Ato Essandoh Interview: Vinyl’s Lester Grimes Talks Music

Actor Ato Essandoh, who plays guitarist Lester Grimes on Vinyl lays down his take on rock, punk, blues and commerce.

On HBO’s Vinyl, Ato Essandoh plays Lester Grimes, who was a promising young blues artist pigeonholed as a rock and roll dance hit singer and got his throat crushed as part of his residuals. Essandoh started acting on a dare while he was getting his BS in chemical engineering at Cornell University. He studied acting at New York City’s famous Acting Studio.

A playwright whose Black Thang was published in the anthology Plays and Playwrights 2003, Essanndoh performed on stage with Meryl Streep in Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children at the Public and Death of a Salesman at Yale Rep.

Essandoh was featured in the films Jason Bourne, Hitch, and Nights in Rodanthe. He played Natalie Portman’s adopted brother Titembay in Garden State, Col. Rambo in Blood Diamond and the Smiling African in the Russell Brand comedy Get Him to the Greek.

On TV, Essandoh did turns on Law and Order, Third Watch, Royal Pains, and Chappelle’s Show. He played the series regular Reverend Darnell Potter on Blue Bloods. His breakout role was as 19th Century doctor, Matthew Freeman on the BBC America TV series Copper. He also played Alfredo Llamosa on the Sherlock Holmes series Elementary.  

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But Essandoh may be best known for his turn as D’Artagnan in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. This isn’t because of his passionate performance as the runaway slave, but because he joined the annals of the legendary internet death hoaxes. There was a story going around a few years ago that the actor died while shooting the scene where he is ripped apart by dogs. It is still good for laughs and Essandoh laughs easily. He obviously enjoys his work on Vinyl, but he gives the impression that his enjoyment goes past the job of acting. He plays a guitarist, but is also an enthusiastic music fan who knows his way around the frets.

Essandoh sat for an exclusive phone interview with Den of Geek to talk about classic rock, roll, punk and blues.

Hi, I’m so glad to be talking to you. I’ve been enjoying Vinyl a lot. I’ve been watching your fingers and realize you must be a guitarist.

Yes, I am. I am an amateur guitarist. I’ve been playing guitar for about almost ten years.

Funnily enough, I’m going to South by Southwest next week and I’m going to be dealing with a bunch of musicians that I know down there. One of the bands that I know is called Miss Velvet and they invited me onstage to play a little bit on one of their songs. I’m really excited but I’m also woodshedding because I don’t want to go up there and make an idiot out of myself.

Again, I’m an amateur, it’s not like I gig anywhere so this will be the first time I get on stage and it’s South by. So I’m a little excited and a little scared and it’s like “So what the fuck am I doing?” [Laughs]

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How do you get around the fingerings on the show? Do you have a coach or do they give you charts or you figure the songs out yourself?

I figured it out on my own. It’s funny. They didn’t know that I could play the guitar when they cast me. So going through it they figured out I could play.

They’d already recorded all the music that they wanted to use for the Lester character so the way I proved that I could play was I would sing and I learned all the solos note-for-note, I recorded it on my iPhone and sent it to Randall Poster, the music supervisor and they were like “holy shit he can play,” so they made room for me to play.

Now Lester plays the guitar, which makes it more realistic because I’ve never heard of a blues guy that doesn’t play some kind of instrument while they’re singing. It was great to do that in front of Martin Scorsese. It was actually one of the greatest times of my life to be able to pull that off.

Have you been steeping yourself into the music of the period?

Yeah, I grew up listening to that stuff. I’m more of a Hendrix fan and more of an old blues fan and also the Stones. Not because I work for a Rolling Stone right now but because one of the first concerts I ever went to as a young adult, seventeen or 18 years old, was the Stones’ Steel Wheels Tour. I had been a huge fan of them and the music of the period is in my vinyl collection and my iPad collection.

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I don’t have to study anything, I already know a lot of it. Except for the punk. I’d never really gotten much into punk but they introduced me to the New York Dolls and now I’m obsessed with them.

