Delta/Piedmont blues translator Jake La Botz possesses the kind of résumé that would seem like fiction if it weren't for the facts. Raised by his radical leftist union organizer/journalist father in Chicago, La Botz loved acting early on, ushering at local theaters at age 8 just to see free plays. He tried high school fine arts for a year, got into punk, then stole a car at 15 and headed to Colorado.
A succession of odd jobs (roofer, oil refiner, boilermaker, obituary writer, construction worker, factory drone) was punctuated by stints in hobo camps, self-educating visits to libraries and learning to play guitar. Visits to his mother in Detroit schooled him in obscure blues artists from the Delta and Piedmont traditions, and trips back to Chicago's famed Maxwell Street as observer and street busker put him in mentoring proximity of blues icons Homesick James and Honeyboy Edwards, who offered the young man invaluable advice on music and life.
After countless cross-country and international jaunts, La Botz settled in Los Angeles a dozen years ago. He struck up friendships with actor Steve Buscemi (who advised him against the role of the Blueshammer guitarist in Terry Zwigoff's Ghost World; he did it anyway) and Slash (who invited him to audition for his post-GNR project Velvet Revolver; he lost to Scott Weiland), recorded four albums and began a career that veers madly between juke-joint blues and acting (his biggest role to date was in Sylvester Stallone's recent Rambo adventure).
"We moved a lot when I was a kid, and I think it set me up for a sort of wanderlust," says La Botz via phone while on break during a recent Buddhist meditation retreat. "By the time I was a teenager, I wanted to see the world and had a very romantic notion about that. I got into the Beat writers and earlier American and European writers. Being a weird kid and hanging out in libraries and listening to old records, I wanted to see the side of America these guys were talking about."
To publicize his recently released fifth album, the stripped-back solo acoustic Sing This to Yourself and Other Suggestions for a Personal Apocalypse, La Botz is on his third annual tour of playing nothing but tattoo parlors. La Botz, who inked himself at 14 with some India black and a sewing needle, likes the ambience of tattoo emporiums.
"You get a lot of really interesting people that are often in various scenes together and who listen to the same kinds of music," he says. "The modern tattoo shop is much more like the barber shop of yesteryear. It becomes the local hangout for all kinds of different types of people, but a lot of artistically minded people."
The Tattoo Across America Tour began through old-school viral marketing in ink parlors around the country. Sensing that he was a tougher sell in traditional nightclubs, La Botz decided to capitalize on his popularity among tattoo artists.
"If you don't have a booking agent, you have to cold-call a nightclub or bar, and they basically want to know how much Budweiser you're going to sell," says La Botz with a laugh. "I had a little connection in the tattoo world. The tattoo guys I knew were playing my CDs in their shops, and the guys that would apprentice underneath them might open up their own shops and, if they liked my music, would play it too. It's a great way to play gigs where there's no constraints that you might find in a more typical music venue. It can be all ages, all kinds of shenanigans can be going on and the people who show up really want to see the show."
As for the album La Botz is supporting on his latest tattoo tour, he admits that he generally has few preconceptions about a new album when he begins, and Sing This to Yourself was no exception.
"I had been hoping to go into the studio with my band and a good producer, and do it the way people make good records," says La Botz. "But it turned out that I was going to be doing it on my own because I didn't have a lot of money. The songs were so naked and raw, and they had a good feeling with just a guitar, and I thought, 'I could do this in a day and make it really simple and raw, like the way they made the old blues records.' Part of it was I needed something to sell because I was ready to tour, and part of it was I had all these songs. I recorded it in one day, and I called a friend that day and asked him to draw up some artwork for me, and I mixed it a couple days later. It feels like a return to the rawness of the records I appreciated as a kid, where you can hear every nuance of the singer's voice and there's nothing to hide behind."
Jake La Botz, 8 p.m. Monday, August 11, 252 Tattoo, 11721 Bellaire Rd., 216.252.8088