by Adam Gold
Special thanks to Virginia Cannon, who handles artist relations for Voyage-Air Guitar, and who helped facilitate this interview. Voyage-Air makes guitars with folding necks for ease of travel, and Ray is an endorser. (Scene managing editor and resident six-string hack Jack Silverman took one of their acoustic models for a quick test-run and gave it a hearty thumbs up.)
In an effort to post this interview in time for tonight's concert, we transcribed as much as we could before showtime. There were a lot of other interesting portions, including Ray's experiences with Phil "the Road Mangler" Kaufman and Etta James, that we hope to include in another post later this week.
Nashville Cream: Tell us about your solo project.
Brian Ray: Today, my second album, This Way Up, goes on sale, at [my website]. I have two singles that just came out, like, three weeks ago, wherever digital music is sold — and it's a really fun, cool modern rock record that I just finished.
NC: Modern rock how?
BR: A songwriting approach. A mixing and playing approach, [the] arrangements. The people involved are Pete Thomas and Davey Faragher — from Elvis Costello [and the Imposters]. So [Pete] plays on about five tracks on there. Abe Junior plays about four tracks. Adam McDougal from The Black Crows plays keyboard. Wicked keyboard player. Scott Shriner from Weezer [plays on it], and it's all been engineered by a guy Named Joe Zook, who does Weezer, Pink, One Republic, and a bunch of people. And it's done in the good old-fashioned way of making a record, with four or five guys sitting together, communicating and getting arrangements down there in the moment, you know. Not through studying demos, not through doing it alone in a midi-studio, but in a studio with real vintage gear and real people. It's an exciting, fun record. Some [of it] personal, some more fun and humorous stuff. A nice diverse record.
NC: Does the McCartney audience kind of bleed over and follow your projects?
BR: Absolutely, you know, with Facebook and Twitter and all that stuff, I'm fairly active with that stuff, and I take the time to talk to people and it really helps. And my CD is on sale tonight with Paul's merchandise. He invited me to sell it.
NC: Do you get a boost in sales because of that?
BR: Oh, sure.
NC: Did you have a solo career before you started playing with Paul?
BR: I was always a songwriter. I've been writing songs since I was a kid. And I've recorded a lot. Some sessions, but I have my tastes in terms of aesthetics, and it's expensive. What I just described to you — the way I like to do it — you can't call favors all the time when you're just knockin' around as a little sideman. But [because of Paul] now I can. So I did.
NC: How did you end up with the McCartney gig? How long have you played with Paul?
BR: With Paul, eight years. I ended up with this gig because I had a great audition and [had] gotten a job with a couple of artists in France, and sort of one artist after another, taking about five years of touring in France. The drummer who got the audition in both of those bands was Abe Laboriel Jr. — Paul's drummer. ... So Abe and I just became best friends, and we walked through France together for five years, checked out all the restaurants and took the tube and just did our thing as friends, and fast forward a couple of years, Abe got the Driving Rain album with Paul McCartney. David Kahn was meant to put a band together for Paul for that record, and when it came time to start touring, Abe was at a birthday party of mine, and I asked, "So, who's going to play both guitar and bass when Paul switches around, who's taking lead?" And he says, "Actually, we're looking for a guitar player who plays bass." And I said [raises hand], "I'd love a shot at that."
NC: So it was serendipitous.
BR: Yeah, you know, I didn't think at the time, but I put my hand up. One part of me was like, well, he knows where to find me! But the better part of me is going, "dude, if you want it, you better ask for it." And [Abe] was just cool enough to put my name forward to David Kahn, and was cool enough to call me — and this was before cell phones — and I happened to be at home and picked up the phone on a Monday afternoon to come down immediately to David's office and hang out and play a little guitar, a little bass, and talk.
Well, I go down there, and he says, "I have a great feeling about this, you're great." He'd called about four other guitar players, apparently. He said, "I'm going to put your name forward." And I said, "OK, great! Thanks a lot, I'll see you later." You know, I thought maybe I'll hear something in a few weeks... The next day, I get a call from the office: "Can you be on a plane tomorrow to meet Paul McCartney and play at the Super Bowl?" So my audition with Paul was the 2002 Superbowl, in front of 77,000 [people] and untold millions in front of the TV.
NC: So the Superbowl was the audition? Did you rehearse before you just threw it on the field?
NC: What did you play?
BR: I played bass for that.
NC: Had you ever met Paul before?
BR: I'd never met him before. [So], I'm in New Orleans, the day after meeting David Kahn, and just meeting his assistants down in the lobby made me so nervous I could barely talk. But they were so nice and really generous and kind. And that night, I was to meet Paul at a dinner there, and I was so nervous, man, I started walking around New Orleans for about four hours, just trying to burn off some energy. I met him that night, really cool, [he] just comes in the room and puts out his hand and says, "Hi, you must be Brian. I'm Paul." He toasted me and a few other people at the dinner, made me feel really comfortable, and we got on tour the next day.
NC: And that led to the long-term gig.
BR: Well, that's the funny thing. So it's the Superbowl, and we're all sitting there watching it in the Skybox, being introduced to some of the celebrities, and by the end of the fourth quarter, I'm thinking, "OK, this game is almost over, and I might not ever see Paul again." I mean, nobody said, "OK, after this, we're doing this." So I come up to Paul and I say, "Hey, thanks, this has been a real privilege, it's been wicked, I loved it. If I don't get to see you again, thank you so much." And he said, "Well, you know, we'll get back to the hotel and have a drink."
I go back to the hotel, and he starts telling stories, and then he says, "OK guys, I gotta go to bed now." And he stands up and gives everybody and hug, and then he says to me, "OK, Brian, welcome aboard! Stick with Rusty and Abe, they'll show you the ropes." And rehearsals started in five weeks for the Driving Rain Tour. And I just couldn't believe it. I turned to Abe and I said, "Did he just say what I think he said?" And he goes, "Yeah, dude!" So, I ran home and got a bass that I thought would be right for [the gig] and I bought yet another guitar — a '59 Gretsch Double Anniversary, for the older Beatles stuff, and I set up shop, man. I just wood-shedded for five weeks straight. I got an acoustic, a 12-string, an electric, a bass, a mic stand, and a stack of CDs and just went all Unabomber and just stayed in for five weeks straight just shedding.
NC: Did you get a list of songs you needed to know?
BR: I didn't get a list of songs until the week before rehearsal. All I did was just grab every Paul and Beatles CD that I could, a stack of them, and go through them and say, "This is pretty likely, this was huge, this was a Paul song..." I just learned about 50 songs, on a variety of instruments with a variety of vocal parts, trying to be prepared.
And then I got a song list, and we had five days of rehearsal before Paul came in, so we had a chance to get comfortable together. And of course, he walks in and drops right into it, but I still didn't accept that I might be going on tour with Paul, because there was always that chance that he might come in and say, "you know what, let's try some other people or something." You never know. And the first day, he sounded great, he was having a really good time, and he says, "Sounds great, see you tomorrow!" And I thought, I think I'm going on tour with Paul McCartney.
NC: At 68, Do you think he's ever going to retire?
BR: I don't know. I think he had a cool quote, "I was never hired, so why should I retire?" or something like that. I'm paraphrasing. I don't think he really has a concept of that. [I think] he'll play as long as it's fun for him. But that's just a guess.