Style: Texas, West Coast, Chicago and Glasgow Blues!
Influences: Jimi Hendrix, Cream and too many Modern Blues musicians to mention.
Connections: Grew up playing MacSorley’s & State Bar since age 17, w/ dad as roadie & sound guy
K: Hi Brian – welcome back to Glasgow, when did you actually leave for Chicago?
B: It was 5 years ago last month, actually.
K: Can you tell me a bit about the lead up to you making the decision to go?
B: I visited Chicago in 2008 and in 2009, both times going for a month of holiday during the same time as the Chicago Blues Festival. Chicago was the “home of the blues,” so I went to see as many bands and participate in as many jams as I could.
K: So was your main reason for going out there to get into a band or to see what level you were at compared to the best out there?
B: The main reason was enjoyment, and I also wanted to get a new perspective on the blues – to hear different styles and to see if I could expand my own style. After that second trip in 2009, I came back to my office job and realised that I was pretty miserable and I had to do something about it.
For the next six months I sat and worked out how I could spend an extended period of time in the States and survive financially. A friend told me about a homeless charity in Chicago where I could work unpaid for 35 hours a week and get bed, board and basic living expenses in return. I worked with homeless people during the day and ventured out into the Chicago Blues scene at night. It was the best thing I’ve ever done in my life.
K: That’s quite a change…from an office job to working with homeless, destitute people in a different country with a different culture.
B: It’s interesting because a lot of people have said what I’ve done is amazing and that I was very brave. I personally don’t think brave or amazing. For me, it was a necessity… it was for survival of my soul, frankly. I had to do something else to further expand the musical side of my life. I knew that if I was able to play the Blues more often and branch out and experience other countries, then I would likely feel more fulfilled as a person.
K: Did you have a goal at that point or were you just taking it a day at a time?
B: I was just intent on being in the moment, and building relationships with the Chicago Blues community, who were so welcoming. I was stretching my playing to learn from new people and getting my name and face out there as much as possible – similar to the way things had slowly built up for me in Glasgow. So the rough plan was: go to the jam sessions; sit in with other bands here and there; form my own band; record a CD; play my own gigs… and that’s pretty much how it happened in Chicago.
K: How hard was it for you to break in to the Chicago scene to get to play, as an unknown from Glasgow?
Well, I had already made some good friends over my past two trips to Chicago so I wasn’t starting completely cold. The “sitting-in” scene that I refer to is a pretty big thing in Chicago. If you are a budding musician, it’s hard to get your first gig, but getting to sit in tends to help you gain credibility from other musicians that you know how to play. Then people feel like they can trust bringing you up during their gig and that you won’t mess it up. It allowed me to get to know a lot of the legends of the Chicago scene, and for them to hear my style and give me constructive feedback, which was extremely valuable.
K: I’ve spent a bit of time in and around Memphis previously and lived there for 6 months. The scene there can tend to be a bit tourist driven. What’s your general feel about the future of the Blues from your experience in the States so far?
B: Well, the older players that I’ve talked to in Chicago sometimes lament about days gone by – specifically the clubs on the south and west sides of the city that are now gone, which I definitely appreciate and is certainly sad to hear about. In terms of the current situation, a tagline that I hear often from blues organisations, publications and clubs that I find unfortunate is: “Keeping the Blues Alive”. I think that’s part of the problem right there. It’s a mindset that assumes the Blues as a genre is sick, is dying, and it’s coming from a mindset of scarcity, not opportunity. In my opinion, Blues as a genre is changing, but not dying. For me, it’s about acknowledging and respecting the past and then taking it forward from there. One example of someone who I believe is doing that really well is Gary Clark Jr. There are YouTube videos of him ripping it up, playing straight-ahead Texas Blues, years before he got “discovered” and became part of the contemporary music scene. You look at him now and he is playing contemporary music festivals all over the world, to listeners who have no idea that they are effectively listening to the Blues. I think that’s absolutely fantastic! Although the Chicago Blues boom of the 50s and 60s was THE phase with so many legends in it, it was still just a phase. Sure, there may be a lot less traditional Blues being played recently, but that’s where we are at the moment and I think we should celebrate the fact that at least the music is being played in some form. Blues as a genre will continue to evolve and perhaps 20 or 30 years from now, people will look back at this current period as a classic era, who knows?
K: Speaking of developing talent, do you find a lot of musicians use jams to build their careers?
I think a lot of musicians do, especially at the start of their musical experience. As I mentioned before, I certainly benefitted from them in Glasgow and Chicago. However, in my opinion, they also have a downside. Almost anyone can sign up to play, which can become a bit of a lottery – especially if the jam host makes little effort to match players together of similar ability – not the case at The State Bar, I may add! This can sometimes lead to the audience picking up on these situations and losing interest.
The bigger challenge is that there are some people who regularly go to jams and then expect to get called up to sit in at regular (non-jam) gigs. This can lead to the problem of musicians who aren’t great at having that difficult conversation and saying “no” to the request to come up and play when it’s not a jam, so the band leader feels pressured to be polite and ends up letting the person up to play anyway. This often lessens momentum and the quality of the gig, in my opinion. I’ve experienced this during my own band’s gigs, and it’s definitely made me more sensitive about how I behave when I go to watch my friends’ bands play. Unless there is a pre-gig discussion about them wanting me to jam with them for some reason, and it’s their idea, I don’t take my guitar to other people’s gigs any more – I think it’s presumptuous and it’s like I’m crashing their party. I want to just listen to and enjoy their show.
