Doyle Bramhall II Opens Up On His Lifelong Guitar Journey & New LP 'Rich Man' (Interview)

As originally featured by Glide Magazine

Doyle Bramhall II has never really been your average Joe musician. He cut his teeth on blues, added rock, funk, R&B and Jazz intonations into his playing as he evolved from the kid at not only his legendary father’s feet but family friends Stevie Ray and Jimmie Vaughan as well. He took a love for Lightnin’ Hopkins, left school and began his journey, ending up playing beside Eric Clapton, Roger Waters, Charlie Sexton, Derek Trucks, Gary Clark Jr and Susan Tedeschi. He found the inside of a studio invigorating, challenging, satisfying. He has spent so much time working with others that his own records became further apart.

So fifteen years down the road, Bramhall has finally put chords to tape and released his fourth album Rich Man. “I’d been busy touring and producing for other artists so I took a hiatus from recording and performing as a solo artist,” Bramhall explained shortly before the record’s release on September 30th. Now, “I feel like the stars finally aligned to allow me to be completely myself as an artist for the first time,” he continued.

And what an album Bramhall has produced. Enriched with his musical footprints from his travels to northern Africa and revelations of his soul searching tenure has made this album about as personal as one can get from a man who lets his chords do most of the talking. Emboldened with R&B funk palpitations and lush spiritualism – and some lovely Norah Jones vocals on “New Faith” – Rich Manmakes the wait for it all the more savory.

As the son of Texas drummer/songwriter Doyle Bramhall, the son has made his own reputation from passion and hard work. In his late teens he was playing alongside Jimmie Vaughan in the Fabulous Thunderbirds. In the early nineties he was part of the Arc Angels with fellow Texan Charlie Sexton and former Double Trouble rhythm section Chris Layton and Tommy Shannon. He has played on albums by everyone from Clapton and Trucks to Gregg Allman, Sheryl Crow and Buddy Guy.

But now it’s his turn and the single “Mama Can’t Help You” was a smooth funky groove to introduce everyone to his new arsenal of songs. I recently spoke with Bramhall about the rhythms of his music and life and how he pulled them all together to make a delicious musical gumbo.

We’ve been waiting for this record for so long. Was it just you being busy or was it the songs themselves coming together?

I think it took so long because I had been playing with other artists and supporting them and accompanying other artists and I really enjoyed that role. I think at the time that I stopped making records fifteen years ago after my last one, I sort of at that point wanted to get away from the industry and I guess find out who I was – artistically as a performer and personally in my life. So I think I just had to take a very long journey into myself and around the world to get all the inspiration and gather all the things I needed to put together what I felt. But for the most part, it was because I was also raising children after my last record came out and I really enjoyed being a father and being a parent and all the responsibilities. I figured that’s what I wanted to dedicate myself to at that time and I could raise the family and also go out and tour with Eric Clapton for all those years. It fit really well into my life at that time.

I found this record to be a very spiritual album, and that’s before I read any of the PR on it. Did you intend it to be that way from the beginning?

Well, I just intended it to be whatever expression was in all the facets of my life. A big part of my life in the last fifteen years, really like eight years, has been my spiritual journey in life. And I’ve done a lot of seeking and learning, and as I said before, gathering. If I look at it in the big picture, the entire record is a spiritual journey. There are songs that represent a snippet of a part of that journey that might not sound like a spiritual song but all of it sort of led me to having that sort of spiritual breakthrough in my life. And I think I’m just exuding whatever my life is right now and has been. So this record is basically a documentation of all that – in sounds and colors.

Are these songs you’ve worked on for a while?

Well, it seemed like the songs on this record, they just sort of revealed themselves as I was doing it and because I did it over a year and four months, I was able to take everything in a very micro way and sort of experiment with each song. I would try things on certain songs and they wouldn’t necessarily be the right thing I was hoping for and then I would just leave them and start working on other tracks and maybe come back to songs three months later and have new inspiration to work on those. And I would just keep chipping away. For the most part, I had the ideas for everything and I think it turned out exactly as I intended it from the beginning, even though I didn’t know. But they revealed themselves as they were coming along. But looking back, I can see that it is exactly what I wanted to do.

