Local musician Dan Dekuyper interviewed by his daughter Laurel Tinklenberg a student at College for Creative Studies in Detroit 14 February 2016
*Q, interviewer, A, interviewee
Q: Hello, this is Laurel Tinklenberg for Detroit Sound Conservancy, and we’re here with Dan Dekuyper, a local musician on the blues scene in Detroit. And he’s been playing here for about 20 years. So first I’d like to ask you who you are and what’s your relationship to Detroit music?
A: Well, I’m Dan Dekuyper, and uh…I’ve been…living in Michigan most of my life. I was born in Kalamazoo, Michigan and I lived in Illinois for a while. And I moved back to Michigan to Detroit specifically to get a job. And I’m a retired schoolteacher. And I love playing the blues on the weekends and sometimes during the week. And I go to listen to people in town play and of course I listen to it on my own.
Q: Okay, well, I’d like to ask you about your musical training. Did you play instruments when you were younger, did your parents play instruments, in other words what is the role of music in your life?
A: Well, I first started out on the piano, my grandma had an old beat up piano in her house and I’d bang on that. And eventually I learned to play “Chopsticks” and all those little types of songs. Then we took and moved that piano over to my house, so that was the first piano that I learned to play on. And I took lessons from a lady by the name of Mrs. Wood, and she taught me about the keyboard and basic scales and basically got me interested in playing classical music. I went through a couple other teachers that taught me things, one of the teachers taught me how to play hymns with lots of chords. Another one taught me improvisation. So that was how I got started playing music on piano. Well I got the bug to play the guitar because of seeing the Beatles on television. And so I eventually convinced my parents to buy a guitar. That was quite a job. Now then I started taking guitar lessons and playing rock n’ roll and country. This was all during the time that I lived in Kalamazoo.
Q: So then, why the blues if you started out in country and church hymns?
A: Well, I didn’t play the blues until I moved to Detroit. And the reason why the blues was because of the similarities to country as far as the people that played and the availability of the type of gigs. So I had to learn how to play the blues from scratch.
Q: Okay, so what was the blues scene in Detroit like when you first came here?
A: Ah, much the same as it was to country when I lived in Kalamazoo. A lot of bands played in small restaurants and bars outside of town, in town and parties and things like that. So when I moved to Detroit, it was pretty much the same thing, and so I joined a band. And we started playing, and we played a few gigs and then small restaurants and sleazy bars, working on the scene.
Q: Tell me more about the people playing?
A: The people that I’ve played with over the years here have been really nice. And of course a few exceptions. But most of the time everybody’s in it for fun and some of em’ are making a living off of it. For me, it’s never been a part time job.
Q: So then how has the blues scene changed in the last 20 years?
A: Ah, how’s it changed? A lot of the restaurants don’t offer the music because of karaoke. Same with the bars, a lot of them changed their formats to be sports bars because of course it’s easier to get people into the bar with a million televisions.
Q: So then what about the people who play blues? Like, what’s happened there?
A: Well they still perform, I’m not saying the scene is totally dead, but it has changed over the years. A lot of musicians play the same places, and I don’t know the number of bars that are out there that have blues, but there’s the renaissance of Detroit in uptake lately. I get a weekly mailing from the Detroit Blues Society that tells me about the musicians in the scene and where they’re playing.
Q: And I remember you’d said that a lot of the people who play blues have passed on?
A: Yeah, a lot of the authentic originators of blues here in Detroit, John Lee Hooker and Mr. Bo and Uncle Jesse White, these are gentlemen that came to Detroit back in the 1930-50’s to get jobs in the auto plants. And they played the blues because that’s what people liked and it was easy to play because you didn’t necessarily have to read music to be good at it.
Q: Yeah, I read in my textbook that there were a lot of blues forms that were pretty simple. What are your favorite techniques and such?
A: Okay, well, being I play the guitar, I play primarily what’s called the 1-4-5 progression, which is a standard, I really don’t know how to put it, a lot like Chuck Berry rock and roll except slowed down. So that’s primarily what I play, and I also play the slide, which is quite an interesting little thing to use. Very difficult, but I really enjoy using it. And I also can do some finger picking, which is also difficult for me, but I try to use it anyway.
Q: So can you give us an example of what the 1-4-5 sounds like? Like maybe humming a little?
A: What it sounds like? Yeah, okay. *sings a few bars*, just like that if that makes any sense.
Q: It makes sense; it’s got a good beat. Okay so, I’d like to ask next, what was the last Detroit record you remember hearing and what did you think of it?
A: Ah well, goodness gracious, I’d have to say the last authentic blues record I remember hearing was John Lee Hooker and the song was called “One Scotch, One Bourbon, One Beer,” which is one of his more famous sounds, I heard it off a video on YouTube.
Q: So then what was the first record you heard?
A: The first one was the Temptations from Motown back when I was a little kid. My mom used to put me on the floor next to the ironing board and she turned on the radio and we’d listen to Motown cause that what was popular back then.
Q: So your parents really liked Motown music then?
A: Well, my mom liked to listen to it, and my dad didn’t really listen to modern pop music, he listened primarily to the old style country music.
