The WE! Interview: Doyle Bramhall II
Doyle Bramhall II - vocalist, guitarist, composer and producer - is well-known for his high profile work with Eric Clapton, Roger Waters, Elton John, Sheryl Crow and more. The son of late Texas music legend Doyle Bramhall, he hit the road as a teenager with Jimmie Vaughan's band, The Fabulous Thunderbirds. In 1990, the younger Bramhall formed the Arc Angels with Charlie Sexton, Chris Layton and Tommy Shannon. His first solo album, "Doyle Bramhall II" arrived in 1996 but it was his second disc, "Jellycream," that brought him to the attention of Clapton and Waters in 1999. Since then, he has regularly worked with EC in the studio and on stage.
Where's Eric! Editor Tony Edser recently caught up with him to discuss the recording of "Rich Man," Doyle's 4th studio record and first since 2001. Out September 30 on Concord Music, Doyle will tour to promote it from October 12. The album is available now for pre-order from iTunes, Amazon and other major physical and digital retailers.
When I last did an interview with you in 2006, you mentioned you were recording everything into your computer and that the hotel room had become your studio. I get the impression that this new album, "Rich Man," has evolved over a long period of time. Did it really begin by putting ideas down on your computer?
Yeah but it’s switched over to my iPhone now. There’s an app that’s a 4-track machine and that became my song writing tool on the road and also when I became a producer, about 2 years after that article came out, I started putting down vocal ideas, melodic ideas quickly and then turned it back around so I could have production ideas for songs. I rarely go to my computer now. It was an extremely difficult album to mix. It took me a year and 4 months to make and I knew that I had recorded everything; I knew that everything was there but I just couldn’t get it mixed the way I wanted it to be mixed. It’s that thing of needing the right person to put the image into focus. Some of these songs have 70+ tracks on them, mostly redundant things like too many mics on certain instruments, (laughs) so it gives you choices that you probably don’t really need.
Having played the album on rotation for the past week, the rewarding thing about that though is that you keep hearing things you hadn’t heard before – maybe percussion, strings coming in – that to me is the mark of a great album.
A lot of it has to do with mixing and having a great mixer who can create that aspect. A mixer has the ability to give the track dimension, that depth of feel. I was fortunate to have a mixer (Cian Riordan) that could give it the kind of depth that was there but that needed to be sorted out.
Because it’s my first album in 15 years, and I’ve lived so much life and had so many different musical experiences, there was a lot pouring into the music. I do like simplicity in music but I had to see through all these ideas that were coming through me.
Funnily enough, I feel like a lot of the record and how I finished it and how I produced it, everything that happened, came from Eric’s original request for me to co-produce his records with him, which is something that I didn’t really see in myself that he saw. But through that I’ve become very confident as a producer, an artist, and as a performer and as a person to facilitate my ideas as a producer. I didn’t know that I could do that but he pointed that out to me. That made it possible for me to feel like, ok, I know what I need to do to get this record finished, what sounds I want, how to get those sounds, or at least call the people who can get the sounds for me. But it all really came about because of Eric’s influence.
You’ve travelled far and wide, to find inner peace partly, but I sense from some of the lyrics that maybe you’re trying to exorcise some ghosts – things you may not have said to your father before he died, messages to past loves, that kind of thing?
Yeah, because the album is a full circle life process and a documentation of my spiritual journey in sounds and lyrics, so I felt like I was talking about the progression in a chronological order, starting with me not really being the full man that I think I knew that I could be, but hadn’t quite found that yet. So that’s why it starts out with the breakthrough from suffering and then goes into the rest of the journey.
The song to my father ("November"), was something that, when he died, I was able to have this conversation and experience with him, a lot of it through meditation actually, that I’d never had with him in person and I don’t know why I couldn’t have had that conversation with him in person. So it was a way for me to put all of that into song because I wanted to have as many different ways as I could to speak with him.
As to the “love” references in the lyrics, well, I’m not saying anything new here but love is the answer to everything; it is the key to life, through love comes the mystical parts of life, through helping others, through intimacy, love is the key to life. So that’s the thread. People forget.
Were you always destined to be a musician – did your father introduce you to music?
