When vocalist Dana Athens, bassist Mary Zadroga, drummer Melissa Houston, and guitarists Tracy Hightop and Tina Gorin formed Jane Lee Hooker in 2012, their goal was “to have a lot of fun,” says Hightop, adding, “and it seemed the best way to take a lot of guitar solos!” Four years and many road miles later, they released their debut album, No B!, which featured ten blues covers and one original track.

Cover Photo Credit:  Sloane Morrison

By the time they began working on their 2017 follow-up, Spiritus, released last November on Ruf Records, they were ready to take the next step and become an all-original band. “We thought we should try to write some songs,” says Hightop. “We started incorporating them into the set and it naturally progressed. We’re very lucky that we write really well together.” “It wasn’t a preconceived idea of what we wanted it to sound like,” says Gorin. “It was ‘Whatever happens, happens,’ and it turned into what it is.”

RELATED STORY (2015 Interview):
Interview with Guitarists Hightop and TBone of Jane Lee Hooker

“It” is a continuation of the band’s blues roots, combined with their hard rock influences and punk backgrounds. Hightop and Gorin recently spoke to Guitar Girl about writing and recording with Jane Lee Hooker, how Southern rock influences their sound, and what makes them the ideal guitar duo. 

Your music is defined as punk-blues. What does that term mean to you?

Tina Gorin: Other people were describing us that way, and I think it was unintentional. It comes from most of us playing in the punk/hard-rock scene. We learned by playing blues, and every time we pick up an instrument, it comes through from our history of playing punk music mixed with our love of the blues. It is organic, and I guess punk-blues is a thing.

Tracy Hightop: We didn’t coin the phrase. I forget who said it to us or wrote an article about it, but it kind of stuck. It comes because we started playing blues songs really loud and aggressively with a lot of screaming guitar solos. When you look at the personnel in the band, Mary and I were in an all-female hardcore band, Tina and I were in Spermicide, Tina was in Bad Wizard, I was in Nashville Pussy, and I think they put two and two together, coined this phrase, and it stuck. It’s a good way to describe us. We’re from New York, we like the Ramones, and we look a certain way, so it’s a description that fits and prepares people for what they’re going to see, but when they see us, they’re a little surprised because there’s nothing punk-rock about us except maybe speed and volume. So they’re getting more of a blues-rock show.

What is the songwriting process like for both of you?

TA: We usually start with a guitar riff and take it from there. We working around a riff that either Tina or myself come up with and then we just jam on it.

TG: Dana is so phenomenal and talented beyond words that whatever Tracy and I play, this girl can sing something brilliant and incredible over it from the top. It becomes a song fairly quickly because she has such an incredible sense of melody. She’s writing lyrics and humming to herself when we’re jamming.

TA: Her first instinct is what stays. I’ve never met anybody, or played with anybody, who has such an instinct for songwriting and melody. It’s absolutely perfect and mind-blowing. It’s magic. The credit goes to Dana for her sense of melody and incredible vocals.

Your producer, Matt Chiaravalle, produced the Spermicide demo. How has the working relationship grown since then, and what makes him the right producer for Jane Lee Hooker?

TA: We’ve known Matt for a long time. The first thing we did was the Spermicide demo. I was drumming, and he …

TG: She is a drummer beyond comparison. A drummer that you would not believe. The first time I played with her, she was the drummer. That’s just a little tidbit. Incredible drummer.

TA: Thank you! It was a hardcore punk band, and I did a lot of doubles and triples on my kick drum. Matt got the most amazing bass drum sound ever. Years later, someone asked how he got that sound and could I put them in touch with him. Tina and I were in Helldorado in the late ’90s and early 2000s, and he recorded one of our demos, so we’ve known him for a long time. He’s got an amazing ear.

TG: He loves rock and roll and blues and punk. He has a broad knowledge of music. He’ll hear our songs and know exactly how they should sound, and we trust him 100 percent. He understands raw sound. We share the same opinion about how loathsome overproduced, over-polished sound is.

“We plug good guitars into great tube amps and use our hands.”

Are there certain recording techniques you swear by in order to get your guitar sounds? 

