Monday, July 7, 2014

America, Meet Danny Bryant - The Rock Guitar Daily Interview

Photo by Marco van Rooijen
Danny Bryant is a very special, exciting, and exceptional musician, but his longtime relationship with blues legend Walter Trout may be even more special. In their relationship there are lessons in life itself.

Talk about your Cinderella stories - just months ago, things seemed pretty bleak in the tale of Danny Bryant and his mentor and friend, Walter Trout. The pair have been friends for twenty years, and they had hoped to tour America together in 2014, but Walter Trout's liver had other ideas, and the blues guitar legend found himself in an induced coma as his body waited on the possibility of a donor organ being found before his old liver completely surrendered. Touring wasn't even on the menu as Trout's mortal coil seemed in peril.

Well, the world wasn't quite through with Walter Trout, and Walter Trout certainly isn't through with this world. The circumstances have turned around very nicely - a donor liver was found, fans, friends and family have contributed over $240,000 to help defray the tremendous financial burdens, the surgery was a success, Walter is on the road to recovery, and now British guitar wiz Danny Bryant is coming to America for the first time to headline a month of shows fronting Walter's longtime band, and it would seem that from the ashes of what could have been a sad ending there has risen a new day's dawn.

Danny Bryant may be new to the shores of North America, but he's been burning up the UK and Europe for over a dozen years, becoming one of the hottest blues rock acts in the EU. He's releasing his tenth album 'Temperature Rising' next month, and it's following his excellent 2013 release 'Hurricane' which accurately referred to the music therein. Bryant is one of the driving forces in blues rock to my ears these days - his songwriting and singing place him well beyond the pack as he's taken the lessons of the Springsteens and Hiatts of the world in placing the song above the genre. He just might be the most melodic blues rocker to appear since the days of Gary Moore.

I had a great conversation with Bryant last week, and we started off by discussing the genesis of his American tour, which starts on July 31 in Walter Trout's homeland of Souther California:

Danny Bryant: "It was Walter and Marie's idea. 
"Well, the original idea dates back a bit further. Walter wanted me to go out and open some shows for him in the States. We started talking about me doing that, and maybe working with Intrepid, his agency in the US. 
"We started talking about hat probably two years ago, and then it was going to maybe happen last year, but then of course, Walter became ill. 
"So, the idea changed - Marie said to my wife, who manages my career, 'How would Danny feel about coming out and fronting Walter's band? It would get him recognition in the States, and be a good way to get him started there, but equally it would keep Walter's band working, because Walter can't go out and tour his new album.'  
"So, I could go out and tour it for him - that's how it came about, really. 
"It's great because it's a celebration now, because obviously he's better. It's a celebration tour - it was such an agonizing wait, waiting for him to get that liver, and we really didn't know what was going to happen. So it's great, and it's great for me, as well. That's just so typical of Walter - I love him dearly for that. Even when he was ill he was still trying to help me out, which was beautiful of him, and I get to help him out in a small way by going out and touting his album, playing his songs and keeping his band working. 
"It's a great win/win situation!"
Photo by Barbara Van Geffen
I then asked Danny what it was like, after years of experience to be embarking on a new territory, especially one as large and important as the United States:

Danny Bryant: "It's very exciting! I've been playing a long time in Europe, and I've always wanted to get going in the States, but the trouble with the States is that it is such a big country.  
"You know, it would swallow Europe, the whole of the States. So, to break it on a blues level without a sort of major label, single, and record company backing is to do it the hard way,  which is to get out on the road and slog it out, night after night.  
"Fortunately, that's what I love to do, so yeah, it's a dream for me. I've always wanted to tour the States. I've never actually been to the US at all - as I got older, and became a professional musician, I said, 'I don't want to go to the States until I get to play there, because I'd find it so frustrating just going and looking around. I'd want to be playing, so I'm glad it's worked out this way!"

