Having worked most of his career as part of his own band – including a UK tour with John Mayall and a recent high profile European tour with Joe Satriani – the multi-award winning guitarist and singer, Oli Brown takes a breather and strips things down to a duo format.
His forthcoming UK tour in December will feature just Oli on guitar and wired bass and Canadian percussion star Lyle Molzan.
Still only 24, Oli has released three studio albums since his 2008 debut ‘Open Road’ , during which time he won the ‘Best Male Vocalist’, ‘Best Young Artist’, ‘Best Band’ and ‘Best Album’ awards at the British Blues Awards.
With an appearance at the Glastonbury Festival, acclaim from the rock press, a third album ‘Here I Am’ in 2012 which reached the number one slot in the Amazon, HMV and iTunes blues charts, and a Live DVD/CD shot in his previous home town of Norwich, Oli’s star is clearly on the rise.
Now comes the next adventurous step of his career and in typical fashion he’s looking to expand his artistic horizons, while contracting the band.
Pete Feenstra spoke to Oli about his new duo format, what we can expect from the shows and his career so far.
It seems like a big leap from touring as a band with Joe Satriani to playing duo gig with Canadian percussionist Lyle Molzan?
It’s certainly a different momentum than anything I’ve done on previous tours, but that’s what excites me the most about it. Pushing myself to play a live show that isn’t within my reigns of comfort.
Is Lyle simply an accompanist on tour or will you be writing with him at all?
Lyle has been with me for a couple of weeks running through the arrangements and how we will perform these songs live. The writing I’ve focused on keeping to myself for a while, as I really wanted to write down my journey over the past couple of years and no one else has gone through that but me.
Will you be playing stripped-down versions of your recorded output, or will the duo head in a different musical direction?
Yes solo acoustic, duo semi-electric and the full on duo rock electric part of the show will be playing previous material as well as the new songs I’ve been working on.
Tell us something about the structure of the forthcoming duo gigs?
We’re going out with something that has been a long running project and desire for me; the plan is to start on my own with the acoustic, Lyle follows a little after with the Cajon for us to add a new colour to the sound giving more for the ears.
We slowly transpire to a soft electric sound where I play the bass lines with an organ peddle, play guitar and sing whilst Lyle is on the drums. Then to close it off we play the rock n roll 2 piece just to go out with a bang. The guitar is wired through the bass amp too, so we still get the bottom end.
I really wanted to create a spectacle for this show, I want something where someone can go and see a performance that’s been crafted through from beginning to end. Not scripted, or repeated as rehearsed, but so we both have such control over these songs that they go their own journey for the performance. I didn’t want to just do the mandatory solo tour, I want a performance with a whole different purpose of its own, and that’s what this is about.
What made you change from the band format to duo?
I wanted to offer up something special for the UK; I don’t have a new album to be heavily promoting, so it’s given me the opportunity to promote a show that’s a little out of the ordinary for what I usually do.
It’s been fun to venture various ways to fill out the missing bottom end and I’ve managed to recreate the bottom end with a few sources. It’s all analogue though, no samples, it would be a waste of time to go on tour as a two-piece and then have bass tracks behind me.
The duo format is very much in vogue at the moment, did that make it an easier decision to tour in that way?
It came by chance as when I was rehearsing with Lyle for some previous festivals, the bass player couldn’t make a rehearsal. So I set up the bass rig to work with my guitar and it was so much fun. The duo format really is the “in” thing to do right now, but the only reason I cared to do it was because I thought that I could make something special out of it and not to follow trend.
Does touring as a duo have implications for the new album, or will you revert to the band line-up?
The duo doesn’t dictate the next album as I’ve got a lot of content already written and prepared for the full band. I’ve been recording a lot at home and playing the drums/bass/guitar myself to get the idea across, Lyle will be recording drums on the next album though, and I will most likely be playing the bass, but it’s still with the focus of the sound I make not a “duo” style album.
You seem to have constantly been widening your musical horizons. Did you ever feel that along with several of your fellow UK contemporaries that you were in danger of being stuck with a niche audience that is 15 years older than you are?
