Hi Brian. I always like to start out these interviews with a note of complaint. You know, to set the tone and all. So here goes: I bought House On Fire about half a year ago on CDBaby. Now it has new artwork, it's out on Sugar Hill, one of my favorite labels, so naturally, I have to buy it all over again! What's next? Are you releasing a bonus track version in two months?
Well, first of all, thank you for buying the record when you did, and yes, I would love for you to buy it again, and yes with the bonus tracks, and then the re-mastered limited edition, once in a lifetime, never-ever going to see this again edition that will be coming out next year. Then the bootleg and b-side series that will only be available in the UK, but not where you are, so you'll have to special order it from my website, and then finally, the deluxe edition which will contain all of the above and a limited edition signed poster and a few drops of my blood. All kidding aside, thanks for buying it, and yes I'd love for you and everyone you know to get the new version too.
But seriously - what made you sign with Sugar Hill? You're suddenly the latest addition to a rooster consisting of the "who's who of American roots music".
The main reason was to try to get beyond selling records out of the trunk of my car. Signing with Sugar Hill seemed like a good move for me, everyone at the label is really cool and really passionate about the record, and anyone that knows me, knows that marketing and promotion are not my areas of expertise, so to have good, knowledgeable people with a history of putting out great records seemed like a no-brainer to me. A huge factor was their back catalogue, Dolly Parton, Guy Clark, Willie Nelson, Townes Van Zandt, the list goes on, have all put out amazing records on Sugar Hill, and they are all major influences on my songwriting. It's a songwriter's label, plain and simple, and I'm a songwriter.
When I listen to House On Fire, it sounds darker than your previous albums. Still sharp and witty, but somehow darker. Like this is your own On The Beach. Am I way off here?
I suppose it is darker than my previous albums, but that's just an indication of what was going on with me at the time I was making it. I was touring a lot around that time, and eventually found myself without a home or a band to come back to. That just happens if you stay gone long enough. So I was living on a friend's couch, feeling sorry for myself, writing songs and getting into trouble. I would go up to the studio at all hours of the night and try to get them down while they were fresh.
As for it being my "On the Beach", I don't know about that, but that record is and has been probably my favorite Neil Young record for a long time. I'll take any comparison to Neil Young I can get. Ambulance blues, Motion Pictures for Carrie, Revolution Blues, it doesn't get better or more honest than that record. Please tell me about the recording of the album.
I understand you played most of the instruments your self?
Well, as i said before, I came home from the road, and the band I normally play and record with had picked up other gigs, and gone on the road trying to make a living. It's what they do, and they are some of the best around, so I wasn't surprised. I also try to approach every record differently, so it wasn't a "I'm going to play everything because I can" decision, it was just where I was at artistically and personally. Organizing recording sessions means making a lot of phone calls, I didn't want to make phone calls, I wanted to make music. There are still a lot of friends who played or sang on the record because they happened to be around and I was so glad they were. A lot of magic on House on Fire happened because people just showed up at the studio while I was working and lent their amazing talents to whatever I was working on at the time. The rest of the time, i was picking up whatever instrument happened to be lying around and seeing if I could make myself sound like a band. A lot of credit goes to my friend Mike Vizcarra, who besides engineering and co-producing, also would come pick me up and give me a ride to his studio in the middle of the night when I had a new song idea. All the musician credits are in the liner notes of the new packaging, I played a lot of things, but the record is a group effort.
Being from Texas but living in L.A, you must be right in the middle of two of the greatest forms of music there is - Texas country and 70's country rock, like a modern day Gram Parsons. How much inspiration do you draw from the music you grew up with and the music that surrounds you today?
My parents weren't musicians, but they were music lovers, and there was a lot of music played around my house. Music I still love today, a lot of old country and rock and roll from my dad, and then my mom listened to a lot of folk music, so most of my earliest memories have a soundtrack, in that, I remember the song that was playing when we drove through East Texas to visit my grandparents (Willie Nelson's version of "Always on my mind"), or what I would wake up to on Saturday morning when my dad was home from work (Like a Rolling Stone, or Street Fighting Man). Those influences are hard-wired, but as you get older and out in the world you want to learn more, so I search all over for inspiration, I'll get on a Son House or Howlin' Wolf or Uncle Dave Macon kick for a while, then switch gears to hip-hop or rock and roll. I'm all over the place, but almost all of it is based simply in stories. I like lyrics that tell you a story, always have, my favorite songs in any genre do that, and try to do that with my songs too.
You've toured a lot with Tom McRae and Joe Purdy. The former is probably the finest English songwriter we've seen in years and the latter, well, if you look away for a few minutes, he's released another great album (I've lost count). Can you tell me about this Hotel Café scene that all of you seem to draw so much inspiration from?
I can't tell you about any scene really. I can tell you that the two songwriters you mentioned are both enormously talented and true to their art, and also they are two of my very best friends. I met Tom through Joe Purdy at Hotel Cafe, and I met Joe when we were both doing open mic nights in LA, fresh off the boat, and we had a mutual admiration for each others songs, so we started playing together. Joe Purdy is a focused artist, a tireless romantic, always creating, and always exactly the way he wants to do it, and that's inspiring. Tom McRae is exactly the same in that regard and I'm sure that's why we all clicked, but besides being an inspiration artistically, Tom has gone well out of his way to expose my music to his audience and take me on the road to places that I never would have imagined I'd make it to. The main thing is, we're friends, brothers, I'd get along with those guys whether we made music or not. There are a lot of great artists and bands we could get in to also that stemmed from that scene, but I don't really think of it as a scene. It was a group of friends making music, having a great time, still is. I hope it's not a scene. I get a lot of inspiration from my friends, and a lot of them drink, or play, or work at the Hotel Cafe. Ok, maybe it's a scene, damnit.
This is your first album without The Waco Tragedies. What was it like suddenly being on your own? Is it a strange feeling being in the studio or on stage and looking over your shoulder, only to find that you're the only one there?
I like playing with a band more than I like playing by myself. It's not as much strange to play or record by yourself as it is lonely. I know you like to say that you're "somewhere between Woody Guthrie and The Velvet Underground". Is that just something you say to make people such as I shut up, or is it also about allowing your self the luxury of one day suddenly going all John Cale and make your own White Light/White Heat?
I probably said that once, but I've said a lot of things. I'm a cross between a monkey and a kangaroo, an airplane and a horse shoe. I always reserve the right to make a weird record, with or without spoken word.
My favorite song from the new album is Accordion. Despite the fact that it seems to be about, well, a girl playing the accordion, and therefore seems to lack the "man, I know how he felt when he wrote that song" factor. What's the song about?
Everyone sings loudest when they're alone. That's what that song is about.
You've toured extensively in the UK and Europe for years. What makes playing in our corner of the world so amazing?
I've been lucky in that regard, I can't explain why because I don't know. I do know I'm very grateful, and that the audiences have been the best I've had the pleasure to play for. I hope I get to keep coming back for a long, long, time.
Brian Wright's House On Fire is out now on Sugar Hill. Next year, it'll probably be out on another great label as well.