John spent the majority of his early years at a church school in Texas where his father, a Baptist minister, was both preacher and principal. So it was only natural that he would want to follow in his father’s footsteps. He began to preach himself at the age of 15. And then, one fateful day in the summer of ’89, a minister from a neighbouring town came to the church to do a special exposé service on something called “rock and roll”. From that point on, everything was different.
“He was showing lyric sheets and album covers on this overhead projector and playing snippets of songs and stuff like that. That was the first time I heard AC DC and the Rolling Stones and Ozzie Osbourne and Alice Cooper and the freaking Beatles. That was the first time I’d heard anything secular and it was the beginning of the end for my career as a preacher. I basically got seized by the devil’s music. That was 18 years ago.”
The devil’s music is the right way of putting it. The Black Diamond Heavies serve up a filthy stomping blues sound that is nonetheless heavily steeped in John’s gospel roots. It’s down right Pentecostal. “The sound kind of came out of necessity actually,” John explains. “When we lost our guitar player we had a few gigs that we couldn’t cancel. And so we went and did them as a two piece. Rather than bring anybody else in we just turned all the amplifiers up really loud. I added some distortion to the fender Rhodes and it gave Van the drummer a lot more room as well. The drums now are really a lead instrument. So we’re a small unit but we make a huge, huge sound.”
Apart from the overwhelming bigness of the noise they make, it’s John’s extraordinary snarling, cancerous vocals that really set the Diamond Heavies apart the rest. As one fellow reviewer put it, they make fellow US blues outfit and label-mates the Black Keys sound like choirboys. Little fairy choirboys.
In fact, it was Dan Auerbach from the Black Keys who produced their latest record, humorously entitled A Touch of Someone Else’s Class. “He’s great man; a real nice guy. And Alive’s a great label too. They’ve been nothing but good to us. We were blessed. We were doing it without a record label for years and then we thought maybe we should try and first one out of the gate we hook up with Alive records. You hear so many horror stories, but we were just very fortunate.”
I ask John how their stuff goes down overseas where the blues tradition is perhaps not as strong as it is in the American south. “We’ve been doing really well. We do pretty well in America too, but we’ve noticed that the further we get away from the South the more well received it is. Maybe because it’s rarer.” Funnily enough, they’ve been doing particularly well in France.
“We did a show in a small French village one time. We were playing a festival there. It was more of a dance music kind of thing really, but they hired us to come and they set us up on this trailer and then they pulled this trailer out with an antique tractor and they pulled us through the village. And so every few blocks they would stop and we would play to whoever was there. And they’d start up again and we’d play as we were going down the road.”
Sadly, Sydney is a little short on antique tractors these days. So we’re unlikely to be in for quite such a treat when the Diamond Heavies play here as part of their current tour down under. But we should apparently expect a good show nevertheless. “Expect a party man. It’s rock and roll, but it’s definitely dance music. It’s heavy man, very heavy. You know, I’m happy with our records, but I don’t feel like we’ve really been able to capture our thing yet. Our product, what we’re selling, is the live shows. So if people dig the records, then they should come to the show, because we’re gonna blow their minds.”
So go get your mind blown at the Manning Bar on December 12th where the Black Diamond Heavies will be supporting the Datsuns.