I had the privilege of speaking with musician Brian Ray today in anticipation of his two shows with Paul McCartney at Rogers Arena in Vancouver this week (April 19 & 20). Brian is a session musician, guitarist, bassist, singer-songwriter and musical director. He’s been playing lead, rhythm, and bass guitar with Paul McCartney for 14 years and has worked with a long list of other legendary artists. Brian also has a very successful solo career and his own fabulous band The Bayonets.
Lisa Wartur: Hi Brian, how are you?
Brian Ray: I’m doing well. Just kind of feeling really nice and cool and mellow, kind of after glowing from the last show and getting ready for the next show.
LW: Are you in Vancouver yet?
BR: No, I’m not. I’m at home in Santa Monica, California on a lovely spring day.
LW: You picked a beautiful week to come to Vancouver because we are having an early summer! What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of Vancouver?
BR: Just a lovely, clean city and it makes me think of sunshine and rain and the beautiful bay. I love Vancouver; it’s so lovely up there.
LW: Have you played here before?
BR: Yes, I’ve played up there many times throughout my life, including about 3 or 4 times with Paul McCartney over the 14 years that we’ve been together. I also played there with Etta James a long time ago in the late 70’s, early 80’s. I played there with a guy named Reggie Knight who did a rock record and it was produced by the great Roy Thomas Baker. So I’ve played with a lot of different people…Rita Coolidge, I think. So I’ve played up there a lot, but most notably with Paul McCartney.
LW: How is the tour going so far? I know you’ve just begun this one.
BR: Yeah we’re just in the beginning, we’ve got 3 dates under our belt and I think it’s going great! It’s one of those really satisfying feelings when your hard work is finally displayed on opening night. You really don’t know if all departments are prepared, you know you just get out there on the ice and you’re skating. So that’s kind of how it feels, I think we’re all happy to get it out there. It feels great!
LW: How much rehearsal goes into a show?
BR: Well this time we rehearsed about 5 days as a band just in a rehearsal hall and then we did 3 days of production rehearsals. It was very brief and tight, actually.
LW: How are you finding this One On One tour compared to the last Out There tour?
BR: I really love the new set list. I also love the new screens, the new graphics, some of the new additions in the set and some of the different “looks” that the stage has and how the songs are being performed. But I don’t want to give away any spoilers for people who haven’t seen the show yet. The mood is high!
LW: Speaking of the set list, has it changed much since last time? How does Paul decide what songs to include and does the band have input?
BR: Paul makes decisions on the set list depending on what feels and sounds the best to him in rehearsal. We may try a number of songs, some of which he ends up deciding don’t really feel as good as others. So he’ll choose his favorites for his own reasons out of a number of songs.
LW: Are there any songs you haven’t performed yet that you personally would love to play?
BR: Oh yeah, there’s a bunch I’d still love to play. I’d love to play “Back Seat of My Car” from Wings; I’d love to play “Martha My Dear” and “Rocky Raccoon” from the White Album. There are a couple of early songs that would be fun to play like “Devil in Her Heart,” I think that would be super fun for some people. Paul has an embarrassment of riches in terms of material to choose from and there’s so many great songs from his more recent efforts as well. So there’s just a lot to choose from and as you know, or you’ve probably heard, the show is about 2 hours and 35 minutes, so we can’t just keep adding songs.
LW: You play about 35 or 36 songs in a night right?
BR: Somewhere in there, I haven’t counted recently – I’ll take your word for it.
LW: You guys have such great chemistry, which is infectious when watching you on stage. Does the band have any pre-show rituals?
BR: Things that you’ve probably seen on any amount of DVD’s of Paul’s…the band has our own lounge and dressing room and Paul has his own of course. As a band, we’re very, very mellow in our dressing room, lit very low. It’s not like we’re in there raging on the floor doing push-ups. We do have Yoga mats and stretching stuff when we want it in another room. We are likely to stretch out and stuff like that, or at least a couple of us are. And then when it’s time to finally go to stage, Paul will come to our dressing room and we usually sing a couple of songs acapella and then we’ll walk to the stage and the five of us will do a little sort of a huddle and Paul will lead us in a little bit of something and then we’ll walk up on stage and rock out!
