Robert Fleming has ventured far from his first hesitant strums on a ‘horrendous Kay copy’ and thankfully, that particular six-string’s defective tremolo arm did nothing to hamper his desire to forge ahead and pick up some much classier models along the way.
Fleming is now deeply embedded in the London music scene, making quite a name for himself with his band Bluesmix
, and he has hobnobbed with quite a few names in the process. But rather than following the purist blues direction favoured by the majority of his peers, Fleming and his three compadres have chosen to inject the standard blues format with a funk edge and as a result are surfing the wave of a burgeoning new scene that embraces the two divergent genres and forges them into something quite wonderful. There’s no posturing here, and no glitzy show guitars with which to posture; this man is serious about music.
Fleming cut his teeth in the capital’s jam scene, and he met his fellow band members at a regular congregation of musos in Soho called Ain’t Nothing But The Blues, an improv night that attracted some other rising stars too. ‘Ian Siegal used to run that jam and he used to play a lot,’ he remembers.
‘We know him from there, and we’ve supported him since; he’s come up and played a song with us a few times. Matt Schofield also appeared occasionally and other people dropped in too, like Amy Winehouse… so it was a kind of interesting little scene. A lot of people have gone on to start successful bands from there. We’ve had some excellent nights at those regular places like the Troubadour, Ain’t Nothing But The Blues and the 100 Club. Thank God that’s still there. We’ve had Mick Abrahams, who sat in with us for one session, and we’ve had Amy come and play with us three or four times. It was always really nice… even though she was sometimes a little bit worse for wear with the drink. She was amazing.’
Fleming and his crew took what they learned from jamming the blues and melded it with a strong rhythmic slant, an approach that finds them buddying up to several other new bands – all critically acclaimed and carving out a niche together.
‘On the blues side there’s some great players. I really love Ian’s [Siegal] stuff obviously, he’s probably the main stand-out guy for us in the UK. And then we like these bands that aren’t really blues at all. That’s the other side of what we do, which is more the funk stuff. We really like Haggis Horns’ – a band described by Mark Ronson as having the ‘best horn section in the world’ – ‘and an amazing new funk band called Soullive, and then there’s a band called the New Mastersounds that we’re supporting at the 100 club soon. They’re taking that kind of Meters/New Orleans sound and blending it with a bit of James Brown and Grant Green and doing something a bit different.’
How do Bluesmix fit into all of this? ‘Well, I think there is definitely a scene developing around it all,’ muses Fleming. ‘There’s not so many bands doing that kind of funk thing in the UK blues world, but then there’s this other totally different funk scene. I think maybe we fit in between the two somehow.’
Straddling two genres isn’t the easiest of musical undertakings for the most learned of musos, and Fleming has gathered a modest but effective collection of guitars, amps and effects that allow him to tap into all the necessary channels needed to confidently cover the idiosyncrasies of both styles without the need for a super-sized tourbus and an army of roadie muscle. Like many of us, he’s a tone nut in search of the ultimate ambrosial sound, but rather than just hoarding guitar after guitar and causing structural damage in the attic, Fleming has ducked, dived, tried, traded and swapped until he’s found a sweet cache of options ideal for Bluesmix’s blues-funk melee. They may be pretty, but these are guitars chosen for action.
‘I’ve been back and forth over the years. My first “proper” guitar was a walnut brown ’75 Strat that I bought after a fairly mundane summer job working hard to save up for it. I always used to play Fenders a lot more – mainly Strats – then I dabbled in Gibsons for a while, and then I actually sold them a while ago in order to go back to a Strat again!
‘So my current Strat is the sunburst 1960 one. I traded a whole load of stuff at the New King’s Road Guitar Emporium for it. The first one to go was the ’70s Strat, though I wish I’d kept it now. I feel bad about that, but more for sentimental reasons. I also traded some relic Strats and a Les Paul Custom goldtop that I just didn’t get on with… it was too heavy. I was trying a whole range of late ’50s and ’60s Strats in the shop but I was disappointed by what I was trying. It just didn’t feel right until I found this one. He had a ’58 which was amazing, but the neck was just massive! This one is a slim C.’
Having secured a perfect vintage Strat, many would head straight for the vault without passing go… but not Fleming. As we have said, these guitars are bought to play, and we were pleased to hear that he’s no yellow-bellied treasurer and takes this rather delectable 1960 all-original two-tone sunburst to the stage as well as calling upon it several times during the session for his new album, Flat Nine.
‘Oh yeah, I still use that for the gigs,’ he confirms. ‘I just have to be super-careful with it, and never let it out of my sight! I used it for a lot of the stuff on our new album. It’s in there for the big-hitting bluesy kind of numbers. It still sounds fantastic. It’s got that bitey, harder-edged kind of sound and I love it.’
Bluesmix have recently returned from a tour in San Francisco, but sensibly the Strat was left at home (we’ll forgive him that one). Instead, Fleming invested in an olympic white Fender Custom Shop 1960 relic Strat that he leaves in the States.
1. Private Guitar Collection: London Chording