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The Gibson Interview: Paul McCartney Guitarist Brian Ray (Part Two)

In 2002, Brian Ray joined quite possibly the greatest touring band in the world, when he took the stage at Super Bowl XXXVI with Sir Paul McCartney. The band, consisting of Ray, guitarist Rusty Anderson, drumming juggernaut Abe Laboriel Jr., veteran keyboardist Paul “Wix” Wickens and, of course, that Beatle gent, have toured the world many times over for the past eight years. In addition, the group have been present to a renaissance in Macca’s recording career, though many of his albums from this decade have been true solo affairs, with Paul playing nearly every instrument. Regardless, this combo has entertained millions and shows no signs of slowing down.

In Part One of the Gibson Interview, Ray discussed the long and winding road he took to this stage, including stops with Bobby “Boris” Pickett, Etta James and Smokey Robinson. In the conclusion, he delves into the McCartney years and offers a preview to his rocking new album, This Way Up – released today!

Was the first person from the McCartney band you played with Abe Laboriel Jr.?

Yes, that’s right. 

How did you guys meet?

Well, wait a minute, that’s not true. The first person that I played with was Rusty Anderson. Rusty was my neighbor in Silver Lake, California, living two blocks away from me. I was living there with my girlfriend at the time, named Dawn, and he was living up the street and we got to know each other. I met him at some gig he was doing and I thought he was really incredible. And I just exchanged numbers with him and we found out we lived near one another, so we started trading guitar gear. And he was trying to teach me to read music for a day and I just lost interest immediately. I wanted to learn to read music, but the truth is I never needed it. And we would borrow each other’s gear. He would borrow my Tweed Deluxe and I’d borrow his 12-string guitar. And we just became nice friends. We’d talk about gear and chicks on the phone. Rusty and I were never in a band together. We just became pals.

Shoot forward six years – and I get an audition in France for two different French artists, and the drummer that got both of those gig auditions with me was Abe Laboriel Jr. And we just became fast friends touring around France together. We just really bonded. 

What’s Abe like? 

He’s bigger than life. He’s really fun. He’s got a very warm spirit. An incredibly sensitive and a wise guy – also a wise-guy [laughs]. He’s hilarious. He laughs big – more than anybody you will ever meet. Everything is fun and funny to him. He has a lot of fun enjoying life. He’s also incredibly talented at more than just drumming. He’s an arranger, he’s a singer, he can play a little guitar, a little bass, a little keyboards. Great ideas. He writes a bit, produces. So he’s an amazing musical force and just a really good friend to me, as well. He’s a very kind and intuitive guy.

So, he gets the gig for Driving Rain

He gets the album call from David Kahne, who Paul had asked, “Will you put a band together for me? I have some songs I want to record.” David Kahne calls Rusty and Abe. Now Rusty and Abe had never played together before.

Did they know each other? 

I think they may have met or heard of each other, but they had never played together. I had played with Rusty and I had played with Abe, but we had never played together as a trio. We all knew of each other and kind of played with components of each other.

So they do this great record with David Kahne and then David is set with another project, and that’s “Find a bass and a guitar player to play one song in the Super Bowl, 2002.” And they’re going to play one song, “Freedom.” They bring in the keyboard player that played on Paul’s previous tour, Paul “Wix” Wickens, and there’s Rusty and Abe, and they needed to have auditions for the guy that is going to play bass on this song.

Abe is at my party and I said to Abe, “So you’re going to tour soon. Who’s going to play bass when Paul plays piano and who’s going to play guitar when Paul plays bass?” He says, “Well, we’re looking for a guitar player who plays bass.” I said, “I would love a shot at that.” What I didn’t tell them was that I hadn’t really played much bass. I only played on my own demos. I just thought, “Hey, man. If there’s ever an opportunity, that I want more than anything than life itself, it would be this. And for that, I would woodshed night and day.”

Absolutely!

Which is exactly what I did. So what happened was, Abe gives my number to David Kahne. David Kahne calls me, as well as four or five other guitar player/bass players. David Kahne puts my name forward as the guy he thought would be the best idea after meeting with me. I get a call the next day after meeting with David Kahne. “Can you be on a plane tomorrow to meet and play with Paul McCartney?” 

…at the Super Bowl.

[laughs] Yeah, a nice intimate little audition for 80,000 people live and a billion people on the TV. 