Not in danger as such. I was certainly aware of it but I never really saw the problem in it either. The fans that have followed me up to this point have really been amazing in supporting my choices and the directions I take, I am slowly building a younger audience too with schools and interviews focused to a younger generation. But I really don’t feel there’s any reason to complain about having people of any age turn up to my shows and follow this music, I’m grateful that someone wants to come and join this ride. I don’t take the position you’re in for granted.
When you initially broke through as a blues artist, you took the blues into schools, but you were smart enough not to call it blues. What was the response like?
It was incredible; it was a whole new experience playing in front of hundreds of kids that don’t know who you are and are expected to sit down and watch you play. But we got them riotous by the end of it, and it was always fun gradually watching the teachers lose control as the kids start dancing and having fun. The Q&A’s were hit and miss, there were some great questions asked by some and then there’s always the funny kid i.e. “Can you do a backflip?” but it was all good fun, the fan page numbers on facebook grew exponentially.
Do you always see blues as starting point for other musical possibilities?
The blues has been the starting point for the development of some of my favourite bands/artists such as Led Zeppelin, Rolling Stones, Sean Costello, and I’ve used it as a starting point to develop my song writing. But blues doesn’t always have to be a starting point of another musical possibility, it can also just be what it is and there’s beauty in that music too.
I saw a photo of you and Anders Osborne in a tour van, did you gig with him?
I’ve been a huge fan of his for several years and he let me join him on stage to play ‘Love Is Taking It’s Toll’. I was meeting him to discuss some song writing and we had a great time talking things through and the possibility of working together. It was one of the biggest highlights of my life.
He’s a very good example of a roots artist who in the space of one album can slip from America to rock and back to singer songwriter mode again. Is he an inspiration to you?
Yes, he’s a huge inspiration for me. That’s something we talked about when we were together too, the seamless integration of his heavy rock with the acoustic material; it’s something that I’m looking at the possibility of using.
Your music has always had a funky feel to it, who were your influences in that field?
I love the feeling funk music brings when you hear it which is why I kept playing it. P-Funk, James Brown and of course, Blinddog Smokin’! I feel it’s more prominent on my first two albums ‘Open Road’ and ‘Heads I Win’, ‘Tails You Lose’ than the most recent two.
I honoured my love for it still on ‘Here I Am’ with the Nikka Costa cover, but when we started moving to the bigger festivals all those songs that sounded great in a club sounded thin on the big stage. If I was going to keep up the strong funk vibe I would need a bigger band for those stages! But smaller clubs I’ll still pull them out every now and then, it’s nice not to take life too seriously all the time.
You’ve also not been afraid to swap genres, especially on songs like ‘No Diggity’. Do you sometimes feel you have to be ahead of your audience?
The songs like ‘No Diggity’/’Like A Feather’/’Brown Sugar’ only came about because I love them, I could hear how I wanted to play them and it’s a nice break up to the sound so you’re not just hounding someone’s ear with one sound. It gives a new possibility to a different kind of dynamic and it’s fun, I never like to take being on stage too seriously where we can’t all just have a good time.
Do you think there’s credibility to the view that rap and hip hop for example, are the contemporary equivalent of the blues?
In some ways yes, some hip hop tunes use old blues samples. Like ‘Gold Digger’ – Kanye West (in his better days), which samples Ray Charles’ ‘I’ve Got A Woman’, some of those integrations work so well.
You’ve been doing acoustic covers by artist like D’Angelo, are you into that neo soul stuff?
I love Neo Soul, D’Angelo is on a lot in this house! There’s nothing bad I could say about ‘Voodoo’ or ‘Brown Sugar’, it’s just something out of this world. I like a lot of styles of music, there are so many amazing artists out their doing their thing and owning it. So why limit myself hearing it by refusing to listen because it isn’t in the genre I usually like. Music is a beautiful open world.
Were you surprised at the way your career took off so quickly?
When you’re in the moment you just roll with the things you get before you have too much time to really think about it. So when I was there at that time, I didn’t really know whether I was taking off or not. I’m glad to have had the opportunities that I did when I was starting out, I have Ruf Records to thank for that huge step up.
Was ‘Here I Am’ meant to be a literal statement of who you are musically?
Yes it was, but I’d say more of a statement of who I was musically at that time. I just got tired of people saying that my music is this/that, someone is making me sound like this/that someone has made me make changes for this/that, I just was getting sick of it. I just wanted to make clear that the decisions are my own, no ones pushing me to make me do anything, I can’t go on stage singing and playing something that someone has told me to do, then I’d just be a product of someone else’s creation.
