Style: Classic Blues
Influences: T Bone Walker, BB King, Jimmie Vaughan and many others
Al Brown latest album, Scufflin’
K: I remember talking about music with you many years ago and I said something about “If you could sing….blah blah blah”. You never actually said anything at the time, but I’ve never forgotten the look you gave me and at the time I never knew what it meant.
I now know what was behind that look and I, like many others was quite surprised when I first heard you singing. How long did it take you to make the decision to front your own band?
A: I think I was quite happy playing guitar for other people up to a certain point. I think with so many bands, as you know yourself, you take it so far and then it comes a cropper. They split up and you end up back to square one. The last time that happened I had nothing else in the fire. I had nothing to fall back on and I kinda..retreated from gigging. Then I basically started thinking that it was time I started doing my own thing while I still could.
I’d always wanted to record, so I just went for it, but it took a while to get comfy singing. It had always terrified me…the thought of doing both those things at the same time. I was so used to playing rhythm behind a harmonica player where you could just jump in and out where needed or playing behind a singer where you could play a fill every now and again. When you sing and play the rhythm has to be spot on and I find that quite tricky, you know?
K: One thing about your natural playing style that I’ve always loved is your ability to sit in a groove and stay in it. That’s your style. You’ll sit back and grind it until you need to let rip…and then you do let rip, but only when there is the space to do so. I guess what I’m saying is that you do have a natural style that is suited to singing and playing.
A: Yeah, you’re right but it’s just taking me a while to get used to it, longer than I thought it would to feel comfortable at a gig. I’m still working on that. I’ve done a few now and they’ve been good, so I’m getting used to it slowly.
K: You played in Italy in January. How did that feel?
A: Yeah, that was amazing. It was good playing in front of total strangers who had no preconceptions about what to expect. It’s different when people don’t know you and have never heard you before, so yeah, that was great fun.
K: How was that tour set up?
A: Alan Thomson set that up. We were working on the album and when we finished it he reckoned we could get work in Italy off the back of it, so that’s what we did.
K: How long were you over in Italy for?
A: We did 5 gigs and then had 2 days off, which was great. There was a beautiful Jazz club in Verona, which was really nice. Grand piano on the stage, and we went over really well.
It was great to get away for a wee while for some sunshine and we sold quite a few discs too. I had a ball of a time.
K: Was it door money at the gigs over there?
A: Yeah, we played a couple of theatres, and ticketed events. We did well and I think we’re going back in either July or August.
K: Who were the other players in the band?
A: They were part of the Jon Jorgenson’s European tour band, so they were really experienced players.
K: How long did the album take to materialise? Is that material from a back catalogue or did you start writing specifically for this album.
A: There’s 5 instrumentals that I wrote myself and these are basically things that I had been sitting noodling with for a long while. Just wee things I’d been playing around with at nights. Then I thought about how that was going to sit in a whole album. I didn’t think there was a market for a full instrumental album. There are a couple of guys out there that do that very well. I made a decision to pick some covers that I really like, but that haven’t been done to death and gave them a try. I really enjoyed it.
The recording itself was really quick. Matt is a great engineer and makes you feel at home. We were in Maybank Studio for about a week and it’s pretty much live performances. It’s live vocals, live guitar solos…so it’s got a live feel. The guys that played on the album with me were amazing and I was so lucky to have them on board.
K: So the album is called “Scufflin’”. Where does that come from?
A: Yeah, that’s the first song on the album and I thought that it just suited the track. Also scufflin’ is an old blues slang word, meaning to struggle. The song sounded like someone scufflin’ along … which is probably what I’ve been doing for most of my career (laughs).
K: You’re pleased with it? (I know this is a question that will get a reaction and the response is typical of the understated genius that Al is known for. )
A: Mmm, well, I’m pleased with some of it but…I’m never really happy with my playing you know? There are some bits and bobs that I think sound not too bad. If I didn’t know it was me that was playing, I might quite like it… (laughter ensues)
K: Ok, can we talk a bit about your style of play. You’re well known for your ability to create amazing solos that just seem to build and build and are all pretty much unique. How do you go about putting those solos together?
