I interviewed blues artist, Pieter van der Pluijm, aka “Big Pete,” one of the headliners at two upcoming local blues festivals. Big Pete is a native of Holland and followed the late Lester Butler and his band, the Red Devils whenever they appeared in Europe. Big Pete was so influenced by Los Angeles native, Butler, that he taught himself to play the harmonica and went on to lead a Lest Butler cover band after Butler’s death.
Big Pete has since transformed into an incredible blues artist in his own right – and has put out a fantastic new album, “Big Pete Choice Cuts!” available from Delta Groove Records. Big Pete will be playing at the upcoming Doheny Blues Festival in May, and then the Simi Valley Cajun and Blues Festival.
Here is the interview:
RN: When and where did you first see Lester Butler play and what was your first impression?
BIG PETE: I first saw Lester in 1993 on Dutch National TV, when I was 16 years old. I knew a little bit about blues, but it didn’t go much further then Eric Clapton or Stevie Ray, so I was really into the guitar thing at the time. I was also listening to a lot of the alternative music that was happening at that moment, like Nirvana,Alicein Chains, etc. But I also liked rap, like Snoop Dogg, dr Dre & Cypress Hill.
In Holland, the most famous pop festival ‘Pinkpop’ is aired on National TV every year, and like other years I was watching it on TV to see some of my favorite bands, the black Crowes & Rage against the Machine. That’s when I first saw the Red Devils with Lester, and they blew my mind. I had never experienced such raw blues, and for me it was like a revelation. I started looking around to find the Red Devils’ famous record, King King, and a few days later I found it somewhere in Rotterdam. I was extremely excited about the whole harmonica thing Lester did, and it was a matter of weeks before I went out & bought my first one (in a completely wrong key of courseJ). I locked myself in my bedroom for weeks & started trying to play along to King King. I went all over NL, every library, CD store to find out as much as I could about it (playing harp) and about Lester, but it wasn’t like it is today with the Internet and so on, so it was quite a journey. Through the liner notes on the King King CD, I found all these other names like Willie Dixon, and before I knew it I entered a completely new world, the world of BLUES.
RN: Were you playing musical instruments at the time and singing? Did you have any musical training?
BIG PETE: I started playing guitar when I was around 11 or 12, on my dad’s acoustic until he got me my first electric guitar. I think I was always singing ever since I was a really young kid.
Around that time in 1993, I was in a band singing, doing all sorts of rock covers. I think I quit that band right after I saw the Red Devils, and together with my best friend (who was also the guitar player in that rock band ‘Big Shit’) and we started our first blues band. I was trying to play a little harp, but I was also playing guitar. When I got better at playing the harmonica I started doing that more & more, And got really into it. I was finding out about Little Walter, Muddy Waters, Junior Wells and I just couldn’t get enough of it.
RN: Describe your first one on one meeting with Lester and the the baddest concert of his you ever attended.
BIG PETE: Well, it was a strange situation. When I found out about Lester, the Red Devils had already split up, and there was no information whatsoever on what Lester was doing after that. All I had, was this one record. Then, in 1997, I opened up a Dutch magazine and saw an advertisement for a show at the famous Paradiso inAmsterdam. It said, ‘Lester Butler and his new band 13, this & this date’. Me and my friends (whom I all turned into big fans of the Red Devils) went crazy, and got tickets right away.
That night, was a dream come true. There we were, right in front of the stage, anxiously awaiting the arrival of our hero, Lester Butler. All of a sudden, this character walks up on stage, and put some harmonicas on top of a Bassman amplifier. It was a scary looking dude, with tattoos all over, and some almost ‘prison’ looking clothes. Very gangster. Everybody was saying, ‘Naw, that’s not Lester’ cause he looked COMPLETELY different from the time he was playing with the Devils in ’93. I knew it was ‘Him’ right away. Then, when the band cut loose on the first track, we all went NUTS. We were like some chicks at a Beatles concert or something!! I remember seeing the band looking at us, going ‘WTF’…..haha. We were all mesmerized by Lester & the band, in a trance so to speak. We got the ‘13’ album, got really into that too….also, some bootlegs started to appear so we were all just eating it up. We went to every 13 show, found out about more people & bands into it, and again a new world opened up for me & my friends. I think at a 13 show in 1998, inRotterdam, I finally had the guts to go up to Lester after a show, and ask him some questions. He was very polite, but didn’t say much. When I asked him how he got those haunting lyrics for his song ‘Devil Woman’, he just said ‘Lived it man…’ so that was that. He did invite me backstage to have a beer, and of course I went. That’s also when I first met Alex Schultz. It was also the first & last time I ever talked with Lester.
