Brian Whelan Turns Up the Heat on ‘Sugarland’

BY  ART THOMPSON

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You always know a record is good when the songs start sticking in your head on the first spin, and Sugarland, by ex-Dwight Yoakam sideman Brian Whelan, catches the ear with tunes that sit comfortably in the alt-country camp, while simultaneously steering in a heavier, more guitar-forward direction than what’s typically heard from the Americana scene these days. Whelan’s post-Yoakam stylistic transition would seem logical enough, but then you can’t overlook the effect of his tenure with the Broken West, an indie band that churned out hit-worthy pop-rock tunes that had little in common with the ’50s/’60s honky-tonk country that informs Yoakam’s style.

However it happened, Whelan turned his direction as a solo artist toward forging an honest sound that reflects his love of ’50s-era rock, while mixing those signatures with a spate of other influences that coin him as anything but a run-of-the-mill roots rocker. Check out online videos of Whelan and you’re likely to hear him mixing a Gram Parsons, Ray Price, or Talking Heads tune alongside his own rockers and introspective ballads—such as the deceptively titled “Suckerpunch,” which he co-wrote with singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers. And whether he’s performing solo on an Epiphone archtop acoustic or ripping a burning solo on his mongrel Strat, it quickly becomes clear that Whelan isn’t settling down with one bag of tricks—as he alludes to when comparing his new release to his first album,Decider.

“This is a little more of a rock-and-roll record, and hopefully more cohesive than my first album,” says Whelan. “Decider had some power-pop songs and some alt-country/rootsy kinds of songs, and I was hoping to synthesize those more so it just sounds like rock and roll—Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, and things like that, as opposed to being one or the other. So some of the stuff that was more power-pop, I went back and added dirty guitars to it, and vice-versa. If it was rootsy, I would put harmonies, tambourines, or jangly guitars on it, just trying to make it all one. I’m not sure if I succeeded, but that’s the main difference between these two records. I love bluegrass, honky-tonk, and classic country, and those genres seem to combine well with indie rock, like what I played with the Broken West. It’s an odd pairing, because indie rock to me was always about not giving a damn if it sounds good, and bluegrass is not that way. Sure, some of it is lo-fi because those players are almost like jazz musicians, but that’s lost in the conversion in a lot of the newer stuff.”

You play a lot of solos, and your tone and approach are pretty aggressive. That’s certainly not the case with much of what you hear in the Americana scene.

In a lot of this modern music they shun solos of any kind. My sneaking suspicion is that they don’t have anyone who can do it, but I think also it’s an aesthetic choice they make. I guess there just isn’t much interest in guitar solos and guitar tone in that genre. Dwight and a lot of the guys I’ve played with, like Mike Stinson and Tony Gilkyson, really understand ’50s rock and roll, which is my favorite kind of thing. I’ve actually played for Chuck Berry too. I was able to be part of one of his pickup bands, and it was basically like a religious experience to play piano for him.

Was it the standard routine where you just met him at the venue?

Yeah, but it’s changed from the old days when he would travel alone and just show up in his Cadillac handcuffed to a briefcase of money. Now he brings a bass player who’s kind of a minder, driver, and musical director. The drummer and myself were just local guys, and he got the call. It was April Fools day when he called me to do the gig, so, of course, I thought I was being set up for a prank when he told me to drive way out to this casino in northeastern San Diego county, which is close to the border of Mexico. But the gig really happened. Chuck didn’t fire me or yell at me either, and he appeared to be having a lot of fun.

What instruments were you mainly playing with Yoakam?

On some of those paid performance things, he did a stripped-down band—like drums with brushes and acoustic-electric bass. Gene [Edwards] would play a Tele and I’d play mandolin, and we’d kind of do a Johnny Cash thing. But on the live shows, I predominantly played piano and organ, and sang. I also played some electric guitar, some mandolin, some steel guitar, and every once in a while an accordion. I started taking piano lessons when I was eight years old, and that’s been my primary instrument, but I moved into playing guitar and bass when I was in middle school. It’s like you hit puberty and the piano doesn’t seem that cool anymore.

And you went on to further your music education at USC, right?

Yeah. I moved to Los Angeles when I was 18 to go to USC, but also because I fell in love with L.A. when I first visited there. I always knew that I wanted to be in music, so it seemed like a good idea. I ended up with a B.A. in music so I wasn’t a performance major. I basically majored in music theory, which has been very handy over the years. I had done enough of it in my piano studies so that I was a little bit ahead of the game, and really ended up doing a lot of advanced ear training and theory. At the time I wasn’t quite sure how it would help, but it really has over the years doing studio work and things like that. It’s like learning another language.

What was the process for recording this album?

I had a core band come in because I was playing a lot of shows at that time as a three piece. The drummer was Mitch Marine, who is also the producer of the album, and he still works for Dwight. The bass player is a guy from the Bay Area named Lee Pardini, who was a freshman at my high school when I was a senior. We kept in touch, and I finally talked him into moving to L.A. three or four years ago. So he played all those shows with me and also played on the record.

Did recording as a trio make you lean toward a heavier guitar tone?

There are four or five songs that are just rockers, and on those I was primarily going with a big, dirty tone that would normally fill the space with a trio, and that informed the recording a lot. But some of the songs are a lot more layered, and that was a different process. Mainly I just played guitar and sang, and did a little bit of keyboards. Lee is a great keyboard player too, and he and Rami Jaffe from the Wallflowers also did some keyboard parts. I like having keys in the studio, but I don’t worry too much about how I’m going to recreate the music live. I just go and play it in a three- or four-piece arrangement and trust that the audience will understand.