It was a wide ranging album and your covers crossed generations from Al Cooper/Donny Hathaway to Nikka Costa? How did you find your way to such influences?
I’m a big Donny Hathaway fan, if you listen to his live album ‘These Songs For You, Live!’ then you’ll hear why. I like the studio work but hearing that voice live on stage really takes you places, such a beautiful voice. Nikka Costa was always on MTV (when it was a music channel) singing her hit ‘Like A Feather’, I’ve loved that song for a long time and always wanted to get it down on a record, just took me a while to figure out how. I’m still trying to find I way to pull it out live though, it needs the 4th instrument to keep the song moving.
You’ve always managed to come up with some interesting covers, from ‘Black Betty’ onwards. How did that idea come about?
Black Betty came about because my producer was playing a car racing game and all of a sudden that song came on the moment we were discussing covers! Total coincidence but it seemed like a fun idea. Most of my covers are decided in my head before I even think them through properly, ‘No Diggity’ was exactly like that, I had all the harmonies and style figured out before I even had anything down on recording.
Did you pay special attention to the production on ‘Here I Am’ as Wayne Proctor’s big production seems to be an integral part of the album?
Wayne and I spent every day in that studio together. It taught me a lot about how all the recording process goes down, and he really likes to push the best out of people’s performances, it was a good relationship to record with. Moving forward it’s prepared me for recording my own material when setting up demos at the moment, it was a blessing to have had that time with Wayne and build that understanding.
Moving on to the live ‘Songs From The Road’ album. In a way it was a celebration as you recorded it and filmed it at the Waterfront in your then home town of Norwich. Were you under a lot of pressure to nail the recording as presumably it was a one shot deal?
I was before because the venue was being funny about the cameras for health & safety reasons, also someone from our crew was not replying to messages and arrived a couple of hours later than hoped. But when it came to the show I barely even thought about the cameras, which surprised me too. That’s my home crowd and they sure know how to get loud and crazy, I loved closing the year there! Such a rush.
Do you write round riffs and generate the grooves when you take the demo to the band? Or are your songs lyrically led?
A bit of both but prominently I record the guitar, bass, drums and then vocals (in that order), sometimes I have some vocal ideas I’ll sing over and I’ll write down the words I’m making up to see if it’s worth making a song of it. But there are a couple of songs where I had the vocal melody and rhythm first before anything, there a song on this tour called ‘Train Ticket’ which went through that process
Your material has been notable for its consistency as well as its originality. Do you find the writing process easy?
At the moment I am. I’ve written 40 songs recorded all the instruments and sung vocals on a lot of them, there are more lyrics I have to write and I’m getting through a substantial amount of them at the moment. Before I record my next album I want to make sure I have a whole load of options so we get the best of the best, I want to make this next album the one. Until I record the next one after that of course. But playing all the instruments and writing songs on the acoustic has given me so many outlets that I enjoy playing in I want to find the solid focus.
You’ve co written songs with people like Ron Sayer Jr. and Mike Vernon. Do you prefer to write with someone else?
Recently I wrote lyrics with 2 Canadian musicians from a band called The Trews (John Angus and Colin Macdonald) and that was the best insight I had to writing, they pushed a lot out of me and moved my boundaries to what I deemed acceptable to write about. I always like to write the instrumentation myself first and then it can be worked upon. But recently I’ve just focused on working by myself, I think it’s always good to share ideas with people because it gives a perspective that’s out of your own ego.
You went to the States when you were 15 and toured with a band called Blinddog Smokin’ and experienced the rigours of a relentless John Mayall tour over here years later. Did those experienced help at all both in terms of your show and running a band?
I wouldn’t be running a band if it wasn’t for Blinddog Smokin’, those guys are the reason that I even started being “Oli Brown” the solo artists and they forced me to sing, I’m always grateful for the lessons I’ve learned with them. They’re true performers and Carl Gustafson is one killer front man! John Mayall was unbelievable to watch, he really holds a charisma that only very few have. I always remember when I played with him in Indonesia; when he walked on stage, the crowd were just in awe of him, you could just feel the immense respect and gratitude they had for him being there, it was incredible.