So how much rehearsing did you get to do for the Super Bowl?

Two run-throughs on the green. [laughs] So at the end of that game… I think it was the Pats and the Rams – incredible game by the way – at the end of it I’m saying my goodbyes, and I came up to Paul, because I didn’t know if I would see him later, and I just said, “I want to thank you for this honor and privilege to work with you. It’s been amazing and, if I don’t get to see you again, thank you very much.” And he invited me to come back to the hotel for a drink where we were all staying. We go to the bar, he tells some stories which are wildly funny, and he says, “OK. I’m off, guys. Got to go to bed.” And he gives everyone a hug. He comes up to me and says, “OK, Brian. Welcome aboard. Stick with Abe and Rusty. They’ll show you the ropes.” And then I get the word, yeah, that they are going to start rehearsals for a national tour in five weeks. So, I run home. I buy a 1959 Gretsch Double Anniversary that I still play. I got my Gibson Les Paul.

Was it your original Gold Top?

My original Gold Top is not on the road with me. I’m playing a nice Custom Shop reissue right now. A really nice one. And I’m also playing a reissue ’64 SG Lyre. And then I play an SG bass. And I play my real ’63 Dove. That’s my stable thing.

So you go home and you have five weeks to learn how many songs?

Well, they didn’t even give me a set list. They gave me a song list, but not a set list.  

How many songs were on the song list?

So I get home and I’ve got the guitars and I bought a bass that I thought would be the right bass for him, and I set all of these things up on guitar stands, a room full of: acoustic, electric, 12-string, bass, mic stand, stack of CDs, CD player, amplifiers all set up and ready to go, standing up in my second bedroom. I said, “This is my workshop.” And I stayed in there for five weeks straight, and I just grabbed every Paul solo, Paul Beatles, Paul Wings record I could find and I made it my mission to learn everything I could learn on there that I thought maybe he would likely to play live. And I learned them all on every instrument. And I tried to grab as many vocal parts, as many of the ranges, as I could, not knowing yet where I would fit in the vocal blend. And I just made it my business to work my ass off. I was, like, Unabomber for five weeks. I didn’t even come out of my cave. You know, beard… like, no dates, no food… I just turned into a maniac. The first week, I thought, “Oh, man. I don’t know if I’m good enough for this, because it’s a lot of work, singing in one direction while you’re playing in another direction and it’s on bass and you’re playing with a Beatle. What are you thinking?!” 

Actually, that’s one thing a lot of people who don’t play guitar might not get, because you have to split your head to play and sing the vocal parts.

[In “Paul” voice] Split your head! [laughs]

Bass is a different thing, too, because you’re essentially playing a solo while singing. It’s very different from even strumming a guitar and singing.

It’s a very different come-from. You know what, I have a lot of respect for the bass instrument, and you don’t want to blow it. You don’t want to miss a string. If you’re playing guitar, you can miss a downbeat. Nobody cares. In fact, a lot of guitar players do miss the downbeat. [laughs] They don’t care about a downbeat. But with bass, it is your job to have big downbeats, to lock with the kick and be singing at the same time. It’s a job, you know? It’s something that’s a very much pat-your-head-rub-your-stomach.

And many of them are the most recognizable bass parts ever written.

Exactly. Oh, there’s that. For the woodshed period, it was a while before I had my own approval. Fortunately, by the fifth week of five weeks, I felt like, “You know what, I’m going to go in there and I’m going to get this thing." Fortunately we had five days to rehearse as a band before Paul came in. So as a band, the four of us got very comfortable. We learned 44 songs in, like, three days. And by the time Paul got in there, we were feeling pretty good. But I didn’t tell anyone I was in Paul’s band, because I didn’t know that yet. I had been invited, but I could still stink up the place and they would have to make some quick calls and replace me. You never know. At the end of Day One with Paul, he goes, “OK, guys. Sounds good. I’ll see you tomorrow.” And that was the first day where I said, “God, I’m think I’m going on tour with Paul McCartney.” It’s an invitation and it’s an honor and it’s a privilege. As I said, I just thought I was going to be [playing] just one song at the 2002 Super Bowl and it’s turned into eight years of the most fun, and the most inspiring work that I could ever imagine. Way beyond my earliest dreams as a little kid in Glendale.  

So, how much time did you guys have? You had a week with the guys and you had how much time with Paul before you went on the road?

