Q&A: Dan Aykroyd on Ghostbusters, Blues Bros, Crystal Head

Who ya gonna call? The Ghostbusters? The Blues Brothers? Maybe you should just call Dan Aykroyd.

We did.

Tahoe Onstage caught up with Aykroyd before his intimate sit-down-and-chat appearance (and maybe have a shot or two of Crystal Head Vodka) on Friday at Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Lake Tahoe. We had oh-so-many questions.

Here’s what the 65-year-old Canadian comedian, actor, bluesman and entrepreneur had to say:

How do fans react to the opportunity to meet you?

I do quite a bit of these events tastings, bartender education sessions, and if you have a chance to meet a tyrantosaurus and not have them bite,  wouldn’t you come out? He’s not going to bite. His teeth are all worn down to nubs now but he still is a monster, a dinosaur and a spectacle so people come out because they can’t believe that I’m still alive.

You are coming to Lake Tahoe for a drinking event, a question-and-answer session and tasting of Crystal Head Vodka. Can you tell me about that?

We are really delighted by our enjoyment with some of the Hard Rock Casinos around the country — to be able to ally to great brands that are known for quality and for a full joy of people’s entertainment, which Hard Rock is and which Crystal Head is. It’s just a great opportunity to unite these brands that are known for quality. Hard Rock, the administration of the casino business in Nevada, it’s clean, it is there for the consumer to have a fun experience that will have them coming back as a repeat customer. Likewise, we have the same values with Crystal Head. We have used no additives in Crystal Head. We are all about quality and the customer coming back and buying that bottle again and so as a result we’ve taken out all the terpenes, all of the lipides and all the glycerine that is usually in vodka. They are substances that are not going to kill you but would you rather have, if you’re a bartender and you had an opportunity to make a mixed drink, would you rather have a mixed drink that doesn’t have glycerin in it, which is a cousin of glycol, which is antifreeze. Wouldn’t you rather have a vodka that doesn’t have terpenes, which turpentine is made of. It’s a cousin. So we don’t have any sugars or anything like that we just have the water and the mash and that’s it. We were winning awards all over the world with it.

Do you own the company?

I capitalized the company, so my family owns the majority share and then I have three other partners. The designer of the bottle, John Alexander, he is a world renowned landscape painter and portraitist, one of the most-talented painters on the planet and he loves skulls and imagery like that so he designed this bottle. I had learned about this business because I brought Patron tequila into Canada. I learned a lot about vodka and I learned that they add the glycerin, the lipides, the sugars and I thought well what if we try a vodka that doesn’t have that in it. Let’s try that. What better vessel to put it in this beautiful, clean-looking skull that tells the story of clean living and clean drinking and enlightened drinking so that you don’t have to settle for a polluted vodka you can you can have one that is clean and have a taste great?

Our notes on our first vodka, the corn that we make in the clear bottle, our sweet vanilla dry crisp with a kick of heat off the finish. I mean for a vodka maker what notes sweet vanilla, dry crisp with a kick of heat off the finish? When you smell our vodka it smells like alcohol, it doesn’t smell like perfume. Many vodkas, you uncork them and they smell like perfume because they’re adding lemonine, which is the turpine that they add for fragrance and to mask the alcohol. We don’t do that.

Our other one is the Aurora. It’s the one with the rainbow style pattern in the bottle and in our notes there are anise, peppercorn drier crisper and again a littler fire off the tongue if you’re just drinking it in a cold shot with a little a little lime. So the notes are there, the awards are there and the audience is there for Crystal Head and it’s so great we’re going to be able to do this feature at Hard Rock and people who haven’t heard of it are going to be converted. They won’t go back once they hear my rap, like I’m giving you, and once they try the product the way I’m going to demonstrate it they aren’t going to go back to what they’re drinking.

Is it less conducive to hangovers?

It doesn’t have any glycol in it and glycol glycerin is a cousin to ethylene glycol, which they used to cool Spitfires in World War II. So you don’t want to be put in that in you body and you don’t want to put a cousin of that your body. That’s what causes hangovers. I would say for me, I’m a big guy, like six shots guaranteed no hangover. Eight shots. maybe not. Beyond that, it is alcohol and you have to be careful. You know, everything in moderation that’s what I always say.

Are you are working on a new Ghostbusters project?

We have a live-action Ghostbusters project that we’re very excited about. I can’t say too much about it but it sort of blends the new and the old and we’re looking forward to that we have an animated idea, which is really neat, and then we have a concept floating around called Ghostbusters High, which is basically them meeting in 1969, the three of them and having an adventure in high school kind of a little you know like “Stranger Things,” except they’re older. And from that we would probably develop a television show.

Would you direct or be in that?
However I needed I will pitch in, mostly probably writing duties. There are so many great young directors around who have really come out of video and come out of social media, you know making short films for You Tube, and then they know how to edit and they know how to exploit the medium a little better than I do. I think younger sensibility might be needed there.