Are you still in touch with Blinddog Smokin’?
Yeah, I played with Roland Pritzker (Bass) and “Chicago” Chuck Gullens in April this year at a festival in Florida called Wannee Festival. It was a really special moment for me to share the stage with those guys.
Going back to the John Mayall tour, it was the first time you played over 20 successive shows, presumably it tightened the band up, and did the songs grew too?
Yeah it did tighten the band and really helped develop the songs as we were half way through recording some of the songs for ‘Here I Am’ and it made us realize that some needed changing. I know it wasn’t entirely appreciated for the particular song choices that were made, more so because they were heavier than what I was told I should do. But as I said to them, I want someone to either like my music, or hate it; I don’t want to put something out to people on a support slot to lure them in to my show for them to then find out that I play something different. I only want to be honest.
Did your voice hold out?
Surprisingly it did! I was terrified of the prospect that I might lose it on the tour and I have no time for it to recover, it’s more the panic of losing it that makes my voice go. Once I get over that bump I can just keep on going.
You’ve also the toured the UK with artists like Walter Trout, Buddy Whittington and Johnny Winter, did it feel as if you represented the next generation of rock-blues players on those dates?
No, I didn’t feel I was carrying the weight of the next generation of rock-blues players on those dates. It never even crossed my mind. I’m out there doing my thing representing the sound I make. I think most of the artists are out their bearing their own torch; they’re not trying to represent that they are the top of a scene and the pioneer of it to help clear the way for other folk, it wont take one person in the same scene to control the path everyone else goes in, it takes a united front and luckily, there are so many talented artists out there.
Did you get to talk to the headline acts at all?
Yeah I have had the chance to speak to those artists. Walter Trout is a blessing to artists coming up in the scene, he is a fantastic man and he also really is supportive of artists that want to develop. I’ve supported him a fair few times and I never get tired of seeing Walter and his show, he’s the real deal, just a come as you are guy who then kills that guitar on stage, and that’s why we all love him.
Buddy Whittington is a great guy too, he gets in touch every now and then and I always like to catch one of his shows if I get a chance which is less often now at the moment, but he would always make time to talk and give advice. I’ve met a lot of the bands I’ve supported and they are always incredibly welcoming. The latest one was supporting Joe Satriani and everyone in that band was incredible, they played over in Toronto recently and we all had dinner and reminisced of the tour, I miss them all.
The first New Generation Blues tour seemed to be the point at which you really took off and you seemed to have a maturity and stage craft at odds with your age, was that partly learnt while touring in the States?
The ideas definitely came from Blinddog Smokin’, they always pushed me to think what I would want to see in a live show, also to pay attention to performers to see what they do. So when I do a live show I always have that going on in my head. I also feel most at home with my feet on a stage, I lose my nerves and feel no limits to what I can do.
I think you are familiar with the Franco-Finish band called The Do who owe a lot of their success to 12 second sample on a car advert beamed across mainland Europe. Your music seems to have a similar cross genre approach that refuses to be pigeon holed?
I had no idea they were on a car advert! I found them by mistake when I heard a song pop up on a game a friend was playing and I had to find out who they were. I bought the album ‘The Wicked & The Blind’ liking a few songs, now I always have to hear that album on a full run through, even live they are flawless while pushing music to the edge. I just like various types of music, there’s only so many ways you can sing different songs in the same style till it starts blending into one another.
I never go consciously to think “I have to write a different style now”, all these movements come naturally, I just get a feeling when I’ve got enough of one sound and want to spread myself out. After having a fantastic vocal coach here in Toronto and writing a lot of acoustic songs it gave me a different level of confidence with my voice to add a whole new palette to the sound of it.
As you say, you’re based in Canada now, are you able to tour there or is it a base in between festivals and European tours etc, as the distances are so vast over there?
It’s a base at the moment, for the possibility to meet writers and musicians to inspire me to develop, I’m busy all the time here writing and in between having meetings with various people. But I’ve been granted my US visa for 3 years so it keeps me closer to the US to be more readily available to jump over.
