Billy Rose: Catfish Keith, are you a born and raised Iowan?
Catfish Keith: Well, I was born in East Chicago, Indiana. When I was about six or so we moved to Davenport, Iowa, so that’s where I grew up. I went through school there and by the time I graduated I knew I wanted to make a living as a guitar player. So I journeyed all over the USA just to see what was out there. I lived in California for a while. I lived on the east coast for a while…lived in my car for a while (laughs). I lived in Colorado hitched hiked all over and did all kinds of crazy stuff. By 1984 I got my first record deal. That’s when I decided to become Catfish Keith. I had been going by my given name which is Keith Kozacik. I’m proud of my given name, but nobody could say it or spell it (laughs). When I got that record deal I thought it would be a good time to have a name people could remember. So I officially changed to my stage name and that’s when I started my recording career too. I was about twenty-two. I started out with a record called Catfish Blues. That was on Kicking Mule Records. Kicking Mule was a great little label that all my guitar picking heroes and blues players were on. I was overwhelmed and overjoyed to be on that label for my first record. I learned a little bit about show business…and a few years later I and my wife Penny started our own label for my second record. Fish Tail Records is the label I have recorded on ever since. Ten of my eleven records are out on Fish Tail. There’s a new one we’re gonna put out…that’s gonna be out soon. It’s a live album that was recorded in the UK. It was recorded on the south side of London last fall. It turned out really nice. That will be my first live album. All the other ones have been live in the studio.
Billy Rose: Where were you living when you put out Catfish Blues?
Catfish Keith: California! I was living in Santa Cruz, California. I used a couple different studios out there. That’s also where Kicking Mule Records was based. The guy who owned it…I never actually met the guy. We talked on the phone a whole lot though (laughs). It went out of business a few years ago. It was started by Steffen Grossman and Ed Denson. Ed was the guy I dealt with. That was so cool. It just thrilled me that somebody in the world thought my music was good enough to put out a record. That was a record…an LP…vinyl, before the CD days (laughs).
Billy Rose: Those vinyl records are sometimes in high demand by some people nowadays.
Catfish Keith: Yeah! A guy just brought one to me just today and asked me to sign it. That was cool (laughs).
Billy Rose: How old were you and what was it that got you interested in the blues?
Catfish Keith: Well, my folks like a variety of music and I would hear different kinds of music all of the time. We had a lot of records at home…and my parents both sang in choirs and stuff in church and so forth. My interest in blues I think was fostered by my love for the acoustic guitar. I loved to listen to different acoustic guitar players. It started with people like Bob Dylan…Paul Simon and Leo Kottke. I guess Leo Kottke was my first giant guitar hero. That all started when I was about twelve or thirteen. I started playing heavy duty at about fourteen. By the time I was fifteen I knew I wanted to be a guitar player for the rest of my life. And I knew I wanted to be a solo guitar player that played acoustic guitar. After I started getting into acoustic guitar I wanted to find out where Kottke and Dylan were getting their music and that took me to people like “Mississippi” Fred McDowell and John Hurt, Gary Davis. So I really started digging the treasure trove of old time blues. Ragtime, Gospel and Hillbilly music. There’s such a rich history of roots music we have here in our country. That’s the journey I’ve been on ever since childhood. My vision has never waved from being able to make all the music by myself. Guitar, voice and stompin’ foot. The idea I got from hearing Leo Kottke, Bob Dylan, Doc Watson, Mike Seeger and so many great players that just flipped my wig. But the idea that the guitar is an orchestra on its own. You can make all the sound, the bass, the treble, the melody and counterpoint, harmony There are so many voices in it and so many rich ways to express it. It’s such an individual thing too. It has everything in it…in your own hands you got your own style there if you’re just willing to follow it and let it come out. You can learn from all kinds of people and songs and techniques…ultimately if you’re doing it right you’re learning how to play like yourself. Even though none of the music comes out of nowhere, nobody just gets music out of the sky…it comes from somewhere…there’s a tradition…there’s music that you grew up on. It’s the heart and rhythm and soul that of what all music is based on.
Billy Rose: You started playing guitar as a teenager. Did you play slide right away?
