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Not My Monkey Not My Circus
Keith "Hitman" Alexander
Hitman Blues Band
Russell “Hitman” Alexander is having a life-long love affair with music. He is a Bandleader, Guitarist, and Lead Vocalist for Hitman Blues Band. No “somebody done somebody wrong,” song will ever make its way into their set—mind you. Hitman’s artistic manifesto is about dispensing hope and journaling real life.
Q. Reality bites. Talk about doing anything and everything to keep playing the blues while also making sure that the lights stay on, and your family is fed.
A. I played “club dates”, which are weddings, corporate affairs, quadrilles, coming out parties (yes, rich people still have those), pretty much anything. I would also play any and every blues gig I could get, including running countless jam sessions. For fun, I explored computers - until the gigs started drying up and I took the advice of friends and started working with computers for money. But I never took a steady job - it would get in the way of gigs! So there was a lot of “feast or famine” times.
Q. When did you realize that if the blues was worth living for it was also worth dying for? What was that reckoning that you would never give it up despite everything that it may cost you?
A. I never felt the blues was worth dying for. That wouldn’t make sense. Living is a lot harder than dying - you only die once. But it did make many aspects of living more difficult. There’s financial uncertainty, rejection, criticism, and many dark nights. The main thing is: do you feel the music? Is your life better because of it? Can you make other people’s lives better through it? If the answers are “yes”, then you really don’t have much choice. You play music because that’s what you do, you might focus on a particular genre because that’s what reaches you.
Q. The Clive Davis Netflix documentary is called The Soundtrack Of Our Lives. That is an apt title. How would you personalize that memorable phrase with a couple examples from your own life?
A. An old friend of mine, who I hadn’t heard from in many years, called one day out of the blue. She said “I always know how your life is going by your albums.” Music is definitely the soundtrack of our lives, and this has been proven by studies which show that even patients with advanced Alzheimer’s react to certain music. I’ve seen that myself, when I used to play at homes for the elderly and other institutions for the mentally disabled. A song can take you back to specific incident, or period of your life. When my father died, one song that helped me was Great Big Sea’s “Ordinary Day”. When my best friend died in my mid-20s, for some reason The Who’s “Five Fifteen” resonated with me. You never know which song will bring you comfort or solace, or even why, but we are fortunate to have access to so much music.
Q. You are the son of famed jazz violist—Ray Alexander. How did being exposed to music from childhood wire you for the rigours of the industry?
My father, Ray Alexander, was first a drummer and then a jazz vibist (not violist). I saw firsthand how uncertain the industry was, as well as the comprises you have to make in order to make a living. I saw the unfairness of it, but I also saw the beauty and connection with something bigger than yourself when you play. I saw how people react to music (and how some DON’T react), and I learned that above all, music is communication.
Q. You have spoken about your early memories, which include your father’s jam sessions with luminaries such as Tal Farlow, Major Holley, Oliver Jackson, and many others. What live performance, most, transformed or informed your songwriting, vocals or guitar-playing or your psychology as a bandleader?
A. When I was quite young, a neighborhood guy heard me singing with a local group and said “you sound like a guy who sings at weddings.” This was years before the movie The Wedding Singer came out, or Bill Murray’s “Nick the Lounge Singer”. He actually meant it as a compliment, but right then I decided I sure as hell was going to fix that. And I became VERY critical of my vocal performances, but made sure I fixed the things I didn’t like. I also took vocal lessons for quite a few years with different teachers, with the goal of getting the sound I wanted.
I worked with many, many bandleaders as a sideman. Some were great, some were horrible. I learned from all of them. It’s just as important to know what to avoid as it is to know what to do. Again, when I was pretty young, I was leading a gig at a local bar - I was probably about 16. I was being a jerk on stage, yelling at guys for screwing up. And the drummer, who was the absolute nicest guy in the world, came up to me during a break and said “In you previous life you must have been a hemorrhoid, because you’re a pain in the ass!” And I thought “Wow, if I pissed HIM off, I must really be a jerk!”. And I never yelled or criticized anyone on stage after that. And I was always very, very careful about how I spoke to band members regarding their parts during rehearsals. Sometime after that, I happened to see a band where the bandleader was acting the way I used to, and thought “If not for my friend, that could be me.” I’ve told him this story a few times (we’re still friends), and he doesn’t really remember it - but I do.
Q. Having over 40 years experience as a professional musician/bandleader, songwriter, publisher, and record company owner, Hitman you’ve been steeped in many sides of the music business. Royalties and mechanical licensing is something emerging “beat” Producers of today lack knowledge concerning, and as a result lose out big time. Can you talk on the importance of taking care of the business side?
