Band: Koko Taylor, Legend of Rockers
Hometown: Taipei, Taiwan
Shun is a different breed of blues musician. Having a Japanese heritage made for a unique experience coming up in the Chicago blues scene. His relentless work ethic and consistently challenging himself got him highly-coveted stage space alongside legends like Buddy Guy, B.B. King (who called Shun the light-skinned version of himself), Otis Rush (who taught him to sing), Bo Didley, Marcia Ball, Koko Taylor (who he played with until her passing), Junior Wells, as well as modern day hit-makers Kenny Wayne Sheppard, Susan Tedeschi, and Shemeika Copeland to name a few. These days he calls Taipei home, embarking on a mission to bring the blues to Asia where it is starting to shape up into a scene with a flavour of its own.
what he says
"I love these pedals. I got three - yellow, blue, and purple. The yellow one I mainly use because this matches really well with my Tele. I have a custom Shun Kikuta Moon guitar and the yellow Big Joe stomp box matches it really really well. Since I play more blues-oriented music, I don’t need a lot of high gain, but it still gives me a nice sustain and it has a creamy and smooth drive. I love the tone of the blue one too, it gives you a little more gain and the tone is a little drier, which matches really well with Strats and other high-gain instruments."
A word with the man
So you're currently in Taipei but you did live in Chicago for a while?
Yes, for 21 years. I still miss Chicago sometimes, I had a really great time playing with great musicians there. I played with Koko Taylor for 9 years, and she opened up a lot of doors for me. Through her I met B.B., Bonnie Raitt, Jimmy Vaughan, we jammed and had a good time. It’s been 3 years since she died, and it’s kind of the reason why I moved to Asia, to try something new and find a new challenge for me. As a matter of fact the blues is starting to pick up in Asia more. They’ve got nice festivals in Japan, in Taiwan, Indonesia, India and Thailand. I thought it would be kind of nice since I’m Asian to be play here and show people what I learned from Chicago. It feels like I'm making my mark.
Does Japan respond differently to the blues?
In Japan I think they’re ahead culture-wise because they were the first country to open up to Western culture and blues rock gets imported now. The blues has about a 40-year history in Japan. A lot of people know about the history, and a lot of people have seen guys like Muddy Waters and Buddy Guy. The audience in Japan is more mature. I think people in Taiwan or other countries haven’t had a chance to experience this, blues is very new to them, maybe in the last 5 to 10 years they’ve opened up to it. In Taiwan there aren’t many blues musicians yet, but the good news is that now we have YouTube so we can see lots of different footage.
What lessons from the masters do you bring with you to Asia?
A lot of things. It’s really hard to pinpoint, but the blues people always play what they feel from their lives. It's not just notes, it’s all from their heart and soul so I tell people that they need to feel that sound, that groove. Of course I have to teach techniques like scales and chords, but that feeling is the important thing.
Why did you gravitate to the blues?
Before I started playing blues, I played alot of different music. I started with classical because my father played it, so he taught me finger techniques and stuff, then I played acoustic, then I played rock’n’roll and heavy stuff. When I was in high school Ozzborne and Van Halen were my heroes. When I lived in Brooklyn, I learned more jazz and fusion. I’ve been through a lot of different music and before the blues, I played about a good 10 years and had a lot of chops, I was really fast and flashy like Van Halen. Then B.B. King’s Live at the Regal was what turned me onto the blues when I was about 19 years old. After the blues, I felt really good, really sad. All that stuff in one package.
What does the blues feel like to you?
The more I play, the more I love it. After all these years of playing, I could go really deep inside of me and pick up my feelings and express them through notes. That’s what I learned from playing with Koko and great musicians. When we’re on the stage together and she sings “my baby left me last Friday night”, you feel really the pain because she sings with all her emotions. That sharing of feelings is so great and that’s what blues is all about.
What was it like when Koko passed?
I was with her for 9 years, so when I joined the band she was already sick so I knew the time would come. At that time she was already 70 and had a history of illness, and sometimes had to cancel a show because she wasn’t feeling alright. It was a pleasure playing with her, I played Koko's big shows at festivals and concert halls, and sometimes get to share the stage with B.B. King and Jimmy Vaughan. It’s sad and that was kind of a trigger that make me think about what to do next. I have another group of musicians, friends that have playing together over the years. After she passed I was still playing clubs regularly but that’s what I did when I came to Chicago 20 years ago so I wanted a new challenge and that’s why I was thinking that maybe I should move. I also met my wife who is Taiwanese, about 3 years ago, and as we got closer we would use Skype every morning and night but after a while we wanted to be closer.
Have you found the challenge you were looking for?
I thought it would be easier for me to adjust to the lifestyle and music scene but it’s different than I thought. The blues history is not deep enough for people to understand what it's all about here yet. In Chicago I met all the great musicians and we respected each other but here people don’t understand the greatness of this music. They might understand some pop, rock or jazz but not so much the blues. Sometimes I don’t get good feedback or response from a show because they simply don’t understand what’s going on so that’s something I didn’t expect but I’ll keep trying. I’ve also been invited to some major blues festivals like one in Indonesia, Beijing and Japan as well to play. I keep fighting, keep opening people more.