Some of the songs have a really good funk beat to them and there’s some blues in there and then a middle-eastern sound as well. It’s like a gumbo in terms of sounds.

Hit me with a Louisiana reference (laughs). I like it.

When did you first go to India and Morocco and did you go there as a tourist or because you wanted to seek something?

You know, I’ve been touring my whole life, internationally, but I’ve never gone to Africa and I had never gone to India. When I was a teenager I was very into this Egyptian singer named Umm Kulthum and she was one of the most gifted singers in the last hundred years and I just had this sort of draw to that kind of music, Egyptian music and Turkish music, and there was something about Arabic melodies that really pulled at me, as much as a lot of the delta blues and Texas blues and real raw music, you know. It was like all this Texas blues and delta blues had a lot of similar things to it, similarities that this music had. It had that raw element, it had that pure to the core and it was all just coming straight from the heart and it just connected in a different way to me than other music.

A lot of music, especially in this day and age, there is just so much pop music out there, pop music of every genre, and I’m not coming down on all of it but a lot of it I can hear the marketing in it. I can hear the selling, I can hear the dollar signs, and a lot of that stuff is completely synthesized and I’ve just always really preferred, since I was a kid, listening to just really raw and jagged sounding music. I’ve always liked mistakes in music and not fixing them. I mean, if you listen to even Stevie Wonder songs, there are songs where if you’ve heard “Superstition,” that’s a masterpiece song, but if you take the elements and you split them apart and you take each individual track, I’m sure there are mistakes that are being made but they aren’t really mistakes. They were just making music, you know. It’s like traveling through Morocco and seeing the artisanship of tilework and everything. Everything has their imperfections. Nothing is perfect made by a human. So I don’t think music should be either.

Now, a lot of the pop stuff is made by a producer and a producer will completely make a track for an artist to come in and sing. Then they have to fix every little thing about it. Then once you do that it’s like a bunch of robots singing and playing music together. It’s just synthesized. It’s not real. I would much rather listen to people playing in the desert in Mali and it’s all real stuff and everybody is playing together and I just like it.

Did you do that often while you were over there? Go listen to these musicians?

Yeah, that’s all I did. You know, I quit school when I was fifteen years old. I left school and I started playing professionally and touring when I was basically fifteen/sixteen years old. I was touring in three or four different states on the west coast and I was making a really good living and getting known and that’s all I did. I did my music. When I quit the school, I started doing all of the things I didn’t like in school, because I basically protested learning in school because I was a punky kid that wanted to be a contrarian, you know, in every way and I wanted to rebel against everything and I wanted to do things my way.

Also, it wasn’t interesting learning the way it was being presented to me. It wasn’t interesting to me but yet I was really flourishing musically. So when I got on the road, I started reading. I mean, I read, and I actually did really well in English in school, but I started reading all the time and I became an avid reader of literature, fiction, non-fiction, whatever. And I never wanted to read a book in school because, you know, if someone else was trying to give it to me, I didn’t want to have anything to do with it (laughs). It had to be on my terms, you know. But it’s funny cause as soon as I quit school, I became really interested in learning about everything. When I went on the road I became really interested in geography because that’s what I was doing mostly and music and literature and learning as much as I could about music history and it was all very fascinating to me.

doyle21-578x383.jpg

You opened your palette up to all these books that they probably didn’t even talk about in school.

Right. I think the books I was given in school, they were more historical and more history books but they were just one side of history. It wasn’t world history, it was just the standard text history, which is probably very one-sided and about 15% or 20% of what actually happened. For how confused I was about everything and how not together I was in every way, emotionally and otherwise, I really think that I trusted the plan of the universe for my music and what was to come. I didn’t ever second-guess and never had the thought, hmm, maybe I’m not really cut out for music. I never had that. I never, ever second-guessed it.

And how long have you been doing it now?