The beefy tones you get on this record with single-coil guitars sound at times like you’re playing humbuckers. Did you double parts or anything like that?

The tracks are comped a little bit. I would usually do maybe two or three passes, and then comp them together. The studio is called Station House, in Echo Park, California, and it has a real nice live tracking room. It’s not real big, but it has some height to it, so we would mic the amp and then put a mic out in the room. You can hear that on “Suckerpunch” and also on “Go Dancing,” where the lead part has a room mic on it. But you know, a lot of that sound is just the rig, which is the same one I use live. I have a Frankenstein Strat that has a Duncan Hot Rails in the bridge position, so that’s a lot of what you are hearing. It has a kind of wild sound to it, and I really like it because it doesn’t really sound like a Strat, but it doesn’t sound like a Gibson type of guitar either.

What is your go-to amplifier?

My main amp is a ’64 Deluxe that has a Celestion Greenback speaker, and the spare is a reissue Deluxe with a Celestion Vintage 30. Bob Dixon does all the tech work, and that amp has what he calls the “Dwight mod,” where the first channel is jumped—in other words, the Normal channel doesn’t do anything, and the full power cathode goes to the second channel, which make it sound a little warmer. I don’t use that amp much, though—I mainly use the ’64, which doesn’t have any tweaks to it other than the new speaker. As far as pedals go I have a JHS SuperBolt, which I really like—and that’s just kind of on all the time.

You play a variety of Strat-style guitars, but rarely any Gibsons. Any particular reason?

I’ve always had a lot of trouble playing Gibson guitars because I think they’re too nice. Dwight had me playing an Epiphone Casino Elitist for a long time, so I got better at it, but I came up playing on Fenders so they’ve always been more natural to me. Dwight is a big Epiphone/Gibson guy, and I got a lot of experience playing that guitar with him. It was good experience too, because with a lot of Telecasters and Stratocasters you can kind of bang on them and it’s almost like they have onboard compression. Gibsons and Epiphones aren’t that way, so playing with Dwight made me get better at being subtle on that type of guitar.

Why did you leave his band?

I worked for Dwight for four years, and I gave my resignation about a year ago to start doing my own thing full time. It was a tough decision, but it was really impossible to do both. The whole time I was working for Dwight I got a lot of good reviews and I sold a bunch of records, but I wasn’t able to play many shows. Over the time that we were recording this album we played a lot of shows with the three-piece, and it was loads of fun. I’d never done that as a front man, and it was a great experience to learn how to fill that space effectively.

World Premiere: Brian Whelan’s “Americana”

BY WILLIAM MICHAEL SMITH

It might seem like career suicide to write a scathing tune about the very genre you operate in, but that’s exactly what former Dwight Yoakam sideman Brian Whelan has done at the beginning of his second solo album, Sugarland. “Americana,” which the Houston Press is premiering today, is a jet-blast critique of a genre swollen with fakers and copycats, many dressed in vintage or Civil War outfits and “positioned” or “staged” by management and public-relations gurus to fit the Americana Music Association’s one-size-fits-all mold.

Whelan, who has a music degree from the University of Southern California, was on the road with Dwight Yoakam for five years as Yoakam’s utility man (piano, accordion, steel guitar), and says the idea for the song had been germinating for a while, but the song sort of wrote itself as a series of observations.

“As we went around the country, I’d see so many bands who I thought were trying to fake the ‘being organic’ thing, like you could do that if you wore certain clothes, let your beard grow wild, get some old beat-up-looking instruments, rip your pants knees, whatever,” Whelan laughs. “Don’t get me wrong; this song is not a middle finger to the Lumineers or even to the whole Americana genre, if there is such a thing. I know I’m definitely over the whole ‘whang on a banjo and stomp around’ shtick as some kind of important back-to-basics thing. That’s laughable in most instances.”

Whelan comes to town as part of his annual trek to Texas for South By Southwest and opens tomorrow for local stalwart Mike Stinson at Cottonwood for Rick Heysquierdo’s “Troubadour Tuesday” series. Sugarland just went out to radio last week and will be available to the public March 25. Whelan headlines a second Houston show at Under the Volcano March 23.

Produced by Dwight Yoakam drummer Mitch Marine, Sugarland is Whelan’s second solo album after 2012’s Decider. The title track is something of an homage to his significant other’s hometown, the southwest Houston suburb. It’s a nice mix of Whelan’s poppy rocker love songs like “Don’t You Go Dancing,” the album’s first single, and breezy California country-rockers. But it’s “Americana,”Sugarland‘s opening track, that peels the paint from the walls. According to Whelan, it’s no accident that the bruising track begins with Marine trying to break the head of his bass drum.

“We really had some fun doing that track,” Whelan grins. “There’s the line ‘come on, man, you’ve gotta make the scene/a big bass drum and a tambourine,’ so we highlighted the drum in the mix in the intro. Same with the banjo-twanging thing. It’s all part of the joke.”

To heighten the irony, the first solo is a ferocious burn-it-down banjo solo by California roots heavyweight Herb Pederson of Desert Rose Band fame.

“That’s one of the beauties of L.A.,” says Whelan. “You can just call up guys like Herb and they’ll come on over if they’re interested. He just slaughters that solo, and so does Gabe Witcher from Punch Brothers on the final fiddle solo. They both just went crazy in the best way.”

Whelan’s take on the Americana scene is withering yet spot-on funny.

