Michelle LaRose talks with Brian Ray for 22nd Century Rock Magazine
Photographs courtesy of BrianRay.com
If you’ve caught the Paul McCartney tour anytime since 2002, you’ve undoubtedly seen the bass styling’s of Brian Ray. Whether playing guitar or bass, Brian’s multi talents have earned him the admiration of his peers. Brian is no stranger to working with musical legends, having spent over fourteen years writing, playing and producing for Grammy award winning Rhythm & Blues legend Etta James.
After standing next to the limelight for many years, Brian has jumped smack-dab into the middle of it with his first solo album Mondo Magneto. His high-energy straightforward rock style will inevitably take him far in his solo venture. We were able to catch Brian fresh from his successful CD release party in Los Angeles and have a chat.
Brian: Well, you know, two words a club owner never wants to hear is “Fire Marshall”. Two words that a band like me would love to hear is “Fire Marshall” [who’s going to close this place because there’s too many people]. So they were turning people away at the door. So I couldn’t have been more excited about it. The band played really well I think and the crowd was just off the hook. They were dancing and swinging. I made sure it was “All ages” because I have a lot of younger fans as well, including five and six year old kids who knew the lyrics to my songs!
22CR: You have spent a good percent of your career working with Etta James. What kind of influence has working with Ms. James had on your career?
Brian: You can’t even begin to quantify it! Etta James found me when I was just out of high school, nineteen years old, a skinny little white boy from Glendale with hair down to there. It was just really fortunate that we clicked right off the bat. She wasn’t at the top of her popularity at that time. She was just coming back from a heroine addiction. She was just trying to win back some of the club owners that she’d alienated. What I got to see with her was a survivor and someone who, as she put it, “Called upon the warriors within” every time she went out to play music. She wasn’t going out to play hacked out, sold out houses; she was really having to win back over an audience. To see her put out the kind of show that she put out every night, night after night with so much passion and fire, that was a giant influence on me. Just the survivor quality that she exudes.
22CR: I see she’s on your new album.
Brian: Yes she is. I called her eldest son Donto who plays drums for her now and just thought I would ask him to ask her because he handles a lot of her stuff. He didn’t get back to me for a couple of weeks and I thought, “Oh well, at least I asked”, she’s too busy or whatever. Then he calls me back and he’s like “Brian! I’m sorry I didn’t get back to you sooner! I talked to my Mom and she said she’d do anything for you!” So I went out to her house with the material, she has a studio there and we recorded her there. I brought it home and edited her ten different takes. She just kept wanting to do more. So I edited it together and there she is on my record! It’s an incredible honor to have her on my record.
22CR: You co-wrote Smoky Robinson’s hit “One Heartbeat.” That song almost didn’t make it into Smokey’s hands. What’s the story behind that?
Brian: When we called the producers of his album at that time to say we’d love, my song writing partner and I, to submit a song and the producer said, “Don’t bother, he’s writing great stuff right now.” I turned to my writing partner and said, “We’ve been told not to write anything for it.” My partner said, “Lets do it anyway!” I had a title and he had a little musical kind of vibe and we decided to really go for it, really write something we thought Smokey might write, if we could be so presumptuous. We finished the song in two weeks and dropped it off. My partner and I went out of town that weekend and got back to our message machine that said, “Smokey loved the song. Come to Conway on Thursday we’re cutting it in 32 track digital just like the demo, bring all your instruments. So we were discouraged from writing but when we finally turned it in, the producers and Smokey all loved it. It’s one of those little stories that points to sticking to your guns and don’t give up.
Brian: What happened was, a good friend of mine named Jay Gilbert who works at Universal Music Enterprises, the new digital label at Universal has been a big champion of mine and he loves my album. I told him about this live version of Tears Of A Clown and he said, “If you record that and it’s as cool as you described it just now, I bet I can get you on iTunes and get you front page exposure. I said, “Well I’m leaving with Paul [McCartney] on tour in a week Jay, I don’t have time”. I went home and thought about it. I thought, well let me just make a phone call or two and within twenty minutes I had the band on board and a studio and a co-producer and Jerry Leiber’s [Leiber and Stohler] son Oliver Leiber to co-produce it with me so I just went and did it. We did it in three days. He did get it on iTunes. It was front-page exposure; it’s there now. I will have my album on iTunes in about three weeks to a month’s time. Then it becomes the bonus, value added track on the record on iTunes only.
22CR: Will Tears Of A Clown show up on your next CD?
Brian: You never know! That sounds like a good idea. I really like how it turned out. It’s like a rocking version of the R & B classic. It’s on iTunes right now if you just punch in my name, Brian Ray.
22CR: You have been in Paul McCartney’s band for a few years now. How did you land the gig of a lifetime like that?
Brian: I was working in France with Abe Laboriel Jr. the drummer that plays with Paul. We’d been working together five years at that time. He got the gig playing on Paul’s studio album before this last one, Driving Rain. I was so excited for him! At my birthday party one night I said, “Aren’t you guys getting ready to tour soon?” He said, “We sure are”. I said, “Well don’t you need one guy who can play guitar and bass and acoustic and sing.” He said, “Actually, we do!” And I put my hand in the air and literally said, “I’d love a shot at that”. He said, “That would be cool”. I thought nothing more of it. Two days later I got a call from Paul’s producer, David Kahne and David said, “Come down to the studio and meet with me, Paul’s doing one song on the Super Bowl 2002, he’s doing Freedom and he needs a bass player for that one song. Would you be interested?” I said, “Sure.” I went down to his office and we met. He didn’t give me the job but he said, “Hey I have a good feeling about this, I’m going to put your name forward.” The next day I got a call saying, “Can you be on a plane tomorrow to go to New Orleans for a week to do the Super Bowl with Paul McCartney.” That was the beginning of this long four-year story that we’ve built.