Where did you see the Stones?

I want to say Shea Stadium.

I was there.

You were there? With Living Colour opening? Oh my god, dude, Living Colour was one of my favorite bands from forever and when they were opening for the Stones I had to go. I will never forget that concert. It was amazing.

Living Colour was opening for everybody that year. I saw them open for Eurythmics and maybe four more times.

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They were amazing. It’s weird, the bassist, I guess his stage name is Muzz Skillings and I bumped into him once in a while and he was always really appreciative that I knew exactly who he was and  I was like “You don’t understand. I was steeped in Living Colour. I loved you guys, you were incredible.” I met him and talked with him and it was really cool.

When you’re listening for the character, do you gravitate more to the old blues Lester played or the funk he’s getting into?

It’s more the early blues. Everything musically for me, there’s two kinds of music. There’s Prince and Jimi Hendrix and then Miles Davis and everything filters through that. So the early blues stuff, like John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters, all those guys. I love all that stuff. I love the notion of a dude sitting there with an untuned guitar tapping his foot and just singing his passion out, that’s what got me into music in the first place.

The first time I ever heard the blues, my parents had a stack of records that they weren’t using anymore. I found them when I was ten, I didn’t know what it was. But I found Lightnin’ Hopkins. I don’t remember what the album was, but I see this black man with sunglasses on and a cigarette sticking out of the side of his mouth and a cowboy hat and at ten years old I was like “this must be awesome” cos the dude’s name is Lightnin’ Hopkins. There’s no way that what I’m about to listen to is gonna be awful. It changed my life.

I discovered the blues and shortly after that Jimi Hendrix started to come into my life. That was how I went down the classic rock track.

I know Ty Taylor from the band Vintage Trouble does the singing for your character. How do you work together? Do you jam?

He was great. He is one of the most giving people I ever met.

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On the pilot, they’d worked everything out already. When they hired me they told me they already got somebody recording the music. We went to, and again, I’m a Jimi Hendrix fan, they were recording at Electric Lady Studios and I had walked by that a million times and now I’m inside Electric Lady Studios and I’m with Ty and everybody. Ty had invited me into the booth while he was recording stuff because he wanted to show me how he comes up with his vocalizations and give me pointers and it was really personal. He was giving me his trade secrets on how he approaches stuff. You’ve heard the voice, it’s really incredible. That band is incredible. He is what I would want to be if I was an actual musician onstage.

I’ve always loved a great band leader and he is one of those people that’s just electric. Not just his singing voice. He could just stand still and sing and it would be fine, but he gets the crowd up, he’s moving, he’s dancing. He’s got all these acrobatic jumping moves and he’s singing. I felt like I was getting away with murder, getting the real jewel of talent from Ty Taylor.

I thought the scene where you burned those reels was heartbreaking. Do you have any lost performances? Especially as you do a lot of live theater.

Yes. I remember a show I did on stage called Streamers. It was Five days of Rabe at the Roundabout Theater. It was a huge hit in the seventies when (Dave) Rabe wrote it and then 35 years later, they brought it back and I was a part of the cast.

I played this crazy, absolutely out of his mind, soldier about to go into Vietnam. It was a performance I would love to see again. It was one of my favorite-ever performances. Maybe it’s in some kind of archive, but I’ve never seen it. I’d just love to see what I did with it.

Do you think you would have enjoyed personally enjoyed the party atmosphere of the seventies music industry?

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Yeah, well I would have if I didn’t have the knowledge that I have now. I don’t think they knew much about sexually transmitted diseases back then. They were kind of cool with the drugs, you know what I mean?

I think now that we’ve seen the effects of all that stuff, no way. But I think going into it, let’s say for six months I would have like to party like the Stones or Jimi, absolutely.

Is Lester a sellout for doing the “Cha Cha Twist” song?

I was just having a discussion with one of the writers about this yesterday. What Lester is is a pure musician. He’s a pure blues man and that’s all he cares about. What he’s not is a business person.

