Brian Ray calls himself a “Reluctant Rock God and Guitarist” on his MySpace, but what’s perhaps even more impressive is that he’s scored one of the best gigs around: since 2002 he has been Paul McCartney’s bass player and yes, that’s The Beatles‘ Sir Paul McCartney. However, Brian Ray’s extensive career is not to be undermined. He’s accomplished many great musical feats and in the past has played with greats such as Bobby Pickett, Etta James and Smokey Robinson and, more recently, played on Chris Cornell’s solo album. He’s even released his own solo record, Mondo Magneto, and has a second in the works. Brian recently agreed to honor The Rock and Roll Report with an exclusive interview.
Q: You just finished a tour with Paul McCartney, how was it?
A: BR: Yes, we finished a recent big stadium tour in the US [11 dates] and it was a fabulous time, including the new Citifield Stadium [home of the NY Mets] and the outdoor concert on the rooftop marquee of the Ed Sullivan Theatre [home of David Letterman’s Show].
Q: Going back to the beginning, how did you get selected for Paul’s touring band?
A: BR: Well, it started seven years ago in France [where] a drummer friend of mine, Abe Laboriel Jr., was working with French artist Johnny Hallyday and Mylene Framer. It was my birthday and I knew he had a gig with Paul McCartney. I asked him “When are you guys gonna start touring?” and he said “In about 6 weeks.” So I said “Wow, so who’s gonna play bass when Paul switches to rhythm guitar? You know, and who’s gonna play rhythm when he’s on piano?” and he said, “Well you know, we are looking for somebody: a guitar player who can play bass,” and I put my hand in the air – “I’d love a shot at that!” It was that simple.
Then I got a call about 2 weeks later with an invitation to meet with David Kahne [McCartney’s producer for Driving Rain and Memory Almost Full.] We had a chat, he gave me a guitar to play and a bass to play and he watched my hands. After an hour he says, “I have a good feeling about this, I’ll put your name forward. There are other names, but we’ll see what happens.” I got a call the very next day, took a plane to New Orleans to play with McCartney for Super Bowl XXXVI […] and that’s how it started.
Q: Just curious, are you social with Paul after the touring is through or is it all business with him?
A: BR: No, it’s very social actually. After every show we drive out of the arena together and toast and talk. We stay in the same hotel and we travel with Paul on a chartered jet. We hang out a lot together.
Q: So you definitely have quite a bit of social time.
A: BR: Yeah, we are a real band.
Q: Now, I know there are a few other guitarists there, so how do you work out who plays what?
A: BR: 90% of time it’s intuitive with Rusty [Anderson] and I. We got these roles when we got this job. His role happens to be lead guitar, mine happens mostly to be rhythm guitar with some lead, some bass and acoustic 12 string. Of course Paul plays acoustic, bass, piano and all that. You can listen to any one of Paul’s tracks and hear that’s what the lead guitar does, and this is what the rhythm guitar player does. We come prepared with that, but there are other songs where Rusty will say “Hey Brian, you play lead on All My Loving or Get Back.” We may reverse the roles there but usually Rusty and I have a few days to rehearse before Paul comes in as a band [a four piece]. We’ll work out details and continue to work out details literally, until the lights go down.
Q: You’re planning a follow up to Mondo Magneto, can you tell us about that?
A: BR: It’s such a wonderful process: getting together with musicians I really respect and adore, who happen to be my best friends. Guys like Abe Laboriel Jr., Matt Laug, Paul Bushnell, and all these great players. Now, on this new record, I assembled some of the same guys and added a few more like the drummer from Elvis Costello, Pete Thomas, along with Davey Faragher [also from Elvis Costello’s band], and a great keyboard player named Adam MacDougall [The Black Crowes]. We got together, much like the first album, and worked on arrangements together as a four piece, getting a lot of interplay between musicians because I have a feeling that’s what is missing in a lot of pop now: a lot of these pop songs we hear are constructed by one guy with a few guest players. It doesn’t have that wonderful exchange that we know and love from all the records that influenced us. So that’s the deal. We’re in the studio at the same time, laughing, and scratching, and coming up with arrangements, and grabbing our performances as a unit.
Q: What will be the album title?
A: BR: This Way Up. I’m looking forward to a January or February release. I’m 60% done with it right now and I’m lovin’ it. There’s more up-tempo numbers than the last record, if that matters. And lots of fun and colors.
Q: When you go on the road after playing with Paul, and the crowds aren’t as big, what do you think?
A: BR: What’s wrong with playing for 29 people?
Q: Nothing at all. In fact a lot of artists love that intimacy …
A: BR: I do love it. I love playing for 60 people in a small club. It’s a rush. Honestly, I don’t get nervous playing in stadiums with Paul for 50,000, it just makes me feel happy. But when I’m playing my own gig in front of 60 people, I’m very nervous before I go on. I’m nervous until the second song or so, and then I’m okay. It’s a weird thing about intimacy, and also when it’s your voice, and you’re the frontman, it’s a very different thing. It was a lot easier when I had Etta James or Paul McCartney to hide behind [laughs].
Q: What are your most memorable stories from that time in your life, when you were playing with legendary Etta James?
A: BR: Oh yeah, I have so many stories. The first time I went to Europe was with Etta and I was 19 years old. We were having a band being put together for us by Claude Nobs, the guy who puts together Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. It was just Etta, her dysfunctional husband Sam, and I traveling.
When I get there the band they got together was Rick Wakeman [Yes] on keyboards, John Paul Jones [Led Zeppelin] on bass, David “Fathead” Newman and “Pony” Poindexter on horns. I go to rehearsal and I’m just a kid, I didn’t know what I needed to do. I knew the material so I’m teaching them what I know and it’s coming together well, and in walks Jimmy Page and Robert Plant [Led Zeppelin]. They listened to a few songs and then Jimmy Page says “I feel like I’ve known you before, man. Like maybe in another life,” so I’m having an Aleister Crowley discussion with Jimmy Page, and they took me out to dinner in a chalet up in the Alps near Montreux.
The experience was just indelible in my mind. Being on stage with Etta telling me when we’re going to the bridge, when we’re going to the outro, the solo, etc. and you have to be ready ‘cause she could change her mind, and it would be different every time we played it. So you get to be in front of a big audience in Montreux, with Led Zeppelin’s bass player, and I turned around and missed a cue and she’d throw her wet towel at my face [laughs].
Q: With that in mind, have you had any embarrassing moments with Paul on stage?
A: BR: Let me see, well anytime you play a bad note or a wrong note on stage, he’s really nice. He’s got great ears and he hears everything, but he’s got enough taste and class to not stare at you or make a skunk-eyed face at you. He’ll just act like he didn’t hear the mistake, just smiling along. And then a bar or two later, he’ll look over at you and he’ll crack up, as if he had done it. He’ll laugh, recover, and finish the lyric he’s singing. That kind of thing puts you at ease because you know we’re a real live band, we don’t put on taped vocals. We don’t play to a click; it’s a human experience man. We’ve had to start over again, because someone messed up the intro.
Q: And it’s probably no big deal to anyone to start over…
A: BR: It’s endearing. People feel like they caught something special.
Q: Awesome. So, This Way Up comes out this year, How many songs?
A: BR: Eleven [Slips into an impromptu Nigel Tufnel impersonation from Spinal Tap]. It goes to eleven. If people want to reach me, they can certainly do that by joining my mailing list. I promise never to spam, we don’t share information at all!
For more info head over to www.brianray.com