The dream goes something like this: You were born into a family with roots that can be traced back to Lightning Hopkins. You were a regular collaborator with both Vaughan brothers, as well as an active member of The Fabulous Thunderbirds and Arc Angels. If that wasn’t enough, you have co-written and/or recorded with rock legends like Eric Clapton, Roger Waters and B.B King.
A dream? Hardly–this has just been the past 18 months in the life of Doyle Bramhall II. And he’s only getting warmed up! Returning home from a European tour with Clapton, Doyle sat down to discuss the past, present and future of the man known as Bramhall.
Being an Austin native, how has the move to Los Angeles affected your approach to songwriting?
Doyle Bramhall II: “I made the transition back in 1996. I came out here to record with Wendy & Lisa, whom I had hooked up with through my old A&R person at Geffen, for my first solo record. It was through them that I was turned on to a lot of artists, songwriters and musicians that I didn’t know about, being from Texas. Since I wanted to expand on some different ideas, I felt it was these relationships that were crucial to making that happen.”
Your sophomore album, Jellycream, was a turning point in your solo career. What separates that album from your debut in ’96?
DB: “My first solo album was a culmination of songs that I had written, even before the Arc Angels and The Fabulous Thunderbirds, that I had always wanted to do. So, I had a lot of stuff built up. I wanted that album to be as far away from what the Arc Angels were as possible. It was my personality, as a solo artist, coming out on the record. I think that also at that time I was just getting sober, so for a long time it got very dark.
“Whereas, on the second album, I really embraced the guitar again. But it was through this newfound relationship between Wendy & Lisa and myself that allowed me to focus on writing and singing. I felt if I played guitar over everything, then my focus on the songwriting itself would be overshadowed. If you don’t have a great song that lasts over time, it doesn’t matter how good the guitar playing is. Pete Townshend once said there are two types of guitar players: There are the songwriters and there are the players. If you’re just a guitar player, you’re more concerned with different parts of the song, whereas if you are a songwriter, then your focus tends to be more on the complete picture the song is making.
“Songwriters are more interested in finding melodies. The interest lies not on what the technical side of the song is doing but on what is going on melodically. And when it all falls into place, like Hendrix, it can make for some pretty amazing music. He was the entire scene, while doing it spontaneously–it just sort of happened whenever he picked up his guitar.”
With Welcome being your third solo outing, do you feel that you’ve accomplished the goal of establishing your voice and style as an individual artist?
“The thing about Welcome is that all I was trying to do was record a good album–and in that, have each song achieve its fullest potential. So, I went into the studio and rehearsed for seven weeks, and in that time I wrote about 25 songs. Unfortunately, the songs from Jellycream never went through that evolutionary process.
“Zeppelin and Hendrix used to play their material live long before they ever went into the studio. As a result, you can hear how slammin’ those records were. After listening to a few of those albums, I decided that I wanted that kind of sound, too. I wanted the music to evolve into that place you go when you’re playing live.”
Things have come full circle for you now with your collaboration on the Double Trouble CD. Chris Layton and Tommy Shannon refer to you as “One of the most talented people we have ever played with.” How did those special Arc Angels reunion shows come about?
“I don’t know why, but we were getting offers to do some reunion shows. I felt [that] the band had dissolved with some things being unresolved. Basically, the way it happened was that I had such a bad drug problem, that, instead of dealing with it, I just let the drugs deteriorate me. It got to the point where I couldn’t function anymore, so I just let it fall apart and ultimately stopped showing up instead of dealing with it. But, because we are all such great friends and share a mutual level of respect for each other, the door was always left open. Even though we had some rough years together, I think that it has made our friendship even stronger.
“So the reunion was just a good thing to do. There is a real chemistry there between Charlie [Sexton], Chris, Tommy and I. So those shows were mainly a form of closure and therapy more than anything else. But, as things do, it has led to other things, like the new Double Trouble record. So I guess there’s no telling what’s going to happen in the future.”
Describe the period immediately after the release of Jellycream.
