Dave Harris is a professional Busker from Canada. He is also the author of perhaps the ONLY comprehensive history book of One Person Bands. BCS had this wonderful interview with him.
Are you exclusively a One Man Band? If not, what other setups/players do you work with?
Dave: I am mostly a one man band but have and still do work in bands or duos. In the band I play electric guitar, electric fiddle and rack harp (amplified with a Strnad clip on mic into an old Oahu amp). The band is called Davelectro & The G-Men (with Gary “G-Man” Thompson – drums and George “G2” Fenn on bass). In the duos I play my one man band act with a friend on bass or a second guitarist.
How long have you been performing? Tell a little bit about your foray into the world of performance, particularly as a One Man Band?
Dave: I have been performing since 1977. I started busking on the streets of Victoria, BC in the summer of 77. I was a stand-up guitar/rack harp player (so already a simple one man band). I soon added solo fiddle to my act and later mandolin. Most of the 80s I spent busking in a bluegrass type band or solo. In the 90s I sat down and added drums (kick and snare or high-hat), but still mostly with others (Mike Nitchie on bass especially). In about 1996 I went full tilt into one-man-band-dom, using a steel body guitar, fiddle, harp and drums, playing blues almost exclusively. I seldom played indoors, an odd gig here or there, but just too much work to set it all up with PA, mikes on everything. So, I’m basically a career busker. The odd festival here or there. I never was good at the booking part either. As my OMB progressed I added the mandolin back in, viola, 2nd violin in different tuning, 6 string banjo, various other harps (Auto-Valves – 2 reeds an octave apart in each hole – very accordionish in sound), second and third steel body guitars in different tunings and a fotdella (foot operated bass invented by Jesse Fuller). It was a LOT to carry around and people would gape as I went by with my 4 wheel dolly loaded to the nines. Took 15 minutes to set up or tear down. Often people would watch just for the set-up. Over time I scaled it back. The fotdella kept breaking down and wasn’t loud enough. Eventually I retired it (still have it) and several of the extra instruments. My show now has two steel body guitars, the banjo, the fiddle, the harps and Farmer foot drums (self contained five piece drum kit). It’s enough, although I do miss the bass sometimes (but not the problems or hauling it around!).
If you were in an elevator with a person who was capable of becoming a lifelong, dedicated fan who would NEVER in a million years request “Freebird,” what would you say to both give them an idea of your music and pique their interest?
Dave: I used to play Freebird (lol). It went over well. But seriously, the first thing I guess I’d say was that I was a roots performer who specializes in blues. I play a lot of slide. My big trademark is playing fiddle (or slide guitar) with harp at the same time. It’s harder than it sounds but, as with anything, if you do it enough it becomes ingrained (muscle memory). My music is pretty diverse though and one could easily hear me doing 60s/70s rock/soul classics or 50s rock and roll or country/bluegrass as blues these days. Being a busker for a livelihood means having a large diverse repertoire. It also keeps me going for the many hours I might spend in the day performing.
What are the benefits of playing everything yourself? Limitations? Do you see being a One Man Band as a temporary “do what you gotta do till you get a band” type of thing or is the kind of performance type that you like best?
Dave: The benefits outweigh the limitations, in my opinion. It takes dedication to become a good OMB. That alone is a big reward, getting good at something, and a big motivation for me. I’m in it for the long haul and I try to improve myself as I go. Obviously the money not being split is a big benefit too. As someone who has busked in combos up to nine piece, I can say with certainty that the OMB pays better than two, three or more. In fact, I’ve done better by myself than having three well rehearsed guys, by that I mean more than the three of us earned all together! I think people are very wowed by a good OMB. They sit watching, often patting their head while rubbing their stomach, hardly believing what is happening. The same people might just walk by a combo, as it isn’t novel. Novelty plays into it a lot, I think. Another benefit is getting better at several things or using the various body parts. I know my brain is working hard but sometimes it drifts off while I’m playing (even in hard parts). I’ll be thinking about what I’ll do when I get home only to wake up thinking, “Did I play that verse twice?” Muscle memory is a big thing in music. I must admit that sometimes I’m uncomfortable in a band now, as I’m so used to my own rhythms. So that’s a limitation. Lots of things I can do better as a OMB than as a stand up guitarist. I do miss band interaction as well. It’s lonely doing it solo all of the time. I’m not the easiest to get along with but I’m not a hermit either. Yeah, I miss the band stuff a lot. I’m glad I at least keep a hand in it. But I’ll never quit the OMB either, the challenge is inspiring.
I understand you are a professional busker. What would you say are the major differences of playing in the street vs on the stage? Do you have preferences? How often are you able to do each these days?
Dave: I’m proud to say I’ve made my living busking almost exclusively (no welfare or monthly cheques). There was a period in the mid 90s when I hardly busked, was in five bands playing bars. But other than a few years in there it’s been busk, busk, busk. I like both but prefer busking to the bar (better environment, wider spectrum of people, kids, elderly, smiles, the sun, better money). I love festivals but again, bad at business. I doubt I play ten indoor gigs most years. One thing about the indoor gigs is the ability to play electric instruments (not allowed on the streets here). I miss that.
You are a One Person Band historian of the highest order. Your excellent book “Head, Hands, & Feet” is easily the most comprehensive (perhaps only?) history of One Person Bands. What led you to take on this ambitious project? How long did it take to work on it? Though I’m sure it’s hard to pinpoint, as best you can, and in light of your extensive research, what are a few characteristics and “gifts” that One Person Bands have and continue to offer us that distinguishes them from more traditional “bands”?
Dave: Thank you for the compliment! Yes, it is the only one other than the Rocktober! OMB magazine issue from 2002. I didn’t get online until 2009! So, when I did, I looked around to see what might be out there on me, being a bit egocentric, lol. I found a few things but noted how many OMBs I found. I was familiar with the older blues guys as I’m an avid collector of records. But I was shocked how many OMBs there were! So, I looked to see if a book existed but no, there were none. I started thinking about writing one. It was very inspiring. I love writing too. I had written reviews and articles for small publications before. I sent out countless requests for info/photos and one guy led to another. Some people were terrifically helpful, others never responded. I self-published the book on my own dime in 2012, so three years of work, very intensive, especially during the winter. Several things stood out to me about OMBs. Firstly, the independent nature to learn the instruments and put them together. Secondly, the single minded focus to attempt the near impossible. OMBs come in many shades and at many levels (as do any musicians) but they all draw on a common “I’m going to make this work!” attitude. Also, most are very good multi-taskers.
List three to five of your favorite albums?
Dave: Oh dear, this is tough question! I have way over 10,000 LPs and CDs. I love many styles and I’m not good at picking favourites. My tastes have changed over the years too so my early favourites included Jimi Hendrix – Are You Experienced, Allman Brothers – Live at the Fillmore and Neil Young – Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (my teenage years). In the 80s I might have picked Kentucky Colonels – Live 1964, Jimmy Reed – The Legend, The Man and Otis Rush – Right Place, Wrong Time. In the 90s it might have been Clarence Gatemouth Brown – The Peacock Recordings, Little Walter – Boss Blues Harmonica and Big Bill Broonzy – Big Bill’s Blues. In the 2000s it might have been Jesse Fuller – San Francisco Bay Blues, Lonnie Johnson – Stepping on the Blues and Robert Nighthawk – Live on Maxwell Street. But it changes all the time. I couldn’t even list everyone I love, it would be pages long.
How can we find out more about you?
Dave: I’m very active on FB – https://www.facebook.com/dave.harris.75
I have several FB groups too but anyone interested can find me and I can direct them, if interested.