“The whole song is really just a mishmash of impressions that have come to me over the last few years as I’ve tried to get my own career going separate from Dwight’s band,” says Whelan. “It’s like a summary of some things that have bothered me, like that website called Saving Country Music. I get what they’re going for, but at the same time, like it says in the song, country music doesn’t need saving, country music is going to outlive us all. I watched Dwight night after night just give it 101 percent because that music is really what Dwight is and who he is. He’s as legit as it gets, but country music people pretty much ignore him and Americana sort of claims him, but you don’t see Dwight winning any AMA awards or any of that, mostly because he doesn’t play the game and go along. I respect that way more than I can respect that ‘hey ho, hey ho’ stuff, you know.”

Whelan gets some pretty funny licks in on the Americana set with lines like “You industry kids with your college wit/ You’re a pretty nice guy but you sound like shit.”

“Yeah, we actually had to come up with an alternate clean edit for that one,” Whelan laughs. “But that’s a real thing to me. I’ve got people I’m friends with in Los Angeles who have bands or are in bands, and I can be friends with them but not necessarily like their music. The whole ‘it’s all good’ attitude irks me no end.”

Whelan notes that Yoakam continues to take an interest in him since he’s left the band. He takes comfort in some of Yoakam’s long-in-the-tooth wisdom and his example.

“Dwight doesn’t necessarily tell you so much as show you,” Whelan observes. “I watched him five years and got to see how he built his career and how he sustains it. When I told him I was leaving the band, he told me, ‘What you’re doing is going to be harder than shit.’ He actually said, ‘I don’t envy you because radio isn’t going to play you.’ His advice was just go play some place, then go back and play there again.

“I’m not being marketed like a lot of people are,” says Whelan. “Social media and videos are all well and good, but the fans you win at your live shows are the ones who’ll keep coming back and tell other people. Touring really is what it’s all about for me. My publicist keeps pestering me about a music video, but that’s not the route I want to base a career on.”

Whelan finds the whole issue of branding to be rather tedious.

“A lot of what I see is more like the indie world than what I call Americana or country. Like these duo acts with just a drum and one other instrument. To me, that’s got a lot more in common with what I know about the indie world than it does with bluegrass or folk music or than it does with old-school country music. But again, that’s image and branding and marketing. It’s like the music, the songs, the playing, that’s all just stuff but it’s not the key stuff. How you look, how you present yourself is the key for a lot of acts and the labels that are pushing them. When I think about all that, I get a kind of perverse pleasure out of knowing I didn’t fit into that, even if I never get anywhere in this.”

“This is why my generation is so fucked,” says Whelan, “the desire to get rich and famous without working hard. I feel completely out of touch with that world. I want to be a musician, a producer, a performer like Dwight or T Bone Burnett; these are my main guys. Doing it that long way is more important to me than all this empty marketing stuff. And doing everything yourself makes it harder, but I think it makes it better.”

And, no, “Americana” is not a middle finger to the Lumineers.

Brian Whelan and Primal Twang

By: 

L.A. based singer/songwriter/ producer.. Brian Whelan  sends spiritual consolation  through his music. His dossier includes playing with the likes of Chuck Berry and Dwight Yoakam. Whelan learned to play guitar before he could walk! The album “Decider” is a few years old but it continues to teethe a lot  of wallop. He’s now completing his new album which is set for  release in the first quarter of 2016 and those who have heard it are ecstatic.In addition, he has been working on the finishing production touches on fellow L.A. balladeer, Rod Melancon. Without remorse, I’d have to say that there’s a compulsory  factor that makes Whelan so worthy of praise. But this is only escalated by his astonishing body of work. His boy looks makes him more apt to be a British pop star from Manchester back in the 90’s than a purveyor of Twang…Yes, Twang is the truest sound of American rock and roll. Describing his music merely as Americana is a major injustice. Its like leaving money at the table in Las Vegas while on a winning streak. In a previous interview I wanted to quote what Whelan said, ”Its sad, but that whole Americana thing so full of people who spend more time on their outfits and their beards and their P.R. and their networking that they do on their on their music. It’s just a comment on mediocrity.I get to see a whole lost of that sort of thing in L.A.,where image is 99% of a lot of stuff. And you go tell someone you look great but you sound like shit”!

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Brian Whelan in Tupelo at Elvis’ Birthplace

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Whelan Playing With Chuck Berry…. Elvis & Scotty Moore Getting It On

Primal Twang was manifested circa the mid 50’s between Chuck Berry and Scotty Moore. Moore was Elvis Presley’s earliest guitar player.He played with “The King” until Presley was drafted into the army. He also acted as Elvis’ manager before Col. Tom Parker. He was the architect  for sounds that were  iconic let alone  being considered precedent setting. Presley rarely played his own lead while performing; instead providing rhythm guitar and leaving the lead duties to Moore. As a guitarist, Moore was a noticeable presence in Presley’s performances, despite his introverted demeanor. He became an inspiration to many subsequent popular guitarists. Keith Richards said many times in interviews that he never wanted to be Elvis… He wanted to  be Scotty Moore!


“Blue Suede Shoes”.. The “King”Backed By Scotty Moore

Singers learned from Elvis but it was Scotty that was creating licks that other guitarist were stymied by. It was the guitar sound that changed the world. The history of “Twang” involves everything from Gretsch and Fender Guitars to amps to guitar pics.  You can’t “Twang” unless you have a firm thumb pic! After Moore “Twangin” became hugely popular in America. Stars like Eddie Cochran, Duane Eddy and Carl Perkins were having huge hit records.

