BY: JIM VILLANUEVA
“I’d say 85 to 90 percent of everything on the record is live. [We] try to catch lightning in a bottle and go with more of the feeling than trying to make everything perfect. You can get lost in that as an artist and really mess some stuff up.”
The Kenneth Brian Band doesn’t mess much stuff up on its fourth studio album With Lions (available now). Why? Because as founder/singer/songwriter/guitarist/namesake Kenneth Brian points out, his potent pride of fellow musicians is at its best in the studio and onstage when it colors outside the sonic lines. And not unlike trying to cage a real-life king of the jungle, anyone who attempts to lock Brian inside this or that musical genre does so at his or her own peril.
Produced, mixed and engineered by David Bianco (Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, Lucinda Williams), With Lions features Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers members drummer Steve Ferrone and multi-instrumentalist Scott Thurston, along with Kenneth Brian Band mainstays Travis Stephens on guitar, piano and harmony vocals and Paul Ill on bass.
Hey, Jim, how you doing?
I’m good. Thanks for your time today and let’s jump right into this great record, the new album With Lions, which features the opening track and lead single “You’re Not Mine,” which begins with more than just a little alliteration (laughs).
“Accusation, tribulation, irritation, liberation.” Allow me to add one more: trepidation. Is this a cautionary tale, or just the classic grass is always greener saga?
Probably the latter (laughs)! I don’t think I’ve ever written an opening line like that that just had several words like that strung together. So, that was kinda interesting. I think it’s just something that I wrote down on a piece of paper – like those four words in a row. So, yeah, it’s a fun one to play live – it really moves.
Yeah, it’s a great opening track, and I do like the (songwriting) technique, for lack of a better term, of opening up with just the four words because it gets to the point. So, one of the so-called press pull quotes that I read about the album says: “Kenneth Brian pushes country rock music to new boundaries.” First, do you agree with the assessment, and if you do, to what new boundary have you pushed country rock?
I don’t know if it’s for me to say if I’m pushing new boundaries. Gregg Allman just passed away and he was a big influence. I remember reading a thing and somebody asked him about southern rock or country rock, you know, whatever they were calling that music when it came out. And they were saying that they read he didn’t like the term “southern rock.” And he said that at first, he didn’t really like it, but then he went into a record store and they (Allman Brothers Band) had their own section (laughs) and he seemed totally fine with it (laughs). And then they started liking it a lot (laughs). But I think it’s kind of a progression. I come from down south and the music is sort of a mixture of country and blues and jazz and all kinds of things strung together to make that form of rock and roll that’s sorta more roots based. And so, I think with every generation it just moves forward and just goes in whatever direction that the artist is influenced by. I’ve just sorta not really ever thought about it too much and just naturally let it progress and go where it’s going. So, that’s a pretty cool press quote, that somebody noticed (laughs).
Yeah, it jumped out at me, obviously. And, we lost a great one with Gregg.
I had the pleasure of working with him several times throughout the years.
I worked with Johnny Sandlin – he was in Hour Glass (pre-Allman Brothers Band group featuring Gregg and Duane Allman) – with Duane and Gregg, and he ended up producing (ABB’s 1973 album) Brothers and Sisters and a lot of their great records at Capricorn. Working with him and a lot of those guys that were around that scene – and the Muscle Shoals guys – really taught me a lot.
Well, they made brilliant music and they’re passing the torch.
Before we continue to explore these new boundaries that you’re pushing past, let me take you back into the past and ask you about where it all began for you. Looking back, did you have one of those moments where a song came on the radio or you went to a concert or you listened to an album, where you said to yourself, yeah, I wanna do that?
Yeah, definitely. Nobody in my family played, but I grew up around music. We would always go to bluegrass shows. My dad was heavy into bluegrass and blues and stuff like that. When I was a little kid I would sit at my grandma’s house and I would listen to this one Hank Williams record over and over and over and over again. And I think they thought I was a little strange (laughs)! But I didn’t wanna do anything else. And my dad also had B.B. King’s Live in Cook County Jail and he does “How Blue Can You Get?” on there. And I remember when I was like six or seven years old and I was listening to that track and there’s one note that B.B. hits where the band stops and he hits this really high note and he holds it, and I thought, “Man, I wanna do that!” I didn’t really have any concept of what that was, cuz I’d heard a lot of country guitar and bluegrass guitar and stuff. But even at that age, that one note hit me, and I think I’m still chasing that one note.
Wow, that’s a great story!
Yeah, B.B. was a heavy, heavy influence. He just had that vocal style of playing guitar. I got to meet him a couple of times over the years and he was just another gracious human being. Unbelievable.
Absolutely. And I have to interject a personal anecdote here. I, too, had the pleasure of meeting B.B. and I have framed and on my wall in my office a signed copy of Live in Cook County Jail.
Yeah, a prized possession indeed. So, I think it’s fair to say that you share several common personal and professional threads with Tom Petty. You lived just outside of Gainesville, Florida…
Yeah, I grew up down there. From a young age I grew up north of Gainesville, and then even in Gainesville. I got out of the house pretty early and I spent my formative musical years couch-surfing in Gainesville and playing in a lot of bands before I moved to Nashville.
Gainesville is of course where Tom was born. Longtime members of the Heartbreakers drummer Steve Ferrone and keyboardist Scott Thurston play on your album, and the album was produced, mixed and engineered by David Bianco, who also has worked with Petty. How lucky are you to keep such good company?
