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'It's Equal Parts Talent, Diligence and Dumb Luck' : Singer-songwriter Bill Coffey reflects on the successes of the past and his upcoming CD.


Bill Coffey, long a major player on the local music scene as a leader of those late, lamented Mudheads and then as half of the folk-singing duo Matt & Bill, has returned to the 805 area code after a three-year hiatus. He'll appear at an AIDS benefit at Nicholby's in Ventura tonight.

The Mudheads played often but not often enough locally for about six years, recording a couple of twangy rock tapes. Coffey, as singer and songwriter, took a novel approach to promoting the band's final effort, "Claw Back Down." He didn't play showcase gigs or go on the radio--he moved to Boise, Ida., in 1992 after just two Mudheads gigs after the release of the tape.

Now he's back and working on a new CD, assisted by some serious players he met in Idaho. Coffey, who has at least 30 of his own songs on his set list, is assisted by Jason Bays, usually the bass player for Pinching Judy.

Coffey, a marvelous songwriter who pens lines such as "someone's standing on my toes again pouring Budweiser in my eyes," also has a memorable voice, not so much unlike Martin Zellar, former frontman for the Gear Daddies. Recently, Coffey discussed what's what about his musical life.

When did you decide you wanted to be a musician?

Sometime while I was in high school at St. Bonaventure. I started playing in a cover band with a guy named Jerry Back, Dave Ragsdale and later, Bill Bolland--all of whom were in the Mudheads. We started off by playing songs by the Beatles, the Kinks and the Plimsouls. The first Mudheads gig was in late '86 at a party, but our first real gig was at the Shack in Goleta. We opened, Toad the Wet Sprocket was second, and the I-Rails were headlining. I remember we drew a pretty good crowd from Ventura. We were too young to play Charlie's--I was only 19 or 20, and I was the oldest.


What about Matt & Bill?

I always thought Matt Schulte of Crashing Plains was the real goods. I still do. Matt and I got together for a specific night--an acoustic night at Charlie's or something. We just started singing these Everly Brothers songs, and it was just so damned easy, so we started playing around. We got that happy-hour gig at Charlie's on Mondays, plus we got some gigs that we actually got paid for too. We did it for about two years.


So what happened to the Mudheads?

I guess I split, that's the whole thing. I never really had the intention of quitting the Mudheads, but I just wanted to do something different. We were playing the same places for the same people, and I thought I couldn't do that forever. I mean, I still love all those guys.


Why Boise?

We ended up there mostly because [my wife] Paige's mom lived there. We were traveling around looking for a place to be when we ran out of money big time. So we figured we'd go to Boise and hang out for a while, and we ended up buying a house. Boise is pretty quiet, and actually, pretty cool, but white, very white. I made a lot of good friends and met a lot of good musicians. The whole Boise thing was a good thing for me because it forced me to play solo acoustic gigs and to hone my songwriting. There's a lot of heavy rock bands, but also a happening acoustic scene. There's a lot of guys like me writing songs and playing in bars. I could actually play acoustic music all night and make some money.


Do they hate tourists up there?

Idaho is not as bad as Oregon or Washington, where they really hate Californians. I think half the people I met in Idaho were from California or Texas. We were cool in Oregon because we had Idaho plates.


Why did you come back?

Mostly family reasons. Paige is taking care of her grandma, who has Alzheimer's, and I'm a computer geek at Kinko's. I go to work every day. But I don't think we'll be here forever.


Tell me about the CD, and will there be any Mudheads songs on it?

The CD, which I recorded with a bunch of friends from Idaho that were in town for four days last month, plus two guys from here--Jason Bays on bass and Tim Lauterio on drums--is 95% finished now, and it should be ready by Halloween. There's 11 songs on it, including two the Mudheads used to play but never recorded--"Cops in the Garden of Eden" and "Live a Long Way."


Describe Bill Coffey music.

It's sort of folky, sort of rock, I dunno. I know it's more countrified these days, but the song structures somehow remain similar.


How has the local scene changed since you've been gone?

It seems to have evaporated. Nicholby's seems to be the best thing around right now, but there's not much of a scene; maybe it's just a lull.


What about all these coffeehouses?

It's not all bad, although it's better to drink beer than coffee when you're playing. On the other hand, usually the audience is very attentive and they listen, and that's cool. But coffeehouses never pay very well, probably because so many musicians are willing to play for nothing.


What do you think you'll be doing in five years?

I'll be playing music somewhere, no doubt about that, but it probably won't be in Ventura. You play because you can't not do it. If you're just doing it for the music, then the money doesn't matter.


So what's the short-term plan with the CD and all?

I'm sort of bypassing the whole music industry scene. I just wanna sell a bunch of CDs and get my music out there. There's really nothing else you can do. It either happens or it doesn't. I'm going to try to sell CDs before I start giving them away. I'm not trying to be a rock star or anything. I just want to sell some CDs, maybe go to Austin, go tour the Northwest, play around, record another CD. I think it's equal parts talent, diligence and dumb luck.


* WHAT: Bill Coffey & Friends.

* WHEN: 8 p.m. tonight.

* WHERE: Nicholby's, 404 E. Main St., Ventura.

* HOW MUCH: $10.

* CALL: 653-2320.

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