A few months ago, my father told me that he had just witnessed one of the best guitarists around and that I had to check the guy out. The last time my dad sounded so excited about a new artist was in the early 1990s when he heard a song titled “Alive” by a then relatively unknown Seattle outfit called Pearl Jam. So I figured maybe it was time I hear this Damon Fowler Group, that not only my father, but nearly every other local music personality was raving to me about.
I recently sat down with Fowler, a Brandon native in his early 20s, at Skipper’s Smokehouse as he relaxed before a show. A few hours after we finished speaking, Fowler took the stage along with bassist Chuck Riley and drummer Brian Hawkins and brought the house of approximately 300 people to their knees with a searing set of songs from his two CDs of originals written by him and his uncle/manager Bobby Fowler. The show also included some cover tunes such as The Allman Brothers classic “Whipping Post,” which sounded as if the ghost of Duane Allman himself had joined Fowler and his band on stage.
Q: You’ve been playing guitar since you were 11, when did you start playing live?
A: The first time I ever played I was 12. First paying gig I was 14 at some place called the 11 Mile Tavern on MLK out on Seffner – it was the kind of looking place, the wind blows the wrong way it moves with it – it like leans.
As a teen, did your blossoming music career alienate you from your peers?
Musically it did – most of my friends weren’t into it (classic rock/blues). I didn’t go to Homecoming a couple of times because of some gigs and stuff. Most people accepted it all right.
Biggest musical influences?
My biggest musical influence would be … it’s hard … each week I have a new one.When I was younger it was (Jimi) Hendrix. I discovered Hendrix in eighth grade and then I really found my direction (as a guitarist).
You’re going on a journey and allowed to bring five discs. What would they be?
Dark Side of the Moon (Pink Floyd), Electric Lady Land, Axis: Bold as Love (Hendrix), Kind of Blue (Miles Davis), Ice Pickin’ (Albert Collins).
Now that you play to hundreds, several nights a week, are you beginning to feel a sense of reward for all the hard work and practice you have put into playing the guitar and being a lead vocalist?
Really, I just play music to play music. It’s my job (Fowler has been a full-time musician for the past year), but it’s also my hobby. When people come out that’s great – that’s the job of it. But, there’s been nights that I’ve played and there’s been like two people there. You just show up and play and have a great time.
Do classmates who didn’t pay you mind in high school ever show up at your shows and act like old friends?
Yeah, every once and a while people from high school will come up (to a show) and say, “Hey, crap, I didn’t know you did that.” I was real quiet in high school, so a lot of people had no idea I did this.
Do they act differently now that you’re an established musician?
There was this one girl who I (was attracted to in high school but who didn’t give me the time of day), who came up to me after a show but I was like, “Hey, it’s not the same thing.”
Your debut CD, Riverview Drive, was produced by rock legend Rick “Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo” Derringer. How did that collaboration come about?
I was 16, playing in Ocala at “redneck” Skipper’s. (Skipper’s Smokehouse co-owner/booking agent) Tom White said, “If you do good up here we will let you play at Skipper’s. So we went up, and they loved us and a couple gigs later, they called and wanted us to open up for Rick Derringer – but, it wasn’t opening up, it was doing alternating sets because we already had a little bit of a following up there. Backstage during the show, Derringer grabbed me and asked me to do the encore with him. I sat in with him, and he invited me to sit in with him again the next night. Every time Derringer (he lives in Bradenton) would play Tampa he would invite me to play with him, and when I told him I was doing a CD he offered to produce it.
Your latest disc, Roots & Branches, released this past June, has a rawer, more rock-oriented sound wherein the band seems to come together better. What different approach did you take in the studio this time around?
I don’t like the idea of the guy who has a band who just shows up and having a pick-up band. I really like having a band (I can work with).
On both your albums, you and your uncle Bobby Fowler share songwriting credits. Explain the process.
“Bob-o” is good with lyrics – really into progressive country and singer/songwriter stuff. He has a knack for it. I come up with the music and tell him the direction I wanna go in. “I have a verse here and I don’t like it … help me out with this.” And then it turns into a song. We interact.
One of the disc’s highlights, “I Do What I Got to Do,” talks about a deal that went bad in Tampa’s notorious College Hill. Any factual basis to it?
(Grins) I’m pleading the fifth on this one.
Your musical talents have made you a regular at the House of Blues in Orlando and have landed you gigs at legendary halls such as Antone’s in Texas – where is your favorite venue to play outside of Tampa?
The House of Blues – the big room. It’s built for sound, the crew is world class, everything is world class … they treat you very good.
Best music venue in Tampa?
(Without hesitation) Skipper’s.
I haven’t had many awful gigs … When I was about 16, it was Guavaween and we were playing the New World Brewery (in Ybor City). People get drunk and dance any way they want to, and I’m hip with that, express yourself. But, this guy was out there flailing his arms, spinning around and he got a little too close and hit my microphone stand and it hit me and busted my lip.
Did you finish the song?
Has there been a defining moment on stage when you thought, “I’m making it?”
A highlight that comes to mind is when we had the CD release party (for Roots and Branches) here (at Skipper’s Smokehouse) and had about 500 people through the door. It was a cool night. I looked out and everyone was dancing to our music – they came out to see us.
Outside of performing, you also give guitar lessons. Got any free advice for aspiring six-stringers?
Play to your ability – if you’re fast, play fast, if you’re slow, play slow. As long as you get the feeling out, that’s really all there is.
Do you consider yourself more of a blues or rock-oriented guitarist?
I just play guitar. I’ve really been into country guitarists lately. I like blues, I like jazz, I like reggae. I like it all. I just consider myself a guy who plays guitar.
Your albums contain all original compositions – what are some of your favorite covers to play in concert?
“Sissy Strut” is pretty cool, it’s a Meters tune. “As Years Go Passing By” – an Albert Collins tune. Anything that’s grooving is cool.
Best/worst thing about being a musician?
The best thing is being able to play and have enough freedom to live my life … pretty much the way I want. The worst thing about being a musician is the preconceived notion girl’s parents have.
What are some of your hobbies outside of music?
I like fishing, and I like to play pool sometimes.
You’ve sold more than 12,000 CDs without the help of a record label. How have you accomplished this?
Our live show – we do a big show with somebody and pump the CDs. Let people know we’re an independent band out there trying to make it. Also, we always try and keep our CD prices cheap. I refuse to sell a CD for more than $10. If I saw a band and they were good, but their CD was like $15 or $20 … I would (hesitate before buying it).
What are your thoughts on being an independent artist as opposed to being signed on a label?
The labels that have been interested really don’t want to give you a deal, they want to give themselves a deal to put your music out. That’s not the way to do it.
Keep playing … that’s really it. I have a girlfriend … I hang out with her. I just look to be happy and keep playing, preferably make a decent living at it. If not, I’ll still keep playing. Someday, I’d like to have the funds to have a small record label and help bands out … find guys I like and help them out.
- For more information on Damon Fowler visit his Web site at
- contact Wade Tatangelo at firstname.lastname@example.org