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.