TA: I was a drummer in so many bands for so many years, and when finally I was able to be a guitar player, she said, “Get rid of the boxes. You don’t need them.” It took me a long time to figure out in Helldorado that nothing sounds better than a good guitar into a good amp. That’s all I ever think about with gear. That’s all you need. We plug good guitars into great tube amps and use our hands. And I use my volume knob.

TG: The first electric guitar I learned on was a Strat copy, and I got used to the Fender neck. It’s how I learned to play. I was in other bands, I had a Les Paul for a few years, and I always pined away for that Fender neck because I like the way it feels, and I like that it was a strong piece of wood. Sometimes, with the Gibsons, I worry about the headstock breaking. I like a solid guitar that’s always in tune, so I got rid of the Gibson and got the Tele Deluxe. I like a tube amp and a natural sound where I can use my hands. I play with a thumbpick, so I use a lot of muting, and I use my fingers sometimes. 

TA: It has changed for us, which is great because we have been playing together for a long time in all different types of bands. The first time we played together in Helldorado as guitar players, we recorded live in the same room. At that point, I usually had a solo that I had practiced and my parts were pretty done. Now we don’t prep as much. We play well together spontaneously, and that’s part of the magic. We don’t use any effects. We’ve found it’s great when we’re in the control room together without headphones. The freedom of it is amazing. We had some magical experiences on this last album doing just that, with our drummer in the other room and us playing. We even brought Dana into the room at one point. So there’s a lot of bleed between the tracks, but it’s something special I had never done before.

TG: I want to record that way again. It felt more like a live show. It’s a great feeling to play live and not have headphones on.

You both grew up listening to Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Rolling Stones. Do you still draw from those bands for inspiration?

TA: I’ve bought Sticky Fingers probably ten times now in different versions. I still listen to those bands, and Johnny Winter, and that’s what inspires me. Now and then, when I want to practice something new, I play along to old country and it’s really fun. Those guitar players are great. It helps me change things around in my head and my hands. It’s like working on a new exercise. It takes me out of my comfort zone and I like that. I also play along with Pandora blues guitar legends. I can play that for hours.

TG: The other night we were texting and practicing separately to the Pandora blues station.

How are your styles different and similar?

TA: Tina is an amazing country guitar player; she plays with such twang. When I drummed for her, I thought, This girl should not be in a punk band. She can rip leads. Helldorado was the first band I was in that I played guitar as opposed to drums. The reason that we sound good together is that from the very beginning I listened to her. I concentrate on what she’s doing because it’s so exciting to me. We’re both listening to each other and getting excited about what we hear, and good things happen from there. It’s really special.

TG: That’s how I feel. I enjoy listening to her so much. She leads me with so much inspiration and ideas, and it’s incredible. It’s fun to play off of her because she keeps it so exciting every second. She’s my perfect counterpart.

TA: I think we have to credit Lynyrd Skynyrd with that. The way they play together is remarkable. I remember being really young and thinking, That sounds great. Those two and sometimes three guitars doing something different, sometimes subtle differences — it blew my mind. I wanted that, and now I have it, and I value it beyond almost everything else.

TG: That was a huge bond when we realized we both loved Skynyrd, because you don’t meet many people in the New York scene … you wouldn’t meet anyone who talked about them, much less another chick guitar player. The two- and sometimes three-guitar attack and never sounding like clutter, how multi instruments can play together, and it was jam-packed with guitars and balanced and beautiful — she gets that.

TA: I had friends in high school who loved Skynyrd, Molly Hatchet, the Allman Brothers, Marshall Tucker Band. That whole crew from my junior high and high school wore those shirts. I was already playing drums, I became friends with one of them, and they turned me on to it. Artimus Pyle was the most amazing drummer. For some reason, Southern rock was big in late-’80s Long Island.

TG: The musicianship on those albums is incredible and top notch. If you want to play an instrument really well and hear how great a band can play, it’s tops. You listen to that and the bar is set. Steve Gaines, Allen Collins, Gary Rossington — incredible.

TA: Skynyrd never made mistakes. You don’t hear one bad note. I love the Stones, and they’re a big part of my musical upbringing, but you can’t say they’re perfect. Skynyrd always was. The shows were perfection. 

Guitarists often describe a “language” that takes place when working together. Do you agree?

