Al Kooper talks Dylan, Conan, Hendrix, and lifetime in the music business
Kooper: Well, nobody asked me. It always comes down to that, somebody's gotta say, "Do you want to play here?" And nobody did. It's polite to wait until you're asked, is what I say.
CP: It seems you have two or three different bands going at any one time. Is that right?
Kooper: It's mostly two now because my other band, half of them are with Conan O'Brien and they moved to the west coast. So I can't do that like I used to outta New York. The guitar player, Jimmy Vivino, and the bass player, Mike Merritt, and I played keyboards, and Anton Fig played drums, from the Letterman show. We'd go out when we could-weekends-and we played a bit. And Jimmy always comes down and plays at a birthday show I have every year at B.B. King's in New York.
CP: So those guys went off with Conan and Max Weinberg?
Kooper: There's a name you can't say anymore. He's not in that band anymore.
CP: Max? What happened there?
Kooper: They let him go. This is a big transition, and they're all signing new contracts and everything so they replaced him, as far as I know.
CP: Is the band gone as a whole?
Kooper: No, not at all. That's the only change. But I mean, there was a lotta conflict because of Springsteen. So now he can play with Springsteen whenever he wants. [Although there's no official confirmation of Weinberg's status, he has not been with the band during O'Brien's recent standup appearances, and has, in fact, started a new big band. There are also rumors that Weinberg has approached Jay Leno about taking over the current Tonight Show band when Kevin Eubanks leaves.]
CP: Do you get out and play a lot?
Kooper: I wouldn't say a lot. More overseas than in this country. It's hard to get work here. I don't get hired. It's ironic because right now I have the best band I've ever had in my life.
CP: You have this sort of split profile, where you're associated with all these extremely well-known people and events, but don't necessarily get recognition for it.
Kooper: I'm used to that. All those things I mostly did for the joy of playing. I didn't do them for the recognition. So if I do get recognized, that's like a bonus.
CP: You put a record out a couple years ago, White Chocolate.
Kooper: That came out in 2008. I sort of broke a silence. I hadn't made a solo album since '75. So in 2005 I put a solo album out called Black Coffee. It was probably the best record I'd ever made. I had like 30 years in which I was still writing and recording, just not releasing anything. So I had a great backlog of stuff to pick from that you don't have usually when you make an album. I had over a hundred things to pick from. So I just picked what I thought was the best and then added a few new things. It really got great reviews and I really thought it was a good record. So it was difficult when I did the next one, I had that one sorta lookin' over its shoulder sayin', "What, you're gonna make somethin better than this?" It was very intimidating. I didn't really think I could. But I went back to that stockpile of stuff, and I pulled some more stuff out and I cut some new stuff. And I'll be damned, I think it's a coupla notches better than the other one. And now I'm in the same position of gettin' ready to start another one and I'm goin', "I dunno." Cause you do wanna try and keep on gettin' better.
CP: Are you putting these out yourself or what?
Kooper: The first one came out on Steve Vai's label, Favored Nations. The next one I put out myself and that was a huge mistake. I don't think anybody knows about it, or very few people. The only place you can get it is on my website.
CP: The few reviews I've seen, people have raved about it.
Kooper: Well, god bless 'em. Black Coffee, I put a few of the reviews on my website, and I think there's one or two of White Chocolate as well. There are some people that gimme shit about my singing voice. I have to say that through the majority of my career, it was my weakest link. And I knew it. I just did the best I could, because what else are ya gonna do? But in that time off and as time passed I really learned a lot about what I was doin' wrong and how to improve it and I think I'm singin' better than I ever sang. So there's a guy in England, his review of Black Coffee was: Al Kooper, who played with Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix and made a bunch of solo albums, but he never could sing, and this is his new album and he still can't sing. I put that review up too, just to balance it out.
CP: We'll soon find out, won't we?
Kooper: I have found out. I know what I can do and what I can't do. That's why I'm still here.