Brian Wright's new album, House On Fire, is an engaging listen filled with a wealth of enigmatic storytelling and a brilliant assortment of musical arrangements. Stylistically, the record covers a lot of ground- which is quite an accomplishment considering that Mr. Wright played all of the instruments on the album himself.
While Brian Wright may not be a household name yet, House on Fire is sure to widen his audience and draw enthusiastic appreciation for the man's work. The album's opener, "Striking Watches" is a rich, steady number that follows a bending guitar lick with some muffled drum pounds. It opens up slowly and continues to build momentum with shuffles, twangs, and hand-claps to boot. From there the record continues to reveal an accomplished songwriter with a lot to say, both musically and lyrically. The tunes range from full band arrangements to stripped down affairs, while maintaining an earthy traditionalism that never feels nostalgic but genuine.
House on Fire is Mr. Wright's third studio album, and his first for Sugar Hill Records. Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to speak with Mr. Wright about his previous efforts, touring experiences, and the writing and recording processes behind his new album. As you will read, he was very generous with his time and answers.
For readers new to your work, can you describe your trajectory and experiences writing and recording Dog Ears to Bluebird?
BW: Well, in 2006 when I made Dog Ears I was just trying to figure out how to make records. I had made a few records with other people and bands, but really had no idea what I sounded like aside from the demos I made at home and playing live with my band. So I took what I knew into a friend’s studio when I could get a day or two to work, and recorded a ton of songs over the course of about a year.
You know, I was working on borrowed time, so it was kind of ‘get in when you can’. I was playing a lot more live shows, finding the guys I liked to play with (which became The Waco Tragedies), so over the course of the sessions, the sound took shape and evolved into much more of a live situation – get the band in a room and play. That’s what sounded best to us, so a big part of that first record was cut live.
By the time I got to Bluebird in 2007, I was starting to tour a lot more, my writing seemed to be catching a new stride, and my band was playing together a lot and really getting good. So I booked a studio (Wagon Wheel Studios in North Hollywood) and we went in and recorded that one absolutely live in 3 days. There was no other way to make that record -- a really magical session. It sounded like the 70’s to me.
What were your experiences touring in the Waco/ Austin/ Dallas circuits?
BW: That was music school for me. I was in this pretty heavy band at the time, and it starts like any band starts: you start a band with friends, you write some songs, then you want a gig, so you get some gigs around town, then you try to get an out of town gig, and so you do, and then you want to tour, so you book one. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was learning how to do what I would eventually do – we all were. The Deacon, who plays in the Waco Tragedies, was in that band with me.
I feel like Texas was a great place to start. The audiences really have a reverence for all kinds of music, and if they feel what you’re giving them, they will let you know, but if they sense you’re trying to bullshit them in any way, they’re sure to let you know that too. It was a great education for a music school dropout.
How did your tour schedule influence these albums?
BW: I really started going out on the road a lot; with a band, solo, or with other bands. I played more, I got better. I had always written a lot of songs, but I was growing up, and the writing was getting better.
When you were transitioning from Bluebird to House on Fire, and began working on new material, how did your previous touring experience and living/ working in Los Angeles influence your writing for the new album?
BW: I didn’t make any specific transitional choices, my life sort of made them for me. It wasn’t that I was working on new material for any album that I knew of, I was just working. I had a pretty nice touring schedule going, and when I came home to LA after being in perpetual motion, I couldn’t stop playing. So I was writing songs like mad and running around to any studio that I could get some graveyard hours in and recording them.
Most of the touring I was doing at the time had been solo, so when I came home, my band had picked up other gigs, which wasn’t at all surprising. So I’d get in a studio, and start a song, and want to add this instrument or that, and playing it myself was just easier than trying to make a bunch of phone calls, and started to sound good to me. I could make it sound exactly like I heard it in my head.
My personal life was going through a pretty significant shift as well, so being alone felt pretty good. Eventually my good friend (and co-producer) Mike Vizcarra and I holed up in his studio in Laurel Canyon and hit a stride with a few songs, then I would go out on the road, come back, do a few more any time we got a chance. I was writing some of them on the spot, or calling and waking him up in the middle of the night because I had a new one I wanted to get down while it was fresh. The songs had a new urgency to them, but the album took its time. When I listen to it now, I can hear that time.
