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.
With his music major, eventually Whelan chafed to be more than a sideman in a great touring band.
“That was a great gig, but it was no picnic. We traveled hard,” he laughs. “Although I will admit I was missing that somewhat when I was stuck in a snowdrift a couple of days ago hoping someone would come along and pull me out.”
Now in complete control of his career, Whelan mentions that he’s watched how his old pal Mike Stinson left L.A. for a new beginning in Houston.
“I kinda became the kid in that whole group Mike ran with,” Whelan explains. “I was completely caught off guard when he said he was moving to Houston, but now that I’ve been doing this a while and have played in Houston and gotten to hang around there and get to know it some, I look back and think he made a smart move.
“He’s a great writer,” he adds. “He could have moved to Austin or Nashville, but that’s too obvious for a guy like Mike. I think he made a great move.”
Whelan’s girlfriend spent 18 years in Houston, but he doesn’t see a Houston move in his future, at least not yet.
“She loves Los Angeles and we’re pretty well set up there, so I’m probably not going to move. I love the weather and the beauty of Southern California,” he says. “But you never can tell, she might change her mind. I think if I did leave L.A., Houston would be on top of the list of possibles. I really like it there, and it’s got such a deep music history even if the average person isn’t aware of it.”
The way Whelan sees it, his job now is to tour as hard as he can and build a following.
“One thing is for sure,” Whelan declares, “Dwight didn’t get to where he is by playing piano in someone else’s band. I think he fully understood the thing I needed to do. My whole career in music has been about someone else. It’s a bit of an ego thing, of course, but I want it to be about me now.
“I’m also getting to that age where I have to go for it or give up the dream,” he notes. “I’ve got to give it a shot before I have kids or get fat or get comfortable.”