LW: Do you still get nervous, or is it pure adrenaline?
BR: I think it’s just really positive adrenaline. I don’t get very nervous to be honest with you but I will get nervous once in awhile when it’s a one off, like a television show or something like that, when it’s very different from our usual routine.
LW: Let’s talk guitars, I have a 1978 Gibson SG that I got for my Sweet 16, it’s a treasure. I saw that you have a new Rick Nielsen 59 Les Paul?
BR: Yes, I do. Rick Nielsen has become a friend of mine over the last 6 or 7 years and I’ve always admired his playing, writing and his producing with Cheap Trick. He’s also an avid collector as am I. I got a signature model SG, now that you’ve mentioned it, made for me by Gibson custom shop in Tennessee. It’s a really cool remarkable guitar. It’s sort of a see-through black guitar with the grain showing through and a white pickguard and a white truss rod cover, so it has a sort of evil, formal look to it. It’s pretty cool. So Rick said he loved the guitar when he saw some post on it and reached out to me and said “I want to get one of these, but I want a certain number, like serial number.” I thought “Oh really, ok so what?” So he said that he always wants number 13 and I said I would see what I could do. Sure enough when the first 100 Brian Ray 63 SG’s were made, I was able to get number 13 for him and he purchased it. Now a year or two later, he’s come to me and said he has a Rick Nielsen 59 Model Les Paul, would I want the chance and I said of course! So we’ve sort of tipped the hat to each other and it’s very nice. He keeps posting pictures of him playing my SG and I’ve just now started posting pictures of me playing the Rick Nielsen.
LW: How many different guitars do you usually play during a show?
BR: I guess I have about 12 out with me right now and I usually play about 8 of them. The others are sort of back-ups.
LW: What determines which songs you play guitar on and which you play bass on?
BR: That is determined by Paul’s choices. Paul will choose whatever instrument he feels the most comfortable with playing on any given song and that will determine whether I play lead guitar, rhythm guitar, acoustic or 12-string or bass.
LW: Do you have a preference or do you love it all?
BR: I love it all. To be honest, I’m a guitar player who plays some bass rather than a bass player who plays some guitar. I always love playing guitar but I have really come to learn to love playing bass. I’m very, very lucky to have been given that chance in this amazing apprenticeship with a man who I would call easily, the most important bass player in rock and pop music.
LW: You’ve played with so many legends like Paul, Etta James, Bobby Boris Pickett just to name a few. How have these associations and collaborations shaped you as a musician and influenced you as a person?
BR: Great question. I was so fortunate to play with Etta James from a very early age. I was actually just out of high school, age 19. I went to a rehearsal of Etta’s – a rehearsal that her guitar player just couldn’t make and at the end of the rehearsal, she said, “I like that little white kid.” Then she came up to me later and asked if I’d like to play with her that night in Long Beach. That started what turned out to be 14 years of an amazing partnership – I was her musical director and guitar player for the better part of 14 years on and off and it continued until her passing. She called on me to record and I called on her do a guest vocal on my first solo album called “Mondo Magneto.” It was very, very important – it shaped me as a guitar player because she brings to the table such an effortless, natural command, soul and range, emotional range as a singer and she required of me the ability to play old sort of jazz, rhythm and blues standards like “At Last,” and “Trust in Me” all the way up to Bump & Grind, Honker & Shouters, Rock & Roll and Rhythm & Blues of the late 50’s and some Soul and Funk from the 70’s. So it really required you to be very versatile and also to be quick on your toes. Being her musical director in the early days was no easy feat because we were picking up bands wherever we went. She’d say to drive up to Santa Barbara and use a local band or fly to Colorado and use a local band and I would go in and rehearse that band in the afternoon upon my arrival and then we’d take a little dinner break and go back and do two shows together and move on to the next town. It was a fantastic training camp for a young skinny white kid from Glendale with a woman who is inarguably the most important rhythm and blues and rock and roll singers of this or any other universe.