Q: Ah okay, so what was the first or the best Detroit live music performance you remember hearing?
A: Oh okay, that’s really easy. I went and played with Uncle Jesse White. And I played as a substitute guitar player, so I’d never played with him before, so it was kinda like seeing him just perform. And he was, he passed away, what was called a barrelhouse piano player. He played the harmonica along with it and it was like he didn’t really play the piano as we know it with standard progression and scales. He just kinda would bang on the thing and it would sound good. And he sang, he had a really great bluesy voice, and you really had to stay on your toes because sometimes he’d throw a little curve ball at you rhythm wise. So that was the best experience I’ve ever had playing with anyone.
Q: Okay well, I remember you telling me that he could only play in C key?
A: Yeah, he could only play in the key of C. He asked me if I wanted to sing a song, and I said okay, so I picked a song and it just so happened that the song was in the key of A. Well I kicked the song off and we started playing, and it sounded really off. And so we finished, and I was standing there after the song and the drummer looks at me and says, well you do know Uncle Jesse can only play in the key of C? So it kinda surprised me but I’ll never make that mistake again. But it was fun!
Q: So next I’d like to ask you about your inspirations, like what musicians from Detroit and beyond have inspired you?
A: Oh goodness, from Detroit? Well being that I was raised in Kalamazoo, we got a lot of radio stations out of Chicago. And so I listened to those at night and you know, just your standard rock and roll, the British invasion music like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and the Doors and that type of thing. As far as influences on my playing, I listen to a lot of different bands and guitarists, trying to incorporate some of their licks from their guitar players.
And I don’t copycat licks from those folks but I do take little bits and pieces of songs and throw em in there when I play leads. Plus when I play leads, I do it by total improvisation. I don’t have a plan when I play a solo and so it leads me into some pretty interesting places. And I basically learned that technique from Frank Zappa, who is a big influence. I liked his humor and I thought his guitar playing was incredible, so a lot of what I did when I first moved to Detroit was inspired by Frank Zappa. And it really impressed the guys I was working with.
Q: So then has that influenced you in writing your own music? Because I know you do your own songs.
A: Well yeah, I try to write my own songs, and I emphasize “try” because y’know, it’s a very difficult thing to come up with lyrics and such for songs even for such a simple genre. I don’t wanna sound corny or y’know, beat an old dead horse kind of a song. I like to try to come up with some original ideas. So I’ve recorded a few songs over the years primarily when I first started to build a studio and now I have a nice little project studio that is convenient, in fact that is what we’re recording on right now.
Q: Yeah, it’s pretty cool. Y’know, I always wanted to sing with you actually, I don’t have any training but you know, it sounds like it’d be pretty fun.
A: Well we could sing happy birthday.
Q: Well anyway, Motown’s known the world over. Describe one aspect of Detroit music history that you wish got more attention.
A: Ah, the blues. There’s been a lot of punk rock and soul and jazz here in Detroit, but I think the blues doesn’t get nearly the exposure that those other genres get and maybe in the next few years, with the rebuilding of the city and construction of an entertainment district, they’ll have more blues bands.
Q: Yeah, yeah, that’d be really cool. I know that Detroit Sound Conservancy is its own recording studio.
A: Wow, I didn’t know that.
Q: Yeah, maybe in the future when the organization has grown, there will be more bands coming out of Detroit.
A: Yeah, that’d be nice.
Q: I know that there’s a local music scene as far as like, alternative and underground rock, and there was a really big electronic scene here, like techno and such.
A: Yeah, this is pretty much where electronic/ techno was born.
A: Yeah, the guys who did it basically started in the bars in Detroit and Pontiac, and it started to grow, and they had a big festival for a number of years. And the alternative type music, there were a lot of garage bands that made big splashes, like Jack White and the White Stripes, and the Motor Dolls and those types of bands, the Detroit Cobras, the Orbitsons, bands like that.
Q: Yeah, okay so, my last question is what else would you like to tell me about the importance of music in your life?
A: Well it’s given me something I can do at any time when I’m alone or when I’m with family and friends, it’s allowed me to meet other people with a common interest and it’s allowed me to learn a lot of things about life. And how to basically develop a lot of discipline because I took lessons but as far as once I got done taking those, I pretty much went out on my own to teach myself. And let’s see, I also play the bass and it’s given me a chance to play more with bands. I can also tap out a few drum rhythms. I still play a little bit of piano but not like it was when I was a kid. And so the blues has allowed me to keep up those skills and it’s a lot of fun doing it.
Q: Yeah, yeah, I personally think that there’s a lot of emotional content in music like it really is a great mode of expression.
A: Oh yeah..
Q: Especially if you write your own stuff..
A: Yeah, when I write, I do write with an emotional angle. Just whatever’s going on. You get inspiration from everything around you.
Q: I find that true too, as an artist myself, that inspiration can come from anywhere. And from anything. So yeah, it was really great learning about all this with you, I had a great time.
A: Well thank you, I appreciate that.
Q: Yeah! So this was Laurel Tinklenberg for the Detroit Sound Conservancy, over and out!
A: Thank you very much!