TEXAS SIX-STRING PRODIGY|
By Arlene R. Weiss
Welcome is more than an appropriate title for the new and third solo release from Doyle Bramhall II. The Texan guitar prodigy/singer/songwriter first garnered acclaim in the early '90s as guitar-God-heir-apparent as part of the renowned (butshortlived) Arc Angels, which included Charlie Sexton and Double Trouble's Chris Layton and Tommy Shannon. Born in Dallas, Bramhall's lineage lies in a musical legacy and upbringing. His father, Doyle Bramhall, is an esteemed musician who played drums with Lightnin' Hopkins and collaborated as both drummer and songwriter with Stevie Ray Vaughan. During Doyle II's childhood, SRV and Double Trouble were regular guests at his house, and their influence had already imbedded itself firmly when his father gave him Lightnin' Hopkins' guitar for his 14th birthday.
By his teens,Doyle had migrated to Austin to hone his chops, regularly jamming with Vaughan Brothers Jimmie and Stevie Ray, as well as the elite of Austin's musical pantheon. Doyle then became a member of The Fabulous Thunderbirds, co-founded the infamous Arc Angels, and has since struck out on his own with two solo releases, Doyle Bramhall II, and Jellycream. Both were accomplished slices of Bramhall's eclectic virtuosity, but failed to register commercially, and also failed to bring Bramhall well-deserved recognition as a major artist in his own right.
All that changed these last two years in a major turn of events that has at last validated Bramhall. First, Roger Waters invited him on tour, and last year Eric Clapton took Doyle under his wing, resulting in an ongoing creative collaboration. Since then, Doyle co-wrote material and played on the majority of B.B. King and Clapton's Riding With The King, Bramhall reprised playing and songwriting on Clapton's Reptile, and is currently opening on Clapton's worldwide tour. Bramhall also co-wrote and performed on Double Trouble's new release, Been A Long Time.
But Welcome is Bramhall's pride and joy. Layered with spontaneous, riff-heavy tunes, it showcases Bramhall's diverse stylings and is an esteemed nod to the classic rock of the 1960s and '70s, offering a definite retro vibe. It's a dazzling display of his crafted vocals, songwriting, and of his astounding, renowned six-string work, which includes his amazing method of playing left-handed and upside-down.
took time during the Clapton tour to discuss Welcome, his many ongoing creative
projects, and his fulfillment at finally achieving validation and success as an
Doyle Bramhall II: It sounds like a lot more than it feels to me. I mean, it's been non-stop, but I made a decision two or three years ago to start playing music and doing what I love to do, to just make music for the process of making music and not for the outcome of it. And as soon as I did that, things started snowballing. When I started doing it for the process of being in the moment, musically, and not worrying about, "Why don't I have this or that? I've been doing this a really long time, and yet these kids out there just do this and they have this overnight success."
That led me absolutely nowhere, so that's when I made the decision to just do the music, do what I want to do, and don't think about the outcome. Every time I let go of that expectation, everything started happening; I was getting calls from Roger Waters and Eric Clapton. Obviously, I worked with Double Trouble in a lot of different ways before my solo career or the Arc Angels. It just seemed like everything was happening at once...when it rains, it pours.
VG: Welcome stresses your songwriting and vocals, as well as your prowess as a guitarist. What artistic statement and goals were you trying to achieve, and was there any pressure to simultaneously break through this time, while not losing sight of your creative vision and integrity?
DBII: I think there's always that pressure from yourself, from record companies, and everybody out there. Everybody expects me to be a certain thing. On the first record on Geffen, I didn't compromise at all. I did what I wanted to do and it might've been a little too abstract for the blues/ rock listener.
VG: I listen to anything - if it's music and it's good. I don't categorize or label it...
DBII: That's the way I feel, as well - the person who can put on a Bob Marley record can also put on Sly Stone or the Beatles. That's just music, encompassing everything - soul, R&B, Jazz, blues, rock.
VG: This album has something of a classic rock/'60s/'70s vibe to it. Are you a fan of that music?
DBII: Yes, I am. It's what I grew up listening to. My mom and dad were so influenced by music, and involved in music. They had those records on all the time and it was ingrained in me at a really young age. Before I was six years old, I'd probably listened to 1,000 records, and I soaked it up like a sponge. Then by the time Istarted playing, it really poured out of me because I just couldn't wait to get a hold of the guitar.
