

The last time we played [with a symphony] was three nights with the Kansas City Symphony. After the second night, a bunch of people from the string section came over to me and said, “I really, really like that song a lot. That thing really feels good.”

It really is unbelievable, the feeling when it all comes together.

Big Bad Voodoo Daddy has done several TV appearances. Have you and the band ever thought about having your own TV show?

I would be totally for that as long as … I think the format would have to be the right format. I wouldn’t have any problems doing the acting. I would feel comfortable in front of the camera as long as I believed in the story. But if you’re talking about a reality kind of thing, there’s no possible way.

Could you base a TV show around the band and its travels? Something along the lines of “The Adventures Of Big Bad Voodoo Daddy?”

You definitely could. There are seven core members, we travel with two extra horn players and then we have a crew of four. That’s 13 members, it’s like a traveling circus, traveling gypsies. It’s pretty great, pretty funny. Everyone gets along so well, it maybe wouldn’t be a good show because nobody fights.

I like Jools Holland’s show. I like the variety he has and I wouldn’t have any opposition to doing something like that.

Are there any film or TV projects in the works?

We just released another record – Rattle Them Bones – and we’re kind of waiting to see what the opportunities bring with the new record. We’re hoping we’re going to reach as wide an audience as we possible can. Like I said, the window of opportunity in music these days is really slim. We’re hoping to crack down and do some stuff. I heard rumors that there may be a “Dancing With The Stars” appearance this year and we’ll probably do the “Tonight Show” during the first part of next year.

You mentioned the crew. What moves Big Bad Voodoo Daddy from town to town?

It’s different. When we’re going out for a two-week run, we’re in a tour bus. We have a truck to transport gear. We’ve been traveling that way for 15 years.

If they’re just short four- or five-day runs, we just grab four rent-a-cars and a Ryder truck for gear.

Are your biggest fans in the U.S. or is that reserved for another country?

We have really hardcore fans in the U.K. and Australia. Last year, in Australia, there was an entire [stage] show with Big Bad Voodoo Daddy music. It was called “Mr. Pinstripe Suit,” and it played for about six weeks in Cairns.

What can you say about Rattle Them Bones that we probably don’t know?

If you like that music, if you like what Big Bad Voodoo Daddy has done in the past … It’s one of my favorites. There’s a little something for everybody. For people who have been fans of the band for many years, there’s something for you. But there’s also a whole bunch of other avenues. For better or for worse, no two [BBVD records] sound the same.

How long does it take record a Big Bad Voodoo Daddy album?

About six days. I would say about 90 percent of it was recorded live. I don’t think anything on this record went more than three takes.

If you could step into a time machine and go back to 1989, what advice would you give to that era’s Scotty Morris.

Nothing. I like what I did. I didn’t screw it up. I didn’t make a bunch of money and I didn’t spend a bunch of money. I just kept it even all the way through. I think my parents gave me good advice from the get go.

And that was?

It wasn’t to go big. You can take the boy out of Oxnard but you can’t take Oxnard out of the boy. I told the guys that when swing was blowing up out of control, we all sat each other down and said don’t buy big houses on big hills with big cars and big finances. Put this stuff in the band and buy something you feel comfortable in. Don’t worry about what you think you’re supposed to do, just keep something where you can do this the rest of your life and not get yourself in hock. And that’s exactly what we did.

Talking Stick Resort, Scottsdale, Ariz.

Upcoming gigs for Big Bad Voodoo Daddy include Niagara Falls, N.Y., at Bear’s Den Oct. 20; Annapolis, Md., at Rams Head On Stage Oct. 22-23; Clayton, N.C., at the Clayton Center oct. 27; Franklin, Tenn., at the Franklin Theatre Oct. 30 and Tampa, Fla., at Lowry Park Zoo Nov. 3. For more information, visit