It’s bizarre because my life has been a series of events like that. They seem absolutely amazing when you think about them. We were on tour with Lucinda Williams…and we were invited to this thing and we meet Steve Ferrone and we invited him to come and see us open up for Lucinda, and he just loved it. And he said, “If you ever need anything, just let me know. I would love to play with you guys.” So, we had him on a session, and then he started doing every show with us. When he’s not on tour with Petty he does everything we do. It’s been amazing. And he brought Scott into the mix, and Scotty’s amazing. It just really brought a lot to the table and helped to shape and refine the sound. It was really cool, man.
They’ve been doing it for a long time, so it’s wise to soak up any suggestions they might have.
Yeah, you know, it’s one of these rare opportunities when you have two of the Heartbreakers trying to make your songs better (laughs). And they’re just great people, too. Everybody’s been just very gracious and very, like, still in it for the music at all cost – even after all these years.
So, I couldn’t help but notice that you have not one, not two, but at least three rain-related songs on the album…
(Laughs) Yeah, right!
I’m talking about “Beautiful Storm,” “Rain Down” and “Waiting for the Rain.” Is that sheer coincidence or do you feel rain is a particularly rich source of imagery for songwriting?
Man, you know it’s funny man, I’m glad you noticed that because nobody else I’ve done an interview with has called out the obvious. I was living in north Alabama and Nashville – sort of back-and-forth – working at Johnny Sandlin’s studio and living outside of Nashville and it’s always raining there. I think it just crept its way in there, and it was just something that I was surrounded by that made its way into a lot of different lines and songs.
So, do you have a favorite rain song, outside of yours?
Man, there’s a lot of ‘em. There’s a lot of great songs. “Kentucky Rain” is a good one.
Okay. I have one written down here and I was waiting for you to toss one out to see if we were on the same wavelength, by any stretch. This is a favorite of mine – “Louisiana Rain.”
Oh, yeah! Yeah, that’s a great one, too.
Of course the great Petty and the Heartbreakers song off Damn the Torpedoes.
There’s so many, but I always did like that Elvis version of “Kentucky Rain.”
So, this is your fourth album, following 2009’s Falling Down Slowly, 2011’s Welcome to Alabama and 2015’s Blackbird. What’s the best lesson you’ve learned about making better and better records along the way?
Well, I think the most influential thing for me was working with Johnny Sandlin in Decatur, Alabama. Johnny taught me a lot about capturing the sound that I was going for. Basically everything that we do in the studio is live, except for the vocal. I’d say 85 to 90 percent of everything on the record is live. Johnny taught me – and David Bianco was the same way – to get a really good rhythm section sound and a really good snare sound for each individual song, and then get your basic sound just go. We try to catch lightning in a bottle and go with more of the feeling than trying to make everything perfect. You can get lost in that as an artist and really mess some stuff up. The other thing I learned from Johnny was to turn it off for a few days, come back and you’ll know if it’s right or not. And at a certain point you just gotta let your kid go to school (laughs).
Right! Take off the training wheels, as it were. So, let me ask you what might be a tough question, and feel free to dodge it, if you like. Where do you hear your record being played on the radio? In other words, is it too current to be classic rock? Too country to be rock? Too rock to be country?
Well, I think that music that’s in the tradition that I come from has always sorta had that problem. Even Hank Williams Sr. When he came out, people were like, “Well, this is too blues to market to the hillbilly music crowd,” which is what they called country back then. They said when he came out he sounded like Roy Acuff did 20 years before him. And then the Allman Brothers and Petty. It’s kind of hard to just categorize it into just a certain thing. A lot of the radio play that I’ve gotten over the years has been Americana and sort of independent rock and roll. And that’s good with me because that’s a lot of the stuff that I like. I just think that anybody that likes roots music and enjoys a good beat and a good tune and lyrics, too – mostly Americana and independent rock and roll radio.
I’m with you! There’s two kinds of music – good and bad. Period.
Exactly! We get a lot of play on SiriusXM, on “Tom Petty Radio” and Shooter Jennings’ show, Outlaw Country, and stuff like that. It really helps a lot.
That’s cool. And don’t get me started on “Bro Country” and all of that…
Ah, man, me neither! You know what, I’ll just say this: I found the best shirt I ever found in my life and I sent it to everybody I know, including Ferrone, John Hiatt and all these guys, and it says, “Turn Off the Cowboy Rap.” That’s all I gotta say, man. Amen.
A lot of my early attempts to do it I felt like it was a needle in a haystack, definitely, but it really does help. It’s hard sometimes as an artist to keep up with letting people know what you’re doing all the time. People wanna know what you’re up to. It took me awhile to really get my head around that, but I’d say that it really helps a lot. It helps independent artists. People that aren’t maybe willing to not necessarily play the game or sacrifice everything that they believe in to get a record deal. So, it’s good. It’s a different thing. It takes a minute to really get used to it, but it’s definitely helpful.
Finally, I’ve gotta say that the album’s last track “Red Light World” sounds more like a psychedelic Jimi Hendrix jam than southern rock – and that’s a good thing. Tell me a little bit about that song.
That was a song I wrote a while ago and it wasn’t anything like it turned out to be. It was kinda like a soul song when I wrote it in my head. I started messin’ around with it and we started jamming on it and it sorta came together like that. And that’s a good example of how everything is done live. All the solos are off the cuff. It ended up like Soundgarden-meets-Blackfoot or something (laughs).
(Laughs) I hear that! Well, it’s a great record, With Lions. Thanks for your time today.
I really appreciate it, Jim. It’s a good interview. A lot of good questions. Sometimes you really don’t know what to say. This was a real easy one, thanks.
Well, I appreciate that, thanks. At the end of these conversations – on my end – that’s what you wanna hear from the person you’re talking to.
Yeah, man, definitely. Well, I appreciate it very much. Take care.