RN: What was your reaction upon learning of his death? Where were you when you heard?
BIG PETE: I was in my favorite bar/hangout in my hometown, when a friend of mine who had just got off work, ran into the bar screaming ‘Lester Butler’s dead, Lester Butler’s dead!!’ We all thought, ‘yeah right’ we just saw him a few weeks ago…..then he explained how they were talking about it on the radio. We turned the radio on, heard the news & basically started sobbing……..I couldn’t believe that my ‘musical Godfather’ was gone. I think it actually took me a while to get over that. I still miss him, hearing him play. He really was a big part of my teenage years, and how I grew up. Almost like a father/brother/role model that I never did know personally!!
RN: Tell me me about your new album – what earlier musicians were your influences and what are you trying to achieve?
BIG PETE: Well, the album is going strong, so far so good! It was really a dream getting all those guys on it, and I’m very thankful that I got this chance. A lot of my influences are on the record, like Al Blake, Kim Wilson, Paul Oscher……unbelievable. The songs I choose are basically random, if I did the record today it could have been completely different. A lot of my influences’ songs are on it, Little Walter, Billy Boy Arnold, Junior Wells…
Basically what I tried to achieve with this record, is make a TOTAL BLUES record. I’ve released several albums in the past, with mostly original songs, but all of them were more ‘rock/alternative/roots’ type records, not as they say ‘traditional’ blues. I always wanted to make a traditional blues album, and this is it. I’m very happy with the outcome of it, but I think the next one will again be one of more original songs. This is just an album I ‘had to make’ and sort of ‘get out of my system’!
RN: Do you consider yourself one of the “new wave” blues musicians?
BIG PETE: Not really…….I mean, I’ve been making music for almost 20 years so it would be silly to try ‘n sell that. I do think, I’m still one of the younger generation harmonica players that actually plays blues.
And I mean that in a good way.
RN: What is happening with your new album on Delta Groove?
BIG PETE: It’s been going really well, great reviews, award nominations……..so way more than I expected to tell you the truth…..
At this moment, I just can’t wait to get to work on the next one!! J
RN: How did the album develop in the studio and how many musicians contributed?
We recorded it in 3 days, with 16 musicians……..pretty crazy, but an experience I will never forget!!
RN: How did you meet music producer, Randy Chortkoff, and what has he done for your career?
BIG PETE: I first met Randy in 2008, at the Moulin Blues festival in Holland, were I did a huge Lester Butler Tribute, with some of his original band members……..even Lester’s sister Ginny was there and his girlfriend Lori. So I was a pretty heavy deal. Randy was playing the festival with the Mannish Boys, and they were all on the side watching our set. We started talking, but I was ill at that time. We promised each other to stay in touch, and so we did and became very close friends. What he has done for my career is beyond words, BMA nominated album…….wouldn’t have happened without him.
RN: “The Blues” is an American invention, and African American invention – Lester loved the traditionalists but he took it to another level and made his own mark – what are you as a European going to do with the blues?
BIG PETE: That’s a tough question Rob…….as far as I’m concerned, I just wanna keep on making music. Entertain people. And hopefully, I have the same effect on some young dudes, like Lester had on me…..the way it is with everything traditional, is that you hope people keep it alive after you. And I hope that’s the case……that’s certainly what I’ll be trying to for as long as I can. And I hope that when people talk about me & my playing, they’ll say that no one sounds like Big Pete………..
You can see Big Pete playing here with the Mannish Boys recently in Germany.