June 22, 2011
Interview with Freddy Koella 
by Frank Moriarty
from Vintage Guitar magazine, December 2005 issue
For any guitarist, joining the band of a well-known artist can be an intimidating experience. But when your new employer is Bob Dylan, the definition of the word “pressure” should be rewritten.
In 2003 Freddy Koella, a native of Mulhouse, France, found himself taking the place of recently-departed Charlie Sexton in Dylan’s band. Koella quickly meshed with co-guitarist Larry Campbell, and the duo was soon churning Dylan songs like “Honest With Me” and “Summer Days” into furious deep-blues maelstroms further roiled by Freddy’s incendiary solos.
It’s a long way from the east of France to Bob Dylan’s side, and Koella recently talked about the journey, his career, and his new solo CD, Minimal (Minimal Records, www.freddykoella.com).
“My dad is a Bach fanatic. He is a very eclectic classical music lover, so I was hearing this music all the time,” Koella recalls of his childhood. “And my mom played a little bit of piano. So that is what I was listening to when I was younger. But when I was 14, my sister brought home some blues records – and that was the end for me!”
Still, Freddy’s affection was divided between guitar and violin, splitting his efforts between classical and blues. Not surprisingly, Koella’s parents voiced their preference about their son’s choice of music.
“My parents did not like when I played the blues. I was living in a small town in the east of France, so there was absolutely no connection there with the blues social phenomena. So for them, it was very bizarre.”
While the sounds of Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and Jimmy Page resonated with Freddy, the fathers of the blues were his greatest influence. Young Koella soon had a close encounter with one of these originators, despite living thousands of miles from the US.
“When I was 16, the first gig I ever did in front of an audience was blues rock, and we opened for Memphis Slim in a very small place in my area. So that was stressing! And very exciting. I was just playing with a drummer – and watching Slim emptying a bottle of cognac!” laughs Koella.
Soon though, Koella crossed the ocean. In 1983, at the age of 23, he played for a year with Cajun musician Zachary Richard, then returned to the States for good in 1990.
“You know, for me it was logical that I would move to America because I was hooked on this music,” Koella acknowledges. “In France it was just a copy – I had to see what was here, to try to find a connection with this music, and my future… It’s like how you would do if you were into Russian music – you would go to Russia. So I was so possessed that I didn’t really think, I just went!
“The first time, it wasn’t difficult at all, when I was younger. When I came in 1990 it was more difficult – I was 32 then, and it was tougher. But I had to do it because I couldn’t see any future in France for me.”
After first musically reuniting with Richard, Freddy met singer Willy DeVille, who first rose to prominence in New York’s CBGB scene in 1977 with the band Mink DeVille. Ironically, the meeting came about thanks to a fellow French expatriate who would play a large role in Freddy’s life, highly-regarded guitar builder James Trussart.
“He is a very old friend of mine, because he is from the east of France, too,” Koella notes. “He told me that Willy DeVille is looking for a guitarist. So James gave me Willy’s number, and I called him and met him.”
That call led to a fifteen-year alliance with DeVille that continues to this day. But Trussart would play musical match-maker once again. In 2003, both Trussart and Koella had migrated separately to Los Angeles.
“I was at James’ workshop in LA, and Tony Garnier, the bass player (with Bob Dylan), came in because he was playing one of James’ guitars,” Freddy recalls. “We started to talk about how they were rehearsing in Santa Monica, and that they were rehearsing with a guitarist and it wasn’t very exciting, apparently. James said to Tony, ‘You know, you should try Freddy…’ So he told Bob about that, and Bob knows Willy. So Tony said, ‘Would you like to try this guy?’ And Bob said, ‘Sure, bring him in.’”
Soon Koella was sparking new life in Dylan’s timeless songs – and occasionally sparking ire from Bob’s more conservative fans. Freddy shut out feedback, both the bad and the good.
“I did a blockage when I was playing with him. I didn’t want to know anything,” he admits. “My wife or my dad, they wanted to make me read all those fan mails and stuff, but I completely refused. I just wanted to be on the moment, and play with him like he would be anybody else, and enjoy it. So, of course when you are in a position like that, you can not make everybody happy – it is impossible. And I was aware of that. But it didn’t bother me.”
Bringing adventurous exploration to Dylan’s music felt right to Koella.
“I’ve been playing this music for so long, I have to break the mold,” Koella says. “I have to go somewhere else. To do the same stuff, like improvising in the same mode, the same style - to me after a certain time it’s getting boring. So I’m just trying to stretch a little bit further. I listen to lots of ethnic music and different stuff – I really like that. I’m not a blues fanatic. I used to be, but now it’s just my vocabulary and that’s it.
“I really love Thelonious Monk. To me it’s his musical language, the way he expresses himself. It talks to me. And it’s funny, because when I jammed the first time with Bob, the way he played the piano reminded me of him. Very… I don’t know in English… Crazy! What can I say? Not a pattern, but he could go anywhere. So I felt very good about that.”
Koella found his on-stage position immediately to Dylan’s left to be a source of inspiration.
“I really like to improvise, and that was ideal for me. Especially being on Bob’s side, you can feel him and you can do the connection, you know. It was great.”
Health problems in 2004 brought the association with Dylan to an unexpected close. After a troubling period of months being unable to play, Koella turned to the creation of his beautifully atmospheric instrumental CD, Minimal. The disc was recorded direct to stereo, just the sound of a guitarist and his instrument.
“That was done right after I felt that I was back on my feet,” he explains. “What can I do to express myself, and to do it quickly? I thought, let’s see what I can do with just one instrument in my hands.”
Koella borrowed the album’s main voice, “an old double-O 28 Martin from 1895, and I did most of the songs on that. And then I have a J-45 from 1947, and I have a National Tricone reissue. I played also a Gibson 125 from 1957.”
Koella also plays one of Trussart’s metal Telecaster-based instruments. But his oldest companion is a 1963 Stratocaster - bought in France - that has been at his side since he was 21.
“A friend of mine in my home town had a music store, and one day told me to come in, that he had a guitar I should see,” Koella remembers. “He had traded an organ, a cheesy organ, for this guitar. So he sold me this guitar at the time for about $400.00! But you know, at the time it wasn’t completely crazy with the vintage stuff.”
Koella hopes to promote Minimal, as he did with a festival solo show in an ancient French church in May. But he will also be touring with Willy DeVille, and hopes to forge similar musical alliances in the future.
“You know, I’m a shy guy,” Koella explains. “I like vocalists, and I guess being behind someone fits me well.”
FREDDY KOELLA | BIOGRAPHY (pdf)
Freddy Koella playing a James Trussart Steelphonic