It’s not selling out, necessarily, to do something to gain some kind of notoriety that gives you the cache to do be able to go and do something else that you want. There’s some dues that you just have to pay in life.

He looks at himself as a sellout but it’s actually a good business move to do something like that. Because, unfortunately whether you like it or not, art has to be mixed with commerce if you want to eat. That’s just what it is. If you’re going to sign a contract, there are things you have to understand you might have to do. If you don’t, then you walk away.

So when Lester tells Kip to fire the guitarist, what is Lester thinking?

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Yeah, that’s one key scene where Lester starts to understand what is involved in this business and the things that you have to do that you might not ordinarily want to do. So yes, he’s got to be looking at himself saying “I’m becoming what I hated Richie for.”

At the end of the day, it’s not Richie who broke Lester’s voice. It was Richie who made a business decision that would enhance himself. That’s not right and that’s not wrong. It’s, as my friend says, show business not show friend and if you don’t understand that you’re going to get screwed over at some point and that’s unfortunate.

Who do you see Lester being based on historically?

I think he’s more of an archetype of a lot of blues musicians who were sold out by, and you can’t say it any other way, the white establishmebt of music. They took the music and those guys never got compensated. Unlike guys that we know of, because of people like the Stones brought them forward, like Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker. But there was a whole raft of musicians that fell by the wayside because of dirty dealings, people who were basically using them and profiting handsomely from it and not compensating them.

I think that Lester represents a lot of those musicians who have gone through that. And now he, unlike they, have a chance for redemption in a way that they wouldn’t have.

Mick Jagger is a blues purist historian. Did you get to sit and rap with him about the history of the blue or anything?

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I haven’t been able to do that with Mick, but I’ve been such a Stones fan that I’ve seen a bunch of their documentaries where they go through a lot of that. I know that Keith Richards and Mick, when they met years and years and years ago, in school, they were big Howling Wolf fans. They bought all those records and would do what I do.

Right now I have Clarence Gatemouth Brown on my record player and I play along with it. I didn’t need to talk to Mick, but I did talk a little bit to Marty, who also has a sort of preternatural encyclopedic knowledge of lots and lots of blues. I mean he knows lots of music in general, and movie history, so he provided me with a lot of insight in the early rehearsals about who Lester was and who he was based on.

How do you feel about how Vinyl is treating early rock and roll and exploitation?

I think it’s pretty accurate. Again, it’s a business and these people are trying to make money. They’re taking advantage of people who are just expressing themselves through this new music. They see themselves as visionaries but they also see the paycheck that’s involved. I think that’s a pretty accurate for what I know of how people behaved back then. It still happens today. The music industry, like every industry, has a problem with exploiting artists. Right now people are not getting paid for having billions of streams on, let’s say Spotify or so forth.

Of course the corporations are making shit tons of money but the artists are being shafted. That’s always going to happen, unfortunately, until the artists are able to take more control. So you have somebody like Jay Z building titles. You get to a level where it becomes a corporation, which is kind of like what Lester is becoming. He went from a scrappy musician and suddenly he’s in the business.

And I don’t know where he’s going to go next season, or in this season, I don’t think I should say, but Lester becomes a bit corporate. Now he’s got to figure out how he can make his money and that’s always going to be the tension between art and commerce.

I heard you do impressions. Did that play into how you created Lester’s broken voice?

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I tried to do research into how that kind of injury would affect your voice and I couldn’t find anything reliable. But I knew that dramatically, obviously, you need something that symbolizes what happened. His life, his voice was literally crushed.

I was thinking about, one of my favorite musicians, Miles Davis. He had a degenerative vocal cord disease. I decided to model it on his voice because, dramatically, it sounds really great if it’s a rough gravelly voice. It’s kind of easy to manipulate my vocal cords to do that without actually injuring myself in real life. I feel it was really effective. It’s kind of an ugly voice. Interestingly enough, it’s a blues voice as well.

Howling Wolf certainly had a very raspy voice, but I think it symbolizes where Lester is. Because perhaps when Lester could sing, his voice would be completely different. It would have a different tone. He is a purist. He looks at himself as, he could have been Sam Cooke. Why would he go to any other voice besides the one he had?

