The Zazou Cowboys are an exciting new combo formed in 2008 by Chris Wilkinson and Yann Mahdjoub aka the Bonneville Barons with Willy Briggs (Lynette Morgan and the Blackwater Valley Boys, the Tennessee Rhythm Riders, the Radio Ramblers) and Rebecca Willson. Chris and Willy trade licks on guitars and occasional steel (both sing too), Rebecca adds subtle swing violin at time then switch to hot fiddle while Yann provides the backbone with his string bass.

The music they play is perfectly described by their name. The jazz and wild elements of the Zazou culture mixed with the western ballads of the late 30’s / early 40’s and of course a good dose of western swing. Their debut album has just been released and it’s a killer both musically and visually. It it’s not too late grab a copy at

Chris Wilkinson kindly answered our questions to satisfy our curiosity about this hot quartet.

by Fred "Virgil" Turgis
[August 2012]

"Bus photo" by Peter Haig.
Studio photo by Chris Wilkinson

  Could you tell me more about the origin of the band?
Well I'd written a few songs which didn't fit the stripped-down sound of our duo The Bonneville Barons, and it's been a little pet-project of ours to put together a larger western swing band with additional musicians playing steel guitar and fiddle etc.

You then joined forces with Willy Briggs of the Tennessee Rhythm riders and Lynette Morgan and the Blackwater Valley Boys. How did you get in touch with him?
Yann's played alongside Willy in a group called The Mighty Atoms for the past few years, and Willy & I had done some twin guitar playing occasionally so it seemed to be a very natural thing. It's pretty rare to find people who dig this tiny little sub-genre of hillbilly/western/jazz music, and luckily we all live within 20 miles of each other! At first we just met weekly to play a few cover songs, but pretty soon we were writing things specifically for us and this whole new band emerged.

What about your fiddler, Rebecca?
Rebecca's a very versatile and experienced musician, she's studied and played all kinds of styles from modern experimental music to classical, traditional, musical theatre and beyond! She answered our ad in a music store because she was interested in playing in a swing band, and her playing style fit right in. She's a big fan of Stephane Grappelli so she has a really good feel for the kind of swing/jazz we try to incorporate into our music. We're extremely lucky to have Rebecca playing with us; her knowledge and understanding of music and melody is amazing, she always sets us straight when it comes to harmonies and playing properly!

You play a lot of swingin’ tunes that I like a lot, but what I really enjoyed on this album are the cowboy ballads. It’s now very rare to hear that kind of stuff today. You really seem to be attached to the melodies and, unlike many other bands; you doesn’t want to just take a basic structure a play hot solos one after another.
Thanks Fred, I'm really glad the songwriting stands out (and hopefully stands up after repeated listens!) because it's always been something we've consciously worked hard at. I love hot instrumental playing but for me it's the most satisfying when it's done within the context of a well-written song, that's the complete package. I don't believe songs should just be a vehicle for solos, it should really be a whole package with the words, the music and the performance, that's when it becomes something really special.

What were your influences in term of songwriting for this album?
A lot of the cowboy ballad style comes from things like Merle Travis' 'Folk Songs From The Hills', which are all sparse acoustic guitar-led songs that are just fantastic. I really enjoy the Sons Of The Pioneers who did so many wonderful arrangements with harmony vocals, and of course the hillbilly 'balladeer' guys like Don Gibson and Hank Williams who wrote such wonderful haunting songs. I love those heart-wrenching songs where the melodies are so special, it's always my goal to make people sit up and properly listen to the songs.

Does playing with a second guitar (and/or steel) and a fiddle change your own way of playing or songwriting?
It definitely changes the playing and songwriting process because it gives you so many more options for harmony and melody, not to mention giving me a rest from playing all the time! It's so much fun to play with another guitar player like Willy, from the start it was really easy and we just seemed to complement what each other was doing, plus we get the chance to arrange twin-guitar parts and all that fun stuff. Then when we added fiddle it was like a whole other dimension, and so many more options to play around with! I was very used to writing material for The Bonneville Barons which is a completely different challenge because we have to create a lot of sound with only 2 instruments, and obviously there has to be compromises between playing lead/rhythm guitar etc, whereas with the Zazou Cowboys I feel like we can explore so many other musical styles and sounds because we have so much more harmony to play around with, it's a very nice way to work. From a playing point of view it definitely allows us to attempt more interesting arrangements and it's really fun to bounce off each other during solos, I love that element of Western Swing because they always had so many different soloists to keep it interesting. Most of those old bands featured several fiddle players, a couple guitarists, steel, accordion, piano, bass and maybe a drummer, so in comparison we've got a real small combo and we've all gotta work extra-hard to create the same kind of full sound with such energy and excitement.

Another strong point of “Song Folio” is that it contains only original material…
For me, the idea of releasing entire albums full of cover songs isn't what I'd want to do, personally I love singing and playing things that are unique to our band, and that's kinda always been my philosophy. When I hear a wonderful song it inspires me to try and give someone else that same feeling, I want my songs to be memorable and mean something to people. It's not always successful, but it's such a great process and it's always exciting. It sounds strange but when I get a new idea for a song it really takes over my entire mind, it's hard to think about anything else and I become single-mindedly focused on creating something that really moves me, and for a short while that new song feels like the most important thing in the world! I know it sounds weird but it's true, it really feels amazing when you come up with a new melody that really moves you. There are just so many millions of different types of song to write, so many moods, and listening to modern people coming up with great stuff today (particularly the west coast guys like Deke Dickerson or Sage Guyton) gives you the inspiration and confidence that there's plenty of undiscovered ideas yet to be explored.

You recorded “Song Folio” at Electrophonic studios, where you already recorded an EP with the Bonneville Barons. How were the sessions?
The sessions were great, Herve Bessenay is a really wonderful guy to work with and a talented engineer. He really allowed us to make a lot of decisions about the feel we were after, and he was so committed to capturing the sound of what we had in our heads, which is quite a challenge! Yann has known the Bessenay family for years and they were so hospitable to us, they really make you feel like family! The studio is a great space to record in, Herve and his brother Eric are great guys to be around and they've got such a great collection of vintage instruments, microphones and recording gear. The whole trip felt like a holiday, it was like being at summer camp!

I suppose you cut most of the stuff live?
We did most of the recordings live and added a few things later, mostly just the odd backing vocal here and there, we tried to make sure it was as honest and true-to-life as possible.

Though it is not credited, I heard an accordion on some songs…
Ahh, the phantom accordion…Yep I'm afraid I'm guilty for that one, I bought a cheap accordion and put a couple overdubs on the record. I didn't credit this on the album as I can't actually play the accordion properly, I just did messed around on it!

The album comes in a deluxe package with both the cd and a vinyl version. It’s quite unusual…
It's always been a goal of ours to release a full-length LP on vinyl, we'd previously self-released a 7" EP for the Bonneville Barons but we still wanted that big format, there's just something so impressive and weighty about a 12" record, it's still really special. But on the flipside we knew they're really tough to sell since so many people threw out their record player years ago and now just have a tiny iPod with a zillion songs on it. It's weird but I guess even CDs are considered old hat to some people today, so I think you really have to do something special to make them buy a 'physical' album and actually make it a desirable package that people want to own. So we felt the LP/CD double pack would be the best solution, because it means that everyone gets both formats and we tried our best to make it affordable so it doesn't cost much more than a regular CD, but it's twice the size!