Since the Blues Brothers, haven’t you continued to support blues music?

There was the “Elwood’s BluesMobile” (radio show). We were on for almost 30 years of broadcasting and then we’ve had to end it because the syndicator said nobody’s buying advertising on a blues show. They’ll buy it on a country show, a rap show, a hip-hop show, they’ll buy it on that kind of music. They’ll buy it on talk or sports, but they’re not buying advertising it on a blues show. So after almost 30 years of promoting the artists, selling tickets for them, selling records, interviewing and getting the word out to over 185 stations to almost 600,000 people, that’s all over. So that window for artists is closed, making it all the more harder for blues artists to make a living.

Can you tell me how Oregon singer and harmonica player Curtis Salgado helped the Blues Brothers?

Well, first of all, Curtis Salgado is a Blues Brother. We wouldn’t have been able to have done some of the material we did without him. Working on the harp, he was so good and generous with me and he really taught John (Belushi) a lot. And when John came home from the “Animal House” set he was really fired up on blues music and ready to put together the revue that we did that we took on tour.

Is it true that Belushi was new to the genre?

John and I met in Toronto for the first time and we were listening to Downchild Blues Band, the great blues band from Canada, and he said, “What’s that?” and I said, “It’s just a local blues band, you’re from Chicago, you should know.” He said, “I’m into heavy metal (and) I like Grand Funk and Cream,” and I said, “Well, you teach me about that and I’ll teach you about blues. It’s all from the blues anyway.”

The next time I saw him in New York, prior to “Animal House” and prior to even doing the show, he had a stack a blues records. So he was into the research but he needed a real mentor, a tutor and a professor of blues to really bring him along and that’s really what Curtis Salgado did. He took him deeper than John thought he could go.

Did the Blues Brothers start with Duke Robillard and Roomful of Blues?

We thought about having Duke in the band in the band but there were there wasn’t no room in one band for both Duke Robillard and John Belushi, or Jake Blues. It had to be one or the other. But Duke Robillard is one of the most powerful artists in the world. It was two alpha males up onstage and we knew it wouldn’t work.

But then Willie Nelson said we’ll play behind you, so one of our first backup bands was Willie Nelson, his band with Mickey Raphael on harp. We had the full uniform, the briefcase, the keys the handcuffs. We did the whole act. I think we did three or four songs with Willie at the Lone Star Café. Amazing. And then Steve Martin was another honorary Blues Brother because he said come and open my show at the Universal Amphitheater. So John took his paycheck for “Animal House” and he bought the sound truck and the equipment and the staff and labor and recorded our first record, “Briefcase Full of Blues” and that went on to sell 4 million copies, quadruple platinum, which many artists today would take and be very thankful.

I remember a San Francisco Chronicle review of a Blues Brothers concert. It wrote Dan Aykroyd might not be the greatest harmonica player in the world but he looks like he is.

We never touted our abilities as musicians or dancers or vocalists. Even today, we’re going to play the Mystic Lake Casino in Minnesota (Saturday) right after we do the Hard Rock. We play casinos all the time and so we’d love to come up to Tahoe and bring our show. But we always said and we’d say today with John’s brother Jimmy doing the show we are the weakest components in our band and certainly we were with the original band in the band I have now.

We hired the greatest guitar players in the world, Duck Dunn, Steve Cropper and Matt Murphy, we had one of the top R&B revues in the world and we were frontmen. So we took a little sprinkling of musicianship, a sprinkling of capable vocals and some you know choreography and moves, which John was more than capable of as a because he was all-state football player and he was he was in shape and I was in shape at that time; so little sprinkling of dancing, a little sprinkling of humor and vocals all of the spirit of like when Wynonie Harris or Cab Calloway or Jimmy Lunsford or Johnny Otis. Those guys were clowns. They came out there and it was a clown show. They were trying to make people laugh. There was double sexual innuendo going all along, you know Wynonie Harris’ “all she wants to do is rock, rock and roll all night long.” That was where rock and roll was originated in that song in 1948.

We took humor we took vocals we took dancing and we sprinkled it all together into a mix and and then have the greatest band behind us and that’s what we do and that’s why I’m still doing it 40 years later. I’m still doing that same act with Jimmy. I’ve got an amazing harp player in my band now, Jimmy Wood, who has played with the Stones, the Imperial Crowns. All of the band members that I have now are Grammy winners, producers. They’re outstanding people.

The Original Blues Brothers Band released “The Last Shade of Blue Before Black” was produced By Steve Cropper and Blue Lou Marinia and released on Oct. 6. Matt “Guitar” Murphy appears on the record. Are you familiar with it?

Yes, absolutely. Matt is not playing live gigs too much anymore but he’s in the studio and I just wrote some notes for that for that record because that’s the original Blues Brothers Band. They’ve got Rob Paparozzi and Eddie Floyd, so it’s a really hot show. They play mostly in Europe. I’ve joined them of couple of times on special occasions but we’re covering the legacy of North America, Jimmy and I, and they’re covering the legacy in Europe.