VG: Did you use "Little Doyle" as your main studio guitar on the album, and can you explain its history?
DBII: Yeah, I'm using it. It has a lot of problems right now - it's like an old, sick dog (laughing)! It was pretty much the first real guitar I felt connected to, like, "Wow, this is the guitar I want!" It was made by Zak Berry, a guitar tech and builder at Charley's Guitar Shop, in Dallas. He made one for Robert Cray, one for Eric Clapton, one for Jimmie Vaughan, one for Stevie Ray, and one for me. I think I got one because he knew I was joining The Fabulous Thunderbirds.
VG: You also have a guitar once owned by Lightnin' Hopkins...
DBII: It's a '63 Harmony Rocket. My dad played in his band, and in a roundabout way he got a hold of Lightnin's guitar. So my first guitar, which I got on my 14th birthday, was given to my dad by Lightnin' Hopkins.
VG: Did you ever meet Lightnin' Hopkins?
DBII: I was too young to remember. I'll have to ask dad!
VG: What are your earliest musical impressions and memories from growing up around your father, as well as Stevie Ray, Jimmie Vaughan, and Double Trouble?
DBII: It was my normal childhood. I remember living in a bandhouse in Austin in the early '70s, when this whole hippie/blues scene was happening. There were artists - this was pre-Thunderbirds, pre-Double Trouble - and my dad was playing in a lot of bands. I would sleep under stages and on pool tables. You know how infants and toddlers are - they just sleep and nap all day. It was a pretty loose upbringing, at least until I was six years old.
VG: Your unique tone and sound are due in part to playing left-handed and upside-down, but you string your guitars right-handed. How and why did you devise this stringing method?
DBII: It's pretty simple. There were right-handed guitar players around when I was a kid, so every time I picked one up, I held it in a left-handed position. I think I was a little dyslexic when I was younger and I didn't know left from right! I could never get that down, and it always messed me up (laughs). I was also ambidextrous. It felt really comfortable stringing right-handed, and by the time somebody told me I was doing something the wrong way I said, "Well, it doesn't sound wrong."
VG: What are the challenges/benefits of playing left-handed?
DBII: I play by ear, so it could be the same and have no challenges for me. However, the different challenges for me are chords and transposing chords, because there are no instructions or music books out there for the positioning of the fingers for a left-handed, upside-down player. All the theory and technique doesn't apply to me because I would have to transpose it completely, as opposed to if I strung left-handed. Then all the finger positions on the first, second, third, fourth, fifth fret would all be the same. But for me, it's useless.
VG: Talk about that call you received from Clapton - how you became involved working with him, your ongoing collaborations, and your current tour with him...
DBII: I got a call from my manager saying that Eric Clapton had called and wanted to speak with me. So I called Eric on the last day of my Roger Waters tour and he said that I was one of his favorite contemporary artists of the 1990s.
VG: You must be honored.
DBII: I am. It was great because at the time I wasn't being validated any other way, musically, and I wasn't fulfilled.
VG: It also means so much coming from your peers.
DBII: That was more important, too. I mean I wasn't getting anywhere else when Clapton called. He made me feel so good about what I had done. Like, "Yeah! I did make a good record," or "I am a good artist and I am a valid artist." I spent years not being quite sure. So I talked to him more and he invited me to his house. We got together over coffee, talked, played a little guitar, and then he invited me to his studio.
VG: Did he ask you how to play the chords on "I Wanna Be" and "Marry You" on the Riding With The King album?
DBII: Just because I play left-handed, upside-down, sometimes things I play sound a little different than they would from a right-handed player. I think he was like, "I want to see what your inversions of the chords are." So I showed him.
VG: How did you get involved with Double Trouble's Been A Long Time?
DBII: I met Chris Layton when I was 11 years old. He and Stevie would stay at our grandmother's house when they came into town. I remember Stevie's guitar. He always brought a guitar with him. I'd sit in and play on it. Then I met Tommy Shannon a couple years later.
Me, Tommy, and my dad had done a lot of different side projects when Tommy was off of Stevie's tours. And we just loved playing with each other. Then by the time Stevie died, that's when we all started rehearsing. We got back together as the Arc Angels, so it goes way back, musically. We've always played together, and I used to sit in with Stevie. He'd get me up anywhere and support me, so it's just old friends with great chemistry, getting together again to play.