K: How would you sum up your time in Chicago?
B: I’ll be forever grateful for all of the friends that I made and the musicians I got to play with and learn from. The Chicago Blues community welcomed me with open arms and I was incredibly lucky to play with the current cream of the crop. I even had musicians who were permanent members of the backing bands to the original Chicago Blues legends like Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy and Otis Rush in my own band Brian Carpy & The Rockin’ Bollocks. Chicago will forever hold a very special place in my heart.
K: I’ve noticed on Facebook that you have a very positive attitude to your posts and that you have quite a professional approach to how you market yourself online.
B: Using positive thinking is something I got into probably about six months ago. I studied the concept and discovered any negative feelings, that we all experience at some point, was mostly due to my own mindset. I shifted – I would look at some musicians and think “I reckon I’m on a par with these guys – if they can do it, I can probably do it as well!” You just have to believe that you can do it. There’s a quote by Henry Ford…
K: Yeah, I think I know this one, it’s one I use myself…”whether you think you can or you think you can’t…you’re probably right” ?
B: Yeah, that’s the one! When I heard that I thought “That’s absolutely right!” Since taking on that concept, I have opened myself up to every opportunity.
K: So let’s go back to the first night in Chicago after you’ve moved there for good. You’re walking out the door of your apartment, guitar case in hand and you’re going to your first jam session as a blues guitarist living in Chicago. How did that feel?
B: It felt pretty incredible. I’d go out, get on the bus and off I went – I knew it was going to be a great night, knew that I had somewhere to come home to and knew I had a job to go to the next day. I thought… “This is amazing!”
K: You have quite a unique playing style Brian. Is that intentional, do you look to purposely create something that is completely different from everyone else?
B: I’ve always been aware that I do play “outside the blues box”, and I’m completely comfortable with that. Some people call my style quirky, or humorous. I wouldn’t say it’s particularly intentional – it’s just developed that way naturally. About a year after I moved to Chicago, I was very fortunate to sit in with Jimmy Johnson, who is a genuine Chicago Blues living legend. I believe he’s 86 years old and is still killing it! We ended up having a “call and response” guitar duel which was a moment I’ll never forget. Afterwards, he was talking to my wife and said “Brian plays kind of weird…but I LIKE it!”
On a Tuesday night at the State Bar here in Glasgow, Jim Keilt will perform his wizardry and you’ll think “Wow!!” Then he’ll pass the solo over to Al Fleming and you’ll have absolutely no idea what Al is going to play, and that always blew my mind – it just…fascinated me! Al’s guitar playing is almost a “cult” thing in The State Bar because it is so spontaneous. As I’m thinking about it, his approach must have been a subconscious influence on me.
From there, I then got my first experience of Rev Doc & The Congregation and I heard Al Brown play guitar for the first time, which turned my brain inside out. He was constantly pushing the envelope and I have a feeling that he had no idea what he was going to play until he played it, and I thought…”I want THAT!” Since those early moments of exposure, I’ve tended to prefer listening to players who have something unique about their playing or who consistently push the envelope.
I sometimes also think of a blues guitar solo as a kind of challenge: you’ve got 3 chords, one scale and a 12 bar structure. That format has been in place for around a hundred years, so to manage to be able play something “different” within those restrictions is a pretty cool thing I’d say. The moment is over as soon as I’ve played it, but that’s what I love about it. Most of the time, these moments when I step out into the unknown work out well, but sometimes they don’t… although even then I always get something from them – I learn a lesson not to try that particular thing again! (laughs)
K: You’re leaving Chicago now and moving to Texas?
B: Yes, Austin is where my wife and I are planning on settling eventually. This year, we’re going to spend the winter there. I’ve been lucky enough to get to know a lot of my guitar heroes from Austin and Dallas and I want Texas to be my next chapter of “blues university.” I want to absorb as much as I can and become a better player.
K: Thanks very much for your time Brian and it was great catching up with you today. All the best with your travels and I would love to catch up with you again for an update the next time you’re in town.
B: It was my pleasure, Kirk. Thanks again.
Close to MacSorleys music bar, Glasgow
Camera: Nikon D750
Lens: Nikon 24-120 f/4
Focal length: 24mm
Exposure: 1/40 sec at f/4
Time of day: 16:12
Lighting: Softbox at full power at 30 degrees about 12 feet from subject bouncing off silver tri-grip reflector.
There were a few challenges on this shot. The blue light was from the neon lights that were already in place within the archway and I wanted to incorporate these in the image. The issue with this was that there was no ambient light as we were under a tunnel. Introducing flash blew out the blue lights but without the flash the subject could not be lit. To get around this I moved Brian a fair bit away from the blue lights and relied on the fact that light from a speedlight falls off very quickly when close to the subject. It was still tricky to use this concept and get enough distance between the lights and the subject to allow the wide angle shot. Adding a silver tri-grip reflector to bounce the light back from the left hand side of the location provided just enough light to make the shot work but even at that, the iso had to be lifted to 1000 and the shutter speed reduced to 1/40 second. Being right in the middle of a busy city centre street meant that I had to run off the road with the tripod, camera and lights every time the traffic lights changed, while at the same time ensuring that nobody was making off with the camera equipment sitting on the pavement! The archway itself was the entrance to an underground car-park and cars were coming in during the shoot. Loved the challenge of this though and very happy with the result considering the situation.
macsorley's music bar