TA: We’ve never spoken a word to each other. Never, now that I think about it.

TG: Never. We’ve never talked about tone or discussed parts. We’ve never gone over parts and “I’ll do this and you do that and let’s try to harmonize.” Because we’re listening to each other, and the music comes from that.

TA: And we’ve known each other forever. Never.

TG: We find our tones, and yours sounds like that and mine sounds like this, and the tone that I like and the tone that you like are not that similar that you can’t distinguish who’s playing what. It’s a nice combo.

TA: I like that fans know who it is. It’s really nice. We’re super, super lucky.

TG: It’s like a soulmate. We found each other.

TA: Sometimes she plays something and I stop playing and listen. Then I collect myself and I’m back in. I’m just enjoying that moment that she’s doing something.

TG: I do that too. It’s wonderful to do that spontaneously, because our jams are improv and it’s a great way to rediscover each other. It’s a lot of fun.

“My position in this band is I get to play guitar with my best friend.”

In the years that you’ve been together, how has your playing changed?

TG: Since this band, I feel like I’ve come home to the blues. You find more of yourself in blues than you’d find anywhere in any kind of music. It’s more challenging, wonderfully challenging, to play blues, and way more challenging than playing as fast as you can with a punk band. To play slower is not as easy as people might think, and I’m always striving to do it well.

TA: It’s changed in that this is the first time that I’m playing a lot of guitar. I’ve done a lot of touring as a drummer and as a bass player, but this is the first band that I’m touring and recording in a lot as a guitar player, and putting the hours in that I didn’t have the reason or the ability to do. I always played guitar, even when I was in bands drumming, so it’s been joyful. I’m so excited to just play. My position in this band is I get to play guitar with my best friend. It’s still new and exciting, I’m watching myself get better, and I’m really happy with my playing.

Do you have some closing words of wisdom — or warning — for women who want to work in the music industry?

TA: I have a general warning for any musician, male or female. I’m still in shock at how poorly artists are treated, how they’re valued, how their work is valued. It blows my mind that we can have a genius that writes a song, and everybody else takes money before the person who is creating and performing the music. To all the young musicians: beware. It is a terrible industry, it is slanted against musicians, so be smart. Be aware of your things and your surroundings at all times. I’ve never had a problem with another artist. I don’t distrust any other artist or musician. It’s everybody else that I distrust and have a fear of, everyone who surrounds the artist. I’m very lucky — in all my years of being in sometimes remarkably unsafe situations, on the side of a highway with a female band broken down in a van, or in the middle of Atlanta pushing a van off of a highway, I must have an angel watching out for me, because I have never had a bad experience with anyone. The nature of the business is that you put yourself in vulnerable situations by going to hotels and clubs where people are drinking. I’m always very aware of my surroundings, and I’m fortunate to have always been treated well by everyone I’ve met in my travels, and I return the favor.

TG: I agree. You might get comments from people after the show, and some of them might say ridiculous things, minor incidents, but it doesn’t get me down. I have so much fun performing, being in a band, the whole lifestyle, that I can’t see letting it ruin my day or night. I’m not going to challenge people. I just want to play and not focus on small incidents that I’ve experienced. Other women have experienced horrible, unfortunate experiences, but I’ve never had anything happen that would ruin my high from performing with my band.

TINA GORIN AND TRACY HIGHTOP GUITAR GEAR

Tina Gorin 

’78 Telecaster deluxe guitar
‘77 Hiwatt 100 way head and cab
Fender Deluxe combo amp

Tracy Hightop

1976 Les Paul deluxe gold top (humbuckers)
1971 Les Paul deluxe gold top (p90s)
1968 Les Paul Custom (triple humbuckers)
1978 Les Paul Black Beauty
100W Orange Head
4×12 Orange cab
2×12 Orange cab
Fender Deville combo
Orange 50W combo
I use D’Addario 10s
I use custom “High Top” Steve Clayton picks

Jane Lee Hooker is:
Dana “Danger” Athens – vocals, piano, organ
Tracy “Hightop” – guitar
Tina “T-Bone” Gorin – guitar
Melissa “Cool Whip” Houston – drums
“Hail Mary” Zadroga – bass

 

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