For House on Fire, you played all of the instruments for the recording. Why did you go this one alone?
BW: Most of this one was really personal, and I didn’t know I was making an album, I was just trying to pass the time with music because it feels better than anything else. It wasn’t on any schedule, so scheduling people was out of the question. A lot of talented friends stopped by to say hi while I was working and I’d get them to play or sing, and a lot of my favorite parts on the record aren’t me at all.
How did working on your own influence your process, as opposed to working with the Waco Tragedies? What would you say were most beneficial aspects of this process for you?
BW: Well, I love to play with a band; the really good stuff only comes from playing with other musicians who push you to be better. I learned everything I know from everyone I’ve played with or listened to. I would think about how they might do it and then try to do that. Recording it this way made me a better musician, a better producer, and hopefully a better writer. I’ve always been a frustrated drummer, so it let me work out a lot of those issues.
I’ve read that you said that “When people ask what I sound like, I usually say I’m somewhere between Woody Guthrie and The Velvet Underground”. When I read that statement, I enjoyed that you offered a wide range of artistic styles.
BW: Thanks for understanding the intention behind that statement. I did say that once, but would never directly compare myself to those artists. Woody Guthrie is a national treasure, a poet, a political activist, and the voice for the voiceless, the North Star, and the Velvets are one of the most influential bands of all time. What I meant was that I hoped to fall somewhere in between those influences because of stark reality of Guthrie’s stories, and the blinding beautiful noise of the Velvet Underground. These two hit me hard, always and still.
Can you elaborate on your musical influences? Who would you say are your biggest influences? What do you draw from them, and why?
BW: Well, I found my way to Guthrie and a lot of old blues and folk the way a lot of kids do, through Bob Dylan, who I first heard from my parents’ records. I love old country, Hank Williams, George Jones, Willie Nelson, Tom T. Hall, Ernest Tubb, Kristofferson, Cash, this list is endless. Heard a lot of old rock and roll from my folks too, Ray Charles, Beatles, Stones, Kinks, Elvis, Neil Young, Motown, Stax.
That’s where you start, with those folks, and then out of your love for what they’re doing, you want to find out their contemporaries as well as where they got it, so you start digging, and eventually work your way back to the blues, or gospel, or folk artists who were making music for a completely different and wholly better reason. It’s wrong to call those recordings primitive. They are far more civilized than most of what you hear today.
So I try to draw a lot of water from that well, but I can’t do it like that, no one can; those were their stories to tell, and there are a lot of miles between there and here. I try, out of respect for all the amazing artists that came before me, to be as honest as I can be with the stories I’m telling -- a reflection of my own life and experience -- and to make a sound of my own rather than emulate or copy someone.
You can’t make another Highway 61, or Red Headed Stranger, or Muswell Hillbillies, or Silver Tongued Devil, and you sound stupid when you try. I tend to like more old music, but there are a lot of great artists out right now drawing from the same well I am. I certainly don’t have the only bucket, and that well is deep.
Lyrically, what is your process and influences?
BW: If there’s a process, I guess it’s to be aware that it’s happening and hopefully have a second to catch it. Seems like they’re floating around in your head mixed in with everything else in there and eventually grow into a thought worth thinking. Then it remains to be seen whether or not it’s a song worth singing. A lot of the artists I listed above are heavily influential because of the lyrics they wrote. I’ve been listening. Dr. Seuss is incredible.
What have you been listening to lately?
BW: The Grape Vine, The Good News, The Ones That I Hope Know, and Right Now, A Helicopter. All bands from the valley.
When you hit the road to support House on Fire, will you be touring solo, with the Waco tragedies?
BW: That all depends on how many people want to see the full Roger Waters style stage show I’m planning and the rising cost of styrofoam.
Thanks very much for taking the time to answer all of these questions Brian I really appreciate it.
BW: Thank you for for the questions, they were great.
Good luck with the release of House On Fire and hopefully I'll see you on the road. Cheers!