VG: Did working with Tommy, Chris, and Charlie Sexton bring back that creative symmetry and camaraderie of your days as the Arc Angels?
DBII: Yeah! That happens every time we get together. There's a reason the Arc Angels were on their way to being as successful as we were going to be, or as we were, for that short amount of time; because we had a real chemistry between us any time we did anything. We probably could have even made an album of all covers and it would have done well.
VG: Early this year you performed with Double Trouble twice in one day - once taping an episode of "Austin City Limits" and at the Austin Music Hall. How was that for you?
DBII: It's one of those days where you really don't know what the hell is going on until you have a couple days after to rest and think about what happened, because that kind of day is just a lot of hard work. It was a lot of hard work for Chris and Tommy, and for Charlie who was the Musical Director, and it was a lot of pressure. It was pretty much a blur because we had to get there at 9 a.m. and wait around for everybody to do their soundchecks. I stayed there until 10 o'clock that night, the day before we played it. So all of it was a little vague as we were doing it. But you do look back, think about it, and you say, "Wow! We did all that in one day." It was definitely interesting having that many guitar players onstage at once.
VG: You often co-write with your wife, Susannah, and her sister, former Prince guitarist Wendy Melvoin. How did you meet and begin working with them?
DBII: Through Tony Burke, my A&R person at Geffen. He produced a record with them and I thought it was great. It was almost like somebody had found the type of music I wanted to get into at that moment. So Tony called and sent some of my demos. They loved them, and we ended up working together.
VG: When you were co-writing with Eric Clapton on Reptile, what did each of you bring to the table for the song "Superman Inside," and how did the song come about?
The song cam about while we were recording Riding with the King. I went in another
room where Eric had a bunch of beautiful old guitars. They were immaculate and
felt like butter when I played them. So I was sitting with one of his guitars
back there on Riding With The King, and I started coming up with this riff for
VG: Do you compose on the guitar or any other instruments?
Yeah, pretty much in my head. For "Green Light Girl" I had a lot of
different parts in my head - a guitar part, the drums, the melodies, the backgrounds...
I do a lot of songs that way. It's like being a composer. But for me, putting
down ideas, instead of knowing exactly what they are and being able to write it
out on paper, like a real composer would, I would get a tape recorder and sing
the melody or one of the vocal parts. It works in the same way, but it's doing
it completely without knowing about music theory or how to read or write music.
DBII: My search for what I wanted, tonallv has finally ended. I had been searching for the perfect tone - my sound. I'd always stuck to Strats. I got hold of this '64 sunburst Strat I use with a '67 100-watt Super Bass Marshall, and I took off with it. With these tones, I feel like I can speak perfectly through the guitar.
VG: Welcome's liner notes state "This record was recorded without the use of Pro Tools!" with an exclamation mark. Why the adamant disclaimer?
After we finished the record, I said, "Hey, we didn't use Pro Tools the whole
time." And that's hard, because I used it on my first two records. Pro Tools
is something that, for producers, is really easy to use. You can edit it so precisely
to where you can hardly hear it... but yet you can hear it if your ears are good
enough. It's everywhere, and I think it's taking the spontaneity out of music.
VG: So what mixing process did you use?
DBII: Just the old-fashioned way. We didn't try and do anything any particular way. It's the way producer Jim Scott uses. Some of the mixes, he didn't even use automation on. He rode the faders by hand. It's more of an art form, and more creative where the producer can make a track breathe and pulsate.
VG: Since you're constantly working on new, different projects, what are you planning after this tour? And what are your goals to evolve as a guitarist and singer/song-writer on future albums?
DBII: I can evolve by doing projects and working with other people, putting myself around things that I wouldn't normally do or haven't grown up listening to. I'll keep experimenting. Like, if after I get off the tour with Clapton, somehow I could get on with Neil Young - he's the kind of artist I could learn from, as well. That's wishful thinking on my part. But that's what I'd like to do. Eric Clapton, Neil Young, something fun... getting on tour with The Black Crowes, Lenny Kravitz, or someone like Ben Harper would be really cool, too, because you get in the club scene.