He never really pushed me into music. He probably just knew because of my innate ability. I started playing drums when I was 6 years old. So I had somewhat of a musical gift early on. He probably saw it but he was completely neutral, supportive if I wanted to pick up an instrument but not pushing me into it. We played music and I remember Bobby Bland, Jimmy Reid and BB King, Lightning Hopkins, Freddie King, Al Green, Sly Stone, the Beatles for that matter, plus lots of Cream and Eric.
So how did all the traveling come about?
In 2006 or 2007 I started having dreams about going to Egypt – I’d been studying the Sudanese oud (lute) and I’d been listening to Bedouin music, Egyptian music such as Oum Kalthoum – she was one of the biggest singers in Arabic, and I was made privy to her music by Jimmie Vaughan when I was in the Thunderbirds - so I already had that draw to that part of the world. Finally I just made the decision to go into Africa. I had a connection through a producer friend who had done stuff with Salif Keita but I was hooked up with his assistant and went to Mali for 3 weeks and that kicked off me opening up culturally and spiritually in every possible way. It was really the musical journey that would later become "Rich Man."
The album goes full circle, starting with American blues, through the African and Indian influences and finishing up with Hendrix.
Hendrix was a huge influence for me growing up because he epitomised the perfect culmination of song writing, personality and character through his voice, sonic innovation, guitar playing, having that perfect combination of rock n roll, soul music, blues and whatever his own thing was. He considered himself purely a blues artist which I found interesting because he was so innovative and he pushed the limits and boundaries of what the blues song construction was, out as far as it could be pushed. He was his own thing musically. To call Hendrix a blues artist to me is fine but to me he doesn’t fit into one category. Neither do any of the greats really. Stevie Wonder, for example, doesn’t fit, to me, into one musical category.
You’ve been playing with everybody for years, writing, producing, touring. Now with this album are you really going to go full speed ahead with your solo career?
It’s taken me this long because I am launching my new career and I’m 100% into that. I think everything up to this point had been building blocks to me becoming a complete artist and now I feel I’m ready to be the complete artist. I wasn’t that ready before so I really feel like this is pulling the cork out and letting it flow. I’m a traveling gypsy and I’ve found out a way to travel the world playing music to get influence to make more music and be inspired.
You’re going on the road in the US in the fall. Can you recreate the new album live though?
That’s a very good question! I don’t know. We will have to have quite a bit of rehearsal time to figure it out because there are string parts, there are horn parts and I don’t have a string section or a horn section in the band! You can’t really replicate that on a keyboard or synthesizer.
Unless you get Greg Phillinganes! (laughs)
It’s gonna be different versions of the songs so, for instance, take the song Rich Man. That has, in my opinion, such a beautiful string arrangement on it – a very Serge Gainsbourg type string arrangement – how do you recreate that? Even if you played the melodies on another instrument it’s just going to sound different. But Jimi used to do that – he would record all this lush kind of stuff like on Electric Ladyland and go out and play it as a 3 piece and it would be whatever it was. So it will be simplified versions until I can actually make enough on the road to afford horn sections and string sections.
Which actually is not far fetched and it is something I strive for - to have a bigger band. One of the bands I do love is the Tedeschi Trucks Band. They have the perfect band and they are capable of doing anything on the road.
So, on the tour, will you include songs from the past too? Green Light Girl, Superman Inside, some Arc Angles songs maybe…?
I probably won’t be doing Arc Angels songs only because for me, with as much respect and love as I have for the band members, it’s very dated musically. The musical style of that doesn’t really fit where I am now. A lot of those songs I wrote when I was 17 years old so they weren’t as evolved as I’ve become. I’m not saying that in an arrogant way, it just wasn’t my finest work or what I’m doing now. But if I had written "Layla," then maybe I’d do it (laughs) but I did not write my "Layla" with Arc Angels. I’ll do a few old songs but the album is already 73 minutes of music, plus there will be gaps for a tiny bit of chatting.
We want to see you in Europe too. Is that the plan?
I would prefer there to be no difference in touring the States or Europe or wherever. I would love to tour internationally forever.
With that news Doyle and for the time you have given me today, you make me feel like a "Rich Man."
You make me feel like a natural woman (laughs).
The complete interview - which was conducted on August 29 in London - will appear in the next issue of Where's Eric! Magazine. Special thanks to Kymm Britton. Magazine subscribers stay tuned for a chance to win a copy of Doyle Bramhall II’s new album, "Rich Man" here on whereseric.com.