“We went out and played a lot of clubs and theaters that the Arc Angels had packed back in ’91 and ’92. It was somewhat surreal to go through that again. After touring for a few months, it didn’t look as if the record was going to take off. I always thought Jellycream was more of a musician’s record, anyway. It just didn’t seem to have the chance to appeal to a massive audience. But luckily, the record did fall into the hands of people like Eric Clapton and Roger Waters.”
What was your reaction when these legendary musicians came calling? Was it like, “Hey Doyle, Eric Clapton is on the phone for you”?
“I’ll take you back a little before that. I got a call from Patrick Leonard, who produced Roger Waters’ Amused To Death record. Roger was looking for someone who could play guitar and sing vocals with him. They wanted a demo of ‘Comfortably Numb’ and “Money.
“I hated the idea of making a demo of ‘Money.’ The production on Dark Side Of The Moon is amazing, so that was something I just didn’t want to touch. Roger writes lyrics that are very emotionally connected. I felt that, due to my past, I could personally relate to ‘Comfortably Numb.’ It was like putting words to what I was feeling when I was drugged out and completely helpless in that situation of being a drug addict. So one day, I was hanging around my house listening to The Wall. My stereo has one of those karaoke buttons that take the lead vocals and guitar out of phase. We ended up recreating that in the studio, where my vocals and guitar replaced those of the song. The end result is something so close to what the original was, that either way, we knew we had just recorded one of the best demos ever!”
How did Eric Clapton enter the picture?
“I was at the final gig of the Roger Waters tour. My manager had sent him a copy of the Jellycream CD. So, I called him and he said he’d love to meet and maybe play a little guitar. Maybe even talk about covering a few songs for his record with B.B King.
“I was showing him some of my songs, even though I told him that I played left-handed and upside down. This only helped to make things more confusing on how I was playing the song. So, he ended up asking me to play on the record. They ended up covering two of my songs and then Eric invited me back to help do his solo record. Eric has almost single-handedly gotten my name out there. So, I guess you could say this relationship has been very fruitful all the way around.”
Looking back, with all these feathers in your cap, this has been quite the year. Do you feel like you are past the warm-up stage now?
“I think this is just the start. That’s why I named the record Welcome, because I felt this is the beginning of the full realization of my solo career.
“When you work with various artists, especially people like Clapton, King and Waters, certain things rub off on you. When I worked with Roger, I was taking it all in and absorbing his world. You can hear his inspirations in the song ‘Life.’ Then with Eric, his influences brought me to the main reason I did the record the way I did. After watching him play live in a big room, I knew I wanted to do my whole record the same way.
“I haven’t gotten to the point yet where I know how to approach talking about my songs and explaining them in a dissecting manner. But I know this: Although each guitar part has a purpose, it is not the focal point of the album. I think the songs are, as a whole, too strong to be overshadowed by the guitar playing, and vice-versa. Everything is equally important. My purpose is to have great songs, and if I get looked at as a great player, too, then that’s a bonus.” ^m^
Doyle Bramhall II – Vocals & Guitar A transplant from Austin, TX, Doyle now
J.J. Johnson – Drums calls Los Angeles, CA home
Chris Bruce – Bass
Susannah Melvoin – Backing Vocals Benmont Tench – Keys
Craig Ross – Guitar
About The Current CD:
Welcome showcases the diversity of Bramhall’s talents, from his songwriting to his intense, soulful vocals and virtuoso guitar playing.
Doyle Bramhall II
Welcome (RCA, 2001) Doyle Bramhall II (Geffen 1996)
Jellycream (RCA 1999)
Double Trouble Arc Angels
Been A Long Time (Tone-Cool, 2001) Arc Angels (DGC, 1992)
Benmont Tench and Jim Scott
© April 13, 2001. Michael D. Vogel. All Rights Reserved. This originally appeared on the Vogelism blog at http://www.vogelism.com, authored by Michael D. Vogel. This article may be shared or reprinted as long as this entire copyright message, including the source location of this article, accompanies it.
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