Walter Trout looms large in the story of Danny Bryant - he's often referred to as Bryant's mentor, so I asked about how their relationship came to be, and how it had developed:

Danny Bryant: "My mom and dad, they always had lots of good blues albums in their record collection when I was growing up, and they had one by Walter, it was an LP. 
"You know, back in the days when they had vinyl LPs, and I really wasn't interested in any kind of music at all, but for some reason they would play that one, and I picked up on it.
"Then one day I was out, I was about 14, and I was shopping with my mom. It was in Cambridge, which is the nearest city to where I live - I live in a place called Royston, which is just a small town, and there was poster for a Walter Trout concert. I said to my mom, 'I really want to go.' 
"So, mom and dad took me - and for some reason, that night Walter came out front to watch the support band, which he never normally does, but I remember him standing behind me in this big crowded hall.  
"I wrote him a fan letter, put in a little picture of myself, when that tour ended. About a month later he'd gotten home, and he rang me up and thanked me for the letter, and we just became friends. 
"Then it got to the point whenever he was on tour in the UK, or even other parts of Europe, him and my parents were good - they would take me, and drive me, and we'd go sit in the gardens at the hotels in the afternoon, and Walter would go up to his room, bring his guitar down, and we'd sit in the gardens and he'd give me guitar lessons. 
"Then he used to get me up to jam with him. Walter doesn't do sound checks, but he'd go to soundcheck so that I'd get a chance to play with his band. Then, when I got a bit older, he started bringing me up onstage, and we started to record together, and it just went from there, really. 
"It's been a mentorship that's lasted so far twenty years!"
Photo by Kevin Nixon
Mentor is a phrase often used when the relationship between Bryant and Trout is discussed, so I asked the student the value of the guru:

Danny Bryant: "You know, you couldn't measure it. 
"It's been huge, and I've been very lucky, because a lot of guys, you know, they look up to whoever inspires them to play guitar, and they may never even get to meet them. A lot of the guys from my generation were obsessed with Stevie Ray Vaughan, who was an amazing master of the instrument, but they never got a chance to meet him, so to be able to call my mentor my friend means everything, and really, it's like a father/son relationship. So it's great!"

I asked what Walter's greatest musical lesson to his student may have been:

Danny Bryant: "To play with feeling. Always play with feeling. 
"He always said he would sort of finish the gig, go back to the hotel, look in the mirror and know that you'd played with your heart, and your soul - then you'd have done the job right. 
"So, I've never been overly concerned with being highly technical, or using a lot of foot pedals, it's always been about 100% feeling and soul for me.  
"Yeah, I think that's the best advice that anyone can give another guitar player. In the blues genre, if you don't play with feeling, there's no point in playing."

I followed up by asking about the greatest lesson Walter bestowed upon him as a person:

Danny Bryant: "As a person....  
"Well, I grew up around him, so I got to sort of watch how he treated people, how gracious he always was to people, and how much time he's spend with people. 
"It showed up in the fundraising campaign ( , in the way people responded, and the love that's out there for him.  
"I've seen him come out every night on tour, I've talked with him many, many times, and we've had long journeys - I've seen him come out every night, meet every person, and sign every CD. Walter is very well known in Europe, and he draws very large crowds - he'll still come out, shake every hand, and sign every CD. 
"He's really a very special person. Also, he gets through tours with humor, and that's something I've tried to do with my bands. When you're leading a band, you take the shows very seriously, but you have to enjoy it, have humor, and realize that you have a privileged job - and it should be treated as such. 
"I remember seeing B.B. King backstage one day, and I was thinking that the way he treated people was much the same way as Walter treats people. So I said to Walter, 'Walter, you know I was backstage with B.B. King the other night, and he reminded me of you.' 
"Walter said, 'Well, I met him when I was a child, when I was coming up, and so I decided to follow his example.' So you know, it really rubs off."

Rising Temperature is Bryant's new album, and not having heard it completely, as yet, I wondered what was in store:

Danny Bryant: "It's a little bit heavier of an album, maybe. It still has a lot of production, I'd call Hurricane (his last studio outing) quite a produced blues album. 
"This album is maybe a little bit more raw, more of a raw edge, in the sense that a lot of the solos and vocals were done in first, or second takes - it has a bit more of a live feel. 
"I wanted to do an album I could play on the road, and I'd feel right. So, it's just a slightly more uptempo, harder edged record, but it's kind of a continuation of Hurricane, really."