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L.A.’s Fave Son, Eddie Cochran.. Duane Eddie.. Carl Perkins…

Guitarist, Link Wray had been the first to merge Twang and Distortion. Punk, metal, grunge, garage, modern rock guitar.. it all started here!Wray was the first to use intentional distortion in a rock and roll recording. Wray, through some  “bio- cellular helix manipulation” was credited in using power chords; the “modus operandi” in  rock music. His band, Link Wray and the Ray Men’s groundbreaking song “Rumble” was banned from radio airplay for fear it would incite teenage gang violence. A remarkable feat for a song with no words! You can’t get more rock and roll that that!!!  Link Wray was the first Native American rock star..  selling over 1 million copies in 1958 for the song “Rumble”. In addition, he wrote songs after famous Indian tribes..” Apache”, “Shawnee” and “Camanche”. Rolling Stone Magazine rated Wray in the top 50 of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time.

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Link was a self proclaimed “bad-ass motherfucker”..and when he met other guitarist he intentionally not share his riffs. Link Wray died in Copenhagen in 2005 of heart failure.  Jimmy Page  talks about his devotion to Link Wray,..”America’s greatest precursor  to the British Invasion”

Wedged between the primal heavy metal thunder of Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Iron Butterfly and the introspective Laurel Canyon singer/songwriter fare ala Carole King, James Taylor and Joni Mitchell was Welsh guitarist, Dave Edmunds’ 1970 solo smash single, I Hear You Knocking, a cover of Smiley Lewis chestnut. It sounded like a lost musical missive plucked from the Eisenhower generation. Edmunds uses fills and a solo played on slide guitar.  During the instrumental break, he shouts out the names of several 1950s recording artists; including “Fats Domino, Smiley Lewis, Chuck Berry, Huey Smith and the Clowns!”. The record as out of place as it twas’ it soared to the Top 10 across the world. It was “anchored” in Great Britain for 8 weeks! It was a single championed at the time by none other than John Lennon as a favorite who undoubtedly connected with how the track mainlined the earthy atmosphere and grit and grime (dig that echo!) of the classic Sun Records recordings emanating out of Memphis in the mid to late ‘50s.

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Dave Edmunds

In many ways, Dave Edmunds has been a musician out of time; it’s almost as if God played the ultimate cosmic joke and stuck him in the wrong decade. Yet over the course of a five decade career, he’s stayed true to his ideals, upholding the sound, spirit and tradition of classic ‘50s rock and roll birthed by the likes of Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry,Carl Perkins, Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent, Fats Domino, and the Everly Brothers. His musical acumen  as a solo artist and member of Rockpile, in-demand guitarist (he’s played with ¾ of the BeatlesPaul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr–and Robert Plant among countless others) and consummate producer (The Everly Brothers, The Stray Cats,Jeff Beck The Flamin’ Groovies and Foghat) is impressive and resonates with the studied authenticity of a musical auteur.

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Brian Whelan… “Twang” Fans in Japan

Rock and Roll will never die! There will always be some arrogant little brat who wants to make a statement with a guitar and produce music that  seamlessly goes backwards in order to go forward.So as long as there’s a Brian Whelan around “Twang” will remain primal. We are so fortunate to have someone so gifted..

Dwight Yoakam Ends 2015 Strong In Ventura, with Brian Whelan Opening

For his sustained excellence as a songwriter and as a bandleader, there is no other musician touring now like Dwight Yoakam. He has released two records in the last three years that sound as innovative and distinct from contemporary country music as his debut did from Nashville’s mainstream in 1986. Playing in Ventura on Friday night, he delivered a selection of his own classics alongside cuts from 2012’s Three Pears and this year’s Second Hand Heart. In the process, the Kentucky native reaffirmed his status as a living legend in this last show of his 2015 tour.

Blazing through the uptempo opener “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke,” Yoakam’s band found the right tempo for every number Friday night, mesmerizing the audience in the gorgeous Majestic Theater in Ventura with its command and swagger. Through cuts spanning his career, including “Please, Please Baby,” “The Streets of Bakersfield,” the timeless ballad “I Ain’t That Lonely Yet,” and “Guitars, Cadillacs,” the Honkytonk Man’s voice worked the territory where Elvis-meets-Buck-meets-bluegrass, and found its place once more in the audience’s heart, a heart that Dwight clearly owns.

Of course, one of the most fascinating things about watching a living legend is observing his influence on and cultivation of the talents around him. Accompanied as he was the last time in Ventura by the twang-king Eugene Edwards on guitar and by secret weapon Mitch Marine on drums, Dwight’s latest supporting cast wields its trademark musicianship effortlessly and to stunning effect. The bass player this time around, Brett Simons, sings pretty harmonies and plays solid bass. And the absence of Brian Whelan on keys, accordion, and pedal steel was not only addressed brilliantly by multi-instrumentalist Elliot James, but it meant that Dwight’s former sideman could appear fronting his own band on Friday night as the opening act.

Since departing the Dwight train, Brian Whelan has written some stunning new tunes to be released in March of 2016 as the follow up to his powerful debut LP Decider. Playing to warm Yoakam’s crowd, Whelan lit some fires of his own, utilizing lessons from his former boss mixed with those from a stint playing behind Chuck Berry, layered under a vocal style that recalls at times a young Roy Orbison, in the context of songs seemingly imagined by an iPhone-era Buddy Holly.

Of course Yoakam, as the preeminent heir of the California country tradition, has always played hot-rodded hillbilly music, and the smoke still given off by his live show comes from a combustion that leaves rubber on the road. Contemporary country has not caught up with what Dwight and Pete Anderson did in the cowpunk scene of early 1980s Los Angeles. No current act displays the edge, the power, and the unapologetic Bakersfield badassery that Yoakam does as his career’s fourth decade begins. In fact, since his last visit to this venue just north of Los Angeles, Yoakam’s flow between songs has gotten tighter, his delivery a little looser and more fun, and his band has remained energetic, on point, and swinging.