You’re like the blues warrior.
Yeah, like a blues samurai (laughs).
So how do you overcome those challenges when you don't see excitement from the crowd?
Generally people here are much more shy than people in New York or Chicago where they shake and clap and just enjoy. In Asia people just kind of sit back, watch you and don't show emotion too much, so it's different. You have to adjust and understand their reaction.
Maybe it was the fact that you didn't start in Asia that got your showmanship and stage presence to the level that it is. You were a Berkley graduate and started at the bottom of the food chain, is that how the story goes?
Yes, I started with the streets and collected change and ate a slice of pizza every day, but I was young so I didn't really care. I was very hungry to play and I was really excited to be in Chicago, especially in the 1990's because it was full of a lot of regional blues players. One time I went to a club on a Tuesday night to see Otis Rush, I was carrying my guitar and I was in the front row, and after the first show he came off the stage, walked by me and asked me "do you play the guitar"? I said "yeah man". So he said "come jam", and I was like "wow, Odis Rush he doesn't even know who I am!". So the cats in Chicago will give you a chance if you want to play. I was really excited, every day going to different clubs, seeing Buddy Guy, Otis Rush and Junior Wells play. That was a really good time.
Is the blues world is as welcoming today as it was then?
Well it's been changing a lot because the faces are different now. In the 1990's a lot of great players were still left - what we call the first generation of Chicago blues - Jimmy Rodgers, Junior Wells, but there are very few left so the younger generation is coming up and taking over the scene. The sound is different and more blues musicians play a hard edge, with more of a rock and funk touch. The attitude is different now too, but I think that's good. The path always has to keep changing, even for myself personally, from making old sounds into something new and evolved. At the same time I think it's the same because the musicians in Chicago these days let younger players sit in with them, which is a tradition that will continue for future generations. That's just part of the culture of the blues, to just jam and have a good time together. And blues is simple music so as long as you play right you can find someone to jam with.
When B.B. King called you the "light skinned B.B. King", what was that like?
Really, really great. When he tells you something like that it gives you a lot of confidence and makes you feel really strong. Koko kind of gave me the same feeling. Sometimes in Asia the audience is a little dry and it makes me feel like I'm not that good but then I remember what B.B. and Koko told me and I feel alright again. There was one time when I was in the dressing room with B.B. and his family was there, his kids, grandkids, and he told them about me and said "this young guitar player he's really good, so you better remember him".
Was it a struggle being a young Japanese man getting into the scene?
Oh yeah, a lot. In the beginning, the first year in Chicago people treat you well but you're still like a tourist, an outsider coming in. By the second or third year the musicians are looking at you like "this guy might be trying to steal my job". The blues is still a scene where there are a lot of black musicians so since I'm Japanese some people might think "this guy is trying to be black or steal our jobs". And I've experienced that, I've been through hard times. One time I thought a guy was trying to help me but he turned on me which was really sad. But one thing is I always had was someone liking my playing and wanting to hire me so I always had gigs and that kept me going. I was really appreciative of that.
You have any stories from being on the road with these old blues guys?
(laughs) Well, Junior Wells used to play with Buddy Guy. I went on the road with him in 1995. Junior, he drinks a lot, he's a very old style bluesman. So before a set, he plays really well because he's not drunk yet and the band plays 2 songs to open up. Then he starts drinking, and he plays one set, and then on break he drinks some more, and on the second set he's pretty drunk so sometimes he tries to play the same song 3 times in one night. The band would say "Hey, we did it twice already, that's too many" and he would say "Shut up motherf*****s! that's my sh** and you don't fight it!". He would say it into the microphone and the whole audience could hear it and they would love it, cheering and clapping. We all loved Junior, and every night after the show he opened up the door for the audience to take photos and he lets everybody in and talks and sings and he'd say "who loves you? Junior loves you!" and things like that. It's been fun. And sometimes older white ladies would come to the dressing room and be like "Hi Junior, it's me. Remember me?" and he'd be like "Who are you!?", then they'd say "You know, it's me from blah blah blah", so it was kind of fun seeing all of that. Junior was also the first guy who made me sing because at that time I never sang and he said "you gotta sing man". I didn't want to because I was a Japanese young man, I couldn't even speak English well and he said "don't worry man, I can't speak English well either but I can sing, so I'll show you." So he showed me how to sing a song called "Little By Little". Since then I started learning more and now I sing at my shows so I have more confidence.
Fill us in on the "supergroup" that you're forming.
This is a new project, and next year I'm going to have a rock band called Shun Kikuta and the Legend of Rockers. It's more like a rock band and all the members are well-known musicians in Japan that have been out there for years and have a lot of fans and followers. The maker of Moon Guitars, a Japanese guitar brand, put the band together for me, a "super band", because he has a lot of connections in the industry. I'm getting a lot of feedback and they're really excited about it. There will be 5 core members and 1 guest. We'll be recording an album in March.
What would you like to see in 20 years?
I hope I become more of an international figure. Maybe the first Asian blues musician known in the States or in Europe and play for major festivals worldwide.
Last FM: http://www.last.fm/music/Shun+Kikuta