LW: Let’s talk about your own band The Bayonets.
BR: The Bayonets, as you might know, is a band entity that consists of my partner Oliver Leiber and myself. Oliver’s a producer, writer and player himself, as am I, and together we co-wrote and co-produced an album together called “Crash Boom Bang,” calling upon a circle of reprobates that we like hanging out with and recording an album in the old fashioned way of real people standing and sitting in a studio together facing each other and having a lot of laughs. Writing the music with Oliver is always fun, it’s a great exercise in witticisms lyrically and cleverness in terms of pop and rock and hooky kind of song writing. We love it dearly – we’ve had 5 singles that were chosen to be “the coolest song in the world” on Sirius XM Channel 21, Little Steven’s Underground Garage. In fact, we’ve had now 6 songs, because we did a Christmas single this last Christmas called “Christmastime is Cool.” Little Steven was finally lending a hand on some production skills toward the end of the project, he was about to start playing the song and he said “hey guys, let’s go into the studio and put a bunch more stuff on it.” I asked him what he had in mind and he said “we’ll just throw a bunch of stuff on there and you guys figure it out.” And he did, and we did and that’s the song. That was the cool song we wrote for Christmas week this last Christmas and we’ll be hearing some more of that soon.
LW: “Sucker for Love” is one of my favorites from the album.
BR: That was the first song Oliver and I completed together.
LW: Do you have a special method for writing songs?
BR: There’s at least 100 different ways to write a song and to come at it. When I write by myself, there’s a few different ways I might go – start with a guitar lick or a lyric idea or a melody or hook or phrase, chord changes, it can start in any number of ways. Whatever it takes. It’s a seed and then that seed seems to be sent to you and then you kind of get into a space where you grow it and you let it grow and you follow it and maybe you guide it a bit. Sometimes it tells you where to go. Then when you’re in a partnership, it’s that times two. Now you’re sensitive to letting somebody else create – it’s a little different when you write in a partnership, you have to be willing to suck. Writing alone, it’s easy to do that, you edit yourself. But when you’re with somebody else, you’re going to have 50 ideas and 25 of them are going to be no good. You have to be willing to honor each other in a partnership in order to get to the very best thing, and sometimes that includes open warfare to get to the best lyric or the best changes. You have to fight for the things you believe in, but I find that really thrilling and satisfying. Oliver and I have written together for over 10 years and that’s just a part of the relationship.
LW: It seems as if you’ve had a dream career so far, what is left on your musician’s bucket list that you’d still like to do?
BR: I’d like to do a little bit of producing for other bands, continue working with Paul is the main thing. I would like to do some more Bayonets stuff and some more solo stuff. I’ve just finished a new solo track you might be hearing in the near future and some more solo recording. I’d like to do some TV and film too. I’m open…I love it all!
LW: We’re looking forward to hearing all of it! Is there anything else you’d like to share?
BR: Yeah, for any of the younger musicians and fans of music out there and people who are trying to apply themselves but aren’t sure what method to employ, I would just say the following: for me I was driven from a very early age and I was very strangely focused on rock and roll and rhythm and blues from the earliest age of 3 ½-4 years old and knew from that time what I wanted to do. Now that’s not the case for everyone, some people figure this out later. It’s all good. I would just say apply yourself, give yourself a lot of room, get out there and say yes to every opportunity, even if it’s beneath you and most especially if the opportunity scares you. Just move forward and follow the muse.
LW: Wise words from a wise man. Thank you Brian – good luck tonight and we’ll see you at the show!
Brian’s Official Site
*Interview copyright 2016 Lisa Wartur/NoodleHead Productions