But as Keith Richards said, the great thing about American music is the sound of two or more cultures hitting each other. Audible in Yoakam’s work as bluegrass meeting Memphis rockabilly, and as a cowpunk frenzy in his live recordings from the earliest days, that collision is also heard in Whelan’s songwriting and playing. For Whelan it comes via the double-stopped boogie woogie favored by Chuck’s children, allied with a pop sensibility that has its roots in Orbison and Holly, as noted.

Commensurate with his status as a legend, Dwight’s stage presence and sound yielded shrieks of delight among his fans throughout the evening as he strummed his Gibson acoustic or his Epiphone electric and snaked a skinny leg out to shake in time with the rhythm. The crowd was spirited but mostly well-behaved, dancing in in the aisles and a falling into few moments of rowdy behavior, all of which felt authentic to the honkytonk heart of the proceedings. Also striking was how comfortable the opening frontman appeared facing a hall of rabid Dwight fans, with Whelan playing music that could be heard here as rocking the jukebox.

In sum, Dwight’s vitality as a songwriter, performer, and singer has not waned, and his masterful work in studios and on stage has resulted not just in his own catalog’s continued cohesion and power, but has also helped Whelan become a prime producer of solo artists (such as Rod Melancon) and a righteous bandleader in his own right. After Whelan and Yoakam delivered their scintillating sets covering as much American musical territory as one could hope for in a single evening, I shared the crowd’s sated elation.

If you have not already, you should pick up Dwight’s last two records and Brian Whelan’s debut. Most importantly, look out for their live shows and their new studio output. These guys aren’t just great musicians, but are significant aspects of the American spirit made audible.

Ready To Make His Own Mark

By Tony Sauro – Posted Apr. 1, 2015 at 5:00 PM

 

Dwight Yoakam made such a positive impression on Brian Whelan that he left the band.

“Dwight helped me a lot in life and in business,” Whelan said of Yoakam, the Grammy Award winner with the big Stetson hat. “But he’s not my agent, manager or guidance counselor.”

So, Whelan — who played guitar and sang in Yoakam’s band for four years — doesn’t expect the well-respected singer-songwriter to exploit his status to help propel Whelan’s solo career.

“He’s good at everything,” Whelan said of the singer, songwriter, guitar player, actor, record producer and film director. “I learned a great deal. He taught me to always do what I want to do. I was so inspired by seeing him doing that, I quit the band.”

Now, as he prepares to release his second solo album of “power-pop rock ’n’ roll,” Whelan’s emulating the multi-faceted Yoakam by being “patient” and protecting his interests.

“It’s actually done now,” said Whelan, 33, from his home in Los Angeles’ Highland Park district. “I’m …  trying to find somebody to put it out. It’s a whole new kind of world out there.”

He comes “home” — sort of — tonight, playing a solo acoustic show at Stockton’s Whiskey Barrel Tavern. He’s opening for Easy Leaves, a Sonoma County duo of Kevin Carducci and Sage Fifield.

It’ll be special for him. Brian’s parents, Ginger and Mike Whelan, have lived in Stockton for 10 years. Mom suggested a really clever name for his upcoming album. Nobody’s talking, though.

Yoakam, 58, originally from Pikeville, Ky., has developed his own approach — revisiting the Bakersfield Sound of Buck Owens, from a Los Angeles base. Not Nashville. Not unlike Yoakam, Whelan mixes his own songs with cover tunes.

“My biggest influence is the ’50s, like Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry,” Whelan said. “Guys who wrote their own stuff. Jerry Lee Lewis. From that same era, stylists (Elvis Presley) who could kinda sing the phone book always have been a guide.  (My music) doesn’t sound like that. But it’s my take on it.”

So far, so good. His “Decider” debut (2012) was well-received. He played for the fifth time at the South by Southwest Festival (SXSW, in Austin, Texas) in March and will be heard on Yoakam’s “Second Hand Heart” CD when it’s released on April 14. He also played on Yoakam’s “3 Pears” (2012).

He’ll be a bit fired-up tonight.

“I really like Stockton,” said Whelan, who grew up in San Jose. “I’ve been coming there for a decade to see my parents.”

He’s met some “good friends,” including Bill Stevens, the city’s go-to guitarist. “I’ve seen a lot of the bands. I know a lot of people. I’ve never done a show. It’s very exciting and nice to be able to just go down the block. I love playing in California.”

No wonder. A Seattle native, Whelan moved to San Jose in 1996, when his dad, who works in banking, took a job. Mom is a volunteer coordinator.

“It’s weird,” said Whelan, who began playing piano at 8. “Since kindergarten assemblies, or every crowd to be assembled, I wanted to be up there.”

At Archbishop Mitty High School, he played guitar, bass — “a little bit of everything” — in band, church choir and musical theater.

After graduation, he wanted to “hit the road” as an 18-year-old musician. Mom and dad insisted on some security. He chose the University of Southern California after “just falling in love” with L.A.

“My parents said ‘we’d like you to have a fall-back position’.” Whelan said. “I hope that doesn’t have to work out.”

He’s established a dependable presence in L.A., with his own band and in the studio. His collaborations range from Berry to KISS. He’s a bit more focused on his own thing now.

“I wanna get it out soon,” Whelan said of the album recorded at the Station in L.A.’s Echo Park neighborhood. “I’m trying to be patient, but I want to get it out ASAP. It’s really good. I want it to be shown in its best possible light.”

Hopefully, his nickname — “the kid” — still will be relevant.

“I don’t feel much like a kid anymore,” Whelan said. “Ten years ago, I definitely had a baby face. That stuck with me. I feel like I’ve been on the road for 10 years. One day, I’ll be bald with a beer gut and they’ll still call me ‘the kid.’ Laughing all the while.”