A hundred (laughs) I’ve been spending a lot of time in the last eight years traveling through northern Africa and Mali and India and even the Eastern Block. And I love immersing myself in cultures that are still intact and not westernized yet – at least whatever’s left – and a lot of those places, like in Turkey, the music there is incredible. The music in Egypt is incredible and Morocco is a place I go to quite often to stay and learn with different masters of different music there and that has become my school. That has become my higher learning, traveling to these places and studying with these musicians and bands. So I just brought whatever influence that has inspired and the inspiration from that and it has come through in my music. And I wouldn’t say that I’m trying to play any Indian music or that I’m trying to play any Moroccan music but I’m definitely influenced by it and it’s coming out of me. Cause whatever you put in comes out and manifests in whatever way it manifests and each expression is a different expression, like a thumbprint or a fingerprint.

The instrumental “Saharan Crossing” really has that influence

It’s not Arabic, it’s not true to the Arabic form, but it’s influenced by it and melodies have come through me just by being near it and listening to it so much. But it’s certainly not Arabic music cause it’s not in Arabic form. It’s more in rock & roll form. For somebody who studied Arabic music or Turkish music or Moroccan music, they would hear that song and probably think it sounded like a country song to them. But to me, it feels like it’s Arabic-esque.

And you never wanted to put lyrics on that track at all?

I ran out of time. That was like the second day before I mixed. I just recorded it cause it was a melody that stuck with me and on the second to last day before I finished the entire record I got my Oud teacher in to play with me on that and we just recorded it. So I wouldn’t have had time to write lyrics to it but you know I’ve had that song for about a year anyway and lyrics didn’t come to me on that one. So I just thought, keep it instrumental.

Tell us about “New Faith,” the song you did with Norah Jones and how you got her to sing on it with you?

I’ve always been a big fan of Norah’s, always respected what she did. I was recording in the studio in Brooklyn and that was the last song that I recorded for the record. We had just toured together and I brought a band in, cut it live and as we cut it I was thinking at that time instead of overdubbing somebody on top of it, it’d be great if I had somebody sing as a duet with me. Obviously I have a lot of people I can think of that could sing duets with me that I do work with and they’re all brilliant, but Norah, I knew that she lived very close to that studio and I’ve always wanted to do something with her anyway. So me and the engineer, who is also friends with her, called her up and told her we were in the studio to cut a song and asked if she would come in and sing with me live on the floor together and she was like, “Yeah, let’s go.” And she just came over and did it.

What can you tell us about “The Veil”?

That was the first song I recorded for the album. I went in and I had what I guess would be considered the bassline down. I had that in my head. I didn’t really have songs that were completed and ready to go but I felt like this is time for me to break out and start my record, cause if I don’t start now I’ll never start (laughs) cause it’s been so long. So I just went in and that was the first idea that came out and that song went through many different versions, renditions, until it settled into what it is now. Originally it was double-time, the drums were double-time than what they are now, and everything centered around that. Then I sang it and the way that I sang it was much more soulful and groovy so I decided to change everything to half-time. So I ended up overdubbing and wiping out all the rest of the tracks and rerecording tracks in a more older soul kind of way.

What is the oldest song on the record?

I actually went in and started cutting from scratch so I didn’t really have any pre-existing songs. I had a few ideas. Like, I had a partial idea for the song “The Samanas.” I had that sort of on acoustic but I didn’t have it completely written. Then I had “The Veil” and I think that’s pretty much it. I just wrote from scratch and I know that was the long way and hard way of doing things. Most of the time you have all the songs, or at least three quarters of the songs, ready to go so when you go in you cut them and that’s it, you’re finished. So for me to just start from scratch was a little more difficult cause I had to sort of piece everything together and build it all from the ground up. But it was cool cause it was such an experimental process and it was the first record for me in fifteen years that I really felt like I needed to find everything and really sit with everything for longer than what I would normally do if it was just another release.

You end the record with a Hendrix song. Why?

Actually, it was not intentional. I recorded that song as a B-side to the album. But when I lined everything up, when I was sequencing the album, I had figured out what the sequence to the entire record was. So then I listened to it all the way through to finalize the sequence and I was really happy with it. Then after the last song came on, “Hear My Train A’Comin’” came on and it felt like that was the end to me. It felt like it sort of wrapped everything up and felt like it brought it full circle because it all started with blues to me. It all started with Jimi and Eric Clapton and all the blues guys. Because it all started there it always comes back to that, cause that’s what the roots of my music are. So I felt like it made perfect sense to put that there as an ending.