For Lester, there’s a part of him that can’t leave and forgive the past in order to move to a different place. That is just a human foible, a human tragedy and that’s why Lester is such a great character.

When you do impressions, do you physically alter yourself, the way you stand or do you contort yourself in a way that might be embarrassing to see?

Yeah. Well, not really. It’s not just the voice, it’s a full-body expression. There’s no way, for example, that you could do Satchmo without smiling and doing his facial expressions. [Ato scats a little as Louie Armstrong] If you could see me standing here right now, you see I’m trying to embody Louie Armstrong. You have to do it, and that’s the magic of it. A really good impressionist, even if they don’t look at all like the person they’re impersonating, it’s a weird thing where they start to look like that person. It’s kind of odd. 

I just watched Jay Pharoah from Saturday Night Live. He does unbelievable impersonations. He just did a bit where he was doing Eddie Murphy and Katt Williams and whole bunch of the top black comedians and it’s stunning. He doesn’t look like any of them but he gets completely into those facial expressions and the way they move and suddenly you’re looking at Eddie Murphy.

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I have the utmost respect and jealousy for people who do impersonations. That’s how I got into acting. I used to impersonate people and it was just a goof. But then I realized how much I liked and how much it informs how you would do a character because you necessarily know that there is a physicality that you have to find.

I’ve always tried to work on President Obama, and there’s a thing that I can’t get. There’s a way that, when he makes certain wounds, when you watch him closely and there’s a p or b in it, there’s a way that his cheeks, right at the corner of his lips, sort of puff out and I can’t do it and, knowing that I can’t do it, I can’t find my Barack Obama.

I want to get into the fight scene with Corrado, how does that compare with getting ripped apart by dogs in Django Unchained?

[Laughs] Well the best thing was I got to get a hit. In Django I was helpless. In Vinyl I got to get up and got to get a real crack before they took me out. That’s the difference. I had some power there, whereas in Django I was helpless.

Are you sick of being asked about dying on Django or is it still good for laughs? 

It’s good for laughs, but now the laughs are like, come on this is four years old. There are people still tweeting me asking “do you know that somebody thought that you died on Django?” That’s so 2013. Let’s get with the program.

You worked with both Scorsese and Tarantino. They’re known for their encyclopedic knowledge of arts. How are they similar as directors?

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To me, they’re similar because they both seem to genuinely love working with actors and love actors. I’ve been with directors who, no offense, don’t really seem to enjoy talking to an actor or letting an actor know what to do or give them suggestions. But both Marty and Quentin are very enthusiastic about talking and sitting with you and hearing what you have to say. I think they’re confident enough in their eye that if they cast you, they think you can do the job.

Quentin, more than Marty, is hysterically funny. He’s more like a comedian on set. We’re doing a scene where I’m about to get chewed up by dogs, I’m this runaway slave, where my life is in danger and Quentin is making jokes. It’s partly, he’s trying to loosen me up a little bit, to give me a little more freedom to do stuff. Marty is, again, like an encyclopedia of music, history, film history, so Marty will sit you down and say [in Scorsese’s voice] “you know I’m trying to decide between this shot and this shot” and he’s moving his hand like three images apart as far as the frame concerned and suddenly you realize that you’re talking to one of the greatest directors ever and he is talking to you about his strategy about how he is going to tell the story and what he’s concerned about.

And it’s like “I’m just here, man, I’ll do whatever you say.” Because he’s in my top, at least five directors, if not number one or number two. No, he’s number one. He and Quentin, so to have them feel free to choose to talk tech with you is quite an honor and I feel, suddenly, I don’t believe I’m on this show. It’s awesome.

Vinyl or CD?

Vinyl. 100 percent. Vinyl. I’m trying to get rid of my CDs. I’m trying to copy them all onto my iTunes and there’s something wrong. But I’m trying to get rid of them and make room for my vinyl. I have about 400 records at this point.