A. Oprah Winfrey said “Make sure you sign every check”, meaning “know every detail about where your money is going”. That means learn something about the business end of music. Sometimes you’re going to get ripped off, but at least walk into it with your eyes wide open. A guy named Moses Avalon wrote a book called “Confessions Of A Record Producer”. At the end, he gives an annotated example of a standard record contract. It’s absolutely fantastic, it explains everything. Using that, I managed to get my father out of a horrible record contract he had signed. There are a lot of great books and courses out there, but learning the essentials - what are mechanical royalties, what are copyright splits, how do you co-write with others, what are Performing Rights Organizations (PRO) and why do you need them, what does “notwithstanding the foregoing” mean (a BIG one in any contract), are all vitally important if you’re seriously thinking of music as a career.
Q. Hitman, your experience is robust—performing on the road—worldwide, first playing with “society" orchestras (Lester Lanin, Peter Duchin, Roger Stanley, and many others), with the progressive rock act “Childhood’s End” then the new wave band, Candy—now leading The Hitman Blues Band—what type of mental health hygiene practice does it take to help to ensure that self-employed musicians do not lose out financially going into retirement?
A. I’m very pro-union. Yes, the musician’s union is a shadow of its former self, but having been management and having been labor, I say “Thank G-d for unions”. Nobody else will be on your side. Our union (the American Federation Of Musicians) actually has a mental health program to help musicians address the many demons that come with the territory - lack of self esteem, depression, drug and alcohol abuse, and poor financial skills. It is important to set aside money for retirement, but that is SO much easier said than done. This is true of any small business - everyone gets paid before you do. The best thing you can do is keep as much stuff on the books as you can, so you can contribute to Social Security, and try to invest at least SOMETHING into a safe investment. $25 a week, $50 a month, whatever. Anything. You might die before you hit 30, but if you don’t you’re going to need some money later on in life!
If I may quote you, “The Hitman Blues Band plays original Modern/Alternative Blues. Everything that's come before—rock, traditional blues, jazz, funk - their music is a combination of everything. The common
thread for every tune is the blues, the music of hope. No matter what your situation is, whether good or bad, someone has not only gone through it, but wrote a song about it, recorded it, and knows what you're going through now.”
True story. My daughter tried to get me to comment on a situation that was a double bind. I was on Twitter when I noticed your Cover Art for the song,
Not My Circus, Not My Monkey. Then I watched the YouTube video which I enjoyed. After that I sent my youngest child a text that said, “Not my circus. Not my monkey—adding a monkey emoji, of course. Why are all of your original songs inspired by real life?
A. believe that if you want to communicate, you have to be honest about it. I read about a famous author telling an aspiring author “write about what you know”. I feel the same way about songs. There’s no shame in writing about something you heard about, or dreamed about, but it has to be personal to you in some way. Of course, this doesn’t apply to pop songs about dancing the night away, but even that must have a root somewhere in the writer’s life. I’m not talking about commercial success here - if you want success, give the people what THEY want, which is often sex and oblivion. But the problem with that is: if you do that and it doesn’t work, what did you just spend all your effort on? You’ll never get that time and money back. If you do what you feel strongly about, and it doesn’t work, you can say “I gave it my best shot. And I’ll keep giving it my best shot. Because I believe in what I’m doing.” That’s why I wrote the song “Go Down Fighting”. I was feeling sorry for myself, and I let myself wallow in self pity for about five minutes, and then a voice in my head said “That’s enough, asshole. Nobody made you do this. If you’re going to do go down, go down fighting.” And the other voice in my head said “Hey, that’s a good title for a song!”
I’m very glad “Not My Circus” came in handy! It’s become my go-to phrase, because it seems to fit so many situation!
Thank you for sharing a slice of your life with Magazine Show Canada. Do you have anything else that you wish to add before we sign off on this interview?
A. I would ask your readers to understand that it takes a lot to produce good music. A lot of time, a lot of money, a lot of expertise. Please, please don’t steal music. People will spend $5 on a Starbuck latte that will be pissed out in two hours, but won’t spend $0.99 on a song they’ll listen to for years. WE CAN’T KEEP MAKING MUSIC IF PEOPLE DON’T BUY IT. I had to borrow the money for “Not My Circus” from my lovely cousin who understood she probably wouldn’t get it back. Streaming pays next to nothing. “File sharing” sites pay nothing at all. Please support bands you like, and please support live music by going to shows - including local shows. It means everything to us.
“Join Hitman on his journey. Hear the music, see the videos, and spread the word if it moves you!”
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