22CR: You must have been flipping out!
Brian: I was so nervous the day I knew I was going to be meeting Paul. I walked around New Orleans until I wore my shoes out and my legs too! Just trying to burn off some extra energy because I was so nervous.
22CR: Did you have to face the insurmountable task of learning his entire catalog?
Brian: Well I did have a set list. Paul came up to me that night after the Super Bowl in 2002 and said, ” Hey Brian! I have to go to bed now but listen, welcome aboard. Stick with Abe and Rusty and Wicks and they’ll show you the ropes.” Then he gave me a hug and went off to his suite. I looked at the guys and said, “Did he just say what I thought he said?” So I knew that now the stakes were higher and that I actually did have a shot at this thing. In fact I had the inside track on it. He was kind of counting on me. So five weeks later was our first day at rehearsal for the tour. Five weeks in the wood shed and I just gathered up every Beatles and Wings and Paul record I could. I just turned off my whole social life for five weeks straight and went into Olympic, athlete style training for five weeks and learned everything I could get my hands on, singing, playing bass, playing acoustic, playing guitar, singing three different kinds of harmonies. I just really bathed myself in that material until I thought I was ready.
22CR: You must have learned something from Paul being a professional musician. What have you learned from working with such a legend?
Brian: Wow. You know, Paul’s a self-taught guy. He’s not a technical guy with his equipment, he doesn’t speak music technically, but look at this guy’s passion and look at this guys abilities. When you are around him he just exudes so much music. So the one thing I learned is that music can’t be taught like it can be felt. He’s a guy who just carries with him music everywhere he goes. Literally. I mean on stage at sound check he’ll be walking from the piano mic to the lead vocal mic and he’ll be whistling a tune between those two microphones across the stage. He’ll be whistling some random song. He’s just always got a song going, in his heart and in his head. He’s still curious and he’s still excited about music. He’s excited about other people’s music and he’s excited about his own great song writing. Look at his new album, here he is, he doesn’t need to be putting out amazing new groundbreaking material but he’s doing it. It’s incredibly sort of groundbreaking, revealing material. Maybe more revealing than anything he’s ever done. It’s just inspiring.
Brian: Sure, because your not only writing towards the story line as maybe you would when you’re writing a lyric, you have kind of a story line when you’re writing a lyric. When you’re writing for film or television it really has to make sense with the visual. You’re really writing to what you see coming up on the screen, visuals of what the actors are doing in the scene and what the surroundings are like, the time of day. There’s so many elements that go in to writing something appropriate for the scene. You have to capture a mood. It’s really interesting when you write a piece of music and then you watch it with the scene on film. It either jumps out and says, “Yes!” or it just sits there and says, “eeehhh.” It’s exciting. It’s also very subjective, you could write a number of different things for the same scene. It’s just a nice challenge to make a scene come alive with music.
22CR: It sounds like it was a fun project.
Brian: It was. Abe Jr., again, Paul’s drummer, who’s just an incredible musician not just a drummer and I had such a wonderful time with this score. We did it in about three and a half weeks here at my house on my little home studio gear with some of his gear here. We laughed all day long and just had the best time doing it. It was really a great learning process.
22CR: Your album is on your own record label, Whooray Records. What are your goals and aspirations for Whooray Records?
Brian: Well I thought I’d like to do my own record on my own terms, my own way. I didn’t really have the stomach for going out and shopping the majors for a label. Because of Paul’s band and the work we’ve been doing, I had to buy some time in the studio and find some graphic guys and do a record and have a bunch of records printed up. I just said I’m going to do it my own way and I did it my own way and I’m very pleased with the results. My new record now actually available at CD Baby or Amazon.com or on my own site, Brian-Ray.com. I just decided that I wanted to do it on my own terms and then we’ll shop for a distribution deal and that’s what my goals are right now. Find a great distribution deal with a major or an independent with great distribution so we can get it out into the stores. We’ve got a lot of nice sales on the Internet. The name of the game now is to get it out into the shops so that more people can get it.
Brian: That’s a good question. When I look at my timeline of what I’ve been doing since I started, and I just go, “Well, because I was busy!” [Laughing] I’ve just been from one cool job to another. I’ve been really lucky in that way. Also it does take money to do your own independent record. I’ve been close to signing a deal with bands I’ve had throughout the years but I’ve never had the fortune of being signed to a major. I never really worked it that hard, I really didn’t. I was so happy working with Etta James and Rita Coolidge and Smokey and doing studio records for people like Shakira and the French tours I was doing and now Paul! I just had really little time and now I had nine months off with a little bit of cash from working with Paul and I said, “Now is the time.”
22CR: Will you be touring now that your album is out?
Brian: I’m playing some shows with Mike Campbell’s side band called The Dirty Knobs. Mike Campbell of course from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. He’s got a great band called The Dirty Knobs and my band is called Brian Ray and Black Unicorn. We just did a show together at the Viper Room in L.A. I’m hoping to do more over the winter and spring and I’ll be doing a lot of shows in clubs with my own band.
22CR: You played a new instrument on Mondo Magneto called the Strum Stick. What is a Strum Stick?
Brian: The Strum Stick is a cool little instrument. It’s set up with four strings and set up to sound sort of like a dulcimer. You can tune it so that it’s like an E a B and another B and another E. It’s a very drone-e kind of instrument. It’s a thin little instrument. It looks like an East Indian, Eastern kind of instrument and it kind of sounds like a dulcimer. You play it with a pick and you just find your little chords. It’s a fun little instrument. I used it on two or three different songs.
22CR: Brian, we’d like to thank you so much for speaking with 22nd Century Rock today.
Brian: Thank you very much. What a great opportunity. It’s been a pleasure.