Band: Nick Moss and the Flip Tops
Hometown: Chicago, IL
Embodying a groovin' Chicago blues sound, singer/songwriter and Blue Bella Record label owner Nick Moss has dedicated his life to music after he was derailed from his aspirations to become a football player. Since he's picked up a guitar, he hasn't looked back and has carved his path in the blues scene playing alongside Buddy Guy, Jimmy Rogers, Buddy Scott and the Legendary Blues Band.
what he says
"For one thing, the phaser is one of the most lush and deep sounding phasers I’ve heard on the market, especially when you use it with the depth and speed up so it gets a Leslie-like effect. It almost reminds me of a Univide pedal. It’s got that deep pulse when you jack the depth knob up, but as you back off on the depth knob it evens out really nicely, from zero to ten there’s such a huge sweep of depth to the knob but yet it’s not drastic. Some pedals you can turn two notches but it’s such a drastic sound, but as you back the knob down on your pedal it backs off on its own really naturally and I’ve only had it for a few weeks but I’ve been able to get a whole bunch of cool different sounds out of it and songs I didn’t know I would’ve used it for I’m starting to use it for."
A word with the man
Take us back. What kind of atmosphere did you grow up in?
I grew up in and around Chicago. I had an older brother who was an excellent guitar player, he was kind of my guitar idol. We grew up from being products of the ‘70s. I was born in ‘69 but growing up in the 70s, AM radio was still the preferred medium of listening to music, and AM radio stations would play everything, so I think that had an influence on me early in life, being able to listen to so much music. My parents were hard blue collar workers but they were both music lovers, so on weekends there was always music being played in the house and in the car. When my brother who is almost 4 years older than me first decided to get a guitar, my parents got both of us guitars for Christmas. He took to it naturally but I went through a succession of instruments until one day my brother bought me a bass guitar from a garage sale. He asked me if I wanted to be in his band because in every neighborhood there are 500 guitar players, 100 drummers and no bass players, because kids never think they want to be a bass player. And I didn’t even think about it being bass, I just thought “hey, I get to hang out with my older brother and all his cool long-haired friends playing music down in the basement”, so I took to bass pretty quick and that was the first instrument that I stuck with. I started as a bass player, and all throughout high school I was in alot of sports but music was something for me to do when I wasn’t playing.
What got you to switch to music?
My sporting career was cut short when I was 18 years old when I lost a percent of my kidneys due to a genetic problem that nobody knew about until it surfaced. I spent 6 months in a hospital. When it first happened they told my parents that I wouldn’t live through the week, when I lived through the week they said I probably wouldn’t live through the month, and when I lived through the month they said “well, we guess you’re doing OK”. I was supposed to go to college, I had offers for scholarships for wrestling and football but because of my kidneys I knew I’d never be able to play or wrestle again. I decided not to go to college and I dove right into music because that was always a passion of mine, and I remember my very first experience seeing a band. I was still in the hospital, and my brother one night during my recovery asked the nurses if he can take me out for an hour or two at night they said “sure” so he hi-jacked me from the hospital and brought me across the street to a pub called the White Fools Pub where I saw a band called Charlie and the Nighcaps. They were making their debut with Alligator Records release that night, and that was one of the coolest nights in music I had ever seen, just watching the band play, how much fun the were having, and how great they were as musicians. I had an epiphany that night and said “if I could do this for the rest of my life I’d be happy” and that was pretty much the start of my musical career. So I played bass as much as I could, practiced as much as I could, got my first opportunity to play at many blues jams in Chicago, and got to tour with Jimmy Dawkins which at the time I didn’t realize how heavy of an experience it was because this man was revered all around the world as being one of the greatest guitar players of all time.
How would you define a Chicago blues man?
The only definition is a Chicago blues man or woman nowadays is by you coming from Chicago, but years ago if you wanted to describe what the genre was like - and the genre has changed, and nobody really plays the styles of music the way they used to play it, the way it was defined years ago by the originators - I think of Texas blues and Uptown blues like B.B. King. The sound of Chicago blues was defined by Muddy Waters and you’d have to have musical knowledge to understand the defintion of “playing behind the beat”. It’s a feel that particularly Chicago blues had and Muddy Waters used to say it had a “lag time” feel and that was the definitive behind-the-beat feel like the drummer was playing the backbeat just slightly behind the beat. And most drummers would play their shuffles and it made a differencee, it made everything sound much more relaxed and for a lack of a better word, it made everything feel sexier when you listen to that old stuff. And all that music, that was about a man and a woman getting together.