A: I guess I do have a framework, but it depends on so many things on the night. It depends how well you’re playing. Sometimes things work sometimes they don’t. As long as there is a beginning, something happening in the middle and then a “sensible” ending. If you have that then the solo will probably stand up. It really does depend on how well you’re playing and also it depends on what you are listening to at the time as well. Depending on what you are immersing yourself in it can really influence your playing.
K: Is it important for you then to always be listening to different kinds of music and experimenting, not only with what you play but also with what you listen to?
A: Yeah, I find that I go in phases musically. I do listen to all the classic Blues guys regularly but I do have spells where I’ll focus only on Hammond organ or piano…saxophone even. I’ll immerse myself in that for a couple of months.
K: That’s interesting that you take spells of focussing on listening to lead instruments other than guitar.
A: Yeah, I find it keeps you fresh and stops you playing the same stuff. I think it’s nice to hear how a trumpet takes a solo or how a sax builds a solo because it’s completely different. Most of the stuff I’ve learned is through osmosis rather than sitting trying to work a thing out. I think if you immerse yourself in these things you find phrases just start to come out. It takes a long time doing it that way.
K: How long have you been playing Al?
A: My Uncle Robert is a really good finger-picker. He played a lot of John Renbourn, John Fahey and Stefan Grossman. He used to play these amazing finger-picking tunes where the thumb was going on the alternating bass. It used to fascinate me. I got a guitar when I was 11 and I remember thinking “This’ll be really easy, my uncle’s doing it. I’ll be doing it in a couple of months”…but oh man (laughs)…no chance!
So the guitar was always there but I think I was 13 before I started getting the finger-picking thing together and I went down that route for a wee while until I got an electric when I was 16 and that was the end of that (laughs).
K: When did you start playing in bands?
A: My first job was in the Caledonian Hotel in Oban and I started playing with some of the guys up there in bars every now and again but it was basically The Wintersgills (jams) in Glasgow that really got me started.
It was Rollin Joe’s jam session and I thought it was amazing! I didn’t think that kind of music went on in Glasgow, I had no idea. I still stayed in Strathblane and I had no idea people like Rollin Joe and Rev Doc were doing this kind of thing. So really the jam thing got me started and I ended up playing with Davie Ritchie and then Violet (Leighton) and Doc (Rev Doc & The Congregation)
Davie Ritchie used to play on the Tuesday nights with “The Kingpins” and he asked me to come along. That was good fun.
K: I remember talking to you a good number of years back about how much you owed to Davie back then
A: I think a lot of the Blues guys in Glasgow owe him a lot. He just has such a vast knowledge of all different styles of Blues and he steered me in a positive direction musically. He introduced me to the music of Jimmy Smith and Kenny Burrell. That was the first time I had heard stuff like that and I got really into it. It was just a new sound and Davie was always good at throwing new things your way. Opening your ears basically you know?
He really helped a lot of people. He was such a great, great harmonica player as well.
A: Fantastic! Tremendous harmonica player. He used to play through a Copicat and the sounds he could get!
And then I ended up jumping in with Doc and Davie B that was great fun as well. Doc had a great sound and he was quite an imposing character. We gigged a lot back then.
K: When was the last gig you played with Rev Doc and the Congregation?
A: Must have been 3 or 4 years ago now.
K: And following on from that? Numerous projects?
A: Yes, Playing with Deke McGee’s big band was another one that stands out. That was great fun. It was difficult to pull together because there were so many people in the band, but I really enjoyed that.
The Jensen Interceptors was great as well even though it was a relatively short run thing.
K: You tried that Copicat for a while I remember?
A: Aye, it’s a good thing to play about with just to get that slap-back echo.
K: Again, it’s real, it’s analog, it’s a physical machine.
A: There’s a warmth off all of these old things that the modern stuff can’t recreate. It’s not an easy sound to play with. You have to adapt your playing to make it work.
K: I agree. For me everything digital is too configurable and goes way beyond the boundaries of necessity. A degree of constraint can be a good thing.
On the same kind of topic, I see you’re still building up the vinyl collection. I clock the album covers appearing on the old Facebook every now and then?
A: Oh aye, that’s a passion. I’ve always had a lot of records, but for a few years I didn’t have a record player, so I ended up lending a lot of the stuff I had out or giving it way. Then I got some stereo equipment and a record deck again and I remember picking up a copy of Midnight Blue by Kenny Burrell. I’d been kidding myself on about CDs, but when I put that on man it was just such a huge difference. I couldn’t believe it! I remember, I was lying on the floor listening to it. I was just amazed. Since then I’ve been buying a lot of vinyl again.There’s defintely something to be said for it.