 

— Contact Tony Sauro at (209) 546-8267 or tsauro@recordnet.com. Follow him on Twitter @tsaurorecord.

Yoakam Sideman Goes Solo and Finds His Voice

by Philip Hopkins

Philip Hopkins: How did playing with Dwight change your approach to playing, and songwriting if at all?

Brian Whelan: I was a little timid when I first got into the band, and between Dwight and the other band members, we put a stop to that. Loud and proud is what they preach. It’s actually good advice for a lot of gigs, and really for life in general. When it’s your turn to play your part, turn it up and play confidently.

As far as songwriting goes, just getting the opportunity to watch Dwight make two records in the studio was a tremendous experience. I played bass, keyboards, steel guitar and vocals on 2012s “3 Pears” record, and I played a bit of everything on this years forthcoming release “Second Hand Heart”. Just getting to watch him write, arrange and produce was eye-opening – but again, the thing I take with me is the confidence and conviction I learned from watching him.

What did you learn from making your first record, Decider, that you’ve applied to your new record? 

The big difference between “Decider” and my forthcoming album is that “Decider” is like, half power-pop songs and half songs that you might call Roots/Americana. There was an unconscious split there. The new record is more of a fusion of the two sounds, resulting in “Brian Whelan music”, plain and simple. I feel like all the songs have references to both genres, but that my individual voice shines through. I also get the chance to reference some other favorite palettes – my takes on 90’s alt-rock and 70’s outlaw country, to name a couple.

How has the music business changed since you put out Decider? 

I think there is slightly more clarity in terms of a method of touring and releasing records (i.e. generating income) than there was two years ago. But it’s still kind of like the wild west in the sense that we’re kind of creating a new paradigm as we go.

The silver lining for me is that I was 18 the year Napster broke – I’ve never known any other way! So at least I don’t have all these fond memories of parties and whatnot that were paid for with label dollars.

In any event, you can always go out and get fans the old fashioned way – by playing shows. That will probably not change. In terms of selling records, those days are gone, but the amount artists and songwriters earn from streaming is likely to change. That’s on all of us to try and change – and artists aren’t always the most proactive people. However I think in the years to come it will slowly get worked out. Music is everywhere – it’s just an issue of changing the rules so it’s not completely free for every single person on earth anymore.

What did you learn from producing others like Rod Melancon that you’ve applied to your new record?

I’m glad Rod gave me the opportunity to produce him because I learned that I was good at it and felt like I was in the right place. I was actually able to use my knowledge of music and my experience in the business to help somebody besides myself.

I’ve been working on my new record for the last two years, and we did Rod’s record over a period of three months or so within that period, so they were happening concurrently. I found that I was really glad I had a producer because an artist feels plenty of pressure in the studio as it is.

(The producer of the next record was Mitch Marine, longtime drummer for Dwight Yoakam, Smashmouth, Tripping Daisy and many, many others)

The craziest thing I learned was that I’m no longer the youngest guy in the room. To have a guy younger than me seeking guidance from me was a trip to be sure, but it was a great opportunity for the both of us.

What if anything do you differently now when fronting a band, having spent five years on the road with a legend? 

Again, I think there’s more confidence now. Watching a great performer perform is one of my favorite things to do – when someone was born to be onstage I feel like you can tell instantly.

I learned pedal steel for the Dwight gig – and I had some pretty rough nights on the instrument. However, a rough night on that gig takes place in front of a couple thousand people. So while I was rattled a lot early on, it made me tougher and more difficult to rattle onstage. I often say I’m more comfortable onstage than I am in real life, and the experience with Dwight only made it more so.

Who are some of the artists you’ve discovered recently that have impressed you?

Well, I’ve been pretty damned impressed with Sturgill Simpson. He was opening for Dwight quite a bit in 2013, and we kind of knew him when. In 2014 he blew up all over the place – and there’s nothing that makes me happier than seeing somebody who is really unique and talented get famous.

I also really like a group on New West called The Mastersons. They basically play pop songs and have tons of two-part harmony a la the Everly Brothers or the Beatles. There’s a band I got hipped to recently called 7Horse that live in LA and are a rock ‘n’ roll two-piece situation. They’re really good and I hope to be hearing more from them in the future.

My brother lives in Austin and doesn’t take kindly to folks from other places (Sturgill Simpson) pulling the cosmic cowboy routine. I think that’s silly. As you’re from Seattle, what do you think that brings to your music, and what do you think it doesn’t? 

Wow now I feel awkward about my previous answer. Anyway most artists are pulling a routine of some kind, and typically that routine been done by someone before them – it’s just a question of whether or not anyone digs their take on it.

It’s odd because Sturgill has obviously updated Waylon’s outlaw sound from the 70’s – whereas Waylon’s own son Shooter does more of a Sunset Strip hard rock sound, which was popularized by Axl Rose in the ealry 90’s, who was doing his best David Bowie / Mick Jagger routine – you see where I’m going with this?

I don’t think being from Seattle has anything to do with anything. I didn’t really absorb the Seattle sound until I left Seattle, even though it was exploding all around me. I grew up on Buddy Holly and things like that, and got into Nirvana in my teens when I was living in San Jose. San Jose has a big ska/reggae scene which I never was able to be a part of at all. I always felt like I was living in the past anyway.

So I guess my point is that it doesn’t matter where you’re from, it matters what you do with what you have and if anybody gives a shit about it.

Former Dwight Yoakam Sideman Brian Whelan Goes Solo

Country and Western Music – By Jason P. Woodbury

Brian Whelan isn’t a snob when it comes to a good song.

“I have never gave a shit if it’s a pop thing or a lo-fi indie thing, I don’t care,” Whelan says over the phone from the South By Southwest festival in Austin, speaking over the blunt din of the festivities. “Any genre — if it’s a good song, I like it.”