I can only do so much in the UK before it becomes too much so the plan is to just be working none stop and grinding new areas. But it also keeps me in close contact with my manager who lives over there, we made some big changes at the start of the year and we had to re-arrange some of the infrastructure of the business. But I’m still wanting to come back to the UK, just right now in order to push the US market harder it’s better that I’m here.
Canada is known for investing in its music industry – it’s almost an export drive – does that mean it has a good musical infra structure at home?
From what I know of the music biz here, there has been a lot of support from the federal and provincial government for artists, though I have also heard it’s in threat of drying up.
In 2008 you recorded a very popular live session at Ardent studios in Memphis, was that a daunting experience at the time, or did you simply plug in and enjoy it?
We had a mini audience there to watch us so I just had fun with them. I just enjoyed it, I didn’t think it was going to have as many listeners as it did. I hope to do it again sometime with something more recent as it IS daunting listening to something I’ve made 5 years ago.
Mike Vernon also came out of retirement to produce your ‘Heads I Win, Tails You Lose’ album, and he worked on songs with you, did he come up with specific ideas of how to record or shape songs?
We wrote ‘Speechless’ together which is still one of my favourite songs to play, also “Keeping My Options Open” was a premise that Mike had, we were listening to a Ry Cooder cover of ‘All Shook Up’ and that’s where the influence of it came about. I then put a groove to the lyrics ‘Keeping My Options Open’. I went to his place in Spain and we fine-tuned the songs. Something that I was really into then was the more funk styled blues, which he totally nailed. That clean cut sound in a very controlled environment.
Do you think you might work together again in the future?
I don’t know, I would love to see him again and show him the new work that I’ve been working on, it’s always good to see Mike, he really helped motivate me a lot in writing music. Sometimes it can be so difficult writing lyrics on your own and you don’t even know what’s good anymore, all of a sudden you’re embarrassed to sing your lyrics on stage because they feel stupid. Mike helped me focus on making sure that I work hard enough to write a good enough lyric to make sure that doesn’t happen.
You won a lot of awards in a relatively short space of time – Best Band, Best Young Artist, Best Vocalist and Best Album – did you ever feel a weight of expectation on your career after that success?
Not really, I don’t think I’ll be an artist that would ever really complain about the awards or feel hard struck by them, I play for my fans that come to the show and I did that before the awards and it’s no different afterwards. I’m always trying to step up my game as much as possible so it didn’t make me think any differently. I’ve never been complacent in my position we’re all our own worst critics, but I love forcing myself to work.
You seem to be constantly touring, presumably you enjoy it?
More recently I’ve taken a fair bit of time off, more than ever actually. We had the run with Joe Satriani across Europe and then after that, nothing. I wanted to take a break and really focus the writing and some personal development; I felt like I was getting in a bit of a rut and needed to shake things up.
I wanted to write new material and have the time to really think about it. The songs I’ve written most recently have been some of the easiest lyrics I’ve had to write but also the most difficult, a lot’s gone on in the past couple of years and I finally had the words I wanted to put down. But I will always love touring, I love travelling as much as I love playing music so both together just make it all the better for me! There’s nothing for me like the feeling of being on stage.
What are your plans for the new album in terms of musical direction and will it be recorded in the States?
To be honest, it’s up in the air right now. As I said I’ve got 40 songs recorded with the intention of writing more, I want to find a bit more of a consistency of sound in this album but still with the variety. The direction will still be rock in some senses but it’s hard to say as there’s a lot of variety in all the songs so far. I can’t wait to get this recorded but it’s hard picking the real focus as I’m enjoying playing a lot of these songs. A fair few of them will be featured on the new tour.
Thanks very much Pete, always good talking to you.
Oli Brown will follow-up his UK tour by beginning work on his fourth studio album in February 2014. Currently in pre-production in the U.S., Brown will return to the UK and Europe once the album is finished in May
Dec 05 – The Thunderbolt, Bristol
Dec 08 – Maddermarket Theatre, Norwich
Dec 09 – Greystones, Sheffield
Dec 10 – Komedia Studio, Brighton
Dec 11 – Musician, Leicester
Dec 12 – Erics, Liverpool
Dec 13 – Think Tank, Newcastle Upon Tyne
Dec 14 – The Duchess, York
Dec 15 – The Talking Heads, Southampton
Interview © November 2013 Pete Feenstra
Album review (Songs From The Road)
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