What made you gravitate specifically to blues music?
When I was a kid, music was a big influence on us. My mom loved all kinds of music, she was the one that probably passed that “wide ear”, being able to listen to different things, to my brother and me. I specifically remember as a small kid that when some piece of music came on that I really liked, I responded to it physically before I responded to it orally. Before I heard it, I felt it.
Describe that feeling.
It’s like a euphoria, elation, a buzz in my body and endorphins releasing. I feel great great, I feel happy, I feel like something good is happening in my body.
Sounds kind of like love-making.
It kind of is, man. But it’s more of an all-encompassing thing where it’s all over my body, and it still happens to this day. When I hear music that really moves me, my whole body feels it, I feel tingling and I see colours when I close my eyes. I know that’s something a lot of artists, not just musicians, do too, they can hear things and associate them with different colours. When I was a little kid, even when I didn’t know what that meant, whenever my mom would play any kinds of roots, blues, and R&B music and soul music, anything that had an organic feel to it, it never failed to give me that same feeling. I remember the first time I heard my mom put on B.B. King’s "Indianola Misssippi Seeds", when I was about 5 or 6 years old. I stopped dead in my tracks, turned around and walked back into the living room. My mom was there and I stood there and listened to the whole thing. My mom had just bought the record and we listened to one side, flipped it over and listened to the other side. I think those genres of music just spoke to me. And then as I got older my uncle started turning my brother and I onto these great British bands like Free and the Rolling Stones that were reviving the American blues sound in their own way and I started getting into that music. It took me a while to realize that I liked it because they were taking old blues music and making it their own and they were heavily influenced by the old blues guys that were right here in Chicago. So I had a good start with my mom, dad, and uncle being the music lovers that they were and turning my brother and I onto it. And then I listened to Isley Brothers, Blind Faith, Led Zeppelin, just unbelievably different stuff. My dad was into big band, early rock’n’roll and doo-wop, and then my mom would put on her collection, and then on Sundays and we’d go cruising in my uncle’s car. I just remember all the great music that I grew up listening to, I think to me that was a huge part of my childhood. To this day I have extremely vivid memories of my childhood and what that felt like. Specific moments in time and remember almost exactly where I was when I first heard it.
What about music moves you?
When that kind of ‘feeling music’ is made, you can tell when someone is just playing the notes and when they’re actually giving you the notes that they’re playing - there’s a difference. Or when they sing, it’s like they’re singing right to you or they’re singing the words on the paper. There’s no set rule or instructions, some people have it or they don’t, that’s just a natural fact. I learned a long time ago playing with the old timers, like Willie Smith and Jimmy Dockins and Jimmy Rogers and Scott and Junior Wells and everyone of these guys will tell that you either got it or you don’t. I remember one specific conversation with Jimmy Rogers, when we were listening to his record late at night and we were driving gig to gig, I was driving and I remember asking him “Jimmy, do you want me to play this line like you played it on this record?”. Then he turned off the radio and said “man, that was one moment in time, it was the way that person recorded it”. He said “just play the music”.
What turns you on the most about doing a live show?
You know, I’ve never done heroin or meth or harder drugs, but I can understand I guess how these people get hooked on something like that. I’ve heard heroin addicts talk about the feeling they get and chasing it all the time, and how they get hooked on it. And I guess playing music for me is like that because ever since I was a kid I’ve been chasing that feeling.
Do you feel like that every time that you play?
No, you don’t. But that’s the part that makes it frustrating, in a good way. Some nights I get it, some nights I don’t, and some night it’s there only part of the time. More often than not it does, but that just makes you want to hit harder the next night, it’s like chasing that high, you think “I hope I can get that feeling again, I hope I can play it”. Are you a musician?
Sometimes, in my dreams.
Well when you go see someone live, you can tell when someone is genuinely enjoying themselves because they’re smiling. It’s kind of the same for us, when we’re playing, when the musicians are closing their eyes, or they’re smiling and it looks like they’re off in their own world - that, what I just explained to you - is exactly what’s happening.
Is your pursuit of that high today as strong today, and have as much passion as when you first started?