Up until recently, the Los Angeles-based singer/songwriter could be seen on stages across the nation with Dwight Yoakam, playing in the “cowpunk” pioneer’s Bakersfield-evoking band, but as of 2015 Whelan is a free agent, shifting his focus to a burgeoning career which finds him fusing power-pop melodies and classic country songcraft.

Whelan’s love of classic songwriting is evident on his 2013 album, Decider. On it he evokes punchy new wave with the title track, tries his hand at slapback rockabilly on “Mojave High,” and pounds out treble-heavy country & western worthy of his former boss on “Who’s Fooling Who.” It’s a sugar rush of a record, but Whelan’s already at work on its follow-up, working on a collection of songs scheduled to appear on record this summer which further his aim of synthesizing pop hooks with his Western roots.

Whelan cites Chuck Berry has a defining influence, for his “fusion of roots music and pop songcraft.” “That’s the stuff I like, ” he says. “Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry. There were the first guys to fuse those things, to take rural forms — blues and country and whatever else — and try and get on the charts with it.”

One highlight from the forthcoming album is “Americana,” a sly, funny track that pokes fun at modern roots leaning bands storming the radio but doesn’t spare Whelan’s contemporaries in the underground music scene, or even Whelan himself, from its tongue in cheek criticism. “You’re a pretty nice guy but you sound like shit,” Whelan barks with an almost audible smirk, noting that “your cowboy boots don’t make you a better band” before a rolling banjo solo.

“I don’t really edit songs lyrically very much,” Whelan says, with a little hesitation in his voice discussing “Americana.” “There’s a lot of weird stuff going on in that song. The first thing you might take from it is that it’s an anti-Mumford and Sons song, but there’s a lot of shots being taken in there, including some at myself and my little scene in L.A., certainly Nashville, and the indie-folk craze.”

In the hands of a lesser songwriter, the song might sound like a self-righteous screed, but not when Whelan sings it. “It’s just kinda on the fly. I hope it’s not too sanctimonious. I’m certain Mumfords and Sons are making enough money that they would not mind even if they heard it. It’s not really a preachy thing…it’s a big tent, and there’s room for a lot of music out there.”

Even if his songs aren’t destined for mainstream country radio — although they are punchy and catchy enough that they very well may be — Whelan knows there’s an audience for his music, citing crowds in Oklahoma and parts of the South, people he’s connected with on his own and as part of Yoakam’s band for a “four- or five-year” tenure. “I was working for Dwight for a long time,” he says, and while it was certainly a good time to let someone else do the planning, book the tours, and handle the logistics, he had a desire strike out on his own, writing and sharing the kind of music he loves — American roots-inspired music, with solid hooks, smart lyrics — and get out on the road and play it for people who love it the same way he does.

“It’s a cliche, but I just kinda want to do what I want to do,” Whelan says. “I haven’t really had time to figure out if what I’m doing is going to be on country radio — that would obviously be great — but I know enough people in Nashville to know where I stand. I just don’t care very much. I ain’t out here for any of those reasons.”

Whelan laughs, adding, “If I wanted to have an easy life I could.” What kind of songs do easy lives make for?

Dwight Yoakam Sideman Brian Whelan Heads Off on His Own

After four years of road-dogging with Dwight Yoakam’s band, multi-instrumental utility man Brian Whelan has quit and struck out on his own. He rolls into McGonigel’s Mucky Duck Saturday for a song swap with old Los Angeles running buddy and local songwriter extraordinaire Mike Stinson.

Whelan has a new album that he’ll unveil later this year that rocks hard and occasionally opens a can of whup-ass on the Americana genre on a hard-charging tune called (…drum roll…) “Americana.” In the lyrics, Whelan tells someone “you look great but you sound like shit.”

“Yeah, it’s a funny song, but it’s something that just built up until I had to write something,” says Whelan via phone from Gainesville. “It’s sad, but that whole Americana thing is so full of people who spend more time on their outfits and their beards and their PR and their networking than they do on their music. It’s just a comment on mediocrity. I get to see a whole lot of that sort of thing in L.A., where image is 99 percent of a lot of stuff.”

Whelan spent his final 30 days with Yoakam on tour as openers for Eric Church. He found it very eye-opening.

“Yes, he’s on country radio, but that’s just a Southern rock band basically, two smoking guitar players, bass, drums. And the songs are about whiskey and weed for the most part. And that’s exactly what the music sounds like,” Whelan laughs. “But I’ll tell you, I watched those guys night after night and they are really good at what they do.

“What opened my eyes as a guy now trying to front my own thing and build some kind of momentum was his crowd,” says Whelan. “Night after night, there’s 15-20,000 people, they know all the words, they sing along and there is true jubilation. That was something I didn’t expect when we started the tour, but it is something I can certainly respect now that I’ve seen it. And Eric seems like a pretty down-to-earth guy who actually enjoys his work.”

A graduate of the University of Southern California music school, the Seattle native literally learned to play steel guitar so he could keep the Yoakam gig. Whelan not only played steel guitar in Yoakam’s band, he handled duties on mandolin, keys, and acoustic and electric guitars as well as shaking the tambourine.

“I got the Dwight gig and we played one time before he took six months off, so in that six months I learned to play steel,” Whelan explains. “There were a few guys I asked for some lessons and when they heard what the gig was, they told me no. But Rick Shea, who was in Dave Alvin’s band for years, he gave me some great lessons. Then I just played along toDwight Sings Buck all the time, it’s really a great album to learn to play steel to.”