After completing this record, do you still feel as close to Lightnin’ Hopkins or has your base shifted?

No, I still have the same love of that and deep connection to that, to blues music, as I ever did. And it makes more sense to me now in connecting all the dots. Like I said, the core of blues music, traditional blues music and delta blues and Texas blues and country blues, all of that is the most raw, pure form of music coming from a musician and through my travels, Indian Classical music or Pakistan music or any version of Moroccan music, it’s the pure art form of music. It’s not a fabricated thing, it’s not a synthesized thing. It is the pure art form.

doyle-578x385.jpg

Did you play any Arabic instruments on the record?

I play the Oud, which is an Egyptian version of the lute, but I thought it would be more fun if I got my Oud teacher in who taught me Arabic music. He is Israeli and I thought it would be more fun if we played together. So I played acoustic guitar and had him play the melody on Oud that I was originally going to play. Then we played drums together. But yeah, I definitely play Oud. I record with my Oud a lot but I think because I’m a producer, I think the producer part of me is totally okay with getting other people to do things, that I don’t necessarily have to do it myself. Like, I think that’s the difference because if you’re a guitar player only and you’re not really a producer, then I think you’d probably want to do everything yourself. But for me as a producer, I get people to do things all the time on different instruments. So I’m so used to working with different guitar players that it’s really easy for me to say, “Actually, you can play melody on that guitar. I don’t have to play that.” Even if it’s the lead rhythm part, I’m totally okay with getting other people to play the parts. It’s like being a conductor in a symphony and you just get different musicians to play different bits. So when I’m orchestrating, I can easily just get everybody else to do the bits and I can sit down and listen (laughs).

Was the Oud easy to learn?

I doubt it (laughs). I studied it but I doubt that it’s an easy instrument to play. I mean, it’s easier to play things that you love. It’s easier to do things that you love to do. But I don’t think there’s any instrument if you’re going to be really good at what you do and good at your craft, I don’t think there’s any instrument that’s really easy to play.

Which guitar did you use primarily to record this record?

I love experimenting with sounds so I used different guitars on the record. Usually if I’m soloing, I will play my 1964 Strat, my main Strat, which I play onstage. But mostly I played Epiphone Casino and Guild Aristocrat. Those were the ones I preferred on this record. Then acoustic I played an Epiphone Texan and J-45 Gibson.

Did you play any other instruments on there?

I played some drums, double drum parts on the record, and I played bass on “The Veil.”

What are you holding on the cover of the album?

It’s a Moroccan medallion. It’s a piece like for protection and good luck, for a Berber woman in Morocco and it’s really old.

arcangels.jpg

Any chance of any Arc Angels stuff? It’s been a long, long time.

You know, we tried to do that. We got back together and tried to put a run together. We did a tour and I think we’ve done it. I doubt there’s going to be another one coming up.

Are you at peace now or is this a lifelong journey?

It’s definitely a lifelong journey and I would say I’m more peaceful than I’ve ever been in my life and I know what my purpose is and I know why I’m here and what my existence is and what it means and what it’s for. But it is a lifelong journey, it’s a lifelong practice, so I practice my music and I practice my spirituality and whatever that is. And through the practices that I do, my life becomes more peaceful.

Does that give you a calmness that you never had before?

Well, I’ve always had a calm demeanor but it’s really the outside matches the inside. I mean, I have a lot of stress but I definitely have a lot more peace and breaks in the stress. It’s a stressful life, a stressful life in general if you live in a big city and you work in a high-stress kind of environment, which I do. It’s hard and it’s hard to keep up with what’s going on in our culture and technology and everything is getting smaller and smaller and smaller and attention spans are going with it. So I don’t know where that is leading us and where the craftsmanship is going in what people are doing. They are over something thirty seconds after they see it. They’re done with it and they’re moving on.

We’re not going to have to wait another fifteen years for another record are we?

No, definitely not. I’ll definitely be going back in as soon as I get off the road, when I get time. But hopefully this album will take me into the end of next year.