Steve Mackay - Sax Man, talks The Stooges, Iggy and Estel

STEVE MACKAY, the man who played saxophone on The Stooges, extraordinary 1970 album Funhouse and the 2007 reunion album The Weirdness, and who also toured with the band in 1970 and 2003, is coming to Galway.

On Thursday August 19 at 9pm, Steve will join Irish avant-garde/experimental rock band Estel, on stage for Strange Brew at the Róisín Dubh.

The Stooges and Funhouse

Steve Mackay grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, to a family of Irish and Scottish descent. From a young age he was surrounded by music and was drawn to the saxophone through his mother’s record collection which included Stan Getz albums and Miles Davis’ Birth Of The Cool. However this was also the 1950s and the revolution in youth culture unleashed by rock’n’roll had a profound effect on the young man.

“There was a rockin’ tenor sax solo on almost every song on the Top 40 in 1958,” Steve tells me during our interview. “When the ‘British Invasion’ [when The Beatles, Stones and Kinks, came to the US] happened all my friends got guitars. Sax wasn’t cool but I was ‘the only one who could play a lead’. Do a Byrds’ song with the sax? No problem!”

In 1967 Steve moved to Ann Arbor, just outside Detroit, to attend the University of Michigan where he “got stoned, tripped, and radicalised almost immediately”. He also started his own band, Carnal Kitchen, a freeform drums and sax duo.

By that stage he had already heard of a band called The Iguanas and their “wild and singing drummer Iggy”. That “wild” man was James Newell Osterberg, who would later become famous the world over as Iggy Pop.

By 1968/69, Steve saw Iggy regularly at gigs in Ann Arbour and Detroit, where he was the singer in a band called The Psychedelic Stooges, and the two men started to get to know one another. Iggy was also taking time out to check out Steve’s band.

“I was impressed when Jim saw Carnal Kitchen’s first big show in 1970 from the front row, so I wasn’t surprised he invited me to jam with The Stooges,” says Steve. However he had no idea that Iggy wanted Steve to record with them as well.

Steve would eventually join the band in Los Angeles for the sessions which became the mighty Funhouse, with Steve playing sax on the title track, ‘1970’, and ‘LA Blues’.

“I didn’t know he had ‘1970’ and ‘Funhouse’ all set up for me,” Steve recalls. “Iggy said: ‘Just play like Mace Parker [James Brown’s saxman] on acid.’ I said: ‘No problem, Jim!”

Steve’s favourite song is ‘Funhouse’, where he and guitarist Ron Ashton belt out the riff with gusto (“What a chance to blow funky and free!” ). However the album’s most uncompromising track is the ‘free jazz’ of ‘LA Blues’, which these days Iggy describes as something akin to “a demonic howl”.

“As a finale to our shows we would do what we called a Hippy or Freakout ending in freeform, leaving guitar and bass feeding back as we left the stage while the crowd was still passing Jim around [after one of his stagedives],” says Steve. “Don Galucci, the producer, thought it would be good to make it its own track. We did it all live in the studio.

“I always would brag about how I was high on acid when we did it until I heard Jim’s recollection that he was on acid every day during the recording. Demonic Howl indeed! Forty years later, it still stands up and we do a somewhat abbreviated version in our shows, where Mike Watt and I throw in some Coltrane.”

Steve toured with The Stooges for six months in 1970, performing in Detroit, New Orleans, St Louis, New York, and LA, after which he returned to Carnal Kitchen. However it was not to be the end of his association with The Stooges, who recruited him for live duties in 2003 and recording commitments in 2007.

“Before the reunion I had sat in with J Mascis and The Fog when they came to San Francisco, Watt on bass, Ron Asheton on guitar doing Stooges covers as part of the show,” says Steve. “Then, Scott [Ashton, Stooges drummer] and Ron did those great tracks for Iggy’s solo album Skullrings and the idea of a reunion was born. Needless to say I was delighted when I got a call from Jim (‘Do you need to rehearse?...‘No.’ )

“Even if that had been a one-off, what an experience, leading to the kind of vindication very few get to experience. Before you know it, we were going to Spain, France, and Japan and began this incredible journey I never had anticipated would be taken. Jim had been laying the groundwork in Europe for 25 years on his own.

“Regarding The Weirdness I wish I had been allowed more input. I was not allowed to even hear the material until I walked into the session from the Chicago Airport. We have done some of those songs live and they sound far better than the record. It was a pleasure working, however briefly, with Steve Albini.”

Iggy and Steve remain great friends to this day and Iggy has contributed vocals to a track on Steve’s forthcoming album, Sometimes Like This I Talk.

“We talk on the phone regularly, either just for a chat or more often with saxpart suggestions,” he says. “He is a terrific bandleader and we have remained friends all these years. I have learned a lot about when and when not to play from him. I asked him how he wished to be billed in the credits for Sometimes Like This I Talk, he said however I wanted, so we just call him ‘Ypsi Jim’ after his hometown between Ann Arbor and Detroit.”

The return

Throughout the 1970s Steve continued to work with Carnal Kitchen, and participated in numerous collaborations, most notably with the Violent Femmes, but despite being an in-demand musician, for years many in the music media believed he had died of a drug overdose in 1975.

“A British journalist named Nick Kent wrote a Stooges/Iggy book and confused me with Zeke Zettner, Stooges bassist who sadly, in fact did die ‘of a drugs overdose in 1975’,” says Steve. “I did almost die of a collapsed lung in SF in 1983 but Snakefinger and the Femmes helped in my recovery. There was, incredibly, another premature report of my demise in the late 1990s when a namesake of mine did in fact die of AIDS in San Francisco, a Google search gone awry. Anyhow am delighted to still be among the living!”

Steve took some time out from music in the 1980s, working as an electrician, but thanks to encouragement from his partner Patricia and Iggy Pop he took up his sax and started travelling again, leading to solo recordings and work with J Mascis, The Stooges, the Radon Ensemble, and The Minutemen’s Mike Watt.

His current collaboration is with Dublin band Estel. So when they take to the stage of the Róisín Dubh, what can audiences expect?

“This will be our first tour together,” says Steve. “We will draw from Estel’s rich, if dark, musical landscape, but as going ‘where no sax player has gone before’ is my tendency, it should be a great show!”

Last year, Steve and Estel released an album featuring four tracks named after the Gospels, plus a cover of The Stooges ‘Funhouse’ (which Iggy loved ). The album also features Steve’s old friend and frequent collaborator Mike Watt.

“Watt and I have become close friends over the last years and he has done so much to inspire me,” says Steve. “He is a dynamo of positive and wise energy and I am so blessed to have him in my corner.”

Estel with Steve Mackay play Strange Brew @ Róisín Dubh on August 19th at 9pm. Tickets are €10 and available from the Róisín Dubh and Zhivago.

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