Whelan released his first solo album, Decider, in 2013, he immediately ran into career conflicts. Decider and Yoakam’s 3 Pears were released in the same month.

“I spent about $15,000 on Decider, then we got so busy with Dwight I couldn’t do much in the way of supporting it,” Whelan explains. “The schedule just got insane. We did a hundred dates that year, which means with travel that ate up 200 days. And when we came back to Los Angeles, Dwight, Mitch Marine [Yoakam’s drummer], and I went into the studio to do 3 Pears, and that ate up another hundred days. So I was only able to break loose and play about 20 gigs supporting the album. I didn’t want that to happen again.”

Decider got great reviews with some writers calling it a “power pop gem,” but Whelan thinks his as yet untitled new album is a step up.

“I’ve gotten better at writing, I think, and Mitch and I have learned how to work together very well,” he says. “Mitch did a great job in his role as producer and the recording of this one was more sure-handed. We just had a higher comfort factor this time. Continue reading

Tulsa Voice – Brian Whelan goes solo with a unique brand of pop Americana

Brian Whelan has spent the past four or five years as guitarist and multi-instrumentalist for Dwight Yoakam, whose extensive touring schedule has brought Whelan through Tulsa on multiple occasions. Prior to that, he was a member of the California power-pop band The Broken West for about five years. Whelan will perform solo for the first time at a special show on Feb. 28 at the Woody Guthrie Center.

Touring with Yoakam’s band allowed Whelan a certain level of comfort and accommodated the recording of his solo debut, Decider, which was released in November of 2012. So what prompted him to set out on his own as a full-time solo artist?

“I just thought it was time,” Whelan said. “I had been in Dwight’s band for two years when the record came out. I had planned on playing more shows to support it, but my priority was with Dwight, so I didn’t get as much time to do that. This has allowed me to make a little bit more of a full-time commitment to pursuing my own thing.”

Those who expected a country album from Whelan were in for a surprise. Although it contains some distinct country tinges, Decider crosses boundaries into pop and rock territory, drawing from the ’70s California vibe and melodic space of The Eagles, Gram Parsons and Linda Ronstadt while remaining grounded in the classic rock of Buddy Holly, Bill Haley and Elvis Presley.

I called it “garage-based Americana,” a term Whelan said he hadn’t heard before but thought was pretty accurate.

“My foundation is really in ’50s rock ‘n’ roll and artists like Buddy Holly, Elvis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis,” he said. “I’ve always considered what I do to be power-pop.

“The Beatles were really the originators of power-pop. That label has other connotations that some people shy away from now, but what it really means is music that’s influenced by the Beatles more than The Rolling Stones. The Beatles were more cerebral, where The Stones were more from the loins.”

Even though Whelan is currently touring behind Decider, he’s completed a follow-up album planned for release this summer.

“On the first record there were Americana songs and power-pop songs, and they were one or the other,” he said. “I think the fusion is more complete on the new record. It’s maybe more representative of my music and a little less fragmented.”

A sneak preview of what’s to come revealed a record that certainly fuses the elements more completely. Even tracks like “Americana” hit with a sharper snap and punch from the snare drum, pulling the rock elements forward, along with the melodies that define Whelan’s take on Beatles-influenced power-pop. It’s fitting that his first solo performance is at the Woody Guthrie Center, which is currently home to the “Ladies and Gentlemen… The Beatles!” exhibit, curated by the Grammy Museum.

“I’ve been coming to Tulsa for a long time with Dwight, and I really enjoy the city,” Whelan said. “My girlfriend’s whole family is in Norman, so it’s kind of like coming home, but Texas and Oklahoma have always been the most open-armed to me and my music.”

When Whelan started setting up the current tour, he looked to the cities where he felt most welcome. This current run of shows features acoustic performances in listening rooms and more intimate venues in order to lay a foundation to return later in the year with a new record and more rock-oriented show.

If you love power-pop, roots-rock and great songwriting, you won’t want to miss Brian Whelan’s show at the Woody Guthrie Theater on Saturday, Feb. 28, at 2 p.m. Whelan’s concert is free with admission to the center, which includes entry to the Woody Guthrie archives and the Beatles exhibit.

http://www.thetulsavoice.com/February-B-2015/Balance-of-power/

Independent’s Day podcast w/Joe Armstrong

Brian Whelan was one of the very first guests on Independent’s Day, stopping by our studios for the second episode way back on March 9th, 2011. At the time, he was making the rounds in a number of Los Angeles bands and building a reputation as a formidable player on a number of instruments. That reputation put his name on the short list of players being considered for a vacancy in maverick country legend Dwight Yoakam’s band. Yoakam needed a versatile musician who could sing harmonies and cover parts on several instruments, including keyboards, accordion, guitar and pedal steel guitar. But Whelan had never really played the latter, a complicated beast of an instrument that requires all four of a pedal steel player’s arms and legs to make its characteristically weepy and lonesome sound. Yoakam met with Whelan and asked the younger musician if he thought he could learn how to play pedal steel for the gig. Whelan wisely replied, “Yes,” and in doing so, he stepped into the role of a full-time member of Yoakam’s band that would find him playing years of top-tier shows and recording on two of Yoakam’s albums. Whelan, who used to be called “The Kid” in Los Angeles music circles, summarily skipped a few grades and got paid to earn what is tantamount to a PhD in real-world music by apprenticing with one of the masters of modern country and western music. And now, after four years, Whelan has taken the courageous steps to leave Yoakam’s band and strike out on his own. After all, no matter how good the gig is, your name will never be on the marquee if the spotlight is always on the other guy.


Download

“Sugarland”


“Brand New Love Song”


“The Only Thing (Too Good To Be True Is You)”


“Suckerpunch”

“Born to Run”