One cut that I have heard, Nothing At All, is a great uptempo rocker, complete with a rollicking piano line, but best of all, one of the coolest, chunky rhythm guitar tones I've heard in ages:

Danny Bryant: "Yeah, that was quite a bit of luck on that, more than judgement, really! 
"I went to set the tone on that for a rhythm - I hadn't even looked at where I'd set the amp, and already it was just sort of there. Then we worked quite hard on the microphone placement, of where it was on the amp, because when you want a distorted sound, you don't want it to override the track, you want a kind of grit. 
"So yeah, I pleased with it! That song is I suppose what you'd call straight ahead. I call it a driving song, rock 'n' roll, it's a kind of song you can drive to!"
Photo by Laurence Harvey
Another standout track is Guntown - not the political tome one might expect in these turbulent times, it's actually a tale that's steeped in blues lore:

Danny Bryant: "Guntown, that actually has a lot of geographical references to America in it. 
"I read a lot of books on blues history, it's kind of my obsession, and I had read the Honey Boy Edwards book, The World Don't Owe Me Nothing - it was like a snapshot of a life that doesn't exist anymore. It was a guy traveling around in the 30s/40s/50s with just a guitar, literally hoboing and making it any way that he can. 
"Obviously, there's a lot of books written on the subject, but this one was actually written by a guy that had done it, so it was first hand. It's actually a collection of stories he had told to people.  
"So, I got to thinking about a guy, and what it would have been like for a black guy in 30s America, traveling, and then he wanted to get back home. My geography's not that good, where he'd been in America, and I came across this town in Mississippi called Guntown. I think it's in Lee County, and I thought, 'That's a great title.' It's like a population of 500, and it's about this guy, and this small town."
Photo by Laurence Harvey
This is not the first time Danny Bryant has written of blues legends - his 31 Greenwood on the Hurricane album told the tale of a guy named Sumlin:

Danny Bryant: "Yeah, that's about Hubert Sumlin. He was one of the first blues legends I met when I turned pro, and of course, he had been 21 years backing up Howlin' Wolf. 
"He had played with Wolf, and everybody - I met him, and he was a really beautiful person, really gracious, just a lovely man. I was really in awe of him - besides Walter Trout, he was the first blues legend I'd ever met, and he was the real deal. 
"I sat with him, and he told me stories of playing with Howlin' Wolf, and just amazing things. 
"So, this song is about him,and he was born in Greenwood Mississippi in 1931, so hence the title, Greenwood 31."
Trev Wilkinson and the Fret King Danny Bryant
It got to be the gear talk time in the conversation, and the first thing I wanted to know was the details on his collaboration with legendary guitar parts maker and guitar designer Trev Wilkinson and Fret King Guitars that has resulted in the Danny Bryant signature model:

Danny Bryant: "Well, that goes back a few years. 
"When Trev moved back from California, he moved to place called South Port, which is near Liverpool in the UK, and that's where he's originally from. 
"So, he had moved back there, and one time I was playing a show there, and the promoter said to me, 'Have you heard of this guy Trev Wilkinson of Wilkinson Guitar Parts?'  
"I said, 'Oh yeah, hell yes!' 
"He said he had went to college with him, and the next time you're in town, I'll bring him to the show. So a year goes by, back to town again, there's this knock on the dressing room door, and someone came in and said, 'This is Trev Wilkinson.' 
"So we got introduced, he's a really lovely guy, and he invited me to his workshop the next day. I went through a whole bunch of his guitars, and he said, 'I want to build you a guitar.' 
"I went through a lot of things, and he had this Fret King there called an Corona SP-50 - it wasn't yet out at the time, this was the first one, and he said it was something he was working on, and that he'd love to build me a guitar. I said that I just wanted him to build me something exactly like this, so he said, 'Take it, it's yours!' Then he built me a backup for it. 
"Then, Fret King became a sort of much bigger force in the UK and Europe - he sold half the company to a big distributor here called John Hornsby Skewes (JHS), who are Europe's biggest guitar distribution company. So suddenly, they could put a hell of a lot of money into Fret King, so they were all over the guitar mags, and things. 
"That meant that they had a budget to sign some signature artists - they did a Jerry Donahue first, then a few others, and then Trev and I started talking about it, and he asked, 'What would you want in your ultimate guitar?' ad I said, 'Kind of basically what I've already got, but I'd like to get a humbucker on it, and I'd like to get a little bit more treble than you get from a humbucker in that position, the neck position.' 
"So, we just started throwing down ideas backwards and forwards, he built me a prototype, and I took it on the road and told him what I thought - this all took about a year's time, then we got there in the end. I've got three of them, and I don't really play anything else, certainly not live."
Photo by Marco van Rooijen
As a point of comparison, I wondered what Danny had been using previously:

