Mopac & the Blue Suburbans

Mopac & the Blue Suburbans are a blues band out of Austin, TX. They may still be together, I don't know. The band kind of comes and goes, depending on the whims of their principal players. Mopac has been through many lineups, but the common thread is that the musicians are usually weekend warriors who make their livings in the high-tech industry. The main guy, Doug Miller, is a veteran marketing executive who has been with a lot of different companies in Austin and he also happens to be a killer harp player. I met Doug when we worked for a software company called Dazel and he invited me to join the band.

At the time, Mopac was a straight-up blues band and we played that format for a few years. But toward the end of that iteration of Mopac, we added a jump-blues song. For whatever reasons, that song just clicked with us. We played it really well and it was one of our more popular songs. When that version of Mopac disbanded not longer after, Doug and I formed a band called Fat Cat Jump, in which we decided to focus exclusively on jump-blues. This was at the beginning of the late '90s swing revival started by Brian Setzer and his cover of Jump, Jive, and Wail. It was really great timing for Fat Cat Jump because we loved those old jump songs; the market was really ripe for it with the swing revival; and we had a schtick in that we used a Chicago blues instrumentation (guitar, harp, bass, drums) instead of horns.

Doug and I hit the woodshed to really learn how to play jump. I spent hours and hours learning as many inversions of swing chords as I could, as well as chord substitutions, and lots of variations of 12-bar blues progressions (if you think there are only 3 chords in blues, you are truly only seeing the tip of the iceberg). I spent hours practicing progressions and changing up the chord inversions each time through so that I could fluidly call up any inversion I knew and have the rhythm guitar be a constantly evolving element to the song while still holding down the harmonic structure. I also woodshedded on jump soloing, which I approached by mixing in Charlie Christian type of stuff with the blues licks that I was already familiar with, like T-Bone Walker, Albert King, and even a bit of Chuck Berry. I worked a lot on soloing over chord changes, adapting note selection to the underlying chords instead of force-fitting minor pentatonics over everything. As a by-product of all this, I got really good at playing over shuffles, which is something that I was not very comfortable with before. I learned a lot of new things, but I also gave up a lot of old things. I dropped most of the "theatrical" rock idioms that were pretty core to my playing before - like two-handed tapping, flashy speed licks, pinch harmonics, aggressive whammy bar work, playing in free time, etc. I also spent a fair amount of time and money trying to get as authentic a sound as possible, using old tubes amps and horsetrading gear. My tone went from pretty gained out, to being mostly clean with just a tiny bit of overdrive. I mostly used the neck pickup on my guitar and I bought a hollowbody Epiphone Sorrento with a Bigsby vibrato.

Doug and I recruited a stand-up acoustic bass player, and we went through a few different drummers. This band was pretty well-rehearsed and it showed. We were very tight. With the connections that we had to the high-tech industry, we played a lot of happy hours in downtown Austin. Probably the best gig we had was a standing weekly residency at a bar called The Spot, opening for Monte Montgomery.

After a few years Fat Cat Jump disbanded. But Doug and I didn't miss a beat. We brought in some of the old Mopac guys, revived the name Mopac & the Blue Suburbans, and just continued on with the same material. In fact, gig-wise we did even better than Fat Cat because we had more people in the band with connections which led to better opportunities. We ended up with a virtual residency at a club called Speakeasy that was the perfect venue for a jump/swing band. It had a lot of mahogany and red velvet and you entered through an alley - it looked like a speakeasy and we sounded like a band you'd see in a speakeasy. We were kind of made for each other. We also finagled our way into a few really choice gigs, like opening for Jimmie Vaughan. As I mentioned this was in late '90s.  Austin is a tech town, and that was the high point of the dotcom boom, so money was flowing, people were smoking cigars and drinking martinis, and we played swing and jump blues for young, beautiful, newly wealthy people.  We provided the soundtrack to their excess and while the whole dotcom thing makes me think, "What the hell were we smoking?" its was a blast being in the middle of it.  It was like being a minor character in The Great Gatsby.

Eventually though, I became dissatisfied with Mopac. One, I got burned out on jump-blues. It's tremendously fun music and it was challenging to learn, but it's obviously a very particular style and I was sort of missing the other aspects of my playing that had to be suppressed to play jump with any sort of authenticity. But the bigger factor was that we had plateaued as a band and it was a pretty low plateau. Mopac was never as serious about the music as Fat Cat Jump, and we were never as tight. With the exception Doug and I, the band wasn't really motivated to be a badass, take-no-prisoners musical unit. Some of the other players were perfectly happy just to wing their way through the songs. They didn't want to put in the effort to be really good, or more accurately they simply didn't see the need to. They were satisfied impressing their non-musical friends on Friday nights. Sometimes we sounded absolutely terrific. And sometimes we were a musical train wreck on stage, which I simply can't abide. We had lost a few more ambitious members over this issue during my tenure and after dealing with it for way longer than I should have, I finally quit myself. By the end, I was glad to be out of it. But with the years softening my memory of the bad parts, I look back fondly on the experience now. It was a good time and we had moments that were very rewarding.

I recorded these songs with Mopac and the Blue Suburbans. I'm not exactly sure of the date, but it must have been the late '90s or early '00s. Despite what I wrote about our tightness as a band, our playing on these songs is pretty damn good. Especially considering there's little to no overdubbing on them - they were recorded live to 16-track analog tape. We recorded at our then drummer's home studio. I think he did an outstanding job recording and mixing this.