Who are the blues bands that you really like right now.

Of course I loved Sharon Jones and Charles Bradley. I love Nathanial Rateliff & the Night Sweats I love the Carolina Chocolate Drops, The 24th Street Wailers, Homemade Jamz, they are great. And I listen to classic R&B. The Stax/Volt catalog is on all the time. And I always have a little Junior Wells around.

Why do you think the blues is so important to support and to our culture?

One of the greatest contributions to the world is that music because basically it’s given us country and pop, hip-hop, rap — the whole world moves to the beat of the rapper now.

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Story from Tahoe OnStage by Time Parsons

Photos Courtesy of Crystal Head Vodka

Fame hasn’t gone to Dan Aykroyd’s head, but vodka has

The several hundred people who met Dan Aykroyd on Friday also learned what’s in his head.

At Lake Tahoe’s Hard Rock Hotel & Casino to promote his Crystal Head Vodka, the movie star and “Saturday Night Live” comedian star also championed civility and respect while expressing empathy for working musicians.

“There is one race — the human race,” he told a seated crowd in the Graceland Ballroom during a question-and-answer session. “Let’s get human.”

An original “Not Ready For Prime Time” cast member on SNL, Aykroyd referred to today’s division in the United States. When asked about the sketch comedy program he pioneered in 1975, he said, “SNL is the greatest political vessel on the planet, a worthwhile vessel and a necessary one in this world now.”

Stacie Frakes and her husband traveled from Battle Mountain, Nevada, for the chance to meet Aykroyd. “He’s really mellow,” she said.

Perhaps it was the vodka or even the IPA he sipped during the Q&A, but Aykroyd appeared genuinely congenial and down to earth. Fame hasn’t gone to his head, just the libation, which he pitched politely but with a genuine conviction.

Crystal Head Vodka, he said, doesn’t include glycerin, terpenes or sugar, the ingredients of other brands and “cousins to cleaners and turpentine.”

The drink is made with Canadian water (from Aykroyd’s native country) comes in a piece of glasswork, a human skull designed by renowned landscape and portrait artist John Alexander. “We can’t put a polluted vodka in this, it’s too beautiful,” Aykroyd said. “The category needed cleaning up. It is something to treat yourself with at the end of the week.”

Fresno resident Jose Cabrera bought two bottles, not necessarily to drink but as an investment in collector’s items. “I am a whiskey guy, not a vodka guy, but I do like the way it tastes,” he said.

Before the Q&A, South Lake Tahoe’s Athena McIntyre sang and played acoustic guitar while folks ate appetizers and sushi, sipping straight shots and mixed Crystal Head Vodka drinks named for scenes from Aykroyd’s career: “Wild and Crazy Guy” from an SNL sketch with Steve Martin, a green concoction called “Ray Stantz,” Aykroyd’s character who was slimed in “Ghostbusters,” and the “Orange Whips” that John Candy ordered for his car-crashing police force in “The Blues Brothers.”

“Vodka is my drink of choice,” said Katie McFarland, who traveled from Roseville with her husband, Steve. “His favorite movie is ‘The Blues Brothers’ and he’s Canadian like Dan, too, from Windsor, Ontario.”

The McFarlands and Cyndy Houck of South Lake Tahoe both purchased Crystal Head-inspired artwork painted during the event by Lake Tahoe’s Will Eichelberger. Each painting brought $1,300 in an auction that benefits Pinktober, a breast cancer fundraiser.

People lined up to shake hands and have their photo taken with Aykroyd before entering the cocktail room. On the other end of the casino, in the Vinyl showroom, there was a Halloween party.

“I told him I wanted to be dressed as a Conehead and then he went into character,” Jenn Boyd said. “It was awesome.”

Aykroyd told the audience that a new Ghostbusters project is in the works and that his favorite multi-tasking movie was “The Blues Brothers.” He noted: “It was fun to take over the entire city of Chicago.”

Aykroyd doesn’t like to fly. He prefers to drive backroads on his trips.

“I drove up Highway 88,” he said. “I don’t want to drive that road at night because I might hit a sasquatch.”

However, he had to fly today in order to make an appearance in Minnesota with The Blues Brothers.  Jim Belushi has replaced his brother John – Joliet Jake – as Elwood Blues’ onstage partner. Aykroyd, 65, said he will never perform in a chair but will keep dancing and singing until his knees give out.

He is a co-founder of the House of Blues, of which there are 13, including one at Mandalay Bay, Las Vegas, the site of a slaughter by a sniper from a hotel room. House of Blues is a temple to blues music and artists need it more than ever now,” he said. “It’s a place for soothing and healing.”

Someone shouted that she wanted to see a new movie starring Dan Aykroyd. But we might not see one for a while.

“I like this a little better,” Aykroyd said. “Sharing a premium vodka with (friends).”

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Story From Tahoe OnStage by Tim Parsons

Photos Courtesy of Tim Parsons / Tahoe OnStage