Danny Bryant: "I was using Custom Shop Fender Strats. 
"I had a Master Built Strat the night that I met Trev. I've still got it, it's a Mark Kendrick Master Built Strat '58. It was a limited run of 100 of them, and that was what I had with me that night. 
"But I've been using the Fret Kings ever since I first got them. They just work for me, really. I love having the P90, and now with the signature guitar, I love it - obviously, it's designed for me, so it's going to suit me well, and at the price point they sell at in the UK, which I think is about 560 pounds, so I suppose that's 950-1000 dollars? They're great quality, and they're great guitars."

Next up was the requisite amp talk:

Danny Bryant: "I always use a Marshall TSL-100. I've been using them for seven years now. 
"I used Fender before, and really, I changed after playing a show with Robin Trower - I was kind of getting fed up with Fender amps, because no one in England repairs them properly. They're all printer circuit boards now, and not point to point wired. I've still got a Super Reverb, a '65 reissue that I take to the studio sometimes, but Marshall is in a place called Milton Keynes, which is like a 40 minute drive from where I live - so if something goes wrong, I can just kind of go back, and talk with one of the guys that designed it. 
"That's really convenient, but in terms of tone, I fell in love with them when I opened for Trower. Just recently, we've been doing some fly-in shows, and they've supplied them for me, but they've had the 50 watt heads, which I think sound even better than the 100 watt heads, so I'm thinking about changing. But live, it's very simple with the TSL-100. That straight into a Marshall 4x12 closed back cabinet. I also have a Boss DD-3, Jim Dunlop way, a tuning pedal, and sometimes a Uni-Vibe."
His mention of preferring the sound of the fifty watt versions over their 100 watt brethren inspired me to ask for some clarification on the topic:
Danny Bryant: "They just sound sweeter to me - I think they have a little more of a spot in the midrange that's just a little bit warmer. I thought it was a fluke, but I did a fly-in gig, and used one at the end of last year, and I thought, 'That sounds really nice.' Then I did one in Germany, and another the next day back in England, and again it was a fifty watt, and again I thought, there's something in this. 
"So, I may change to the fifty watts. I never run the 100s anywhere near where they need to be run, anyway."

Rounding third, and heading for home (that's baseball talk for any non-American readers!), I wanted to touch again on the importance of a young musician being supported in their dreams, so I asked Danny about the support he had received from his parents as his dreams of being a professional musician formed. His father, Ken served as his bass player for many years, retiring just last year at 70:

Danny Bryant: "Well, it's very important, really. 
"Especially in terms of the very early days when a 14, or 15 year old kid says, 'Mom and dad, I want to be a professional blues musician.' 
"You need the support, which I always had - they just wanted me to do something that they knew made me happy.  
"And then it was great to have my dad on the road for all those years. I'm glad he's retired, in the sense that he's fine, and he's 70 now. I was worried because we'd do long tours, and I could see the tiredness some nights on his face, so I'm glad that he retired at the right time, but it took a while to get used to his not being there! 
"We've got a young guy playing bass nows who's really good, so it's worked out well, but it was a lovely thing to do for all those years."

Finally, I would have been remiss had I not asked Danny his thoughts on song craft - his songwriting and singing certainly give him a leg up on most blues rockers, and I wanted to hear his take on the subject before I let him go:

Danny Bryant: "It's very important to me. I listen to a lot of great songwriters, and I have a big love for people like Bruce Springsteen, John Hiatt, Tom Waits, Bob Dylan - I'm a massive fan of Dylan. 
"I could listen to that stuff endlessly. I just got to the point where I don't want to make a generic blues album. I want something with songs, and when I play a guitar solo, I want it to mean something within the song.  
"I want the songs to have melodies, and hooking up with (producer) Richard Hammerton really helped me a lot with that, because he doesn't come from a blues background, and he was not interested in making a generic blues album. He wanted to make an album with songs, and so did I - luckily, we were on the same page, so he was able to help me with that. 
"I just love ballads, and I love songs - I love straight 1-4-5 blues, and guys do it great, but I try to play to my strengths, and my strength is not in doing shuffles all night, you know?"