Six days of rehearsal with Paul McCartney and then we did our first gig. Six days with Paul and a couple of days in production rehearsal where we were under the lights and screens getting the production part of it. So we got the chance to rehearse a little, I would say maybe 10 days total and then we did our first show in Oakland, California, in 2002. 

Now you, by that point, had at least 25 years on the road – closer to 30. Still, you were now probably playing places much bigger than you had ever played before. 

Well, we started out in arenas with Paul and I had done arenas. I had opened for the Stones with Etta James in 1978 and I had opened for the Doobie Brothers with Crackin’ and opened for 10cc with Reggie Knighton – all in arenas, and I had also done stadiums opening for the Stones. But I had never done those things with a Beatle – and that’s a completely different experience. All of those were opener gigs, so playing with Paul – for whom there is no headliner, no other, and whose audiences are the best listeners, the most eager, most wonderful kind warm audiences, because of the beauty Paul has engendered from his audience over the years – it’s a whole different experience. 

I’ve been fortunate to see this band a couple of times. The first time was at Madison Square Garden in 2005. Someone hit a bum note in, like, “Live and Let Die.” And Paul – I think the mistake was Paul, actually – cracked up. He laughed. It was cool. 

That’s one of the many cool things about playing with Paul. I feel like the band has grown and grown and grown and we’re still growing. There’s nothing about it that feels spider-webby. It is just a really virile, vital, growing rock machine, you know? It just continues to get more intense every night and, the reason I think that is, is because of the freedom Paul carries around by himself and then the freedom that he gives to us. He trusts us to such a degree that he can make a mistake and he is just very human about it. He accepts that as a part of it. I could make a giant clam on bass – on a ballad – the wrong note… and it just lays there for, like, a bar because it’s a ballad and there’s no way out of it. But we all take that and the bargain is this: if you allow yourself to play a bad note, then you can also push the envelope quite a lot and really raise the intensity. And I mean the intensity and sensitivity in a ballad, but also intensity in a rocker, intensity in the jams we start doing in the middle of a song, where we just start jammin’. Because he allows us that freedom, we also have the freedom to rock out harder, and that’s why it seems loose.

When you stack up the six or so live albums Paul’s put out over the years, the Hamish Stuart/Robbie McIntosh band sounds very different from this band, which sounds very different from Wings – it’s the same songs, but it seems like you guys are allowed to kind of put your own stamp on it.

Yeah, he’s really generous that way. And he lets the music live and breathe. Paul has a great quote and he said it early on. He says [doing the voice], “You play music, you don’t work music. Let’s play music!” And it’s that simple for him. He didn’t study it from a technical angle, nor did I. I tried for a couple of days, but it didn’t suit me. I was a self-taught blues/rock/pop guitar player, who was just given some great opportunities. And Paul was just a very gifted songwriter who had a myriad of influences, himself. His father was kind of a vaudevillian piano parlor, piano-playing singer. He liked Chuck Berry and the Everly Brothers and Elvis, too. He had this differing variety of influences, himself, and all of those things came together to make him this incredible melody and pop machine – but a real rocker. Inside, he’s an R&B rocker. He’s a vital rocker.  

For all the time you guys have been together – it’s been eight years now… when you think about it, The Beatles weren’t together much longer than that. For all of that, the five of you, studio-wise, have only recorded a handful of songs. It seems like there’s a great band there that hasn’t actually made a full record together. Even Memory Almost Full is about half you guys and half where Paul plays his own instruments.

Well, it’s about three quarters of us and a fourth of Paul’s solo stuff. Yeah, we would love to do more, but that, of course, is Paul’s call, you know? The way I feel about that is Paul is really good at every instrument in the band and he has a sound on every instrument. If you listen to “The Ballad of John and Yoko,” that’s just Paul and John playing a little acoustic guitar. So he’s got a sound, and you can’t argue with that, so when he wants to end up doing it all by himself, you have a hard time saying, “Well, we could do it better.” It’s like, no, you can do it differently and it’s just a matter of if he feels like doing it differently or if he feels like doing it the way he’s comfortable doing it. And I support him either way. I’m just into him being happy, basically. He's given me enough.

Well, one song that you do all play on, that feels like a “Junior’s Farm”-era classic, is “Only Mama Knows.” That one that really holds its own in the set. When you guys were recording that, did you feel like, “Hey, we’ve got one here”?