Catfish Keith: Well, pretty soon. I suppose after I started finger pickin’ the guitar. Pretty soon after that I started to play the slide. Son House was an artist that was kind of a breakthrough to me. I got a record of his …and it sort of scared me to death. It was so wild and drunken and weird…direct and so heartfelt…really kinda scary and dark. That song Death Letter was the first thing I ever heard from him. I couldn’t believe it. I wouldn’t say that I love that music. It’s like I couldn’t stop listening to it. I was compelled by it. It was compelling and it sort of bothered me. It was like…wow what the hell it this. Why can’t I get this off of my mind? I guess that’s when the voice of the slide guitar…it occurred to me how beautiful the sound of slide really is. What a vocal voice it is. That led me to people like Blind Willie Johnson, who is probably my absolute favorite slide player of all time, with the most expressive sound. And another really scary sounding singer. He’s got a voice that sounds like it bleeding after he’s finished (laughs). I don’t know how he did it but it was very intense and beautiful. Those were some of the big influences that got me going on my own journey with slide guitar. I like so many different areas in the steel string guitar spectrum. Fingerpickin’ sounds that you can take so many ways. The thing that I find most riveting and compelling comes out of one chord kind of a modal thing that’s almost a hypnotic thing that you hear in Mississippi hill country music…a lot of the best blues…it’s just one chord really. It brings it down to the simplest thing, that becomes the most mysterious and most beautiful.
Billy Rose: You have a very distinct sound. Did that develop on its own or were you looking for a certain sound you wanted to convey?
Catfish Keith: Well you have your heroes and the physical approach of how guitar was played. What became how I play comes from when you hear different players that have a gift and almost a vocal like quality to the way they play a string. It’s a very physical attack to the guitar but it’s also a very subtle nuance thing. You get it from other people but all these things come together and make your own thing. When I make a song arrangement…I’ll listen to a song until I can’t get it out…then I just try to learn it or play it…sometimes that results in me learning that song or it might result in me writing another song that was a springboard off that song. That happens quite often. I guess that’s when it really becomes your own. When you take a song that you really loved and re-invent it. That’s when a song…no matter who’s it is or what it is becomes your own. Some people want to copy things at first…and that’s natural, to learn things that way…ultimately you want to create your own things.
Billy Rose: You started out pretty early setting up you r own label. What was the idea behind that and how is it working out?
Catfish Keith: In our little corner of the music world, even if you have a deal with a label, basically you end up selling all of the records yourself anyway. It’s up to the artist to tour and sell and create your own following. Certainly a label can help with that. Hopefully they will have money and a publicity machine. But it was way more gratifying to do everything the way we wanted to do it. When I put out a record I have a vision of how I want it to sound, how I want the package to look. The way we market it is direct to the people. People see us at a show and they’ll buy a CD or they’ll go on the web site and order it. We get the order right at our house and we stuff it in the envelope and go the Post Office and send it off. It’s very direct. I’m lucky, because Penny my wife does it with me and it’s been able to be our living for nearly twenty years. Neither of us have a nine to five job. Our income comes from my music. We tour all over the world with it. It’s sustains us. We have a nice house and we go to the store and get what we need. I feel really lucky. We call the shorts ourselves and not everyone can do that. We also create luck by working hard. I was determined to do this. People like it and there are places for me to play, like this blues fest, or any other kind of festival. We go to the UK and play and work our butts off and we have a really good following. This will be our thirty fifth tour over there. Another advantage of having your own label is you are able to keep everything in print. When people work with a label and it goes out of business you can’t get your records. You can’t keep them in print. I know people who were on a label who went bankrupt and they couldn’t get there record and it’s like the record never existed. This way we always have the whole catalog available.
Billy Rose: Including your first record?
Catfish Keith: Yep! That became Tadpole Blues. That was originally Catfish Blues and now on Fish Tail as Tadpole Blues it’s the same record.
Billy Rose: Do you tour all of Europe?
Catfish Keith: We have played all over Europe. Holland, Belgium, Slovakia and Germany. There are a lot more places I want to go. We’ve been to Asia. We played Hong Kong and Malaysia. We have a really good following in England and we tour all over the US. We have been doing this for over twenty years now. We are making a living and it’s been great. The guitar has been a great way for us to travel. Most people have to save up enough money to take a little trip. With us it’s a lifestyle and we have been very fortunate to make a living while we travel and have fun.
Billy Rose: So when is the live album coming out?
Catfish Keith: It should be out within a month or so. We have to have it mastered and get the art done. By early October it should be available. We want it available for the UK tour. That starts October 15 and runs through December.
Billy Rose: So will it be mostly original stuff or a mixture?
Catfish Keith: It will be about the same thing you hear when you see a concert. A few originals and some of my well burnished pieces of my repertoire. It was just a really good night at a good venue called The Half Moon in Putney, and we just happened to get a good recording. I’m pretty tickled with it.