K: I think again, it’s the constraints that add to the whole experience. You can’t fast forward vinyl from the couch and you can’t skip through the tracks. If you want to change what you’re hearing you have to get off your ass. Everything is too easy to change with digital.
A: I like the hiss and crackle as well. It all adds to the experience. Yeah, I still buy a lot of records.
K: It seems to me that you have a kind of gene in your DNA that almost means everything has to be …authentic. If you’re taking shortcuts or if it’s not the real thing…you’re not really interested. Would that be fair to say?
A: You mean listening?
K: No. Listening, playing, the whole thing. Musically you’ve got pretty high standards that you impose on yourself.
A: I think you’re right. I mean, playing wise I am pretty brutal on myself. I’ve had some times where I just don’t like anything that I’m playing and I think “Why do I do this to myself ?”. Sometimes it feels like it would be easier to just stop. There are times when it’s not really an enjoyable experience when you hear what you’ve played.
I think there needs to be a certain discipline. I am not saying that you need to play within a format but you need to try and ensure that every note you play has some sort of weight or has some connection to the music and you’ve got to pay homage to the guys that put it out there first, other wise there’s no connection.
K: How do you break through these times when you’re not really enjoying what you’re hearing?
A: Sometimes I have a complete break from it and I just put it down for 3 or 4 weeks. Just don’t touch the damn thing or maybe start listening to something else. I’ve always said about the guitar that every now and again, if you stick at it, it will “throw you a crumb”…when it feels like it…not when you dictate. That wee crumb can keep you interested for another couple of months and then you’ll come to another place where your stuck and then another crumb will appear. It’s difficult. Some people make it look really easy, but I think that’s just a myth. A lot of hard work is required to keep it all going.
K: Let’s talk a wee bit about the gear your using right now. I noticed that you’ve switched to the Telecaster from the Strat?
A: Yeah, I’ve had this guitar for about 5 or 6 years now. I’d been looking for something. I’d played the Strat for years and years but there was something going on with that. In my head it just wasn’t sounding the way it should. To me there was something that was just not sounding right and then I found that my nails were catching on the middle pickup you know? I thought that the time had come to try something different. So this Tele became available and I bought it. Since I got this I’ve struggled a bit going back to the Strat. I still play it every now and again, but there is just something different about the Tele.
K: What’s your amp of choice now?
A: Still the Fender 65 re-issue Twin. It’s the best thing I ever bought man! I bought it brand new when I was 23 from my student grant (laughs) and it’s been the best investment ever.
K: How many valves have been replaced over that time?
A: Mmmmm. Quite a few and there’s been a few pints of Guinness poured down the back of it as well (laughs)
It’s an amp you’ve got to fight with though. There’s only one volume on it and you find that every night is different. Some nights it’s a struggle, some nights it’s not.
K: You’ve never really been one for effects?
A: Some guys are brilliant with the pedals, but for me it never really worked.
I never plug in at home. I practice un-amplified.
K: Eh? Really? So…how do you know what it’s going to sound like live?
A: That’s the problem for me. When I plug it in it suddenly sounds so different from all the hours I’ve spent at home sitting playing it because I never plug it in. I sit up late at night with it and you learn to make tones with your fingers. That’s the sound of the guitar. I just really want that sound…only louder. That sound that I hear at night.
Some nights I can get it on the Fender and other nights I can’t. It’s just a sound I’m used to, after spending so long practicing un-amplified. I think it helps with the tone. You learn to make the sounds without any amp or effects.
K: That’s great Al, thanks for the insight into your playing and thanks for your time. Best of luck with the album and I’ll look forward to hearing how you get on in Italy later in the year.
A: Thanks man. All the best.
Album Download – Al Brown – Scufflin’
Special thanks to Matt from Maybank Studios for staying back late and letting us use the studio for the shoot.
Camera: Nikon D750
Lens: Nikon 24-120
Focal length: 35mm
Exposure: 1/40 sec at f/6.3
Time of day: 19:57
Lighting: Keylight at 45 degrees. 24″ Softbox with grid, rim light and fill light with orange gel to warm and highlight the guitar
maybank recording studio