Oh yeah. There were moments in time when maybe I was getting a little stale, and soemtimes that happens when you’re doing music from a new record. To me, I write and produce all of my own music, I even have my own studio at home. When I do it, by the time the record has been mastered, I’m almost sick of the songs but then I have to go out and play them because the record hasn’t come out yet, and then I have to tour on top of it and by that time I’m already done. I shouldn’t say ‘sick’ because that’s a harsh word but the excitement and newness of them is gone at that point, and now I gotta act like they’re brand new and I gotta play them fresh again. And then I play on stage and it does become new again, it’s like a trick my brain plays on me. When your audience is giving you the same energy that you give to them, it’s like fueling the fire. But there are also times when the audience doesn’t give us a lot, so we start playing for each other. And it’s funny when that happens, and when we turn it back in and on itself, when we do that, play for each other like we’re alone and we don’t give a shit they’re there, that’s when the audience starts getting into it and then it’s like “oh there you are”.
In what ways do you keep the experience fresh?
One way is by rarely playing with a set list. We have songs that we have to play every night from the new record. From that point on, it’s kind of a free-for-all and it’s reading the audience and seeing what songs they’re reacting to. I’ve been doing this for 20 years so I have probably have about a couple thousand songs from my repertoire to pull from. We play a variety of blues - traditional to modern rock blues, to soul, to funk. Hell I even crank out some country tunes every once in a while, doing Travis pickin’ and chicken pickin’ on the guitar. If it’ll wake ‘em up and shake ‘em up, I’ll throw it right out there. The other way to keep it fresh is sometimes I’ll throw songs at the band that they’ve never played and I’ll just see how it turns out, sometimes it’s a train wreck and sometimes it can be a beautiful experience.
With all of these older influences dying out, how do you feel that the blues are shaping up with the departure of some of these big names?
It’s gone through alot of changes, stylistically. The traditional sound isn’t there, quite a few bands that are maintaining the old traditional sounds. I think with the internet and more people having access to hearing blues, it helps and hurts the genre because it exposes more people to what it is but it also waters down the essence of what pure blues music is because now everybody thinks that they can be a blues musician or play blues music and obviously with the advent of the internet you can produce and put out your own music out there, not needing record labels like you used to. I used to get mad about it, but now I think everyone should get the opportunity to make what they want to, I just hope the audience could use their own judgement and their own ears and listen to what’s real and what’s not. As far as people making music because it’s what they have to do or what they want to do - to me that’s the marker of a true musician.
Speaking of good artists, who do you listen to these days?
I still listen to the old stuff. As far as new artists, I really still enjoy listening to my brother’s band play, the Joe Moss band. He’s still one of my favorite guitar players. I like a guy from LA named Kirk Fletcher, he plays all over the world and been a friend of mine, grew up in south Central LA, son of a preacher and can play any music you put in front of him. I like listening to the guys in my band play. As far as young up and comers, Lydia Warren I think is one of the coolest female blues artists out there right now, she plays a killer guitar, really great singer and songwriter.
You have your own record label - Blue Bella Records, what do you look for in your artists?
Mainly it’s just friends of mine, like the Kilborn Alley, love those guys, kind of going through the same issues as I was early on in my career, wanting to put out music and having a hard time with labels. I don’t put out anything that doesn't have feeling and soul, and I know all of these guys are great musicians. And we’re not really a traditional label per say, where we actively seek out artists to pursue, we’re more of a co-op, a vehicle for me to put out music which ended up attracting other people. We’re all sharing the costs of advertising and distributing. I don’t really make money from other artists on my label, they make their own and we use it as a vehicle.
What's it like being on the road?
For me it’s always been about meeting people. I’m a people person, a ‘man of the people’. Of course I don’t enjoy meeting assholes, but that can be an experience in itself. Nowadays it’s not as scary as it used to be because I have friends all over the country. I really enjoy travelling, we do alot of driving. It’s not a glamorous lifestyle, we don’t have a big tour bus, we don’t fly around everywhere. I actually have a shitty little van that I converted and it’s pretty hippy-ish and it’s 5 of us and sometimes we’re driving in the middle of the night or early in the morning. There have been times it’s been 5 or 6 in the morning, the sun has just come up and I’m in the middle of nowhere, driving in the middle of this deserted highway and at that moment I go “man I’m so glad I’m not sitting in an office right now with those long lighting tubes above me or fake office walls around me". I get to see things most people haven’t seen in their lives, I have to work hard for it, but I enjoy it. I miss my family, my daughter and my wife, but other than that I’ve been doing it for 12 years now and I don’t see myself stopping.