Oh, absolutely. Really fun song and that’s a song where Rusty and I played a lot of guitar and Paul played great bass on it. Abe’s thrashing along on drums. Wix’s playing keyboards. You know, it’s a really fun song. That is really a band-sounding record and you’re right, that’s a record that fits in with all the other songs that he’s cut previously. 

Somehow, between all of this, you made a solo album a couple of years ago, Mondo Magneto. That must have been cool to finally, after all this time, get your own album out there.

Yeah, absolutely. Well, I’ve always been a songwriter. I was influenced by, as I said, everything, and my sister was such a songwriter and singer that I used to rewrite folk songs when I was a kid. ’Cause I didn’t yet have enough ability to write a whole song by myself. In the eighth grade, I was already a songwriter and used to do sound-on-sound recording with a little two-track and bounce tracks, and then a four-track and then bounce tracks. So I was also a producer. For me, when I write a song, I actually kind of hear the whole record. I almost see it like a movie. When I’m writing a song, I have this weird process where the whole recording, what I call the record, of a song reveals itself to me in my head as I’m writing the song. So to me, I’d always wanted to do my own record. But to do it well and the way I hear it with my weird mind, it takes money. So Paul inspired me on a musical level, but playing with him also gave me the confidence and, honestly, the funding to be able to fund my own record and do it correctly, which is expensive. You know, Mondo Magneto and my new one, This Way Up, are not records you can do on a shoestring budget at home. These are serious studios, like Eldorado, and serious engineers and vintage gear and great players all playing live in a real room. That takes money. 

Now tell me about the new album, because I’ve just heard the single, “I Found You,” which is great!

The album I put on the stands at Paul’s merch booth last night for the very first time in Kansas City, so I have some advance CDs right now and I’ll have them in the merch stand tomorrow at the Nashville show.

Some of the proceeds are going to charity?

Yeah. 30% of the proceeds are going to Paul’s Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts. And that’s a great story. Paul went to school there for his general education as a kid in Liverpool. Then this school fell into hard times and, I guess, moved into another building and it was just sitting dormant. Paul bought the building, put his own performing arts school in there, where kids come to learn to engineer, to write, to play, to dance, to do everything you can do. It’s become a very successful, world-renowned school. On the new album, I’m giving 30% to LIPA.

When will it be released to the public?

Here’s the deal, my new album, This Way Up, is available for preorder on my website, brianray.com (http://www.brianray.com/). There are many different packages to choose from. There’s a deluxe premium package with a signed photo and the CDs are all signed and numbered and guitar picks and instant downloads and drop cards and a tote bag and all this cool stuff. The album will ship August 9. Now, I’ll have it out at one of the shows on the next leg, as well, the full deluxe version. Until then, I have this limited edition signed jewel case version of it without the booklet and stuff like that on sale at Paul’s shows. 

On the first album, all the guys from the band came and played – and Etta James came back, which is nice. Who’s on the new one?

I went back to the same studio, Eldorado, again because it has a six-foot-thick cement floor and the most amazing low end that you have ever heard. On drums is Pete Thomas from Elvis Costello’s band, Davey Faragher also from Elvis Costello’s band, Paul Bushnell on bass from Faith Hill and many other bands, Aaron Sterling on drums from many bands as well – a great studio player. Adam MacDougall from the Black Crowes on keyboards. He plays this wild Wurlitzer with guitar stomp boxes on it that he plays dynamically while he’s playing it. It’s insane. Also Abe Jr. plays on four songs. Abe co-wrote one song with me. Oh, and also Scott Shriner from Weezer sings quite a bit. He played on Mondo, he sings on this one. Russ Irwin, [who has worked with] Aerosmith, sings on a bunch, and Jason Paige, his friend, they sing on a bunch and it’s engineered by Joe Zook, who does OneRepublic, Pink and Weezer. And mastered by Bob Ludwig’s Gateway. It’s just a really good-sounding record. It’s really fat. You’re gonna flip out.  

Album Art: Glen Wexler

Last Updated: 08/09/10 02:11
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The Gibson Interview: Paul McCartney Guitarist Brian Ray (Part Two)


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News Summary

In Part One of the Gibson Interview, Ray discussed the long and winding road he took to this stage, including stops with Bobby “Boris” Pickett, Etta James and Smokey Robinson. In the conclusion, he delves into the McCartney years and offers a preview to his rocking new album, This Way Up – released today!