INTRODUCING: BIG BLIND RAY
Ray Lechminka, better known as Big Blind Ray, is one of Sydney’s foremost and finest Blues players. Having picked up his first harmonica 18 years ago he has taught himself to blow his Marine Band harps like the old time greats. A regular on the Sydney gig circuit, Ray offers a distinct sound that swivels and swerves into the deepest crevasses of the soul – a sound greater than his 6 foot 5 physique. With a penchant for playing knee shakin’, soul achin’, heart breakin’ Blues, Big Blind Ray is a name worth knowing, and a musician worth experiencing.
Q: Tell me the story of your first years of playing.
A: I first picked up the Harmonica when I was 19 years old so I started pretty late compared to most people I know. The first few years of playing were unconventional for most instrumentalists starting out, but common for anyone who has picked up the Harp. I was mainly self taught, and tried to work things out the hard way essentially as there wasn’t much info on how to play the Harmonica compared to what we have nowadays with the advent of internet technology. I grabbed a book on how to play the instrument, studied it cover to cover. That was the first year down.
I ran into a friend who played Bass and we got to talking about music. When he heard I was learning to play the Harmonica he got really excited and the following day I was hanging out with him and some of his friends having my first jam. It dawned on me that I knew absolutely nothing and that really excited me. So I made a pact with him. I would give myself 7 months to be good enough to jam. So I ended up having a few lessons with a Balmain based musician Mitch Grainger (who now lives in LA) and he kicked me off in the right direction. I practised for hours every day, and got good enough to Jam. From that point I would just try to Jam with my friends, listen and immerse myself in whatever music I could get my hands on, trying to work my instrument along with it.
I was fortunate enough to keep myself surrounded by musicians as I had no idea what the hell I was doing, but with the patience and guidance from many talented friends that I met on my journey in the first few years, I’ve managed to form a solid and loving relationship with the Blues and this amazing little instrument.
Q: What inspired you to play the harp specifically? And why the Blues?
A: I was involved in community radio before I picked up the Harp, and it was community radio that sparked my love of music which eventually led to me wanting to learn an instrument. I didn’t want to learn anything conventional. It had to be different, unique and obnoxious. The only two instruments that stood out to me as fitting those three criteria were the Accordion and Harmonica. Little did I know at the time that they belong to the same family of instrument (Free Reed). I was watching an epsode of Recovery one morning (which was a popular weekend morning music program hosted by Dylan Lewis on ABC in the 90’s) and the host’s band (The Brown Hornet) played a number on the show. He had a Harmonica on him and just tore up this super cool and impressive solo and I was like “I gotta do that!” so that kind of sealed it for me really.
As far as the Blues go – I wasn’t even listening to the genre at the time. I was into punk and metal and gothic music and 90’s ska/punk stuff. Blues was Alien to me. My love of the instrument just lead me down that path. It was an organic process I feel and I am grateful that it happened.
Q: How did the name Big Blind Ray eventuate? Was it as simple as you wearing glasses and being named Ray?
A: It was a nickname that a couple of my friends coined when I was about 20. Essentially, we were musing with calling me “B.B. Ray” (with obvious references to B.B. King) and they filled out the two B’s – Big and Blind. I’m Big. I’m 6’5″ and weigh about 300lbs and my eyesight is also pretty shit. So yeah, that’s all there is to it really. It just kind of stuck. So when something sticks to you – own it.
Q: What is it about the genre that has resonated so deeply with you? And which Blues musicians have influenced you the most?
A: It’s simplicity. The depth from which it can resonate with you emotionally. The beautiful vocals. It’s a beautiful paradox of complexity and minimalism. As far as influences go? Id say im more inspired by certain artists as opposed to influenced by them. So the usual suspects I pay homage to; Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller), Junior Wells, Little Walter, Big Walter Horton, Charlie Musselwhite, Tom Waits, Muddy Waters, Howlin’Wolf, and many others. But I get stubborn. I don’t like trying to imitate players. And I don’t particularly want too much influence coming through with my style. I want to sound and play like me, not someone else.
Q: Top 5 favourite records of all time?
A: This list is subject to change and is in no particular order:
Drinking Tnt and Smoking Dynamite – Buddy Guy and Junior Wells
Talking Timbuktu – Ali Farka Toure and Ry Cooder
First Time! The Count meets The Duke – Duke Ellington and Count Basie
Hard Again – Muddy Waters
Greetings From LA – Tim Buckley
Q: What’s your goal as a Blues performer, what do you hope audiences take from your playing?
A: My goal as a performer in general is just to do the best that I can in that moment and hopefully make a connection with the people who are listening to me. I hope audiences can take something positive away from my playing.
Q: What’s been the defining moment of your career thus far?
A: Playing Harmonica with the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra in 2011. I was called up to play Harmonica for the Opera version of the John Steinbeck novel “Of Mice and Men” which was being directed by Bruce Beresford. I played a minor role but what I took from the experience was very humbling, eye opening and expanded my mind and appreciation of music even more. It also was a great motivator to keep practising and working on being a better musician. So for that I am grateful.
Q: What do you feel is the biggest struggle in regard to being a Blues musician in the 21st century?
A: Getting work to pay the bills right now. I don’t have a day job. This is what I do. Play music and teach Harmonica. And thats all I ever really want to do. But to hustle enough work to pay the bills and keep the wolf from your door is tough. I think this is a struggle for a lot of people who wish to take music on full time. I wish I could get more money at gigs and didn’t have to worry too often, but that’s just the way things are. It’s a struggle and when people take the time out to see you, go out of their way to hear you, and connect with what you have to share, then it makes me feel like I’ve done my job and that keeps me going.
Q: What is your ultimate goal? What do you hope your career will be like in 10 years time?
A: My ultimate goal is to raise the profile of the instrument here in Australia. I want some kid to see what I do and be inspired like I was. I want a young guy or girl to think “Wow, that is really cool. I wan’t to do that too”- I hope I’m lucky enough to teach and nurture as many people who have been inspired to take up the instrument just like I have. I hope in 10 years time that I am in a position with my music career where I can afford to have and support a family.
Q: How do you feel your playing has progressed over the years? Do you feel as you’ve gotten older and experienced life more intricately, that your playing is now more authentic?
A: Yes and No – I’m not a traditionalist in the sense that you need to live x number of years on earth to earn some badge that gives you authority to be authentic with the Blues. Fuck that. I certainly feel my playing has progressed over the years but I could have done better. I could have practiced harder to get somewhere sooner. I don’t think getting older has anything to do with it.
Q: Which song do you enjoy playing the most? And how would you describe your playing?
A: I always enjoy playing songs that I’ve written the most. Because it comes from me. Not someone else. But as far as other peoples songs go, I have a soft spot for Shake your Hips by Slim Harpo. I’m a sucker for a good Boogie Beat. I don’t know how to describe my playing. I’m still trying to learn how to make it work and sound better when I use it.
Q: What advice would you give to young budding harp and or Blues players?
A: Never forget why you do what you do. That tends to be where you’ll find your joy and love for the craft. Keep an open mind and explore things with childlike wonder. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Play with people who are better than you and learn from them. Have something to say when you play and mean it when you do. When it comes from the heart, people can feel it. And don’t forget to practice like your life depends on it.
Big Blind Ray is authentic. His harp mastery offers a glimpse into the pure Blues sound that has inspired and influenced musicians for over 60 years – this is music that deserves to be wholeheartedly experienced by each and every person with an appreciation for sounds that truly make you feel!
Peace, love, and keep singin’ the Blues,